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Why Big Day Out has had its day

It was almost midnight on a mild summer’s night when the opening guitar chords of Under the Bridge from The Red Hot Chili Peppers rang out into the sea of tattooed, shirtless bogans. I folded up my best cardigan and waved farewell to the Big Day Out that I once knew. For a number of years the BDO had been on its last legs like a cheap pair of St. Vincent De Paul loafers. Why? Well it was plainly obvious. It was no longer about the music but about the money, the green, the shares and the investors.

In 1992 when grunge broke with Nevermind, two very fortunate promoters, Vivian Lees and Ken West had booked Nirvana as the undercard to the Violent Femmes for the inaugural BDO. It was a neat little three stage setting at Sydney’s Horden Pavilion in the inner-city. The crowds could shuffle from one stage to the next without too much fuss. With the brand recognition of Nirvana, the following years meant the BDO was the place to witness up and coming talent from a varied genre of musical influence.

You think it would be a winning formula, big bands, summer, beer, Australia and its partying middle-class clientelle. So how could it all go wrong? I imagine the 1992 philosophy behind the inaugural BDO, was more of a passion project for Lees and West. But when you start including jumping castles and Ferris wheels and pirate ships and over selling gate expectations and embracing capitalism like Bernie Madoff, well, stuff will fall apart.

This is not to say that Lees and West did anything wrong. To the contrary. I commend them for bringing a smorgasbord of musical acts, a gallery of dreams for most punters. By the end of last century though, the BDO was looking more like the Royal Sydney Easter Show rather than a music festival. I am surprised there were no wood-chopping competitions and cattle parades in between band sets.

I still remember watching Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips rolling around in a transparent beach ball at the 2004 Gold Coast Big Day Out. I remember his face was dripping with fake blood and confetti spurted into the crowd like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This was before he decided to sack the Lips’ drummer and side with the Republican Party in a show of bizarre Robin Thicke type behaviour.

I still remember in 2001 as Coldplay sung Old Yella, I thought this band could actually bore the hell out of people for the next two decades and I was right. So what will the BDO be remembered for and will anyone really miss it? I want to feel sad or feel something, but who I am supposed to feel sad or something for? I am sure the founders Lees and West made a pretty penny so I can’t really empathise with them. I know they split as a partnership a while back, but why talk about anyone else who is involved with the BDO now? It was really their show all along. It seems every day a new festival props up like a bed of chrysanthemums on a Vaucluse side street.

Will the same fate be cast upon The Laneway Festival, the new kid on the block? What started out as a festival in the laneways next to Myer in Melbourne has now grown into a fully-fledged international music festival. The difference between the BDO and the Laneway Festival is that the Laneway Festival appeals to the hipster, Pitchfork Gen Y crowd who drink Japanese herbal teas on a Saturday night.

The Laneway Festival bands are generally inoffensive, sweet sounding, and well-dressed bourgeois bohemians, (not that there’s anything wrong with it.) The eclectic nature of the old world, the BDO, it had no qualms in showcasing a Neil Young next to a Prodigy or The Go-Betweens up against a Rammstein. This was where the charm of the BDO won me over. It gave the punter a chance to watch stuff that they normally wouldn’t pay to see. Unfortunately the BDO crowds were generally either teenagers experiencing their first music festival or out of work body builders with a score to settle.

The inaugural BDO was catapulted into the stratosphere by one of the greatest bands in history, Nirvana. I guess it is just by happenstance that 21 years later and from the same era and the same port as Nirvana, that Pearl Jam perhaps echo the final grunge sound to what was no doubt a colourful two decades of BDOs.

4 responses to “Why Big Day Out has had its day

  1. With all due respect, the appearance of Nirvana at the first BDO was one of the most disappointing performances I’ve ever seen. Kurt was about as excited to be there as a valium filled albino frog. I wandered out after about five songs to the skate stage where a very impressive show by You Am I, at their raunch rock best, were throwing it down in a way that made the stage allocation feel completely wrong. Worse was the fact that on the big stage before the Kurt shambles, were the Celibate Rifles who were also at their prime. There was a big build up, only for severe deflation to be the result. While the Violent Femmes were indie pop royalty, it was more of a singalong with the hits show rather than the rocking end it promised through the day.

    It was successful in getting punters to see what they ordinarily wouldn’t. And had some great moments as touring fest. But in later years started from a base of finding established bands to guarantee the crowd, think lowest common degree, which left little cash in the tin for the edgier/more interesting os acts. I’m struggling to think of any bands that they caught on the way up to worldwide domination, rather than jagging on to already established names, usually on the slide. (M Manson, Hole anyone?) maybe the Breeders and Soundgarden, but then again there wasn’t much output from either band afterwards. Booking PJ was the Hells Bells of death knells…

  2. “The Laneway Festival bands are generally inoffensive, sweet sounding, and well-dressed bourgeois bohemians, (not that there’s anything wrong with it.)”

    There’s everything wrong with that.

  3. I’m with you there. I used to love the BDO but in the last ten, or maybe even more, years I kept getting excited about there finally being a decent line-up again, only to be disappointed. In the early years there were exciting bands, stuff that you would barely see anywhere else and it happened lots that you stumbled over a band you hadn’t heard of or were barely aware of, and become a huge fan of them.
    But in the early 2000’s the flag-capped bogan brigade started taking over which would have been bad enough, but the BDO started catering towards them too with bigger headline acts but overall much less interesting lineups. And it turned from a music festival into show day with bands. I hate that line, but it really wasn’t about the music anymore. Punters kept going to the BDO to get drunk, get shirtless and party with their friends. Ok with me if you they that sort of thing, but why did they have to ruin a great music festival with that?
    So, as much as I loved it, I can’t say I’m sad to see it go at all.

  4. “I still remember in 2001 as Coldplay sung Old Yella, I thought this band could actually bore the hell out of people for the next two decades and I was right.” So, so true, couldn’t agree more. One of the worst bands ever.


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