Live Music Exchange Blog

Live Music Disasters: An Introduction and Bernard Levin’s ‘On a memorable performance of Spontini’s La Vestale’


(Image by Gerard Hoffnung)


We’ll be looking occasionally in the future at gigs or concerts that cross a line beyond merely unsatisfactory (or irksome for various reasons, some of which Emma Webster outlines in her ‘anatomy’ of a John Bramwell gig). Some events stumble into the altogether more memorable, if perhaps equally unenviable, land of the disastrous.

There’s been alot written on what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music. Indeed, one of the primary roles of the critic is to enunciate the difference, although as Simon Frith points out such evaluations have a moral value judgment encoded into them.

“’bad’ is a key word here because it suggests that aesthetic and ethical judgements are tied together here: not to like a record is not just a matter of taste; it is also a matter of morality”

(My personal favourite is a review of Cher’s Love Hurts from Musician magazine in 1992 which simply stated, ‘Not this much’).

The categories of what constitutes ‘Bad Music’ are explored to interesting effect in the book of the same title which opens with Frith’s exploration of the territory and covers shaky ground from Kenny G’s ‘smooth jazz’ through American Idol and rock musicals to critics’ need for the ‘bad’ category. But the emphasis here is primarily on recordings, and inclusion or exclusion from the canon. What of live music mishaps?

A number of possible factors are at play here, not all of them subject to the vicissitudes of critical evaluation:

There are those intrinsic to the performance. These can be musical (poor performance for any number of reasons from lack of rehearsal through to extreme inebriation), technical (anything from a broken string to a stage collapse) or interpersonal (like the famous altercation between Kinks Dave Davies and Mick Avory which saw the guitarist knocked unconscious and needing stitches in his head). They may not even involve the performance itself: the prima donna who shows up late for a show, for example.

Then there are external factors, which can include anything from the weather to an act being put in an inappropriate venue, ‘overzealous’ security staff all the way up to a full-scale riot. Often, the final farrago is a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic, such as when Axl Rose stormed off-stage sparking a riot in St. Louis in 1991. And of course the range of unsuccessful events is vast, from the mundane to the tragic. Twenty one festival goers died in a crush at Duisburg’s Love Parade in 2010 for instance, and the effect of eleven deaths at a Who gig in Cincinnati in 1979 is still felt today due to calls for a re-think of regulations and an ongoing debate.

The vast majority of failures, mercifully, don’t result in the kind of newsworthy heartbreak that sparks legislative conversations beyond the music world. Nevertheless, for a concert to go down as calamitous suggests a certain minimum degree of ill-will, incompetence or blunt misfortune. None of the categories I’ve outlined above is perhaps necessary to make for a live music disaster. A poor performance can be a success with the audience for any number of reasons. Technical glitches need not derail the show. Tension can even make for ‘legendary’ gigs, which get written into history as part of a trajectory of success. (Dylan’s ‘Judas’ moment at the Manchester Free Trade Hall springs to mind). But any one of them, given sufficient magnitude or bad timing, can be sufficient.

At the same time, a concert descending into chaos might not even diminish the audience’s enjoyment of the evening, albeit not as planned. As Simon Frith notes elsewhere on this blog, the smoothest running gigs may not be the most memorable. There’s clearly more work to be done on cataloguing the numerous inputs into what might be a calamitous live music event but what follows might best, if insufficiently, fall under the ‘technical’ heading, with possibly a smattering of what Donald Rumsfeld rather self-servingly and tortuously described as an ‘unknown unknown’.

So sticking with the theme of memories of live music, and to introduce that of live music disasters we’re offering a reminder of the great Bernard Levin and his account of a hilarious performance of Spontini’s ‘La Vestale’ which made us laugh this weekend.

Why not send us your own ‘live music’ disasters, and we’ll compile a ‘best of’, if that’s not too much of a misnomer?

(Adam Behr)

For now, here’s Bernard Levin:

On A Memorable Peformance of Spontini’s La Vestale

(Available in Conducted Tour, London: Cape, 1981)

1979 was The Year of the Missing Lemon Juice. The Theatre Royal in Wexford holds 440; it was completely full that night, so there are, allowing for a few who have already died (it is not true, though it might well have been, that some died of laughter at the time), hardly more than four hundred people who now share, to the end of their lives, an experience from which the rest of the world, now and for ever, is excluded. When the last of us dies, the experience will die with us, for although it is already enshrined in legend, no one who was not an eye witness will ever really understand what we felt. Certainly I am aware that these words cannot convey more than the facts, and the facts, as so often and most particularly in this case, are only part, and a small part, too, of the whole truth. But I must try…

The set for Act I of the opera consisted of a platform laid over the stage, raised about a foot at the back and sloping evenly to the footlights. This was meant to represent the interior of the Temple where burned the sacred flame, and had therefore to look like marble; the designer had achieved a convincing alternative by covering the raised stage in Formica. But the Formica was slippery; to avoid the risk of a performer taking a tumble, designer and stage manager had between them discovered that an ample sprinkling of lemon juice would make the surface sufficiently sticky to provide a secure foothold. The story now forks; down one road, there lies the belief that the member of the stage staff whose duty it was to sprinkle the lifesaving liquid, and who had done so without fail at rehearsal and at the earlier performances (this was the last one of the Festival), had simply forgotten. Down the other branch in the road is a much more attractive rumour: that the theatre charlady, inspecting the premises in the afternoon, had seen to her horror and indignation that the stage was covered in the remains of some spilt liquid, and, inspired by professional pride, had thereupon set to and given it a good scrub and polish all over. The roads now join again, for apart from the superior charm of the second version, it makes no difference what the explanation was. What matters is what happened.

