If you care to watch the 1984 Band Aid video, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (I advise you think carefully before doing so), you will see some of the worst haircuts ever sported by humankind – or rather, by mankind, as all the worst offenders are men. Simon Le Bon, Bono, Paul Young, George Michael: it’s a roll-call of hirsute horror. Only three women – the ladies of Bananarama – featured in the original Band Aid ensemble, and none of them get a prominent vocal spot. In their rush to feed Africa, songwriters Bob Geldof and Midge Ure left gender equity by the wayside.
Blow-dried mullets are not the only aspect of Band Aid, and the attendant rise in rock n’ roll charity fundraising that it spawned, which retrospectively appear in bad taste. Band Aid is at once overblown as a spectacle and, as a response to the famines ravaging Ethiopia during the 1980s, manifestly inadequate. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ brought together a bunch of wealthy rock stars, and the British public bought the song in droves, making it the highest-selling UK single of all time until Elton John’s similarly mawkish ‘Candle In The Wind’ (in memory of Princess Diana) eclipsed that sales record. No doubt everyone’s desire to help was genuine. But lyrically, the song creates an insurmountable barrier between the rich (participating musicians, the listening public) and the poor (those other people, over in Africa), whose suffering becomes an object of pitiable contemplation. Bono even sings at one point ‘Well tonight, thank God it’s them, instead of you’. Someone’s gotta starve, eh? Glad it’s not me!
So how did a severe famine in an impoverished African country, created by a complex array of political, environmental, and economic factors, become a cause celebré in affluent Western countries? In one word: television. The horrific conditions of the 1984-5 Ethiopian famine were brought home to British audiences via news broadcast – the BBC were the first foreign television network to report on the famine, in October 1984 – much in the way that the Vietnam War had been, for American audiences in the 1970s, their first televised glimpse of a battlefield. The response, naturally, was more television. The video clip for ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was put together, like the song, in little more than 24 hours and rushed into high rotation, while Band Aid’s accompanying 1985 concert Live Aid was watched globally by an estimated 2 billion people.
Bob Geldof was one, very well connected viewer prompted to action by the news reports. His Irish band The Boomtown Rats, who rode the crest of New Wave into number one with ‘Rat Trap’ in 1978 and ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ in 1979, had pushed him into the milieu of jet-setting rock stars, and he called upon all of them (using a Rolodex, perhaps?) for his hastily-conceived Band Aid plan. The song was co-written with Midge Ure, of Ultravox, and utilised the combined talents of – well, if you really need to know, watch the video. David Bowie was drafted to contribute but couldn’t make it. Boy George was flown by Concorde from New York to London in order to record his lines, at which point the unintended irony metre had to be sent away for repairs.
Celebrity was Geldof’s main criteria for Band Aid: he wanted huge stars to ensure huge sales. On that level, no one can deny the success of his formula, which was swiftly repeated in the US with ‘We Are The World’ (Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, et al). The air of 19th century philanthropy that clung to Band Aid – See these generous rich people! Doing things for free! – showed up the fact that by the mid-1980s, popular music was not just big business, it was respectable business. Rock stars were no longer a tacit threat to the social order: bigger than Jesus they might have been, to use John Lennon’s phrase, but that was just fine. Celebrity musicians became substitute politicians, which says as much about the reduction of politics to populism as it does about the fuzzy ‘inclusiveness’ of stadium rock. At political rallies and arena concerts, the idea was the same: raise your hands in the air and sing along.
Live Aid certainly managed that: held on 13th July, 1985, it brought over 70,000 people to London’s Wembley Stadium and close to 100,000 at the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. An Australian version, Oz for Africa, was held at the Sydney Entertainment Centre on the same day. In the UK, the concert cemented U2’s live reputation and gave glam rock titans Queen the opportunity to lead the crowd in fervent self-congratulation with ‘We Are The Champions’. INXS, then at the height of their fame, headlined Oz for Africa with Countdown’s Molly Meldrum as host.
Live Aid has been used as a template ever since for large-scale charity concerts that combine live music, television and radio broadcasts, and an element of home-viewer fundraising, generally a telethon. The most recent local examples have been Australia Unites, held on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House in early 2005 to raise money for victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, and Sound Relief, in March 2009, for those affected by the Victorian bushfires and the Queensland floods that year. Like Live Aid, Sound Relief was held at two venues simultaneously – the Sydney and Melbourne Cricket Grounds – and featured a line-up of contemporary, early 00s favourites (Wolfmother, Eskimo Joe), reunited oldies (Midnight Oil, Hunters & Collectors), and Jet, who literalised their name by flying cross-country between both venues. Also, Kings of Leon had the tact not to perform ‘Sex On Fire’.
The million-dollar question – literally – pertaining to Band Aid, Live Aid, and its many subsequent imitators, is where does the money go? The BBC was forced to apologise to Bob Geldof in November 2010 after airing a series of reports which suggested that money raised by Band Aid for famine relief in Ethiopia had instead been diverted to armed rebel groups. The fact that some aid money had been used for such a purpose was not in dispute, but whether or not any of this money had originated from Band Aid. Geldof insisted no, and after initially standing by its reports, the BBC apologised without reservation.
