30 Years Ago: Lollapalooza Takes a Revolution on Tour
Ladies and gentlemen, Jane’s Addiction has more control over your kids than you do. But don’t worry, Jane’s Addiction loves your kids dearly.
Spoken by a young woman in Spanish, this cryptic sentiment opened the band’s 1990 breakthrough LP, Ritual de lo habitual. The message also helped define the energy and ethos of Lollapalooza, a once-in-a-generation festival that debuted 30 years ago.
Jane’s Addiction planned on using the traveling festival as a farewell tour. But what started as a simple concept ballooned into an epic annual trek that brought an unlikely mix of genres, vibes and groups to amphitheaters across the county. Bringing outsider art to the heart of the suburbs and teens raised on Top 40, the inaugural version in 1991 stopped in 21 cities, winding from Chandler, Ariz. to Enumclaw, Wash. What could have been a flop (or worse, been wholly unremarkable) became the ’90s version of Woodstock paving the way for the success of grunge and gangsta rap, Achtung Baby and My So-Called Life, Reality Bites, Bill Clinton, the Lilith Fair, and scores of sonic, political and cultural revolutions large and small.
The roots of the rock circus came out of a single missed Jane’s gig. “The deal is that we were supposed to play the  Reading Festival, and we never got to because I got sick,” frontman Perry Ferrell told the Arizona Republic in 1991. While Ferrell, who had lost his voice, and the rest of the band — guitarist Dave Navarro, bassist Eric Avery and drummer Stephen Perkins — sat out the day, music exec Marc Geiger went, and got his mind blown.
“I went on to the festival the next day and had an amazing time,” Geiger told Chicago Sun-Times, “and we go back to the hotel, where the band is sitting around pretty depressed, and said, ‘Man, you should have seen this. This is what we should try to do with the breakup tour.’ Perry said, ‘Absolutely,’ and we sat in the lobby sketching out the format and making lists of bands… This being Jane’s Addiction, there was a lot of interesting stuff going on. One day a while later, Perry called me at one a.m. and said, ‘I’ve got the name!’ He’d heard it on a Three Stooges episode.”
At the time, that list of bands made little sense to anyone other than Perry and his cohorts. Those making the cut for that first run: industrial innovators Nine Inch Nails, post punk goths Siouxsie and the Banshees, funk metal trendsetters Living Colour, folk punks Violent Femmes, hardcore-meets-metal colossus Rollins Band, freak rockers Butthole Surfers, ska champs Fishbone, and rapper Ice-T and his metal band Body Count. MTV News anchor Kurt Loder summed up the slate of acts nicely by saying their “only common characteristics are intensity and attitude.” And here is where the Woodstock comparison begins to fit nearly perfectly.
Watch MTV's Coverage of the First Lollapalooza
In the summer of 1969, many of the now iconic acts that played Woodstock were only known in the underground rock scene. Hippie kings such as the Grateful Dead and Santana had yet to become household names — hell, Santana hadn’t even released its debut LP. Other artists were obscure then and obscure after (see Bert Sommer, Quill, Keef Hartley Band, and about a third of the lineup). Similarly, Jane’s and its tourmates were fringe artists.
On July 18, when the fest kicked off in Chandler, the combined line up had exactly three Top 40 hits. (Living Colour scored two off of 1988 debut LP Vivid; Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Kiss Them For Me” peaked at No. 23 during that summer; Jane’s has and had zero). Prior to the launch of Lollapalooza, these bands had very little support from MTV and less support from radio. But they rolled through the States selling 20,000 tickets in city after city, and more often, suburb after suburb.
“This is a pioneer tour,” Ice-T said at the time. “All the groups in their own way have pioneered a certain form of music. And the fact that none of us get played on the radio — to be able to pack arenas and all, it shows people want to hear this. It’s also a very educational experience. Everybody’s taking a pill they’re not used to.”
Like Woodstock, Lollapalooza took music on the periphery of culture and brought it to a new demographic, one just beginning to swap their Motley Crue, Bon Jovi and Huey Lewis cassettes for R.E.M., Cure and Red Hot Chili Peppers CDs. It found an audience as big as Bon Jovi’s not by pandering to the mainstream but by uniting a bizarre array of factions. Just as Ferris Bueller was popular with the motorheads, geeks, and wastoids, the tour recruited punks, goths, headbangers, skaters, stoners, neo hippies and thousands of “normal” kids sympathetic to one of those scenes. But where Woodstock closed the curtain on a revolution, Lollapalooza helped usher in a new age.
There’s a false narrative that Nirvana and grunge killed hair metal in the early ’90s (major hard rockers such as Van Halen, AC/DC and Aerosmith remained huge sellers into the decade). The truth is lesser glam rock bands including Ratt, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake and Quiet Riot all began their declines in the ’80s, as did Top 40 rock acts such as John Mellencamp, Loverboy, and Huey Lewis & the News. The burgeoning indie rock scene spent the late ’80s picking off fans of straight rock, converting them from “Bad Medicine” to Jane’s Addiction. Lollapalooza worked because the market existed, it just hadn’t been tapped like this before.
Watch Jane's Addiction's Music Video for 'Jane Says'
U2, R.E.M., the Cure, Depeche Mode, and Chili Peppers had spent the decade before Jane’s broke building the outsider rock scene from skinny kids playing pizza parlors to platinum-selling stars packing arenas. But the major modern rock acts didn’t have the momentum to drag their aesthetic into the broader culture. The Cure could headline a 20,000-seat venue and still be niche compared to a wider population obsessed with Def Leppard, Indiana Jones and Cheers. Lollapalooza represented a critical mass for the alternative aesthetic. It served as a proof of concept.
