Stop lighting the audience: Billy Joel and a misunderstanding with a million people

Paul Squires
4 min readJun 2, 2023

In 1987, the USSR was part-way through its programme of Perestroika (reconstruction) and Glasnost (openness). The country’s leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was enjoying fruitful and productive relations with Western leaders, particularly Ronald Reagan, in a way that had not been seen since the second World War. As we now know, of course, the entire USSR and wider Eastern Bloc collapsed, and out of it sprang independent, free, European countries — with the exception of Russia.

To bolster the USSR’s increasing sense of outbound positivity, the musician Billy Joel was one of a small number of high-profile musicians who toured the country in an effort to show the world that music could indeed bring countries and people together. Joel’s dedication to making this happen was more than just lip service; he put up $2m to facilitate a six-date tour across the USSR.

Joel started the tour immediately after completing a punishing round of dates in the West. He was already exhausted from 11 months of touring and, in the first few dates of the new USSR tour, experienced what perhaps should have been expected: that the venues were poorly equipped, with facilities being nowhere near what one would expect from Madison Square Garden.

Although thousands of young music fans attended each date, there was one problem. The front rows were always occupied by local members of the Politburo. They were definitely not there to enjoy the music and, although they often left before the show had finished (thus freeing up the atmosphere), both Joel and audience were on their best behaviour during their attendance.

The biggest show on the tour was set to be in Moscow, and sure enough, over a million people attended — an extraordinary number for any show in any country. Still, the Politburo remained in their front row seats, keeping an authoritarian eye over as many people as possible in the stadium.

Joel’s journey throughout the USSR was being captured by a film crew, producing a documentary of the tour. At the Moscow show, they were on the stage, ready as assumed to capture Joel’s energetic performance and the welcoming reactions of the young crowd.

As one would expect, the film crew needed lighting to film the crowd.

However, the USSR’s youth did not associate mass lighting with the mundane activity of being filmed for a documentary.

They associated it with crowd control; with the USSR’s various security forces shining huge lights onto them in an effort to quash any potential protests, uprisings or general “inappropriate” behaviour.

The result is that when the film crew shone their lights on the audience, the audience froze. They didn’t want to be seen to be moving around. This was the behaviour learned from social control by the security forces.

Billy kept playing.

He then noticed that this was happening. Some way through a lively set that both he and the crowd were otherwise enjoying, he was trying to direct the crew not to do this. Such was Joel’s commitment to the show that he was shouting irate instructions during songs. Half way through the song Just A Fantasy, he would shout at the crew to “stop lighting the audience”.

The crew continued, somewhat oblivious to both the cultural insensitivity and Joel’s instructions. He continued to shout at them to stop it.

Eventually, he snapped.

Joel got up, and turned his Yamaha piano over, smashing it on stage. He proceeded to then do the same to the microphone and its stand.

The audience reaction to this behaviour was also totally different to what one would expect, but in a different way. They thought that they were witnessing something that was almost rehearsed; that a soft-pop piano player had turned punk, and this was just what he did on stage.

US TV coverage of the tour

We make assumptions every day with people. Some of them are correct and some of them are way off the mark. We can probably all think of at least one which ended up being downright embarrassing. Technology perhaps should have helped with these misunderstandings way more than one would expect by now. We’re still being served poorly-targeted advertising, or recommended content that has no relevance, or interventions which make us freeze with surprise or even revulsion. If we use AI for good then, hopefully, such misunderstandings are less likely.

As for Billy Joel, he successfully continued his tour with the film crew, the misunderstandings having been resolved in front of a million people.

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Paul Squires

Founder @imperica @pereramedia / Strategist @ibminteractive / Chair @furtherfield. Digital, media, art, politics, environment, culture, ephemera.