There are good gigs, great gigs, and then there are truly special gigs – ones that only happen once in a blue moon, but are impossible to forget.
While it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly makes these shows so memorable, throughout history there has been one consistent thread that can make a performance go down in the record books – the element of surprise.
Whether an artist or band just shows up to a venue unannounced or gave their fans as little as one hour’s warning, the following list remembers the shows that took us by surprise, and never left our minds – even if like us you weren’t there for most of them.
Warning: the FOMO levels are high with this one.
Thom Yorke DJ set @ Goodgod Small Club, Sydney – 11th November 2012
When Radiohead visited Australia in 2012 for the first time in eight years, you’d better believe that frontman Thom Yorke was going to make the most of it.
After being spotted in the crowd at the inaugural boutique electronic festival OutsideIn - where he was seen soaking up the sounds of Flume, Collarbones and Oliver Tank - Yorke decided to get on the decks himself by playing a surprise DJ set at Goodgod Small Club later that week. Although he was billed as a ‘Secret International Guest’ at the Modular-hosted event, club owners didn’t know he was actually going to appear until that afternoon.
Just what did the Atoms For Peace/Radiohead connossieur spin? Cuts by Four Tet, Wu Tang, Modeselektor, and Madlib – just to name a few.
Prince @ Bennett’s Lane Jazz Club, Melbourne – 28th May 2012
Notorious for his secret post-concert jams, the only notification of Prince’s last-minute intimate Melbourne club show came via a newsletter that was sent out too late, and also a last-minute typo-filled tweet from Spanish radio host DJ Rashida that read, “Prince on stage @ bennetts lane jazz club.”
The Purple One played a three and a half hour set that stretched until 2am, and included obscure tracks from his vast back catalogue (including ‘Sexy Dancer’ from his debut album) as well as covers of Rihanna’s ‘Rude Boy’, Parliament’s ‘Tear The Roof Off The Sucker’, and Funkadelic’s ‘Up For The Downstroke’.
Interestingly, Prince’s performance was almost in complete darkness. The music icon had his entourage kill all the lights in the room, which the lucky audience of 70 or so said gave the night a weirdly eerie vibe.
Green Day @ The Paddington Hotel, Sydney – 20th February 2014
The night before they were set to play in front a stadium full of Brisbane fans for Soundwave, US pop-punk veterans Green Day decided to throw a surprise club show in Sydney at the eleventh hour – announcing it on Twitter a mere half an hour before they hit the stage – making it a truly special night for the lucky few hundred switched-on fans who got there in time.
“I guess a few of you saw the tweet,” joked Billie Joe Armstrong when arriving on stage, before whipping his bandmates through an hour-long, 12-song set of their biggest hits, including ‘American Idiot’ and ‘Jesus of Suburbia’.
The Stone Roses @ Warrington, Northern England – 24th May 2012
The British rock icons hadn’t performed together onstage in 16 years, but the hiatus came to a spectacular, crashing end with a one-of-a-kind secret concert held for 1,000 fans in Northern England. It saw original members Ian Brown, John Squire, Mani and Reni all jamming together again after almost two decades.
If you need convincing about the magic in the air that night, just take it from Liam Gallagher, who was rubbing shoulders with punters in the crowd. The stoic Oasis frontman sent out a simple tweet during the show, writing, ‘Stone Roses are back. Speechless.’
The show was announced 24 hours in advance, with fans being told that they needed to bring a piece of the Stones’ merchandise to get admission into the gig.
Radiohead @ Glastonbury, 24th June 2011
Usually when festivals have mysterious ‘special guests’ on the bill it goes one of two ways: the surprise gets spoiled (*ahem*, Splendour and Alt-J), and even if the mystery act stays under wraps, they don’t live up to the hype. This most certainly wasn’t the case for the Glastonbury in 2011.
With rumours speculating that Arctic Monkeys or The Killers would be showing up, Radiohead surprised everyone when they eventually unveiled themselves over at The Park stage at 8pm. Playing their first show in the UK as a full band in two years, security were quickly forced to cut off access to the stage area as it almost instantly tipped over capacity. Most of the 14-strong set list featured material from their 2011 record, The King Of Limbs, with ‘I Might Be Wrong’ and set closer ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ being the only pre-In Rainbows tracks treated to the crowd.
Before they left the stage, Yorke reportedly told the crowd the band only showed up “so we could get free tickets.”
Coldplay @ The Ring O’ Bells Pub, Somerset – 16th December 2013
It’s not every day one of the biggest bands of the world shows up at a local pub in the honour of the spirit of Christmas, but that’s kind of happened when Coldplay swung by a local pub in Somerset. There was a slight catch – it was actually for their record label’s Christmas party, but a number of lucky locals were allowed through the door to enjoy the special gift and mingle alongside star-studded guests like Lily Allen.
