MILESAGO Media - Television

COUNTDOWN

ABC, 1974-87

Credits

Production: ABC Melbourne
Duration: ? x 55 min eps
Medium: Video, in (Nov. 1974 - Feb. 1975), video, in colour (Mar. 1975-)

Created by: Michael Shrimpton, Rob Weekes, Ian Meldrum

Producers: Michael Shrimpton, Rob Weekes, Grant Rule
Directors: Ted Emery, (other credits to be advised)
Talent Coordinator: Ian Meldrum


Premiere: November 1974

Notes

Faithfully, every Sunday at 6pm for more than a decade, Australians sat down in front of the telly and tuned in to COUNTDOWN. Love it or hate it, we never missed it, sharing the week's hits and misses, barracking for our favourite stars, bagging the dags and puzzling over Molly's tortuous monologues.

By turns arresting, hilarious, annoying, reassuring, embarassing, engrossing, and on rare occasions, even a little bit shocking, COUNTDOWN was Australian pop music for most of its thirteen year run. It was consistently the ABC's highest rating show, and indeed one of the top-rating programs of that (or any other) period, on any channel. At the peak of its popularity in the early '80s its audience was estimated at an astounding three million viewers -- at the time, about one fifth of Australia's total population! It changed the face of the local music industry, played a crucial role in moving the focus of pop music marketing away from radio to TV, and was instrumental in ushering in the music-video era both in Australia and overseas.

The series was originally devised in early 1974 by ABC producers Michael Shrimpton and Rob Weekes and pop superfan, journalist, producer and TV presenter Ian "Molly" Meldrum, who became the show's talent coordinator.

Meldrum was a fanatical devotee of pop music. He was captivated by The Beatles and he and lifelong friend Ronnie Burns were famously ejected from the Beatles' Melbourne concert in 1964 for being 'too enthusastic' (according to Burns, Molly wouldn't stop screaming!) After dropping out of law school, Ian scored a job as a dancer/mimer on the 0-10 Network's famous mid-'60s pop show KOMMOTION. Soon after that he was offered a job writing for the new pop weekly Go-Set , and he also began working in Melbourne recording studios. By the late '60s he was a noted producer, with credits including Zoot, his old friend Ronnie Burns, and the classic Russell Morris single The Real Thing. Meldrum left for England in early 1970 and worked for the Apple organisation in London. He also continued to write for Go-Set, and in this capacity secured an international scoop when he interviewed John and Yoko, during which John broke the news of the imminent breakup of the Beatles.

Returning to Australia, Meldrum worked on pop and children's shows for commerical networks, which led to him develop the concept for COUNTDOWN with Shrimpton and Weekes. Meldrum and Weekes first met when they both worked on Kommotion in the '60s and Countdown's format was essentially a blend of Kommotion and the BBC's "Top Of The Pops". Although now inextricably linked with Countdown, Meldrum in fact didn't really appear for the first nine months, and it wasn't until June 1975 that his now-famous weekly "Humdrum" segment first aired.

As noted in our introduction, Countdown appeared at a crucial juncture in Australian pop/rock history, and it's fair to say that it marked the end of one era in Australian music and the beginning of another. The days of the big festivals were all but over -- the final disastrous Sunbury festival was held in January '75, only two months after Countdown premiered. Go-Set, Australia's leading pop journal for almost ten years, was about to relocate to Sydney and was by that stage on its last legs; it folded before the year was out.

The suburban dance and city disco circuit that was the powerhouse of '60s and early '70s scene was declining, and while the burgeoning pub scene was replacing it to a large extent, it marked an important split in the pop audience. "Pub rock" was necessarily based in licenced premises, and this largely excluded the vital under-18 component of the audience, who had previously been able to attend almost all concerts except those in the handful of licenced clubs and discos. The audiences who had followed local pop and rock bands over the last 20 years were now aging into in their twenties and early thirties, getting married, raising families, holding down jobs and paying off homes. The target audience for pop music, and thus for Countdown, was now the children and younger siblings of the original baby boomers.

This second generation of pop listeners was the core of Countdown's audience although the program always endeavoured to appeal to a broad cross-section of viewers, in line with the ABC's charter. Probably the biggest single factor in its success was the unique nationwide reach of the ABC network. In many regional towns there was usually only the ABC and one commercial station -- if you were lucky -- and for young people living in rural and remote areas, the ABC was often the only TV station. Needless to say, Coundtdown -- like GTK before it -- was a godsend, being often the only conduit for what was happening in the pop world for people outside the major cities and towns.

