Flashback: Sweet summer at Sweetwaters in 1980

Music and sun at Sweetwaters, 1980.
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Music and sun at Sweetwaters, 1980.

It was as if all the good people of Porirua had stripped off and turned the volume up.

Waikato farmer Ray Little's Ngaruawahia farm on the banks of the Waipa River was a different place now.

Where livestock normally stood, chewing, there was now 40,000-odd, barely-clothed, rapidly-sun-burning people who had happily paid $20 a head to be there.

Rosie Collins, second from left, at Sweetwaters in 1980.
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Rosie Collins, second from left, at Sweetwaters in 1980.

On stage was one of the best line-ups a New Zealand stage had ever seen. From New Zealand were the likes of Split Enz, Citizen Band, Hello Sailor, and Mi-Sex. International acts such as Renee Geyer, John Martyn, and Elvis Costello and the Attractions were also there.

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This summer marks 37 years since the first Sweetwaters festival.

Tim Finn at Sweetwaters in 1981.
FAIRFAX NZ

Tim Finn at Sweetwaters in 1981.

It was a new festival for a new decade and Rosie Collins reckons, all these years later, "it's more about what I don't remember".

"I'd just turned 20 and I don't remember being particularly bothered about the crowds, the facilities (or lack of), the heat ... don't remember drunks or drugs. I imagine all these things were present but I don't remember those details.

"I know we had a tent but I don't remember what we ate or how comfortable we were. Those things probably didn't matter then."

A make-shift house bus at Sweetwaters, 1980.
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A make-shift house bus at Sweetwaters, 1980.

What she does remember was being told of a band – one neither she nor her friend Pam had neither heard of – called Split Enz.

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"I only remember being blown away by Split Enz and all their True Colours songs," she said.

"Pam and I were just along for the ride. There were multiple bands on multiple stages all day and we were pretty ho-hum about it all until Split Enz came on after dark."

Sweetwaters Festival in 1980.
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Sweetwaters Festival in 1980.

Daniel Keighley was one of the minds behind the festival and would later go on to do the Parihaka International Peace festivals. Before he died in 2015 he spoke of the highlights of his career, and Sweetwaters 1980, when he insisted Split Enz was given the same importance as Elvis Costello.

"I'm very proud of my contribution to the growth of New Zealand music nationally and internationally.

"When I was a kid, nobody had the slightest interest in New Zealand music," he said.

Daniel Keighley, one of the founders of the Sweetwaters and Parihaka International Peace festival.
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Daniel Keighley, one of the founders of the Sweetwaters and Parihaka International Peace festival.

"By my mid-20s, I had created shows whereby New Zealand artists co-headlined with internationals, which had never happened before.

"The only one who could make a difference was the promoter."

According to The Evening Post, 40,000 people came to the festival, which was marred only by the drowning of a 17-year-old from Rotorua who had gone for a late-night swim with friends in the swollen Waipa River.

That 40,000 was then roughly the same size as Porirua, north of Wellington, the paper noted.

"Scorching sun and soaring temperatures during the three-day Sweetwaters festival at Ngaruawahia made the crowd of more than 40,000 try every way they could to cool off.

"Some took to the swollen Waipa River, while others basked in the sun in front of the main stage area, not wanting to miss any of the action.

"Everyone found it too hot to wear much clothing and by the end of the weekend there were many sunburnt people heading home."

Other than sunburn, death, and being a financial disaster, the new decade would prove to be bright for the new festival.

Teri Sawers, was there in 1980 and – against her better judgment – returned in 1981.

"Hot and sticky after inching forward for an hour and a half in a traffic jam, I remembered with uncomfortable clarity exactly what I was in for during the next three days," she wrote afterwards.

"These massive festivals are not for the fastidious or introverted ... from the moment you arrive, you become just another body in a never-ending flow of human traffic."

Despite it all – the long drops, the communal showers, temperatures up to 30 degrees Celsius – Sawers largely raved about the festival, headlined by Roxy Music.

By 1984, Sweetwaters was a who's who of big international acts, including Peking Man, Eurythmics, INXS, Talking Heads, The Pretenders, and Simple Minds. 

Despite the international draw, just 25,000 punters turned up.

Sweetwaters would fade away but then, in 1999, Keighley tried to kick-start it again. The end-of-the century festival was a disaster which left him owing about 600 creditors more than $2 million.

Keighley – who would be sentenced to jail after charges brought by the Serious Fraud Office – was vilified by many but later wrote his own version of events in a book called Sweetwaters, The Untold Story.

A gang, he said, took over festival security and when he tried to get rid of them a site builder was beaten up as a warning.

Soon a major site entrance was open without ticket booths, and traffic and fans flowed through for free.

"Everything inside me screamed that I was attempting to stop a flood with one sandbag, but I couldn't give up," Keighley wrote.

"If I gave up, I told myself, it had all been for nothing."

 

 - Stuff

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