The History of Roadrunner—Part 1: Development Stage (Dec 1977—Jan 1979)

When I returned to Adelaide in late 1977 after two and a half years in the UK I came back with 25 singles—Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric, Tom Robinson Band, X-Ray Spex, The Rezillos, Slaughter & the Dogs etc etc. I moved into a small cottage in Norwood owned by my old Adelaide Uni friends Larry Buttrose and Donna Maegraith and proceeded to go round to visit all my other Uni mates in an evangelical way—to convert them to this fantastic new music. Most of them looked at me rather strangely and asked if I’d like another cup of tea, but Span, an old school friend from Whyalla, knew Stuart Coupe and introduced us.

Coupe was editor of the Flinders University student newspaper Empire Times. We got talking and quickly realised we shared this zeal about the punk/new wave explosion. We used to frequent the go-to import record shop of the day—Modern Love Songs in Twin St—and with the encouragement of the owner Bo and help from the crowd that hung around there we decided to channel the prevailing do-it-yourself ethos and put together a fanzine.

As well as enjoying blanket coverage in the British rock weeklies like New Musical Express, Sounds and Melody Maker, the punk rock explosion had inspired a flush of fanzines. The first and most famous of these was Londoner Mark P’s Sniffin’ Glue (+ Other Rock’n’Roll Habits For Punks), which first appeared in July 1976 and spawned a rash of imitators.

The day after the December 1977 Federal election that returned Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal Party to government, a motley (and hung-over) crew assembled at Modern Love Songs armed with typed contributions, photos and magazines to cut up to put the fanzine together. Apart from Coupe and myself, there was David Walker, Andy Vague and Nick Hope from the soon-to-be-legendary Adelaide punk outfits the Accountants, Chuckie Suicide (who became the Accountants’ roadie), Lloyd (who went on to play in Spanish Holiday), Tracey, Alex and David Crowe. On the credits page we name checked the other Australian ‘zines we were aware of—Suicide Alley (Brisbane), Pulp (Melbourne), Alive and Kicking (Melbourne) and Spurt (Sydney).

We laid out the magazine on the floor of the basement record shop and Stuart got it printed at Empire Times. Bo said he’d pay the print bill in exchange for a full-page ad. The bill was never paid. Very punk. The fanzine was called Street Fever. Coupe reminisced about the times in this 2010 interview.

Stuart Coupe and Debbie Harry

Stuart Coupe photobombs Debbie Harry in Hindley Street, Adelaide, 28 November 1977 (pic: Victoria Wilkinson)

Coupe and I enjoyed the exercise so we started talking about ‘what if we started a magazine?’ At that time there was a booking agency in Adelaide called Sphere, managed by Chris Plimmer, who later became a prominent agent in Sydney and ran the Nucleus agency. We went to him and he thought it was a great idea to have a local Adelaide music magazine. We agreed to include a gig guide and he got local music venues and shops and bands to buy ads, so we’d get some money coming in. We did the rounds of the Adelaide offices of the major record companies who were generally enthusiastic—particularly Phonogram who had albums from the Ramones, Talking Heads and Richard Hell and the Voidoids and really didn’t know what to do with them!

We needed a name. One of the singles I’d brought back from the UK was ‘Roadrunner’, an unlikely 1977 hit there for Jonathan Richman. A hymn to the power and magic of rock’n’roll, I thought the name was a contender. Coupe obviously liked it too—in Street Fever he had waxed lyrical: ‘… one of the greatest singles EVER—a song about cruising with the radio on and being in electric communion with the modern world, modern girls and modern rock’n’roll.’ One lunchtime in the Adelaide Uni refectory, I suggested we call the magazine Roadrunner. Coupe only pondered for a second. ‘Yeah—that’s great!’

‘… one of the greatest singles EVER—a song about cruising with the radio on and being in electric communion with the modern world, modern girls and modern rock’n’roll.’ — Stuart Coupe on Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’.

Coupe was living in a share house in Torrensville with Alex Ehlert and Mark Burford. He also knew a slightly dotty layout artist at Flinders called Allan Coop (no relation). So with no capital and no assets, but bucket loads of energy and enthusiasm, Roadrunner was born. For the first issue in March 1978, the crew was Coupe and myself as editors, Allan Coop on layout and design, Alex Ehlert leading the Construction team, Mark Burford as reviews editor and Chris Plimmer as advertising manager. Larry Buttrose got in touch with his 60s surfing memories for the cover story on the Beach Boys. As well as writing articles and reviews, Jillian Burt got us into 5UV to use their IBM Selectric, or ‘golfball’ typewriter for the copy. This enabled us to set columns of justified type and use a range of ‘golfballs’ to get different fonts and sizes.

