One of the most iconic gigs in Australian music history was almost an unmitigated disaster.
In January 1982, several bands at very different stages of their career came together to play a free outdoor concert at Wanda Beach in Sydney’s south.
Many of those present that day wear the experience as a badge of honour. For some, it changed their lives.
And two of the bands would go on to perform on the world’s stage and change Australian rock music forever.
‘No idea what was about to hit’
Wanda Beach is south of Sydney’s CBD on Dharawal Country in the Sutherland Shire. It’s along the same stretch of coastline as Cronulla Beach.
There’s a big hill down to the water covered in lush green grass and coastal pines.
These days the streets closest to the beach are full of multi-million-dollar houses, but in 1982 Wanda Beach was very different. And for the local kids, there wasn’t much to do.
One of the area’s youth refuges had an idea to put on a free concert to raise money for local unemployed young people. The organisers asked ABC radio station triple j and local TV broadcaster SBS to help put the gig together.
The plan was to set the stage up at the bottom of the hill, creating a natural amphitheatre.
The audience would have a view of the bands and the beautiful blue ocean beyond.
But at the top of the hill were residential houses, and the action would take place right in front of these properties.
John Diamond, who was part of triple j’s live music team, knew the damage a big crowd could do, so he spoke with the homeowners.
“This is going to be one hell of a concert,” he told them.
With the neighbours worded up, focus could return to the line-up: some of the most exciting bands of the time were set to play.
Spy vs Spy and Machinations were the opening acts. They were followed by New Zealand new wave band Mi-Sex, who was on the rise globally.
“When we played New York, we played three sold-out shows. Two or three thousand people. It was really exciting,” keyboardist Murray Burns says.
“Mi-Sex were huge,” says Kirk Pengilly from INXS, who were lined up to play after them at Wanda Beach.
Alongside Mi-Sex and INXS was the headline act: Midnight Oil.
“It was a time of growth for us,” recalls Jim Moginie, the Oils’ guitarist and keyboardist.
“A bit of a coming of age was about to happen. We didn’t know that of course.”
In 1982, the Oils were just like any other Sydney band trying to make it.
“We’d just made an album called Place Without A Postcard over in England with superstar producer Glenn Johns, who’d done the Stones and the Beatles and the Kinks and everybody else,” Moginie says.
“We were back in Australia touring our arses off to make up the shortfall of all the money we’d spent in England, which was the usual situation for Australian bands going overseas in those days.”
The quiet beachside spot had no idea what was about to hit.
A crowd up for anything
Sunday January 31, 1982 was not the sunny day organisers were expecting. Instead it was grey and drizzly.
But that didn’t stop anyone from turning up.
“About 10 or 11am, things started to happen,” recalls Diamond.
“The crowds start turning up with their sandwiches and their girlfriends and boyfriends and some with kids.”
If it sounds orderly, it wasn’t.
Murray Burns from Mi-Sex says things descended into mayhem.
“The whole thing was not well organised, the stage looked like it had been knocked up by local builders,” he says.
By the time the concert started around midday, the crowd had grown substantially larger than the organisers were expecting.
“We didn’t know how many were going to turn up,” says Diamond. “Maybe 11 or 12,000. That was good for one of our concerts.”
Sometime in the early afternoon, Mi-Sex kicked off their set.
Police officers on site estimated 25,000 people were in attendance. Many of them were about to have the time of their life.
Burns says the crowd were up for anything.
“So many stripped off bodies, not naked, but it was really cool,” he says.
The band finished their set to thunderous applause.
Around this time organisers realised there was a problem brewing. Rain was imminent and if it affected the equipment, they’d have to stop the gig.
Stuart Cranney from triple j jumped on the microphone to address the crowd.
“I was just talking to the people who are running the thing, and pretty much at this point, it’s up to you,” he said, giving them the option of whether or not to continue the gig.
The crowd roared for the concert to continue.
So, with ominous clouds lingering, they pushed on.
