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Words by Matt New

Pix by Angie New Photography

Festivals in Australia have faced many trials and tribulations in recent memory, with several big events either being forced to take a year off or reaching the end of their journey. However, out of the demise of those fallen festivals, new contenders are rising from the ashes, rejuvenating a passionate group of music-hungry fans who hope that this classic Aussie pastime will continue to thrive.

Pandemonium, the brainchild of Australian music promoter royalty Andrew McManus, is one of these new festivals that continues to bring iconic acts to Australia. The journey to realising Pandemonium has been far from smooth, with several lineup changes and a barrage of social media backlash from critics who lack experience in organizing events of this scale. Despite the negativity, the opportunity to see legendary acts like Alice Cooper, Blondie, and The Psychedelic Furs in Australia once again is more than an exciting prospect.

From all accounts, the Melbourne leg of the festival went fairly smoothly, and now it was Sydney’s turn to shine. Cathy Freeman Park in the heart of Sydney’s Olympic Park, the fabled location of the 2000 Olympic Games, would host an eclectic lineup of international and local musical acts. From the moment the gates opened at 2 pm, support for Pandemonium was strong, with thousands of Sydneysiders eager to take advantage of their Anzac Day public holiday and camp out for a prime spot to see their favourite artists. I was massively impressed with the choice and layout for this festival, as there was ample space for patrons, but most importantly, integrating the amenities located on the peripherals of the park.

The local opening act was a singer from Coffs Harbour who goes by Jet Fyrebird, and her backing band collectively known as the Fyrebirds. An artist that seems to be popping up a little bit of late, she channelled a classic rock attitude inspired by other great female-fronted rock outfits such as The Divinyls and Joan Jett. They were a reasonably entertaining act that showed a lot of promise musically, but I got the impression that they were mostly a glorified covers band, as only a couple of original songs were performed. That being said, they were respectful to the covers they performed, and those who arrived early were eagerly singing along.

Cosmic Psychos are Australian rock royalty, and without them, the landscape of Aussie punk and hard rock could look very different. My first encounter with this band was back in 2001 as they supported Tool. They always seem to be the odd band out on many festivals or international tours as a support, and it has always perplexed me as to why. Well, the answer is simple, they fucking rock! Their infectious bogan-fueled punk/garage rock sound densely drowned in fuzz pedals is raw and visceral. At times, if you close your eyes, you could be mistaken it was a seasoned grunge band from Seattle, not three average blokes from Melbourne.

The importance of Cosmic Psychos and their influence stretches globally. Yes, they are a massive influence on bands locally like The Chats, but they are cited as a major influence on bands like Nirvana and The Melvins, among others within the Grunge scene. So it is humbling to know how a small Aussie band can make such a big difference in the ecosystem that is rock and roll music. Songs like Nice Day To Go To The Pub had me craving a beer and schnitzel, and other songs like Dead in a Ditch and Fuckwit City went right off. Their set concluded with David Lee Roth and guitarist John McKeering (Macca) playing his solo with his guitar behind his head as he rolled his beer gut in signature fashion.

Wolfmother has always been revered as one of the most defining rock bands that Australia has produced and has achieved great success overseas. If Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath had a lovechild, that baby would be Wolfmother. It was a treat to see the band once again, albeit that Andrew Stockdale is the only remaining original member. My only experience seeing Wolfmother live was back at Big Day Out 2005 in Sydney, and from what I remember, they were one of the standouts that day, and they still possess the same magic in 2024.

Andrew Stockdale is an incredibly talented musician who has one of the most distinctive voices that soar into a register lots would struggle with. But not only is he a powerful singer, he shreds on the guitar like some of the best rock guitarists. Songs like Dimension, Woman and Victorious showcased his amazing talents. Touring on bass and drums from Brisbane-based band Rhino are James Wassenaar on bass and Christian Condon on drums, both did a sensational job in bringing these classic tunes to life.

One little hiccup with Stockdale breaking a string during White Unicorn, but that did not faze him; as it allowed for an impromptu drum solo to buy some time for a quick guitar change. Finishing with Joker & The Thief, Wolfmother set the standard for the remainder of the day as they were simply electric.

Wheatus was a peculiar addition to this festival, and I’m sure the curiosity of many would be asking, are they more than just a one-hit wonder? The band has ridden the coattails and success of the single Teenage Dirtbag for the past 25 years, but deep down there is a very eclectic and talented band with a kaleidoscopic dimension of musical influences. The New York-based sextet arranged themselves on stage akin to a jam band, as everyone was facing each other whilst performing, this was a great touch. Frontman BBB was incredibly engaging and charismatic as he led the ensemble along with boundless energy. No two songs sounded the same in their set, which I admire big time. As bands that continue to do the same thing start sounding stale and dated after a while.

The ensemble looked like they were all having a great time on stage, with bassist Matthew Milligan relentlessly moving around, and drummer Maddie Klass smashing her kit with brute force and precision. Wheatus blur the lines between alternative rock and pop-punk, at times channelling bands such as R.E.M. then getting into some psychedelic sounds akin to bands like The Dandy Warhols or The Grateful Dead. After a set that included an AC/DC cover of Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation, they approached the last song of their tenure; and of course, this was only ever going to be one song.

Teenage Dirtbag went off as expected, with BBB cracking out his signature bucket hat for the final half of the song. I was pleasantly surprised with the musical diversity of this band and left with a greater appreciation for them as a result.

