School reunions can be awkward at the best of times. Imagine if at your reunion, the yearbook had been repackaged by a multi-national and was selling online and at retail, the public were invited, the venue was an iconic Carlton wine-bar and the prefects were up on stage being interviewed by a lanky, blonde-curled faux-hip DJ about schooldays—’Ring, ring goes the bell/The cook’s in the lunchroom ready to sell’ and all that shit? Daunting, huh?
When I got the Facebook invite to the launch of the (When The Sun Sets Over) Carlton compilation, my first reaction was, ‘Oh great—shame it’s in Melbourne.’ But of course, where else could it be? In fact, the venue—Jimmy Watson’s Wine Bar on Lygon St, Carlton was absolutely right. As the date (11 November, Remembrance Day) approached however, I started thinking, hmm …. cheap airfare, cheap room on Wotif, catch up with a few buddies—I could maybe do this. Then the week before, again on Facebook, a couple of reasonably priced tickets to the Rolling Stones concert at Sydney’s Allphones Arena popped up. For the night after the Carlton launch. With a sneaking feeling that this might just be a bit too much rock’n’rolly, I eventually decided, what the hell.
I wasn’t actually in the country when most of the music on Carlton was released and while I’d met a few people from the scene in the early days of Roadrunner, that was a long time ago. Like 35 years. But a couple of buddies from Roadrunner days—snappers Joe Murray and Eric Algra—were going, so if nothing else, it was a great chance to catch up with them.
The launch was scheduled to kick off a 6 p.m. so Joe, Eric and I arranged to meet outside Readings bookshop at 4.30 for a pre-event refreshment. It was a pleasant sunny afternoon and so we parked ourselves in the outdoor courtyard out the back of Jimmy Watson’s and rolled back the years over a few beers and glasses of Heathcote red. The launch was in the Treetops Bar, on a large open air terrace up a flight of wooden stairs from the courtyard. The inimitable John Dowler and his charming wife Sue arrived and gave us a wave. John sang out front of Spare Change and the Glory Boys—both who have tracks on the compilation—and most notably Adelaide’s late-70s powerpoppers Young Modern. After a while, John wandered over to say hello and suggest we move upstairs as the seats were beginning to fill up.
A line of stools had been set up at the far end of the compact terrace and knots of people clustered around. As at all school reunions, people were catching up, slowly at first and then with increasing animation. The terrace was crowded but not packed as right on 6, the lanky DJ from 3RRR grabbed the mic and introduced the ‘prefects’: writer Jen Jewel Brown; Skyhooks guitarist Bob ‘Bongo’ Starkie; Chris Worrall, who got around a bit (Sharks, the Pelaco Brothers, Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, the Bleeding Hearts, Stiletto and the Dots); Johnny Topper—the Pelaco Brothers, the Autodrifters and the Fabulous Nudes—currently a presenter on community radio 3RRR; singer Jane Clifton (Lipp and the Double Dekker Brothers, Myriad, Scumbag, the Toads, Stiletto, Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons); and last but not least, bass player John Power (the Foreday Riders, Company Caine, Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons).
The launch was on a strict time limit of one hour, so after some warmly received opening remarks from Carlton compiler Dave Laing, and as the sun actually set over Carlton, the prefects were invited in turn to ruminate on a particular aspect of the Carlton scene; the venues, the roadies, the drugs, before the MC invited questions and comments from the audience. Chris Worrall recounted the tale from his time in the Sharks of how support band Skyhooks appeared one night with a big black box centre stage out of which new singer Shirley Strachan cut a hole with a chainsaw. ‘That was it, we knew we were fucked,’ he laughed. ‘Well, he was a chippy,’ chipped in Jane Clifton. Boom boom.
Bob Starkie reminisced about the fearsome roadies called the Brewster Brothers (not the ones from the Angels) while a member of the audience recalled five hundred skinheads chasing Skyhooks over a chain link fence in a western Melbourne oval after Shirley had made a smart remark from the stage. Johnny Topper bummed the mood a bit by agreeing the smack in the day was really good, but generally the badinage was light and lively.
There weren’t many in the crowd I recognised, but I did spot former head prefects Ross Wilson and Greg Macainsh in the throng and original Sports guitarist Ed Bates was there—commenting later on Facebook, ‘3 “70’s Denim suits”! conveniently sitting next to each other. Must have all gone through their old wardrobes – good to see people making an effort. Not to forget the “Archie and Jughead” T-shirt that Jen Jewel Brown had on’. Spot on Ed.
