Kamahl, Hey Hey and cancel culture

When Daryl Somers, former host of Hey Hey It’s Saturday, told the Daily Telegraph that “you probably could not get away with half the stuff you could on Hey Hey now because of political correctness and cancel culture”, it reminded many viewers of two things.

First, that Hey Hey It’s Saturday had already been cancelled twice: in 1999, after a 28-year run, and in 2010, when a brief reboot of the series was marred by an infamous blackface sketch.

The second was the type of humour the Australian variety show traded in.

A montage on Twitter, compiling a series of incidents in which the singer Kamahl was racially mocked and belittled on the show, went viral. In another cartoon, he was depicted in a stew pot with a bone through his nose.

The now 86-year-old said he often felt “humiliated” by his experiences as a regular guest on the show. Speaking to Guardian Australia this week, he said he had been invited repeatedly to appear on the show during the reboot, but “found reasons not to go” at the time.

Kamahl has been the most recognised Australian voice of lounge and easy-listening music in a career spanning more than 60 years, performing on stages ranging from the Sydney Opera House to the Big Day Out rock festival. He has also raised millions of dollars for charities, including the World Wildlife Fund, via his 1975 hit The Elephant Song.

Kamahl accepted he had benefited from the publicity generated by his appearances on the program. “My basic philosophy as far as television is concerned was, if you’re an entertainer, if they don’t see you on television, they think you’re dead,” he said.

But, he said, he had little control over how he would be portrayed on the program, and that when he first appeared “I didn’t realise it was going to be a minefield, of sorts”.

“There were a number of instances where I felt humiliated, but I didn’t want to raise any objections or protest about it. I kept smiling and pretending all was OK.”

The worst incident occurred in 1984, when Kamahl was hit in the face with a powder-puff while performing, rendering him in whiteface. Somers’ off-camera sidekick John Blackman quipped: “You’re a real white man now Kamahl, you know that?”

“I found that quite offensive,” Kamahl said. “Friends of mine in America saw that and to this day they can’t believe that somebody would treat an artist with that amount of disrespect.”

Kamahl headlined the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City the following week, where he was introduced by comedy legend Bob Hope.

Kamahl did not blame Somers. “I always got along reasonably well with Daryl. I’ve never had any quarrel with Daryl at all, and I don’t think he had any ill-feeling towards me. I don’t think he encouraged it, nor stopped it. He was a bystander.”

Somers Carroll productions declined to comment when approached by Guardian Australia.

Kamahl has been asked about racism and his relationship with Hey Hey and Somers before. In 2009, in the wake of the blackface sketch, it was reported that Kamahl was prepared to sue Channel 9.

Kamahl, who had not seen the program at the time it aired and only became aware of it when a news crew turned up at his house the next morning, said that this had never been the case.

“They tried every angle to get me to say something that was controversial. And just as they were leaving the house, the journalist said ‘Kamahl, are you going to sue Channel 9?’ And I said ‘Oh, what a great idea’, which was a joke, but the next day it was on the front page.”

Kamahl, who was born in Malaysia to Tamil-Hindu parents, said that he had tried to explain that racism was a worldwide, societal, structural problem, referring to the so-called “untouchables”, the lowest-caste members of Indian society.

“I said, frankly speaking, I am more racist than Hey Hey It’s Saturday! But they were not interested in finding out my take on racism,” he said.

“I married an Indian. The Sri Lankans think that they’re a cut above the Indians. In India they have the untouchables, and no one talks about it. That is worse than slavery. I’m part of it, and I haven’t done anything to stop it. So we all have to be carefully taught,” he said.

As for whether Hey Hey would be cancelled were it to be brought back to television screens a third time, Kamahl said “I know they call it cancel culture, but they’re not stopping culture. They’re only trying to limit unnecessarily vulgar or crude terminology or gags or whatever.”

“If something has merit, if it is witty, if it’s clever, so be it. If it’s crap, maybe we can do without it.”

