The music and mayhem of Livid 1994

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Brisbane's Livid Festival was an institution unlike any other.

When discussing the Australian music scene of the 90s, the evolution of the urban music festival cannot be overlooked as one of the decade’s defining developments.

Music festivals had been a part of the Australian landscape since the wild days of bashes like Sunbury Rock Festival in the 70s, but by the end of the 80s they remained primarily a rural concern aping the Woodstock model. Held as far away from civilisation as possible, preferably in a paddock near some poor country enclave so as to not pollute city folk with their ‘alternative lifestyles’, wanton hedonism and way-too-loud music.

In the 90s, however, music festivals held within the confines of cities themselves became a massive part of the landscape. This trail was blazed initially by Brisbane-based annual cultural celebration Livid then eventually followed nationally by the Big Day Out, Homebake and countless less commercially-successful – but no less fun – ventures such as Alternative Nation and Summersault.

But Livid was the original and, to many, the best. Most who were there during those heady halcyon days of the early-to-mid 90s are in pretty much unanimous agreement that the 1994 instalment was the hottest of the lot.

Here are some hazy memories of how that otherwise unforgettable day went down.

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The Madness

 

“Hello, my name’s Smash and I don’t want to be a fascist, but if anyone goes near the tent-poles the band’s going off, and there will be no more bands until everyone’s down from the tent. It’s not safe and there’s a lot of people who could get hurt. Cool?” - Brian “Smash” Chladil, Livid site/production manager

The first time my mate Todd and I heard this announcement it was mid-morning of Livid ’94. We were lying face-down, on the top of the tent housing the main stage. Our heads poking inside the tent, where separate sections of the temporary structure aligned, the position both completely safe and pointlessly dangerous.

We’d been watching Tumbleweed from our vantage spot in the heavens, marvelling at how from directly above you could follow the ripple in the surging crowd as the sound travelled from the front of the tent to the rear, the bodies rippling in unison like a wave pulsing through the ocean.

A few thousand tops of heads simultaneously became a few thousand faces...

Todd, being slightly less stupefied than myself, was first to realise that the message was essentially addressed to us directly, as well as the many crowd surfers who’d climbed higher and higher up the poles before diving back down into the mayhem.

He suggested we make our way down, lest they actually do pull the plug on the rest of the bands.

I was still completely mesmerised by the sight below from a few seconds earlier when a few thousand tops of heads simultaneously became a few thousand faces.

Everyone in the tent looked skyward at once, having heard Smash’s missive. The result was an incredible human art installation piece, the likes of which I’ll sadly never experience again.

I can’t even pretend to remember why we’d gone up there in the first place – in essence because we realised that we could, basically – but it was definitely time to get down.

The solitary stranger who’d eventually followed us up the main tent support struts – which were uncovered at ground level inside the tent and easy enough to clamber up all the way to the top – suggested that we should all just slide down the roof of the tent.

Todd and I vetoed his idea immediately – we were clearly idiots but not fucking idiots – but this clearly remained old mate’s preferred option, as he was soon riding down the tent incline on his bum and disappearing over the edge into the void below. We never heard of anyone being badly injured at this juncture, so have always assumed he was alright. Physically, at any rate.

We clambered back down the internal tent struts – the descent strangely far more terrifying than the voyage up – then merged immediately back into the crowd at the bottom, with nary an admonishment, other than Smash’s serve, for our reckless stupidity.

Festivals were far more laissez-faire concerns back then. Relatively unregulated with negligible security and zero police presence compared to today’s standards.

That doesn’t make what we did any less stupid – Smash was completely right in everything he said – and I’m only recounting this experience here because the audio of the incident is one of the only publicly available artefacts of the 1994 Livid available online (the recording presumably stemming from triple j’s live broadcast, an edited version of which – including Smash’s interjections – was replayed the following Monday night on Live At The Wireless).

There’s also one subsequent audio clip of Smash interrupting Tumbleweed again when it literally seemed for a few minutes like the tent was going to come down due to the unrestrained enthusiasm from the hordes of punters. Thankfully this time nothing to do with Todd or I, who were by now firmly ensconced on terra firma clutching beers watching the carnage unfold. You can hear that below:

 

And apart from what we’ll call the ‘Tumbleweed Debacle’, only one brief two-and-a-half minute video clip of the ’94 festival is online. Most of it seems taken during soundchecks before the gates open, with the remainder very early in the day. Though the clip in itself is an amazing walk down memory lane for those who were there.