After proceedings I said a quick hello to fellow-Sydneysider John Power, introduced myself to Dave Laing and Jen Jewel Brown and then Eric, Joe and I adjourned downstairs for dinner. There were a couple of big tables with some of the panel members on them, but yeah, no-one I really knew so I did feel a bit like a gatecrasher at a school reunion. But dinner was good, washed down with a few more glasses of that nice Heathcote Shiraz and then at a fairly respectable hour the three former Roadrunners grabbed the tram back into the city.
John Dowler perhaps best summed it up when he said to me he was glad it had come out now because the practitioners and more importantly, the audience for it, were dying in droves. Hmmm, sobering—and a point sadly emphasised the following day when that Company Caine singer Gulliver Smith (whose Buzzin’ With My Cousin is on the CD) had passed away.
The next morning, it was up early to catch the red Skybus shuttle from East Melbourne to Spencer Street station, then the red Skybus to Tullamarine Airport. Time for a coffee then the Jetstar flight to Sydney, which was painless and then I jumped on the airport train to Wynyard and transferred to the red M40 bus to Willoughby. Door to door right on 6 hours. Bring on the Stones!
The line at the merchandise stall outside Allphones Arena was looooong … but Calum and I drove and were there nice and early, so we joined the queue. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the front both the items we wanted—a T-shirt and poster with a Fillmore-style design of a surfer shooting the curl of a wave shaped like the Stones’ trademark tongue—were sold out. Ah well.
We found our seats, side of the stage about half way up and with a good view of the whole stage and the circular ramp. I saw the Stones at Memorial Drive, Adelaide in 1973 and never having been a HUGE fan, had never bothered to buy a ticket after that. But this time really could be the last time, and Calum had never seen them, so I decided to go. And given the late drama with Mick Jagger’s throat, without great expectations.
The concert started with Jumping Jack Flash and I don’t know if it was just me, but Keith seemed to muck up the opening chords. Not an auspicious beginning. It’s Only Rock’n’Roll and Respectable were, well respectable, but I got the feeling the band were just going through the motions. I was wrong.
The Stones had put out five options for an audience choice. Sydney, being a highly sophisticated and discerning place, chose the one Calum and I had both voted for, Sweet Virginia. Jagger introduced it by saying it wasn’t one they normally did, so he’d had to relearn the harmonica intro. Maybe, it was the extra effort required, but everything just lifted and the crowd sang the ‘scrape that shit right off your shoes’ chorus lustily.
Jagger’s voice was holding up pretty well, with the backing duo, Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler offering strong support. It was apparent how much Keith relies on Ronnie Wood to fill in the gaps too.
Paint it, Black, from 1966 and the oldest song they did, was another standout, with a pronounced sitar effect on Ron Wood’s guitar and a swirling lighting effect. 1966—bloody hell, this was living history we were watching!
Honky Tonk Women was great, Jagger shaking his butt at the crowd, and then to give the singer’s throat a break, Keith Richards—for only the second time ever apparently—did three in a row, including a ramshackling Happy which finished with him grinning ear to ear.
Then for me, the absolute highlight, Midnight Rambler with Mick Taylor strolling on to unleash some magnificent guitar work and forcing Keith and Ronnie to knuckle down and really concentrate. Taylor’s playing brought to mind the great blues rock guitar solos of the late 60s—a la Clapton et al—but sounded fresh and alive. A magical moment.
And from there, things just built and built, through the disco funk of Miss You, the soaring vocals of Lisa Fischer on Gimme Shelter, Jagger’s red caped-Lucifer in Sympathy For The Devil, the Sydney Philharmonic Choir for You Can’t Always Get What You Want and the inevitable, but satisfying Satisfaction.
The living legends went off happy, and threatened to come back for a second encore—the vibe was certainly there—but I’m sure caution over Jagger’s throat prevailed backstage.
Buzz Bidstrup on Facebook said, ”Overall I’m glad I saw them again ( the last time was on their 1973 tour). That was SO much better as it was at Memorial Drive outdoors to probably 3000 people,’ and Dave Faulkner from the Hoodoo Gurus said it was ‘good, not great’. Guys, everyone is obviously entitled to their own opinion, but I thought it was great and BETTER than Memorial Drive. And Calum—who’s seen Springsteen, Dylan, AC/DC. U2 and the National—said it was the best concert he’s ever seen.
Still the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world? At 70? On tonight’s showing—bloody hell, amazingly, yeah!