AC/DC, Van Halen, Ozzy and more: Was Donington 1984 really the best ever?

Monsters Of Rock 1984 poster
(Image credit: MCP & PLP)

Monsters Of Rock promoters Maurice Jones and Paul Loasby reckon 1984’s bill – AC/DC, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Gary Moore, Y&T, Accept, Motley Crue – is the best Donington ever saw. 

“To me, that is still the Donington bill, even though we had a bigger crowd in ’88,” Maurice asserts. “AC/DC, to me, have something absolutely unique. For kicking-arse rock’n’roll, I don’t think there’s a band in the world that can get near them.” 

Paul says: “We actually ran out of tickets to sell. That’s how many people turned up. About 13,000 turned up on the day out of a total crowd of 65,000. At the time, these were unprecedented walk-ups. We did 34,000 tickets in the last three days. I suppose people leave it late because they know they can always get tickets, but for a long while we thought we were going to go down the tubes with that show. When you’re three days away from the gig and you’ve only sold 30,000 tickets, it gets your heart thumping a bit, I can tell you.” 

The crowd at Donington 1984

(Image credit: Erica Echenberg/Getty Images)

The ball started in 1984 with Motley Crue. Is that the biggest band ever to open a Monsters show? They certainly got the best reaction any first-on has had and so pleased were they with it that bassman Nikki Sixx lobbed his treasured instrument from the stage to the fans as a gift. Unfortunately, the guy it hit was rendered unconscious by the impact and spent the rest of the show in hospital. 

Crue’s singer Vince Neil said after the set: “Opening the show is the hardest part of all, but we went out there and hit them before they had a chance to breathe. We gave them 125 decibels at the speed of light.” 

Next up were German outfit Accept and, while they didn’t make quite as much of a dent in the day as Crue, singer Udo Dirkschneider’s eccentric vocals gave real cutting edge to their strong Teutonic rock, spearheaded by the manic Fast As A Shark . Y&T followed with a sadly ineffectual set that was a function of the 20,000-mile round-trip they had to be at the show. 

Still, it made life a little easier for Gary Moore who was next on and didn’t have a lot to live up to. But he delivered a potent set complete with an excellent selection of tunes from Corridors Of Power and Victims Of The Future. The highlight is generally reckoned to be his rambling, colourful version of Shapes Of Things

Next up was Ozzy Osbourne, a man desperate to do Donington to repay the fans for cancelling his scheduled British tour a few months earlier. Ozzy says: “I had a flu bug and had to pull out, and I let the kids down badly. I had to make it up to them and I got on to Maurice and asked him if he could get me a slot somewhere. I wouldn’t have minded opening the show. I wouldn’t have minded where I played.” 

“Ozzy was so determined to put on a show for the kids that he played over time,” Maurice recollects. “The timetable at Donington is really tight and I had people coming up to me and screaming: ‘Go on, get him off! Pull the power on him!’ I said: ‘I ain’t pulling the power on Ozzy. No way!’ I went over to his manager, Sharon, and said they wanted to pull the power and she said: ‘They can fuck off!’” 

Next on were Van Halen. Diamond Dave Lee Roth was still in the fold then and told some great tales between songs but, with everybody except him getting a solo, the set lacked pace and cohesion. Its bacon was saved by some much-loved songs (when they got round to it) and by the time they played Panama and Jump, everybody was leaping. 

Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli backstage

Eddie Van Halen and then-wife Valerie Bertinelli backstage (Image credit: Erica Echenberg/Getty Images)

Then it was AC/DC. 

“It’s a shame we were on last,” singer Brian Johnson says. “If we’d been on first I could have got drunk and watched the rest of the bands.” 

Angus Young looks back on the wait to play with: “Our lot were trying to occupy some time at the hotel playing boules. You have to do something like that because it gets lonely in a hotel in that part of the country. But, me being the shortest and only five people allowed to play, I had to sit it out. But it’s a nice atmosphere when you get backstage and you always get a mix of people. 

"They have barbeques and things. You can always spot the bands. They’re the ones with the big sunglasses. I haven’t got any. Besides, I’m not in their league.” 

When they did play, this time around – unlike in ’81 – there were no problems, no obstacles. The sound system was huge and superb and Angus was small and superb. All the songs were classics. And when the cannons roared during For Those About To Rock (We Salute You), people wondered if they had just seen the best day’s entertainment ever presented from a rock stage.

The fan's view

Classic Rock reader Chris Jones went to the first festival in 1980 – and after that he was completely hooked. Here we present his fan’s eye view of 1984.

So, what would £11 get you at Castle Donington today? A couple of beers if you’re really lucky! But back in them days, it was the ticket to rock’n’roll paradise, featuring three of the biggest bands in the world that year, plus three choice ‘concert draws’ in their own right – and a special brand of ingredient X. 

‘Contrary bastards’ even back then, Motley Crue sure didn’t work from the same script as the organiser. And so they came on earlier than expected and surprised an unsuspecting crowd, most of whom were still straggling into the arena. (Our party had only arrived about 30 minutes previously). With two albums to their name and only about half an hour to make an impact, they battled against the legendary crosswinds and even without the benefit of any stage show, took the crowd by the scruff of the neck as they introduced us to their world. We’d never really feel ‘clean’ again! And this was only the opening act! 

The weather that year once again was sunny (how come Donington is always associated with rain and mud?) and truthfully, during Accept’s set, most of the crowd was just setting out base camp and coming down from the Crüe’s incendiary set. After a storming Restless & Wild, Accept just settled into an AC/DC-type groove for the rest of their time allowed. 

AC/DC flight cases lined up backstage

(Image credit: Erica Echenberg/Getty Images)

Y&T just went with the summer flow and the band must have felt at home in the glorious weather, but if they thought the crowd was lethargic, take it from me, we were just saving ourselves for what was to come later that day.

Gary Moore was then one of the best concert draws of the day and his set was designed for this kind of occasion, rockers like Nuclear Attack and slowies like Empty Rooms bridging the gap between Y&T and the rest of the day’s bill. Of course, it was also a chance to get some more beer in before Ozzy Osbourne.

This was the first of Ozzy’s many Donington appearances, and didn’t he make the most if it! He was the day’s local hero and had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the off. How do you follow that?

Let’s face it, Van Halen had no chance. Most people remember their one and only appearance at Donington for what David Lee Roth said between the songs, rather than the songs themselves. Sure, they may have played Panama and Jump, but what we also got was a mess of a set littered with noodling fret-wankery! Would it have hurt to have actually played some tunes?

Having missed the FTATR… WSY (no, it doesn’t work, does it?) tour, I was actually looking forward to AC/DC – and this time they genuinely rocked. Sure, they still did the ‘lights down, no talking to the crowd, on with the next number’ stuff, but this was different to their previous headline set. They barnstormed the joint and took no prisoners.

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