OF COURSE KEN WEST WAS MAD. The promoter and festival director who died on Thursday, aged 64, was mad as a cut snake. Crazy as a loon. And I don’t just mean his unfathomable fondness for orange overalls that became his Big Day Out uniform.
Only the truly insane could envisage, realise and then sustain a music festival for more than two decades in the most distant place many of those international artists would ever go – along the way turning them from reluctant travellers to people who would demand their agents get them on the goodtime roll they named, as Billy Bragg recalled this week, “the big day off”.
All this while at the same time putting local acts alongside them as equals, as potential world travellers themselves, so that getting to play this festival was “a real badge of honour”, Adalita of Geelong’s Magic Dirt, once said to Double J. “It gave all the bands the chance to play to huge audiences,” said Trish Young of Sydney’s The Clouds.
This was a festival incidentally that began as a one-day event on a site best known to most Sydneysiders for hosting the Royal Easter Show, would expand to take in almost every state and New Zealand across most of January, weathered local and state government moods and inquisitive police “visits”, survived a devastating death in the crowd, adjusted for changes in venue, climate and safety, and outlasted several competing festivals backed by deeper pockets and thicker Rolodexes.
Only someone divorced from (financial, at least) reality could believe there was a point in a festival that wasn’t just focused on the biggest names around, or this year’s musical trend, but might highlight next year’s or the year after’s. Who figured that metal fans and punk fans and electronica fans might go beyond coexisting to cross-fertilising. Who was just as prepared to have the arty and the ridiculous and (occasionally) the nude, as well as Kamahl, be a part of it all.
The compulsive beats of Underworld or Roni Size Reprazent, the double night of Metallica at the Sydney Showgrounds, three Newcastle kids across a few years going from lower case introspection to upper case showmen of Silverchair, the sunny afternoon pop joy of pale Scotsmen, Teenage Fanclub, the bouncing bodies in the moshpit of Adelaide’s hip hop pioneers, Hilltop Hoods. There are many of us who attended 10, 15, 20 BDOs for whom a highlight remained the perverse and brilliant scheduling of Icelandic bent pop singer Bjork between punk legends The Ramones and rising powerhouse of grunge, Soundgarden, in 1994. Music writer Andrew Stafford tweeted that it was “maybe my favourite ever BDO memory”.
And on what basis did West take this leap? He told Double J’s history of the festival three years ago that before that first BDO it was a case of "Sometimes in life, it's a slow-motion version of a critical incident. The boat's sinking, the cyclone's coming. You just know that it's now or never."
Mad! Yet it wasn’t a coincidence that the first Big Day Out in 1992 had Nirvana on the bill just as they were turning into the world’s biggest rock sensation: West, his partner Viv Lees and their small crew had pursued the American band long before that breakthrough because they saw something promising, thrilling, now, in them.
(Ken West and Viv Lees)
Nor, as the next two decades of long-standing relationships on both sides of the stage would show, was it a coincidence that Nirvana honoured their commitment when they could have cited changed circumstances and demanded more money, bigger rooms or a different promoter.
People toured with Lees & West because they knew they would be treated properly with quality production, facilities and support staff. People bought tickets to the BDO, often enough before knowing who they would be seeing, because they knew they would be treated properly with quality production, facilities and support staff.
West was no saint, as could be attested by everyone from the national event coordinator and close confidante, Sahara Herald, and Lees, who had a famously volatile relationship with him, down to the visiting constabulary. He moved and thought and exploded at full speed, often moving on calmly while everybody else, still rocking, tried to recover. His ambitions didn’t always wait for his capabilities, or someone else’s timing.
But so what? It’s no coincidence that even before the plague nearly killed the music industry, no one had been able to create a festival anywhere near the size or quality of West and Lees’ BDO. In truth no one would be crazy enough to try.
A few years ago, finding myself coincidentally a row in front of him for a show by one of my all-time favourites, Underworld, at the Sydney Opera House, I turned around at the end of the night and thanked him profusely for giving me my first experience with them, and so much more.
Thanks for the opportunity, the vision, the righteous madness.
A version of this was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.