'Monsters of rock' did not disappoint the thousands of fans at Castle Donington for the world's biggest hard rock celebration.
Down and not out at the Download Festival
Six centuries ago, the English folk hero Robin Hood and his bandit gang allegedly ran riot in the rolling green woodland surrounding the city of Nottingham. Last weekend, more than 100,000 outlaws of a different kind gathered in nearby Castle Donington. Clad in leather and chains, tattoos and torn jeans, the heavy metal hordes arrived in their thousands to celebrate the world's biggest hard rock festival: Download.
Perched on the edge of a motor racing track, directly under the take-off flightpath of East Midlands Airport, Download lacks some of the idyllic rural charm of Glastonbury or Womad. But it still overlooks the lush green heartland of Middle England and remains one of the most genuinely friendly events on the rock calendar. Heavy metal fans share a warm communal bond, and a self-deprecating sense of humour, that you will not find at any other festival.
Castle Donington holds an almost mythical significance in Britrock folklore. It can hardly be a coincidence that almost every major UK metal star was born within an hour of here. Birmingham and the surrounding West Midlands produced Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, the Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and dozens more. Both Motörhead's Lemmy and Slash from Guns N' Roses, bizarrely, grew up in the nearby industrial town of Stoke-on-Trent. Nottinghamshire gave the world Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, South Yorkshire produced Def Leppard - the list goes on and on. There really must be something in the water here.
Although Download itself was only launched in 2003, this year's event was billed as a 30th anniversary celebration of its fabled forerunner, Monsters of Rock. The two biggest stages were named in tribute to the festival's original promoter, Maurice Jones and the rocker Ronnie James Dio, both of whom died in recent months. As a statement of your megabucks supergroup power, bringing your own full-sized stage to a rock festival ranks pretty highly. Arrivals at the Donington site were greeted with the bizarre spectacle of two main stages squatting side by side, the right one reserved exclusively for Friday night's headliners AC/DC. Presumably this grandiose act of one-upmanship was designed to allow the Anglo-Australian hard rock veterans to mount their full special-effects spectacular, which included a full-sized steam train crashing through the back of the stage, blazing pyrotechnics and a gargantuan inflatable woman.
For a band so utterly devoid of style, wit or originality, AC/DC were surprisingly entertaining. Almost every song, even all-time classics such as Highway to Hell and YouShook Me All Night Long, essentially consisted of basic 12-bar blues super-sized to stadium-rock dimensions. The shorts-wearing, school-uniformed guitarist Angus Young and the ungainly, gravel-voiced singer Brian Johnson made an unsavoury pair, their lyrics thick with relentlessly smutty, leering innuendo. And yet their performance was propulsive, dynamic and undeniably funky. AC/DC may offer an incredibly conservative product, but nobody sells more than 200 million albums by putting on a dull show.
In recent years, heavy metal has seen a similar multi-generational shift towards more mainstream rock, with both fans and bands heading into middle age together. Download has increasingly reflected this trend, with the upper end of the bill becoming something of a showcase for recently reformed or reactivated rock veterans from the 1970s and 1980s. Even this year's youngest headliners, Rage Against The Machine, have a 20-year history and originally disbanded a decade ago. Although the politically radical Los Angeles quartet have been largely dormant since then, they were catapulted back into the limelight last Christmas by a Facebook campaign to make their 1992 single Killing in the Name a Number One hit in Britain, which was organised by fans primarily to deny the coveted slot to Simon Cowell's Pop Idol winner Joe McElderry. Mission accomplished.
A week before Download, Rage played a free show in London to thank their fans and affirm their opposition to vacuous production-line pop idols. Introducing Know Your Enemy at Donington, the band's singer Zack de la Rocha declared: "This isn't about Simon Cowell, but it might be about what he represents." Later in their two-hour set of slamdancing funk-rock and blast-furnace polemic, the outspoken frontman also paid tribute to "our brothers and sisters in Palestine", demanding that western governments challenge Israel over its "brutal blockade of Gaza".
Promising new acts seemed thinner on the ground at this year's Download, although the spiky-haired Hollywood pin-up Jared Leto's melodic pop-metal outfit 30 Seconds To Mars sounded polished and lively enough to escape the curse of being a famous actor's vanity project. The former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash also drew a huge and appreciative crowd with his latest glam-metal collective, even if they turned out to be essentially a pale copy of his old band. Predictably, they earned their biggest cheers with the ancient GNR hits Sweet Child o' Mine and Paradise City.
Britain may host more rock festivals than any other nation, but this wet little cluster of islands also has the most notoriously unreliable summer weather. Alas, after two dry days, the clouds gathered over Donington on Sunday and Download turned into "Downpour". Heavy rain dampened Billy Idol's lightweight pop-punk sneering and Motörhead's grizzled biker-rock grunting, but at least comic relief was at hand in the form of Steel Panther, a superbly well-observed parody of 1980s poodle-metal bands. With their sleazy lyrics and highly realistic pastiche songs, this big-haired LA quartet brought some much-needed levity to a drab, drizzly, muddy afternoon.