Dancers at Sweetwaters South. - Photo by Catherine Harrison - The Press, 7 February 1984

“If this plane goes down it’ll be worse than Buddy Holly” guffawed Sweetwaters MC Gary McCormick loudly to one and all as the troops were buckling in on an Air New Zealand 737 flight bound from Auckland to Christchurch for Sweetwaters South.

It was early on Monday, 6 February 1984 – Waitangi Day – and among those onboard were Talking Heads, The Pretenders, Simple Minds, JoBoxers, Dance Exponents and Netherworld Dancing Toys (NDTs). All fresh from playing Sweetwaters north at Pukekawa. We were off on a whirlwind 24-hour adventure, briefly plucked from the summer tour circuit for what would turn out be quite a surreal interlude.

Sweetwaters South double-page print ad, Rip It Up, January 1984

Inclusion of the local bands was announced in the Christchurch Press on 19 January.

Jordan Luck: “It must have all been organised but it seemed to happen quickly to me. We flew down together, Dance Exponents, the NDTs and everyone else. I remember sitting two rows behind Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders) and Jim Kerr (Simple Minds), their romance must have been blooming after a week in the country. And Gary McCormick making his Buddy Holly comment.”

The crowd and stage, Sweetwaters South.  - Photo by Catherine Harrison, The Press, 7 February 1984 / PapersPast

Dance Exponents drummer Michael “Harry” Harallambi: “Late 1983 and early 1984 were exhilarating times for the young Dance Exponents and my 19-year-old self. We’d recently opened for David Bowie at Western Springs and Athletic Park in Wellington, then three months later we played Sweetwaters North and South. The Sweetwaters South part started with the early morning flight to Christchurch for the show that day. On the plane, waiting to leave the gate, what was to be a common event played out – the flight attendant, slightly annoyed, saying over the intercom ‘we are awaiting just one more passenger to board’. It was of course Jordan Luck.

“I was seated directly behind Jim Kerr and Chrissie Hyde. They spent the whole flight snogging and being awfully frisky.”

Poster for Sweetwaters South 1984

The show was big news in the south. Unsurprisingly there had been a stream of small stories in the local media. It was newsworthy enough for the Christchurch Press to run an article about Invercargill’s Brazier Scaffolding building the largest outdoor stage the South Island had seen up to that time; the firm worked on the Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter near Bluff.

Also that two Bristol Freighters would fly in to Christchurch on the morning of the show with band equipment brought down from Sweetwaters North. Coverage was granular enough to report that there would be 12 caravans behind the main stage and a 13.8 by 11m marquee canteen for 180 crew, staff and band members, as well as “a large area covered with sawdust and 40 plants brought in to beautify the area”.

I remember the marquee and pot plants well.

The weather was patchy on the day and according to reports a crowd of 15,000 attended. The Press had reported 20,000 were needed to make break even and that 35,000 tickets had been printed. Sweetwaters North had only drawn half the expected 30,000 and the low turnouts for both events heralded the end of the annual festival.

Sweetwaters South performance times. - The Press / PapersPast

NDTs – onstage at 1pm

This was the NDT’s third big stage show, following Sweetwaters at Pukekawa in 1983 and again just two days earlier. The difference from playing in close proximity in hot sweaty pub, club or university rooms, was massive.

The Netherworld Dancing Toys brass section at Sweetwaters, a year earlier. - Nick Sampson collection

Stadium bands make it look so easy. But it’s a different ball game without the close eye contact and intensity of the onstage sound in a small venue. The quality of monitor foldback, always vital, becomes absolutely essential and bandmates seem far away. As does the crowd, the normal energy dissipated with the closest punters off in the distance, especially at 1pm, playing outdoors.

As we kicked the afternoon off there were several thousand in the park, with more people pouring onto the field. We put in a high-energy set, playing a cut-down 40 minutes cherry-picked from our night-time pub show. The response was enthusiastic and warm. I remember thinking the band had come a long way since our first mainstage appearance a year prior.

