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Out of the dark a launch approaches, navigation lights aglow. On the dimly lit wharf a group of young men and women in jeans, leather jackets, short skirts step forward. A solidly built man gripping an aluminium briefcase flashes a torch.

‘Mark Pope?’ a voice calls from the water.

‘That’s me.’

The launch comes alongside, ropes are thrown over bollards and it creaks gently against the pylons.

‘Everyone here?’

‘Yes.’

Other torches flick on, illuminating the rear deck.

‘Watch your step.’

Hands reach out to help as they clamber aboard. The crew cast off, the engine picks up and the boat swings back towards the Sydney Harbour Bridge with its rows of lights and arching girders. In the cabin the skipper is on the radio, saying he’s collected the group and ETA will be in twelve minutes.

They cruise past Luna Park, under the bridge and the thundering roar of traffic and trains. A warm breeze ruffles a girl’s blonde hair and another adjusts her silk scarf. To starboard the city lights blaze into view. The skipper alters course and the bow slices through the wake of a ferry churning out from Circular Quay. Spray splashes aft and there’s laughter when it hits the young faces.

Ahead lie the white-tiled sails of the Opera House, shimmering beneath the moon and stars. On the far side, spotlights cut the night and a singer booms out of a massive sound system. His voice echoes back from the city high-rise and the roar of a huge crowd rolls across the water.

The engine throttles back, a crewman with a coiled rope makes his way forward and another takes position astern with a boathook. Torches ashore flicker and flash in their direction. The launch eases up to a concrete landing and a gangplank is thrown across. Hands reach to help everyone ashore. A roar swells as a muffled song comes to an end on the other side. As the group climbs to meet two T-shirted figures with security passes hanging from their necks, a straying spotlight gleams off necklaces and leather jackets.

‘How’s it going, guys?’ one asks, distributing joints and striking matches.

‘All good. How’s it going, Ray?’ The tallest one has a velvety Irish lilt in his voice.

‘Mega crowd! Consternation and terror with the Sydney Festival management! My lighting desk is set up stage-side, not good, but not enough cable to put it far enough out front.’

‘Natives are restless,’ says the other, ‘giving all the acts a hard time – they’re throwing cans and fruit at them! They’ve been here all day getting pissed and impatient. Been chanting for the band.’

One of the guys punches the air. ‘I’m ready. Let’s do it!’ There’s laughter from the girls.

‘Put these on,’ says Ray, handing out backstage passes before leading the group through the stage door and past security. High heels clickety-­clack as they negotiate flights of stairs and curving concrete-walled corridors. ‘Dressing room,’ he announces, swinging back a door and standing aside to let them in.

There’s a table in the centre with trays of sandwiches, bowls of fruit. In a corner is a kitchenette with glasses, cups, tea, coffee, bottles of wine and a bottle of scotch. There’s a fridge with beer, wine, soft drinks, bottles of water. There are guitars on stands, amps lined up behind.

One of the guys picks up a Les Paul, straps it on and begins playing scales. Another lights a cigarette, selects the bass, plucks the strings, adjusts the pegs. Wine is uncorked, handbags and jackets draped over chairs. One of the young men picks up a pair of drumsticks and beats steady patterns on a rubber practice mat. In the kitchen corner, whiskey shots are measured and the roadies roll fresh joints.

‘There’s a TV monitor up there with the Channel Ten broadcast,’ says one. ‘You got forty minutes to show-time.’

It’s almost midnight as Mark Pope leads them to the side of the stage next to the fold-back and lighting desks.

‘ANGELS! ANGELS! ANGELS!’ The chant rolling up from the vast audience is deafening,

Rolf Harris had stormed off earlier after doing only a couple of songs – dodging beer cans and copping a tomato in the chest. He was last seen swearing all the way back to his dressing-room. Actor Grahame Bond dressed in drag as his Aunty Jack TV alter-ego had done the same, driven off by incoming missiles.

‘ANGELS! ANGELS! ANGELS!’ All communication onstage is conducted by sign language or shouting into ears at close range.

‘ANGELS! ANGELS! ANGELS!’

Out on the stage, the crew are checking equipment, placing bottles of water, laying folded towels on the drum riser, gaffing down stray cables, clearing away the debris being thrown in.

