The story of the first ever Australian Warped Tour
“There was really no barrier between the kids and the artists. There was no backstage. There was no VIP. There was no exclusivity. It was an event for the kids, by the kids. It was a glorious thing to behold.”
AJ Maddah was a punk rock fan coming off an internship with Frontier Touring, the massive company founded by Michael Gudinski and Michael Chugg in the late 1970s. Having witnessed the explosion of punk rock and its crossover appeal in the US, he urged his bosses to take a punt on this fledgling event that had captured the hearts and minds of kids Stateside.
“I'm fairly sure I was the first to go to Michael Chugg and say, 'Hey, you need to do this',” Maddah says.
“Because, previous to that, the mainstream promoters in Australia at the time had completely missed the new West Coast punk phenomenon. Offspring, Pennywise, NOFX and Rancid, most of those bands ended up being snared by indie promoters.
We were horribly unhygienic and dirty people at the time, but even for us the standards of the Warped Tour were a little bit low.Lindsay McDougall
“It was an uphill battle to convince them that this was a worthwhile thing to go after. I remember having conversations with one person at the time who said I was an idiot. That they could do a couple of RSL shows with Dragon and make more money.”
But the idea had legs and Frontier took the punt. In January 1998, Warped would hit Australia for the first time, dragging a motley crew of punk rock bands and extreme sportspeople around the country for nine haphazard shows in cities and towns of varying sizes.
“Chuggy approached me, AJ was working for him at that point, so [I thought] what the heck? I was always open to doing new things,” Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman says.
“It had never really been done. No one had camped around Australia and done a tour with international bands.”
Perhaps there was reason for that. The travelling Warped roadshow had worked so well in America for a couple of key logistical reasons. Firstly, each of the cities on the run were a mere couple of hours apart. Secondly, bands were able to use sleeper buses filled with bunk beds.
In Australia, the distances were a little longer. And those buses were illegal. When you’re building an entire festival from the ground up every morning, these snags have real consequences.
“It was a bit of a shock to [the Americans] when they turned up and we were all sitting up in a rigid bus, driving seven or eight hours, getting off the bus and trying to build a venue,” Maddah says.
“We're literally talking about rolling up in the middle of the night, setting up skate ramps, stages, PAs, lighting etc. and opening the gates at 11 o'clock in the morning with a bunch of super enthusiastic kids going really, really hard.
“Then, packing up and rolling out at midnight or one o'clock in the morning to the next destination.”
“The Australian production guys thought we were all crazy,” Lyman recalls. “They were so used to dealing with other American bands and how they did things. We were all, 'Don't worry, we'll make it work! We'll share! We'll figure it out!'”
Besides, who needs a sleeper bus when you can just pitch a tent?
“I convinced everyone that they would sleep in tents and tour,” Lyman says. "And we did. The agents and managers didn't get it, [but] the bands were cool.”
“I just remember people not sleeping enough,” Frenzal Rhomb guitarist Lindsay McDougall, who was on that first Warped Tour, says.
“There was just this filthy little sea of two-person tents. There was no shelter from the sun or the weather or the noise or people kicking your tent as they came past.”
McDougall has equally fond recollections of the catering at the shows.
“We wrote a song which we named 'Tapeworms and Grass in a Piss-Based Sauce', which was named after one of the salads that was prepared for the vegetarians,” he says.
“We were horribly unhygienic and dirty people at the time, but even for us the standards of the Warped Tour were a little bit low.”
“Frenzal Rhomb were the expert drinkers on that tour,” Lyman says.
In 1998, the line up was pretty big. In hindsight, 20 years on, it looks enormous. Pennywise and 311 sat atop the bill, with a bunch of scrappy youngsters called Blink-182 one of the promising up-and-coming acts often playing in the afternoon, as were local newcomers The Living End.
“Blink-182 weren't what they are now back then,” Maddah says. “They were still in the ascendency. I think they were fourth on the bill.”
“Back in those days Blink-182 just wanted a bottle of Captain Morgan and some hair gel,” McDougall quips.
Back in those days Blink-182 just wanted a bottle of Captain Morgan and some hair gel.Lindsay McDougall
“Pennywise basically became synonymous with the Warped Tour in Australia,” Maddah says. “I think they did all but one Warped Tour here. I think the focus was mainly on them. The Living End hadn't quite broken yet to commercial success, but they were a great band for people in the know.”
The fact that the line up skewed a little obscure was part of its appeal to the young audience.
“The kids had more ownership of these bands because they weren't commercially massive,” Maddah says. “You kind of felt in the know if you knew these bands.”
Even though alternative music was booming at this point in time, the punk end of the spectrum was still flying somewhat under the radar.
“These weren't the type of bands who were being put on Big Day Out or anything like that at that point,” Lyman says.
“The kids who were really in the know were excited, but it wasn't a groundswell,” Maddah says. “The Offspring were doing well, but [punk] wasn't at a level where you were sure that a festival was gonna be a sure-fire hit.”
A travelling roadshow of punk rockers meant plenty of hijinks. After over 20 years and countless Warped Tours around the world, the stories from that first tour are pretty blurry.
“It was such a weird vibe back then,” McDougall says. “The amazing friendships that exist between Australian bands now didn't really exist. It was much more competitive, for some stupid reason.
“We were competing with Bodyjar and The Porkers and whoever else was on the line up. The Living End were streets ahead of everyone.
“I vaguely remember sleeping in a tent next to Pete Porker's tent and we heard snoring, so Jason and I started talking some nonsense about Pete Porker. I don't remember what we were saying, probably making jokes about ska, which as a punk band is a law that we have to do.