I also remember how friendly and supportive the crew were – there were so many of them. International shows have a particular vibe. A real sense of “top of the game” professionalism, where everyone seems proud to be there, busily doing what they expertly do. It also seemed like they were genuinely rooting for the locals having their chance on the big stage. We felt in safe hands.

The crowd pressed up against the barrier at Sweetwaters South. - Photo by Catherine Harrison, The Press, 7 February 1984

This was the Mark II NDT line-up with Neville Schwabe on sax, Steve Renwick on trombone and Gary Valentine on trumpet.

Gary Valentine (NDTs, trumpet): “The QEII stage was massive, like the one up north. It felt like the boys were spread far and wide shouting instructions at each other. It was so different to the gigs we were used to.”

Neville Schwabe (NDTs, saxophone): “In my experience those big outdoor gigs are never as much fun to play as they should be ... it’s always a rush to get set up and get the foldback to where you can just about function ... then the set flies by and you can’t really hear the band so you end up playing kind of on autopilot, while being acutely aware there’s a big stage to fill and punters out there expecting a ‘show’. Difficult circumstances to perform at your peak really, and hats off to the bands who do it regularly. But from memory we played fine that day.”

Brent Alexander (NDTs, drums): “Playing on that stage, among all of it, was just so big and exciting. We’d come straight from the small venues on the pub circuit. It was a big leap up.”

It was also a step up for our soundman Tex Houston. For the second time on the weekend he was faced with sound and mixing technology that seemed like the Starship Enterprise compared to the rigs we usually toured with.

Tex Houston (NDTs, sound engineer): “I have a strong memory of the PA system being utterly enormous. This was an old school PA with ‘W’ bins stacked up to the sky and it sounded really great.”

Meanwhile, it was a welcome day off for our lighting man, Ged.

Ged Taylor (NDTs, lights): “It was a great event for me as we played at 1pm and I had no lights to do. Once we’d cleared the backline off stage and packed it away I had an AAA pass and all those great bands to watch.”

Dance Exponents – onstage at 2pm

Dance Exponents on the stage at Sweetwaters South. - Photo by Colin Bower, Rip It Up, February 1984

If the NDTs were learning the ropes of playing the big stadium environment, Dance Exponents looked right at home. They filled the stage with energy, charisma and their trusty swag of poptastic hits. Honed by non-stop touring, they were a well-oiled machine, and being hometown boys the crowd sparked up noticeably.

Jordan Luck: “It was in the middle of a nonstop summer tour. Prayers Be Answered [Dance Exponents’ debut album] had come out in November. Ha, this big stage stuff wasn’t new to us (chuckle, chuckle). We’d also done the Bowie concert at Western Springs. That was something. We actually missed most of Bowie’s show that night as we had to get across town and play Mainstreet as well. I remember Mainstreet being packed as I’d said at Western Springs that Bowie was going to come along after his set.

“QEII Park was such a different experience to the North Island Sweetwaters where everyone was immersed in the event for two or three days. You really got into the whole atmosphere there. Christchurch was a one-day gig, not a festival. I remember the crowd was into it but wasn’t huge. I heard it was 15,000, it must have been disappointing for the organisers. But it was great to play.”

Party time

By 3pm both local bands were finished. We had access to the backstage marquee and a remarkable line-up of bands to watch. Jordan and I teamed up for the first of several sorties out front. Armed with a six-pack we headed off to watch London’s JoBoxers, all 10-hole Doc Martens, rolled up trousers, braces, flat caps and high energy. It seemed apparent to me they were riding a wave of flavour-of-the-moment hype and that the real show would begin with The Pretenders. But their current single ‘Just Got Lucky’ had the crowd up and jumping.

Ged Taylor: “I was really quite interested to see JoBoxers, their single ‘Just Got Lucky’ was big right then. But there didn’t seem to a lot more to them really.”

Dig Wayne fronting JoBoxers at Sweetwaters South. - Photo by Catherine Harrison, The Press, 7 February 1984

Meanwhile backstage there were lashings of fine food and drink, and famous people to watch as the headline acts started to arrive.