First published in the Guardian, 27 March 2021

Troy Cassar-Daley’s reckoning

On 1 April 2019, singer and songwriter Troy Cassar-Daley was finishing up a song with Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss when he took a phone call. His father, who had been depressed and in poor health following a stroke, had taken his own life. The song’s chorus – “watching it all go south” – took on a too-real darker hue.

As 2019 stretched into the pandemic of 2020, Cassar-Daley entered a downward spiral. His long-standing marriage to broadcaster Laurel Edwards, with whom he has two adult children, was suffering. The son of a Bundjalung woman from Grafton in north-eastern New South Wales, he tried to escape back to country, seeking his grandmother’s counsel.

Cassar-Daley’s grandparents are long deceased, but he still talks to them. “I consult with them a lot when I’m sitting by myself on the river where I grew up, and I distinctly felt my grandmother say to me, ‘Your problems aren’t here. I think you know where the problems are; you have to go back,’” he says.

Cassar-Daley is part of the firmament of Australian country music, the winner of 37 Golden Guitar Awards, on top of numerous ARIA and Deadly gongs. On Friday, he released his 13th studio album, The World Today. It’s a classic mid-life crisis record, written as he grappled with the loss of his father and the reckoning in his relationship.

Unable to play live – being constantly on tour had been a sore point in his relationship – Cassar-Daley was finally forced to stop and think. “I started to grow a beard. I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, stop it, just stop. You are destroying everything that you love.”

By his own admission, Cassar-Daley had hardened. The music he was writing was getting harder, too, moving away from country to a rougher-hewn heartland rock. As well as working with Moss, he’d written a single (Shutting Down Our Town) for Jimmy Barnes; another song, Parole, was intended for Cold Chisel.

He ended up keeping it for The World Today. It was about Cassar-Daley’s cousin, who had been inside. Another song, an acoustic jewel called Doin’ Time, had been sent to him earlier by his friend Greg Storer, just after Cassar-Daley had visited the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, where he’d gazed at images of his idol playing at Folsom prison.

The themes of Indigenous incarceration and suicide were cemented when Cassar-Daley took another call from Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett, asking him if he’d like to read a couple of lines from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which appears in spoken-word form on the band’s Makarrata Project album from last year.

Cassar-Daley took these lines: “Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for our future.”

Back at home in Brisbane, songs about Cassar-Daley’s family life bubbled out as he tried to reconcile his grief for his father and his marriage. “It became a healing thing to write. I tried to soften how I felt, because I was very stubborn after losing my dad, stubborn towards anyone who tried to give me some reason as to why it happened,” he says.

Suicide has been a recurring tragedy in Cassar-Daley’s life. When he was still a boy, an uncle took his own life after being acquitted on a murder charge. “It was heavy duty. It tore the family apart, destroyed my grandmother. Even though it happened when I was very young, that hangover of sadness was still there. The song I Still Believe is pretty much about him.”

The ripples of that event spread through the family. Some of them found trouble. It wasn’t until long after he’d been out of jail that Cassar-Daley’s cousin, for whom Parole was written, felt free. Keeping clear from the crowd who had helped put him there was the biggest challenge: “Old friends have more power than you think,” as Cassar-Daley sings.

In between writing music in his studio at home, he set about patching up his marriage. From that, more hopeful songs emerged, starting with a peace offering called My Heart Still Burns for You. Being unable to tour helped: “Even though most of the dramas were at home, running out on tour or getting back on country wasn’t going to fix it,” he says.

When progress stalled, he says, “I’d go fishing, and I’d come back, and have another crack and we’d make some ground. And Covid, it had an effect on musicians one way or the other; it didn’t have a middle effect on anyone. It killed a lot of people’s creativity where they fell into a heap and went, what the fuck am I doing with my life, I’ve lost my purpose.