But the difficult issue remains of how humanitarian fundraising, particularly in massive amounts, is distributed in a way that ensures it helps, rather than hinders, the people it was intended for. Aid expert David Rieff has raised detailed concerns that a good proportion of the roughly 50 million pounds raised by Geldof’s musical charity went to NGOs who colluded in the forced resettlement of more than half a million Ethiopians. “There is no necessary connection between raising money for a good cause and that money being well spent,” wrote Rieff in British newspaper The Guardian, “… there is ample reason to conclude that it [Live Aid] did harm as well as good.” (June 24, 2005). Somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 people died in the resettlements – likely as many as were saved from famine by fundraising efforts. As most rock stars know from experience, a lot of money can be a dangerous thing.
Triggered somewhat by our ’80s Are Back’ exhibition, Mark Murphy discusses his memories of the Club Hordern Parties in the 80s, with Richard Weiss, one of the ‘Sweatbox’ party organisers.
I had heard about the Hordern parties from a neighbour when I was living in The Cross in 1989. He was into rock music and I overheard him talking about the Hordern as if it was another planet – thousands of people dancing, this new drug called ecstasy, crazy music pumping out from massive wall-to-wall speakers. He had never seen anything like it.
In my mind, I was already there.
The party I decided on was called Sweatbox ‘Meltdown’. I got my ticket, and not really knowing anyone in Sydney, ventured to the venue on my own. I will never forget the entrance. It was like going through a silver vortex. They had al-foiled the entrance as a tunnel and when you came out to the dance-floor there were three cherry-pickers with lights in the tops sitting in the middle of the dance floor. Thousands of people were wildly dancing to a pounding beat. I walked out of there feeling like I had discovered a new world.
House music was starting to froth and Sydney was becoming one of the house music capitals of the world. Acid was the sound of the UK Summer and it was also swamping Sydney. The Hordern became known as ‘Club Hordern’ by the underground.
Richard Weiss was one of the people behind the ‘Sweatbox’ parties. I have gotten to know him over the past few years (we travel in the same circles) and I have fondly recalled to him how he changed my life.
With the ‘The 80s Are Back’ exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum displaying some posters and creating a space for the house music culture which was as much about the 80s in Sydney as leg warmers and fluoro, I thought I’d sit down and have a chat to Weiss to see if he remembers anything of the era and what it meant to him.
Tell us about your early days in Sydney in the 80s as a clubber? What were the clubs you frequented/the music/the drugs? What was your first promoting event and tell us how that came about? Who were the DJs and where?
I returned from a couple of years away living in London and Barcelona with a head full of ideas. ‘Stranded’, the archetypal Sydney nightclub, was on its way out and Sydney needed something fresh. My first club was ‘Adrenalin’ at the Hip Hop club in Oxford Street. It was moderately successful, but ultimately didn’t last. It did however lead me to my first successful club, ‘Meltdown’, which opened on the first night of the newly renovated ‘SITE’ in Victoria Street, Potts Point. Designed by the brilliant Ian Hartley, it was just what Sydney needed. Suddenly, I was in the right place at the right time. House music was nascent, ecstasy was novel, and I was on the ball. ‘Meltdown’, with its hard edge aesthetic, elitist door policy, and mixed crowd (sexuality was not the issue) took off. The music was a combination of house and acid beats, hip hop, go-go, early electro and funk. The original Meltdown DJs were Pee Wee Ferris and Stephen Allkins. From memory, Allkins went overseas and a young Ben Drayton took his place.
When did house music start filtering through here. Can you remember hearing it for the first time and your thoughts on it?
I was a dedicated reader of the NME (New Musical Express) and had read about this new style of dance music coming out of Chicago, in particular, called ‘house music’. But, as Elvis Costello once said, “reading about music is like dancing about architecture”. Yet one night, at the Midnight Shift in 1986 I guess, I heard ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ by Farley Jackmaster Funk and thought, “That’s house music – and I love it!!” I tracked down a ‘sampler’ album of Chicago House and David Milton (owner of the Hip Hop Club and later SITE) returned from a trip to the UK bearing gifts, including ‘Acid Beats’ – a sampler album of acid house, and a ‘Summer Of Love’ graffiti style T-shirt with a big fluoro smiley face on it (this shirt – a little worse for wear – is now in the Powerhouse Museum collection).
RAT parties started getting a name in the underground. Were they the first to do the big parties?
I believe so. Up until then, only Mardi Gras & Sleaze Ball had attempted parties on such a vast scale. I think RAT was the first private enterprise party group to tackle the Hordern and ultimately the Royal Hall of Industries. They had outgrown their previous venues, including the old Balmain Bijou, Bondi Pavilion and Paddington Town Hall.
The Hordern is a massive space. When did you decide on putting Sweatbox there? How did that come about?
I was standing in the Hordern at a RAT party, looking up at the vast ceiling and rigging and thought, “how does anyone even begin to know how to put something of this scale together?” My confidence was sky-high as the result of the success of Meltdown…and I was young and reckless, I guess. All I know now is that within 12 months of that moment, I had decided to take a float in the Mardi Gras parade, promoting ‘Meltdown Sweatbox’ – trusting that the Meltdown brand would springboard into this new, much larger environment. One week after the Mardi Gras Parade and Party in 1989, Meltdown Sweatbox was held at the Hordern. A crowd of 4000 (close to a sell-out) attended.
Tell us about the costs of the first one and the what you wanted from it?
