The day the music festival died

By Greg Dixon

Music fans at the Big Day Out. Photo / Dean Purcell
Music fans at the Big Day Out. Photo / Dean Purcell

The highlight was definitely the hot dog. I've never quite known what the attraction is, but there is something deeply satisfying about eating a deep-fried battered sausage on stick, dripping with red sauce, while milling about with a large crowd on a hot day in the middle of a field.

Perhaps the heady bouquet of the deep-fry fat and processed meat awakens memories of childhood A&P shows.

Sadly, however, the demolition of the hot dog on a stick occupied just 0.05 per cent of my final (I underline "final") Big Day Out. The rest was one of the closest things I've yet discovered to hell on a stick.

It is one of the miseries of ageing that, while all the signs are there that you are becoming a geezer, you don't necessarily feel or accept that you are becoming a geezer. It is this that is at the heart of the male midlife crisis. It is this that had me standing, exactly a year ago, at the gates of Mt Smart Stadium waiting for some gorilla in a security uniform to search my bag.

This was to be the first of many inconveniences, the first of many queues and the first of many moments that I asked myself what exactly I was doing at the Big Day Out. A question, even now, I'm unable to answer. Now let me state at the outset that the festival experience, at least in my experience, is not necessarily an unpleasant affair.

In March 2007, a mate and I - indeed the very mate who joined me at this BDO - flew to Sydney for that year's inaugural V Festival. Held in the large, verdant Centennial Park in Sydney's eastern suburbs (and just a 4km trot from the CBD and our vile hotel) it, too, was a day-long affair across a number of stages and attracting more than 35,000 punters.

If there were, inevitably, too few dunnies and too long a queue for what passes for beer in Oz, it was a tiring - though ultimately proper - big day out. The line-up was top-drawer, from Nouvelle Vague (with their kitsch jazz reworkings of punk and new wave classics) to The Rapture and the New York Dolls to Beck, Groove Armada and the Pet Shop Boys. We'd gone for the headliners, the Pixies, who played like gods.

The park's open spaces, dotted with mature trees, were a main act in themselves. One could wander about relatively easily, despite the large crowd, find a bit of shade, queue for a beer or two and walk back to the main stages, then plonk yourself down or push forward through the laidback audience to watch, close up. Security, while present, was unobtrusive.

Once you were in, you were left to get on and enjoy yourself rather than being subjected to unnecessary inconvenience. The V Festival was an event for adults, or at least treated its punters with respect whatever their age. By contrast, last year's Big Day Out was a study in how not to have a festival, beginning with the venue.

Mt Smart has hosted the event since the first Auckland BDO - which I also went to - and remains as unsuitable now as it was in 1994. For starters, it's bloody miles from the CBD but mostly it's impossibly unsuitable. The stadium has a capacity of some 30,000 for league games and no doubt handles that crowd well enough because the punters simply enter then, when the game's over, leave.

At the BDO it's different. For a horde of 35,000 to 40,000 who are constantly trying to move between the main stages, the minor stages, the Boiler Room and so on, Mt Smart is hopelessly ill-designed. There are numerous choke points all around the venue which make getting from any given point to another like doing the Hajj every half hour or so.

The organisers made matters worse with their own illogical decisions. The natural constriction point near the main gate - which you had to move through if going between the main and minor stage areas - was further hampered by the placement of possibly the motliest collection of tat stalls I've ever seen selling fake tattoos, cheap sunglasses and assorted other rubbish.

The concourse behind the west stand - one of the few shady areas - was blocked by food outlets and the crowds queuing to buy their slop, as well as those waiting to use the stand's toilets and those filling bottles from firehoses. Because little thought seemed to be given to providing free water (I spotted only one free water stand), the punters used the firehoses, leaving great pools of dirty water everywhere.

Meanwhile the only time I used one of the portaloos - around lunch time; that is only a few hours after the BDO got under way - there was no water left in the thing to wash off the gel I'd squirted on to one hand in the hope of maintaining basic hygiene.

In the stadium itself, the ground in front of the main stages had to be accessed through a narrow gate bristling with security guards. The whole area close to the two main stages is fenced off, I'm told, to prevent injury if the crowd surges.

