The beat era that had been the 1960’s and early 1970’s was marked by the dominance of such groups as Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Ray Brown and the Whispers,The Easybeats (pictured), The Masters Apprentices, The Twilights, The Groop, The Groove, Zoot, The Loved Ones, Axiom, and others, but they were replaced by a new generation of pop groups in the mid-70’s, led by Sherbet, Skyhooks, Hush, TMG, Australian Crawl, Cold Chisel, The Angels, Crowded House, Midnight Oil, Mondo Rock and others.
The mainstream pop shows of the 60’s and early 70’s such as Bandstand, Saturday Date, Sing, Sing, Teen Scene were quite conservative, until a string of more contemporary shows began production in Melbourne – Kommotion, The Go!! Show, It’s All Happening, It’s A Gas, the Happening 70’s series and Uptight.
Gradually the TV networks came to embrace youth culture via popular music shows in a more cohesive way, by the time the ABC’s Countdown was launched in 1974, the local music scene had changed, and there was a market in which the national broadcaster would emerge as the dominant force in popular music broadcasting.
By 1975 Go-Set magazine had folded and the last Sunbury Pop festival was staged, the city and suburban clubs and discos that had powered the live music scene began a slow decline. Pub rock and the rise of the suburban beer barns precipitated a demographic split between the older fans who sought live entertainment in licensed premises, and the younger fans, many of them the offspring of the original baby boomers, who were hungry for the sort of music that Countdown and the ABC’s new Double J radio outlet could provide.
Countdown didn’t have a lot of competition, there was Channel 7’s Sounds created by Graham Webb who was an early innovator in the field of music videos, hosted by Donnie Sutherland, but this show only screened in Melbourne and Sydney. Channel 9’s Bandstand and its avuncular compere Brian Henderson, had already folded in 1972 , and Channel 10’s Happening 70’s series of pop shows also ended in 1972, which just left the ABC’s GTK which catered for an 18+ age group.
This is not to suggest that Countdown had no competition throughout its long run, the ABC’s Flashez (76-77), Channel 7’s Nightmoves (77-86) and SBS’s Rock Arena (82-87) all tried to carve out a market niche, but Countdown remained the dominant player throughout its long run.
Radio formats had also changed, the DJ-dominant 60’s had quickly been replaced by the narrow programming focus of the 1970’s, as the Digamae consultancy, headed by three former DJs in Rod Muir, Trevor Smith and Hans Torv, marketed their radical programming concept nationally. This approach was based on American Top 40 radio, it was predicated on a precise programming mix that was designed to capture and retain a target market, which meant that only a certain number of highly commercial records were played on high-rotation, often the same song would be played three times in one hour. 2SM pioneered this concept and other radio networks quickly followed in their footsteps, it was a ratings-winner and profitable, but it resulted in a dramatic reduction in the opportunities for less mainstream records to get airplay, and it most definitely caused a huge swing away from Australian music.
Countdown and the crusading efforts of Molly Meldrum, who was unflinchingly focused on promoting local bands, proved to be decisive in breaking the stranglehold that narrowly – focused radio networks had on the local music market. The show’s national reach and influence was unrivaled, if a group played their song on Countdown and Molly hyped it up, it would be added to radio station playlists, in the period 1975-1987 Countdown was one of the single biggest factors in stimulating and sustaining the local music scene.
The Video Clips
Countdown was a global force in establishing the music video concept in popular music, Molly Meldrum had worked at the Abbey Road Studios in London in the 1970’s and was aware of the impact that such early Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night and Help had on the marketing and promotion of the group and their music, and particularly after their touring days ended, the Fab Four became more adept at supporting record launches with classics of the music video genre, such as Paperback Writer, Penny Lane, and Strawberry Fields Forever.
MTV would not be launched until 1984 but Countdown had already become a considerable generator and consumer of music videos in the 70’s, the early promo clips for such AC/DC songs as It’s A long Way to The Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll), and Jailbreak, were created by the Countdown team under the direction of Paul Drane.
The 80’s brought new electronic video effects like chroma-key, stop-motion photography, claymaytion, animation and rotoscope, which gave clip makers a new palette to play with in addition to the established techniques of film. Some of the more memorable clips, first seen on Countdown from the early 80’s, included ground-breaking special effects from Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson, a ha, Duran Duran and Dire Straits.