The nature of the music was changing too. Almost all the major Australasian pop/rock acts of the '60s -- The Easybeats, The Twilights, The Masters Apprentices, Zoot, The Groop, The Groove -- had gone. Of the those major names there remained only The La De Das (about to become Kevin Borich Express) and Max Merritt & The Meteors, who spent most of the '70s in London. In their place, a new generation of pop groups had sprung up. At the top of the new heap was Sherbet, who cut their teeth on the Sydney dance and disco circuit, and who had increasingly dominated the Australian charts for the last two years.

In policy terms, COUNTDOWN was primarily intended to address the youth audience, as was the ABC's new rock radio station, Double Jay, in Sydney. There was a widespread perception that the needs and interests of the youth audience were not being met by the commercial TV networks or by commercial radio, and as far as pop music on TV was concerned there is little doubt of that. At the time that COUNTDOWN was launched it filled a virtual vacuum, being one of only three popular music shows on TV. Its only direct competitor in 1974 was the Seven Network's SOUNDS, launched only months before and at the time still only seen in Sydney and Melbourne. Nine's 'pop' flagship BANDSTAND had folded in 1972, althought its relevance to current pop trends had all but ended in the mid-60s. The 0-10 Network's proud tradition of pop shows -- KOMMOTION, UPTIGHT and the HAPPENING '70s series -- had ended with HAPPENING '72, and between its demise and the start of SOUNDS only the ABC's GTK carried the torch. COUNTDOWN was aimed at a younger audience than GTK, which was roughly aimed at the 18+ age group.

The Countdown audience was always a force to be reckoned with. Those able to make their way to the ABC's Rippon Lea studios decended in droves, of varying sizes and threat. Hordes of young teenage girls cheerfullly re-enacted the teenybopper ritual on camera, on cue -- sometimes too well. There are many stories of on-air mishaps, with singers being grabbed and groped, clothes being shredded and performers even pulled offstage.

Countdown premiered in November 1974. The first show was hosted by John Farnham, and the series originally screened for 30 minutes on Saturdays at 5pm. Then came another event which was crucial in placing the show in an almost unassailable position. In January 1975, after the first six half-hour episodes, the ABC relaunched COUNTDOWN, shifting it to the prime timeslot of 6pm Sunday and extending it to a full hour. The impact of the show was brilliantly reinforced by reclaiming the vacated Saturday timeslot, which was used to screen a repeat of the previous week's show. Another crucial factor was that Countdown had arrived just in time for with the introduction of colour TV in Australia. Perhaps most important of all, it was on the ABC -- Australia's only non-commercial TV network -- and thus was not answerable to advertisers, and far less susceptible to influence from radio stations or record companies.

Indeed, as both radio and the major labels soon discovered, Countdown and its audience quickly became a force to be reckoned with. The ABC's huge nationwide reach gave Countdown a stranglehold on the Australian pop scene -- and it guarded its territory jealously. As its highest rating show, the ABC threw what resources it could into the show, even enabling Molly to travel overseas to interview international stars. This gave Countdown yet another advantage: Molly, already the imtimate of many Australian stars, could now cultivate friendships with many of established and rising stars, including Elton John, Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and Michael Jackson, leading to more exclusives.

The central feature of Countdown's success has not been discussed in depth and it deserves detailed scrutiny. The radio industry was still adapting to the changes wrought by the advent of TV and the introduction of talkback, but the record and radio industries had nevertheless enjoyed a fairly cosy relationship since the 1930s. But when Countdown arrived, the two industries found themselves in a strange and rather unusual position.

COUNTDOWN -- a pop TV show made by a publicly-funded, government-owned national TV network -- became a critical new interface between the record industry and radio. Like no other ABC program before or since, COUNTDOWN openly and actively promoted the products of private companies. It was able to do so because the public, the regulators and the policy-makers clearly regarded pop music and music video as somehow standing outside the realm of everyday commerce. Even back in the Seventies, there's no doubt that there would have been a major controversy if the ABC had used its TV resources to promote the products of any other private industry so blatantly. This was in spite of the fact that by 1975 the popular music industry had become one of the most profitable in Australia's economic history.

