As COVID-19 pushes concert cancellations and postponements further into the future, things can seem pretty bleak. All of the planning and money you put into making this the best summer ever hangs in the balance while you wait it out at home.
It’s worth noting, however, that concert cancellations are nothing new. In fact, when you look back through the history of popular music, there are plenty of culturally significant shows, tours, and festivals that never…actually…happened—whether the reason behind it was poor preparation, death, or a mysterious CIA plot. Join us as we look back at some of the most famous concerts that never happened.
Ah, Fyre Festival. The festival that crashed and burned so hard it inspired not one, but two documentaries about its failure. There isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been said, but here’s a quick rundown.
The entire Fyre saga starts and ends with huckster extraordinaire Billy McFarland. Here’s a millennial “whiz kid” who built a supposed fortune on essentially selling lifestyles to millennials. It began with Magnesis, a credit card aimed at millennials that offered exclusive perks. Now, these benefits didn’t come in the form of cashback or travel miles. Instead, Magnesis offered access to a swanky New York loft where the elites rub shoulders. In reality, it was just some Manhattan studio apartment where any sucker willing to pay a ridiculous APR could hang out and drink “free” Red Bull.
Fast-forward to 2017, and now McFarland and business associate/quasi-relevant rapper Ja Rule have started a new venture: the FYRE app. It essentially worked like Uber for celebrities, where a user opens the app, chooses one of the celebrities signed up, and hires them for a private event. The whole concept once again circles around to the central theme of social status. This was a tool that would allow any 20-something-year-old with a trust fund or making six figures straight out of business school to hire Kendall Jenner for their next sushi and blow loft party, or whatever it is rich kids with too much money do.
As a method of promoting the Fyre app, McFarland, Mr. Rule, and company decided to throw Fyre Festival. This actually was the perfect advertisement for the Fyre app, because it showed how somebody with no actual knowledge of music, management, or event planning (McFarland) could run up a giant tab he couldn’t afford in order to tempt celebrities to risk character assassination by attending his event. So, Fyre Fest started a prodigious advertising campaign without first bringing in any sort of event management company or anyone who remotely knew how to run a large scale event—but don’t worry: they hired Fuck Jerry. With the help of an admittedly effective Instagram campaign and a slick promo video, the event quickly sold out.
[Video: Fyre Festival]
Finally, way too late in the game, the team actually started to work on the site. From the very start, the festival had a running clock of around four months to put together the entire operation. As the clock began to run perilously low, McFarland brought in one production team after another and gave them his ludicrously unfeasible demands. Despite attempts from festival staffers to call the event off, McFarland was determined to make it work. In short, he failed.
Attendees arrived to a “private island” totally ill-equipped to handle thousands of partiers. Accommodations were not finished, the “gourmet meals” promised were comically bad, and unsheltered mattresses were piled on the side of the road quickly. As people attempted to flee the island, they were met with the news that not enough planes were running, leaving countless people stranded on the island for days.
McFarland had wanted an exclusive, elegant music festival with top-notch acts held on a private island full of beautiful celebrities and famous people, but just as all of the Fyre attendees were surprised with what they got, McFarland was met with some surprises of his own once the dust settled. For one, McFarland and Fyre organizers got slapped with a $100 million class action suit by the attendees. Then came criminal charges, which would have had McFarland face up to 115 years in prison if he wasn’t rich and white. In the end, he pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud and also admitted that he presented fraudulent documents in order to lure investors. The six-year prison sentence and $26 million fine McFarland received was probably as big of a surprise as those infamous cheese sandwiches he tried to feed his guests.
As the 50th anniversary of an iconic festival almost didn’t happen in the first place, Woodstock 50 is one of the most notable cancellations in recent memory. Originally, there were supposed to be two simultaneous Woodstock commemorative celebrations planned for August 16th–18th, 2019. One was planned by Live Nation at the original Bethel Woods, NY location, and the other by original Woodstock organizer Michael Lang, which he promoted as “the real Woodstock 50 festival” and would take place at, well, he didn’t say yet. Thus began the saga.
