Around three years ago, David Nichols, a former writer at Australian Smash Hits, interviewed me on the phone for a book he was doing on that magazine. He asked about the rock mags I used to read growing up, how I got into the game and my impressions of Smash Hits. He was kind enough to send me a transcript to check, but ended up only using a small part. The transcript that follows gives quite a good summary of my recollections of the birth, life and death of Roadrunner magazine, with a bit of a personal preamble and an account of my time at Countdowm Magazine afterwards.
My family emigrated from Britain at the end of 1966, almost exactly the same time as the first edition of Go-Set came out; I think that was in October 1966. I was 13. So I devoured Go-Set, I loved Go-Set, and Everybody’s magazine was the other local source of music news. The local newsagent in Whyalla, where we lived, also got all the UK and US music mags, New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Hullabaloo, Circus and I read all of those too. I also got a subscription to US Rolling Stone for a year, which was a real eye-opener! Whyalla is only 150 miles from Adelaide as the crow flies, though it’s 250 by road; radio reception was very clear particularly in the evening. 5AD and 5KA were what I listened to. I could also sometimes pick up 3UZ in Melbourne and 2UW in Sydney. The Adelaide radio stations were very progressive—partly because of the British immigrants who came and lived and worked in Elizabeth and Salisbury and Para Hills—Whyalla is part of that as well. Because there was an audience who was very interested in what was happening in the world, there were people coming into Adelaide with the latest Beatles album, or the new Pretty Things record. Melbourne or Sydney radio was quite conservative, but Adelaide was quite different. Hendrix had a number one single in Adelaide, but Hey Joe didn’t even chart in Sydney. There were just great sounds coming out of the radio, American Nuggets-type bands as well at the British stuff; The Seeds had a top ten hit in Adelaide, but nowhere else in Australia.
Obviously the Adelaide bands of that era were very creative, the Twilights and the Masters Apprentices, the Zoot, the Vibrants, Bev Harrell the singer. The classic thing was they’d form there and then very quickly move east. Adelaide’s a bit like a city state, it’s isolated, there’s enough of a population that you get creative clusters of people, and I think that was also the case of the second wave, the Angels, Cold Chisel and Young Modern. Adelaide is a good place to get your act together but not to conquer the world. The best example of a band who found that out was Fraternity—they had a sponsor, a sugar daddy who set them up in the Adelaide Hills where they just vegetated!
I won a trip to Adelaide to see the Monkees in 1968. That was an interesting show—they’d brought a west coast light show with them. It was in the period when they’d just released their psychedelic move Head. They were trying to be their own act, rather than a manufactured act; they had a strobe light on stage which was amazing. Whyalla had a bit of a local band scene but the first Adelaide bands I saw were W. G. Berg, which I think morphed into Headband, and I remember seeing the Zoot at the Whyalla Institute. Then there was Red Angel Panic, who never really went to do much outside Adelaide then there were the two big festivals, Myponga and Meadows. In the 70s around uni there was a very active music club at Adelaide Uni; concerts on the lawn; Fraternity almost had a residency there.
I went to Adelaide University in the early 70s, graduated, then spent a year in Canberra working in the public service. I went back to Britain from ’75 to ’77. While I was there the whole punk/new wave thing happened, which I found very stimulating and interesting, it was a great time to be there.
The first interview I ever did was with Split Enz who were touring the UK on the back of their Second Thoughts album, the rerecording of their first album Mental Notes. I sent it to Nation Review, although they didn’t publish it. (I recently published it on this blog.)
When I returned to Adelaide in late ’77, I came back with 35 singles and proceeded to go round to visit all my old uni mates in an evangelical way—to convert them to this fantastic new music. Most of them looked at me very strangely, but one was a friend of Stuart Coupe’s. He was at Flinders University at the time so we were introduced, and we shared this evangelical zeal in this new music. With a couple of other people we put together a fanzine. It was called Street Fever. We had a very DIY philosophy.
At the time in Adelaide the main import record store was called Modern Love Songs. The guy who ran it was called Bo, and he and Stuart knew the printer at Flinders University, so Street Fever was printed on the same machine used to print Empire Times, the Flinders student paper. There was an ad on back cover for Modern Love Songs. We didn’t print that many, but Stuart and I enjoyed the exercise so we started talking about ‘what if we started a magazine?’.