The eerie black and white ode to obsessive love, Every Breath You Take, captured the Police in all their early pomp and glory, Sting rocked an upright double bass, and at face value the song seemed like an earnest expression of devotion, albeit he did overuse the rhyming phrase book – take, make, break, stake, fake, bake, etc. It has ultimately come to be known as the “Stalkers Song”, even Sting has admitted the evil intent in his lyrics, inexplicably newly- weds still use it for their bridal waltz, a bit like playing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah at a funeral.
Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer was a legendary clip, he was known as a quirky, cross-dressing oddball when he fronted Genesis, but the weirdness of these special effects really warped and twisted around this song, using a masterful combination of claymation (Wallace and Gromit), animation and stop-motion photography, it set a benchmark for the rest. From the animated innuendo that kicks off the clip, followed by the wildly dancing chickens, flying fruit, bumper cars, steam trains, planes, a dance party in a room with flying furniture, Jackson Pollock art – it was an inventive, influential, cartoon on acid.
Aussie film producer Russell Mulcahy masterminded the Hungry Like the Wolf video for the fashionable New Romantic Brits Duran Duran, it copied the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme, and sent the pasty Poms into the jungles of Sri Lanka, the video broke the band in the States, even though the song wasn’t that great.
Lower case a-ha were the only Norwegian trio to hit the charts, and they did in a big way in 1984 with their comic-strip inspired, rotoscoped video for Take on Me, lead singer Morten Harket and his then-girlfriend Bunty Bailey appear in the clip as the desperate lovers. The sketch drawings were meticulously created frame-by-frame over 16 weeks, the synth-pop groove was fast and unrelenting, and Harket’s vocal range was impressive, it was a catchy song boosted by a superb video, and the sequel to it was captured in their follow-up promo clip and hit song The Sun Always Shines on TV.
Wild child Cyndi Lauper recorded her signature hit Girls Just Want to Have Fun and the video did the impossible, it captured the same sense of carefree abandon and kookiness that so endeared Cyndi to her fans. Shot like a cheap sitcom in a small Lower East Side (New York) apartment and adjoining streets, her mother starred as … her mother, wrestler Captain Lou Albano in a wife-beater singlet, played Cyndi’s dad, there was no specific narrative, it was just ebullient and joyful, which is why it became a karaoke anthem and a hens’ night favourite.
Michael Jackson instantly claimed legend status for his song and video of Thriller, a horror-driven, big budget production that looked like a movie, sounded like a movie, and even used a former star of the horror genre, Vincent Price, as the voice-over guy, video clips had now become an art form. Jackson and his cast of ghouls and zombies grooved and paraded through the streets and into our homes via Countdown, people still pay homage to the film clip in home movies and by performing the “claw” dance at weddings. Jackson included a disclaimer in the clip that he didn’t believe in the occult.
Olivia Newton- John delivered one of the more curious and popular music videos of the early 80’s with Physical, a sexually suggestive song that dialed down the soft porn angle by making a jokey video about fat guys working out and turning into gay beefcakes. Allegedly ONJ tried to pull the song from release because she was concerned about the likely negative impact on her image, but it was too late, the radio stations were playing it, and it became a huge hit.
Billy Idol was a curious peroxide-blonde pretty boy with a snarl who camped up his macho sneer in White Wedding, a Gothic-fantasy -nuptials if ever there was one. In contrast the puffy-shirted Minneapolis midget Prince, sang about his Raspberry Beret in a surrealistic mashup of psychedelia and animation, while the decidedly unphotogenic Dire Straits, replaced themselves with two CGI-animated blue-collar workers, who resented the band’s R&R lifestyle, and so took the self-mocking single, Money For Nothing, to the top of the charts. Aerosmith and Run DMC broke down the walls between rock and rap in Walk This Way, Kiss with their Kabuki makeup, pyrotechnics and bondage outfits, scarily proclaimed I Was Made For Lovin’ You, and Devo just wanted to Whip It, preferably with red plastic flowerpots on their heads.
In our Countdown Special Week 2 we have chosen anther collection of classic local performances from the show, the wistful synth-pop of the Little Heroes Perfect Day, the funky glittery synths of the late Paul Gray of Wa Wa Nee and their hits Stimulation and Sugar Free, the bouncy pop of Pat Wilson’s Bop Girl with the spell-a-long chorus, fiddle solo and accompanying music video starring then-unknowns Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman, the rhythm and blues–inflected soul of Sydney’s “Continental” Robert Susz and his band of Dynamic Hepnotics with their smash hit Soul Kind of Feeling from 1985, and sex bombs Cheetah and their classic Vanda and Young come-on- Spend The Night.