[MUSIC/Festival ~ Obituary ~ AUS]

by Ian Bell.

In November of 1988, I was standing outside a sold out Run DMC gig in Sydney, pondering my predicament.
A guy saw me through the fence and says “Hey, you were in Melbourne!”
Yes, I was!” I reply.
“…and you’ve come up from Melbourne for the show?”
I’ve actually come from Adelaide.”
Why are you out here? The show’s already started,” he then asks me.
Ah well, Derek B (the support act) was going to put my name on the door, but it’s not there.”
The guy walked over to security, had them open the gates, then handed me a AAA Backstage Pass and says, “Enjoy the show!”
That was the first time I met Ken West.

By that stage Ken had been building up his muscle as a promoter and manager, working with bands like The Birthday Party and Laughing Clowns, and had started doing some tours by international acts that were very much considered ‘alternative’, ’fringe’ or ‘small fry novelty’ acts, that the big touring companies weren’t that interested in. He partnered with fellow promoter Vivien Lees and became Lees & West, and they were deep enough in the Melbourne scene to have a pretty acute bead on what was happening on the ground. Ken in particular was a generous and willing mentor, helping, assisting and advising bands, venues and managers with an attitude of “what was good for the bands was good for the scene and the punters”, whether or not he had a financial stake in a band or event.

Shortly after during Run DMC tour I started doing some ‘odd jobs’ for my friends Dianne Joy and Peter Curnow at Catalyst Promotions – the Adelaide promoters looking after Lees & West shows in Adelaide. Those odd jobs started with canvassing my opinion about how hot this band was, did I play this Indie band in my club, what venue would be a good fit, and then morphed into me creating odd bullet point fact sheets for radio presenters, to accompany the official press releases. Some got sent to Ken, who loved them, and soon they were going out nationally. I was happy to be involved, getting a few bucks and access to gigs, photo passes and the like for early tours by The Ramones, Debbie Harry, The Pogues, Iggy Pop. When I was introduced to Ken officially I said, “Oh, we’ve already met – you gave me a Triple A pass for Run DMC in Sydney.” It was a random act of kindness he had completely forgotten.

When their fledgling festival launched in Sydney in 1992, the ‘big boys’ of Australian rock promotion were laughing at the folly of trying to stage a rock festival with a ‘bunch of nobody bands’ like The Violent Femmes and little indie bands people could see in a pub any weekend. But as they so often did, Ken and Viv had seen the writing on the wall: a change was coming and it was coming fast. Those ‘nobody bands’ weren’t on mainstream FM radio and not on the radar of the big boys. So those guys were left stunned when the inaugural Big Day Out [BDO] line-up’s second headline act (Violent Femmes were top of the bill) were a bunch of noisy buggers from Seattle called Nirvana, who had just released Nevermind and became the biggest band in the world by the time the festival arrived. The first BDO was a sell out and a legion of ‘alternative bands’ were seen by a huge amount of people, instantly jump-starting much wider careers. Ken & Viv were upstart cats among the fat and jaded pigeons.

My early association with Pete & Di, lead to us becoming business partners, and in 1993 we took on Andromeda Records as a second-hand/collectors store, and a base of operations for their work as promoters. As we were the local office for Lees & West, I was often taking calls from Ken and Vivien and their offices, and with the BDO going national in 1993 it was all hands on deck. Despite no experience in such things, I ended up as Site Manager for the first SA show at Adelaide University. The excitement level was off the hook, with people aware there was something new happening, in music, in bands and now in concert events. Right from the start the attitude was completely different to the major promoters, who were more often than not, far more interested in bottom line and profit margins than anything else. Ken’s artistic vision was to run punter-friendly events. The bill was programmed from a punter and performer perspective, rather than a ‘who do we already represent? Just put our bands on’ stance. So multiple stages were considered an opportunity to add a variety of sounds, and give punters choices, and decisions to make.

That first Adelaide BDO was held in sweltering heat, 42 degrees celcius, and soon after gates were open, the fully decked out goths there to worship at the feet of Nick Cave were melting into the floor. We got the fire brigade to bring in a fire engine and spray the audience. The bands were all getting on stage with each other: Iggy Pop jumped on stage with Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy and did I Wanna Be Your Dog; Mudhoney, Sonic Youth and Tex Perkins did backing vocals for Nick Cave. An incredible day on every level.

As if to spotlight the differences between the old and new guard of music promoters, some of the old guard decided to put the young upstarts in their place when BDO announced they were going national. A tour was announced by the biggest ‘alternative’ rock band in the world would sink the little boat Lees & West were attempting to launch. Guns‘n’Roses would surely suck all the concert ticket money out of the market and fix their little red wagon. However, what happened was that while the G‘n’R shows did draw huge crowds (Calder Park Speedway was 75,000), it was in sweltering heat, with no shade, bad facilities, nowhere near enough toilets, and then torrential rain left people suffering from sunstroke AND hypothermia, with tens of thousands of people standing suburbs away from the stage. They ran out of food and water, and faced thousands angry at paying $5 for a can of Coke (that’s a 1993 $5 by the way) to see three bands, and G‘n’R went on very late. When it finished there was inadequate transport to get people home. It was a shambles and ended in an Ombudsman Investigation.

Big Day Out, by comparison, delivered 20+ bands on multiple stages, with good food, reasonable prices, and a sense of unity and camaraderie, with punters knowing that after 12 hours of incredible music you could catch a bus, tram or train home, with zero issues at all. The big guys had completely missed what Ken knew all along. Those people who wanted to see Mudhoney or Sonic Youth, didn’t give a flying fuck about seeing Axl Rose and co.

