‘I’ll never be able to explain’: Looking back on the 1999 Christmas benefit concert in East Timor

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‘I’ll never be able to explain’: Looking back on the 1999 Christmas benefit concert in East Timor

Words by Staff Writer

John Farnham, Doc Neeson, Kylie Minogue, The Living End and many more.

Australian Road Crew Association (ARCA) has today announced Tour of Duty, the star-studded live album of 1999’s Christmas benefit concert for the troops, featuring performances from John Farnham, Doc Neeson, Kylie Minogue, The Living End, James Blundell, Gina Jeffreys and more.

Set for release on April 25, Tour Of Duty marks the 40th release of ARCA’s Desk Tape Series, a series created by ARCA to raise much-needed finances for Support Act’s Roadies Fund to provide financial, health, counselling and wellbeing services for roadies and crew in crisis.

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Televised by the Seven and Nine networks at the time, the concert at National Stadium in Dili, East Timor on December 21, 1999, was staged as a thank you to the Australian troops serving with the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET), whose duties kept them away from their families in Australia during Christmas celebrations. The show, to 4,000 troops and local civilians, featured John Farnham, Doc Neeson, Kylie Minogue, Gina Jeffreys and her record producer husband Rod McCormack, James Blundell, The Living End, Dili Allstars and the RMC Band, and was hosted by Roy Slaven and H. G. Nelson (John Doyle and Greig Pickhaver).

John Farnham said shortly after arriving in Dili: “I’ll never be able to explain to my family and friends how I felt being transported in a green truck accompanied by a soldier brandishing arms, and looking at children and women on the streets in what’s been a horrendous situation.”

Added Kylie Minogue: “Even if it takes people’s minds off this situation, even for an hour, I’m fully honoured to be part of it.”

Working closely with the Defence Forces for the desk tape release of Tour of Duty, the two organisations share a synergy with a number of ARCA crew members serving in Vietnam or national service, and both associations working tirelessly with members on mental wellbeing and suicide prevention programs.

ARCA co-founder Ian ‘Piggy’ Peel recalls how he was contacted by Colin Taggart, a board member of Pro Patria, an innovative multidisciplinary facility in Wagga Wagga which works with veterans and their families. “Colin asked, ‘How do you stop suicides?’ Piggy told them, ‘We put people back together and in touch with each other. They understood that they could talk with their mates about things that happened during their time away, that they could not talk to their families about.

“Being able to do that takes a great weight off your shoulders. It helps to heal the heart and helps the family bond grow stronger’. It made sense for everybody concerned, and it worked. This is a huge honour for ARCA to be able to release this live show to say thanx to all the troops who keep us safe.”

ARCA also worked closely with Luke Gosling OAM, who served in East Timor and is MP for Solomon in the Northern Territory. The Tour of Duty audio was supplied by Rev. Darren Hewitt, a chaplain working with returned veterans in South Australia, spiritually dealing with their depression and anxiety.

Twenty years before, Rev. Hewitt planned to set up an audio-visual museum Fields of Remembrance in Queensland to commemorate Australia’s involvement in conflicts and wars. He reached out to Glenn Wheatley about getting an audio recording of Tour of Duty. “Glenn sent me a double CD of AV files.”

Soon after Rev. Hewitt moved to South Australia, the museum plan was put on hold and the files were forgotten for two decades until he discovered them in a portable MP3 player. While searching for Archie Roach music on the internet he came across the ARCA website and its star-studded collection of releases.

“I learned more about ARCA and was in awe of what they were doing for crews in crisis.” With approval from Gaynor Wheatley, Rev. Hewitt offered ARCA the tapes.

“There was such great support for what Australian troops were doing in East Timor, and that was reflected in how the acts were choosing their songs to be directed at them. It was a different story for older vets who had served in Vietnam,” explains Rev. Hewitt. “Called “baby killers” by protesters and cold-shouldered by the nation and even the RSL, you can see why there is so much hardship and mental health problems with them.”

The actual idea of Tour of Duty started with Doc Neeson, and was put together by Glenn Wheatley through his company Talentworks. “Having done my national service in New Guinea and being an army brat myself, I knew how the troops would have felt at that time of the year,” Neeson said at that time. “They would have been homesick, felt disconnected and wanted some real entertainment.”

Although all the musicians and production crews donated their fees, Glenn Wheatley still had to find $1 million for production costs. “The entire infrastructure in Dili has collapsed,” Wheatley revealed.

