10 August 2010

Picnic at Hanging Rock

The summer of 1987-1988 was like an economic “phoney war” similar to that we just experienced, 20 years on, with the 2007-2008 financial crisis. In the months following the 1987 share-market crash, we were waiting for the impact to hit. One of the casualties was surely the Neon Picnic rock festival, which went belly up hours before show time. But the global financial woes were just one of many things that caused the Picnic to be cancelled. The directors were inexperienced and completely out of their depth. The festival was targeted at late-1980s yuppies; the ticket itself was a brightly coloured credit card. And on the bill was a diverse range of quality acts but no real drawcard to drag the mythic, well-heeled, musically broadminded sophisticates into a paddock. They needed a Bon Jovi to draw the bogans and underwrite the whole thing. (Eleven years later, Sweetwaters 1999 was similarly wrong-headed and mismanaged – and by someone with much more experience.)

Neon Picnic headline

The Auckland music industry could not have been more supportive: the production firms, the record companies, the press. Even though the advertising had the potential of becoming a bad debt, Rip It Up ran interviews with James Brown, Los Lobos and others. I spoke to the gentlemanly Roy Orbison, who would be dead of a heart attack within months, and Phil Chevron of the Pogues, who was erudite about the broad history of Irish music.

All wanted it to happen, and there was a buzz through the week – very little of it negative – as everyone got prepared to revisit the heyday of early 1980s Sweetwaters. On the Wednesday morning, I interviewed Bob Geldof, and he seemed sour and angry. On the Thursday afternoon, the working week over, I was kicking back with Pagan’s Trevor Reekie and the Auckland Star’s music reporter Paul Ellis, making plans for the festival. Then Paul’s phone started to ring incessantly. The Neon Picnic had been hit by a tsunami.

Within a couple of hours, we were at the Regent Hotel, as Geldof sat with veteran promoter and city councillor Phil Warren and Tim Shadbolt, then mayor of Waitemata. Together they announced a free concert. Three years on from Live Aid, Geldof suddenly had a 24-hour cause. But he had no transport, so when Polygram decided to shout dinner, I gave him a lift in my old Peugeot. As we approached the first set of lights, I almost rammed the car in front of us when Geldof said, “That Tim Shadbolt … he’s a fookin’ hippie.”

Bob Geldof said, “That Tim Shadbolt

… he’s a fookin’ hippie.”

It was a manic few days, with the free concert on Friday, and Auckland packed all weekend with punters and musicians. All had time on their hands until the Pogues concert at the Galaxy on the Sunday. The venue was fit to burst, both in crowd numbers and their mood. They were wound up, and as pissed as Shane McGowan was when he walked out on stage, with a full bottle of cheap white wine about to join his many empties.

All this came back to me reading Andrew Schmidt’s fascinating history of New Zealand rock festivals. Coincidentally I recently came across an extraordinary cache of colour photos of outdoor rock shows in New Zealand from the early 1970s. I thought Robin Morrison had taken the definitive shots of the Rolling Stones at Western Springs, so got a great surprise from Lloyd Godman’s website. Slade, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, the Guess Who, the La De Das and Sandy Denny are all here. Forget Mick Jagger with a sock down his satin jumpsuit, it’s the photo of Corban Simpson in his birthday suit at the Great Ngaruawahia Festival of 1973 that will be seared in my memory.

But the 1988 news story I wrote in a rush for the February Rip It Up also seems like a period piece now. Overseas phone calls were an expensive novelty; publicists didn’t have mobile phones; financial transactions and travel arrangements happened by telex; and in a crisis, the perpetrators didn’t surround themselves by spin doctors, they went bush while their unpaid staff told the real story.

Neon Dreams

In the last few days before the Neon Picnic was scheduled to start, people were waiting. For money.

International acts such as Los Lobos and Nona Hendryx were waiting for their plane tickets or advance fees; lighting and sound companies for their payments before they would continue work. Many others waited to be paid for work already done.

The Raglan County Council waited for toilets to be put on site, while the portaloo hire company waited for their cash.

The Picnic organisers were waiting for last-minute financial packages to come through and sort it all out.

As they worked through January, the Picnic staff – many of whom were waiting for their wages – were aware that things were “sticky”, but not that the festival was actually under threat. There was a meeting just before Christmas to advise staff there wouldn’t be any holiday pay because of a financial crisis, but when they returned to work after the break they were told it was overcome, says festival publicist Toni Nealie.

“A couple of times they [festival organisers Lindsay Mace and Heather Worth] said, ‘If the festival was going to be cancelled, we would have done it a long time ago. There have been hiccups, but they’ve been sorted out.”’

The Payback

But in January, things didn’t improve. Posters, programmes and promotional leaflets waited at the printers until paid for. One local radio station began to get negative on air when their advertising hadn’t been paid for. “So we were aware through January that money was tight, but we were never aware of the full extent of the problem,” says Jane West, who handled promotions for the festival.

