With 30 years’ hindsight, the failed Neon Picnic festival of January 1988 can be seen as the Fyre festival of its day. It was a flawed concept that captured the spirit of the times. The organisers envisaged something more evolved than the contemporary rock bands and mullet-wearing male rock fans that made the original Sweetwaters a success. Instead, flashy marketing was used to sell an older age group the idea of going back to the garden.
On the bill was a diverse range of quality lower-level and heritage acts but no real drawcard to drag the mythic, well-heeled, politically progressive, musically broadminded sophisticates into a paddock. The organisers needed a Bon Jovi to draw the bogans and underwrite the whole thing. (Eleven years later, Sweetwaters 1999 was similarly wrong-headed and mismanaged, although organised by someone with much more experience. But the acts did turn up and perform, for no pay. Elvis Costello pointedly included ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ in his set.)
The summer of 1987-1988 was like an economic “phoney war”. In the months following the October 1987 sharemarket crash, the impact was about to hit. One of the casualties was surely the Picnic, which went belly up hours before show time. Last-minute investors were reluctant, except for the riskiest kind. But the global financial crisis was just one of many things that caused the Picnic to be cancelled. The organisers – Lindsay Mace and Heather Worth – were inexperienced and completely out of their depth.
The Auckland music industry could not have been more supportive: the production firms, the record companies, the press. Even though the advertising had the potential of becoming a bad debt, Rip It Up ran interviews before the event with James Brown, Los Lobos, Roy Orbison and the Pogues. (Radio Hauraki had its fingers burnt when the first cheque for advertising failed, so insisted on cash up front.)
All wanted it to happen, and there was a buzz through the week – very little of it negative – as everyone got prepared to revisit the heyday of early 1980s Sweetwaters, without the physical drawbacks. On the Wednesday morning (27 January), as Rip It Up’s editor/staff writer, I interviewed Bob Geldof at the Tamaki Yacht Club, and he seemed sour and angry. On the Thursday afternoon, the working week over, I was kicking back with Pagan’s Trevor Reekie and Auckland Star music reporter Paul Ellis, making plans for the festival. Then the phone started to ring incessantly. The Neon Picnic had been hit by a tsunami.
Within a couple of hours, we were at the Regent Hotel, as Geldof sat with veteran promoter and city councillor Phil Warren and Tim Shadbolt, then mayor of Waitemata. Together they announced a free concert. Three years on from Live Aid, Geldof suddenly had a 24-hour cause. But he had no transport, so when PolyGram offered to shout dinner at the Aashiayana restaurant on Crummer Road, I gave him a lift in my shabby 1970 Peugeot. As we approached the first set of lights, Geldof said, “That Tim Shadbolt … he’s a fookin’ hippie.” I almost rammed the car in front.
It was a manic few days, with the free concert on Friday, and Auckland packed on Anniversary weekend with punters and musicians. Four separate concerts were quickly organised; in all 17 acts on the Picnic bill performed over the weekend, publicised mostly by what was then Campus Radio. At the Pogues concert at the Galaxy on the Sunday, the venue was fit to burst, both in crowd numbers and the mood. The audience was wound up, and as drunk as Shane MacGowan when he walked out on stage.
The news story below, written in a rush the following week for the February 1988 Rip It Up, also seems like a period piece now. Overseas phone calls were an expensive novelty; publicists didn’t have mobile phones; faxes were new; financial transactions and travel arrangements happened by telex; and in a crisis, the perpetrators didn’t surround themselves by spin doctors, they went bush while their unpaid staff told the real story.
In the last few days before the Neon Picnic was scheduled to start, people were waiting. For money.
International acts such as Los Lobos and Nona Hendryx were waiting for their plane tickets or advance fees; lighting and sound companies for their payments before they would continue work. Many others waited to be paid for work already done.
The Raglan County Council waited for toilets to be put on site, while the Portaloo hire company waited for its cash.
The Picnic organisers were waiting for last-minute financial packages to come through and sort it all out.
