Pro Audio Review

Editor's View: Killer Sound?

by Stephen Murphy 

We have all heard the expression If looks could kill…Well, to my knowledge, looks cannot kill but, apparently, sounds can, according to certain public officials.

Next month marks the one-year anniversary of the Roskilde tragedy in which nine young people died and many more were seriously injured during Pearl Jam's performance at the popular festival in Denmark. All victims were crushed, suffocated or trampled to death in front of the stage as the unrestricted crowd of approximately 90,000 surged forward.

Final report

What have we learned from this unfortunate event? Not much, thanks to contradictory, vague and deliberately evasive reports from the Danish police charged with investigating the incident. The initial report by the police said the deaths were an accident and could not be blamed on the size of the crowd, inadequate security and, as a result, the festival organizers were not accountable.

Not coincidentally, these are the very same police who approved the festival's safety plan. Their initial report blamed the tragedy on the actions of the festival audience and on Pearl Jam, who kept on playing throughout the initial minutes of the tragedy.

"It is our understanding that at least 15 minutes passed between the time a member of the festival security team identified a potential problem and the time we were informed,” read a statement from Pearl Jam.

"We stopped the show immediately upon being told that there might be a problem, even though we were asked to wait [and keep playing] until the nature of the problem could be determined. It is our belief that if we had been informed of a potential problem at the moment that it was first identified by the festival security, we could have stopped the show earlier and lives could have been saved.

The police later back-pedaled, clearing Pearl Jam.

Facing mounting pressure from relatives of the victims, the press and Pearl Jam, investigators were urged to produce an unbiased and substantive analysis of the incident.

The police released a second and final report in December. This 24-page document is a poorly constructed model of obfuscation, evasion and misplaced blame.

Once again, the promoter and police are not blamed, and no criminal investigation is recommended. Instead, the report placed most of the blame on the actions of audience, including their desire to be near the stage, and their inability to recognize a problem and clear the area in a timely fashion. These are all predictable elements of the unrestricted, general-admission situation the promoters planned, and which the police approved.

The report's shotgun approach cited other contributing factors including – most interestingly – the sound system and engineers. The report said that, "The sound during the concert was poor, low, unclear and lacking bass, in particular at a distance from the stage and at the sides," causing audience members to move closer to the stage. They do not mention that the 90,000-strong crowd was nearly twice that for which the sound system for that stage (Stage G) was rated and hired.

Ultimately, the report places the blame on the audience, yet the audience was acting in what can only be described as typical and predictable behavior, especially for a festival-style event with little crowd control. To blame the prevailing weather, air quality, sound system, the general audience and the victims themselves is incompetent and cowardly.

Those who cannot remember the past …

It was April 1985 and U2 was playing the to a crowd of 17,000 at the Capital Center, near Washington, D.C. My friend and I were near the center aisle, about ten rows from the stage.

Half way through the show - upon noticing security personnel wearing shirts labeled "crowd control" – singer Bono urged the audience to ignore the crowd control staff: “Does this crowd really need controlling?”

"Where I come from, people don't have to pay extra to dance," he continued, apparently (and mistakenly) referring to a presumed higher cost of floor seats versus upper row seats. And with that statement, he sang, "Come on down, come on down, come on down," waving the audience down toward the stage with outstretched arms, over and over.

Well, guess what? Thousands came on down, easily overwhelming the crowd control staff in a massive surge towards the stage. We were crushed, literally. Entire rows of seats shifted and pushed forward, causing people to buckle along with their chairs. The intense compression of bodies against other bodies and bodies against chairs resulted in several injuries, all the while Bono continued to sing, "Come on down..."

My friend and I helped the person next to us get to his feet, but he quickly fell again and was seriously crushed by other people. Emergency personnel were able to carry him out when the show was halted for 15 minutes to assist the injured and restore order.

While this incident in no way compares to more notable concert tragedies, it was terrifying nonetheless. I read in the paper the next day that over 10 people passed out and a few more were injured, some seriously. The band's road manager was arrested and thrown in jail for the night.

It seems that prior to the show, Bono was specifically ordered by fire officials not to call the audience out of its seats during the show. The band’s management had to sign an agreement to that effect.

The order - prompted by reports of earlier incidents on the same tour where Bono's seemingly spontaneous "defy the crowd control" and "come on down" routines resulted in near tragedy - was a futile attempt to keep the sold-out crowd in control and safe.

Three months later, I watched U2 play an energetic and heartfelt set during the live international broadcast of the Live Aid concert. But when Bono started singing, "Come on down…" and gesturing to the crowd at London's massive Wembley Stadium, I lost what respect I had left for the band I followed so closely in its early years.

… Are condemned to repeat it

Read all about poor planning, negligence and irresponsibility at events all around the world on the excellent Web site, Dedicated to exposing potentially dangerous situations, reporting tragic incidents and offering solutions to make events safer, Crowdsafe strikes a reasonable balance between constructive, critical and supportive commentary. The site also has a link to the official Roskilde police report and details of the general admission section of U2's current U.S. tour.