THERE was reason to be excited when Guns N’ Roses first pitched up at Slane Castle on May 16th, 1992. By then, the LA band were a rampaging juggernaut, as liable to incite a riot as light up an audience with a enviable set-list that had just added Civil War, November Rain, You Could Be Mine and Don’t Cry from their brace of 1991 Use Your Illusion albums. Arrest warrants, violent clashes between band and audience, raucous excess and a series of often-explosive live performances made Axl Rose and Co one of the most dangerous, exciting and unpredictable bands in the world. Stories of drink, drugs and sex, combined with Slash’s incendiary guitar lines and the eternally volatile actions of frontman Rose saw the group epitomise the rock n’roll dream many of their fans aspired to.
That their Irish debut was taking place at Slane Castle only added to the anticipation. Five fallow years had passed since David Bowie’s Glass Spider tour enthralled and confused fans in Co. Meath. Axl Rose and Co’s set reopened Slane as a rite-of-passage venue for a generation of rock fans. 1992 was also a year that saw thousands take to the streets on the issue of abortion over the X case. There was a leadership change in the ruling Government party as Charlie Haughey relented on calls to resign as Taoiseach and party leader, while then Bishop Eamonn Casey was commanding headlines amid revelations that he had fathered a child. Institutional abuse was also to the fore as Christine Buckley bravely spoke out. Twenty-five years on then, little and a lot has changed.
What has changed though is Slane’s standing as Ireland’s premiere rock ‘n roll location. The proliferation of outdoor venues and festivals across the country is one reason why the River Boyne venue has lost its lustre. The other is its booking history over the past two decades. By 1992 Slane had built its reputation in drawing the biggest rock acts in the world to Co. Meath. Five of the six previous headliners were Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, David Bowie, and Queen, while the inaugural headline act was Thin Lizzy, supported by U2. Bowie’s 1987 set was critically-panned at the time as he steered away from a greatest hits set and, although more than 50,000 tickets were sold, the show was not a financial success for promoter Jim Aiken. Aiken was already questioning the viability of the venue following a riot at the 1984 Bob Dylan concert and what he said at the time were “bad vibes” among the audience at Queen’s show the previous year. After the Bowie show Aiken lost control of the venue to MCD Promotions who have promoted every concert at the venue, alongside Slane Castle owner Lord Henry Mountcharles, since 1992.
MCD began its reign at Slane with a run of fine bookings – Guns ‘N Roses (1992), Neil Young supported by Pearl Jam and Van Morrison (1993) and R.E.M supported by Oasis (1995). The rot though set-in at the venue around Bryan Adams’ 2000 headliner and has continued with Stereophonics (2002), Madonna (2004), The Rolling Stones (2007), Oasis (2009), Kings of Leon (2011), Bon Jovi (2013) and Foo Fighters (2015). That run of acts that have rocked up the N2 have either been less than worthy headliners or, like Guns N’Roses this weekend, are feeding off nostalgia, with their best years decades behind them. Add in the infrastructural problems and costs associated with getting in and out of the venue and you’d find it hard to muster any excitement for making the journey to Co Meath this weekend.
The solution? Well that would be to try rebuilt the Slane brand for a new, younger generation by taking a gamble on acts such as Kendrick Lamarr, Stormzy or this weekend’s support, Royal Blood. That would probably mean smaller, one-day festivals similar in structure to Longitude or Forbidden Fruit, targeted at audiences in the region of 25,000 people The infrastructure costs associated with Slane though, probably make the venue only viable to promoters if they can shift in the region of 80,000 tickets. Either way something needs to change if Slane is ever to command the status it did more than two decades ago.