‘Lighters In The Sky’ Exclusive: Van Halen’s 1979 Concert At The LA Coliseum Set A New Bar For Insanity

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On October 10, Corbin Reiff’s first book Lighters In The Sky: The Greatest Concerts Of All-Time 1960-2016 will hit the stands. Each chapter seeks to highlight one show every year that defined live music for the year. For more information about the process behind the book, check out our interview with him here. While there were several cases where he was faced with hard decisions about who to include, 1979 was not among them. Van Halen’s stand at the Califfornia World Music Festival on April 8 ranks as one of the most over-the-top, wild and debaucherous events in music history. That’s not even mentioning what happened onstage. With that being said, here’s an exclusive look into that incredible gig.

Van Halen’s one-night stand at the CaliFFornia World Music Festival in 1979 reigns as one of the most over-the-top events in rock history. That’s without even mentioning what happened onstage. Though they had only “made it” the year before, following the release of their self-titled debut album, Van Halen had spent the last several years plugging away in the San Gabriel Valley as a beer-swilling, cop-enraging, backyard party band. They were four guys who knew how to have a good time and delighted in pushing the envelope.

Van Halen was the co-headliner for the festival’s second day alongside an on-the-edge-of-disintegrating Aerosmith. From the second they arrived at the Memorial Coliseum, they did just about everything they could do to attract attention. The band, their crew and their coterie of hangers-on—about 300 people—rolled up to the venue in a fleet of 16 white stretch limousines. Backstage, a pair of little people acted as the band’s “security team,” but their chief responsibility was to fetch lead singer David Lee Roth more beer whenever his cup ran low.

Rocking the faces off tens of thousands of adoring fans wasn’t the only thing they had on their agenda that day. To while away the hours before they hit the stage, Van Halen concocted a prank to play on Aerosmith. They parked a yellow Volkswagen Bug in front of the Coliseum and periodically had someone make an announcement to the crowd asking for “someone in the Aerosmith organization to please move their car.”

Meanwhile, Van Halen had already rented a World War II–era Sherman tank from a Hollywood entertainment company with the intention of running over “Aerosmith’s Bug.” As Roth explained, “The theory being that after all of these announcements throughout the day and the night, the lights would go down, they’d go, ‘Ladies and gentlemen . . . da-da-da . . . Van Halen,’ the spotlights would hit us and the tank would come out from under a cover on that landing, run right over the Volkswagen and we’d pop out of the tank and run down the stairs to the stage.”

Aerosmith found out and put the kibosh on Van Halen’s plan. “We discovered several days before the show that Aerosmith had been put wise to our little scheme and had found some stock footage of airplanes blowing up tanks, and that’s what they were going to show when they came on after us,” Roth said. “We decided that because Aerosmith had a little trump card that we weren’t going to do the tank trick, so we never ran over the Volkswagen, we just ran down the stairs. We didn’t want to be one-upped on our one-upmanship, you know?”

With their plan to sabotage the Aerosmith’s set thwarted, Van Halen were going to do something even better. They were going to blow the headliners completely off the stage.