Fire Away: The Worst Pyrotechnic Accidents Of All Time

Kids are told, “If you play with fire you’re going to get burned.” Adults don’t always follow their own advice, especially rock stars. Many big name acts rely on showers of flame to make their shows sizzle and setting off controlled explosions at just the right moment can be enthralling to an audience. But as artists from Rihanna to Metallica have learned, nobody is safe from a flame-induced accident. And when artists without the cash, equipment or wherewithal to pull off pyro displays make a mistake, it can be a recipe for disaster. Even when every possible precaution is taken, situations can quickly get out of control. From the humorous to the horrific, here are 11 of the most dramatic pyro mishaps of all time.

  • Rihanna
    Video: YouTube

    Rihanna is know for her hot performance but a 2011 concert in Dallas really went up in smoke. Midway through her performance at the American Airlines Center, a light caught fire and the flames quickly spread across the beams. The singer was rushed off stage and the fire continued for roughly five minutes until crew members were able to put it out. The singer was forced to cancel the rest of the concert. She later tweeted: "DALLAS!!! We set the stage on FYAH tonight!!! LITERALLY!!! I'm so pissed, I was havin so much fun wit yall too!!! I gotta come back man!!"

  • Rammstein Nearly Sets Germany Ablaze
    Photo: Kreepin Deth / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    This was bound to happen. Industrial metal band Rammstein use so much pyro they make KISS look like Ed Sheeran. Over the past decade, the band has learned everything there is to know about flamethrowers, fireworks, blazing walls and other devices that could destroy a home in minutes. Fortunately, their stunts are carefully controlled and there are failsafes. Back in the day, however, they weren’t so rigid and almost paid the price. During a show at Berlin’s Treptow Arena on September 29, 1997, a stage decoration caught fire and collapsed onto the stage. Members of the crowd fled but Rammstein, adhering to the axiom the show must go on, kept playing while crew members rushed onstage with fire extinguishers. After that, the band hired a professional pyro team, including firemen and paramedics and vocalist Till Lindemann studied to receive a license as a pyrotechnician. Even so, he has suffered burns on his ears, head and arms over the years. Of course, that’s bound to happen when you walk onstage wearing a burning jacket.

  • The Who Almost Blow Themselves Up While Performing on The Smothers Brothers
    Video: YouTube

    The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour wasn’t usually the kind of edgy variety show that erupted in controversy or chaos. Then again, The Who weren’t a normal rock band. They had just landed in the U.S. Top Ten with “I Can See For Miles” when they were invited to play on the Smothers Brothers show on September 15, 1967. In an effort to stage a memorable performance they planted pyro in Keith Moon’s drum kit. But during the rehearsal for the show, the pyro was less than spectacular, erupting with a dull thud and a small plume of smoke. “Keith said, 'Listen, you must increase the charge,'" guitarist Pete Townshend told VH1. The show’s stage manager used more powder – without realizing Moon had already dumped extra explosives into the pyro machine. At the end of the set, Townshend and bassist John Entwistle smashed their instruments into their amplifiers and Moon’s mini-bomb went off with three times the charge it was supposed to generate, destroying the drums and momentarily setting fire to Townshend’s hair. Without hesitating, the guitarist grabbed Tommy Smothers’ acoustic guitar and smashed it to bits while the dazed show host stood with a blank stare. “I was so busy looking for bleeding bodies; I didn’t know what had happened,” Smothers told the Daily Gazette. Townshend later said that he suffered hearing loss from the explosion, that began his lifelong battle with tinnitus. 

  • Michael Jackson’s Hair Goes Up In Flames During A Pepsi Commercial
    Video: YouTube

    The King of Pop, Michael Jackson was once one of the greatest showman on the planet, so it was no surprise when he signed an endorsement deal with Pepsi for $5 million to celebrate the brand’s “New Generation.” The deal only lasted from 1983 to 1984, since Jackson was injured while Pepsi was filming a promotional advertisement. Jackson was in Los Angeles at the Shrine Auditorium performing a simulated concert when a pyro blast set fire to his hair. The star suffered second-degree burns on his scalp by the time handlers put the fire out. He was rushed to the hospital and needed medical treatment to hide the scars. Jackson settled out of court with Pepsi for $1.5 million and donated the money to the medical center that treated him. In return, the hospital named the facility after the pop star. From then on, Jackson made sure never to stand too close to stage pyro. 

  • A European Venue Burns Down During a Frank Zappa Show
    Photo: user uploaded image

    In the Deep Purple song “Smoke on the Water,” Ian Gilan sings, “Frank Zappa and the Mothers were at the best place around/ But some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground.” What the lines lack in eloquence, they make up for in accurate reportage. On December 4, 1971, Zappa played the Montreux Casino in Montreux, Switzerland. About 80 minutes into the show, his band was playing “King Kong.” During keyboardist Don Preston’s solo, a member of the crowd shot a flare gun inside the venue. The projectile hit the wooden roof and started a fire. At first, the band treated the situation as a joke. “’Fire.’ Arthur Brown in person!” said a background vocalist, referencing Brown’s 1968 single. When he realized the severity of the situation, Zappa stopped the show and asked everyone in the crowd to calmly exit the venue. “They were very organized," Zappa said in an interview after the blaze. "I was just lucky that many of [the fans] were able to speak English because I didn't know what to say to them in French." It helped that the director of the festival ran in and out of the smoke-filled building to guide fans to the exits. Amazingly, no one was killed in the fire. Only a few people received medical treatment and most of the injuries were minor cuts and burns. Soon after everyone exited the building, the flames ignited the venue’s heating system, resulting in a huge explosion. All of the band’s equipment was destroyed – except a cow bell.

  • It only took a few seconds for 5 Seconds of Summer guitarist Michael Clifford to put a damper on the summer of 2013. The Australian pop group was performing at Wembley Arena in London when Clifford walked right into one of the onstage pyrotechnics. Clifford’s face was burned and his hair caught fire in the incident, which – like everything these days – was captured on fan video. Clifford sprinted offstage with a towel on his head and the show was over. The guitarist was treated for burns and later tweeted, “What the f—- up. sorry, I couldn't finish the encore, but at least I look like two face. thanks for worrying every1,” An accompanying photo depicted Clifford’s face covered in bandages, but he continued to tour with the band.