An Oral History of the Thrash Metal Mosh Pit
"It was a carnival of insanity."
With their third full-length album, 1987’s Among the Living, everything clicked for New York thrash band Anthrax. The record was faster than the band’s first two releases and the group sounded angrier and more defiant than ever. One of the many highlights on the disc was “Caught in a Mosh”—a churning, roiling number based on real-life experience. The cut remains a stand-out of the band’s live set and encapsulates the energy and spirit of late 1980s thrash.
Being a dedicated fan of thrash metal doesn’t require entering the mosh pit, the rotating circle composed of lurching, colliding arm-swinging headbangers. But for those who crave heavy-duty physicality along with blaring, chugging rhythms, crashing around inside the pit can be a great way to vent pent-up anger and aggression and escape within a swirling mass of semi-orchestrated chaos.
As anyone who frequents the pit knows, there are unwritten rules to being caught in a mosh: Don’t dish out more than you’re willing to take; if someone’s delivering cheap shots or injuring fans, help other moshers eject him from the pit; if someone falls pick him up. Even those who adhere to the rules are sometimes met with accidental kicks to the head from soaring stagedivers. And those who stagedive do so at their own risk. There’s no guarantee divers won’t be clocked by bouncers, or flub a leap and crash into the barrier between the audience and the crowd.
Then there are those that clear the barrier only to crash on the floor. Even the largest pits sometimes fail to catch divers, and if moshers already face the serious possibility of getting trampled without even ascending the stage, divers who find themselves on the ground in the middle of a swirling pit are even more likely to be injured. Plenty of moshers emerge from the bit with battle scars they’re proud of, but some scars never fade and, in retrospect, many pit-dwellers would have been happy to have exited the pit fray with mere cuts and bruises.
Bands that have been around for a while have likely seen dudes in wheelchairs being passed around overhead. As strange as that seems, lots of musicians have witnessed ever weirder activities in the mosh pit.
Dee Snider (Twisted Sister, ex-Widowmaker)
Mosh pits and stage diving go hand in hand nowadays. I invented stage diving in the 1970s after a guy in the audience threw a beer bottle at me and I decided to swan dive into a crowd of a thousand people or more to confront him because he was pretty far back. But when I dove the crowd parted.
I didn’t realize that human nature says that when nobody else had ever swan dived off the stage before and you suddenly see 180 pounds of silver lamé coming your way, you move out of the way. I hit the floor with a thud. The next day we had to cancel multiple shows and then the band got a bodyguard because they told me I couldn’t be doing security anymore.
Ben Falgoust (Soilent Green, Goatwhore)
I saw D.R.I. early on the Crossover tour in 1987 playing with Kreator and Holy Terror at the Storyville Jazz Hall in New Orleans, and it was the first time I saw a fully formed mosh pit.
Kreator was touring for Terrible Certainty, and when they started playing, a giant pit broke out that reminded me of a huge hurricane vortex that was spinning in a circle. No one really called it a pit back then. It was just chaos.
Then when D.R.I. hit the stage, people were lined up to go behind the PA, get on the stage and dive into the crowd. It was a carnival of insanity. The pit and the stage diving were in full rotation. There was constant diving from each side of the stage and everything kept moving. What was really amazing about it was that no one was getting hurt. No one diving off the stage even fell through onto the ground. Everyone worked within this chaos as a unit and it kept going through the entire show.
For a while I just watched from the side, then I went into the pit, full-tilt. And then I dove off the stage. Everything. After it was over, I just thought, “Holy shit, that was fucking amazing.” It was astonishing seeing that kind of velocity and movement.
Glen Benton (Deicide)
When we played South Korea, I was onstage and there were 50 thousand kids there. Four different pits were going at the same time and thousands of kids were going insane. The force of those pits was so powerful that people that didn’t want to be in there were getting sucked into it like it was a tornado. One second they’d be watching the show, then you’d see this confused look on their faces right before they got dragged in.
Scott Ian (Anthrax)
“Caught in a Mosh,” is about our guitar tech Artie Ring. We were playing at the Rainbow Music Hall in Denver, Colorado, in ’86, and a kid climbed onstage and fucked up my pedalboard. Artie ran out to push this kid offstage and the two got tangled up and fell into the crowd and got sucked up by the pit. One second Artie was there, the next he was gone. Eventually, Artie climbed back onstage. We finished the show and got on the bus. The next morning Artie came crawling out of his bunk and he could barely move. He was holding his back, hunched over, and when I asked him what was wrong and he said, “Oh, man, I got caught in a mosh.”
