GWAR came to town a few months back, and as a fan there was no way I would be missing their unique brand of heavy metal musical theatre. Two opening bands brought the metal, but the show really kicked off when the twice Grammy nominated “kings of mythic-sci-fi-shock-rock” took to the stage. The crowd compressed forward, and as the opening notes of their first song rang out, the “crush” began. Recreational chaos ensued. Almost immediately, I heard odd shrieking cutting through the all-encompassing music, and I spotted a guy in his twenties panicking about two bodies ahead of me. This unfortunate soul had just discovered his code Black and was in mental overload; frozen and ugly-crying so hard he couldn’t defend himself. I looked to the pit-mate beside me, who had also noticed the out-of-place noises, without a word we both turned forward and push-swam through the human throng. We hooked one arm each and pulled the kid backward. The poor bastard was so deep in panic he couldn’t even assist in his own extrication, though the upside of his freeze response was that it made him easy to toss from the mosh pit, out into the safety of the sideline crowd.
Moshing is exhilarating. It involves a barbarous physicality that digs deep into our evolutionary and historical roots. It also elicits a very real feeling of danger, as the activity is not without its risks. So, as with everything, let’s examine this sub-culture ritual through the lens of self-defence and see what insights we can glean.
What is this “Moshing” you speak of?
The simplest explanation is that moshing is a violent form of dancing, usually to aggressive music. However, if we take a deeper look (which is kinda my thing), we see moshing is a form of communal dancing for the purpose of existential release through positive violence.
The fundamental elements of this chaotic activity can be seen the dancing style associated with Ska and Two-Tone, often called “skanking”, which exhibits variations of a running motion with relatively stiff arms swinging/punching outward (this differs from traditional Skank variations from Jamaica and parts of the UK). The 70s Punk movement, reacting against the orderly and stylish crowds of the Disco, Folk, and “Arena Rock” genres, then brought us the “pogo” (thanks Sid Vicious!), where dancers jump up and down while arching their backs and flailing their heads (a precursor to Heavy Metal headbanging?). In the pogo crowds we see some focus on contact and collisions emerging, with an overall vibe of dancers letting themselves loose in the emotional catharsis of the music. As these styles crossed over we saw the early proto-moshing come into being as “slam dancing.” Finally, the aggression and speed found in the 80’s anti-mainstream Hardcore subgenre of Punk (Bad Brains, Black Flag, D.O.A, Agnostic Front, Minor Threat, etc.), evolved the gentlemanly art of slam-dancing into the chaotic parody of violence that is moshing.
Legend has it that the term “mosh” itself came from the lead singer of Washington D.C. Hardcore band Bad Brains , H.R., referring to the crowd “mashing”, he is said to have pronounced “mash” more like “mosh” in lyrics and during on-stage banter (and encouraged moshing with his wild and energetic stage presence).
As moshing spread across the Hardcore scene in the U.S. and Canada, with a healthy dose of stage-diving and crowd-surfing being added, the tradition became a staple of any Punk show and eventually bled into other music genres such as Celtic-Punk, Grunge, Industrial, etc.. Moshing entered a the wider public worldview on October 31, 1981, when FEAR was invited to play on Saturday Night Live (John Belushi was a fan), and brought their rowdy audience with them. FEAR were subsequently banned from SNL due to the outbreak of madness that is said to have resulted in over $20,000 in damage. These days moshing may, in one form or another, be present anywhere energetic music is being performed, including pits at EDM, Hip Hop, and Country shows.
The Rules of the Pit
Contrary to first impressions, the mosh pit has rules. It seems like unrestrained chaos, but watch for long enough and you’ll notice patterns and self-regulation. These rules developed over decades, unwritten, slowly becoming semi-universal mores in the Metal and Punk communities; to the extent that today many fan communities have written codified them and some venues will post them on their walls . But, as always, there are exceptions, and not all participants respect the social contract.
- PICK PEOPLE UP!! – This is the Golden Rule. People fall down in mosh pits, pick them up as quickly as possible so they aren’t trampled or kicked in the head. If you do nothing else in a mosh pit, do this! (even if you are on the sideline).
