The greatest rock concerts in music history

Photo of James HETFIELD and METALLICA and Jason NEWSTEAD and Lars ULRICH and Kirk HAMMETT; L-R: Jason Newstead, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield performing live onstage.
(Image credit: Ebet Roberts/Getty Images)

What makes a great rock concert? Sure, an awe-inspiring light show and razor-sharp band performance is a given, but a handful of tours and events have delivered that little something… extra.

That could be anything from the integration of live animals, onstage decapitations or the complete destruction of the stage mid-song. We're talking about major concert events that go far beyond your common-or-garden arena shows here.

So with that, we bring you the greatest rock shows on Earth – gigs that raised the standard of what could be expected of the live music experience, and seismic events that will never be repeated…

Roger Waters: The Wall Live (2010–2013)

Pink Floyd’s attempt to tour their epic album The Wall from 1980 through 1981 was nicknamed “The Nightmare Tour”. It was an unwieldy proposition at best, fraught with technical difficulties and seemingly ill-omened when a curtain caught fire at the debut performance in L.A. The show was too big to be toured effectively, with the result that only 31 performances were given in a total of just four cities.

But the business and technology of rock staging has come a long way since 1980, and Roger Waters’ The Wall Live has been one of the largest, longest-running and most successful musical tours of recent years or perhaps in all of rock history.

Launched on September 15, 2010, in Toronto, The Wall Live tour cost an estimated $60 million to stage and grossed more than $89.5 million on its first leg alone. It subsequently circumnavigated the globe numerous times before coming to a triumphant conclusion on September 21, 2013, in Paris.

Everything about the show was enormous, from its 12-piece band to the massive wall erected at the lip of the stage at every performance, symbolizing the alienation from his audience felt by the work’s main character, the disaffected rock star Pink. While this titular prop’s dimensions varied slightly from venue to venue, it generally measured 500-by-30 feet, although it grew as wide as 850 feet across at one show on the tour’s final leg.

Of course, one big thing missing from The Wall Live were Waters’ fellow surviving members of Pink Floyd, the group that created the original album. But then tensions between Waters and his bandmates were running high even when The Wall was first conceived, recorded and toured in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Waters deemed it necessary to bring along auxiliary musicians for the 1980–’81 tour to supplement, if not supplant, the original band members.

The Wall was in many ways Waters’ first step toward becoming a solo artist. A detente of sorts was reached in 2005 when the original members of Pink Floyd reunited for the humanitarian Live Eight concert in London’s Hyde Park. Keyboardist Rick Wright passed away in 2008, but Waters invited guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason to take part in a May 12, 2011, presentation of The Wall Live at London’s O2 Arena.

With the enormous success of The Wall Live, Waters may at last have laid to rest the artistic frustrations that gave rise to the work in the first place and plagued its early history. But then all history, so they say, is written by the winners.

– Alan di Perna

Alice Cooper: Billion Dollar Babies Tour (1973–1974)

In the late ’60s, Alice Cooper was accused of murdering a chicken during a concert. But while the shock-rock trailblazer has always staunchly denied the allegation (claiming he innocently tossed the bird into the audience, where the slaughter was then enacted by rabid fans), there has certainly been no shortage of blood and guts intentionally left on the stage at a Cooper show. And the jaunt organized in support of his Billion Dollar Babies album may have been the goriest of them all.

The album and tour came at a time when Cooper and his band, on the heels of the breakout success of the 1972 School’s Out album, suddenly found themselves with plenty of cash at their disposal to explore their deepest and most disturbing onstage desires. As such, the Billion Dollar Babies show, which at the time was deemed the most elaborate live undertaking in rock history, came off like a sociopath’s vision of a glossy Broadway production, the stage set littered with mannequin body parts and capped by a massive, laser-shooting Egyptian statue.

At the helm was Cooper, outfitted in a torn and bloodstained white leotard (and occasionally wearing a huge boa constrictor around his head and neck). The singer played both the assailant and the victim. At various points of the show, he impaled baby dolls on a sword, molested the disembodied legs and breasts of the female mannequins and beat up a Richard Nixon impersonator.

