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At last, the long-lost film inspired by Australia's first rock festival - The Pilgrimage For Pop Festival - at Ourimbah, near Sydney in 1970. Starring: Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs, Jeff St John and the Copperwine, Chain, Tully, Wendy Saddington and Company Caine, Leo de Castro, Hans Poulsen, Max Merritt and the Meteors and featuring Allan Moaryawaalla Barker. "Ourimbah was the first and in my mind only real festival Australia ever had… Sunbury was about the music of our time, Ourimbah was about the time." Billy Thorpe (2004)
Our own 'rock guru' Bernie Howitt writes about it in one of his books -
The "Pilgrimage For Pop", Australia's first rock festival, was held on the Australia Day long weekend in January 1970. The venue was the farm of Lt Colonel Henry Nicholls at Ourimbah, near Gosford, on the NSW central coast, just north of Sydney.
Ourimbah set the precedent for the scheduling of many festivals held during this era. The late January timing was doubly practical because it fell before the end of the school and univeristy summer holidays and took advantage of the traditional Australia Day public holiday long weekend, enabling those in weekday employment to attend all three days. There was a downside however — festival patrons were often treated to the traditional extremes of Aussie late summer weather, and Ourimbah was no exception.
Ourimbah was a unique event in many respects. It was the first large-scale Australian outdoor rock festival, staged only months after the epochal Woodstock Festival in the USA. It is particularly significant for being the first local rock festival with an all-Australian lineup — an honour that is wrongly accorded to Sunbury '72 — and rather than charting pop acts, it presented the cream of the so-called 'underground' scene. It was probably the only time that top Sydney "underground" bands Tamam Shud, Tully, Levi Smiths Clefs (several members of which would soon split to form Fraternity), Doug Parkinson In Focus and Nutwood Rug Band shared a festival stage and played alongside top Melbourne acts like The Aztecs, Wendy Saddington and Leo De Castro & Friends.
The festival also showcased individual "firsts" for many acts who performed there. Ourimbah was the first major interstate 'comeback' appearance by Billy Thorpe. One of the first and hotttest Beat Boom pop idols, contractual problems had stalled his career in the mid-60s and he dropped from sight for most of 1967-68. In early 1969 he accepted an offer from London-based impresario Robert Stigwood, manager of The Bee Gees, and decided to head to the UK, but he was fortuitously waylaid by a stopover in Melbourne, which was intended to be two weeks, but ended up lasting nine years!
Enthralled by the thriving Melbourne music scene, Billy put together a new version of the Aztecs in mid-1969, which originally included former Purple Hearts/Wild Cherries axe-meister Lobby Loyde. Lobby only stayed with the band for a few months but Lobby's tenure was crucial in shaping Billy's vision of the band, and when Lobby departed Billy made a key transition, taking up lead guitar himself, and soon becoming a commanding player. He also shed his old image, ditching the tailored suits, neat, short hair, and synchronised dance steps. With his hip new image — the trademark plaited ponytail, a full beard, t-shirt and tight jeans — and a tough new blues-based repertoire to match, Thorpie and the new Aztecs blitzed Melbourne audiences with an explosive presentation that forever laid to rest his clean-cut '60s pop image. Their Ourimbah appearance was the start of their unstoppable rise back to national prominence, fuelled by the September '70 release of their classic album The Hoax Is Over, and capped by their barnstorming performance two years late at the inaugural Sunbury Festival, by which time they were one of the most popular — and loudest — groups in the country.
Ourimbah was also a major comeback for Jeff St John, who had only gradually returned to performing during 1969 after major surgery to correct the effects of spina bifida. Regrettably, the surgery had been unsuccessful and the operation left Jeff permanently confined to a wheelchair, although he did not let that prevent him from quickly regaining his position as one of the most talented and respected rock/soul vocalists in the country. He also had to re-establish himself with a new backing band, Copperwine, following an acrimonious split from his former band The Id.
Another important premiere was that of Stevie Wright with his new band Rachette — his first public appearance since the split of The Easybeats at the end of 1969. Rachette was shortlived, and Stevie struggled to re-establish himself for the next couple of years, but he shot back to prominence when he joined the cast of the acclaimed Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar, with his show-stopping performance as Simon Zealotes.
Another appearance of note was the set by Max Merritt & The Meteors. Although universally praised as one of the best live bands of the period, their Ourimbah performance is cited by Kiwi rock historian John Dix as having been below par. Evidently all was not well in the Meteors ranks and Ourimbah proved to be the last appearance by that famous lineup, which had formed in early 1967. Bassist John "Yuk" Harrison left (or was sacked) immediately afterwards, to be replaced by Dave Russell, former lead guitarist with Ray Columbus & The Invaders.
The event was organised and promoted by Emle Stonewall Productions and The Nutwood Rug Band, an expatriate American acid-rock band who had emigrated from the USA in 1967; over the previous three years they had become well-known on the Sydney underground scene, and had close ties to film-making and lightshow collective UBU, at whose dances and other events they often shard the bill with Tully, The Id and Tamam Shud.