“I went through that for a few days. But a lot of people, their marriages went to shit, or their careers went arse-up – staging people and roadies lost everything they had booked in. So we weren’t alone here, everyone was feeling it. I had to actually almost give myself an uppercut to say, this is not broken as much as you think, it’s not beyond repair.”

Cassar-Daley’s great gift remains his ability to make his own stories resonate. Reading the Uluru Statement on The Makarrata Project, he also has the last words: “We leave base camp and start our trek across this great country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

“It means a lot to be reading that last paragraph out,” he says. “Come On Down is the song [Midnight Oil] suggested I sing with them, and it was almost custom-made for how I feel. I’ve always said, ‘You’re welcome at my fire anytime.’ I say that to every walk of life, and this song captured that, so I was very proud to have been a part of it.”

First published in the Guardian, 19 March 2021

Girls to the front

Sometime in the mid-1990s, at around four in the morning, Melbourne music teacher Stephanie Bourke’s phone rang. It was Courtney Love, the lead singer of Hole. One of the students at Bourke’s famed Rock & Roll High School, Brody Dalle – who would go on to fame with the Distillers – had come to Love’s attention.

“The first thing she said was, ‘How many girls have you got down there who sound exactly like me?’ I thought it was a prank call! But then she said, ‘I’m going to help you out, I’m going to send you some guitars!’” Love’s manager got in touch, and a few weeks later, seven Fenders arrived in the mail.

Bourke still has those guitars. She also has a vintage white bass originally owned by Kim Gordon and signed by the members of Sonic Youth, as seen in the video for probably that band’s best-known song, Kool Thing. These days, the guitar is being played by Sidonie Thomas, bass player of a Sydney trio called Bliss – a product of Bourke’s new school, the Kings Cross Conservatorium (KXC).

Rock & Roll High School, named after the Ramones song, was a Melbourne institution: running for over a decade, the school produced four compilations featuring 30 bands each. It was at least partially the inspiration for the film School Of Rock, following a conversation the actor Jack Black had with Bill Walsh one night at Melbourne’s Cherry Bar.

But for all the enthusiasm the school attracted from Americans (one YouTube clip of Dalle’s first band Sourpuss, playing at the Summersault festival in 1995, features a grinning Thurston Moore alongside all three members of the Beastie Boys side of stage), Bourke was frustrated by the lack of support in Melbourne, and in 2003 she moved to Sydney to start again with KXC.

Although co-ed, Rock & Roll High School was largely geared towards teenage girls. When Bourke started KXC, though, she was working with kids in primary school: Louella Gallop, for example, was in year four and “a particularly unmotivated piano student”, according to Bourke, who encouraged her to play drums – which she now does in Bliss.

Gallop is now 18 and is still at the Conservatorium. The generation of kids Bourke began with have grown up, and while plenty have come and gone, others like Gallop, Thomas and 21-year-old Charlie Young (who came to Bourke aged six, and now plays drums with Sincerely Sonny) have formed their own bands and are making records.

Young is in three bands all playing at a showcase with Bliss on Sunday at Paddington RSL: Sincerely Sonny, who are attracting commercial interest; Miss Klein; and a 1970s-themed outfit simply titled Glam Band. “We’re doing Barracuda by Heart, 20th Century Boy by T. Rex, Suzi Quatro’s Your Mother Won’t Like Me – it’s pretty fun,” she says.

Young says she’s learned more from Bourke than just how to play. “As I get older I’ve noticed how much of the philosophy that the music school has rubbed off on me. I have a political mindset, I have a feminist mindset. There’s a lot of equality in that music school. You don’t notice until you start gigging in the real world how different things are.”

Gallop, too, has been informed by Bourke’s approach. “A lot of my perspectives about the world have definitely been shaped by what I’ve been taught by her, listening and watching the way that she treats people and the way that she expects to be treated, and her values – which she’s very strong in showing and teaching young kids.”

But Bourke still finds herself having, and hearing, the same conversations about structural discrimination as she did more than 20 years ago. “You know when Camp Cope got up on the stage at the Falls festival, in 2018, and they said, ‘Where are the [women] bands?’ I felt like saying, I think I know why there are no bands, I felt like I had the answer.”

