It began as a major bummer. In the middle of 1990, Jane’s Addiction—a Los Angeles-bred alternative-rock band and one of the most popular groups of any genre at the time—was planning to call it quits. Lead singer Perry Farrell had become disillusioned with the prospect of fronting a behemoth of a band. Before officially parting, however, he decided to plot one final tour, in the summer of 1991.
The “final” tour for Jane’s Addiction would hardly be an ordinary one: Farrell recruited some of his favorite like-minded bands to join him and together they set out on a multi-city jaunt the singer dubbed Lollapalooza. Young fans coming to the shows latched on to something they could finally call their own. Unlike the rest of the music world at the time, Lolla didn’t reek of mainstream commercialism.
Today the festival brings in more than 100 bands every year and celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2016 with a four-day blowout on July 28-31 at its longtime home in Chicago’s Grant Park.
The Birth of Lollapalooza Nation
Perry Farrell, Lollapalooza co-founder and lead singer of Jane’s Addiction: By mid-1990, I wasn’t getting along with the other members of Jane’s Addiction.
I was sad and depressed. I tried to cooperate and be democratic, but I’ve always had a difficult time being in a group. I refused to dummy down and become a pop act. I wanted to say what I wanted, and I would suffer the consequences.
Marc Geiger, Lollapalooza co-founder and agent for Jane’s Addiction: We—me, the band and manager Ted Gardner—went to the Reading and Leeds festivals in England. Jane’s played a club show the night before they were supposed to play Reading. It was like 300 degrees in the club and Perry ended up losing his voice entirely. They had to cancel their Reading show set for the next day. Jane’s drummer, Stephen Perkins, and I went down to Reading fest anyway.
We spent all day there with a bunch of cool artists: The Pixies, Siouxsie and the Banshees, etc. Stephen and I were talking and we said, “Why don’t we put on something like Reading Festival as our going-away tour? We went back to the hotel where Perry and the rest of the band were and we pitched the idea. Perry said, “Fantastic!” I immediately conceived the structure of it and asked everybody to put down their favorite artist that they would want. I started to chase down the bands.
Stuart Ross, tour director, Lollapalooza, 1991-97: Perry said, “Listen, it’s going to be our last tour. Let’s go out, we’ll have six opening acts and we’ll get a bunch of art and we’ll get political booths—we’ll have the NRA set up next to PETA; we’ll get army and navy recruiters; and we’ll get crazy huge burritos and enormous drinks.
Geiger: One night Perry called me up at 1 in the morning and said, “I got the name! Lollapalooza.” I said, “What the f*ck is that?!” He told me it was from a Three Stooges episode and I thought it was great. We went off and built it up.
Farrell: I wanted to pick the best groups. I wanted them to have the best time. It was of such importance for the groups to enjoy themselves. So I got my friends together. I went to people that I thought had extreme credibility and talent and were important: Henry Rollins, Butthole Surfers, Siouxsie and the Banshees. These groups to me signified my generation.
Geiger: We felt strongly we had to take the music to the people because there was a shift starting to happen in music and music culture. It was a really bad time in music: MTV was still playing hair bands and yet the underground and the indie world were very strong. It just didn’t get any mainstream attention. The business side of me realized this is a market that should have happened a long time ago. Kids in America should have a festival experience like kids in England. Lollapalooza, from a timing standpoint, was more than just an exciting show and potential experience. It was a beacon and a sort of symbol for the changing musical culture.
Henry Rollins, rocker and former Black Flag frontman who played the first Lollapalooza in 1991: On the first day, the amps that powered the PA were threatening to overheat. There were dry-ice blocks being fanned into them. We were the first notes struck at Lollapalooza. The mood was a constant, “Well, let’s see what this will do today.” It wasn’t Lollapalooza Inc. yet. We had no idea that all the shows were going to get done, much less become what it did. However, the shows were so good and the audience was so enthusiastic as they were plentiful, you could tell that Perry had really invented something unique and spectacular. It was one of the best breaks I ever got. I owe Perry plenty.
Farrell: Henry went out there in a pair of shorts that were ripped. His balls were probably hanging out. He understood that if he hung in there with everybody he was going to have an audience that he wouldn’t normally have.
Bands at the first Lollapalooza in 1991
The decision was made to turn Lollapalooza into an annual touring festival, and with each passing year its size and scope increased.
Ross: Perry had recognized that alternative music was far bigger than the radio stations represented. And at exactly the same time these bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana were getting huge.
Geiger: We were also really the first to put hip-hop in a place that kids could see it without the fear of thinking they were going to get shot. It was Ice-T, Ice Cube and then we had Wu-Tang Clan with Rage Against the Machine. All of those started the live hip-hop in what I’ll call suburban white America.
Farrell: When Kurt Cobain and I were at Lollapalooza together one year we looked at each other and Kurt said, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to make it!” I gave people faith to be genuine and original and authentic and not have to follow the prescription that the record company had set.
By the mid-’90s Lollapalooza had become a cultural institution. Headliners in 1994, from Green Day and the Smashing Pumpkins to Beastie Boys, reflected its evolving scale.
Ross: As Lollapalooza grew, the career arc of the alternative bands also grew. But as the bands got bigger their fees got higher. There was a certain point where it was starting to get unaffordable to build a show that we could charge a reasonable ticket price to.
Farrell: All of a sudden you had these managers of groups starting to get greedy. These groups didn’t have the same sense of community we had at the beginning. It started to become every man for himself. It was all about the money.
