There’s a fantastic moment from the outtakes of the 100th episode of Australia’s long-running music show Countdown, in which the clearly flustered host, Ian “Molly” Meldrum, continually flubs his script while sitting down with one of his most prominent guests, Prince Charles. Meldrum eventually loses his cool, and lets loose a few disgruntled f-bombs while Charles bemusedly stares on and the audience breaks into hysterics1. It’s a pretty fair indicator of the territory that Countdown was operating in. Here was the heir to the British crown, paying a visit to Oz to celebrate the ever increasing currency of one of its cultural exports, and being greeted with a string of nervous invectives.
Running from 1974-1987, Countdown married passionate music fandom with an outback persona that quickly won over its viewing public and grew into a major cultural force down under, particularly due to its proudly Australian personality and focus. It was among that first series of television programs to hint at a global communications network, with a well-connected host bringing through his favorite foreign artists, while using the position to spring local artists onto the same stage (literally). Applying a local focus to the world of pop, the show was able to become a major success at home, earning a reputation for a diverse palate of performances that put Australia on the pop music map.
Molly Meldrum already had a reputation as a respected music critic and social personality when he was approached about creating an Australian variant on the British music show Top of the Pops, reportedly after being seen by two Australian Broadcasting Chennel reps driving his car over onto the sidewalk for a bottle of Scotch. Signing on as both host and talent scout, the reigns were put into his hands, and he set to work recruiting the best bands in Australia to appea 2.
With his new-found freedoms, the show ended up becoming a sort of cult of personality for its host. Leading the audience through a rapid-fire blur of sketches, interviews, news segments and live performances, Meldrum was Countdown, the spirit of Australian rock and roll: beaming and unpredictable, let loose on a welcoming public who tuned in week in and week out to mine his impossibly deep library of music recommendations. And with Meldrum’s taste brandishing such an incredible viewing public, he did what he wanted, including an interview with a questionably lucid and exceedingly enthusiastic Iggy Pop, gutsy stage shows from drag queen and disco star Divine, and globe-hopping news segments from London, LA and Paris.
As the show grew, so did the acts, and Countdown quickly became a launching ground for a number of world-famous Australian rock and pop acts like AC/DC and Olivia-Newton John. However, Meldrum and co. had recognized their major influence on Australian music-buyers early on, and began recruiting international acts passing through Australia to appear on the show as well. Thanks to this access, Madonna and John Cougar Mellencamp both scored the first hits of their careers in Oz. Even Blondie, whose early career put them firmly in the American underground, scored their first hit - “In The Flesh” - in Australia after Meldrum mistakenly played the wrong song and clip during a broadcast. The band would never look back, riding that first hit to global acclaim and a string of hit albums4.
Over the next few years, Countdown would also play a major role in the successes of INXS, Men At Work, Meat Loaf, ABBA, Boz Scaggs and many others, making the show a must-have appearance for an act shooting for superstardom. It was now a cultural nexus, where Australian acts passed into the big-time of globalized pop music, and where foreign acts could find a receptive audience they might not have found anywhere else, blurring the lines of an Aussie hitmaker.
Countdown’s inimitable reign over the Australian charts continued well into the mid-1980’s, growing into an annual awards show and monthly magazine alongside the television program. However, as the show grew in prominence, it began to resort to more music clips in lieu of live performances, and shift the delicate balance that worked for so many years to more major-label international acts instead of homegrown talent. The drop-off in interest was easy to see coming. As Countdown slowly lost its outback charm, and finally closed its doors on July 19th, 1987.
It’s worth noting that at the end of the final episode, after paying tribute to the years spent working on the long-running program, Molly removed his iconic Aussie Akubra hat, showing off a shaved head Australians could recognize as a tribute to Midnight Oil, a beloved Australian band that never appeared on Countdown because of its “corporate” booking policies. Stating his regret for not having them on, Meldrum ended the show4.
Unfortunately, a fair number of the early episodes of the show were lost when an ABC head decided that an effective cost-cutter would be to reuse archival tapes, erasing a number of episodes before horrified devotees at the station could squirrel them away elsewhere. Even so, the legacy of Countdown lives on: an Australian institution that made a name for itself and for musicians across the english-speaking world by being just that: Australian.
Interview on Blondie.Net: http://archive.blondie.net/jimmy_destri_interview_200308_b.shtml
Countdown Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Countdown_(Australian_TV_series)