Coop did the layout in a shed out the back of the share house in Torrensville, Empire Times did the printing and we trekked out to Football Park at West Lakes to try selling copies before the Beach Boys concert, cover price 30 cents. Not many were interested, but we weren’t discouraged.

Apart from setting up the magazine, I had also been looking for a ‘real’ job over the summer. In early March I was offered a position in the Unemployment Benefits section of the Commonwealth Department of Social Security—ironically located in Hindmarsh Square, directly above Modern Love Songs. I accepted, but remained committed to the magazine. Coupe enlisted some other contributors. He was in touch with Bruce Milne and Clinton Walker, who had published the fanzine Pulp in Melbourne and they thought what we were doing was interesting so came over to help.

The News (the afternoon paper in Adelaide) ran a snippet about the magazine on 11 May 1978.

Adelaide’s own music mag, Roadrunner, looks like being around for a while. The second issue is out and costs 30c from newsagents and record stores. The typos and spelling mistakes are a bit hard on the eyes, but buy it for the interesting “let it all hang out” interview with Molly Meldrum. Also in the issue are stories on Quasar, Clean Cut, Chick Corea, Ry Cooder and the Resident (sic) and Steve Whitham starts a regular “Hi, I’m your local friendly DJ” column.

Boys Next Door

The Boys Next Door at the South Australian Museum, North Terrace, Adelaide, May 1978 (pic: John Altree-Williams)

The content in the early issues was an idiosyncratic and eclectic mix of the local (Young Modern, Riff Raff, Neon Heart, the Sultan Brothers, Warm Jets, Cunning Stunt, Middle Class); interstate new wavers (Sports, High Rise Bombers, Boys Next Door, Stiletto); international tourists (Dylan, Weather Report, John Martyn, Graham Parker & the Rumour, Billy Connolly); retrospectives (Beach Boys, the Monkees, Marc Bolan); think pieces (The Death of Punk, powerpop); and pieces about the music industry (the above-mentioned interview with Countdown’s Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, 5KA’s David Day, the birth of community radio station 5MMM, how to be a rock writer). Plus live reviews, album and singles reviews and an Adelaide gig guide. Advertising support came from the bands, venues, record shops and equipment suppliers of the Adelaide music scene plus record companies (EMI, CBS, Festival and Phonogram), television and radio stations (Seven, Nine and 5UV) and a couple of corporate entities—the State Bank of South Australia and Coke.

In the first year, 1978, Roadrunner was only available in South Australia. Record shops and musical hire outlets sold it off the counter and B.J. & K.L. Fuller distributed into SA newsagents. Coupe drew on his Empire Times experience, I’d dabbled in poetry magazines while at Uni, Bruce Milne and Clinton Walker had produced their fanzines, but none of us had any real experience in the business of magazine publishing: we all loved the music and liked writing about it and photographers like Eric Algra and Joe Murray approached us and offered photos they’d taken.

‘Dear Roadrunner, Thanx for at least for spelling RAM’s name right in your July edition. And that’s all I’m thanking you for.’ — Anthony O’Grady, RAM Editor.

Things went well for the first three issues and I guess we were starting to get a bit full of ourselves. A self-righteous editorial manifesto by Coupe in issue 4, July 1978 provoked Rock Australia Magazine (RAM) editor Anthony O’Grady into a response. ‘Dear Roadrunner,’ O’Grady wrote, ‘Thanx for at least for spelling RAM’s name right in your July edition. And that’s all I’m thanking you for.’

Uh oh.

O’Grady asked us to consider two quotes.

‘Roadrunner seeks to be a Pop/Popular CULTURE magazine as opposed to a Pop MUSIC magazine. Future issues will focus on books, movies, rock’n’roll theory …’ (Quote 1, Roadrunner, July 1978).

‘We also know our rock’n’roll generation is more a lifestyle choice and its expression is more than music.’ (Quote 2, from the editorial in RAM’s first edition, March 1975).

He then went on:

Hmmm. Sounds like neither publication wants to fall into the trap expressed by Quote No. 3: ‘The major purpose and I suggest failing of these newsy rock’n’roll papers is that they serve to maintain the illusion that rock’n’roll exists independently of the forces around it.’ (Roadrunner No. 4 again.)

