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Jack Johnson on the Forecourt in 2016

Flashback to Countdown

Bernard Zuel on how Australia's primetime music show became a national obsession 

Bernard Zuel
Sydney Opera House

If Countdown was a film it would be a Clint Eastwood one.

No, not A Fistful Of Dollars or For A Few Dollars More—the ABC budget never really seemed to reach even the level of Channel 9’s Friday executive bar tab. Half of what they had was likely spent on counselling sessions for the young girls who watched Iggy Pop perform 'I’m Bored' in nothing more than tight silver pants and a lascivious grin.

Nor would it be Unforgiven. As the recently ended 13-week run of Classic Countdown episodes showed, all our prejudices, gripes, memories and loves are seemingly unchanged in 30 years. In fact, maybe enhanced.

While there’s a lot of love for his 1970s work, is it ever a good idea to play an Elton John song from the ‘80s, such as 'Kiss The Bride'? Can you watch Duran Duran’s 'My Own Way' and not bicker of who was the prettiest in Duran Duran? Does wearing a blue singlet on national television while singing 'Say Goodbye' make Hunters & Collectors the most Aussie band ever?

If Countdown was a Clint Eastwood film it would be The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. And gloriously so.

Jack Johnson on the Forecourt in 2016
Eurythmics - Countdown Image: ABC
Jack Johnson on the Forecourt in 2016
Elton John and Molly - Countdown 1975 Image: ABC

"It was the way of life each Sunday."

From the sublime—The Reels’ 'Quasimodo’s Dream', Aha’s 'Take On Me', Deborah Conway up front of Do Re Mi singing 'Guns And Butter'—to the ridiculous—Painters And Dockers’ 'Nude School', Pussyfoot’s 'Ooh Ja Ja' or the merest hint of Village People—was not just a cliché; it was the way of life each Sunday during the 13 years of Countdown.

And let’s not forget the moments which were sublime and ridiculous: Devo singing 'Whip It'; Kate Bush on another plane with 'Hammer Horror'; any time Sherbet appeared with satin jackets over bare chests.

There were bands you loved, bands you loathed, artists you couldn’t get enough of, artists you couldn’t ever understand, singers never seen before, singers never seen again. Speaking of which, what did happen to Joe Dolce after 'Shaddap You Face'?

When there were four TV stations (“Four? Luxury!” cry all those who grew up outside the capital cities) and half a dozen music stations (“What? More than one? Don’t believe you!” say all those who grew up outside the capital cities).

When you could see live music almost every night of the week at a pub or bar nearby (“Oh, look, now you’re trolling us,” say all those who grew up outside the capital cities) the world was small enough to be captured and close enough to mean everything.

Nothing will ever be like that again, for good and bad. We’ve all grown up some, technology means “local” is almost global, music doesn’t have to be filtered through a really narrow funnel of one man’s tastes or predilections, and you could drive for an hour in any direction from many suburbs and not see a venue putting on original music.

Which is why a concert on the northern side of the Opera House, not that far really from where a radio rival to the show, 2SM, once staged Rocktober concerts on the steps, is so perfect it could hurt.

Jack Johnson on the Forecourt in 2016
John Paul Young and Peter Allen - Countdown Image: ABC

For the younger end of the audience: they’ll come to realise that their parents’ dress sense and musical oddities were not a one-off but shared by a whole generation. 

And then realise that they’ve always loved some of these songs. Even the silly ones? Especially the silly ones. Who doesn’t get up and shake their thing when the B-52s’ 'Rock Lobster' comes on? Does anything beat the bagpipes climax of 'You’re The Voice'?

For the older end of the audience: it’s a chance to see out the old year with the old music so they can stay connected to days of future past (and if you can remember to what that refers you are the right age, if not necessarily the right musical alignment, for this concert).

Maybe the best idea is to make a resolution to get some new music into your life and make room alongside that inner 13-year-old who still knows every word of 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?'

Do yourself a favour though, don’t ask the DJ to 'Play Misty For Me'. No-one—not Clint, not Molly—can save you there.

The ABC will celebrate Countdown again this New Year's Eve on the Opera House's Northern Broadwalk.

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