In a perfect world, music or comedy shows go something like this: fans show up to a venue, artists show up to a venue and perform for fans, fans leave venue happy. Only in the real world do pissed-off fans, trashed venues, and artists performing oral sex on sledgehammers sometimes enter into the equation. Yes, for every pleasant and unremarkable show is a show that breaks the mold and goes down in history for all the wrong reasons. Milwaukee Record rounded up 10 such notorious shows from the city’s past, whether they involved riots, arrests, bad bookings, or simply an artist throwing his own feces at the crowd.
1. George Carlin at Summerfest (July 21, 1972)
George Carlin was already one of the top comedians in the country when he took the stage at Summerfest 1972—the fifth Big Gig in Milwaukee history—but he would soon reach new levels of fame when Milwaukee police officer Elmer “Al” Lenz dragged him off stage during his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” routine. Carlin was thrown in the clink and charged with disorderly conduct for performing the bit, though his case was eventually dismissed. The words that landed the comic in hot Lake Michigan water? Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits, of course—words Carlin briefly dubbed “the Milwaukee Seven.”
2. Black Sabbath at MECCA Arena (October 9, 1980)
Throwing bottles at performers is a dubious concert-going tradition that can be darkly funny in some cases (Justin Bieber) and downright dangerous in others (Tila Tequila at the 2010 Gathering of the Juggalos). Add to the latter list a 1980 Black Sabbath concert at the MECCA Arena, where an audience member tossed a bottle at the stage, struck bassist Geezer Butler in the head, and incited a full-on riot. Due to a late-starting show—and possibly the fact that this was Sabbath’s first tour with Ronnie James Dio subbing for a fired Ozzy Osbourne—the 7,000-plus crowd was in a bad mood from the start. The “bottling” incident occurred only three songs into the show, leading to an admonishment from Dio (“We wanted to give a lot for you, but not our blood. If you don’t want to enjoy it, then tough shit!”), and the British band’s road manager (“1776 was a long while ago!”) The crowd responded by absolutely losing their shit and piling a bunch of chairs in the middle of the arena. Three Milwaukee police offers were injured in the hour-long melee, and roughly 100 people were arrested. Similar to Altamont years prior, pleas for everyone to “cool out” went unheeded.
3. Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics at The Palms (January 19, 1981)
Long before Miley Cyrus won her way into our hearts by licking a sledgehammer in the video for “Wrecking Ball,” live-wire Plasmatics singer Wendy O. Williams was getting roughed up by police for doing the same thing. During the Plasmatics’ show at Milwaukee’s long-defunct Palms nightclub, Williams got friendly with the heavy-duty wrecking tool, using it to simulate fellatio and masturbation. Unimpressed with Williams’ two-for-one stunt, Milwaukee police officers stopped the show, pinned the singer to the ground, and arrested her on an obscenity charge. Plasmatics manager Rod Swenson was also arrested for obstructing of an officer; after Swenson was found not guilty later that year, all charges against Williams were dropped with a thud.
4. GG Allin at Odd Rock Café (February 28, 1989)
Shock-rocker GG Allin lived fast, died young, and was usually covered in some sort of bodily fluid. A few years before the living embodiment of poop-stained rock and roll departed this mortal coil via accidental heroin overdose, Allin ran afoul of the Milwaukee establishment when he took a dump onstage at the Odd Rock Café. Making matters worse, he tossed the offending doodie into the crowd—a big no-no unless you’re name is Gwar. Two years later, Allin was charged with disorderly conduct, inspiring him to write the self-explanatory ditty “Shove That Warrant Up Your Ass.” Milwaukee, happily, gets a shout-out in the song.
5. They Might Be Giants at Modjeska Theater (October 5, 1992)
On the list of musical genres most likely to inspire trashed venues and injured audience members, polka would hardly crack the top 200. Yet it was They Might Be Giants’ performance of “The Famous Polka” during a 1992 show at the Modjeska that nearly brought the entire house down. Following a call from John Flansburgh to ignore the building’s fire codes and dance in the aisles, the crowd took things a step further by flooding a temporary stage in front of the band that sat above an orchestra pit. Unfortunately, the stage wasn’t meant to hold over 100 people, and it collapsed under the weight of the delightfully dorky crowd. Three people were taken to the hospital with cuts and bruises; the show, however, went on, because that’s how TMBG roll, motherfucker.
