Under the boardwalk

For more than 80 years, the Aquatic Dance Palais perched like a gangly white seabird on the edge of the muddy inlet of Trinity Bay. The Cairns harbour required daily dredgings to be navigable by anything with a draught deeper than that of the Green Island ferry. Memories are a bit like that: silt-filled waters that need regular dredging to keep the channel open.

The Aquatic, housed in the Cairns Yacht Club, was at the centre of the town’s social life for generations. Back in the days when there were few other distractions, the locals flocked there to cut the rug at a “jazz dance with Mr W. Ward’s Modern Dance Band with Miss Billy Blackmore at the piano” (The Cairns Post, October 11, 1935). Throughout the war, the Aquatic soldiered on, as The Post reported on March 3, 1941: “The Aquatic Dance Palais was en fête last week when 150 dancers enjoyed the very bright music supplied by Marion Jenkins’ Orchestra.”

Dulcie Pitt Aquatic

Exotic Aquatic: Dulcie Pitt, later Georgia Lee, plays the Palais at a bargain price

Until the old wooden building was finally demolished in 2008 and the club moved to newer premises further along the seafront, the Aquatic’s sprung floor echoed with the ghosts of dancers past, the fading strains of The Merrymakers and the naughty rhythms of Geo. Stone’s Cuban Band. In our time — the late 1960s — it was Michael & The Mustangs who shook the Aquatic every Friday night.

For a small town of around 30,000, Cairns was remarkably blessed with musical talent. Georgia Lee (born Dulcie Pitt in 1922) and her niece Wilma Reading were international singing stars, touring with Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington respectively. Wilma’s sister Heather Mae Reading is also a successful singer. I was friends with their brother Warwick and thought them the most glamorous, exotic family on the planet.

Wilma Reading (1972)

Northern Star: Wilma Reading, 1972

Our school dances pulsated to the sounds of The Fireflies or The Embers, but the acknowledged top group was Michael & The Mustangs. The singer, Innisfail boy Michael Turner, was around my age but his powerful, bluesy voice made him seem older. On lead guitar was Brylcreemed butcher’s son Reg Denny, in whose big hands a Stratocaster looked no larger than a mandolin. Cheryl Fulton, who later became a nun, played bass; John Jones was on rhythm guitar and Neville Hayling played drums. The band’s gear was first rate: all Fender, imported from Ford’s Music in Brisbane. Later on they added 4CA deejay John Christenson on Farfisa organ, the vital ingredient of anthems like House Of The Rising Sun and A Whiter Shade Of Pale.

Friday nights at the Aquatic would begin sedately enough with The Mustangs breezing through some Shadows instrumentals, maybe a few Beatles and Gerry & The Pacemakers numbers. Then Reg would switch from Echolette to Fuzz-Tone and the band would kick out the jams with some Cream and Hendrix. It was quite something to see a big front-row forward with a duck’s-arse haircut channelling Jimi and Eric. The week Sgt Pepper’s came out, you just knew The Mustangs would have the title song down by Friday. Having a radio deejay in the band no doubt helped them keep up to date with the latest.


The Mustangs onstage at the Aquatic: (from left) Cheryl, Neville, Reg, Michael, John J & John C

By the time my last weeks of school rolled around, my friends and I had got into the habit of missing the first bracket. (Back then, bands were called groups and they played brackets of songs, not sets.) We’d be at the nearby Pacific Hotel, tanking up before heading off to the dance — the Aquatic wasn’t licensed — and ogling the orange Gretsch Country Gentleman wielded by The Embers’ guitarist, Bob Smallwood. The girls would also be eyeing Bob and we’d be watching the girls — the ones who were bold enough to be there. I’d guess the majority of the Pacific’s Friday-night punters were underage.

The last time I went to the Aquatic, just before I started university in Brisbane, I expected to meet my girlfriend Diane there. All Slavic cheekbones and olive skin, she was a knockout. But it was a curious relationship, now I think about it. We didn’t really “go out” — I had no licence, let alone a car — and we were both busy with final year. We paired off at school dances and kept things on the boil with long phone calls. The one real date we had, one weekend afternoon, was a serious necking session behind a hedge at the Tobruk Memorial Pool. For 10 minutes after that I could barely walk. So, as I said, an odd affair. We saw each other so seldom I had no idea she was no longer my girlfriend.

I spotted Diane as soon as I walked in and went over to ask her to dance. She was sitting with her girlfriends; they all glared at me. “Greg’s got the next dance,” she said, pointing at one of my classmates, who stood nearby with a bunch of his friends. (The sexes hardly mixed at dances, except on the dancefloor.) “OK,” I shrugged. “The one after, then.” Avoiding my gaze, she said, “Greg’s got that one, too.”

The fog of the two or three beers I’d had at the Pacific abruptly lifted. My face hot with humiliation, I turned and walked into a solid wall of blokedom. Suddenly I was a six-year-old again, in my first year at school in Cairns, when the two rival gangs would join forces to chase me around the playground and bash me for being a “fuckin’ southerner” — you know, from Sydney. Some of those same faces now stared back at me, 11 years older.

I don’t know if I did anything threatening but I sure felt like it. It must have shown in my face, because Greg’s fist shot out from his protective phalanx of cronies and bloodied my nose. I’d always been prone to nosebleeds and this one was a gusher. Tears welled in my eyes. I looked down at the big splash of bright red across my white shirt and, holding my dripping face, headed for the door.

That was when my night suddenly got better. Recently arrived in town from somewhere in Eastern Europe were two sisters, Katya and Sofia, dark blonde and unfashionably curvy at a time when the leggy dolly bird was all the rage. Not many of us talked to the sexy “reffos” or even danced with them, though I think we all wanted to. Their English was sketchy and there was something knowing about them that made them seem more mature than their years. It was mainly the older guys who asked them to dance.