In early January of 2019, Lang spoke to Rolling Stone and provided some sparse details including that the event would be held at Watkins Glen International in New York. In his comments, he said he expected around 100,000 people to attend, but it is difficult to ascertain from where he got those, as tickets were not available and no lineup had been announced. The following month, Live Nation announced that its festival in Bethel would actually be a series of concerts held throughout the town, and not an actual festival, per se. Lang jumped on this opportunity to double down as the “real Woodstock 50,” but his problems had only just begun.
As March rolled around, troubles began to mount. Billboard reported claims of non-payment from several artists on the yet-to-be-announced lineup. Lang attempted to quash murmurings of financial troubles by announcing the lineup on March 19th at a press event at New York City’s Electric Lady Studios. With a loaded lineup featuring The Killers, Miley Cyrus, Santana, The Lumineers, The Raconteurs, Robert Plant, Nathaniel Rateliff, Run The Jewels, Maggie Rogers, Dead & Company, Chance The Rapper, The Black Keys, Sturgill Simpson, Greta Van Fleet, and many more, everything appeared normal—for now.
[Photo: Andrew O’Brien – Woodstock 50 Lineup Announcement Event]
Before long, however, artists began to drop out, beginning with The Black Keys. Matters only got worse as the festival’s main financier, Dentsu Aegis Network, announced that they had canceled the festival. This is when it really hit the fan as legal battles, venue changes, and artist cancellations stacked up by the day while Lang continued to maintain that Woodstock 50 would indeed happen. After being kicked out of Watkins Glen, the festival moved to Vernon Downs in Vernon, NY. After getting kicked out of there, Woodstock 50 announced just weeks before the festival was scheduled to begin that it would instead be held at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD and would be dubbed Woodstock 50 Washington. Then, when the abysmal lineup of the bands that hadn’t dropped out was released, it was announced that Woodstock 50 would be a free festival (this time before hippies crashed the fences). Finally, on July 31st, Lang called it quits and officially canceled the festival (again).
Meanwhile, the Live Nation Woodstock 50th celebration in Bethel Woods went off (comparatively) without incident. With performances from Santana, John Fogerty, Edgar Winter Group, Tedeschi Trucks Band, The Doobie Brothers, and more, the Woodstock 50 in Bethel Woods turned out to be the “real Woodstock 50.”
Another infamous festival that never happened—and may be difficult for some to talk about—is Curveball. Curveball was set to be Phish‘s 11th multi-day music festival and take place on August 17th–19th, 2018 at Watkins Glen International in New York. Phish had hosted two previous festivals at the site (Superball IX in 2011 and Magnaball in 2015) which had gone off without a hitch. Turns out, it was three strikes and you’re out.
On August 16th, as fans were beginning to arrive and many vendors had already set up shop for what was going to be a lucrative weekend, Phish headed over to the main stage to soundcheck. Just as they were set to begin the unofficial first performance of the weekend, they were handed some bad news from the New York State Department of Health.
In the week leading up to the festival, Schuyler County (where Watkins Glen is located) received torrential downpours of rain. This, in turn, contaminated the water supply at the local treatment plant and made the local water supply not fit for human consumption. The band was forced to cancel the festival as many were just beginning, or finishing, their trek to the site. This wasn’t like the orders at Coventry to turn around and go home due to the unprecedented amount of mud and 30-mile traffic backup. This was just a simple fact: there would be no Phish this weekend.
Many took the announcement on the chin and headed home. Others figured they are already there at Watkins, with a campsite set up, with some good friends and a cooler full of beer, so why not make the most of it. Our own Andrew O’Brien came through the front gates to a sympathetic police officer stating, “Festival’s canceled, but you can party as hard as you want until noon tomorrow.” Regardless of your coping strategy, the next morning still brought the cold light of day that there would be no festival.