We enlisted some other contributors. He knew Bruce Milne and Clinton Walker, who had published the fanzine Pulp in Melbourne and so the four of us got together and plotted this magazine. In the first year, 1978, it was only distributed in Adelaide. Then there was this booking agency called Sphere, operated by a man called Chris Plimmer, who later became a prominent agent in Sydney and ran Nucleus. We went to him with this and he thought it was a great idea to have a local Adelaide music magazine. He got local music organizations and bands to buy ads, so we’d get some money coming in. We were all very much amateurs; we loved the music and liked writing about it and photographers came along and took photos. We pottered along for the first year and then at the end of that year Stuart got an offer to move to Sydney and work for RAM, and then Bruce decided he wanted to move back to Melbourne, Clinton did the same at the end of the year so it was only me left standing. I was working in the Dept of Social Security at the time, and I thought, ‘I enjoy working on the magazine a lot more than I enjoy this!’ We had a distributor in SA, NSW and Victoria, and in the other states we’d send 50 copies to various independent record shops—Rocking Horse in Brisbane, Anthem in Perth, Discurio in Hobart. They’d sell them and send the money back.
Once it went national it sold more copies and the print run was bigger. We had a printer in Murray Bridge, and as we came up to the printing deadline the layout team and I would spend all night working on the issue. Then as dawn broke someone would drive me and the artwork up to Murray Bridge and I would hang round and watch them make the negatives and plates, then run the press and bundle up the copies then we’d put the issues in the car and drive them down to the station in Murray Bridge and put them on the train to Sydney and Melbourne. It was a hand to mouth existence for everyone. We’d pay the writers a little money, but I was renting and I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a house; we kept it going for four years, just on that basis.
We covered a lot more than what was going on in the current pop scene. We did historical stuff. A story on Mott the Hoople, for instance, and Adrian Ryan one of the main Melbourne writers did a lot of really good retro stuff, like his article about Sherbet. BOMP and ZigZag were doing that kind of retrospective stuff so we weren’t alone in the world…
I managed the Aboriginal reggae band No Fixed Address for a little while, getting them gigs around Adelaide, they used to be roughly getting 200 bucks a gig, I’d take ten per cent for my fee, and give them the rest and they were very happy with that arrangement. Also, when Cold Chisel were in Adelaide one time I took Don Walker up to see them play at Magill College, and he was impressed enough to get them a support slot on a Cold Chisel tour. There was a company called G&S Management, a management and accounting company, who looked after accounts for the Dirty Pool Agency and Redgum. I passed No Fixed Address onto Redgum’s manager Chris Gunn. They were unique at that time in my experience, a great live band, though their music never got captured properly on record. There were some demos that were played on the local community radio station 5MMM, which never were released as records, but to me those were their best recordings.
Roadrunner went for four and a half years. Towards the end of 1982 there was a mini-recession and all the advertising dollars dried up. Out of the blue I got a call from Lobby Loyde who had an artist management company in Sydney called SCAM, handling Sardine, Sunnyboys and the Machinations. He’d heard through Michelle Higgins, the promotions manager for Mushroom Records, that things were looking grim for Roadrunner. So he called and said why don’t you come up to Sydney—he offered me free office space at their offices. I moved up in September ‘82 and did one edition of Roadrunner, an end of year edition. I took the opportunity to change the format to full-colour glossy, like Smash Hits and The Face. It sold well, but when we went to get advertising for the next edition, there was nothing, that was it.
So I was in Sydney. I was managing an alternative cabaret outfit from Adelaide that had moved up at the same time as me called Quietly Confident and we were playing Kinselas and places like that and Last Laugh in Melbourne and I was doing some work on 2MMM. Then out of the blue I got a call from someone at the ABC asking if I wanted to be interviewed for the editor of Countdown Magazine. The magazine had been going for about a year with Glenn A. Baker editing it. A guy called Gerry Cooper had a business called Fan Clubs of Australia and one of the things he did was run the Kiss Army. He’d approached the ABC with this licensing idea—they said OK, but by this time the ABC wasn’t happy with the quality. It didn’t reflect particularly well on Countdown, and they told him that he had to have a full time editor. They drew up a shortlist, of whom I was one; I think the others turned it down! It was the way I was moving anyway and where things were going.
If Countdown’s producers were aware of the critical article I’d published in Roadrunner about the show and Meldrum, I never heard about it. As for the long piece in Roadrunner by Ross Stapleton on Michael Gudinski’s business affairs, there were no negative consequences. Gudinski never batted an eyelid. Mushroom always offered great advertising support to Roadrunner. In the years afterwards I would be at dinners with him and he never brought it up—he might have had the shits with Ross Stapleton! Ross was in the Dirty Pool camp and there was the whole split between Dirty Pool on the one side and Mushroom-Premier on the other. Ross wrote about that too. I think people in the industry thought that was great. ‘Agents of Fortune’ I think was the one about Dirty Pool basically wresting control of the money from live shows away from the venue owners. That was one of the reasons the Angels and Cold Chisel were so successful. They were great bands but they were making great money, much more than anyone under the old system.
