The history of live music in the United States is rich with groundbreaking discoveries of artistic potential, inspiring stories of artists overcoming opposition, and the innovation of new musical styles and genres. Coastal cities, particularly, have been the birthplace and incubator for many distinctively American genres, ever since the jazz era.
Along with the important origins of rock, metal, and R&B styles throughout Florida and the Northeast, recognition is also owed to the West Coast – and not just Los Angeles and other centers of show business. The San Francisco Bay Area has played a large part in many amazing periods in music history, and has been one pivotal center of change and evolution for most contemporary live music genres. Read on for a chronological journey through five notable San Francisco concerts, and learn how these shows helped to make live music what it is today!
- Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Fillmore Auditorium - May 27-29, 1966
A performance art piece integrating multiple mediums, psychedelic and political themes, avant-garde films, and light shows might not seem new and unusual today, but in 1966 Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable was quite an extreme advancement of the musical and theatrical arts. Along with performances by the Velvet Underground and Nico, the shows featured screenings of his films, and performances by artists from his famous Factory. (Check out the classic concert poster!)
Today’s Fillmore Auditorium has, in fact, been forever altered by the show! Danny Williams, Warhol’s lighting director, influenced many innovations for rock show lighting that have changed the industry ever since, and the Fillmore Auditorium invited him back later to design and implement more permanent light show structures.
- The Runaways play their final show at the Cow Palace - New Year’s Eve, 1978
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” is one of the most famous and recognizable songs in modern music. Did you know, though, that the Queen of Rock herself, Joan Jett, was in an all-girl group before she became famous with that great song? The Runaways, a manufactured group most recognized for the hit “Cherry Bomb”, were better known in Japan than in the States, but after their goodbye show in 1978, they were destined to gain much more attention as the group from which Joan Jett broke free. It seems there are few complaints among fans about the Runaways running away; Jett’s ensuing career as Joan Jett and the Blackhearts spawned Blackheart Records, and also gave us hits like “I Hate Myself For Lovin’ You” and “Bad Reputation”.
- Dead Kennedys play at the San Francisco Deaf Club - March 3, 1979
The Dead Kennedys have never shied away from controversy, even from the very beginning of their long career. Early on in the hardcore punk scene, the Dead Kennedys and frontman Jello Biafra made powerful political statements, most notably with the 1979 song “California Über Alles”. A reference to Germany’s former national anthem, “California Über Alles” is a direct and heated criticism of the politics of Governor Jerry Brown. (They clearly had no regrets, as in later years they released “We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now”, a version of the song rebooted to attack Ronald Reagan.)
Along with bringing this still-famous and oft-covered message to the Bay Area punk universe, the Dead Kennedys also recorded their “Live at the Deaf Club” album on this night, which despite not being released until 2004, has become a treasured piece of their work for many fans. It contains works not recorded anywhere else, including their song “Gaslight” and a unique disco version of “Kill the Poor”.
- San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens hosts the final stop of Metallica’s first major tour - July 20, 1984
Heavy metal, as a broad genre, is essentially the property of Europe and South America. However, the United States has made its voice heard in not just the execution of great heavy metal musical works, but also in the formation of various subgenres. One of the most identifiable sounds in metal is “West Coast thrash”, best represented by the famous Big Four: Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, and of course Metallica.
Metallica’s formation was primarily in Los Angeles at first, but the lineup was completed in San Francisco, and the band’s first major tour visited San Francisco on three separate dates including its closing night. Supporting acts included Raven, Anthrax, and Exodus, all important to the definition of thrash, and the tour as a whole helped spread West Coast thrash and establish the sound of the subgenre for all time.
- Neil Young steps in to save the Pearl Jam show at Polo Fields - June 24, 1995
Music history is full of amazing collaborations, including some that might seem at first unlikely. Neil Young released the collaborative album Mirror Ball with grunge group Pearl Jam on June 27, 1995, but before that, he made a rather unplanned appearance in one of the group’s live sets.
Fan accounts online suggest that Eddie Vedder looked healthy and normal when the set started, but that he became ill several songs into the night. Once Neil Young took the stage, that lucky audience was exposed to a number of the songs that had been prepared for the new album. Grunge music is known as “the Seattle sound” for good reason, but this night was a major defining moment for the inclusion of grunge music in the Bay Area scene. It also brought together diverse audiences (including fans of punk opener Bad Religion) for a unique experience that united fans of many seemingly very disparate genres.
As you can see, live music is like anything else in art – it’s practically inexhaustible, and new possibilities are always created, even as more and more ideas are realized. It’s never too late to get involved with music, whether you love to attend San Francisco concerts, want to pick up a new or long-neglected instrument, or maybe just discover new bands from home. We hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of historic San Francisco concerts!
Photo by Rob Lee