I certainly didn’t have the sort of funds necessary to put on a party at the Hordern. I was backed by the owners of SITE – they took the risk, but also 50% of the profits. This remained the case for the first 3 or 4 parties, until we could afford to back the parties ourselves (by this time I had gone into partnership with Victor Li). Ultimately, Sweatbox was an opportunity to express ourselves creatively, on a vast scale. The satisfaction of seeing something grow from the seed of an idea to a huge event, enjoyed by thousands, is incomparable…for me anyhow. Sure we wanted to make money – we needed to in order to put on the next party – but we never sacrificed that creative satisfaction in order to make a few extra bucks.
How many people went to your parties? Did you always sell out?
I guess tens of thousands of people attended at least one Sweatbox party – many experienced most of them and some were at them all. Sometimes we had sell-outs and made a lot of money. Once or twice we lost money. In the end, after a couple of parties which just broke even, after so much work, we decided to call it quits.
How many Sweatboxes were there? Tell us a little about some of the best ones?
I’m not exactly sure….about ten I guess, maybe more.
‘Meltdown Sweatbox’ had an industrial theme, with three earth movers operating throughout the party, hovering over the dance floor. One had a lighting rig attached (including a massive strobe) that moved across the floor. We built a ‘mineshaft’ tunnel out of scaffolding and industrial strength aluminium foil, from the front foyer which brought you out on the dancefloor. We had swing-foggers that are sometimes used on film sets to create fog, and cement mixers spewing out dry ice. There were no coloured lights at all….only white light cutting through the blackness.
We contrasted that with our second party ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ which which was pure opulence…a rococo palace with multi-leveled chequerboard dance floor which formed a pit in the middle of the room. Above this hung a giant chandelier, with a fabric canopy creating a false ceiling. We hired in classical pillars and statues and painted everything gold. The lighting was jewel-like. It was a challenge to make this big black box of a room feel soft and elegant.
‘Royal Command’ was a performance-based surrealist event with hourly ‘happenings’ that included a bagpipe band that marched through the crowd playing along to an acid house track; a vast Chinese dragon snaking its way through the dance floor and a live ‘mix’ of Voodoo Ray where Pee Wee mixed from the record to a live percussion ensemble with vocalist and then back into the record.
These were just a few of our parties which became known for strong design elements and themes. A big shout out to Paul Hinderer, our designer for the first 3 or 4 parties, who was instrumental in taking our design ideas and realizing them so beautifully.
Tell us about the music. Did you want anything special or did you know the DJs and trust them?
We booked our favourite djs who understood what we were trying to achieve. We always held DJ meetings and briefed them thoroughly on the theme and discussed time slots, but with the exception of the occasional track (sometimes for a ‘moment’ during the night, or the last song of the night) they had full creative freedom. Back then, the music would ‘wind down’ during the last hour or so – for me, the last part of the night was invariably the best. On occasion, I would DJ the final hour of the night myself.
Why do you think the Hordern finished. Combination of media/popularity/cops?
In the exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, the actual letter (which I had in my possession…go figure), calling a halt to all-night parties, is on display.
Basically the Moore Park Residents Group, or whatever they were called, lobbied so relentlessly, that they won the battle. Once the Hordern was no longer available for all-night parties (apart from Mardi Gras, Sleaze and Pride New Year), we were forced to find other venues but none had such a great location, history, and such decadent grandeur. I also remember 2 or 3 times, paying a lawyer to be present all night (expensive!) to protect the rights of the punters once sniffer dogs arrived on the scene. I wonder if anyone does this anymore?
Did you do stuff in the 90s?
Yes the last parties we did, mostly at Alexandria Basketball Stadium, were in the early 90s. We put on some great parties and some sold out but they lacked the scale of the original Hordern parties. Victor and I were also invited to co-produce Sleaze Ball in ’91, I think the theme was ‘Fetish’ and it was amazing! I was then asked to co-produce ‘Hand in Hand’ for ACON on the June long weekend, which I did with David Wilkins, for 5 years. By the mid 90s I was getting a lot of work as a DJ – my first big gig was playing the Dome at Sleaze Ball in ’94.
It was really a special time in Sydney. Are you glad it’s all over? What are your memories
I just feel really privileged to have lived through that era and to have played a small part in a special time. Now it’s just a blur of 3-day weekends, dancing to great music, hard work, and serious fun.
Funny Sweatbox stories?
Too many… the collapse of a raised bridge full of people during ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ (not so funny at the time – amazingly no one was hurt); watching a now famous Hollywood director swallow a pill, chuck it up, swallow it again, chuck it up…over and over; having a massive projector (well it was the 80s) stolen from the the ceiling of the Hordern during a party and whilst projecting onto a vast screen on the stage (also funnier in retrospect than at the time).
How do you feel about being included in an exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum?
Like a contented dinosaur.
This article was first published on the Spank Records blog. Thanks to Mark Murphy for sharing.
Can you you tell me a little about yourself and how the Darlinghurst eats its young project came about?
Not sure where to start so will just start with I am an artist who lives and works in Sydney, and apart from a stint in Melbourne have done so since graduating from art school. I didn’t spend a lot of time at school in year 11 and 12, instead spending it in Darlinghurst with the people that make up the photos in the exhibition.
Darlinghurst at that time – mid 1980s – was an exciting place. It was run down; the rents were cheap’ there were little or no renovated terraces and because of all of that there was a lot going on artistically and musically.
