Lollapalooza 1991: The Underground As a Community

Originally conceived by founder Perry Farrell as a farewell tour for his band Jane’s Addiction, Lollapalooza was based on the concept of a traveling caravan for like-minded artists all somewhat out on the fringe. But what started out as a bit of a lark was so unique that it became an overnight sensation, something that brought together misfits to celebrate their fandom and, in the process, build a sense of community. By tapping into the zeitgeist, Lollapalooza achieved for Gen X’ers what Woodstock did for the boomers, becoming synonymous with the “alternative” branding that both marketers and self-aware hipsters coveted.

On its twentieth birthday, Lollapalooza is being showered with glowing testimonials from participating artists and past alums, having become one of the crown jewels of the summer events calendar after ups-and-downs that would see it disappear entirely for five years before reinventing itself for a new generation of music fans. Even during a deep recession and with lingering uncertainty in the music industry, the festival has enjoyed unprecedented box office success, selling out 270,000 tickets over its three days and maintaining a stable long-term relationship with its home for the last seven years, the city of Chicago. Its commercial impact is substantial, as measured by the stable of sponsorships and a lineup of over 130 artists sprawled over one of the city’s premier locations, 115 acres in Grant Park along Chicago’s lakefront.

Its cultural legacy, though, is somewhat more debatable. While the eccentric tour has come a long way over the years as a testament to the vision and persistence of its founder, Perry Farrell, its evolution has been far from linear. The reimagined festival’s dominance of the music landscape, along with two other major annual events, Coachella and Bonaroo, speaks to Farrell’s foresight in partnering with major industry players such as C3 Presents and the William Morris Agency. Yet while Lollapalooza is reveling in plaudits, the idea of such a celebration is itself a bit misleading, given the absence of continuity and the contrast between its original incarnation featuring a handful of alternative artists just breaking into the mainstream and its current form, with a staggering roster that includes what seems like nearly every relevant artist, from chart-topping acts to long-running cult favorites to indie up-and-comers. In 2011, we celebrate Lollapalooza, past and present, in the way one might treat the return of the prodigal son come home, conveniently overlooking the days when the boy was a truant. In the first of a two-part series, we will look at Lollapalooza’s origins as a touring festival.

1991: The Year Things Broke

The music industry was in a much different position at Lollapalooza’s inception: Before YouTube, social media, or even the Internet, commercial rock radio represented the way much of the mainstream was exposed to new music. And opportunities for artists outside the mainstream were rather dismal. In the ’80s and early ’90s, radio was stuck in fairly static and predictable programming patterns where there was very little mixing and matching of genres. A Neneh Cherry or KRS-One, for instance, could suddenly get airplay on “modern rock” stations, so long as they were dueting with college radio poster child Michael Stipe.

It was against this backdrop that Perry Farrell wanted to throw a going away party. Rock history is laden with final goodbyes. With so many instances of bands careening to an abrupt halt, an untimely death, or — equally dramatically — an implosion in band chemistry, one could not begrudge Jane’s Addiction the opportunity to do something for posterity, like the Band’s Last Waltz, or take a victory lap, like the Who’s Last Tour in 1982 (which was so successful, they tried it again and again). On the other end of the spectrum, the Replacements said their goodbyes by handing their instruments to their roadies in the midst of “Hootenanny” at a July 4th concert in Chicago.

Perry Farrell, along with the other members of Jane’s Addiction, came up with the concept of a traveling caravan that became Lollapalooza. Initial tour planning had a by-the-seat-of-your-pants lunacy that comes with most great ideas. The bandmates literally sat around and selected who they wanted to have join them on the final tour. As legend has it, Farrell handpicked Ice-T, while bassist Eric Avery chose the Butthole Surfers, guitarist Dave Navarro Siouxsie and the Banshees, and drummer Stephen Perkins the Rollins Band. In addition, tour promoter Marc Geiger offered up his choices of Nine Inch Nails and the Pixies, though the latter declined its slot.

