This column is dedicated to the much-missed #1 titan of the Australian music scene, Michael Gudinski (1952 – 2021).
“As soon as I saw them I had this instant flash. There was really something more than just another new band there.” – Michael Gudinski on Skyhooks (from Gudinski: The Godfather Of Australian Rock’n’Roll by Stuart Coupe).
A week after Gudinski was first blown away by Skyhooks live, he signed the band to his booking agency, and later went on to manage them.
Skyhooks took a chokehold of the Australian music scene in the ‘70s and shook some much-needed life into it. Imagine Skyhooks following on from Cold Chisel on Countdown? And no one could dispute they wouldn’t have been so gargantuan, Australia-wide, were it not for Molly Meldrum’s ripper ABC TV show: Countdown was one of the first Australian TV shows to be produced entirely in colour, and Skyhooks were the first live band to feature on the show. “We could play our music into lounge rooms right around the nation every Sunday night!”guitarist Bob ‘Bongo’ Starkie marvels of the advent of Countdown. “It just made our music explode. We didn’t expect it, it just kind of happened, and we were ready and primed for it.”
And who could forget those risqué lyrics Skyhooks delivered on the reg (most of which went right over this toddler-aged scribe’s head at the time of release, but those melodies sure stuck in my head regardless, like chewie squished into your pigtail)?
Case in point: “She rides a bike like she rides a man/ Just hold on tight and don’t give a damn/ Slip the clutch and gimme full throttle/ Open your legs pass another bottle” – 100% filth!
Or how’s this for an opening line? “Slip into a cinema and give yourself a treat/ Better take a raincoat could be sticky on the seat” – the Red Symons-penned Smut is AO cabaret.
Six tracks from Living In The 70’s (resplendent with greengrocer’s apostrophe) were banned on commercial radio in Australia. When Sydney’s 2JJ (triple j’s predecessor) began broadcasting in January 1975, the first-ever song they played was Skyhooks’ You Just Like Me (‘Cos I’m Good In Bed).
Gudinski saw great value in this censorship in terms of free publicity: “When all the songs got banned I thought, ‘This is fantastic. If they want the record, they’re gonna have to buy it; they’re not gonna hear it all over the radio.'”
Through Gudinski’s booking agency, Skyhooks scored a slot on the third Sunbury festival (1974) back when Steve Hill was lead singer. No one rocked up to watch Skyhooks’ mid-afternoon Saturday set, the band’s makeup melted under the hot sun and this searing heat also warped their guitars out of tune. Skyhooks got booed (and bottled!) off stage. Glam rock was regarded with suspicion by the Aussie blokes in attendance, which sure is shitty but also very indicative of the intolerant era that birthed Skyhooks.
Hill left Skyhooks after their aforementioned disastrous Sunbury appearance, moved to Perth and later became the band’s roadie.
At this point, for a hot second, Daddy Cool’s Ross Wilson thought about joining Skyhooks. But Greg Macainsh, the band’s primary songwriter/bassist, had other ideas and introduced Gudinski to Shirley Strachan. On first meeting, Gudinski recalls Shirley was a “really straight, quiet, meek guy” – huh? “I don’t think that they would ever have had the commercial success with Steve Hill as a singer,” Gudinski observed.
I mean, just look at Shirl, would ya? Have you ever seen a cheekier face? Who else could possibly get away with delivering a chorus that repeats, “You just like me ‘cos I’m good in bed,” a grand total of 22 times, experimenting with different phrasing throughout. But let’s not underestimate Shirl’s lung-busting high notes (see: Broken Gin Bottle) and extremely lovable personality, either.
“He was a freak. Shirl had an awesome personality and was a terrific bloke,” Bongo reminisces of the Skyhooks lead singer who tragically died in a helicopter crash in Noosa back in 2001. “He was a natural singer, with perfect pitch; he could just do it. Half the time he didn’t know what he was singing about but it didn’t seem to matter [laughs]. It’s really hard to find someone who can sing and have the same sort of larrikin spirit of Shirl. He was just a natural on stage. You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth. He was the key to the audience. All we did was back him up – he was the glue.”
Starkie formed a Skyhooks tribute band called Million Dollar Riff and revealed during an interview, “I use a girl singer, because I’ve yet to find a guy who could come close to Shirl’s amazing vocal range.”
