It was 1992. Every suburban teenager who dreamt of escaping their mundane hometown and becoming a rock star had only one band blasting in their ears: Nirvana. Before they were famous, before Nevermind became a part of rock legend; Kurt, Dave and that other dude made their live Australian debut at a brand new music festival held at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion. Regular suburban kids were able to bask in the glory of their rock saviours for the first – and only – time. Although only a handful of acts played the first Big Day Out, it was such a success that in 1993 it expanded to four capital cities. The Big Day Out was christened that summer and it would change the Australian music festival scene forever. Or at least that’s what legend states.
Fast-forward 22 years to the Big Day Out 2014. I’m standing in the middle of a rambunctious crowd of sweaty, sunburnt, sombrero and singlet wearing bogans waiting to watch Perth psych-rock gods Tame Impala take to the orange stage at Flemington Racecourse. Melbourne’s infamously unpredictable weather meant that the morning was greeted by a huge downpour followed by an afternoon of sweltering sun. But in typical Aussie style, none of the punters that day seemed to care.
Honestly, the main reason I was at the Big Day Out was to finally see my favourite band in the flesh. As soon as Arcade Fire were announced as co-headliners with Pearl Jam and Blur I was handing over my money to anyone who would give me a ticket. As expected, they were extraordinary and their 90-minute set has become one of my most beloved memories. I was incredibly lucky to be able to see my musical heroes in real life; it was a life changing experience to say the least and the closest thing to a religious epiphany if I’m exaggerating just a little. They closed their set with a rousing rendition of Wake Up and I was unashamedly brought to tears. It was then I realised that this is what thousands of other people had done over the Big Day Out’s 22 years. They had formed emotional connections and memories through the music they experienced on that one-day, every year. This was the festival’s legacy.
2014 was my first Big Day Out, and unfortunately, it may have also been my last. Over the past year, the legendary festival has been in and out of the news for all the wrong reasons. In September 2013 the announcement came that the festival’s primary ownership was being handed over from co-founder Ken West to veteran music promoter, AJ Maddah. Then came the news that co-headliners Blur were pulling out of the 2014 festival, only eight weeks before it was due to begin. Luckily organisers were able to score three bands – The Hives, Beady Eye and Deftones – to replace Blur at very short notice, but by then the damage to the Big Day Out brand had already been done.
With the revelation of poor ticket sales and the discontinuation of the Perth leg of the tour, many were left sceptical about Maddah’s devotion to the legendary festival. Sure enough, on June 25th it was revealed by Music Feeds that Maddah had stepped down as the festival’s director and sold the remainder of his shares to American company C3 Presents, leaving them to become the sole owners of the Aussie institution. The day after, C3 Presents put out a statement saying that the Big Day Out would not go ahead in 2015, but they intend to “bring back the festival in future years”. This announcement understandably left many people in an utter state of shock. The Big Day Out as they knew it was dead.
However, with the state of Australian music festivals and their constant cancelations, perhaps it was easy to see coming. With Harvest, Parklife and Homebake all facing sudden deaths over the last few years, it seems to be the way of the festival industry nowadays: quick lived and loved, with little legacy to leave behind. Perhaps the main cause of shock for most was that the Big Day Out seemed invincible.
Of course the festival has had its due amount of controversies over the years and moments of bad press that organisers would rather forget. There has been a Rage Against the Machine riot, drug busts, a post-Cronulla flag ban in 2007 and tragically one mosh-pit death in 2001. But somehow it always recovered after all the controversies and still was able to draw crowds. Not to mention that it was also a monumental landmark in Australian music, allowing up-and-coming bands to get their names into lights and gain legions of fans.
The Big Day Out at one point also seemed to be the major draw card for huge international acts to make the long trip down under. The Ramones, Sonic Youth, Björk, The White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age, New Order, Kanye West, The Strokes; past Big Day Out headliners read like a who’s-who of influential and game-changing musicians. But without a festival like the Big Day Out backing them, many international artists will find it difficult to make the trip to Australia in the future, and this may be the real damage done by the festival’s cancelation.
But the real question on everyone’s minds is whether there is still the possibility for the Big Day Out to return in future years. Many, like myself, are hoping that it will see the light of day again; but some may feel like it’s had its time. Perhaps after all this drama, bringing the Big Day Out back in the future may cause lasting damage to the legacy it holds within Australian music history. There will never be another Big Day Out 1992 and nor should there be. For devoted music fans the memories made at Big Day Outs over the years will be everlasting and perhaps that’s enough.
This piece was written for and published in Catalyst Magazine ‘Nostalgia’, Issue 4, Vol. 70, 2014.