Australians have had a long love affair with outdoor music festivals.
The first major one was ‘Pilgrimage for Pop’ at Ourimbah on the New South Wales Central Coast in 1970. Then there was Sunbury, Narara, the Big Day Out, Homebake, Falls Festival, Splendour In The Grass and many others.
Tunes, tents and tanlines have become a staple of the country’s live music scene.
Alt-metal fans get extremely into it watching US band Deftones at the 2011 Big Day Out
Heading to the stage to catch yet another band at Splendour In The Grass, 2019
Rescheduled to November 2021, this year’s Splendour In The Grass will celebrate 20 years, reason enough to take a look back at the craziest days of music festivals in Australia.
First held on the Australia Day long weekend of 1972, Sunbury is the granddaddy of Australian music festivals.
Staged on land at Digger’s Rest, near Sunbury, owned by farmers George and Beryl Duncan, it became the launching pad for Oz rock outfits such as AC/DC, Skyhooks, Sherbet, Daddy Cool and many others.
Only four festivals were staged at a time when the ‘hippy’ revolution was alive and well in Australia.
The fashions left something to be desired but the love of music was there at Sunbury, 1974
In that time it became famous for public nudity, drug taking and mud – the final 1975 event is still referred to as ‘Mudbury’ after rain turned the fields into a quagmire.
Performing artists and punters alike loved it. A young Jimmy Barnes even ran away from home in Adelaide to attend.
Everyone except Queen. In the years before they became an international phenomenon, the glam UK band fronted by Freddie Mercury were pelted with beer cans and told, ‘go home, you Pommy w*****s!’ by the crowd during their appearance at the 1974 festival.
Mercury even threw a tambourine at a roadie and informed the crowd that Queen would soon be the biggest band in the world before storming off stage.
The Big Day Out
If you were a music fan during the 1990s, a ticket to the Big Day Out was the hottest item in town.
Started by Ken West and Vivian Lees as a Sydney-only event at the Hordern Pavilion in 1992, the BDO (as it quickly became known) soon developed into a nation-wide extravaganza featuring some of the biggest acts on the planet.
UK songstress Lily Allen hitches a lift back to the hospitality tent at the 2010 BDO in Sydney
Fans watch Vampire Weekend perform on Australia Day long weekend at the 2013 Big Day Out
German heavy metal band Rammstein were international visitors to the Big Day Out in 2001
The BDO’s reputation for organised chaos was established at that very first festival, held on a stinking hot Australia Day long weekend, when not-quite-yet-world-famous Seattle band Nirvana played an amazing set before a heaving, sweaty mass of Australian grunge converts inside the Hordern.
In the next two years the festival and its multiple stages would expand to Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, the Gold Coast and Auckland.
Daniel Johns of Silverchair at the Big Day Out in 2002, one of the band’s three appearances
Like the huge Lollapalooza festival in the US, it became an epic three-week touring circus. The biggest bands in the world queued up to get on the bill including Soundgarden, The Prodigy, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Metallica, New Order, Foo Fighters and nearly any Australian band who could manage three chords.
Along the way, controversy sometimes overshadowed the music. In 2001, 16-year-old Jessica Michalik was crushed to death in the mosh pit during the performance by US rap rockers Limp Bizkit. Despite fears the BDO festivals would come to an end over crowd control safety, it continued.
In 2007 organisers said they would ban punters bringing Australian flags to the event in Sydney, citing ‘racial tensions’ after the chaotic Cronulla riots of 2005 and allegations that aggressive, flag-wearing fans had intimidated other patrons at the 2016 event. The ban was subsequently dropped at later BDO festivals.
Organisers temporarily banned Australian flags from the Big Day Out in 2007
Crowd control became an issue at the Big Day Out after Jessica Michalik died at the 2001 event
At the 2009 event in Perth, 17-year-old Gemma Thoms died after allegedly consuming three ecstasy tablets. It was reported she and a friend had taken one pill at home and then Gemma had consumed two more when she spotted police searching people at the entrance to the event. Thoms died 12 hours later in hospital.
After a long and successful reign as Australia’s biggest music festival, a succession of ownership and management changes, combined with the late cancellation of headline acts such as Blur for the 2014 event, saw the BDO’s popularity suddenly wane.
The last festival was held in 2014, though American concert promoters C3 Presents retain the right to resurrect the event.