As they worked through January, the Picnic staff – many of whom were waiting for their wages – were aware that things were “sticky”, but not that the festival was actually under threat. There was a meeting just before Christmas to advise staff there wouldn’t be any holiday pay because of a financial crisis, but when they returned to work after the break they were told it was overcome, says festival publicist Toni Nealie.
“A couple of times they [festival organisers Lindsay Mace and Heather Worth] said, ‘If the festival was going to be cancelled, we would have done it a long time ago. There have been hiccups, but they’ve been sorted out.”’
But in January, things didn’t improve. Posters, programmes and promotional leaflets waited at the printers until paid for. One local radio station began to get negative on air when their advertising hadn’t been paid for. “So we were aware through January that money was tight, but we were never aware of the full extent of the problem,” says Jane West, who handled promotions for the festival.
In the last week, things came to a head. Many of the international acts had not received their plane tickets. Lisa Reynolds, tour manager for the visiting acts, says: “On the Monday we still had no confirmation of any flights, but we were trying to get their itineraries together. Geldof was arriving the next day, but we didn’t have the departure or arrival times for anybody. Peoples’ flights kept changing. Because they didn’t get the money that day, they’d be coming a day later. It got to the point where nobody was actually going to arrive till the Friday, when the acts were supposed to be playing on Friday and Saturday nights.
“On the Wednesday, the Travel Lodge and Quality Inn cheques weren’t honoured. The Regent was only paid up [for Geldof and band] till Thursday, and Metropolitan Rentals threatened cancellation of the vans Geldof was using.”
Nealie: “We put out a press release about 9am saying all tickets had been sent, and all deposits had been telexed to bands’ accounts. We understood Heather Worth was at the travel agents doing that.”
However the international bands had started to pull out. On Tuesday afternoon, from Tennessee, Roy Orbison rang Virgin – his record company here – to cancel. Orbison had been paid part of his appearance deposit, but he didn’t have his plane tickets. All his musicians were gathered together in the US to leave in 12 hours. (Orbison took a break from recording to come here; session guitarist Johnny Marr had flown home to the UK while Orbison was to be away.)
From New York, a spokesperson for Nona Hendryx told Rip It Up she had received an advance, but although her plane tickets were supposed to arrive on January 5, there were still no tickets right up to the day before Hendryx was supposed to leave, Monday January 25 (Tuesday NZT).
Johnny Clegg and Savuka told the Herald on Tuesday he still didn’t have tickets. They had gone to Paris to pick up their tickets but they weren’t there. In a memorable quote, he told the Auckland Sun: “I rang the [festival] organisers, but Heather Worth told me to stop hassling her.” Clegg and his band, $9000 out of pocket, were bailed out by their record company EMI, who got them home to Johannesburg.
When Auckland staff of PolyGram Records arrived at work on Wednesday morning, there was a telex from Los Lobos waiting. Says Nigel Sandiford, head of PolyGram NZ, “The telex said, with regret, they were cancelling, after ‘repeatedly asking for ticketing and advances.’”
What about James Brown? “We never knew when he was arriving, or when he pulled out. We never really knew,” says Sandiford. “Sharon O’Neill got to Christchurch before she heard what was happening, which caused some financial problems – she went down by about $10,000. All sorts of people – [booking agents] Benny Levin, Mike Corless – got together to put on two shows for her and put some money back into the kitty.”
Meanwhile Geldof had arrived on Tuesday. “That was a tricky situation,” says West. “I had to carry out my commitments with the band. By Wednesday it was obvious things were in a real state, but I wanted to get Geldof through the press conference without him facing sticky questions about the internal workings of the Neon Picnic. Orbison had pulled out the day before, and sticky problems were starting to happen with the Raglan County Council.”
Nealie: “The Waikato Times said on Wednesday that the Council would issue an injunction unless 200 Portaloos were on site by 2pm Thursday. They also had to see a million-dollar insurance policy, otherwise an injunction [preventing the festival from going ahead] would be proceeding.”
Through all this, the Picnic organisers were looking for more finance to ensure the festival went ahead. “On Wednesday afternoon we were told a new investor had been found,” says Nealie. About 3pm a “management consultant” came in to “hold the wolves from the door.” He got on the phone, and appeared to sort out the problems of ticketing, with new financial backing from Australia.
