Ken West Was the Builder of Dreams, and He Carried the Weight of a Planet-Sized Event (Op-Ed)
When Ken West died last week, at the age of 64, a little part of our formative years went with him.
Though the Big Day Out ground to a halt in 2014, the imprint it left on Australia’s music scene was like a blazing full-back tattoo. Total, indelible, over the top.
If we consider a music festival as a shared experience, the BDO, which West co-founded with Viv Lees, was a factory of memories.
It was a rite of passage for hundreds of thousands of Aussies.
Timing is everything for music and events, and the BDO was timed to sweet perfection. In its heyday, the national rollout coincided with triple j’s switch-on across the country, a time when Aussie teens and 20-somethings were fully plugged into the national music grid for the first time.
Those early BDO years were always so hot and dry, the kids were so reckless. There wasn’t a stage rig too high for some nutter to try climb and jump from during a show.
There was a symbiotic effect playing out across the country with triple j feeding your mind, the BDO providing a platform to let it all out.
The outpouring of tributes to West are a testament to the role he played, and fulfilled, as our annual summer party organiser.
Westie the maverick, the advocate, the party animal.
Go-Betweens drummer Lindy Morrison shared a delightful nugget of insight on Twitter. “He drove us and The Clowns around, in the very early days. He organized everything. Every bit of a tour. Perennially cheerful, upbeat, kind, witty, gentle, boyish in a macho world. He gave me confidence.”
He drove us and The Clowns around, in the very early days. He organized everything. Every bit of a tour. Perennially cheerful, upbeat, kind, witty, gentle, boyish in a macho world. He gave me confidence.— Lindy Morrison (@Lindymorrison8) April 8, 2022
West gave a lot of people confidence.
That kind, witty, gentle man was also carrying an enormous weight, particularly in those later years, when BDO had grown to “juggernaut” status.
I had the good fortune to interview West in January 2011, just weeks out from that year’s six-city, seven-date program, which featured Tool, Rammstein, LCD Soundsystem and many others.
To get the show on the road required 35 semi-trailers, hauling some 800 tonnes of equipment from Australian city to city. And then, the trans-Tasman leap. And the 20-plus sideshows.
The Australian BDO entourage had swollen to roughly 850, all of whom need to be moved, accommodated, fed and looked after. That figure included more than 60 bands, many from abroad. A large site would accommodate up to 60,000 ticket-holders and on show day, count upwards of 3,000 staff. The production crew numbered 65, and 160 stage hands helped pull assemble and deconstruct the place.
Everything about the Big Day Out was really, really big.
So much was riding on West every year.
“I’m trying to cast a movie, and I’m looking at key players, secondary players,” he said of his motivation. “I wouldn’t say a Quentin Tarantino casting, but you’ve got lead characters doing cameos. It’s annoying when you know there’s a piece missing because it’s gone somewhere else because you weren’t quite on it at the time.”
And did West imagine Big Day Out would ever get so, well, big?
“After that first show (in 1992), there was less than 10,000. But it was a sellout and it was a defining moment then, really,” he explained.
“More importantly we went, ‘right we have to do this nationally now, get more bands.’ Everyone will try to copy it, we’re going to move real fast, get real big real quick and defend ourselves. We had to corner the shop. We had to become Woolworths as quickly as we possible could. The 1994 year with Soundgarden, Bjork, was by far the scariest. It all came together. The next year was (rival) Alternative Nation, the year after was Summersault. It was already under attack from other promoters with cheque books. You realised you couldn’t put together your dream bill anymore. It used to be a lot easier. Now, globally, its like festival promoters go around with their shopping carts and go, oh that’ll be great what else have you go. You become paranoid someone else will get them.”
West was fatigued. I could hear it in his voice. I asked if he might consider doing “a Michael Eavis,” that is to borrow from the Glastonbury Festival mastermind, and shut down the show once every five years, a “fallow” period that actually builds interest in the festival.
West would have loved to take a gap year.
“It’s not so much driving, it’s more like a car out of control. You can’t stop it. There’s already momentum for the year after. The driving process is simple nowadays – it’s a fairly large business that involves a lot of people’s livelihoods. To take that away, though I would love to have a year’s break or even two years from it, and I suppose we all would – it’s a few hundred people’s full-time job now. There’s fairly large consequences of it,” he told me.
“It was a lot easier when there was only about 10 of us, we could just say ‘fuck it, let’s have a summer off’. The driving process is always pushing that forward. It is a bit of a perpetual motion machine.”
The margins he admitted, were “very tight. With 800 people on the road, this is not a cheap thing to do. A 767 plane chartered from NZ. This all has to come out of one pocket, which is what’s driven ticket prices up too because there are too many promoters competing with each other for acts, and too many acts getting overpaid.”
We looked ahead to the 20th edition, and another enormous touring machine roaring into motion, with countless moving parts.
“I think I’ve earned my stripes. It might be a possibility to take a break once every four years,” he admitted. “I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world if we had a break.”
West called me back an hour later, worried that he had sounded too negative in the interview proper. No, but it was a very human moment. He sounded like a promoter facing enough pressure to make concrete crack. He was also under the additional strain of a tooth complaint, but there was much to do, no time to waste.
West earned his stripes, and created countless memories in a lifetime that sadly ended before he reached Age Pension age.
West knew the importance of timing; the project coincided with what would have been the 30th anniversary of the BDO.
West was the builder of dreams, a maverick, an advocate and a party animal, his contribution to festival-land and concert touring can’t be overstated. With all that, he carried the weight of a planet-sized event, year after year. It’s exhausting just to think about it.
This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.