At other times, he was splayed across a medical table while a mad dentist attacked him with an oversized drill and, as the coup de grâce to the main set, decapitated in a guillotine, a stunt that would go on to become a Cooper trademark.

The Billion Dollar Babies tour proved a massive success, so much so that it continued on through the early part of 1974, by which time Cooper and his band were supporting their follow-up effort, Muscle of Love. The jaunt was reported as the highest grossing rock tour in U.S. history to date, and it proved to be the swansong of the original Alice Cooper band. Soon after, they broke up and Cooper launched his own solo career. To this day, he’s still having his head chopped off on stages around the world.

– Richard Bienstock

U2: Zoo TV (1992–1993)

Zoo TV came at a time when U2 were shedding the overly earnest, chest-beating image that had made them one of the biggest acts of the ’80s in favor of a cooler and more detached (read: “ironic”) stylistic stance.

The tour was itself in support of the group’s 1991 release, Achtung Baby, which showed influences of alt-rock and industrial and electronic music. But if one thing has become clear in hindsight, it’s that the 1992–’93 tour, for all its many bells and whistles, was also a quite sincere and overwhelmingly powerful artistic statement.

More than two decades later, it’s possible that no other show has approached its level of sheer sensory overload or achieved U2’s canny feat of carving out a genuine message – one of a world both brought closer together and sent into a tailspin by technology – from within a riotous medium.

Zoo TV’s many visual effects are almost too numerous to list. They included several dozen video screens and televisions of every shape and size (including colossal “Vidi-walls”) that broadcast the performance as well as pre-recorded clips, random words and phrases, and live television transmissions from around the world via satellite dish.

The set’s massive light show was capped by hand-painted, hollowed-out East German Trabant automobiles fitted with flood lights and suspended above the stage, which was itself connected by a 150-foot ramp to a second, smaller “B” stage. For the outdoor stadium legs of the tour, the stage design included huge spires that due to their height were required, per the Federal Aviation Administration, to be fitted with blinking warning lights for passing planes.

As for the band’s actual performance, in a bold move U2 opened the shows with anywhere from six to eight new songs played in a row, with the clanging, clattering Achtung Baby material expertly reflected in the visual turbulence onstage.

Bono, meanwhile, chewed up the frenetic scenery by inhabiting various personas and used the cutting-edge technology at hand to pull pranks like ordering thousands of pizzas mid-show and calling the White House to request a chat with President Bush. And while Bush never picked up the line, novelist and Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie did answer the singer’s repeated calls. Rushdie joined U2 onstage at a performance in London, despite having a fatwa on his head. For a show literally built on special effects, it may have been the greatest one of all.

– Richard Bienstock

Kiss: The Destroyer Tour: The Spirit of ’76 (1976)

While Kiss made their name practically from day one on delivering an outsized stage show, they brought things to a whole new level when they hit the road in support of 1976’s Destroyer. Fans had already come to expect plenty of fire breathing, blood spitting and pickup-smoking guitar work from the band, but for Destroyer, Kiss’ first studio effort following the breakthrough success of Alive!, they also got high theater, with a stage set that mirrored the conceptual artwork of the album itself.

Measuring over 80 feet in length, the Destroyer set was framed by a post-apocalyptic cityscape similar to the one that graced the album cover. Amp stacks on either side of the stage were hidden behind huge cutouts depicting burned-out buildings in various states of decay.

A twisted and deformed tree was stationed next to bassist Gene Simmons, and massive lighting spires were designed to look like freeway towers (in reference to the album and tour’s opening song, Detroit Rock City) and strung with Christmas-style lights that encircled the stage and stretched all the way to arena balconies.

Other touches included two six-foot cat statues with glowing eyes that flanked Peter Criss’ drum set (a nod to his alter ego, the Catman), a gothic castle from within which Gene Simmons would perform his blood-spitting bass solo, and a platform resembling a lunar surface, where Ace Frehley (the Spaceman) would take his guitar solo spot.

