With 30 years’ hindsight, the failed Neon Picnic festival of January 1988 can be seen as the Fyre festival of its day, writes Chris Bourke.
This piece was originally published on Audioculture.
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 (11 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 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 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.
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.
From Jane 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.
“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 had found another excellent outdoor venue. The Pacific Band from Fiji, Rhythm Cage, The Chills, and Graham Brazier performed before Geldof topped the bill.
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.
The Neon Picnic location at Pukekawa, 66km south of Auckland, was “eerie” when Chrissy Duggan drove in to set up a women’s space. Discussions with the festival organisers had been “one-sided” but Duggan and friends had managed to get a space for $200 cash upfront. They hired a caravan, borrowed a Falcon ute, and arrived at a site that already seemed to be “in its death throes”.
The news of the cancellation reached the Pukekawa site at 5pm on the Thursday, when the person coordinating the workshop area ran up the hill shouting, “It’s off, I’m really sorry, give me the keys to the caravan and we must have lunch.” Fat chance, wrote Duggan.
Any coordinators of the festival present disappeared quickly, afraid of irate ticket-holders and possibly workers. Stage crew hurriedly dismantled their equipment and headed back to Auckland. Trucks arrived from the breweries and quickly uplifted the vast quantity of alcohol on site, though the festival crew were left 20 dozen beer they had been promised. “There was no shortage of things to console us.”
Anarchy ruled, said Duggan: those remaining decided to have a party. The Housetruckers Band played, turning the site “into Woodstock” for the few people there as workers or early arrivals. “Women’s band Cassandra’s Ears played well, by all accounts.”
While getting drunk, those on site started to realise the extent of the losses. “Things started to get really sickening, with finding out how much money people had invested in the food stands, equipment and all the other peripherals concerning the services needed for anything this large. The whole monster with a mind of its own was gaining momentum and was to tear its way through many people’s lives, leaving financial ruin and despondency.”
The Neon Picnic’s demise received remarkably little coverage from the major papers, the NZ Herald, Auckland Star and the Auckland Sun, a short-lived tabloid. Perhaps because it was Anniversary Weekend they left it to radio and TVNZ to cover, reasoning that by Tuesday the readers would have moved on.
It was Richard Gordon, a young reporter for Metro, who did the investigative leg-work required to find out the reason for the festival’s collapse. In May 1988 Metro published “FIASCO” – a 14-page story of about 12,000 words.
“Because of a court suppression order in force,” Metro editor Warwick Roger fulminated in the introduction, illustrated by a rat, “important facts about one of the key people in the Neon Picnic fiasco – facts that could and should have been included in this story – have been necessarily eliminated. It is difficult to see how the public interest has been served by such a suppression order.”
Gordon’s article describes the increasing panic of the festival organisers as the weeks before the festival turned into days and then hours. It is a saga of extreme self-confidence combined with naivety. Bright yellow posters all over Auckland warned that tickets to the event were limited to 40,000 – in fact, sales were between 1000 and 2000.
Conceptual issues were at the core of the misadventure, explained Gordon. Mace was clear she didn’t want 17-20 year old males to be the core audience. Despite the upmarket advertising, there was an early 80s vibe of alternative lifestyle about the event.
(Ironically the week before Neon Picnic, Western Springs had been packed by a mainstream crowd of 60,000 for a Pink Floyd concert; above them floated an inflatable pig, whose snorting sounds went through the PA.)
The Picnic organisers, Gordon wrote, “wanted ‘politically sound’ people to attend – not the strange brew of West Auckland ‘petrol-heads’ and Coromandel hippies had dominated the big festivals in the past. And so workshops were promised for picnickers interested in juggling, self-defence, massage, parenting, drama, spinning, weaving, writing and Niuean weaving. There were special facilities for those with physical disabilities. A marae was built on top of the hill above the site. A women’s space would provide a ‘safe, friendly place’ for women looking for relaxation, conversation and support services.”
All very much of its time – and ahead of its time – but the audience wasn’t interested. The idea that the Neon Picnic would be a more mature, inclusive Sweetwaters just didn’t get across and sell tickets.
No early warnings emerged that the festival was in trouble, but the directors of the company knew several months out that “they had a colossal problem on their hands”. Veteran promoter and city councillor Phil Warren was asked to look at the books, and give advice. “He told them they should abandon the whole project” – advice which was ignored.
