Big Day Out Founder Details Chaos Behind The Scenes As Event Blew Up

24 January 2022 | 1:04 pm | Ken West

Festival founder Ken West has shared various chapters from a yet-to-be-finished book on Big Day Out via a new website celebrating the iconic event’s 30th anniversary. In ‘Controlled Kaos’ (working title), West will take a deep dive into the festival’s history. Below you can read a section from chapter 23, which details the chaos around Big Day Out in 1994 when it really took off.

CHAPTER 23: 1994 - The Year It Went Boom

Ticket price $45 + booking fees.
National attendance – 125k.

The first run of BDO shows made a reasonable profit but nothing like most observers estimated. It was still much bigger on a cultural & media-level than in a commercial sense. What made it so exciting was that it was gathering momentum. The success of the 92 shows made 93 possible & the success of the 93 gave 94 an incredible foundation. It was apparent that we were becoming full-time festival producers & part-time concert promoters. It was also becoming obvious that the stakes were getting higher. This was the first time we attempted 6 events by adding Gold Coast and Auckland.

Taking your eye off the ball could send us bankrupt. We pulled back on tours to focus on the bigger picture. We also needed to learn really fast how to delegate.

Initially, the inner core for on the road was a very small team. Matt Doherty on production, Peter Farrell on Backline, Peter Critchley on-site, Kate Stewart in coordination, Wendy Boyce Hunter for publicity & our friends Richard & Duckpond (aka Peter Mackay) as the ambience team plus a handful of production crew. On the road Vivian generally dealt with international talent, solo shows & financial administration & I produced the festivals. The problem with expansion was that in general we were control freaks & felt it was quicker to do it ourselves than to show someone else how. That had to change, or we were going to kill ourselves.

The Sydney Showgrounds had a long rich history but was destined to be redeveloped in a few years as part of the Sydney Olympics deal. I loved it, filled with history and childhood memories, really run down and lots of character.  I negotiated an office space for a few months before the show. It was like working in the country, but you were in the middle of Sydney. Horses walked past the office & in general, we were pretty much on our own. It was very calming, which it needed to be.

I was searching for an artistic direction for the shows when I noticed a huge inflatable blue boy set on top of the MCA at Circular Quay. It was made by friend Maria Kozik. The end result was the creation of Blue Boy and Cherry as an amazing artwork and on-road installation. They set the tone in a crazy kind of way.

On the international band front, Kate pushed for Soundgarden to headline & pretty soon we were getting a bill together. Stephen Pav was becoming a pretty big player & he had Offspring & The Breeders to bring to the bill. We then added Smashing Pumpkins, Bjork, Ramones and Teenage Fanclub. Looking back, it was a big line-up, but at the time, Soundgarden was the BIG band, with only 20,000 album sales here, nowhere near gold. Locally, Cruel Sea had sold over 100,000 albums but was 5th down the bill. It was just how it was then.

When trying to lock down the deals, both Bjork & Smashing Pumpkins were after more money, based on them theoretically being on the verge of becoming huge. I decided the best way to solve predicting the future was to link overages with record sales with the first bonuses at 10,000 album sales before the first show. Neither act made even their first bonus. However, 2 months later after the shows, they were both double platinum. (140k)

Seeing that the show was in a strong growth phase we looked at venues that could sustain expansion. As we had lost our Adelaide venue we went to the Showgrounds & to avoid conflict in Brisbane with Livid & to capitalise on the huge tourist component we went to the Gold Coast Showgrounds. However, in Auckland, the showgrounds had severe noise problems, so I decided to go to a huge venue, Mt Smart Stadium (now known as Ericsson Stadium).

READ MORE: Big Day Out Founder Shares 'Crazy Festival Memories' Via New Book & Website

The run for 1994 became Gold Coast-Sydney- Melbourne - Adelaide - Perth - Auckland. As I was worried about how Auckland would go, it needed to be at the end, just in case it didn't work. This also shortened the Australian leg to 10 days but logistically it was a hard run. 

The next few months involved pulling the line-up together & getting council permits to stage these ‘disgusting rock festivals.’ This was before festivals were hip, so we kept pushing the ‘Youth, Music and Lifestyle Festival’ angle. I got calls from the council's planners with questions like “what percentage of the entertainment is music?” & “can you add more emphasis on ‘lifestyle?”. Everyone was with us, but they were scared of the all-powerful ‘resident action group’. These were hangovers from the 80s where one person could stop the joy of thousands. Luckily, over time councils learnt to become more socialist & support the benefit of the many over the few. The irony was that the most obnoxious locals were the new residents that wanted the upside of being next to a showground but none of the downside of them staging events.

Most Australians aren’t aware that this was also the first year of a National January 26th Australia Day. Before then it was more birth of state day and celebrated on different dates. Back then it was just another public holiday to most people.  

We had chosen the Gold Coast Showgrounds, which was really a trotting track with extras, for its location and suitability, but just as importantly their support on every level from financial agreements and ground management to political connections. During January the coast was the place to be. It had unlimited hotels & was a party/ family place. No one had issues going there. The only problem with producing a show in an area with tropical weather was ........tropical weather. A cyclone hit the coast four days out & to say the least it was total shit. It was raining 20cm (7 inches) a day. Outdoors you needed to cover your nose with your hand to stop breathing in the water. The poor stage builders were getting saturated. The weird thing with monsoons is that you can’t believe they can keep going so you have a blind belief they will run out of water. But this sucker just kept going.

I stayed calm and started looking for another venue, I even went to Brisbane & negotiated a deal to move the show into the Entertainment Centre. Our site manager Smash had a relative in the bureau of Meteorology so hourly updates were the go. Two days out from the show the circus tent covering the second stage was ripped to shreds. Luckily, being a showground, the site had incredible drainage. Hundreds of tons of gravel two feet underground saved our arse.  The night before the show we had to bump up the second stage next to the main stage, move the stage two acts over and reduce set lengths much to some artists' resistance.

Part of the problem, even removing the financial reality of no weather insurance, was agreeing on when to decide if the show was on or not. Because most people travelled, we really needed to let them know the night before, but at any stage, the storm could stop & the show would be fine. Eventually at 2 am Smash’s mate in Brisbane said “If I was a betting man, I would say it’s gonna go out to sea”. It did, at 5 am. It was the most magical dawn like the Gods had smiled upon us. Electric Blue.

Even though we had only sold 12,000 tickets it was a big deal. We had compressed the show into a third of the site, so it was pretty intense. I still believed in the rock ethic that if it doesn't feel like a sell-out it feels like a failure.

Vivian was on the road with Iggy and when he arrived from Melbourne mid-afternoon, he seemed oblivious to what had unfolded or how close we were to cancelling the show........ Strange?

All was going well until we realised that we were going to run until midnight & that we were blasting out the locals with the way we had set up the PA. I was called to the main office to talk to two young cops that had been sent to ‘shut down the show’.  It was ten at night & I was feeling vulnerable. Luckily, they were Soundgarden fans & were more interested in an autograph than a riot. I was happy to have them with me, side of the stage, watching Soundgarden. We finished just before midnight. 

The next morning, I was abused at Gold Coast airport by the check-in person. He hadn’t slept well because of the ‘Rock Concert’. It was the first time I had heard the term ‘Southerners’ in Australia.

The great thing about the 94 tour was that it had such a positive attitude. The line-up was incredible & virtually all the acts had chips on their shoulders. This was the definitive moment that the old guard was dead & the new guard was firmly in control.

You can read more from Ken West's Big Day Out book here.