The show, despite its grand ambition, was constrained by the relics of the stadium-rock era that remained from rock’s Paleolithic Age. The first tour was held in outdoor concert venues such as the World Music Theatre in Tinley Park, IL and Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, CA. The first Lollapalooza tour had a carnival feel to it, with a range of captivating sideshow exhibits and progressive causes filling in the gaps between sets, mindful that the ghost of a REO Speedwagon guitar solo might cascade from the rafters. The tour blended headliners that had entered the mainstream (Jane’s Addiction, Living Colour), a motley collection of cutting edge bands gaining traction beyond niche followings (Nine Inch Nails, Fishbone, Butthole Surfers), and a few veterans of the yet-to-be-uncovered genre of classic modern rock (Siouxsie and the Banshees, Violent Femmes). Some of the most memorable moments from that summer were provocative sets by two independent-minded, eclectic artists of the day, rapper Ice-T, in his guise as frontman of metal band Body Count, and Henry Rollins, fresh off successful forays into publishing and spoken word, and who was soon to emerge into a multimedia figure, fronting his own solo band. The combination was an instant success. As Henry Rollins notes:

“I always knew the bands were good, but I never thought the bands would get over the wall, due to the restrictive nature of radio. I was glad to be proven wrong. I knew that I lived in a different world than the mainstream. All the people I knew liked alternative music, all the bands I knew played that kind of music, it seemed to be the entire world. It wasn’t, though, it was a very small slice. Perhaps mainstream music got so bad, young people started making better choices. It was a great time to be in a band.”

Farrell was a visionary, identifying something that marketers, demographers, and radio programmers had not yet recognized before the Internet spawned Tori Amos meet-up groups and social media created virtual communities: that small groups of self-described outcasts in schools or a small town, when brought together, represented communities of interest. The initial Lollapalooza tours were as much about enlightenment and self-discovery for the fans as anything else, recognizing that there were others out there who shared the same passion and interests. Signs of this had popped up before Lollapalooza, like when 60,000 Depeche Mode fans stunned promoters by selling out the band’s 101st date for its 1988 “Music for the Masses” tour at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

After Lollapalooza, the phenomenon of subcultural gatherings became the rage, proven, for instance, by the droves that have built and sustained the Vans Warped Tour since 1995, which first demonstrated the potential marketing force of waves of skate kids and paved the way for the extreme sports culture culminating in the X Games. Some ideas like the H.O.R.D.E. and Lilith Fair may have had less of an enduring impact, but they also demonstrated signs of the broader commercial possibilities associated with getting a community of fans to rally around the concept of a broader tribal consciousness.

Lollapalooza: Helping Break Down Barriers

Farrell encouraged cross-pollination and collaboration, and the fans loved it. Initially, Lollapalooza had the feel of a “best kept secret”. One of the key features that kept Lollapalooza fresh were diverse lineups that transcended the narrow formats presented to fans by mainstream radio. One of Perry’s initial goals was to encourage bands from different genres, and their fans, to mix it up. Looking back with hindsight, though, the bands on the original Lollapalooza all shared a certain underground aesthetic. According to Rollins, “There wasn’t all that much genre differentiation on that line up. It was all kind of indie/punk rock. When the Jane’s guys mix with the Body Count guys, it’s not all that much of a stretch for a singer going from his guitar driven band to another for a song. Many of the bands played with others on that tour. We did a lot of it. We had the entire lineup of the Butthole Surfers onstage with us at one point.”

Lollapalooza, to its credit, helped break these barriers by sending a powerful message to programmers, marketers, and the music industry something that musicians and fans knew all along, that music fans had much more diverse music tastes than the industry gave them credit for. Before there was an iPod Shuffle, music fans wore their diverse musical tastes proudly.

Henry Rollins recalls: “It was not as together as later versions of the tour, but it ran very well. I was surprised to see how many people showed up to the thing, it was pretty incredible, some of the ticket counts. I think that made it clear to anyone in doubt that there was a genuine interest in this music. We were always on first, but we did end up playing with other bands now and then, I sang with Ice-T a lot, and Vernon [Reid of Living Colour] jammed with us at one point.”

After the success of the original tour, Perry Farrell realized he had been part of creating something special. Whether returning with his new band Porno for Pyros, as a solo artist, or as a benevolent guiding hand, Farrell kept pushing the idea forward. The rise and increasing visibility of Lollapalooza paralleled the arrival of underground music into the mainstream. Lollapalooza’s first few years could have been a time capsule of breakthrough artists, such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, along with underground favorites like Dinosaur Jr. and Primus. After the shock of Kurt Cobain’s death — which occurred the day after Nirvana pulled out of the 1994 Lollapalooza — Smashing Pumpkins, at the height of their powers, filled in ably. The creative peak may have been the 1995 tour, which featured headliners Sonic Youth, joined by Hole, Beck, Pavement, and Elastica (though it also happened to be one of Lollapalooza’s weaker tours in terms of the box office). That’s not to mention how Lollapalooza ushered in the emergence of industrial, dance/electro, alt-country, and gangsta rap to larger crowds, which showed the seemingly limitless possibilities for underground music.

Lollapalooza didn’t seek to necessarily jump start or redefine the music industry. But it did offer an outlet, as well as a point of validation, for artists and their fans, who still felt like outsiders. Its timing couldn’t have been better, coinciding with a tipping point that was happening in 1991, when the underground went mainstream, with the enormous crossover success of the Seattle grunge sound and percolating indie scenes in Boston, D.C., and Chicago.

For many in the underground, Lolla reflected the emergence of something big. Dave Lilingdgren, who covered the scene for the Seattle publication The Strangerand currently runs the East Portland Blog, notes, “the early years of Lollapalooza were a bacchanalian coming out party for Seattle music and the zeitgeist. Isolated by geography and a lack of relevance to the L.A.-New York pop culture axis, Rain City found solidarity with a burgeoning movement.” The unique Seattle contributions of grunge music and fashion revealed, according to Lilingdgren, “slackerdom as malodorous lifestyle, espresso pulling as art, craft and science, microbrews as religion, and performance art (including the likes of the Jim Rose Circus) as inarguable political statement.”

As the underground went mainstream, it didn’t take long for programmers to understand the marketing value of catering to the emerging demographic. When the alternative concept was co-opted by mainstream pop culture, much of the energy from 1991 began to fizzle out. Gen-X depictions in film may have jumped the shark, from Cameron Crowe’s Singles, which benefited the most from its depiction of Seattle bands in their heyday, to Reality Bites, with its Gap girl stereotypes and desperate attempts at hipster slang. Alternative became a marketing demographic and a programming format, begging the question, “How can alternative be used to describe a mainstream genre?” If something is alternative, to what is it an alternative? Bands ranging from Silverchair, Bush, and Stone Temple Pilots took the grunge sound to new levels of commercial popularity. Against this backdrop, Lollapalooza grew in popularity and became a commercial force in itself.

Yet in bearing witness to the mainstream success of the underground, Lollapalooza may have effectively outlived its initial purpose. Many veterans of the DIY scene, despite being fans of the “it” bands that littered Lolla’s roster, chose to opt out. As Tim Midgett of Silkworm notes, “I went to some of the first one on free tickets and boredom, and I went a few years later to see some friends play. Outdoor shows curated by Perry Farrell aren’t too likely to hold my interest. Maybe Lollapalooza has some cultural importance in the mainstream, but among the people I know in bands, it was notable almost solely as a cash cow.”

As Lollapalooza became a fixture on the touring calendar, it lost much of what made it so unique in the first place. After a seven-year run, Lollapalooza ceased operations after the 1997 tour. Its disappearance didn’t really seem to generate shock waves initially, more like the case of something that was once vital that had naturally run its course. Its core audience got older, assumed new responsibilities, and moved on to other things, while a newer generation sought to identify its own idea of the cutting edge.

And yet, the initial independent spirit, launched in 1991, never really went away. A sign of the festival’s enduring legacy and the potential for rebirth remained. For industry veteran Joe Shanahan, the highly respected promoter and co-owner of Chicago mainstay venues Metro and Double Door, the reason for Lollapalooza’s staying power seems fairly evident.

“I met Perry early on, and he’s the real deal. When Jane’s Addiction first played at my venue in 1988. I asked them if this local band, the Smashing Pumpkins, could open for them. Perry and Billy Corgan became friends, and when Nirvana cancelled right before Kurt Cobain died, Billy and the Smashing Pumpkins stepped in to replace them. Many of the big festivals were saying the same thing about being alternative festivals, about getting bands more exposure in a given market and that would benefit local promoters. Many of these deals were disappointing, and took on a corporate stench. The one festival that stayed cleaner was Lollapalooza, and I believe that had to do with Perry.”

Part two of this series will take a look at Lollapalooza’s legacy twenty years later and what the success of its relaunch nearly a decade later — and the success of other major festivals, generally speaking — say about the music industry. In the end, the mass appeal of what is considered alternative may itself be a sign that pioneers like Perry Farrell have prevailed in their vision.