Special relationships: iconic American bands’ explosive, early UK shows

It's 30 years since Nirvana brought 'Nevermind' to the UK, so we’ve pulled together 10 career-making gigs from US artists on British soil

Making a seismic splash on the other side of the pond has long been the ultimate barrier on the way to the very top for UK and US artists alike. It’s 30 years since Nirvana brought ‘Nevermind’ to the UK; it was a pivotal and career-changing time for the band, and helped Kurt, Krist and Dave to define a generation. As we celebrate ‘Nevermind”s 30th anniversary, we’ve pulled out some more era-defining early shows from US artists on British soil. Here are 10 iconic times Stateside bands well and truly seized their moment.

Nirvana, Reading Festival, Reading, 1991

Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic at Reading Festival in 1991. Credit: Getty

After slogging it in the van on a gruelling and chaotic schedule, Nirvana broke through with their first major UK festival appearance at Reading Festival in 1991. It was a set that saw long-haired masses bouncing in unison to then unreleased material from ‘Nevermind’ including tracks that would soon launch them into the stratosphere: ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Breed’.

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Speaking in new BBC documentary When Nirvana Came To Britain, Dave Grohl was starry-eyed recalling the set: “I think we were halfway up the bill playing in the afternoon but just seeing 30,000 kids dancing to Nirvana that was fucking awesome.” He added: “The UK definitely responded to Nirvana much more before America – you guys were the first of everything, it really is like a second home.”

A year later, they would be back to headline the thing, making for one of the greatest rock shows of all time.

Most iconic moment: Kurt Cobain edges towards the lip of the stage, before charging into the drum kit. With a dislocated shoulder for his troubles, it was a perfect metaphor for the rebellious spirit brought by these grunge royals.

The Strokes, Astoria, London, 2001

Credit: Getty

The Strokes’ first London show marked a colossal turning point for the band, but also reignited indie as a whole. Appearing first on the bill for the NME Awards show at legendary venue Astoria, the Manhattan bunch arrived with a gail force air of cool. They’d appear on their first NME cover a few months later with the issue boldly proclaiming: ‘Why New York’s Finest Will Change Your Life – Forever!’ Inside the pages, though, Casablancas played things down, saying: “A lot of this hype around is bullshit. If we believe too much of this shit, we’re going to crash and burn so fucking fast.”

Most iconic moment: Casablancas gruffly questioning, “Have you heard this one?’ before the iconic riff of ‘Last Nite’ rings out live for the first time in London.

Public Enemy, Hammersmith Odeon, London, 1987

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Credit: Getty

Public Enemy brought a revolution of their own to the UK during the Def Jam tour in a year that saw hip-hop break through to the mainstream on this side of the pond. Speaking to NME in 2019, Chuck D said that the group called it the ‘British Invasion’ and were determined to set themselves apart from other label mates LL Cool J and Eric B. & Rakim on the Def Jam tour: “We went in there like we were going to take everything else in the world. We did things like we did in the United States, like we’d play the concert and then be in the tube right after the concert with the people. Or we’d rally the people in the streets before the concert. We wanted to spill blood on the stage.”

Most iconic moment: An air raid siren sounding as the group patrol the stage in full army gear and berets with a message loud and clear: “London, England – consider yourselves warned!”

Bikini Kill, Boardwalk, Manchester, 1993

Bikini Kill during Rock for Choice 1993 at The Palladium in Hollywood, CA, United States. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)
Bikini Kill in 1993. Credit: Getty

“It doesn’t matter what gender you are? Huh?” retorts Kathleen Hanna to a male audience member during Bikini Kill‘s first UK tour. “I guess the fact that most women in this room get paid a lot less than men do for the same jobs? It doesn’t matter, though – it doesn’t matter that one in four women are raped? It matters to me and I’m the one with the mic, and you’re not.” Bikini Kill’s 1993 UK tour brought the riot grrrl movement to these shores like a tidal wave of empowerment. It’s now immortalised in the documentary It Changed My Life: Bikini Kill in the UK.

Most iconic moment: The sense of unbridled unity as Hanna lets loose on ‘Rebel Girl’: “​​When she walks, the revolution’s coming / In her kiss, I taste the revolution!”

The Killers, Glastonbury Festival, Pilton, 2004

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The Killers broke through to the mainstream in the UK after signing to indie label Lizard King. The band played their first-ever headline club tour in the UK which kicked off at Portsmouth’s Wedgewood Rooms. Coinciding with the release of their new single ‘Mr Brightside’, the tour marked the start of an explosive ascendancy. The same summer, they took to Glastonbury’s New Band’s Stage, where they made such an impression that they were invited back to headline the following year – yet they declined, saying they hadn’t earned the right yet.

