Rock, the music of power, rebellion and volume. Throughout rock history, there have been moments that of course rocked but shocked!
A moment that rocked for example was the unforgettable and triumphant Queen performance at Wembley Stadium in 1985 for Live Aid. The moment that was the singular standout power session on the day led by Freddie Mercury and put him in a class among the rock gods. Mercury’s performance even made fellow rock royalty look like mere mortals. Queen’s 21-minute set raised the bar for the others that followed, as great bands and artists like The Who, U2, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Sting, Phil Collins, Dire Straits and more looking on in complete awe.
A moment that shocked, was when The Stooges played one of their many powerful sets at the famous Max Kansas’ City Nightclub in New York City in 1973. The “Godfather of the Punk” Iggy Pop, took to the stage aggressive as ever and then fell accidently on a table full of glass that cut his chest right open. While covered in blood, the consummate professional Iggy Pop continued the performance refusing medical assistance actually using the blood to aid as part of Iggy’s theatrics, shocking and electrifying the audience. Bleeding for your art, now that’s dedication.
One concert in rock history that gets often overlooked, but for many living in the region of Veneto in Italy there is a concert that is considered the singular greatest concert ever played in the beautiful city of Venice. This concert combined moments that both rocked and shocked. The concert we are talking about is the free Pink Floyd concert in Venice on a floating stage next to San Marco’s Square in 1989, with over 200,000 fans in the crowd.
Seeing Pink Floyd is already a top experience combine that with the beauty of Venice, you are in for an unforgettable experience. The concert was apparently such a logistic and bureaucratic nightmare that the concert was almost stopped just 3 days before the concert date. Before we get to all of that let’s get into the details leading to the now infamous concert.
In 1987, Pink Floyd had just finished their latest album, Momentary Lapse of Reason. But for the first time as a 3 piece. This album was the first album since Roger Water’s rather stormy departure from the progressive, psych rock gods. David Gilmour, Nick Mason and the recording of the new album saw the return of founding member Richard Wright. Who returned after his forced departure after the Wall recording by Roger Waters. To say this was a chaotic time for the Floyd is an understatement. The rock world was waiting and wondering what Pink Floyd would put out without who many considered as their major creative contributor in Roger Waters. The result was an album that exceeded all expectation and sold millions all over the world including over 4 million in sales in the United States alone. The good sales of Momentary Lapse of Reason and few concerts in 1987 in support of the album led to a major global tour planned in 1988, that would go on to be one of the biggest rock tours of the entire year. Concert goers all around the world were excited for the next big Pink Floyd concert, never afraid of putting on a massive theatrical show, this show was no different.
The show included, lasers and the ever-present Pink Floyd light show, a giant disco ball that opened up into a large flower, an army of props and effects that would be the kind of sensory overload that you expect from a Pink Floyd concert. When Pink Floyd was asked to play in Venice by local officials in an effort to modernize the rather traditional Venice, the news was met with excitement by many but also with anger by many Venetians. Many older Venetians wanted to ban the concert. As many older Venetians felt that it would be a logistical nightmare that would potentially destroy the ancient facades and monuments. Also, it would be eroding the cultural integrity of the event that was planned just around the same time as the concert, the Redenetore or The Redeemer Festival. The superintendent of cultural heritage for the city vetoed the concert just 3 days before Pink Floyd was set to take the stage. The biggest complaint from the official was a fear of the volume which Pink Floyd is so famous for cranking up. Maybe they really have those magical amps like the ones in “This is Spinal Tap”? The fear was that the massive volume would cause vibrations that could potentially damage ancient structures, facades along with the mosaics and paintings contained within Sant Mark’s Basilica. The two parties finally agreed to lower the decibel levels from 100 to 60 decibels. Pink Floyd’s camp also agreed to play on a floating stage that was based 200 meters away from Saint Mark’s Square.
The show went on! Broadcasted to over 20 countries with over 200,000 Italians in attendance for the free concert. It was spectacular. Many Venetians took their boats, and crowded around the floating platform in what would be a first for Venice. Around the stage you could see many traditional Venetian boats, classic Venetian rowing boats like the sandalo and other classic boats like the Sanpierotta. Saint Mark’s square was loaded to full capacity. Many in attendance have said it was one of the greatest concerts they ever experienced. For many Venetians it defined their youth and some locals have told this writer that it was their greatest memory of living in Venice.
Authorities have said that while the crowd was incredible, on the whole the fans were calm and rather tame. The biggest problem of the whole concert was the mess left in the after math of this concert, many in the crowd using any spot in Saint Mark’s Square as a toilet. However, this could be seen as a planning oversight, as the government did not install portable toilets. What was left behind was over 300 tons of garbage with the whole of St. Mark’s Square full of paper, cans, bottles, trash and more. Many in the local press noted that it was like a Tsunami of garbage. It took groups of cleanup teams’ days to clean up the whole mess. The shocking pictures, told only one part of the story.
Yes, it was a complete disaster for any clean-up team, but for the many in attendance it was an unforgettable experience, that many Venetians who were lucky enough to experience it often tell with a smile on their face. Most recently, this writer walked into a local Venetian restaurant in Castello and displayed proudly on the wall of the restaurant was the next day’s newspaper frontpage from the Pink Floyd concert on that day in 1989. The frontpage showed the garbage aftermath in Saint Mark’s Square with the headline “Never Again!”. When I asked the owner if it really was that messy, he said it was worse than that,
“but damn what a great concert!”