How a band of geeks upstaged The Rolling Stones

Pipped to the post: The Rolling Stones were beaten in the livestream music race by Severe Tire Damage
Pipped to the post: The Rolling Stones were beaten in the livestream music race by Severe Tire Damage - Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
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It was to be The Rolling Stones’ most ambitious performance yet. Not content with the colossal world tour they had just completed for their 20th studio album, Voodoo Lounge (which overtook Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell as the highest grossing tour at that time), they planned to conquer what would become the biggest stage of all. On November 18, 1994, The Rolling Stones would be the first band to perform live on the World Wide Web.

Except, they couldn’t be. Shortly after the band published their press release announcing their intentions, their publicity team received an email from a group of computer scientists in Palo Alto, California. The Rolling Stones couldn’t be the first to play live online, these geeks informed them, because it had already been done – namely by their own band, an obscure outfit called Severe Tire Damage, who would later gain notoriety as rock’s most hi-tech pranksters when they upstaged The Stones.

This month marks 30 years since Severe Tire Damage planted the proverbial flag online, thanks in large part to their proximity to the most brilliant minds working in tech – some of whom were in the band. Though members came and went, key players included bassist Manasse and Russ Haines on guitar, front vocalist and Apple employee Steve Rubin, and Mark Weiser, whom Smithsonian Magazine named “rock’s smartest drummer”.

Today, Weiser is known as the father of “ubiquitous computing”, a term he coined in 1988 to describe a future where computers would be so common, and so seamlessly integrated into our lives, we would cease to notice them. He also championed live streaming technology, writing in 1996 that the multicast – an early iteration of the livestream – would “utterly change our world over the next 50 years”.

Prior to live streaming, the internet was visualised as a point-to-point system, where users sent files, like pictures or videos, directly from one person to another.

A still from Severe Tire Damages first livestream concert on the internet
A still from Severe Tire Damages first livestream concert on the internet

“But what if I want to send it to a thousand other people around the world?” Rubin explains. “I had to, back then, send it a thousand times to each one of these people, which would overload the internet.” The multicast backbone (or Mbone) reorganised this structure with a “backbone” that travelled across the internet once, which multiple people tapped into simultaneously. This reduced the amount of data that had to be sent, and paved the way for broadcasting to an online audience.

To demonstrate how the technology worked, a lecture was planned at Xerox PARC, a Silicon Valley tech hub, which would also be cast over the Mbone. Once the talk finished, Weiser, sensing an opportunity, arranged for the stream to cut to the roof of Xerox PARC’s new leisure centre, where his band, Severe Tire Damage, were performing in the beating June sun.

“It was a hot summer day, and a bunch of leotard-clad dancers were doing their aerobics routines to celebrate this new fitness centre,” says Rubin. “That’s how we became the first band to perform live on the internet.”

By today’s standards, the quality of that first stream was pretty poor. The picture would have been small and jumpy, resembling a thumbnail-sized gif more than the HD resolution we’ve become accustomed to on YouTube. But the audio worked well enough, and the band soon received emails from their colleagues celebrating their performance. One attendee wrote, “To quote all the people who said of Woodstock, ‘I was there’ (remotely).”

“We started multicasting our rehearsal sessions on a weekly basis,” says Manasse. “The audience could talk back over the Mbone, so we’d do things like take requests.” More band members were drafted in – not to play up front, but to handle the technology. People like Lance Berc, who was already working on the Mbone, Brad Horak and Berry Kercheval devised interactive elements like a remote-controlled camera, which the audience could pan across the band, and a smoke machine. “Someone in Illinois would click a button and in California, where we were performing, suddenly the room would start filling up with theatrical fog,” says Rubin.

“It was very natural for us to combine our love of music and our love of networking,” says Berc. “And since The Stones chose to use the same technology, it was a natural step to extend to The Stones’ broadcast.”

On the other side of the States, in a New York office, Stephan Fitch was getting ready to pitch the Mbone to The Rolling Stones’ lawyer. He had just founded the company Thinking Pictures with a vision for adaptable on-screen storytelling based on audience reactions. He was also adept at toying with the Mbone. “I would watch NASA in space sometimes,” he says. “We decided that would be an interesting thing to break. Let’s put the world’s greatest rock band in this thing.”

Fitch also realised the internet could be a useful loophole to evade exclusivity deals. Ever the skilful curators of their brand, The Stones had already wangled a sponsor for most elements of their tour, with rights already signed away for television and radio – streaming offered another potential revenue source.

“We said, ‘Well, multicast is not broadcast. We want to do this thing called the internet,’” says Fitch. “They’re like, ‘Internet? What’s that?’ We said, ‘World Wide Web.’ They said, ‘What’s that?’”

