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Rock music festivals

Page 5 – The lights go down

Small-scale and sharply focused rock music festivals would be the norm from the mid–1980s into the 1990s. The Rainbow Warrior Music Festival of 5 April 1986 at Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland commemorated the sinking of Greenpeace protest vessel Rainbow Warrior. Mangawhai Women’s Festival in February 1987 was similarly politically inspired. Small rock festivals such as Radio Central Rock Festival (1986 and 1987), the Full Moon Club near Coromandel (1988 and 1989), and the Mushroom Ball, a punk rock festival in New Plymouth (which began in 1987 and ran through to 1994) were all limited in scope.

Neon Picnic

There was one exception: the Neon Picnic, which was planned for late January and early February 1988 at the old Sweetwaters site at Pukekawa. As the name suggested, it was a more modern take on its predecessor. Organisers Heather Worth and Lyndsay Mace mooted a line-up that included The Pogues, Bob Geldof, Nona Hendrix, James Brown, Los Lobos and Roy Orbison. That was part of the problem. Few of these acts had contemporary cachet. The New Zealand bill, in contrast, indicated a local music scene in rude health – although a closer look would show many bands had limited mass appeal.

With only a thousand advance tickets sold, headline acts started bailing out, forcing a last-minute cancellation of the festival. Despite the modern signage, going back to nature wasn’t appealing to an increasingly cosmopolitan urban-based youth population. Fast-paced urban lives demanded entertainment that was in accord. 

Some ticket holders would receive a refund two years on, but many didn’t. Careful examination of the ticket conditions revealed a startling condition of sale: ‘We cannot give you any of your money back even if any of the acts don’t turn up or it rains or there’s a flood or even a nuclear war or anything like that.’ A consolation free concert at Waitemata Stadium, organised by Bob Geldof and Tim Shadbolt, drew 5000 fans.

Stranded In Paradise

Two years later John Dix, author of New Zealand’s first definitive rock history, Stranded In Paradise, suffered a similar fate. A string of weekend shows commemorating Kiwi music from the 1950s to the 1990 foundered after a poor first-night turnout at Carlaw Park in central Auckland. While interest in local sounds was strong it was fractured by different aesthetics. Without a united focus there simply weren’t enough fans.

Mountain Rock

That didn’t stop two smaller provincial rock festivals emerging. Mountain Rock and Strawberry Fields were mid to late summer festivals with exclusively New Zealand line-ups. Strawberry Fields ran from 1993 to 1995 at locations outside Queenstown and Raglan before folding. Mountain Rock would survive longer, from its beginnings in 1992 in the unlikely location of Ballance, near Woodville, until 1996. Organisers’ Paul Campbell, Paul Geange and Michele Cole were musicians involved in setting up small functions at local halls who decided to take the big step up. Concentrating on young groups with credible mainstream appeal such as Push Push, Shihad and Head Like A Hole, and older hands like Midge Marsden, whose bluesy sound still had appeal, they drew 5000 fans over a wet weekend in January 1992. Numbers would more than double over the next two years. In 1994 25,000 fans witnessed a roll call of New Zealand’s finest both past and present. The festival would be marred only by a gang stabbing.

A move to Aokautere near Palmerston North in 1995 and the addition of two overseas headliners (Midnight Oil and Yothu Yindi), together with the usual strong supporting cast of local groups, swelled crowds to 40,000. But many local groups didn’t get paid. Organisers blamed a lack of receipts due to large-scale ticket forgery, a claim police could not substantiate. There would be one final Mountain Rock in 1996, headlined by The Stranglers, before the festival was wound up.

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The lights go down, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated