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.
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…
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