Geiger: After we did the “indie Lolla” in 1995 with Jesus Lizard and Hole and Sonic Youth, we were disgusted. We thought the alternative music scene was shit. I couldn’t handle it. Perry and I had a big disagreement about the ’96 run, so that by the end of that year’s tour, ’97 was almost an afterthought. The energy was gone. We all thought the scene had eaten itself. And that was the start of the break.
After five years away, Lollapalooza attempted a comeback as a traveling festival in 2003, albeit to mild success. A subsequent 2004 tour was canceled due to poor ticket sales. In 2005, however, the festival found a permanent home in Chicago’s Grant Park, where it remains to the present day.
Geiger: We had a proposal from what became [Lollapalooza partner] C3 Presents. They said, “We think there’s something here. We’ve done some testing and we think the Lollapalooza brand is fantastic. We’d like to explore.” We said, “We’ve already been exploring changing the model. You guys want to do it?” So we cut a deal and scouted six cities for locations. Chicago was never premeditated. It was just one of the markets that we thought had a great park.
Farrell: We got Chicago. But Charlie Jones, co-founder of C3 Presents, was getting pressured by his partners to say “Lose Perry because you can’t depend on him.” They were going to call it Chicago City Limits and they were going to exclude me. I broke down and I begged Charlie and said, “You can’t do that to me. My heart’s going to die. You got the property because you said it was Lollapalooza.” He was the only one who stood by me—he went up against his company to stick up for me. So back to life I came.
Geiger: When Lollapalooza came back in the Chicago format, in 2005, the internet was already exploding musically. The finite parameters on what people wanted to define Lollapalooza as—which bands were “Lolla bands” and which ones were not—we thought was really stupid and narrow. Good music wasn’t trapped in one definable alt-genre. And so Chicago became a much broader palette for more artists of more types. And we got attacked for taking risks. For example, when we put up country acts like Sturgill Simpson or Eric Church people got all wonky. We really didn’t give a f*ck. We just want to program it well and expand.
Farrell: We need each other more than ever in the music business. For the middle-of-the-bill bands it means you’re going to be playing in front of 20,000 to 50,000 people. You would never get that anywhere else. But now you’re going to be exposed to a new, large audience.
Brian Fallon, lead singer of Gaslight Anthem, who played Lollapalooza in 2009 and 2012: Every musician has boxes that they tick. For me growing up in the ’90s, Pearl Jam was like my version of the Who. So to get to play the same festival that they did and one that was so pivotal to my understanding of music when I was 11 was a huge deal. I remember in 2009 we were flying in from Europe and someone called me and was like, “You’ve got to get off the plane and go play Lollapalooza tomorrow.” I was like, “I don’t care. We’re going!”
Present-Day Success & Global Impact
In recent years Lollapalooza has been a leader in embracing a wide variety of music, most notably from the pop and DJ/EDM realms. It’s now one of the highest-grossing festivals around and has expanded internationally, playing to crowds in Germany, Chile, Brazil and Argentina.
Farrell: In 2010, Lady Gaga headlined the festival and we had to build the biggest stage we’ve ever had at Lollapalooza to contain all of her production. But we did it gladly. So her show was amazing. But what was even more amazing was the following day she went out onto a small stage—a very, very small stage, where she had first performed at Lollapalooza [in 2007]—and did a stage-dive into the audience wearing a body stocking. And the crowd basically devoured her. They were grabbing her boobs; they were grabbing her tushy; they were grabbing her hair. She was on top of them writhing like an earthworm.
Geiger: When we recrafted Lolla we created a dance area and called it Perry’s. We made it an anchor tent and in a weird way we hit the timing right again and stuck with it. The DJ culture hadn’t exploded yet and we were out in front of it. And then as it really started to look like it was coming to papa and getting big we were really well positioned. We were really the first festival—before Coachella—to emphasize DJs and dance music. We didn’t know it was going to play up that big when we created Perry’s, but we definitely were into it for a long time before.
Farrell: Not disco. Dance music. House. The good stuff. [Laughs.] It’s just so sensory. I just love it. I look a lot of times to my boys to see how they’re receiving the show. And my boys were rocking out to Deadmau5 when he performed in 2011. He hits really hard and he’s amazing. I just need music to have heart and not be afraid. Be authentic and the young people will love you and hold you up.
Mick Jenkins, Chicago-born rapper who performed at Lolla in 2015: There’s a picture of me at the edge of the stage in front of like 1,000 people with my hands up. It was a crazy experience. Getting to that level where you’re playing festivals is an important step to take in your career. When Outkast played, that was my first Lollapalooza experience and the next year I was playing. It was dope.
Rollins: Lollapalooza was a game changer. It affected MTV, FM radio, labels and what they signed. Most importantly, it gave young people a way to experience their peers with music as the attractor. These are people who now decide with their votes who the next president will be. This is not small stuff. A lot of people go through their lives without events that socialize and culturalize them, and I think they are not well served by that. Lollapalooza gave young people a chance to have a great understanding of the live-music experience and how it could be so much more than just seeing some bands. On that level, Lollapalooza was and is profound.
Geiger: Lolla is like a band: Everybody involved has added something to the mix. We cared. It was never about making a ton of money. It was always about pushing the envelope and making the experience better.
Farrell: I look at Lolla now from the eyes of a parent. I want to do something positive that I can leave to this world.
The 25th edition of Lollapalooza will stream live on Red Bull TV, July 28-31.