- Do NOT cause intentional harm – We are here to let off some steam through shared chaos. We should expect to get hurt, but not seriously injured. If you are punching, kicking, windmilling, or otherwise trying to cause deliberate harm, you are a jackass (see “Crowd Killing” below).
- Don’t grab/grope – This is mainly for the dudes reading: Use common sense and be respectful to the ladies (and other dudes) gettin’ their mosh on. Especially with regard to crowd-surfing, keep surfers up and moving, but don’t go for a cheeky handful just because you think you can get away with it, that’s lame (and sexual assault).
- In or Out – If you are hanging on the sideline to watch, help keep the pit contained by pushing people back in when they inevitably come barreling into you. If you want to get involved, go hard! Whatever you do, don’t stand on the sideline surreptitiously ramming moshers as they pass by, for that is the way of the coward, not the warrior.
- Hold lost items in the air – You feel someone’s phone under your foot? You fall and spot a pair of glasses or a prosthetic leg? Pick items up and hold them in the air for their owners to hopefully see and reclaim. (found cash goes directly in your pocket.)
- Don’t take it personally – We are all getting indiscriminately knocked around. If some people are going harder than you, you have options: toughen up, move to another part of the pit, or exit to the sideline. (However, if there is a crowd-killer cutting a swath through an otherwise chill pit, perhaps you and a few others might put this and Rule #2 aside for a minute…)
Ultimately, you have to assess each pit based on the participants therein. In my many years I’ve seen pits ranging from “friendly jostling” to “guaranteed head injury and missing teeth.” If it looks rougher than you are into, don’t feel ashamed about enjoying the sideline for the night. In case you are not an expert in judging such things, on account of having never encountered a mosh pit in the wild, the next section is a handy guide to the various species of pit that roam the concert jungle. (If you are an expert, jump to the Self-Defence discussion that follows.)
The Mosh Pit and It’s Natural Features
Of course, mosh pits cannot be distinguished by their colourful plumage, fortunately there are some obvious characteristics that identify the type of pit or pit-related event you have encountered. I’ll address these in order from most to least brutal:
“Up Front” – Brutality: 5/5 – This is the section of the crowd consisting of the first row(s) right up against the stage or the rail/fence between the audience and the stage (creating a safe gap wherein security staff dwell and crowd-surfers dismount), in most cases you are pinned and more or less stationary. A coveted space at most shows, as apart from holding a backstage pass this is usually as close to the band as one can get with one’s pants on. In enthusiastic crowds “going Up Front” is NOT for the faint of heart (figuratively or literally). You will experience the worst of “the Crush” here, that being the pressure of the assembled humans, around and behind you, pushing forward. This is where concert-goers die! In some cases people are trampled (blunt force trauma) after losing their footing, but it is more commonly the site of crushing deaths due to traumatic asphyxia or outright organ failure as people are inescapably compressed against the stage, railing, or other immobile people. If there are security staff present, they do their best to pull distressed or imperiled participants out of the Crush into the gap. Tragically, in cases with massive numbers of attendees, such as that notorious Pearl Jam show in Denmark back in 2000 which claimed the lives of nine fans, the force is too great and nothing can be done.
Wall of Death – Brutality: 5/5 – A distinct event within a show that has a mosh pit, the Wall of Death occurs when the band directs the crowd to split into two halves and prepare to rush at each other for one large-scale mosh at a certain point in the song. There is always a guy or two hanging out in the middle waiting to be trampled to prove they’re tough, for everyone else, keep your hands up and refer to Rule #1. After the initial, Medieval-battle-style rush we are left with a regular mosh pit. (Lamb of God is particularly famous for this.)
Open/Closed Pit – This is your standard place of moshing, what one typically refers to when the term “mosh pit” is used. Here you will find music enthusiasts repeated smashing into each other for the purpose of recreation. There are two forms this can take, I’m differentiating them as the “open” pit and the “closed” pit.
- Closed – Brutality: 3-5/5 – This is when the pit is one large, packed mass of humanity bashing around in a confined space. Usually occurs in dense crowds in which the Up Front section, the moshpit, and the rest of the crowd blend seamlessly. There is minimal, if any, separation, contributing to the Up Front crush, so pay attention to where you are.
