Assorted scribblings of a dog-eared music journalist

Melody Maker | Live | 27 August 1988 | Photos: Richard Bellia

Castle Donington

Following numerous traffic jams along the motorway, there's another on the country road. The queue barely moves in half an hour. "It's not far – walk," advises a friendly passing policewoman. Hundreds of long-haired, baseball cap-sporting lads and their molls, denim and leather bearing their
heavy metal allegiances, are already undertaking the final part of the journey on foot, trudging along lanes, across fields and through woods. Photographer Richard Bellia, loaded down with equipment, joins them, disappearing up the twisting, narrow road.

The queue makes no advance. Then I notice several vehicles displaying guest passes heading in the opposite direction. A three-point turn and I'm in pursuit, a couple of lucky guesses and I'm soon on site, having missed
HELLOWEEN but with GUNS N' ROSES about to take the stage. Bellia, meanwhile, is only a short way into what turned out to be a six-mile yomp.

Inside the arena, there's no less madness. One of the large video screens falls down and the traditional hurling of plastic bottles and other containers starts early. Beneath a makeshift flagpole of fishing rods, what looks like a giant colostomy bag full of black ale is doing the rounds. "Have you seen my mates?" dribbles a dazed youth. "One's in leather and Levis, the other's wearing a Maiden T-shirt."

After just a few songs, Guns N' Roses leave the stage. There's a serious problem in the crowd. I see flashing blue lights and hear the wailing sirens of ambulances. As a result, it's a severely shortened set. It's littered with bum notes too, but is impressive nonetheless. "Welcome To The Jungle" is a hurried, hazy hubbub, a querulous affair, vocalist Axl flaunting his tattoos, the two guitars locked in combat, the beat shaking the knots out of a thousand heads of hair. There are others of a similar design, but the latest single, "Sweet Child O' Mine" is more obviously melodious, mellifluous even, and one of the newer songs is a ballad, an opulent, bristles-brushed-up blues, an unapologetic unearthing of the band's roots.

They strut and stomp, scowl and howl, but there is a real urgency and a multi-dimensional character to their music. They skip, with considerable ease and the odd frivolous word, from a sophisticated hard rock to a petulant, unimpoverished pop sensibility and sensitivity, offering a sting in each tale, sometimes playful, sometimes painful. It's no surprise that the Guns N' Roses merchandising sells out soon after their performance ends.

MEGADETH follow and to almost the reverse effect. They rely totally, tediously, ridiculously, upon sheer brutal power, an ill-mannered battering ram force, and since the PA is being held back for later attractions, the traffic to and from the nearby East Midlands airport makes sufficient noise to drown them out. Inefficient and unadventurous, they are simply a flat, fruitless dirge, an annoying rumble away in the distance, with nothing worthy of closer inspection. Even "Anarchy In The UK" sounds like one of the least significant songs ever written. Most strange. Dave Mustaine's attempts at whipping up excitement beyond the hardcore followers at the front is a thoroughly pointless exercise.

DAVID LEE ROTH fares much better. "Donington is an old Roman name meaning a place to kick some serious ass," he yells. Hmmm. During his opening song, there again seems to be considerable difficulties controlling the ever-surging crowd. A security man appears onstage and appears to be trying to call another halt to the proceedings. But it's useless. His frantic appeals are ignored and Lee Roth is soon in full swing. Literally.

Every action, every gesticulation, is as exaggerated as the white piping down the side of Lee Roth's trousers and the bump at his crotch. His arms windmill furiously and his bottom wags inches above the floor. It's high glamour all the way, with garish coloured clothing and garish instruments and garish songs to match. There's "Bright Lights, City Lights", a couple of ancient blues numbers speeded up and tarted up with guitar solos and indecipherable screams, the kick-started-by-keyboards "California Girls" and a version of The Kinks' "You Really Got Me". What would it be for an encore? A Herman's Hermits cover perhaps? Actually, it's "Jump", merrily misshapen, a space hopper bounce with a long, curly straw drawing bubbles of fizzy lemonade up its snout. It goes down a storm.

There are other snippets of evidence to suggest that something along the lines of Fairly Harmless Loveable Furry Animals Of Pomp Pop might be more appropriate than the Monsters Of Rock banner. There are packed lunches, "This belongs to..." embroidered on a rucksack, a Westworld cap, packets of Consulate cigarettes and the overheard remark "I haven't had such a good time since I saw Michael Jackson". Then there’s Jonathan King, wandering around backstage being bendy-mouthed and an all-round egg, and Sam Fox, looking all round full stop. And, of course,
KISS, Gene Simmons a hairy honey rather than a horny devil, brilliantly white ankle boots on parade and "Crazy Nights" and "Shout It Out Loud" sparking sing-alongs.

With Kiss comes the first serious deluge of rain for several hours and a further indication that this whole thing isn't actually the least bit funny. Rumours are circulating that people have been killed, some say as a result of the video screen falling down. Others point to the constant massive crush at the front of the stage. Nobody knows anything for certain. All that's announced is that this is the best attended Donington ever, that 107,000 have passed through the gates.

Most seem to be here for the headline act and
IRON MAIDEN make full use of the gradually enveloping darkness. Huge arcs of searchlights are cast out, illuminating the trails of smoke, and explosions and fireworks send jets of sparks into the air. Every trick in the HM fantasy book is employed. Iron Maiden are the perfect stereotypical band of this genre and their music is equally designed to thrill those with a love of ostentation.

There's a thumping, thug beat throughout, incredibly indulgent guitar histrionics, and Bruce Dickinson bounding up and down the stage, his voice rising and falling as he makes believe he's on the run and on the razor's edge. Indefatigable hard-boiled nonsense from start to finish, each word, each note, each crash and convulsion, is greeted with roars of approval. Amazing.

This year as any other, Donington is an opportunity for the outcasts to celebrate, in filth and in style, a day and a place where nobody but themselves mattered a fuck. But of course, it wasn't as simple as that.

We leave as Iron Maiden are approaching the end of their set. We drive away from the site, past cars abandoned, hours earlier, on the grass and mud verges, past lay-bys crammed bonnet to boot. As we hit the motorway, the radio crackles the tragic news that two young men had been killed, trampled to death, during the Guns N' Roses performance. My mind is immediately cast back to the – at the time – hilarious enquiry as to the whereabouts of the one in leather and Levis and the one in a Maiden T-shirt. The chances are they were queuing up, lopsided, for greasy chips or for the overflowing toilets. For others, the answer wouldn't come so easy.

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