In 1985, as part of the Live Aid extravaganza, there were a series of concerts in Australia that took place about twelve hours before everything got underway at Wembley and Philadelphia. I didn’t see Live Aid at the time, or the Oz for Africa concert at the Sydney Sports and Entertainment Centre. By this point there had already been an Ethiopian famine concert at the Myer Music Bowl in January 1985 in Melbourne called the East Africa Tragedy (EAT) Appeal Concert. Underlining the sideline, and forgettable, nature of this event Midge Ure (ohh! Melbourne?) was flown out to compere this event. The Oz for Africa concert was compered by Molly Meldrum and was combined with a telethon which ran for the whole of a Saturday evening.
Where I lived we had two TV channels and they weren’t affiliated with the right one, so I saw some highlights from the concert on Donny Sutherland’s Sounds but that was about it. Maybe there was also something on Countdown I think but maybe Countdown had been finished up by then. More likely, though, I just wasn’t allowed to stay up that late. I was only eleven at the time so maybe this was just one of those Saturdays where I was asleep on the lounge and my Dad carried me to bed. At any rate I didn’t see it and have no memory of what transpired. Come Christmastime 1985, however, I received a double cassette copy of Oz for Africa, the companion release following the April concert.
Unsurprisingly it was not my deep knowledge of Ethiopian issues that led to this appearance in my Santa sack. Nor was it, at the time, related to my ongoing obsession with rock music. Quite the contrary this was, as much as anything can be, its origin point. At the time I was a regular viewer of Sounds and Countdown but these were really just marketing opportunities for record companies, breakfast radio on television. I can’t say what led my parents (who successfully placed cricket related gifts in my sack for all of my childhood) to buy Oz for Africa. But there it was and a big bag of half-used D size batteries to power the cassette player (which itself was a product of planned obsolescence and had been retrieved from a pile of retired Umatic video players and overhead projectors) to go with the cassettes.
To say I adored Oz for Africa is to woefully understate the case. I played those tapes until they died and the cassette player was long abandoned. The playlist itself was not something that shook the world, there were quite a few dud performers stuck in there to enable Australians to appear on US and UK television like the Little River Band (already a decade past their awful prime) and Men at Work, who gleefully refused to play “Down Under” but made up for it by having three flute solos in their setlist. There were a number of performers who were thought to be stars of the future and who could be assisted in their quest for world domination through this kind of exposure like Electric Pandas, who (despite the lovely Lin Buckfield, now the producer of ABC current affairs show Q&A) made their biggest impression through the Coke jingle “Coke Is It!” which couldn’t be avoided for about ten years.
There were the Uncanny X-Men who for a while were the truly hot pop young things on Australian record players. They did their (still memorable) hymn to the unemployed (of whom there were plenty in 1985) “Everybody want to Work (oh no not me!)” and a couple of other lesser tracks. The X-Men ran out of steam at exactly this point, never to worry radio playlist compilers again, though I still hear “Everybody want to Work” now and then on commercial radio. The most underrated Australian singer of the twentieth century, Renee Geyer, did a little set but of songs that still seem like Diana Ross rejects. No-one has been a greater victim of Australian music’s misogyny and world domination fantasies than Renee Geyer, a gorgeous singer stuck with trite copycat Stevie Nicks songs (at best). Another of the lost voices amidst the many boofy blokes was a now forgotten band led by the fantastic Louise Hughes called The Party Girls who did “Isolation” which remains a worthy track (“I don’t wanna be like youuuu!”), though it was not featured on the Oz for Africa cassettes. Hughes is still playing, fronting her eponymous band up on the Gold Coast, and doing the occasional pub tour but not often outside Queensland. Also there, but not on the album, was I’m Talking who performed, for mysterious reasons, a completely unremarkable pop song “Lead the Way” which made the ARIA top thirty for an hour or so. I’m sure Kate Ceberano is more than a little embarrassed by the whole thing.