It’s fair to say that most of the people that saw the first Lollapalooza hadn’t seen most of the bands on the bill in concert. After all, Body Count hadn’t even released an album yet, a la Santana at Woodstock. Some went because they dug Jane’s; more went to pledge allegiance to the new world.
“White kids listening to rock ‘n’ roll are not exactly accustomed to hearing Ice-T or even Henry Rollins or the Buttholes,” Ferrell told Rolling Stone during the tour. “And people who listen to Ice-T exclusively don’t know shit about us.”
Watch Jane's addiction Perform at the First Lollapalooza
After a decade that felt like a lot like the ’50s, full of conservative politics and rock ‘n’ rollers making a lot of noise but not saying much, Jane’s “Been Caught Stealing,” Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole” and everything Body Count did sounded like anthems of mutiny.
To extend the vibe, Ferrell insisted visual art and activism play a key role at every tour stop. That meant left-wing political canvassing and Greenpeace tents, art installations and video artists projecting films between sets. More common now, all these additions were unheard of then (nobody was asking anybody to save the whales at a Poison show).
“If we can’t take this country back by vote, I guess we’re just going to have to steal it back,” Ferrell told the crowd at the fest introducing “Been Caught Stealing.” It was a rare political appeal by a rock band from the stage back then. And while it’s unlikely that the tour’s voter registration drive single-handedly ended 12 years of Republican control of the White House, a voting bloc cool with rock, rap, body piercing tents, an interactive sculpture of piles of smashed pianos, and booths run by handgun control advocates all at one event certainly gave Bill Clinton a push.
Fun side note: Ferrell reportedly tried to get the armed services and National Rifle Association to show up but had no luck with an army spokesman pointing out, “Why should I bother getting into a pissing match with a bunch of left-wing rock ‘n’ roll punks?”
Watch Jane's Addiction Perform 'Been Caught Stealing'
Not coincidentally, Lollapalooza suffered from some of the organizational anarchy that plagued Woodstock. MTV reported that at the tour’s opening day, the roofless amphitheater in Arizona recorded a temperature of 109 degrees, which tends to happen in July in the desert. The blistering heat caused Nine Inch Nails to abandon their set after only two songs when Trent Reznor and his backing band’s gear overheated and malfunctioned “We’re officially the first casualty of Lollapalooza,” Reznor remarked after the abandoned performance. Meanwhile, Jane’s managed to get to its encore, when something, -- some say technical problems -- caused the band members to turn on one another.
“The guys in Jane’s Addiction got into a fist fight on stage. It was a hell of a way to debut,” promoter Andy Cirzan recalled to the Chicago Sun Times. Cirzan had flown down from the Windy City to see how the tour launch would go. “The fight continued off stage. There was some definite roundhousing going on. I don’t know if anyone landed a punch, but I specifically saw some punches flying as they left the stage.”
Ahead of the first show, Ferrell had big expectations: “I kind of feel like I started this thing, so if it sucks, really, it’s on my shoulders,” he told MTV at the time. Fist fights and fried equipment aren’t the best beginnings. But the chaos didn’t derail the tour. Nearly every date sold-out. Quickly, promoters pitched Ferrell on a 1992 edition.
“I wanted a longer lineup, just because I wanted to have a wilder, bigger party,” Farrell said. “If it’s a farewell, then let’s invite some of our musical friends and peers. Nothing was supposed to come of it, you know. I had no intention of doing it again. I mean, the thing was over and William Morris and Marc and these guys are all really enthusiastic and saying, ‘We think we can get the Red Hot Chili Peppers for next year!’— and I went, ‘Wait, what? Next year?'”
The Chili Peppers did headline in 1992, with Ministry, Ice Cube, Soundgarden, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Pearl Jam and Lush rounding out the main stage and Rage Against the Machine, Tool, the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, Ferrell’s Porno for Pyros and a dozen others playing side stages. Then in 1993, Alice in Chains and Primus anchored the line up. In 1994, the Smashing Pumpkins and Beastie Boys took the marquee spots. And so it went until 1997 when the annual trek closed down (it rebooted as a multi-day Chicago event in the vein of Coachella in 2005). But the changes heralded by the first Lollapalooza echoed through the decade.
It’s hard to imagine Lilith, H.O.R.D.E. or the Warped Tour (or Homerpalooza) existing if Lollapalooza hadn't blazed the trail. Ferrell’s dream didn’t create the indie film boom of the decade, but it did prove to financiers that stranger and dark fare had blockbuster appeal — Fight Club and Natural Born Killers certainly felt like the cinematic equivalent of Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails (and not just because Reznor did the music for the latter film). For a while there, everything felt radical: Nirvana outsold Michael Jackson, critics cared more about Quentin Tarantino than Steven Spielberg, Bill Clinton talked about weed with Arsenio Hall, while Johnny Carson retired.
Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes didn’t see a new era coming when asked about the tour that summer. “You look at the Sixties, the changes started with issues and worked themselves back into the music," he explained to Rolling Stone. "The music was not the catalyst. And judging from the kids at Irvine [California], there ain’t gonna be no revolution out of this. Maybe they’ll change something like putting less vanilla in vanilla wafers.”
How lasting or widespread changes of the ’90s were is up for debate, but there’s no question they felt seismic coming out of the ’80s.
“This is going to be a tour that people talk about for a long time,” Ice-T said after the opening night.