Stranglers in strife: the 1979 Australian tour

Brian Johnstone, one of my oldest and dearest friends, passed away in Adelaide in January after a long battle with cancer. We met in Adelaide in the late 70s, in the early days of Roadrunner, were housemates for awhile and he wrote a few pieces for the mag, including this entertaining account of the media shenanigans surrounding the Stranglers tour which was the cover story in the March 1979 edition. He went on to work for AAP in Darwin, then became press secretary to NT opposition leader Bob Collins and followed Bob to Canberra when Bob was elected to the Senate. He was director of media and marketing at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and latterly communications director st the N.S.W. Aboriginal Land Council.

The Stranglers’ current tour of Australia has escalated into a pitched battle between ‘straights’ and ‘punks’. With The Stranglers cast (by their opponents) as the ‘punks’, they have found themselves at war with The Media. In a little over a week, they have collected a ban on TV appearances, a ban on radio advertising of a concert, and a run-in with a photographer and his union.

Shortly after arriving in Australia, the band took time out to indulge in some ‘blue’ language and strike some sneering punk poses on Channel Seven’s Willesee At Seven show. The lads downed tins of lager, leered and poked at the camera while swapping insults and barbs with aggressive interviewer Howard Gipps. They exploited the banality of his questions while he needled them with curt asides about their apparent lack of social fibre.

Gipps: Do you like the things punk rockers do, like the animal acts?

Band: The what?

Gipps: The animal acts …

Band: Well … (bleep) … isn’t legalised here yet is it?

Gipps: No…I don’t think so…at least not in public.

A short piece of the action went to air across Australia late last week, but Willesee broke into the interview and pulled it off the screen before his audience could be further corrupted. Willesee’s supposed anger and indignation can be found somewhere in the following transcript from the ill-fated Stranglers-Gipps fiasco.

Willesee, introducing the segment, said: ‘Pop groups are continually outdoing each other in their ability to find new crazes. When the punk rock invasion started we were inundated with punk rockers complete with safety pins through their ears, purple sunglasses, and lice…wherever possible. Now we’re told New Wave has taken over where punk rock left off and wouldn’t you know it… a New Wave group called The Stranglers arrived in Melbourne today from Great Britain. We’re told they’re very popular, with albums making the Top Ten. We tried to find out what makes The Stranglers any better—or more likely, any different—to anyone else. Howard Gipps was the victim we sent along to meet them’.

Cut to film of The Stranglers doing Hanging Around at an open air gig and then to interview:

THE WILLESEE SCOOP—INVESTIGATIVE SPECIAL

Gipps: How would you describe your image?

Band: How would you describe it? We’re the Stranglers. Four different people making up a composite group…

Gipps: Why do you call yourselves The Stranglers?

Band: We’re lucky and you weren’t.

Gipps: What’s lucky about being called The Stranglers?

Band: We had a choice and you didn’t. Who wants to be called Howard?

Gipps: I quite like my name and I know other people who like it, too. The Stranglers, to me, just seems like a gimmick…You are out to capitalise on the Punk Rock image…

Band: You’re talking out the back of your head. This band preceded the punk rock gimmick by about two and a half years.

Gipps: Come back to it … Why did you call yourselves The Stranglers?

Band: That’s the name we decided to use.

Gipps: What’s the attraction of being a strangler?

Band: It was a choke.

Gipps: Isn’t it just a cheap gimmick?

Band: Yeah, of course. It only cost us three bob.

Gipps: Do you like the things punk rockers do, like the animal acts?

Band: The what?

Gipps: The animal acts …

Band: Well … (bleep) … isn’t legalised here yet is it?

Gipps: No…I don’t think so…at least not in public.

Band: Well, do you call that an animal act? Look, we are just four ordinary blokes who play music. What’s all this image… (bleep)…?

Gipps: Do you make much money?

Band: Unfortunately we have to pay a lot in legal fees and the odd journalist who gets his camera smashed.

Gipps: What do you think about drugs?

Band: They’re great.

