Heroes (Just for One Day)
‘The Countdown Spectacular’
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Molly is up in the bleachers with a microphone and a spotlight on him. He's up there to introduce the last act of the night, Sherbet. He does it like this: he tells a woman at the end of an aisle that the band has missed its flight and won't be performing. He then goes to the man behind her and asks if he's a Broncos fan. One can only wonder what the band thinks of this. Molly has been sent up there to "vibe" the crowd but, though charming, he lost the ability to talk to anyone normal years ago. Finally, he reels back and shouts, "Sherbet!" Our eyes swing to the stage, where Daryl Braithwaite is standing amid his band, giggling. It's an endearing moment: no Christ-on-the-cross pose signalling a triumphant return, or sitting astride a strobe light; just a shy, nervous grin. A woman in front of me yells out, " I love you, Daryl!" The band crashes into ‘Summer Love'.
"Spectacular" is the wrong word for this show. Imagine "living room" - which isn't so strange, given that that's where the show was pumped into weekly for 13 years. Countdown could never really be a spectacular, because it wasn't one to begin with. It was a box, and that provides the contours of this show. No single act comes on and breathes fire into the corners of the arena and blows this up to anything bigger that what it is: a surprisingly entertaining, quick-shot run-through of singers, groups and their hit songs. A show relatively low on production values (the pyrotechnics must have cost all of $500), but high on guts and cheeky Australian charm.
The format helps. This is the first show I've ever seen like this, and it's a pleasure to know that no matter how bad someone is, you only have four minutes of them. One Swanee number is enough. That's no cheap-shot criticism - you hear his gut-scraping voice, know he's Jimmy Barnes's brother, hear Bon Scott in him, think about those connections, and then he's gone. Cheetah, two magnificently preserved and vital women in their late forties, both the very definition of "rock chick", glide across the stage to their hit ‘Spend the Night', and that works, too. Then there's The Choirboys, unknown to me, purveyors of some diabolical '80s rock, probably, but one admires the nifty three-chord dynamics of ‘Run to Paradise'. An hour of them could be deadly, but extract the nugget, light them and give them a good PA, and it has you wishing more rock shows were like this: fast-paced, hits coming at you and everyone playing for their lives.
The show is split in two. The first half leans to the one-hit wonders; the second half more to the ‘artists', who get two or three songs each. The first half is zanier: Frankie J Holden and Wilber Wilde from Ol' 55 are genuinely funny. And then come the Melbourne boys. There is a certain kind of pop star from this town, enthralled by David Bowie, who has never been able to divorce pop stardom from glitter. The trash, high-camp aspects of Countdown suit them beautifully. They are living out dreams, and the eyeliner and hair dye have come out for the occasion. Brian Mannix (Uncanny X-Men), Dave Sterry from Real Life (a great ‘Send Me an Angel'), and Billy Miller from The Ferrets represent this contingent, and all are in their pomp.
The first half closes with Hush, and they are astonishing. They do ‘Boney Maronie' and ‘Glad All Over', and provide the one bug-eyed, I-can't-believe-what-is-in-front-of-me moment of the night. This is a band that has gone through some life changes and come out the other side looking more interesting than they did in the '70s. Lead singer Keith Lamb, once the ultimate poodle-haired pop star, now looks like the kind of guy you see wandering through the Byron Bay markets: dreadlocks, weird clothes. Lead guitarist Les Gock is perma-cool, still wearing a guitar on his skinny frame like no one else in Oz rock ever has. They're on fire, a mad mash of heavy glam-rock and someone who looks like John Butler's dad on vocals. Their next gig should be the Big Day Out.
The spoiler in all of this is a dance troupe that comes on in each half of the show to do routines from musicals and clips of the era. It doesn't work. Rock 'n' roll and pop (which is what this show aspires to) and dance troupes doing ‘Footloose' don't mix. It immediately sends the rock 'n' roll to cabaret land, and it's the first time that I feel a twinge of embarrassment at being here.
Is Ross Wilson a genius? We're in the second half of the show and this question keeps coming back to me during the ten minutes or so that Mondo Rock is on stage. He's the one performer tonight whom you look at and think, He could have done something overseas if he'd wanted to. Everything about him is unique. The way he moves, dresses, sings - and his songs. Sure, Mondo Rock may not have been the most sympathetic vehicle, but it showed that in his third decade in the business he was still savvy and talented enough to have hits. The great ‘Cool World' is the first one played tonight.
The show benefits from a strong dash of Melbourne music. Renee Geyer, Stephen Cummings, Joe Camilleri, The Models and James Reyne all lend credibility, and all come out in good spirits to revisit their moment(s) in the Countdown sun. Reyne is smart enough to strip the gorgeous ‘Reckless' down to an acoustic guitar. Cummings blurts out ‘Who Listens to the Radio?'. Then a certain gravitas comes to the night's proceedings with the arrival of Geyer. It's as if the crowd draws breath and settles to welcome a real singer - a weird echo of the class she bought to '70s Countdown. She judges the mood just right, showing her vocal chops are still in intact with ‘It's a Man's World' and then letting go with a campy ‘Say You Love Me'.
The Models are fun, too. They do two good songs, ‘I Hear Motion' and ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight', plus there's the added pleasure of trying to gauge the current state of Sean Kelly and James Freud's friendship. Two songwriters and front-men in a pop group is always a difficult ship to navigate, especially through the hit-single world. Judging from the distance between their microphones, one senses there's a certain tension between them still. But they need each other: Freud without Kelly is too cheesy; Kelly without Freud is too intense. One hopes they continue.
And then comes Leo Sayer. He's the performer I'd been dreading, and this is when the tables turned - or, perhaps, some magic appeared. Sayer comes on and is actually good. He fits. He makes the consummate entrance, touching every corner of the stage without for a second seeming to rush. He brings goodwill but he's not gooey, and that's a surprise. ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing', done in falsetto, swings; ‘When I Need You' (an underrated song) has the potential to be the candle-holding, sea-of-hands number of the night. Having set it up beautifully, he sits at the stage's edge, the audience reaching up to him. And then John Paul Young comes on in drag. It's a pantomime moment, ill-judged, to be forgiven if it were a closing-night jape. But a moment is ruined and, without wishing to be cruel, it is so Countdown.
There are two sad omissions from the show: Skyhooks and The Ted Mulry Gang, due to the deaths of Graham ‘Shirley' Strachan and Ted Mulry. Skyhooks verses Sherbet would have been the selling point that could have tipped all of this into the realm of the supernova. Then it might have transcended the limitations of Countdown and truly been a Spectacular. As for Ted Mulry, his name pops up a few times during the show. Sherbet does a section of one of his songs, and guitarist Harvey James makes a small and moving speech. Mulry must have been a lovely man, and ‘Jump in My Car' would have torn the place apart.
Despite the once-in-a-career opportunity to play just one or two songs and impress, some people don't. Jon English is one. Brian Canham from Pseudo Echo, taking far too much heavy guitar to ‘Funkytown', is another. There are also surprises: Sherbet has a good drummer; the dignity of John Paul Young (excepting his intrusion on Sayer's performance). And there is a disaster: Molly and Gavin. Gavin Wood's all-knowing voiceover to the bumbling Molly worked on television, and they probably thought that given the freedom of a stadium show, they could cut loose a little. Big mistake. The added space only makes them more embarrassing, and cruder. They are needed, but this is not a Leagues club, and their act jars in the middle of the music.
The big draw is Sherbet, who must have resisted a number of offers over the years to reform and have now taken the plunge. They're a weird group. In another life they could have been Genesis or Queen - good-looking boys with a taste for prog rock and the ability to write hit tunes. They never seemed like a teen band, but they became one, thanks to Countdown as much as anything. There is a playfulness to them on stage that comes from musical competence and the fact that they are having a damn good time. Braithwaite continually glances at the set-list between songs, as if they were 30 songs they could play. The paradox is that they are the most overtly "bubblegum" act of the night, yet they are also the loosest, the one band who could have taken it anywhere. They finish with ‘Howzat'.
Musically, this is a good show, but it lacks context. The entire Countdown experience is not wrapped up and presented to the audience in a sufficiently thoughtful way. The acts come on and play, some of the more famous incidents from the series are shown on screens, and it's pretty much left at that. Someone was needed to contextualise all of this: someone with a visual eye who could have taken the footage and the live acts and put it together in a more theatrical and meaningful manner. Too much cultural fun goes unexplored. And where was the famous Iggy Pop appearance, mentioned in the program by almost every performer as their favourite Countdown moment? Where were the greetings from Elton and Rod and Olivia?
Finally, there is Molly. As promoter Michael Gudinski said when he addressed the crowd after the show (where else in the world would that happen?), Molly is Countdown. It's true, and it makes you either want to cry or throw your head back and laugh. But that's to do with his persona, and that a man of his age was hosting a teen-oriented pop show in the first place. Behind the tomfoolery, the football fanaticism, the media tart, beats a great pop heart. It was Molly's suggestion, with the entire cast on stage, the camaraderie clearly visible after ten shows, that they finish the night with a new song written on the road. Molly knows the best way to face the past is to turn to the future.
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.