There was also a nod to the year’s bicentennial celebration – the tour was nicknamed The Spirit of ’76 – through the inclusion of red, white and blue lightning bolts that lit up in front of a cloud high above the ever-present Kiss logo hanging centerstage.

Though the Destroyer stage remains one of Kiss’ most awe-inspiring spectacles, Paul Stanley today admits that he felt “a bit at odds with it.” Says Stanley, “It was more theatrical than what we had done in the past, and I was more comfortable surrounded by walls of amplifiers.”

And, in fact, as the jaunt morphed into the Rock and Roll Over tour later that year, Kiss did in fact strip things down, retaining much of the Spirit of ’76 staging but losing some features, such as any that referenced the Destroyer cover art. There was also one other change – the band switched to wireless systems after Frehley, at a show in Florida on December 12, was electrocuted and knocked unconscious when he grabbed a railing that wasn’t properly grounded. The incident also had another aftereffect: It inspired Frehley to write his most well known song with Kiss – 1977’s Shock Me.

– Richard Bienstock

Taylor Hawkins tribute concerts (2022) 

In March 2022, Foo Fighters broke the news that Taylor Hawkins – the band’s long-serving drummer and all-round rock legend – had passed away at the age of 50. The loss was unexpected and devastating. There was only one way to celebrate Hawkins' profound legacy: to host a tribute concert for the ages, with guest appearances from just about every single rock hero under the sun.

The mammoth double-header event took place across two dates – one at London’s Wembley Stadium and the other at Los Angeles’ Kia Forum – with Dave Grohl calling upon a legion of guitar stars, vocal titans and other instrumentalists to help the Foo Fighters honor Hawkins’ memory through rock ‘n’ roll. 

The guestlist was staggering. Not only were individual stars called to the stage to perform some of the guitar world’s greatest hits, iconic bands and once-disbanded side projects also took the opportunity to remember their close friend by reuniting and revisiting their catalog of cult classic tracks.

Names involved in the Taylor Hawkins tribute concert include Wolfgang Van Halen, Josh Homme, Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee, Chad Smith, John Paul Jones, Nancy Wilson, Joe Walsh, Dale Peters, Brian Johnson, Chris Chaney, Pink, Lars Ulrich, Brian May, Roger Taylor and Nile Rodgers. And that’s not even the half of it: Nandi Bushell, Roger Taylor, Rufus Taylor, Justin Hawkins, Chrissie Hynde, Stewart Copeland, Greg Kurstin, Liam Gallagher and countless others also took part, with each performing sets of one to four songs.

Since the runtime for each event was around the four hour mark, the list of highlights is almost never-ending. Wolfgang Van Halen showed up to cover Van Halen hits, the James Gang reunited for the first time in 16 years, Them Crooked Vultures performed their first show in over a decade, and Lifeson and Lee performed Rush classics.

On its own, it was one of the biggest live events in music history, but it never lost sight of its overall objective: to honor Hawkins’ memory, and to celebrate the legacy he left behind.

– Matt Owen

The Who: Tommy (May–June 1969)

The Who’s groundbreaking rock opera Tommy became a powerful performance vehicle for them when they premiered it during their U.S. tour in May–June 1969. The concerts propelled the Who to supergroup status and ushered in a new era of theatrical rock spectacles.

The tour kicked off with a three-night stand from May 9 through 11 at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom before it rolled into New York’s Fillmore East for a historic three-night run from May 16 through 18. The concept of long-form narrative was new to rock at the time, and the Who found an ideal storytelling partner in the Fillmore’s resident visual artists, the Joshua Light Show.

Rather than projecting the usual display of abstract psychedelic blobs onto the Fillmore’s large rear-stage screen, the Joshua Light troupe crafted a thematic series of visuals to accompany the Who’s thunderous performance of their new rock opera.

In addition, Bill Graham, the rock promoter behind the New York and San Francisco Fillmore venues, recognized the opportunity in Tommy to create a unique melding of music and visuals and reportedly put up $5,000 to upgrade the theater’s projection equipment and sound gear for the Who performances.

