Sunbury Music Festival | 1972 to 1975

Sunbury Music Festival | 1972 to 1975

The Sunbury Pop Festival, which ran from 1972 to ‘75, is often regarded as a milestone in Australian music for many reasons. Although it wasn’t the first major music festival that Australia saw, it was the first successful music event which actually turned a profit, enough for it to run consecutively for four years.

Depending on which end of its four-year era you preferred, it's also known to some as the Sunbury Rock Festival. For the sake of simplicity, however, we'll take centre-stage (along with the middle of the fence) and just call it the Sunbury Music Festival.

In the early ‘70s there had already been several large music festivals that had come and gone over the years, including the 1970 festival “Pilgrimage for Pop” held in Ourimbah, NSW, and the Meadows Technicolour Fair held in South Australia in the same year of Sunbury’s first festival in ‘72.

Although likened to America’s Woodstock, the Sunbury Music Festival was more of a forerunner to the Big Day Out festivals of today. Held over the Australia Day long weekend in each of the four years it ran, the festival site was located on farmland on the outskirts of Sunbury between there and Digger’s Rest.

Owned by George Duncan, he generously offered the use of his property at no cost to the organisers, even going so far as allowing toilet facilities and rubbish bins to be installed on the property in later years of the festival. Which really makes sense, considering he’d have had as many as 40,000 people in his “backyard”. You don’t have to be a mathematician to know a crowd like that plus three days of food and booze equals a mess that would make even Keith Moon blush.

With the Duncans’ farmland providing a natural amphitheatre, the scene of the Sunbury festivals has since become an isolated area, far from the bustling hub it was during one of music history’s most famed events. Residential subdivision in the area has since limited public access to the site and redeveloped the landscape.

According to a document on the website of Hume City Council, little remains there now but there are still the remnants of the toilet facilities and bins, along with echoes of the event that linger to this day with “small artefacts such as items of footwear and drink can pull-rings” scattered over the area.

It makes you wonder whether it’d be worth getting out there with a metal detector to scour for vintage badges – given more thought, though, you’d probably have more luck with a sniffer dog!

Who Put The Bomp In The Bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp

The Sunbury Music Festivals were organised by a group named Odessa Promotions, said to be members of the Melbourne TV Industry. The principal of the company was John Fowler, and it’s said that the company included people who had previously worked on shows such as Uptight, a pop TV show of the late ‘60s. Don't bother trying to contact Odessa for help with your fundraiser, though... all you'll find is a company of the same name that operates from the Netherlands. The company went into liquidation after the final concert of ‘75, which was a financial disaster compared to the previous festivals.

Odessa Promotions organised the Sunbury festival in late ‘71, at a time when there had already been as many as five other major festivals held elsewhere in Australia, although Sunbury proved to be the most successful, allowing it to run for four years. Undeterred by the financial failure of other festivals, Odessa promoted their major rock festival as featuring an all-Australasian line-up.

It’s debated however whether this was intentional to showcase Aussie talent or whether it was due to limited finances. Later festivals at Sunbury would feature performers from overseas, including the highly priced Deep Purple for the final festival, which proved to be part of the company’s collapse.

Struggling to find a suitable setting for the festival, they had nearly given up hope of finding a property whose owners would allow them to use, but thankfully George Duncan was more than happy to oblige, having a great deal of faith in the youth of that day.

Others in the Sunbury and Diggers Rest area didn’t share the same view, however, and were worried about drugs, vandalism, fire, and more. They lobbied the Bulla Shire Council (now the council of Hume City) to stop the event, but the council didn’t have the power to do so and the festival went ahead. This was obviously back in the days before you needed a permit just to sneeze.

From Little Things, Mushrooms Grow...

What truly set the Sunbury Music Festival apart from these other events, and also cemented its place in music history, was the fact that it was the first major music festival to be extensively documented both in film and multi-track recordings, with the British label EMI releasing a double album of live music from that year’s event. While a milestone in its own right, the EMI’s ‘72 effort isn’t the recording that Sunbury’s infamous for.

Having been involved in managing bands for the inaugural festival in ‘72, a young Michael Gudinski was already proving himself to be quite the entrepreneur, making a tidy profit on selling watermelons to the hot punters during the summer festival.

Disenchanted with the existing record companies of the day, in the festival’s second year Gudinski created one of Sunbury’s most notable legacies, the first ever release of a 3 album set, featuring music recorded live at that year’s festival. The recording was also the first release of his fledgling company, Mushroom Records, which went on to be the most widely recognised label in Australian music.

There was also a limited edition six-track EP that was released that year, which can allegedly fetch a neat little sum on the collector's market, so keep an eye out for that next time you’re rifling through those daggy LP’s at the Salvos – you just might find it tucked between Jim Nabors and Max Bygraves.

The Music, The Mood, The Vibe...

Touted as one of the best years in the festival’s history, ‘73s festival, hosted by Paul Hogan, saw Australia’s own rock’n’roll legend Johnny O’Keefe prove a surprising hit with the predominantly hippie audience. One of the most successful of the Sunbury festivals, there are often conflicting reports about that year’s event concerning ticket prices and the number of people that actually attended.

There’s just as much mythology about the spirit of the Sunbury Music Festival, with some regarding it as Australia’s Woodstock, a keypoint in more innocent times that embraced peace and a laidback life, while others saw the Sunbury festivals as an event that mirrored the decline of that flowery period with some suggesting that the festivals steadily became a beer-soaked yob fest.

Regardless of the crowd’s temperament, the Sunbury Music Festivals greatly marked a large shift in Australia’s popular music scene, ending an era influenced by ‘60s psychedelia and folk music and echoing a shift towards a more uniquely Australian genre of louder, stomping pub rock attracting performers such as Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Skyhooks and AC/DC who infamously turned up to the ‘75 festival however left without performing.

