Fillip 12 — Fall 2010

Riot Show
: Some Notes on the Archive
Julian Myers

Against the distorted pulse of a rhythm box, we hear voices. The voice of the singer, first, inhuman, amplified and drenched in tape-echo, crooning and shrieking, as if Elvis Presley enduring a schizoid break. And then the voices of the crowd, scattered shouts and cries coalescing into waves of terrifying sound: boos and chants, threats, their own songs. “I hate your fucking guts!” the singer shouts at them, early on, still confident in his possession of the means of sound, in his ability to drown them out. “This song is about somebody just like all of you—every one of you!” But then we hear a cheer. An intrepid member of the audience has stolen the singer’s microphone. The rhythm hovers in place as the crowd’s chanting grows louder. A plaintive voice from the stage: “We’re just a bunch of poor musicians, just like everybody in here, we’d like to have that microphone back! It ain’t gonna do you no good!” But the singer’s newfound solidarity is rejected; folding chairs are thrown at his head. He flees the stage. The show is over.1

Recorded at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels on June 16, 1978, this was the second date of Suicide’s quixotic, abbreviated European tour. After headlining the Third International Science Fiction Festival in Metz, France, Suicide (made up of Alan Vega and Martin Rev) was opening for Elvis Costello, and, indeed, amongst the crowd’s raucous singing, one can hear some of its members chanting, “EL-VIS, EL-VIS!” The show was recorded on a hand-held Sony cassette player—a year before the Walkman’s debut, it would have been a comparatively large and clunky device—by the band’s A&R representative Howard Thompson. The recording was subsequently released on their UK label, Bronze Records (home of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and Uriah Heep), as a promotional flexi-disc titled 23 Minutes Over Brussels. (The title is a riff on 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, the 1944 film about the US’s revenge against Japan for Pearl Harbor.)2 Reclaimed from that antagonistic dissolution by the recording’s quasi-commercial release, the event was incorporated into the band’s self-made mythology as avant-garde provocateurs. Described in a 1996 narrative by their “Former Minister of Information,” Roy Trakin, the event was “as notable an occasion as the debut of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and every bit as controversial.” The romantic account continues, “[We] sped through the city’s Kafkaesque cobblestone streets down alleys while the gendarmes rushed about lobbing teargas canisters to disperse [the] unruly mob.”3

Listening to the recording itself, however, one experiences something altogether more ambivalent, fragile, and comic. Vega and Rev do not come off as heroes. One hears less a band acting out against their audience, who responds conservatively, than the reverse. The drama belongs entirely to the crowd: their variegated noise, their steady evolution of counter-tactics to the band’s program, their repudiation of narratives, spun out by the band, of sonic seduction and attack, of rock’s economies of martyrdom, gestures of camaraderie (“This song is about somebody like you”), and worship. The crowd returns these unwanted gifts, with force. This is no less true because the band and its “ministers” of publicity have attempted, in retrospect, to interpret the event in the other direction—to restore their own authorship of the troublesome imbroglio.

The Ancienne Belgique document is the cornerstone of a small archipelago of recordings and accounts sometimes called by the fan culture that exchanges and distributes them “riot shows.” Over the last five years or so I have presented, a few times a year, and in various institutional contexts,4 my personal archive of these “riot shows”: concerts in which the audience actively intervenes in the performance, forcing the performers to end the show unexpectedly. The collection includes about fifteen sound or video recordings (Black Flag, Black Sabbath, Leonard Cohen, Guns N’ Roses, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Bob Marley, Morrissey, Pantera, Public Image Ltd., and others), with many more written accounts and images, some of which are reproduced below. Each is marked by the convergence of four things: 1) a concert of some kind, with a large audience, 2) a part of that audience who, for one reason or another, stops that show by various means, 3) the crucial presence of a recording device of some kind, and 4) the exchange or distribution of that recording, either as a bootleg or as an official release. Strange, funny, boring, and scary in turns, these recordings allow us to perceive certain intensities and instabilities at the heart of the rock concert, and perhaps in spectacular entertainment in general.