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While Phish did not play that weekend, New York venues like Brooklyn Bowl, The Capitol Theatre, Garcia’s, and more stepped up to the plate and offered free admission to concerts for those who had bought Curveball tickets. Fans threw together Knuckleball festival on the fly in nearby Naples, NY. Some of those who had been set to work the festival—like drummer Jon Fishman and a team of professional mimes hired for the would-be festival’s “Mime Field”—stuck around the grounds for some consolation drinking.
Phish, of course, had their own responsibilities in settling up with fans; they offered refunds, free streams, and set up a Curveball merch store to benefit Watkins Glen, which also missed out on a huge financial opportunity.
Even over a year-and-a-half later, the ghosts of Curveball still loom large in the Phish community. Many fans still hang their festival parking passes and other memorabilia with pride, a reminder of one of the best weekends that never was. You can read our full, on-the-ground coverage of the Curveball cancellation and what we missed out on here.
Led Zeppelin The 1980s: Part One
This one is a bit more of a step back in history but has stood the test of time as one of the most famous tours that never actually happened. In 1980, stadium-rock giants Led Zeppelin were set to embark on a tour of North America. The band, which had been off the road for several years, had already played some “comeback” shows in Europe and announced The 1980s: Part One tour of North America on September 11th, 1980. Unfortunately, due to tragic, circumstances that tour would never occur.
By the time 1980 rolled around, Led Zeppelin was in rough shape. The band had almost ended years before in 1977 when singer Robert Plant suffered the loss of his son Karac to a stomach illness. Plant had considered retiring from recording altogether and was only brought back to the studio (and eventually the stage) through his friendship with drummer John Bonham.
“I lost my boy,” he said to Rolling Stone. “I didn’t want to be in Led Zeppelin. I wanted to be with my family.”
After nudging from guitarist Jimmy Page, the group returned to the studio to record 1979’s In Through The Out Door. After those revitalizing sessions, the band performed a trial run at Knebworth later that year that was enough of a success that they decided to take Zepp back on the road. Plant had stipulations about going back on tour, however, which included longer breaks between shows, playing at smaller venues, and being able to return home to England every month. Peter Grant, ever the pragmatic and ruthless manager he was, agreed to Plant’s demands and announced a 19-date, 11-city tour of the United States and Canada on September 11th. The tour would begin on October 17th, 1980 at the Montreal Forum in Quebec and end with a four-night run at Chicago Stadium, closing out on November 15th.
Led Zeppelin wouldn’t play a single one of those shows, however, as Bonham died on September 24th, 1980 following preliminary rehearsal sessions for the tour. After a drinking binge that started the previous morning, Bonham was found unresponsive on the morning of the 25th and was pronounced dead on the scene. He was 32.
In a bitterly ironic twist, on the morning of September 25th, 1980, as the band was reporting the news of Bonham’s death, fans all around Chicago were trying to obtain early copies of the Chicago Tribune for mail order applications to get tickets for a tour that would never happen. The tour was canceled, and on December 4th, 1980, the band’s surviving members released a statement simply saying, “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.” With that, Led Zeppelin was finished.
The Beatles Almost Reunite On SNL
As the 1960s became the 1970s, society experienced a lot of changes. From the ever-escalating conflict in Vietnam to the swearing-in of Richard Nixon on January 20th, 1969. Things were shifting culturally, too, as Woodstock introduced a whole new ideological wave to mainstream America. The pop-psych leanings of the late 1960s had given way to an entirely new sound and style of music that ushered in the 1970s.
One of the landmark changes in the musical landscape, however, was the breakup of The Beatles in 1970. As the musical tastemakers for the entire world, the exodus of the world-famous band left a massive void in the music world. Just a few years later, however, a whole new cultural institution would emerge: Saturday Night Live.
On October 11th, 1975, American audiences were introduced to SNL and the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players.” The show was a bold new experiment in American television. Sure, there were “live” variety shows before, like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and other comically dated programs with canned laughter. Saturday Night Live, on the other hand, was a show that took audiences seriously and boldly went where other programs wouldn’t dare to tread.
