One of the most iconic gigs in Australian music history was almost an absolute disaster.
In January 1982, several bands at very different stages in their careers came together to perform a free outdoor concert at Wanda Beach in Sydney’s south.
Many of those present that day wear the experience as a badge of honor. For some, it has changed their lives.
And two of the bands would go on to perform on the world stage and change Australian rock music forever.
‘No idea what was about to hit’
Wanda Beach is south of the Sydney CBD on Dharawal Country in the Sutherland Shire. It is along the same stretch of coast as Cronulla Beach.
There is a large hill down to the water covered in lush green grass and coastal pines.
These days, the streets closest to the beach are full of multimillion-dollar homes, but in 1982, Wanda Beach looked very different. And for the local kids, there wasn’t much to do.
One of the neighborhood’s youth shelters came up with the idea of organizing a free concert to raise funds for local unemployed youth. Organizers have asked ABC radio station triple j and local television station SBS to help organize the concert.
The plan was to install the stage at the bottom of the hill, creating a natural amphitheater.
The audience would have a view of the bands and the beautiful blue ocean beyond.
But at the top of the hill were apartment houses, and the action took place right in front of these properties.
John Diamond, who was part of triple j’s live music team, knew the damage a large crowd could cause, so he spoke with the owners.
“It’s going to be one hell of a gig,” he told them.
With Neighbors cast, attention might return to the line-up: some of the most exciting bands of the era were about to play.
Spy vs Spy and Machinations were the opening acts. They were followed by New Zealand new wave band Mi-Sex, which were on the rise worldwide.
“When we played in New York, we played three sold-out shows. Two or three thousand people. It was really exciting,” keyboardist Murray Burns said.
“Mi-Sex was huge,” said INXS’ Kirk Pengilly, who was lined up to play after them at Wanda Beach.
Alongside Mi-Sex and INXS was the main act: Midnight Oil.
“It was a period of growth for us,” recalls Oils guitarist and keyboardist Jim Moginie.
“A bit of maturity was about to happen. We didn’t know that of course.”
In 1982, the Oils were like any other Sydney band trying to make it big.
“We had just done an album called Place Without A Postcard in England with superstar producer Glenn Johns, who had done the Stones and the Beatles and the Kinks and everybody,” Moginie says.
“We were back in Australia on tour to make up the shortfall of all the money we had spent in England, which was the usual situation for Australian bands going overseas at the time.”
The quiet place by the beach had no idea what was about to happen.
A crowd for everything
Sunday January 31, 1982 was not the sunny day that the organizers were expecting. Instead it was gray and drizzly.
But that didn’t stop anyone from showing up.
“Around 10 or 11 a.m., things started to move,” Diamond recalled.
“Crowds are starting to arrive with their sandwiches and girlfriends and boyfriends and some with kids.”
If that sounds neat, it wasn’t.
Murray Burns of Mi-Sex says things have descended into chaos.
“Everything was not well organized, the scene seemed to have been built by local builders,” he says.
By the time the concert started around noon, the crowd had grown much larger than the organizers had anticipated.
“We didn’t know how many were going to show up,” Diamond says. “Maybe 11 or 12,000. It was good for one of our gigs.”
At the beginning of the afternoon, Mi-Sex launched his set.
The police on the spot estimated that 25,000 people were present. Many of them were about to have the time of their lives.
Burns says the crowd was ready for anything.
“So many undressed bodies, not naked, but it was really cool,” he says.
The band finished their set to thunderous applause.
At this time, the organizers realized there was a brewing problem. The rain was imminent and if it affected the equipment, they would have to stop the concert.
Stuart Cranney of triple jumped on the microphone to address the crowd.
“I was just talking to the people running the thing, and at about that point it’s up to you,” he said, giving them the option of whether or not to go ahead with the gig.
The crowd screamed for the concert to continue.
So, with lingering ominous clouds, they continued.
Cranney called INXS on stage.
The band had just returned from New Zealand after playing Sweetwaters Music Festival and some of their gear – and half their crew – had not returned to Australia.
Fortunately, Mi-Sex came to the rescue. “I’m pretty sure Andrew Farriss used my keyboards,” Burns says. “He reprogrammed a whole bunch of stuff.”
INXS were a band on the rise in 1982. They had released two well-received albums and their popularity was growing, although they were not yet the international superstars they had become.
But Burns says you could tell you were watching a band “on the road”.
As INXS tore it up on stage, Chrissy Vincent made her way through the crowd. She was from Sydney’s west and had driven her little blue Honda to the gig.
“I was a huge fan back then. They were just on fire,” she recalled.
The atmosphere in the crowd was at its height when Midnight Oil took the stage at the end of the day.
And then it started to rain.
“We had in front of us a completely saturated crowd”, says Moginie. “Like a tribal gathering on a muddy hill in the Shire.
“The crowd was extraordinary, absolutely incredible. Completely into it, dancing like crazy.”
Moginie says it was like Woodstock.
“There weren’t really any security guys,” he recalls. “There were no restrictions on what you could drink or take or smoke or drink.
“It was quite an anarchic environment, as was the whole live music scene in Australia at the time.”
Then frontman Peter Garrett took off his shirt and the whole thing, “went a little bananas”.
“He was dancing madly,” said Moginie. “We played our set at breakneck speed.”
Meanwhile, time was raging.
“There was a tarp on the stage which was regularly filling with rain,” explains Moginie. “Then he would drop his contents on the back of [Oils guitarist] Amp Martin (Rotsey).
His amp crackled throughout the set.
“It was the creation of the group. If it didn’t kill you, it would be your savior, these kind of concerts in these kind of conditions”, says Moginie.
A change of fortune
The story didn’t end when the concert ended that night.
The reason Wanda Beach has become so iconic is because of what happened after the concert.
This turned out to be a massive springboard for the groups involved.
Midnight Oil was about to have its defining moment. They traveled to London to record the album Ten to One, which included hits like Power and the Passion.
This was when their fortunes changed.
“When we returned later in 1982 to Australia, we played the Capitol Theater five nights in a row,” Moginie explains.
“And we finally had singles that they could play on the radio.”
For INXS, things were about to explode as well.
“The ATCO Records manager flew to Australia and came to a few gigs,” Pengilly explains. “It would be sweaty, there would be condensation dripping from the ceiling, shirtless guys, fights.
“She had never seen anything like it and practically signed us up on the spot.”
And, as INXS’ Tim Farriss says, “the rest is history.”
For Mi-Sex, Wanda Beach was the start of a different trajectory: it was one of the band’s last big gigs.
“We were actually pretty wiped out at that point,” Burns says. “We toured Australia for three years nonstop.
“Our singer Steve Gilpin bought some land in Byron Bay and he went there and built a house. Then we lost him. He died in the car accident. It was so sad.
Finally, live musical experiences like Wanda Beach inspired Chrissy Vincent to pursue a career in the music industry, working at Festival Records and Harbor Agency. She even worked with Midnight Oil.
“I took a maternity leave position in the Midnight Oil office. It was around 1986 and I was doing administrative work.”
On a wet Sunday
Wanda Beach was a pivotal moment in the lives of so many people. It made a deep impression on those who were there. From bands that rocked this scene to fans who got to see Midnight Oil and INXS right before they were about to blow up.
All this on a soggy January Sunday.
“It’s amazing that he has reached this mythical status,” says Vincent. And he is happy about it.
“We should be celebrating our live music. Australian live music is something that needs to be celebrated a lot more,” he says.
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