My last phrase, “spectacular entertainment,” is meant to invoke a particular period and apparatus from which these events seem most often to emerge (though the archive, it must be said, resists most pat periodizations and typologies)—that is, the historical colonization of culture in the late twentieth century, in its various forms, by a vast, consolidated, technologically dependent system of representations and experiences designed for consumption on a grand scale. The evolution of the loudspeaker or electronic amplifier, first in movie palaces and public address systems and then in the performance of live music, is key to this historical development, in which new technologies of transmission and higher volume dramatically restructured the situation of those public performances (e.g., movies, rallies, and concerts) as more and more people were able effectively to witness them “live” at the same time. The invention of stadium-scale concerts in the mid 1960s with the Beatles’ 1965 US tour, for instance, attests to this phenomenon, despite the fact that their amplifiers were notoriously too small for their massive audiences to hear.5 The amp-apparatus comes to dominate this intensified relationship between performers and audiences, even in the smallest venues; whoever possesses the means of sound production largely controls this relationship. This axiom explains why the theft of Vega’s microphone, at the Ancienne Belgique, so injured the egos of the performers and transformed the narrative of the event.

My use of the term “apparatus” to describe this historical transformation in the logic of performance is specific. It is meant to call up the sense introduced by Jean-Louis Baudry in his 1974 essay “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus”: that is, as an “instrument” introduced into human relations, that works both to conceal the technical base and to “produce a knowledge effect.”6 It should be said, though, that the amp-apparatus I mean to describe, and its “ideological effects,” differ in substantive ways from those set out by Baudry in the context of cinema. The amp-apparatus is differently composed, of course: its principal elements are performers, amplifier, and audience, versus projector, screen, and audience. And, where Baudry accounted for a cinematic spectator who is disembodied, transcendent, absorbed in phantasms, “‘elevated’ to a vaster function” by the situation of viewing,7 the concert audience is, by contrast, energized, vocal, embodied, and collective. Rather than suppressed, as in cinema, states of identification, negation, and aggression (between performer and audience, and amongst the crowd themselves) are super-charged in the concert situation, not least by the presence of the performer—this audience is “amped up” rather than diffused. (Though now, as more screens enter the concert situation—from enlarged projections of whatever is happening onstage, to synchronic, filmic accompaniment, and the now omnipresent mini-screens of mobile phones, cameras, and PDAs—these distinctions between live performance and cinema, and, by extension, the social forms they organize, have become progressively blurrier.)

Giorgio Agamben has recently expanded on Michel Foucault’s use of the term apparatus, defining it as “literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions or discourses of living beings.”8 Agamben points both to the familiar disciplinary institutions—the university, the prison, etc.—but also to “the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular phones, and—why not—language itself....”9 Entrants on this list can be ambient and pervasive (language, agriculture, philosophy), or rather plain devices seemingly empty of content (the pen, the phone). But even mere tools act to “capture, orient, [and] determine” the lives of those they involve, Agamben avers. And, indeed, the amp-apparatus creates an expanded and volatized arrangement of performers, audience, instruments, and labourers, demanding new relationships among intersecting spheres: the grunt workers of the spectacle (sound techs, truck drivers, stage crew, and the like); the musicians at the centre of the array; mass audiences, themselves divided and classed; managers, advertisers, ticket-sellers, promoters and sponsors; and various kinds of bootleggers and tape traders (who enter this fold alongside the amps, as recording technology becomes portable and miniaturized).10 Add to this arrangement an increasingly militarized or policed system of entertainment, embodied by bouncers, ushers, and security, where control of the crowd is paramount, from the enclosure of the concert space, to the confinement of members of the audience to their seats, to the enforced separation of the performer from the audience. That the final sound of so many of these recordings is police sirens or helicopters (recall Trakin’s “gendarmes”) points to the collusion of these commercial operators with systems of government-sanctioned force: “When a spectacle agonizes, the guns reappear at every margin of the image-array.”11