Right then, at the most embarrassing moment of my young life, one of the sisters — I think it was Katya — appeared from nowhere, put a warm hand on my arm and said, “Come.” She handed me a tiny handkerchief that was soaked within seconds and we walked out together. I hoped Diane and all of my ex-schoolmates were watching.

Katya led me down the stairs and under the jetty. It was high tide and waves were lapping at the barnacled piers. The humid air smelt of salt, frangipani and the sickly scent of mangroves. Katya unbuttoned my shirt and squatted to rinse it in the sea water. When the blood was gone, she hung it up to dry. Smiling, without taking her eyes off mine and with no hint of coquettishness, she shimmied out of her mini and hung it up next to my shirt. She was wearing a black bra and ballet tights. I thought my knees would give way any second. She washed her hankie and we stood chest to chest as she cleaned the blood from my face.

Oh, the wonders I saw that night in the reflected headlights of passing cars while behind us the club bounced to Michael & The Mustangs. I never saw Katya again; I can’t remember if we even spoke that much. Two days later I left for Brisbane. I did see Greg again, 40 years later at a school reunion in Cairns. This time it was his face that was red — florid from booze — and he’d stacked on the weight. He and Diane had married but it was well and truly over by then. I took no pleasure in that but I wish I’d remembered to thank him for snotting me that January night in 1968.

The Aquatic was still there, but in a sorry state of paint-flaking dilapidation. A year later, they knocked it down.


A low Profile: Part Four

In my six years in Melbourne, I was lucky never to be homeless. Despite the wildly fluctuating income of a musician — bolstered by two short stints on the Commonwealth Arts Grant, otherwise known as the dole — I managed to keep a roof over my head. With the help of several housemates, of course.

The closest I came to living on the street or in my car wasn’t that close at all, really. After doing a runner from Park Street, South Yarra (main picture), I camped for a couple of months in a friend’s lounge room, which was hardly ever used. (Probably because I was in it, come to think of it.)

After that my friend Roy, whom I’d met when we were both working at Handicrafts of Asia, allowed me to crash in his one-room flat in Caulfield. Roy’s former job was a mysterious official position in PNG. I gathered he’d been some kind of spook; the experience had left him deeply paranoid and a font of conspiracy theories. The flat was his secret bolt-hole for whenever he and his wife squabbled, which was often. After two weeks, Roy let me know I’d overstayed my welcome.

From there I moved into a three-storey terrace house in Leopold Street, South Yarra, just round the corner from the flat I’d recently left. That was a diverse household, to put it mildly. On the ground floor was Jane, who worked long hours for a law or accountancy firm in the city. Thanks to her, the rent was always covered and the rest of us caught up as soon as we could. Upstairs were Denise the sculptor and Tony the builder in one bedroom and guitarist Greg Cook in the other. I was in the tiny loft a few more stairs up — perhaps once a servant’s room or nursery. The others called it the cockpit. Can’t imagine why.

When not gigging, I spent much of my leisure time practising the bass in the cockpit or watching TV in the downstairs front room. Back then you could acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge of classic movies from late-night TV; this came in handy later in life when I became a film reviewer. The other social centre was of course the kitchen. In both rooms, guitars and drugs were never far away.

Whenever I think about Leopold Street and 1976, there’s always a deep background bass note: heroin. At the time, hash and grass had almost completely disappeared from the streets and everyone at Leopold Street — except Jane and me — dabbled in smack. I did try it once, at the urging of a drummer friend. He said, “You’re always putting it down. Why not see what it’s about?” After the brief rush, I endured several hours of leaden boredom waiting for the lethargy to go away. That was enough for me.


Skylight: (from left) Trevor Courtney, Greg Cook, Mike Clarke, Bonnie Lever, Sunil De Silva, Geoff Skewes. RIP, Mike and Bonnie

Another important stage in my aversion therapy was the night Mike Clarke overdosed in the kitchen. I’d first met Mike when I replaced him in funk band Silver Sun; he was leaving for the best bass job in town, the Channel Nine Orchestra. He and Greg Cook had played together in Skylight, a particularly fine soul band, and Mike often came round to Leopold Street to score a taste. No one was better than Greg at sniffing out where the drugs were. Unfortunately, the smack they had that night was of unusual purity and Mike collapsed on the kitchen floor. I came home to find Greg injecting his semiconscious mate with saline and walking him round the room.

(Though science rejects salt water as an OD remedy, something worked and Mike managed to drive home. Several months later, however, he was almost home from a gig when he crashed his car and died.)

Across the street was another share house, one of whose members was the daughter of the owner of a South American airline. Or maybe she was just a hostie; I don’t know. Anyway, though I was never invited in — I had no drugs to offer — the rumour was she brought in large quantities of powdered coca leaf. From all accounts (well, Greg’s), hers was the finest blow ever to hit Melbourne. One night, she and her flatmates came running through our house, out into the yard and over the back fence. They were fleeing a police raid, of course, so the word was definitely out on the product.

Greg Cook, who once played with Melbourne legends Cam-Pact and went to London with The Mixtures, was known to all as Chook. Some said it was because of the funky chicken moves his head made while he played; he insisted it was because he was always up at the crack of dawn. He was certainly the only one awake the morning my parents dropped in to see what I was up to in Melbourne. He sat them down in the kitchen, rolled up a big breakfast doobie and smoked it while they waited for the kettle to boil. Mum was quite bemused that Chook finished the joint before he even poured himself a cup of tea.

By that time I was playing in a hard-working covers group called Gentry with a repertoire of Eagles songs and similar country-rock material. I snuck in a few tunes by The Band and Little Feat and began to rediscover country music, which I’d grown up with on 4CA in Cairns. Before long I was on the hard stuff — Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams — and, thanks to Asleep At The Wheel, began a lifelong obsession with western swing.