Cranney called INXS to the stage.
The band had just flown back from New Zealand after playing Sweetwaters Music Festival and some of their gear – and half of their crew – hadn’t made it back to Australia
Luckily, Mi-Sex came to the rescue. “I’m fairly sure Andrew Farriss used my keyboards,” Burns says. “He reprogrammed a whole bunch of stuff.”
INXS were a band on the rise in 1982. They’d released two well received albums and their popularity was growing, though they weren’t yet the international superstars they’d become.
But Burns says you could tell you were watching a band “on a journey”.
As INXS were tearing it up on stage, Chrissy Vincent made her way into the crowd. She was from western Sydney and had driven her little blue Honda to the gig.
“I was a huge fan at that time. They were just on fire,” she recalls.
The atmosphere in the crowd was at fever pitch when Midnight Oil took the stage late in the day.
And then, it started pouring.
“We had a crowd that was completely saturated in front of us,” says Moginie. “Like a tribal gathering on a muddy hillside in the Shire.
“The crowd was extraordinary, just absolutely amazing. Completely into it, dancing their arses off.”
Moginie says it was like Woodstock.
“There wasn’t any security guys to speak of,” he recalls. “There wasn’t any restrictions on what you could drink or take or smoke or imbibe.
“It was a pretty lawless environment, as was the whole live music scene in Australia then.”
Then, frontman Peter Garrett took his shirt off and the whole thing, “went a bit bananas”.
“He was dancing crazily,” Moginie says. “We played our set at breakneck speed.”
Meanwhile, the weather raged on.
“There was a tarpaulin over the stage that would regularly fill up with rain,” Moginie says. “Then it would drop its contents onto the back of [Oils guitarist] Martin (Rotsey’s) amp.
His amp crackled all the way through the set.
“It was the making of the band. If it didn’t kill you, it would be your saviour, those sort of shows in those sorts of conditions,” Moginie says.
A change of fortunes
The story didn’t end when the concert wound up that night.
The reason Wanda Beach has become so iconic is because of what happened after the gig.
It proved to be a massive springboard for the bands involved.
Midnight Oil were about to have their breakthrough moment. They travelled to London to record the Ten to One album, which included hits like Power and the Passion.
It was the moment their fortunes changed.
“When we came back later in 1982 to Australia, we played the Capitol Theatre five nights in a row,” Moginie says.
“And we finally had singles they could play on the radio.”
For INXS, things were also about to explode.
“The head of ATCO Records flew out to Australia and came to a couple of gigs,” Pengilly says. “It’d be sweaty, there’d be condensation dripping off the ceiling, guys with shirts off, fights.
“She’d never seen anything like it and pretty much signed us up on the spot.”
And, as INXS’s Tim Farriss says, “the rest is history”.
For Mi-Sex, Wanda Beach was the beginning of a different trajectory: it was one of the last big shows the band played.
“We were actually pretty wiped out by then,” Burns says. “We’d been touring Australia for three years nonstop.
“Our singer Steve Gilpin bought a piece of land in Byron Bay and he went out there and built a house. Then we lost him. He died in the car accident. It was so sad.
Finally live music experiences like Wanda Beach inspired Chrissy Vincent to take up a career in the music industry, working at Festival Records and Harbour Agency. She even worked with Midnight Oil.
“I took a job as a maternity leave position at Midnight Oil’s office. It was about 1986 and I was handling admin stuff.”
On a soggy Sunday
Wanda Beach was a pivotal moment in so many people’s lives. It deeply impacted those who were there. From the bands who rocked that stage to the fans who got to see Midnight Oil and INXS right before they were about to explode.
All this on a soggy Sunday in January.
“It’s amazing that it has reached this mythical status,” Vincent says. And he’s happy it has.
“We should be celebrating our live music. Australian live music is something that needs to be celebrated a lot more,” he says.
RN in your inbox
Get more stories that go beyond the news cycle with our weekly newsletter.