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Lollapalooza at 20: Highlights, lowlights, revolution and evolution

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.”

Lollapalooza became so successful that in the mid-‘90s a host of similar festivals focusing on particular genres and communities of listeners began springing up: H.O.R.D.E. for jam bands; Lilith for female singer-songwriters; Warped for punk; Ozzfest for metal.

Geiger: “We didn’t see it as competitive. All those festivals were about ignored forms of music that were very legitimate and those fans deserved the same value as Lollapalooza. I’d love to say Lollapalooza changed everything, but it was the other way around. The times were already changing. The Cure kicked the door (in the ‘80s), it didn’t give. With Nirvana and Jane’s and a bunch of credible bands that immediately followed them, the door came down.”

1993 Tribune: “The day’s best band may have been the first, Rage Against the Machine. Following an introduction by local censorship-fighter Mary Morello, whose son Tom is Rage’s guitarist, the Los Angeles quartet offered a ripping hybrid of punk, funk and metal. Dreadlocked singer Zack de La Rocha skewered everything from the CIA to Lollapalooza’s T-shirt prices (ranging from $23 to $30).”

1994 Tribune: “At its slimiest, Lollapalooza is the selling of “ ‘cool’ “ to legions of MTV-bred youth. But this edition will also be remembered for other reasons. It was possible to jump from Palace Songs’ spooky Neil Young and Gram Parsons reductions to the overcaffeinated punk-jazz of the Boredoms, then catch up with Guided By Voices’ secret history of rock, before braving L7’s hit-and-run ferocity — and that was just the first 90 minutes.”

1995 Tribune: "'I have a relationship with this town that’s just sadomasochistic,' said Courtney Love. If youth culture had a single voice, it might say the same thing about Lollapalooza, the traveling music festival that exploits, panders to and occasionally challenges its audience, all in the name of a good time. For its fifth incarnation over the weekend, Lollapalooza dimmed the star power and upped the artistic ante, with a handful of knockout performances on the main stage by Sinead O’Connor, Sonic Youth and Love’s band, Hole.”

1996-97, 2003: Time for a rethink

Farrell dropped out for a year, and the festival lost its way.

1996 Tribune: “With founder Perry Farrell out of the picture, the Lollapalooza brain trust has sold out in a big way. The alternative mask is off and the goal has become to get the biggest acts available to bring in as many people as possible. This year, Lollapalooza hauled in a whopper: Metallica, one of the heaviest mainstream acts of the ‘90s. For the first time in Lollapalooza’s short history, there was no hip-hop act on the main stage, and a distressing shortage of female, African-American and other minority performers.”

1997 Tribune: “Once designed as a gathering of tribes from different corners of the rock and rap spectrum, Lollapalooza has lately become a showcase for best-selling acts to promote product. This year, the festival tried in vain to return to its original spirit, a melting pot including reggae (the Marley clan), hip-hop (Snoop Dogg), art-metal (Tool) and the uncategorized (Tricky).”

2003 Tribune: “Playing to a half-empty house on a gorgeous summer day, Lollapalooza ‘03 opened the question of whether the ‘90s rock festival boom had run its course. Farrell’s vision spawned numerous imitators: Ozzfest, H.O.R.D.E., Smokin’ Grooves, Lilith Fair, Area 1 and 2, Warped. Now many are either extinct or running on fumes, part of a general downturn of the concert economy.”

Geiger: “The model broke. We started by fishing from a group of highly credible artists, and that pond got restocked with imitators. We began drawing from fourth-, fifth-, sixth-generation artists. We thought better to kill it than drive it into the ground and pollute it. Alternative music in the U.K. and here had ended its cycle, which was roughly ‘76 to ’96.”

2005-11: A different Lolla lands in Grant Park

After Farrell and William Morris struck a deal with the Texas promotion company that would become C3 Presents, the revived festival started off as a two-day event in Grant Park. It drew about 65,000 people in its first year, and has grown ever since. Now it’s a three-day affair covering 115 acres (instead of the initial 80) in Grant Park, and will draw 90,000 people a day. It will deliver $1.2 million to Chicago parks, and a study by a Texas consulting firm estimates that the festival will inject about $85 million into the local economy.

Geiger: “Consumers wanted a better experience than going to an amphitheater and being confined to a seat for 12 hours. You had European festivals and Coachella (in California) that presented a better experience for the consumer, a weekend experience with 120 artists. What makes Lollapalooza different from every other festival-concert you’ll see? It was easy to differentiate in the ‘90s because Lollapalooza was in its lane, serving a particular audience with a particular type of music. Now the walls are down, it’s liberating. Now maybe exposure and eclecticism are the key points. It’s a consumer-fan model that has become part of the fabric of growing up and experiencing music. It’s like college, it’s not about differentiating anymore.”

But there is no question the festival’s character has changed, with more mainstream bookings and a greater emphasis on DJs and electronic music (this year’s DJ stage will command a space accommodating up to 15,000 fans).

Farrell: “Everyone was so excited about rock ‘n’ roll and running out to see new bands in LA when I was coming up. Today people are excited about the DJ-producer. The industry took a hit and it’s not weaning rock bands anymore. It used to give a new group a five-year window, there was tour support, they would sign them for five to seven records. Now if you don’t have a hit on your first record, they’re on to the next one. You look at our headliners, they’re going back further and further in time. There was a day when the Smashing Pumpkins would make a new record and they’d be headlining. We don’t have that luxury anymore. They’re not making rock bands like they used to.”

Geiger: “We did something that we thought could work, and it served its original purpose. Now it’s like we’re running version 2.0 of the software. To revisit the 1990s model at this point would be pointless.”

greg@gregkot.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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