When Skyhooks played Melbourne Uni’s Wilson Hall in 1974 they were just about to erupt into the charts with their game-changing debut album. There was a buzz around the band and the big hall was packed with the ‘I’ve heard they’re good’ curious, the ‘saw them at Martini’s ages ago’ hip, and the ‘Who’s playing tonight, man, you wanna toke on this?’ remainder.
Your correspondent was wedged in close to the stage on the side where the lead guitarist stood, mostly immobile, while the singer bounced around like Shirley Temple on speed and belted out the songs in a penetrating tenor voice.
A number of experiences broke new ground for me that night:
- Watching men in lots of make-up and outrageously glam costumes perform;
- Being stunned by songs that were incisive, funny, rocking and rooted in the culture of my home town;
- Hearing someone not only talk about, but sing about masturbation in public.
Not one, but three of the songs referenced Melbourne suburbs in their titles. “Balwyn Calling” was about the perils of falling into a sex-driven relationship with a predatory girl from the leafy eastern suburbs. (Editor’s note: The following year the writer tried very hard to do just that, but failed dismally. Dismally.)
From the affluent stock broker/TV personality zone came the camp superiority of the “Toorak Cowboy”.
He gets his hair cut at Marini’s
And he drives a Lamborghini
The finest thing that ever walked this earth
His flat is just divine
He buys yoghurt and buys wine
A million dollars is what he’s worth
But most tellingly, given that the gig was in the inner-city not-yet-trendy university suburb of the title, there was “Carlton (Lygon Street blues)”. When my mate and I went for a hamburger and a side order of taciturn rudeness at Twins late on a Friday night we saw the characters in songwriter Greg Macainsh’s song.
When the sun sets over Carlton
And the day begins to fade
All those night-time junkies and long-haired monkeys
They all pull up the shade
The observations and vignettes of Macainsh’s lyrics are acerbic, concise, and often skeweringly funny. They are that unusual thing in rock: words that hold up well on the page. Macainsh Senior was a poet; the torch was passed on.
Delightful and gratifying though it was to have one’s town immortalised in song, the real triumph of Living in the 70s was capturing the time; it nailed the zeitgeist (as a hipster might say). The Toorak Cowboy could equally have come from Sydney’s North Shore or London’s Chelsea. Those Carlton freaks and night-crawlers could just as easily be inhabiting Haight-Ashbury or Soho.
While drifting through the streets and bedrooms like photochemical smog were observations on the world as it was. Was? Change the decade in the chorus of the title track and try it on for size:
I’m living in the 70s
Eating fake food under plastic trees
My face gets dirty just walking around
I need another pill to calm me down. [Living in the 70s]
And, though its edginess has been worn smooth by radio over-exposure, here is a chunk from a song that, for me, still holds up remarkably well forty years on, the “Horror Movie” of the evening TV news.
The public’s waiting
For the killing and the hating
Switch on the station – oh yeah
They do a lotta selling
Between the firing and the yelling
And you believe in what they’re telling – oh yeah. [Horror Movie]
Now, crammed into Wilson Hall having my eardrums pummelled by a live band was not the ideal situation to revel in the pithy lyrics of songs I was hearing for the first time. An appreciation of the word-smithery came later. Except for one song, the one not written by Greg Macainsh: a ditty called “Smut”, introduced by its writer: guitarist Red Symons. This is how I remember the preamble. It is doubtless wildly inaccurate but will give you a feel for the moment.
“I went to university,” he said with all the authority of a 25 year old wearing eye make-up, satin, and a guitar. “I had a routine that I followed religiously. I would study for fifteen minutes, play my guitar for fifteen minutes, then masturbate for fifteen minutes. That was my program of choice.”
The audience (three-quarters male) roared it’s approval. Who would have thought there were so many guitar players there that night? The song itself is not one of my favorites – I much prefer Red’s contribution to the next album – but if you are curious, check out “Smut” here. At the very least you’ll get some close-ups of the make-up and a unique take on cinema matinees.
So what happened next for Skyhooks? Well, Living in the 70s was released on 28th October 1974. Six of its ten songs were banned from radio (sex and drugs being the offenders, not rock and roll). “Horror Movie” topped the Australian charts and the band toured the country extensively to audiences devolving in age in inverse proportion to the chart success: from uni students to teeny boppers.
Something of how the band felt about their fame may be gleaned from the cover of their second, even more successful album, released the following year.
The band is no longer at ground level, they are elevated on stage. Shirl is poking out his tongue, Freddie raising two fingers. Bongo stars, a masked Red has turned away, Greg’s eyes are closed. The mostly female audience is a forest of painted talons. And as for the fan letter, gulp! Baby, you’re lovin’ the mainstream… not.
Macainsh is now a lawyer. I met him a couple of times at record fairs, a courteous, thoughtful man. Symons is a media personality and has been presenting breakfast radio on the ABC for many years, retaining his ready wit and sense of mischief. Strachan died tragically in a helicopter accident in 2001. I know nothing of Mr Stauks, but Bob ‘Bongo’ Starky turned up in a newspaper article just yesterday, interviewed on the Carlton ‘scene’ for an article announcing the release of a 2 CD compilation of the music of that time.
As for that buttoned-down first year Optometry student, he wandered through a couple more disastrous academic years before being summarily thrown out. Too much guitar strumming probably. But all things return; he now consults in an office suite ten limbo-steps from Lygon Street. Though when the sun sets over Carlton he doesn’t hob-nob with the freaks and oddballs but commutes home to somewhere not unlike Balwyn where both the garish carpets and the record collection remind him of wild days he never lived, but would have liked to if only he’d been brave enough.
[The sound & vision are out of sync, but worth it for the song and the go-go dancer. Countdown was a much-loved pop show aimed at teens.]