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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

More Talk, Less Rock: 15 Masters Of Onstage Banter

Illustration for article titled More Talk, Less Rock: 15 Masters Of Onstage Banter

1. Venom's Cronos

The 10-minute recording of Venom singer Cronos ranting between songs in New Jersey in 1986 is perhaps the most widely circulated stage banter in history, and for good reason: The quips are insane and unintentionally hilarious. The show was recorded by Black Flag roadie Joe Cole (Black Flag was on the bill, inexplicably), who edited out all of the music and left only lunatic ravings. Thurston Moore released it as a single on his Ecstatic Peace label, and the Beastie Boys would later sample "You're wild, man, wiiiiiiiiild" on Check Your Head. Whether Cronos does this shtick at every show is immaterial: He became the king in just one night.


2. David Lee Roth

Ironically, the same propensity for non sequiturs and bizarre one-liners that killed David Lee Roth's Howard Stern-replacing radio show made him one of the most entertaining frontmen in rock history. And though much of DLR's banter during Van Halen's classic early period stemmed from his innate hyperactivity, his good friend Jack Daniel's probably helped. Roth routinely gave props to the bottle during concerts, often using the same line ("I wanna take this time to say that this is real whiskey here!") to drive home the point. But in one infamous ad-lib from the attendance-record-setting 1983 US Festival (for which Van Halen received a record $1 million to play, hammered out of their tits, for 90 minutes), Roth used his muse for a higher purpose, taking down the previous day's headliners and tarnishing punk's street cred by announcing, "The only people who put iced tea in Jack Daniel's bottles is The Clash, baby!"

3. Paul Stanley

A CD-length file of Paul Stanley's onstage yelling made the Internet rounds starting in 2005, and the Kiss guitarist's effeminate, positive-power ("You people are dynamite!") insanity made him sound like a hyperactive motivational speaker. The 86-megabyte file sounds pristine, too; if Steve Albini ever recorded between-song banter, it would sound like this. Named People, Let Me Get This Off My Chest, the 70-track collection features every rock 'n' roll cliché known to man. Stanley screams dedications to "young" women ("We got any little girls out there tonight?"), temperature (via the endless ways that "Hotter Than Hell" and "Firehouse" can be introduced), and booze (simply "ALLCOOOHAAALL!!!!"). Also: "How many of you gals out there like to get licked?! Okay, how many of you guys out there like to get licked?" And that's just the first 10 minutes.


4. Robert Pollard

Where other stage ranters have to suffer the indignity of their antics being released via underground cassettes and MP3s, former Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard has sanctioned the release of two vinyl-only compilations of his drunken stage banter. Relaxation Of The Asshole gathers quips like "To anyone who says we have a drinking problem, we say fuck you" and stories about Bob's mom beating up his next-door neighbor. Asshole 2: Meet The King covers Pollard's thoughts on Alien Ant Farm, as well as… drinking.

5. Bruce Springsteen

When Bruce Springsteen reconvened The E Street Band for his 1999-2000 world tour, one of the nightly highlights was an epic-length performance of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," during which Springsteen delivered a rock 'n' roll altar call, exhorting the audience to follow him on the path to righteousness. It was an electrifying throwback to Springsteen's 1975-85 heyday, when he'd pepper his three-hour concerts with long, well-rehearsed monologues about growing up in New Jersey, squabbling with his parents, and seeking refuge in rock. He may have told those stories a hundred times, but he made them as new and spellbinding as each nightly run through "Thunder Road."


6. Lou Reed

Lou Reed makes this list for one reason only: Take No Prisoners, the 1978 live album which finds Reed bantering with hecklers and dishing for minutes on end about the ins and outs of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, while his band vamps behind him. Adopting his best New York street-punk accent, Reed bitches about Barbra Streisand, baits critic Robert Christgau, makes fun of Patti Smith, recites poetry, repeats conversations he's had with overeager disciples, and mocks people with plug-in fireplaces. Some of it's purposeful, and some purely stream-of-consciousness. One minute, he's asking the audience, "You ever put a quarter in one of those machines, man? Like, the bear that plays basketball?" Then, when no one responds, he moves on to another topic, griping, "What, do I look like Henny Youngman up here, man?"