Equally as important as the show’s comedy, however, was its music. In the show’s first season, Saturday Night Live scored such names as Paul Simon, Kris Kristofferson, Bill Withers, Carly Simon, Patti Smith, and more. This was only the beginning.
On April 24th, 1976, Saturday Night Live‘s creator, Lorne Michaels, made a rare on-screen appearance during sketch. In a massive breach of the fourth wall, Michaels sat behind his desk and spoke directly into the camera. “Right now, we’re being seen by approximately 22 million viewers,” he began. “But please allow me, if I may, to address myself to four very special people: John, Paul, George, and Ringo.”
Michaels proceeded to profess his loyal admiration for The Beatles, calling them “the best thing to ever happen to music.” He went on to address then still-rampant rumors of a Beatles reunion. While he acknowledged that the band’s internal squabbles were none of his business, he also brought up the rumor that nobody had offered enough money to book the band. Michaels, authorized by NBC, then directly offered The Beatles a whopping $3,000 to reunite and play three songs on SNL.
“All you have to do is sing three Beatles songs.” he continued. “’She Loves You,’ yeah, yeah, yeah – that’s $1,000 right there. You know the words. It’ll be easy. Like I said, this is made out to The Beatles. You divide it any way you want. If you want to give Ringo less, that’s up to you. I’d rather not get involved.”
What Michaels didn’t know was that Lennon and McCartney were watching the show, together, at Lennon’s New York residence at The Dakota. The Dakota and Rockefeller Plaza, where SNL is filmed to this day, are just over 20 blocks from each other and, according to both the former Beatles, the two considered showing up and claiming the check. While they wouldn’t have had Harrison and Starr in tow, this would have still marked the closest thing to a Beatles reunion that anyone would have seen.
“Paul … was visiting us at our place in the Dakota,” Lennon recalled in 1980. “We were watching it and almost went down to the studio, just as a gag. We nearly got into a cab, but we were actually too tired. … He and I were just sitting there watching the show, and we went, ‘Ha ha, wouldn’t it be funny if we went down?’ But we didn’t.”
“John said, ‘We should go down, just you and me. There’s only two of us so we’ll take half the money,'” McCartney confirmed. “And for a second. … But it would have been work, and we were having a night off, so we elected not to go. It was a nice idea – we nearly did it.”
Undeterred by this near-miss with music history, Michaels returned to the screen a month later to up the network’s offer to an unheard-of $3,250 for a reunion of the most famous band in the world. While this was ultimately unsuccessful, it did result in a humorous sketch when Harrison visited the show as a musical guest and attempted to claim the money from Michaels. This, too, proved unsuccessful.
All hopes of a Beatles reunion were dashed on December 8th, 1980 when Lennon was murdered by Mark David Chapman while leaving his apartment at The Dakota. While it never came to be, we can still look back at this silly TV moment and ponder what the world would have been like if Lennon and McCartney had reunited. Would it have spurred a Beatles reunion? Would they have even played if they showed up to 30 Rockefeller Center? We will never know.
Check out Lorne Michael’s plea to The Beatles and a clip of McCartney discussing the near-miss with history on Charlie Rose below:
Saturday Night Live — Lorne Michaels to The Beatles
[Video: Jeffrey Simms]
Charlie Rose — Paul McCartney On SNL Reunion
[Video: Beatle Stories]
Grateful Dead – May 8th, 1977 – Barton Hall (Cornell) – Ithaca, NY
[Editor’s Note: This entry is speculative, based on long-running claims by various Dead fans and theorists.]
May 8th, 1977 at Cornell University’s Barton Hall in Ithaca, NY is widely heralded as one of the greatest Grateful Dead concerts of all time. The band was back in the swing of things following the 1975 hiatus and was road-testing the classic material that would form Terrapin Station. The Dead had also come into their own in terms of size, moving to elegant theaters and large collegiate gymnasiums and away from the decrepit venues into which they had been cramming fans.
