Elvis…The Rolling Stones…U2…Nirvana…Who should make the list?
Real quick — what’s the most storied music venue in the Bay Area?
The Fillmore? Winterland? The Warfield? Maybe you remember the Avalon? Perhaps you’re partial to the Mystic? Or you still remember seeing Talking Heads at the Keystone?
All that said, I’m guessing that the Cow Palace was NOT one of the locations that quickly came to mind….which certainly makes sense, of course, since the building itself was conceived for rodeo long before rock ’n’ roll even existed. Yet, for whatever the Cow Palace lacked in atmosphere as a music venue, it certainly made up for over the years through sheer longevity. Think about it, what other local venue can boast more than four decades of showcasing not just marquee musical acts, but a who’s who of the very best rock ’n’ roll talent at any given moment during any particular era?
Consider the record. In June of 1956, the Cow Palace hosted a variety hour of a bill that included none other than Chuck Berry, which is to say — the musician who best represents the genesis of rock ’n’ roll as a genre. In the time since, the building has showcased live performances by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, The Who, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Elton John, Neil Young, AC/DC, Tom Petty, Michael Jackson, The Police, Van Halen, Prince, Metallica, U2, Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana. And those are just the alpha acts. Look through the record and the list just goes and goes containing all manner of other notables from Alice in Chains to ZZ Top, not to mention Journey, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Idol, Slayer, Marilyn Manson… and, by our count, we’re pretty sure Neil Diamond played there 432 times…give or take.
Which all raises the million-dollar question: How did a building that was created in 1941 to host livestock events — a “palace for cows,” as urban legend puts it — come to be the go-to destination for the biggest and best concerts in the Bay for so long?
Well, by default, really.
“There were no other venues for arena tours,” explains Bruce Ede, the Cow Palace’s longtime box office manager. “It was the Cow Palace and the [Oakland] Coliseum, there wasn’t anywhere else.”
Indeed, San Francisco is unique in that it has never had a Madison Square Garden-style sports arena within city limits (in fact, the soon-to-open Chase Center will be the city’s first ever) and though the Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum Arena (aka Oracle) began to accommodate more concerts over time, it initially skewed heavily towards sporting events. In this sense, the Cow Palace was just the right place (or really—the right size) at the right time.
So in light of recent news that the Cow Palace could face demolition to make way for new condos (an idea that’s currently shelved by lawmakers until next year), we thought we’d wade through its unlikely music legacy by exploring some of the most legendary rock shows to ever take place there.
Due to the sheer volume of concerts, it was difficult to boil down, and while it’s highly likely that we left out a few of your favorites (hey, don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying Mötley Crüe wasn’t awesome when they played there in ’85) we still think you’ll agree that these eight were indeed pretty epic…for one reason or another.
So take a look…..and rock on.
The Beatles—August 19, 1964 (& August 31, 1965)
Six months after the Fab Four’s generational performances on the Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964, the band returned to America to launch their stateside tour at the Cow Palace during the height of Beatlemania.
As a result, some 9000 fans showed up to greet their airplane at SFO on its arrival from London, and then promptly lost their minds after the band landed and quickly bolted for their hotel in downtown San Francisco (where most of the 9000 fans seemed to soon relocate).
The sold-out show at the Cow Palace the following evening was—as expected—marked by young girls passing out in the aisles and a general sense of hysterical high-pitched pandemonium (the official stats were 2 arrests, 50 injuries and 19 girls requiring medical attention). In fact, the band took the stage surrounded by police officers and a chain-link fence (there’s a great shot of Ringo walking along the fence to the drum kit looking fairly terrified).
Their set featured 12 songs performed in 29 minutes—starting with “Twist and Shout” and concluding with “Long Tall Sally”—amid multiple delays due to a persistent hail of…jelly beans? (Apparently George had mentioned in an interview that they were his favorite.) Upon concluding their set the band then had to leave the Cow Palace grounds via ambulance because their limo had already been besieged by fans.
