When the metal army stormed Castle Donington: the noisy, incendiary birth of Monsters of Rock

Explosives, contentious haircuts, Judas Priest's motorbike... The first bands to play the 'Glastonbury for metalheads' 40 years ago tell all

The crowds at Donington in 1983
The crowds at Donington in 1983 Credit: Redferns

At the sound check for his band’s headline appearance at the inaugural Monsters of Rock festival, at Donington Park, Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell packed an arsenal of fireworks and explosives around his kit. As the group reached the denouement of Lost In Hollywood, the devices burst forth in a cacophony that shattered the silence in neighbouring towns and villages.  

“It was loud, mate, it was really loud,” remembers KK Downing, then a guitarist in Judas Priest, the Birmingham band billed in the slot below Rainbow. “It was in the newspapers and everything - it could be heard from miles away. It played havoc with the speakers. The PA got destroyed, as did our backline… I remember our roadies running around saying, ‘They’ve blown up our amps!’”

It was a statement of intent that resonates to this day. Festivals come and festivals go, but the sound of rock at Donington Park will next year enter its fifth decade. In 1970, Glastonbury was launched with Keith Christmas playing to 1,500 people. Ten years later, a drummer in the East Midlands blew up a Public Address system before the gig had even started. Ask yourself this: who really meant business?

August 16 marks the 40th anniversary of that first Monsters Of Rock. Joining Rainbow and Judas Priest on the bill were – in descending order - Scorpions, April Wine, Saxon, Riot, and Touch. Anticipating an audience of 8000, the festival organisers watched in amazement as a crowd of at least eight times that number descended on the motorsport circuit in North West Leicestershire. 

“I just remember walking over the racetrack with all my mates and going, ‘Oh my God, all the bikes go across here!’” remembers Andy Copping, one of the day’s attendees. “And then I remember looking down into the bowl – it gives me shivers just talking about it now – and seeing all those people, and seeing the stage that had Rainbow stripes either side of it. We just lost our minds. It was amazing.”

It would prove to be a pivotal moment. Then a rock DJ in the pubs and clubs of Lincolnshire, 23 years later Copping became the promoter and booker of the three-day Download festival, the annual successor to Monsters Of Rock that last summer drew an audience of 110,000 people. 

The happening in 1980 was the Big Idea of Midlands music promoters Maurice Jones and Paul Loasby. With an office in Walsall, Jones made his bones booking bands such as Led Zeppelin and Slade at the Lafayette Club in Wolverhamption. By the end of the 1970s, he was putting on shows at the larger Birmingham Odeon. A friendship with Tom Wheatcroft, the owner of Donington Park, led to an upgrade to the major leagues of concert promotion.

Despite a relative paucity of annual festivals, Monsters Of Rock did not come crashing out of an otherwise empty sky. Just a week after Rainbow bid their audience goodnight, fans gathered at Little John’s Farm for the Reading Rock Festival. Over the course of three days they witnessed sets by Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Whitesnake, UFO, and other groups that would have been at home on the kind of bills curated by Loasby and Jones.

The crowds at Donington in 1983 preparing to watch Whitesnake Credit: Redferns

But while Reading hosted performers as diverse as Steve Hackett and The Police, the gang at Donington just wanted to rock. This was an army clad in denim and leather entirely unconcerned with notions of progressivism. Over the course of 16 years, the line-ups at Monsters Of Rock featured just two female performers. So homogeneous was the terrain in 1980 that even the length of a singer’s hair became a matter of controversy. 

Graham Bonnet replaced the hirsute Ronnie James Dio as the front man in Rainbow at the end of 1979. On tour in support of the Down To Earth album, in Edinburgh Bonnet went for a haircut that might have suited the Governor of the Bank of England. At that evening’s show, at the Royal Highland Exhibition Hall, Blackmore was sufficiently affronted by his singer’s look that he spent much of the evening playing from behind a stack of amplifiers. 

“He freaked out,” says Bonnet. “He only came out once in a while.”

The following day a meeting was called at which Bonnet’s barnet was the sole item on the agenda. The guitarist’s complaint was met with gales of laughter from the rest of the band. Motion dismissed. 

“See, Ritchie has a lack of hair, so he had a weave,” says the singer, who today fronts the band Alcatrazz. “Because of his baldness he had a thing about hair; he was very intimidated by others who had it. He never thought that my short hair looked right. He’d say to me that the people we play to are bikers, and all of that stuff. We were a great band, so I never thought it was a problem. But for him there was always the thing about the hair.”

Slash playing Monsters of Rock in 1995 Credit: Getty

On the afternoon of August 16, Graham Bonnet sat with Cozy Powell and Rainbow keyboardist Don Airey at a hotel near Donington Park listening to the sounds emanating from the festival site. The singer remembers saying that “you can hear the f___ing music from here, even though we were miles away from the actual gig. It was like, Jesus Christ, I hope we’re able to measure up to our reputation.” 

The Monsters Of Rock festival coincided with the emergence of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, a collection of working class groups whose stripped-down sound owed less to the indulgences of Ritchie Blackmore and Rainbow and more to the no-nonsense energy of punk. The movement was represented at Donington by Saxon, from Barnsley, whose second album, Wheels Of Steel, was already on its way to selling a 100,000 copies in the United Kingdom alone. 

“I think that was the first festival we’d ever played, so it was a big deal for us,” says Biff Byford, then and now the group’s singer. “We were one of the newest bands on the bill, and to see that many people in one place was incredible. We’d done some big gigs in America with different bands, but this was something really special.”

