Where were you in ’74?

Prog-rock band ‘Kush’ perform to a packed audience at Sunbury ’74.  Photo / Peter Evans.
Prog-rock band ‘Kush’ perform to a packed audience at Sunbury ’74.  Photo / Peter Evans.

On the 50th anniversary of the 1974 Sunbury Rock Festival, Peter Evans remembers the day, who played, and why a restless crowd told Queen to go home…

‘Sunbury’ [1972-1975] was not Australia’s first rock music festival, but became arguably its greatest through its longevity, attendance numbers and its effect on Australian music culture.

The third festival [25-28 January 1974], staged on Duncan’s farm at Diggers Rest in January 1974, opened on the Friday night of the Australia Day weekend with Pirana, Ross Ryan and Band of Light, followed by a performance by Sherbet, specially re-formed for the festival. Also specially reformed for a single performance at the 1974 festival were rockers Daddy Cool. A new band for the 1974 festival was Skyhooks (in the days before Graeme ‘Shirley’ Strachan joined the band).

The major hit of the Saturday night was Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs, the acknowledged stars of the festival. Announced as ‘Here’s one for the knockers’ was a makeover of Billy’s smash hit, ‘Somewhere, over the Rainbow’ (first released in December 1964). Billy was reportedly terribly nervous about doing this song, but it was an absolute hit with the crowd. 

Peter Evans, author of Sunbury - Australia's Greatest Rock Festival.
Peter Evans, author of Sunbury Australia’s Greatest Rock Festival. Photo / Supplied.

Both previous festivals had been designed as ‘Australian music, for an Australian audience, on Australia Day’. Festival promotor John Fowler was initially reluctant to include an overseas act, but reasoned that it might be time to introduce something different to what had been offered at the previous two festivals.

The 1974 festival will forever be notorious for the inclusion of British band Queen, then just breaking in the UK, but virtually unknown in Australia with their debut single only recently on low rotation on radio.

Due to daylight saving it would not be dark until nearly 9pm. Queen were the wrong band for the event, their multi-part harmonies being far from the kick-arse rock’n’roll the punters craved.

Book cover - Sunbury - Australia's greatest rock festival by Peter Evans.
Sunbury – Australia’s Greatest Rock Festival (book) by Peter Evans.

They went on stage on Sunday just as the sun was setting, and took an unusual length of time to get set up – waiting for it to get dark to reap the benefit of the stage lighting.

Used to quick stage changeovers of no more than 15 minutes by now, this made the crowd restless. After a day of beer and sun, tempers started to fray as the delay lengthened. A compere shouted ‘Go home you Pommie wankers’. It was a chant taken up by the crowd.

Queen played. It was clear they were competent musicians, but the songs were unknown to the audience. Even so, a few numbers in, the crowd started to quieten, although there was still the odd call of ‘Pommie wankers’.

An incident at the end of Queen’s set says it all. Arthur James (‘AJ’, Chain’s roadie) was standing with $crooge Madigan (Daddy Cool’s roadie) on the left of the stage. Close by was Queen’s roadie. With derisive chants still coming from the audience (along with the occasional beer can), Freddy Mercury stated that the next time Queen came to Australia they would be the ‘biggest band in the world’.

As a parting gesture he hurled a tambourine Frisbee-like at head-height, straight at the two Australian roadies. Quick as a flash, AJ dragged Queen’s roadie into the path of the missile and it was the latter who wore it straight to the head. Disgusted, Mercury walked off stage.

Following Queen, Madder Lake demonstrated just what Australian musicians were capable of and pulled a subdued crowd back into life. Surviving members of Madder Lake remain quite proud of the fact that they had ‘topped’ what would become one of the biggest bands in the world.

Condensed from Sunbury: Australia’s Greatest Rock Festival by Peter Evans – see Melbourne Books to order your copy.

The 1974 festival attracted approximately 30,000 people, the entry fee for the whole event was $12.

Sunbury Radio’s Andrew Smith will feature the artists and music of the 1974 concert in his Krome Plated Yabby radio show between 6pm and 8pm Wednesday 24 January.

Band line-up
Ayers Rock
Ballet Victoria
Blackfeather
Buster Brown
Chain
Commonwealth Youth in Concert
Daddy Cool
The Dingoes
Full Moon
Kush
MacKenzie Theory
Matt Taylor
Madder Lake
Mississippi
Pirana
Queen
Ross Ryan
Sid Rumpo
The 69’ers
Skyhooks
Skylight
Sherbet
Source / Wikipedia

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