Beer, bass notes and the Bee Gees

I am sitting on the edge of a crowd of several thousand people gathered at Riverstage in Brisbane, and suddenly I’m feeling very nervous. I am about to be part of the latest (and, so far, biggest ever) live rendition of Pub Choir, and the legendary Barry Gibb, the sole survivor of the Bee Gees – who began their performing careers here in Pub Choir’s birthplace – is appearing on a screen above the stage.

He tells us the song we’re about to sing is their early hit To Love Somebody, and he promises “it’ll be about as easy as it was in 1967 for me”, but that he’s sure it will sound wonderful. I am less convinced – or at least, am unsure I can get even close to the orchestral pop classic’s complex melody, let alone pitch. Fortunately, I’ll be drowned out by everyone else, which is (a) merciful and (b) the whole point, but all I can think is that this is going to be a disaster.

Of course, if Pub Choir was about virtuosity, it would not exist. Founded by conductor Astrid Jorgensen in 2017, it works on the same principle as other community choral groups, including churches: that everyone can sing, no matter how well or badly, and that it feels good, especially when it’s done in large groups and alcohol is added. We’ve also got Jorgensen and her musical partner Waveney Yasso there to encourage/yell at us.

It’s a blend of music, standup and theatre, and it’s very successful: in 2019, Pub Choir sold 60,000 tickets in Australia, before embarking on a tour of the US in early 2020. The Covid pandemic forced that to be abandoned, and soon the Couch Choir concept was born, with singers participating via video link. Debuting with a version of the Carpenters’ Close To You on 22 March last year, it has since hosted tens of thousands of singers from more than 50 countries.

In June, Pub Choir will make its small-screen debut, rebadged as Australia’s Biggest Singalong by SBS, hosted by Julia Zemiro and Miranda Tapsell, with Jorgensen. After decades of singing talent quests, it’s a no-talent-required karaoke session for everyone, and the first song – again, highlighting the human need to connect in a time blighted by separation and grief – will be Hunters & Collectors’ Throw Your Arms Around Me.

In the meantime, the return of Pub Choir to the stage in its hometown has special significance, because the communal joy of gathering and singing in a safe space has more meaning. It hasn’t come without a fight, either. Around the bend of the Brisbane River, an AFL match is taking place at the Gabba to a full-capacity crowd. Jorgensen is literally preaching to the choir when she asks, rhetorically, how is a live music event less safe than a sporting event?

As it is, Riverstage is at around half capacity, with seating and social distancing in place throughout the amphitheatre. To the left of the stage we have the “high ladies” voices (think Cyndi Lauper, the PowerPoint slide tells us). In the middle are the “low ladies” (think Cher). I’m over on the right with the men (think Paul Kelly – the singing one, naturally), wondering how the heck we’re going to pull this off.

That’s where Jorgensen and Yasso come in. Jorgensen implores us to follow the instructions on the PowerPoint, which are entertainingly amateurish and enhanced with memes and gifs. But it’s hard to take your eyes off her, because she’s full of charm and exaggerated movements as she guides everyone through their respective parts, switching to a male voice via a vocal effect on her microphone when it’s time to instruct the blokes.

It all starts off well. The high ladies in particular are in enthusiastic spirits and easily up to the Bee Gees’ higher register. It’s over the other side of the stage – mine – where things get wobbly. I forget what my natural range is. Am I a baritone, tenor or just plain crap? I lose my way entirely in the section where Gibb sings “And I’m blind, so, so, so blind” and my lungs struggle with the song’s longer phrases. Jorgensen reminds us all to breathe.

After the intermission, an orchestra is brought on to the stage, and it’s time to do the whole song. We’ve been learning it for the better part of two hours, and I’m still cringing at the sound of my own voice. It’s all over the shop. But it doesn’t matter: the visceral effect of more than 3,000 people singing a song in unison is euphoric. That we are privileged enough to do it at all during a time of global misery is celebratory in itself.

Mostly, though, I’m just grateful it wasn’t Stayin’ Alive.

First published in the Guardian, 10 May 2021

Nature Boy

This story is based on an interview I conducted with Kamahl in March 2009, hitherto untold. It’s been a long time coming. I hope it puts his life, his perspective and the events of recent weeks into greater context.

