1 9 7 4 – 1 9 8 7 (Australia)
When Countdown first went to air in November 1974 it began a path that would take Australian music fans from the innocent utopia of the 60s to the consumerism of the 80s via the wonderfully lavish and visual 70s.
Before Countdown there was no truly national TV programme for Australian music. But Countdown was more than just a TV show, it was the cultural backdrop for the generation of Australians who grew up in the 70s.
The kids understood the necessity to slag Countdown off at school and yet (like most of their peers) would never miss an episode. It was the single most powerful medium for popular music in the country (in Britain, the long-running Top of the Pops had a similar influence).
One of the most potent cultural imperatives of young people in Australia in the 13 years between 1974 and 1987 was that wherever they were, whatever they were doing, they had to achieve a feat that would enable them to watch the greatest show on television. On Sunday evenings, they had to be home by 6.00 pm.
Countdown began life as six half-hour black and white programmes broadcast in late 1974.
The first hour-long colour edition (hosted by Johnny Farnham) went to air in early 1975. Instantly it became a neat distillation of everything that mattered musically – a cultural petri dish around which swam some of the most beautiful, ugly, energetic, has-been, misjudged, well-timed, meritless, superb musical specimens of our age.
It was rewarding to see international guest hosts (such as Suzi Quatro) introducing local acts they had never heard of, and invariably gushing profusely while getting the name of the band/artist wrong.
And what would Countdown have been without the pre-pubescent girlies swaying back and forwards waving their arms and scarves slightly out of time to a song they had never heard before (and pissing their pants waiting for Sherbet or John Paul Young or Ted Mulry Gang to appear).
Themes developed gradually as the years went on. Glitter made way for grime, Suzi made way for Siouxsie and even the Elvis baton was passed from Presley to Costello. Puff sleeves gave way to leather jackets.
And then there were The Countdown Dancers – Australia’s answer to Pans People. Yum yum!
Certain conventions were cemented on Countdown, not the least of which was classic stage actions; Drummers, hyperactive through sitting at the back and not getting enough attention, developed the habit of spinning their drumsticks in one hand while not otherwise engaged.
Molly Meldrum presided over the show as the eternal father figure. He was not beyond admonishing an act on air for being late. Molly was a confessor, a shoulder to cry on and an energetic supporter. He would also congratulate performers on the thinnest of rationales.
Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum was a former rock journalist who had worked for The Beatles at the Abbey Road studios, been thrown out of The Beatles concert at Melbourne Festival Hall for overly exuberant behaviour and decided that rock and roll would be his life.
He got the job as “Talent Coordinator” on Countdown which turned out to be an inspired decision, although Molly was not an obvious choice. He was a bit of a stumbler, an endearing, all-too-human pop fan whose passion for music often gave rise to superb mangling of the language.
At times he was just a boob.
Not a man obsessed with syntax, Meldrum blurted out exactly what he was thinking at any given moment. It gave Countdown a dimension that teenagers could relate to – A guy who was just like them, only older. And not only did he know all the stars, he got to pat them or kiss them or congratulate them.
Many of Molly’s intros to songs were nothing short of brain-teasers, leaping around from one idea to another, resting momentarily then darting off in another direction. In an interview with Ultravox, singer Midge Ure was on the back foot from the start with this question from Molly:
“This is what Spandau Ballet were saying of where, like, you know, um, it’s back to where people are proud of what they’re wearing, the clothes, the fashion and everything like that. Did you feel that, um, that within music again, um, that there could be some sort of progression?”
Being economical with language was something that eluded Molly. If it was worth saying, it was worth saying three or four times.
“This particular album is an excellent album, it’s a double album. Have a listen to the album, and if you happen to buy the album, it’s going to a very good cause”
At its peak, Countdown had an audience of three million. Because of this, it became literally a monopoly whereby bands could be frozen out if they dared give their film clip to another music show. If it was happening, it was absolutely going to happen on Countdown first.
A kind word from its host would literally send a song scurrying up the charts or fill a pub with paying fans. Every part of the music industry fed off Countdown. It was fully aware of its own power and its huge, appreciative audience and it wielded the power with a verve and arrogance consistent with its stranglehold.
One of the great tragedies of the Countdown era was the wiping of a large number of master tapes, orchestrated by ABC bean counters to save money. The bulk of Countdown was erased . . . It was an act of cultural vandalism, a dreadful mistake, a complete failure by faceless bureaucrats to understand that these tapes would one day be important social documents. Couldn’t they see that?
Countdown finally shut up shop on 19 July 1987. Molly removed his famous cowboy hat at the Sydney Entertainment Centre to reveal a shaved bonce, and that was that!
The ABC tried keeping the flame alive with a new youth programme launched in July 1989 called Countdown Revolution. The show was hosted by Tania Lacey and Mark Little. It received only a modest following and was axed the following year.
LANDMARK MOMENTS IN COUNTDOWN HISTORY
- Molly becoming “tired and emotional” to the point where he failed to return to the stage and was covered for admirably by Daryl Braithwaite and JPY.
- Iggy Pop spitting at Molly and calling him “dogface” before terrorising the young audience with the microphone and finally sticking it down the front of his pants.
- Billy Idol announcing “I’ve had some really heavy sex since arriving in Australia” at one of the Countdown awards ceremonies.
- Molly “interviewing” Professor Rubik about his infamous cube on Countdown Sunday : “I bet *you* can’t do it!” – yeh, nice one Molly!