As is often noted, COUNTDOWN's huge audience could practically guarantee success for a new act and radio stations soon found that they ignored Molly's hit picks and new releases at their peril. For the first time, TV had gained primacy as the medium that broke new music, giving it a significant power to influence radio programming and act as a filter between the labels and the radio stations. The pattern was set very early on, with COUNTDOWN's first one-hour show in January 1975, the first made in colour, which featured controversial new Melbourne band Skyhooks (see below).

The use of promotional film-clips was another groundbreaking area for Countdown. They had been around for decades and were used sporadically during the '60s and early '70s but, faced with Countdown's huge influence and its weekly need to fill an entire hour with music and vision, the record companies quickly realised that music clips could have enormous potential and that music videos -- which had previously been a minor adjunct to radio promotion -- could be a powerful means of promoting new performers and new records in its own right. Countdown too saw this early on and enforced strict policies on the use of video clips supplied by record companies. This became a serious bone of contention and drew regular yelps of protest from rival networks. Amazingly, Countdown demanded -- and got -- first refusal on new clips as well as insisting on a temporary embargo on their use by other music shows -- notably its main rival, the Seven Network's SOUNDS, who regularly (and quite fairly) cried foul.

The reason for all the angst was simple -- Countdown and the ABC had stumbled into a goldmine, and they weren't about to give it away. The importance of video emerged gradually, and in the first couple of years, following the tradition of its Sixties antecedents, most local acts tropped down to Melbourne to appear live on the show -- although "live" was quite a misleading term. Because of the difficulty, unpredictablility and time involved in having bands actually playing live in the studio -- as GTK had always done -- miming to a pre-recorded music track was almost universal on Countdown. At best, the performer/s would sing live over a backing tape but groups almost never played their instruments.

But by the late Seventies purpose-made promotional films and videos were becoming more and more prevalent as the record companies and the bands themselves strove to ensure the most professional image. Australia's distance from America and Europe -- which had previously been a barrier -- now also came into play in the emergence of music video. As The Beatles had proved in America, film clips were a great way to promote your music in other countries without having to undertake difficult, expensive (and sometimes downright dangerous) tours. Record companies soon saw that they could promote established overseas acts, break new ones and generate hits by making quality clips and giving them to Countdown. This effectiveness of this strategy was dramatically proven by the Swedish pop quartet ABBA.

Although promotional musical films had been in use since the swing era, it wasn't until the 60s that they came into their own with the conjuncton of pop music and TV. The Beatles are generally credited with creating the pop music video as we know it. Indeed, their classic film A HARD DAY'S NIGHT is the template for every music video ever made since then. Until the mid-Sixties film-clips were of minor importance, but they took on a new significance in 1966-67 when both of Britain's top acts, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, found it impossible to keep touring and retired to the studio. Now the promo clip came into its own as a means of promoting new singles locally, and in overseas markets where they were popular, like Australia and the USA. They kept the band's face before the public without the need for long, expensive, exhausting (and sometimes downright dangerous) tours, and they had the added advantage that the act could be made to look as good as possible, without any of the inherent vagaries of live appearances. The Beatles virtually wrote the rule book for music video, breaking new ground with each dazzling new film-clip they made and the best of them stand as classics of the genre, often imitated but probably never to be bettered -- Rain, Paperback Writer, Penny Lane and, towering above them all, their epoch-making clip for Strawberry Fields Forever.

Technology too was an important factor. As colour videotape recording and editing technology improved in the 70s, the relative cost of clips came down, and the use of electronic video effects like chroma-key gave clip makers a whole new palette to play with in addition to the established techniques of film.

The availability of good quality promo film-clips -- supplied free of charge by the record labels -- was an easy and effective way of promoting established bands, and these "moving pinups" were manna from heaven for pop fans and pop-show producers alike. Shows like Countdown could now feature the biggest international acts without the otherwise ruinous expense of them having to be there in the studio, and the clips could be played over and over, just like a single -- perfect for a Top 40 show like Countdown.

By the mid-Seventies many pop shows around the world were regularly screening such promo clips, but where Countdown broke new ground was in turning the device to their own purposes. Rather than just being a means for established bands to plug a single that had already been broken by radio, Coundown pioneered the use of these music videos as a way of introducing new songs and -- crucially -- new acts. Countdown consistently gave airtime to breaking or unknown acts. The success of local and overseas acts who broke through to radio by getting their clips shown on Coundtown precipitated a major shift from radio to TV as the most important venue for establishing new acts.

