Success breeds imitation – and with no Nambassa festival planned for 1980 there was a gap to be filled. Daniel Keighley had cut his teeth on music promotion in Auckland and with the Student Arts Council, and was recruited by Peter Terry to help at Nambassa 79. In partnership with Paul McLuckie and Helen McConnachie, he planned a festival of his own in 1980. Sweetwaters would refine the Nambassa format. It retained the late January date and the overseas headline attractions (Elvis Costello and John Martyn) while adding even more New Zealand groups, a bigger PA, and improved hygiene at the new Ngaruawahia site.
Sweetwaters: Festival of Music, Culture and Technology – there was a lot to that new tagline. It spoke of the future, a modernity echoed by the band line-up. Having come together in a mass statement of being, youth culture now began to define and divide, beginning a pattern still visible today. Sweetwaters would cater to an evolving demographic. The 1960s generation was now joined by punks and post-punks, whose music was fast gaining a foothold in the clubs, pubs and charts. Cities also had an expanding infrastructure of clubs and venues. For this rising set of groups Sweetwaters would become a vital showcase – 45,000 fans worth the first year. But despite the changing nature of the music, the festival retained its counter-cultural side with spiritual workshops, alternative political awareness stalls, craft workshops, dance and theatre.
Sweetwaters returned in 1981. So too did Nambassa, panicked by the success of its new rival. They chose to go head to head on the same late January weekend. Ego aside, you can see the logic. Nambassa in 1979 had attracted over 65,000 fans, the first Sweetwaters 45,000 – there were fans not drawn out.
On the day it wasn’t even close. Over 65,000 fans attended Sweetwaters to Nambassa’s 5000. In two short years much had changed in local youth culture. New Zealand music began its second golden era in 1980: 36 local singles and 13 albums made the pop charts that year. Overall record sales were eight million. With both festivals offering similar counter-cultural sideshows, it was the music that was the selling point – and Sweetwaters best represented the exciting times.
Daniel Keighley made sure of his pulling power by signing groups exclusively to his festival. He also provided a place for up-and-coming bands like The Mockers, The Gordons, The Newmatics, Penknife Glides, The Screaming Meemees, The Steroids and Blam Blam Blam, which would pay dividends the following year.
With Roxy Music riding a second popular wave and Split Enz at a peak after True Colours, Sweetwaters had two hot contemporary acts at the top of the list. Nambassa, with The Charlie Daniels Band, Dizzy Gillespie, John Mayall, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and a seriously small and unhip local contingent, couldn’t compete. Not even the weather gods were smiling. Sweetwaters sweltered in oppressive heat. Nambassa experienced an outbreak of heavy rain which wiped out a footbridge – with punters still attached.
Three smaller festivals were also staged in 1981, each featuring local acts only: The Brown Trout Festival (in its second year) in the Waitahoro Valley near Dannevirke, the Nile River Festival near Westport, and Raw Rock 81, a mid-December festival in Hastings.
The 1982 Sweetwaters, at its new Pukekawa site south of Auckland, was a sell-out despite an early misstep when Meatloaf was announced as headliner. He was quickly replaced by Ultravox, supported by a strong contingent of Australian groups. Sweetwaters’ real ace was its local bill: 1981 was the year post-punk exploded in New Zealand. Over half of the record 44 Kiwi singles in the charts that year were by musicians inspired by punk and its aftermath. Overall record sales had increased to 11½ million records. The country’s live scene was also jumping, aided by the extension of venues’ licensing hours in mid-1981. Sweetwaters settled into its new home down a long dusty rural road and continued its usual pattern of mass inebriation, petty theft and rock n roll revelry. For the third year in a row a fan drowned swimming in a nearby river.
The Brown Trout and Nile River Festivals also returned in 1982, joined by the Rainbow Festival in Masterton. New Zealand’s appetite for rock festivals had not yet been sated, but it had peaked. Sweetwaters 1983 drew 35,000 fans to see Psychedelic Furs, UB40, and Toots and The Maytals. They would have done well to note the small Punakaiki festival near Greymouth, which concentrated exclusively on groups born of New Zealand’s post-punk community. It was an early sign of the increasingly focused nature of rock fandom.
The following year Sweetwaters’ festival rights were sold to United Building Society. Under Keighley’s paid management, it split the festival in two: the usual extended weekend at Pukekawa and a one-day Sweetwaters South in Christchurch. On paper it looked a sound move, given the strong line-up: Talking Heads, Simple Minds, The Pretenders and Eurythmics. But when the expected numbers failed to materialise the promoters learnt one of pop culture’s primary lessons. The youth market’s consumer gaze is fickle. New Zealand’s extraordinary belated love affair with rock music festivals had ended. It would be over a decade before it would begin again.