‘If I get covered in urine, that means I’ve arrived’: the birth of Monsters of Rock festival

In an extract from new book Denim and Leather, an oral history of 80s British heavy metal, Judas Priest, Saxon, Rainbow and others describe the 1980 debut of an event that cemented the UK rock community

Rob Halford (vocals, Judas Priest): That first Monsters of Rock [in 1980] was an extraordinary day. It was the first metal festival. And it kicked off a whole experience, not just in the UK but in Europe.

Paul Loasby (promoter, Monsters of Rock): [US promoter] Bill Graham had used the name Monsters of Rock. We spoke to Bill: “Do you mind if we use that name?” He said he didn’t. I think he’d pinched it as well.

Dante Bonutto (writer, Record Mirror and Kerrang!): You were in a field with lots of other people who loved what you loved, so it was very empowering and defining. It gave enormous impetus to the fact that rock was more than just a collection of individual bands – it was a whole movement, an international force. Many people also picked sides: I was with some journalists from Melody Maker who absolutely hated it, while I was absolutely loving it.

Paul Loasby: I was with [concert promoter] Harvey Goldsmith for four years, and there’s always the itching belief that you can make it on your own. Reading had moved more and more to hard rock, but it was still a mixture. It had lost its identity, and the audience drop-off was quite significant. I got out a map, and went: Birmingham, M6, M1, and drew a triangle: Castle Donington racetrack. This was March 1980. I looked at my map, and fuck me, it’s next to an airport. I’d always dreamed that helicopters would fly into the airport and the artists would collect their cars to go backstage. I didn’t think about aeroplanes taking off and drowning out the sound. In my mind metal would drown it out. I didn’t realise the runway was just over the fence from the racetrack.

Neal Kay (DJ, promoter, impresario): By then, promoters had realised rock fans were never going to settle for a mixed bill. Not in this country. No bloody way. We’re like that. Rock is a way of life. It is not just music.

Paul Loasby: I rang Bruce Payne, Rainbow’s manager, and said, “Suppose I got a heavy metal festival together and made you an offer? I know Ritchie Blackmore hates open-airs, but what do you think?” He said, “Yeah, we’ll do it.” It was obviously the money. We were told the farmers were amenable to helping out with car parking because they were used to it from the racing. The following day was a vintage car race, but we thought they would just cry off. So by the third week of March it looked as though everything was fine. Payne wanted his other act Touch opening, and Judas Priest said yes pretty quickly, so did Scorpions.

We hoped we would get 50,000 [people]. We wanted to break even at 30,000. However, because it was done the way it was we were not in control of some of the aspects – such as the cost of the police. But also, the “fuck factor” as you’d call it, is the miscellaneous. It rained and it rained and it rained [beforehand], so suddenly your trackway [temporary road] costs and your straw costs rise. We ended up with just under 36,000. A quick piece of maths showed that we’d lost money, but it wasn’t horrible.

Allan Jones (writer, Melody Maker): The previous night Rainbow had a full-scale dress rehearsal, which included their pyrotechnics. They wanted to end their set with some huge explosion, so they’d brought a ton of fucking gelignite or something and it had accidentally gone off. It blew out Judas Priest’s entire backline as I remember, buckled some of the lighting rigs, nearly killed a load of people who were sitting backstage. So as we arrived we were given a document to sign, indemnifying Rainbow and the promoters in the event of injury or death, however caused. So that was a sobering start to the day.

Neal Kay: I had to go up there and do sound check and stuff the day before. Went up there in my Jag. That was something I learned from doing the Hammersmith Odeon: you turn up in a Ford and the old boy around the back never even raises the barrier, you drive up there in an XJ6, no problem, they think you’re one of the band. We got called at night to do a little sound check [for DJing and announcing the bands] – back then I was right on the front of the stage at one side, not hidden away. Didn’t sleep the night before – I watched Jimmy Bain [formerly of Rainbow], pissed out of his head, fall into the fireplace at the hotel.

Andy Copping (fan, Download festival booker/promoter): I was 17 or 18, living in Lincolnshire. There was a group of friends from Lincoln, six of us, all huge rock music fans. We went in an open-topped Jeep, all piling in the back, with sandwiches, beer. It felt like we were going to Vegas, somewhere really special: all these amazing bands we all loved, all on one bill, all on one day. The weather was glorious sunshine, and when we were driving down, on one of the roads as we got close to the site, there was an AA sign that said “Pop festival”. We were all freaking out, going, “This isn’t a pop festival, this is a ROCK festival!” We were outraged.

Mark Mangold (keyboards, Touch): It looked like Woodstock – the hill goes up. Cozy Powell [Rainbow drummer] rode motorcycles, and I know he took a couple of spins around the track before the gig.

Paul Loasby: Don’t ask me why, but we forgot to put water on site. There weren’t any bars because we weren’t allowed to sell alcohol. All we had was orange juice, Coca-Cola and whatever. But you could bring in plastic, so you could see huge plastic containers full of beer or wine or whatever.

