15 Years Ago: Philadelphia Riot Ends Guns N’ Roses Tour Early
St. Louis in 1991. Montreal 13 months later. Vancouver in 2002. The list of riots sparked by Guns N’ Roses at their concerts is probably longer than any other rock act, but one of the ones that often gets lost in the mix is the final one, which took place in Philadelphia on Dec. 6, 2002.
Though the reconfigured lineup of the band – with frontman Axl Rose as its sole original member – had technically been touring in support of the long-delayed Chinese Democracy album since the beginning of 2001, GNR had only managed to complete four gigs that year: three small-venue ones in Las Vegas and Rock in Rio 3. Two dozen shows had been canceled or rescheduled across Europe.
Things looked much brighter in the summer of 2002, when a handful of festival and headlining dates went off in Asia and Europe without incident. Then, in late August, the band made a surprise appearance to close out the MTV Video Music Awards in a performance that received mixed reviews as a new-look Rose, sporting braids and wearing an oversize football jersey, noticeably struggled to catch his breath during the medley of songs. When confetti rained down as the final notes of “Paradise City” rang out, the singer defiantly stated, “Round one,” despite the shaky presentation. Several weeks later, a full-run of North American Guns N’ Roses dates was announced, their first extensive trek in the region since 1993.
Philadelphia hadn’t seen the group in 11 years, and were the only city on the docket with two concerts scheduled; one would be at the First Union Center on Dec. 6, and two nights later at the First Union Spectrum.
Local rock band CKY had been tapped as openers for the tour, finding out just three days before its launch in Vancouver one month earlier on Nov. 7. That date started the run ominously when Rose’s flight from Los Angeles was delayed, leaving weary management at the venue to call off the show while the plane was en route, resulting in a nasty riot that left many injured.
The next dozen-plus shows went much more smoothly, albeit with Rose living up to his tardy reputation. That’s why it was little surprise in Philadelphia when, following CKY’s set and about an hour’s worth of DJing from Mix Master Mike, there was still no indication GNR were going to take the stage.
One hour after Mix Master Mike left the stage, the pumped-up audience chants of “Axl! Axl!” turned into a taunting sing-songy rendition that was soon replaced with an equally droll “A--hole, a--hole!” Merchandise stands closed shop and alcohol stopped being served, a clear hint that something was up. Well after 11PM, an announcement was made that due to “health issues” of an unnamed member of the band, the show would be postponed.
Almost on cue, physical objects began raining down on the stage in addition to the unrelenting chorus of boos. Food and drinks were the least of it. Some fans in the upper levels broke off the binocular cases bolted underneath their seats and threw them as projectiles to the lower levels.
Many in the uppermost sections starting taking out the drop ceiling tiles and tossed them like frisbees. Folding chairs and seats were ripped apart both on the floor and in the stands, with piles being made of bent metal and cushions, the latter of which were flame retardant ... and easily extinguished when a handful of individuals tried to start fires. The mixing board was smashed to the point of disrepair.
Interestingly, given the city’s hardscrabble reputation, the damage could have been much worse. Not many police officers were needed to quell the uproar throughout the arena; venue security and ushers let fans vent, and then encouraged them to leave the building. On the way out, there were a handful of trashcans overturned, and fights here and there. By then, there was enough law enforcement on the grounds of the sports complex to keep order. And in the end, about only 15 people were injured, with five requiring a visit to an area hospital for minor injuries. No one was arrested out of 15,000 attendees.
Unsubstantiated rumors spread fast about why Guns N’ Roses pulled a no-show in Philly. The most common was Rose having been enraptured by a basketball game in his hotel room in New York City -- where the band played the previous night -- and couldn’t be bothered with the concert. Another had him suffering some sort of mental breakdown over stress surrounding the tour. One thing was quickly made clear: The tour was over. "The remainder of the Guns N' Roses concert dates promoted by Clear Channel Entertainment have been canceled," said the concert promoter in a brief statement the following week.
It would be four years before Guns would return to the road and a decade until Philadelphia got to see the group. This time, in 2012, it would be on the Up Close and Personal tour, where they played the 3,000-capacity Electric Factory. Prior to performing “You Could Be Mine,” Rose shed some light on the situation from 10 years earlier and even put some of the blame on himself.
“We haven't been back here in a long time – right?" he said. "And I never talked publicly about what went down, and a lot of that was because there were a lot of legalities behind the scenes, so I had to keep my mouth shut for about five years and I had already gotten sued for about everything I owned by f---in’ corporate radio and s--- that were backing our tour. So, I had to shut up. I did cancel the first show at 6 in the morning. My manager told me he canceled it and then didn't. And then Clear Channel wanted us to f--- up, because they wanted to end the tour because they had some s--- going on in Florida or something. I don't know, a whole bunch of bulls---. I got really sick. It had nothing to do with fur coats and basketball games, you know. I love Philly. I came to visit here a few times and I really liked it. So on this [tour], we decided we’re gonna risk it. ‘What if we can just throw in a show in Philly?’ So it's good to be here. And I want to apologize for my part of that. You know, so, I'm not saying I'm innocent."
Five years after this return, Rose and the semi-reunited GNR performed twice in Philadelphia on the Not in This Lifetime … tour to glowing reviews. In fact, the tour circled the globe for more than a year and a half now without so much as a single late start time.