Countdown Memories

An interview with GAVIN WOOD by Jason

On the 20th February 2002 at 9:00 PM, Samantha and I met up with Gavin Wood at the studios of 3AK radio station to interview him for my Countdown site! And it turned out to be a really fantastic interview! I was rather excited about interviewing Gavin as whilst growing up with Countdown I always thought Gavin's voice over's were a vital part of the show as he had such a distinctive speaking voice. He was so informative. But more to the point, he was extremely passionate about Countdown and so very down to earth. Good on you, Gavin! Below is that interview with him, so read away!

Jason: How did the opportunity to work on Countdown come about?

Gavin: I was doing Breakfast at 3XY and Paul Turner who was doing nights was working at 3XY, he was the voiceover on Countdown. And in late ‘79 he had a fight with one other DJ, John Peters. And because of that fight he had with John Peters, he came into my studio when I got off the air one day and he said to me, “What are you doing right now?!!!" Because Paul talked like that. You remember Paul, don’t you?

Jason: Yes, I remember his voice.

Gavin: Graham used to work at 3XY as well, my producer.

Samantha: 3XY was a great station!

Gavin: It’s fantastic, the best station I’ve ever worked at, don’t tell them that here! There was a feeling, you know, and there’s a lot of 3XY people working at 3AK, so we’ve got that same kind of dream happening again. But yeah, Paul Turner came in the studio and I’d just got off the air like I did with you guys tonight. And he said “What are you doing?” and I said, ”Nothing.” And Paul said, “You wanna drive me down to Ripponlea?” and I went "Okay." I wasn’t doing anything. I’d just come down from Brisbane like 6 months beforehand from 4BC up there, so you know, I lived in a flat and didn’t have any family or anything like that so I wasn’t doing much and I just got the breakfast gig. So I drove him down to Ripponlea, and I thought I was just going to drop Paul off but he said, “Come in with me!” He was a man of few words. “Come in with me!” So I walked in with him. And we walk into an audio booth and Paul pulled up a piece of paper and said, “Say that, and sound like me on Countdown!” I proceeded to do so and Paul said, ”Yeah, that’s great!” And Robbie Weaks walked in and said, “Can you start next week?” And I said, “Start what?” And Robbie said, “The voiceovers on Countdown. Paul’s leaving, didn’t you know?” I said, “No.” Robbie continued, “Well, can you start next week? We can pay $60 a week.” And I went, "Yeah sure. Okay, I’m in!” Paul went off to do Nostradamus on the TV series that Paul Graham did. Then later Paul died in Sydney as he was on a dialysis. Yeah, he was a very sick boy and he died about 3 years later, and that’s how I got the gig on Countdown.

Jason: Now John Peters wrote those rather amusing intros on Countdown.

Gavin: Well, Caroline James and John Peters did. Yeah, Caroline James. She probably wrote them first then John came a little later.

Jason: John Peters wrote the really over the top ones?

Gavin: Oh, as John would, yes.

Jason: Did you enjoy reading the lines John Peters wrote?

Well, back then it was kind of, and you know the kind of...fitted with the show.

Jason: Yeah.

Gavin: And with the Top Ten you only had, you know, 10 seconds to say something about the song before you got into the package, and then the next song came up, so you had to basically tell the story of the history of the song in a few words.  So by doing it that way it was the only way to do it.  And John wrote some great words.  He’s very good, he’s a great bloke! He’s from Brisbane too.

Jason: Just from the top of your head do you have any favourite Countdown moments?

Yeah I do. When Molly and I did The Blues Brothers when The Blues Brothers hit. Tony Bartouchio came in and taught us how to shake a tail feather!

Jason laughs.

Gavin: He did!  So Molly and I dressed up in The Blues Brothers outfits. You know, the black suits and the small skinny black ties and the hat and I remember that was the first time I’d been seen on Countdown and I looked up and I saw us in the monitor and I went blank!  I stared into the monitor and then he hit me and I went, "Oh!" And I had to spin around and hit the sequence.  But we had sunglasses on, you know, so no one could kind of tell but Meldrum’s FANTASTIC!  He’s just so on!  There was also the moment when the Village People came on. Just the electricity!  The Village People were just so big! They were huge and to have them on Countdown coming out on the opening song, "YMCA", or whatever it was.  It was probably one of the most electrifying moments for me!  Um, what else? David Bowie’s appearance!  Um, gee, there was so many different ones like Toni Basil doing "Mickey", you know?  Ah, see what happened was, we used to hype the song and get it up to No.1 and it would take 6 or 7 weeks, you know?  We’d play a little bit of Toni Basil, and Cyndi Lauper was the same.  And then when they’re No.1, then the record company would fly them out for a promo tour so, you know, we were all excited about WOW, you know, Cyndi Lauper’s gonna be here and it was just great to see them live and they never disappointed me.  Um, Boy George standing in the booth because he was fighting with his...the drummer at the time.