Martin led the band through an hour-long performance that included their hits including ‘Yellow’, ‘Clocks’, ‘Paradise’, and the seasonally-appropriate ‘Christmas Lights’.
Foo Fighters @ Rock & Roll Pizza, California – 11th December 2013
Unsuspecting diners at a Californian rock-themed pizzeria were given the best free topping of all time when the Foo Fighters showed up to play the establishment’s tiny 200-capacity stage.
Fans were expecting to see drummer Taylor Hawkins, and his metal covers band Chevy Metal, but instead got Grohl, Mendel, Shifflet, Smear and Hawkins, pumping out a two and a half hour set of their classics.
Watch fan-captured footage of their performance below. Good luck topping this one. Ey, pizza gags.
The Sex Pistols @ River Thames Boat Cruise, London – 6th February 1977
The British punk pioneers had a right old time on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Anniversary – in fact, they even went as far as giving their mate Elizabeth II a special gift, punk-style. Only, she probably didn’t enjoy it very much.
The rebellious band knew they’d do something special for the Royals’ anniversary the year prior, with John Lydon writing ‘God Save The Queen’ especially for the occasion. The band waited until the day of to drop the anarchy anthem, which was the catalyst for huge riots in the streets, with crowds using the Sex Pistols’ chants in their own anti-monarchy, anti-government protest.
The most memorable part of the day, however, was the band’s boat cruise down the River Thames to both promote their vehement new single, mocking the Queen’s own river procession scheduled two days later. It ended up being stopped by police and many of the band’s members and entourage were arrested – still, the Sex Pistols got their message across, loud and clear.
Kanye West @ Roseland Ballroom, Manhattan – 22nd May 2013
In the build-up to the release of his latest record, the abrasive Yeezus, Kanye played a secret set at Adult Swim’s upfront party (an event where the Cartoon Network subsidy presents it’s new programming for advertisers). The rapper delivered not only selections of his back catalogue, including ‘Jesus Walks’ and ‘All Of The Lights’, but also teased rare samples of his then-elusive upcoming record, as well as delivering one of his most infamous insane rants to date in front of the 200 important black-tie attendees.
Yeezy’s long-winding yet reasonable diatribe was this time aimed at celebrity culture. “I’m not a motherfucking celebrity,” his voice going in and out of an auto-tune processor. “I only make music that inspires you to be the best you can be… And I don’t want anyone to ask anything else of me.” Oh Kanye, we never would.
The Beatles @ Apple Building rooftop, London – 30th January 1969
The Fab Four’s impromptu 42-minute rooftop concert would eventually go on to be their last ever public performance, and if not for that reason alone, it goes down as their most iconic.
As news of The Beatles’ rooftop gig broke out – and remember, kids, this was before there was a thing called Facebook – thousands of Londoners clambered to get close enough to 3 Savile Row as they could, with many climbing neighbouring buildings to get a better vantage point.
The show was inevitably cut short by the police who were summoned to quell the mass hysteria in the streets, but not before The Beatles finished the historic day with ‘Get Back’, and John Lennon’s famous line, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”
Nirvana @ Saint Vitus, Brooklyn – 11th April 2014
If you thought Nirvana’s reunion at the Roll And Roll Hall Of Fame induction was something special, then this was truly something else.
After getting through the formalities at the Barclays Center in New York, the surviving members and some of their guest frontwomen headed straight to a tiny 300-capacity metal bar in Brooklyn, where they played a massive 16-song show spanning all of their classics in front of a very lucky invite-only crowd. While Lorde had to jump on a plane to Coachella, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear were joined again by St. Vincent, Kim Gordon, and Joan Jett, plus Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis and Deer Tick’s John McCauley, for a truly authentic display of Cobain tributes.
The night began with Joan Jett jumping onstage to helm ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and then from there, they say, the rest was history. Watch it below.
Paul McCartney – Covent Garden, 18th October 2013
In shades of the legendary performance he played 44 years prior with The Beatles, Paul McCartney treated passers-by in central London with a random free show at Covent Garden. The living legend attracted thousands of people around the cobblestone plaza, who all caught word of his appearance a matter of hours before he started.
”Good afternoon, and welcome to Covent Garden,” Macca announced as he walked out in front of screaming fans. “We’re just going to do a few new songs from our new album so get your phones out – as if they weren’t already.”
The five-song set only lasted 20 minutes, but you can bet each one was worth the loyal crowd’s while.
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