In the last week, things came to a head. Many of the international acts had not received their plane tickets. Lisa Reynolds, tour manager for the visiting acts, says: “On the Monday we still had no confirmation of any flights, but we were trying to get their itineraries together. Geldof was arriving the next day, but we didn’t have the departure or arrival times for anybody. Peoples’ flights kept changing. Because they didn’t get the money that day, they’d be coming a day later. It got to the point where nobody was actually going to arrive till the Friday, when the acts were supposed to be playing on Friday and Saturday nights.

“On the Wednesday, the Travel Lodge and Quality Inn cheques weren’t honoured. The Regent was only paid up [for Geldof and band] till Thursday, and Metropolitan Rentals threatened cancellation of the vans Geldof was using.”

Nealie: “We put out a press release about 9am saying all tickets had been sent, and all deposits had been telexed to bands’ accounts. We understood Heather Worth was at the travel agents doing that.”

Running Scared

Orbison However the international bands had started to pull out. On Tuesday afternoon, from Tennessee, Roy Orbison rang Virgin – his record company here – to cancel. Orbison had been paid part of his appearance deposit, but he didn’t have his plane tickets. All his musicians were gathered together to leave in 12 hours. (Orbison took a break from recording to come here; Johnny Marr had flown home to the UK while Orbison was to be away.)

From New York, a spokesperson for Nona Hendryx (below) told Rip It Up she had received an advance, but although her plane tickets were supposed to arrive on January 5, there were still no tickets right up to the day before Hendryx was supposed to leave, Monday January 25 (Tuesday NZT).

nona Johnny Clegg and Savuka told the Herald on Tuesday he still didn’t have tickets. They’d gone to Paris to pick up their tickets but they weren’t there. In a memorable quote, he told the Auckland Sun: “I rang the [festival] organisers, but Heather Worth told me to stop hassling her.” Clegg and his band, $9000 out of pocket, were bailed out by their record company EMI, who got them home to Johannesburg.

When Auckland staff of Polygram Records arrived at work on Wednesday morning, there was a telex from Los Lobos waiting. Says Nigel Sandiford, head of Polygram NZ, “The telex said, with regret, they were cancelling, after ‘repeatedly asking for ticketing and advances.’”

What about James Brown? “We never knew when he was arriving, or when he pulled out. We never really knew,” says Sandiford. JB 1988“Sharon O’Neill got to Christchurch before she heard what was happening, which caused some financial problems – she went down by about $10,000. All sorts of people – Benny Levin, Mike Corless – got together to put on two shows for her and put some money back into the kitty.”

Meanwhile Geldof had arrived on Tuesday. “That was a tricky situation,” says West. “I had to carry out my commitments with the band. By Wednesday it was obvious things were in a real state, but I wanted to get Geldof through the press conference without him facing sticky questions about the internal workings of the Neon Picnic. Orbison had pulled out the day before, and sticky problems were starting to happen with the Raglan County Council.”

Nealie: “The Waikato Times said on Wednesday that the Council would issue an injunction unless 200 portaloos were on site by 2pm Thursday. They also had to see a million dollar insurance policy, otherwise an injunction [preventing the festival from going ahead] would be proceeding.”

Howlin’ Wolves

Through all this, the Picnic organisers were looking for more finance to ensure the festival went ahead. “On Wednesday afternoon we were told a new investor had been found,” says Nealie. About 3pm a “management consultant” came in to “hold the wolves from the door.” He got on the phone, and appeared to sort out the problems of ticketing, with new financial backing from Australia.

West: “We were told there was going to be sufficient cash available by 10am the next morning to pay people like Portaloo, the staging people – who by then were waiting for cash to start building the stage – motels, rental companies. By then it was common knowledge that there needed to be cash to solve these problems. We knew about them because we were dealing with all those people.

Geldof “Come Thursday morning, this cash hadn’t arrived. At 10.30am I took Geldof to do a talkback on Radio Pacific, and thought I’d pop back to the office before going to a marae welcome. Heather and Lindsay were leaving to get the money. Doug Hood was in the office, waiting for money for the Pogues.

“By that stage, Geldof had checked out of the Regent, but I took the precaution of pencilling in a booking for a few more days. From the marae I rang Lisa: where’s the money? ‘It hasn’t come.’ I said, send someone up to the bank. No one there. We didn’t know where they were.”

No Room at Inn

The Geldof party was going to stay at the Hotel du Vin in Pokeno, south of Auckland. “But they’d rung up saying the American Express card [booking the rooms] had been dishonoured. There was also an injunction out on the transport by then,” says Reynolds. “So: no booking, none at the Regent, and no transport.”

West: “Lisa rang the Regent, but they said no, Geldof can’t check back in until we get $6000 … we were going to have to tell Bob Geldof.”