Jason: John Moss.

Gavin: Yeah. Well, his partner. They were having a fight and the band were up on stage and he stood behind me in the booth 'cause all he had to do was just move out and go up the stairs and he was on. And I had big blacks beside the booth and no one could see, so he stood behind me.  I was a bit nervous when he did that.  But Boy George is a big guy, solid fella, you know, and a lovely bloke, just a really nice bloke, so uh, yeah, I enjoyed all those moments, yeah.

Jason: Was it a really great experience working with Molly Meldrum for such a long time?

Gavin: Oh, well, Meldrum and I had been mates, were both Aquarians.

Jason: Me too.

Gavin: Are you?  What are you?

Jason: The 8th.

Well I’m the 18th.  I just had my 50th and Molly’s the 29th of January, so were both airheads, yeah.  The three of us are airheads if you understand Aquarians.  So uh, so when we get together we giggle more than we shoot the breeze.  We just enjoy life and we drop lines on each other and he rings me on the radio show here and like on my 50th, he rang up the other night and stuff like that.  He and I have, uh, there’s a healthy respect with each other and it’s fantastic, yeah.  Tony Voui who was one of the original producers of Countdown who actually discovered Abba, um, brought the first tape, of what was the song, Waterloo?  Anyway, whatever it was.  Tony died, and his funeral was down at Mount Martha and I had Ian in the car.  I drove him down and it was just the two of us and it was just like a couple of mates, you know, reminiscing and everything like that.  He’s a wonderful man and very supportive, very supportive, yeah.

Jason: Why do you think Countdown was so successful and lasted 13 years?

Gavin: Well it was the only one of its kind and the whole family used to sit down and watch it.  Back then, you know, it was only for an hour.

Jason: Well, I started watching it when I was 4 years old!

Gavin: Yeah, thanks very much!  You make me feel very old!  But the whole family sat down.

Jason: Like my family would stop what we were doing and watch Countdown all together when it started at 6 o'clock.

Gavin: Well yeah, because for an hour the whole family could relate to a show and Mum and Dad would know that Cyndi Lauper was the No.1 song and they could relate with the kids and say, "Oh did you see that dress?"  And it was great because the whole family sat down and watched, and it wasn’t a wholesome show!  The Sex Pistols were on and things like that.  And Elton John was throwing cakes at Molly and stuff like that.  But the success was 3 million people sat down, and that was families who sat down and watched the show religiously every Sunday night.

Jason: At what point did you realize the effect Countdown was having on Australian pop culture?

Gavin: Even before the time I got the job, even from 1976 onwards, I knew how popular it was because in radio you find out how important a TV show is to artists and their records, and it would guarantee sales.  And that was why the record companies were so supportive of Countdown because it was one of the only shows.  It was a national show but if a band appeared on Countdown, they could guarantee on the Monday, 5000 sales right around the country!  So it pushed the song up even further so I knew how powerful it was and I was so wrapped to get the knob to do it.

Jason: When doing the show did you find that the audience were always responsive?

Gavin: Um, yeah.  It’s really funny because you see the audience. They were in a room beside the canteen at Ripponlea and we wouldn’t go near them or anything like that.  They would have something to eat and then they would go in the room.  Then we would do a rehearsal and then they would come in and they were very quiet when coming in and then when the show started we’d whip them up a little bit and say, “Come on, tonight’s a big show da da da we’ve got so'n’so on the show!"  Yeah, yeah, you know, that’s all we basically had to do.  The greatest concern was the overhead crane camera which kind of shot over the audience because sometimes they used to be very close to the kids’ heads but no, the audiences were subdued till the show started.  Then they got into it.

Jason: At what point did you all feel that Countdown was getting less ratings and that some cracks were showing?

