The Screaming Meemees at Sweetwaters, 1983. Taken at about 8.30 on Saturday night from the lighting tower. - Photo by Greg Peacocke. 

The Auckland Star’s music critic files on-the-spot reports from Sweetwaters 1983, held at Pukekawa, Waikato

Friday 28 January 1983

“Psssst” was the theme tune for the first day of the Sweetwaters Festival as a thousand beer cans exhaled a cold breath. By the after-midnight hours, though, the same cans bit the dust, forming a noisy carpet under stumbling feet out the front of the main stage.

Yes, it’s Sweetwaters number four and, as in previous years, someone up there approves, turning on mostly clear, all-dry weather for the annual orgy of local and international rock, alternative-lifestyle celebration and hedonistic headbang.

The most noticeable thing was the low body count, with the festival’s 35,000 tickets still not sold out – unlike previous years – and, according to musical director Daniel Keighley, only about 12,000 punters in by the afternoon.

So, with tents, caravans or body bags pitched, parked or tastefully arranged, and “main street” checked out for food (more of the “junk” variety this year), people starting milling around out front of the great monolith of a stage.

And, after weathering the first 10 mainstage bands of this cultural weekend away, I’m left hoping there’s a lot better to come.

Ticket to Sweetwaters 1983.

With Australia’s INXS out of the run, the Friday bill suddenly got decidedly less interesting than it might have been, with most of the crowd probably hoping that Midnight Oil would pull a performance out of the bag to match last year’s fiery festival closer.

As it happened, they didn’t, and a soulful band from Dunedin with the unlikely name of Netherworld Dancing Toys provided the most pleasant surprise of the day.

But, first up at 2pm, came The Mockers, recently transplanted to Auckland from their Wellington hometown. A band that, on past performance anyway, deserved better than the opening spot; they turned in a competent set, well short of actual inspiration.

Next, after an introduction from compere-for-the-weekend Gary McCormick, came rough’n’ready Auckland rock trio The Dabs. They might have been rough around the edges, but driven along by a powerful guitar sound, The Dabs lifted the energy levels immediately.

Third band Blond Comedy were made of more dramatic stuff, though. Driven by a well-disciplined drummer, they play the new wave boogie with serious intent.

Maybe a bit samey in the song department, but the smooth sound, strong vocals and the confident space between rhythm section and guitar mark Blond Comedy as a band to watch in 83.

Then, a change in the programme with unknown quantity Netherworld Dancing Toys being brought forward from Monday night to fill the gap left later in the evening by the non-appearance of INXS.

And we’re glad they were. Big, brassy and soulful or tight-lipped and rocky by turns, Netherworld Dancing Toys (what a mouthful) stirred a big helping of soul classics like ‘Midnight Hour’ and ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’ in with their originals.

Mark Kennedy of Daggy & the Dickheads takes advantage of the main stage on Sweetwaters' opening night, 1983.  - Ian Battersby Collection

Roll on six o’clock and the big noise from Taihape, Daggy and the Dickheads, hit the stage with a dose of old-fashioned high-energy rock. Now supplemented by ex-Dudes guitarist Ian Morris, the Dickheads go at it with a vengeance. It’s often considerably rougher than smooth – especially on the gently-out-of-tune ‘Winter’ – but singer Mark Kennedy provides a very busy focal point, whether chasing his microphone round the stage like a crazed donkey after a carrot, or going vertical for a dramatic leap or two.

Their encore of ‘Satisfaction’ got a roar of approval from the less forward-thinking stumblers stage front.

Dinner hour came and went and onstage rolled The Narcs, a hard-working trio of pros whose future probably lies somewhere across the Tasman with their very Australian-oriented brand of brash guitar-based rock and boogie. Their choice of oldies encore was The Who’s ‘I Can See for Miles’.

Hip Singles seemed less to the growing crowd’s taste, though audience reaction never rose much above cool to warm the whole night. Singer Dick Driver worked hard to light a spark, with the band solidly behind him, but failed.

The Hip Singles’
Dick Driver worked hard to light a spark

The night’s big stars, Midnight Oil, failed too, to put flame to damp fuse. Pity, as it was getting pretty frosty about then. Playing a lot of unfamiliar material from their soon-to-be-released new album, their energy level was certainly lower than their last Sweetwaters performance.

Singer Peter Garrett is still one of rock’s more daunting sights, steam rising from his giant frame as he lurched round the stage like a lunatic on short circuit.

Older songs like ‘Out on the Borderline’, ‘Written in the Heart’ and ‘I Don’t Want to be the One’ brought the best reactions, but the calls for an encore weren’t exactly deafening.

Rose Bayonet provided the night’s comedy turn. A heavy metal band of comic-strip proportions, they took cliches to new heights, pulling every metal stunt out of the bag – leather, studs, long hair, moronic headbanging, smoke bombs, endless directionless guitar, bass and drum solos and the most ridiculous lyrics you’ve ever heard.

Virtually everything they played sounded the same and the most lasting impression of these Aussies [actually, Rose Bayonet were from Wellington – ed.] is that someone somewhere has a lot of money to throw away. The drum kit alone was the size of a house.

Stuck with the 1am spot came Auckland new boys Diehards: a voice, bass, drums and synth band with a jauntier approach than that sort of instrumentation usually indicates.

It’s early days yet, but their vision of 80s pop sounds like it might have something going for it.

So, with jaws getting slacker, the beer cans stacking higher and the atmosphere not quite as carelessly joyful as it might have been, we bid adieu to the first day of Sweetwaters – and fall backwards into the nearest warm ditch.

PS: First prize for best food stall name goes to Sweaty Betty’s Soup Kitchen.               

Saturday 29 January 1983

And strange tribes of people gathered on the dusty ground under the glowering skies … Chosen men among them carried emblems on high poles, some flags and others, different standards of rank or intent. 

One staggering ragged creature proudly carried an empty beer can atop his pole. Another red-faced man displayed an inflated contraceptive. The flush was, no doubt, due to the effort of blowing it up.

Yes, folks, it’s the old Sweetwaters Festival-go-round again and here we are, vaguely stage front, for the second and third days of musical and social madness.

The crowd has expanded to around the 30,000 mark – and the atmosphere is relaxed, almost low-key, with the audience responses not generally creating any new records for public excitement.

And what a strange crowd.

The crowd has expanded to around the 30,000 mark ... and what a strange crowd

Down front, at any given moment last night, you were likely to fall victim, along with your new neighbours, to the latest barrage of flying beer cans in the continuing series of tin-plated set-tos.

But, retreating to higher ground, I encountered a clean-limbed specimen of Kiwi youth who insisted on my having the last cold can from his chilly bin for no more reason than we were sitting together.

And, later, a more hirsute type in another part of the crowd offered a rolled smoke of unspecified substance the size of small marrow. But back to the music and it must be said the general air of relaxation extended to the sounds emitting from the main stage.

Aggression came last, with the big-bass pulse of reggae dominating the sounds on Saturday and Sunday. Homegrown rock talent shone clear and loud, with Screaming Meemees and The Legionnaires making a big impression on Saturday night and Herbs, Dance Exponents and The Neighbours all winning well-deserved shouts of approval yesterday.

Over on the alternative Aerial Railway stage, the Continental Airline Brass were doing Glenn Miller proud and, on the main stage, Hattie, of the Havana Hotshots, was well into her latest costume change when your reviewer came into earshot.

Next up, came the ever-popular Midge Marsden Band with a strong set of blues-edged rock – a tasty entrée for the first international name of the day.

Taj Mahal stands tall, even on the generously proportioned Sweetwaters stage. With a rhythm section providing a solid backbeat and a big basic bass pulse, he kept things cruisy, bluesy and reggaefied.

Playing some tasty guitar, he swung through ‘Stormy Monday’ and ‘Sugar Pie Honey’, slipping sideways for a super-funky of ‘Purple Haze’.

In his ample hands, even the blues wear a smile. So did the crowd.

The smile broadened into a grin for Toots and the Maytals, a band that plays its reggae with a strong taste of soul – thanks to the big expressive voice of frontman Toots Hibbert.

‘Pressure Drop’ came first as Hibbert put heart – and soul – into the show, winning the growing crowd over with ‘Funky Kingston’, ‘54-46 That’s My Number’ and especially ‘Beautiful Woman’, his No.1 New Zealand hit single of last year.

Scotland’s John Martyn won over a lot of ears back in 1980 with his stunning solo performance at the first Sweetwaters – and on Saturday he reached even more.

Performing this time with a wonderfully jazz-edged rhythm section, Martyn’s voice and guitar soared their way through a set that covered old favourites (‘May You Never’) and new (‘Could’ve Been Me’, from his latest, and 12th, album).