Oxford Street was, as it still is, a major part of the gay community. So the whole area ran against what mainstream Australia was about. Most people that I knew were on the dole or students so there was no money – everything was invented out of nothing.
My best friend at the time, Maggie Woods, was an avid photographer. Most people, if they had a camera at all, didn’t want to spend what little money they had on printing. Maggie wanted to be a photographer so she took photos of what she knew. She took photos to the point of annoyance really, when you woke up, when you looked hung over; all the time, not just the good times. When Maggie died I inherited the large box of photos that I have dragged around from house to house, to Melbourne and back.
The impetus for the show came when I saw how people responded to a friend who posted a series of images from the 80s on their Facebook page. There was an attraction to images from the past. It wasn’t just that the images were from the 80s it was also due to the ‘analogue’ nature of the images. The quality that so many apps try to recreate. Hard to define but it made me think people might want to see the images from the box under my bed.
I proposed the idea of using the photos to the curators of the Left Coast Festival, which was held in the Sedition barbershop on Victoria Street. Mainly because I thought when else am I going to get to put the photos back into a Darlinghurst context, and out of that came the show Darlinghurst Eats Its Young.
How did the exhibition turn into a web project?
Once the exhibition came down I posted the photos that comprised the show on Facebook and almost immediately people began to respond with comments. The response was overwhelming and at the same time limited by the fact that only friends or friends of friends could see and comment on the photos. A friend suggested I get in touch with the Powerhouse to see if they would be interested in incorporating the photos into their The 80s Are Back exhibition in some way and after meeting with Jason Gee and Renae Mason they in turn suggested the project would suit a blog. After a lot of help from Jason Gee the Darlinghurst Eats its Young blog was born. The idea was to enable anyone to comment or contribute to the discussion that grew out of the exhibition and the photos to form something independent of both photos and exhibition.
How have people reacted to these images?
I was really surprised by the reaction to the pictures; for me the photos have taken the place of my memory in a lot of instances, so other people’s reactions are always unexpected. The photos seem to be a trigger for a range of different ideas and emotions. In some cases the reactions have been pure nostalgia, but in others the photos have sparked debates about what it means to be cool, and what makes an image ‘authentic’
The majority of comments at this stage are on the facebook postings of the images (all of which are now on the Darlinghurst Eats Its Young blog) but increasingly people are starting to comment on the blog postings as well. The difference between the blog and Facebook, apart from the fact the blog is open to everyone is that I have tried to contextualise the photos with titles, and in some cases, descriptions. After the initial wave of interest there is now a steady flow of people and increasingly as the site is reposted the traffic to the site is from overseas
People who were around at the time talk about how inner city Sydney and Darllinghurst has changed and those who weren’t around at that time seem to really react to the fashion – there have been a few repostings on a couple of fashion blogs. It’s interesting to see which photos generate the most interest in the re-postings and it tends to be the haircuts or the photos of the squats. The hair cuts are easy to understand, the squats I’m not sure what fascinates people so much other than perhaps surprise that there was ever such a thing in a property obsessed city like Sydney.
Visit the Darlinghurst eats its young website
In early 1982 I was just out of my teens, staying with a houseful of revivalist mods in the Brisbane suburb of Greenslopes and en route to the UK. My high school and early work years had been spent in Tauranga, a provincial city in Aotearoa/New Zealand where I’d been a little Pakeha reggae nut since the mid ’70s, captured by this inside-out version of rhythm and blues with its skanking guitar, incredibly weighty, sinuous drum and bass and whole other worlds of lyrical concerns. I grabbed whatever Island, Trojan or Virgin label (sometimes even Jamaican-pressed) records made it so far south and was starting to order imports from the UK. Reggae had a considerable impact on New Zealand and by the early ’80s I had already seen local bands like Chaos and the dynamic and original Herbs rocking mostly Maori and Pacific Island crowds with their homegrown roots reggae.
Herbs had released their excellent debut, ‘What’s Be Happen?’ in 1981 and toured Aotearoa with the fine London band, Black Slate. The main influence on reggae tastes in Aotearoa, like so many parts of the world, was Bob Marley & The Wailers whose style was to have a lasting impact on local music. Bands like Unity, Dread Beat and Blood, Sticks and Shanty and Aotearoa presented songs driven by social concerns (often about Maori political and cultural justice) and steady, so-called ‘One Drop’ rhythms created by the Wailers. As a student journalist I’d managed to bag an interview with Uncle Bob when he’d visited Auckland in 1979 and the experience had given me the incentive to head for a place where reggae was well established. Kingston was the dream, but London seemed more possible.
In Brisbane my notions of Australia as a ‘rock dungeon’ were dealt a sound blow by two great bands, No Fixed Address and Un Tabu. Un Tabu led by seasoned singer Ronnie ‘Ras Roni’ Jemmott was the ’80s expression of the destruction of the White Australia policy in 1973. A band comprising members from Barbados (Roni), Trinidad, Fiji and Puerto Rico by way of New York, Un Tabu was a terrific live act, tight and danceable and obviously satisfying a growing hunger in Australia for real reggae. I don’t recall the venue I saw them in, but I remember a nice conversation with Roni before the show and then the energy of a confident band successfully vibing a big crowd with an authentic take on reggae, far from the music’s birthplace.