Gavin: I think when the video tape really came in.  All of a sudden there were pop shows coming on the commercial channels ‘cause it was cheaper.  And also too, when Queen did Bohemian Rhapsody that was the first real film clip.  Then the Duran Durans and all of that started to try and outdo each other and have the more expensive clip.  Elton John would come on and do an $800,000 clip and everything like that and all of a sudden the clips were driving the record industry.  You had to have a good clip!  So we used to have three live bands on the show every week and it got to a point where we couldn’t afford  those live bands anymore and it was cheaper to substitute a clip because there were so many clips around and that’s what happened. And that’s when the production values went off a bit and all these other shows started to pop up and that’s when we lost our edge. And also look, it’s an evolutionary thing. You know, a brother or daughter or a sister and a family would love Countdown but the younger siblings would like Rage or another show, you know, so it’s a ten year cycle. We did very well to last however long we did.

Jason: Do you think Countdown was the greatest show to give exposure to young Australian and up-and-coming bands?

Gavin: Too right!  Simply because it was the only one and we didn’t realize how much power we had back then.  I mean, here’s a show that goes to 3 million people in this young country, 3 million people every Sunday night, and the only pressure I had was that there were 3 or 400 DJ’s around the country listening to every word I said and if I stuffed up they would go, “Oh god, I could do a better job than him.”  But they did not realize that when Countdown finished, I went from to $60 to $80 to $120.  I finished on $120 a week. But I made more money when Molly would miss a gig somewhere or double-book himself.  I’d do a disco in Cairns or I’d open up a radio station.  I opened up 4AK in Tawoomba because Molly had double-booked himself.  I used to do Sweethearts in Sydney all the time simply because Molly had double-booked himself so I made more money that way and it was just like a total payment. But, yeah we didn’t realize how powerful it was and it was a stand alone rock show.  There were no others.  Now there’s shows on every channel everywhere.

Jason: So obviously, looking back on it now, you must be glad that you were a part of Countdown.

Gavin: Oh, too right! Just an unbelievable opportunity. We’re in this business in radio to market, you know, Gavin Wood, or Doug Aughtin or whatever, and to have a step up like a National Show of Countdown.  It still helps me today.  You know, people are still like, “Oh Gavin Wood, you used to be on Countdown.”
And I am so fortunate to have that because there are not too many DJ’s or radio personalities that had that behind them and I was fortunate enough to work on 'Hey Hey It’s Saturday' as well, you know, so I got the double-dip.

Jason: And you were reviewing albums on 'Hey Hey', yes?

Gavin: I used to do the 'Pop Report' and got blown up all the time before Molly did it on Saturday mornings.  And that was a lot of fun and I was just so thankful to have that opportunity, to have 2 opportunites to do it because I was doing breakfast on 3XY then I went to Fox then to Eon and they were the hot stations.  So for about 10 years I was on the hottest things in town. I was just the bridesmaid.  I wasn’t the bride, you know.  Molly was always up front but I was in there and it was a blast and a privilege to do all that and I really appreciated it too.  Every day I used to get up and say, thank god, I’m doing this.  This is always what I've wanted to do.

Jason: Were you all disheartened when Countdown came to its end?

Gavin: Yeah.  I shed a tear up in Sydney at the Final Rock Awards.  We got around to the bar there and we all shed a bit of an emotional tear but we knew that it had run its race and that it had gone as far as it could go. My only regret is that the ABC got rid of a lot of shows, you know, at one stage Ted Emery who was one of the original creators of Countdown had a boot full of tapes of all these shows and he was hiding these shows so the ABC just couldn’t go and wipe them all because they wanted to get rid of all the tapes or destroy what was on there then reuse the tape.  So there was all that going on, because the ABC just didn’t know what they had.  And they didn’t know the history that they were creating either and that’s very sad.  I mean, for TV1 to come in under their guard and take 3 years of live acts and for some bloke at the ABC to say, "Oh yeah, you can do that," you know, "We will pay da da da." I mean, there’s all these little packages which I voice on TV1 and the reason why I wanted to voice them is because I wanted them to remain true to what it was and I insisted that I do that but I thought that was a disgrace that the ABC would let them come in and just take 3 years of live acts on another television network.  I mean that clearly shows the ABC don’t understand the power of Countdown, and they don’t understand how big that show was. Whoever's making decisions there, needs a good slap on the wrist. There's nothing much we can do. The programmers must realize something because they replay them. 

