The Great Calder Park Rock ‘n’ Roll Fiasco
In 1993, the world’s biggest band came to Melbourne to perform the city’s largest rock concert. It was an event that would go down in infamy.
Guns ‘n’ Roses were formed in Los Angeles, in 1985.
The original line up – Axl Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan and Steven Adler – were all veterans of the LA music scene, and the band’s name was derived from two different bands that provided most of them; ‘LA Guns’ and ‘Hollywood Rose.’
Playing a pumped up, adrenalin fuelled rock, with big riffs and shoutalong lyrics, GNR quickly made a name for themselves in the rock clubs of West Hollywood. They also had a reputation for hard living; drugs, groupies, and violence. The share house/rehearsal space the band lived in was known as ‘Hell House’, and was a notoriously squalid dump, where the cops were regular visitors.
The band also worked hard on their music; playing gigs most nights, and rehearsing obsessively.
Their 1987 debut album, ‘Appetite for Destruction’ was a sensation, going to Number 1 on the Billboard charts, and spawning a number of classic singles; 'Welcome to the Jungle', 'Paradise City' and 'Sweet Child ‘O Mine', among them.
The record sold 30 million copies worldwide, and remains the highest selling debut album in US history.
By 1993, Guns 'n' Roses had reached the very pinnacle of the music business.
They had followed up ‘Appetite…’ with the well received ‘Lies’, and then in 1991 released a remarkable two double albums in one year; Use Your Illusion I and II, both of which went multi platinum.
Taking these albums on the road was a gargantuan task.
Their ‘Use Your Illusion’ world tour would last more than two years and encompass 194 shows in 31 countries, making it one of the biggest tours in live music history. The band's popularity was such that they played the largest venues available at each stop, including a number of racetracks and speedways.
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 raceway outside of Sydney, a gig that was hugely successful with both fans and critics; a 2011 poll by a Sydney radio station voted this the best rock show ever staged in Australia. 80 000 people attended and enjoyed the day without major incident.
The stage seemed to be set for an epic event in Melbourne a few days later.
Thirty kilometres north-west of Melbourne, Calder Park began hosting motor sport on a dirt track in the 1960's. As the sport increased in popularity a basic asphalt circuit was laid, and the first formal race meet was held there in January, 1962.
One of the early competitors was Bob Jane, a professional race driver who later would make a fortune with a chain of successful tyre shops. In the 1970's, Jane bought the racetrack outright, and began upgrading the facilities.
Calder Park Raceway quickly became one of Australia's premier motorsport venues.
It would also be the site of GNR’s Melbourne show, set for February 1, 1993.
February 1 was a sweltering summer’s day, the temperature reaching into the high thirties. 75 000 people were expected at the sold out show.
Calder Park is not serviced by public transport, so fans either had to drive, and park in a makeshift carpark adjacent to the track, or catch special charter busses from the city.
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, umbrellas, and sunscreen. Burly security teams manned the entrance and ordered patrons to hand over their provisions.
Even bottles of water were confiscated. People were told they could not bring anything in, and would have to buy replacement food, drink and sunscreen from vendors inside the event.
It was a classic cash grab.
But having queued for as long as five hours to get into the venue, the punters 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, when they did get served.
Some people who had brought their own supplies had not bought enough money to afford replacements at these prices.
People who tried to smuggle water in were caught by security, and had their bottles punctured with a screwdriver. Desperate people even tried to scrounge water from the toilets, prompting a repeated announcement over the PA that the toilet water was toxic, and not fit for human consumption.
The bathroom facilities themselves quickly descended into unhygienic chaos.
There were simply not enough loos for such a large crowd, and the queues were so long that organisers hastily arranged ‘emergency toilets’ as a backup. But these consisted of nothing more than a cloth screen around a patch of open ground, where desperate people could take their chances.
The ladies’ version of this, later described as a 'urine saturated swamp' in an official complaint, defies imagining.
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, fans were now directed to a single sunscreen booth and another long queue to get a squirt out of a communal drum.
The combination of 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.
For everyone that survived the sun, in mid afternoon Melbourne's fickle weather did one of its famous U-turns.
'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.'
- Gig attendee
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.
Meanwhile, the gig proper started, with well received warm up sets by ‘Rose Tattoo’, and ‘Skid Row’.
And then... G 'n' R came on.
For a while, 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.
Opening with ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, and closing, two hours later, with ‘Paradise City’, the band’s set was riotously received.
But as the headliners finished and were whisked away, 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 bog; many cars were now stuck, a problem compounded by a complete lack of lighting, as night fell.
Those cars that could get out soon found themselves caught in a massive traffic jam; there was only one track out of the carpark and it was well beyond capacity.
The shuttle bus service had also finished.
The final batch of busses back to the city had left as soon as the Gunners finished playing, meaning thousands of people who had expected to use this method to get home were now stuck.
Some fans walked out to Calder Highway and tried to hitchhike. Many more simply started walking back towards the city:
'It's hard to describe the sight of 10 000 sunburnt, damp, hungry bogans, walking along the side of a highway. But if you have ever seen 'The Walking Dead' you've got a good reference point.
I saw a guy in a Mr Whippy van auction off his last can of drink for about 15 times the usual cost, and I saw hundreds of people descend on the BP in Taylor's Lakes and start eating the food straight off the shelves, while the hapless staff looked on.'
- Chris, concert attendee
In the aftermath of the day’s events, the Victorian Ombudsman received enough complaints to warrant a public investigation.
Several of its recommendations laid the groundwork for new rules that still govern live music in the state today. These include the requirement for concert organisers to provide free drinking water at all gigs, and adequate shelter, at any outdoor music venue.
But these things are very much a matter of perspective.
Asked about the gig in an interview in 2012, then GNR bassist 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:
'February 1, 1993: The whole entourage watch the US Superbowl on TV. The show at Calder Park Raceway goes ahead despite torrential rain, and breaks local attendance records.'
- Guns and Roses, official website
The Guns 'n' Roses concert was the last one held at Calder Park.