Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Musical Riots and Assorted Mayhem

Bill Haley and his Comets at the Berlin Sportspalast
Bill Haley (1925-1981) and his Comets at the Berlin Sportspalast, October 26, 1958

We mark the riot that occurred on October 26, 1958 – 62 years ago today – when Bill Haley and his Comets played a concert at Berlin’s Sportpalast to an audience of some 7000 people.

Signs of trouble had occurred at Haley’s first two German concerts on the previous two evenings, the first one in Hamburg and the next in Essen. But no one could have anticipated the mayhem in Berlin, where some 500 rock ‘n’ rollers and police staged a fist-and-stick battle during the show. Five policemen were badly beaten, six audience members severely injured, while damages to the venue amounted to over 50,000 Deutsche Marks.

Both the East and West German authorities reacted with outrage. The West Berlin senate banned all future rock ‘n’ roll concerts. In East Germany, Neues Deutschland, the official Communist Party organ, condemned Haley in a front-page editorial for:

“turning the youth of the land of Bach and Beethoven into raging beasts.”

(With all due respect we would observe that just a few years before, “the youth of the land of Bach and Beethoven” had indeed behaved like raging beasts.)

The newspapers in both East and West Berlin agreed that the Haley riots were:

“the worst disturbance of its kind that Berlin has seen.”

In East Berlin, Neues Deutschland took things further, accusing Haley of being:

“an agent of so-called aggressive Western politicians who were seeking to exploit rock ‘n’ roll to create an atom war psychology among young people.”

William John Clifton “Bill” Haley
William John Clifton “Bill” Haley

Bill Haley and his Comets caused a riot? Bill Haley, who sported an “aw shucks” cowlick on his forehead? Who performed wearing a plaid jacket and a bow tie, whose hit song – Rock Around the Clock – was (and remains) as benign as a St. Bernard Puppy on Valium? That Bill Haley?

Yes, that Bill Haley caused a riot.

Let’s put this into historical perspective.

Bill Haley was the first white rock ‘n’ roll star, someone whose fame predated that of Elvis Presley by roughly one year. For its youthful aficionados, rock ‘n’ roll was the music of the present and the future: an electrified, über-rhythmic, post-World War Two dance music that had little (if anything!) to do with what they considered the hopelessly stilted, pre-war music of their parents. For its adult critics, rock ‘n’ roll was nothing but primitive ugliness, devoid of grace and civility. Rock ‘n’ roll concerts became ground zero for post-war adolescents rebelling against their parents, and scuffles with authority figures (meaning the police) became a feature of many rock ‘n’ roll concerts, part of the show.

In Germany, the post-war generation of adolescents had rather more to be angry about than their American counterparts. Their parents and grandparents had perpetrated one of the greatest catastrophes in history. They themselves grew up in deprivation; Berlin was still a shattered husk in 1958. The bourgeois-patriarchal society instituted by the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) did little to allay their cynicism. It’s no wonder that many of these German kids – taking their cue from their American counterparts – used the occasion of a rock ‘n’ roll concert to vent their collective spleen, and no wonder that the West German authorities banned subsequent rock ‘n’ roll concerts indefinitely!

Using the Bill Haley brouhaha as a precedent, it would be all-too-easy to build an entire post (or two, or three) around rock ‘n’ roll-inspired riots. Instead, we will spend the remainder of this post observing musical riots that occurred in more unexpected venues, in the hoity-toity confines of concert halls and opera houses.… continue reading, only on Patreon.

Become a Patron!

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now