6. Elton John at Harley-Davidson’s 100th Anniversary (August 31, 2003)
For its 100th Anniversary blowout, Harley-Davidson kept the identity of its headlining musical act a secret. It was a canny marketing move that led to wild, fevered speculation: Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, and Jesus Christ Himself were rumored to be playing the “Big Party.” But in a move that was decidedly less than canny, HD decided the artist best suited to its all-American, leather-clad clientele was Elton “Ba Ba ba Bennie and the Jets” John. Thousands of people who had made it out for the lakefront show—and who had already suffered through Tim McGraw and Kid Rock—high-tailed it home as soon as the surprise performer was revealed. Never mind that Harley’s image in the 21st century was arguably more “Candle In The Wind” than “Born To Be Wild.”
7. Annihilation Time at Endless Nameless (September 11, 2003)
What happens when you combine some scary-looking punk rock flyers promoting a show on 9/11/03, and a jumpy and hyper-vigilant country still reeling from the events of 9/11/01? An FBI raid on a Milwaukee house show, that’s what. With Oakland, California band Annihilation Time scheduled to play Milwaukee exactly two years after 9/11 (with local punk stalwarts Holy Shit! and High On Crime, among others), a Xeroxed flyer bearing the words “Annihilation Time in Milwaukee” was distributed around town. Another flyer included a picture of an airplane flying into the number 11, along with other tasteless imagery that was right up the alleys of the city’s snotty punk rockers. The city’s non-punk-rockers weren’t amused, however, leading to an eventual visit from the FBI, and the closing down of Endless Nameless.
8. MC Hammer at Wisconsin State Fair (August 4, 2011)
The opening day of the 2011 Wisconsin State Fair seemed like standard issue stuff: racing livestock, rickety rides, deep-fried foodstuffs, and past-their-prime musical acts. But when a horde of rampaging youths turned the midway into a warzone that night, the fair—and Milwaukee itself—was thrust into a sad and sometimes ugly conversation about race, violence, and crime. Caught in the middle of it all was MC Hammer, of all people, who was the night’s main stage headliner. Happily, even the most shaken and jaded fair attendee recognized that the man who was once publicly begged not to hurt ’em was not responsible for the carnage, and that the mob was likely more familiar with Hammer from his stint on VH1’s The Surreal Life than his boast of being “2 Legit 2 Quit.”
9. Imagine Dragons/Pretty Lights at Summerfest (June 29, 2013)
Summerfest usually does a solid job of avoiding overcrowding by spreading its big draws throughout the duration of the 11-day fest. But no one could have predicted the sudden explosion of glumly catchy radio rockers Imagine Dragons in 2013, who happened to be booked on a free outdoor stage the same night as electro superstar Pretty Lights. The convergence of the two big acts led to thousands of people rushing the Summerfest gates that night, and eventually being let in—no tickets or security checks needed. In the days that followed, social media was filled with on-the-ground fans calling the incident a “riot,” though Summerfest downplayed the opening of the gates as a simple matter of crowd control.
10. Rockesha (June 21, 2014)
While not technically in Milwaukee, Waukesha’s ill-fated Rockesha deserves a spot on any list of infamous concerts—Milwaukee or otherwise. The lineup for the inaugural fest on the Waukesha County Expo Grounds featured such ’80s bowling-alley-rock staples as Warrant, Quiet Riot, Lita Ford, Firehouse, and one of the dudes from Mr. Big. But due to poor ticket sales, Rockesha was cancelled mid-show, with only the Mr. Big dude putting in a performance. Bizarre and strangely personal excuses were subsequently offered by the show’s promoter—ones involving a shady business partner, a $15,000 check hand-off at a fast food restaurant, and a suicide attempt—but Rockesha attendees were left with nothing more than a vague promise of a refund and a criminal lack of “Kiss Me Deadly.”