Gipps: What do you think the parents of most 13 and 14 year old kids would think if they thought they were going to see you guys in concert?

Band: No idea … I ain’t a parent…I am a 13 or14 year old.

*   *    *

Cut to Willesee (concerned, frowning a la Walter Cronkite): ‘Sorry Howard for giving you that assignment. We usually let our stories run through but if they want publicity they’ll have to try a little harder with their answers. Punk was punk and they’re worse…and let’s forget it … they, oh … oh, let’s forget it’.

Later in the programme, a smiling Willesee told his viewers: ‘In relation to the post-punk rock group whose story we started earlier and got out of because they were so bloody ridiculous, and whose name is hardly worth repeating… it may be interesting to know that Ian Meldrum from Countdown on the ABC called to say that having seen the group on the bit we showed on our programme, he has cancelled them from Countdown and, of course, that’s a bit of a Mecca for the…ah … for the new groups and well … good onya, Molly… that’s given them a bit of lead … and I hope we don’t ever hear from those punks again’.

MOLLY’S ANGUISH

Molly was sitting mortified in front of his television set when he called Willesee. He’d been having other problems with the boys, but the Willesee interview finished him off.

When Roadrunner phoned him a few hours after the Willesee programme went to air, Meldrum was spitting bullets. He claimed the group had continually harassed him by bickering over artistic and technical aspects of their forthcoming Countdown appearance. However, he said his decision to ban the group stemmed mainly from their attitudes on Willesee: ‘Their behaviour was deplorable and we just can’t endorse their attitude on Countdown.’

He said the band’s manager had called him after the Willesee show accusing him of creating a similar image to that enjoyed by the Sex Pistols following their now famous British TV interview two years ago. ‘I’m not trying to create that’, Molly fired. ‘I’d feel the most guilty person in Australia if that happened’.

Eisik: ‘Did they use the end of the interview where the band shook up cans of beer and sprayed them over Gipps? No? That was interesting. Instead of getting upset and angry, Gipps turned to the cameraman and asked if he got it … implying that they’d do a rerun if need be.’

Tour promoter, Zev Eizik, still recovering from the traumas of escorting Elvis Costello and his entourage of Enfant Terribles around the country, watched The Stranglers’ interview being filmed but didn’t see the finished product on the screen. ‘I haven’t seen what was actually shown. Did they use the end of the interview where the band shook up cans of beer and sprayed them over Gipps? No? That was interesting. Instead of getting upset and angry, Gipps turned to the cameraman and asked if he got it … implying that they’d do a rerun if need be. The Stranglers were amazed beyond belief at the whole thing. They were treating it as a joke and just having a good time. If he (Gipps) had asked them if they killed people on stage, they would have said ‘yeah, we already killed seven and we’ll probably kill a few more on this tour’. There were ten other people in the studio from A.C.E. (Australian Concert Entertainment — Eizik’s outfit), the touring party etc., and they were all on the floor laughing. It was so unbelievable.

‘The interview had an interesting effect on the band. After the Willesee thing they did an interview with someone from the (Melbourne) Age. I left them at that stage and came back to my office but a half an hour later I got a phone call from one of the touring party who said that during a photo session with another paper, one of the group dropped his trousers in the middle of Bourke Street (in the heart of Melbourne) and the photographer said he was going to lay a formal complaint with the Australian Journalists Association and try to get their visas revoked.

‘It’s just so crazy. The Stranglers are a bunch of genuinely nice intelligent guys who have had this reputation laid on them and there is nothing they can really do about it except utilise it. The Countdown ban doesn’t worry me at all. I’m going to sit back and enjoy this tour’.

‘YOU COULD BE SITTING ON A DUNNY VOMITING SHIT…’

Molly Meldrum, of course, was taking it all very seriously.

