A little friendly rivalry between musicians is usually a good thing for everybody involved — by encouraging a spirit of good-natured competition, performers have added incentive to improve their skills, and a few snappy jibes at each other’s expense are sure to garner a little extra publicity for both bands. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to go a bit too far, to the point where people remember you less for your music and more for bitching at each other in the press and/or getting shot to death.
Come to think of it, if someone gets shot to death that’s probably a worse problem than the bad press surrounding it. Take a journey with us into the harshest of realms, as we look at some of the pettiest, meanest and most violent band battles of the twentieth century.
LYNYRD SKYNYRD VS. NEIL YOUNG
Good-ol’ country-rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd were fans of the heavier, bluesier sound of scruffy Canadian Neil Young, so they were among the first to grab his 1970 album, “After The Gold Rush.” Imagine their shock at coming across the track “Southern Man,” a vivid (if heavy-handed) condemnation of Southern racism and the failure of reconstruction and reparation. Young rubbed it in with 1972’s “Alabama,” and Skynyrd decided to defend Dixie’s wounded honor two years later with the hugely popular “Sweet Home Alabama,” which contained two full stanzas calling out Neil Young by name and concluding, “A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
Young ended up liking the song and respecting Skynyrd’s gumption, and even played it a few times for concert performances. Lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant reciprocated by frequently wearing Neil Young T-shirts, even while singing about how much of a jerk he was. Both songs remain controversial (“Sweet Home Alabama” also had lyrics interpreted by many to support noted segregationist governor George Wallace, while Young said in his 2012 autobiography, “I don’t like my words when I listen to 'Southern Man'”) but widely popular, with “Sweet Home Alabama” given the dubious honor of being sampled by human genital wart Kid Rock in his song “All Summer Long.”
PAVEMENT VS. SMASHING PUMPKINS
Pavement was one of the most influential bands you’ve never heard of — a post-punk, grunge era, proto-indie group that stubbornly refused to sign on with a major label but whose sound was so quintessentially Nineties that critics like Robert Christgau referred to them as the best band of the decade.
A humble and somewhat obscure fixture of the music scene for all ten years of its existence, Pavement attracted mass media attention exactly twice—first, with their single and accompanying video “Cut Your Hair,” which received moderate airplay and an appearance on Beavis and Butthead, and second with the release of the 1994 single “Range Life,” where vocalist Stephen Malkmus sang: “Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins / Nature kids, but they don’t have no function / I don’t understand what they mean and I could really give a fuck.”
Malkmus has repeatedly claimed that the song is from a fictional viewpoint of an aging hippie (for one thing, Pavement never actually toured with the Pumpkins), but that failed to appease SP frontman Billy Corgan, rock’s most delicate and precious snowflake, who threatened to pull out of Lollapalooza ’94 if he had to share a stage with Pavement.
Pavement essentially self-destructed in late 1999, briefly “reuniting” in 2009 for a handful of benefit performances and a brief, fractious tour, but as late as October 2012, Billy Corgan is still incredibly pissed off at the long-dead band, claiming in an interview with "Time Out New York" that “Range Life” had become an “anthem [for] every guy with a fucking beard.”
Is it true that the bearded men of America are still obsessed with Pavement and unfairly decry Smashing Pumpkins based on that one song? Considering that the only people who could conceivably have heard and remembered a song from eighteen years ago have by now reached prime beard-growing age, Billy could conceivably have a point.
NIRVANA VS. GUNS N’ ROSES
In the early Nineties, Nirvana and Guns n’ Roses were seen as representative of two polar opposites of popular rock music. It was a good time for both bands, with Axl Rose not yet insane and Kurt Cobain not yet dead, so someone in G'n'R thought to bridge the gap by inviting Nirvana to tour with them.
Nirvana refused, then added literal insult to injury when Cobain declared Guns n’ Roses to write “crap music” in a later interview. The bad blood persisted up until the 1992 VMAs, when Axl responded to Courtney Love’s mocking request for him to be the godfather of their newborn child by demanding that Kurt “shut [his] bitch up.”