Harry: “I recall that, even though the weather was dreary and cold, the whole vibe backstage was one of real fun, well except for The Pretenders, everyone socialising and making new friends. Talking Heads were a little shy and kept to themselves, but everybody else was up for a good time.”

Ged: “The catering in the marquee backstage was just exceptional. In fact I don’t remember watching Dance Exponents, I must have been enjoying it so much. A big Dunedin contingent had come up for the show, my 15-year-old sister was there too. She ended up running out of money and walked right across Christchurch to where she was staying afterwards, late. It makes me shudder now.”

Gary Valentine: “I clearly remember sitting backstage in the big marquee having a few beers with Jordan and co, and Karyn Hay talking about where and when the two bands would next cross paths on the Kiwi provincial pub tours we were all doing.”

Brent Alexander: “Ha, I was so young, I felt quite insecure and kept my eyes down a lot of the time in case I eyeballed someone really famous and they started talking to me. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

Graham Cockroft (NDTs, bass): “I remember being out front watching JoBoxers and talking with Jim Kerr in front of the sound desk, when, I assumed bored with the conversation, he said ‘I’m off backstage to watch Chrissie perform’, and only weeks later, when their romance came out in the media, realising what he was really up to. At the time I thought we were incredibly lucky to get that gig, even more so looking back on it now.”

Tex Houston: “I remember being somewhat starstruck by all the famous faces backstage, like ooh there’s Chrissie Hynde talking to Jim Kerr.”

Later on I ran into Jim Kerr and Chrissie Hynde snogging next to a portaloo behind the grandstand when I was off for a pee. “Hello,” I said. Chrissie shot me daggers. They went on to get married and have a daughter.

The Pretenders and Simple Minds

Jim Kerr from Simple Minds, onstage at Sweetwaters South. - Photo by Catherine Harrison, The Press, 7 February 1984

Talking about the day 40 years later, various memories float to the surface.

Ged Taylor: “The Pretenders were a revelation. They were great and surprisingly punky at times. It wasn’t just ‘Brass in Pocket’ and ‘Stop Your Sobbing’. If you go back to their first album it’s actually really gutsy. Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bass player Pete Farndon were dead by then (in 1982 and 1983 respectively) but songs like ‘Precious’ really kicked that afternoon.

“New Zealand had thrashed the England cricket team in a test at Lancaster Park the day before and Martin Chambers came on stage at the start of their set with a cricket bat and threw it to the front rows, saying ‘here you have this we don’t deserve it anymore’. Chrissie Hynde wasn’t impressed at all, I think she called him a dick.”

Harry: “Chrissie Hynde wasn’t so friendly with her drummer, Martin Chambers. They were spitting daggers backstage, then onstage during the performance they were just abusing one another throughout. Ugly as that was to see, they were good.”

Jordan: “I remember there was some tension happening on stage between Chrissie Hynde and Martin Chambers. It seemed to be about the tempo in some songs.”

Print ads in Rip It Up for the Pretenders and Simple Minds ahead of Sweetwaters 1984.

Gary Valentine: “I remember Chrissy Hynde as she was mentally preparing to go on, pacing round and round in her own space. I remember wondering how after so many performances you step up and make the next one the same if not better. She was obviously taking the time to sort that out in her head.”

Brent Alexander: “I was fascinated by Martin Chambers the Pretenders’ drummer, and got talking with his tech. They changed his skins after each show which seemed extraordinary. The roadie also perched behind him when he played and would sneak up and pour water on his floor tom so that when he hit it water would spray up in the back lighting. It was simple but very effective.

“Simple Minds were incredible too. Big and awesome. I think Sparkle in the Rain had been released here first in the world to coincide with the shows. The single ‘Waterfront’ with its huge dynamics sounded epic.”

Meanwhile in the marquee

Back in the tent we were sitting around between sets, various NDTs, Dance Exponents, Pretenders, JoBoxers, Simple Minds and Talking Heads. Annabelle Carr from our label, Virgin, asked, “Simple Minds have been in the country for a week, can you guys look after them?” So we did. Apart from aloof Jim. He was chatting with David Byrne and keeping an eye on Chrissie.