Kandiah Kamalesvaran was seven years old when the Imperial Japanese Army completed their conquest of Malaysia in February 1942, after the surrender of Allied forces in Singapore.

By the time he was eight, he’d seen heads on pikes, and other things no child should ever see. Everywhere, there was a Japanese soldier astride a black horse, a sword on his hip.

To get out of harm’s way, his parents pulled their growing family out of the heaving Kuala Lumpur metropolis to the countryside. They owned a cow, and one day young Kamal took it out for a walk and a feed.

On the way home, he encountered a Japanese soldier on horseback. The soldier beckoned him, and put his hand to his hip. Kamal closed his eyes, anticipating that his head was about to be removed from his body.

After a few seconds, realising it was still attached, he opened them again, and saw a flash of silver. But it wasn’t a sword that the soldier was brandishing in front of his nose. It was the wrapping of a bar of chocolate.

Kamal was so frightened that he ran all the way home, forgetting the cow.

THE ABOVE anecdote tells you two things about Kamal, his first Tamil-Hindu name, later to be known mononymously as Kamahl (he added the “H” later to avoid the persistent mispronunciation of his name as “Camel”, after coming to Australia as a student in 1953).

First, he is a man whose life has been blessed mostly by good fortune. Second, he has a tendency to look for the good in others, even in the most squalid circumstances. This means he is not given to complaining.

This trait could be seen recently, when John Patterson (formerly the guitarist with Brisbane indie-rock band the Grates) posted a montage of clips from the long-running variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday on Twitter, compiling the many occasions on which the easy-listening legend, now 86, was subjected to racist humiliation on the program.

Patterson, who had watched Hey Hey regularly growing up, had subscribed to host Daryl Somers’ YouTube channel to compile the segments, and waited to pick his moment: the announcement that Somers was returning to television to host Channel 7’s Dancing With The Stars series.

But after Somers complained that the show would be “cancelled” today (in response to a leading question from a Daily Telegraph reporter – forgetting that it had already been cancelled twice, first in 1999, and again after a short-lived reboot in 2010), Kamahl was gracious when approached for a response.

He bore Somers no ill will, refusing to blame him personally for any of the incidents. In the nastiest of these, he was hit in the face with a white powder puff while performing. “You’re a real white man now, Kamahl,” said Somers’ off-camera sidekick, John Blackman.

Kamahl was shocked and hurt, but accepted these ritualised degradations as the price of remaining in the public eye at the time. He readily agreed he had benefited from the publicity his appearances on the show afforded him.

But maintaining his composure does not mean Kamahl did not suffer. The thing that stung him most was that, while he remained celebrated overseas, he was being treated as a figure of fun in his own country. The week after the powder-puff incident, he played to a sold-out Carnegie Hall in New York, where he was introduced by comedy legend Bob Hope.

THE YOUNG KAMAHL could not have imagined he would scale such heights.

He describes his Malaysian upbringing as “middle of the road”. By his own account, he was an average student, barely scraping through high school. “Scholastically, I achieved zilch,” he says.

An uncle thought it would be a good thing for Kamahl to continue his studies overseas, and he had friends in Australia, especially Adelaide. “Back then, I would do anything to get out of Malaysia,” he says. “I felt I was a failure. I had no idea what I was going to do.”

This, combined with the racism he encountered in Australia, left Kamahl with overwhelming feelings of insecurity. “I was terrified of rejection. Occasionally I would shake hands with a stranger, and they would check their palms to make sure it wasn’t dirty.”

Yet he had one aim: “To stay here as long as possible.” He drifted through classes and courses at the University of Adelaide, shifting from architecture to arts. The lack of urgency with which he approached his studies would soon bring him to the attention of the immigration department.

The only obvious talent he had was for cricket, famously taking a hat-trick as an off-spinner for Kensington Cricket Club in 1955 with the first three balls of the season, finishing with figures of 7/55.

In the dressing rooms, he was congratulated by “this smallish man with a smallish voice, whom I was later told was Sir Donald Bradman … I was dumbfounded. I thought Bradman was 6’6” with a deep baritone, that’s how you imagine your heroes.” Kamahl would forge a deep friendship and maintain a long correspondence with Bradman decades later.