So it really hurts (maaaaan) that No. 3 is how Roadrunner categories RAM in 1978.

So. Guess RAM failed the culture test. The Roadrunner Culture test anyway.

On the other hand, can it be, (el gaspo!) Roadrunner just hasn’t noticed all the youth/lifestyle articles on movies, living on the cheap, sci-fi, mysiticism (sic), surfing, politics, conservation we at RAM have been assiduously including (average over one and a half editorial pages per issue) for the past three years.

O’Grady offered Coupe a staff position on RAM in Sydney a month later.

As the year wound down we convened a summit meeting in Torrensville. Coupe had gone. Clinton Walker was back in Melbourne, but still involved as Melbourne editor. The live scene in Adelaide at the time was still pretty much stuck in blues and boogie mode and the recording scene was almost non-existent, so it was no surprise that Bruce Milne had also decided to return to Melbourne. The novelty having worn off, Alex Ehlert and Allan Coop decided, nicely, to take their bat and ball and play elsewhere. So it was only me left standing. Collette Snowden, who had been writing for the mag under the nom de plume Sue Denim (geddit?), attended the meeting and was a strong supporter for continuing.

I decided to carry on. I didn’t think the magazine had reached anywhere near its potential and it was certainly more fun than my day job in the Public Service.

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Excitement was building in Adelaide at the prospect of the Progressive Music Broadcasting Association (PMBA) obtaining a community radio licence and what that would do for the diversity of the airwaves. It boded for increased exposure both for the local music scene and the new music that Roadrunner was championing. Michael Zerman, who was based at the South Australian Media Resource Centre in the old Sym Choon fireworks factory, off the east end of Rundle Street, had been involved in the launch of 2JJ in Sydney and was providing advice to the PMBA. He also offered invaluable publishing advice to Roadrunner.

Zerman had been a key figure in the Sydney office of the collective headed by publisher Phillip Frazer that produced the Australian version of Rolling Stone, as well as the alternative magazines Revolution, High Times and The Digger, in the period 1971-75. Frazer founded Australia’s most influential music magazine Go-Set in 1966, and remained publisher until 1972, when it was taken over by its printer Waverley Press. Zerman recently told me he had actually been company secretary of the Australian Rolling Stone publishing company Green Grass Pty Ltd. As The Digger was dying in late 1975, under the threat of lawsuits from Norm Gallagher and the BLF, as well as the general decline after the sale of the Rolling Stone licence to Paul Gardiner and Jane Matheson, Zerman also took on the company secretaryship of High Times Pty Ltd.

It doesn’t matter if you run up a debt with your printer, Zerman confided conspiratorially—it gives them an interest in continuing to print you. And so it proved.

Zerman was production editor on another new Adelaide magazine Preview and had already steered us in the direction of Preview’s printer, Bridge Press in Murray Bridge, an hour out of Adelaide on the South Eastern Freeway. Bridge Press was an offset printer that was cheaper than any of the printers in Adelaide and was keen for the extra work. It ended up printing the magazine for virtually the remainder of its life (September 1978 right through to July 1982). It doesn’t matter if you run up a debt with your printer, Zerman confided conspiratorially—it gives them an interest in continuing to print you. And so it proved.

A more professional production set up was an immediate priority. Clive Dorman was a newspaper journalist who had seen the potential of the (then) new phototypesetting technology. He set up his own business, Neighbourhood Typesetting and became Roadrunner’s production editor. Geoffrey Gifford, who ran a small design studio, took over design and layout and Collette Snowden joined as office manager.

As the new production crew moved in, it was becoming clear that there was a growing disconnect between the type of music we wanted to write about and the local Adelaide music scene that had initially supported the magazine. The solution? National—and international—coverage and national distribution.

Donna Maegraith and Keith Shadwick

On the writing side, Keith Shadwick (left, with Roadrunner poetry editor Donna Maegraith) became the magazine’s first London editor. A poet, writer and saxophone player with Uncle Bob’s Band, Bleeding Hearts and most recently the High Rise Bombers (with Paul Kelly and Martin Armiger), Shadwick left Melbourne in mid-1978 and quickly established himself on the London scene, where the new wave was still cresting. He contributed news, live reviews (including one about Public Image Limited’s first live performance), a fond retrospective on Marc Bolan and—after embedding himself on the tour—an exhaustive behind-the-scenes account of the Sports’ early 1979 twirl around the UK supporting Graham Parker and the Rumour.