7. Queens Of The Stone Age's Josh Homme

You have been warned, Queens Of The Stone Age fans—don't throw stuff at Josh Homme. On the 2005 live album Over The Years And Through The Woods, Homme calls out a troublemaking fan at the conclusion of "Monsters In The Parasol" for being a "a total cocksmoker" and "throwing shit at me." He even describes the guy's white long-sleeved shirt and has the crew turn the lights on him, so "it's not just me and you that knows you're a fucking asshole, it's everybody." Homme caps his characteristically laidback rant with some advice for the total cocksmoker's fellow audience members: "When you see Mr. Cocksmoker later, just walk by and go 'Hey cocksmoker, eat a bag of dicks.'" Rock star 1, fan 0.


8. Robyn Hitchcock

Though he came to the fore with The Soft Boys during the rise of English punk in the 1970s, Robyn Hitchcock's sensibilities always leaned more toward quirky and psychedelic, influenced by the whimsical humor of Syd Barrett, Bob Dylan, and Monty Python's Flying Circus, not to mention his own novelist father. That comes out in his songs via surreal lyrics about humanity evolving into birds and jokey warnings about the Freudian implications of uncorrected childhood personality traits. Live, Hitchcock often pauses between songs to spin bizarre, off-the-cuff stories, including goofy tales about knights who keep forgetting what they're supposed to be questing for ("Seek ye the one known as… Leo? Jeff? Dennis?"), macabre imagery ("I don't know what kind of church you imagine, but I like to imagine a church full of carcasses"), and dreamlike descriptions of workmen in the desert howling as giant glass cathedrals float past them high above.



9. Fugazi

Ian MacKaye takes no guff when it comes to annoying dancers who insist on crashing into each other at Fugazi shows; he and co-frontman Guy Picciotto have been known to stop songs mid-stream to question the motives of audience goons. "It sucks to have to tell people to behave themselves," says MacKaye in one of the greatest moments of the excellent Fugazi documentary Instrument. But Picciotto really takes the moment: "I saw you two guys earlier at the Good Humor truck, and you were eating your ice cream like little boys, and I thought, 'Those guys aren't so tough! They're eating ice cream.' I saw you eating an ice-cream cone, pal… You're bad now, but I saw you… That's the shit you can't hide. You eat ice cream; everybody knows it. Ice-cream-eating motherfucker, that's what you are."

10. Billy Bragg

Outspoken British rabble-rouser Billy Bragg brings a lot more to his shows than leftist anthems—he talks so much that his performances sometimes seem like a chatty, wry stand-up comedy act as much as a rock show. One of his funniest stories involves his increasing discomfort when a giant, tattooed skinhead in Arizona kept yelling what sounded like a slur against Bragg's socialist beliefs: "Red fag! Red fag!" Unable to ignore it any longer, Bragg stopped the show, pointed at the skinhead, and put on his most authoritative voice to ask, "What did you say?" The skinhead replied, "Play 'The Red Flag'!"—the anthem of Britain's Labour Party, which Bragg had covered on the EP The Internationale.

11. Bob Dylan

Ordinarily, the standoffish Bob Dylan doesn't interact with his audience, but one incident has gone down in rock 'n' roll history. It's hard to believe now just how infuriated some folk fans got in 1965 when Dylan went electric and moved away from protest songs toward a louder, full-on rock sound. (The story goes that backstage at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Pete Seeger was so offended by Dylan's set that he had to be restrained from cutting the electric cables with an axe.) Ultimately, the rock sound proved more popular for Dylan and more influential for music in general, but the anger of those who felt left behind is captured on the "Royal Albert Hall" bootleg (actually recorded at Manchester's Free Trade Hall in May 1966). Near the end of a set already fraught with tension between band and audience, a heckler takes advantage of a quiet moment after "Ballad Of A Thin Man" to shout "Judas!" The audience erupts with a combination of cheering and catcalls. Dylan snaps back "I don't believe you… you're a LIAR!" Then, turning to his band, he commands them to "play it fucking loud," and steamrolls the naysayers with a furious performance of "Like A Rolling Stone." Advantage: Dylan.