What makes 5/8/77 different from any other show in May 1977, however, is the actual playing. The first set featured lightning from the band straight out of the gate, with inspired versions of “Jack Straw” and “Brown Eyed Women”. The second set showcased first-rate exploration with a nearly 30-minute sequence of “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire On The Mountain”. Then, to cap things off and make it a real contender for the best show ever, there was the fierce yet delicate “Morning Dew” to close out the second set… but what if I told you the whole thing never happened?
That’s right, the supposed “greatest Grateful Dead concert ever” is nothing more than a mirage. Smoke and mirrors the likes of which Henry Doheny couldn’t even emulate. Buckle up, because it’s a long strange trip involving Vietnam, the CIA, mind control, and more.
The whole saga began back in the tail end of the ’60s and early ’70s, when the United States was losing the war in Vietnam both at home and abroad. In an act of desperation, the CIA took a page out of the KGB playbook and started experimenting with mind control. Rather than taking the MK-Ultra route again and trying to incapacitate people with high doses of LSD, the government instead went the route of suggestive thinking. Now, this wasn’t meant to be used on the “square” population—a good number of whom still supported the war in Vietnam—but rather, the most ardent detractors: hippies. Luckily, the government didn’t need to cook up another batch of MK-Ultra LSD because most of these people were already getting it from Owsley or Nick Sand.
The government had, unsuccessfully, tried to perform a mind control experiment on hippies two years prior in 1975. Unfortunately, the squares working at the CIA were unaware that the Dead had taken a touring hiatus in ’75 and also didn’t know that Pigpen had been dead for two years. When that first test group saw the 1969-era Grateful Dead perform in 1975, it sent more hippies into a state of psychosis than staring at yourself in the mirror on a handful of caps. Two years later, in 1977, the CIA was ready to try it again—and this time, they got their facts straight.
Throughout 1976 and 1977, college psychology students were enlisted to go out and tape Grateful Dead performances. By the time November 1977 rolled around, they had amassed enough standout performances to string together a legendary, cohesive show. Next came set and setting, as the CIA researched the Spring 1977 tour and chose an off touring day in a location close enough to actual shows that it was believable. Finally, they settled on May 8th, 1977 for the unseasonable snowfall in Ithaca that would a) provide veracity to the subject’s claims and b) cement the day in their minds forever.
Audience tapes were distributed to people in the crowd, who then spread them throughout the general public, dispelling any potential disbelief. Soon after, a larger experiment was done on the town of Ithaca itself, so as to have confirmation from the secular, “straight” community. Undercover CIA double agent Jerome Garcia even recorded the iconic “Scarlet Begonias” > “Fire On The Mountain” with the band specifically for this experiment. Never trust a prankster…
Finally, soundboards leaked from Betty O’Connell and, eventually, Betty Cantor Jackson, thus cementing the myth in the Deadhead canon. Outlets like DeadNet, archivist David Lemieux, David Gans, and many more served to further the myth and keep up the government’s charade to boost morale for an unsuccessful and unpopular war. There’s just one thing they didn’t count on: ol’ pappy Bob Weir pulling back the curtain over 30 years later.
In this installment of the short-lived Weir Here roundtable discussion series, Bob spilled the beans on the great Barton Hall hoax while talking to Steve Parish and Lemieux. When he asked Lemieux if Cornell was on the new Spring ’77 box set, both Lemieux and Parish respond with an alarmed, “what Cornell show?!”
Weir then exposed the whole cover-up,
It’s been a long time, I think it’s finally unclassified. The deal is that that legendary Cornell show never happened. A lot of folks think they were there. All these folks, if you think you were there, ask yourself: were you in a 7/11 or a Burger King and somebody from the company came up to you and said, ‘you look like just the guy who would dig this hat.’ It was this sort of elegant tin foil hat, and people would put it on… It was a very successful experiment. People still to this day think that that concert actually happened.
Watch the whole exchange, which begins at 7:40:
Weir Here — ‘Tellin’ Tales of Spring ’77’
[Video: Grateful Dead]