Download Festival’s 17 most memorable moments ever

Featuring Maiden, Metallica, AC/DC and more – these are the most iconic moments from Download Festival throughout the years…

Download Festival’s 17 most memorable moments ever
Paul Harries

This weekend will mark Download Festival’s 17th anniversary. With over 1,000 performances to choose from – at least, we don’t have enough fingers to count the lot – we’ve whittled down the summer bash’s greatest moments into a more manageable chunk for your delectation and delight. Who's stepping up this year?

That time Metallica played a secret set in the middle of the afternoon

Just before of the release of St. Anger, Metallica played a surprise set at the second day of the first ever Download Festival in 2003. The band played a set the night before at London’s Riverside Studios as part of an appearance for Saturday morning music show CD:UK, then made the 130-mile trip for the unannounced set on the relatively tiny Scuzz stage. Listed as ‘NOTALLICA’ on the backstage call-sheets and scheduled for a 3pm start, their 10-song set was sandwiched between Brighton’s late, great The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster and Canadian punks The Real McKenzies. Word got around the site quickly, with an estimated 8,000 fans cramming themselves into the tent, leaving many more unable to catch a glimpse of the new line-up (featuring Robert Trujillo on bass) in action.

That time Trivium emerged as world contenders

When this Florida four-piece played Download in 2005, they had something of a cult following. After being bumped up the bill from the third stage to the main stage, it took just half an hour for members of the K! team and a field full of stunned punters wondering if they’d just witnessed the new Metallica; indeed, it was later voted as Kerrang!’s 10th best gig of all time.

“It was a rainy, chilly morning in jolly old England when I remember trying to run in place to shake off some nerves and warm up,” frontman Matt Heafy said the following year. “The doors weren't open yet, and goddamn was that the biggest empty field I ever saw in my life. I was nervous. But when those doors opened, Trivium was witness to a new beginning; 40,000 screaming, moshing fans filled into a sea of bodies. Download 2005 was the turning point of our career.”

That time AC/DC brought a train onstage

2010 was unique to Download’s history in that there were two main stages that year. One was built for the sole use of Friday night headliners AC/DC, who brought their full stadium production to Castle Donington; Rage Against The Machine and Aerosmith would have to make do with sharing the other. Their headline set was a deafening spectacle from start to finish: a lifesize steam train replica appeared during Rock N’ Roll Train (clever), while a giant inflatable woman positively throbbed behind the quintet during Whole Lotta Rosie. Frontman Brian Johnson swung from their massive bell during the opening chimes of Hells Bells, too. The evening concluded with a fireworks display so grand, it could be seen from Sydney, we imagine.

That time Guns N’ Roses destroyed Download

Guns N’ Roses did not have the best of times when they played Donington in 2006. With a set marred by technical difficulties, a slippy stage and Axl Rose, well, being peak Axl Rose, their headline set teetered on the brink of collapse. As for their 2018 appearance, the band – this time featuring Slash and Duff McKagan – did not disappoint; their three-and-a-half-hour set featured Welcome To The Jungle, Sweet Child O’ Mine, the epic Coma, Civil War and a bunch of classic covers, including Misfits’ Attitude and Velvet Revolver’s Slither. Our very own Nick Ruskell awarded the show a full 5/5 review, remarking, “Guns N’ Roses tonight are absolutely untouchable, and even if they played until Sunday, it still wouldn’t feel like enough time in the company of such absolute greatness.” Job done.

That time BABYMETAL teamed up with DragonForce

Japanese trio BABYMETAL made a surprise appearance at Download 2015, joining DragonForce during their set in the Maverick tent with a positively scorching run-through of their song Gimme Chocolate!!. The Fox God was most pleased that day.

That time a load of singers helped out Korn

Shortly before Korn’s appearance at Download in 2006, frontman Jonathan Davis was hospitalised with the blood disorder ITP (idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura), which is *checks notes* ‘caused by a shortage of the small blood cells which form clots to stop bleeding’.

“I thought I was going to fucking die,” the vocalist told Kerrang!. “I was pouring blood out of my ass, my gums were bleeding, and I had bruises all over my body. I got to London and was sent to a doctor’s office where they did blood tests. I got a call saying, ‘Get your ass to the clinic right now.’ It was fucking horrible. With most people, ITP is just something that comes on, but an antibiotic brought mine on. I took that shit and it nearly killed me.”

Even though the band were forced to cancel their remaining shows on that tour, they honoured their Download commitments and enlisted the help of an all-star line-up to help complete their set. Step forward Avenged Sevenfold’s M. Shadows, DevilDriver’s Dez Fafara, Skindred’s Benji Webbe, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, and Trivium’s Matt Heafy. Well done, gentlemen.

That time Machine Head inspired a lot of circle-pits

Eagle-eyed people watching Machine Head’s 2012 set on the main stage will have counted a staggering number of circle-pits. Can you guess how many? That’s right, 29 vortices of hair and limbs and spilled beer. “Machine Head were amazing, they've broken the record for the number of circle-pits at any one time,” said festival boss Andy Copping. “I said to them as they came off, 'Couldn't you have hit the 30?’”

Yeah, come on, half-a-job Robb.

That time Joey Jordison and Dave Lombardo saved the day for Metallica

A year almost to the day when ’Tallica stole the show with that secret set in 2003, the band returned to the hallowed grounds of Castle Donington for a very headline, very announced gig as part of the Madly In Anger With The World tour. Drummer Lars Ulrich had a health scare en route to the show and was unable to play – for the first time in the band’s then-23-year history – leaving his bandmates to seek suitable replacements to ensure the show went ahead. Their sixth Donington appearance went without a hitch, thanks to then-Slipknot drummer Joey Jordison, erstwhile Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, and Lars' tech of 19 years Flemming Larsen, who all stood in admirably for the now-historic set.

