If Nimbin in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales is a galaxy—and many would suggest that it is—then the Aquarius festival in 1973 was its big bang.
The early seventies was a vibrant and exciting time to be a young person in Australia. The Whitlam Labor government came to power in 1972, bringing hope to young people after 23 years of conservative rule. Hair was long, and times were radical, in every sense of the word. Johnny Allen was the director of the iconic Aquarius movement, and remembers the backdrop of the Aquarius movement fondly.
“Whitlam came to power in ’72 and Aquarius was in ’73,” says Johnny. “So it very much came off the back of the optimistic and revolutionary thinking of the time. That, including long term opposition to the Vietnam War; very much a background of student politics, and the student worker movement.” I asked Johnny whether he felt disconnected from his parents’ generation. He chuckled and replied, “Yes I suppose I did, with the naivety of youth. I think it’s natural to think that you always know better when you’re young, but as I get older I realise that things tend to go in circles.”
The series of events that led Johnny to his role as the Director of Aquarius, were suitably organic. He’d been working in Sydney running the alternative music venue, The Arts Factory, and remembers fondly the weekends that they used to shut the venue and invite the regulars to open farm festivals, where they spent the weekend listening to local bands and having a ball.
“Every couple of months we would go up to the farm and everyone was welcome,” Johnny tells me. “Two hundred to 300 people would show up, and there was no programme or anything like that, no charge, at the end of the festival I’d just walk around with my hat and people would throw in a couple of shillings so we could pay for the truck and the sound system. And then we’d do it all again.”
Unlike the current climate in Australia, where you get fined for picking your nose and can barely walk out your front door for tripping over red tape, Johnny’s generation was free to explore new ways of doing things. And it was this thirst for something fresh that led him to Aquarius. Johnny applied for the job of Cultural Director that was being advertised by the AUS (Australian Union of Students) and ended up sitting at a desk in their office in Melbourne opposite Graeme Dunstan, who would be his partner in organising the Aquarius festival.
“Graeme Dunstan and I both knew each other from Sydney,” remembers Johnny. “But we didn’t know that we’d applied for the same job at the AUS. I ended up being named director of Aquarius which was the cultural arm of the organisation, and Graeme ended up as festival director. We basically got the jobs, got told that we needed to put on a festival, and then went, ‘Well what the hell do we do now?’“ he laughs.
Both Johnny and Graeme knew that they didn’t want Aquarius to be another Adelaide or Sydney festival, and went on a nationwide tour encouraging interesting and progressive characters to attend the festival that they were planning.
“We’d have a dialogue in each city,” explains Johnny. “I’d quite often be in Perth on Monday, Adelaide on Tuesday, and back to Sydney by Friday. Graeme would join me, and anyone doing anything differently, whether it was music, art, food or politics, or whatever, we’d invite to dinner—we’d throw these big dinners for 20 or 30—and we’d tell them that we’re going to have this festival, and there’s no programme. You are the festival. And we slowly accumulated several hundred people who liked the idea and were tuned into it and committed and they helped us put on the festival, it sort of went from there.”
Finding somewhere to house Johnny and Graeme’s vision proved to be difficult. A fledgling version of the festival had previously been held in 1971 at the ANU in Canberra, but it was more traditional in its form; music, theatre, film screenings. Johnny and Graeme knew that they needed to head north to warmer pastures to pull off their great heist (but not so far as to cross the border to the notoriously conservative Queensland). But, for almost a year the perfect location alluded them. Until eventually, some poor map reading led Johnny to the honey pot.
“We were almost ready to give up and resort to going back to a university campus,” he remembers. “And then Col James (the architect) and I got lost on our way to Lismore Airport one day and we wandered into Nimbin at sunset. There was a dog asleep in the middle of the main road, and an old timer on a rocking chair outside the only shop. Col and I looked up at one another and had a sort of, ‘Aha, eureka!’ moment.”
Nimbin was a dairy town in decline. Due to a slip in soil fertility, among other factors, Nimbin’s core industry was slumping, and the fact that the village was off the traditional tourist routes meant that it was really in a bad state financially. It had been featured on ABC program Four Corners earlier in the year as an example of a rural town in decline, unbeknownst to the Aquarius organisers. When the Aquarius movement chose Nimbin as its spiritual home, the fabric of the sleepy village changed forever. But not before Johnny and Graeme organised a meeting with the local population to get their blessing.