It was easier, she said, to be a female solo artist rather than a group. “I always find that interesting, that it’s easy to be feminist if you decide you’re going to do it alone. You know, Germaine Greer said men are afraid of women in groups. I used to think that was an extreme statement.”

Of course, there is Beyoncé, Rihanna, Adele, Sia. But for Bourke’s school, Taylor Swift was a game-changer simply because “she was up there carrying a guitar – I’m like, yay! You should have seen how many eight-year-olds I had wanting to learn guitar then! I was a Taylor Swift song machine back then, I must have taught every single Taylor Swift song.”

Rock & Roll High School took a more punk aesthetic, where the approach to learning to play and record was faster. With the students at KXC starting younger, the playing, if not necessarily the songwriting, is of a higher standard, and there are enough students to form bonds with like-minded kids – bonds that are often harder to find in adulthood.

One of her youngest groups are called the Rellies, four boys aged between 11 and 13 who have a single out on English punk label Damaged Goods. “They’ve just decided there’s no band except the Beatles, so we’re just ploughing through Beatles stuff. They come in, they’ve just practiced the shit out of it, and it’s the best thing for songwriting.

“I just like to support everybody, I want everyone to enjoy it, and to be the antithesis of the pressure that you get elsewhere, when there’s an exam and an assessment at the end of every task – that’s not why we do what we do. Music’s like eating chocolate, you don’t need a reason.”

First published in the Guardian, 5 March 2021

Michael Gudinski 1952-2021

For more than 45 years Michael Gudinski, who died on Monday aged 68, was a dominant, domineering, polarising but above all passionate figure in Australia’s cultural landscape. He lived and breathed Australian music.

Everyone who met Gudinski had a story to tell about him, not all of which are printable. What is indisputable is that life in Australia changed in a profound way when Mushroom Records – the label he co-founded in 1972 – released Skyhooks’ first album Living In The 70’s (complete with its errant apostrophe) a couple of years later.

Living In The 70’s topped the charts for four months, selling 240,000 copies. Beyond the sales, the album changed perceptions of what Australian music could be. Many of the lyrics (by bass player and songwriter Greg Macainsh) were hyperlocal to Gudinski’s beloved Melbourne.

In many ways, the album was a reflection of Gudinski himself: brash, hyperactive, coarse (more than half its tracks were banned from airplay), unapologetic and funny. It helped that it was released just as the music television show Countdown first appeared in Australian lounge rooms, with the support of Ian “Molly” Meldrum propelling Skyhooks to stardom.

Over the next decade, Mushroom released dozens of albums that presented their own interrogations of Australian life, from the Models’ Local &/Or General (1981) to the Triffids (Born Sandy Devotional, 1986), Hunters & Collectors (Human Frailty, 1986), the Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane and the Church’s Starfish (both 1988).

Gudinski also threw his weight behind transformative Indigenous artists Archie Roach and Yothu Yindi, whose careers have left an immense cultural legacy. And when Jimmy Barnes was struggling in the wake of Cold Chisel’s breakup, it was Gudinski to whom he turned for help launching his solo career. It turned him into Barnsey: an even bigger star.

Other Mushroom alumni included Renée Geyer, the Sports, Sunnyboys, New Zealand expatriates Split Enz and Scottish band Garbage. But Gudinski’s biggest success story by far was Kylie Minogue, whom he signed to Mushroom as a teenager. Minogue quickly outgrew her suburban soap origins to become a global dance music icon, selling more than 70m records worldwide.

Michael Solomon Gudinski was born in Melbourne on 22 August 1952, to Russian-Jewish migrants Kuba and Nina. He promoted events in Melbourne, staging the Sunbury festival in 1972, before launching Mushroom. In 1979 he launched the juggernaut touring agency Frontier, which Billboard ranked the third-largest promoter in the world in 2018.

