|MILESAGO: Australasian Music & Popular Culture 1964-1975||Music Festivals|
SUNBURY FESTIVAL 1972
LOCATION: Sunbury, Victoria
PROMOTERS: Odessa Promotions (John Fowler and partners)
LIGHTING: designed and supplied by ESP Lighting (Peter Evans)
ATTENDANCE: 35,000 - 40,000
TICKET PRICE: $6.00 (3 days), $5.00 (2 days), $1.00 (1 day)
MC: Gerry Humphreys
For better or worse, Sunbury '72 is now widely regarded as the archetypal Aussie rock festival, and is often referred to as "our Woodstock". It is significant because of the time, the place and the performers, but also because it was virtually the only festival of the period to make a healthy profit and the only one that -- at least for a few years -- became an annual event.
The famous performance by Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs has come to symbolise the spirit of the festival and the raw energy of Aussie '70s rock. While Thorpie has become a handy and widely recognised audio-visual symbol, there are unfortunately few would now know or remember the many other fine acts who performed, which is a great pity because if nothing else, Sunbury '72 certainly brought together some of Australia's best talent, presenting two dozen of the best Australiasian bands of that era over three hot summer days.
It should also be acknowledged that many of the "Australian" musicians who performed at Sunbury '72 originally came from other countries; The Aztecs represent this quite well, since the band at that time consisted of an English migrant (Thorpie), a New Zealander (former La De Das keyboard player Bruce Howard) and two Aussies (drummer Gil Matthews and bassist Paul Wheeler). Many of the performers at Sunbury '72 were in fact New Zealanders.
Sunbury '72 also exemplifies the male domination of the popular music scene at that time -- although photographs indicate that the audience seems to have been fairly evenly split in gender terms, almost all the performers were male. Wendy Saddington was the only female headliner on the bill, and only one other band, Mackenzie Theory, featured a female member (violist Cleis Pearce).
The festival was organised in late 1971, when a company called Odessa Promotions was formed in Melbourne. Its principals were, according to Adrian Rawlins, "industry people" from the Melbourne television scene, including several TV floor managers and directors; it is likely that seveal had worked on Melborune pop TV like Uptight. The principal of the company principal was John Fowler.
By this stage, five other major festivals had already been mounted, and the oft-repeated claim that Sunbury was Australia's first rock festival is quite untrue. Unfortunately, none of these earlier festivals was financially successful. Undeterred, Odessa Promotions organised and promoted a major rock festival with an all-Australasian line-up, although it's iportant to note that we don't know for sure whether this was a deliberate decision (or one merely dictated by financing) or whetehr or not Odessa considered bringin in overseas acts (or not).
The evidence suggests that Sunbury's success was a mixture of good luck and good timing, rather than careful planning and good organisation. Like Woodstock, Sunbury almost didn't take place -- when they began looking for asite, the organisers discovered that few landowners were willing to allow their property to be used for a three-day rock festival that would attract tens of thousands. Fortunately, the festival was saved by a local landowner who offered Odessa the use of part of his property at Glencoe, just outside the township of Sunbury, about 35 km north-west of the city. The farmer, Mr George Duncan, was reportedly motivated to make the offer because he "believed in young people".
Predictably there was apprehension about the event and many locals opposed. According to a area history published in 1975, the Bulla Shire Council (now Hume City) were against it the event, but didn't have the power to stop it because it was on private land. Many local farmers were reportedly concerned about drugs and worried about potential risks of vandalism, disturbance to their stock and fire. However, Mr Duncan subsequently reported that farmers expressed to him their relief at how well the event had gone. Bouncers from a Melbourne martial arts school provided securitySunbury township is situated where two minor creeks enter Jackson's Creek, which later enters the Maribyrnong River at Sydenham. The Sunbury area has a long history of white occupation, having been settled within seven months of the first settlement of Melbourne by Batman and Fawkner in September, 1835.