Simple Minds turned out to be great company: guitarist Charlie Burchill, bass player Derek Forbes and drummer Mel Gaynor.

Harry: “Simple Minds and JoBoxers were really nice down-to-earth people who were very much enjoying their time spent on our fine paddocks. Our old Dunedin chums – and frequent paddock aficionados – the Dancing Toys, along with us Dancies, were having a jolly good time. I’m sure the relaxed, enjoyable environment helped all the acts put on a good show.” 

Brian Jones (Dance Exponents, guitar/BVs): “The Simple Minds lads were awesome to hang out with and I clearly remember Chrissie Hynde and Jim Kerr together. Chrissie made a comment about the smell from the portaloos backstage.”

At one point, no doubt fuelled by Steinlager courage, I bumbled up to Jim Kerr and David Byrne and introduced myself. It was a brief conversation.

Talking Heads

Talking Heads had filmed the Stop Making Sense movie two months earlier in Hollywood. They’d then played the Narara Festival in New South Wales and two shows in Melbourne in late January before crossing the Tasman for the Sweetwaters performances on the final leg of their Speaking In Tongues tour. As it turned out Sweetwaters South was the band’s last ever show. Chris Frantz talks about it in his autobiography Remain in Light. David Byrne had had enough.

Talking Heads print ad, January 1984 - Papers Past

Ged: “I just remember everyone around me going ‘holy bloody shit’! We’d seen the show at Sweetwaters North so knew what to expect. It was a jaw-dropping brilliance made all the more special because it turned out to be their last-ever live performance.”

Harry: “The Talking Heads show that night was amazing.”

Tex: “Talking Heads was one of my favourite shows ever. This was Stop Making Sense with the gradual building up of the band until the drummer arrived on stage and they launched into ‘Burning Down the House’ which was a total wow moment. Magic.”

Brent: “The show seemed even more fantastic in Christchurch, they were on fire. I saw the re-release of the Stop Making Sense movie last year [2023] and it just reinforced how amazing it was. There were all these great, funk musicians in the band. Keys player Bernie Worrell who’d been in Parliament/ Funkadelic and guitarist Alex Weir from the Brothers Johnson.”

"Time for a rest" - Sweetwaters South. - Photo by Catherine Harrison, The Press, 7 February 1984

The continuing after-match

Back in the marquee among the pot plants and sawdust the revelry continued. Post-show spirits were high as the international musicians and locals mingled, along with various media and record company folk. Everyone was in party mode.

Remarkably, even for them, two of the NDT’s Dunedin buddies, Graeme Newell and Shane Tibby, gate-crashed. Both appeared with a bottle of scotch in hand. I assumed they were nicked off a nearby table.

Later, the NDTs, Dance Exponents and most of the international bands relocated to the Chancery Lane night club in town. I remember Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth holding court at an elevated table, but things get a bit blurry at this point. One thing I do remember is Tibby holding a pottle of hot chips and a beer, needing a toilet break. Backing singers from Talking Heads were standing outside the loos. Without a word he passed the nearest one his beer and chips on the way in. She looked confused but held each in an outstretched hand until he returned and retrieved them. I don’t think a word was spoken.

Tuesday morning coming down

Then in a flash it was all over. A couple of hours sleep were snatched at whatever hotel we were booked into. Barely time for heads to touch pillows. Soon hangovers were rattling around a taxi van on the way to Christchurch Airport for an early morning flight back to Auckland. Several hours later we back on the never-ending summer pub tour.


The Press news report about Sweetwaters South, 7 February 1984 / PapersPast

Sweetwaters South reviews - The Press, 7 February 1984 / PapersPast

Sweetwaters South - The Press, 7 February 1984 / PapersPast

Sweetwaters South, reviewed by S J Townshend, Rip It Up, February 1984

Sweetwaters South reviewed by George Kay and David Taylor, Rip It Up, February 1984

Sweetwaters South aftermath - The Press, 8 February 1984 / Papers Past