Veteran punk rocker Iggy Pop gave a typically shirtless performance at the 2011 Big Day Out
In 1996, Macquarie University law graduate and serial entrepreneur Brandon Saul co-founded Homebake with Jess Ducrou, who would later go on to found Splendour In The Grass with Paul Piticco.
Staged at Belongil Fields near Byron Bay on NSW’s north coast, it was the indie music reinvention of the ‘get-out-of-town’ festival that had started with Ourimbah, Sunbury and Narara. The nearby Byron Bay Blues Festival had also started in 1990 in Byron township, and still runs today.
Australian band Machine Gun Fellatio perform at Homebake in the Domain, Sydney, 2004
Showcasing all-Australian line-ups, Homebake moved around to Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast in the following years, eventually settling at Sydney’s Domain in 2000 until it folded in 2012.
Held annually at Lorne along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, Falls was originally conceived by 21-year-old Simon Daly as a massive New Year’s Eve Party on his family’s farm.
Called Rock Above the Falls in 1993 – its first year – the name was essentially a direction for those attending to skip the turn-off to Erskine Falls, the nearby tourist attraction from which the festival takes its name.
Dave Le’aupepe of the band Gang of Youths performs at Falls Festival in January 2016
Ready to party at Falls Festival during one of its interstate forays to Byron Bay in 2015
Peace, love and understanding at the Falls Music & Arts Festival at Lorne in 2008
That first festival was just one night and featured only nine bands. Cosmic Psychos, The Badloves and Nick Barker were among the acts. Five thousand people were expected but the ticket price of just $20 meant more than double that amount turned up. Neighbours cleared space on their land in order to accommodate the crowds.
‘Falls’ soon expanded into a two-day event and became a ‘music and arts’ festival. International acts were added to the bill, and it expanded from Lorne to include a simultaneous festival at Marion Bay, Tasmania, and later Byron Bay and Fremantle.
Getting a better view at the Falls Festival, Victoria, which grew from a New Year’s Eve party
‘Down in front!’ Security try to placate an over-zealous crowd-surfer at the Falls Festival
A memorable Falls moment occurred in 2005 when You Am I frontman Tim Rogers fought with fellow band members, threw down his guitar and stormed off stage in the midst of a tired and emotional New Year’s Eve performance.
COVID-19 caused the cancellation of Falls in 2020 but the 28th edition is expected to take place at its usual time in 2021 as last year becomes next.
Falls 2002: It’s hard to remember all items of clothing when there are so many bands to catch
Not the place to be if you really hate sweat and BO: the mosh pit at Falls in 2007
Falls 2000: For when you really don’t want to be squashed up against 10,000 other people
Splendour In The Grass
The idea for Splendour In The Grass (the name comes from a William Wordsworth poem) was born in a Byron Bay pub in the late 1990s from a conversation between Brisbanite Paul Piticco and Jess Ducrou, who co-founded Homebake.
Piticco was managing then up-and-coming Brisbane band Powderfinger. Ducrou had become the booking agent for the band in Sydney.
Beginning in 2001 at Belongil Fields near Byron Bay, it’s now considered Australia’s largest music festival.
There is the music festival, then there is the unofficial fashion festival. Splendour, 2019
Shenae Mills adopted the chaps with bikini look when she attended Splendour in 2019
It’s also been held in Woodford, Queensland, and since 2012, at Yelgun on the far NSW north coast.
Over the years it’s become an annual hot ticket for pretty young things to camp, dance and party in an increasingly daring array of Instagram-worthy outfits. And take mudbaths. When it rains, lots of mudbaths.
Kate Moss does some shopping in between sets when Splendour visited Woodford in 2011
Byron local Elsa Pataky attended Splendour with not an adult Hemsworth in sight
Dancing in the mud after the rain at Belongil fields for Splendour In The Grass, 2012
Powderfinger headlined the very first Splendour but in subsequent years, major international acts such as Coldplay, The Strokes, Kanye West, Blur and Childish Gambino have played to the masses.
Memorable moments include the 2005 event when tickets were resold on eBay for crazily inflated prices, prompting ABC’s youth station Triple J to begin a campaign for listeners to make obviously fake bids on the tickets. The result was a change to the ticketing system the following year.
Yannis Philippakis of the band Foals performs with the crowd at Splendour In The Grass, 2019
As Ducrou recalled to Triple J, 2005 also saw one of the event’s worst performances when New York rocker Ryan Adams had a tantrum about the sound quality.
