Rock Photos From The Golden Age Of Concert Photography

by Carl Wiser

Bill O'Leary spent much of the '70s and '80s in front of the stage at rock concerts shooting photos that appeared in Rolling Stone, Creem, Guitar Player, and many other major publications. Back then, there weren't as many restrictions on concert photography, like the "first three songs" rule that is standard today (after the first three songs, photogs have to put down their cameras).

Bill has compiled over 175 of these photos, along with the stories behind them, in the book Timeless Concert Images And 40 Years of Rock Concert Experiences. He shares a selection here, including shots from Pink Floyd's The Wall tour and Queen's 1980 Madison Square Garden run that was re-created in Bohemian Rhapsody. All photos are copyright Bill O'Leary/
August 1, 1980; The Palladium Theater, New York City
AC/DC with new lead singer Brian Johnson on the Back In Black tour, their first after the death of Bon Scott

Angus Young in one of his many schoolboy uniforms

With a heat wave wafting through the East Coast and no air conditioning at the venue, Bill estimates the inside temperature at 115 degrees. After an opening set by Def Leppard, AC/DC came on to the toll of "Hell's Bells," but a few songs in, the infernal heat led to mayhem, and to Angus attacking an unruly fan.

"I decided to shoot the last of my roll of 36 exposure film as quickly as I had ever shot, EVER," writes Bill. "As I was quickly finishing, someone in the front row to the right of me had been grabbing at Angus Young's socks or shoes, clearly aggravating him, and before I knew it, he literally threw down his guitar and dove in to the crowd head first in a fist fight, arms swinging everywhere, quickly followed by two roadies. The band kept playing as Angus got back on stage, probably within a minute at most, and continued the song.

Not even 5-6 songs into the show, I bailed out and looked for the closest exit. Upon walking out the door, there were 40-50 people being fanned and cooled off all over the sidewalk area in front of the venue - it looked like a war zone of wounded.

In the end, I shot two rolls of film, 72 images, the fastest I had ever shot a show, my guess would be maybe 20-30 minutes of the show at most. We left for cooler environs and had one hell of a story to tell."

June 26, 1987; Norman's Place, Denver, Colorado
Joey Belladonna in action for Anthrax

Charlie Benante at the kit

Anthrax was touring behind their Among The Living album, a metal landmark. The band was still on the rise, and found themselves playing a small club in Denver with about 600 metalheads crammed inside. Bill recalls:

"There was a stage barrier up in front and I knew the band personally, so I had complete access, including behind the drum kit. Complete and free access to all areas of the stage is always great for any photographer - that opens a world of unique and different shooting angles. Shooting from within a thrash metal crowd can be impossible, especially anywhere near the mosh pit.

The band launched into the title cut, 'Among The Living,' and the energy level went through the roof. Even when the energy and volume level are at the highest levels, it is amazing how quiet it can be while looking through your viewfinder and being in the photographer 'zone.'

Anthrax was another band that was highly active on stage, constant movement throughout. Not my preference, but I did shoot some shots with a flash, as many publications at the time requested it. Another great night of shooting on a hot summer night in June of 1987."

Grateful Dead
March 9, 1981; Madison Square Garden, New York City
August 11, 1987; Red Rocks Amphitheater, Colorado
Jerry Garcia in Madison Square Garden

The Dead at Red Rocks

The shot of Jerry Garcia is from the Madison Square Garden show, where Bill was elevated, but not in a good way. "When the house lights went down and the show began, thousands of fans crashed the main floor from all sides of the arena, crushing everyone below and in front," he writes. "I literally was elevated off the floor in the crush, while taking my shots of the band as quickly as possible, thankfully surviving the night."

The 1987 show at Red Rocks had a different vibe. "I went to three of the four nights that they played, these shows being the last time Jerry Garcia was able to play at that high of an altitude due to his failing health. Compared to the crowd in 1981 at Madison Square Garden, this scene was concert heaven, very friendly crowd, beautiful venue. I have photographed a few shows at Red Rocks over the years and can say it is certainly the most beautiful and magic of concert venues that I have ever been to."

January 25, 1984; University of Denver Arena, Denver, Colorado
Vinnie Vincent and Paul Stanley of Kiss

Eric Carr's turret drum riser with Kiss Kannon

This show was part of the Lick It Up tour, the first Kiss tour where they went without makeup (they put it back on in 1996). Bill writes: "This period of Kiss coincided with the rise of MTV and the music video becoming a very important promotional tool. The band took on a more commercial, almost glam look, common in the '80s. As with all Kiss productions, the stage show was impressive, complete with awesome lighting and plenty of pyro.

Kiss rocked thru many of their classic hits, of course, opening with 'Detroit Rock City,' then playing 'Firehouse,' 'Cold Gin,' and their current hit, 'Lick It Up.' One thing about Kiss is they know how to get the crowd involved, Paul Stanley being one of the best frontmen in the business. The drum kit was impressive, with the drum riser resembling a tank and rotating during Eric Carr's drum solo. These images include guitarist Vinnie Vincent, a short-time member of the band.

During the part of the show when bassist Gene Simmons grabs a torch and spews flames from his mouth, something he had been doing every show for almost a decade, his hair caught fire. His roadie quickly came out with a wet towel, smothering the flames, with Gene walking off-stage momentarily. Apparently, this only happened twice in his career."