In following years BDO got bigger, moving to the Adelaide Showgrounds and boasting Soundgarden, Ramones, Smashing Pumpkins, Bjork, Teenage Fanclub, Primus, The Breeders and an expanded format including skate ramps, The Boiler Room for dance music, art, activities, and the antics of The Duck Pond crew. The beauty of West’s vision was the ability to create an environment that provided for a true ‘meeting of the tribes’. The alternative crowd were happy, the dance crowd was catered for, the hard rock fans were taken care of, the indie kids were in good hands, the casual and curious had plenty to investigate and discover. There was a lot of cross pollination. Alternative kids would wander into The Boiler Room and have their lives changed forever, but the same thing was happening the other way round too. And all these dispirit crowds united and got along in a BDO harmony.

In 1995 the big boys tried a full-frontal attack, staging Alternative Nation, with a chequebook driven assault on BDO, which again failed due to a basic lack of understanding of the audience. It was like they had a look at a blueprint of BDO and tried to copy it from memory, in crayon, in the dark, a couple of months later. They announced Red Hot Chili Peppers and Stone Temple Pilots as headliners (who both pulled out – and allegedly had never signed contracts) and offered a lot of bands a lot of cash as an incentive not to do BDO. They made mistakes like shoving Lou Reed on solo right before Faith No More. Every Australian band was shoved off to smaller stages, something Ken proudly never did. He wanted people to see how great Aussie music was, and went out of his way to put indie/alternative bands on big stages in front of huge crowds, often for the first time. A loyalty that was endlessly rewarded as bands went from those pub gigs to being big selling megastars and were always aware where they had been valued and, indeed, where they were not.

West’s other great skill was putting together a rock’n’roll holiday camp vibe off stage too. Unlike similar festivals the world over, BDO had everybody stay together, travel together, become a touring family. There was after show parties, day off activities, a lot of care and attention put into making it a great experience for the touring party as well. It meant the festival quickly had an international reputation as the “must do” festival. Bands might make a bigger payday with another promoter, but no festival was as much fun, reached as many people or reaped such rewards as the BDO.

So each year the massive Big Day Out circus would roll into town, constantly getting bigger, bolder and more successful. There were many people who only existed for me for a few weeks or days each year in show week. “Hey man – long time, how you been?”

Did BDO get somewhat bloated or cocky at times? Sure it did. But mistakes can be made when you feel you are invincible. But in general for 20 years Big Day Out managed to be an untouchable beacon for how you do a festival right. How to build a happy line-up, audience, crew, and financially successful enterprise, by understanding and listening to your audience and artists and not spoon-feeding them what you think is good for them. All of that was very much down to Ken’s vision and drive to make it a unique experience and something he could personally feel proud of.

All the while Ken was a generous and enthusiastic mentor, advisor and positive force, sometimes to his own detriment, with people using his advice to attempt to stage their own events and take the crown.

To finish up, let me give you a couple of personal memories of Ken that are important to me. When they were moving venues in Sydney, he hired two of that city’s most notorious ‘find-a-way-to-sneak-into-gigs-without-paying’ guys to show him any weaknesses on the site. Being stopped by security going into the backstage because he didn’t have the right pass on and when a superior guard started balling out the guard ‘he’s-the- boss-man’-style, Ken calmly thanks the guard and says, “That is what I pay you for – Thanks for doing your job,” before apologising for leaving his pass in the office. Ken coming up to me at a Hilton after show party and us brainstorming how we could get one of the band members off the decks because he was ‘killing the party’.

But he always remained impressed and encouraging of my fanboy tendencies. When I was on site, I was 100% professional, there was a lot to do and scant time to do it. But I was doing my jobs, and being a photographer, and running around at airports and hotels getting autographs. Ken was fully aware of this and more than once would let me see the tour bible with all the flight details, hotels, etc so I wasn’t wasting my time. On several runs, he would give me one of every variant of the backstage laminates. “You collect this stuff don’t you?” I did and I do. A lot of guys in that position would have wanted me to curb those fanboy activities, but Ken always seemed to appreciate that I still gave a damn about these bands.

Ken had been writing a memoir called KenFest. Some chapters are available online. After reading a bunch of them (which I can highly recommend), I sent him a message. I hadn’t spoken to him in years as he’d bowed out of BDO and the music biz around ten years ago. I sent him a message saying how much I was enjoying reading the chapters and was looking forward to the book. I mentioned I had a lot of ephemera that might be useful and one photo in particular I had taken of him coming out of the Adelaide Hilton with a sea of Smashing Pumpkins, Bjork, Soundgarden and Ramones swirling around him. His reply was:

Hey Ian. Great to hear from you. Would love to see that shot. I think I’m good for souvenirs. Might even include a ticket with each book. My mobile is still the same. Will keep in touch, K.

That was Mon 31 Jan – this year. I am glad we got to reconnect even so briefly.

On Thu 7 Apr news came through that Ken West had passed away at home. He was 64 years old. My heart is breaking for his family and the extended BDO families around the country.

I don’t know that I can fully explain just how crucial Ken was in this country. To music, to bands, to fans, to the way the business is done. For all my Adelaide Big Day Out family, Ken’s whirlwind adventure, his quest for what he did to break from the normal jaded confines of the music business, and his trust in all of us, literally altered the course of our lives and took us all on an unbelievable and unforgettable ride. He didn’t just put on some great festivals, he created an experience and encouraged a change in youth culture, the effects of which continue almost 30 years later. He brought people together who would never have been in the same place. He opened peoples, ears, eyes and hearts to there being more, more than was on offer from the status quo.

I doubt Ken West will be getting a state funeral like some other concert promoters or guys who could hit or chuck a ball well. But, he fucking-well should! He deserves it. He changed everything.

Vale Ken West!

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