Four hair-raising tales from the dark corners of guitar history

It’s Halloween this weekend, so here are some suitably macabre tales from the dark corners of rock and roll history – spanning the gamut from curses, and haunted houses to a very unfortunate chicken. Happy Halloween!

The Haunted flat

Harry Nilsson
Harry Nilsson. Image: Stan Meagher / Daily Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Harry Nilsson was one of the most revered songwriters through the 60s and 70s and was even dubbed “The American Beatle”. He was also a notorious party hound and had apartments in California, New York, and London. His flat in London was the unfortunate site of two high profile deaths that occurred four years apart. Nilsson purchased the flat in 1972 and it quickly became the site of many raucous parties that hosted rock stars, movie stars, and royalty. When Nilsson wasn’t in London, he would often rent it out to other friends and musicians who were touring England.

In 1974, Cass Elliot [Mama Cass] was staying at Nilsson’s flat while she played a two-week run of shows at the Palladium. It was in Nilsson’s flat that she tragically passed away in her sleep at the tender age of 32, as the result of a sudden heart attack she suffered in her sleep.

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Nilsson believed the flat to be the source of bad vibes and would refuse to stay there after Elliot’s death, although he retained the lease on it for unknown reasons. So he was hesitant to rent the flat to Keith Moon in 1978. Just a couple months after moving in, Moon too, passed away in the very same flat at the age of 32. His cause of death was an overdose of sedatives he was taking to aid with alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Nilsson later sold the presumably cursed flat, which was purchased by Pete Townshend to ensure the site did not become a morbid tourist attraction. It has since undergone drastic renovations – we wonder if the current owners are aware of the incidents that occurred in that flat in the 1970s.

Ace Frehley gets a shocking surprise

Kiss in concert
Image: Per Ole Hagen / Redferns

On December 12, 1976, KISS kicked into another sold-out gig at the Lakeland Civic Center in Lakeland, Florida with the first song in the set, Detroit Rock City. For this tour, Ace and Paul would appear above the drum riser and descend down to the stage via two large staircases on either side of the riser. The railing on Ace’s side was not properly grounded and when he grabbed the railing, it gave him a severe electric shock. He collapsed, fell down the staircase, and regained consciousness shortly after. After a 25-minute delay, the show went on without another hitch.

The band got rid of the staircases in favour of some hydraulic lifts and switched over to the first wireless system for guitars – the Shaffer-Vega Diversity System, invented by the great Ken Schaffer. Interestingly, Schaffer had shown the wireless system to Gene Simmons months prior to the incident, pitching that it may allow the band to do more theatrics on stage. Gene was not interested at the time but made a call to Schaffer from backstage in Lakeland after the show to order a dozen units for the added insurance policy of insulating the band from electrocution.

Ace made a full recovery and an ode to the incident was recorded onto wax in 1977 in the form of the song Shock Me which was the first song to feature Ace on lead vocals. Fortunately, we are able to look back on this literal hair-raising incident without too much sorrow.

“The Chicken Incident”

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Alice Cooper
Alice Cooper. Image: PL Gould / IMAGES / Getty Images

An intriguing new band known as Alice Cooper released their debut album Pretties For You, in June of 1969 – the first of a three album deal on Frank Zappa’s label, Straight Records. On 13 September that year Alice Cooper scored a spot on the lineup for the 1969 Toronto Rock & Roll Revival, a lineup that boasted Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and The Doors. John Lennon & Yoko Ono even made a special unannounced appearance at the festival. The festival will always live in infamy because of Alice Cooper’s set.

As the story goes, early in the band’s set, someone decided to throw a live chicken on stage. The band’s singer whose name was Vincent Furnier at the time, threw the chicken back over the crowd, assuming it would fly away like a majestic dove. In a Spinal Tap-esque turn of events, the chicken fluttered into the first couple rows of the concert and was, unfortunately torn to shreds by the frenzied crowd. The next morning several local and national newspapers had ghoulish headlines claiming that the singer of the band bit the head off a chicken and drank its blood. The headlines were long speculated to be the work of Shep Gordon who managed the band and helped to cultivate buzz and mystique around this wild new band. Frank Zappa recognized free publicity when he heard it and told the band, “whatever you do, don’t tell them it wasn’t you”.

Years later, Ozzy Osbourne would bite the head off a bat that he believed to be fake – once again, a mistake that would lead to mystique and an image that would last the rest of his career. Sometimes, for good or ill, legends take on lives of their own.

Free as a bird

John Lennon
Photo: Rowland Scherman / Getty images

In 1995, the remaining Beatles members – Paul, George, and Ringo got together and recorded a studio version of a demo that John Lennon had recorded in 1977 for a song called Free As A Bird. After the band recorded the tracks for the song, they went outside for a photo shoot to commemorate the 25th year since their breakup and 15-year anniversary of John Lennon’s passing. As the photos were being taken, a white peacock [which is a very rare bird to see in the wild] wandered into the shot. Paul noted the bird’s photobomb as a peculiar occurrence, almost as if John Lennon was there, taking the form of a rare bird.

Adding a strange twist to the story, during an interview in 2009, John Lennon’s son Julian stated that before his father’s passing, he told him, “If anything ever happens to me, look for a white feather and you will know I am there for you, always looking out for you.”

Was the rare white peacock photobomb an odd coincidence or is John Lennon still wandering the spirit realm, free as a bird?

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