West: “We were told there was going to be sufficient cash available by 10am the next morning to pay people like Portaloo, the staging people – who by then were waiting for cash to start building the stage – motels, rental companies. By then it was common knowledge that there needed to be cash to solve these problems. We knew about them because we were dealing with all those people.
“Come Thursday morning, this cash hadn’t arrived. At 10.30am I took Geldof to do a talkback on Radio Pacific, and thought I’d pop back to the office before going to a marae welcome. Heather and Lindsay were leaving to get the money. [Promoter] Doug Hood was in the office, waiting for money for the Pogues.
“By that stage, Geldof had checked out of the Regent, but I took the precaution of pencilling in a booking for a few more days. From the marae I rang Lisa: where’s the money? ‘It hasn’t come.’ I said, send someone up to the bank. No one there. We didn’t know where they were.”
The Geldof party was going to stay at the Hotel du Vin in Pokeno, a luxury lodge south of Auckland. “But they’d rung up saying the American Express card [booking the rooms] had been dishonoured. There was also an injunction out on the transport by then,” says Reynolds. “So: no booking, none at the Regent, and no transport.”
West: “Lisa rang the Regent, but they said no, Geldof can’t check back in until we get $6000 … we were going to have to tell Bob Geldof.”
“Meanwhile,” says Reynolds, “the financial backer rang from Australia, pulling out.”
Nealie: “By 2pm the guy on the phone trying to rescue the international flights said they were all lost … the ‘management consultant’ walked in and said there was nothing more he could do.”
“Back at the marae,” says West, “Lisa and I told Bob. We told him, they can’t pay for the Hotel du Vin, the Regent won’t take him back, as money was already owing. [Later that day, both hotels offered him free accommodation.]
“He said, ‘Fuck this, we’ll do a free show.’”
Geldof went to PolyGram Records to organise accommodation for his band, who were sent to a friend’s place while things were sorted out. At 4pm Hood announced he was putting the Pogues on at the Galaxy on Sunday night – their festival slot.
With no international acts, the Neon Picnic was effectively over. No senior management could be reached at the Picnic office late Thursday afternoon; the phones seemed to be answered by children in tears. Announcing the Picnic’s demise on the 6.30pm TV news that night with Lindsay Mace, Heather Worth said, “The festival site looks so nice. We were so close.”
The “Nigh-on Panic” rumours flew all day Thursday, so when the phone calls started to get serious in the afternoon it was hard to tell fact from fiction.
But the idea of Bob Geldof, global idol, doing a spontaneous concert on Friday night with the aid of Tim Shadbolt, hippie mayor, seemed to have an absurd logic.
Just over two hours after the idea had been first mooted, Geldof and Shadbolt gathered at the Regent for a press conference at 7.30 on Thursday evening. It was impressive to see what had already been achieved: a lineup of acts, venue, stage, sound gear, transport, lights. Just security had to be arranged, and despite the sceptics with visions of an Aotea Square riot, the Waitemata City Council did a remarkable job, even placing a jetboat in the river behind the stadium in case anyone fell in. Friday’s concert finished with just one arrest.
“I didn’t want to come half way around the world and just leave,” said Geldof at the Regent. “The purpose of our being here is to play. So we’re trying to put together a free show, so as not to leave a nasty feeling in the mouths of those who’d already bought tickets, and so as not to leave New Zealand with a nasty feeling in our mouths.
“The production crews from Neon Picnic lost about $100,000 from the concert going down the tubes, so they’ve decided to move all the gear in 24 hours and erect a stage at the Waitemata Stadium by tomorrow night.
“There won’t be a bill,” said Geldof. “All the people involved have lost already. The people with the PA, Oceania, are down $20,000. They’ve already lost it, so what the hell, they’re just bringing the PA in. [Peter Grumley] and his crew, stage and lighting, they’re down $60,000, so they may as well do it.”
Veteran promoter and city councillor Phil Warren said, “I’m very pleased that something’s come out of it. I felt it was very important for the country and the industry that we try and salvage something out of this mess. I think it’s appalling that this is happening 48 hours before something was supposed to happen when 48 days ago the people organising it must have known what was going on.”
