Another music writing challenge set by The Riff, and it’s a significant one!
Your favourite live show!
Now, given my vintage, and my passion for music, I have been to a lot of gigs. And I mean A LOT! Choosing a favourite live show is a very difficult task. Some gigs are memorable for multiple reasons, and some have a special place in my memory because of the time, place, artist or even who I was with.
A little while back someone challenged me to list all of the bands I’d ever seen. I spent a great deal of time (perhaps too much, but hey, we were in lockdown) thinking about bands I’d seen, and methodically listing them in a spreadsheet. I got to 266, but I reckon that is a conservative estimate, particularly given the huge number of small or unknown bands that I saw in Melbourne pubs and clubs in my early 20s. So I’m going for an estimate of 300+, possibly 350. The actual number of shows would be incalculable.
I’ve seen some incredible shows, including Rage Against The Machine with The Jesus Lizard, Smashing Pumpkins playing to 800 people in a pub prior to a festival performance, Nirvana thrice, Midnight Oil at Kooyong. I’ll stop there.
Some of my most treasured musical moments include intimate or low key sets. For example, The Moffs playing on a Monday afternoon at my university student union lounge to about 30 people, with the four guys setting up in the corners of the room, the desk in the middle, and us sitting around being treated to something special.
The most amusing gig I’ve ever seen was a nameless band performing in a battle of the bands competition at university: “Hi, we’re a cover band, we only play songs by one artist, actually we only play songs from one album, that album is Lou Reed’s ‘New Sensations’, this is side one track one, ‘I Love You Suzanne’“. They tore through side one of the album and walked off. Hysterical!
However, I digress. Onto the best show I’ve ever seen.
That show also happens to be the first concert I ever went to, at the age of 14. The show was the band Men At Work, as they headlined a “Rocktober” concert promoted by Melbourne radio station 3XY, held at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in October 1983.
Before the details are spilled, I must set the scene (particularly for non-Australian readers).
Men At Work were one of the biggest bands in the world at the time. They had risen from relative obscurity to international chart toppers in a few short years. Their debut album ‘Business As Usual’ was released in November 1981. By January 1983, the album and the single ‘Down Under’ were simultaneously number one album and single on the United States Billboard charts. The album was number one for 15 weeks! The album and single were both number one on the Australian, New Zealand, and United Kingdom charts. Their second album ‘Cargo’, released in May 1983 went to number one in Australia, number two in New Zealand, number three in the US, and number eight in the UK. From May to mid-October 1983, the band toured extensively through the US, playing large festivals and headlining dozens of shows. The return to Melbourne in late October was a sort of homecoming, riding the crest of the wave of success.
Located in Melbourne’s Kings Domain gardens precinct, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl is an outdoor venue featuring a large bandshell, with around 2,000 seats up the front and a huge grassed slope that can hold many thousands of people. Built in 1959, it’s construction was advanced for its time. The bowl has hosted numerous international music acts over the decades, often drawing 30,000-70,000 people. The most famous show was the homecoming concert by The Seekers in 1967, where an estimated 200,000 people turned up!
Ok, that’s a bit of background about the band and the venue. But, there’s one more scene I need to set.
The America’s Cup is a sailing competition first held in 1851, making it the oldest international competition still operating in any sport. The US held the cup for 132 years, until it was snatched away by the Australian challenger Australia II, from the Perth Yacht Club. To take the cup away from the US after 26 successful defences over 132 years was a huge triumph. The whole nation was enthralled with the challenge, with the crew needing to win three straight races to come back from a 3-1 deficit. Millions of Australians stayed up throughout the night until news of the last race victory came through at dawn. Even our Prime Minister got in on the excitement, declaring that “Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum!”. Of note, the Boxing Kangaroo was the official mascot of Australia II, and the Men At Work song ‘Down Under’ became the official anthem for the crew.
Right, with all of that in mind, here we go. Cut to 14-year-old me walking into the bowl with a couple of school mates. It’s a warm afternoon. We find a patch of grass to sit on for the duration. The crowd fills in around us. There’s a lot of people.
There were six bands on the bill for the afternoon. The first two bands, The Expression and Le Club Foote came and went without much fanfare but they were enjoyable nonetheless. I remember thinking that the sound was pretty good. Kids In The Kitchen were next, and I was excited to see them; they had a big hit with the song ‘Change In Mood’ released that month. Another break to quickly load out and in, then Sharon O’Neill came on stage. A New Zealand singer-songwriter, she had a big hit earlier in the year with the song ‘Maxine’. Another enjoyable performance. For my first concert, this was going well indeed, I was having a great time!
Next, the great Mondo Rock came on to play. Ross Wilson, formerly of the legendary band Daddy Cool, had set himself up with Eric McCusker to form Mondo Rock. Wilson was one of those rare talents that wrote and performed music in multiple bands. Mondo Rock’s second album ‘Chemistry’ was Australian album of the year in 1981. I absolutely loved seeing them play those songs that I knew by heart.
With five bands out of the way, darkness descending, and the bowl now packed with people, Men At Work hit the stage. The noise from the crowd was immense, something that I’d really only heard once before (at a football game two months beforehand). The band launched into their songs and the crowd was up and dancing and cheering.
Then it happened. That opening tom tom roll of the hit song ‘Down Under’. It triggered a euphoric explosion as all 30,000 people screamed, yelled, cheered. People just went absolutely berserk, singing their hearts out.
“I come from a land down under!”
Everyone knew the words. Boxing Kangaroo flags and Australian flags shot up and waved about. I sang my heart out with everyone else. I had goosebumps everywhere. Tears began to leak as a well of emotion spilled out of me from somewhere deep inside.
“Can’t you hear, can’t you hear that thunder?!”
Yes, I could hear the thunder, but I wasn’t taking cover! The Australian spirit, boosted by the America’s cup win, and the band’s triumphant return home, was on full display. There was plenty of hugging and tears of joy and laughter amongst the dancing and singing. A singular outpouring of emotion. At one point, I just stood there, mesmerised, gobsmacked, absorbing the scene, taking it all in. It was a perfect moment. The most thrilling thing I’d ever experienced.
I was simply blown away by the power of music, the power that one song could have. That song became a de facto national anthem, and brought joy to so many people. It is still immensely popular today. Since being posted to YouTube in 2013, the video for ‘Down Under’ has been viewed more than 247 MILLION times!
I must admit, I don’t remember the trip home after the concert. Oh well, never mind the minor, unimportant details. Hearing ‘Down Under’ nowadays though takes me straight back to that grassy slope in Melbourne almost 40 years ago. That is definitely a write-protected, archived memory that will last forever.
First published in The Riff at Medium.com, on 19 April 2021.
Copyright for the ‘Business As Usual’ album cover remains with CBS Records.