 

Livid ’94 may not have left much of a tangible imprint in the digital realms, but it’s enough to give a fair impression of just why it became such an unforgettable day.

The Mystique

Pretty much as soon as I moved to Brisbane from Melbourne in 1992 the Livid festival became the beacon of the annual music calendar, an almost pivotal point of any given year.

I vividly remember thinking, 'Where do these people go for the rest of the year?'

As Livid grew closer I would scan the street press magazines each week, eagerly searching for news of a date for the festival, when tickets were on sale and eventually the line-up itself, always a heady mix of the familiar and a raft of new and exotic names which never failed to build excitement and anticipation.

I’m sure at some point each year I started actually counting down the days to go until that fateful Saturday, when we could once again run amok and immerse ourselves in this ridiculous cultural event which felt like home for 12 hours a year.

It was a real counter-cultural tribe that would gather annually for Livid in those days. A motley looking crew who nonetheless exuded an unbridled sense of both inclusion and community. It seemed one of the only places in early-90s Queensland where you could be yourself for a day without fear of reprisal – 4ZZZ’s regular Market Days were another, but they were on a smaller scale – and this mix of self-expression and hedonism made for world-class people watching.

I vividly remember thinking during each of those early forays, 'Where do these people go for the rest of the year?', and how it was always sad at the end of the festivities when the briefly-united throng would dissolve back into the Brisbane night.

Livid Festival began humbly in Brisbane in January, 1989 as a small five-band bill in the sanctity of the University Of Queensland campus. The quality was there from the get-go, with the line-up including top-line local or Brisbane-affiliated acts The Go-Betweens, Chris Bailey (of The Saints), Died Pretty and Ups & Downs.

The brainchild of young uni students Peter Walsh and Natalie Jeremijenko – who borrowed money from UQ Student Council for that first venture – from there the event grew steadily and organically each year.

The second Livid was held in December of 1989 at RNA Showgrounds, which remained its location for the next Brisbane instalment 12 months later, bookending a one-off (until many years later) foray to Sydney, which found them setting up shop at Harold Park Raceway in June.

But Livid was, by design, a defiantly Brisbane beast. And when it set up shop in Davies Park in the inner-city suburb of West End in 1991, it had found its spiritual home for the next five years.

The beautiful sporting reserve comprised numerous football grounds and ovals, allowing Livid to spread out at its leisure as it grew each year. Davies Park was also the home of Souths Leagues Club, which itself served as a nifty indoor side-stage.

It was the perfect home for Livid. Slap bang in the middle of the city but in a semi-industrial enclave of the twisting Brisbane River which made it remote enough to not really bother anyone in the immediate vicinity.

Let the parties begin.

The Magic

For a number of divergent reasons the 1994 Livid festival – the eighth such gathering – became a massive success, both artistically and commercially.

The 1993 event – headlined by Siouxie & The Banshees atop an impeccable 27-band bill – had drawn 7,000 punters to Davies Park, by far the biggest crowd to date.

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But, in the meantime, Queensland’s first Big Day Out erupted on the Gold Coast in early 1994, bringing with it everyone from Soundgarden and the Ramones to Björk and Smashing Pumpkins.

On a local level, people were becoming more and more aware of the fun these gatherings offered.

Furthermore, each year more people would travel to Brisbane from all over Australia just to check out Livid, whose reputation as a seriously substantial cultural event was being disseminated slowly but surely by word of mouth.

People would tell breathless stories of how the great music line-ups were augmented by cutting-edge and often avant-garde art works, installations and performance pieces by emerging local artists, many of whom would go onto become big names in their own worlds.

Build it and they will come, even to a then-perceived cultural backwater.

Next, the Livid owners and bookers enjoyed another massive piece of good fortune.

Having signed New Yorkers the Beastie Boys as a headliner for a reasonable fee, that band – whose most recent foray to Brisbane had pulled a scant 500 payers to inner-city venue Metropolis – suddenly exploded into the stratosphere when their fourth album Ill Communication dropped mere months before their impending Livid closing slot.

