HOME BEFORE COUNTDOWN, from the Australian, 2007
I used to have this attempted joke I’d pull out at sagging Sunday afternoon barbeques when I wanted to leave. Oh well, I’d say, I gotta get home for Countdown. Most people would look at me perplexedly, but a handful of others, of a particular middle age, allowed me a knowing smirk.
For many of us who grew up in the late 70s/early 80s, the weekly Sunday ritual was much more inflexible than any fading religious commitments. It didn’t matter what you did during the day, come six o’clock everyone was doing the same thing – planted in front of the TV, tuned to Channel 2, watching Countdown.
In the early days of television, the medium was sometimes posited as a new sort of hearth. But when was the last time it felt like a hearth the way Countdown did? or at least does in my memory.
Countdown was the clarion call of Australian youth/music culture from the glam rock mid-70s to the New Romantic mid-80s (and there’s a cycle right there). At a time long before you couldn’t see the wood for the trees on the internet, when colour television itself was new, Countdown, with a pre-behatted Molly Meldrum at the helm, was classic car-crash TV – you couldn’t not watch. If you didn’t love it, you loved to hate it.
But even for all the understandable nostalgia this genuinely iconic slice of Australian cultural history engenders, the question has to be asked: When the ABC Shop is already bulging with a bewildering array of Countdown merchandise, from compilations of clips from the original show to the concert DVD of last year’s Countdown Spectacular tour, do we really need a Countdown Spectacular 2?
Opening at the Newcastle Entertainment Centre next Saturday, ticket sales have hardly gone through the roof for a seven-date national tour whose bill might be described as a Salon des Refuses of 80s rock.
Maybe the blame belongs to Long Way to the Top. In which case I am partially responsible myself, since I was the principle interviewer and a co-writer on that very successful series. Nostalgia, of course, is nothing new, but Long Way… showed Australians were desperate to see our own music up there with its very much more mythologised international counterpart, and it proved to the ABC the value of an archive that had been neglected ever since it was created, when it was obviously regarded as ephemeral in the extreme. Long Way to the Top was 2001’s top-selling local DVD. It became a juggernaut when the late Billy Thorpe, annoyed that his history had been ‘stolen’, wanted to take it back, and he and manager, promoter Michael Chugg, mounted the Long Way… tour. Be assured, the History Wars are alive and well even in rock! The branding was negotiated between the ABC and Alberts Music, which owns the publishing rights to the original AC/DC title song; Thorpie’s take on the story fell short of including the 6-part series’ last three episodes, covering only the 50s, 60s and just into the 70s, and for that it hit deep in the heart of its target baby-boomer market.
In 2003, the ABC aired a Long Way… follow-up called, courtesy Alberts again, Love is in the Air. I worked on this series too, and being more pop than rock oriented, it drew all the more on the Countdown archive. In an episode called “Strange Fruit,” it portrayed Countdown in the great Australian traditions of travelling tent shows, transvestism and crass novelty songs. Only this time the brand name was owned wholly and solely by the ABC – and so when Molly and Michael Gudinski approached Auntie with the idea to revive/reload the familiar Countdown logo, she was more than willing to do a deal. Countdown was always a product, after all, of the real Triple-M power base in Australian music: Molly, Melbourne and Mushroom (Michael Gudinski’s original record label).
Last year, Countdown: The Wonder Years was released as a book, CD and DVD, and the first Countdown Spectacular toured the country. Picking up where the Long Way… tour left off (the mid-70s), it too hit deep in the heart of its target market. Although as a member of Richard Hell’s Blank Generation myself – ie, post-hippy/pre-Gen X tail-end baby-boomers – what struck me about it all was not so much what was there as what wasn’t. Countdown’s saving grace was always its willingness to laugh at itself. But complaining, say, that Countdown gave independent acts short shrift – meaning that curiously it was some of the period’s most enduring acts, like the GoBetweens, the Triffids or Midnight Oil, who were conspicuous by their absence – is a bit like carping that an apple isn’t an orange. It’s just that it is glaring when it’s at the expense of, well, some of the shockers – choose your favourite! – that Countdown seemed to prefer.
But wasn’t it ever thus? Countdown was always a game of percentages. Will good triumph over evil? Will “Fernando” ever get knocked off the top spot? Will they ever have Iggy Pop back?
The object of the Countdown Spectacular is to recreate on stage those Sunday nights so long ago on TV, right down to the voiceover of Gavin Wood, and aging teenyboppers might even start showing up in pyjamas. Last year’s first tour (and CD and DVD) was proudly all-Australian (Leo Sayer seems to have become our musical J.M. Coetzee). The Countdown Spectacular 2 can’t tout itself as a Rest of the World team, but it does advance the narrative, and it does boast, if that’s the right word, an international component. Trouble is, since the likes of, say, Elton, Madonna or Michael Jackson were obviously unavailable, what we are confronted with is a mix and match of imported one-hit wonders, local curios and, in between, Rick Springfield. It would be easy to take all the obvious cheap shots. Example: Samantha Fox. I always thought her sole talent was flashing her tits. But linking to her website from the Countdown site, there’s not a nipple in sight and it would appear she is singing, and not stripping, on this tour. But it’s too easy. And I can’t begrudge anyone, however dreadful, some sort of meagre superannuation. Showbiz is a cruel mistress – just ask, say, William Shakespeare, who despite two Countdown-driven Number Ones in 1974, remains unrevived.
Nor can I deny that history is subjective. Only the other week I myself was wallowing in personal nostalgia, along with seven thousand others, when Australia’s prophets of punk the Saints re-united for a one-off performance at the Pig City festival in Brisbane. There was a lot of love in that big-top, and I’m sure there will be just as much at every Countdown Spectacular 2 show – just as there will also be when the ABC soon recovers Recovery, as it surely must, for the 90s’ Gen X market. History’s cycles are becoming ever shorter.
The ABC should, of course, telecast the Countdown Spectacular 2 on a Sunday night at 6pm. Just like it always was. That way I’ll definitely be planted in front of the TV, looking out for something like Supernaut or Dave Mason, and able to hear that crucial extra voiceover – my own!