Sunday 20 May 2018

'It's a damn fine venue, but it doesn't suit everyone . . .'

RTE broadcaster Dave Fanningrecalls his highs and lows, from Phil Lynott’s rock star entrance to the washout that was Madonna

Lord Henry Mount-charles's Slane Castle has been the venue for 30 years of headline gigs and rock royalty. This Saturday the Slane experience continues as the Kings of Leon feature in front of a packed house of 80,000 fans.

Perhaps Kings of Leon are getting a little too predictable, letting their fans sing the hits as they just stand there. Fans may like it but Slane needs active bands on stage to be at its best. Let's hope lead singer Anthony Caleb Followill, who recently married a Victoria's Secret underwear model, is hungry for good rock and roll . . . but I doubt it.

I have attended every single Slane concert, with the exception of the Rolling Stones in 2007. The real Stones don't exist anymore; they are their own tribute band, doing what's expected of them. Fans go to see them because they are legends but if you expect them to do what they did in 1971 -- forget it!

AC/DC are the kind of band I would like to see play Slane. They are the big, noisy rock band that is ideal for the venue. They don't take themselves too seriously; and they would bring the loudness that is needed at Slane.

The inaugural Slane Castle concert was on August 16, 1981, just after the oh-so-cool era of Led Zeppelin's '70s. I was lucky enough to be the stage announcer. This was just another gig with maybe 18,000 people attending. There were no special backstage passes and no VIP area. These days, you could have 40 helicopters-an-hour landing, but there was nothing like that then.

But an hour before Thin Lizzy, the legendary Irish rock band, were due on stage, a helicopter landed and this God-like rock star, frontman Phil Lynott, stepped out. That memorable entrance was the beginning of Slane for me.

Slane was just a new venue but quickly picked up momentum as time went on. It became an event that put Ireland on the music map as an iconic, world-famous venue.

The Rolling Stones 1982. Bob Dylan 1984. By the time they got to Macy Gray and Bryan Adams in 2000, the organisers realised they could have a concert every year with four or five bands.

Slane is attractive, not just for the music, but for the 'Slane experience' -- the whole vibe of an outdoor summer concert at this magnificent castle. If I am having a conversation with someone backstage and there is a good band about to start, I don't rush off to see them -- I am there for the day, for the laugh, to meet people and watch a few bands and listen to a bit of music.

However, as a venue, it doesn't suit every act. The David Bowie 1987 'Glass Spider' tour was too elaborate for the venue. Bob Dylan is at his best in a more intimate venue and was unimpressive here.

On a wet, miserable night, in August 2004, the queen of pop, Madonna, played the most disappointing Slane ever. There were stage-hands sweeping the rain off the stage for the hour before she came on and the fans had been there all day drinking.

So the atmosphere wasn't the best and the gig starting late didn't help. Each song was too choreographed and each probably cost ¿50,000 for pyrotechnics, which made the set soulless and lacking in spontaneity.

The problem wasn't Slane and the problem wasn't Madonna -- it was the marriage of the two.

Slane is a damn fine venue and these guys were the biggest stars in the world at the time and it was great to get them to come here, but Slane just works better when it is a tough rock band.

Bruce Springsteen really put on a show in 1985, and Queen the year after attracted a raucous crowd -- the biggest I had seen.

We were making a TV documentary at the gig. It was all a little too nice, so I decided to confront counterfeit band merchandise sellers and I made it look like I was on the side of the law for a bit of controversy. They reacted and it made for good TV.

REM played a really special gig in the RDS in 1989 during the 'Green' tour supported by the Go-Betweens. They didn't tour for the following few years, but brought out two albums and between them sold 25 million copies, so it just goes to show you they didn't have to tour to be a successful act.

When they kicked off their world 'Monster' tour in 1995, the Irish music fans were just waiting their turn. Slane was the obvious choice and it was the right time and right place. REM were on top form and it was a good time to catch them. It was a really enjoyable day, except for an unfortunate drowning tragedy which occurred during the Oasis slot. The River Boyne forms a natural defence around this Co Meath castle and, over the years, several people have drowned trying to swim across it in order to gain free access.

Also during that tour three members of REM were very sick with unrelated illnesses. The drummer, Billy Berry, was particularly ill and not long after that tour he left the band.

Slane was originally about rock bands playing rock music, but it didn't always turn out that way. The biggest response I ever witnessed was for Robbie Williams in 1999. On that beautiful, hot night, Slane's natural amphitheatre was a great place to be. Robbie had everyone in the palm of his hand. It didn't matter that he was singing pop music.

Although Slane concerts are normally held only once a year, in 2001 U2 became the only band to headline twice -- in August and September. Both gigs were impressive, but the September one coincided with the Republic of Ireland versus Holland World Cup qualifier in Lansdowne Road. The 80,000-strong crowd watched it on a giant screen earlier in the day. The atmosphere was electric as Jason McAteer secured Ireland a 1-0 win.

Still revelling in the aftermath of the victory, the audience were whipped into a frenzy as Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr opened with 'Elevation'.

This Saturday, I will have a similar dilemma. The Champions League Final between Manchester United and Barcelona is on that same night. What to do? Doubt if I can break away from tradition and miss Slane's 30th anniversary. So, I'll be at Slane; but it's a close call.

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