A similar situation, of course, evolves in all forms of the modern mass event: arena sports, political rallies, and so on, each staged with their own guarantee of force behind the mounted spectacle. The rock concert distinguishes itself only inasmuch as it depends so often on rhetorical denials of hierarchy (“We’re just like everybody in here...”)12 or charged, ritualized forms of boundary-crossing (putting the microphone in the crowd, Morrissey’s habit of pulling audience members across the security barrier). And, indeed, the riot is constantly evoked by rock, soul, and punk musicians in particular, from the prison riots of Wanda Jackson’s “Riot in Cell Block 9” and Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” to Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, to endless variations across the punk diaspora (The Clash’s “White Riot,” Arctic Monkeys’s “Riot Van,” Sonic Youth’s “Teen Age Riot,” Riot Grrrl, etc.; the Mekons’s “Never Been In a Riot” is a clever inversion of this trope) to the dance-floor-as-riot in electronic music (Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Riot in Lagos,” Royal House’s “Black Riot,” Donaeo and Shy FX’s “Riot Music,” among many others).

That each of these evocations should be relegated directly or indirectly to the sphere of consumption suggests that the market relies not only on controlling such tumultuous crowd energies but also on deploying them for its own gain. See, for example, how the disastrous events at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969, in particular the murder of Merideth Hunter by members of the Hell’s Angels, have somehow redounded to the myth, public image, and bulging pockets of the Rolling Stones as the satanic bad-asses who set loose such mayhem with their songs of darkness. Never mind that footage of the concert in Gimme Shelter (a documentary directed and released by Albert and David Maysles in 1970) shows the band to have been stupefied and helpless witnesses to the violence their concert occasioned.13 And never mind that Greil Marcus effectively skewered the Altamont legend in his 1988 essay “Myth and Misquotation.”14 Publicity succeeds one more time at the magical feat of transforming chaos into cash. Recuperation is how capitalism works. But this is an old, and familiar, story.

Fortunately the riot show recordings themselves allow their viewers to construct counter-narratives somewhat closer to actual events, which cut against this mythic grain. So, too, do they offer substantial pleasures. The fun is in watching things go wrong with the relations of power I have described. Responding in 1992 to a survey on boredom, Hal Foster wrote that “...sports really thrill me only at the moment of crack, when the body-psyche-machine breaks down (when the skater crashes, when the basketball becomes a brick), when the commodity-image-screen goes dark.”15 A similar schadenfreude might explain my own fascination in watching these concerts go haywire, in seeing rock’s clichés come boomeranging back on those who elsewhere benefit from them. I feel a special thrill in watching the mere matter of the concert apparatus disassembled and upended, its arbitrary scenery demolished: stray ferns chucked at Axl Rose’s noggin, a bonfire of shredded merchandise, a mound of shattered chairs at the foot of the stage. (A favorite moment from the 1997 Pantera riot, which was recorded by a brilliant Hessian Statler and Waldorf: “I’d still like to have that tour book and video, though.” “Fuck that tour book and video....”)16

And in this pleasure I am one with the great many collectors of such quirky rock memorabilia, voracious fans plucking material off torrent trading sites or from photocopied catalogues—trophies won from the digital jungle. In this bootleg economy different constituencies flicker into view, subsets of this counter-public: fans who privilege riot shows for their distinction in a run of recordings, much as one might prize shows where the band played a particular song, or a recording of especially high fidelity; novelty seekers and ambulance chasers; those like Khan and Lary 7 (who bootlegged the Black Sabbath riot of 1980) or Sonic Youth, for whom the riot show offers a talismanic meta-commentary on rock culture; and, finally, those like me, whose amusement and fascination with these artifacts forms a vector through all of the above. I should add that over time I have developed an aesthetic affection for the layers upon layers of mediation-schmutz that overlay the artifacts gathered from these rather obscure networks. Hiss, muddiness, imagery recorded on the cheap and bit-crushed into near-abstraction: these things seem as important, in their way, as the performances and crowd-recordings—wagers against the phony infinitude of digital reproducibility.

