When Van Halen Took a Victory Lap Opening for the Rolling Stones
Van Halen were already kings of the hard-rock heap by the time they embarked on their Fair Warning tour in mid-1981, and they concluded the mostly sold-out trek with a two-night victory lap opening for the Rolling Stones.
The spectacular double-header was booked for Oct. 24, 1981 at Orlando Stadium. The 60,000-plus-capacity venue sold out within hours, prompting a second show to be added for the following day (which sold out in roughly the same amount of time). The event was dubbed Rock Super Bowl XII, the latest in a string of supersized rock concerts at Orlando Stadium dating back to 1977, which included heavy hitters such as Fleetwood Mac, Bob Seger, Eagles, Aerosmith, Heart and dozens more.
Orlando Stadium opened its doors at 9AM, and the Henry Paul Band kicked off the daytime show at 11AM. Fans quickly flooded the venue to watch two generations of rock 'n' roll royalty conquer the same stage. The Stones were riding high on the success of their chart-topping Tattoo You, which spawned the monster hit "Start Me Up" and was heralded by critics as a return to form. Meanwhile, Fair Warning had become Van Halen's third consecutive Top 10 LP and was on its way to platinum status, and its ensuing tour saw the Pasadena quartet packing arenas across North America.
The Stones had assumed elder statesmen status by 1981, but a 38-year-old Mick Jagger still possessed the same animal magnetism of his youth and could go toe-to-toe with the lascivious, lion-maned David Lee Roth, who was a decade his junior. "The crowds were young, real young in Florida," Jagger told the New York Times. "The front rows in Orlando were filled with these 12- or 13-year-old girls, some of whom were making the most unseemly suggestions."
According to setlist.fm, Van Halen stuffed their truncated, hourlong set to the brim with high-octane hits like "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love," "Everybody Wants Some!!" and "You Really Got Me," along with new Fair Warning cuts like "Sinner's Swing!" and "Hear About It Later." (Curiously, they cut "Unchained," which was released as a single in Europe and Japan and became one of their most-played songs ever.)
Rock File contributing editor Mac Cancribbe attended the Oct. 25 show and recalled Roth ribbing the reporters in attendance. "Do you know what the first thing the newspaper critic with the Elvis Costello haircut is going to write about this show in tomorrow’s paper? How fucked up Van Halen was!" he reportedly told the crowd. "And you know what the second thing they are going to write is? How fucked up the audience was!"
After a round of rapturous applause, Roth then shouted, "Well, this one's for the press!" and mooned the press box as the band launched into "So This Is Love?"
This was a much more seasoned, confident band than the one that previously opened for the Stones in July 1978 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. Van Halen's eponymous debut album had been certified gold less than two months earlier, and the band had been starstruck at the mere sight of the Stones. "I couldn't believe it when Mick Jagger walked onstage when we were soundchecking at the Superdome. My jaw hit the floor," bassist Michael Anthony recalled in the book Van Halen Rising. Their excitement may have deflated slightly when Jagger took a look at the bombshell-like rig housing Eddie Van Halen's guitar effects and tut-tutted, "Well, we don't be needing it onstage."
Three years and millions of album sales later, Van Halen were arguably as big a concert draw as the Stones (if not bigger), and they proved their mettle onstage at Orlando Stadium. The shows were smashing successes, as evidenced by a black and white photo snapped by Richard Aaron on Oct. 24 that shows the band basking in the adulation of 60,000 fans. Van Halen later used the picture for the back cover of their Diver Down LP, released in April 1982.
Offstage, the Orlando Stadium shows were a little messier for certain members of Van Halen's team. During one of the shows, Anthony had trouble with his favorite bass, and his tech, Kevin "Dugie" Dugan, rushed backstage to get a set of strings from a storage box. In his hurry, Dugan shouted at concert promoter Bill Graham to get out of his way and unknowingly knocked Jagger to the ground.
Years later, Jagger got back at Dugan when they crossed paths at Los Angeles International Airport, ordering his crewmen to stuff the bass tech in the back of his limo. After exchanging pleasantries, Jagger issued a threat. "All of the sudden, his facial expression changed, and he lunged at me, grabbed me by my shirt … pulls me towards him and says, 'If you ever knock me on my ass again, I'll have you killed!'" Dugan recalled. He was scared stiff until Jagger started cracking up and the handful of crew outside the limo all yelled, "We got you!"
There was at least one person who was unimpressed with Van Halen's performance at the Orlando Stadium shows: Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. When asked in 2020 if he had any recollection of those shows, Richards told the Los Angeles Times, "I don't remember a thing about Van Halen in those days. I appreciated the work later on and everything, but I’m not a virtuoso soloist. ... The rock players, they’re good and they've all got their little thing going. But it’s never been my bag."