Friday’s concert at the Waitemata Stadium was a great success: Auckland has found another excellent outdoor venue. The Pacific Band from Fiji, Rhythm Cage, The Chills, and Graham Brazier performed, before Geldof topped the bill.
The only negative aspect of the event was the juvenile point-scoring by the two radio stations taking part, 89FM and Magic91. All radio stations, particularly Hauraki, had proved remarkably helpful during Friday when Picnic refugees West and Nealie rang them asking for promotional help.
But on the night 89FM and Magic91 wanted an upfront presence, which meant the audience was insulted by two jocks with Neanderthal wee-wee humour, and such jokes as “pretend you’re giving milk biscuits to starving Africans.” The bullshit and drivel flying in Auckland’s radio wars can only backfire in the faces of the perpetrators. Certainly it was the only sour part of a warmly spirited event that rescued something out of the week’s disappointment: no one else but the two stations were “looking after No 1.”
Once the demise of the Neon Picnic was a fait accompli, the organiser of the Side FX stage Debbi Gibbs started work on a concert to take place on Monday, 1 February, to try and recoup the expenses of bands who had travelled to the festival.
“I feel responsible for the calibre of the bands involved. Usually bands on the side stage have done it for nothing, expecting no more than some fun, but we were dealing with bands who were bigger than that. Also the crew, who were all professionals, had the stage built, lights up and half the PA.”
Gibbs worked on the festival from November, but the two cheques she received in payment both bounced in the last week. “I never dreamed it would be cancelled,” she says. “I spoke to the organisers, who said, ‘The only hope’ – and I’d pass this on – ‘is for the festival to go ahead.’
“We didn’t know how dead the horse they were flogging was. We knew it was shaking, but not dead. We only really started finding out how bad it was when the organisers went into negotiations for the two, three days. ‘In negotiations’ was the hip phrase. By Thursday we realised that if $500,000 in cash walked in the door, it would be too late.”
The cheques for the PA firm and construction workers building the Side FX stage bounced. “We needed cash for the lights and the PA. Their deposits had bounced so they wanted all the cash up front. So I sat around all Wednesday and Thursday, feel very ill as the hours ticked by.”
After the announcement on Thursday afternoon that the Pogues had pulled out, Gibbs got on the phone, trying to track down bands travelling to the festival. Some had already made it – that night at Pukekawa, Girl’s Own Adventure and AXEMEN played a spontaneous gig with Rupert from the Headless Chickens and buskers the Housetruckers. The 10-band gig at the Galaxy on Monday raised nearly $600 for each of the South Island bands there, plus for Australian band Deadly Hume.
Box Office Blues
The chief executive of Auckland’s Bass booking agency, Patrick Connell, is prepared to go to court to protect the rights of Neon Picnic ticket-holders.
Connell wants to determine whether Neon Picnic ticket money that Bass is still holding should go back to the ticket-holders or to the Picnic liquidators. “I’ve got an argument on hand,” he says. “I contend that the money we hold belongs to the ticket-holders, though the liquidators may have other opinions. But it’s worth taking to court to get a ruling. Some promoters do an excellent job, working to their own code of ethics – so why should they suffer?”
Bass stopped selling tickets on the afternoon of Thursday January 28, though they didn’t hear officially that the festival was off till the next Tuesday. “We stopped as soon as one of our staff heard that the crew had packed up. So the tickets were taken off our system at about 5pm”
About 50 percent of the money Bass received for Picnic tickets was passed on to the organisers on a weekly basis – on the guarantee that it was put into a trust account, says Connell. “Legally that money is in a state of flux – it doesn’t belong to anyone. We can’t make decisions for promoters, but also have to be accountable to people who bought tickets from us. Fortunately it doesn’t happen often, but occasionally money is used for an event before it happened.
“If necessary, we’ll carve up the money we have and distribute it like a receiver. If your ticket was bought from Bass, go back and the details will be taken, then we’ll have a case to go to the receivers as bona fide creditors.”
Read about the aftermath at Neon Picnic: the clean up