Rock music festivals

Page 4 – Sweetwaters and beyond

Success breeds imitation – and with no Nambassa festival planned for 1980 there was a gap to be filled. Daniel Keighley had cut his teeth on music promotion in Auckland and with the Student Arts Council, and was recruited by Peter Terry to help at Nambassa 79. In partnership with Paul McLuckie and Helen McConnachie, he planned a festival of his own in 1980. Sweetwaters would refine the Nambassa format. It retained the late January date and the overseas headline attractions (Elvis Costello and John Martyn) while adding even more New Zealand groups, a bigger PA, and improved hygiene at the new Ngaruawahia site.

Sweetwaters: Festival of Music, Culture and Technology – there was a lot to that new tagline. It spoke of the future, a modernity echoed by the band line-up. Having come together in a mass statement of being, youth culture now began to define and divide, beginning a pattern still visible today. Sweetwaters would cater to an evolving demographic. The 1960s generation was now joined by punks and post-punks, whose music was fast gaining a foothold in the clubs, pubs and charts. Cities also had an expanding infrastructure of clubs and venues. For this rising set of groups Sweetwaters would become a vital showcase – 45,000 fans worth the first year. But despite the changing nature of the music, the festival retained its counter-cultural side with spiritual workshops, alternative political awareness stalls, craft workshops, dance and theatre.

Sweetwaters vs Nambassa

Sweetwaters returned in 1981. So too did Nambassa, panicked by the success of its new rival. They chose to go head to head on the same late January weekend. Ego aside, you can see the logic. Nambassa in 1979 had attracted over 65,000 fans, the first Sweetwaters 45,000 – there were fans not drawn out.

On the day it wasn’t even close. Over 65,000 fans attended Sweetwaters to Nambassa’s 5000. In two short years much had changed in local youth culture. New Zealand music began its second golden era in 1980: 36 local singles and 13 albums made the pop charts that year. Overall record sales were eight million. With both festivals offering similar counter-cultural sideshows, it was the music that was the selling point – and Sweetwaters best represented the exciting times.

Daniel Keighley made sure of his pulling power by signing groups exclusively to his festival. He also provided a place for up-and-coming bands like The Mockers, The Gordons, The Newmatics, Penknife Glides, The Screaming Meemees, The Steroids and Blam Blam Blam, which would pay dividends the following year.

With Roxy Music riding a second popular wave and Split Enz at a peak after True Colours, Sweetwaters had two hot contemporary acts at the top of the list. Nambassa, with The Charlie Daniels Band, Dizzy Gillespie, John Mayall, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and a seriously small and unhip local contingent, couldn’t compete. Not even the weather gods were smiling. Sweetwaters sweltered in oppressive heat. Nambassa experienced an outbreak of heavy rain which wiped out a footbridge – with punters still attached.

Three smaller festivals were also staged in 1981, each featuring local acts only: The Brown Trout Festival (in its second year) in the Waitahoro Valley near Dannevirke, the Nile River Festival near Westport, and Raw Rock 81, a mid-December festival in Hastings.

The end of the 80s party

The 1982 Sweetwaters, at its new Pukekawa site south of Auckland, was a sell-out despite an early misstep when Meatloaf was announced as headliner. He was quickly replaced by Ultravox, supported by a strong contingent of Australian groups. Sweetwaters’ real ace was its local bill: 1981 was the year post-punk exploded in New Zealand. Over half of the record 44 Kiwi singles in the charts that year were by musicians inspired by punk and its aftermath. Overall record sales had increased to 11½ million records. The country’s live scene was also jumping, aided by the extension of venues’ licensing hours in mid-1981. Sweetwaters settled into its new home down a long dusty rural road and continued its usual pattern of mass inebriation, petty theft and rock n roll revelry. For the third year in a row a fan drowned swimming in a nearby river.

The Brown Trout and Nile River Festivals also returned in 1982, joined by the Rainbow Festival in Masterton. New Zealand’s appetite for rock festivals had not yet been sated, but it had peaked. Sweetwaters 1983 drew 35,000 fans to see Psychedelic Furs, UB40, and Toots and The Maytals. They would have done well to note the small Punakaiki festival near Greymouth, which concentrated exclusively on groups born of New Zealand’s post-punk community. It was an early sign of the increasingly focused nature of rock fandom.