Making history: Severe Tire Damage were the first band to perform live on the internet
Making history: Severe Tire Damage were the first band to perform live on the internet

It was music’s equivalent of the space race, as artists rushed to redefine live performance and audio formats in the digital sphere. Aerosmith released the first downloadable track, Head First, in June 1994. The Stones were determined to make history next. “The concern was if The Stones didn’t do it, Bowie was going to,” says Fitch. “Bowie used to say, ‘Never wear a new pair of shoes around Mick.’ They had somewhat of a competition, apparently.” The band settled on broadcasting 20 minutes of their Dallas Cotton Bowl concert on their first website, stones.com. And triumphantly wrote a press release bragging that they would be the first live-streamed rock band. Or, more accurately, they should have been.

When Severe Tire Damage contacted The Stones, they quickly amended their press release to specify that they were the first “major” band to perform online.

But Severe Tire Damage couldn’t resist a small prank to even the odds. “We decided to pirate their audience,” says Manasse. The Mbone was still relatively primitive, with none of the encryptions that secure livestreams today. For a group of computer scientists, a virtual stage invasion would be child’s play. “We were pretty advanced by the time they did their broadcast,” says Berc. “We spent the night before with The Stones’ tech team, helping them find the parameters for their broadcast.”

So it was that one Friday afternoon, Severe Tire Damage bundled into a DEC conference room – a rather more modest venue than the Dallas Cotton Bowl, where The Stones were waiting in the wings, completely unaware of their unofficial support act. Half an hour before The Stones made their virtual debut, Severe Tire Damage burst online, their frontman noting the historical significance as he greeted the net: “I remember going, ‘Hi, welcome to the world’s first virtual concert where the opening act is in a different city from the main attraction,’” he later told Mercury Studios. Twenty minutes of rocking followed, with the band playing original tracks like Chris Killed Your Dog and Carcinoma, before bowing out. “I said ‘Thanks, The Stones will be right up,’ and we cut the connection,” says Rubin.

Keith Richards and MIck Jagger performing during the band's Voodoo Lounge tour in 1994
Keith Richards and MIck Jagger performing during the band's Voodoo Lounge tour in 1994 - Paul Natkin/Getty Images

When The Stones went live, Mick Jagger gestured to their online guests: “I want to say a special welcome to everyone who’s climbed into the internet tonight and has got into the Mbone. I hope it doesn’t all collapse.”

Incredibly, for such a feat, only 200 people saw the broadcast. Many of those present were academics, who accessed the internet through a university linkup. Nonetheless, in the weeks that followed, the press was abuzz. Newsweek Magazine described Severe Tire Damage, with some comic accuracy, as “a lesser known rock band”. The Stones’ tech team, more unkindly, called them a “very bad band of furry Palo Alto geeks” in a press release. But The Rolling Stones took a more diplomatic approach, describing the prank as “a good reminder of the democratic nature of the internet” to the New York Times.

“It’s like the moon landing,” says Fitch. “What we did with The Stones, everybody’s doing now through their phone.” It was the beginning of a new era online, when the general population adopted the internet. Thinking Pictures later live streamed more concerts with artists like Oasis, Tori Amos and Duncan Sheik. Berc joined a start-up that was commercialising streaming – they initially envisaged thousands of streams going out to millions of people. “Now it’s millions of streams to billions of users. It was far beyond anything we dreamed up back then,” he says.

Tragically, Weiser, the mastermind behind Severe Tire Damage’s first multicast, never saw his predictions for 21st-century computing materialise. He passed away from liver failure caused by cancer in 1999. But his legacy endures. Berc explains: “In the Nineties you had to have expensive equipment to do the kind of video that people do from their cheap cell phones. Anyone can put something on the internet. Back then, you had to be a guru of some sort.”

Yet any hopes of a digital renaissance, may be sputtering again. Democracy on the internet, Fitch argues, now has more to do with legislation, which is tightening across the globe. “People are trying to make it not democratic,” he says, citing a bill backed by the White House in March, which gives it new powers to ban TikTok. In the UK, due to security concerns, the Chinese-owned app is banned from all government-owned devices.

“I think the future of all this is they’re going to ban everything,” says Rubin. ”We’re the first and last people to use the internet this way, then all the interlocks will come down and we will be banished to our little holes in the wall. It’s been fun.”

“Music will be underground again. It will be 1984, or Fahrenheit 451,” adds Berc.

With lawmakers and commercial forces increasingly circling, it remains to be seen whether the internet’s next phase can retain the same rebellious spirit that fuelled its makers through the 1990s. But if Severe Tire Damage proved anything, it’s that rock n’ roll resurfaces in the unlikeliest of places – and its unruly playfulness may just be the true mother of invention.

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