A poster for the concert film ‘Black & Blue’ (note producer!) which captured performances from both Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Hempstead, New York on October 17th, 1980.
“We wanted to give a lot for you, but not our blood. If you don’t want to enjoy it, then tough shit!”
—A pissed-off Ronnie James Dio’s parting words to their Black Sabbath’s Milwaukee fans before a massive riot broke out at the MECCA on October 9th, 1980.
It should have been a gig for the ages—a co-headling show between two musical juggernauts, Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult. BÖC and Sabbath had been touring pretty steadily together since July (along with a bunch of other bands like Molly Hatchet, Journey, and Cheap Trick) and by all accounts, the dream bill was something to behold. With Ronnie James Dio at the helm, Sabbath had just released Heaven and Hell to much acclaim from their fans and music critics. BÖC also had a new record to promote, their seventh, Cultösaurus Erectus. It is estimated that 1.5 million people were lucky enough to witness one of the many shows the two bands did together—though one stop on the tour at Milwaukee’s MECCA (the Milwaukee Exposition Convention Center Arena) on October 9th, 1980 didn’t go exactly as planned…
Accounts of how the gig devolved into a riot, vary. Some say Blue Öyster Cult played too long leading fans to get restless for Black Sabbath. Other reports say the hour wait between the two sets got under the audience’s skin making them edgy. Whatever it was or wasn’t, the 9,000 plus, near-capacity crowd in attendance at the MECCA was fired up when Black Sabbath took the stage a few ticks before 9:30. The band kicked off their set with “War Pigs” followed by “Neon Knights.” Then, as the lights were purposefully dimmed as Dio introduced their third song, “N.I.B.”, someone hummed a bottle at the stage which struck Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler in the head, knocking him unconscious. Here are Butler’s recollections of the fateful night:
“It’s all a big misunderstanding, really, The lights were down, first of all, so unless the fellow was some sort of incredible quarterback, I don’t know how he could have hit me on purpose. But I was knocked out, and the band was busy getting me off the stage and to a hospital. When the lights came back up, there was no band on stage. And of course, the crowd freaked out. Someone should have gone out and explained—the promoter or someone. I mean, the band was worrying about getting me to the hospital, you know? So the crowd freaked out because there was suddenly no band on stage, and things got worse from there.”
. A shot of Buck Dharma of BÖC on stage at the MECCA.
Things had yet to get completely out of hand but did shortly after Dio came out and told the rowdy crowd to suck it (Dio’s actual quote appears at the top of this post). Then, Black Sabbath’s tour manager, Andrew Truman took the still darkened stage (as noted in Billboard magazine, October 25th, 1980) as did Sabbath’s production manager, Huw Price. Both Price and Truman took turns admonishing the crowd, telling them the show would not go on saying the band wanted to play Milwaukee but “didn’t appreciate being hit by unidentified flying objects.” Price was allegedly the one who got the job to tell the crowd “just cool out,” as Sabbath wouldn’t be “coming back on stage as the bass player (Butler) is too hurt.” It was now around 11:15—nearly two hours after Sabbath’s unplanned two-song set and in response to Price’s speech, they started shouting in unison “We want Sabbath! We want Sabbath!” The lights went on, and the crowd turned its rage towards the MECCA itself.
Chairs were thrown, smashed and hurled into a growing pile in the center of the floor. Fans ripped out the handrails in the balcony, and one guy tried to light a pile of wooden chairs on fire because of course, he had his handy BIC lighter with him. Pay phones (remember them?) were ripped from the walls, and random bare-knuckle brawls broke out in the crowd who were now tossing chairs at the stage and smashing windows. Once large numbers of Milwaukee’s finest moved in, all decked out in riot gear, they started indiscriminately beating the shit out of people with their billy clubs, something they would repeat a few months later on the face of Plasmatics vocalist Wendy O. Williams. The riot continued outside the MECCA where angry fans took their aggression out on police cars, private property and even the cops themselves. 160 people ended up spending the night in jail for various crimes including a large number of drug-related arrests. The next day, Milwaukee Police Chief Harold Breier announced there would be no further rock concerts at the MECCA as well as no more beer served at the concessions stands. What a buzz-kill. Thankfully, the restrictions didn’t last and in 1981 rock and roll (and BEER!) returned to the MECCA as did AC/DC and Van Halen.
I’ve posted audio of the show below where Butler gets his block rocked by a bottle as well as some visual artifacts of the riot and its aftermath.
Fans exiting a broken down door at the MECCA (Milwaukee Exposition Convention Center Arena) during riot that followed a Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult’s show on October 9th, 1980. All photos from the show and the aftermath are via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
He seems nice.
Much more after the jump…