But cricket was not to be Kamahl’s path, either.

Despite his fear of rejection, and his initial rejection of western music – “to me it was very dissonant and irritating” – he began to sing, for the same reason other shy, lonely and insecure young men are compelled to get on stage: to meet girls.

“I had this problem, how do I go out with a girl, for fear that she’s going to think that I was going to be dirty, and in more ways than one,” he says. “I tried every which way, in fact, almost to the point of bribing a friend of mine, to find me a date.

“And my first date, I was supposed to meet this girl at seven, and she never turned up. I came to the conclusion the reason we missed each other was because she couldn’t see me standing in the shadows.”

Kamahl began to teach himself to sing in the shadows, too: on the university oval at King’s College (now Pembroke) – at night, with a blanket over his head, “because singing scales is terrible to listen to, and I didn’t want anyone to hear me singing. I was very self-conscious.”

Music would eventually propel him out of the shadows, and into the spotlight. He found comfort in the voice of Nat King Cole, and he began paying more attention to lyrics and diction. His favourite was Nature Boy, a song that may have been written for Kamahl himself:

There was a boy

A very strange enchanted boy

They say he wandered very far, very far

Over land and sea

A little shy, and sad of eye

But very wise was he…

IN 1958, fortune smiled on Kamahl again while singing at a nightclub called the Lido. After his set, he was approached by a beautiful young flight attendant by the name of Patricia, who invited him to come and sit at her table.

Later, around midnight, she invited him to come with her and her husband to another party for News Ltd, where he sang again, to great enthusiasm. This time her husband, who had earlier paid little attention, came rushing up and pressed a £10 note into his hand – around $350-$400 in today’s money.

It was a 27-year-old Rupert Murdoch, then an emerging media baron whose main asset at the time was Adelaide tabloid The News. On 5 September 1959, the date of television’s debut in Adelaide, Kamahl appeared on Adelaide Tonight, on the Murdoch-owned channel NWS-9.

Kamahl also met his idol, Nat King Cole, around this time. “It was like meeting God, so to speak. But we met ever so briefly. He said, what do you do, and I said, I’m a student, but I want to sing, and before he could say Jack Robinson, I started singing Nature Boy to him.

“You should have seen his face. And all he could say was, do you write? And I thought, that’s kind of insulting – I’ve just sung for you, why are you asking if I write? But he was ahead of his time maybe, anticipating the Beatles and everybody else.”

Murdoch, meanwhile, would become Kamahl’s biggest supporter and patron. In an act of generosity that might appear ironic today, the young mogul helped ward off immigration authorities who were looking to deport Kamahl, persuading him to come to Sydney.

“Rupert said to me, Adelaide’s too small for you, come to Sydney. Of course, I was terrified – the same insecurity thing – and he would have none of it,” Kamahl says. Murdoch booked him a six-week engagement at the historic Australia Hotel in Castlereagh Street.

Every Friday and Saturday, Patricia and Rupert took their seats in the front row of the Monarch Room, making small talk with Kamahl between songs and sets. On the final Saturday, as he prepared to leave, Kamahl thanked them for their hospitality and support.

“Rupert said, where do you think you’re going? And I said, I’m going back to Adelaide, and he said, no you’re not, you’re going to stay here. I said, where will I stay? He said, stay with us.” Kamahl lived with the Murdochs in Darling Point for the next 18 months.

Kamahl’s next brush with fame was to prove arguably more influential than his meeting with Cole. It was the great baritone singer and radical civil rights activist Paul Robeson, on his first Australian tour in October 1960. One of Robeson’s last and most famous performances was to workers on the construction site of the future Sydney Opera House.

Kamahl was disturbed by Robeson at first. “The first time I heard Robeson it sounded like a cow mooing, compared to Nat King Cole, which was a soft sound you could hardly hear … What you hear on record is a pale imitation of what he sounded like.”

Not many years earlier, the Australian government had stopped Robeson from entering the country on account of his allegedly un-American activities during the McCarthy era. Now, he sang at suburban halls. “I remember feeling the vibrations through the floorboards on the stage, hearing him. He was a very big man, with a great mind.”