As I got used to a regular income from music it also dawned on me that, while my skills as a bassist/singer were obviously marketable, with no outstanding talent as a frontman nor the networking smarts to generate gigs I would always be a band joiner rather than a bandleader. Or maybe I was just lazy. I look back and realise how many musicians depended on the dole while launching original projects of doubtful potential. Some taught or had a second job, something I took in my stride later in life. Still others lived at home with Mum and Dad or relied on a wife or girlfriend to support their art. I chose to play in bands that were commercial enough to provide a living wage.

Still, in the case of Gentry there were compensations — like regular trips to Mount Buller all through winter. There I learned to party all night and ski all day, equipped for free by the ski-hire crew who also loved to party with the band. To keep my chops up I joined a 12-piece rehearsal band with a big horn section and written arrangements of funk, soul and the odd brassy Steely Dan song like My Old School.

In the middle of all that, one day I got a panicky phone call from Joe Camilleri. John Power’s mother had just passed away; he was distraught and talking about going to San Francisco on the very eve of a Jo Jo Zep tour. I was probably the only bass player in Melbourne who knew most of the material — could I do it? By the time I rang around, cancelled my other engagements and called Joe back to say I was in, John had changed his mind. Boy, did I look silly.


Denva Unplugged: Bill, David, Rod & me. Sue was off having a baby

In 1977 I joined Denva, who were based in Sunshine or some such outer ’burb and played all over Melbourne’s north and west. The band was built around Bill Epema’s pedal steel guitar and the impressive voice of his wife Sue, who could go from Linda Ronstadt to Patsy Cline, from Tammy Wynette to Tanya Tucker, without breaking a sweat. She was pregnant at the time and kept working right up to the last minute. Guitarist Rod Ladgrove and a terrific young drummer, David Hicks, completed the all-singing lineup.

paul_ogorman_poet&painterDave and I soon melded into a solid rhythm section. Producer Doug Trevor tapped us to play on an album for Paul O’Gorman, a singer/songwriter with a hit tune, Ride, Ride America, and a voice that should have made John Denver nervous. We flew to Sydney to record rhythm tracks at Festival for three days but The Poet & The Painter, a lavishly orchestrated folk-rock album, proved only a moderate success (though my mum loved it). Paul’s followup single from the album, (You And Me And) Love In The Morning, did get a quite lot of airplay, though. It was the first time I ever heard a record on the radio that I’d played on.

Not long after, Paul O’Gorman went into entertainment law. David Hicks went on to carve out a stellar career as a go-to Melbourne drummer (last year, in 2015, he played with The Seekers at Royal Albert Hall). I went back to Queensland and then to Sydney.

And Greg Cook — he went on to take more drugs, I guess, and became a subject of those “whatever happened to …?” conversations. Last year he turned up in Alex Siddons’ touching short film The Busker, which was posted on line and widely shared on Facebook. He’s still playing guitar. On warm days he can be found strumming for tips outside Coles in Prahran — a long way from the BBC’s Top Of The Pops — and seems as surprised as anybody else to be still around.

A low Profile: Part Three

On that Saturday night after playing Sunbury we turned up to a gig at DeMarco’s in Essendon and followed the wheel tracks through the hotel. Our road crew (his name was Jim) had rolled every piece of equipment all the way from the front door to the stage, leaving a trail of Sunbury mud. Rock Granite was making its mark.

We were making tracks in the studio as well. We spent a few nights in Armstrong’s recording demos of all our tunes with Ross Wilson, who’d recently had phenomenal success producing Skyhooks’ debut album Living In The 70’s. Thanks to him and engineer Ernie Rose, Wayne’s songs were sounding mighty.

By then I was renting a flat in South Yarra where, on a still night, you could hear concerts in the Myer Music Bowl. I even got hired a few times to bump in and out for overseas acts like the Beach Boys and ELO. As a roadie I could make more in one night than I got for two weeks’ playing, with a free show thrown in.

For a while I shared the flat with an actress and her dope-dealer boyfriend. The actress came home crying hysterically after she was talked into doing a topless scene on The Box, a mildly risqué TV soap, yet she was quite relaxed about sunbathing starkers in the backyard. At least once I had to step over her glistening, coconut-oiled limbs to get to the clothesline. When she and the pothead eventually moved out on a few days’ notice, I was strapped for the rent and had to do a runner myself.

Meanwhile, the gigs kept rolling on, including our first (and only) trip to Sydney. We stayed at a hotel in Bondi Junction a block or so from the infamous Bondi Lifesaver where we played a couple of sets — then stood at the bar, jaws agape, watching a newly arrived Kiwi band do its dada cabaret thing. Split Enz were extraordinary, not least because they all remained in costume and character even in the foyer of the hotel, as I discovered when I tried to strike up a conversation with Tim Finn. That was taking Brechtian alienation a bit far, I thought.


Last Stand: A rare shot of the elusive Jeff Burstin at the final Rock Granite gig, Matthew Flinders Hotel

The weekend in Sydney was bookended by two film shoots. We spent a day in the old ABC radio studios in Frenchs Forest filming an hour’s worth of material for the ABC-TV show Radio With Pictures (footage all but lost now). A gig at the UNSW Roundhouse was also filmed for ABC’s GTK. The momentum was picking up — but the wheels were about to fall off.

I can’t remember how it started but suddenly there was a move to sack Pat. Maybe it was because when the GTK segment was broadcast it included a long interview with her, the only member of the band happy to “do media”, and most of it was unrelated to Rock Granite. Perhaps we blokes all thought the band would be much more of a piece without a woman on stage banging a tambourine. In any case, I don’t think we handled it very well and Pat was deeply hurt. (Eight years later she would bounce back with a massive hit, Bop Girl.) Inscrutable as ever, Ross Wilson didn’t seem to hold it against us and even jammed with the newly reduced four-piece at a few gigs. Without his voice, I was the only one left to do backing vocals.

