9 Before-They-Were-Famous Performances That’ll Make You Rethink Your Favorite Bands
No-one is born famous. Chances are, your favorite band had to slog their way through more ridiculously tiny shows and broken-down vans than you can even imagine. And while there is always the occasional get-rich-quick rock star who was snapped up young and never had to pay their dues, this is way more of a rarity than a rule. More often than not, your introduction to a band was actually just when the media finally noticed them, sometimes over a decade after they first hit the road with nothing but a guitar and not enough underwear.
But, to paraphrase the old saying, it’s better to show than tell. A profile of a massive rock band describing their humble beginnings is neat and easy, but listening to or watching that band’s screechy performance and preposterous outfit is really the best way to remind yourself that there’s no shame in a bumpy takeoff.
Here are nine performances by rock royalty from before they were famous that’ll give a new understanding of your favorite bands…
Cliff Burton Was Once The New Guy In Metallica – 1983
The Cliff Burton line-up of Metallica will always have a sacred place in the hearts of rock and metal fans, because it was with that roster that Metallica conquered the world for true metal. But in 1983, Cliff Burton was just the new guy in bellbottoms, and this audio from the band’s first show with Cliff at the Stone in San Francisco shows Metallica at a very larval stage. Sure, the chugs are still there, but there’s a… looseness to the performance that makes you think of a tipsy bar opener rather than the biggest metal band of all time.
Slayer Just Wanted To Be Venom – 1983
These days, we think of Slayer as a burly, hardcore group of dudes who don’t need glam fashion or radio success to make them rock legends. But in 1983, they were still just a bunch of late teens who really, really liked Venom, and their early performances show just how much they developed their own identity over the years. From the unspeakably tight outfits to the synchronized headbanging, this 1983 performance – not Slayer’s first, but possibly the first on film – reminds us that even extreme metal’s forefathers were once trying to keep up in the Spandex Arms Race.
Nirvana Were Basically A Thrash Metal Band – 1986
After grunge changed music as we know it in the ’90s, Nirvana were rewritten as the sensitive, uneasy saviors of rock, who injected emotions into heavy music in order to save it. But this forgets that Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic were deep into hardcore punk and metal bands like Black Flag and Celtic Frost, the same guys who Exodus and S.O.D. were listening to. This early performance footage sees Nirvana banging their heads through chugging breakdowns to the point where they’re simply a series of flashing hair colors. Make no mistake: these dudes shredded.
The Red Hot Chilli Peppers Are The Gimmicky Skate Band In A Bad ’80s Movie – 1986
Remember Thrashin’, the 1986 movie starring Tony Hawk about skateboarding gangs who (sort of) listened to hardcore punk and fought over turf and girls? No? Well, one of the film’s most timeless scenes is a performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, here forced to wear bizarre and cheesy headgear and posing as a caricature of what parents were afraid their kids were listening to at the time. Hey, at least Flea still headbangs like a mofo.
Napalm Death Were Skinny, Awkward Teenagers – 1989
Is there any live show more crushing and punishing than a Napalm Death gig? And yet, this was not always the case, as this BBC profile documenting the early days of the band shows us. Back before grindcore was a thing and when death metal was still what thrash lightweights called Slayer, Napalm Death were a group of gangly, mumbling teenagers focused on cranking bizarre metal-punk out of their basement. Watching Lee Dorian sway onstage makes one realize just how much cardio Barney Greenway does every show.
Rage Against The Machine Played A Free College Show – 1991
Imagine you’re a student at California State University in 1991 – you’re a Sociology Major or something that sounds promising – and you stumble upon this free show. What runs through your mind? Probably, ‘Man, Jay and Silent Bob are pissed off!’ If only you knew you were watching Rage Against The Machine; political renegades and groundbreaking mergers of rap and rock, who were about six or so months from recording their incredible 1992 debut. But you don’t know, because you’re just a college kid, so you head back to your dorm room like a dick.
Chester Bennington Had Actual Hair In Grey Daze – 1994
Grey Daze, the first band of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, were good in their own right, and had a solid enough career with post-fame Chester that they re-recorded some of their songs on 2020 album Amends. So there’s no cringe-worthy reveal in this early performance footage, there’s just… Chester, with long hair! Why does he have long hair? It’s sort of like looking at a blue flamingo, or a snake with legs. This, as much as any performance on this list, shows that we all had weird ideas of what looked right when we were young.
Corey Taylor Did Guest Vocals For A Local Nu-Metal Band – 1998
Only recently was an audio file of Slipknot’s Corey Taylor doing guest vocals for Iowa nu-metal crew Smakdab brought to the public eye. Corey’s vocals are what one expects – baritone singing, the occasional roar. But what’s fascinating about this pre-fame performance is how it illustrates what the metal scene in Des Moines must’ve been like for early Slipknot. It’s easy to laugh at Smakdab’s MySpace photo, but back in the day all of these dudes were in it together, and Corey wasn’t above helping out a weird underground band no matter how much interest people had in his own sideshow. Just a reminder that when times are tough, it’s better to help out those around you than turn up your nose.
Lzzy Hale Was Already Headlining Stages At 15 – 1999
When discussing the 10 songs that changed her life with Kerrang!, Halestorm vocalist Lzzy Hale talked about listening to Alice Cooper while everyone else listened to the Backstreet Boys. This video from 1999 proves that Lzzy isn’t just talking herself up. Even at the Cornerstone Coffeehouse in Cape Hill, PA, she was bringing down the house in a raging blast of keyboards and belted-out ballads. There’s true, and then there’s doing-it-since-I-was-a-kid-on-keyboards true.
Listen Devil Will Survive by Coria Taynor: a genuinely brilliant mash-up of Slipknot’s The Devil In I and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.
Here’s the setlist from Weezer’s jam-filled stadium-ready set on the opening night of the Hella Mega Tour.