Most iconic moment: A raw ‘Mr Brightside’ ringing out on Worthy Farm for the very first time – three years later it would be heard on The Pyramid stage as part of their first headline set.

The White Stripes, 100 Club, London, 2001

The White Stripes in London in 2001. Credit: Getty

It was no accident that Jack White ended up playing the 100 Club for The White Stripes’ first UK show. The blues aficionado vowed that if the Detroit band made it to London, he’d play the venue after hearing Son House’s ‘John The Revelator’, which had been recorded there in 1970. Sole photographer on the night Darren Russell tells NME: “When they started playing, you’re like, christ, these are going all the way. It was jam-packed, it was so hot – it was the days before they had the air-conditioning and my camera lens kept steaming up. They were absolutely fantastic; the venue suited them down to a tee.”

Most iconic moment: The iconic red-and-white outfits of the ‘White Blood Cells’ era poetically matching the legendary venue’s own infamous colour scheme.

Hole, Reading Festival, Reading, 1994

Courtney Love at Reading Festival in 1994. Credit: Getty

Legendary sets don’t always demand technical brilliance; sometimes just raw emotion will get the job done. Hole’s Main Stage set at Reading Festival found them in the stride of their critically acclaimed ‘Live Through This’ period – but was underpinned by the emotional turmoil of Courtney Love losing her husband Kurt Cobain just five months before. In the face of grief, though, they triumphed. Among the most ramshackle and soaring moments in grunge history, even the grainy footage captures the angst and agony full-force.

Most iconic moment: “Oh yeah – I’m so God damn brave”, Love absently drawled by way of introduction. “Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen.”

Kings Of Leon, Astoria, London, 2003

Kings of Leon perform at NME Presents… in 2003. Credit: Getty

Once a key pillar of London’s music scene, it’s unsurprising that the Astoria also acted as a launchpad for Kings Of Leon in the UK. In the year that the band won the hearts of fans across the country with their debut album ‘Youth & Young Manhood’, they kicked off their first victory lap of the country at the iconic venue. A set of unbridled rock’n’roll coupled with big shaggy haircuts and 70s fashion, it was a thrilling first glimpse of the future stadium giants. Frontman Caleb Followill has since been vocal about the importance of breaking Britain; speaking to MTV in 2008, he said: “We can play all of England, literally the entire country, and it’ll sell out. And then we come back home, and people are like, ‘You guys are nothing.'”

Most iconic moment: Even the first mic check gets you giddy for what’s ahead as the garage-rock’n’roll riff of ‘Molly’s Chambers’ announces their blood-and-thunder arrival.

Rage Against The Machine, Glastonbury Festival, Pilton, 1994

Rage Against the Machine in 1994. Credit: Getty

Britpop might have been the definitive talking point of Glastonbury 1994, with the festival proving a launchpad for the likes of Oasis, Blur, Radiohead and Pulp, but the year was also a monumental success for LA’s Rage Against The Machine, who headlined at the peak of their powers. There’s so much bouncing it’s a miracle that a gaping sinkhole doesn’t open up and swallow the crowd. It was the first year Channel 4’s cameras were rolling to capture the event, spreading the band’s anarchic message far and wide.

Most iconic moment: Frontman Zach De La Rocha’s gripping and frenzied delivery in ‘Know Your Enemy’ with his Stateside political rebellion resonating fiercely in this usually idyllic corner of Somerset: “Compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission, ignorance, hypocrisy, Brutality, the elite / all of which are American dreams!”

Run-DMC / Beastie Boys, Brixton Academy, London, 1987

Run-DMC and Beastie Boys in 1987. Credit: Getty

Hip-hop fully exploded into the UK in 1987 with another seminal show taking place as Beastie Boys played a double header at Brixton Academy with Run-DMC. In support of their debut album ‘Licenced To III’, it proved to be one of the Beastie Boys’ most notorious shows and kickstarted a long and successful love affair with the venue. Appearing on a stage decked out with a giant hydraulic penis and a riser modelled on a six-pack of beer, chaos ensued and they lived up to the bad boy reputation that was all over the tabloid press at the time.

Adam ‘Ad Rock’ Horowitz was arrested and charged with assault on the final night of the tour in Liverpool after the crowd had been hurling bottles at the stage, bringing their visit to a memorable end.

Most iconic moment: Through the screams, klaxons and pandemonium heard on their heavily-bootlegged set, ‘Fight For Your Right’ emerges – and all hell breaks loose.

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