Sunbury: Australia’s Greatest Rock Festival

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Sunbury: Australia’s Greatest Rock Festival – By Peter Evans [Melbourne Books]

Reviewed by Des Cowley.

It is hard to imagine in this day and age that a free-to-air television station might be at all interested to screen a live feed from the Falls Festival, or Splendour in the Grass. But I have a clear recollection of a summer afternoon spent watching, over the Australia Day weekend in 1972, a TV broadcast of the first Sunbury Festival. I was too young to attend – my mother wasn’t having a bar of it – so I spent the day holding a microphone to the speaker, taping various performances, such as Spectrum (or was it the Indelible Murtceps), onto my reel-to-reel tapedeck (what the hell became of those tapes?).

Despite the many incarnations of the music festival in this country over the past half-century – there were some such as Ourimbah that came before and many others since – Sunbury has remained a defining moment in Australian musical history, not least because it was so well documented. The first Festival was staged in the year that would see Whitlam come to power, coinciding with a re-alignment of Australia’s vision of itself in the world, politically, socially and culturally. While no doubt driven by the economics of mounting such a large-scale event, the fact that the 1972 line-up was an all Australian affair was significant (ok, there were some NZ bands too). And what a line-up it was: Chain, MacKenzie Theory, Wendy Saddington, Max Merritt and the Meteors, Tamam Shud, Company Caine, the Wild Cherries, Spectrum, Carson, and, of course, the band indelibly linked to Sunbury: Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs.

Author Peter Evans attended all four Festivals, both as lighting designer and regular punter, and his illustrated account of the Festival charts the few brief years when Australian music came of age. He tracks the birth of John Fowler’s Odessa Promotions, who were behind the Festival, along with the loose amalgam of individuals critical to its success, such as filmmaker John Dixon, and landowners George and Beryl Duncan. The lead-up to the first festival was full of hurdles, ranging from local resident opposition through to the Country Fire Authority taking out negative ads in local Melbourne newspapers; even the Bolte Government weighed in, predictably foreshadowing the end of civilisation. Then there were the logistics: the stage, lighting, amps, food, water, medical, police, toilets. At the end of the day, Sunbury ‘72 was a success, both financially and artistically, Australian’s answer to Woodstock, with the media inevitably honing in on hippies, drugs and nudity. The music flowed over three days, from the impromptu Friday night jam, led by Warren Morgan and Lobby Loyde, to the Saturday night performance by Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs, the recording of which is still considered by drummer Gil Matthews to be the band’s best album. No name would be more associated with the Sunbury legend.

The success of Sunbury 72’ spawned three more Festivals, featuring many of the same bands, though the introduction of overseas acts, such as Queen and Deep Purple, remains a point of contention. You sense the musical landscaper changing: Spectrum and Carson mutated into Ariel and the Dingoes respectively, the retro rock n’roll of a reformed Daddy Cool delivered the band a second lease of life, and the glam of Skyhooks and Sherbet replaced the more experimental sounds of a MacKenzie Theory. Johnny O’Keefe was a surprise hit in 1973, as was Hoges. And hippies and drugs gave way to chants of ‘suck more piss’. The one constant is that, from 1972-1975, Thorpie ruled.

The final festival in 1975 was sadly ill-fated; rains kept the crowds away, and Deep Purple sucked the budget dry. At the end of the day, Odessa Promotions was mired in the same mud as the Festival, and went into immediate receivership, leaving many creditors and musicians unpaid. Forty-five years on, it’s easier to remember what was good about it: Sunbury provided bands with their largest exposure to date, via large audiences, media, recordings and films; and it paved the way for a specifically Australian sound – most bands, after all, played original music – leading to the pub rock revolution that followed. If you want to hear what the excitement was about, have a listen to Lobby Loyde’s G.O.D., recorded between 3.30am and 4.45am in the morning at the 1973 Festival, and subsequently released on the rare Summer Jam album.

Having been involved, for the most part, at Sunbury in a working capacity, Peter Evans is well placed to provide an account of the complex logistics behind its success and eventual failure. He has interviewed many of those involved, from musicians to punters, and the book’s many illustrations provide a window onto a more innocent time: replete with wizard hats, floral dresses, bad dancing, short shorts, and Captain Beefheart look-alikes. Evans is on less secure ground, however, when it comes to the music, and I would have welcomed more critical assessments of some of legendary Sunbury performances. I wanted his book – perhaps unfairly – to transport me back, and allow me to re-hear this music, as well as to argue the significance of particular performances. That said, his book is a welcome tribute to a pivotal moment in Australian music. The years 1972-1975 coincided with a critical period in Australian cultural history, and Sunbury looms large in any reckoning of them.

Des Cowley

Des Cowley is the Rare Printed Collections Manager at the State Library of Victoria, and has more than twenty years experience working with rare books. He was a judge for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in 1998-99 2003, and 2010, and is the book reviewer for music magazine Rhythms. He previously edited the literary broadside Overland Extra, and has, for many years, reviewed music books for ABC Gold Coast FM. In 2005, he co-curated the State Library of Victoria’s permanent exhibition Mirror of the World: Books and Ideas and is co-author of The World of the Book, published by Melbourne University Press in 2007.

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