This week in rock history the Band played their first gig, Rage Against The Machine battled SNL, the world mourned Ryan White, Nirvana debuted “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Neil Young mocked sell-out rock stars.
April 17th, 1969: The Band perform their first ever concert as the Band
The Band had been playing together since the early Sixties when they were booked to play San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in April of 1969, but they were terrified before going on stage. They hadn’t toured since they backed Bob Dylan on a tumultuous world tour in 1966, and in that time they went from anonymous backing musicians to one of the most acclaimed groups of the decade. Their debut album Music From Big Pink had hit stores the previous summer to universal acclaim and they were worried they’d be unable to live up to the hype. To make matters worse, guitarist Robbie Robertson was suffering from a 103-degree temperature on the evening of the show. They went on anyway, though they just did seven songs. It was the first time they had ever performed as the Band.
Rolling Stone co-founder Ralph Gleason was at the show. “The opening night was a close to disaster as any night in San Francisco has ever been,” he wrote. “The vibes in the hall were terrible. The audience hooted and stomped and whistled when the seven songs were over, but that really was all, and they filed sullenly out into the cold dark night.” They put on a much better show the next night. There’s no video of their Winterland set, so check them out the following year on the Festival Express tour.
April 11th, 1988: Neil Young releases “This Note’s For You”
By 1988 Neil Young had gone nearly a decade without any sort of a hit. It was also a time when many superstar acts were making a small fortune by selling their music to commercials. Young channeled his frustration at the changing musical landscape into “This Note’s For You.” “Ain’t singing for Pepsi,” Young sang. “Ain’t singing for Coke. I don’t sing for nobody. Makes me look like a joke.” The video – a hysterical parody of commercial from the era – was even harsher. It shamelessly mocked Michael Jackson for setting his hair on fire during a Pepsi shoot, as well as taking shots at Whitney Houston and even Bud spokes-dog Spuds MacKenzie. MTV banned the video, which got Young a ton of press. Unsurprisingly, the network reversed the ban and later gave Young a Video Music Award for it. The next year he released “Rockin’ In The Free World” and his comeback was complete.
April 11th, 1990: Elton John sings at Ryan White’s funeral
Twenty-one years ago 18-year-old Ryan White died after a five-year battle with AIDS. In 1985 he wasn’t permitted to attend his Indiana public school after they learned of his illness, and the resulting controversy made White one of the most famous AIDS sufferers in the world. He used the platform to teach a largely ignorant public about the disease and how it spreads. He also became close to Michael Jackson and Elton John, who both attended his funeral in April of 1990. In one of his final public appearances before going to rehab, Elton John sang “Skyline Pigeon” at the service. He later credited White with his decision to turn his life around.
April 17th, 1991: Nirvana performs “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time
There’s no video of the first live performance of “Satisfaction” or “Johnny B. Goode” or most other landmark songs of the rock era, but thankfully cameras were rolling at the OK Hotel in Seattle on April 17th, 1991. That’s when Nirvana first played an in-progress version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Even during such a landmark moment in rock history some idiot still felt compelled to yell out “Freebird” a second before the song began. It sort of makes you wonder what was yelled out before Lynyrd Skynyrd played “Freebird” for the first time.
April 13th, 1996: Rage Against the Machine plays on SNL, causes ruckus
I don’t know who decided to have Rage Against The Machine perform on Saturday Night Live the week that uber-conservative Steve Forbes hosted the show, but they should have expected trouble. At the time Forbes was running for president and his flat tax proposal was drawing lots of attention. During rehearsal, Rage hung two inverted American flags on their amps to demonstrate their view that the two major political parties were both “wealthy representatives of the privileged classes.” Needless to say, SNL thought this was a bad plan and Rage promised to take them down. Seconds before the live broadcast, however, they put them back up. All hell broke loose and the SNL crew furiously ripped them down right before the band played “Bulls On Parade.” As soon as it ended the band was thrown out of the building. They weren’t allowed to wave at the end of the night, or even perform their second song.