Alongside these gratifications sit certain misgivings. Let me try to sort out a few of them. First, though it is easy (for some of us, at least) to understand the urge to negate and demolish, to attack the instruments of an apparatus does nothing much to dispel its force, its ability to capture and secure. Here, we might elaborate on Agamben’s idea: An apparatus requires material conditions, yet it does not reside in them. Smashing a particular cellular phone (to borrow one of his more prosaic examples) will hardly obviate the phone as a concept and system, or dispel its organizing force. Nor will such an act somehow extricate the smasher from a world of social relations that demands that each of its members have a cellular phone in order to exist on its terms. She will simply need a new phone. This is no less true of the amp-apparatus; the “pure activity of governance”17 is nowhere to be found in the mere material—wood, concrete, metal, electronics—from which it is composed. So any such direct attack is bound to be ineffectual, disruptive energy ultimately misplaced.18 Second, to watch thousands steadily, furiously dismantle the Riverport Performing Arts Center, after chasing off Guns N’ Roses, is to see something more than interesting. The process is terrifying and mesmerizing: an appalling sort of counter-spectacle. You laugh but then flinch at the flying rubble, at men lunging from the dark. You momentarily pity the police, targets in this mayhem—at least until their cronies arrive and start bashing heads and gassing people. Third, it is dismaying to watch resistance relocated, sickeningly, from city streets to dim exurbs, immense parking lots, and band shells where consumers exact pointless revenge on those who have ostensibly ripped them off. Such mass events depend on compelling crowd form, the elemental sociability of protest, ritual, and festival, to the ends of consumption—yet, overflowing, finally freed from its bounds, this ambivalent social force expends itself in these blank spaces. The individual rioter sheds, momentarily, the role of cooperative consumer, but no new or other form of life (to say nothing of class consciousness) comes into view; no emancipation follows.19

Let me extend my doubts still further. It is relevant that my archive has its apocryphal origin in the darkest days of 2005, after the crushing reelection of George W. Bush to a second term and during the elaboration of events in New Orleans and its neighbouring parishes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I watched these events with horror and outrage, as many of us did. The grotesque images of the Reliant Astrodome, in Houston—the so-called “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and the scene of such policed entertainment as I discuss above—filled with tens of thousands of starving and miserable evacuees, relocated there by Homeland Security, are burned indelibly into my memory. If the archive represented to me in this moment a kind of wish fulfillment—evidence of the persistence of powerful negations in the sphere of mass culture—the Astrodome savagely deflated this wish, my negative ideation. As counter- and afterimage, it haunts my archive, in particular its representations of wreckage, mayhem, and destruction. What happens in these architectures of spectacle is dehumanizing—for the audiences cheering and disgruntled rioters as much as for the camps of homeless and dispossessed New Orleanians.

On witnessing one of my presentations, art historian Serge Guilbaut spoke up to say, “Guy Debord would be rolling in his grave!” (Though surely my archive would not be the only or best reason he’d have for in girum nocte.) Maybe I should join in his spinning. The last two paragraphs have attempted to set out just what I think his discomforts might be. And yet, and yet: It is important not to dismiss riot shows peremptorily, on the account that no revolutionary consciousness (whatever this Leninist shibboleth might mean in our present) suddenly emerges fully formed, or because no recognizable politics of emancipation seems immanent within them. Indeed, one thing my collection seems to make visible (and here I return to ideas put forward by Baudry and Agamben) is just what it means to become a subject under the complex conditions of policed entertainment. What happens and what is possible when a crowd engages in an impassioned negativity? How are those energies secured, and what happens when that securing fails, and everything comes off its hinges?20