Michael Zerman gave me an address for Phillip Frazer in New York and I wrote to him to ask if he would be interested in writing for us about the New York music scene. While wishing us the best of luck, he declined, saying ‘I don’t know if I can help you. I’m not particularly following the music scene here because I dislike most of it. New York punk is mostly ephemeral, weighed down by posturing about decadence/pain/how sleazy it all is etc., rather like the Beatnik era.’ Fair enough. He went to say he ‘liked the general feel of Roadrunner—some careful or maybe just talented writing—but it’s a shock just how other-directed people in Australia are.’

After some encouragement from Stuart Coupe, who maintained friendly relations with his comrades in the south throughout his tenure at RAM, Stuart Matchett from 2JJ signed on as Sydney editor and Scott Matheson, then guitar player with Brisbane band the Numbers, offered to contribute stories from Queensland. Ian Henderson started writing about Perth and with Bruce Milne and Clinton Walker in Melbourne, we had all mainland states covered. We even appointed a poetry editor—Donna Maegraith. And did publish some poems. It was the 70s after all.

Clive Dorman hit the road and tied up newsagent distribution in NSW through Alan Rodney Wright and Victorian distribution through Melbourne Wholesale Newsagency. In SA we already had distribution through Fullers, while in Queensland, Scott Matheson, under the banner of Riptide Distribution, supplied Rocking Horse Records and other interested record shops. Copies to White Light Records in Perth rounded out the picture.

Roadrunner February 1979

The first national issue hit the newsstands in February 1979. The cover story on the riots and run-ins of the summer Elvis Costello tour was by the hard-hitting Ross Stapleton, whose fascination with the behind the scenes machinations of the Australian music industry was to yield a series of lengthy features over the following twelve months. As well as being fascinating exposes in their own right, they had the effect of making Roadrunner a must-read for industry participants in the Eastern states.

My indulgence of Ross’ tireless championing of The Angels—admittedly the country’s biggest drawing live band—in the year to come would however cause ructions amongst the magazine’s founders.

To help publicise the magazine’s national launch, Clive Dorman wrote the following piece, which he sent around to various newspapers and magazines. It actually did prompt a nice article by Stephen Hunter in Adelaide’s morning newspaper the Advertiser. It provides an insight into my state of mind as I launched into a career-defining escapade.

*          *          *

Australia’s rock aficionados this month get an extra option when they go to the newsstand to pick up the national rock press. From this month, there’s a third competitor in the field, pitting its weight against the Sydney-based RAM and the Melbourne-based Juke.

The new magazine is Roadrunner, from Adelaide—and it isn’t really all that new. The February issue is in fact the tenth Roadrunner, but it’s the first national one.

Roadrunner first appeared in Adelaide early last year, edited by Donald Robertson and Stuart Coupe (the latter now in Sydney with RAM) after their punk fanzine Street Fever wasn’t able to go on after its first edition. Robertson and Coupe, then joined by several others in an editorial and productive collective, soon began producing the broader-based Roadrunner.

During 1978, the collective struggled on, usually just managing to survive. It was scratching for advertising, largely unrecognized by many of the people, even in Adelaide, who it needed recognition from. Various diets of the largely New Wave fare were tried, but by October the other editors had decided to give it away. Coupe had by this time quit and joined RAM.

Only Donald Robertson decided to continue. But he quickly managed to get a new team around him, including a number of professional journalists—something lacking previously on the Roadrunner editorial collective. He started commissioning articles and seeking out better quality pix. He streamlined the accounting side of the operation so the paper could start recovering more of the money it was owed by advertisers. Finally—he increased the print run.

The next step was an eastern states tour by Production Editor, Clive Dorman late last year. He found a lot of enthusiasm in Sydney for Roadrunner, both in radio and record company circles. Wizard Records took out a full-page ad, testimony of their faith in the magazine. There was also a lot of interest generated in Melbourne, where one of the editorial collective members, Bruce Milne, continues to write for the paper. More advertising revenue came in from Melbourne.

When Dorman returned from his trip, he and Robertson decided that the magazine really needed to go national. There was, really, no way back to the struggling Adelaide-based paper which sent perhaps one hundred copies of each edition to Sydney and Melbourne as curios. They decided to take the risk of attempting to produce a national newspaper from Adelaide.