The organisers of the 2007 V Festival in Sydney didn't bother with this cotton wool approach, leaving punters to sort themselves out. No one died. Such existing and temporary obstacles only added to the frustration of a day spent wandering off from one disappointing act only to find the one playing across the other side of the complex wasn't much better.

Inevitably, all the wandering and the heat worked up a thirst but getting hold of something cold and alcoholic added a whole other layer of irritation. I did not even bother trying to go into either of the main bars, opting for the strange, pointless Lilyworld instead - it had shorter queues. In the main bar areas, however, one was required to drink one's beer in what looked like a temporary POW cage with high wire fences and no shade.

Meanwhile, there were bag checks as you went out to make sure you did not commit the heinous crime of slaking your thirst outside the prison camp. Why must adults be treated like children when it's the children who are the problem? If those under 18 can't be trusted, then lock'em out altogether, I say. There were illogical choices, too, last year, in selecting which act played on which stage at what time. One of the few highlights for me, the Ting Tings (the other was Lupe Fiasco), were stuck on a minor stage mid-afternoon. They drew a big crowd.

Meanwhile, the main stadium was given over to the bloody awful band with the stupid name: Bullet for My Valentine. The excellent (on CD) TV on the Radio were given a late-afternoon slot on a main stage, which proved a wholly inappropriate place and time. They disappointed. Hugely.

However, the greatest mystery was why the vile Aussie pub rock of The Living End rated a premium early evening slot on a main stage. Musically, they were the equivalent of watching a drunk playing air guitar while a monkey repeatedly hit you on the head with a wrench.

Listening to them turned me into The Living Dead. Sadly I'd had such a long, awful, disappointing day that, after a depressingly underwhelming performance by the Arctic Monkeys, I decided, in disgust, to flee the stadium before Neil Young gave what I'm told was a memorable performance. I'd regret not seeing him if I wasn't overwhelmed by the greater regret that I'd gone to the BDO at all. If the event has one undeniable attraction, it is that it affords people-watching opportunities on a scale that Auckland rarely offers in such concentrated doses.

Never will you see so many idiots in one place. There is the No Shirt Guy who, like a reef fish, always moves about with a school of other No Shirt Guys. The school always travels at great speed and with apparent purpose. It is possible they believe that by proceeding at such a pace they will not get sunburnt, though it's more likely they're attempting to show off their pecs to as many women as possible in the shortest possible time in the hope of getting a leg over. An equally entertaining species is the Like Totally Out Of It Dude. I spotted my first an hour or so after I arrived, late morning.

There he was, stumbling about, eyes like flying saucers, freeeakin' out maan. Whatever he was on, he'd obviously exceeded the maximum dosage and then some, poor devil.

The most annoying and ubiquitous breeds are surely the Alt-Guy and Boiler Room Boy. The first wears a mysterious combin-ation of two aesthetically unappealing elements: the trucker cap, which is clearly some sort statement of faux machismo, while his Joe 90 glasses scream still-living-with-his-mum-while-studying-to-be-an-architect. Why you would put these things together I have no idea. It must be an alt-irony thing.

Boiler Room Boy is actually Boy Racer Boy minus the wheels. At the sound of thudding bass noise he will, no matter where he is standing (say waiting for a pie or a pee), immediately start dancing on the spot. Well when I say "dancing", I mean a series of body spasms with a stupid smirk.

As amusing as these characters are, they are little compensation for what amounted to spending $125 plus travel expenses and hot dogs for a long day in the sun, spent traipsing from one annoyance to another. A rumour floated about last year that this year's Big Day Out might well be the last. No such luck. I'd say good riddance to the disappointing bands, the filth, the people, the heat, the God-awful food and the most hopeless venue imaginable for a music festival.

But if you are thinking of attending this year and are over 40, like wearing a shirt, detest boy racers and stoners, wish to be treated like an adult and prefer not to be surrounded by barbed wire while drinking, here's my advice: stay home, you'll be much happier having a Big Day In.

* Big Day Out is at Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland, on January 15.

- NZ Herald

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