Most concertgoers have tales about opening bands “blowing away’ headliners, but often these are simply subjective opinions or one-off circumstances (such as openers playing in their hometown, or headliners suffering technical issues). But occasionally there’s a consensus that a particular opening act upstaged the headliner for an entire tour, sometimes to the point of being promoted to top billing themselves.
This phenomenon can be attributed to an ultra-hungry new band being paired with a jaded, past-its-prime headliner and/or to a tour’s timing (an “unknown” opener might have a record blow up mid-tour, or the headliner’s latest release might flop). Big bands and promoters seem to have gotten smarter about booking support acts, as such instances have grown increasingly rare, but we look back at some of the most notorious cases.
1. Van Halen vs. Black Sabbath, 1978
In the late 1970s, Brit doomsters Black Sabbath were having no luck with opening acts. Having struggled to top the famously theatrical KISS during their 1975 Sabotage tour, Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne allegedly said, “Next tour, we just want a bar band from L.A.” Only the “bar band” selected for their ’78 Never Say Die! tour was an ascendant Van Halen. Boasting force-of-nature frontman David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen’s revolutionary guitar histrionics, Van Halen lit a nightly fire beneath the drugged-out, dysfunctional Sabs (from which Osbourne was fired the following year). After a particularly stunning Van Halen performance at Madison Square Garden, Osbourne conceded that Roth & Co. “ought to be headlining the tour.”
2. Garth Brooks vs. The Judds, 1991
In an eight-year spasm of a career, mother-daughter duo The Judds became one of country music’s most successful acts, winning five Grammy Awards and enjoying an incredible 14 No. 1's on the Hot Country Songs chart. This gargantuan popularity, combined with mom Naomi Judd’s apparently career-ending diagnosis for chronic active hepatitis, lent The Judds’ 1991 farewell tour massive emotional resonance. But somebody somewhere misjudged the dizzying rise of opener Garth Brooks. The unpretentious Oklahoman had confirmed his superstar status right before the massive Love Can Build a Bridge trek by scooping six Academy of Country Music Awards, and his down-home charm and super-dynamic sets consistently outshone even the ever-classy Judds (who’ve in fact reunited repeatedly ever since).
3. Nine Inch Nails vs. David Bowie, 1995
Part of David Bowie’s greatness was his habit of taking genuinely “hot” acts on tour with him (including Duran Duran, The Polyphonic Spree and Peter Gabriel), even at the risk of these stealing some of his thunder. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this admirable trait was his pairing with a height-of-its-powers Nine Inch Nails for his 1995 Outside tour. Bowie and NIN mainman Trent Reznor were mutual fans and collaborators, including NIN sets being cleverly segued into Bowie’s on the Outside tour. But with his Outside album yet to be released, and NIN riding high on seminal sophomore effort The Downward Spiral, Bowie admitted that their first few shows together attracted an "almost 100 percent Nails audience."
4. The Cranberries vs. Suede, 1993
The 1993 Suede-Cranberries pairing wasn’t so much a case of openers upstaging headliners in performance terms but more a quirk of timing. Suede (dubbed The London Suede stateside) rode in on a wave of hysterical U.K. press but with only one song, “Metal Mickey,” that had dented U.S. radio. The Cranberries’ debut album had gone largely unnoticed upon release that March but, just as the Suede tour began, MTV put the Irish band in heavy rotation (to the point where previously ignored singles “Linger” and “Dreams” were reissued). As the trek progressed, more and more people came out specifically to see the openers, although some reviewers felt that Suede justified top billing nonetheless.
5. Rage Against the Machine vs. U2, 1997
The 1997-98 PopMart Tour was U2’s famously flawed bridge too far: an earnest attempt to top their crowning Zoo TV trek four years earlier with an under-rehearsed extravaganza including a giant, malfunction-prone lemon and a 100-foot golden arch. Having explosive L.A. rap-rockers Rage Against the Machine open the first, and shakiest, nine shows of the tour (plus a later Memorial Coliseum date) didn’t help. While U2 worked out the kinks in public, the drawn-out recording of the Pop album having truncated their rehearsal schedule, RATM delivered blistering, breathless 40-minute sets that induced crowd reactions (in the front rows at least) almost unheard of when performing before such an iconic act, and only further highlighted the headliners’ bloated indulgences.
6. KISS & 7. Metallica vs. Everyone
While researching this article, two bands repeatedly cropped up: KISS and Metallica. According to Larry Harris, co-founder of KISS’ record label Casablanca, “No one wanted to follow [KISS],” and the shock rockers’ rep led to canceled bookings with the like of Genesis, Queen and Aerosmith. Blue Oyster Cult had the balls to take KISS out as openers in 1974, but within two years the roles were reversed on the latter’s Destroyer tour. In the 1980s, Metallica assumed the mantle of master upstagers, schooling fellow thrashers Raven and Venom, as well as more mainstream metal acts like Twisted Sister, before putting almost the entire bill — Kingdom Come, Dokken, Scorpions and occasionally even headliners Van Halen — to the sword on 1988’s Monsters of Rock tour.
8. Led Zeppelin vs. Vanilla Fudge, Iron Butterfly and Country Joe & the Fish, 1968-69
When Led Zeppelin embarked upon their debut U.S. tour at the end of 1968, they had yet to release an album. Yet the incendiary Brit rockers repeatedly upstaged established headliners like Vanilla Fudge, Iron Butterfly and Country Joe & the Fish — a phenomenon only amplified by the release of their now-classic eponymous debut halfway through the jaunt. Led Zep weren’t officially promoted to top of the bill but rather, according to guitarist Jimmy Page, other acts simply stopped showing up, making them headliners by default. “We would just go on and go 'bang bang bang' with three driven songs with solos, which other groups did not do,” recalled Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.
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9. No Doubt vs. Bush and Goo Goo Dolls, 1996
Taking a little-known SoCal ska-pop band out as openers for mega-selling alt-rockers Bush and Goo Goo Dolls seemed like a safe bet in 1996. But No Doubt’s breakout hit, “Just a Girl,” peaked early in the tour, meaning that they were surprised to find themselves playing to three-quarters-full, singing-along arenas. While new to most audiences, No Doubt already had a decade’s stage experience and, with paranormally energized frontgal Gwen Stefani (who started dating her future husband, Bush’s Gavin Rossdale, during the tour) evolving into a world-class performer, they were an unexpectedly tough act to follow. The following summer, Stefani’s crew repeated their awkward challenge to her beau’s band at the enormous Blockbuster Rockfest in Fort Worth, Texas.
10. The Who vs. Herman’s Hermits, 1967
At the height of their instrument-smashing antics, The Who made their first North American visits, the second of which was a sprawling three-month trek supporting fellow Brits Herman’s Hermits. Following the release of still-seminal single “Pictures of Lily,” and culminating in their legendary six-song set at the Monterey Pop Festival, The Who were in unstoppable form. The headliners still enjoyed enthusiastic reactions but the Hermits’ polite beat rock (and most other acts at the time) couldn’t compete with The Who’s pioneering power pop. But what goes around comes around, and many fans felt that surging Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd gave The Who a real run for their money during 11 U.S. dates together in 1973.