The archive also brings into view a possible history of the amp-apparatus itself. It is increasingly true that the struggle seems to be not over who controls the microphone, but who produces the image. Rioters at the Ritz destroy the screen that separates band and audience; Axl Rose attacks the fan shooting pictures with an illicit camera. See also a passage from Kim Gordon’s account of the 1981 riot at a Public Image Ltd. concert: “The use of mirrors [in clubs] elaborates the already present narcissism, and individuals become spectators of themselves. Video monitors are standard design apparatus; the images are there to sustain the customers, as business dealings become mingled with fantasies—sexual, career, or otherwise.”21 This scenario—along with the swarm of cameras and glowing screens that now dominate most “live” performances—forestalls the antagonisms I have explored above, which rely on charged and actual presence, and on the complex and active (dis)identifications between the various actors. In this mirror-world, negativity is displaced by narcissism, self-combustion with compulsive self-mediation. Whose interests are served by everyone carrying a camera?22 Indeed, few riot shows have followed the advent of the camera-phone; one extraordinary apparatus confounds and multiplies another.

Still, there are other dynamics at play. Peer-to-peer sharing of music, for example, has forced an “exodus” to, and the placing of a new auratic value upon, live performance.23 And in this development there remain certain possibilities. In his brilliant, if today not so often read, book For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972), Jean Baudrillard describes what happens in such collective suspensions of value as I have described above, imagining them in the anthropological terms of gift economy and potlatch. Counterintuitively, Baudrillard argues that political economy imposes a gift onto its receivers, so rich and one-sided that they have no possibility of reciprocating. “The unilateral gift is as cold as charity,” he argues. “If no counter-gift or reciprocal exchange is possible, we remain imprisoned in the structure of power and abstraction.”24 Without the possibility of returning the gift, and absent the possibility of an “open relationship” of symbolic exchange amongst sound producers and concert consumers, we might at least demand the right to repudiate the offer, to refuse the gift—to say NO. The most compelling recordings in the collection—say, Public Image Ltd. at the Ritz, 1981; Guns N’ Roses at Riverport, 1991; the Ozzfest riot at the Polaris Amphitheater, 1997—present us with the uncanny image of such a negation. Resistance, after all, must be made of something, some real social texture. It is worth looking here. Suspend the rules of the game, its habits, presumptions, and forms of value, and see what happens next.

Further notes and examples are provided in the print version of Fillip 12, available September, 2010.

  1. This essay benefits from strong readings by my colleagues Erica Levin and Joanna Szupinska.

  2. Suicide, 23 Minutes Over Brussels, flexi-disc (London: Bronze Records, 1978). See also 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, directed by Mervyn LeRoy (Burbank: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1944).

  3. Roy Trakin, “Suicide: 23 Minutes Over Brussels,” Suicide (London: Mute Corporation, 2000).

  4. These include screenings and lectures at the Mandrake, Los Angeles; TART Contemporary, San Francisco; Artists Space, New York; and the University of British Columbia, Vancouver; and in various exhibition contexts, which include ‘the backroom,’ curated by Kate Fowle, Magali Arriola, and Renaud Proch, at New Langton Arts, San Francisco, Kadist Art Foundation, Paris, and “Otra de Vaqueros,” Fundación Jumex, Mexico City (2005-07); Joseph Del Pesco’s “Collective Playlist,” Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; and Julio César Morales’ Estación Odesia in “Bay Area Now 5,” Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (2008).

  5. See the account in The Beatles Anthology, Episode 5 (August ’65 to July ’66), directed by Geoff Wonfor and Bob Smeaton (London: EMI Records, Ltd., with Apple Corps, Ltd., 2003).

  6. See Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus,” in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, ed., Apparatus: Cinematographic Apparatus: Selected Writings (New York: Tanam Press, 1980), 27.

  7. Ibid., 30.

  8. Giorgio Agamben, What Is an Apparatus and Other Essays (Stanford: University Press, 2009), 14.

  9. Ibid.

  10. See, for example, Robert Quine’s liner notes to The Velvet Underground, Bootleg Series, Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes: “So when they came to play a concert at Washington University on May 11, 1969 (sharing the bill with Taj Mahal), I was ready! I had just bought my first cassette recorder, a Sony with a hand-held microphone.”

