Tomorrow marks 40 years since the ABC’s iconic pop show first hit Australian screens. While Australia had seen pop music shows there had been none before, nor since, with the impact on the Australian music scene as Countdown. Right place, right time, it catapulted a galaxy of performers to national success and long-running music careers.
Mannix, then lead singer of the Uncanny X-Men, hosted Countdown “6 or 7 times” with fond, and sometimes fuzzy, memories. It is an association that has stayed with him ever since.
“It was pretty cool to be hosting a show that the whole country was watching when you’re just 18 or 19,” he acknowledges.
“I was pretty pissed off with myself the first time I did it. I got nervous, I got a haircut, but I felt like I’d let a good opportunity slip. The next time I was happier.
“But it was a great honour.”
The larrikin Mannix, like Shirley Strachan, Daryl Braithwaite, John Paul Young, Mark Holden and Marcia Hines became part of the show’s unofficial ensemble, making regular appearances as performers, hosts and occasional sidekicks to Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum.
6pm Sunday became a magnet for the youth of the country waiting to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars and awaiting the decree of the “guru” as to what the next hit song would be. The ABC Ripponlea studios were a mecca for rabid teenage fans dazzled by mirror balls, platform shoes, tartan, eye shadow, the Sharpie dance and the New Romantic movement.
“Sometimes there would be only be 3 or 4 acts in the studio,” recalls Mannix.
“It often wasn’t as hectic as what it looked like. The ABC would take forever with practicing and blocking and shit and they’d get it wrong. Then you’d go and do Hey Hey it’s Saturday, where they would run through it twice, Live -and it was much better.
“They would film all the acts in order and then do all the hosting links, without the audience. So I was sitting there with a six pack between my legs while Spandau Ballet were singing. There was a lot of drinking done at Countdown!”
Indeed, sometimes the excesses spilled onto the screen. Anyone who ever saw Iggy Pop on the show will never forget it.
“Iggy Pop had his pubes hanging out, thrusting his c**k, with the microphone hanging out the top of his jeans and he couldn’t remember the words. Offending the shit out of everybody,” he laughs.
“Stevie Wright had a similar performance with Guitar Man. He looked like he was off his face on smack or whatever, jumping around in an orange Superman outfit. He was off his nut and there were all these 12 year old girls standing around thinking ‘What?’
“Half of them looked 13 or 12. You wouldn’t get away with that now.”
Then there were the parties with Duran Duran and Tina Turner. Yet it wasn’t the international acts that intimidated Mannix, it was Meldrum -officially the show’s Talent Co-ordinator. Unofficially, the show itself.
“Molly was the one I was most (in awe of). You wanted him to like you and to get on well because he held a hell of a lot of power. He had an aura and presence because if he didn’t like you then you weren’t getting on Countdown,” he explains.
“So I was a little bit intimated by him.
“Laura Branigan was there but who gives a toss about Laura Branigan?”
At the 1985 Countdown Rock Awards, held at the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Centre, Mannix met more international stars, but not before an embarrassing moment that still lingers.
“They always used to get me to present at the Rock Awards. They’d never let me sing but they always got me to present,” he admits.
“I was nominated as Most Popular Male Performer along with Jimmy Barnes and Hutchy (Michael Hutchence).
“I’d heard I was so far in front and Barnsey was up my arse and Hutchy was nowhere. But Hutch won it and our fans had this sign up that said, ‘Get off Crater Face!’ because he had acne scars. So that went down like a f***in’ cup of sick.
“I had to get out of there before it finished and I ran out yelling ‘How the f*** do I get out of here?’ And Sting turns around and says, (pommy accent) ‘I don’t know.’
“So that was how I met Sting.”
As the show turns 40 the ABC honours its legacy with two specials, featuring interviews with Meldrum, Boy George, Daryl Braithwaite, Red Symons, John Paul Young, Jimmy Barnes, Kylie Minogue, Leo Sayer, Kirk Pengilly, The Wiggles, Mark Holden and Mannix. Meldrum will also be celebrated with a party hosted by Foxtel, ahead of a dedicated Meldrum weekend on MAX and induction for the man and the show into the ARIA Hall of Fame.
Mannix later turned his love of nostalgia into theatre, penning Countdown: The Musical Comedy, which has toured and been revived twice, with actor Michael Veitch as the mumbling Meldrum. The guru even attended one performance, conceding it was like watching 13 years of his life flash before his eyes.
“I can’t escape Countdown. It was part of my life in the 80s, in the 1990s I wrote the play, in 2006 we did the Countdown Spectacular and then we did the play again.
“So Countdown has been very good to me.”
Countdown: Do Yourself a Favour. 7:40pm Sunday November 16 and November 23 on ABC.
TOMORROW: TV Tonight opens up the vault and republishes an exclusive set visit to the Countdown studios.