Lollapalooza at 20: Highlights, lowlights, revolution and evolution

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Lollapalooza

Fans cheer for Cypress Hill during Lollapalooza last year.

Lollapalooza wasn’t built to last two years, let alone intended to be around long enough to celebrate a 20th anniversary Aug. 5-7 in Grant Park.

“I haven’t said this before, but after the first year, I went on my merry way, thinking it was done,” Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell says. “It surprised me anybody wanted to do it again. I didn’t see it going on without me (as part of the headlining band). But it took on a life of its own.”

Farrell initially conceived Lollapalooza in 1991 as an elaborate one-off farewell tour to his band, Jane's Addiction. Jane's was breaking up at the peak of its considerable powers, and Farrell took along a few friends and peers – Living Colour, Siouxie and the Banshees, the Rollins Band, Nine Inch Nails, the Butthole Surfers and Ice-T – on a six-week tour through the United States.

The idea of packaging those seemingly mismatched bands sounded preposterous from the vantage point of a homogenized music industry. None of them was receiving much airplay on commercial radio or MTV, but the festival proved to be a huge hit anyway, consistently playing to capacity audiences in cities across the United States.

In its inaugural year, Lollapalooza attracted an audience that became a movement and eventually a commercial radio format: “alternative rock.” It became a gathering place for a community of outsiders, a daily hangout for 20,000 misfits and their favorite cult bands.

Just as the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967 had alerted the record companies to the moneymaking potential of rock, Lollapalooza proved just how lucrative underground music could be. A few weeks after the first Lollapalooza tour ended, Nirvana's "Nevermind" would be released and eventually hit No. 1 on the Billboard album chart.

Rock with a certain edge and a skeptical attitude broke through on commercial radio. It didn't last, as a parade of clones and second-tier bands were marketed as "alternative" alongside genuinely inspired oddities such as the Melvins, the Jesus Lizard and the Flaming Lips, all of whom scored improbable major-label deals. But for a few heady years, the freaks felt like they were in charge.

After fading away in 1997 and then briefly returning in 2003, Lollapalooza was resurrected as very different kind of festival in 2005 in Grant Park. Farrell and the William Morris Endeavor booking agency, including original founder Marc Geiger, have partnered with Texas-based C3 Presents to produce and reinvent the festival, one with less of a focus on the cutting edge and more on wide-screen smorgasbord of bands, artists and DJs from many genres. Last year the festival expanded to Santiago, Chile, and next week the promoters are expected to announce another overseas destination where the festival will expand in 2012. But in a week the focus will be on Chicago, where Lollapalooza will draw the largest crowd in its history, with 270,000 people expected to watch 130 bands perform on eight stages over three days.

Here’s a timeline of the festival’s up-and-down 20 years with comments from Farrell and Geiger, and some excerpts from my Tribune reviews:

1991: ‘We were gonna tear it up’

Farrell: “I never feel anything I do will fail. I wasn’t worried about the other bands on the lineup not being accepted, or not being popular enough. They were my peers. They had credibility in my world, anyway, and I knew we were gonna close and tear it up. I didn’t see it as a risk doing this at all.”

Geiger: “MTV was dominated by ‘hair bands’ and very commercial, mainstream artists. But there was a new area of artists coming up, and we saw increasing attendance, interest. The Pixies turned us down, but we knew with Jane’s, Siouxie, Living Colour, we would get people out. Perry was always looking to push multiple envelopes … his thoughts around performing have to do with touching all the senses. We had one conversation where he wanted everyone coming to Lollapalooza to walk through a giant, dark tent, and it would only be about smells. (Agent Don Muller) and I tried to put those ideas into a realistic context. We wanted a European type festival, but make it American: Put it on the road, so we didn’t have the travel issues. In England, everyone can get to a festival like Reading from any point in the country in six hours or less. That’s not the case here, so let’s take Moses to the mountain.”

Tribune review: “Pop historians may look back at Lollapalooza as the most broadly ambitious music festival ever staged, because even such extravaganzas as Woodstock and Live Aid weren’t turned into road shows. Unlike those affairs, this caravan of alternative music and thinking was mercifully free of ‘We are the world’ preachiness.”

Instead the festival got a blend of hedonism and confrontation, with Farrell and Ice-T teaming up to swap taunts and punch-lines on a Sly Stone song designed to provoke a conversation on race.

Farrell: “It was a very blurry world back in those days. I bonded with Ice — Ice and I had some wild times together. It started to feel like summer camp for musicians, and it created this atmosphere where you felt like you could take chances.”

1992-95: Alternative rising

Farrell: “I was invited (by Geiger and the Morris agency) to do it again. It surprised me, but the (Red Hot) Chili Peppers wanted to (headline in 1992), and that was enough for me. I was very involved with planning the next few Lollapaloozas. I would plan all the extra things, the ‘mind field,’ the DJ tower, the dancers, the giant grande burrito for five bucks, the bookings. But I didn’t want to go on tour with it and compete with the Chili Peppers. I wanted the Chili Peppers to feel it was their time, their year, their tour.”

But it was Pearl Jam, performing early in the day with singer Eddie Vedder climbing to the rafters, and Ministry who made the biggest impression in ‘92:

1992 Tribune review: “Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, a ‘Mad Max’ biker in the midst of some pagan ritual, tossed what looked to be animal skulls and bones into the audience while howling into the night. Even scarier was the furious sod fight that the band’s music inspired among the overzealous faithful.”

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