Sometimes, nothing challenges an artist more than playing in an unconventional location, eschewing the stage for a unique environment that can either help or hinder their performance. And sometimes the best gigs come from impromptu decisions, creating a memorable experience for all involved. We explored some of the weirdest places bands have played shows, including an abandoned fish factory, a mental hospital, and a sleazy hotel.
The Cramps, Napa State Mental Hospital
On June 13, 1978, the Cramps made a stop to play a gig in Napa, California while on tour from New York. “We’re The Cramps, and we’re from New York City, and we drove 3,000 miles to play for you people,” singer Lux Interior shouted to the crowd at the California State Mental Hospital. “Somebody told me you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that. You seem to be all right to me.” The hospital’s Bart Swain hired various musicians to play for patients to help expand their everyday experiences, but he was nervous that the Cramps’ performance was being tape-recorded (on a Sony Portapak camera by a company called Target Video). Noisey interviewed a Target Video employee who said, “What we did for those people, it was liberating. They had so much fun. They pretended they were singing, they were jumping on stage. It was a couple hours of total freedom. They didn’t judge the band, and the band didn’t judge them.”
Sex Pistols, Chelmsford Top Security Prison
The Sex Pistols recorded a live album at Chelmsford Top Security Prison located in Chelmsford, Essex, England. The set opened with “Anarchy,” after which John Lydon taunted the crowd: “You’re like a bunch of fucking statues! I bet you’ve all got a good case of piles! Move!” After a prisoner told the group they weren’t allowed to move around, Lydon responded: “I don’t care — tear the fucking place apart!”
Spiritualized, CN Tower
“I think you can kind of go around and play all the normal venues — or you can look for places where, even before you start pushing the air around and making music, you’re in a beautiful environment,” Spiritualized frontman Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman) told NPR in a 2012 interview. The singer was referring to a gig the group played on top of the CN Tower in Toronto, 114 stories in the air. The performance won them a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for “the highest concert ever performed in a man-made structure.” A 1997 review by MTV discussed the vibe of the set:
As for the CN Tower angle, once the novelty wore off (about a minute into the first song), this could have been any crappy little bar anywhere.Credit must be given, however, to Pierce and company for at least playing a reduced but still respectable set (around one hour) for their Guinness Record setting performance, scattering older numbers such as “Electric Mainline” amidst already classic material from Ladies And Gentlemen…. such as “Come Together” and “Cop Shoot Cop.” But the atmosphere was sapped of any vitality by the chattering yuppies in the crowd, most of whom probably thought the term “cop shoot cop” referred to an altercation between two police officers.
New York Dolls, Endicott Hotel
The Dolls’ first show was around Christmas in 1971 at a welfare hotel on the Upper West Side called the Endicott Hotel. The band was reportedly practicing across the street at Rusty’s cycle rent shop and some workers asked if they would play for residents in exchange for a free meal. The Endicott was a dangerous place in those days. Residents were murdered, prostitutes roamed the halls, and drunk brawls were a regular occurrence. The set included covers of Otis Redding (“Don’t Mess with Cupid”) and other R&B groups.
Pink Floyd, Pompei
English prog icons Pink Floyd performed at the empty ancient Roman amphitheatre in Pompeii, Italy in 1971. Footage from the performance was released as a concert film. It was directed by Adrian Maben and features different imagery of the surrounding area, along with classical sculptures (with some scenes shot in Paris). The group used their regular touring gear for a set that included the 23-minute track ”Echoes.”
Johnny Cash, San Quentin State Prison and Folsom Prison
Cash — who had his own run-ins with the law, which landed him in jail for one night each time — was a frequent musical guest at prisons, starting in the late 1950s. His first gig was at San Quentin State Prison on New Year’s Day in 1959. Live album At San Quentin was released in 1969. Cash’s Folsom Prison shows in 1968 were turned into a live album. “Folsom Prison Blues” was originally recorded in 1955, but the live version from that show became a number one hit.
The Beatles, Apple headquarters
January 30, 1969 was the last time the Beatles played a public performance. The band took to the roof of Apple headquarters (Apple Corps, that is) for a 42-minute set at 3 Savile Row. The show surprised passersby and drew a crowd, the police crashed the show, and 17 songs later, history was made. Rooftop shows weren’t exactly the norm in the ‘60s, and the group disbanded not long after, marking a turning point in music history.
Sigur Rós, an abandoned herring factory
An old herring oil factory in Djúpavík, Iceland was the site of a free concert by Sigur Rós. Read more about the history of the building on Uncube:
Back in 1917, a herring-salting factory opened in Djúpavík in the remote Westfjords. By 1919 it was bankrupt. In 1934 it was boom time again and a bigger herring factory was built — the largest concrete building in the country at the time. Alongside the factory, three giant circular tanks were constructed, capable of holding up 5,600 tons of herring oil.
Arcade Fire, an elevator
Arcade Fire tortured each other by playing in a cramped Paris freight elevator, performing Neon Bible for La Blogothèque. Founder of Blogothèque Christophe Abric, aka Chryde, wrote about the experience:
It was too cold to play outside after the show, so we initially thought about playing in the entrance hall during Electrelane’s performance, but the Olympia didn’t allow it. All we had left was the freight elevator, and we had to do a little convincing to make it happen. On the other side of the elevator, there was a door that would lead us into the concert hall. They could go back to the pit in the Olympia by exiting through there, and then re-exit through the door near the stage. Win wasn’t so hot on the plan…the venue was a little too big and the whole thing sounded complicated. It took us about 20 minutes to convince him, not knowing at all what was waiting for us at the other end of this crazy idea. Win went back to tell Richard and Will to follow him to the elevator, with everyone asking when to play, or whether this was going to happen before or after the show. It was going to be before. Régine was the only one who thought differently, and there were a few seconds of furious looks, which immediately mellowed and eased into resolution. The big guy won, and everyone went back to reconfigure the set-list.
Rage Against the Machine, Wall Street
Playing on the steps of Wall Street without a permit doesn’t seem terribly unusual for a band as political as Rage Against the Machine — but it was a controversial move. Provocative documentarian Michael Moore directed the band’s video for “Sleep Now in the Fire,” filmed January 26, 1999 on Wall Street. The city of New York had not granted the filmmaker all the necessary security clearances and basically denied the group permission to play where they wanted. But the show went on, hundreds of people showed up, and Moore and the band attempted to walk into the New York Stock Exchange afterward. An altercation broke out with the band, and Moore was detained by the cops and threatened with arrest. “Sleep Now in the Fire” also caused the famous MT Video Music Awards incident, in which the group lost Best Rock Video to a Limp Bizkit song and Rage bassist Tim Commerford climbed a stage prop in protest.