12. Courtney Love

Courtney Love's history of onstage babbled nonsense and verbal hypocrisies could warrant an eight-disc boxed set, but two particular minutes of drug-addled, spoiled-brat profanity make for one of her better circulated live outbursts: Recorded sometime in the mid-'90s at a show in Holland, it begins with Love "singing" for a few seconds, her vocals like driving over a gravel road on the tire rims. Then she stops singing. "You throw shit on me and you don't get a fucking show; take your Bon Jovi shirt and go fuck yourself with Eddie Vedder's dildo, all right?" Then, presumably aimed at the offender, "Is little miss Dutch bitch mad cuz I fucked Trent? Is she mad cuz I fucked Brad Pitt? Is she mad cuz I married Kurt?" Then, later: "Kurt hated this fucking town, I hate this town… Go fuck yourself." All in all, this might be the most creative performance of Courtney's career.


13. Lauryn Hill

After Lauryn Hill faded from the pop-culture landscape following the triumphant The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, rumors persisted about squabbles with past collaborators, legal woes, and substance abuse/mental-health problems. The release of her double-disc Unplugged 2.0 did nothing to quiet wagging tongues. "Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need. I've just retired from the fantasy part," went one of her saner assertions. But plenty of people thought she'd retired from sanity and common sense as well. It feels like half of Unplugged 2.0 is devoted to stage banter that blurs the line between confession, rambling, and muddled self-help directives from the world's spaciest inspirational speaker. Hill later made headlines during a benefit concert at the Vatican, when she scolded the crowd: "Holy God is a witness to the corruption of your leadership, of the exploitation and abuses which are the minimum that can be said for the clergy. There is no acceptable excuse to defend the church." Even more disconcertingly, she claimed that the previous night's crowd "rocked way harder" and chastised Catholics for their unwillingness to throw their hands in the air and wave 'em like they just don't care. Audiences at Hill's infrequent live shows never know whether the good or bad Hill will show up, which is the danger as well as the appeal of her performances.

14. Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett has played with Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and others in a long, respected career that's spanned the classical and jazz worlds. He's also a huge prima donna when it comes to audience disruption, infamously walking out on a crowd for coughing too much. (He did at least pick up the habit of distributing cough drops to address the problem.) But Jarrett's greatest ire is reserved for those who would record or photograph him. His anger spilled over at this year's Umbria Jazz Festival, where he began his set with a rant about "assholes with cameras" and the caveat that he "reserve(d) the right to stop playing and leave the goddamn city." He ended by refusing to play an encore to a standing crowd due to flashbulbs. Jarrett was subsequently banned from future Umbria Jazz Festivals.

15. Cheap Trick

The roles in Cheap Trick are clearly defined. Robin Zander handles singing and hair-tossing, and Rick Nielsen writes the songs, plays an endless series of customized guitars, flings guitar picks into the crowd, and handles stage banter with the cockeyed, cornball charm of everyone's favorite goofy uncle. Nielsen's manic mugging and cheesy quips are highlights of Cheap Trick shows, and yet it was Zander who wormed his way into the annals of stage-banter history with his sparse chatter from Live At Budokan. "This. Next. One. Is. The. First. Song. On. Our. New. Album," Zander intones slowly and patiently to the ecstatic Japanese crowd, like a kindergarten teacher trying to reach an especially slow class. The banter was so dope that the Beastie Boys sampled it on Check Your Head.


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