Kamahl was still beset by feelings of inadequacy. “The inferiority complex is a feeling that, as a Black, you think, regardless of your achievements, you’d never be considered equal. That whatever you do, you’re secondary, because you’re Black.”

Robeson, however, years before James Brown, was saying it loud: he was Black and proud. In Australia, he took up the cause of Indigenous people, declaring “there’s no such thing as a backward human being, only a society which says they are backward”.

“It was Robeson who really paved the way for the likes of Martin Luther King to do what he did, or what they did,” Kamahl says. “Robeson, by far, was a more important figure in desegregating America, or helping to desegregate America.

“Unfortunately, in spite of his intellect, he was naive enough to believe that the Russians were angels; he couldn’t see that the Russians were doing worse things than the Americans. He was myopic in some respects, he had the blinkers on.

“But in 1995, when somebody wrote a biography about me, I helped launch it at the Opera House, and I was trying to describe Paul Robeson’s impact on me. I said he had a voice like the earth would have, if the earth could sing. He was like a mountain roaring.”

KAMAHL WAS no firebrand like Robeson. Far from a mountain roaring, his baritone was mellifluous and smooth-grained. This would work both for and against him. To say “the kind of music I was doing was not at the forefront of the pop world” is an understatement.

As the 1960s progressed, his star rose, but he was a man out of time, if not behind them: a slightly ersatz crooner; Australia’s equivalent to Engelbert Humperdinck. His first album, released in 1967 (when he was finally granted citizenship) was called A Voice To Remember.

His first Australian hit, the country-tinged Sounds Of Goodbye, came in 1969. It reached No. 19 – still his highest-charting single in his own country. Only two other songs ever placed inside the top 40 – the last of them, 100 Children (including its B-side, Danny Boy) a full 50 years ago.

Kamahl, though, was mostly not a singles artist – and his music carried far beyond these shores. His sole No. 1 came in 1975 with The Elephant Song, which topped the charts in the Netherlands and Belgium.

The song was a near-novelty: a plea from an elephant to a hunter, sung with such earnestness it verged on parody. It also soundtracked a World Wildlife Fund documentary, in the nascent years of the environmental movement.

It showcased Kamahl’s real talent, the most valuable one an entertainer can possess: a completely unforced ability to connect with people. In The Elephant Song, there is a parlando section, in which Kamahl stops singing and speaks directly to his audience:

Listen, please listen, said the elephant

If we want the world we know to stay alive

Then man and beast, we must work together

And together, we will survive

Kamahl was sincere, but he leavened such doggerel with a self-aware twinkle of humour. “If talent alone was a prerequisite for success, I would never have made it, because there are not enough stages in this world to accommodate all the talent,” he says. “It’s a combination of persistence, determination and an indefinable thing called luck.”

And as tragically unhip as Kamahl was, he was ahead of his time in other ways. His fourth album, a Christmas special called Peace On Earth (1970), was accompanied by an aggressive, innovative marketing campaign.

Throughout a decade dominated by deadly serious singer-songwriters, glam rockers, disco and punk, Kamahl sold millions of albums with titles like Friend (1973), Save The Oceans (1976) and Smile (which charted above the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in 1979, at least in New Zealand).

Platinum and Gold sales awards piled up. He played prestigious venues including the London Palladium and Carnegie Hall. He mixed with presidents, prime ministers and other foreign dignitaries. A seashell-blue Rolls Royce was parked in his garage.

Perhaps more importantly, Kamahl had enjoyed good luck off stage as well as on, giving him an enviable emotional stability. In 1966, he married Sahodra, an Indian-Fijian. She bore him two children, Rajan (born in 1969) and Rani (1971). The partnership proved enduring, surviving the long absences and many temptations of an entertainer’s life.

BACK HOME, though – as the 1980s stretched out in a long, orgiastic round of self-congratulation, from the America’s Cup to the Bicentenary and beyond – Kamahl was being turned into a punchline, despite a Royal Command performance for Queen Elizabeth II at Brisbane’s Commonwealth Games in 1982.

His appearances on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, on which he was a regular and beloved (if frequently insulted) guest, were a double-edged sword, maintaining his visibility for the price of his pride, saved only by his willingness to take a joke – including racist jokes – at his own expense.