“Meanwhile,” says Reynolds, “the financial backer rang from Australia, pulling out.”

Nealie: “By 2pm the guy on the phone trying to rescue the international flights said they were all lost … the ‘management consultant’ walked in and said there was nothing more he could do.”

“Back at the marae,” says West, “Lisa and I told Bob. We told him, they can’t pay for the Hotel du Vin, the Regent won’t take him back, as money was already owing. [Later that day, both hotels offered him free accommodation.]

“He said, ‘Fuck this, we’ll do a free show.’”

Geldof went to Polygram Records to organise accommodation for his band, who were sent to a friend’s place while things were sorted out. At 4pm Hood announced he was putting the Pogues on at the Galaxy on Sunday night – their festival slot.

With no international acts, the Neon Picnic was effectively over. No senior management could be reached at the Picnic office late Thursday afternoon; the phones seemed to be answered by children in tears. Announcing the Picnic’s demise on the 6.30pm TV news that night with Lindsay Mace, Heather Worth said, “The festival site looks so nice. We were so close.”


The “Nigh-on Panic” rumours flew all day Thursday, so when the phone calls started to get serious in the afternoon it was hard to tell fact from fiction.

But the idea of Bob Geldof, global idol, doing a spontaneous concert with the aid of Tim Shadbolt, local hero, seemed to have an absurd logic.

Just over two hours after the idea had been first mooted, Geldof and Shadbolt gathered at the Regent for a press conference at 7.30 on Thursday evening. It was impressive to see what had already been achieved: a lineup of acts, venue, stage, sound gear, transport, lights. Just security had to be arranged, and despite the sceptics with visions of an Aotea Square, the Waitemata City Council did a remarkable job, even placing a jetboat in the river behind the stadium in case anyone fell in. Friday’s concert finished with just one arrest.

“I didn’t want to come half way around the world and just leave,” said Geldof at the Regent. “The purpose of our being here is to play. So we’re trying to put together a free show, so as not to leave a nasty feeling in the mouths of those who’d already bought tickets, and so as not to leave New Zealand with a nasty feeling in our mouths.

“The production crews from Neon Picnic lost about $100,000 from the concert going down the tubes, so they’ve decided to move all the gear in 24 hours and erect a stage at the Waitemata Stadium by tomorrow night.

“There won’t be a bill,” said Geldof. “All the people involved have lost already. The people with the PA, Oceania, are down $20,000. They’ve already lost it, so what the hell, they’re just bringing the PA in. [Peter Grumley] and his crew, stage and lighting, they’re down $60,000, so they may as well do it.”

Veteran promoter and city councillor Phil Warren said, “I’m very pleased that something’s come out of it. I felt it was very important for the country and the industry that we try and salvage something out of this mess. I think it’s appalling that this is happening 48 hours before something was supposed to happen when 48 days ago the people organising it must have known what was going on.”

Friday’s concert at the Waitemata Stadium was a great success: Auckland has found another excellent outdoor venue. The Pacific Band from Fiji, Rhythm Cage, the Chills, and Graham Brazier performed, before Geldof topped the bill.

The only negative aspect of the event was the juvenile point-scoring by the two radio stations taking part, 89FM and Magic91. All radio stations, particularly Hauraki, had proved remarkably helpful during Friday when Picnic refugees West and Nealie rang them asking for promotional help.

But on the night the two stations wanted an upfront presence, which meant the audience was insulted by two jocks with Neanderthal wee-wee humour, and such jokes as “pretend you’re giving milk biscuits to starving Africans.” The bullshit and drivel flying in Auckland’s radio wars can only backfire in the faces of the perpetrators. Certainly it was the only sour part of a warmly spirited event that rescued something out of the week’s disappointment: no one else but the two stations were “looking after No 1.”


John E said...

Nice post Chris - I had a ticket too, and kept hold of my wee neon credit card for years,a reminder of the tail end of '80s excess - I was out of pocket too - I had planned to make a killing selling my hippy South American jewellery - I'd just got back with a swag of stuff- I made it to Hamilton before finding out it was down the tubes.


John Edwards

Peter said...

great story! Cheers for posting this. I've been listening to a bit of Nona Hendryx lately...

Vickie said...

Glad I found this, I went to the Waitakere concert, can't remember too much about it now but was interesting to read the story behind it.

Anonymous said...

Great story I just came across it and brought back some memories for me. I was living in Mt Eden having just arrived from Canada and read about the festival I had Worked on several music festivals in Winnipeg so I went down and offered my services.
I ended up selling tickets, tshirts and festival pins in Queens Square on the corner of Queen & Custom in downtown Auckland out of my tiny red Subaru Van, I had great time meeting people and was looking forward to the concert.
Now I'm retired in Florida and still have one Neon Picnic pin that I've kept over the years
Brian M Gates
Punta Gorda Florida