All hail the Hallenstadion

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Pericle Formenti in Italy is a total Deep Purple fan and has been helping us on projects for a long time.  Recently we were corresponding about the band’s shows in Italy and he began telling me about the real struggle he and his friends had to see any live music until the 1990s.  I was aware of the issues over live shows in Germany in the early 1970s which had resulted in trouble at a few Deep Purple shows, but wasn’t really aware of how bad it had been in Italy and found it all fascinating.  In the end I figured this was a story worth documenting here and so got Pericle to jot down what he remembered and have worked it up into this short article.  Although he and his mates were unable to keep their tickets as souvenirs, he has since blagged a few from retired office staff so we can illustrate a couple here.

NOTE : All this was done while the current pandemic was but a twinkle in the eye of some bush tucker sales person in a Chinese street market, and Pericle’s city was one of the first to go into lock down, so we wish him and his family all the best in the current crisis.

For many years in the late 70’s and early 80’s there were basically no rock concerts by foreign bands in Italy. Any self-respecting Italian rock fan had to travel over the border to the Hallenstadion in Zurich to see touring groups: it was at least 4 hour drive from Milano, 8 hours from Rome and even longer if you lived in the South of the country, but it was the closest venue available. So for big acts, dedicated fans knew they would meet up there. And because the Hallenstadion was such a prestigious (and lucrative) stop for every group, Good News (the main venue promoter) never missed a tour. So, you name it, they all set fire to that stage: Purple, Floyd, Zep, AC/DC, Genesis, etc. And given that every major act showed up there, dedicated fans accepted that they had to make the journey or miss out. If people could not get there by car, then there were trains or buses – for a Bruce Springsteen show it was reported that six chartered 50 seat coaches departed from Milano alone.

And needless to say the travelling together and shared journey was part of the enjoyment, and amongst us it was kind of expected that most of the first rows at the venue would always be crammed (literally) by Italians!

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We used to get our tickets anyway we could, those that had relatives who lived in Switzerland were very lucky! I remember many times I made the 40 minute trip to the Swiss border just to buy a copy of Blick, a German language newspaper, which carried all the rock shows adverts. Once I was back home, I hurriedly worked through the details in the adverts, cut them out neatly and sent off the money. Often I was purchasing tickets for several friends as well, trusting I would eventually get it back! The cash was sent in a registered letter, with me hoping no one would steal it. Sometimes I could make a quick trip to the bank to arrange a money transfer (remote banking in those days was not available) and then anxiously wait for a week or two, checking the mail box each day, until the tickets finally arrived; hurrah!

When you held them in your hands you felt like a king, and immediately got on the phone (no mobiles then, sa va sans dire) to all your friends to let them have the good news.

Of course given the delays finding out about shows, many times these plans fell flat as the gigs were sold out in just a couple of days, so Italian fans couldn’t get hold of the tickets. Not that this stopped us; often we just traveled there anyway, knowing, hoping or praying that somehow, someway, we could find tickets once in Zurich.

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My first ever Deep Purple show was in Zurich Feb 14th 1987 (on my 17th birthday!). They were doing two nights, and I managed to buy my ticket for the first (only) from an old lady in front of the venue at 11:00am in the morning. I was wandering around feeling miserable when she appeared out of nowhere (walking her dog), holding an envelope in her hands; she must have sensed what I was dong there because she stopped by me and said her son couldn’t make it that night, and did I fancy buying a ticket? And she might have been old, but she knew there was going to be a big demand, so we agreed a 20 CHF mark up on the ticket price!

Then, you passed the time sat on the street near the entrance (only moving to visit the lavatories, and then only after you had instructed the kid next to you to keep your place and not to let anyone else sneak in for whatever reason), mostly deep in discussion with other fans about the band, the albums and anything else to do with the music.

When the doors finally opened, you had to pass the Hells Angels style security whom you hated because you knew they were going to keep your precious ticket, no matter how much you protested, or worse demand a full body pat down.

Once inside it was a run to the security barrier by the stage to get the best position.

After that, you had time to look around and realise that you were now in a cold, freezing (they had the ice rink under the floor, hockey is big in Switzerland, probably more than football) yet truly imposing and massive venue (look at the Finyl Vinyl cover and multiply it roughly x 1.5). It had a huge stalls area and several very distant rows of seats, which you looked to as the place for those who were “too old to rock’n’roll”. However one of your friends (usually the one who was least into the group that was playing that night) was always ordered to sit there, hopefully in the best available place acoustically, so (you guessed it) they could record the gig for posterity (starting on the trip back home in the car, it would be played to savor the occasion again and again). We used a walkman or similar recorder and shared the duty of sneaking it in. So one guy had hidden – and I’ll leave to people’s imagination as to where exactly – the microphone, someone else the batteries, another the recorder, etc…

The food at the concession stands was laughably poor and pricey (although the beer was ok) but you couldn’t care less because you certainly weren’t moving from your spot near the stage. You had of course given money to the kid who was taping to show, telling him to score you the tour programme and a badge or two, if there was any money left, at the merchandise stand.