Perhaps, in hindsight, Kamahl was suffering from a mild case of relevance deprivation, the very same condition Daryl Somers now finds himself accused of. “I have an insatiable desire for approval and applause, and love in any form,” he admits. “And in show business, if people don’t see you on television, they think you’re dead.”

Kamahl was both a soft target and a lightning rod for the nation’s multicultural and racial anxieties. The same country that had wanted to deport him under its own White Australia policy in the late 1950s and early 1960s was now bringing two other national obsessions to bear on him.

One was the cultural cringe (the nationalistic urge to celebrate Kamahl’s success abroad). The second was the tall poppy syndrome – the contradictory urge to cut him down in public, lest he get too far ahead of himself.

It is a trait borne of a celebrated Australian tradition of egalitarianism, yet it is reserved most viciously for those who were never really considered “one of us” to begin with. The young Dawn Fraser (notwithstanding her much later flirtation with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation), Adam Goodes and Nick Kyrgios are others that come to mind.

Kamahl had a phrase which he used to defuse the worst incidents on Hey Hey. On a visit to New York in November 1977, he had been given a tape of a song written by Harry Middlebrooks. It was called What Would I Do Without My Music?

“It just blew me away. I literally had tears in my eyes. I played it again and again,” he says. But the more he listened, the more a line jarred with him. The song begins:

Sometimes I stumble home at night discouraged

Dragging my battered dreams behind

Wondering if the battle’s worth the fighting

And why so many people’s eyes are blind

It was the last line that did not sit well with Kamahl. “I thought kindness was more important,” he says. And so, when he recorded the song – without discussing the lyric with Middlebrooks – he found a more elegant phrase that expressed the same sentiment more plainly: “And why so many people are unkind”.

The rephrase “Why are people so unkind?” became, as he puts it himself, “the Unique Selling Proposition of Kamahl” – his brand – which he used to maintain his dignity in a defiled age. Today, the idea that kindness is the most important virtue has become a trite cliché.

Kamahl, however, has come to embody it. “The thing I have for my audiences is respect,” he says. “If you don’t have that, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t be there.”

IN THE END, he outlasted everyone.

In 1996, he narrated a run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “I was afraid that I’d be a fool, you know. I mean, I’ve seen people do things that they shouldn’t have done, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. So I said, no thanks.”

Sahodra and his son Rajan helped convince him otherwise. “Just before going on stage, I was told not to expect them to cheer, because my part, as the narrator, I was a metaphor for the parents and everything that’s square, so not to worry if I didn’t get any reaction.

“So I walked out and there was absolute silence. Absolute silence! Until one guy said, ‘Hey Kamahl, my mother loves you,’ and the place broke up. And I had so much fun, and from then I did it for the next three years, off and on. Sometimes I can be a poor judge.”

By the turn of the millennium, a younger generation who had grown up with Kamahl – their perceptions of him often shaped by his appearances on Hey Hey, for better or worse – were beginning to view him in a different light.

He became a kind of kitsch icon, celebrated for the same quasi-ironic reasons as Daryl Braithwaite’s rendition of Horses. He performed at the Big Day Out in 2004, was a judge on The X-Factor in 2005, and when Hey Hey came calling in 2009 – inviting him back for the show’s brief reunion – he found, or perhaps invented, reasons to decline.

But the racism he experienced on the show and throughout his life, he pointed out, is part of the human condition. The son of Sri Lankan Tamils, who were defeated in that country’s long civil war in 2009, he says “what’s going on in Sri Lanka is genocide, and somehow the world is not doing too much about it”.

Fate is fickle. Fortune and time has continued to smile upon Kamahl. But instead of becoming entitled, it has given him perspective. “Somewhere along the way providence has been kind and generous,” he says. “Which takes you from A to B instead of getting shot at, you know.”

Or perhaps, for the strange, enchanted boy living under the Japanese occupation, offered a bar of chocolate, instead of losing your head.

…And then one day, a magic day, he passed my way

And while we spoke of many things,

Fools and kings,

This he said to me:

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn

Is just to love, and be loved in return.

First published on Patreon, 16 May 2021

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