Jason: Well, the thing is, when Rage replay Countdown in January, the Rage guestbook just hits the roof and people are always asking "Can't the ABC at least play Countdown once a week even if it's at 11 o'clock at night on a week day instead of an old movie?"

Gavin: Oh WOW, that's nice, isn't it. I stayed up and watched them on Rage and I was like another person and I thought, I vaguely remember that too. I remember the Toni Basil one, that was terrific!

Samantha: Did you ever go out and party with the artists?

Gavin: Oh yeah!  Yeah, Meatloaf we did, and Bonnie Tyler.

Samantha: See, I saw her at Southland. She went to Southland. (laughs).

Gavin: Yeah, I compared that.

Samantha: Oh okay, I was there.  It was with Doc Neeson as well.

Well, Doc was in my car and we were running late because, you remember, there were thousands and thousands of people and we were screaming down Nepean Highway from Ripponlea and we were running late. And Bonnie said, “I’ll see you there.”  And I said, "Yeah, yeah, off you go.” So she’s taken off, and we're running late and I'm screaming down the Nepean Highway and I had a cream Merc at that stage.  An old 75 Merc, and Doc’s sitting in the front and I don’t know who was in the back and there was a motorcycle cop pulling over someone in that service lane and Doc’s wound down the window and went, “Why don’t you get a bloody job?”
And I said, "Shut up Doc or we’ll be arrested before we get there!” And we were tramping down Nepean Highway! And we walked in and it just blew us away. I mean, “Total Eclipse of The Heart” was just the hottest album!  And she was No.1 and we rocket on stage and I’ve still got a photo of her at home somewhere in the archives. That was one of the best nights I put in.  It was really great just to have so many people! You know, Bonnie Tyler, she was great, and with Meatloaf!  I actually got on stage with him at Festival Hall and he has this big guitar thing at the end and lines up all these blokes with guitars and he goes, “Right, bend down!“  You bend down with a guitar and as you come up all the fireworks go off and it just was fantastic!  So yeah, I’ve been on stage with Meatloaf.
And David Bowie!  I was at Molly’s place and he said, “Come on over, I’ve got a buffet happening.” And I said, “Yeah, right.”  And I wasn’t doing anything that day so I went over and I’m standing at the buffet just going down the line and there was Kevin Ritchie,  and a guy who looks after Elton’s tours from Sydney and a guy said, “Do you want the tongs?”  I’m like ye...yea...yeah and it was David Bowie!!!  I’d kind of been behind him and I didn’t see him.  I was just looking at the food and everything like that and he said, “Do you want the tongs?” and I’ve gone, “Ah, yeah!”
And what I found through the Countdown experience is the ones that are on the top are the easiest to work with.  They are just the most perfect people because the struggles over, you know?  They're there, you know? But the ones on the way up are pains in the arse, so there are a few. Well, it was funny.  Laura Branigan.

Jason: I love that episode!

Gavin: Do you?  Did you notice how they didn’t shoot her bum?

Jason: Oh, okay.  Did she ask them?

Gavin: Yeah.  Yeah, Melissa Manchester. That was another one who said, “Don’t shoot the bum.”

Jason: So Laura was a pain?

Gavin: Well, she had this manager and SHE was a pain in the bum!  Poor old Laura couldn’t do anything you know, she was like, “You speak to me, don’t speak to her!”

Jason: Because she did 3 songs on the show.

Gavin: Oh yeah. Well she was hotter than hell! She was fantastic but sometimes the managers are tripping off, yeah.  But yeah, look, all-in-all, everyone was happy to do it because they knew the power of the record sales on the Monday morning. The most important thing was the record sales on the Monday morning.  And Dennis Hammond who is the CEO of Sony, he used to pitch records to me when I was in Brisbane and he pitched Eddie Money with “Baby Hold On To Me.”  And now he’s the head of Sony Music Australia and Dennis said to me, he said, “Oh mate, we owned those Chartbusters back then, didn’t we?”  And it was big to get a record company to get on their new hit song on a Chartbuster because it brought almost a guarantee.  And I heard him coming from the car park, “He is so good this dude!”  And I was three stories up and I heard him saying, “Gavin!  I’ve got the song!” coming up the lift while he’s screaming, comes out, he goes, “Gavin!”
And he stopped everybody and of course I had to play it, didn’t I?  Because he created so much attention and I played it and he said, “Yeah, put it on this afternoon." Yes, right!  So that’s what he was like!  He’s very passionate!  He’s like Molly and he sends Molly overseas to do all our acts and stuff, and yeah. The big thing for record companies was to get on Chartbusters and that guaranteed them a spot in the Top 40 the following week and that’s how powerful the show was. Just incredible!

