The Riptides: Tombs Of Gold

People often talk about the fickle nature of the music business. Mark Callaghan, the former GANGgajang leader who has spent a long career in music publishing, knows it better than most. “It seems like everyone’s career is supercharged,” he says. “It happens really quick, but it’s also got great potential to be over really quick. It’s like the whole life cycle has been accelerated.”

Callaghan is talking about the present, but he could be easily talking about his first band, Brisbane’s much-loved Riptides. Playing a giddy mix of ska,surf and power pop, the band shot across the Australian music landscape like a meteor in the early 1980s, but a cocktail of line-up changes and bad deals meant they never reached their full potential.

A mini-album called Swept Away, a handful of brilliant singles (including the legendary Sunset Strip, one of the first releases on the Go-Betweens’ Able Label) and a compilation on Regular Records were all that appeared at the time, along with a live album, Resurface, which documented one of the band’s regularly riotous appearances at the University of Queensland Refectory.

Until now. Thirty years after the Riptides’ unseemly demise, Callaghan is issuing the band’s first album independently, thanks to a crowd-funding campaign that reached its goal within a fortnight, a testament to the enduring appeal of the band. “There was a commercial imperative, in terms of how to get some cash flow happening,” admits Callaghan. “But it was also just the idea of reaching out to the universe to see what would happen, and it was really gratifying.”

The album, Tombs Of Gold, is drawn mostly from the sessions for Swept Away, which originally contained six songs. But tracks had also been laid down for four more tunes – including a re-booted version of Sunset Strip that, if it doesn’t match the original’s energy, boasts the wonderful pipeline guitar playing of Andrew Leitch. Four more songs featuring a later line-up of the band completes the picture.

It’s not entirely old: Callaghan had to add new parts to the basic tracks and re-record at least one vocal. But he says he was careful to stay true to the original vision of the band, and the results sound authentically 1981. “I left everything else pretty much as it was; all I did with these tapes once I got them back was just what would have been done. All of the essential parts are all the guys playing on those original recordings.”

“The guys” were mostly Callaghan, the late Michael Hiron on bass, Dennis Cantwell on drums and Leitch on guitar and keyboards. The band, which had moved to Sydney and was making heavy inroads on the local circuit, had already been rocked in 1980 by the loss of founding guitarist Scott Matheson; the departures of Cantwell and Leitch further cruelled the Riptides’ momentum.

They struggled on with a new line-up, which released the gorgeous ballad Hearts And Flowers in 1982, but the writing was on the wall for Callaghan. “There were other things that were going on in the band, you know, drugs, and I just thought nah, I’ve got to stop this, it’s crazy. It had gone away from its original kind of vibe, anyway.”

Indeed, Callaghan’s regret is that there is little chance of seeing the original Riptides in action again, despite the band being booked to support the Sunnyboys in March. Hiron died suddenly in 2001; Leitch lives in the USA; neither Matheson nor Cantwell have continued playing music (“The first time Dennis ever touched the drums was at the first rehearsal for the Riptides; the last time was at the last gig for the Riptides.”)

But Callaghan can still call on latter-day members Howard Shawcross, Mark O’Connor and former producer Buzz Bidstrup, and promises to assemble something as close as possible to what fans remember, heartened by the fondness with which the band is remembered.

The Riptides originally emerged from the architecture faculty at the University of Queensland in the late 1970s, and were always deeply enamoured of the do-it-yourself ethic – the band originally built its own PA and rehearsal rooms – so the irony of putting Tombs Of Gold out independently now, with the help of the band’s fans, is not lost on Callaghan.

“I have to say I’ve really enjoyed the process,” he says. “I haven’t enjoyed the fact that there’s an awful lot to do, and I’m incredibly busy with other stuff in life. But every single person that buys the album, you [feel like you] know them. I emailed every single one of them back to say thank you.”

First published by Double J, 9 December 2014

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