Suddenly, Beastie Boys were one of the hottest bands on the planet. Songs like ‘Sabotage’ and ‘Get It Together’ were all over the airwaves, and Livid was the hottest ticket in town for a whole new audience. This new wave of demand arrived on top of the existent organic growth, as word-of-mouth excitement spread from previous events.

Because of these convergent factors, the crowd more than doubled for the 1994 Livid. The owners made out like bandits (even with tickets at just $42 plus booking fee) and the scene was set from an incredible day of music and frivolity.

The Music

My first memory of Livid ’94 is arriving extremely early to beat the long line-ups at the gate so that we could catch emerging Melbourne trio Spiderbait play real early on one of the side stages.

My friends and I had been infatuated by both their 1992 EP P'tangYangKipperBangUh! and 1993 debut album Shashavaglava, but I’d only managed to see them once to this stage, and it was well worth the early start to see these wacky funsters in a festival setting. They pulled a strong crowd too, despite their less-than-favourable slot, that populist streak shining through already.

The weather gods were smiling and it was an absolutely beautiful day, that much is clear. I remember checking out locals Chalk, whom I was quite fond of, and catching a little bit of Brisbane’s fun and rowdy COW (that their name was an acronym for Country Or Western tells you everything you need to know sonically), having discovered them on the scene through their strong Custard ties and affiliations.

Then there was the obvious Tumbleweed Debacle, none of which detracted from a killer set by a great band at their utter live peak. And it wasn’t just the fans who thought the show was top-notch, the band’s frontman Richie Lewis later listing it amongst the band’s Eight Most Memorable Gigs in an article for FasterLouder, offering of the experience:

It’s hard to explain what it was like following overseas acts in those dim dark days before the rise of the internet.

“Livid Festival Brisbane [in 1994] is when everything started to come together for us as a band. We played in a big top, it was the first time we heard the crowd chanting “Tumbleweed, Tumbleweed” before we came onstage and by the time we walked out the crowd were going nuts.

"People were climbing the massive tent poles climbing through the hole at the top and then sliding down the outside of the tent, it was wild.

"We had to stop the show and get everyone to work together to straighten up one of the poles that had started to lean. They did it, straightened it up and then we started again.”

I remember being absolutely smitten by US rockers Buffalo Tom back in those days, having fallen in love with their Let Me Come Over album a couple of years earlier and rabidly buying up everything else of theirs I could get my hands on.

They’d since released their 1993 album Big Red Letter Day which I’d also adored so I was just over the moon to see them in the flesh for the third time.

It’s hard to explain properly now what it was like following overseas acts in those dim dark days before the rise of the internet. But, back then, distance undoubtedly made an actual audience with bands from abroad that much more special.

You’d glean whatever info you could about a band from magazines, fanzines or friends in the know, but nothing topped being there in the flesh with these mysterious-seeming artists from far-flung shores.

It was around this time that we caught a set from Frank Black, then on the promo trail for his second solo album Teenager Of The Year, which had dropped that year. Pixies hadn’t toured Australia at this stage, so it was clear a lot of older people had come because of historical factors. Sadly, they heard no Pixies songs this afternoon.

While we knew his back story and quite liked the Pixies even then – an affection which would bloom into love over following decades – I was happy enough hearing these solo songs. I remember thinking Frank didn’t really look like he did in the blurry photos I was used to, but they rarely do.

Next up US rockers Helmet played one of the great festival sets, in the process working the crowd into an unprecedented frenzy. They were a great band in their day – both onstage and in the studio – and had just reached their commercial and artistic zenith, having backed up 1992’s incredible Meantime with 1994’s excellent Betty, two albums whose songs translate wonderfully into the live realm.

The crowd crush was so immediate and unrelenting from the very first second Helmet started that 40-odd minutes later, at the set’s conclusion, I still had the beer can from the beginning clutched in my hand against my chest, now crushed beyond recognition into roughly the shape of an apple core.

It was just utter pandemonium and sheer joy! Everybody was just having such a good time, and that made it really fun.