Jason: Yeah, I loved Chartbusters!  Because there was just new songs you hadn’t seen before and it was like “Oh my god!  I hope I see that next week on Countdown!”

Gavin: Yeah, so if I don’t see it I’d make sure I see it so I’ll go out and buy it.  You know it gives you that anticipation.  So yeah, that was a great part of the show and just so powerful we didn’t understand.

Jason: Obviously you enjoyed the whole experience, but is there a stand-out period that you loved doing when Countdown had a lot of hot acts coming out?

Gavin: Yeah!  Yeah, the year, I think about 1980 to 83 period where it was the New Romantic Movement.  And all that had kind of changed and the video clips were sensational.

Jason interrupts by mentioning Russell Mulcahy.

Gavin: Well yeah.  All the Elton John clips you know, just sensational.  It was a great time. For me in my time, 80 to 83 was the best.  Then 83, the videos kicked in and it was starting to ah, we've done this again, you know, and it got a bit 'samey' but you know Molly stopped it from getting 'samey'.  It was really funny when Molly used to say, “And here’s Spandau Ballet!  Oh, ha, ah...ah!  You know how he did all that?  The reason why he had to do all that is because the tape machines were SO slow at the 'A-B-C.'  There was a ten second roll, so when he goes, "Here’s Spandau Ballet." with a mumble instead of "Here’s Spandau Ballet!" it’s because he actually had to wait for 10 seconds for it to click up and actually get on. 

Jason: It's really funny because another standout memory on Countdown was on the last episode when Molly introduced 'Get Ready' by Carol Hitchock, and it took AGES to come on and he was like, "C'mon guys!"

Gavin:Yeah, well that's right. So it was very frustrating working you know, not at a commercial facility, but I think Countdown only survived because it was an hour or 55 minutes.  Molly always said if you put commercial breaks in it, it would just lose it's impotence. We just built it up all the way through to the Top Ten.  Just keeping it going and if we said, "We’ll be back after this break."  You know, it would lose it, so what we wanted was an hour of power- packed television.

Jason: And finally, do you think a show anything close to Countdown could ever exist again?

Gavin:Well, I hope so.  But I think now you’ve got your MTV, Music Max, The Country Channel, Rage, Video Hits and Channel V and they're all marvelous.  They’re all fantastic in their own right.  But I think it would probably come out of the ABC again, you know?  They tried to do it with Dylan with Recovery.  I think if the planets lined up correctly and they got the right team in at the ABC.  And remember, Countdown was a team and it had 12 or 13 people working on the production at one hour’s television and that doesn’t happen anymore, you know. You don’t have a whole unit working on an hour’s television every week.  Um, I don’t think it will happen but there could be something. There’s gotta be a new, fresher, updated, now, today, tomorrow version. And who owns Countdown?  Does the ABC own the name? They probably own the intellectual property of Countdown simply because it was shown on the ABC.  It was such a great name for a show.  But the thing that really upsets me and that’s probably because there’s so much population to sustain it, 'Top Of The Pops' is still going, you know. 

Jason: Didn't TOTP start in '69?

Gavin: Exactly, its still going. That’s what annoys me when I see TOTP, and I think Countdown could still be going.  But TOTP stayed true to their format and they still had the live acts on.

Samantha: With the end of Countdown, were you being forced to change the show in any way? Was there pressure on you to sort of change it to make it rate again?

Gavin: Well I didn't know anything about that, I was just the voiceover guy. I came in, there was my script and John Peters or Caroline James had written something and I tried to link it all up and make it work and flow, you know. That was my job, I didn't know about the politics. Molly would know about all of that.

So there you go!  That takes us to the end of the interview with Gavin Wood!  Thanks Gavin for the 45 minute interview and all the help!

And as Gavin Wood would say, “Goodnight Australia!”

Interview conducted by Jason Grech, Copyright © 2002