BY JOHANNA MCMAHON AND CRISPIAN WINSOR
Music festivals in the 1970s were opportunities for fresh, enterprising promoters to recreate the success of international festivals with homegrown music and spaces in which to enact ideals of counterculture and community building. Explore our Early 1970s Music Festivals curated collection.
In January 1970, 5 months after Woodstock, the small New South Wales town of Ourimbah hosted Australia’s first major music festival, kicking off a series of pop, rock and countercultural events.
Attendees at the Pilgrimage for Pop festival in Ourimbah recall the bright sounds of amplified pop melodies and energetic rock, the rumbling crowd of some 10,000 people, and the dust-filled air which smelt of incense and campfire smoke.
Ourimbah showcased an all-Australian line-up. Blues, jazz and soul singer Wendy Saddington was among a small handful of women who performed at these early festivals. In this rousing rendition of ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’, she is accompanied by progressive rock group Company Caine:
The iconic Sunbury Pop Festival was first held over the 1972 Australia Day long weekend on a private farm just outside of Melbourne. Captured by John Dixon and Ray Wagstaff in the documentary Sunbury ’72, this clip shows Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs at their rocking peak:
The 1973 Aquarius Arts Festival, held in the Northern New South Wales town of Nimbin, was a 10-day coming together of countercultural ideas, workshops and performances. Performing in this clip, shot by Sam Meredith, are the Bauls of Bengal, led by Purna Das Baul Samrat:
The audiovisual legacy of these festivals is an eclectic collection of documentaries, television specials, experimental films, home movies and sound recordings.
Some festivals are well documented, and the enduring legacy of festivals such as the Sunbury Pop Festival has been enhanced by a documentary covering the 1972 festival, a televised special of the 1973 iteration and a live album from the same year which was the inaugural album release for iconic Australian record label Mushroom Records.
Other festivals were not recorded and have been largely forgotten. Meadows Technicolour Fair was held outside Adelaide on the same weekend as Sunbury 1972 and attracted crowds that rivalled its Victorian counterpart.
Festivals proved to be somewhat fickle financially and factors such as unpredictable weather, overpriced tickets, poor programming and gatecrashers meant that many were marked by disorganisation and costly mistakes. Rock Isle Festival at Mulwala, New South Wales, finished up a day early when rain turned the already disorganised festival into a muddy mess. Sunbury wrapped up in 1975 (the year in which AC/DC famously brawled with Deep Purple) after attendance had fallen by almost half.
With the era of hippy peace and love drawing to a close and pub rock on the rise, festivals became few and far between until a 1990s resurgence with the likes of Big Day Out, Homebake and the Meredith Music Festival.
Nevertheless, in setting new precedents for everything from capacity to infrastructure, and by legitimising Australian bands and drawing international acts, these early festivals provided the blueprints to the modern summer festival season – a cornerstone of the Australian music and entertainment industry and an important launching pad for many artists and bands.
Today festivals remain an opportunity for thousands to disconnect from everyday life and imagine different ways of listening, living and connecting. As a coming together of live music, creativity and individual and collective memory, festivals birthed new communities and transformed others. From Sunbury to Meredith, towns across Australia have become synonymous with the festivals which they've hosted.
Discover more sights and sounds from these Early 1970s Music Festivals in our curated collection.
Main image: detail from poster advertising tour by The Aztecs and screenings of the film of Sunbury Pop Festival '72, 1972. NFSA title:748618