The festival was held in late summer over the three days of the annual Australia Day long weekend at the end of January, 1972, and therefore the same time as most other festivals in this period. The line-up included some of the biggest names of the day, with bands coming from Sydney and Melbourne, and Max Merritt making his much-anticipated return from the UK specially for the event. Because the site was close to the smaller township of Digger Rest, many patrons travelled to Sunbury by train, alighting at Diggers Rest railway station, which is shown in the Sunbury documentary.
Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs' famous performance is often cited as the highlight of the festival and it was certainly the true "coming out party" for the new 'hard rock' version of The Aztecs. Thorpe had put the new band together in late 1969 and over the next two years they slogged their way to the top with a welter of barnstorming, ear-splitting performances up and down the east coast. Their Sunbury triumph -- which included the first public performance of Thorpie's theme song "Most People I Know" -- spawned a Top 5 album, Aztecs Live! at Sunbury and their fans'rallying-cry -- "Suck more piss!" -- became indelibly associated with the event.
Although Thorpie's set (like Sunbury itself) is accorded iconic status, there were other significant highlights. Max Merritt & The Meteors, making the first visit home since leaving for England in 1970, were also a big hit with the audience and turned in one of the festival's best performances. Sydney-based Latin rock band Pirana gave a rousing and well-received performance, as did The La De Das. As well as music performances there were a number of craft workshops, which were an important part of the festival experience.
The site chosen was excellent in some respects -- it was a natural amphitheatre surrounded by hills, on the banks of Jackson's Creek, whose waters provided welcome relief from the scorching summer heat. However, in common with many other local festivals, the conditions for patrons were pretty primitive -- services were rudimentary at best and the toilet facilities were, as usual, hopelessly inadequate. The only thing that seems to have been available in abundance was beer, and the Sunbury crowd was notable for its rowdy, alcohol-fuelled character.
Considering Sunbury's oft-cited centrality in OzRock history, one would expect to find a wealth of information about it, but while it is often talked about, there is very little detailed information to be found on the internet or in print. Most sources list only a handful of the acts that performed there, and to our knowledge no-one has ever compiled a comprehensive listing of who performed there and the days and times that they played. Attendance figures also vary wildly -- most sources give a figure of approximately 35,000, but some claim it to be as high as 45,000.
Opinions vary greatly about Sunbury's significance. Most commentators claim that it was a turning point in Australian rock, a symbolic coming-of-age for youth culture, and the birthplace of the pub-rock scene. These theses have been prosecuted by rock historian Ian McFarlane and the writers of Long Way To The Top, among others. As a result, the assertion that Sunbury was a defining moment in Australian music history has been accepted virtually without question, and without reference to any other evidence, and much of the information about it remains unconfirmed and anecdotal. As far as we know, no-one as yet has undertaken the taks of recording a comprehensive oral history that includes performers, organisers and patrons.
Much is made of the fact that the bill at Sunbury was all-Australian but this claim is typical of the chauvinism that pervades Australian rock history. As noted above, many who performed at Sunbury -- like Max Merritt, Mike Rudd and The La De Das -- were relatively recent arrivals from New Zealand. A line-up comprising all local acts was a good thing, of course, but it is often forgotten that several other festivals had already been staged with all-local line-ups, beginning with the "Pilgrimage For Pop" festival at Ourimbah in early 1970. Another important consideration is that the claims about Sunbury's "All Australian" character are accepted without question, and it remains to be proven whether this was a deliberate decision by the organisers or whether they settled for an all-local bill because there were unable to secure the services of overseas acts.
It is particularly interesting to note that another major festival was being staged south of Adelaide at exactly the same time as Sunbury, yet this is almost never discussed in reference to Sunbury, simply beacuse there was until recently almost no information about it. The Meadows Technicolour Fair drew almost 30,000 people, and featured a strong line-up of Australian acts, including many who performed at Sunbury, then headed west to Meadows. It also featured three overseas acts -- Mary Hopkin, Tom Paxton and Edison Lighthouse -- although only one (Hopkin) could be considered a major star by 1972 standards, and it can certainly be argued that the presence of these performers was not of major importance to the Meadows' overall success or failure.
