Glory, chaos and friendship: what I miss about the Big Day Out

Four rock stars walk into a bar… The influential festival, founded 30 years ago this January, was as much a social event as a musical one

Last month, an old photo made the rounds of the more music-obsessed bit of Facebook – a picture that harkened back to a more innocent time or, at the very least, a time when people could smoke in pubs.

It’s a black and white shot of a crowded bar – ostensibly in Melbourne, although there are those who insist it’s the Exeter Hotel on Adelaide’s Rundle Street – with four figures holding cigarettes and drinking while engaged in lively conversation in the foreground.

What’s known for certain is that the photo was taken in January 1993. The reason is the four people in the shot are Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, Mark Arm of Mudhoney, and Tex Perkins, then fronting the Beasts Of Bourbon, all of whom were travelling on the bill of the very first national Big Day Out tour.

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It’s a picture of a past that seems further in the rear view mirror every day as things like “crowded pubs”, “international touring” and “music festivals” wait impatiently for the pandemic to fully subside. But it also captures something wonderful, which was how the Big Day Out was, for punters and artists alike, as much a social event as a musical one.

Yes, it’s always easy to slip into nostalgia about how great things were before the current cursed age, especially if you’re a fan of live music who has now spent two years largely unable to see any.

But upon reading Ken West’s recently published accounts of Big Day Out, the festival he co-founded and promoted 30 years ago, it’s impossible not to get caught up in reveries about the good old days when festivals were new and wild and artists regarded the BDO more like it was a paid holiday with cool colleagues and less like another stop on the interminable tour itinerary.

Crowd at Big Day Out 2012
Festival-goers at Big Day Out 2012 in Gold Coast Parklands. Credit: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

As West makes clear in the handful of chapters he’s made available online (he’s working up to an entire book), festivals weren’t nearly as big a deal when the Big Day Out started; touring festivals were almost unheard of. But in 1991 the brand new Perry Farrell-curated Lollapalooza Festival got Ken and his business partner Vivian Lees thinking about a similar concept for Australia: get a great line-up, put on a day-long event, and maybe even take it around the country.

For those who missed out on the BDO experience, the main thing is that they were… well, gloriously fun.

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And that was the non-music part. There was the Lilypad, where weird stuff happened all day. There were markets. There was art all over the place. According to West, part of the reason for all the non-music elements at BDO was so they could make the case that it was a youth culture event rather than a rock festival (and thus an easier sell to noise-obsessed local councils and sceptical resident groups), but the idea that the tour was a rollicking travelling circus spilled over to the bands on the bill.

I’m reminded of a story told by friends in Melbourne about a pre-BDO game of minigolf in 1996, where they were asked by the group behind them if they could play through: a motley crew of Billy Bragg, Nick Cave, and Keith Flint from the Prodigy, among others, all wearing the standard UK tourist outfits of shorts, sun hats and visible zinc cream.

“After Big Day Out showed the way, Lees and West became the establishment”

The Big Day Out was as much a social event for the artists involved as it was a tour. Lees and West’s team did their absolute best to make it so, not least because they knew that the most valuable tool for building killer future line-ups would be word of mouth from bands who’d had the time of their lives – or failing that, those who’d shocked the hell out of hungover punters on a minigolf course.

During my own brief and thoroughly unsuccessful attempts to become an internationally beloved indie rock star, I was fortunate enough to play the Adelaide Big Day Out an implausible three times and racked up some of my own chance meetings.

The first time, with The Undecided in 1994, meant sitting at the afterparty in the aforementioned Exeter Hotel with a barely-coherent Blixa Bargeld, who enthusiastically shared Bad Seeds tour anecdotes made all the more colourful by his lapsing into drunken German at pivotal moments, a language which none of my band remotely understood.

The second time was with Career Girls in 2002 and included an extended chat about Australian music with the warm and lovely Meg White. The White Stripes were headlining one of the smaller stages and she had come to the site early to see some bands and check out the scene.

The third and final time in 2005 involved the surreal experience of trying and failing to get into the Hilltop Hoods’ impossibly-packed crowd with my Zero Kelvins bandmate Nick Lambert, despite his brother Matt – aka MC Suffa – being one of the three people on stage, and then watching a delightfully tongue-tied Wil Anderson all but genuflect to the band in the bar afterwards.

Hilltop Hoods Big Day Out
Hilltop Hoods performing at Big Day Out 2008 in Auckland. Credit: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

That collegiate atmosphere couldn’t last forever, of course. After Big Day Out showed the way, Lees and West became the establishment. Every promoter was working against them, with young promoters starting new festivals and old colleagues deciding to have a crack themselves.

What had begun as a glorious summer invitational for a trek around the country playing a civilised number of shows fast became a major payday for managers playing one event off against another. And, of course, the tragic death of Jessica Michalik in 2001 during Limp Bizkit’s set cast a pall over the event that never completely lifted.

By the time of the final Big Day Out in 2014, neither Lees nor West were involved. International agency C3 Presents – Lollapalooza producers since 2005 – had bought the festival and after the planned 2015 tour never came to fruition, the festival disappeared off the calendar for good.

Big Day Out went out with a whimper, not a bang (unless you count the mud-slinging in the media about who was to blame for its failure). But there’s still something deeply romantic about having been part of a vast mass of people sharing a glorious moment together – or at least sitting in rapt terror while a Bad Seed tells a story that defies all understanding.

The Australian music industry is limping back to recovery at the moment. Whatever challenges we might face, it’s worth working toward a future of festivals fuelled by that gleeful, chaotic spirit. If only for the minigolf.

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