Two consultants came on board in the last few weeks. Tony Lipanovic, a budding entrepreneur, tried to bring in late investors by approaching high-risk speculators after the bank turned down an overdraft. Brian Richards, with a background in the music industry, tried to keep overseas acts on board. But money was needed for their air tickets – and everything else. The organisers were hundreds of thousands of dollars short of the capital they needed.
An indication of how desperate the Neon Picnic organisers were is that days before it was to start, the company secretary, Jonathan Blakeman got approval from American Express to put the airfares for the overseas acts on his credit card: $89,000. “Which tends to suggest,” wrote Gordon, “that Blakeman still had an extraordinary belief that the Picnic would come off.” That approval depended on a bank guarantee, which didn’t eventuate.
On the Wednesday before the curtain was to go up, Roy Orbison cancelled; by early Thursday afternoon, Richards realised there was no money for the air tickets: “I couldn’t do any more to help. At 2.30pm I walked out.”
Spare a thought for the food stall-holders, who were calling the festival office wanting to know how many people to cater for, so they could buy enough perishable produce. Richards said one supplier was told to budget for 20,000 people, even though the organisers knew they had sold less than 2000 tickets at that point.
Lipanovic, meanwhile, had been renegotiating with the suppliers of portable toilets, lighting, staging and other services. The Sun reported that the Raglan Council was issuing an injunction against the festival because there were no portable toilets on site.
Gordon summarised the costs and income. The directors and original investors of Neon Picnic had put up $150,000 towards the event. To pay the acts, at least $344,000 was needed. (There is a claim in the story that all the overseas acts were paid in full, but not the air tickets to get them to New Zealand; Los Lobos said they didn’t receive a bean from the organisers.)
The total budgeted expenditure was $2.8m – but nothing like that money was ever received. Questions still remained about what was received – such as the $4000 each that 50 stall-holders were to pay in advance as rent (the potential total was $200,000) and the funds from early ticket sales. But, wrote Gordon, “No one knows who is owed what and who got paid. Roughly 150 creditors and 30 former staff with a total claim of around $500,000 were known to the Justice Department by mid-March.”
Undoubtedly, the inexperience of the two main organisers play a large part in the festival’s failure. Mace had worked at Nambassa, managed some small arts groups, and worked on an Oscar Peterson tour that was eventually cancelled. After time spent in student politics, Worth had been executive director of the Goftas, the chaotic New Zealand film and television award show in 1987, resigning just before it took place.
After the collapse, there was a lot of finger-pointing. Mace “resolutely believed in some sort of conspiracy theory,” wrote Gordon. She said the music industry questioned her credibility and experience, and the media worked against them, that “there was a deliberate campaign to pull the Neon Picnic down”. When asked why; she blamed sexism and the male egos in the music industry.
However, she could see the responsibility fell on her: “Initially I mortgaged my house, then I sold it, and whatever was left went into the company. It was a business risk. Let’s be cold-hearted about it – if anybody made a miscalculation it was me – I was handling the finances of the operation.”
When the Official Assignee gave his judgement to a public meeting a couple of months after the collapse, about 50 creditors turned up. They were owed money ranging from $1500 to $100,000. In total, creditors were owed $874,380, and Neon Picnic Ltd had assets of $49,000 ($37,000 of which was an expected GST refund).
Mace and Worth were bankrupt. Neon Picnic entered the music industry vocabulary as a fiasco, just as “sesqui” became a byword for event failure in Wellington two years later.
Daniel Keighley went to jail for crimes committed in the organisation of the revived Sweetwaters of 1999. His festival went ahead, though many acts and suppliers went unpaid.
Mace and Worth’s festival only welcomed Bob Geldof at the arrivals gate and also left many suppliers out of pocket. (Mace died of cancer in May 2011; she had been involved in setting up the Kingsland woollen crafts business Native Agent, and the Grey Lynn Farmer’s Market. Blakeman also died of cancer, in November 2014, after a successful career in university financial management in Auckland and Sydney. Worth, his wife, became a professor in public health and community medicine at UNSW, specialising in HIV research.)
Neon Picnic was an odd 80s mix of hippie romanticism and capitalist flash; the decade encouraged reckless speculation. Like the Chase Corporation towers that littered Queen Street, behind the mirror-glass façade the festival scaffolding was improvised and not fit for purpose.
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