This is a companion post to Donington part 1: Media Response. If you haven’t read that first, go back and see it. It gives an overview of the tragedy at Donington’s Monsters of Rock festival in 1988 and the subsequent fallout propelled by the media.
Besides faulty reporting of the actual events and a sketchy follow-up article in Rolling Stone magazine later that year, some people accused Guns of wanting to recreate their own Altamont, the infamous Rolling Stones concert where one fan was murdered by Hell’s Angels “security” staff, three others died from other causes, and numerous other people were injured. Personally, I see a big difference between a tragic accident and a drunken, murderous brawl. Duff McKagan talks about the event in his book (It’s So Easy and Other Lies) and tells how sickened, helpless and confused he felt at watching people fall and how angry he and the other guys were at the selfish fans towards the back who refused to stop pushing forward, even when they had been repeatedly asked to step back.
The accusers also use the Donington footage in the “Paradise City” music video as proof of this so-called desire to reproduce Altamont. Rumors abound that the scenes in the video depict the violent end to the lives of those two men, essentially making it a sort of snuff movie.
I’m not sure how I feel about Guns n’ Roses using the footage from the Donington concert for their “Paradise City” video. On one hand, I understand that they had already booked the video crew for it and the Giants Stadium concert since these would have been the biggest venues they had played to that date. The size of the stadium and the throngs at Donington make for some impressive shots for the music video — kind of a “Hey, we made it!” that was summed up in Axl’s little nod to the camera as he displays his band access passes at 4:15.
On the other hand, it seems that it might have been more respectful to the families of the young men who died not to include that footage. But, from what I have read about the show at Donington and from the bootleg video I have watched, the worst had already happened by the time Guns got to “Paradise City.” The surge towards the stage happened as they opened with “It’s So Easy” and people were going down during “Mr. Brownstone” which was played next. Then, the show was stopped for about twenty minutes while security fished people out of the mud. This is where the bootleg video begins.
The band members are milling around the stage. Axl points at a spot below him and says, “We’ve got a pile-up right here.” The tape cuts and then Izzy comes to the mic to address the situation. “There’s somebody down there!” Shortly thereafter, Slash, who is facing off to the side, begins ripping into his blues jam. Steven jumps down from his drum riser, puts his arm around Slash’s shoulder, telling him to stop as he gestures toward the crowd with his drumsticks. The tape cuts again and comes back partway into the fastest version of “Paradise City” I’ve ever heard (“You’re Crazy” — a new song at the time — was played prior to “P.C.”, but it was not captured on film). There is another cut in the tape and we see Slash finally gets another shot at his jam (on the audio tape, we hear Axl say, “We’re going to try something we tried earlier… On the lead guitar… Mr. Slash!”). When he’s done, Axl returns to the stage and tells the crowd, “The promoters are asking us — in order to keep on playing — to ask the same thing: Can you move back? Everybody try to take a step back. We’ve got some people unconscious still.” Somebody in the audience must have booed him or something because Axl replies, “Hey, this takes time out of my time playing, too, man. This is the only time I have fun all day.” It seems callous now, knowing what happened, but at that point, no one in the crowd or onstage understood the gravity of what was taking place in the medics’ tent. Axl is obviously frustrated at the crowd’s lack of cooperation.
After a pause, Axl tears into his “Welcome to the Jungle” intro, which again, the band plays blazingly fast. It’s like they just want to get out of there. The mics feed back and the sound bounces from one side of the stage to the other. It’s not just the fault of 24 year old video technology — a review of the show published in Kerrang! also noted the trouble with the sound system. When “Jungle” finishes, Axl introduces a new song soon to be released — “Patience.” But apparently our intrepid videographer didn’t see any merit in having one of the first live bootleg copies of it as the tape picks up again at the intro to “Sweet Child,” which then finishes off the bootleg video. The tape cuts off before we hear Axl’s farewell to the crowd, “Have a nice day and don’t @*&#*$% kill yourselves.” With that, the band beats tracks off the stage.
Axl was snatched up pretty quickly after the show for two interviews, one with the Bailey Brothers and one with an unseen and unnamed female reporter. He’s worn out, but is in a good mood after playing to the largest crowd of his career. He tells the Bailey Brothers that Guns had heard horror stories about Donington and were afraid that it would be awful, but said that it turned out to be one of the best days of his life. Having the benefit of hindsight, I can’t help but feel sorry for him. Axl and the band were riding high on the excitement and would not find out until several hours later about the deaths.
In Steven Adler’s book, he recounts how he felt when he received the news:
I was shell-shocked. Numb. I couldn’t believe it. The media blamed the band, fueling our notorious bad-boy image. And we were just starting to get a broader, more friendly public image going when this happened. I called my mom and told her about the terrible tragedy, and I immediately felt some solace as soon as I shared this horrible news with her. She was shocked but was compassionate, explaining that I wasn’t to blame. She reasoned that the promoters have to control the numbers and the way the gig is set up. I understood it but it didn’t make me feel a whole lot better. I felt I had somehow been a cog in some bigger machine that hurt those kids. To this day, the Donington tragedy haunts me like a waking nightmare.
Duff expressed similar sentiments in an interview that appears to be from 2011: “It was all fun and games until that point when it suddenly came to a screeching halt. It wasn’t our fault, but then you start thinking those thoughts of ‘If we weren’t on stage, maybe those guys would still be alive.’ If you were 22 like I was it starts to #%@$ with you a little bit.” (And, with all due respect to Duff, the sequence of events as related in his book does not quite match up with what appears to be happening on the bootleg video of the concert. But it’s understandable that twenty-five year old memories would be a bit jumbled. I think his book is excellent, but do keep that in mind if you read it).
Slash said in his book:
We had no idea that anyone was actually hurt, let alone killed; after we’d done the gig and were celebrating in a nearby pub, Alan [their manager] came in, completely distraught and gave us the news. It was horrible; none of us knew what to do: something that had been cause for celebration a moment before had become a tragedy.
Unfortunately, the only comments by Axl that I could find were in the previously-mentioned Rolling Stone article that came out in November 1988, and those quotes seem to be incomplete. Throughout the article, the author, Rob Tannenbaum, implies that there is a connection between Donington and Altamont. The article is largely commentary with a smattering of band member quotes, which makes it impossible to assign them any kind of context. Axl is quoted as saying, “I don’t know really what to think about it. I don’t want anybody to get hurt. We want the exact opposite,” followed by more author commentary and resuming with, “We didn’t tell people to smash each other. We didn’t tell people, ‘Drink so much alcohol that you can’t %#$@!*& stand up.’ I don’t feel responsible in those ways.” The article concludes in what appears to be a matter-of-fact vein, but upon closer inspection, still seems to hold Axl at fault. It would be interesting to know what else Axl said that wasn’t printed and in what tone those quotes were delivered. Having that information could completely change the timbre of the article. Perhaps that’s why Tannenbaum left it out. Unless he still has his tapes from this interview, we’ll probably never know. But it’s just another cautionary tale on being careful of how you process what you read. And until you know something for a fact (and have the sources to back it up), shady implications are just well-disguised rumor-mongering.
I went back and watched the “Paradise City” video several times, sometimes frame by frame, and, in the end, decided that it was tastefully done. Most of the shots from Donington are of the band either playing or backstage. The crowd footage shows no signs of the massive collapse that was reported in the crowd at center stage or anyone in obvious distress. It is my conclusion that, by this time in the show, both the band and the audience felt that the problems had been resolved and they were all enjoying themselves. Should the band have left out this footage in respect for the two victims? Possibly. But this is no Altamont and no snuff film.