I was just as fortunate to attend a gig at the University of Queensland and witness the legendary No Fixed Address led by drummer/vocalist, Bart Willoughby. Bart is really one of the most important pioneers of reggae in Australia. As a Pitjinjatjara youth of 17 growing up in Adelaide he had caught Bob Marley and the Wailers playing ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ on TV and his mind had been blown. He was especially amazed by the drummer, Carlton Barrett and his brother Aston aka ‘Family Man’ on bass. Bart told me a few years ago that at that moment it was confirmed for him that this was “the coolest black band in the world.” No Fixed Address were cool too – stars of a newly released film, Wrong Side of the Road, performers of anthems like ‘We Have Survived’, with a rugged, road-tested mix of reggae and rock propelled by Bart’s drumming and distinctive raspy voice. My memory of that gig was one of a sudden introduction to the anger and pride of Indigenous Australia, wildly dancing Murri people singing at the top of their lungs, “We have survived the white man’s world…and the hate and the torment of it all…and you know, you can’t change that!” I was witnessing the foundation of a great tradition of Indigenous Australian reggae which continues all over this continent. For living proof check out the Zennith Boyz from Kuranda or the Bush Bands Bash in Alice Springs.
After a year or so in post-riots Brixton, grimy council estates in Kentish Town, vibrant Notting Hill Carnival, blues parties in Kennington, Lloydie Coxsone’s sound system in Peckham, gigs with golden-period reggae royalty like Culture, Dennis Brown, Freddie McGregor, Prince Far I, Aswad, Misty In Roots, Mikey Dread, Brigadier Jerry, David Rodigan and record shops like Daddy Kool and Dub Vendor I returned, penniless, to New Zealand and soon thereafter fled to the bright lights of Sydney.
I was drawn to Sydney by reports from a friend of hugely well-attended sound system nights where Jamaicans and Aboriginal people were running things. I later discovered this to be the pioneer sound system in Australia, Soulmaker, owned and operated by Jamaican ex-pat, JJ Roberts who had arrived in Sydney in 1972 and begun his musical activities not long after. I spent quite a few evenings in the 1980s enjoying JJ’s selection; these days I select records alongside him. JJ has maintained the Jamaican musical tradition which is not based on bands but monster PA systems with customised amps, records (or maybe Serato these days) and live mic entertainment. If you didn’t know already, it’s the foundation of hip hop, trip hop, drum ‘n’ bass and half a dozen other styles, but only in recent years has reggae ‘sound’ been properly appreciated in Australia, a country where bands have traditionally ruled. JJ’s son, Danny Ranking was the able MC or ‘toaster’ as they were called back in the day. Soulmaker was especially active in Redfern and spent a lot of time playing at the Black Theatre in Cope Street (right near Radio Redfern) and at a squat in Cleveland Street, but the crew also regularly played suburban pubs and private parties and kept successful dances at the Graphic Arts Club in Regent Street, near Railway Square.
Also putting on ‘dance parties’ were a group of South African exiles and their supporters united under the banner of the anti-apartheid, Black consciousness party, the Pan African Congress. Their regular fund-raiser Afrika Nite dances turned into one of the biggest social events for music-loving migrants, activists and fellow travellers in the ’80s, starting out in St. Peter’s Church hall in Surry Hills and finding a home at the Paddington Town Hall. Mixing reggae and African music on the turntables and featuring local reggae bands like Mataqali Music, Randy and Jah Roots, Na-Whom, and Kalabash, as well as Aboriginal performers like Bobby McLeod, the PAC group combined politics and partying like nobody else. In March 1983 they even pulled together an Australian tour by the militantly anti-apartheid reggae superstar and one time Wailer, Peter Tosh. Although a financial disaster (with well-founded suspicions the tour was partially sabotaged by the established music industry, aggrieved that political activists had scored such a coup), Tosh’s Aussie tour gave “reggae a boost and our [anti-apartheid] work a boost as well,” according to one of the main organisers, Neville Legg.
Following the success of Afrika Nite, Jamaican DJ and entrepreneur, Ted Vassell established his own Jamaica Nite which also utilised the Paddington Town Hall and other venues. Vassell went on to establish the long-running Powercuts reggae night in the 1990s. The aforementioned bands along with others like Shango and T-Vibes (featuring two other stalwarts of the reggae and Caribbean music scene, Jamaican, Patou Powell and Errol Renaud from Trinidad and Tobago) played at venues around town, often pubs but sometimes club venues including the popular Palms in Oxford Street, Paddington, which was known as a reggae-centric nightspot in the early ’80s. Mataqali Music featured musicians with Maori (Cappy Cowen on drums and Norman Jacobs on bass) and Fijian heritage (keyboardist Joel Knight) as well as Ras Roni Jemmott on vocals for a period. Mataqali was a fairly high profile reggae-style band in Sydney in the 1980s. Despite having a substantial live following and even building their own recording studio they did not release any records. However, they did manage to win the 1985 Star Search national talent competition on the Ten network, maybe the only official accolade Australian reggae has ever achieved. They even got to shake hands with Greg Evans.
As well as Mataqali Music, the other well known reggae band in Sydney in the 1980s was Kalabash lead by Yaw Glymin, a bassist and drummer originally from Ghana. Kalabash continued the mix of African music and reggae and offered up the ever-requested Bob Marley tunes Australian audiences never seem to tire of. Few international reggae artists made it to Australia and in the early part of the decade only UB40, Peter Tosh and Toots and the Maytals made the journey after The Wailers initial incursion in 1979.