‘He was so p****d off and having such a hard time with his on-stage sound that he played the set with his back to the audience.’
The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft pulled an even worse stunt in 2010, walking off stage after one song, claiming problems with his voice.
Not everyone was pleased Hilltop Hoods filled in for Chance The Rapper at Splendour 2019
Live every festival, last-minute cancellations by high-profile overseas stars are always imminent. Frank Ocean did it to the Splendour organisers in 2013, citing sickness, and was replaced by then little-known Kiwi, Lorde. Chance the Rapper did the same the day before his performance in 2019, also claiming sickness. Local act Hilltop Hoods came to the rescue to fill the void.
Mud – and getting caked it – is a reliable spectacle at festivals when the rains come
Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips surfed the crowd in an inflatable ball at Splendour in 2009
Piticco told Triple J his favourite performance was Kanye West in 2011.
‘It’s the only time I’ve ever erupted into dance watching a show,’ he said.
‘That doesn’t happen very often.
‘One of the best performances I’ve seen. Full stop. There’s a lot to be said about Kanye [but] in that place at that time, he was absolutely at his best.’
Kanye West’s performance at the 2011 Splendour is co-founder Paul Piticco’s favourite
Like Big Day Out and Falls Festival before it, Splendour has been the springboard to chart success and a higher profile for many artists.
Melbourne act Tones and I (otherwise known as Tori Watson), attended Splendour as a fan just two years before she became the 2019 event’s first act, performing her gigantic hit ‘Dance Monkey’ to a record-breaking opening day crowd.
Australian act Tones and I went from festival-goer in 2017 to opening act at the 2019 event
Splendour In The Grass fans watch Amy Shark perform at the 2018 festival near Byron Bay
There are plenty of famous tales from artists about playing Splendour, but about the best is the recollection of Lachlan Ewbank from Brisbane dance-punk band DZ Deathrays, who recalled to Triple J: ‘I went crowd surfing and got the biggest wedgie of my life, I get back on stage and this wallet flies over my head, right near the drumkit.
‘I’m going over to pick it up and I realise my underwear is just shredded, it had been atomically wedgied into oblivion.
‘As I pick up the wallet, I realise that it was my wallet and that all the money I had saved for the entire weekend was taken out of it. By the end of it, I’ve been wedgied and robbed in front of the biggest crowd I’d ever gotten to play in front of.’
For the first time ever, Splendour in the Grass moves from its usual mid-year timing to November in 2021.
For 23 years now the regional Victorian town of Lexton, two hours north-west of Melbourne, has hosted the Rainbow Serpent Festival, a music, arts and lifestyle festival which could also be described as one massive outdoor dance party.
What was originally a small insider’s gathering of trance music aficionados in a secluded spot now attracts up to 10,000 fans of local and international techno, trance and dub DJs.
The Rainbow Serpent Festival in regional Victoria has drawn dance music fans for 20 years
Clothes are optional at Rainbow Serpent, usually held in January at Lexton, in Victoria
Styled as ‘an opportunity to find each other, find ourselves and find meaning’, Rainbow Serpent was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19. The site of the festival was also badly damaged in the January 2020 bushfires.
Many attendees plan their ‘costume’ for months in advance in an effort to match the colourful visual displays provided by video artists, live painters and performers at the festival. Many costumes do not involve many clothes.
The fashion is as much a part of Rainbow Serpent as the music, requiring some planning
Video performances, stalls, food and other creative outlets are all part of Rainbow Serpent
Other Australian festivals
The success of the bigger, more established festivals has produced a steady stream of spin-offs.
Some have been spectacular failures, such as the Blueprint Music Festival planned for September 2009. Two Melbourne brothers who had only ever organised a mate’s 21st promised more than 50 bands and 5000 people at a property in Ararat, regional Victoria, but the event never saw the light of day due to money problems.
Getting ready for the HTID (Hardcore Til I Die) electronic music festival in 2019
St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, Vivid, Livid, Groovin’ The Moo, Soundwave and many more have come, gone or carry on as Australian music fans’ tastes evolve and how they consume music changes.
The festival heyday of the 1990s and early 2000s may never return but for now well-run, long-running events such as Splendour In The Grass still allow fans the option of packing a tent, standing in a queue (food, toilets, everything), and getting wet, muddy and exhausted while watching their favourite performers.