Guns n Roses at Donington ’88 – The Triumph and The Tragedy

Guns n Roses Iron Maiden Kiss

The Donington Monsters of Rock Festival in 1988 was headlined by Iron Maiden, but Guns n Roses – and a tragedy – stole the headlines.

Now known as The Download Festival, the annual pilgrimage of UK Heavy Metal fans to a field outside Nottingham (Castle Donington) is as essential a rite de passage for every wearer of denim and leather and dodger of soap as is an Eton Education to a future King or posting photos of themselves shoplifting on Facebook is to a British teenager.

After having traffic issues in previous years, my friends and I decided to take a tent to the 1988 Monsters of Rock Festival at Donington.

This year’s bill was the best yet: Iron Maiden, KISS, David Lee Roth, Megadeth, Guns n Roses and Helloween. 107,000 people were to attend, according to magazine reports of the time.

Guns n Roses’ debut album had come fourth in the 1987 Kerrang! Critics album of the year behind Aerosmith, Whitesnake and Anthrax. Since they had been named fifth on the bill, however, Sweet Child of Mine had gone ballistic and they were suddenly looking as uncomfortably out of place as a famine survivor on Maria Carey’s Live 8 stage.

We drove up the night before. It wasn’t like festivals are now. There was no such thing as a “camping ticket” that you bought for a hundred and fifty quid six months in advance. We just drove up, having heard that you might be able to pitch a tent. There was a bloke at the gate.

“Here for camping? OK – that’ll be five quid. You can pitch your tent wherever…”.

He forced a reluctant arm to do a vague sweeping gesture in the general direction of a small area of tents and cars. “There’s firewood to the right as you drive in”.

We looked at a large pile of broken up pallets. Apparently this was a new concession to campers by the organisers: a reaction to people tearing down trees without permission the previous year. Presumably with their teeth. Those headbangers were pretty ferocious looking…

We grabbed firewood, pitched our tents by a clearing in the woods and lit a fire. As the sun set, we got chatting to the other few hundred people with the same idea. I played my imported copy of Aerosmith’s Night In The Ruts on a boom-box. No-one had heard it before. “What’s this?” asked an older lad…”it’s pretty good”…

Another guy came up slightly more furtively to us. “Want any Black?” he asked, holding what looked like a large roll of plasticine.

I looked a bit puzzled and declined, not really knowing what it was. I wasn’t in the mood for making models out of clay. It didn’t seem the time or place to make stop-motion animation features.

“Cannabis resin” said a more knowledgeable member of the party. I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. He moved on.

It’s a great feeling knowing you’re already at a festival the night before it starts. No three hour drive there and back, anxiously checking the clock to see if you’re going to miss the first band.  No waiting for three hours just to get out of the car park on the way home (that means you V-Fest 96). Being able to have a drink during the day…

Helloween kicked off the day well. A German band who were a cross between early Priest, Maiden and speed metal. Keeper of The Seven Keys pt 1 is a minor classic – a gateway drug to the thrashier sounds of Metallica. Regrettably they jumped the shark very quickly with the ludicrously titled “Pink Bubbles Go Ape” which is as bad as it sounds – but their first three records, from Wall of Jericho onwards – are very good indeed.

After the cheers had faded for Helloween, onstage came Guns n Roses. Classic original line up, including Steven Adler – all shaggy blonde hair and smiles. It’s So Easy, Welcome To The Jungle. Mr Brownstone. They were great. Slash was just a Big Guitar-Playing Top Hat. Axl was imposing and did that weird snaking dance of his. We’d never seen anyone do that before. Izzy and Duff projected L.A. cool. Everyone wanted to see them and people surged forward. I was maybe forty yards from the stage, in front of the sound tower, but even around me we were packed like sardines against each other. The band paused once or twice as individuals were fished out of the packed crowd at the front. I thought little of it at the time, but a couple of young-ish idiots found room to push people in front of them forward and laugh at the surges they were creating.