When Cobain failed to comply, Rose then threatened to “take [him] to the pavement” (hopefully, he was going to let Kurt put his baby down first) and even invited Duff McKagan to join the fight (this was back when McKagan could stand being in the same zip code as Rose, let alone the same band). Cobain laughed the incident off, saying, “I couldn’t help but laugh because I’ve never been in that kind of situation since the sixth grade.”
The matter was ultimately resolved with Cobain’s death and Rose’s self-imposed exile, but recently Slash stated during an interview with Howard Stern that “there were some issues that happened, having to do with Axl” that made him secretly grateful for Cobain and Love’s attempt to poke holes in the singer’s hyperinflated ego. As we’ve seen before, Axl does tend to have that effect on people...
OASIS VS. BLUR
When their time wasn’t taken up with fighting each other, Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis were happy to take part in what began as a ginned-up battle with Damon Albarn and Alex James of Blur but ended up (like so many things associated with the brothers Gallagher) a genuinely spiteful and long-standing spat.
A minor rivalry between fans of the two groups was exploited by their two labels, who agreed to release the Blur single “Country House” and the Oasis single “Roll With It” on the same day as a marketing stunt. The media quickly seized upon this artificial competition, especially after Noel classily kicked it up a notch by stating that he hoped Albarn and James would “catch AIDS and die.”
Dubbed “The Battle of Britpop,” the conflict soon took on weird dimensions entirely beyond the groups’ music: Oasis came to represent Northern England and Blur the South; Oasis was supposedly more working-class laborer and Blur more middle-class intellectual; Oasis tasted great and Blur was less filling, etc. “Country House” ended up selling more copies than “Roll With It,” but Oasis was ultimately more commercially successful — music writers at the time largely decided that Blur had won the battle but lost the war. On the other hand, Blur reunited in 2008 and by all accounts they have yet to physically assault each other, so maybe they came out better in the grand scheme of things.
SLAYER VS. MACHINE HEAD
Renowned guitarist and Slayer cofounder Kerry King has a reputation for semi-random feuds that fizzle out as soon as he forgets why he was angry in the first place. When Dave Mustaine tried to get him to ditch the “poseurs” of Slayer, it led to a major public squall, but basically everybody and his dog has had a fight with Dave Mustaine at some point, so it hardly counts.
Ditto for Metallica, who nabbed Rick Rubin for "Death Magnetic" when Slayer was counting on his support for "Christ Illusion," leading King to presciently dub the band a “sinking ship.” His most famous and random fit, however, would be when he decided Machine Head and frontman Robb Flynn were not just “sellouts” but responsible for rap-metal — perhaps one of the most serious charges ever leveled at a fellow metal musician.
Flynn, for his part, was baffled, saying that King was “talking shit about us out of nowhere,” but handily retaliated by suggesting King looked like somebody from Right Said Fred. (Remember? Bunch of dancing bald gay dudes? Too sexy for my ... etc.? Not sure why they’re still on Flynn’s mind.) For six years, the bands sniped at each other in the press until once again, King realized he had no idea why he was angry in the first place and buried the hatchet by inviting Machine Head to substitute for Anthrax on the Big Four Tour.
MR. BUNGLE VS. THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
Mike Patton is known to the music press for a number of things — his incredible vocal range, his pioneering efforts to blend genres, his performance as the Anger Sphere in 2007 video game "Portal" — but to the wider world, he may be most known for his feud with considerably more popular band Red Hot Chili Peppers, in general, and frontman Anthony Kiedis, in particular.
The feud began with the release of Patton-fronted Faith No More’s video for “Epic,” where Patton was seen wearing dumb clothes, dancing around all crazy and rapping over funk-metal. Kiedis was somehow under the impression that his band had singlehandedly invented all these things and accused Patton and FNM of plagiarism. Years later, Patton’s project Mr. Bungle saw its album “California” pushed back so as not to conflict with “Californication,” which they were mildly irritated by but willing to accept, given that the Peppers were more popular and had more pull.