As Saxon launched into 747 (Strangers In The Night) – a song about an aircraft incurring a midair power failure – a jumbo jet from nearby East Midlands Airport flew above the sun-kissed festival site. Deeply moved by his Big Day Out, Byford co-wrote the song And The Bands Played On – “were you there, did you know, did you see all the show? There was magic in the air” – which in 1981 became a Top-20 single and his group’s biggest hit. 

But for pure heavy metal bombast, Monsters Of Rock belonged to Judas Priest. Just four months on from the release of their pivotal multi-million selling British Steel album – to this day one of the sharpest examples of metal in its purest form – the quintet were the perfect vessel for a vast army of under-represented youths for whom the concept of breaking the law was only ever notional. 

The first Monsters of Rock line-up

At Donington Park, Priest had it all. They had the unconquerable Rob Halford, a singer who arrived onstage on a motorbike. They had a set list that included Hell Bent For Leather and Living After Midnight. And they had KK Downing and Glenn Tipton, a union of twin-lead guitarists whose talent and range would influence bands such as Iron Maiden and Slayer. They looked like they owned the joint. 

“I remember thinking, ‘What are Rainbow doing headlining?’” says Downing. “There were there without Ronnie James Dio, they had Graham Bonnet with the short hair and tuxedo, and Cozy [Powell] had said that this was going to be his last gig. But we had all our original members; we were the bona fide outfit. I just thought, ‘What are these guys doing headlining over us?’”

Onstage at Donington Park, Graham Bonnet did not wear a tuxedo. He did, though, wear a pink shirt, a white dinner jacket, and Aviator sunglasses long after dark. But if the singer’s look suggested he was about to ask the audience if they liked pina coladas and getting caught in the rain, the resonance of his voice, and the guile of the musicians around him, brought alive such pop-metal classics as Since You’ve Been Gone and All Night Long. 

“It was nerve-wracking, but it was also the best thing ever,” he Bonnet. “That audience was so incredible. I remember looking out at them and thinking, ‘This is a once in a lifetime event.’ We didn’t get back to our hotel until six in the morning because of all the people heading out to their trains and cars. I’ll never forget it.”

Anthtrax playing Donington in 1995 Credit: Redferns

And just like that, an annual tradition was born. By 1984 Monsters Of Rock had established itself as the epicenter of rock with a classic line-up that included AC/DC, Van Halen, and Ozzy Osbourne. Two years later, as a 15-year old I cast my eyes in wonder upon the festival’s sacred ground  for the first time. People were passed out drunk at the perimeter fence an hour before the gates opened. “This is it,” I thought, “I’m home.”

The band I most wanted to see was Motorhead. I remember Lemmy going spare after someone from the crowd launched a firework – a firework -  at his head. Two years later I stood packed and frightened amid a crowd in which two people were crushed to death while watching Guns N’ Roses. After the event, my mum picked me up at a bus stop in the nearby village of Castle Donington in a torrent of tears. She’d heard the news; I hadn’t.

But as the years ticked by, Monsters Of Rock declined to lock step with changing times. With a measure of reluctance, and to the sound of grinding gears, the event permitted entry to heavier and sharper groups such as Metallica and Megadeth on bills that featured Bon Jovi and David Lee Roth. With metal in a state of temporary decline, in 1996 the heavily-branded happening came to a quiet end.

“It wasn’t moving with the times,” says Andy Copping. “If you think back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were bands coming through that could have headlined there. But Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, none of those groups would play [the festival]. They were put off by the name, for one thing. They saw it as being very dated.”

Those mourning the passing of Monsters Of Rock do so through rose-tinted earplugs. Launched on the same site in 2003, the Download Festival is a superior event in every way. Last year’s gathering amassed no fewer than 110 bands. The advent of streaming and music in digital form means that metalheads and fans of loud rock no longer reside in the ghetto that confined them in the analog age. In 2019, a bill that included Tool and Def Leppard, Whitesnake and Smashing Pumpkins, made sense. 

“When we first started we kind of avoided some of the heritage acts, but I’d say that 2009 was the year that Download came of age,” says Copping. “We had Def Leppard, Whitesnake and Journey, as well as Faith No More and Slipknot. That’s when I started seeing kids wearing Korn t-shirts who were watching Def Leppard. There was a guy in a Journey shirt who was watching Marilyn Manson.

“From then on I thought, We’ve got to keep a decent balance between young and old,” he says. “The more traditional acts have that history and you know that if you book them you’re going to get a proper headline act.”

The back cover of Judas Priest's live album of their Donington set

Inevitably, this summer the guns of Donington were spiked for the first time in 17 years. But as befits a setting at which, 40 years ago, Rainbow concluded their set with Long Live Rock’n’Roll, last week Download became the first major UK festival to announce its line-up for 2021. Over breakfast, social media was filled with people unconcerned with matters of safety; as ever, the debate concerned only the bands booked to appear.  

“I’m massively hopeful for next year,” says Andy Copping. “There’s always going to be people who ask if this is blind optimism, but I’m grabbing onto the little rays of hope we’re getting with regards the whole live industry… We do feel that we’ll be up and ready. And if the worse comes to the worst and Covid-19 is still around, then we’ll deal with that in the same way that we dealt with it this year.”

If Download 2021 does go ahead, it will be a party for the ages. Certainly it will be better than the post-match celebrations at the end of Monsters Of Rock in 1980. KK Downing won’t swear to his activities following the first of Judas Priest’s three appearances at Donington Park; as likely as not, he says, he and promoter Maurice Jones went for a curry somewhere in Walsall. 

Monsters Of Rock: The Official Illustrated History, by John Tucker, is published by Rufus Publications. Born Innocent by Alcatrazz was released last month by Silver Lining Music