I became involved in radio in 1985 when I took over from Errol Renaud’s tenureship as host of a Caribbean music show on 2 SER-FM. I limited my focus to reggae and called the show Splashdown, it ran for nearly 20 years. An earlier and vital reggae radio programme was Dogs of Babylon presented by long-time reggae aficionado, Tom Zelinka on the ABC youth network, Double Jay. Other programmes I recall being impressed by were Pounding System on 2MBS-FM, presented by Clay Caplice and Mark Ottignon and Rebel Music presented by the self-effacing and much-loved Janice Chisnall on Radio Skidrow. African Connections DJs on Radio Skidrow would also play reggae tunes amongst their African selection, following the pattern of their Afrika Nite dances. Records of course were the main way to keep connected to the well-spring of music production from Jamaica. I would buy a certain number of singles and LPs by mail order from Dub Vendor in London, but most of my purchases were from Anthem Records which, when I first went there, was located in the prime urban setting of Town Hall subway station. My memory is clear of listening to a 12 inch cut of a powerful 1984 UK track, ‘Mi God, Mi King’ by the Saxon Sound MC, Papa Levi and wondering about the extra bass patterns until I realised it was trains far below us rattling the shop.
Didgeridoo Records in Kings Cross also had a comprehensive selection of reggae albums, though a limited range of 7 inch 45 singles which is where the real action is for Jamaican music. Record dealers, Joe and Alan who had been associated with Anthem set up their own lower George Street shop Floppy Disk which later became Unsound. Joe and Al are fondly remembered as the purveyors of reggae to many enthusiasts in the 1980s and 90s.
In terms of Australian takes on reggae, only a few bands had produced any records which took the form seriously, despite obvious reggae-influenced pieces like ‘Down Under’ by Men at Work and ‘Boys Light Up’ by Australian Crawl. Un Tabu and No Fixed Address had both issued good records, with Un Tabu’s 12 inch disc ‘Open Your Eyes’ (1981) on the Larrikin label still standing up as a fine track many decades on. The instrumental reggae of The Igniters made up of experienced Sydney session musos also made it on to disc with a bit of help from Triple J radio.
Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons did perhaps the most creditable attempt to develop a pop reggae approach that respected the integrity of the music with tracks like ‘I’m in a Dancing Mood’, ‘Hit and Run’ and ‘Shape I’m In’ – Joe Camilleri being one of the few Australian vocalists who could sing in a keening reggae voice without embarrassing faux-Jamaican mannerisms. Honourable mention must be made of the first Australian dub reggae LP (dub being the studio producer’s deconstruction of instrumental reggae invented by the likes of King Tubby and Lee Perry in Jamaica). Ten Dubs That Shook the World was released in 1988 and credited to Sherrif Lindo and the Hammer (actually Sydney producer, Anthony Maher.) The record matched the creativeness of many international dub innovations and paved the way for many similar electronic experiments in the ’90s and beyond.
Unfortunately, at the end of the decade the level of Australian reggae musicianship had perhaps degenerated somewhat and was not up to backing a Jamaican artist. Popular singer/songwriter Bob Andy best known for his work on the legendary Studio One label spent several months in 1989 trying to hone a local band to play his songs, culminating in a very ordinary gig in an Oxford Street nightclub in which he publically castigated both audience and band.
For me, perhaps the highlight of reggae in Sydney in the 1980s was creating and successfully running a sound system dance called Massive Reggae in 1988 with a group of broadcaster/DJs including Mark Ottignon, Clay Caplice and Andrew Thomas. In a collaboration with JJ Roberts and the Soulmaker sound system we converted a Tae Kwon Do practice space above a service station in Cleveland Street, Redfern into an authentic reggae dancehall. It was a hugely successful night and proved reggae had a solid following in Sydney. Hearing and more importantly feeling reggae pumping on a big system in a smoke-drenched hall, packed to the rafters with people of all backgrounds remains my musical and social utopia, a place to return to again and again.
Digital Freakazoid was the street name of Jacques Capdor, an old-school break (street) dancer, from Blacktown, Sydney. Capdor was initially exposed to Hip Hop culture in the early 1980s while still at school and it made a big impact upon him. He became heavily involved in breaking, forming his crew the Break Lords in 1984. Capdor remembers the 1980s fondly and relates some of his early experiences breaking in Blacktown…
I started breaking back in 1982 at the age of 11, with my cousin Eric Capdor aka Apache. We were always in high demand at family weddings and parties. Eric always had this one move that he loved doing where he would pretend to pull out his eye, swallow it (using his popping, locking and wave techniques) then do the motion of swallowing incorporating a body wave, he would than bring it back up using the same method, coughing it up into his hand. He then would pretend to throw his eye at me. I would then mimic the same moves, cough it up and throw back his eye at him where he would pretend to put it back into his eye socket. All the while he had one eye shut to give the impression that he had removed his eye.
I didn’t become part of my crew the Break Lords until 1984. The Break Lords were a trio hailing from Sydney’s west side (Blacktown); the crew was Marc Nemorin, aka Machine, Abilio Pascoa, aka Speedy and I.