The following year Sweetwaters’ festival rights were sold to United Building Society. Under Keighley’s paid management, it split the festival in two: the usual extended weekend at Pukekawa and a one-day Sweetwaters South in Christchurch. On paper it looked a sound move, given the strong line-up: Talking Heads, Simple Minds, The Pretenders and Eurythmics. But when the expected numbers failed to materialise the promoters learnt one of pop culture’s primary lessons. The youth market’s consumer gaze is fickle. New Zealand’s extraordinary belated love affair with rock music festivals had ended. It would be over a decade before it would begin again.

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'Sweetwaters and beyond', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 22-Oct-2014

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Robert Black

Posted: 22 Dec 2015

Posted: 19 Dec 2015

It was the summer of 1982. I was seventeen and was about to go to university. I got a job near Kaiwaka, working at the concrete works. Most of the workers were Maori, big strong guys. It was quite scary at first, but as long as you did your job, without complaint or incident, you were accepted.
I started off as a wheelbarrow pusher. There were two huge cement mixers, and you had to steady the barrow with all your strength while someone emptied the loads of wet cement. The cement would cascade into the barrow and it was not good to let any spill. Then you had to wheel the load to wherever it was required, often along narrow wooden planks. To lose your load along the way, was very bad.
There was another student there, with a short ginger beard, an intellectual type, studying philosophy. He was older than me, but not as strong, and he would often let his barrow tip over, spilling various amounts of the contents. The Maoris would scream and shout at him, but he would just smile, as he shovelled the contents back in. Occasionally the foreman would go over to help him, and try to give him some guidance.
The foreman was the largest of the workers. A massive guy, tall but extremely wide and strong, built like a barrel. I saw him bend thick pieces of steel with his bare hands. He spoke very gently. One day he asked me what I was studying at university. I told him law, and he was impressed. He had a young son and was preparing for his future education.
The main jobs included wheeling the cement to the large water-tank makers. They seemed very skilled, especially with their trowels, making the outer part of the water tanks look just right, with a wavy scraped effect.
Then there were the water troughs, of all sizes. This was by far the dirtiest job. First we dismantled the large metal shells, with hammers and crescents. Then we soaked everything in diesel, including the floor, to make sure the cement would come out of the moulds easily. Then we filled up the moulds with cement, with our trowels. And then when they were set, we repeated the whole process again, until we had made enough, or someone needed us elsewhere.
Then there were the cattle stops, similar process with the water troughs, except we had to vibrate the cement with a very large metal vibrator, to make sure the cement set right.
The smoko breaks, and lunch times, were such a welcome reprieve and we would all sit in the small kitchen, saying little, drinking coffee, smoking and eating, with our hands as clean as we could get them, and our clothes stinking of diesel and cement.
It was a filthy job, and when my mother washed my jeans, she laughed when she could stand them up by themselves. Not many of the other local boys went near the place, they would rather sign on the dole, and do pine-tree pruning and scrubcutting. But I needed the money for university. Plus it felt quite good being accepted by such a tough crowd, at such a young age.
At four fifteen pm, a hooter went and that meant all the wheelbarrows, shovels, trowels, and other tools had to be washed ready for the following day. At four thirty there was some celebration by most, as were free relatively early in the day. I surfed at the Mangawhai beaches as much as I could.
I survived the first tough few weeks of initiation and then I was paired off with an older Pakeha guy, Paul, around fifty. He was the main guy for the pipe-making machine. Everything was made within screwed metal casts, which were later dismantled. The bits of the pipe were less than a metre long and less than a foot in diameter, for drainage pipes.
He was very good to work with, easy-going, patient, and friendly. The job too, was very easy, and less filthy, just shovelling in the cement mix, gravel, and sand on his instruction. Plus he added the water, so if the pipe mix was wrong, he would take full responsibility. I would have chosen to stay working with him on that job the whole summer if I could have.
I drove an old blue Mini to work. It had a white roof, and was a piece of junk, a hand-me-down from my brother. It had no first or reverse gears, very weak brakes which needed to be pumped, and slashed seats. It was like driving an old metal bucket, inches from the road, which I could see rushing past through holes formed due to the rust. On metal roads, sometimes a stone would fly up through a hole, so driving it was quite an adventure.
One time my brother had been at a music concert at Western Springs and some guys had hot-wired it. They soon abandoned it, leaving behind a crate of beer, which arguably was worth more than the car.
One morning it was raining, and I broke down, the CRC not working this time. Fortunately I had already made it to the highway, and so could hitch to work. I got picked up by Paul, and his wife. She was driving.
His wife was very stylish, and attractive, a brunette, much younger than him. She said little to him on the way, and I sensed they had recently had a fight. She was very polite to me though. I got the impression Paul may have had a problem with the booze. But I was more impressed by the fact that someone who worked in such a shit-hole would have such a nice wife. Every night he would go home to her, take a bath, eat a nice home-cooked meal, and then get to sleep with an attractive lady. It gave me hope for the future.
One day a friend of the boss came into the smoko room. The boss owned the surrounding farmland and asked him to do some fencing. I didn’t like him, the way he spoke about us, like we were stupid slaves. Unfortunately I got chosen to help him. It was a couple of days’ work. On the first day we had to put the main poles for the fence in. I had to hold the long poles in place and he reversed the tractor with a post rammer on the back.
When everything was straight and set, I would shout, “Ready!” and he would let the rammer go and it slammed the pole deep into the ground. One time he let the rammer go before I yelled out. I just managed to get my hand out of the way in time. I was furious. I knew a guy who had had his hand splattered like that in Wellsford.
But he apologised, so we carried on OK and finished the fence the next day. But someone had replaced me with the piping job.
A Maori guy, called Vernon, who I knew from high school, started at the concrete works. He was nice guy, smart and well-educated. We hit if off immediately. He already knew most of the other Maoris working there. He was tall and strong and was well known as having a finger missing on one hand, where a goose had bitten it off when he had been young. He later chopped its head off, but it was too late to reattach it to his finger. He didn’t like to talk about it.
Things got better at the works after that. Though I did suffer a couple of afflictions. The first was some kind of weird skin infection on one thumb. It was like a long clear bubble. The doctor said it was due to the lime in the cement powder. I got a shot of penicillin, which for some reason I had a bad reaction to, nearly blacking out in the street. But after a time the bubble went away.
The other was a huge boil which formed on my face, just above the jaw line, I guessed from all the pores clogged with dirt and diesel. It wouldn’t go away and grew larger and larger.
My brother told me the only way to remedy it was to heat up an empty beer bottle in hot water, and place the top over the boil so that it would draw out the infection.
I decided to give it a try. It worked, too well. After a few minutes the suction was extremely strong, and in the mirror I was quite shocked to see a long pussy bloody core around two inches long.
The problem was the suction was so great we couldn’t get the bottle off, and so my brother had to break the end of it.
I was left with a nasty-looking deep empty hole in my face. But thankfully, over time it filled in and healed, though it left a noticeable scar.
Apart from that, I made it through the summer season unscathed. Towards the end of the job, we were told that the staff were going to be treated. We were told that all the workers had been hired to help do the security at the upcoming Sweetwaters music festival. It was a four-day music festival, on farmland at Pukekawa. For those who wanted to attend, we would be given free food, free accommodation, and subject to work commitments, access to all the acts.
I was excited, and quickly signed up. The headliners were UB40 and the Psychedelic Furs. Plus there would be Midnight Oil, Split Enz, Toots and The Maytals, DD Smash and many more great bands from overseas and New Zealand.
We left early Friday morning from a bus at the Kaiwaka supermarket. It only took a couple of hours to get there. When we arrived it was a clear hot day and people had started to arrive in their hundreds, clogging up the main road in. The scenery was beautiful, rolling green hills, with a river running through the area, just like at Woodstock. We were given white coats.
The big boss of our security group, a solid guy in his forties, pointed to me and another white guy.
“You two, come with me!”
We roared off in his ute, and turned down a quieter farm road.
He stopped at a driveway, then pointed to my colleague.
“Sit on that driveway, and stop anyone parking or going up there!”
We left him, then sped further up the road.
There were a few cars parked on the side of the dirt metal road.
“Here,” he said, giving me an aerosol can. “Spray NP on the rear and front windows of those cars!”
“NP?” I asked.
“No parking! That’ll teach the pricks and stop the others.”
“Oh right,” I said.
I felt kind of bad spraying the windows in big blue letters, and wondered if it would come off easily. But I was with the big boss, and it was my job, and seemed kind of fun, after a while.
After that I was taken back to the main security area, and told by the others that the free cooked lunches were great, and that I should go to get some. I recognised some of the people cooking, as they were from Kaiwaka and Mangawhai.
The food was awesome, cooked ham, eggs, mashed potatoes, and salad with beetroot and tomatoes.
After the food I went back to the security area, and was told to assist with the parking. I did that with others. The cars and vans kept coming and coming, right into the night. Occasionally someone would hand me a can of beer, either one of my colleagues in a white coat, or a grateful member of the public. And I got the occasional puff on a joint. So things got better as the night went on.
One of the vans contained a band.
“Who’s that playing?” a girl from the band asked me, who I guessed was the lead singer.
“Midnight Oil,” I replied.
“Always such a raunchy sound,” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied. “So cool.”
Though I had no idea who they were, it was the first band I had ever met, close up.
After dinner at the meal tent, I drank a few more cans of beer, then stumbled off to the big security truck. When I got in, there were quite a few others already sleeping. I got in, found my sleeping bag, and then fell into a nice drunken sleep.
I slept late, and after breakfast I found one of the more senior guys, and asked him what to do.
“Check for glass,” he said. “All glass is to be confiscated. Only cans allowed.”
So, after wandering around a bit, I sat down and put my back to a post.
I was wearing purple socks.
“Purple socks!” a few passers-by mocked.
And I got a few, “Fucking pig!”
I only saw one guy who had a bottle of vodka.
“Hey!” I shouted to him. “No glass!”
But he just bolted off, and though I went after him, within seconds he was lost in the sea of people.
Just then I bumped into Vernon.
“What you doin?” he asked.
“Not much, trying to confiscate glass.”
“Ah, fuck that,” he said. “Let’s go and check out the stages.”
“Sweet!” I replied.
On the way he explained to me that we could pretty much do what we wanted, as long as we were doing something security-related. We stopped at the message board and read a few of the handwritten messages pinned to it.
“Hey man, look at this one,” I said.
“To the hot blonde guy I met at the river, who fucked the shit out of me last night, please meet me here at seven pm tonight.”
“Haha, lucky bastard,” said Vernon.
We walked to a small stage called the Aerial Railway stage which held alternative acts, folk music, poets, and so on.
“Let’s check this out,” said Vernon.
There was no security there, so we sat and watched a few of the acts. Most of them seemed quite amateurish and perhaps even spontaneous. But it was entertaining. We sat and watched, smoking cigarettes.
A drunk guy got up from the crowd and sprayed beer over a poet, and so we got up and escorted him away from the stage, then let him go when we were sure he was not going to come back.
Then we headed off and got a free cooked lunch, and after that we loaded a bag full of cans of beer, then headed to the main stage. It was surreal, so many people, covering most of a large hill area. The music boomed into the warm air.
We walked up the hill, almost to the peak, before we found an open space. We took off our white coats, and let the sun burn the skin on our backs and rolled and smoked Port Royal cigarettes, and drank beer and watched the acts come and go.
Just down from us there was a young attractive Japanese couple, sharing a joint.
Occasionally a couple of cops would come by, but they were just making sure everyone was keeping the peace. Anyone smoking weed would simply hide it while they passed.
There was this one tall cabbage tree to the left of the main stage, about thirty feet tall, with forked branches at the top. The afternoon went on and people got drunker and every now and then a drunk guy would try to climb up to the fork, where I guessed they thought they could sit. The reaction of the masses was to pelt each man with hundreds of empty cans, and despite the roars of encouragement from the crowd, no one ever made it, and they eventually dropped off to the ground.
Toots and The Maytals were our favourite act that day. We stayed there for the night show, and slept in the back of the truck.
Next morning, the Sunday, after breakfast we went for a swim in the river, and a wash. It was nice and fresh, but not too cold. Then we met with the security guys again. They needed people for main stage security that night, when Split Enz were playing, as they were expecting a massive crowd. We accepted, then went for a walk to the river to wash.