As the first notes of the Overture resounded in the venerable New York theater, white birds seemed to fly into the hall from a massive projection of Tommy’s album cover art. The light show choreography continued throughout the performance with elements drawn from Tommy’s libretto, providing a uniquely integrated audio-visual experience. Visuals would play an even greater role in rock performance with the introduction of theater-sized video projector screens on Led Zeppelin’s 1975 tour and the use of jumbotrons on recent extravaganzas such as the Who’s 2012–’13 Quadrophenia and More tour and Roger Waters’ The Wall Live tour of 2010–’13.

But Tommy’s first night at the Fillmore contained an unscripted dramatic surprise. When an adjacent building caught fire, plain-clothes police officer Daniel Mulhearn clambered onto the Fillmore stage in an ill-advised attempt to stop the show. Mistaking him for an intruder, Who lead singer Roger Daltrey grabbed the officer and held him while Pete Townshend delivered a balletic series of flying kicks to the region where it hurts a man the most. The show was eventually halted, however, and the building was calmly evacuated with no further harm to anyone.

At the end of the tour, Townshend and Daltrey returned to New York to face assault charges and apologize for the unfortunate incident. They also signed a deal for the Who to perform Tommy two months later at one of the rock era’s greatest musical events: Woodstock.

– Alan di Perna

George Harrison and Friends: The Concert for Bangladesh (August 1, 1971)

Superstar charity concerts are commonplace today, but they were unheard of in the summer of 1971 when George Harrison announced a pair of performances at New York City's Madison Square Garden to raise funds for Bangladesh. The star studded event featured a host of Harrison's pals, including former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan.

The idea for the concerts came from Ravi Shankar, the famed Bengali sitarist with whom Harrison had studied Indian music. The war fr the liberation of the Bangladesh state had created millions of refugees, whose dire circumstances were made more desperate by a cyclone and flooding. Shankar hoped to raise $25,000 for their plight through a benefit concert of his own, but Harrison saw the potential to raise much more and bring international attention to the crisis with an even featuring some of rock's most famous artists.

The urgency of the situation prompted him to pull the shows together quickly. Among those shortlisted were Harrison's former bandmates Paul McCartney and John Lennon. McCartney decline due to bitterness about the Beatle's recent breakup. Lennon initially accepted but withdrew over Harrison's demand that his wife and musical partner, Yoko Ono, would not perform.

Under the circumstance, the event could have been a complete disaster. Rehearsals were spotty, held just days beforehand. Harrison had never hosted a concert before and had rarely play in public since the Beatles quit touring in 1966. In addition, Clapton was suffering the effects of heroin withdrawal; he made it through the say only with the help of methadone, supplied by a cameraman.

Dylan's involvement was more uncertain. Though he'd shown up at rehearsals, the folk-rock icon was in a period of reclusiveness and nervous about performing. Harrison wasn't convinced Dylan would show up until he saw him coming onstage at the appointed hour. "It was only at that moment that I knew for sure he was going to do it," Harrison said afterward.

In the end, the performances – which included Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps, My Sweet Lord and Here Comes the Sun – were solid, and the Concert for Bangladesh became a defining moment in rock. Harrison's landmark effort proved the template for charity concerts that followed, from 1985's Live Aid concerts to Roger Waters' The Wall: Live in Berlin Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief in 1990.

– Christopher Scapelliti

Ozzy Osbourne: Diary of a Madman Tour (1981–1982)

Had the Diary of a Madman tour featured nothing more than Ozzy Osbourne playing a set of solo and Black Sabbath tunes alongside guitar virtuoso Randy Rhoads, it still might have gone down as one of the greatest shows in heavy metal history. But Ozzy wasn’t content merely to perform; he wanted to entertain in the most ludicrous ways possible. More than 30 years later, the Diary tour stands as the most over-the-top and at times downright bizarre spectacle ever conceived by Osbourne – or most any rock artist.