Megadeth were excellent, David Lee Roth dug out all his old jokes and one-liners over Steve Vai’s twin necked guitar licks and KISS ran through a strong greatest hits set before the sun went down and fireworks exploded over Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son tour.

As we trudged our weary but happy way back to the tent there was a Police announcement over the p.a: Two kids had died in the crush during Guns n Roses set. A deflating, disbelieving mood swept through the exiting crowd. The saddest possible way to end a memorable day…

Footnote:

The Donington festival was cancelled for a year whilst an inquest took place. It was found that a “crowd collapse” involving 50 people took place fifteen yards from the front of the stage. The mud in that area caused by several days heavy rain prior to the event made things worse. The band (GnR) stopped playing temporarily and called for calm in a scene reminiscent of the Stones at Altamont  in the film Gimme Shelter, but by the time security had fished out the injured people, two bodies (Alan Dick, 18 and Landon Siggers, 20) were found laying down in four inches of mud and were almost covered over. They were pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

For future years the stage was moved so as not to be at the foot of a slope and the mud was made less hazardous. 

I went back in 1990.

This year’s Download Festival at Donington is this weekend: 8-10th June 2012. Headliners include Metallica and Black Sabbath. Megadeth, Soundgarden and Anthrax also feature.

Record #52: Guns n Roses – It’s So Easy



Categories: Hard Rock, Live Reviews

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

22 replies

  1. I went to this festival too. Unfortunately, it was the first time I drove to the event and made the mistake of exiting the M1 at J23. As a result, I got caught in a huge traffic queue and arrived three hours late. Therefore, I missed Helloween, Guns & Roses and some of Megadeth. I also drove my ex wife crazy by constantly saying “I bet if it was trendies going to a Madonna concert the road would be clear.”
    We did go in 1990 and this time exited the M1 at J24. We got to the festival without problem and had a great time. Aerosmith really kicked ass.

  2. Good story. Funny how Dave Lee Roth was third on the bill.

  3. I remember my friend down the street bought the Maiden single for “The Evil That Men Do”, and the cover folded out into a ginormous poster for this concert. We just marvelled at the lineup (virtually everybody we loved) and were so jealous because we were only 15 years old, and in Canada!

  4. Awesome post. I’ve never been to a big music festival and I’m not sure if I’d like it or not. Once again I’m pretty jealous that you got to see classic GnR.

  5. What a bittersweet memory. It’s terribly sad when things like that happen.

    As for the description of your time there, as Jason has already commented: awesome. :)

  6. Good article. There’s a lot of thought put into this, it reflects the day well…

  7. GNR steal the show.., axl ur great

  8. Long live GNR, stil the dangerous n greatest band in the World..,

  9. Your description absolutely encapsulates that day for me; great descriptions that really bring back memories of our Donnington escapades. I was also fairly near the mixing desk when G&R came on. I remember it clearly, that massive surge, and thank god i was near that sound desk as I’ve never been so scared in my life; I literally couldn’t breath from the growing crush of the crowd. It was only some burly bloke putting his arms around me and walking me around the edge of the mixing desk away from the worst of it, that got me out of a very frightening situation. (I stood well back after that). As you described, it was a blinding set list and Iron Maiden were brilliant but I seem to recall them constantly having to stop to make the crowd take two steps back (?) and it was obvious there were still crowd control issues throughout that day. I clearly remember walking back to the campsite afterwards (much fun was had there the night before – as you say, none of this fortunes-for-a-ticket ‘glamping’ nonsense back then. A fiver got us a space to pitch up so we could drink, sing and explode cans of unopened baked beans on our own bonfire all through the night – rock n roll!) and like you, we all felt such a slump upon hearing that terrible news being announced. Until I read this blog piece I neither knew the names of the poor lads that died, or the details of their death. The thought of their terrible demise, being trampled in that mud is so very distressing (especially as I’m now a mother of two teenage boys, with all the fears you have for their safety). My heart absolutely goes out to their parents; such an awful waste of life. We had some really great Donnington days, but that particular year was most definitely a bitter sweet one.