Helmet's Page Hamilton on Livid '94 — Time Off Magazine

The set itself is a blur of being propelled around helplessly as part of a crowd that had seemed to become a living entity, the endless clouds of reddish dust kicked up by the mayhem parted by only the occasional flying body.

Again, the band share the same enthusiasm looking back at this Livid set, Helmet frontman Page Hamilton gushing to this scribe during a 2008 interview for Time Off:

“I just did a written questionnaire and one of the questions was, ‘What’s your favourite show ever?’ and I cited that show! It was utter mayhem.

"We’ve been so lucky to have had so many amazing shows in my lifetime, but I’ll just never forget the ice-skating rink that the stage turned into because of the dust that got kicked up when everybody started going crazy, and stopping the show and people climbing up the poles!

“It was just utter pandemonium and sheer joy! Everybody was just having such a good time, and that made it really fun.

“It was difficult to play because I was sliding all over the place, and stopping the show and eating dust! It just felt like a great celebration of rock music, and that these kids had just come to have a blast.

“It was funny, because it had been pretty subdued most of the day, and then we came on and all hell broke loose! I loved that show.”

From there we faced one of those dreaded festival timetable clashes, with the end of Helmet crossing over with the start of indie stalwarts Superchunk’s set on the far oval. I have amazing recollections of running full bore through the otherwise leisurely crowd, in no state to be running anywhere at all. The things we do for art.

This was the first time I’d seen Superchunk play, and that all-too-brief audience consolidated my feelings for them into a life-long relationship that continues unabated.

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After that it was just a matter of shuffling one stage over on the back oval for a typically incendiary set from Melbourne rockers Magic Dirt, at that stage still with just one (albeit awesome) EP under their belt, 1993’s Signs Of Satanic Youth (the epic Life Was Better EP would drop the following month). They’d already proven to be an awesome live proposition, more than hinting at the excellence to come.

It’s dusk by now and I vaguely recall lounging somewhere on the ground not far from where Tiddas were holding court, having seen them numerous times in recent years opening for bands like Weddings Parties Anything and their ilk. Those ladies could sing.

RELATED: The J Files: Beastie Boys

And then, to top it all off, we enjoyed a slightly messy first fumble with those legendary Beastie Boys, still quite a guitar-heavy proposition back in those days.

It was dark and we were, by now, 12 sheets to the wind, but I remember it being different and exciting and the crowd going wild. Although it was a different crowd than the one we’d been sharing experiences with all day. Not better, not worse, just different.

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And that it was it, the sadness enveloping once more with the dawning realisation that we had to wait 12 full months to do it all again.

As with all festivals my experience was only my experience, and missed out a lot of great stuff.

Sometime earlier in the day young Brisbane band Powderfinger played their first of many Livids, debuting at the festival which they would triumphantly headline a mere eight years later (much to the apparent chagrin of Oasis).

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In subsequent debriefings friends and acquaintances were raving about sets by Kim Salmon and Dirty Three in particular. But you can’t see ‘em all.

I’ve been to countless festivals in the ensuing 20+ years but never could recapture the magic of those early Livids.

Once they get too big – and before long Livid was nudging 50,000 people, back at RNA Showgrounds, headlined by a succession of the biggest names in music – you can’t capture that same communal spirit or energy.

Plus, with time, festivals became increasingly regulated. The fun slightly sucked out with each new rule set in place. And I’m sure at least part of these fond recollections can be attributed to me merely basking in reflections of the wonders of being young and stupid. Sorry again about that whole tent thing.

I’ll leave this remembrance with the words of erstwhile Time Off editor Simon McKenzie as he concluded his contemporaneous review of Livid ’94 in the following week’s street press:

“So it ends, we’ve all seen something great, we’ve all seen something bad, and we’re all glad we came.

“Regardless of the quality of the bands (simply EXCELLENT), the music is almost incidental to Livid as a day. It’s Brisbane’s chance to celebrate itself.

“With over 10,000 people in one park, and not one fight in sight, it’s more than just a day of drinking and seeing bands. It’s a day that you just have to go to. You’re mad if you don’t.”

All through June we're asking, 'Was the 90s the greatest decade in Music?'. Catch up on all of our 90s articles and programs here

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