The development of music video was also important for another reason, which was linked to both Countdown's non-commercial status and its presence on TV. During the early '70s, Australian commercial radio had become locked into a tightly-formatted and very conservative programming regime, and many new Australian bands of that time were totally ignored. Molly was well-aware of this, and to his lasting credit, he consistently used Countdown as a platform for championing the cause of Australian music at home and abroad, and he complained long and hard on the show about the recalcitrance and conservatism of Australian commercial radio stations. This did have a beneficial effect, and by the time Countdown reached the height of its popularity, it would have been a foolhardy radio programmer indeed who ingored Molly's recommendations. It's no exaggeration to say that, at its peak, one appearance on Countdown by a new act would virtually guarantee radio airplay, and it's equally indisputable that literally dozens of leading groups of the late '70s and '80s owed their first major breaks to Countdown.

AS noted above, the emergence of Sherbet's supposed rivals, Skyhooks coincided almost exactly with the advent of Countdown. The band that was booed off at Sunbury in January '74 was setting the Aussie pop world on fire by early '75 and rewriting the sales records with their debut album Living In The Seventies. Skyhooks' massive success saved their label from oblivion and established Mushroom as a influential new player in the Australian record industry. Of course the rise of Skyhooks and the advent of Countdown were no coincidence -- Skyhooks was the first group to appear on the first colour edition of the show in March 1975. The cult standing they had gained by being the first artists played on air when the ABC launched Double Jay in January that year suddently exploded into massive mainstream success. There is no doubt that Countdown was crucial for both Skyhooks and their label. Since its foundation in 1973 Michael Gudinski had been fighting an uphill battle to get airplay for his the artists on his roster, but when Countdown arrived he found the ideal means to sidestep the stranglehold of commercial radio. He exploited it to the hilt, and Countdown were clearly happy to oblige.

Another major beneficiary of Countdown's patronage was the Alberts stable: Cheetah, Stevie Wright, John Paul Young , The Angels, Rose Tattoo, William Shakespeare, Flash & The Pan and TMG. Above all, Countdown almost single-handedly broke AC-DC in Australia. Most of the band's early clips were made specifically for Countown; Jailbreak was one of the first clips to incorporate movie-style sound effects, and their legendary It's A Long Way To The Top clip was shot especially for them by the Countdown crew.

During its lifetime Countdown launched and supported a huge range of Australian acts. They include Sherbet, Hush, Dragon, Mi-Sex,, INXS, Machinations, Dugites, The Church, Eurogliders, Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons (and Joe Camilleri's various side projects), Paul Kelly, Kevin Borich Express, Mother Goose, The Saints, Split Enz, Crowded House, Mental as Anything, Men At Work, Little River Band, Flowers/Icehouse, Pseudo Echo, Christie Allen, Richard Clapton, Andy Gibb, The Ferrets (produced by Molly), The Swingers, The Reels, The Go-Betweens, Models, Kids In The Kitchen, Moving Pictures, Uncanny X-Men, The Radiators, Spy Vs. Spy,Wa Wa Nee, Sharon O'Neill, Kim Hart, and Australian Crawl. All owe an enormous debt to Countdown. Likewise, the offshoot solo careers of artists like Daryl Braithwaite (Sherbet), Shirley Strachan (Skyhooks) and Marc Hunter (Dragon) would scacely have been possible had it not been for the national exposure given to their clips and studio appearances.

A peak point for Countdown's influence and popularity was the huge 'comeback' success of Split Enz and their True Colours album, which was due in large measure to Countdown. Meldrum had championed the group from their early days in Australia, and Countdown screened their clips as far back as their 1977 single Late Last Night. Cold Chisel also loom large in the Countdown mythology. They were pub circuit heroes, and are often touted as one of the "anti-Countdown" groups. But the fact is that their record sales were negligible until Countdown picked up their clips. By Breakfast at Sweethearts it was clear that they were destined for major success, and it came in force with East. But the group always had a prickly public relationship with the pop showcase, which famously came to a head with their performance at the Countdown Awards. Backs to the audience, the band launched into a unscheduled number, a specially-written song which excoriated the perceived media "hangers-on" who now claimed credit in the band's success -- on the night it was hard not to conclude that the song was a broad (if rather hypocritical) swipe at both Countdown and Meldrum. Climaxing with Barnes' screamed final line, "Eat this!", the group then proceeded to smash their isntruments and the set, leaving a shaken Molly to carry on as best he could. (to be continued ...)