In 1993 Gudinski sold 49 percent of the Mushroom Records label to News Ltd (now News Corp) and the remaining 51 percent stake in 1998, while keeping the Mushroom Group name. Subsidiaries of the group include the Harbour Agency and Liberation Music, which includes Dan Sultan and Julia Jacklin on its roster, and heritage label Bloodlines, which houses Barnes and Roach.

Gudinski was most commonly described as “larger than life” or a “force of nature”. The Hunters & Collectors’ singer Mark Seymour wrote in his memoir Thirteen Tonne Theory how Gudinski jumped all over his desk while browbeating the band for their signatures. “The guy was a nut,” Seymour wrote. But they ended up calling him “God”.

Many recalled his loyalty to artists. In his second book, Working Class Man, Barnes wrote that artists were “nurtured and given time to find their feet”. Few benefited from Gudinski’s patience more than Paul Kelly, who had two failed albums with his band the Dots before establishing himself in 1985 with his debut under his own name, Post, the first of a run of several classics for the label.

International artists also remembered Gudinski with fondness and good humour. In a statement released on Tuesday, Bruce Springsteen wrote: “Michael always spoke with a deep, rumbling voice, and the words would spill out so fast that half the time I needed an interpreter … He was loud, always in motion, intentionally (and unintentionally) hilarious, and deeply soulful.” Springsteen said he had never met a better promoter, describing Gudinski as “first, last and always a music man”.

In his later years Gudinski could still be spotted in Melbourne clubs catching shows, scouting for the next big thing. His final gig was Midnight Oil at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney last Friday, with Frontier staging the band’s Makarrata Live tour.

There was an irony in this. Gudinski and Midnight Oil, the most self-consciously Australian band of all, did not always got along so well: “We had our ups and downs back in the day,” the group acknowledged on Twitter. But, they said, his “passionate advocacy for Australian music was never in doubt”.

Gudinski is survived by his wife Sue, son Matt (executive director of Mushroom Group since 2013), his singer-songwriter daughter Kate, grandchildren Nina-Rose and Lulu, and about 200 Mushroom Group employees.

First published in the Guardian, 3 March 2021

Archie Roach critically ill during ARIA performance

Singer and songwriter Archie Roach has revealed that he was critically ill at the time of his induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame on 25 November last year, performing from a venue near the hospital with a medical team in tow and an ambulance waiting outside.

Roach has lived with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for years, but it escalated in November. He was admitted to Warrnambool Base Hospital, where he spent some days in intensive care.

He was taken from the hospital in an ambulance to accept the award via a broadcast from the Lighthouse theatre in the south-west Victorian coastal town, where he also performed, with his medical team standing by backstage.

Roach sung his most celebrated song, Took The Children Away, sitting down and breathing through a nasal cannula, before being taken back to hospital for several more days.

“It wasn’t looking too good for a while,” Roach said, speaking to the Guardian ahead of rescheduled dates touring what is likely to be his final album, Tell Me Why. “Fluid had gone from my legs to [around] my heart, so I had to go to ICU for a while, while they tried to get me under control. After the ARIAs, things seemed to pick up after that.”

Roach had originally intended to accept his induction in Melbourne, but his illness and inability to travel meant the Lighthouse theatre was reserved for his performance instead. Members of his family, including his grandchildren, performed a Welcome to Country ceremony beforehand.

Fellow singer and songwriter Paul Kelly, who co-produced Roach’s debut album, Charcoal Lane, said the most emotional part of the day for him was rehearsing with Roach in hospital before the performance.

“The staff gave us their lunch room, they cleared it out for us and we went in there, they wheeled Archie in and we did a little acoustic rehearsal, just to know how the song would run with the band,” Kelly said.

“And I remember thinking at the end of that, thinking well, yeah, that’s the performance, we can go home now! But of course, we knew then, he’s going to be great – it sounded good, he could sing it strong.