- Open – Brutality: 1-5/5 – This is the common image of the mosh pit. A space opens in the crowd for people to run across and within, seeking joyful collisions at any angle, while others stand around on the sideline watching and helping to contain moshers. This could take place right behind the Crush of the Up Front section or anywhere else in the audience. If the crowd and space are large enough there may be more than one at a time.
Circle Pit – Brutality: 1-3/5 – An open pit subtype, the Circle pit features moshers running around the space in a circle, bouncing off each other and the sideliners. You just need to keep up and, as always, protect your head. In larger spaces you may even have a regular old mosh pit going on in the middle of the Circle pit. Circle pits are relatively less brutal AND will help get your daily step count up.
“Clit Pit” – Brutality: 0-6/5 – Common parlance for a “ladies only” mosh pit. In recent years these have been occurring more regularly, either by way of spontaneous organization within the crowd or by direction of the band. Often they come into being off to the side or back from the larger, “public” pit. It is not unheard of for the band to stop mid-show and request the main mosh pit clears out for a chicks only session. Yes, there are many ladies who go as hard as if not harder than dudes at shows, but even with my stocky frame I have been annihilated by Viking-descended giants in more than one pit. Let’s also consider that there are many women who, for a numbers of reasons, don’t want to be getting intensely physical with strange men. So I don’t hold the desire for safe(er) rocking-out against anyone. Lads, recall Rules 3 and 6, and stay the fuck out. Ladies, be warned, the illusion of safety in these pits can attract a lot of first timers who don’t know Rules #1, 2, 3, or 6, as a result it can get rough very quickly (I have witnessed more injuries in “clit pits” than anywhere else!)
Crowd-Surfing – Brutality: 2/5 – Specific to a closed pit environment, as the magic of the “surfing” requires a tightly packed crowd of hands to move you forward. Crowd-surfing is safe and un-brutal, until it suddenly isn’t; people get dropped head first all the time. I start by cozying up to some bigger folk, and then shouting “Put me UP!” and motioning forward; most of your fellow musical celebrants will be happy to oblige. Pro tip: Stay rigid with your limps out and the ocean of folks under you will have an easier time conveying you forward, if you get all loose and floppy you become unwieldly dead weight and are more likely to kiss floor. If you feel like things are going amiss, get you feet down ASAP. When you see a crowd-surfer gliding your way, watch for boots flying at your head, observe Rule #3, and try to help them keep moving forward. “Many hands make light work.”
Stage-Diving – Brutality: 3-5/5 – How much do you trust strangers? The inherent risk in jumping from the stage (or equivalent) into the audience varies wildly according to your ability as well as the density and willingness of said audience. If you are going to roll the dice on this, make sure people see you coming, and by all means rotate mid-air so that you land back-first, it will be easier to catch you and you’ll avoid fingers in the eyes (and groin).
Rowing(?!) – Brutality: 0/5 – Yes, rowing pits are a thing. They occur almost exclusively in reaction to Viking style Folk Metal and Death Metal songs. Brutal in no way, shape, or form… Thanks, Scandanavia! (and Amon Amarth in particular)
Crowd-Killing* – Special mention, as they are usually jackass individuals in a pit rather than a type of pit. “Crowd-killers” aren’t here to mosh, they are here to unleash their impotent rage upon all in attendance. Not only are they defying Rule #2 and making the pit less fun, these cowards typically don’t want to be hit back by other moshers, so they have been known to attack the sideliners instead. When encountering a pit full of these guys you are likely watching a band that is known for such nonsense (eg. War Metal, modern Hardcore, etc.). AVOID. If you are into this, be on your way and find a likeminded crowd somewhere else.
Recreational Violence, Self-Defence, and YOU!
Forewarned is forearmed, but how do we put this info to use in defence of ourselves or our loved ones? Once again the answer is Critical Thinking! Do some research before you arrive:
- Is this band or venue known for intense moshing, crowd-killing even?
- Check out some video from previous shows, are the fans lunatics?
- What is the layout of the venue, check pictures on their website; are there places to chill if you’ve had enough of the crowd?