  11. Retort (Iain Boal, T. J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts), Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (New York: Verso, 2005), 131.

  12. Rhetorical because, nevertheless, the band holds tight to its sovereign wand of power, the microphone, and all of its accoutrements.

  13. Gimme Shelter contains a scene of David Maysles playing back footage of the murder to Mick Jagger in the editing studio. Confronted with the recording, Jagger can muster only the disconsolate phrase, “That’s so horrible.” Gimme Shelter (Maysles Brothers, 1970; released on DVD by Criterion in 2000).

  14. Marcus’s essay debunks the myth that Hunter’s murder took place while the Stones played “Sympathy for the Devil”—it took place instead during the malevolent “Under My Thumb”—and meditates on the force of myth and narrative over fact. See Greil Marcus, “Myth and Misquotation,” in The Dustbin of History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 42-43. The text was originally presented at the commencement ceremonies of the Department of History at the University of California, Berkeley, on May 20, 1988, and was published in Threepenny Review in fall 1988.
  15. Hal Foster, response to “On Boredom,” Documents 1/2 (fall/winter 1992), 88.

  16. From the sound recording “Pantera + Ozzfest Jam & Riot—Polaris Amphitheater—Columbus, OH 17.06.1997,” by tape trader Jerry B, AKA The Govner. The universe of bootleg trading sites defies, somewhat, the verities of academic citation; but this recording can be tracked down, among other places, at Guitars 101, December 14, 2006, Accessed June 29, 2010. 

  17. Agamben, What Is an Apparatus and Other Essays, 11.

  18. On the other hand, I deplore those finicky leftists for whom no act is adequately revolutionary. Negative gestures can have symbolic value, and maybe that’s enough.

  19. I am thinking here of the early chapters of Crowds and Power (1960), Elias Canetti’s great and mysterious anthropological study of groups: “But the crowd, as such, disintegrates. It has a presentiment of this and fears it…. Only the growth of the crowd prevents those who belong to it creeping back under their private burdens.” See Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart (New York: The Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984, 19); originally published as Masse und Macht (Hamburg: Claassen, 1960).

  20. The phrase “impassioned negativity” I borrow from T. J. Clark, who used it in conversation to describe the crowd at a Gang of Four concert he attended in the early 1980s.

  21. Kim Gordon, “I’m Really Scared When I Kill in My Dreams,” Artforum, April 1983. Republished on Fodderstompf, undated,, accessed March 16, 2010.

  22. A passage from from Retort’s Afflicted Powers extends this argument further: “Modernity, particularly in its consumer society manifestation, is less and less able to offer its subjects ways of living in the present, to have the flow of time be accepted and inhabited as it happens. . . . Lately it has built an extraordinary apparatus to enable individuals to image, archive, digitalize, objectify and take ownership of the passing moment. The here and now is not endurable, it seems (or at least, not fully real), unless it is told or shown, immediately and continuously to others—or to oneself…. There is a kind of visualization, we all know in our bones (and common parlance is often scathing on the subject), that is essentially a mechanism of defense—a way of deliberately alienating the moment, of putting the non-lived, the non-significant, at a distance.” Retort, Afflicted Powers, 181-82.

  23. See Diedrich Diederichsen, On (Surplus) Value In Art (Reflections 01) (Rotterdam: Witte de With and Sternberg Press, 2008), 47–50.

  24. Jean Baudrillard, “Concerning the Fulfillment of Desire in Exchange Value,” in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (translated and with an introduction by Charles Levin) (New York: Telos Press, 1981, 211); originally published as Pour une critique de l’economie politique du signe (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).

Image: Guns N' Roses, St. Louis, 1991

About the Author

Julian Myers is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts, and is on the editorial board of The Exhibitionist.

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