The January 1975 version of Australia's Sunbury Festival was already facing difficulties that threatened its future. Then AC/DC and Deep Purple got into a fight backstage.

The organizers knew they faced financial ruin before the fourth and final edition of the weekend festival took place. The combined pressures of poor weather and low ticket sales (caused, in part, by a steep price hike) meant that, even though it was a popular event, it wasn’t going to take place the following year.

All was not well with Deep Purple either. The Mark III lineup, fronted by David Coverdale, was already fracturing, and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was three months from quitting. They’d been paid $60,000 – a significant amount – to appear at Sunbury, and the fact that the cash had been secured for them meant that many other bands would leave the festival without getting paid.

AC/DC, on the other hand, were just getting started. They had recently hired drummer Phil Rudd and would soon bring in bassist Mark Evans to complete the lineup that would begin their climb to success. They were working their way across the pub-rock scene of Australia when fate got them involved with what was happening at Sunbury.

“We were playing in this pub on Saturday,” guitarist Angus Young explained later, “and this manager got a hold of us and said, ‘Listen, can you guys whiz out to this Sunbury place?’ The guy promoting was a bit worried. ... He said, ‘Deep Purple doesn’t look like they’re gonna go onstage’. He was a bit worried that no one was gonna show and he didn’t want the kids to riot … so he thought, ‘Well, I’ll get AC/DC and maybe they can keep them at bay.’”

Older brother George Young, the band’s producer, had been filling in on bass, even though he owned just the instrument and not even a case for it. George was part of the troupe that piled into a vehicle for the festival trip. When they arrived, Angus said, he “took one look at the festival site, all these people, all the mud,” and abandoned them. They had to walked “a mile and a half” to get to the event. “Just as we got there, all these cars, all these Rolls-Royces come pulling down,” Angus recalled. “This was Deep Purple and they’d decided that they were gonna go on.”

Nevertheless, AC/DC were still set to play and had been advertised as part of the bill. “Everything was cool as far as we knew,” Young said. “Then, at the last minute, something happened … somebody said somebody threw a punch at our manager – one of Deep Purple’s tour guys. We were all bunched up in this caravan, changing. I remember we all came running out.”

The local lads were able to rely on assistance from fellow Australians: a forklift driver “dropped some equipment” on some of Deep Purple’s security staff, while singer Bon Scott merrily joined the violence. “Bon had someone in a headlock and the guy was spinning him in the air, and Bon’s shouting, ‘Don’t worry, guys, I’ve got him!’ And Bon’s spinning away!” Angus remembered.

As “all chaos broke out,” the guitarist climbed onto the stage. “I got on the microphone and I said to the kids at the front – because they’d started coming over the fence – I said, ‘Hey, we need a bit of a hand up here.’” Somehow, the organizers managed to enforce some calm. “We had a bit of a standoff. ... The promoter said, ‘Deep Purple will go on, you can then go on after.’ We thought, ‘All right.’”

Watch Scenes From Sunbury in 1975

It didn’t work out like that. “Deep Purple got on, played their set," Young said. "I think they cut their set short and walked off, and then they started stripping the gear. And the promoter, he started fighting with them then. ... It started off again!”

In 2007, Coverdale shared his own recollection of the fight. “We arrived in the most violent summer storm – also interesting was that our new album at the time was Stormbringer!” he said. “The promoters decided bravely to go ahead with the festival, and talk about difficult. ... The wind was howling, it was freezing and a total mud bath. The entire audience was in a field of mud. They'd wrapped themselves in plastic sheets so it resembled an immense condom convention!”

He recalled that "after a less-than-satisfactory performance, we left the stage, got in our cars and started to drive away from the site. Suddenly, we heard music coming from the stage. Apparently, a young Aussie band had jumped onstage, plugged into our gear and started playing! Well, all hell broke loose, from what I was told. Our roadies – big buggers to a man – wrestled with the young band to get them off our equipment and off the stage. Chaos and frolics ensued.

"Anyway, lo and behold, these ballsy lads were none other than a new band called AC/DC. I cracked up when I heard. I thought it was great! And that is how I remember that episode.”

Whatever really happened – and Coverdale noted he has shared drinks and laughs about it with members of AC/DC in the years since – there were repercussions. The Sunbury Festival had indeed financially collapsed even while it was going on. And despite winning posthumous awards, the event never returned.

Months afterward, Deep Purple were advised that they’d face significant problems if their proposed tour of Australia went ahead while they held onto the Sunbury cash while others remained unpaid. They resolved the situation by setting up a trust fund to cover the losses incurred by the others artists on the bill.

As for AC/DC: “We never got to play in the end,” Young said. "But the next day that was all you read about: ‘AC/DC in brawl with Deep Purple.’ In the end it elevated us – more people came to see us!”

 

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