What happened began to happen very early. The hero of the opera strides on to the stage immediately after the curtain has gone up. The hero strode; and instantly fell flat on his back. There was a murmur of sympathy and concern from the audience for his embarrassment and for the possibility that he might have been hurt; it was the last such sound that was to be heard that night, and it was very soon to be replaced by sounds of a very different nature.

The hero got to his feet, with considerable difficulty, and, having slid some way down the stage in falling, proceeded to stride up-stage to where he should have been in the first place; he had, of course, gone on singing throughout, for the music had not stopped. Striding up-stage, however, was plainly more difficult than he had reckoned on, for every time he took a step and tried to follow it with another, the foot with which he had taken the first proceeded to slide down-stage again, swiftly followed by its companion; he may not have known it, but he was giving a perfect demonstration of what is called marcher sur place, a graceful manoeuvre normally used in mime, and seen at its best in the work of Marcel Marceau.

Finding progress uphill difficult, indeed impossible, the hero wisely decided to abandon the attempt and stay where he was, singing bravely on, no doubt calculating that, since the stage was brightly lit, the next character to enter would notice him and adjust his own movements accordingly. So it proved, in a sense at least, for the next character to enter was the hero’s trusted friend and confidant, who, seeing his hero further down-stage than he was supposed to be, loyally decided to join him there. Truth to tell, he had little choice, for from the moment he had stepped on to the stage he had begun to slide downhill, arms semaphoring, like Scrooge’s clerk on the way home to his Christmas dinner. His downhill progress was arrested by his fetching up against his friend with a thud; this, as it happened, was not altogether inappropriate, as the opera called for them to embrace in friendly greeting at that point. It did not, however, call for them, locked in each other’s arms and propelled by the impetus of the friend’s descent, to careen helplessly further down-stage with the evident intention of going straight into the orchestra pit with vocal accompaniment – for the hero’s aria had, on the arrival of his companion, been transformed into a duet.

On the brink of ultimate disaster they managed to arrest their joint progress to destruction and, working their way along the edge of the stage like mountaineers seeking a route round an unbridgeable crevasse, most gallantly began, with infinite pain and by a form of progress most aptly described in the title of Lenin’s famous pamphlet, Four Steps Forward, Three Steps Back, to climb up the terrible hill. It speedily became clear that this hazardous ascent was not being made simply from a desire to retain dramatic credibility; it had a much more practical object. The only structure breaking the otherwise all too smooth surface of the stage was a marble pillar, a yard or so high, on which there burned the sacred flame of the rite. This pillar was embedded firmly in the stage, and it had obviously occurred to both mountaineers at once that if they could only reach it it would provide a secure base for their subsequent operations, since if they held on to it for dear life they would at any rate be safe from any further danger of sliding downhill and/or breaking their necks. It was soon borne in upon them that they had undertaken a labour of truly Sisyphean proportions, and would have been most heartily pardoned by the audience if they had abandoned the librettist’s words at this point, and fitted to the music instead the old moral verse: The heights by great men reached and kept, Were not attained by sudden flight; But they, while their companions slept, Were toiling upwards in the night.

By this time the audience – all 440 of us – were in a state of such abandon with laughter that several of us felt that if this were to continue a moment longer we would be in danger of doing ourselves a serious internal mischief, little did we know that the fun was just beginning, for shortly after Mallory and Irvine reached their longed-for goal, the chorus entered, and instantly flung themselves en masse into a very freely choreographed version of Les Patineurs, albeit to the wrong music. The heroine herself, the priestess Giulia, with a survival instinct strong enough to suggest that she would be the one to get close to should any reader of these lines happen to be shipwrecked along with the Wexford opera company, skated into the wings and kicked her shoes off and then, finding on her return that this had hardly improved matters, skated back to the wings and removed her tights as well.

Now, however, the singing never having stopped for a moment, the chorus had come to the same conclusion as had the hero and his friend, namely that holding on to the holy pillar was the only way to remain upright and more or less immobile. The trouble with this conclusion was that there was only one such pillar on the stage, and it was a small one; as the cast crowded round it, it seemed that there would be some very unseemly brawling among those seeking a hand-hold, a foothold, even a bare finger-hold, on this tiny island of security in the terrible sea of impermanence. By an instinctive understanding of the principles of co-operation, however, they decided the matter without bloodshed; those nearest the pillar clutched it, those next nearest clutched the clutchers, those farther away still clutched those, and so on until, in a kind of daisy- chain that snaked across the stage, everybody was accommodated.

The condition of the audience was now one of fully extended hysteria, which was having the most extraordinary effect – itself intensifying the audience’s condition – on the orchestra. At Wexford, the orchestra pit runs under the stage; only a single row of players – those at the edge of the pit nearest the audience, together, of course, with the conductor -could see what was happening on the stage. The rest realized that something out of the ordinary was going on up there, and would have been singularly dull of wit if they had not, for many members of the audience were now slumped on the floor weeping helplessly in the agony of their mirth, and although the orchestra at Wexford cannot see the stage, it can certainly see the auditorium.

Theologians tell us that the delights of the next world are eternal. Perhaps; but what is certain is that all earthly ones, alas, are temporary, and duly, after giving us a glimpse of the more enduring joy of Heaven that must have strengthened the devout in their faith and caused instant conversion among many of the unbelievers, the entertainment came to an end when the first act of the opera did so, amid such cheering as I had never before heard in an opera house, and can never hope to hear again. In the interval before Act II, a member of the production staff walked back and forth across the stage, sprinkling it with the precious nectar, and we knew that our happiness was at an end. But he who, after such happiness, would have demanded more, would be greedy indeed, and most of us were content to know that, for one crowded half-hour, we on honeydew had fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise.

Bernard Levin

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *