For over a decade, between 1975-1987, at 6.00pm on Sunday evenings, Australians were tuning their television sets into ABC’s national music show Countdown for their weekly fix of hits, misses, pop star gossip, video clips, and the tortured malapropisms and endless meandering diatribes of the show’s ringmaster – Ian “Molly” Meldrum.
At its peak our local version of the Brits Top of the Pops, had a weekly viewing audience of over 3 million people, about one-fifth of the entire population of the country, who found the show a curious and fascinating mix of the hilarious, arresting, annoying, embarrassing, shocking and engrossing. It encapsulated everything that was musically relevant in sixty gloriously live and unedited minutes – it was beautiful, ugly, energetic, has-been, wanna-be, talented, meritless and sometimes amazing – and as a cavalcade of live, mimed and filmed musical interludes shone light and for the first time color into our homes, we were transfixed.
It changed the face of the local music industry, played a crucial role in moving the focus of pop music marketing away from radio to TV, provided a national platform for performers to reach the most remote parts of the country, and ushered in the music-video era both in Australia and overseas.
Countdown was conceived by several former Kommotion alumni in ABC producers Rob Weekes, and Michael Shrimpton and pop fanboy, journalist, producer and TV presenter, Ian Meldrum. The show began transmission in late 1974 as a series of six half hour black and white shows, mostly hosted by Johnny Farnham.
In 1975 the first color edition, again hosted by Farnham was aired, and it was not until nine months after the first show that Molly Meldrum became the regular compere and began his infamous Humdrum segment of pop world gossip and hyping of records and artists. This blatant promotion of record company products ran contrary to the ABC’s ban on commercials, and the ABC was also concerned to maintain moral and ethical standards of the show given the average age of the studio audience was fifteen, and it was screened at the family-friendly time of 6.00pm on a Sunday evening.
The advent of Countdown also saw the demise of music festivals such as Sunbury, and pop journals like Go-Set, which quickly folded in the wake of the all-conquering weekly TV show. New groups like Skyhooks and Sherbet appeared who were a comfortable fit within the medium of color television, and a younger fan demographic quickly emerged to whom Countdown catered.
Countdown became the ABC’s highest-rating show, and consequently it had a budget to match, production standards within Melbourne’s Ripponlea Studios where the show was produced were high, the budget for international artists to appear was similarly extravagant. Molly could roam the pop universe, interview the stars like they were his best friends, and share his juicy gossip with us mere mortals back home in Oz.
The visual dimension of Countdown, unlike radio, demanded that promotional film-clips be provided by record companies to promote their artists, the ABC also insisted on having prior access to such clips before other channels, particularly channel 7’s Sounds, which regularly cried foul in this regard.
Rarely did acts perform live, at best they might sing to a recorded backing track, but miming of the entire performance was standard procedure, and bands almost never played their instruments.
This became even more of an issue when cash-strapped bands simply used the recording of their Countdown performance, as the main promotional clip for their new record, a testament to the professional production standards of Countdown performances.
Molly was not afraid to break new bands on Countdown before they had hits, AC/DC, Pseudo Echo, Split Enz, Mental As Anything, Eurogliders, Mi-Sex, Christie Allen, Mark Holden, Ray Burgess, Hush, Australian Crawl, Uncanny X-Men, Flowers/Icehouse, and many more. But Molly had his favorites, Mushroom artists like Skyhooks, Split Enz, Kylie Minogue and Renee Geyer got preferential treatment and another major beneficiary of Countdown’s patronage was the Alberts Music stable of artists including Cheetah, Stevie Wright, John Paul Young, The Angels, Rose Tattoo (until they were banned), William Shakespeare (pictured), TMG, and even Vanda and Young’s alter egos Flash and the Pan.
Then there were those performers who had a prickly relationship with Countdown and seldom, if ever, appeared – Richard Clapton, The Dingoes, Midnight Oil, The Saints, Stiletto, and others. The Countdown “luvvies’ included Sherbet, Skyhooks, Hush, Marcia Hines, John Paul Young (JPY), Olivia Newton-John, Australian Crawl, Christie Allen, Kylie Minogue, Sharon O’Neill and Mark Holden, and their careers were boosted by regular appearances on the show.
Over the journey there were some memorable Countdown moments that are worth recalling and will resonate with those who watched the circus that was Countdown every week.
The Video Clips
A Kate Bush video was not to be missed, whether she was traipsing across the moors trilling to Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights, or catfishing her partner while impersonating a 70’s fantasy character, The Swordsmistress of Chaos known as the Raven in Babooshka, brandishing a sword, wearing body armor and breastplates, limbs oiled up and her majestic head encased in an exotic helmet; or a spooky number she choreographed for Countdown called Hammer Horror, where the beautiful Kate performed a macabre pas de deux with a black-clad hooded executioner, she made boys and men sit up and take notice.
Toni Basil wearing her original Las Vegas High School cheerleader outfit, sneaker pom poms included, at the age of forty, and dancing everybody else off the set singing Mickey, what was cooler, her real name Antonia Basilotta, or her intriguing vignette in the hippie road movie Easy Rider.
Promises were the Knauer siblings from Germany via North America, Leslie, Benny and Jed, who took Baby It’s You to the top of the charts globally, they were two brothers and a sister, one of them appeared topless in the video, it was not the sister, she wore a white shirt and braces, and sported a punky mullet.