Then Wayne announced that Ross had tapped him to join a revamped Daddy Cool. Due to a contractual dispute with his producer, Robie “Rob EG” Porter, Wilson couldn’t record new original songs so he decided the Burt catalogue would bolster the new DC’s repertoire — and that was the end of Rock Granite. After a dispiriting final gig at the Matthew Flinders, a garishly carpeted beer barn in suburban Chadstone, Jeff quickly found another berth with a new iteration of Gulliver Smith’s Company Caine.

As for me, I landed on my feet as well with Silver Sun, a crack band of seasoned musicians — guitarist/singer John Pugh, drummer Trevor Courtney (both ex-Cam-Pact) and virtuoso keyboardist Rex Bullen — doing soul, jazz and funk material that had me playing at the top of my abilities. Many of the gigs, however, involved backing a set by the Moir Sisters, three sweetly harmonising teens who had a big hit called Good Morning (How Are You?). Apparently we were one of the only bands that could read these self-taught songwriters’ rather quirky arrangements. When John decided no more Moirs, the booking agency jacked up and suddenly there was no more work.

I segued into a rock’n’roll covers band with a repertoire that consisted of the soundtrack to American Graffiti. Even the name was second-hand: The Rocking Blue Jeans. The band never rehearsed; in fact Bernie, the lead singer and only original member, was running it into the ground. The only consolation was the standard of my bandmates, drummer Russ Coleman and guitar legend Les Stacpool.

A former Broadmeadows sharpie turned Mormon, Bernie was a good singer but he had extensive tattoos, so to hide the shame he decreed a band uniform of velour long-sleeved tees that we all had to wear. In Melbourne summer! It was hellish — and so was the music — but it paid well.

It was the jobbing musician’s dilemma in a nutshell, brought home to me one night by a punter who asked if I was the bass player from Silver Sun. “They’re great,” he said. “What are you doing playing this shit?” I had no answer. Paying the rent, I guess.

As it turned out, the Daddy Cool and Company Caine reformations didn’t last very long and by year’s end Rock Granite was briefly back together in yet another project instigated by Ross Wilson. He wanted to put out a version of Chuck Berry’s Run Rudolph Run as a Christmas single for his new Oz Records label and asked Joe Camilleri to sing it. Joe was a colourful muso-around-town who I’d once seen onstage doing a drop-dead Jagger impression. Brash, opinionated and a shameless show-off, Joe blew a big and ballsy tenor saxophone and was a star in waiting. He even had a new handle, Jo Jo Zep, which was a riff on the Maltese version of his name.

jo-jo-zep-and-his-little-helpers-run-rudolph-run-mushroomJo Jo Zep & His Little Helpers (the name on the record) met in Carlton for a couple of rehearsals ahead of a Christmas show at the Myer Music Bowl, to be headlined by Skyhooks. It sounds laughable now but Joe, a born frontman, seemed reluctant to be the lead singer even though he was the reason we were all there. He was more excited about scatting his favourite r&b sax solos and poking fun at all and sundry. He invited Stephen Cummings, the blushingly shy singer from Joe’s former outfit The Pelaco Brothers, to a rehearsal but Steve decided it wasn’t for him. He soon started his own group, The Sports, who were rather successful.

Wikipedia’s a bit unreliable on this first Jo Jo Zep lineup, so here’s what happened. Wayne Burt sang his originals while Joe did incendiary versions of Otis Redding’s Security and the 1940s Joe Liggins classic The Honeydripper. Joe’s mate Peter Starkey (brother of Skyhooks guitarist Bongo Starkey) stepped in to play some Chuck Berry riffs and the rest of the band was all Rock Granite: Jeff on guitar, me on bass and Bob Bickerton on drums. (At least, I think it was Bob. Some accounts name the late Ernie McInerney and I honestly can’t be sure. We played together years later in Sydney and he didn’t recall the gig at all.)

That December afternoon at the Music Bowl, like all great gigs, went by in a joyful blur. Mickey Camilleri recently reminded me how she walked onstage wearing a bikini under a fur coat to present her then hubby with his sax — another detail I’d totally forgotten. Backstage, Joe was about as excited as I ever saw him, before or since. He was hot for the band to start gigging immediately. When he pressed me on it, I decided I couldn’t face another Melbourne winter on $50 a week, which had been my princely stipend in Rock Granite — so I passed.

And off I went to the pub for a Rocking Blue Jeans gig. Foreday Riders’ John Power, fresh from Company Caine with Jeff (and Ernie), soon filled the bass chair.

I know what you’re thinking: what a chump. In that moment I’d made a snap decision that shaped the next 15 years of my musical career, suspended somewhere between Art and Commerce, two extremes that rarely meet. Unless you’re very lucky.


Hello, Girls: Mick Fettes (left) and Shane Bourne in a detail from the album cover. Now all of us are bald as coots

Still, I did give it a few more shots. As it turned out, after The Rocking Blue Jeans were done rocking, I suffered through yet another impoverished Melbourne winter. I joined a kick-arse blues band formed around Dutch Tilders who wanted to do a Dylan and go electric but the booking agency couldn’t sell the idea so it died in the rehearsal room. Then I rehearsed with Eric Gradman’s band Bleeding Hearts for a month in a big house in East Melbourne. The songs were great and the players were, too, including guitarist Martin Armiger (soon to join The Sports). But I was broke so I took up an offer from Bandicoot, an odd hybrid of comedy and country rock fronted by ex-Madder Lake singer Mick Fettes and comedian Shane Bourne. Though big in Adelaide, where it had a hit single, the band couldn’t pay its bills and I left owed several weeks’ pay.

A month or two after the Jo Jo Zep gig, Joe’s new drummer Gary Young, of Daddy Cool fame, had sidled up to me at Martini’s, a cool venue in Carlton. He couldn’t help rubbing it in, grinning his larrikin grin and telling me Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons were already making 100 bucks each a week and things could only get better. “Bad call, eh?” he said, or something similar. I don’t think he was being mean. As I remember, he bought me a beer.