Bang! A can hits the Perspex screen that’s been erected between the mixing consoles and the edge of the stage overlooking the audience. Coke dribbles down the screen and mixes with a splash of drying beer where the last one connected.

Ray glances at the group who stare out at the heaving beast; behind them the girls look apprehensive. Roadies stationed each side of the stage periodically run along the edge and push back enthusiastic punters attempting to scramble over, collecting empty cans as they go. Lumps of chipboard sheets that skirt the front of the stage have been ripped off and bits tossed like frisbees at some of the previous performers. People are getting underneath but there are a few security guys down there pushing them back.

Dozens of spotlights along the huge trusses above flash on and off as Ray slides his faders up and down for a final check.

Two of the band are looking meaningfully at each other: ‘Should we be going on?’ A white-shirted guy with ‘Stage Manager’ round his neck comes over. ‘This will settle down as soon as you get out there – they’re all here for you. The Mayor and the committee are about to do a short welcome speech, then the fireworks, then you’re on.’

Tens of thousands are jammed across the forecourt – thronging the paths and lawns snaking around Farm Cove, and thousands more are sardine-packed along the road leading to Circular Quay. Scaffold towers rise out of the audience with dozens of punters hanging off them while the Channel Ten crews perch at the top, swinging their big cameras back and forth across the whole scenario.

The tall one yells into the ear of another, ‘Someone’s gotta take control – people are going to get hurt!’

At the mixing desk out front, nestled on scaffolding above the audience, ace sound engineer Howard Page eyes a group of drunks among the swaying mob off to one side of the stage. They’re chugga­lugging cans and tossing the empties stage-ward. No-one is attempting to stop them. It began during the samba band from Argentina. The Argentineans had the whole place laughing and dancing, but that hadn’t stopped a few idiots. After dark more joined in. The cans were empty and light and never going to do much damage, but the cops should have waded in and grabbed the throwers. It hadn’t been vicious – they were just bored lobbing up the empties. But as the night progressed, that changed. Now there was fruit, tomatoes and other foodstuff. Someone with authority and balls should be on the mic – singling them out, giving them an ear-bashing.

Howard looks around. From his bird’s-eye view he now realises that the police presence, conspicuous throughout the day even though they’d only stood about, has evaporated. Maybe there has been a change of shift, but there are nowhere near enough if things go pear-shaped. He turns to his offsider: ‘This could get ugly and we’re going to cop the blame! People are gonna get hurt if someone doesn’t get onto that mic!’

The Mayor comes on in his suit with his wife, and a group of business straights stand around him as he goes into a speech thanking this and that. The crowd boo and the hurling increases. ‘GET THE FUCK OFF! WHERE’S THE ANGELS?’ The Mayor dodges and ducks and then he’s counting down to midnight, yells ‘HAPPY NEW YEAR’, and he and his associates are out of there. There are ten minutes of fi reworks and the crowd go ooh and ahhh and settle down.

A voice comes through Howard’s headphones, ‘Fireworks nearly over. Band’s ready to go on – do the intros when you’re ready.’

‘Roger to that,’ he says, and switches his mic over to the front-of-­house PA.

‘LADIES AND GENTLEMEN,’ his voice booms, ‘THE BAND YOU’RE ALL HERE TO SEE ARE ABOUT TO COME OUT.’ A mighty roar goes up but his voice booms on: ‘BUT BEFORE THEY COME OUT, WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP THE BEER-CAN THROWING, STOP THROWING CANS AT THE PERFORMERS – SOMEONE IS GOING TO GET HURT! JUST STOP THROWING STUFF, OKAY!’ There’s more applause and he gives it a minute before drawing breath and then his mighty amplified voice blasts across the audience: ‘LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WOULD YOU PLEASE WELCOME THE GUYS YOU’RE ALL HERE FOR: RICK AND JOHN BREWSTER ON GUITARS, CHRIS BAILEY ON BASS, BUZZ BIDSTRUP ON DRUMS . . .’

The drums and bass come pounding through the huge system, guitar chords kick in and it all throbs through the night as the crowd greets them with a roar. A shaft of light beams down onto Rick Brewster standing rock still, fingers dancing along the frets, peeling off a screaming lead – his face expressionless behind wrap-around shades.