The centerpiece of the staging was an enormous stone castle adorned with stained-glass windows, arches, balconies, crosses, flaming torches and other gothic touches. At the show’s beginning, Osbourne would emerge, in a haze of smoke and fire, from a red velvet throne perched high atop a drum riser, while iron gates to his left and right rose to “release” Rhoads and bassist Rudy Sarzo from within the castle’s confines. To enhance the medieval mood, the entire crew – as well as live keyboardist Don Airey – was outfitted in hooded monk’s robes.

Additionally – and quite randomly – on the tour’s early dates, Osbourne would end each performance by hopping into the palm of a 10-foot, fire-shooting, mechanized hand that would carry him over the audience as he catapulted raw meat into the crowd. (The prop was ditched after it malfunctioned and hurled the meat straight into the back of Osbourne’s head.)

But the most peculiar element of the show was Ronnie the Dwarf (so named as a swipe at Ronnie James Dio, the diminutive-statured singer who replaced Osbourne in Black Sabbath). Throughout the evening, Ronnie would emerge from a castle door to hand Ozzy a goblet of his preferred beverage. Osbourne would then show his appreciation for Ronnie’s assistance by having him strung up in a noose and left to twist and sway high above the stage during the set’s big ballad moment, Goodbye to Romance.

The Diary of a Madman tour also had its share of unscripted madness. Osbourne received rabies shots after he bit the head off a bat thrown onstage in Iowa (he thought it was a fake), and he was arrested for urinating on a monument near the Alamo, a stunt that earned him a decade-long ban in San Antonio.

Tragically, it was also during this tour that Rhoads was killed, on March 19, 1982, in a freak airplane accident. Osbourne finished out most of the remaining dates, briefly with Bernie Torme and then with future Night Ranger guitarist Brad Gillis, the latter of whom appears on the live document of the tour, Speak of the Devil.

– Richard Bienstock

Metallica: Damaged Justice (1988-1989)

By 1988 Metallica had established themselves as the biggest band in thrash metal. With their popularity at a high for the release of their fourth album, …And Justice for All, they embarked on their first ever arena-headlining tour – and pulled out all the stops.

The Damaged Justice tour kicked off on September 11, 1988, and ran for over a year, totaling more than 200 dates across North America and four other continents. The band was flanked by a massive stage production that brought the album of …And Justice for All to awesome 3D life. The setlist for the shows was fierce, beginning with Blackened and continuing with roughly two hours of music that showcased the new material, including the breakthrough Justice ballad One, which hadn’t even been released as a single at the time the tour began.

There were also some oddities sprinkled throughout the sets. On occasion the band jammed on pieces of Deep Purple’s Black Night and Led Zeppelin’s How Many More Times. Kirk Hammett would recreate Hendrix’s Little Wing outro lead during his solo spots, and at several shows the members switched instruments before performing their version of Diamond Head’s Am I Evil (with James Hetfield on drums, Hammett on bass, Jason Newsted on guitar and a shirtless Lars Ulrich prowling the stage and shouting the vocals in what he described as his “Bruce Dickinson impersonation”).

But the highlight of the gigs was undoubtedly the main-set closing performance of the epic …And Justice for All. Toward the end of the nine-minute-plus song, the entire stage, including the towering Lady Justice statue, would crumble, sending huge chunks of “rock” raining down as Metallica played on. (In a nice touch, a lighting rig would also spark and come unattached at one end to swing precariously over the band members’ heads.)

After a short break, Metallica would return to perform encores amid the rubble. The end result was an awe-inspiring and groundbreaking union of speed-metal intensity and arena-rock showmanship. The Damaged Justice tour signaled the moment that Metallica – and, by extension, thrash metal as a whole—– began playing, both literally and figuratively, on the big stage.

– Richard Bienstock

ZZ Top: Worldwide Texas Tour (1976–1978)

In 1976, the era of the live rock spectacle was well underway. The popularity of glarock had brought a new level of over-the-top theatricality to the rock concert experience. Onstage spaceship landings, guillotine executions, giant inflatable phalluses and other must-see gimmicks were the order of the day.