“There was a little bit of uncertainty about whether it would go ahead, [but] if you’ve seen the performance from the ARIAs you notice how his voice got stronger throughout. So we were all really happy with the way it went, so was Archie, and so were the doctors.

“Talking to the them afterwards, they were saying, ‘Could you come down and do this every day? Archie’s got a real lift, he looks healthier today from just singing.’ Which I guess is not unusual; I think there are studies on that. It was a really, really good day.”

Roach said his induction into the Hall of Fame, which he received alongside trophies for best male artist and best adult contemporary album for Tell Me Why, meant a great deal to him – particularly to be standing alongside and as an example to other Indigenous artists.

“I’ve been doing this for a while now, over 30 years, and seeing some of the other people inducted, especially Uncle Jimmy Little and Yothu Yindi and others, I was very proud to see that,” he said.

“To be recognised in such a way of course is great and important, but to also be an example to others, especially our First Nations people – that no matter where you come from you can achieve great things if you put your mind and heart to it.”

Looking back on his career, Roach said the intimate relationship he had developed with his audience over the years stood out to him. “The people that come and listen to me and hear the stories, they actually give me as much if not more sometimes than I give them,” he said.

“It’s a real connection, so I think that’s very important to me. It’s more than just going out on the stage and doing a set and walking off. There’s this actual relationship that I have with these people.”

First published in the Guardian, 12 February 2021

Powderfinger: Unreleased 1998-2010

Albums of Odds & Sods (the name the Who gave to one of the first compilations of rarities, released in 1974 in an attempt to short-circuit bootleggers) are often more interesting than best-of collections. While the latter are usually predictable roundups for casual fans of an artist, albums of outtakes, B-sides and strays are for the diehards. Done right, they are a glimpse into a parallel career, the songwriting process and what might have been.

Powderfinger were a democratic band with five headstrong members who all brought ideas into the rehearsal room and who didn’t always agree with one another. Songs would get cut up, rearranged and drift in and out of the conversation for recording. They were both prolific and fussy, so it’s not surprising that over a 20-year career there’s a lot of material in the archives that never saw the light of day.

All that said, it is extraordinary that a song as solid as Day By Day, this album’s hip-shaking lead single, was left off the 2003 album Vulture Street. Singer Bernard Fanning says he’s amazed they didn’t find a place for it; drummer Jon Coghill told me there were too many similar songs on the album. Maybe so, but Day By Day is probably better than half of them. It would hold its own on any best-of record, never mind this album of cast-asides.

It would be unrealistic to expect that the remainder of Unreleased: 1998-2010 – the band’s first record in more than a decade – maintains the standard of Day By Day. If that were the case, the band’s judgment of their own work would have been seriously askew. Only two other songs here were recorded at formal album sessions. The rest are demos, recorded in various home studios in Brisbane in the final stages of the band’s career.

These necessarily have a more rough-hewn quality, despite being buffed within an inch of their lives by the band’s producer Nick DiDia. Some of them are pleasingly raw: the jagged attack of Lou Doimand demonstrates the embarrassment of harder-rocking riches the band were working with during the Vulture Street era. Diamond Ring, recorded in 2009, sounds like a throwback to the band’s earlier grunge years.

There are four other tracks from that year, the time of the band’s final studio album Golden Rule, when interest in Powderfinger was beginning to wane. Happy bounces along with handclaps and an almost funky bassline by John Collins, and the band sound as though they’re having more fun than they did recording the album proper. Daybreak came closer to inclusion but is less arresting, falling victim to its own earnestness.

It’s easy, listening to these songs, to hear why Powderfinger called it a day after Golden Rule. They’d become victims of their own success and were becoming trapped in an idea of what the band ought to sound like in order to sustain it. A decade later, they’ve been away long enough to allow a resurgence of interest. Like most albums of widows and orphans, it’s for fans only, but it’s a more than worthwhile peek into Powderfinger’s back pages.

First published in the Guardian, 26 November 2020