A low Profile: Part Two

Joining a working band like Rock Granite & The Profiles was a bit like going from 0 to 100 in 10 seconds. The first gig I played was reviewed by spiky-haired rock scribe Jenny Brown in the local edition of Rolling Stone. She called the band “a nubile proposition”, which sounded like a good thing.

We hit the ground running. Station Hotel, Matthew Flinders, Prospect Hill, Q Club, Southside Six: from Brighton to Beaumaris, from Balwyn to Box Hill, there were gigs all over the place. A popular band might kick the weekend off with a Friday lunchtime concert at a tech college or uni followed by a pub gig that night. On Saturday you could play afternoon and night at two different suburban beer barns then race into the city for a midnight or later set at Bombay Rock or the Hard Rock Cafe. And next day, with a bit of luck, a two-hour “Sunday session” (in those days, pubs observed the Sabbath with restricted trading).

sunsetsovercarltonIt took a small army of musicians to work all those venues so perhaps it’s little wonder that Rock Granite ended up a footnote in Australian music history, having never released even a single — though we recorded more than enough for two albums. You can’t really Google the band either but there is some video. A live demo finally surfaced in 2014 on a compilation CD of 1970s Melbourne bands, (When The Sun Sets Over) Carlton, named after a Skyhooks lyric.

Not that we were a “Carlton band” any more than Skyhooks were, though we shared some musical DNA with the many combos that formed, split and re-formed like amoebas in the Petri dish of inner-city Melbourne. Call it art-school retro rock’n’roll with a side serve of rockabilly and a hipster smirk, via Daddy Cool out of Frank Zappa’s Cruising With Ruben & The Jets. A similar thing was happening in London and New York. Straight after punk’s brief, noisy spew it would be labelled “new wave”, though it had been there all along. (As was punk, for that matter. But anyway.)

RockGraniteStationHotel_Julie Higginbotham

OK, Listen Up: Pat blesses the Station Hotel, including the holy wallpaper. Photo by Julie Higginbotham

The so-called Carlton bands were very different from heavier acts such as Billy Thorpe, Lobby Loyde & The Coloured Balls and AC/DC who were busily hammering out the template for would soon be dubbed pub rock or Oz rock. Our default rhythmic mode was the shuffle rather than chunky four-on-the-floor; the songs tended more toward ironic humour than the bluesy, box-shaped certainties that the hard rockers traded in.

(That’s not to deny the wit of, say, Bon Scott’s lyrics for AC/DC. And Greg Macainsh’s clever songs placed Skyhooks smack in the middle; despite the band’s camp theatricality, even the sharpies liked them.)

Rock Granite wasn’t theatrical in the least and perhaps a bit too laidback for its own good. Essentially a bunch of shoe-gazers before the term was invented, the band presented something of a marketing challenge. Long before I arrived, someone had the idea of installing Pat Wilson on vocals, percussion and bedroom eyes. It worked; all it needed was some lipstick and satin to break up the wall-to-wall denim and facial hair.

Wayne Burt sang lead on most of the songs, which was appropriate because he wrote them: impossibly cool r&b and rock’n’roll pastiches that he tossed off with wry, offhand phrasing. At rehearsals, Wayne would blush and mumble, “Ah — I’ve got this … um, idea.” He’d start playing, his head would start bobbing and out would come a fully formed piece. By the time he finished we’d all have our parts worked out; after we ran through it a few times, it would sound like it had been in the repertoire for months. He and Jeff Burstin both played Telecasters through Vox amps and their guitars meshed and spiked like aspects of the same personality.

Jeff liked his choof. One night he got me so stoned at a gig I was convinced the lighting guy was spotlighting me whenever I fumbled a note — which only caused me to make more mistakes. Eventually drummer Bob Bickerton, the other out-of-towner in the band (he hailed from Albury), hissed at me to “get it together!” Somehow, I did.


Go West: Rocking the Leederville Hotel, Perth. Note airline freight tags still on mic stands

For a Queensland boy, it was heady stuff. The band worked constantly for more than a year, touring and often playing in front of huge crowds as the opening act for the likes of Sherbet, Skyhooks and — on our one Perth tour — Status Quo. Francis Rossi bopped in the wings through most of our set and invited us to Quo’s dressing room for drinks. They were celebrating the expiry of their original recording contract and were about to renegotiate for big bucks.

A year or two before, this all had been a fantasy world on black-and-white TV; now I was smoking hash with Michael Gudinski. (No biggie; lots of people smoked hash with Michael Gudinski.) Wayne and Jeff introduced me to the work of artists I still revere, like Randy Newman and Allen Toussaint. And I got to put my stamp on Wayne’s songs, some of which — Beating Around The Bush, Dancing Shoes and his Willy Dixon tribute Yes Indeed — later became live staples for Jo Jo Zep. There were songs about Latin lovers, window shopping, pizza and funky spunky monkeys; songs about living on a desert island and walking down easy street and one that warned, “Don’t tangle with the jungle juice.”

It all flashed before my eyes in January, 1975, the day I was electrocuted at Sunbury.

sunbury_75_passAs is customary at rock festivals, it poured. From the stage to the top of the hill, all you could see was mud. When we arrived early on Saturday morning to play the first set of the day, tense negotiations were underway with Deep Purple’s road crew. In the dead of night during a break in the rain they’d set up DP’s vast piles of gear under cover; the stage looked like a container depot. This meant local acts like us would have to stand in the rain that had resumed at dawn.

It took the best part of an hour to roust DP’s grumbling roadies from their motel in town to come back and move some equipment to make room for our back line. Meanwhile, we sat backstage in a caravan where Pat and our booker Bev Patterson were hosting a champagne breakfast.