The crowd size is often cited to back up the Sunbury legend, yet this figure varies by as much as 10,000 people, depending which source you consult. Sunbury did attract a very large crowd, of course, but it was only a few thousand more than Meadows and it was far smaller than other outdoor concerts of preceding years. The Seekers, for example, still hold the record for the largest concert crowd ever in Australia -- over 200,000 people -- for their Moomba concert at the Myer Music Bowl back in 1967. Two years later, another Moomba concert starring The Masters Apprentices drew almost as many people.
It is also worth remembering that the Meadows festival was being held a long way from the east coast capitals and that the nearest capital city, Adelaide, was significantly smaller in size than either Sydney or Melbourne. Therefore it is remarkable that it was able to draw almost as many people as Sunbury, but this achievement is supposedly negated by the presence of the overseas performers.
In my opinion, the only truly meaningful differences between the two events were that (A) Sunbury was filmed and recorded, whereas Meadows was not, and (B) Sunbury made a profit, whereas Meadows evidently did not.
In the long run, Sunbury became the festival that everyone talked and wrote about, and in the video age it has made for easy 'soundbite' material because there are ample audio-visual resources available. Meadows, on the other hand, has been virtually forgotten -- I consider myself pretty well-informed about the history of Australian popular music of this period, but I had never heard of the Meadows festival until it was brought to my attention by Terry Stacey. Notably, it is not mentioned in Adrian Rawlins' monograph on rock festivals, which is a key source on this subject and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this one major reason why Meadows has been forgotten.
Many were unimpressed by Sunbury. Some commentators see it as a kind of "death knell" for the underground scene of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Interviewed for the ABC's Long Way To The Top, promoter Michael Chugg recounted that he found the festival scene so unbearable that he went straight back to Melbourne. Tamam Shud's Lindsay Bjerre was also underwhelmed:
"I really thought it was going to be like a Woodstock. All through the concert the crowd was going "we want Billy!"
Chain guitarist Phil Manning, interviewed by The Age in 2003, was scathing in his assessment:
"It was a time when the hippie thing was declining and the drunken afternoons of too much beer, sun and basic rock developed. The music went from being experimental to being just moronic entertainment for yobbos."
The Sunbury legacy
As Melbourne's suburban sprawl has spread out into what were previously rural areas, the Sunbury area has begun to be 'developed'. The Hume Council statement on the heritage significance notes that recent subdivision has removed public access to most of the former festival site. This has evidently led to the removal of much of the remains of the site after the last festival.
The Sunbury site is now held to be of national heritage significance. The Hume Council statement about the site states that it is "consdiered to represent the coming of age of Australia's rock industry". It also claims that Sunbury "launched the Mushroom label which became Australia's msot important rock music record company". The article goes on to suggest that:
"The site commemorate the event which was Australia's major celebreation of the new youth culture -- it's music, eaygoiong lifestyle and vaguely counter-cultural notions -- as well as the associated growth of youth oriented consumerism and mass media"
Discography / Videography
Various Artists - Sunbury (EMI/HMV) 2LP set
- Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs
Aztecs Live! At Sunbury (Havoc HST-4001)
Reissued on CD by Aztec Music, 2006
Film / Video
Sunbury (Dir.: John Dixon)
(Siren Entertainment, 1994)
References / Links
Encyclopedia of Australian Rock & Pop (Allen & Unwin, 1999)
National Library of Australia Pictures Catalogue
1972 Sunbury Festival photos by Soc Hedditch
Festivals in Australia: An Intimate History (D.T.E Publishers, Spring Hill, Vic, 1986)
- Sunbury Pop Festival
Long Way To The Top