London-based post-punk outfit The Psychedelic Furs are noted as one of the most important bands that helped pioneer the 80’s new wave movement, so the gravity of their inclusion in Pandemonium Rocks was a massive treat. A band I can personally say I haven’t been terribly familiar with outside of their iconic songs Love My Way and Pretty In Pink, I was very keen to experience their live set and gain an education in what they are about. The only original members that remain in the band are frontman Richard Butler and his brother Tim Butler on bass, but the Furs still have an amazing amount of energy and charm as they were joined by some amazing musicians for the tour. These included Zach Alford on drums (B’52s, David Bowie), Rich Good on guitar, Amanda Kramer on keyboard, and Richard Fortus on guitar and cello (Guns ‘n Roses).

The Psychedelic Furs were very passionate in the delivery of their material, at times the raw emotion being captured in Richard Butler’s vocals, that swayed between Davie Bowie-esque crooning, to out-of-control raspy punk deliveries. Richard Fortus showcased his exemplary musicianship switching effortlessly between his guitar and a custom 6-string cello that added much dimension to tracks such as Ghost In You. I was incredibly impressed with the Furs set, and so many people seemingly were too, as they were swaying and grooving along in a hypnotic fashion.

Blondie needs no introduction, another incredibly important punk/new wave band that paved the way for other subgenres of punk and electronic music. Deborah Harry, who is almost 80 years of age, was completely captivating as she showed she still has a lot left to give musically. She is beyond an icon; she is easily the most influential frontwoman of rock music. Her punk attitude was on show as she performed the early part of the set wearing a garment reading “warno”, a political objection to her avid hatred of war.

The band itself was incredibly tight and technically proficient. Led by drummer Clem Burke, who for his age played the kit with youthful exuberance and power, showcased some immense talent. In addition, he wore a CBGB’s t-shirt, which served as an easter egg homage to the iconic New York punk rock venue that gave bands like Blondie a platform for their success. The band also consisted of some very familiar faces including original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, Tommy Kessler on guitar, Matt Katz-Bohen on keyboards from Goonsquad, and Andee Blacksugar on guitar from KMFDM. The rhythm section for the entire set was a powerhouse, as they played to some interesting pop art-inspired visual graphics throughout the set that added a lot of character to the overall show.

Blondie fans were treated to a set that included classics such as One Way or Another, Call Me, Atomic and Heart of Glass. Harry dedicated In The Flesh to all the servicemen and women of Australia after her profound experience of witnessing the Anzac Day parades through the Sydney CBD earlier that day. Harry and company were consummate professionals and thoroughly entertaining. Yes, at times Harry let the crowd sing parts she now may struggle with, but who cares; to not witness such an important band now would be an opportunity missed, so I felt very fortunate to have that experience.

Harry also commented towards the end of the set that she “needed to come back to Australia, before I die”, highlighting her sarcastic punk sense of humour.

Finally, the main attraction, the legendary shock rock and heavy metal icon Alice Cooper. Over his near 60-year career, Alice Cooper’s social importance and relevance as an artist has transcended generations. An artist that is deeply influential and inspired so many other musicians like Rob Zombie, Ghost, and Slipknot. The anticipation of an intense and theatrically choreographed rock spectacle was extremely exciting.

Opening the set with Welcome To The Show accompanied by a literal pandemonium, simulating a court trial banning him from Australia was incredibly tongue-in-cheek. Like Blondie, Alice Cooper’s set consisted of nothing but absolute bangers including No More Mister Nice Guy, I’m Eighteen, Billion Dollar Babies and Department of Youth. Helping Cooper bring these rock masterpieces to life was a collection of some of the most in-demand and talented hard rock session musicians you could imagine.

Glen Sobel (Hollywood Vampires/Richie Sambora), Chuck Garric on bass (LA Guns/Dio), and a trio of guitarists that comprised of Ryan Roxie (Slash’s Snakepit), Tommy Hendriksen (Warlock/Hollywood Vampires), and finally Nita Strauss (Demi Lovato/The Iron Maidens). As a guitarist, it was highly entertaining to see guitar solos be traded, while they all sonically filled the space with an intricate mix of harmony and melody. The only other band I can say that does it as well or better is Iron Maiden.

Alice Cooper meant business. There was no unnecessary banter between or during songs, which was incredibly professional and allowed for the set to flow amazingly well. Fans were treated to all his classic shock antics that catapulted him to the mainstream, including performing in a straightjacket, fearlessly draping a snake around him, or simulating a beheading. As a frontman, he is enigmatic and still very technically sound. His gravelling vocals complement the dense layers of guitars and thundering drums very efficiently.

Highlight tracks included Feed My Frankenstein, Poison and Black Widow Jam that showcased Nita Strauss’ talent as one of the most amazing guitarists currently in the world of rock music. Alice Cooper was by far the highlight of the day and again, it was humbling to experience a band I never thought I would ever get to witness.

So, what is the verdict on Pandemonium Festival? Pushing all the noise and negative press aside, the festival was an amazing experience. The thousands of people who attended were there for one thing, the music. Angie and I met a couple who had ventured all the way from New Zealand for the experience, which was an incredible level of dedication. Overall the vibe was very positive, as all I witnessed all day was lots of happy music-goers having a good time and sharing an experience of amazing live music. I really do hope this festival continues in the future, as so many overseas festivals are excelling while Australia seems to be left behind with only a few surviving options. Big thanks goes out to everyone involved. You all had to endure some massive challenges to ensure this festival even went ahead; you all did fantastic.

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