Sunbury 1974: The Day Queen Were Booed In Australia… And What Happened Next

25 January 2024 | 10:00 am | Jeff Jenkins

“Go home, ya Pommy w***ers!”


Queen (Credit: Terry O'Neill/Supplied)

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Was this the night that Australians stood up and declared we didn’t need any imports to entertain us? Or was it a case of rowdy rock fans disrespecting a great international act?

It was 50 years ago this week that the Sunbury Festival hosted its first international act – Queen.

It did not go well.

“They were given some of the roughest treatment I have ever seen dished out to an international act,” music legend Ian “Molly” Meldrum believes.

Peter Evans, author of the book Sunbury: Australia’s Greatest Rock Festival, says: “Much has been written about Queen’s performance on the Sunday night, little of it correct.”

What is indisputable is that Queen were booked to do two shows at what was then our biggest festival, the local version of Woodstock.

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“We were all pretty pissed off – musicians, roadies and agents – about John Fowler, the Sunbury promoter, bringing out a virtually unknown English band to play at our precious Sunbury,” explains legendary promoter Michael Chugg.

At the time, Queen had released just one album, 1973’s self-titled set, which had failed to crack the Australian Top 40. Even Queen guitarist Brian May questioned the band’s top billing. “We didn’t really warrant it,” May acknowledged in a radio interview several decades later. “We weren’t a famous group. I don’t know what the promoter was thinking.

“There was resentment there [from the local bands], and I don’t blame them, really.”

Queen arrived at the Sunbury site in black Mercedes limos, which failed to endear them to the locals. But Evans, who was Sunbury’s lighting director, did not notice any rock star attitude. “To me, they all seemed extremely quiet … their only request for the lighting was ‘whatever you’ve got’.”

But it’s believed that the band’s desire for a light show was their downfall.

“It was late in the afternoon and, from what we understand, they wanted to perform when the sun had gone down and they could use the lights,” recalls Brenden Mason, guitarist in Madder Lake, who were scheduled to go on after Queen.

“They stalled and fart-arsed around with equipment, and the Aussie crowd got pissed off and started to give them hell. They kept mucking around, and the good old Aussie audience just spat the dummy.”

The Sunbury stage crew refused to help the band set up as the crowd grew increasingly restless.

“You never want to piss off an Australian audience,” Mason smiles.

Michael Chugg – who was managing Stevie Wright at the time – took to the stage, inciting the masses, who were fuelled by the 30c cans of beer. “As soon as these Pommy bastards are off the stage, we’ll have Madder Lake,” Chugg proclaimed.

One of the Madder Lake roadies dropped his pants to show the visitors what the locals thought of them.

“The place just erupted,” Mason recalls.

Meldrum tried to take charge. “Excuse me,” he told the fiery fans, “This band is going to be big, and this man [pointing to Chugg] is an idiot.”

Meldrum and The Masters ApprenticesJim Keays were the event’s official MCs. “I introduced Queen on stage,” Keays recalled. “It was funny: they came strutting on stage, and the Sunbury crowd was very much ‘suck more piss!’ They hated them.” 

The punters – who had paid $12 for a three-day ticket – greeted the English band with cries of “Go home, ya Pommy wankers” and “Get off, ya poofters”.

It’s been reported that Queen were booed off the stage. But they played their full set.

“They were actually unbelievable,” Chugg admits. “They were awesome. Within a few songs, they’d turned the pissed freaks around.” 

“The playing went well,” believes Brian May, who was backed by a wall of Vox AC30 amps. “I think we played all right.”

In his book Man Out Of Time, The DingoesBroderick Smith explained that Queen won over “the confused navy singlet brigade” by playing some old-school rock ’n’ roll.

“They roared through about 30 to 40 minutes of their own stuff, but they were getting nowhere. All of a sudden, Freddie Mercury turned to the band and yelled ‘Plan B!’ They swung effortlessly into a set of classic ’50s rock ’n’ roll like Whole Lot Of Shakin’ and appeased the boofheads. This was something the crowd understood, and they got off big time.”