Then it was back to chatting and sharing more stories with your friends, while the pit gradually turned into a scene from Dante’s inferno because, as soon as the support band was off the stage, guys from further back who had arrived late would start to push and shove in order to move you around and get a better, closer place… hey, you bas***ds, no matter how you try, you ain’t gonna get my view, after all I’ve done to guard it!

It was a physical battle for half an hour or so (and you knew it was going to keep goin’ right through the show anyway) until, finally, the lights would go down, the place would erupt and, like musical gods suddenly appearing from Olympus, the band would materialize on stage and the dream would at last become real…  My good friend Antonio Scettri was able to get this great shot of Ritchie towards the end of the evening.

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The main problem for the lack of Italian shows was that there was a minority crowd here which was very vocal and left-wing (with several connections with Partito Comunista) who believed that rock and pop music should be totally free (be it either when live or when on record).

Their motto could be translated as “let’s reclaim the music” and their enemies were both the music industry (inc. promoters) and the artists themselves, considered to be as partners in crime who had sold their integrity to the dollar.

But, instead of a peaceful ‘flowers in their heads’ type of revolution, these guy were more than ready to use violence to make their point heard, so we had a long history of gigs cut short due to bad crowd behaviour or ending in massive riots (Rolling Stones 1970, Led Zeppelin 1971), or crowds forcing fences to enter gigs without tickets (Lou Reed 1973, Santana 1975), and concerts banned by local authority, etc.

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Luckily, this didn’t happen for the big Deep Purple Italian shows in ’71 (pic above) and ’73 (I’m not sure if this was because at the time they were considered THE musical gods, or if it was just luck), although in Naples on the day of the concert (which in the end was postponed) there was some crowd trouble elsewhere.

Anyway, all of this led to promoters deciding not to risk staging rock shows in Italy any more, or perhaps they were having trouble getting insurance.  This is similar to the trouble and agitation which had been happening in France and Germany, and one reason why some shows began to move to Montreux (you will have to read the new Machine Head book to find out more!).

But while the problems died down in the rest of Europe, the second half of the 1970’s was actually much worse in Italy: such was the demand here for foreign live music that when the Patti Smith Group played here in 1979, they sold out two stadium gigs, reportedly a total of 100.000 tickets!  This at a time when they would not be able to sell out a town hall in the UK.

Patti actually wrote about this in her autobiography saying she never -before or after- took part in such big gigs, and after the second date in Firenze, she retired from playing live for 9 years. Of course both her gigs were crammed with unfortunate incidents: people trashing part of the stage when Patti waved a US flag, the group being forced to stop playing and dash backstage two or three times because of people hurling stuff at the stage, guys climbing on stage, inc. one who tried to drag Patti off and another one who grabbed the bass from Lenny Kane and actually played (!) My Generation with the rest of the group…

Yes we had Kiss (with the Di Anno Iron Maiden playing support and stealing the shows) in 1980, and three long Gillan tours in 79, 81 and 82 but they were a real exception (and we know Gillan were prepared to play anywhere!) . When you learn that we didn’t see Rainbow in Italy until 1995 and Whitesnake until 1990, I think it says a lot.

So, whenever we wanted to catch a good gig, we all had to travel abroad and, although many (inc. myself) often travelled to France or Germany, the Hallenstadion had them booked each and everytime and so it became like a 2nd home for us devoted concert goers.

The situation all changed at the end of the 1980’s and the 1987 Deep Purple tour was huge; five sold out hassle free gigs to 15/17,000 each night with the last date at the Arena in Verona (which newspaper journalists wrongly predicted would be totally destroyed by rampaging rock fans!).

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Deep Purple had been scheduled to play in Italia in 1985 too, but Ritchie once told me he pulled those dates, fearing there would have been trouble (though again they made it to the Hallenstadion, see above). They also missed us out during their European dates at the beginning of the tour in Jan/Feb and were only minded to come later perhaps because the money offered to them by desperate promoters by then was just too good to pass on.

Coda : With a lot of sadness I discovered that for the 2020 October Deep Purple gig at The Hallenstadion in front of the stage there will be only seats (at about 140,00 euro each).

Times passes, things change, the business, etc.. but I left some blood in that arena (catching one of Ritchie’s guitars: the scars heal, the guitar will be here forever), definitely a ton or more of sweat, a couple of crushed ribs and lots of tears (of joy).


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