Martyn blurs the territory between folk, rock and jazz in a totally uplifting manner, whether on a rollicking ‘Dealer’ and ‘Big Muff’– the last his encore – or on the delicate ‘One World’.

The Screaming Meemees at Sweetwaters, January 1983 - Photo by Jonathan Ganley

Next up, well-known North Shore heroes The Screaming Meemees came on to cheers, which they went on to earn with a very strong set. These guys are veterans at 20 and they’re playing with a power that combines attack with growing musical confidence.

‘Sunday Boys’, ‘Till I Die’, ‘See Me Go’ (the encore) and their new single, ‘Dancing with Stars in My Eyes’, were just some of the highpoints of their stand-out set.

Minus early sound problems, The Legionnaires came on like the world-class band they are. A band with style and class, they played all the favourites plus a new one. The addition of Stuart Pearce on keyboards was icing on the cake.

And then the stars of the night, The Psychedelic Furs, all snazzy lighting, English accents and – at first – dodgy sound.

But the shaky start coalesced into a big bold sound: maybe too big, with cello, guitar, keyboards and brass vying for front spot in the mix.

Singer Richard Butler definitely has one of those voices – Bowie with a sad, cracked edge.

Not the earth-shattering experience some might have expected, but ‘Love My Way’, ‘Sister Europe’ and ‘No Easy Street’ all sounded pretty good. 

Sorry Tomorrow’s Parties, the night’s closers, but the road beckons.

Sunday 30 January 1983

Hey, someone says it’s Sunday, and the biggest musical delight of the day came early, with Herbs at 1pm. Working with an extended line-up, the Auckland band was inspiring.

With a political consciousness now expanded from the street to broader issues, the sound has grown with it, swinging from the warm reggae of ‘Jah’s Son’ and ‘French Letter’, the metal-edged ‘Crazy Mon’, a touch of Santana guitar flash and an Island medley, complete with Tamure dancers.

England’s UB40 provided the perfect aftertaste with a lengthy set of their distinctive, melodic reggae. And the crowd loved it, from the opening ‘Tyler Is Guilty’ right through to the encore of ‘Food for Thought’.

The Neighbours with Rick Bryant, Trudi Green and Sam Ford, a few days after Sweetwaters at Athletic Park, January 1983. - John Pilley

Then The Neighbours strutted their big-band soul and rock to the delight of the crowd. Singer Trudi Green shone on a new song, ‘First Love’, a ballad in the classic 60s mould, and Rick Bryant stirred up the soul fever with ‘Can’t Turn You Loose’ and ‘Everybody Needs Somebody’, with an extended brass section pulling all the right dance steps.

Come 7pm and 1982’s major pop discovery Dance Exponents dramatically extended their appeal with a tough, tight and punchy set before 1982’s rock discovery, DD Smash, took over.

Unfortunately, last night anyway, the cutting edge of old has been replaced by a lot of sonic bluster. Frontman Dave Dobbyn was as energetic as ever, but the guitars didn’t cut through the new horns/keyboard section the way they once did.

The absence of regular bassman Lisle Kinney left a certain weakness in the rhythm section too, but that didn’t stop the crowd from joining in on ‘The Devil You Know’ and ‘Solo’.

Australian band The Church started dull and ended sounding pretty good. All sad-voiced gloom and jangly guitars, they built from that dud start to something approaching a climax by set’s end.

Mike Chunn and Tim Finn, Sweetwaters 1983

And, finally, the much-vaunted Split Enz reunion gig.

First, a set of new favourites and then on come “old boys” Mike Chunn, Rob Gillies and Paul Crowther for a clutch of songs from the early days – ‘Split Ends’ and ‘Matinee Idyll’ among them.

With crowd response fading, they moved on – and the old boys off – taking a quick musical trip through their albums and their 10 years together. Fine music, as always, and again, a heroes’ welcome for all those great songs.

Drummer Noel Crombie turned heads and ears, ambling down frontstage – with singer Tim Finn taking over the kit – for a heartfelt rendition of the John Hore classic ‘My Voice Keeps Changing on Me’.

A swift ‘Proud Mary’ launched the encore and Finn sent the music soaring with the big ballad of the evening – and maybe of his career – ‘Charlie’. 

Ahhhh, said the crowd.

Monday 31 January 1983

“Christ died for YOU,” the sign on the tent shouted.

“Where am I?” the beer-damaged stumbler bellowed.

“When does all this end?” the critic screamed into the wind.