After that we noticed some kind of commotion. A truck had backed over a young boy by accident. When we got there the boy was already gone, on the way to an ambulance. There was little we could do, so we went back to do some security at the Aerial Railway stage.
That night we turned up at main stage just before Split Enz arrived. It was exciting and noisy. We were told to just stand at the front of the stage, forming a line of white coats, facing the huge crowd that covered most of the hillside in front of us.
A few metres in front of our line there was a protective fence of sorts and that’s where the biggest security guys stood, some Maori, some Pakeha. They were the paid professionals. It was their job to remove any bad guys in the crowd, stop any violence, and lift out anyone who fainted or became overcome by the heat and the crush. Plus they were the first line of defence for anyone attempting to break through and get to the stage.
When Split Enz came on the music was unbelievably loud. But it was so exciting to hear the songs we all knew. I took frequent looks back to see the Finn brothers and the rest of the group.
The crowd mostly behaved. Occasionally one of the security guards would remove a stick or something similar from someone in the crowd. Sometimes things would be thrown, and the culprits would be singled out and removed. And a few girls were lifted over, suffering from the heat, or the crush of the crowd, or both.
When it finished Vern and I went onto the stage, which was exciting, seeing the markings on the stage floor, names for the mikes and so on. We hung around for a while. When we finally left it was late.
On the way back to the sleep truck, we ran into a Maori girl wandering around in a daze, at the rear of the stage, just wearing panties and a t-shirt.
“You all right love?” asked Vernon.
“I’m looking for my jeans,” she said. “I think those guys threw them over the fence.”
I thought she was just another fucked-up chick, but Vernon seemed concerned about her.
“We can help you find them,” he said.
And after a while, we did find her jeans. She told Vernon she had got too drunk and had been raped. We decided to take her to the medical tent.
When we were walking to the tent some guy looked at us, then said, “Fucking Pigs!”
“What did you say?” I said to him.
He ignored me, and walked past us, so I turned around and walked towards him.
“What did you fucking say!?”
“Nothing man,” he said, and hurried off.
“Good,” I said, then went back to Vernon and the girl.
After we dropped the girl off at the medical tent, we decided to get some food at the meal tent. It served security staff almost twenty-four hours.
“You got serious back there,” said Vernon.
“Just sick of the cunts, man.”
He nodded.
As we ate, the wind came up and we wondered if the tent could bear it.
Later one of the supervisors came in.
“Hey you guys, one of the promotional tents blew away and we need you to guard the stuff inside,” he said to us.
“OK, we’ll do it,” said Vernon.
“Yeah sure,” I agreed.
I had so much adrenalin in my system after the show, I didn’t think I could sleep anyway. So we followed him to the area.
“Just guard all the tables and chairs, and the promotional material, like the posters and so on,” said the supervisor.
So Vernon and I sat, trying to shelter from the wind, sharing stories and smoking cigarettes as the night began to end and the new day appeared.
We drifted off in our seats. I was awoken by Vernon shouting at someone, some drunk guy trying to rip off one of the big posters. He ran away, unsuccessful.
It was morning and still very windy. We wandered around. Finally people came to recover the stuff from the tent, so we left and walked towards the main stage. We walked in a sea of empty cans, right in front of the main stage. Thousands of cans, about a foot deep, had all been blown to the front of the stage. We waded through them.
People were leaving. A mass exodus. By the afternoon the whole area was nearly totally bare again. Litter was strewn everywhere, blowing in the wind. Huge areas of previous grassland were now bare and brown, trodden down and scarred by the masses. The brown dust blew into our eyes as the wind did not let up.
We did a few chores around the place, picked up rubbish and so on. Late afternoon a group of us found a few small farm bikes, 125 cc mostly, owned by security. We got permission to borrow them, and we rode right up the highest hilly peak, then traversed along the top of it, hundreds of metres above. Then we stopped at the top and looked down at the scarred, dusty landscape. I felt empty and deflated, watching the last people pack up, as the main stage was still being dismantled.
“Come on, let’s go” said Vernon, and we sped down the hill, returned the bikes, then eventually got on the bus for the trip home. Most of us in the bus were exhausted and soon slept.

University Days – Sweetwaters Music Festival Copyright 2015 Robert Black