Monsters Of Rock: A personal history

With the legendary Monsters Of Rock festival about to return for the first time in 10 years, our resident rock veteran talks us through the glory years and offers an insight into the riotous reception that awaits...

The Monsters Of Rock juggernaught thunders back onto the British festival circuit on the 3 June 2006 at Milton Keynes Bowl after an absence of 10 years. For more than 15 years it held the crown of the UK's loudest festival, played host to the greatest names in metal, courted controversy, forever turned Donington Park into the 'spiritual home of rock', and ultimately spawned Download festival, which takes place the weekend afterwards. So what’s it all about?

Between 1980 and 1996 it was the colossus of the rock festival scene and became legendary worldwide. It gave heavy rock and metal fans of the time a festival that was all their own without compromise. Sure, there was the Reading Rock Festival and Glastonbury, but these festivals also appealed to a mainstream audience. Monsters Of Rock and Donington Park were synonymous as a Mecca for those who liked it hard and heavy.

For those who used to make the annual pilgrimage, an early start was usually in order. Some would ignore the “No Camping” message printed on the tickets and pitch up in tents anyway. Others would set off the night before and get a head start at an all-nighter in Nottingham’s Rock City. Most tended to get picked up early in the morning by a minivan full of hairy arsed metalheads who had already made a hefty dent in the obligitory bottle of Jack.

Queuing at the gates there was always a bunch of people downing the drink they’d brought with them that they weren’t allowed to take into the arena, athough some years security would hand out water bags which you could pour your beer into. This made you look like you were drinking out of bags of piss all day, but it was bought and paid for, so it wasn’t getting left behind! Such precautions never seemed to stem the legendary bottle fights though.

There was only one stage for most of the festival's life, so once in the arena you made for a good spot and stuck with it. The hardcore would pile down to the front for a good mosh but otherwise it was a case of getting settled for the day and having a drink. A storming headline set was usually capped of with a giant fireworks display that must have caused alarm to any late flying jet pilots who had to fly directly over the arena and stage from the nearby East Midlands airport.

Originally conceived as a way for Rainbow to round off their 1980 world tour with a big flourish, race circuit Donington Park was chosen as the venue and a line-up of seven bands put together. The event got off to an explosive start before it even began whilst testing the pyrotechnics on the night before and a miscalculation resulted in £18,000 worth of damage to the backline and PA. Nevertheless, for the 35,000 attendees of that first year it was a day to remember, and so began a cycle that would last for 16 years, missing only the odd year here & there.


The eighties were the heyday of Monsters Of Rock, and many defining moments occurred during that decade. In 1984, David Lee Roth played what would turn out to be his last performance with Van Halen. 1985 saw ZZ Top suspend their “Eliminator” custom car from a helicopter and fly it over the waiting crowd. Def Leppard proved that a one armed drummer was more than capable of delivering the goods in 1986. Kiss used to boast that they would “never open for a band that ever opened for us”, but precisely that happened in 1988 when they played second from the top, leaving Iron Maiden (a one time Kiss support act) to headline. Iron Maiden also were to give a glimpse of the future in 1992 when Adrian Smith joined his once and future band mates performing in a line-up that became permanent seven years later.

Monsters Of Rock also came with its fair share of controversy. Bad News, the spoof metal band made up of “Comic Strip Presents…” members were sandwiched on the bill in between openers Warlock and Motorhead. Many felt that they had taken a slot that rightly belonged to a proper band. 1987 caused a stir when for the first time the line-up was made up entirely of American bands. But by far the biggest upset was caused in 1988, when two fans were killed in a rush forward as Guns ‘n’ Roses came on stage mid-afternoon. The capacity had grown to 108,000 and though initially thought to be the cause of the tragedy, the blame was officially laid on the conditions of the day – the stage sat at the bottom of a hill, and that day was one which got off to a very soggy start. The festival was cancelled in 1989 and returned in 1990 with the stage moved further back and the capacity cut to around 75,000.

Many big rock and metal acts had their names linked almost inextricably with Monsters Of Rock. Iron Maiden headlined twice, Ozzy Osbourne played three times and AC/DC took the top slot three times. But surely the band who worked hardest to earn their position at the top of the bill were Metallica, who first appeared fourth from the top of the bill in 1985 and worked their way up, finally attaining the coveted headline status in 1995. Late rock DJ Tommy Vance compered the event for six years from 1981. His appearance would be greeted with a chant of “Tommy is a wanker” and hails of projectiles from the seldom-sober crowd, but his appearances were always met with a great deal of good cheer.

All good things come to an end and, after the 1996 Kiss/Ozzy Osbourne co-headliner, Monsters Of Rock departed the UK festival scene, in part a result of the changing face of rock music. The fall-out from grunge in the early '90s, along with the emergence of Britpop, was beginning to make metal a dirty word for those in the music industry and anal band managers no longer wanted to be seen associated with what was being seen as a dated brand in Monsters Of Rock. Ozzy returned with Ozzfest in 2002, and the three day, three stage Download Festival is now the current incumbent.

Now though, Monsters OF Rock has a new home. Those of us who remember those glory days fondly will be looking around the Milton Keynes Bowl with a critical eye to ensure that Monsters for the 21st Century isn’t a washed up dinosaur but a leviathan roused from its slumber to entertain a new generation. Click here for more on Monsters Of Rock 2006, including lineup and tickets.

Click through to the next page for the lowdown on what bands played those historic, original Monsters Of Rock festivals… 


Monsters Of Rock lineups

Rainbow, Judas Priest, Scorpions, April Wine, Saxon, Riot, Touch

AC/DC, Whitesnake, Blue Oyster Cult, Slade, Blackfoot, More

Status Quo, Gillan, Saxon, Uriah Heep, Hawkwind, Anvil

Whitesnake, Meatloaf, ZZ Top, Twisted Sister, Dio, Diamond Head

AC/DC, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Gary Moore, Y&T, Accept, Motley Crue

ZZ Top, Marillion, Bon Jovi, Metallica, Ratt, Magnum

Ozzy Osbbourne, Scorpions, Motorhead, Def Leppard, Bad News, Warlock

Bon Jovi, Dio, Metallica, Anthrax, WASP, Cinderella

Iron Maiden, Kiss, Dave Lee Roth, Megadeth, Guns n Roses, Helloween

Whitesnake, Aerosmith, Poison, Quireboys, Thunder

AC/DC, Metallica, Motley Crue, Queensryche, The Black Crowes

Iron Maiden, Skid Row, Thunder, Slayer, WASP, Almighty

Aerosmith, Extreme, Pantera, Sepultura, Therapy?, Pride & Glory
The Wildhearts, Terrorvision, Skin, Cry Of Love, Biohazard, Headswim

26/08/1995 (aka Escape From The Studio 95)
Metallica, Therapy?, Skid Row, Slayer, Slash's Snakepit, White Zombie, Machine Head, Warrior Soul, Corrosion Of Conformity

Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne, Sepultura, Biohazard, Dog Eat Dog, Paradise Lost, Fear Factory
Korn, Type O Negative, Everclear, 3 Colours Red, Honeycrack, Cecil