While the Sunbury Music Festivals did much for the Aussie music scene, featuring an all-Australian line-up in ‘72’s first festival, it also attracted well-known acts from overseas in the later festivals with British bands Queen appearing in ‘74 and Deep Purple taking the stage in the festival of ‘75.

Both of these bands weren’t without some controversy when they appeared at the festivals. When Queen took to the stage, the band was largely unknown at that time on Australian shores and they were unfortunately heckled from the stage following their performance, allegedly after the announcer of that year’s festival asked the audience, “D'you want anymore from these pommie bastards or do ya want an Aussie rock band?”

Before leaving the stage to jeers that labelled them “pooftahs” who should go back to Pommyland, Freddy Mercury, Queen’s iconic front man (who was nonetheless fond of bottoms) boldly and bravely fired a parting shot back at the audience. He declared that when his band Queen would next visit Australia, they would be the biggest band in the world. And true to his word when they returned to our shores in ‘76, QUEEN were indeed one of the most globally acclaimed bands. Also see 'urban legend' below.

Deep Purple caused their own share of grief when they visited Australia to perform at the final festival of ‘75. While AC/DC were listed as part of the performance line up, they never performed due to a scuffle with Deep Purple. With Deep Purple’s performance having come to an end, AC/DC were meant to follow them but Deep Purple refused to let AC/DC do so.

During this time George Young – formerly of The Easybeats, another band renowned for pulling no punches in their day – had been filling in for AC/DC playing bass, and he along with our own Acca Dacca got into a fist fight with Deep Purple on the stage. With roadies of either side involved in the stoush, AC/DC eventually left the stage, refusing to play at all.

Another problem that came about from the booking of Deep Purple as that year’s headline act was the amount that they were paid for their appearance. Given a whopping AU$60,000 (a large fee for those times) the steep price paid to these pipers and poor ticket sales meant that all other bands who appeared that year were unable to be paid for their time and performances. The only other performer who was paid for Sunbury’s final festival was Jim Keays, of The Masters Apprentices, who had arranged for sponsorship from independent sources.

The Sunbury Music Festivals came to an end that year with a poor turnout of an estimated 14,000 people, a bit of fisticuffs on the stage, and the following liquidation of the event organisers, Odessa Promotions, who it’s alleged were made up of TV industry professionals. A string of lawsuits against Odessa Promotions were lodged by unpaid staff and performers, and eventually Deep Purple were actually forced to return a share of their earnings.

While it was deemed by the equity court that the Australian artists weren’t entitled to Odessa’s assets, said to be self-employed individuals rather than employees of Odessa Promotions, there was a legal rule within the Musicians Union that won a small victory for our local heroes.

As part of the conditions for Deep Purple touring Australia, the band had paid a portion of their fee to the union due to concerns that their presence might cause industrial unrest. Not surprisingly, given the events that arose at Sunbury, this was said to be the very case and the deposit was paid out to Musicians Union members, giving them the minimum rate of that time.

Sunbury Trivia

In lieu of singing you some tunes from the festival’s hey-day (the licensing fees would be way too expensive, and we didn’t even dare ask Deep Purple!) here are some facts about the Sunbury Music Festival that are quite interesting…

Festival Details

Sunbury Music Festival 1972

    $6.00 (3 days), $5.00 (2 days), $1.00 (1 day)

    Estimated as 35,000 - 40,000

Gerry Humphreys

1972 Festival Line Up:
The Bushwackers and Bullockys Bush Band
The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band
Glenn Cardier
Company Caine
Country Radio
Healing Force
The La De Das
Mackenzie Theory
Phil Manning
Max Merritt and the Meteors
Barry McCaskill & The Levi Smith Clefs
Wendy Saddington * see comments
Tamam Shud
Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs
Total Fire Band
The Wild Cherries

Sunbury Music Festival 1973



Paul Hogan - "That's not a festival... Now this is a festival!"

1973 Festival Line Up:
Band Of Light
Glenn Cardier
Coloured Balls
Country Radio
Flying Circus
Healing Force
MacKenzie Theory
Madder Lake
Max Merritt & The Meteors
Johnny O'Keefe
Sid Rumpo
Matt Taylor
The 69'ers
Dutch Tilders
Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs

Sunbury Music Festival 1974

    $12.00 (3 days); $10.00 (2 days); $5.00 (1 day)

    Estimated at 30,000

Jim Keays

1974 Festival Line Up:
Francis Butler's 69-ers
The Dingoes
Buster Brown
Madder Lake
MacKenzie Theory
Ayers Rock
Sid Rumpo
Ross Ryan
Daddy Cool
Queen (UK)

Sunbury Music Festival 1975


    Estimated at 14,000 to 16,000


1975 Festival Line Up:
Deep Purple (UK)
Ayers Rock
Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band
Daddy Cool
The Dingoes
Renée Geyer & Sanctuary
The Keystone Angels
The La De Das
Madder Lake
Ross Ryan

urban legend

A fight between the road crews and management of Madder Lake and Queen may have been behind the urban legend. "The issue revolved around Queen refusing to go on at their allotted time because the light wasn't right - I remember it was sundown, so whoever went on stage wouldn't get the full benefit of their light show. It came down to a battle between management, which then spilled into a fracas between the roadies of our respective bands, as each crew jostled to set gear up. The MC (or some other promoter) goaded the crowd into an us and them vibe, with the local band in favour over the unknown "pommie bastards". It ended with us going on stage first, and Queen redeeming themselves to the crowd and showing a hint of what they were to become. And that is how I remember it."
- Kerry McKenna, Bass Player Madder Lake.

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