Reflections on the Big Day Out

Overgeneralization about “generations” is a cliche of lazy writing and analysis, and one that John Quiggin rightly mocked years ago. Nevertheless, there are some cultural experiences that are shared in the memory of, if not a “generation”, at least some substantial fraction of it. And for a substantial fraction of Australians between the ages of 20 and 40, the annual Big Day Out music festival was one such. With the announcement that the festival is going to go “on hiatus“, at least for 2015, a number of writers have reflected on the music festival’s history.

Powderfinger’s drummer, Jon Coghill, tells a few tales, partly from a performer’s perspective, and Fairfax have collated some of their reviewers’ favourite moments. While I didn’t see arguably the most famous, festival-defining set of all – Nirvana’s performance at the first Sydney-only BDO in 1992 – some of the sets referred to were indeed wonderful. The anarchy of Iggy and the Stooges was, in hindsight, obviously well-planned and practiced, but boy was it entertaining. Wolfmother, a retro-hard rock act who sounded something like a cross between Sabbath and Zeppelin, had the misfortune to follow Iggy if memory serves me correctly. Fine musicians as they were, they seemed so insipid on that far off stage after Iggy’s performance. Other musical highlights were the result of stumbling on bits of musical history. Who was that old guy belting it out on the RRR stage? Joe Strummer with his band the Mescaleros, performing Rock the Casbah. And Kraftwerk playing the “dance tent” known as the Boiler Room? Mindblowing. It may have confused the hell out of the giggling e-ed up thirteen year olds in fairy wings, but The Robots sounded even better live in 2003 than it ever did on the album.

For many of those reminiscing about the festival’s end, I’m sure those musical moments will feature. But alongside those, the Big Day Out undoubtedly sticks in the mind as the first music festival many of the writers attended, and as well as the rock’n’roll (and many other musical genres), the other two members of the trinity of “youthful rebellion”, sex and drugs, also likely featured. I don’t have any great tales to tell here, but if you’re interested the Burnet Institute can give you the goss complete with peer review and the odd inferential statistic. For what it’s worth, the smell of marijuana in parts of the Melbourne Showgrounds was so thick you could get stoned walking past, some years. By contrast, the ravers who packed out the Boiler Room did like their ecstasy – the happy vibe may have been chemically-induced, but it made that environment a terrific place to be, even if you weren’t partaking. It also felt amazingly safe and respectful; I do wonder in retrospect about the safety of those happy-happy-happy teenagers outside it, but it’s hard to imagine a less threatening place for a thirteen-year-old girl to be jammed into a crush of thousands than the Boiler Room of the early Big Days Out.

Of course, the moshpits on the main stage were not so safe, with teenager Jessica Mihailik’s death in a crush in 2001 changing the festival forever. The D-Barrier, a crowd control fence allowing the security guards to control the numbers close to the stage, may have been necessary, but it was a symptom of what seemed to me to be an increasingly aggressive, frankly unpleasant vibe in sections of the crowd at the BDO. Rather than loved-up ravers or chilled-out stoners, we had lunkheads fired up on too much VB and Jack Daniels. Australian flags started to surface around this time too. By the time of my last BDO in 2006, I didn’t want to be anywhere near the front of the main stage; yes, I was getting older, but like Malcolm Fraser and the Liberal Party, I don’t think I’d changed that much, instead, the Big Day Out had changed. Regardless, the Big Day Out ran for another seven years. A disastrous 2012 festival with thousands of unsold tickets, and a 2014 festival where headliners Blur pulled out, were the proximate causes of its end.

Others have pointed to some of the deeper reasons behind the end of the Big Day Out. From its start, the festival’s original promoters tried to pick a wide variety of bands, from a surprisingly wide variety of genres. “Alternative” may have been the core of the festival in the 1990s, but everything from German glam-metal provocateurs Rammstein to a set by Kamahl could be found somewhere on the many, many stages. But as Jon Coghill observed:

The BDO also tried to mix metal bands with dance bands, punk bands with hippy bands, mainstream bands with hip hop bands. Often they got it right, but sometimes the combinations failed to gel, on stage and off. On top of that, boutique festivals that concentrated on one genre of music started to compete, and the BDO seemed to lose itself and its purpose.

When the Big Day Out began in 1992, Nirvana were everywhere – broadcast television and radio, including the newly nationwide JJJ. While it’s easy to scoff now, at the time it was a revelation; a national radio network devoted to youth culture, and compared to the insipid offerings of commercial radio and television it was incredibly exciting. It even played songs with naughty words in them! Yes, it was rock-heavy, with programming decisions reflecting the tastes of white male program directors who took their guitars terribly seriously. But it did feature a wider variety of music than anything we’d heard to date, and while there were specialist music programs most of the programming featured a limited playlist, but one that had a bit of everything. And so the teenagers of that era, me included, heard a fairly limited set of artists from a variety of genres.

And it and the Big Day Out fitted together like hand in glove; a festival and a radio station, both with a rock bias, but throwing a collection of other genres into the mix.

Now, in a world where algorithms can generate a “radio station” featuring as narrow a range of musical forms as you can imagine, the intra-generational zeitgeist seems, at least to this non-teenage gent, weaker than it has been since the inception of broadcast media. The teenagers of today have the entire smorgasboard of nearly a century of recorded music available to them, and can sample as narrowly and deeply as they wish. Is it any wonder that a music festival that attempted to be all things to as many people as possible is no more?

In any case, while I have a slightly misty eye for some of the music, the practicalities of such a huge event are something I don’t think many will miss. Queues for everything. Standing for hours in the hot sun hoping like hell you’ve applied enough sunscreen. Being jostled, constantly. The lengthy walk home when you can’t get onto the jampacked public transport. And, especially, the meatheads.

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