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A Look Back At The Strangest Moments In Lollapalooza History

By Stephen Gossett in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 27, 2016 4:59PM

Photo credit: Jessica Mlinaric/Chicagoist

Lollapalooza kicked off 20 years ago this summer; and in that time founder and Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell’s iconic festival has transformed from traveling “alternative” culture flashpoint to reliable (if fairly predictable) emblem of the modern destination-fest model. The original Lolla ran from 1991 through 1997, spawning the era of itinerant music fests, including H.O.R.D.E., Warped Tour and others. It sputtered back to life in 2003 (only to be cancelled again the following year), and resurfaced in 2005 when Farrell partnered with C3 Presents here in Chicago.

Even early on, as Farrell touted an outsider angle, with “freak shows” and diverse programming, some critics were wary. (The International Pop Underground Convention, also in 1991, was the genuine article, they’d argue.) And over the past 10 years, Lolla has aimed for steadily broader appeal with EDM DJs, classic-rock/pop legacy acts, major indie bands and “silent majority rock”—many of whom have appeared at Lollas past and feature elsewhere on the current national festival circuit.

Still, plenty of controversy and iconic musical moments—including Kanye West's homecoming in 2006, and Daft Punk's pyramid performance in 2007—have pierced Lolla's signature familiarity. So, too, have plenty of surreal surprises. With that in mind, we look back at the bizarre, the uncanny, and the downright crazy moments that have punctuated the festival over the last 25 years.

In 1994, Lollapalooza thought about welcoming… the Ku Klux Klan?

In the very early days, Lollapalooza was a mixture of the political (activist groups Greenpeace and Refuse & Resist!) and the carnivalesque (see Incredibly Strange Wrestling and, if you have an iron stomach, Jim Rose Circus). So perhaps it makes some kind of sense that Farrell once floated a tabloid-talk-show-style interrogation of ideas, possibly even to include the nation’s most notorious white-supremacist group.

In a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone republished on the Jane's Addiction site, Farrell explained of the then-new third stage:

“While the Smashing Pumpkins, the Breeders or the Beastie Boys are playing the main stages [and mostly independent bands play the second stage], it’ll have spoken word, performance art and an Oprah Winfrey type of thing—like have the KKK up there and the audience asking questions.”

With white supremacist ideas on the rise and a former KKK Grand Wizard seeking national office, such open-dialogue absolutism sure looks wrongheaded today. Farrell’s anti-racist heart was genuine, but, whoa boy, it’s a very good thing that idea didn’t make it past the concept stage.

In 1996, short-haired Metallica wasn't "alternative" enough for Perry

Even though Lolla (temporarily) crashed and burned after 1997, 1996 was the year of its first death throe. While Farrell recently made headlines when he declared his hatred of EDM, it turns out he had deep misgivings about Lolla’s direction even 20 years ago, when a freshly trimmed, newly centrist Metallica headlined.

"I was very angry the first time they played Lollapalooza," he told Rolling Stone last year. "I helped create the genre alternative, and alternative was against hair metal, teased-out hair, spandex, bullshit rock music. Metallica, in my estimation at that time, wasn't my thing. I was into alternative and punk and underground. My friends were Henry Rollins and Gibby Haynes and Ice-T." (Farrell eventually had a change of heart and said he was “kind of harsh” and now enjoys the band, according to the interview.)

Also in 1996, the Shaolin Monks put on a bizarrely aggro mainstage show

As Tom Breihan of Stereogum pointed out last May, one of the biggest signs that things had veered wildly off course at Lolla ’96 was a mainstage appearance by… the Shaolin Monks? The orange-robed kung fu practitioners, sandwiched on the bill between punk revivalists Rancid and grunge rockers Screaming Trees, broke concrete blocks over their backs and chatted about Zen philosophy.

As John Pareles pointed out in his New York Times review, Lolla’s bizarre contextualization of the monks managed to defang, deracinate and aggro up the ancient tradition all at once:

The bill's exception [to hard rock] is the Shaolin Monks, a troupe of Buddhist martial arts masters presented as a New Age Las Vegas act. While quasi-Chinese synthesizer music played and an offstage voice announced, "The spirit controls the body," the monks performed feats of acrobatic swordplay and fortitude; one broke an iron bar over his head, flashy and violent enough to impress heavy-metal fans

In 1996, The Simpsons devoted a whole episode making fun of Lolla

In May of that same year, the era’s most astute cultural observers, The Simpsons, aired an episode called "Homerpalooza" in which Homer joins “Hullabalooza” as a freak-show performer. (His ability to absorb severe blows to the stomach is quite the attraction.) In the episode, the festival crowd is hopelessly docile, the Pumpkins take comfort in extreme wealth and Mr. Burns gouges profits with a 100 percent service charge. Real-life festival organizers apparently saw the writing on the wall, too. Within 18 months, first-wave Lolla was kaput.

In 2010, Vic Mensa almost died trying to crash the festival

One of the defining images of Lolla-in-Chicago remains the streaming hordes of fence jumpers. In 2010, before he began collaborating with Kanye, Chicago rapper Vic Mensa was nearly killed trying to jump the fence. (This year, ironically enough, he's playing the festival.) There was a big spike in gate-crashing back in 2008, when fans of Tom Morello and company raged against the perimeter enclosure, reportedly causing some injury in the process. But the phenomenon really became noticeable in 2010 and 2011, when groups pushed forth by the hundreds.

In 2012, At the Drive-In reunited at Lolla... and yelled about Chancla flip-flops

In 2012, post-hardcore heroes At the Drive-In hit the fest, performing a patently (and hilariously) in-it-for-the-money reunion, as illustrated by singer Cedric Bixler hammily DGAF stage banter. Fans salivated for the band’s legendarily high-energy live show—and got a decent facsimile— but they also got long stretches of Bixler yelling for chancla footwear and referring to the band as “Latin Danzig.” Check out the master class below.

Also in 2012, the weather was so horrific it was kind of awesome

That was also the year of incredible weather insanity. Extreme heat gave way to derecho effects, including severe winds, hail, apocalyptic-looking lightning and torrents of rain. The grounds were evacuated and a two-hour delay forced several cancellations, including Alabama Shakes, Chairlift and B.o.B. But it wasn’t all disappointment: Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) went home with a nice memento: a photo of a bro covered in mud.

"Yeah, Mud BITCHES!" Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul takes photos of muddy concert-goers reentering Grant Park for Lollapalooza. (Samantha Abernethy/Chicagoist)

In 2013, Death Grips no-showed so aggressively it was either performance art or abuse

Lineups are heavily scrutinized each year for who’s not included as much for who is. (Please come to Lolla, BeyoncĂ©). But 2013’s most memorable omission was definitely Death Grips, the noise-rap duo who was scheduled to perform in 2013 but skipped out—in appropriately aggressive fashion. Death Grips apparently had no intention of showing up at the festival or their preceding satellite show, at Bottom Lounge. They instead played a loop of their own music while a supposed fan suicide note was projected onto the stage. No-show as performance art, or asshole fan abuse? No one could decide.

Honorable mentions:

What did we miss? What are some of your favorite Lollapalooza curiosities? Let us know in the comments.