A year after their first gig, Skyhooks signed with Mushroom Records and Ross Wilson cajoled the band into letting him produce their debut record. Living In The 70’s cost $13,000 to record, which was heaps at the time. It broke all records for an Australian album, selling an unprecedented 226,000 copies, topping the charts for a colossal 16 weeks and remaining in the album charts for over a year!
But the album wasn’t initially embraced by all, with one reviewer roasting, “To listen to Skyhooks bite their way through Living In The 70’s is to justify the existence of Valium.”
But as soon as Horror Movie dropped in January 1975, Skyhooks were unstoppable. Of the band’s first number one single, Gudinski recalled, “I think one week it went from [number] 34 to six on the chart… When it moves like that, it’s the real thing. It just all happened so fast.”
Of Skyhooks’ rapid rise, from 1973 to ‘74, Starkie observed, “It’s like someone lit a fuse and for two years it just went off like a firecracker.” Then soon after Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin on Christmas Day in 1974, the band was allegedly nicknamed ‘Cyclone Skyhooks’.
With local suburb names often mentioned within their lyrics and song titles – Balwyn Calling, Toorak Cowboy, Carlton (Lygon Street Limbo) – Skyhooks represented Australian culture at a time when the charts were dominated by international artists. They were undoubtedly one of the most innovative Australian bands ever to have strutted, winked or (in Symons’ case) glowered onstage.
Skyhooks’ outlandish image – each member slipping into their own unique persona – did the band no harm at all, either. “We came out of an era where there were all these boogie bands and everyone’s got f-ckin’ long hair and they’re standing around in jeans and smoking dope! And so he [Macainsh] wanted to break free of that,” Starkie has said. “He was part of this other band who were sort of like the Grateful Dead of that era and so he did this splinter group [Skyhooks] to write these songs about what was happening in society. And I think he might have gone to see Gary Glitter and was impressed by the presentation. So when I joined Skyhooks [being colourful] was part of the rules, no matter what the gig was! Like believe me they were pretty small gigs at this time and we had to turn up half an hour before the performance and go backstage to prepare, to change our persona from the street to stage.
“We gradually worked out our styles, like, I was a little bit David Bowie-ish, or T. Rex. But then it was the case of you come across silly looking pants or whatever and then buy something else to go with it. As we started to get bigger we got our own costume maker so they [personas] became a bit more full-on, like, you could tell who Bongo was, who Red was, etcetera. But [being colourful] was important because we’d walk on stage and the crowd would be, ‘Oh, f-cking, yeah!’ y’know? We just looked so ridiculous and people just loved it! So I guess we were a semi-art-house band, really… but you’ve got to realise they were very naïve times so that’s why some of it looks pretty ridiculous and tacky.”
Of his own Skyhooks look, Bongo recounts: “[It] kind of morphed out of my lizard outfit into this baboon sort of outfit, because I discovered ‘Bongo’ was a type of baboon in South America with a funny pink arse and weird looking head. So I found this cross between a wig and a hat in a David Jones bargain pile and I started wearing that, taking on the persona of this baboon… The things you do for art…”
Before Skyhooks, Macainsh was a filmmaker with a particular interest in documenting the Sharpies (an old-school suburban Australian youth gang). Since he was the main songwriter, Skyhooks really was Macainsh’s band. Skyhooks formed in the post-Menzies era and Bongo points out, “It was this time when the politicians could send an 18-year-old kid to war! So it ended up when we came out of school and into university and what have you there were people rebelling. We had to stand up for our rights… And so [Skyhooks] was a part of that. We were this cynical look at society and we came out firing on all cylinders!”
Gudinski’s Mushroom Records established itself in 1974 with the release of Living In The 70’s, which went on to become the biggest-selling album by an Australian act to date in this country and was added to the National Film & Sound Archive of Australia’s Sounds Of Australia registry in 2011.
In his aforementioned Gudinski biography, Coupe notes: “Skyhooks was the band whose recording budgets almost destroyed Mushroom Records before it had really got started – and then ultimately saved it.”
Discovering Skyhooks is just one item on Gudinski’s staggering list of achievements from almost five decades spent shaping Australia’s music industry. Australian music just wouldn’t sound like it does today without MG’s spirited input. And now that Gudinski has reunited with his old mate Strachan at The Great Gig In The Sky, we like to think they’re hosting the Party To End All Parties and mingling with fellow fallen legends of the Australian music scene such as Ted Mulry, James Freud, Chrissy Amphlett and Doc Neeson.