Memorable too was the bored sophistication of Brian Ferry performing Let’s Stick Together, while supermodel siren Gerry Hall loomed up beside him in animal print and tiger tail doing her best to coax him from the straight and narrow.
Diminutive one-hit wonder Roger Voudouris performed Get Used to It wearing a red V-neck jumper, in the face of a howling gale generated by an out-of-control wind machine, the vertically-challenged Roger barely survived the storm.
Wizard lead singer Roy Wood appeared in a costume that looked like Catweazle had an accident with a glammed-up badger emerging from its sett, to perform See My Baby Jive, while his lead guitarist sported angels’ wings, cricket pads, and roller skated around the stage.
Videos by Adam Ant (warpaint and dress ups), Meatloaf (motorcycle mayhem, bombastic rock opera excess), Leo Sayer (his clown period triggered an outbreak of coulrophobia), Johnny Cougar (couldn’t decide what his name should be, “shorty” maybe), Bonnie Tyler and Kim Carnes (gravelly gravitas), Rod Stewart ( poodle-haired Rod the Mod warbling Do Ya think I’m Sexy in lycra, lurex and a codpiece, act your age Rod), Bay City Rollers ( half-mast tartan trousers and pigeon-chested lead singer Eric), Kiss (fire-breathing, face paint and flimflam), Robert Palmer (dapper gent who favored overly made up, unsmiling models, moving in automaton formation).
Gary Numan (who mentioned “cars” 27 times as he mordantly stared down the barrel of the camera like something from outer space, but he was really from outer Berkshire where he lived in a caravan, in the backyard of his parent’s Council house), William Shakespeare (plum-colored coiffure, medieval dress up, stackheel boots, teetering about the Countdown set crooning My Little Angel), the list is endless, and you will no doubt have your favorites.
There were also incidents, JPY and Renee Geyer both smacked Molly in the face at different times, Elton John upended a giant cake over him, he was also egged, Cold Chisel demolished the set and their instruments in a drunken rant, Billy Idol repeated the claim that “I’ve had some really hot sex since I‘ve been here in Australia” to a dumbfounded Molly, a shirtless and drug-fueled Iggy Pop stormed the set, called Molly “dogface”, spat at him, and then took to the catwalk swinging a microphone stand at the audience and finally sticking it down the front of his pants, and there was of course Molly’s fawning meltdown when he tried to interview HRH Prince Charles.
Rose Tattoo were banned after Angry Anderson and guitarist Michael Cocks tongue-kissed each other mid-performance, AC/DC performed Baby Please Don’t Go with Bon Scott in drag wearing a school tunic, twin pigtails, makeup, tatts on show, smoking a ciggie, and playing the not-so- innocent schoolgirl to Angus’s schoolboy, and JPY and Darryl Braithwaite who were both mobbed on set and disappeared from view momentarily, JPY did reappear but his mic cord had disappeared and his new shirt had been reduced to a pair of cuffs.
Fans could also be quite disorderly, the groping of male artists was not uncommon, sexual come-ons were so blatant that even Mark Hunter was surprised when he performed the song Are You Old Enough on the show, and they could be particularly bitchy to the female singers, Debra Byrne admitted years later that she found her Countdown appearances quite traumatizing.
It’s easy to forget that Countdown was an ABC production, a creation of the federal government, and it benefited from the resources that were invested in the show, its political masters were happy to foot the bill if they could continue to bask in the reflected glory of Countdown’s dominant ratings.
Bands realized that a national Countdown appearance could determine their success or failure, Channel 7’s Sounds was a minor gig compared to the ABC behemoth, Molly Meldrum was acutely aware of this and he dictated local music trends and tastes accordingly, ably assisted by his unseen voice-over man Gavin Woods, who hysterically introed every act as though they had just split the atom.
But like all government agencies the ABC was also bureaucratic, hierarchical, stuffy, and unyielding and perceived by Meldrum and others to be unhip, uncommercial, and unhelpful, they even disapproved of Meldrum being called “Molly” initially. There was also considerable tension among the major players who put the show together each week – the producers Michael Shrimpton, Rob Weekes and Grant Rule, director Ted Emery, Tony Vuat and film clip producer extraordinaire Paul Drane, and of course talent coordinator Ian Meldrum, would often disagree over content and presentation of each week’s show, and of course the performers themselves often required their egos to be massaged. There was a simmering disquiet about commercial endorsement of products which was strictly forbidden by ABC bosses, hence Molly’s regular exhortation to viewers to “do yourself a favor” after completing a spiel for a new record or upcoming concert tour, enabling him to skirt around company policy.
This week 4TR has chosen some of the most intriguing Countdown performances for your enjoyment, John Paul Young’s famous performance of Yesterday’s Hero, Mark Holden bombarding his young audience with carnations and saccharine love songs, Sherbet in satin bomber jackets performing their hits Summer Love and Howzat, sex bombs Cheetah and their classic Vanda and Young come-on, Spend The Night, the sound and fury of glam band Hush, who wanted us “makin’, makin, makin’, uh oh, under the old apple tree “with Boney Maronie, and of course the meat and potatoes pub rock of the Ted Mulry Gang and their borderline date rape song, Jump In My Car.
Part 1 of our Countdown Special continues throughout this week followed by more precious moments from Australia’s iconic pop music show next week, when we highlight the local acts from the 1980’s, who charted the soundtrack of our lives.