Smith remembered Mercury “pranced and preened around the stage like one of the Village People channelling a Yank drum major … a hell of a frontman, maybe the best I’ve ever seen.”

But the rowdy reception rocked the band. As they exited the stage, Mercury had a farewell message for the crowd: “When we come back to Australia, Queen will be the biggest band in the world!”

And then he threw his tambourine, frisbee-like, at two Australian roadies.

“When Freddie Mercury said, ‘We’re going to be the biggest band in the world’, the crowd was like, ‘Oh, bullshit!’” Keays noted.

“But it was funny because they ended up being the biggest band in the world.”

Looking back, Peter Evans believes Queen were the wrong band for the event, “their multi-part harmonies being far in advance of the kick-arse rock ’n’ roll the punters craved”.

Madder Lake followed Queen – to rapturous applause. “It just set the most beautiful stage for us,” Mason says. “We literally could have got up there and played nursery rhymes and bared our arses, and we would have been a hit.”

Aussie rock triumphed at Sunbury ’74, with Madder Lake (who played at all four Sunbury festivals), Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs and a re-formed Daddy Cool leading the charge.

The next night, Queen got their biggest cheer for the weekend when it was announced they wouldn’t be playing – Freddie Mercury was sick with a severe ear infection.

Meldrum asked Mercury about Sunbury three years later when he interviewed him in London for Countdown. “Coming in out of the cold to do a headline was kind of difficult,” the singer admitted.

“I know at the time we had a lot of competition from the Australian groups there. It was a very difficult time for us.”

But Mercury believed the adverse reaction helped Queen become a better band. “It’s something you just learn by experience; I think it was a good thing to do. Rather than just do a slow build up, we’d just come in and say, ‘We’re Queen, this is what we’re about.’ It’s nice to sort of go in at the deep end.”

Sunbury ’74 – the festival’s third year – was also a turning point for the band that would become Australia’s biggest.

Skyhooks had a mid-afternoon slot, following The Dingoes and Matt Taylor. With the sun beating down, their make-up started to run. The performance was filmed and shown the next day on Channel 0 in Melbourne. When singer Steve Hill saw himself on TV, he decided to quit the band. “Sunbury was just fucking woeful,” he told me two decades later. “An unmitigated disaster.”

Peter Evans recalls Hill complaining that a pie had been thrown at him. “It might have been brown, but it was not a pie, nor did it smell like one.”

“I was as paranoid as all hell,” Hill revealed. “I remember walking out and thinking, ‘Fuck, this is a huge audience.’ You were not able to hide away like you were at some school dance. And we played badly. It was incredibly hot, and even the bass was going out of tune. I watched it on TV and thought, ‘That’s it.’”

Two months later, Hill was replaced by Graeme “Shirley” Strachan. In October 1974, Skyhooks released the landmark Living In The 70s, and they made a triumphant return to Sunbury in January 1975.

The year after their Sunbury disaster, Killer Queen became Queen’s first Top 40 hit in Australia. And by the time they returned in April 1976, they were indeed one of the biggest bands in the world, with Bohemian Rhapsody on top of the charts.

Queen came to Australia only three times with Freddie Mercury – the ill-fated Sunbury show, followed by 1976’s A Night At The Opera tour and 1985’s The Works tour. At Melbourne’s Entertainment Centre in 1985, the singer asked the crowd if any of them had been at Sunbury. When a few fans yelled “yeah”, Mercury smiled and said, “Fuck you!”

“It was just a very strange experience,” Brian May says of the band’s Sunbury appearance. “It was one of those whirlwind things. I remember getting back to England and thinking, ‘Wow, was that some kind of strange dream?’”

The band never forgot the man who called them Pommy wankers. “For the rest of their life, whenever they came to Australia, they’d always ask, ‘Where the fuck is Chuggi?’” the promoter laughs. “Obvious to say I never did a gig with them.”

As for Meldrum and Chugg, they became great mates, with the music guru regularly reminding the promoter there was one key message to take from Sunbury ’74:

“Never put down a Queen.”