From punk-rock summer camp to persistent controversy, the demise of Warped Tour marks the end of one of modern rock’s most enduring, mythical entities
Like most teenagers with a predilection for heavy riffs and swoopy fringes, my hometown bedroom was papered with posters. Blu-tack sucked the painted colour out of my bedroom walls, while atop it sat a carefully constructed collage of gig tickets, posters, flyers, and pages ripped from magazines. It was a maelstrom of band members’ visages and any vaguely alt-leaning imagery – Gerard Way’s mug sat next to pictures of non-descript skateboarders, advertising Vans shoes; a ticket to Paramore’s first ever UK show (yeah, sorry – humblebrag) nestled next to a signed, popped balloon from a Madina Lake show. More than any other, though, the dusty setting of Warped Tour, captured on countless posters torn from the centrefold of Kerrang!, drew my eye – windows into a rock fantasy world completely removed from my own drab, British suburban life.
For countless children growing up without the means to attend Warped, it quickly became an almost mythical place. Stories of the tour – which seemingly packaged up every heavy-leaning band worth and planted them at US rockers’ doorsteps – filtered back through the rock press, only adding to the excitement surrounding the sun-scorched travelling circus. For years, stories of a UK band ‘breaking’ the festival became the summer’s hottest news – without their respective runs in 2008 and 2009, Bring Me The Horizon and Gallows would surely not have been held in such high international regard. For those young music fans whose tastes leaned into rockier territory, Warped Tour harboured the same dazzling aura as Glastonbury or Ibiza. It was a bucket list item for countless young teens, myself included.
It was a huge deal for bands and fans alike. In a 2017 interview with NME, My Chemical Romance’s Frank Iero and Taking Back Sunday’s Adam Lazzara (above) shared tales of the tour, from parking lot showers to being held at gunpoint, while even relative newcomers like Creeper relished their time on Warped, regardless of its infamous gruelling length and heat.
I never managed to make that pilgrimage – a fact that would appal my younger self. This weekend, the travelling Warped Tour came to an end, with one final appearance in West Palm Beach, Florida closing out a 24-year stint as the States’ largest travelling music festival. It was closed out by Every Time I Die, whose guitarist Jordan Buckley refused to leave the stage after their set, even as said stage was dismantled around him. ETID’s own experiences on Warped Tour were an intrinsic part of my obsession with it – their Shit Happens DVD and YouTube series, filmed in part on the tour, offered hilarious insight into the backstage antics and chaotic mosh-pits of the run. Teenage me was obsessed – after hundreds of views of Shit Happens in its various forms, pulling up any one of its countless daft scenes will instantly transport me back to those pre-social media years spent following the tour through forums and Flickr pages, MySpace and magazines.
As the tour trundled on into the 2010s, its sparkling aura began to dull. Stories of band members abusing their power and grooming their audience – now sadly commonplace in rock music and the entertainment industry at large – came to a head in with extensive allegations against acoustic artist Jake McElfresh, who performed under the name Front Porch Step. The following year, he was added to the Nashville stop of the tour – a move that was widely pinned as emblematic of Warped’s lack of care for its audience. From Blood On The Dancefloor to Ian Watkins of Lostprophets, numerous Warped Tour-adjacent acts have been arrested for sexual misdemeanours following long stints on the tour – BOTDF’s Dahvie Vanity was the subject of numerous allegations during his time on the tour, though his charges were later dropped. Regular appearances from groups such as Attila and Emmure have also been widely criticised due to their overbearingly explicit and misogynist lyrics. Despite resistance and protests from fans and bands both on and off the tour, these groups have remained Warped mainstays. “I can assure you none of these matters have been taken lightly,” said Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman in a 2015 Medium interview. “All are dug into thoroughly once they are brought to my attention, which is usually after I book someone, so that should dispel the reason I put them on is because they are controversial.”
Furthermore, organisations such as pro-life group Rock For Life were granted tents on the tour in recent years – Lyman later said the backlash to Rock For Life’s place on the tour only “strengthened my resolve”, adding: “I grew up in punk rock in the ’70s and ’80s. We were OK with having people with conflicting views in the same room. If we don’t allow people of varying opinions in the same space, we’ll never fix the problems in this country. That’s why I’m doing this.” Sign-up centres for the US Army were also present in 2014 and 2015, alongside a performance from military-sanctioned punk band Corrin Campbell, which was widely criticised as pushing against the original tenets of punk music – a criticism Lyman once again sidestepped in a 2017 Noisey interview. Such moves muddied the image of the one-time home of political punk, and deserving criticism soon followed.
Warped Tour’s 2018 dissolution feels apt. Rock music is plagued with stories of vile misconduct and abuses of power between bands and their fans, and the tour itself did nowhere near enough to combat those actions within its own ranks. The Warped Tour has undoubtedly run its course, and its slow decline, lacklustre final line-up and muddied name in recent years have proved as much. But for an entire generation of rock fans across the globe, a pillar of their community has been lost. Regardless of controversy and the festival’s tone-deaf moves in recent years, it’s a crying shame that future generations of rock fans will likely hear Blink-182 sing of how they “couldn’t wait for the summer and the Warped Tour”, and not know that feeling themselves.