Fond farewell to the Big Day Out

Confetti showers the crowd as Arcade Fire plays the final set at the Sydney Big Day Out in January.

Confetti showers the crowd as Arcade Fire plays the final set at the Sydney Big Day Out in January.

LIKE many south-west people, my first experience of a proper rock festival was the Big Day Out.

From 2000 to 2008, I joined the legion of punters from this region who made the trek to the Melbourne Showgrounds (or Princes Park after that and Flemington Racecourse after that) for 12 hours of extreme heat, dust, sweat, crowds, over-priced food and drink, and loud music.

And it was awesome ... until I started to feel too old and gave it away, figuring that watching Rage Against The Machine was a good note to go out on.

Despite not attending in recent years, the news this week that the BDO might be a thing of the past was saddening.

The event — now completely owned by American company C3 Presents — is taking a year off in 2015 and it might return in 2016 bigger and better than ever. That’s what happened when the BDO took a year off in 1998 and came back refreshed in 1999.

But in the current climate where festivals are a dime a dozen and disappearing all the time, when organisers say they’re taking a break the event doesn’t always come back.

Who knows? Maybe it’s too early to be writing its obituary. But maybe it’s not. So just in case, here are some BDO memories that aren’t necessarily an epitaph but more of a display of what we’d be missing if the festival doesn’t come back. 

n The gulf between the audience and the main stage, lined with the burliest of bouncers, is unbreachable ... unless Iggy Pop says otherwise. Much to the disdain of the security guards, the 2006 slot from Iggy & The Stooges culminated in Pop pulling about 50 people from the crowd to join him on stage as they played I Wanna Be Your Dog (for the second time in the set). Everybody else in the crowd wished Pop had pulled them up too and no one cared that they played the same song twice. The White Stripes followed, but couldn’t top the maniacal Pop.

n Throwing things at the stage is not cool. Most bands feel peeved, angry or fearful when this happens, and quite rightly so. And then there’s Spiderbait, veterans of five BDOs. I can’t remember if it was ’00 or ’02, but their response to a can being thrown on stage was gold — drummer Kram stood up and implored the crowd, “is that all you’ve got?”. He then struck a Jesus Christ pose as a sea of cans and bottles rained down around him, while bandmates Whit and Janet used their guitars to bat them out of the air like baseballers. When the crowd was out of missiles, the show continued. Take note other bands — that’s how you handle audience members throwing stuff.

n Probably the coolest run of bands ever to grace one of the smaller stages would have been At The Drive In followed by You Am I followed by The Avalanches circa 2001. 

All three bands were at the top of their game and blew minds, but it was only in hindsight that those who saw them realised how lucky they were. 

The Avalanches haven’t played live in Australia since (their occasional DJ sets don’t count) while At The Drive In broke up about two months later (they reunited 11 years later, but it’s never quite the same). It’s something that happens on occasion with the BDO where you look back and think “Damn, now I’m especially glad I saw that!”. 

The Beastie Boys headlined in 2005 and never returned to our shores again (and never will as the Beastie Boys since MCA’s death), Sleater-Kinney called it quits a few months after the BDO, while Rage Against The Machine’s return in 2008 is likely the last time we’ll ever see them here. 

n The worst (and therefore most weirdly memorable) performance I ever saw at a BDO was The Vines in 2003. The band were massive at the time, having conquered the US and the UK with their awesome debut album Highly Evolved. Frontman Craig Nicholls, his mental health issues undiagnosed at the point, was earning a reputation for his erratic live performances and their BDO debut was no exception. Nicholls smashed four guitars during the set and screamed his way through some very loose interpretations of the tracks from Highly Evolved. The buzz before they came on the main stage was huge, as was the size of the crowd. By the end of the set, few remained, with most people having wandered off to find something better to watch. When the band returned in 2007, they played a side stage and were the complete opposite of their 2003 performance — they were tight, played brilliantly, didn’t smash anything and Nicholls was electrifying.

n If The Vines were the worst, the best thing I ever saw was The Flaming Lips in 2004. It remains the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience — their uplifting songs and bizarre stage props were a celebration of life and music that left the audience in a happy daze. 

The lucky ones who saw them did so instead of seeing Metallica on the main stage, where the thrash metal gods were unleashing a pyrotechnic assault of major riffage and songs about war and destruction. But over at one of the side stages, we blissed out to Do You Realize, Race For The Prize and She Don’t Use Jelly while a bunch of people danced around on stage in animal costumes. Trippy, man.

n As mentioned earlier, I “retired” from BDOs in 2008, having just witnessed the ultimate display of irony — 50,000 people singing “f--- you, I won’t do what you tell me” in unison as Rage Against The Machine tore the metaphorical roof off with Killing In The Name. There was no topping that. 

Also, I’d been unable to resist the urge to have a bit of a nap under a tree while I watched Spoon playing earlier in the afternoon. 

That’s when you know it might be time to hang up the one-day festival hat.

n And finally, a story that has to be repeated (even though I didn’t witness it). 

Legend has it that in 1999, Hole lead singer Courtney Love staggered drunkenly on to the Warrnambool bus just as it was preparing to return home at the end of festival. 

Apparently she was apologising for Hole’s crappy performance earlier in the day and was completely off her face. 

I really hope this is actually true and I really wish I’d seen it. (The drunken apology, not the crappy performance).

mneal@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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