Rock In Rio: Tales from Backstage

rock in rio

First held in January 1985 in Rio de Janeiro, Rock in Rio remains one of the largest music festivals in the world. It’s estimated that the initial festival’s audience was around 1.3 million people during its 10 days. The event showcased artists including the Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, Yes, Rod Stewart, Whitesnake, George Benson, James Taylor, Al Jarreau, Nina Hagen, The Go-Go’s, AC/DC, and The B-52’s, along with 15 Brazilian artists.

What happened on stage was obviously memorable, but backstage had its moments, as well — especially with the huge talents (and egos) who were performing. This writer got some dish from a few of the folks working the event.

At that first concert, Queen performed one of the most memorable sets; the audience sang in chorus the song “Love of My Life”, leaving Freddie Mercury surprised.

He had arrived at the venue by helicopter and had 6 dressing rooms for himself and the band. According to the dressing room coordinator, the singer demanded that the corridor leading to the dressing rooms be empty when he passed by, making the Brazilian artists furious. As he passed through the corridor, some artists shouted “faggot” in Portuguese. After finding out what it meant, Mercury broke into the dressing room, throwing the drinks and fruits on the floor. After the show, he returned to the hotel on a bus because helicopters were not allowed to fly at night.

In that first festival, the dressing rooms were improvised, the refrigerators were Styrofoam, and the requirement list of the foreign artists included many expensive beverages of varied brands. Because there was no catering at the time, the dressing room coordinator worked with six waiters to serve all the artists. Backstage food demands could be a little bit odd: no fruit was to be served “cut” and eggs could only be served hard-boiled in their shell.

The second edition of Rock in Rio took place in 1991, and this time it was held in the world’s largest soccer stadium, called Maracanã. This time the international attractions included Prince, Joe Cocker, Jimmy Cliff, INXS, Carlos Santana, Guns N’ Roses, Billy Idol, Faith No More, New Kids On The Block, Run DMC, Judas Priest, Queensryche, Megadeth, George Michael, Deee-Lite, A-Ha, Debbie Gibson, Information Society, and Lisa Stansfield.

When passing through the backstage aisles, Prince demanded that no one look at him, probably because he was wearing small rollers in his hair. Not surprisingly, he requested that his dressing room have purple lighting.  Plus, he demanded 200 towels — on short notice. The towels were frantically obtained through nearby hotels, with the understanding they would be returned after the show. Instead, he threw them into the audience after wiping off his sweat.

New Kids on the Block were at the height of their success, and the harassment from the fans started at the airport. The group had a very difficult time leaving the airport and getting on the bus that would take them to the hotel. Besides the commotion at the airport, screaming fans followed the bus in a flock of cabs.

During that ’91 festival, George Michael was often seen lounging at the pool of the nearby Copacabana Palace hotel. On one of these occasions, he met Anselmo Feleppa, and they fell in love. The Brazilian stylist died in 1993. The singer later dedicated the song “Jesus to a Child” to this man who he’d noted was the love of his life.

Despite his wild onstage persona, Axl Rose from Guns N’ Roses surprised all the staff with his kindness. The singer had asked for noodles for himself and the band, to be served after their Wednesday show. However, the band members left while the singer stayed in the dressing room. Faced with a large amount of food, he invited the waiters, cleaners, and security guards to eat with him at 3:30 in the morning.

The third edition of Rock in Rio took place in 2001, gathering 1.2 million people over 7 days. This time the event went back to its origins and the whole show structure was built in the same place that hosted the festival in 1985. The international artists this time were N’Sync, Britney Spears, Sting, James Taylor, R.E.M., Foo Fighters, Guns N’Roses, Iron Maiden, Neil Young, Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sheryl Crow, Silverchair, Aaron Carter, Neil Young, among others. In true rock and roll fashion, bassist Nick Oliveri from Queens of the Stone Age was arrested after performing naked on stage.

Since its inception, Rock in Rio has had 20 editions in Brazil and other countries such as Portugal, Spain, and the United States, with an estimated audience of 10.2 million people. The next edition of Rock in Rio will take place in early September 2022. No doubt there will be another wave of unusual rockstar demands, backstage tantrums — and epic performances on stage.

-Andre Aram





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