- Dave Wilson, College Football
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It looked like a concert for the ages. And it was, but for the wrong reasons.
Texas heroes ZZ Top returned to Austin on Labor Day weekend in 1974 for their only home-state appearance of the year following their breakout album, "Tres Hombres." Santana, Joe Cocker and Bad Company joined them for a rare non-football event at the University of Texas' Memorial Stadium. The show, an ambitious fundraiser sponsored by UT Student Government, became the largest one-day musical event in Texas history to that point.
The poster advertised it as "ZZ Top's First Annual Texas Size Rompin' Stompin' Barn Dance and Bar B.Q.," yet this became no annual event. Instead, it lingers as an infamous footnote in the history of the Longhorns' field, now known as Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, which wouldn't host another concert for more than 20 years.
Despite the oppressive Texas heat -- it was 91 degrees and the show started at 3 p.m. -- the stadium was the place to be, offering the "thrill of smoking grass where Rosie Leaks had once carried a football," as Texas' Cactus yearbook eloquently observed.
"It was hot as blazes in Austin," said Bill Little, a UT historian who was assistant sports information director at the time. "It's not a good time to have anything outside."
That didn't stop fans from overrunning the security measures and staff. Soon the crowd swelled in excess of 80,000 people -- "a claustrophobic, overheated cornucopia of thirst, hunger and sunstroke," according to the Cactus.
"It was chaos," said W. Blaine Pennington, a photographer who attended the concert with his sister. "They were completely unprepared for the crowd that came."
Fans climbed any available surface to get a better view, while water and the $2.50 plates of barbecue had already run out.
"You had to prepare yourself that you'd be in for a survivalistic experience, because otherwise you were going to suffer," Pennington said. "The bathrooms were a wreck, the sinks had been broken off the walls. People were trying to get water, but there was a lot of damage."
The Longhorns, who had first installed turf five years before, had just recently replaced the field with a brand-new surface. That was of no concern to fans as Bad Company (featuring Jimmy Page on guitar) and Joe Cocker took the stage. As night set with Carlos Santana playing, crowds feeling the relief from the sun became more spirited.
"They set off flares. Those things, when they give off their smoke, they're a heat source," Pennington said. "There were some terrible burn spots ... and everybody was smoking."
Those weren't the only lingering issues.
"Our trainer, Spanky Stephens, maintained all the first-aid rooms," Little said. "Spanky always told the story about walking in the first-aid room the next day, and there was a guy sleeping on one of the beds. He rustled him when he opened the door, and the guy said, 'What time does ZZ Top come on?' Spanky said, 'Sorry pal, you've already missed 'em.'"
Obviously, none of this sat well with the primary tenants. The Longhorns' legendary head coach was a huge country music fan. This wasn't his scene. But it was his stadium.
In the 30 years since, the band's members have often recalled the aftermath.
"I remember having to sit face-to-face in front of Darrell Royal, trying to explain why his AstroTurf had been carved out in the shape of Texas, which took up the 50-yard line into the 40-yard line," ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons told Texas Monthly.
Frank Beard recalled: "The fans messed up his brand-new AstroTurf football field, and he swore, 'There will never be another show there.'"
"I tell you, that was about the last show we played in Austin for a long time," Dusty Hill told the Austin Chronicle in 2013. "The football coach was really perturbed with us. He acted like we went out there ourselves and cut out that piece of AstroTurf in the shape of Texas. 'You'll never play Austin again!' He was damn near right!"
"They speak of 'Don't Mess With Texas?'" Gibbons replied, "Well, 'Don't Mess With Darrell!'"
Little said the concert was a sore spot for the athletic department, with the stadium's turf bathrooms and two of the entrance gates now trashed just three weeks before the home opener.
"Bill Ellington, the assistant athletic director, kept the document in his desk drawer because he wanted to make sure that everybody knew that that the administration signed off on it, and that it wasn't his idea," Little said. "I'm not sure the university was sure what they'd booked."
Pennington remembers the music as vividly as Little remembers the fallout.
"The only one that was largely disappointing was Joe Cocker. He was extremely drunk and physically actually barfing off the front of the stage," he said. "When it got dark and Santana hit the stage, I tell you what, that was probably the finest performance I've ever seen. He just had kind of this spiritual connection with the crowd. He had them in the palm of his hand.
"But ZZ Top was a performance for the ages. That was when everybody there knew they were world-class."
Texas didn't allow another concert to be held at the stadium until 1995, when the Eagles stopped there on the tour appropriately named "Hell Freezes Over." The field was "covered with two layers of plywood, a sheet of fabric, and a sheet of non-porous plastic," according to the Alcalde, the Texas alumni magazine.
For ZZ Top (which sported a much different look from the bearded act known today), the controversy added to their mystique. The band used an aerial photo of the concert in the liner notes of its next album, "Fandango." And Gibbons has often said the show was one of the legendary band's most memorable performances.
"It was a mammoth show ... they still don't know how many entered the gates," he said in his book, "Rock + Roll Gearhead."
"After the smoke cleared from that one, we were banned for life from ever stepping foot in that stadium ... ever.
"What a way to go."
The 1974 Rompin' Stompin' Barn Dance and Bar B.Q. became an infamous footnote in the history of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.