Footage of Metallica’s set from the Monsters of Rock show in Moscow, Russia 1991
When you’re a cultural ambassador to another country, especially one that had only recently accepted your country, it’s probably best to avoid making your own cultural faux pas. Brian Johnson almost learned that the hard way in 1991 when AC/DC and Metallica headed a massive one million person concert in Moscow, Russia.
Just as AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson has reprised his role as AC/DC singer, he has also began his career as television host. In an twelve-part series called A Life on the Road, Johnson sits down with some of the largest names of rock including Robert Plant, Nick Mason, Lars Ulrich, Sting and many many more.
Ulrich is featured as the guest on episode two of the series and him and Johnson reminisced about everything from the power of Metallica’s live shows to Cliff Burton‘s death.
While the topics ranged in emotion and spanned the spectrum of time, the striking footage and new perspectives from the 1991 Monsters of Rock show really struck a chord.
“One show that stands out main memory more than anything was that time we shared a stage in Moscow,” Johnson recalled. “We got the call from [the First Russian President Boris] Yeltsin…Well, not him personally, but it said, ‘You must come up to Moscow because the coup is over, and we promised the kids. They wanted rock ‘n’ roll.’ and I was pretty proud of that.”
As Brian remembered the show, he laughed that they were “headlining above the band who at the time had the biggest-selling album in America.”
Ulrich recanted the intense and strange energy of the show as Eastern Europe and Russian regime changes lead to a sudden welcoming of Western culture.
“From what I was told, the government negotiated with the students and with the kids that as part of the settlement they were going to get a rock concert. I was told there were half a million people there,” said Ulrich as Johnson corrected him that in fact 1.2 million people were in attendance. “There was a lot of fucking people there, everyone can agree on that.”
The bands manager, Peter Mensch, said the crowd just faded off to the horizon at some point and since the concert was free the headcount was not their concern as they were hoping to play then get out of dodge.
“The security guys were all Russian military,” Ulrich continued. “So when you look out over the crowd, it was just soldiers and there were these helicopters, these big old Sikorsky helicopters were flying over the punters, literally. It looked like they could just reach up and touch them. And I was sitting up there going, ‘Holy fuck! This is intense. This is really alive, this feels like it could go off at any moment.'”
“It was scary,” Brian agreed recalling his own nearly fateful encounter with the Russian military.
“I remember when I was in our dressing room and I was getting pushed back. ‘I’m sorry, there are more kids coming in, you have to wait.’ And I wanted to take a pee,” said Johnson.
“And I went out the back, and there was a concrete column with an old rusty ball on, and I remember thinking just, ‘I’ll take a pee here.’ And the two soldiers came up with a rifle, they were gonna shoot me,” Johnson continued.
“And I didn’t realize it was Sputnik, and it was quite a revered thing, but it was amazing what a carton of Marlboros could do,” joked Johnson
While both Ulrich and John felt lucky to be ambassadors for rock Johnson said the tension and contrast between the fans and the military was still palpable.
“[After urinating on the statue] you could see in an instant how cruel and brutal these guys were and [that they] were used to getting their own way. And then you went on the stage and saw the joy, these people just went wild, and I know half of them couldn’t really hear.”
Though the official headcount is unknown of that day, most estimates put attendance anywhere from 500,000 to 1.5 million which puts it very near the top concert attendance of all time.
Johnson’s show premiered on Sky Arts, a British television studio, in 2017 and was subsequently distributed my AXS in the US in 2019. Though Johnson’s show doesn’t come up on the AXS.tv website, Amazon appears to list the show on its streaming service though unfortunately it appears to be geo-locked in the US.