Tickets. Check. Booze. Check. Tent and camp stove. Check. Reliable vehicle. Check. Carload of mates. Check. Illicit substances. Optional. It had all the makings of a typical summer beach holiday except these travellers were headed for a small valley between Paeroa and Waihi. They were some of the more than 65,000 young people in transit to Nambassa: A Three Day Festival of Music, Crafts and Alternatives in late January 1979. At the end of a dull, fragmented decade musically and culturally, young New Zealanders were finally coming together at a successful multi-day event they had organised themselves. It was the first mass gathering of New Zealand’s sub-cultural other.
Nambassa 79 took everyone by surprise. Organised by a hippie collective led by Peter Terry, the three-day festival set a template for all future rock festivals. It was held in high summer, had a distinctive identity, and was headlined by a few overseas acts backed up by a strong Kiwi contingent of groups and performers. It emphasised alternative community and politics, and had a relaxed attitude to deportment. It also lived in a cycle of popularity dependent on the fickle currents of pop culture.
After a hesitant beginning in the early 1970s, rock festivals hit their stride with Nambassa, Sweetwaters and a string of smaller festivals in the early 1980s. But these successes were followed by a fallow period, highlighted by the failure of the Neon Picnic in 1988.
Rising population and student numbers and an increasingly sophisicated music industry put festivals on a sounder footing from the middle of the 1990s. This led to the establishment of Mountain Rock, The Gathering, The Big Day Out, WOMAD, Splore and a raft of smaller scale festivals catering to a wide range of musical taste.