Fifteen years ago this week, the greatest country music artist of all time, Garth Brooks, made history by playing a free concert to a massive crowd in New York's Central Park. Now, not just anybody gets to play Central Park, but Brooks had the megawatt stroke in the entertainment biz back then to make it happen. The event was broadcast live on HBO, and an estimated 750,000 people turned out to listen, making it one of the largest concerts in American history.
Or was it? Garth wasn't the first artist reported to draw a six-figure crowd to Central Park, but he was the last. You see, a funny thing happened in 2004, when the city denied permits to two groups looking to hold anti-war rallies in the park on the dubious claim that the mass gatherings would damage the grounds.
That decision was immediately challenged in court, with the rally organizers pointing to mega-concerts like Brooks' as proof that the park could handle assemblies hundreds of thousands strong with no problem.
All of a sudden, New York decided it was important to get a more accurate count of the people who showed up to free concerts in the park. In 2008, Bon Jovi -- one of the country's biggest, most reliable touring draws -- played a free show at Central Park, and park workers counted everyone who entered using clickers. The result? A crowd of less than 49,000 in the same exact spot where Garth played.
Now, Garth Brooks is a huge star and everything, but could he have possibly outdrawn Bon Jovi by that fucking much in the Northeast, of all places? Unlikely. Three-quarters of a million people is a whole hell of a lot, and New York is a long way from Nashville.
What's far more likely is that the people in charge of guessing the attendance were simply way, way off, and they probably weren't alone. Suddenly, every huge concert-attendance figure dating back all the way to Woodstock was thrown into question.
So, did Garth Brooks truly draw one of the biggest crowds in American history 15 years ago? Probably. But it almost certainly wasn't as large as 750,000 people. So which mega concert truly reigns supreme? Impossible to say for sure, but here are the contenders. Take a look for yourself and decide which of these ten concert clusterfucks was the biggest:
10. Woodstock 1969 Estimated attendance: 500,000
Resale Concert Tickets
The granddaddy of 'em all, Woodstock proved that a truly scary number of people could come together for a rock concert without tearing each other apart or overthrowing a government. A who's who of '60s rock and folk icons played the groundbreaking festival, from Santana to Sha Na Na. It also became a classic concert film, providing handy stock footage for anybody putting together a '60s montage.
Part of the Woodstock legend is that way more people than anticipated showed up to gate-crash. That made the already difficult task of accurately counting the attendees nearly impossible. Advance tickets reportedly sold for the event were 186,000, and by all estimations, a heck of a lot more people than that were on hand during the concert's peak.
But half a million people? Ehh...
9. Simon & Garfunkel in Central Park Estimated attendance: 500,000
By 1982, New York's beloved Central Park had deteriorated to the point that Mayor Ed Koch openly discussed the possibility of closing it. The city, some claimed, simply didn't have the money to restore or maintain the park any longer. Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis and promoter Ron Delsener came up with a plan to raise some funds: reunite Simon & Garfunkel in the park for their first performance in six years.
Not exactly best pals by this time, both singers nevertheless agreed to the concert. People were glad to see them, too: Estimates at the time placed attendance at around half a million people. Today, that number doesn't quite pass the smell test established by Bon Jovi. Still, the reunion was covered as a major event by the media and accomplished its mission of raising money and awareness on behalf of Central Park.
8. Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto Estimated Attendance: 500,000
Toronto's widely publicized SARS outbreak in 2003 was a major kick in the nuts to the city's tourism industry. For whatever reason, the Rolling Stones took it upon themselves to save Toronto, helping to organize a massive concert that also featured Rush, AC/DC and the Guess Who. Highlights included the rock-loving crowd pelting Justin Timberlake with garbage.
SARSapalooza was a ticketed event, but even so, only estimated attendance figures are available online. Once again, half a million (the same size as Woodstock) seems to have been the biggest number organizers thought they could get away with.
7. Summer Jam at Watkins Glen Estimated Attendance: 600,000
After the massive success of the Woodstock movie, teenage rock fans across the country were eager to get in on the sex, drugs and rock and roll they'd missed out on in '69. 150,000 tickets were sold in advance for the event in Watkins Glen, N.Y., but once again, hordes of young people showed up to bumrush the stage and see the Band, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead perform. In fact, a lot of them came early -- the day before the event, all three acts sound-checked in front of tens of thousands of people.
Much like Woodstock, the thousands of concertgoers who reportedly arrived without tickets gave organizers license to inflate the attendance numbers. Was Summer Jam really the largest public gathering in American history at the time? Hard to say with any certainty. But it was certainly big enough to be remembered to this day.