By the time we finally went on, a wan sun was squinting through the drizzle but the front of the stage where the mic stands stood was slick with rain. We opened with Joe Turner’s Lipstick Powder And Paint, a song we’d learned from a TV rerun of Shake, Rattle & Rock! As I stepped up to the microphone to deliver my first “Da-do-da-wop!” there was a dazzling blue arc of electricity, a deafening pop and the odour of singed moustache. Shit, I thought, I’ve heard of this happening.

Seconds later I realised I was now standing several metres away from the mic, still playing but, from all accounts, swaying like a drunk. Some of the band thought I’d dropped acid and it had just kicked in.

I don’t think I contributed any more backing vocals to that set. Still, had I not been saved by my rubber-soled Dunlop Volleys I’d have gone out a rock star.


♥ You can like Rock Granite & The Profiles (and hear some music) on Facebook at https://web.facebook.com/RockGranite1970s/

A low Profile: Part One

I don’t remember exactly where I was when I heard Rock Granite & The Profiles were looking for a bass player. Playing pool in the Station Hotel, probably. Or packaging up orders in the Handicrafts of Asia warehouse.

It was 1974 and Wayne Duncan was leaving to rejoin Daddy Cool; auditions were on at Armstrong Studios in South Melbourne. As a big fan of the band, I felt I’d been given a sign, so on the strength of it I went and bought a new bass, a sunburst Fender Precision I got at a knockdown price. It was cheap, I assumed, because it had no frets. Actually, it was probably because hardly anybody played fretless bass guitar. You have to watch your fingers too much.

The audition went well, I thought. I understood I was on a shortlist. But another band was also trying out bass players at Armstrong’s that day and both bands wanted the same guy, a handsome pro with great hair and good gear who’d just returned from London. In the end, the other band claimed him and Rock Granite settled for me. It probably helped that having seen the band so many times I knew Wayne’s parts backwards — but was more than happy to play them forwards.

Truth is I was as green as a bean, with probably fewer than 100 gigs under my belt in Brisbane, but it was the time of the Whitlam government and anything seemed possible. I’d arrived in Melbourne the year before in the middle of a musical Big Bang — and Prahran Tech, where I enrolled in a graphic art course, was pretty close to ground zero. Across the street was the school’s own hall, where I first beheld the glorious harmonies of Sydney chart-toppers Sherbet. Nearby there were regular gigs at the grand Leggett’s Ballroom and historic Ormond Hall while St Kilda, Carlton and the city were short tram rides away.

More importantly, the school was just a five-minute walk from the storied Station Hotel whose tiny bar, almost every night of the week, was packed to an alarming and no doubt unlawful degree by such legendary acts as Ross Wilson’s Daddy Cool and Mighty Kong, Mike Rudd’s Spectrum and then Ariel, The Dingoes (virtually the resident band), Ayers Rock, Madder Lake, Captain Matchbox, Renée Geyer, even early lineups of AC/DC and Skyhooks.

Now that it’s all but gone, its Victorian façade absorbed into an apartment development, it’s hard to believe there ever was a Station Hotel. It stood in all its sun-drenched, scaled-down shabby splendour across from the railway, a short walk along Greville Street from the Greek delis and boutiques of groovy Chapel Street, past Leggett’s, bric-a-brac emporia, “head” shops, a bookshop and record stores.

The elaborate brocade wallpaper in what used to be the ladies’ lounge was the stuff of hangovers — though I have no idea how anyone managed to get served, much less drunk, in that sweaty, smoky crush of humanity. (They could’ve sold off bits of that wallpaper the way they did with the Berlin Wall.) Among the regulars were the “deb and duff” kids from the nearby School for the Deaf who’d crowd around the PA stacks with their hands on the speaker boxes in order to “hear” the music.

Snowy Townsend_Mark Barnes_Dingoes party 1975

Say Cheese: Snowy Townsend (left) and Mark Barnes at a Dingoes party, 1975

The Station’s music promoter and master of ceremonies was the late Mark Barnes, a bearded guy of small stature and outsized personality who lived a few doors away. His office was the pool table in the Station’s front bar where he could be found shooting a few frames and sinking a few pots with the similarly diminutive, extravagantly mustachioed Mick Elliott (then guitarist with Sid Rumpo) and songwriter Snowy Townsend, who together would soon form The Wild Beaver Band.

Mark Barnes was quite the Renaissance man: artist, writer, raconteur, bon vivant and the original bassist with late-60s Melbourne outfit Cam-Pact. (Over its four-year run, Cam-Pact had more members than Jethro Tull. I was later to play with two more ex-members and share a house with a third.)

Everyone who was there has a Mark Barnes story. The one that stays with me is the night he lurched onstage at closing time in his usual fashion to plug the coming week’s gigs. I won’t name the band that had just played but Mark finished his boozy speech by bunching up the bass player’s baggy trousers to reveal the outline of a prodigious appendage. “Oh, and ladies!” boomed Mark. “Check out the dong on this bloke!” Apparently used to such attention, the musician beamed modestly as the audience cheered.


Inner-City Chic: The author in the garden in Jolimont, 1974

The Station Hotel was where I was headed the night I gave Ian Meldrum a push. I rented a room in a student house in the inner suburb of Jolimont, a massive Georgian pile owned by the Melbourne Cricket Club whose offices were next door. From its crumbling battlements you could see into the MCG in the park across the road and even watch the Saturday AFL game. Well, most of it, anyway. I’d driven to Melbourne in a 20-year-old Zephyr Six with my collie Clough in the backseat. Now the car was quietly rusting in the rear lane with a cracked head while Clough, victim of a hit-and-run driver, was buried in the front yard.