That time Iron Maiden started their show with a Spitfire

Iron Maiden headlined Download in 2013, marking 25 years since their Monsters Of Rock appearance at Donington in 1988. To mark the occasion, the band organised a Spitfire TE311 flypast. Piloted by Squadron Leader Andrew Millikin, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight aircraft passed over 90,000 fans’ heads three times before the band launched into Moonchild, from their album Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son.

“I'd have never thought that a bunch of metal fans would be interested in RAF craft, but I've been proven wrong,” Andrew told Horncastle News. “Bruce [Dickinson] actually gave me a call a week before. He was due to go onstage in Milan and wanted a quick chat about the plans. We went through what was going to happen and then spent the next 10 minutes talking about aircraft.”

Scream for me, RAF Coningsby!

That time Black Sabbath overcame the odds to Headline Download 2012

At the start of 2012, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi was diagnosed with the early stages of lymphoma. The reformed classic line-up (well, with Tommy Clufetos on drums instead of original member Bill Ward) cancelled a string of tour dates, save for a homecoming show at Birmingham’s O2 Academy, Lollapalooza at Grant Park, Chicago and Download.

“The guy on the stage I’ve known for most of my life, and he’s one of the strongest guys I know,” said Ozzy Osbourne during their Donington set, gesturing to the black-clad figure to his left. “Let’s hear it for Mr. Tony Iommi.”

You wouldn’t have guessed that the guitarist was undergoing cancer treatment, as he effortlessly rattled off iconic riff after iconic riff to the likes of N.I.B., Symptom Of The Universe and Iron Man. What a mighty way to spend a Sunday evening.

That time Linkin Park performed Hybrid Theory in full

Linkin Park returned to their nu-metal roots when they headlined Download for the fourth time in 2014, by playing Hybrid Theory in full. It was a rare chance for fans to witness their debut performed in sequence as part of an extended set. It was also an opportunity for Mike Shinoda to revisit his bold hair choices of the millennium, and sported a shocking red wig during the set. “This is the best Download Festival we've ever played, so thank you for sharing and making history with us,” Mike told the crowd. Sadly, it was to be Chester Bennington’s last-ever appearance at the festival, but this set will live long in the memory of those who witnessed it.

That time Slipknot made their debut as Donington headliners

After an uncharacteristically hot Download in 2009, Slipknot closed Saturday’s main stage on a high. Thankfully, the band rose to the occasion and absolutely destroyed Donington. “Whatever you think of their masked shenanigans, they’ve probably never played a gig but less intense than a trainwreck and tonight is no exception,” wrote Paul Travers in his 5/5 review. “As Spit It Out sees tens of thousands of maggots sitting down and leaping up en masse, it’s a rather special end to the evening.” This set was truly the stuff of legend.

That time The Darkness performed alongside a bunch of actual vikings

In 2015, The Darkness – who performed on the main stage at the first Download Festival 12 years previously – played a not-so-surprise set on the Maverick Stage. Edging his way through a packed tent, Justin Hawkins, dressed in a fetching powder blue suit made his way onto the stage brandishing a sword. Opening the set with Barbarian, from their album Last Of Our Kind, the Lowestoft rockers strutted like riff-fuelled peacocks and joined onstage by actual vikings. Three Days Grace couldn’t compete with such Norseplay.

That time Avenged Sevenfold proved themselves as worthy headliners

2018 marked Huntington Beach metallers Avenged Sevenfold's second headline slot at Download, the first being four years previously. With a thumping setlist featuring Hail To The King, Nightmare and Bat Country, the band took the bold move of changing gears with a cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, dedicating the song to the late Anthony Bourdain. They also paid tribute to their late drummer Jimmy ‘The Rev’ Sullivan with an emotionally wrought version of So Far Away. In all, the band easily topped the thrills of their 2017 arena show and by the evening’s close, they’d firmly cemented their place at metal’s top table.

That time Rage Against The Machine had a pop at Simon Cowell

After this quartet’s surprise Christmas 2009 Number One single Killing In The Name, they returned to the UK for their Finsbury Park free ‘victory party’ and the top slot at Download the following summer. The band, who revealed their table tennis prowess in a filmed Kerrang! podcast hours earlier, delivered a combustible set in front of an excitable crowd. They were forced to stop during People Of The Sun to prevent a crush at the barriers. Frontman Zack de la Rocha prefaced Know Your Enemy, noting that, “This isn't about Simon Cowell – it's about what he represents.” Which is high trousers and a vague flattop, presumably.

That time Rammstein scorched the skies

Rammstein pulled out all the stops for their debut Download headline appearance in 2013. Then they attached explosive charges to those stops and detonated the lot. Opening with Ich tu dir weh (from Liebe ist für alle da) frontman Till Lindemann was lowered from the top of the stage wearing a pink fluffy jacket before frying thousands of retinas with their spectacular production. We’d list everything that happened, but in summary: fire, riffs, explosion, riffs, poor Flake, pyro, riffs, gute nacht Donington.

That time the main stage was renamed in honour of Stephen Sutton

Stephen Sutton was a remarkable young man. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012, the rock fan from Staffordshire helped raise almost £4 million for charity. The 19-year-old attended the festival in 2013 and passed away just weeks before Download the following year. The main stage was renamed The Stephen Sutton Stage in his honour of his “immense bravery, dignity, selflessness and his extraordinary charitable endeavours”. Fans also held a minute’s applause and gave a ‘thumbs up’ – a nod to his final photograph from his hospital bed. To date, his efforts have raised £5.5 million for young people facing cancer. Get involved here: teenagecancertrust.org.

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