A year later, they returned to play two shows (on the same day—matinee and late—with tickets priced between $4 and $7). The half-hour set of songs was similar to the year prior and rendered much of the same mayhem, though frequently stalled this time around by stage-rushing teens rather than jelly beans, and resulting in a few classic photos of local police officers trying their best to peel Beatles-obsessed girls away from the band.
Hoping that a more low-key location might curb some of the mania that they experienced a year prior, the band opted to stay the night in Palo Alto at the Cabana Hotel (now the Crowne Plaza) on El Camino Real instead of a seemingly more visible location in San Francisco…which, of course, didn’t work at all and devolved into a crowd of 3000 fans staking out the building and teenage girls trying to scale the exterior of the hotel.
The Who—November 20, 1973
“Can anybody play the drums?”—Pete Townsend
Of all the concerts that occurred over the years at the Cow Palace, none are as enshrined in rock ’n’ roll legend as The Who’s notorious performance (glorious meltdown?) that took place in the fall of 1973. If you don’t already know it, the story goes like this: kicking off the first show of their Quadrophrenia tour, the band quickly found themselves in a bad spot as their seemingly always-out-of-his-mind drummer Keith Moon—apparently high that night on horse tranquilizers—was struggling (well…failing) to remain conscious during the second half of the concert. As a solution, the band called up a 19-year-old from the audience to sub for him on the backbeat.
And yes, it’s all captured there on video: Moon mysteriously disappears from the stage (“he’s out cold,” as Townsend puts it to the crowd during a break), only to return and then fully pass out again face down into the drum kit (and subsequently carried out by two roadies).
Enter Scott Halpin, a 19-year-old amateur drummer from Iowa who had scalped a ticket that night and was watching the concert close to the stage. After Moon collapsed a second time Halpin’s friend approached renowned Bay Area promoter Bill Graham to pitch the idea of Scott subbing in as drummer.
As Halpin explained it to NPR in 2006: “My friend … was pushing me forward to do this, and really interfacing with Bill Graham once he got there, nose to nose. And so [Graham] looks to me square in the eye and says, ‘Can you do it?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’ straight out.”
Settling into Moon’s place with an is-this-really-happening expression, Scott then seized upon a very literal 15 minutes of fame holding it down on the drums for two Howling Wolf covers (“Spoonful” and “Smokestack Lightning”) before concluding the show with The Who’s “Naked Eye.” He then joined the entire band to take a final bow in front of the Cow Palace crowd (with his arm around Pete Townsend as if he had been a lifelong member of the band).
In their review of the show, the SF Chronicle savaged the band, calling the performance “disastrous” and attributing Moon’s condition to “too much high living about California during the last few days.” In time however, accounts of the incident grew into legend, particularly after Moon overdosed in 1976. As the concert footage resurfaced years later, the incident (and Halpin himself) became a fascinating footnote to the band’s storied career.
As Halpin’s wife explained it years later, “I never met a person that was not wowed by that story.”
Pink Floyd—April 12 & 13, 1975
This might be a good point to just cop to the fact that lists like this are ridiculously subjective. (Trust us, we know.) Even with that said, we’d wager that anybody who has ever seen Pink Floyd in concert — at any point, much less during the band’s prime — wouldn’t dispute them being included here. After all, when it comes to live concerts, Floyd is just in a class by itself. And sure, it’s corny to say, but here you go — more than a performance, it’s an experience: the light show, the sound quality, the giant pig balloons that hover over the audience…the airplane that crashes into the stage during the encore. Like I said, if you know, well, you just know.
Asking around about the two Bay Area dates on their Wish You Were Here tour from April of 1975 we often heard it referenced as THE Pink Floyd show. (As in—“Yeah, I saw THE Cow Palace Floyd show.”) The band only came to the venue once, but it was at the peak of their 70s-era run of masterpieces, which took the form of Floyd kicking off their set with early tracks from their yet-to-be-released Animals before leading into their most current material from Wish You Were Here. Even better yet, the entire second half of the concert was dedicated to performing Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. Wow.