“The next morning he comes up to us and goes 'Oh man, did you hear that guy snoring last night? That was really loud!'. So we realised he was awake the whole time.
"There wasn't much camaraderie in the world of Australian loud music in the late-90s.”
The competitiveness took a different form in other parts of the camp.
“We were all just friends, sitting sround, taking all the money off the singer of 311 [Nick Hexum], who was such a bad poker player,” Lyman says.
A pro-skater hit me over the head with her skateboard. I'll never forget that. I became friends with her later and we had a good laughKevin Lyman
“Fletcher [Dragge, Pennywise guitarist] renamed him Baby Ostrich Head. We saw some emus at a zoo one day and the baby ones looked like the singer of 311. So, he named him Baby Ostrich Head.”
Sometimes the rivalries were a little less friendly.
“A big fight broke out between our crew and the skaters at Manly Beach for some reason,” Lyman recalls.
“A pro-skater hit me over the head with her skateboard. I'll never forget that. I became friends with her later and we had a good laugh about that.”
And there was at least one minor disaster.
“We all learned how to play cricket. Chad [Sexton, drummer] from 311 had his wrist broken learning how to play cricket, so Josh Freese [drummer for The Vandals] literally learned the whole 311 set in an hour and finished the tour playing drums for them.
One of the key aspects of Warped was the location of the events themselves.
Sure, there were dates at Sydney’s Manly Beach and the Melbourne Showgrounds, but Warped went to places no other festival would dare. Places like Coffs Harbour, Ulladulla and even Byron Bay hadn’t ever hosted an event like this.
"To be perfectly honest, there was a good reason for that," Maddah laughs. "Some of those locations actually did end up pulling the tour down financially.”
But Lyman was adamant that Warped would not be like other festivals currently on the Australian circuit.
“We wanted to do places other people hadn't done,” he says. “This was the first skate-punk thing that had happened in Byron Bay. It was just a great adventure. We had a lot of fun.”
The regional shows meant a great deal to young punks living in regional areas. Ash Mustchin was a 13-year-old living in Canberra in 1998, and made the trip east to be a part of the Warped crowd in Ulladulla.
“There was such a buzz and excitement, mainly around the logistics of getting there, making shortlists of which bands you wanted to see and what you wanted them to sign,” he remembers.
“I remember it was really freakin' hot but, given the 90s fashion at the time, everyone insisted on keeping on their cargo pants or huge jeans. I also remember in hindsight the festival was pretty DIY and low key. The stage was tiny by today's standards, with no signage or anything like that. It felt just like a huge backyard.”
Of course, the internet was a different beast in 1998. While it’s now a powerful tool for disseminating information about events, two decades ago you were better off doing it face-to-face.
“I remember spending four or five days on the road, going around New South Wales meeting kids at skate parks and recruiting them to spread the word,” Maddah says. “Giving them flyers and posters and things like that.”
As far as the performances themselves go, some recall them better than others.
“We were very good at not caring about stuff at that time,” McDougall recalls. “We were very good at taking things for granted.
“For people who went to see it and saw all of those bands, I can only imagine how stoked they would have been. It was the Punk-O-Rama times, the Survival of the Fattest times, all together in one venue.
“The stages were great, the stages sounded awesome. And we got to play rad gigs. The Vandals and Pennywise were there - it was definitely fun hanging out with those bands.”
The young Canberran was far more engaged.
“Blink-182 were great, really scrappy and young,” Mustchin says.
“I remember really liking The Living End and thinking it was so unique for them to have that huge double bass.
“I was really into Frenzal Rhomb at the time – I think Meet the Family had just come out – and had a lot of fun in their set.
It was an event for the kids, by the kids. It was a glorious thing to behold.AJ Maddah
“I was only 13 years old so even just being in a mosh pit was a novelty at the time. I had no idea how to 'mosh' or do anything.”
The final ever Warped Tour in the US wrapped up just last month, bringing an end to Lyman’s brainchild after 23 years. When asked if anything like Warped could happen again, there’s a pretty strong consensus.
“I don't think our insurance companies would insure for something like that today that they did 20 years ago,” Maddah says.
“The insurance premiums would be ridiculous, with all the motocross and skaters.
"The amount of OH&S that would go into an event like that now – and the amount of barriers you'd have to have to keep any idiot from potentially walking onto a skate ramp or a motocross ramp at the time it was happening – it would just make it prohibitive.
“It's really sad to lose that culture, where you could go out there and have some fun.”
McDougall expresses a similar view.
“I think the problems would come down to insurance,” he says. “I think everything costs so much more to do now. To have a touring festival, where every single venue has to lock down its public liability insurance and all of that kind of stuff, we live in a more litigious society now, and I don't know if people come out in those numbers anymore to make something like that viable.”
He also thinks that bands would be less inclined to roll with the slapdash nature of the festival’s rough and ready production.
“At Warped Tour, you got up, you plugged into the Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier that was still there from when 311 played, and you just played,” he says.
“It probably didn't sound very good, but it just didn't matter at the time. I think bands are probably a little bit more particular with all that stuff now.”
Lyman agrees that the appeal for Warped isn’t as strong among musicians as it once was.
“I don't think people are as adventurous,” he says. “I think back then bands were open to new ideas and open to trying things. Touring was not the sole thing to do back then. Back then, you put out records and make money because you'd sell records.
“But now touring is a bit of a grind for most people. You're on the road all the time trying to make a living. So that sense of adventure has been taken out.
“One of the reasons I'm not doing Warped Tour anymore is that it's not as much fun as it used to be. Maybe it's not as fun because I'm older, but it's not as fun. It was just a good time.”