We came together as a trio by accident in 1984 at school. The school was organizing a gala day which showcased our school’s talent, so being the only known breakers in the same year; we decided to come together as the Break Lords. I can remember half an hour before going on stage, that I hadn’t laid the cardboard, and the guys were relying on me. So I bolted into Blacktown Franklins, gathered up boxes, broke them up, put them in my armpits, struggled back, losing my kung fu shoes along the way, and having to regather. Marc and Abilio’s jaw dropped to the ground, when they saw the cardboard I’d gathered. They were the crappiest and smallest boxes and were soggy in some parts. I only had less then five minutes to tape them all up; I didn’t even have time to remove the staples, and came off second best. My clothes had small rips, I had a few scratches, and I can remember looking at the staples and seeing tufts of hair stuck in it.
In 1982 breaking was only new to Australia; it was Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Girls’ that left an impression on me and the youth of Australia, we were all attempting the dance moves.
I can remember laying my parents’ garage with cardboard and practicing day and night bruises and all. The garage ended up like my own dance studio, I had kids in the street rushing over straight after school just so I could give them lessons, they were all dressed like they’d just walked out of Olivia’s ‘Let’s get physical’ music clip. These kids would tell me they needed lessons badly as a family member was getting married or having a birthday and their parents wanted them to impress and put on a show. The only time I’d get a rest was when the milk man came by; we’d all rush over and pick up our favourite beverage, chocolate Moove for only twenty cents.
We would hang out break dancing on footpaths, in parks, basketball courts, outdoor parties, car parks, police boys clubs, blue light discos, even notable parts of Sydney like Circular Quay was a popular hangout for breakers. During the 80s it was common to see breakers outside or in shopping malls with a sheet of cardboard and a ghetto blaster performing for an audience.
We’d hang out at Franklins, waiting for cardboard boxes to come down the caged shutes, we’d rush off when we had enough, pull them apart, tape them up and before long we’d have our dance floor. Scoring industrial cardboard was a big bonus; the sheets were thicker and in bigger pieces and lasted longer, as you can imagine recycling techniques have changed since the early 80s. Some kids would show off and roll out a piece of lino.
We would battle and challenge against each other showcasing our dance moves. The winning side was determined by the breaker who could out perform each other by displaying a set of more complicated and innovative moves.
Marc aka Machine reminded me of the days when we use to record the music off the radio. All prepared with the finger on the record button, only to have his Mum half way through the recording come in and say dinner was ready. We’d be out there breaking away and have his Mum’s recorded voice on the tape which was way uncool but funny at the same time.
In the 80s breaking got a lot of kids into trouble from their parents. I can remember some kids that smoked, would forget to empty their pockets of one or two cigarettes and their lighter. Their break moves would send it all flying out onto the dance floor, in front of parents and family members. In disgust the parents would drag them away by the ears, how embarrassing.
We wore nylon Adidas and Puma tracksuits, double breasted shirts and baggies with kung fu shoes, or jeans with hooded jackets. We wore the same outfits to show uniformity. Our sneakers had thick laces. Bigger crews with the same matching outfits were perceived as a threat to other breakers by their strength in numbers.
Our heroes at the time were the Rock Steady Crew; they pretty much took break dancing around the world. On the 29/07/1984 Countdown featured the Beat Street grand final with special guest the Rock Steady Crew. The finalists were Electric Troopers from Queensland, Street Patrol from NSW:
Electro Shock from Tasmania:
Shane Mathews from Northern Territory:
Rap City Connection from South Australia and Energy Transfer from Victoria, who were voted the winners:
The Rock Steady Crew performed live and announced they were touring, to the excitement of breakdancers across Australia.
Like Countdown, other television programs from the 80s which showcased local breakers as well as other elements of Hip Hop culture were: Sounds, Young Talent Time, Hey Hey it’s Saturday and Star Search. Break dancing in the early 80s got a lot of media exposure through movies and documentaries such as Wild Style, Beat Street, Krush Groove, Breakin’, and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. These films helped to expand the appeal of Hip Hop culture in Australia.
The popularity of the break dancing scene eventually faded in the mid 80s, it went pretty much underground until it made a comeback, in 1997. Break dancing is much alive in Australia again, but there are some considerable differences to that of breakers of the 80s. Nowadays you won’t find breakers out there on the streets, breaking in their tracky dacks with a ghetto and a piece of cardboard. These days we have a lot more breakdance comps, events and festivals that showcase break dancing, not to mention workshops and dance schools adopting Hip Hop due to its popularity.
A lot of critics of Hip Hop have said that non-Anglo Australians were more attracted to the Hip Hop culture because of its lyrical content of racial opposition such as in African American Hip Hop. I don’t think we were attracted to Hip Hop because of race. Sure there were issues with race, I can’t remember how many times I was called a wog, but that didn’t make me turn to Hip Hop, I just wanted to dance and belong. Non Anglo youth embraced Hip Hop better than the Anglo youth of Australia, who were pretty much already part of the Rock scene. Hip Hop appealed to us more because of its fusion of funk, disco, soul, jazz and R&B which had been exposed to us one way or another through our parents’ cultural music. On a typical Saturday night the Aussies would be at their local pubs while the Wogs would be lined up outside clubs like the Apia Club, Vibrations, Mystics and Flashez to name a few.
Hip Hop from the early 80s was all about everyday, family, having a good time and being a ladies’ man.
There may have been elements of social issues, like ‘The Message’ from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five; a classic song which spoke about surviving day by day in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. But Sydney’s west was no way like the ghettos in America.
In the early 80s Hip Hop was pretty much an underground culture, a lot of the music we listened to was American Hip Hop, the likes of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Sugar Hill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force and Run D.M.C.