We thought that was the funniest thing we’d ever heard because Artie was my height and skinner than me. The last place he’d ever wanted to be was in a mosh pit getting trampled. Immediately a light bulb went on over my head. “That’s a song title, right there, song title.”
Aaron Turner (Isis, Old Man Gloom, Sumac)
Isis rarely inspired a mosh pit, but once in a while it happened and one of the places it happened most was Gothenburg, Sweden.
Once, we were playing there and one second I was doing my thing, and the next, I looked down and Cliff, our keyboard player, had been pulled off the stage by one of the more enthusiastic members in the pit. Cliff’s keyboard and some of his pedals went along with him.
Raven (John Gallagher)
The first time we really started seeing moshing was the second time we came around with Anthrax in 1984. We played The Kabuki Theater in San Francisco.
We had a whole bunch of strobe lights we purchased for the tour. They were about $500 each and within the first three minutes, they were all destroyed. These guys were just banging their fists on the stage and on whatever was there and the lights were history. We didn’t even know about stage diving back then so we had no idea how to react. One-by-one, people kept coming up onstage. We just stopped playing, stood next to them, looked right at them and said, “Can I help you? Get the fuck off my stage right now before I kill you.”
And they were looking at us like we were strange.
But it was like, “Listen, we’re not a fucking punk band. You want to get on stage? Learn to play. Earn it.”
That didn’t go down so well with a lot of people. But that was our attitude and to a large extent, it still is because the way we jump around and thrash around onstage, you’re liable to get banged in the head with a guitar anyway, even if it’s not intentional. We didn’t encourage it, but if it happened, it happened.
Billy Graziadei (Biohazard)
Our mosh pits were no joke and there was tons of serious violence. Over the years, there were stabbings and shots fired. Dudes would put razor blades between their knuckles and go to town when the New York-style fist-swinging started. In the [New York club] The Ritz in the early ’90s, I saw one dude with huge slices down his back from his shoulder to his hip. Someone had cut three giant X’s in him, which was fucked up.
For a lot of people, the pit was a fun and energetic release for kids. But on the deeper levels of hardcore, through violent times, it was more about beef—settling beef and starting beef. It was a weird mixture of oil and water that didn’t work. Thank god the violent element dissipated over time.
Eyal Levi (Dååth)
When we were in Mexico City in ’07 with Dark Funeral, I saw guys crowd surfing with brass knuckles on. They were just punching the shit out of everyone as they surfed across the audience. I saw at least three different dudes fly by like that and they’d swing at everyone around them and then they were gone.
Dave Peters (Throwdown)
When I was 16, I was at a Sick Of It All show when a fight broke out and I got hit in the head by a pair of brass knuckles that had been filed down. I had these two star-shaped holes in the side of my head and I had to leave the show early because they wouldn’t stop bleeding. I went to the doctor and he had to cut hair off in order to stitch up my scalp.
“Did you get stabbed with a screwdriver?” he asked me.
My biggest fear was that my parents would find out what happened because I didn’t want them to ban me from shows. I came up with this elaborate story that I was stage diving and I landed on the shoulder of this punk guy who had spikes on his jacket. I went with that story and my parents still don’t know I got into a fight at that show and got hit with brass knuckles.
Another time, a fight broke out and a friend, who meant to hit someone else, accidentally hit me on the top of the head with a bike lock and it split my head open. I figured, “Shit, this is the final straw. If I come home with another head injury my parents will say it’s too unsafe for me to keep going to shows.”
So I borrowed my friend’s insurance card and ID and said I was him. I paid for the hospital bill with cash and had the bill sent to my friend’s house. I never told my parents about that, either.
Jimmy Bower (Eyehategod, Superjoint, ex-Down, ex-Crowbar)
There was a dude in the late ’80s from a pretty big band and he used to have combat boots with chainsaw blades nailed to the front of them. He’d dive off the stage and cut people—not by intention—but if you saw this person in the pit or onstage, you got out of the way. All the hair metal dudes would come with their girlfriends and stand in the back. So we’d go back there and knock their drinks out of their hands.
Dino Cazares (Fear Factory, Divine Heresy, Brujeria, Asesino)
You name it, we’ve seen it. I’ve seen people jump off the fucking stage and nobody catches them and they land on their backs or on their heads. Next stop: the emergency room. That’s happened a million times.
During the Digimortal album cycle, one guy in Italy dove offstage but he didn’t quite make it back to the pit. His whole body smacked into the barricade and I literally saw the main bone in his leg break. It snapped right in front of me. The crowd parted, the emergency team came through and they carried the guy out with the bone still sticking out.
Excerpted from Raising Hell: Backstage Tales from the Lives of Metal Legends by Jon Wiederhorn. Copyright ©2020. Available from Diversion Books.