So I started at Countdown Magazine in Winter ’83. It was done out of Sydney, we had offices in Milsons Point. Probably the real breakthrough with the magazine was getting the art director, who was an English guy called Ed Gillan who’d worked in London with the kind of people who did The Face. He really had the kind of graphic skills that were a part of that New Romantic movement, and he gave the magazine a really good stylish look. Then we had this guy called David Rowley who was a mainstream journalist (and drummer) here in Sydney, who moved to London and he became London editor. That ensured the supply not only of stories but of photos, colour photos in particular for the posters.
The Fan Clubs of Australia thing had been going for a while, but at one point Fairfax Magazines got interested. Countdown Magazine had become very successful, it was selling 100 000 copies a month, and Fairfax had approached Gerry Cooper and his business partner, Michael Mohi—basically Gerry Cooper exited the picture, and Michael went into Fairfax with the magazine. Michael didn’t really get involved much with the content, I was still editor.
The only connection between Countdown Magazine and Countdown the TV show was that every issue got a plug on the show itself. But there was no real contact or connection between the two in terms of content. I found this out when it came to Flame Fortune.
Flame Fortune was a singer that INXS manager Chris Murphy had happened on in LA. He thought, ‘I can play a Svengali thing here’, and brought her back to Australia. He assembled an all-star band with various members of INXS and the Models to play on the record and I thought it was a great story, and he pitched her to me as a great story and I guess maybe I was getting a bit carried away at this point. The British magazines would take an unknown and put them on the cover and they were powerful enough that it would create an impact in the market, that’s what I thought could happen with this. The big names of the day were playing on the record, so we went with a cover story on this, but what became clear was that the record company, which was Polygram, had virtually no support for this singer. The record company went to Countdown and said, ‘here’s Flame Fortune, she’s going to be on the cover of the magazine’, and they just laughed. I think Grant Rule might have felt a little bit sorry for me and he relented and she appeared on one show, but the single died and Heather McShane a.k.a Flame Fortune went back to LA, never to be heard of again.
The readers never seemed to make the association between the TV show and the magazine. Or rather, they distinguished between the two, I don’t recall any letters saying ‘get Duran Duran on Countdown’. Duran were always on the show anyway.
Then we were still at Milsons Point at that stage in March 86. David in London was in a band and decided he wanted to devote more time to that so I thought it would be nice to go to London and do that job for a while, which is what I did for most of ‘86 and covered the scene from there.
In London very little of the music around was to my taste or inclination. Whereas in the early 80s there was still enough music I really liked to satisfy the fan in me, INXS were huge, the Models were really good, I’m Talking came along, and on the overseas side of things, Simple Minds, U2, who else, I was never a huge fan of the Whams or Duran Durans or Culture Clubs, they were the cover bands for Countdown Magazine, that was what the audience was buying. But what I was interested in listening to and writing about was the kind of music I’d been writing about in Roadrunner, Countdown was just a bigger glossier vehicle for me to showcase those second-tier bands, rather than what was in the front window.
I came back at the end of 86 thinking that was quite nice, but I prefer living back in Australia. I’d gone away on a handshake promise I could come back as editor but when I came back it wasn’t as easy as I thought.
Instead I did an educational publication for Fairfax called Roll Over Beethoven—sort of a rock’n’roll resource for the high school music curriculum. Martin Armiger wrote a piece about ‘The singer’—it was quite witty. Jon Casimir, who’s now a television producer (Gruen Transfer) wrote a piece on reggae for that. It was a six-part magazine, with six themes, like music industry roles, music styles, music in the media, instruments or parts of the band. I did that in 1987. Then in 1988, Warwick Fairfax came along with his bid to take over the family company. At the end of that most of the magazines got flogged off to Kerry Packer. I think for most of 1988 I was on gardening leave, I didn’t have anything to do, but I was still getting paid but Aug/Sept 88 I applied for the position at the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal as the publications officer. And got it.
In a way I almost think the fact that Smash Hits became so successful changed it completely. When Nick Logan started it in Britain you could see the continuation from the things he’d done as editor of the NME, it was a new kind of format but you could see that same kind of thread running through it. As it became more successful and he exited, it became kind of shallow and lost the weight it had initially, it became much lighter and the way it treated its audience was almost flippant. The joke was more important than the artist. I think that flowed into the Australian Smash Hits, which after all was using a lot of the UK content.