Between rock and a hard place: Lloyd Bradley reports on the leather and the posturing of the Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington

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The Independent Culture
IT HAD been said that the line-up for this year's Castle Donington festival was well below par. On paper, certainly, The Almighty, WASP, Slayer, Thunder, Skid Row and Iron Maiden hardly constitute the most glamorous array of talent. But the quality of the acts isn't what persuades the fans to fork out 23 quid to huddle on a cold, rain-lashed race-track. Monsters Of Rock doesn't function like an ordinary concert; it's a festival, a celebration by 100,000 like- minded souls of the survival of their lifestyle for another year. It needs a soundtrack, but that is far less important to the audience than the fact of being there. (Indeed, since beer was allowed on site in nothing smaller than half- gallon jugs, many paying customers were unable to fully appreciate all of the show.) Seen in this light the bill becomes a textbook example of programming, the groups reflecting the crowd with devastating accuracy.

If you took a computer with a sense of irony and programmed in the requirements of the average UK metal fan (male or female), it would come up with Skid Row. The band take the stage to The Beastie Boys' 'You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party', a stunningly apt anthem of puerile rebellion, and show that they've got all the right equipment: theatrically tough sex appeal (pin-up frontman Sebastian Bach strips to the waist), theoretical sleaze (they talk a good debauched lifestyle, at least) and overtly in-yer-face music that is tuneful enough to be endured. The singer puts precisely the right whine into his astoundingly foul-mouthed rhetoric of post-pubescent revolt. Yet they never push it too far: Bach announced they were 'going to play until I'm dragged off by the skin of my balls'; but as it was they finished promptly on schedule at eight o'clock, with no noticeable physical encouragement.

By contrast, the nihilism of the po-faced thrash merchants Slayer was too relentlessly doom-laden to hold the attention of a field full of half-cut, essentially middle- class lads up for a good day out. WASP fared just as badly, while proving that, contrary to popular belief, metal has evolved. Bereft of flaming cod-pieces and candy- floss haircuts, the only interest WASP provoked was a lively discussion as to whether they had ever heard a Metallica album and how much their appearance owed to their sharing Iron Maiden's management.

In a genre so preserved in aspic, tradition plays a large part; so that fashion statements were thin on the ground. Many T-shirts bore untaxing slogans of the 'Skid Row Kicked Ass, Donington '92' variety; nearly all were accessorised with jeans and a black leather jacket. The only concession to the Nineties was the women's virtual uniform of cycling shorts worn under cut-down jeans. 'The Lycra,' I was informed, 'holds it all in, so you can cut the shorts off much shorter.'

It's such conformity that ensures Donington passes off peacefully; when everybody has the same reference points on just about everything it's pretty difficult to find anything to fight about. But that also explains why Iron Maiden were an ideal headline act, and why Thunder were so rapturously received. Thunder have gained a huge live following by sticking to basics and perpetuating the classic hard rock, blues- based riffs. Likewise Iron Maiden's very English post-punk metal has a seamless quality that would allow practically anything off their last album, Fear of the Dark, to sit comfortably on their First 10 Years Greatest Hits package. Here, spurred on by the band's superior presentation and Bruce Dickinson's energetic encouragement, the throng went into overdrive.

As the band left the stage a spectacular fireworks display lit up the Midlands sky for a full 20 minutes. It was so cold that you could see your breath, but people were happy to stand still and be amazed. It was all part of the experience; besides, their mums had made sure they had their vests on before they left home.

(Photograph omitted)