David Bowie—February 6, 1976
It’s easily lost in the shuffle these days that David Bowie wasn’t always regarded as a transcendent otherworldly artistic shaman. And yes, it seems like sacrilege to even suggest as much, but it’s true.
As Rolling Stone Magazine’s Mikal Gilmore wrote in a Ziggy Stardust retrospective: “David Bowie … had been singing and playing rock & roll since 1962, and making quaint and eccentric albums since 1967, to little attention. His progress had proved so fitful that he wondered if he wanted to continue with it.”
Case in point—when Bowie played a Halloween show at San Francisco’s legendary Winterland Ballroom in 1971 (at $4 a ticket) he barely filled a quarter of the 5000-seat venue and was met with a lackluster response in a city known for its enthusiastic concert goers.
In return, Bowie avoided the Bay Area on his next tour, which eventually prompted Bill Graham to proactively woo him back a few years later by publicly declaring, “Bowie! Come back! We love you!”
The result was a thrilling performance before a sold-out Cow Palace crowd with Bowie—immersed in his Thin White Duke persona—playing through a setlist full of now-legendary hits (“Changes,” “Rebel Rebel”) and well-adapted covers (Iggy Pop’s “Sister Midnight” & The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man”).
When the house lights came up, the audience kept the ovation going well after the concert finished until Bowie returned to launch through an impromptu version of “Diamond Dogs.”
Backstage soon after (with the crowd still roaring) Bill Graham presented Bowie with a silver cape (because….what else do you give as a gift to David Bowie?) and the hard feelings of the ’71 Winterland debacle finally seemed smoothed over.
“It was a lovely night,” Bowie said afterwards.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse—October 22, 1978
Most venues that clock some longevity eventually have a notable live album attached to them, and the Bay Area has more than its share: Jimi Hendrix’s Live at Winterland, Marvin Gaye’s Live at Oakland Arena, Aretha Franklin’s Live at Fillmore West. For the Cow Palace, Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Live Rust is enshrined in its legacy (even if most local fans don’t know exactly which of the many Neil Young shows held there over the years accounted for it).
It’s a fitting match too, since Neil Young came to adopt the Peninsula as his home, living in the hills above La Honda and spearheading the annual Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amphitheatre for 30 years.
Live Rust contains tracks from a variety of locations on Neil’s Rust Never Sleeps tour in 1978, but the lion’s share of the songs on the album — including “Sugar Mountain,” “My My, Hey Hey,” and “Powderfinger”—came from the Cow Palace performance.
Showcasing Neil’s full range—from masterful Dylan-esque solo acoustic tracks to guitar-driven Crazy Horse clamor—Live Rust is often regarded as one of Young’s greatest LPs. He would return to the Cow Palace again and again over the years, but this material remains timeless.
Prince—February 27–28, March 1, & 3–5, 1985
For six nights in the winter of 1985 the Bay Area was awash in Purple Rain.
Yes, Prince came to town at the height of his 80s popularity in the wake of his Purple Rain feature film blowing up the previous summer and just after “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry” were radio hits months prior. As a result, the entire Bay Area was abuzz trying to get their hands on what longtime Chronicle pop culture critic Peter Hartlaub deemed “one of the hottest tickets in San Francisco history.”
Prince pulled out all the stops on this tour putting on a highly choreographed show heavy with special effects (which collectively required 12 buses for a tour staff of over 100). As Rolling Stone Magazine described in their article on The 50 Greatest Concerts of the Last 50 Years: “…the 98 shows he did in support of the soundtrack album were like Broadway productions. Prince began the show ascending from beneath the stage on a hydraulic lift, and went through five costume changes.” Reflective of Prince’s perfectionist approach to the production, soundcheck alone was rumored to have clocked in at 3 hours each night (and his musicians would record them via cassette tape to study what he had mapped out for them).
