A great concert experience isn’t very different from a great first date. Even just retrieving your car from the parking garage afterwards, you feel more alive than you did before. Later, lying in bed, ears still ringing, you trace over every detail, and in the sober light of the next day it doesn’t even seem real.
We’ve selected the 5 Best Rock Concerts of All Time for various reasons: some because they heralded the apex of a movement (The Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965) or went thrillingly off-script (Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969), but mostly because, in an ineffable collision of mood, electricityand hellacious guitar playing, these were events that made people fall desperately in love with rock and roll.
The Beatles at Shea Stadium (August 15, 1965)
Marooned on a tiny stage in the middle of a baseball field spectacularly far away from their audience, The Beatles could scarcely hear themselves play, nor could their audience, on the night of August 15, 1965. The sound at Shea Stadium was atrocious. The Beatles were the first band to make use of a stadium as a concert venue, and no one had any idea how to rig the sound for such an epic space. The crowd, however, didn’t seem to mind. Attended by nearly 56,000 Beatles fans – many of them in tears – the sold-out concert made use of 2,000 security guards, whose job it was to derail the dozens of people who determinedly tried to rush the stage. This was the height of Beatlemania, when John, Paul, George and Ringo still dressed identically – in smart khaki sports coats and black trousers – and belted out their more fun-loving hits (“Twist and Shout,” “Ticket to Ride,” “Can’t Buy Me Love”). Though it was before the advent of laser light shows and JumboTrons, the show would come to define the modern rock concert, shattering previous records for concert attendance, revenue generation and even sound amplification.
Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock (August 18, 1969)
Jimi Hendrix’s was the final performance of Woodstock and encapsulated the mayhem and creative apex that was the music festival of all music festivals. With a fuchsia scarf encircling his afro, Hendrix took the stage at 8 a.m. on Monday,just after the sun broke over the mud-rutted field in Bethel, New York. He’d been scheduled to go on at 3 a.m. but was delayed by a driving rain, so that the crowd had thinned considerably by the time the guitarist embarked on the performance of his career. Though Hendrix was introduced as “Jimi Hendrix and the Experience,” he made the correction directly after taking the stage, clarifying that they were actually playing as “Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. For short it’s nothin’ but a Band of Gypsies,” he said. The two-hour set was the longest he’d ever play, and souped-up with a new rhythm guitarist and two percussionists, it was rife with delirious, experimental takes on originals like “Red House” and “Foxy Lady.” Hendrix closed his set with a raucous medley of songs, including his take on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It remains one of the best guitar performances of all time.
Led Zeppelin’s Three Nights at Madison Square Garden (July 27, 28 and 29, 1973)
After Led Zeppelin unleashed Houses of the Holy, they set out on their ninth U.S. tour, a historical jaunt that would bulldoze box office records previously set by The Beatles at Shea Stadium. By 1973, everything had grown bigger and better: the costumes, the theatrics, the musicianship. Of the ’73 tour, Jimmy Page once told journalist Mick Wall, “We were much more ambitious… We really wanted to take the live performances as far as they could go.” Zeppelin closed out their exhausting tour, which Robert Plant described to Cameron Crowe as an “absolute mixture of adrenaline, chemical, euphoria” with a trio of sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The concerts would become the documentary film The Song Remains The Same, released in 1976. The footage captures Led Zeppelin in their prime: both Plant and Page are shirtless, shrieking and totally blissed out.
Peter Frampton Comes Alive! (Four Nights in 1975: June 13, June 14, August 24, November 22)
Peter Frampton’s 1975 tour of the U.S. produced what was the best-selling live album at the time —Peter Frampton Comes Alive!, which became the No. 1 album the following year. When he set out to tour, Frampton was a lithe 26-year-old with three modestly successful solo albums under his belt. No one could have foreseen his tour being so powerful or life-changing, establishing Frampton not only as an international guitar hero but a mop-haired heartthrob. In 2008, Frampton described the period to Gibson.com: “I told my manager and my record company and my agent, ‘What the hell happens now? How do I stay here?’ I was astute enough to know that the bigger things got, the worse they got, because I had to live up to everything on the next album. I don’t remember a lot of it, not because I took a lot of drugs, but rather because it was too much for the mind to deal with.” The bulk of the album came from Frampton’s time on-stage at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, with additional tracks sourced from his performance at Long Island Arena in Commack, New York, as well as shows in San Rafael, California, and Plattsburgh, New York. During each performance, Frampton utilized his custom Gibson Les Paul, equipped with three humbuckers, and an Epiphone acoustic (on “Baby I Love Your Way,” one of the singles to explode after the live album’s release).
Pink Floyd’s The Wall Shows (February 1980 – June 1981)
In support of their concept album of the same name, Pink Floyd’s The Wall Tour was a visual and sonic spectacle that set the bar for every rock concert to come after it. And because of its expense and epic stage setup, The Wall shows only occurred in four cities: Los Angeles, New York City, London and Dortmund, Germany, making them all the more in demand. Inspired by the theoretical “wall” Roger Waters felt between himself and the audience during Pink Floyd’s 1977 tour, each tour stop climaxed with the explosion of an enormous polystyrene brick wall. As the band plugged away at every song from The Wall in succession, the oddities were endless: flying pigs, 30-foot animated characters, masked session musicians. It was the final Floyd tour to feature the lineup of Roger Waters, Richard Wright, Dave Gilmour and Nick Mason.