Then there were the boofy blokes doing Ozrock eighties style. The Angels were there doing four quick tunes, all roughly the same. There was evergreen Ross Wilson in his Mondo Rock guise doing “Come Said the Boy” and other even less worthy synth driven pap. The brothers Hunter were in place as Dragon and did the usual tongue-hanging-out-of-blokes-mouth simulacrum of sexuality via “Are You Old Enough.” Dance pretty boys Machinations did their three songs, that’s all they had. Australian Crawl, a completely laudable band otherwise, did a greatest hits set and didn’t even get sweaty (they were broke at the time and needed to pay back EMI for the privilege of EMI making money on their recordings, by 1986 they were gone).
Also doing their thing was INXS who were just on the verge of world domination doing pretty white boy funk (quite well I still think). I recall “Original Sin” being on the Oz for Africa cassettes and it began a substantial love affair for me with INXS that end one summer afternoon in the Sebel townhouse more than a decade later, of course they were completely over the hill by then but I still cried my little eyes out the day Michael died. Another of my life long loves arrived via the Oz for Africa cassettes, Models (note not The Models, just Models). They did “Big on Love”, “I Hear Motion”, “Stormy Tonight”, “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” and really rocked. I fell deadset in love with James Freud listening to his half-arsed sax on “Out of Mind, Out of Sight.” To be straight up a part of me hasn’t stopped crying about James Freud being dead. It fucks with my head.
Shane Howard, as Goanna, did “Solid Rock” and “Common Ground” which are both good socially thoughtful and politically progressive songs but about as interesting as Pepperoni pizza. They don’t rock out, and Shane Howard has become a stalwart of the tea-chest bass and washboard school of Australian folk with considerable success. Mental as Anything played three songs, with “Live It Up” appearing on the Oz for Africa cassettes. It was hard not to like the Mentals in the eighties but as time has gone on the sense that these were interesting, thoughtful people making outlandish, and creative, music for no other reason than the fun it was do to so has become stronger and stronger. Listening to the Mentals nowadays it’s clear they are still more fun than most any pop group that’s ever gone around, better too.
The big key in the keyhole moment as I recall all these faces in the street was a now long gone art rock combo called Do Re Mi featuring the extraordinarily wonderful and elusive Deb Conway. Do Re Mi did a little three song set at the Oz for Africa concert but on the cassettes there was but one track: “Man Overboard.” It’s a magnificent song, a belter of domestic attrition and lovelorn self assertion. It’s a song that floors me even today with the harsh confrontational condemnation of self obsessed masculinity (“I’ve heard about your fragile ego/Your shield, your sword/What am I expected to do?/Shout Man Overboard?”). When I was eleven it was like the whole of middle earth had appeared in my bedroom, the whole fuck me-fuck you complexity of adult existence was revealed, analysed, and condemned in four minutes or so. It must have gelled with my thoughts about domestic life, about compulsory monogamy and heterosexuality, and about the silences that occupied the kitchen and dining rooms of my childhood. I knew when I listened to “Man Overboard” that I wanted to be the kind of man than Deb Conway would want to sleep with, as well as the kind of man who she could never say those things about: “Are you addicted to attention?/Do you do it for effect?/You’re wet, out of control, misunderstood and hen-pecked.” Occasionally I start to congratulate myself for managing this but then thinking of “Man Overboard” I think better of it. For those who have, sadly, never heard of Do Re Mi or “Man Overboard” here it is:
Reflecting upon the tracks on the Oz for Africa cassettes I can see that the breadcrumb trails I’ve spent my life following were started back then, that my long obsession with the archaeological nuances of Australian rock and pop was started that hot Christmas of 1985. From then on the long line of LPs, cassettes, CDs and mp3s that has accompanied me has always questioned if the wonderful something I found mattered, if music made any difference, if music made anything better at all. I don’t think, even for a nanosecond, that eighties Australian rock and pop did a damn thing for starving Ethiopians, whatever number of Australian dollars managed to be provided to them via Oz for Africa. But I know that something worked for me and if that something managed to produce wonder in my pint sized self then that was a lesson I’m stoked to have figured out. If you know what’s wonderful it’s far easier to discern what’s shit.