In 1980, promoter Paul Loasby, along with Maurice Jones, planned a one-day festival dedicated specifically for bands within the hard rock and heavy metal genre. Loasby was an established and successful promoter working that year on the Rainbow UK tour and penned the festival as the final show of the tour for the band to headline. Jones knew the owner of the Donington Park race track, Tom Wheatcroft, located next to the village of Castle Donington in Leicestershire, England, and the site was chosen to host the event.
Donington Park was unknown as a major location but its location in the East Midlands next to the M1, A42 and A50 allowed for better transportation to the site from around the country. Additionally the site ground level sloped which allowed for a better viewing for the audience throughout the site.
The first Monsters of Rock line-up consisted of a mix of British and international bands and was a success with 35,000 heavy metal fans attending. Although only conceived as a one off event, it was mentioned on the day the idea that the festival will return the following year and the first edition birthed what would become a regular festival for the next 15 years, becoming synonymous as a Mecca for fans of the genre and further establishing the Midlands as the home of heavy metal.
Over the years, the attendance continued to grow, reaching 107,000 in 1988, when two fans died during Guns N' Roses set. Initially the blame was thought to be the size of the crowd and a rush forward during the band's set but officially the cause is laid on the weather, causing muddy and wet conditions on the sloping ground. As a result, the festival did not take place in 1989, but returned the year after with a limitation to the crowd of 75,000.
The festival had been held in parallel in West Germany from 1983 to 1991. In 1984 and 1986 the festival branched into Sweden. In 1988, the festival occurred for the first time in France, Italy, Spain and The Netherlands. It was held as a one-time event in 1991 in Soviet Union (one of the largest concerts of all time, with an estimated audience of over 1.6 million), Poland, Belgium, Hungary. In 1994, the festival was exported overseas to Chile, Argentina and Brazil.
In 1993 the MONSTERS OF ROCK® radio show debuted in the United States with host Harlan Hendrickson. Guests on the show include everyone from AC/DC, KISS, Van Halen, Judas Priest, Motörhead, Cinderella, Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, Cheap Trick, Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Dio, Y&T, Guns N' Roses, Slayer and Poison.
The Monsters of Rock festival continued on as the premier hard rock and heavy metal event in Great Britain in the 1990s but started to fall upon hard times as heavy metal became less popular, with another cancellation in 1993 due to being unable to find a strong enough headliner. In 1995 the festival found itself in a similar situation until Metallica agreed to play with the condition of the band having control over the event and naming it "Escape from the Studio". In 1996 Ozzy Osbourne and KISS co-headlined the festival and although there were plans to extend the festival into a two-day event in 1997, the promoters once again found themselves in a struggle for headliners and the event was cancelled and discontinued.
Donington Park remained event-less until 2001 when the Rock and Blues Festival and Stereophonics held events at the site. In 2002 the Ozzfest tour returned to the UK using Donington Park as their only British event and the following year Live Nation picked up the reins as Monsters of Rock's successor in the name of Download Festival. An outstanding success from the offset, the festival continues to this day having increased to a three-day event with five stages, though as of 2008 the event has been relegated outside of the track.
In 2006, the Monsters of Rock name was revived and held at the National Bowl in Milton Keynes, England, for a one off event headlined by Deep Purple and with Alice Cooper as a special guest.
In 2012 Harlan Hendrickson & Monsters of Rock Worldwide partnered with Larry Morand and Mike London to launch the inaugural Monsters Of Rock Cruise.
To date, the only band that have headlined the festival more than twice is AC/DC, with four occasions: 1981, 1984, 1991 and 2010 (Download Festival).