6. Isle of Wight Festival 1970 Estimated Attendance: 600,000
The Isle of Wight festival in England had drawn a very large crowd in 1969 to see Bob Dylan, the Band and others, but after organizers saw the attendance figures from Woodstock, they started thinking even bigger. The result was that the festival's 1970 edition, anchored by Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Joni Mitchell, Jethro Tull and more. It reportedly outdrew Woodstock by at least 100,000 people.
Or that's what they say, anyway. As soon as the organizers realized they would never make a profit off the logistical boondoggle, they declared it a free concert -- no need to take tickets! Odds are that a lot of guessing or a lot of slide rules were involved in coming up with that huge number. Determine for yourself which is more likely.
5. US Festival 1983 Estimated Attendance: 670,000
Steve Wozniak made essentially all the money in the world as co-founder of Apple, and in the early '80s, he was feeling pretty good about it. So in 1982 and '83, he elected to blow $24 million on two massive concerts celebrating new technologies.
The second, four-day festival was highlighted by "Heavy Metal Sunday," featuring sets from Van Halen, the Scorpions, Ozzy, Motley Crue and more. After the Clash closed out Saturday with a politically charged performance, David Lee Roth provided the soundbite of the weekend from the stage. Clutching a liquor bottle, he exclaimed, "I wanna take this time to say that this is real whiskey here... the only people who put iced tea in Jack Daniel's bottles is The Clash, baby!"
4. New York Philharmonic in Central Park Estimated Attendance: 800,000
In 1986, America was riding high on a wave of Reagan-era optimism, and the grand unveiling of the newly restored Statue of Liberty on the 4th of July was a big deal. The New York Philharmonic is no stranger to performing in Central Park, but the next day on July 5, the orchestra broke records. Maybe.
Under the direction of Zubin Mehta, the Philharmonic played to an estimated crowd of 800,000 people, making it the largest classical music performance in history. Now, we've already discussed the issues with the numbers reported at free Central Park mega-concerts. Is it really possible that more than three-quarters of a million tourists and Yankees sat down, shut up and listened to classical music in the park on the day after a holiday?
Not even Reagan himself was that optimistic.
3. Monsters of Rock Moscow Estimated Attendence: 1.6 Million
In 1991, the UK's premiere heavy metal festival, Monsters of Rock, loaded up and headed to virgin territory: Moscow. The soon-to-be-ex-Soviet rock fans in that city didn't get a lot of major concerts from beyond the Iron Curtain in those days, and the chance to see the likes of AC/DC, Metallica, Pantera and, uh, the Black Crowes was irresistible to many. Estimates put the crowd north of 1.6 million headbangers, but Lord only knows what party bureaucrat came up with that number.
Regardless, the concert was completely massive. Imagine you're a Russian teenager attending your first rock concert along with pretty much everybody you know, and the first live heavy metal band you see in your life is motherfucking Pantera. We're guessing at least a quarter million nuts dropped the second Dimebag hit the solo on "Cowboys From Hell."
2. Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene in Moscow Estimated Attendance: 3.5 Million
Ambient megastar Jean-Michel Jarre was responsible for the largest concert in Houston's history, 1986's Rendez-Vous Houston, which drew a reported 1.3 million people (ha!). But Jarre's Houston gig, as well as a similar performance in Paris in 1990, was practically a warm-up compared to the greatest concert spectacle of his career.
In 1997, he brought Oxygene to Moscow to celebrate the capitol city's 85th birthday. Once again, the artist fashioned the entire city into his backdrop for an unforgettable musical extravaganza.
All of the hallmarks of the new age master's mega-events were present: Choirs, lasers, spotlights, fireworks and an absurd number of people -- more than 3.5 million, by some estimates. Inflated numbers or not, that's a whole shitload of fans for a guy you've never heard of.
1. Rod Stewart at Copacabana Beach, Brazil Estimated Attendance: 3.5 Million
Didn't see that one coming, did you?
Yep, the apparent record holder for largest concert attendance of all time is none other than good ol' Rod Stewart. For his Rio de Janeiro performance on New Year's Eve 1994, the former Faces front man eschewed the city's soccer stadiums for a free concert on the beach -- a gift, he said, to Rio's poor. The City of God types were apparently way into the idea, because it was reported that 3.5 MILLION FUCKING PEOPLE crowded on to Copacabana Beach to hear "Maggie May." No wonder that shitheel is so cocky!
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Now, it's tough to get 3.5 million people to agree on anything, and it was New Year's Eve. Presumably, more than few people on the beach that night couldn't have given less of a shit about Rod Stewart.
Still, it must have been a magical event. Imagine counting down to midnight with a few million of your neighbors, waiting to kiss that girl from the next shantytown over who just loooooves rock music...