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.