Yes, the sun has risen on the fourth and final day of the Sweetwaters orgy of rock and roll and freeform living.

But the weather has long since ceased to smile on rock bands, rock fans, evangelists, hippies and hoons alike. The wind was hurtling itself at the Pukekawa site with a vengeance yesterday. At around 5am, it claimed the huge tent that housed the public bar, wrenching it from the ground and dumping it down again in limp, two-dimensional form.

Whether this was some comment from a greater power on the drunken excesses of the weekend could well form a basis for discussion over ensuing weeks.

The mainstage music roared into life, only to be hit by power failure just into Mantra’s set of beefy, heavy rock. More than an hour later, the band returned but by this time the road out of the site was nose-to-tail with departing revellers.

Two bands later, Auckland’s No Tag raced to the end of their no-hold-barred set with fine aggression as the lighting rigs swayed dangerously above them in the murderous wind that was whipping up blinding clouds of dust out front.

The danger was obvious for all to see and, around 3.30pm, compere Gary McCormick announced that the organisers were cutting the festival short, cancelling the appearances of Auckland Walk, Willie Dayson Blues Band, Grammar Boys and cross-Tasman guests Australian Crawl.

And so the fourth Sweetwaters was literally blown away and the hordes turned tired faces for home.

Aerial Railway stage, Sweetwaters 1983. Splash screens either side of the stage by Kate Lang, Sweetwaters 1983. Centre: Moby Diack (seated at mixing desk) with Alan Curry. - Photo courtesy of Fat Family Chronicle

And how did it all go?

Well, musically, this was probably the most predictable and least exciting of the four festivals that have borne the name Sweetwaters. The punters judged that beforehand, anyway, turning up in their smallest droves yet – around 30,000, probably less.

Without a major – and we mean major – overseas act (and preferably first-time visitor) next year, Sweetwaters could be a dodgy proposition for 84.

This year’s was also the smoothest-running festival. Unfortunately, smooth seems an apt term for much of the music – a little too smooth, predictable and unchallenging.

Perhaps greatness – in this case musical – is born only of chaos. Generally, the chaos was confined to the front of the stage – but more of that later.

The bands that did shine were the homegrown variety.

Screaming Meemees, The Legionnaires, Herbs and The Neighbours all turned in strong performances, but then again, like them, most of the New Zealand bands featuring on the main stage were familiar names.

The bands that did shine were homegrowN:
Screaming Meemees, The Legionnaires, Herbs and The Neighbours

And, looking at the mostly lacklustre Monday line-up, it’s no wonder the crowds started leaving after Split Enz left the stage on Sunday night.

And there’s another thing. The much-publicised Enz “reunion” show didn’t line up as much of a reunion. No complaints at all about the high-as-usual standard of the music and staging – poi dancers, fire eaters and all – but three past members playing three songs and the band mixing in some old material does not a reunion make.

Toots and the Maytals, Psychedelic Furs, Taj Mahal, UB40 and The Church all delivered the goods.

John Martyn and band did a bit better, turning many heads with his stunning Saturday night set.

Midnight Oil fell far short of the firepower of their 82 Sweetwaters set, though.

And, out front, it was glazed eyes, beer cans, childish outbursts of mindless detached violence – like tossing hard objects into the air and not thinking about whose head they were going to bounce off.

It was fires glowing high on hills among swaying bodies, groaning toilets, people lying stunned, unmoving where they fell in the dust – victims of too much everything – junk food instead of the occasional gastronomic delights of previous years, brutish behaviour from the young, male boorish element in the crowd towards the outnumbered female populace.

It was compere and “man in black” Gary McCormick suddenly appearing onstage on Sunday night in utterly spotless white strides as all around him stood dusty.

It was tents shouting signs like “Christ Died for You” or offering free coffee and a chat about God on their signs, working territory as ripe for born-again missionary zeal as any of those pagan countries of old.

But sometimes it did feel pleasant and a pretty good party to be part of. You did meet strangers out in that crazy crowd you felt okay about sharing this country with.

But maybe – just maybe mind – Sweetwaters has done its dash, brought us some fine music in four years, brought some happy strangers together in a strange place and given a lot of us some good times at the biggest party, classroom and concert hall this country has ever seen.

The idea that it might be up for commercial grabs doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it should end now, while it still has a smile on its face, and still some of its original spirit and intent.

But thanks for the memories.

–  Colin Hogg, January/February 1983, Auckland Star