Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Great Calder Park Rock 'n' Roll Swindle

February 1, 1993:  A massive crowd of rock fans descend on Calder Park Raceway to see one of the world's biggest bands, Guns 'n' Roses. Touring their hugely successful Use Your Illusion double-double album, the Californian rockers would play a two hour set that was wildly received by the assembled throng.

But a day of big bandannas and big riffs would end in chaos, with thousands of hungry, thirsty, sun stricken punters straggling home along the freeway on foot in the middle of the night. The Gunner's Calder Park gig would become one of Australia's most notorious music fiascoes, and the ensuing public investigation would force long term changes to the regulation of the live music industry in Victoria.

Thirty kilometres north west of Melbourne, flyspeck Calder Park began hosting motor sport on a dirt track in the early 1960's. As the sport increased in popularity a basic asphalt circuit was laid, the first meeting held there in January 1962.

One of the early competitors was Bob Jane, a professional race driver who later would make his name with a chain of successful tyre repair shops. In the 1970's, Jane bought the property the racetrack was built on and, after a trip to watch NASCAR racing in the US, greatly expanded and improved the facilities.

By the early 1980's, Calder Park Raceway (sometimes referred to as the Melbourne International Raceway) was one of Australia's largest motorsport venues.

Bob Jane at Calder Park during track construction work.

By 1993, Guns 'n' Roses had reached the very pinnacle of the music business. As a follow up to their classic hard rock album from 1989, Appetite for Destruction, they had released not one, but two double albums in 1991, Use Your Illusion I and II, and then watched them both go multi-platinum.

Taking these albums on the road was a gargantuan task. Their world tour would last more than two years and encompass 194 shows in 31 countries, making it one of the biggest and longest tours in live music history. The band's popularity was such that they frequently played outsized venues, including a number of racetracks, among gigs at more traditional locations.

Height of fame: Gunners on the cover of Rolling Stone, 1993.

The Gunners stop in Australia would only be brief; two shows in a week before heading off to New Zealand. On January 30 they played the Eastern Creek racetrack outside of Sydney, a gig that was hugely successful with both fans and critics alike (a 2011 poll by a local radio station voted this the best rock show ever staged in Australia). 80 000 people attended and enjoyed the day without major incident.

Ticket stub from the Gunners Eastern Creek show.

The stage seemed to be set for an epic event in Melbourne a few days later.

But even before the day of the show, trouble was brewing. Dedicated fans began arriving at the racetrack the night before, the evening of January 31, camping out to nab the best vantage points for the next day. They bought tents, sleeping bags and, crucially, their own food and drink.

Also arriving the night before were the merch vendors. And seeing that they already had a captive audience, the most industrious of these began working the lines, selling t-shirts and other souvenirs. And not selling them cheap either; the official tour t-shirt was touted for as much as $75. The hard sell along the queue continued into the next day.

G 'n' R merch played a crucial role in the fiasco.

February 1 was a sweltering summer’s day, the temperature reaching into the high thirties. As 75 000 ticket holders drove or caught special bus services out to the track, they had little idea what was in store for them.

What the majority of fans hadn't realised, as they made their way to the gig, was that the organisers had stipulated a list of items that could not be brought into the show. These included standard items like alcohol, but also; food, drink, eskies, umbrellas, cameras and sunscreen. Burly security teams manned the entrance and ordered patrons to hand over their provisions. Even bottles of water were confiscated. People were directed to replenish their supplies from outlets inside the racetrack.

75 000 hot, thirsty, frustrated fans crammed the raceway.

But having queued for as long as five hours to get into the place, these hapless suckers then faced queues averaging an hour and a half to get a sandwich or a beer. And sky high prices - as much as $5 for a small bottle of water, as an example – when they did get served.

The early arrivers, who had brought their own food and then spent their dollars on t-shirts and CD’s while waiting to get in, suddenly found themselves trapped; a long way from Melbourne with nothing to eat or drink and now no money to buy anything else. Thirsty people who tried to scrounge water from the bathroom facilities had their drink bottles taken from them by zealous security guards. Arguments and scuffles broke out.