Pink Floyd, The Wall
February 27, 1980; Nassau Coliseum, Long Island, New York
Pink Floyd performing in front of The Wall

The Wall was a remarkable spectacle, but it's not well documented: there was no accompanying concert film

Pink Floyd's The Wall was one of the most ambitious tours ever attempted, with an actual wall constructed in front of the band, then torn down at the finale. Unlike a traditional concert tour production, it couldn't be packed up and performed elsewhere the next night. It was more of a residency, playing several shows at each of five venues, including Nassau Coliseum, where this one took place. Bill shares his thoughts:

"Entering the arena, I was amazed at the size of the production. The stage was enormous, with part of the yet-to-be-built wall stretching from one side to the other up into the seats. Considering my angle of view was not as close as I would have liked, I was sure to capture the enormity of the show. I was also 'in the door' for a mere $19, the cost of a face value ticket. I was glad to just be there!

The first half of the show started, and right away I could tell this would be a spectacle and I had to capture the best images possible. They played the album exactly as it was recorded, complete with added sound effects as well as plenty of visual effects, including a replica fighter plane flying over the arena floor before crashing into the wall. The video images cast upon the surface of the wall were spectacular for the time, but nearly impossible to capture on film. After a short intermission, the show continued with 'Hey You' as the bricks in the wall were continuously built in as the show progressed, leading to completion of the wall with the band hidden behind the massive stage structure. After a few more songs, one of the most incredible concert moments I've ever witnessed happened when David Gilmour appeared standing on top of the wall as 'Comfortably Numb' started. He was silhouetted by bright white follow spots coming up from behind and below him, making him look like some guitar god on top of the world. Simply awesome."

September 28, 1980; Madison Square Garden, New York City
The real Freddie Mercury

Another shot of the authentic Freddie

Queen was touring behind The Game, their only #1 album in America. A week later, "Another One Bites The Dust" topped the Hot 100.

This was the first of a three-night run at The Garden for Queen. The movie Bohemian Rhapsody contains a scene re-creating the second show - it's when they play "We Will Rock You." You'll see that Freddie Mercury is wearing the same outfit.

Here's Bill's commentary:

"The show started and within minutes I was in concert-photographer heaven. The lighting, the stage fog and the energy were all encompassing. With all the colorful lighting in the background of every shot, it was amazing composing all my images that night. Barring any technical problems, I knew I was getting some amazing photos from my front-row seat. The arena was completely sold out and the energy and love for the band came in waves from behind as I was shooting the performance."

Van Halen
July 27, 1980; Nassau Coliseum, Long Island, New York
Eddie Van Halen in action

David Lee Roth, doing the glove thing five years before Michael Jackson

This was Van Halen's World Invasion tour, also known as the Party Till You Die tour. Bill was uncredentialed for this one, but got some great shots from his seat in the second row center.

"Having seen previous tours, I was excited to get some great shots of the band this time around," he writes. "Images of Eddie were in high demand in many of the rock and guitar publications of that time. Opening with 'Romeo Delight' and 'Bottoms Up,' the party was on. Nothing was better for a photographer than a great light show with multiple follow spots, stage fog and colorful performers, none more colorful than David Lee Roth. My close-up image of him seen here was one of my most-published images back in the early '80s."

Before digital cameras, a photographer was never sure what he got until the film was developed. This Eddie Van Halen shot was a pleasant surprise. "That image, seen here of him leaning back, picking hand in the air, while bending the strings on the neck, looks as if he is floating in darkness," writes Bill. "After reviewing the images a few days later, I was very happy with the results. I always judged my shooting performance by a percentage scale: if I had over 50% of my images clear and in focus, with great composition and good exposure, I was happy. That night I had captured Van Halen in what would later become known as the peak of their career."

ZZ Top
May 4, 1980; Capitol Theater, Passaic, New Jersey
Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons

Hill getting down to business on bass

ZZ Top was still a blues-rock band at this point, a few years away from the MTV hits of Eliminator and Afterburner. Bill recalls:

"On this night, I secured eight front-row center reserved seats for myself and my friends, almost the entire front row at the small Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey. When the lights went down, the band came out and kicked off the show with 'I Thank You,' the single from Degüello. I was proud to look over at my friends all having the time of their lives as the show went on. One of the highlights was 'Cheap Sunglasses,' another great song from Degüello that would become one of the band's live standards. They played their earlier hits as well, including 'Tush' and 'La Grange.'"

October 9, 2019
Timeless Concert Images And 40 Years of Rock Concert Experiences is available at Amazon, as is Bill's book Rush - A Visual Time Capsule
Also see: Danny Clinch: The Art of Rock Photography

More Song Writing

Comments: 2

  • Cathy from St. Paul, MnWOW, these are amazing images from back in the day when we couldn't take cell phone pics.
    Talk about going down Memory Lane... Unbelievable!
    Thanks for sharing Mr. O'Leary, you are truly one amazing photographer
  • Zhivko from Burgas, BulgariaAwesome! Enjoyed the images and the stories behind them! I would love to see more!!
see more comments

Editor's Picks

90s Metal

90s MetalFact or Fiction

Test your metal - Priest, Maiden, and Beavis and Butt-head show up in this one.

Intentionally Atrocious

Intentionally AtrociousSong Writing

A selection of songs made to be terrible - some clearly achieved that goal.

Taylor Dayne

Taylor DayneSongwriter Interviews

Taylor talks about "The Machine" - the hits, the videos and Clive Davis.

Trans Soul Rebels: Songs About Transgenderism

Trans Soul Rebels: Songs About TransgenderismSong Writing

A history of songs dealing with transgender issues, featuring Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Morrissey and Green Day.

Eric Clapton

Eric ClaptonFact or Fiction

Did Eric Clapton really write "Cocaine" while on cocaine? This question and more in the Clapton edition of Fact or Fiction.

Spooner Oldham

Spooner OldhamSongwriter Interviews

His keyboard work helped define the Muscle Shoals sound and make him an integral part of many Neil Young recordings. Spooner is also an accomplished songwriter, whose hits include "I'm Your Puppet" and "Cry Like A Baby."