‘The simple fact is as long as you have a camera or tape recorder rolling or someone is writing something down in shorthand, you must always be aware that someone could set you up. Now if those guys want to act like assholes then that’s fine by them but… Yesterday I went through the most amazing amount of bullshit with them over what they wanted to do on the show. Now I didn’t want to spend hours with them working out what they wanted to do. Quite frankly, I’d rather be spending my time working out what Dragon are doing or what The Angels are doing than working on what The Stranglers are doing, because that means very little in this country.

‘I booked them three weeks before the blow-up because I liked their first two albums and Countdown showed clips of them eighteen months ago. We were approached when they decided to come over here and we said ‘sure’. We asked them what they wanted to do so we could check for lyric content and asked if they wanted to mime or play to a live backing track.

‘They chose to mime, which speaks volumes doesn’t it?

‘It was first announced they would do Nice and Sleazy from their Black and White album. We said ‘fine’. Their record company then decided they wanted them to do their latest single, which incidentally is five months old, called Walk On By— which would have to be the most aborted cover version I have ever heard in my life. So we said “OK”

‘Then their manager got into the act and said they would do a song called Threatened which is song two, side two, of the Black and White album. I looked at the lyric content and it wasn’t acceptable for our timeslot. There was then a big discussion and it was decided they would do Toiler On The Sea, but this is five minutes twenty three seconds long. We couldn’t cut it down and because of the ABC’s sporting commitments, we have only been getting 50 minutes to air—in fact we only got 35 minutes to air in Sydney and Melbourne last week. So, in those circumstances, I’m not going to show five minutes twenty three seconds of any group. Finally it was decided that they would do Hanging Around from their live album.

‘Now I don’t give a fuck what any magazine writes this up as—Nightmoves can win every television award in the country for a rock show, but it’s so easy to put that show together, it really doesn’t matter. On the other hand, we carefully sift through everything and care for the industry…’

‘Everyone agreed but then the tour manager rung me up and said they wanted a particular set designed and only wanted two cameras used. I told him to hang on—number one: I wasn’t the show’s director, and number two: We’d shoot it the way we wanted to. We finally sorted that out, but I must say I was thinking of cancelling them there and then. There are fifteen other groups in this country alone that I would prefer to put on the show at this stage.

‘Now I saw Willesee and their attitude was deplorable and by having them on Sunday night we would just be endorsing their attitude. You’ve got to realise that both Willesee and Countdown go to an immense audience in peak viewing, time.

‘Now I don’t give a fuck what any magazine writes this up as—Nightmoves can win every television award in the country for a rock show, but it’s so easy to put that show together, it really doesn’t matter. On the other hand, we carefully sift through everything and care for the industry…’

But didn’t he think The Stranglers were set up by the Willesee interviewer? ‘No. As long as a camera is rolling and the thing could go to air people can’t act like assholes. You don’t get people like Rod (Stewart), Linda Ronstadt, The Doobies etc, acting like that…

‘It’s just not Countdown’s image. I don’t want anyone endorsing drugs … if they’re on any drugs, that’s their business. It’s like if an interviewer asked you if you slept with your best friend’s wife last night. You’d say ‘mind your own business’. They can do that with drugs. The last thing we need in this country is someone at a pop or rock level endorsing drugs’.

Molly then mentioned that The Stranglers’ manager had been on the phone, accusing him of trying to give the group a Sex Pistols image. Flatly denying it, he then turned his attack back on the Stranglers: ‘ …quite frankly the Black and White album is full of bullshit and the single Walk On By—you could be sitting on a dunny vomiting shit and you still wouldn’t appreciate those’.

Is there any real danger from the Stranglers appearing on Countdown simply in a musical context? Molly: ‘Yes, I think so … I think so … yes, there is definitely. We would be endorsing them.’

FOOTNOTE: As we went to press, The Stranglers were copping more flak in Adelaide — and getting it where it hurts. Rock station 5KA informed local promoters’ agents CBA-Sphere that it would not accept any advertising at any price for The Stranglers Adelaide concert, giving the Willesee show fiasco and ‘other press reports’ as the reason. Station manager, Ian Lane, said the decision had been taken by the management rather than the board of the station, which is owned by the church.

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