One drizzly winter’s night I walked down Jolimont Terrace and cut across the park to Brunton Avenue where I happened upon a sporty little convertible stalled in the forecourt of the MCG — an MG Midget or something similar. The driver was Molly Meldrum, still months away from TV stardom on Countdown, but I recognised him from somewhere: Go-Set magazine, probably. I offered him a push; the tiny car started easily. He would’ve happily driven off with a breezy wave had I not knocked on the window and asked for a lift. He was gracious enough — he couldn’t very well refuse — and admitted one damp, shaggy hitchhiker into his clammy cockpit. As it happened he was also on his way to the Station Hotel to check out AC/DC’s new singer, Bon Scott.

I wasn’t to know then that I’d soon play that room with Rock Granite & The Profiles and add my name to the Station Hotel honour roll. It must be written down somewhere. Perhaps on that wallpaper, wherever it ended up.

When Eddie went to sea

Edward Stafford 1908 US Army

Doughboys: Eddie and a buddy at West Point, NY, 1908

Someone should write a book about my grandfather. At this remove from the Victorian era, Edward Stafford’s life — at least the first half of his brief span — reads like a boys’ own adventure, though I don’t doubt that for him his days unfolded as routinely as anybody else’s.

Or maybe not. Immediately after the Victorian era came the Edwardian era, but the pity is Eddie was gone before any of his children got around to quizzing him too closely on the remarkable events of his teens and 20s. All we have is the barest outline of those years, plus (for the time) an unusual number of photographs: perfect material, in other words, just waiting for the right creative writer to flesh it all out.

Edward was born in Richmond, Melbourne, in 1890, the son of Joseph Stafford, an immigrant of Irish stock from Yorkshire, and Kate Cronin, who hailed from Ballarat. Joseph and Kate divorced four years later and Joseph moved to Sydney, apparently taking Eddie and his older sister Bridget (also known as Anne) with him. He rented a house in Nelson Street, Annandale — probably one of those two-bedroom Federation cottages newly built as housing for dock workers at nearby Glebe Island, then one of Sydney’s major port facilities. I imagine that’s where Joseph worked and it might partially explain why, at 14, young Eddie did what boys of his age and time did, at least in Jack London tales: he ran away to sea.

I can easily imagine the teenage Eddie, stocky with a wide-open, smiling Irish face, blue eyes and light-brown wavy hair. I can’t imagine why he left home or how he managed, in 1904, to stow away on SS Victoria, a P&O passenger liner bound for New Zealand. In light of his later adventures, I rather think that if even he was sprung before the ship docked in Auckland he’d have talked his way into some sort of job. Some time in the next three years, whether with the same ship or a different line altogether, he worked his way as a cabin boy across the Pacific.

We used to assume Eddie had jumped ship in New York as there’s no record of his entering the United States through Ellis Island. As it turns out, he arrived in the port of Astoria, near Portland, Oregon, on November 16, 1907. His port of departure was Valparaiso in Chile. From Oregon he crossed the States to New York where, on June 16, 1908, he walked under the elevated railway and into an office at 25–27 Third Avenue. There, before a Captain Conrad of the 3rd Cavalry, he enlisted in the US Army.

As my cousin Michael Donovan has discovered researching the family tree, most enlistees at that office at the time were not native-born Americans. (I have Michael to thank for most of the information in this account.)

Eddie, who gave his address as New York City, told a couple of porkies in that interview. He upped his age two years to 19 years 10 months and stated he was born in Sydney, giving his father’s address as 260 Nelson Street, Annandale; occupation, marine fireman. Three porkies, perhaps, if you count the “legal declaration of [his] intention to become a citizen of the US”. As he was under 21, his New York City legal guardian, whose signature looks like Helen Hargraves — possibly his landlady — swore an oath to confirm his age.

In any case, he was accepted as a soldier in Foot Service, Coast Artillery Corps at Fort Slocum, New York, a recruitment and training base on Davids’ Island in Long Island Sound, off the coast of New Rochelle. Two weeks later, on July 2, 1908, he was assigned to historic West Point, up the Hudson River from NYC. There he played on the football team and would have been attached to horse-drawn field artillery. If this were a TV documentary, right about now would be a good time for a few bars of The Caissons Go Rolling Along — first performed, as it happens, in 1908.

Once again we have to rely on official records, which show Edward Stafford was discharged from the US Army on February 25, 1910, a year short of his time. My dad and his brother liked to think he deserted but apparently it was all above board, although other entries on the same page show that some soldiers were “discharged without honour”, whatever that means. Eddie enlisted in the Royal Navy a month later, on March 24, so there must have been an arrangement in place to allow him to leave the US Army, travel to England and join the RN.

Ted & Geoff Edward's funeral 1936

Brothers: Uncle Geoff and my father Ted dressed for a funeral, 1936

In due course Eddie was seconded to the Royal Australian Navy in July, 1913. By the time he married Ellen Josephine Watson in Dorsetshire two years later, he was a leading stoker on the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the RAN’s spanking new flagship. He was later promoted to petty officer stoker, his rank when he was photographed (main photo, centre rear) with Australia’s mandolin band.

Australia had a pretty quiet war, firing its massive guns only twice at enemy vessels. In fact, the commander of the German East Asia Squadron, Vice-Admiral von Spee, admitted he took care to stay well out of its way. A minor bingle with sister ship HMS New Zealand meant Australia missed the Battle of Jutland, the only time it came close to a major engagement.

In Fremantle in May, 1919, dissatisfaction among the crew over poor food, late pay and limited shore leave boiled over into a brief mutiny. When the ship’s stokers walked off the job, Eddie would’ve been one of the petty officers who manned the boilers for an hour until order was restored. (Five years later, in line with postwar disarmament treaties, the £1.7m flagship was sold for £3000, stripped and scuttled off Sydney Heads.)

After the War To End All Wars, Edward’s long circle back to Sydney landed him at 20 Water Street, Lidcombe, where he settled with Ellen and their daughters Nell and Wynne and where, in 1923, my father Ted and his twin brother Geoff were born on the dining-room table. Edward stayed in the navy until the early 1930s and Dad remembered him as both a disciplinarian and a larger-than-life bloke who loved a party. He was always easily persuaded to get out his banjo, which he’d begun playing in his teens.