Ray Hawkins slams forward the fader slides, drenching a hundred thousand watts of light across the stage. ‘AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST,’ yells Howard, ‘PUT YOUR HANDS TOGETHER FOR MR DOC NEESON ON VOCALS! WOULD YOU PLEASE WELCOME THE MIGHTY ANGELS.’

The band moves into full flight and the roar is ear-splitting as a tall lean dinner-suited bow-tied figure skips manically out of the wings, whips the mic off its silvery stand, doubles over and snarls, ‘Smokers smoking in the smoking room . . .’ and the show is on.

Across the audience, clenched fists punch the sky and mayhem explodes into the midsummer night. Onstage camera crews move in for close-ups, a crouching roadie shadows Doc, feeding his microphone lead as he leaps about. Other crew race in and out, throwing back the debris that’s flying in. Doc is in command, prowling along the foot­lights from one side to the other, dodging the guitarists as they move into the mics for the choruses.

They segue into the next song, ‘Who Rings The Bell’, Doc staring menacingly into the crowd, oblivious to incoming missiles. Behind, the guitars plough on, a wall of dense concentrated sound. ‘It’s ringing all over town – tear the big house down . . .’ During the instrumental Doc shrugs out of his dinner jacket, loosens the bow tie. The crowd sings every word of every song, all the phrasing, pauses, choruses.

Out at the mixing desk, Howard’s apprehension rises with each beer-can near-miss of a band member. There’s now an occasional bottle getting lobbed in. He’s muttering to himself about Doc as he works the big sound desk, ‘He should step out of character – say something.’

The opening riffs of another song begin. Right off, the crowd knows it. ‘Buy me a box of French cigars . . .’ Thousands of voices chant the words. Guys thrash air guitars, girls dance and wave their arms – the place is going off! ‘Take me away to Marseilles . . .’

Then a bottle sails in and hits Chris Bailey. With blood streaming down his face he stumbles forward – a second later something ricochets off the back of Doc’s head and he topples to his knees. With two of the band down, the others grind to a ragged halt and look around, bewildered – except for Rick, who rages on with his solo until John grabs his arm. With debris still arcing over the footlights, the roadies lift Chris and Doc and drag them offstage. Ray dims the lights and in the gloom Buzz climbs out from behind his kit.

Through the PA comes the voice of Howard Page: ‘THAT’S IT! ARE YOU SATISFIED NOW? THE SHOW IS OVER, THAT’S IT. JUST STOP THROWING THINGS. STOP RIGHT NOW. GOOD­NIGHT. THE SHOW IS OVER.’

Doc and Chris are taken by ambulance to St Vincent’s Hospital where they both get cleaned up, stitched up and spend the night and next day recuperating. The ambulance officers visit Doc with albums to sign and talk about the dozens of people they’d ferried to the casualty department after the show. ‘There were girls’ panties and guys’ underpants all over the place full of shit because they couldn’t get to the toilets,’ they said. ‘The organisation was pathetic.’

The front pages are dominated by the ‘riot’. State Premier Neville Wran is president of the festival board, Mayor Nelson Meers is head of the organising committee. Questions will be asked in Parliament and also at the next Sydney council meeting. It’s clear the festival had no idea how to organise a major event of this kind. No one takes responsibility, and none is ever sheeted home to the organisers. No one will acknowledge that keeping tens of thousands of punters waiting for up to twelve hours on a hot day and through a long night, getting pissed and bored, was a recipe for disaster. There were nowhere near enough toilets and there were no station points where water and soft drinks could be bought. The organisers had no concept of who The Angels actually were, only the bare minimum of security staff were rostered on duty and the police presence was totally inadequate for such an enormous crowd.

Despite much official bluster and acknowledgement that there could have been deaths, there was never the promised enquiry into how things got so out of control.

A ban was put on rock performances from the Opera House steps that would remain in place for seventeen years – until Crowded House got permission to stage their career-ending concert there in 1996.

But rock ’n’ roll mayhem and large-scale public disorder wasn’t the way it had always been for this group of hardy troubadours. Things had been much tamer in Adelaide in the early days, back when it all began.

Formats & editions

  • Trade Paperback

    9780143782636

    July 31, 2017

    Ebury Australia

    368 pages

    RRP $34.99

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  • EBook

    9780143782643

    July 31, 2017

    RHA eBooks Adult

    368 pages

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