So where did that leave “that little ol’ band from Texas,” ZZ Top? Never one to be upstaged, ZZ Top guitarist and leader Billy F. Gibbons hatched the idea for a rolling extravaganza that would have made P.T. Barnum proud: the ZZ Top Worldwide Texas Tour.

“Taking Texas to the People” was the motto, and true to its word, the tour featured a massive 63-by-48–foot, 35-ton stage in the shape of the Lone Star State. Band members Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard performed before a gigantic hand-painted backdrop and were joined onstage by a live longhorn steer, a buffalo, two vultures, two rattlesnakes and assorted cacti, yucca and agave plants – all flora and fauna of Texas.

Undertaken to promote ZZ Top’s 1975 album, Fandango!, the tour required 13 vehicles to haul it around and a crew of 50 people, including an animal handler and a veterinarian. It launched on May 29, 1976, in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and rolled to a halt on January 1, 1978, in Fort Worth, Texas. Plans to take the tour overseas were scotched by quarantine restrictions on buffaloes.

The Worldwide Texas Tour offered an early glimpse of Gibbons’ oversized visual imagination. A former art student, he found another outlet for his visual talents a few years after the tour with the dawn of MTV and the rise of music videos.

– Alan di Perna

The Rolling Stones: Tour of the Americas ’75 (1975)

Always adept at moving with the times, the Rolling Stones embraced glam-era theatricality in grand style on Tour of the Americas ’75, which saw them performing in the U.S. and Canada. While it was their first tour to feature guitarist Ronnie Wood, who’d stepped in after Mick Taylor exited the previous year, the tour is remembered today less for its musicianship than for the over-the-top gimmicks that the Stones employed to draw public interest and titillate their audiences.

It began with the New York event to announce the tour. Rather than follow the time-honored routine of holding a press conference, the Stones rolled down Fifth Avenue on a flatbed truck that had been turned into a mobile stage, performing their hit Brown Sugar to passersby.

Journalists assembled inside the Fifth Avenue Hotel in expectation of a conventional media announcement scrambled out onto the pavement when they heard the music. The flatbed truck idea had been suggested by Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who’d read that New Orleans jazz musicians used a similar ploy.

Once the tour officially started, on June 3, in San Antonio, Texas, the show’s big attraction – upstaging even Mick Jagger himself – was a gigantic inflatable phallus that loomed large at a critical moment of the performance. Jagger would often climb atop the massive prop and ride it like a horse. The Stones’ image has always been associated with lascivious sexuality, and this crowd-pleasing gimmick was the ultimate expression of – and a wry comment on – the band’s public persona.

But things didn’t always go as planned. At some shows, the huge penis failed to inflate to full size, causing the band to endow it with the nickname “Tired Grandfather.” Sometimes art imitates life all too well.

– Alan di Perna

Live Aid (1985)/Live 8 (2005)

The brainchild of Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, Live Aid was, and remains, one of the most significant live events in rock music history.

Held simultaneously at London’s Wembley and Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy stadiums, to a combined in-person audience of over 150,000 people, and a reported 1.9 billion people on television, it remains the mother of all benefit concerts.

Held on July 13, 1985, to raise funds for victims of the horrific famine that had devastated Ethiopia at the time, the concerts featured not only many of the biggest artists of that time, but reunions of some of the biggest bands in the history of rock.

The three surviving members of The Who reunited for the first time since their 1983 dissolution, while the classic, original lineup of Black Sabbath performed live together for the first time since 1978.

Overshadowing even those reunions was that of the three living members of Led Zeppelin, though their performance was infamously marred by a lack of rehearsal, out-of-tune instruments and Robert Plant’s hoarse vocals.

20 years later, Geldof and Ure would put on a similarly high-profile Live Aid sequel of sorts, Live 8, which is today most remembered for being headlined by – in the last-ever performance of their classic lineup – a reunited Pink Floyd.

Jackson Maxwell

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.