“The population of Nimbin was around 300, and there were 310 people at the meeting,” laughs Johnny. “So it was really every man and his dog. I don’t know whether they had dollar signs flashing in their eyes or what, but the meeting voted unanimously to host the festival, and we went on from there. It was very much a story of a conservative and sleepy country town meeting up with radical students from the cities, and back in those days there was very much an ‘us and them’ mentality. But, there was also some really lovely interactions and meetings between us and the Nimbin locals.”
Graeme aptly summed up the Aquarius stance on the smattering of negative press relating to the “us and them” model (the usual “unwashed hippy” rhetoric)—that they received in the lead up to the festival. “I’m worried for the people who write these things and about what they fear from the festival, and why they feel that they have to put it down,” he told the ABC in 1973.
The Aquarius festival started on May 12 1973 and went for ten days. The core value, ethos if you will, of the festival was that it rejected the traditional forms of performance, art, and music that were
commonplace at festivals at the time (although Aquarius certainly had all of those things). This wasn’t a rock festival like Woodstock—comparisons are tempting—no, Aquarius was about exploring different ways to live. The idea that your life was your greatest work of art, and that there’s plenty of different ways to live it, is what Aquarius was all about. Graeme Dunstan explained just prior to the festival that, “Rock festivals have been killed by the entrepreneurs, and then we thought that we should run a free form festival where people can come along and make it the sort of festival that they want.”
Johnny remembers fondly the ten days that was the result of a year’s worth of work. “Nothing was programmed,” he tells me. “Part of the message was that you are the programme. No one ever said, ‘Such and such will be on at two o’clock.’ It didn’t work like that. It was just whoever felt like taking to the stage did. Which meant that there were dull patches, but also that there were some really unexpected jam sessions with 40 or 50 people on the one stage. So it was very much radical in its form, as well as its ideals. We encouraged people to come as small, tribal groups, and to be self-sufficient, but also to contribute to the festival in terms of entertainment.”
The real significance of the festival, both in the Northern Rivers region and the cultural landscape of Australia, came in the fallout. Prior to the festival, Johnny and Graeme had put deposits on the land that they were leasing to hold the festival, the idea being that attendees could then purchase the land and set up communal living places afterwards, which they did. Communes like the Tuntable Falls community, are still there today.
“There had been a movement of younger people moving to the northern NSW coastal towns,” explains Johnny Allen. “Aquarius didn’t cause it, but it accentuated it. That’s continued and it’s one part of the Australian coast now that I think is quite unique. It’s had an impact on the politics of the region.
There’s been so-called ‘hippies’ on the local council, integrating with the infrastructure.” The fact that a large number of the Aquarius attendees never left has undeniably had a profound effect on what is now known as the Rainbow Region. Activism remains strong in the area. And events like the successful protest at the Bentley Blockade in 2013 that resulted in the revoking of Metgasco’s gas exploration licence, can certainly be seen as product of the Aquarius fallout.
I ask Johnny Allen whether pulling off the Aquarius festival in 1973 ranks as one of his greatest achievements. He chuckles, and replies that it inescapably is.
“I’ve had a bit of a mixed bag career-wise,” he tells me, “and there’s lots of things that I’ve done since then. I was the event manager for Darling Harbour for seven years, and then of Tourism NSW that eventually became Destination NSW and Vivid. But it’s interesting that of all the things I’ve been involved in over the years, the one thing that still pops up, quite regularly, and still survives in many ways, is Nimbin. Just because it was very much a product of the times. It rang a bell for how people were perceiving the world, in a particular way that occasionally happens, but is fairly rare.”
Call them lefty, or green, but the protagonists of the Aquarius movement started something in May of 1973 in Nimbin, and it’s something that we would do well to take heed of today. With upwards of 90% of the Barrier Reef bleached and effectively destroyed, and the councils of New South Wales being involuntarily merged in order to eradicate elected resistance to Coal Seam Gas drilling, perhaps we need the Aquarius movement more than ever. Johnny Allen concludes our chat by saying that if there’s one thing that we can learn from Aquarius, it’s that the environment needs us to “protect it and go with it.” Tread lightly.