The bathroom facilities themselves quickly descended into unhygenic chaos. The queues were so long that makeshift toilets were erected, these consisting of nothing more than a cloth screen erected around a patch of open ground, where desperate people could take their chances. The ladies version of this was later described as a 'urine saturated swamp' in an official complaint written by one survivor, undoubtedly still scarred to this day.

But perhaps most seriously, the organisers had taken no precautions regarding the hot weather. Calder Park Raceway is on an arid, treeless plain and no shading had been set up to provide any respite from the sun. Having had their sunscreen confiscated, punters were directed to a single sunscreen booth and another long queue to get a squirt out of a communal drum.

The combination of the hot weather, lack of shade and restricted access to water had dire consequences. Nearly two thousand people were treated for sunstroke and a number ended up in hospital.

Rare photo of stoic G 'n' R fans, February 1, 1993.

For everyone that survived the sun, in the mid afternoon Melbourne's fickle weather did one of its famous U-turns. A sudden wind blew up, followed by thunder, lightning and a torrential downpour. Within minutes, the crowd was drenched, thousands of thirsty people opening their mouths to catch the only free water they were going to get that day.

And then... G 'n' R came on.

G 'n' R frontman Axl Rose, Use Your Illusion tour.

For two hours all the problems of the day were forgotten in a riot of pumped up guitar rock. Mixing classics off their earlier albums with newer songs and popular covers, the band delivered what their fans had come for; a noisy, jumbo sized, excessive spectacle.

But once the band finished and the buzz started to subside the assembled crowds were faced, once again, with the ineptitude of the gig's organisation.

The thousands who had driven to the raceway found the rain had transformed the dirt carpark into a boggy mudheap, compounded by the absence of any lighting or staff to help people find their cars or the one road out. Massive queues of vehicles soon devolved further into an impossibly tangled traffic jam.

People relying on other means of transport were no better off. There are no public transport services to Calder Park, so a charter bus service had been arranged to ferry people to and from the venue and the city during the day. Helpfully, the last batch of these left shortly after the end of the concert, leaving thousands of people stranded. Some of them tried to hitch a lift with any of the cars that had managed to escape the carpark, but thousands more simply took to the Calder Highway on foot.

In the aftermath of the days events, the Victorian Ombudsman would receive enough complaints to warrant a formal, public investigation. Several of its recommendations laid the groundwork for new rules that still govern live music in the state today, including the requirement for concert organisers to provide free drinking water and adequate shelter.

But these things are very much a matter of perspective. Searching online, you can find many concert goers who focus mainly on the memories they have of the music, an less on the day's problems.

And reflecting on the gig in an interview in 2012, then G 'n' R drummer Duff McKagan recalled 'a fucking sea of people'... and nothing else.

While the official Gunners website has this entry in the bands very detailed history:

The Guns 'n' Roses concert was the last one ever held at Calder Park.


  1. I recall being in section 'A'. We were droughted then drowned. Constant announcements asking people not to take the water from the toilets as it wasn't suitable for drinking, to please sit down and help would arrive with water soon. No help arrived. The lines were terrible and then the water sold out. I was with my brother nd my boyfriend. Both were feeling the heat, so I sourced the last tw ice creams a vendor had to try and provide some sort of sustenance for my loved ones. Then the skies opened and the downpour came. Looking behind us the people in section 'B' had taps and were riding a mud slide down the hill, taunting and jeering at those of us stuck in 'A' section. It was horrid. Eventually the band came on - late. And I lost any and all respect that day for that band. Axl complaining the people in our section didn't have enough energy, weren't cheering enough. What a wanker. If the guy had even a smidgen of respect for fans, he'd have been on time and informed of the situation, not giving the fans shit. He seemed like a really spoilt child and it turned me off hardcore. I had seen them in 1988 & I did go not so long ago for his Chinese Democracy tour here, but it's never the same after an artist you've paid to see shits on you. It takes away some of the magic. It did for me. I was 21 at the time and it taught me first hand how some bands can be all about the money and zero about the fans

  2. The 93' Gunners concert at Calder Park in Melbourne. I was jammed like a sardine in Sec A in what seemed like 40 degrees before a violent storm hit us. We went from hot to frozen in minutes. Rosey Tatts and Skid Row had played and then the Gunners came on. Wicked! Getting out of the car park was a nightmare at the end of the concert.