The last funk-metal straw was when Mr. Bungle was preparing to tour Europe, only to find that RHCP refused to play any show where Bungle would also put in an appearance, effectively blocking them from a number of major venues. At that point, Patton and company took revenge the only way they knew how: At their next show, they took the stage wearing white briefs, performing twisted covers of Red Hot Chili Pepper hits while Mike bounced and lunged around the stage pretending to shoot heroin and generally acting like a huge goon.
Mr. Bungle would soon dissolve and reform in a number of different incarnations and musical combinations, typically under the aegis of Patton’s Ipecac Records, but rumor has it that even now Kiedis is still nursing a pointless grudge.
EMMURE VS. THE ACACIA STRAIN
The New England metal community is a small place and minor disagreements tend to become major quickly. Case in point: the feud between The Acacia Strain (out of Chicopee) and Emmure (out of Queens), two metalcore/deathcore/somethingcore bands who sound similar enough for mutual charges of riff-stealing to start flying.
TAS first raised the accusation in their song “Skynet,” prompting an Emmure response in the form of “R2Deepthroat” which may be metal’s first out-and-out diss track (It even has a Mobb Deep reference!). At the height of the crisis, The Acacia Strain was rumored to be spitting on anyone in their audience wearing an Emmure T-shirt and it became impossible to read any article or YouTube comment section concerning either band without coming across a pitched battle between warring armies of fans.
The issue was finally settled by a backstage fistfight between frontmen Frankie Palmieri (Emmure) and Vincent Bennet (TAS), ending with a handshake and a formal declaration of beef-quashing. The bands went their two separate stylistic ways, with The Acacia Strain continuing to sing about destroying the sun and Emmure continuing to sing about "Street Fighter."
GLENN DANZIG VS. EVERYONE TALLER THAN HIM
It’s not easy being Glenn Danzig — coping with the rumor that he’s the bastard son of Jim Morrison, people assuming that he’s a goddamn son of a bitch, despite his claims to the contrary, being a teeny-tiny little elf-man — but it’s also not easy being anybody near Glenn Danzig when his Short Man’s Syndrome kicks into high gear. Danzig’s mania for perfection tends to alienate bandmates, and his short fuse is by all accounts very easy to light.
During his time with the Misfits, he accused both Rick James and Mötley Crüe of biting their style (“Up until then, [Crüe] was a [New York] Dolls imitation and then all of a sudden, they were into ‘the mark of the beast,’”) and famously chased Vince Neil out of a club and down the street with the assistance of Henry Rollins (who didn’t really have a beef with Mötley Crüe but knew a good time when he saw one). Later on, with his self-titled band (the mark of any self-respecting genius/egomaniac), he got violent with Def Leppard in an altercation that was reported to have ended badly for Danzig.
Still later, touring to support a new album, Danzig refused to allow supporting band Northside Kings to perform; frontman Danny Marianino went where eagles dared and had words with the singer backstage. Glenn gave Marianino a shove, and Marianino came back with a solid right cross that dropped Danzig like a sack of Satanic potatoes.
Danzig later claimed that the reason he didn’t fight back was that he didn’t want to trigger a lawsuit; he also claims to be a practitioner of Jeet Kune Do, the martial art developed by Bruce Lee, so maybe just take what Danzig says with a grain of salt. For his part, Marinanino is apparently out of the music business, but has lately released a book entitled, “Don’t Ever Punch A Rock Star,” to which one might add the subtitle, “Unless You’re Looking to Sell Your Memoir.”
2PAC VS. BIGGIE SMALLS
Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. were two of rap’s most talented voices and tragic figures in the mid-Nineties — both men getting caught up in the infamous (and somewhat bogus) East Coast vs. West Coast feud and both men dying tragically under mysterious circumstances.