    • Thank you for sharing your memories – much appreciated and interesting to hear what it was like right down the front. You’re right about Maiden encouraging people to take a couple of steps back.
      During GnR, I was a little further back but I front of me was a couple of people pushing the crowds in front of them, thinking they were being funny….

  10. I remember that night/day well, there was hardly anyone in the field when I got there about midnight so I just wandered around people’s fires to see what was going on, and then slept in my car. I even had a lay down in the tunnel during Helloween, with a bottle of cider as a pillow! I was unaware of what happened to those 2 lads until I got home the next morning, there being no mobile phones in those days. I can remember being told to take a couple of steps back regularly – being only 19 at my first festival I didn’t get too far forwards anyway. As I remember it the sound was not very good during G’n’R – due to the wind? – but Maiden had a great sound and light show…

  11. I was at Donington it was a fucking shambles king Edward spuds flying all over

  12. I also remember it raining full pint pots which meant looking over your shoulder constantly or moving back out of range. 1990 was completely different, it was sunny as I remember. I went for Thunder but Aerosmith were amazing, however Whitesnake I thought were lacklustre…

  13. My mate got me into GnR in 87 he saw them at Newcastle City Hall with Faster pussycat in support and was only a third full. I had a copy of ‘live like a suicide’ which became the live side of ‘lies’. I just had to see them and the next uk gig was Donington. We knew it would be a mental gig so got some moshing training in on the run up by seeing Def Lep, Motor head and Ozzy. yep traffic was mental around m1 in Nottingham-shire but got there on time. Watched Helloween from a safe distance to save energy for GnR. Then got stuck in for welcome to the jungle, the crowd was mental and I quickly discarded my 2 liter bottle of beer to have both hands free to save myself in what I can only describe as the nearest thing imaginable to a medieval pitched battle. I found myself face down in the mud about 15 yards from the front during paradise city and basically kissed good bye to my life but I saw a glimmer of light and found myself being dragged to my feet by my mate bob, we both preceded to do like wise for the others face down before another surge of bodies came. Axle and the boys tried to mellow us all out by playing ‘patience’. At the end of the set Axle says ‘ cheers, don’t f’ing kill yourselves’. watched megadeath from a safe distance as I was exhausted. Things seemed a bit more mellow for DLR but some security guy climbed up on stage from the front and insisted DLR told the crowd to chill. DLR said ;get the f*** of my stage’ before someone ran on and shoved the guy clean of the stage and into the crowd. I had lost everyone I’d gone there with and went for a £4 pint in a tent before getting into KISS. R.I.P. ERIC CARR. I watch Maidens first few songs from a distance but really got into it so slowly nudged my way to the front. At the end I turned around to see the whole crowd lit up by maidens flood lights ‘Wow!’ no way was I gonna get through that lot quickly so legged it over the barrier and sat down. A bouncer gave me a cup of water and asked if I was alright. I later tried to find the car and I would have walked right past it had my mate Andy not opened the door for the light to come on and me see him. I got in and fell asleep. Next day we were one man short and there radio was reporting deaths at Donington. We went to information points to find more details but nothing. A familiar figure appeared on the horizon covered head to foot in mud, we were no longer on man down we hugged him and he had no clue of the poor guys who had perished.

    I was a huge Anthrax fan as well so me and Bob, the dude who had pulled me from death during GUNS, took the national express to London from York a week later, met up with a bunch of metal heads and continued on to Monsters of Rock in Bochum Germany. We saw Great White, Testament, Anthrax DLR, Kiss and Maiden. I remember these two groups of bikers started fighting during the Testament set so me and Bob wadded in, declared we were English and that they should keep there fighting until afterwards. There was no riot. Must have looked pretty funny a couple of English teenagers telling rival biker gangs to back down. Someone said we had balls but we explained what had happened in England the week before.

    What a week. I will never forget and to cap it off when I got home from Germany my dad kicked me out, Ha!

    • Hey – thanks for sharing your story – amazing to hear from other people who were there so many years later. Sounds frightening, and I bet that wait for your mate at the end must have seemed like forever. Glad all was ok and kudos for going on to Germany!

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