A very long way to the top

It may well be a long way to the top, but judging by the recent arena rock spectacular, the distance back down again is far, far greater. Inspired by the ABC TV series and, possibly, the movie ‘Cocoon’, veteran rockers emerged to deliver three and a half hours of perfect FM radio programming. But it begs the question: did it desecrate the very thing it sought to celebrate?

In the fifties, Little Richard recorded ‘Tutti Frutti’. The song was wild, raucous and it scared the living daylights out of middle-America. Then along came Pat Boone, who recorded an easily digestible version of Tutti Frutti that was as polite as the cardigan he was wearing. Needless to say, it was a smash hit. What became clear at a ‘Long Way to the Top’ was how much of early Australian rock music was based on the ‘Pat Boone’ model. The formula was simple. Take an American rock tune – usually by a black artist, and do a version of it that was easier on the eyes and ears. Back in the sixties, it resulted in number one hit singles. Thirty-odd years later it seems like a bizarre adaptation of the White Australia policy.

One of the difficulties facing the organisers must have been how to present so many acts in one evening. From that perspective, the night was an unqualified success. Changeovers were short and sharp and the night was relatively free of interruptions, but, overall, it felt much like a giant school concert, except it was the teachers on stage instead of the kids.

As for the performances, there was a distinct unevenness in the quality of the artists. Those who had never really stopped singing since their heyday faired best. Billy Thorpe, Russell Morris, Ross Wilson and Marcia Hines did particularly well. Bands such as Chain and the Masters and Apprentices were quite fine too, although Jim Keays should return his shirt to Austin Powers before anyone notices it’s missing. However, for every Normie Rowe, there was someone else for whom the standard was comparable to uncle Trevor’s rendition of ‘What’s New Pussycat’ at your sister’s wedding reception, save for the fact that on this occasion, you’d paid eighty bucks to listen to it.

As the night wore on, it was impossible not to be struck by an overwhelming sense that something was wrong. Here was a concert to celebrate the rebellious nature of rock and roll and yet that spirit was conspicuous by its absence. Even the songs the artists played were totally predictable. Indeed, the entire evening was one of well-mannered, superannuated Volvo-driving comfort that ran counter to everything the music stood for.

Suffice to say, I have never before been to a concert that had an intermission to allow gig-goers a chance to buy a choc-top.

If there’s one scene that will remain forever with me from that evening, it’s the sight of a certain man during the break, talking on his mobile phone while eating an Eskimo Pie and dancing.

Were rock and roll dead, it would surely have been turning in its grave.

What the evening needed more than anything was a shock. A surprise of some sort. Or, at least, a surprise that didn’t feature the words ‘I thought [insert name here] was dead.’ In short, what the night needed was Dinah Lee performing Eminem’s ‘Stan’ or Col Joye and the Joyboys drawing exclusively from the Slipknot songbook and engaging in some form of blatant self-abuse. But, alas, it was not to be.

To be fair, the evening wasn’t helped by the choice of venue. Put simply, the Rod Laver Arena is no more suited to hosting a rock concert than the front bar at the Espy is to hosting the Australian Open Tennis Final. By the time the finale rolled around, my seat had been so uncomfortable for so long that I began to seriously contemplate having my buttocks replaced through surgery. Instead, I had to content myself with dashing home for a warm cup of Horlicks before bedtime. As did many of the performers, no doubt.

Rock and roll is dead. Long live rock and roll.

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