The accepted story is that the band left San Francisco to evade the draft — which must surely be the only credible reason that an acid rock band would have willingly absented themselves from the record company feeding frenzy that was San Francisco in 1967! According to Ian McFarlane, Dennis Wilson from Kahvas Jute recalled that the band was originally known as "Captain Reefer and the Desert Siren", and Thorpie himself called them "the stonedest bunch of guys I'd ever met." High praise indeed.
The festival drew 6,333 patrons, according to Ian McFarlane, but Bernie Howitt's 1994 account states that there were about 6000 on the first day, but that by the second day there were some 10,000 people on site.
Master of Cermonies was Adrian Rawlins. The poet, performer, organiser, promoter and raconteur, had been a well-known figure on the Melbourne scene since the early '60s. He hung out with Bob Dylan during his 1966 Australian tour and reportedly became a close friend, featured in Peter Lamb's 1966 documentary Approximately Panther, and was closely involved with the making of The La De Das' 1969 concept album The Happy Prince (EMI), for which he provided the narration.
In 1970 the idea of a rock festival with only Australian acts was a novel one, and the promoters felt that a big international name would boost the promotion. So, only a week before the festival, the rumour swept Sydney that no less than John Lennon and Yoko Ono would be there. An article printed in the Sydney Sun on Friday 17 January quoted festival organiser Maureen Phillips as saying that it was "almost certain" that John and Yoko would appear, but by the following Tuesday it was obvious that this was not to be. The organisers had in fact contacted Apple requesting John and Yoko's attendence, but the request did not reach London until the day of the festival, by which time Ono and Lennon were holidaying in Denmark and were uncontactable. Whether or not the famous couple would have attended given sufficient notice was a moot point, but it all made for good publicity.
The promoters were well aware of establishment anxiety about such gatherings and they were at pains to stress that this was very much a test case for the "young generation". Pop columnists emphasised the need for festival patrons to be well-behaved if such events were to be allowed to continue.
The actions of police during the festival were under scrutiny, and the contingent on hand consisted of some ninety uniformed officers plus a number of plain-clothed detectives "disguised" in casual shirts and sandals. Sources vary on how many arrests were made -- McFarlane says forty-five, but Bernie Howitt's account says there were only twenty-six. All were on minor charges, and there were no serious incidents. The officer in charge, Superintendent H.M. Griffin, had opted for restraint, instructing his men to be "firm but tolerant", and he later commented on the police attitude, saying that "... if young people desire this kind of entertainment, the police must adjust their thinking and provide their usual service".
Fearing the worst, some local farmers had prepared for an onslaught of rampaging hippies, and those patrons unwise enough to wander into the orchards neighbouring the Nicholls farm were given short shrift, but local reaction was generally positive and most residents were agreeably surprised by the good behaviour of festival goers. Concert security turned away anyone wearing leather jackets and knee boots, and a band of Hell's Angels who turned up got no further than the local pub. The only serious injury was a young man who was admitted to Gosford Hospital suffering from immersion after almost drowning in the festival swimming hole.
The offical opening was at midday on Friday 24, by which time over 6000 people had arrived. It was a typically sweltering late summer day with the temperature peaking at 85ºF (28ºC). After a brief fanfare, the Nutwood Rug Band opened the show. The press immediately seized on their set, highlighting the fact that one young female patron removed her blouse to dance, resulting in the headline "Topless Pop!", and they also made much of a song by Nutwood Rug vocalist Margaret Goldie, which was said to have consisted "almost entirely of four-letter words".
Sunday's proceedings began with a sunrise performance by Tully. By this time, the crowd had swelled to over 10,000. Performances continued througout the day, ending with the closing of the festival at 4pm by Nutwood Rug Band.
Media reaction was generally positive. Sydney Sun columnist Keith Willey said "For once the hippies lived up to their reputation for gentleness." Dr Ben Horwitz, from Sydney's Callan Park hospital, was one of two psychiatrists in charge of the festivals first-aid post, and he offered the view that "... obviously all this is an expression of dissatisfaction with our society, and of yearning to return to the tribal group."
Despite the small mountain of rubbish left behind after the festival closed, its hosts the Nicholls, were pleased with the outcome, and Mrs Nicholls even commented that she felt that the music had helped improve the note of the local bellbirds!
The ABC covered the event in detail for its 1970 series A NEW WORLD (FOR SURE), in the episode "Turn, Tune In, Drop Out", and film footage from that program featured prominently in third episode of the ABC's OzRock series A LONG WAY TO THE TOP.
John Dix Stranded In Paradise
(Paradise Publications. 1988)
Bernie Howitt Rock Through History
(Longman Cheshire, 1989)
Encylopedia of Australian Rock & Pop
(Allen & Unwin, 1999)