(Credits: Far Out / Alamy / Album Cover)
You can’t beat a bit of rock and roll hijinks. From Keith Moon’s infamous Lincoln Continental crashing into a swimming pool to Ozzy Osbourne “accidentally” biting the head of a live bat, outlandish stories are a bedrock of the genre. Over the years, notable antics have provided fans with a heavy dose of mythology that made their heroes appear as if they were from another planet entirely.
One widely influential group who also liked to live out the traditional notion of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to the full were Van Halen. Fronted by the colourful David Lee Roth and fuelled by the searing technical ability of guitarist Eddie Van Halen, the Los Angeles band rose meteorically. After their self-titled 1978 album was released, they were one the biggest acts on the planet.
During this period, what would have been one of their most insane stunts was conceived. In a testament to their standing at the time, in 1979, the band were booked to top the Sunday of the CaliFFornia World Music Festival alongside Aerosmith at the Los Angeles Coliseum. In David Lee Roth’s 2000 memoir Crazy From the Heat, the vocalist revealed how his band endeavoured to one-up the legendary Boston outfit in front of the thousands of revellers at the event.
According to Roth, Van Halen rented a Sherman tank so they could crush a vintage Volkswagen Beetle to spite Aerosmith. The former Van Halen man even claims this moment would be the final straw. It is the last time he spoke to Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and the rest of the ‘Sweet Emotion’ band.
Per Roth’s account, in 1979, when Van Halen was billed at the top of the bill for the festival, things were on the rocks for their Aerosmith counterparts. Only six months later, due to a catastrophic relationship with drugs and a ruinous album in November’s Night in the Ruts, they would split at the seams. Core member Joe Perry had already left midway through recording the album, but things finally exploded.
Ruthlessly, Van Halen sensed they had Aerosmith in their crosshairs and devised a plan to finish them off once and for all. They rented a tank from a Hollywood prop dealer and purchased a pair of yellow Volkswagen Beetles. Their idea was to make announcements on the Coliseum’s PA system, leading fans to think that one of the members of Aerosmith had parked the car illegally and was asking for it to be moved.
The “punchline” in this machiavellian ploy was that just as Van Halen was taking to the stage, the Sherman would roll out, crushing the Beetle into smithereens, in a not-so-subtle reference to Van Halen usurping Aerosmith as the most popular, and respected act on the lineup. Unfortunately for the Los Angeles band, though, Aerosmith cottoned onto their scheming, so they aborted it.
Regardless, David Lee Roth said his old band tested out the logistics of the prank by hiring a driver to roll the tank down a flight of stairs over one of the Beetles, which sent shrapnel flying all over the place. He also kept one of the doors as a keepsake and a testament to what could have been.
Watch the advert for CaliFFornia World Music Festival 1979 below.