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Features January 25, 2022

On the 30th-anniversary of Big Day Out, founder Ken West releases excerpts from forthcoming book

Senior Journalist, B2B
On the 30th-anniversary of Big Day Out, founder Ken West releases excerpts from forthcoming book

On January 25, 1992, the first Big Day Out was staged at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion.

It started as a Violent Femmes tour, with an unknown Nirvana in the middle slot.

The Sydney show drew 9,500 punters. By 2005 Ken West and business partner Viv Lees built it up through Australia and in New Zealand to 255,000.

Here West recalls the first six years in chapters from his unfinished book Controlled Chaos (working title) through the Kenfest website, complete with a playlist.

In those years, BDO drew five million fans, had a global reputation as the place to play, and proved it could break Soundgarden, Bjork and Smashing Pumpkins, among others, in Australia.

THE MYSTERY OF THE NAME

It was going to be Kenfest but it was confusing to explain the concept of the festival to acts.

“The common concern was that Australian audiences tended to ignore the opening local acts & not turn up until the headline international,” he explains.

“Sadly, they were right, and I needed to convince the audience that they had paid for the whole day, so they should come early.”

As for the name: “However, I’m still not sure whether I just went with a common term or did I take it from the Wonderstuff’s UK Big Day Out festival held in June ‘91?

“I even produced their Australian tour in November 91, when the Big Day Out was already on sale, but it is still a mystery to me.”

THE CONCEPT: NO “HIPPIE BULLSHIT”

Until Big Day Out, festivals were about being in the country drinking beer and getting stoned.

“Normally it was a campout and facilities were shit, the production was shit & if it rained it was a mudfest.

“I hated that whole hippy bullshit concept.

“I wanted urban mayhem but with good drainage, toilets & production.

“I wanted people to learn about music, go as hard as they wanted & be able to get home safely at the end of the night.”

Ken West

Ken West

THE FIRST HORDERN SHOW

West-Lees were already touring Violent Femmes and were looking for a middle act.

“Stephen Pav was touring Nirvana at that time & as luck would have it, they were Violent Femmes fans.

Nevermind had been out since late September but was still only on the alternative charts.

“Soon after we went on sale on November 18 Nirvana exploded worldwide & eventually made the first BDO the hottest ticket in the country.”

Tickets sales were at 52 on open, but that changed as people understood the festival’s concept.

“Before I knew it I had 21 acts over three stages including Nirvana, most were added after it went on sale.”

KURT COBAIN HANGS ON A CROSS

Kurt Cobain had decided that Australia would be the place to break his heroin habit.

He had no idea how sick he would become from going cold turkey.

He also had a bad stomach ulcer caused by taking Ritalin without water as a kid.

Cobain wanted to go home. Lees realised some of it was psychosomatic and gave him ‘painkillers’ which were just extra-large aspirins.

Lees said, “This guy is really fragile, he just needs to know that we all care about him”.

West recollects in his forthcomingbook: “I recommended to Pav that they should cancel Perth, have a few days rest and finish the rest of the run.

“From memory, he took them camping.

“Backstage at Brisbane Festival Hall was the last time I saw Kurt, I didn’t know him well but could always see a lot more pain than a stomach ulcer in his eyes.

“I wish I had a few more Nirvana albums, I guess everyone does.”

ONE NIGHT IN FREMANTLE

“The show itself was great. The only flack we got was from Iggy Pop saying Fuck so much that the youth psychiatric hospital directly behind the main stage had to double medicate for the day.”

Around midnight with the temperature around 35 degrees, 20 of the entourage jumped into the hotel pool and began drinking cocktails while in deep conversation.

Two of the skaters jumped from the third-floor balcony and, screaming all the way, hit the pool.

A minute later the night manager turned up, dressed in a suit, tie, polished leather shoes and a pager.

“He approached us with a confident stride & ready to really lay down the law.

“Unfortunately, he only managed to raise his finger to shoulder height, & utter his first syllable, when (Mudhoney’s) Mark Arm performed a perfect crash tackle from behind & he & Mark went flying into the pool.”

Everyone disappeared.

Police went from room to room looking for witnesses but strangely couldn’t find any.

LOSING TO THE COMPETITION

As ‘alt-rock’ became financially viable, West found tours that should have been theirs – REM, Public Enemy and Jane’s Addiction – were going to rivals Frontier Touring and Michael Coppel Presents (now Live Nation Australia).

“I cried when I lost the June 91 Jane’s Addiction tour.”

Jane’s Addiction was managed by the late Ted Gardner, an Aussie ex-pat.

He told West he liked the proposal. But the next day he got a call from Frontier to say they had the tour.

“I couldn’t work out what we had done wrong until the first print ads & it all clicked.

“It was Ted Gardner & Frontier Touring Presents…..

“They had obviously offered to share with him the promoter’s fee. At the time I wasn’t aware that Ted and Gudinski went back a long way. I had been used and I was angry.”

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