“There is no electricity, running water, cables, generators, roofing or staging. Everything has to be taken from Australia.” The stage and camera equipment required eight transport planes, Australian companies including Westfield Holdings, Compaq Computer, Qantas, Arnotts and Solo donated cash and in kind.

Wheatley reported at the time: “The response from companies has been extraordinary. Their December budgets had been allocated but I was banging on their doors saying ‘I need an answer now’. Most responded within a day.” Compaq Computer provided computers for troops to contact their families and friends by email through the Christmas period, and a dedicated website so cricket fans could check scores, and had their staff on the ground in Dili to help troops have access to the internet.

Booths were set up in Westfield’s shopping centres, where consumers could sponsor, for $25-$35, “Dili bags” of food, drinks, magazines and other items for the troops. Calls were made to the artists. Wheatley’s star client, John Farnham, agreed on the spot.

Kylie Minogue, then living in London, was going through an upswing in popularity in Australia, with the Impossible Princess/ Kylie Minogue album spending 35 weeks in the charts and her Intimate And Live tour having to be extended a number of times.

Queensland sheep farmer James Blundell was back in the charts with his sixth studio album Amsterdam Breakfast, was on TV singing the Qantas ad ‘I Still Call Australia Home’, and had just returned from time off driving around Europe in a van, earning money busking.

Blundell had military roots too, as the grandson of Captain Peter Blundell of the 2/25th Battalion, who served in the Second World War. After the Dili Stadium show, he stayed on in East Timor to play unplugged shows with members of the Royal Military College Band. During breaks Blundell also assisted with serving drinks and dedicated ‘Blundell’s Bar’ to his grandfather.

At the time, country singer songwriter Gina Jeffreys was heavily touring, playing six shows a week, every six weeks, with country music loving girls taking up her “Girls Night Out” as an anthem.

When she got her invitation, she cancelled some Australian shows to make the trip. “I knew what an important event it was going to be,” Jeffreys recalls. “It was exciting but I was also nervous, partly because I seldom go out of my comfort zone, and partly because we were going into a war zone.

In 1999, The Living End were the hottest new band. After breaking into the US and UK charts with their Prisoner of Society, their first album went to number one, was certified 4 x platinum, yielded six hits and won two ARIA awards. “It was definitely surreal to be asked,” remembers singer and guitarist Chris Cheney.

“Eighteen months before we were still trying to get our feet in the door, suddenly a heavy hitter like Glenn Wheatley was calling our manager, asking us to go to East Timor and the show was going to be televised, and going to be on that concert were people like John Farnham and Kylie Minogue whom we didn’t know and had only seen on TV.”

For the reggae/ska band Dili Allstars – formed in 1992 and made up of Australian and Timorese expatriates – it was a time for healing. It was the first time the Timorese members returned to their homeland in 25 years.

For co-founder Paul Stewart, also with the Melbourne band Painters & Dockers, it was where his brother Tony was among five Australian journalists who were said to have been shot by Indonesian military forces in Balibo, East Timor, in 1975.

Chris Cheney: “It was a different world. Military escorts, jumping into green trucks, all the guys were armed. This was no holiday destination!”

Jeffreys: “Each of us was assigned a high-level soldier. They were never more than a metre and a half from us at all times, even in the shower and the toilet. They took turns to protect us, even when we were sleeping. The boys slept in one tent, and Kylie and I were in another. Throughout the night, tanks were circling the tents. They never stopped protecting us, they made us feel safe in an unsafe environment.”

As to be expected, it was an emotional show, both for the performers and for the audience.

Chris Cheney: “When John hit that really high note at the end, it was spine-tingling. Twenty-five years later, I am still transported back to that moment. That voice, the way he hit the note, and the whole atmosphere. You felt very lucky to be there. Seeing the look of joy on the faces of the troops, they were having the time of their lives.”

Gina Jeffreys: “I remember distinctly standing on the stage and looking at the sea of soldiers. This one lady looked up at me and she just had tears streaming down her face and she mouthed ‘Thank you’. They were so thankful that we would be there, and thinking of them at that time of the year, and with TV coverage as well.

“It was massive and they felt seen and appreciated. I came off the stage afterwards and spoke to her, and she made me cry because she was over there protecting someone else’s children while her children were at home during Christmas. I bawled my eyes out, that really moved me.”

Chris Cheney: “Years later I still meet people who tell me they were in the audience, and how magical it was. We were a lot more raw and aggressive than the other acts, and I think we were chosen to appeal to the younger crowd. It worked, they were singing along to all our songs and even threw in a couple of ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi! Oi!’ in for us!”

Tour of Duty Live at National Stadium is set for release on April 25 via ARCA’s Black Box Records.