Every single person there was me. Thousands of carbon copies of me. For a small-town boy from Lincoln, this was the most incredible experience

Andy Copping

Andy Copping: We walked up, went in through the gate, and then had to cross over the racetrack. That itself was an experience. We came to the brow of the hill and looked down – I’m getting shivers telling you this now – over the hill across this sea of people. Thousands upon thousands of people, and you could see the stage at the front with scrims either side with the Rainbow album cover covering the speakers. And I’m like: “Oh my God.” Every single person there was me. Thousands of carbon copies of me. For a small-town boy from Lincoln, this was the most incredible experience. And suddenly we were all talking to each other – someone else would turn out to have been at a gig you’d been to at Stafford Bingley Hall or Leeds Queens Hall. One of the things that resonated with me more than anything was that although this was tribalism, it was one tribe. It wasn’t like football, where there’s someone from another town and they ain’t into your team. This was a total community. I also remember the queue for the one burger van – it was just insane – and honest to God, I don’t remember seeing a toilet.

Graham Bonnet (vocals, Rainbow): It seemed very groovy and posh and wonderful. It felt absolutely massive. And it almost didn’t matter what the stage was like. It was the audience that made the show – and they always do. That day was probably the best day I’ve ever spent in music. Nothing went wrong.

Mark Mangold: It was magical. It was a question of getting out there to the crowd. They don’t turn up all the faders for an opening band – very often they’ll put a piece of tape on the fader on the mixing board and say, ‘“If you move it beyond this, you will die.” But we did our best.

Jennie Halsall (publicist for Rainbow and Monsters of Rock): A wasp flew into the mouth of the singer from Touch when they were on stage, and he had to be carted off. There was a lot of speculation about whether that was false or not, but it absolutely wasn’t. It was mad.

Dante Bonutto: The singer swallowed a bee. He carried on.

Mark Mangold: It was Doug Howard, our bassist. He had a beer and was going back to his amp, and took a chug, and there was a bee in there.

Allan Jones: After enduring their set I was rather hoping it was the fucking singer.

Paul Loasby: Donington didn’t know this, but the drainage system for the bowl stopped halfway down. So all the water bubbled up about 100ft in front of the stage, where this river of mud started flowing, underneath the right PA stack. So the stage sank on the right. It was quite severe – something like a foot. On a stage a 100ft wide that’s some decline.

Jennie Halsall: First of all, they put the stage in the wrong place. Second, it absolutely pissed down. It was a Glastonbury, mud everywhere, in front of the stage it was about a foot deep. Also, I had not experienced pee in plastic bottles before. Seeing these bottles of yellow being thrown around in front of the stage and thinking, “Urgh, how disgusting,” because the guys at the front of the stage were not going to move.

Andy Copping: Oh my God, the bottle fights. We can laugh at it now, but it must have been horrific for anyone who got injured. The sight of all these cans and bottles and apple cores and orange peel … anything was being thrown in the air between bands. The bottle fights at Donington ran for years, but that was all part of the festive spirit. Some people would feel, “If I get covered in mud, that means I’ve been to a festival. If I get covered in piss, then that means I’ve arrived.”

Steve Dawson (bass, Saxon): You go up the stairs to the stage, and you could see ’em as far as the eye could see. And there’s only one thing crossing your mind: “Fucking hell, I hope I don’t fuck up.” They announce your name, you go on, there’s a deafening roar, and it starts. And you go into automatic pilot then. It’s like you’re not there. It’s like you’re just doing something and it’s over in a split second, and you come off, and everyone’s patting you on the back, saying how great it were, you really killed it. And you go back to the dressing room, and there, stood at the top of them fucking stairs is Rob Halford in his full regalia. Hat, sunglasses, whip, studs from head to foot. And it were like: “Fucking hell!”

Biff Byford (vocals, Saxon): We were selling shitloads of albums, of Wheels of Steel. By the time we walked on stage, though, we were the underdogs because all the other bands on there had at least three albums on us and maybe five, some of them. But it was a great day. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen how well we went down. We did very fast, aggressive, songs, not like the other bands.

KK Downing (guitar, Judas Priest): I was a bit disappointed we weren’t headlining. And I thought Rainbow, with wotsit in the suit [Graham Bonnet] and all that, weren’t what they were.

Rob Halford: I felt a little bit anxious before we went on: it was a big deal. We knew this was a very exciting opportunity to make a strong metal statement. It was the beginning of something that was going to exponentially grow and become part of the metal world.

Judas Priest’s manager rushed up and said, ‘Hey, they’re supposed to do an encore. You should have waited’

Neal Kay

Neal Kay: I made one of the worst mistakes of my life. I can’t remember the number Priest had played, but it was right at the end of their set. The next thing, I see the stage crew moving in and moving all their backline away. So I said: “Right, you lot, round of applause for Judas Priest!” The place went absolutely nutty. Their manager rushed up and said, “Hey, they’re supposed to do an encore. You should have waited to be told.” That was my fuck-up. I was made acutely aware of the fact and I felt very bad.