The results were stunning. Prince hit the ground running each night, opening the show with…(wait for it)….“Let’s Go Crazy,” “Delirious,” “1999” and “Little Red Corvette.” Later in the set he’d have Sheila E. (the tour’s opening act) play with him on a lengthy medley of “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star.” The show would conclude with an expansive jam on “Purple Rain” that could often run upwards of a half hour in length.
All told, some 80,000 local fans made it to those concerts (George Lucas and Linda Ronstadt were among celebrities spotted in the crowd). Though the shows were typically structured around a similar setlist, Prince took the material in different directions every night. As his drummer Bobby Z reflected on the tour years later: “The crowd could feel it was tight and spontaneous … Ninety-nine percent of the time it was a miracle.”
U2—April 24 & 25, 1987
When U2 came to the Cow Palace for two nights in the spring of ’87 they were a band on the cusp of mega-stardom. Their new album, The Joshua Tree, would soon morph the quietly popular Irish quartet into one of the biggest acts on the planet for decades to come. In fact, within just a year’s time, U2 would sell out huge stadiums around the world, appear on the cover of TIME Magazine and even have a mass market concert film documenting it all.
So their pair of shows at the Cow Palace was a unique moment to see them in concert: a generational band at their apex touring on a now-classic album right before the mania and magnitude of their success turned it all into something different. After all, these were the days when U2 played spectacular shows with little more than a white sheet as a back drop. No giant spaceship stage, no Zoo TV, just four musicians working through their material in a minimalist setting.
Yet the quality of these two Cow Palace shows are often eclipsed within the Bay Area’s collective memory by the band’s return later that fall, when U2’s two sold-out shows at Oakland Coliseum were beset by controversy after the SFPD and then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein considered pressing charges against Bono for spray-painting graffiti on the fountain sculpture in Justin Hermann Plaza during a free concert days prior. In turn, Bono’s on-stage response in Oakland contained far more rock star-oriented egotism than the band’s fans were accustomed to: “Have you ever picked on the wrong band. We’re U2. We’re the Batman and Robin of rock ’n’ roll.”
Yep, same band, same year…different universe.
Nirvana—December 31, 1991 (& April 9, 1993)
“The new rock aesthetic brings down the Cow Palace”—Rolling Stone Magazine (2/20/92)
New Year’s Eve in the early 90s and three bands that would come to be known as the biggest of the era—The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam and Nirvana—are all on the same bill at the height of their breakout success. In fact, Nirvana’s Nevermind would hit #1 on the Billboard charts (dislodging none other than Michael Jackson) within just a week of this show.
A lot can be said about how the timing of this Cow Palace date factored into their stratospheric rise and reflected the musical era to come, yet Nirvana’s New Year’s performance holds up above all else as a case study to the raw power of the band.
Anchoring off of a setlist that vaulted back-and-forth between their small label debut, Bleach, and their legacy-defining classic Nevermind, the sludgy power trio blazed through a 13-song set that drove the Cow Palace crowd into a churning riot. As Rolling Stone Magazine reported: “Nirvana played a taut forty-five-minute set that completely wrecked what was left of the audience’s composure. Members of the mosh pit, which stretched from the stage to the back of the arena, were being thrown in the air like clods of dirt caught up in a live minefield.”
In fact, the same writer couldn’t pass on acknowledging the generational contrast in play between the bands on the bill at the Cow Palace that evening and The Grateful Dead, who had made a decades-long tradition of playing San Francisco on New Year’s: “even the most casual observer would have had no trouble deciding which side of youth culture would be more fun to belong to.”
Nirvana returned to the Cow Palace later in April of 1993—now the biggest band in the world—to spearhead a one-off benefit concert (and preview much of their material from In Utero, which would be released later that fall). Tragically, Cobain would pass almost twelve months to the day after this performance.
Have some thoughts, feedback or unhinged rants about which shows should have made the list? Let us know: [email protected]
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