Other then American Hip Hop, one notable Australian artist at the time that we listened to was Sound Unlimited who originated from the western Sydney suburb of Burwood in 1983. Sound Unlimited, (previously called Westside Posse, then Sound Unlimited Posse) became the first Australian hip hop act signed to a major label.
They have contributed to the Australian Hip Hop scene supporting several other bands. The group supported acts such as New Kids on the Block, Public Enemy and De La Soul during their Australian tours.
Hip Hop in the day, was very hard to get a hold of, only a few DJs, radio stations and music stores stocked imports. We relied on music stores like Central Station Records, to keep us up to date with the latest imports. Community radio stations like 2RDJ FM, 2SER and 2RRR, and youth network Triple J kept us up to date with the Hip Hop scene.
One thing I learned from the 80s was a lesson in recouping from “Mr T” through break dancing. If I ever fell to the ground rather then get up and brush myself off, I would save myself the embarrassment and break out into some dance moves like crazy legs or the caterpillar. It worked a charm always; I’d always get my high fives afterward, instead of snickering of embarrassing laughter from bystanders, as they say, in case of an emergency Break Dance!
I’m glad to have been part of the 80s, for me I feel it was the best decade of music and fashion. This is a message to the 80s come back, all is forgiven.
Rod came along to the 80s Mod Revival Party held at the museum on 15th May, 2010. Here he recalls his memories of the scene in 80s, including an eventful scooter run to Palm Beach, that attracted the interest of the local police, “all these kids running around in suits and ties and girls in mini-skirts – this is not riot potential – it’s a fashion riot really”. Rod was also a regular at the Sussex Hotel, a local venue that supported young mods and the live music scene.
Part 1: Siobhán shows off her vintage 1964 ‘winter model’ Lambretta, made in Spain, and recalls the time she rode it along the Nullarbor Plain to raise money for cancer research!
Part 2: Being a mod
Siobhán was definitely a mod in the 80s, and here she recalls buying her first Lambretta and going on scooter runs. She was incredibly active in the scene, running a fan magazine and working as a dj.
Part 3:The classic scooter club – “the journey is part of the event”
Do you know the difference between a classic scooter and a modern scooter? Siobhán explains why an automatic ‘twist and go’ scooter just isn’t the same as vintage.
“Hey you! Square eyes! You got any idea what’s goin’ on inside TV?”
Watch ‘Inside TV’, an Australian media mashup from 1984, that John Jacobs crash edited on a pair of back-to-back domestic VHS decks.John Jacobs spent much of the 1980s entangled in a deep love-hate abusive relationship with television. It involved many late nights of taping and cutting up TV on a then newfangled gadget: the VCR. Not having any other outlet for the resulting videos, they were distributed by dubbing them back onto the ends of hire video tapes (an amusement at the time and now a snapshot of bad hairdos and silly game shows).
Jim came along with his little red scooter, to the ‘show n shine’, that was part of the 80s Mod Revival weekend at the museum. He shares his memories of playing mod music with bands like The Key, The Go and The Interceptors and explains how sharp the mod scene was, compared to the other fashions at the time, “at that time in Australia in the early 80s, growing up was about getting a mullet, getting a pair of stubbies, getting some thongs and putting some zinc on your nose!”
Living a split life of debauchery which shifted between Freestyle BMX and heavy metal depending what events were going down at any particular time. BMX riding all the time though during the week. At school and living in Mt Druitt.
What are your strongest impressions of the 1980s?
KISS, BMX and girls with tights on covered with leg warmers just above their kt 26 joggers – haha. I guess realising as I got into my teenage years how lucky I was to be an Australian. I began taking notice of events on the news at this stage for the first time. The happenings in the Middle East did concern me.
What historical event of the 1980s has most resonance for you?
Definitely the first Space Shuttle launch. Without question.
What was an event/party/pub session/nightclub of the 80s that stands out? …. And any memories (fond or foul) of what you were wearing in the 1980s?Had to have been going to see KISS the first time they toured Australia.
I was in the queue with my school mates for an hour eating a can of tuna I had brought along with me wearing a white KISS T-shirt, tight black jeans with a blue flanny tied around my waist. haha.
What music/movies/TV engaged you in the 1980s (and did you takes sides on VHS versus Betamax), and now?
STAR WARS, Without a doubt.
What were you listening to – and was it on a Walkman?
Haha – it was on my stereo and my walkman. I’ll keep this list short as it could go on forever. MOTLEY CRUE, KISS, DEVO and LED ZEPPELIN.
What did you do for entertainment/leisure then and now?
RIDE BMX. We used to spend most of our time at Five Dock skate park, Emerton BMX Track, North Ryde skate park, the local quarter pipes that were dotted around the neighbourhood and on Friday night hit up Blacktown TIMEZONE.
Oh yeah, and try and avoid getting into too much mischief.
What do you think are the main differences between the 80s and how the world and/or your life is today?
In the 1980s my life was mostly riding and racing bikes, and pushing them and myself to our limits.
These days I still do that but I also have managed to make a business out of my passion, running the shop, Warzone Bikes, in Sutherland, where we do retro BMX rebuilds as well as modern freestyle and modern race BMXs.What was a prized object you owned then (and do you still have it)?
One of my prized objects was my 1985 S.E. QUADANGLE – and, yes, I still have it (pictured at left) and currently race it in the Retro Race Series.