As is often the case, the real trick is critical thinking, use your head to assess the environment and the mood of your fellows who have assembled to be entertained. Check out a side by side of the audience rowdiness when I attended GWAR vs Gary Numan:
Both great shows, but the former was savage debauchery in the front with casual consumers on the outskirts, while the latter was more of a “stand and listen” deal with dancing further to the back. Ultimately, situational awareness remains your best friend.
Dress for success, if you are planning to get into the pit put on decent shoes, reinforced toes are advisable, and don’t wear anything you aren’t willing to lose. I was once at a Marilyn Mason show with a closed pit that was so tight I could lift my feet off the ground. I decided it was time to bail. The only way out was to literally climb the dudes around me and crowd-surf out, in the process my shirt was torn in half and I lost one boot (later recovered).
Once you are live and in person, observe and assess!
- What is security like?
- Are there EMS staff onsite?
- Where are the exits?
- What is the main demographic:
- Energetic young folks?
- Calm oldschool fans?
- Angry oldschool fans?
- Hardcores with murder in their eyes and face tats of the band?
- Is everyone deeply “in their cups“? (Pits at St. Patrick’s Day shows tend to get wild!)
Even if everyone is chill, some bands have certain songs or traditions that are notorious for inspiring crowds to get crazy, know what the first few bars sound like and clear out when things are about to kick off. Make decisions based on what is happening, what the energy of the people in the crowd is telling you, and keep your wits about you. Even if you pride yourself on moshing at the wildest shows, but this pit seems too crazy or a few of the participants are acting more unhinged than is called for, SKIP IT!
Know the safe places! Situational Awareness is a fundamental principle of Krav Maga and self-defence. A mosh pit is easy to spot, so figure out where the “sideline” is then stay away or move around the outside if you aren’t into moshing. Sometimes several pits appear at once with different activities or intensities in each, be aware so you can make informed decisions and pay attention or you might get “caught in a mosh.”
As Rule #4 states, if you are in, get in. Once in, maintain situational awareness and keep your hands up. I’m a big fan of the old Ska style, as I use the structure of stiff bent arms to create space and deflect incoming bodies (mosh impacts are mostly straight-line attacks). If you need a break, get out, drink some water, reassess and decide whether you want back in or not. If you took a bad fall or caught an unintentional headbutt or overhead boot, you may need to seek out the medical staff you spotted earlier.
Also worth a moment of contemplation, are the friends coming with you on the same moshing page as you? I have gone to shows where I stepped into the pit and didn’t see any of my buds until several hours later. Where is your rallying point? Who is holding your wallet and phone (if you are being extra cautious)? Who is driving home if you end up in an ambulance?, etc..
Some venues have tried to outlaw all forms of moshing and taken steps to discourage the behaviour. Several high-profile bands, including The Smashing Pumpkins, Fugazi, and Dream Theater actively speak out against the activity. I understand the reasoning behind this from a safety perspective, however the nature of crowds and the facts of music as passionate expression mean that mayhem may be waiting in the wings at any show. While pleas for calm may work to a certain degree, humans are gonna human (my favourite example being the no-music-Wall-of-Death during the warning about “absolutely no Walls of Death” at Wacken Open Air in 2010.) Meanwhile a few venues that understand their attendees, for example Vancouver’s Rickshaw Theatre, have simply put up a straightforward sign warning that such activities take place within their walls (with a rad “moshing” symbol). Bands that tend to draw or encourage moshing understand their fans’ desire to cut loose, and in most cases are familiar with what a “healthy” pit looks like. Having a bird’s eye view of the action allows them to assess the goings on in the pit, and, fortunately, many have been know to halt a show to help a fan in a bad situation. But never leave your health and safety up to someone else.
From Ska to Moshing, the mix of the two still obvious in modern pits, the act of participant, positive recreational violence lives on. With this in mind, the basic self-defence principles will serve you well in dodging the fate of our panicky friend in the opening paragraph: Think critically about your environment and participation, stay situationally aware as the show progresses, avoid anything you aren’t into or that is taking a turn for the worse, de-escalate threats by removing yourself from a pit that is getting too violent, maintain structure to keep people off you. Whether a knock around in the pit is your thing or not, get out and support live music! Have fun, stay safe, keep you hands up, and, for the love of all that is holy, wear earplugs.
Written by: Corey O. – UTKM Orange Belt
Audio by Jonathan Fader