Should we care about the demise of the Big Day Out?
SO, IT’S ALL over the BDO. Or so its promoters are saying. Do I care? Not really.
Yes, I understand that the Big Day Out was a lot of fun for a lot of youngsters, along with those desperately trying to relive their youth. Yes, I understand that people have 18 years of great memories of seeing bands in appalling conditions, having people wipe their sweat on sunburnt body parts, watching first-time bingers get out of control and spew, getting whacked in the face by wannabe moshpitbulls…
I really don’t see why it’s a big deal. Culturally, BDO isn’t even a blip on the radar. These big festivals are set up to make reams of cash for the promoters, not to provide artistic sustenance to our fair nation, and a gander at the lineups over the years just proves they weren’t about the inherent worth of the acts.
I understand that some amazing music occurred at BDO. It would be surprising if that had not been the case, considering the number of acts on each bill. In any lottery, or stab in the dark, there has to be some light shining through the cracks of despair.
But the hoary old idea of rock festivals really, really deserved to get the old heave-ho back in the ‘70s, when we already had the sad lessons that Woodstock and Monterey and the Isle Of Wight festivals had to taught us.
One irrefutable truth is that, while music festivals may be great places to get wild and social, they’re not the best places to see or hear music. In fact, music festivals relegate bands and artists to mere sideshows, and encourage audiences to become noncommittal observers, by giving them the opportunity not to focus on any one act, but to move around and take their choice. It’s inevitable, given this fact, that any performers whose music requires a degree of effort to appreciate (and those are almost always the great ones) will get a tidal wave of disinterest as the audience surges to something more, uh, fun.
I’ll get blasted for writing all this, and all the more so for the following admission that I have never attended a single Big Day Out.
Despite having written about contemporary music for more than 30 years, and having an interest each year in at least a small proportion of the bands playing at BDO, I’ve not ever been even slightly tempted. Being dragged along as a callow youth to a few Sweetwaters festivals in the ‘80s was enough to put me off forever. Admittedly, BDO is a one-day event, so it was never going to involve the tribulations to one’s mind and body that occur over three days when a bunch of freaks are plonked in a field, and to be honest, I can’t imagine that BDO ever had anything to rival the sheer torture of having to sit through a Cold Chisel set, or to hear yobbos yell “Waaaaaaaaaan-kers!” at Split Enz when they played some of their really disturbing early material.
I could never see the charm of watching a bunch of bands in daylight, with sound bleeding from multiple stages, and no one giving anything their full focus. And that’s quite apart from the general lack of comfort or decent facilities. Then there’s the sound, which is seldom what it could be, and too often, when you’ve got thousands of people in a field, the PA just sounds like a huge transistor radio.
The most culturally-enriching gigs I’ve seen were all in small venues, where there’s a level of engagement and acknowledgment between the punters and the performers, where there’s a tacit understanding that you’ve made a decision to be there, and where you can really see and hear the musicians. That’s when it’s about the MUSIC. When Frank Zappa said in ’74 that “rock has gotten entirely too preposterous”, he couldn’t have known that it would grow into a corporate monster with huge stadium events that were about as depersonalised as the Nuremburg rally.
I’m not accusing Big Day Out of trying to ape the approach of, say, U2 in its stadium-mania; by contrast it plays out as at least a simulacra of a community event, and I’m sure there is a positive side to the event that will get endlessly eulogised in the wake of the announcement of its NZ termination.
But nah, for all my passion for music, I could never get my pecker up for the Big Day Out, and this wee column is just one stereo nerd standing up and saying “there are plenty more where we come from”. Okay? GARY STEEL