Take us back.
There was once a time, distant though it seems, when this was Big Day Out week. Beginning in the early ‘90s with a few little names like The Ramones, Iggy Pop and Nirvana, the festival evolved over 22 years into a multi-city institution.
In the punishing heat of late summer, thousands of punters would stream through the gates of Big Day Out, then scatter between the Boiler Room and the various colour-coded stages.
BDO booked everyone from Hole to Rage Against The Machine to Marilyn Manson in the ‘90s, but the show only grew in the 2000s. Looking back now, each year’s lineup is a fascinating snapshot of its time, reflecting trends in metal (and alas, nu-metal), dance music, pop and indie-rock. In this glorious decade, Big Day Out was the rite of passage for any teenager who owned a few band tees. If you couldn’t be there, Channel [V] broadcast all the action to any living room with an extortionate Foxtel subscription.
In lieu of a summer tradition we’d kinda kill for right now, these sets conjure the glory of 2000s Big Day Out. BYO beer cans and body odour.
Nine Inch Nails (2000)
In September 1999, Nine Inch Nails released The Fragile, a bleak and bristling double-album that delved deep into the psyche of Trent Reznor. In other words, not the stereotypical summer festival record.
The next January, Trent and co. hopped on a plane to their first-ever Big Day Out tour. Playing before headliners Red Hot Chili Peppers across the country, their sets started in the still-bright evening and ended in steamy darkness.
The setlists were all killer, hitting highpoints like ‘Head Like a Hole’, ‘March of the Pigs’, ‘Starfuckers, Inc.’ and, of course, peerless set closers ‘Closer’ and ‘Hurt’. The band sounded taut and powerful, Reznor commanded the stage like a born frontman (who among us could work a black vest?) and thousands of sun-blasted Australians lost their shit. Curiously, this was the only Big Day Out Nine Inch Nails played. (Reznor did, however, bring the band back to headline BDO’s arch rival Soundwave in 2009.)
Special acknowledgement: Sure, big name headliners are great, but did you ever see Lismore’s own Grinspoon in their hard rock prime?
PJ Harvey (2001)
The 2001 tour was undoubtedly the lowest point in Big Day Out history. After 16-year-old punter Jessica Michalik died during Limp Bizkit’s incendiary headline set in Sydney, the tour limped on with a heavy heart (and without Limp Bizkit).
Beyond the questionable choice of headliner, the 2001 lineup is perfectly of its time. Rammstein and Mudvayne hit the testosterone quota, while the likes of Placebo, At the Drive-In and Queens of the Stone Age did rock a bit differently.
Then there was the force of nature called Polly Jean Harvey. On an overwhelmingly male lineup, her performances were cool and commanding, hitting highlights like ‘Big Exit’ and ‘The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore’ from her brilliant 2000 album, Songs from the City, Stories from the Sea.
Big Day Out’s tireless efforts to secure Harvey for her debut Australian tour were detailed last year in a Double J retrospective piece. It was touch and go for a while, but PJ rose to the occasion. As the festival’s longtime coordinator Sahara Herald put it to Double J: “She brought this incredible element to the Big Day Out which at times could be really bloody blokey.”
Special acknowledgement: Big Day Out moved swiftly to book Coldplay following their 2000 debut album, Parachutes, and the bet paid off in heartfelt sets featuring ‘Yellow’, ‘Sparks’, ‘Shiver’ and ‘Trouble’. “I feel like Freddie Mercury with all these people,” Chris Martin quipped sweetly while looking out at the huge Sydney crowd. Oh, what innocent times.
This Big Day Out was a real mixed bag, serving up everyone from Alien Ant Farm and System of a Down to New Order and Kosheen (remember ‘Hide U’?). If you were looking for the 2002 sweet spot, though, it had to be Garbage. The band, led by peroxide-blonde dynamo Shirley Manson, had recently followed up 1998’s hit album Version 2.0 with Beautiful Garbage. Third-billed on the poster after The Prodigy and Silverchair, their sets in the blazing heat were a showcase for Manson’s livewire charisma.
Special acknowledgement: This Big Day Out caught Silverchair between 1999’s Neon Ballroom and 2002’s Diorama, with powerful results. Despite his then-private health struggles, frontman Daniel Johns played with ferocious rock star energy on barn-stormers like ‘The Door’ and ‘Israel’s Son’. His guitar playing and vocals arguably never sounded better.
For budding ravers, the Big Day Out’s Boiler Room was ground zero. The all-day dance music marathon regularly featured locals like Pnau, Groove Terminator and Sonic Animation, with Carl Cox and Basement Jaxx among the favoured internationals. If clammy rock moshes weren’t your thing, this is where minds were routinely blown.
At each stop of the 2003 tour, way too many people squished into the Boiler Room to see Underworld’s closing set. The duo was on a creative streak following 2002’s A Hundred Days Off (its ‘Two Months Off’ was an instant live classic) and their show was a breathless machine. Vocalist Karl Hyde was the only one with space to really dance, and dance he did.