NYC’s Bad Boy Records had an overarching beef with LA’s Death Row records for taking up most of the media’s attention at the time (in part because before Notorious and fellow New Yorker Craig Mack debuted, East Coast hip-hop was largely moribund) and as headliners of the two labels, 2Pac and Biggie were more or less compelled to diss each other on and off their albums, with 2Pac claiming B.I.G. and Bad Boy head Sean “Not Nearly as Good of a Rapper as His Friend” Combs of engineering an armed robbery in an NYC recording studio where Shakur was shot five times.
Things got worse after a friend of Tupac’s was shot in the arm at a party in Atlanta, shortly before the release of Biggie’s single, “Who Shot Ya?” Bad Boy sources confirm that Biggie had been working on the song prior to the shooting but Tupac wasn’t willing to believe in such a serendipitous coincidence. The putdowns and diss tracks began flowing. Supposedly, Biggie was preparing a full-scale diss record when Tupac was shot to death in his car; only six months later, Notorious B.I.G. died in much the same fashion.
The media, which had already been making the intercoastal rivalry out to be much scarier than a bunch of musicians insulting each other should rightfully have been, immediately decided that hip-hop’s cold war must have gone hot, blaming the battling labels and their criminal connections and presenting the two murders as targeted assassinations.
In truth, Tupac’s death was almost certainly the work of the Southside Crips (who had earlier tangled with the Death Row entourage) and while there are some links to Death Row’s Suge Knight in the B.I.G. shooting, the LAPD typically botched the case so badly that nothing came of it. (There is some suspicion that the triggerman was, in fact, a corrupt LAPD undercover/gangs officer.)
But truth has never stood in the way of a good story, and soon attention hounds as prominent and annoying as Louis Farrakhan were calling for some kind of East-West Peace Summit or Strategic Diss Limitation Treaty, or any sort of event where they could get in front of cameras and create a grand bargain.
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JOE TEX VS. JAMES BROWN
It’s hard not to feel a little bad for Joe Tex, a talented and pioneering singer who had the bad luck to share a label with invincible soul dynamo James Brown, inviting comparisons that rarely came out in Tex’s favor and sparking a rivalry between the two that got waaay the hell out of hand, even by Brown’s standards for public scandal.
After being called out by Brown in a local juke joint, Tex first accused Brown of stealing his moves (kicking and otherwise fooling around with the mic during performances), then accused him of stealing his song (Joe recorded a single named “Baby, You’re Right;” James covered, rewrote, and arguably improved the song a year later to massive sales success.), and then accused him of stealing his woman (Brown had recruited a backup singer, Bea Ford, who was once married to Tex; after Brown was done with her, he wrote Tex a letter saying he could have her back). Joe paid Brown back first with a diss record appropriately titled “You Keep Her,” where he called out Brown by name, and secondly, with a prank he pulled at a concert opening for James in his home town of Macon, Georgia.
Joe Tex came on stage wearing a raggedy blanket around his shoulders, fell to his knees shouting and screaming, and sang out, “Please! Please! PLEASE get me out of this CAPE!”
That’s easily one of the funniest jokes anyone has ever made about James Brown, but if Tex had thought his rival would accept the incident with good humor, he had another thing coming. It turned out that you can say anything you want about James Brown himself, but you damn sure never insult his cape. After Brown finished his performance, he went to see Tex at a local juke joint, making a quick detour first to pick up a few shotguns.
The Godfather of Soul came in shooting, injuring several bystanders, prompting a scattering of return fire, and rudely interrupting a performance by Otis Redding and the Pinetoppers. Tex, realizing that discretion is the better part of not getting killed by a crazy asshole, beat a hasty retreat out the back, while Brown, realizing that he had just shot seven innocent people because somebody made fun of his cape, ran out the front door to his tour bus, which he drove far enough away to figure out how he might avoid going to prison.
Brown later paid off the club’s owners and the injured parties (It’s rumored that as he ran out of the club, he was throwing $100 bills over his shoulder to try and cover the damages.) and even patched things up to a limited extent with Joe Tex.