The boys were just 12 and helping out on Eddie’s ice run when they witnessed a horrific accident. At Regents Park Service Station, on the Monday of Anniversary weekend (now known as Australia Day), while Eddie was refuelling his Model T truck, somehow a metal-on-metal spark ignited the petrol tank and bowser and he and the vehicle were engulfed in flames. After a few days of agony he died on February 1, 1936, aged 45.

To complete the circle, Kerry and I, with no knowledge of the family connection, moved into a Federation cottage in Nelson Street, Annandale, not far from where Eddie’s journey had begun 90 years before. That’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t read about — unless somebody wrote a book.

Edward (Ted), Nell, Wynne, Ellen

Immigrants: Edward, Nell, Wynne and Ellen, ca 1919, around the time they came to Australia



The life of Riley


Beyond The Frizz: The author in 1969. I don’t have a photo of Ken but you can see why I envied his straight hair

In my last year of school in Cairns I met Ken. We ended up hanging around together quite a bit at Queensland University, where he was studying law and I was taking the odd tentative bite at a BA. Tall and well built with straw-blond straight hair I envied intensely, Ken cut quite a figure around campus in a pinstriped lawyer suit teamed with T-shirt and thongs. He had a German surname and a lolloping Weimarana he named Jägerhund. He squinted myopically through rimless John Lennon glasses and certainly looked handsomely Teutonic — but for some reason we all called him Choom.

Choom’s pride and joy was his car, a black 1953 Riley four-door saloon with Al Capone running boards, “suicide” doors (the type that opened backwards) and a hinged transverse bonnet with flaps you could lift on either side if you needed to get at the engine — and Ken often needed to. We used to ride around imagining we were bootleggers armed with Tommy guns in case we needed to shoot our way out of a ticklish situation.

It was the sort of car you’d hesitate to own if you hadn’t grown up around old vehicles but Ken had picked up quite a bit of mechanical knowledge from his dad. It was just as well because there always seemed to be something wrong with that beautiful car.

Take the day, back in Cairns, when he dropped around and asked if I felt like a drive to Port Douglas for a swim. It was a 130km round trip but I didn’t give it a second thought. I grabbed a towel and jumped in. Choom made one more stop on the way out of town to pick up a girl he was interested in. She was just his type: small, blonde, buxom, lightly freckled. I can’t recall her name, so I’ll call her Sandie. As I got in the back with Jägerhund to make room for her I was already feeling like the resentful gooseberry and wishing he’d told me she was coming.

We were less than halfway to Port Douglas when it became apparent why I was needed. The Riley’s latest quirk was an intermittent fuel pump failure, as Ken cheerfully announced when the car began to sputter and finally stalled in the middle of the narrow road. Ken told me to take the wheel while he did some sort of magic with the petrol pump. Once the car started, he crouched on the running board holding the driver’s door, his damned blond hair flowing in the slipstream as he squinted past a rollie, ready to prime the pump as soon as the engine showed signs of coughing out.

With both of us thus preoccupied, Sandie chose that moment to change into her bikini top without actually removing her blouse, a complex manoeuvre that involved much jiggling and squirming and flashes of plump, pale breast. Like Houdini extricating himself from a straitjacket at the bottom of a river, it seemed to take a long time before Sandie was able to take off her blouse, adjust her bikini, lean back and bask in the late morning sun, as unconcerned about our eccentric mode of locomotion as Jägerhund was.

We finally made it to Port Douglas, whereupon Ken and Sandie disappeared behind a dune and I was left to mooch up and down the long, flat beach throwing ever larger pieces of driftwood for the dog to fetch. I don’t remember anything about the return trip so I assume the fuel pump mysteriously fixed itself, as things sometimes do in vintage cars.

My last ride in the Riley was equally memorable. At the end of university holidays, Choom somehow convinced me it would be a great adventure to drive from Cairns to Brisbane to begin our second year. We left one afternoon to drive the first leg to Townsville where we stayed overnight with friends. The Riley purred along that first day, giving no hint that things were about to get weird.

When we left Townsville early next morning, I took the first shift at the wheel. It was a beautiful, sunny January day and we had the road to ourselves — a good thing, as it turned out. I was punting the Riley along at its top speed of 60mph in the old money when a series of ominous metallic screeches told us something was up. Sure enough, first one side of the hinged bonnet, then the other, sprang open as the hinges snapped. I was still deciding whether to pull over when the wind got under the centre section of the bonnet and it reared up, filling the windscreen.

For a heart-stopping few seconds I was driving blind. Then, with an almighty bang, the whole thing tore clean off and flew over the top of the car. I looked in the rear-vision mirror to see it fully airborne, flapping its wings like a big black pterodactyl before it finally crashed onto the road.

I coasted to a standstill. Ken and I exchanged a glance; then I circled back to pick up the wreckage. Choom looked at the twisted remains of the Riley’s transverse bonnet and muttered, “Eh, it’ll buff out OK,” with a confidence I couldn’t believe he really felt. But there was no way it was going back on the car so we folded it up, stacked it in the back seat and drove on with the motor naked to the elements, hot rod style.

The remainder of the trip, amazingly enough, was without incident — until later that night, in the misty wee hours, Ken somehow strayed off the Bruce Highway south of Gympie while I slept. We took a long, foggy detour through Mount Mee to Dayboro, entering Brisbane via the back door. By the time we rolled into Strathpine it was getting light and the Riley’s brakes were almost completely burnt out from the winding, mountainous roads. As we crawled into Fortitude Valley during morning rush hour the brake pedal was scarily spongy and Ken was using the gearbox to slow the heavy car down.

Somehow we made it to New Farm without rear-ending anyone. There the Riley was doomed to sit in Choom’s driveway, like an impounded getaway car in a police yard, until he got the cash together to fix it.