Special acknowledgement: What’s better than a Boiler Room with Underworld? A Boiler Room with Underworld and electronic music’s foundational act Kraftwerk.
Was there any other band that hit Big Day Out’s pleasure centre quite like Metallica? In 2004, with eight albums already behind them, the metal heavyweights did their first and only Big Day Out tour.
The combination of summer heat and a full-tilt setlist turned each moshpit into a mess of flailing limbs. Each set allowed for not one but two encores that included ‘Master of Puppets’, ‘One’ and ‘Sandman’. Even Metallica sceptics had to admit the band gave it their all.
Special acknowledgement: Back in 2004, Muse hadn’t yet graduated to filling stadiums with absurd high-concept stage shows. Fresh from releasing the still-excellent Absolution, the three-piece played early in the stinking-hot afternoon like a band with something to prove. (This was also the year that Aphex Twin played the Boiler Room with his buddy Luke Vibert — did we know how good we had it?)
Beastie Boys (2005)
Booking Beastie Boys to close the festival was a huge deal for Big Day Out. With the Chemical Brothers in charge of the Boiler Room, the trademarked ‘three MCs and one DJ’ did their career-spanning thing on the main stage. Their set featured a rotating stage, goofy skits, various outfits and a parade of classics like ‘Pass The Mic’, ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’ and ‘Sabotage’. After Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch died in 2012, memories of these fun-loving shows turned bittersweet.
Special acknowledgement: To the uninitiated, Slipknot might look like a novelty act in cut-price Halloween masks. For the hard-moshing fans at Big Day Out, they blew away any of the day’s competition. As it happened, this was Slipknot’s one-and-done BDO.
In 2005, M.I.A.’s Arular took off like a comet. The British-Sri Lankan rapper stacked her debut album with political fire against the pulse of dancehall, hip-hop and baile funk. Big Day Out quickly responded by booking M.I.A. for her first Australian tour. The Boiler Room caught her in full flight, while bangers like ‘Sunshowers’, ‘Bucky Done Gun’ and ‘Galang’ were still fresh on our iPods. Fun fact: M.I.A.’s then-boyfriend Diplo came out as her tour DJ, but his name didn’t make the festival poster.
Special acknowledgement: This year’s Big Day Out was really a steady build to The White Stripes. Five albums in at the time, the duo of Jack and Meg White had firmly graduated to headliner status by ‘06. (They first played the festival in 2002, much further down the poster.) Meg exuded unflappable cool, Jack seethed and sweated at the microphone, and fans went home chanting ‘Seven Nation Army’.
My Chemical Romance (2007)
Big Day Out might’ve played it safe with headliners Muse and Tool, but 2007 had a compelling undercard. Lupe Fiasco, Diplo, The Presets and Hot Chip were all on the ascent, Lily Allen was a breath of fresh air and Justice proved ideal for the Boiler Room.
Among rock acts like Jet, Kasabian and The Butterfly Effect, emo saviours My Chemical Romance were odd men out. Despite mid-afternoon slots that weren’t fair to Gerard Way’s head-to-toe black, the band played like it was their headline show.
Special acknowledgement: It doesn’t get much more 2007 than ‘Not Many’ hitmaker Scribe performing a live mash-up of his star-making song with ‘Seven Nation Army’. All while wearing a backpack.
Rage Against The Machine (2008)
Was Rage Against The Machine in 2008 the greatest Big Day Out act ever? It’s hard to argue otherwise. After playing the festival in 1996 just months before releasing Evil Empire, the band’s victory lap was utterly explosive. Fan-shot footage of the sets is all shaky and distorted, reinforcing the hard truth that you really had to be there.
Special acknowledgment: Björk was forced to pull out of the Sydney stop due to swollen vocal chords, but other cities got to witness her virtuosic live show. Scheduling her right before RATM, though, created a weird tension in the crowd.
Arctic Monkeys (2009)
How do you follow up Rage Against The Machine as your festival headliner? In 2009, Big Day Out gambled on folk-rock titan Neil Young to close the show. His decade-hopping sets were a godsend for fans, but couldn’t pull RATM numbers. (A lot of people tried cramming into the Boiler Room for the Prodigy instead.)
Earlier in the night, Arctic Monkeys put on a swaggering greatest hits show that also swerved into a rollicking cover of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ ‘Red Right Hand’. This was the Monkeys’ only Big Day Out, and they did it in style.
Special acknowledgement: Remember The Tings Tings and their earworm hit ‘That’s Not My Name’? Let this be your 2021 refresher.
Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in Sydney — he was formerly the Editorial Director at Beatport and an editor of inthemix. Find him on Twitter.
Photo Credits: Zack de la Rocha by Kevin Winter/Getty Images, Arctic Monkeys by Mikki Gomez