Andy Copping: For me, Saxon, Scorpions and Judas Priest totally got it. They went out there and just ripped the crowd apart from the minute they came on to the minute they went off.

Dante Bonutto: Saxon wrote that song And the Bands Played On about it. The weather was reasonably kind, and everyone felt they were part of something special.

Paul Flower (fan): I’m pretty sure it was the first time I saw Judas Priest, who I was pretty unsure about, but the motorbike on stage made an impression: at least they were trying something a little different. It didn’t feel like anyone had put any extra effort in.

Neal Kay: I’ve got a picture of Rob and the crew bringing his Harley out of its flight case. You know, he couldn’t ride it. He never had a licence.

Allan Jones: I didn’t really enjoy any of the music that day. The Scorpions were OK, and Judas Priest were amusing. Rob Halford rode a motorbike on stage, which for comic purposes I was hoping would go over the edge. But he stopped it in time.

Andy Copping: As the night drew in, the bonfires started. It was like something out of Game of Thrones.

Graham Bonnet: One person had told me there would be around 8,000 people there and when I walked out, I thought, “Oh my God, that’s more than 8,000 people.” I couldn’t believe how many people were there – all their lighters lighting up. And I thought, “Somewhere out there are my mum and dad.” My whole bloody family was out there. There was light coming from the stage into the first few rows. You see them. It’s like you’re playing in a rock club. Then you hear the rest of the audience, and it was like a jet plane coming in. It’s fucking amazing.

Andy Copping: There was no question I preferred the Ronnie James Dio era of Rainbow, but I was obsessed with [guitarist] Ritchie Blackmore and you would sometimes see great shows, and sometimes see poor shows, in comparison. I would put the Donington performance somewhere in the middle. I don’t think it helped, the way Graham Bonnet was dressed [in a white suit jacket, red shirt and red trousers]. Not that that should have any effect, but as a teenager, when you’re seeing denim and leather and studs and long hair, and Graham Bonnet comes out dressed like he did, it was odd.

Biff Byford: I wasn’t very fucking enamoured of their song choice, but that’s Ritchie Blackmore. I like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, but it’s nothing I would play at a rock festival.

Andy Copping: There were a couple of songs – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? – that had me thinking: “You’re headlining! You should be banging out some really big tunes!” But that’s classic Ritchie Blackmore. He wants to cheese off an audience.

Allan Jones: I don’t think Ritchie Blackmore playing Greensleeves through an 80,000-watt sound system much appealed to me.

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Dante Bonutto: When I met up with the guy from Melody Maker who was taking me home, he was so upset about the whole event and hated it so much, he took off his shoes and threw them out of the window of the car. He said, “I want no more of that mud anywhere near me.” He dropped me in the middle of nowhere.

Allan Jones: I don’t remember us giving anybody a lift back.

Jennie Halsall: When Allan Jones’s review came out [in Melody Maker], I just about wet my knickers. It was just about the most hysterical thing I’d ever read in my life as a PR. He got the whole day and smashed it. And the [Rainbow] manager made me read it to him on the phone.

Allan Jones: I’ve had worse days than Castle Donington, just to be clear about it.

Jennie Halsall: I heard a click on the extension and I figured it was Ritchie. I never found out if it was. But Bruce [Payne, Rainbow’s then manager] said, “Right, Jennie, come to the hotel. I’m going to Heathrow, you’re going to come with me.” And I was just screaming with laughter: “You’re going to fire me, aren’t you?” I got to the hotel, got in a cab, and halfway there, Bruce said: “You’re fired.” That was when my association with that client finished.

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Graham Bonnet: Monsters of Rock was the last time I saw Ritchie. Cozy left Donington, and Don Airey [keyboards, Rainbow] and I were staying at a hotel in Leicestershire. Cozy was meant to be in the same hotel but he got in his car and drove away. He sort of flitted away. Don said to me, “I don’t like it any more. Cozy’s gone and I can’t do without Cozy.” I said, “I feel the same way.” We tried till six in the morning begging him to stay, but he had work coming up he wanted to do more than Rainbow. We were saying: “Cozy, for Christ’s sake, man, we’re going to make another album.” Anyway, he was gone and it was very disappointing. So Don said he was going to leave the band. OK. I went back to LA. But he went back to the band. I didn’t go back to the band.

Paul Loasby: We lost about 10 grand each, but it didn’t put me off.

Steve Dawson: It weren’t, “This is a milestone that will be remembered for a long time.” I don’t think many people at the time realised it would become a regular thing, either.

Biff Byford: We had no idea what a big deal it would turn out to be.

Paul Loasby: And the classic car race on the Sunday – they decided to carry on. So a load of the campers and people who’d fallen asleep overnight stayed on, and they had a successful classic car race. The next year they did the same. Only by the third year of Monsters of Rock did they acknowledge it had become too big for them.

  • This extract has been edited from a longer chapter of Denim and Leather: The Rise and Fall of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal by Michael Hann, published by Constable on 24 February.