Opening Acts vs the Headliners: It’s On!


The “cut-up technique” is a literary device in which printed sentences and words are sliced, scissored, and then randomly placed together to form bizarre new sentences. It seems some music promoters followed this practice and came up with some very odd pairings. How else could you explain Bruce Springsteen opening for Anne Murray in New York in 1974?  Or the Ramones opening for Toto, which resulted in singer Bobby Kimball informing a Louisiana audience that their guests were a “horrible band.” Joey Ramone later acknowledged, “We were like aliens to them.”

The most infamous pairing occurred when Jimi Hendrix opened for the Monkees. It lasted for just seven shows because as Micky Dolenz noted in his book, I’m a Believer: “Jimi would amble out onto the stage, fire up the amps and break into ‘Purple Haze’ and the kids in the audience would instantly drown him out with, ‘We want Daaaaaaavy (Jones)!’”

While Micky was one of Hendrix’s biggest fans, Keith Richards was no fan of his band’s opening act: Prince.  Prince ruffled feathers when he stated that the Stones’ audience at the LA Coliseum in 1981 were “tasteless in music and mentally retarded.”  Keith retorted, “That’s the trouble with conferring a title on yourself before you’ve proved it. His attitude when he opened for us was insulting to our audience. You don’t try to knock off the headliner like that when you’re playing a Stones crowd. He’s a prince who thinks he’s a king already. Good luck to him.”

In 1991, ZZ Top’s manager, Bill Hamm, had to fire their opening act, the Black Crowes. Frontman Chris Robinson dissed tour sponsor Miller Brewing, announcing to audiences that the Crowes’ music is “live rock ‘n’ roll being brought to you commercial free.” He later recalled: “I’d point out to people that this is real, in the flesh. It’s rock ‘n’ roll. They’re not watching TV and there aren’t going to be any commercials.”

Crowes’ guitarist Rich Robinson added, “Miller said, ‘You don’t say that and if you do, we’ll throw you off the tour.’ We said, ‘We don’t have a contract with you. We thought we were going on tour with ZZ. If you wanna throw us off, throw us off.’ And they did.  Miller told ZZ, ‘Get rid of them, we don’t want this press.’ The band had no idea themselves; it was the manager who did it. Ham sees Miller giving them millions of dollars and then sees those millions being pulled away if he doesn’t do something. So, we were thrown off the second week of a tour supposed to last for three months.”

But sometimes, it takes a stroke of luck to even be considered an opening act, as Nancy and Ann Wilson of Heart attested. In a recent appearance on The Howard Stern Show, the Wilsons remembered how Rod Stewart gave their group extra attention when Rod’s opening act fell ill.

Nancy said, “So we just happened to be fired from a gig out in Alberta in a club called ‘Lucifer’s’ because Ann piped up on stage about how the dinner food tasted like Lysol.” Ann continued: “I said, ‘Gee, I hope you enjoy your Lysol dinner.’ The next day we got an offer to open up for Rod in Montreal. When we got there, it was the biggest stage we’d ever been on. We opened with ‘Magic Man’ and the audience put their lighters in the air. It was a stellar moment. All the hard work was starting to pay off.”

Then there are those opening acts who don’t know their place—and become more popular than the headliner. This was the case in 1987 when Guns and Roses opened for Aerosmith.  Bassist Duff McKagan noted, “We were already on tour with Aerosmith. Those seven people who showed up early turned into 30, the next night it was 300, and the next night it was 800, and by the end of a couple of weeks, all 17,000 people who were there to see Aerosmith were showing up for us. The album started moving up the charts, the single went to number one, and then, the album went to number one.”  To add insult to injured egos, Aerosmith was scheduled to be on the cover of Rolling Stone only for G&R to take their place.

But while some bills seem like a match made in heaven — like Queen opening for Mott the Hoople — other bills are a match made by managers.  Such was the case when Herb Cohen placed two employees on the same bill. “Tom Waits and Frank Zappa–Live!!” may have looked great on a theater marquee but it was pure hell for Tom.  At the Golden Hall in San Diego on August 10, 1974, writer Jay Allen Sanford reported: “Waits performed ‘San Diego Serenade’ along with a few other songs. Boos were heard and one audience member yelled, ‘Somebody shoot that f_ _ker@!’”

The next night, Waits joined Zappa onstage and tried to make peace with his unfriendly audience by telling them one of his favorite jokes:

“June Carter went and left Johnny Cash sitting in his Winnebago playing solitaire. Ran off to Memphis and married [country singer] Hank Snow, of all people. She went and hooked up matrimonially and folks around those parts are saying that’s the first time they’ve ever seen six inches of snow in June.”

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Prince (Getty Images)

7 comments on “Opening Acts vs the Headliners: It’s On!

  1. Dean Kastran

    Our band (The Ohio Express) opened for The Who on a few occasions in 1968. Even in our own eyes at that time it seemed like an odd matchup, but we loved it and will never forget it.

    • Wow! That must’ve been awesome. BTW, I was obsessed with “Yummy Yummy Yummy.” To the point where my older sisters made mom make me stop singing it (loudly) around the house!

  2. Gregg P

    For years, I joked with a promoter I was working with that we should have a show with Leon Redbone opening for Tom Waits, an all-mumbling show. Eventually, I saw in Billboard that they were teamed up together in concert (New York, I think).

  3. Nice piece, Mark. Really Informative.

    Following your lead…

    Saw opener Micheal Murphy blow the doors right straight off a freshly Dan Peek-less America in Houston.

    Witnessed a then practically unknown Cheap Trick get booed off the stage by an impatiently hostile Kinks cult crowd in the same town. Scarcely three years later the group’s “At Budokan” live album christened the birth of rock legends.

    Go figure.

  4. David Sloan

    Fun article! My favorite awkward pairing show was Def Leppard opening for Billy Squier in 1981. Leppard hadn’t quite hit big yet with record sales, but they left the crowd in a frenzy, chanting for more, and when poor Billy Squier hit the stage, the crowd booed, and one guy near the front actually threw his crutch on the stage! End of one era and the beginning of a new one in 2 hours.

  5. Marshall Tucker Band opening for Mahavishnu Orchestra in central Florida. John MacLaughlin asked for quiet when his band came out and was drowned out by “let’s boogie,” among other hoots. John turned his back and acted like he was leaving and starting playing the guitar intro of “Meeting of the Spirits.” Within seconds the crowd got quiet.

  6. Keenan McClenahan

    The first time I saw Roxy Music, the opening act was Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Go figure.

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