Roadrunner, in case you’re wondering, doesn’t take its name from the bird that consistently beguiles Wile E. Coyote and foils the ACME Company. It’s the title of a song by Jonathan Richman, a Boston New Waver, all about Living in The Modern World, and driving to the stop and shop with the radio on. Robertson chose the name for the philosophical reason that he and the others liked it.

The first national edition has emerged with ‘Australia’s Independent Music Paper’ under the masthead, and it’s certainly going to have to create some form of dedicated readership around this or some other concept to succeed. RAM and Juke—each boasting much bigger circulation than the newcomer—are well placed to squeeze.

But if the first edition is anything to go by, perhaps there is room for optimism for Roadrunner. It certainly does seem more heavyweight or ‘quality’-orientated than its two competitors, with a much cleaner appearance. But does Australia have room for a music paper that won’t tell the fans about what Rod Stewart’s doing after his concerts and what Leif Garrett does when he gets tired of skateboarding?

The first national edition has emerged with ‘Australia’s Independent Music Paper’ under the masthead, and it’s certainly going to have to create some form of dedicated readership around this or some other concept to succeed.

In this regard, Roadrunner runs up against all the same old questions of demand that any aspirant quality press finds constantly asked in Australia. Or to put it another way, if the masses want newspapers with girly shots on p3, what are your chances of survival if you don’t print them and put something else there? Can an Australian rock music paper survive without John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John?

Well, if the first national edition, with its 11 thousand print run, 50-cents each, distributed in all states except Tasmania, is anything to go by … the answer could well be yes. Although the lead story by Melbourne freelance Ross Stapleton has appeared elsewhere, Stapleton has gone much deeper into the riots and run-ins of that bizarre concert tour. There’s also a good article on the Sports, the Melbourne band most-likely-to when they head off to Britain soon. An interesting piece that could only appear in Roadrunner is about the record industry itself—and how Adelaide has a huge record plant that won’t touch rock. There are also pieces from correspondents in Britain and the USA. No reprints.

Roadrunner HQ - Donegal St, Norwood

Donald Robertson is 25. He runs the magazine from his crowded bedroom in a maisonette in Norwood, inner Adelaide. Nearly everything in the room relates to the magazine, from the accounts books and art materials on the desk to the yellowing piles of back issues stacked by his bed.

A Scot who migrated to Australia with his parents in the mid-sixties, he did a Bachelor of Science at Adelaide University in the early seventies. And could easily have gone on with a promising career as a scientist. Instead, he became a public servant in Canberra with the Whitlam government and wrote letters for Bill Hayden. Early in 1975, with the demise of the Whitlam government well and truly written on the wall, he left for his native Britain, where he stayed for nearly three years. During his time away, of course, he saw the New Wave break. 1977 was the Year of the Punk in Britain, and on returning in late 77 to Adelaide, he decided to start his own fanzine to chronicle what was happening in New Wave in Adelaide. He met Stuart Coupe and … Street Fever appeared.

He barely slept at all in the week this month’s first national edition was printed … but when he finally awoke from 2 days sleep after getting it safely produced, I managed to get the following interview …

What direction is the paper taking at present?

Physically or metaphysically?

Metaphysically I suppose.

Do you always ask the hard ones first?

Well, when it started it was in the New Wave line, and then you broadened the base somewhat. Would you ever have articles about Rod Stewart for instance?

Only highly critical ones I think.

But in the past your policy has been not to give people like him any space at all …

I think the Rod Stewarts and the others of his ilk receive enough publicity as it is from the other parts of the media … Not just the rock press, I mean all media—TV, TV news, papers, magazines. A newspaper which is dedicated to providing information about rock’n’roll shouldn’t cover people like that because they’re not making rock’n’roll music; they’re making middle of the road music.

What are your criteria though? Where do you draw the line? Obviously John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John would be in the same position for you … but what about the Eagles? How do you make a distinction?

I don’t think you can draw a line. You have to take up every case on its merits. You have to weigh up all the factors.

Is it more effective to ignore them or criticize them?

To ignore them.

Do any overseas magazines have a policy of ignoring large sections of popular music?

There are a few. Zigzag in the UK and Creem in the USA. We’ve attempted to cover a lot of good non-mainstream music as well, with articles and reviews of jazz, folk, reggae.

Well, how would describe the magazine overall?

A rock and roll magazine, but concentrating on original Australian music and the more original and creative music emanating from overseas. RAM and Juke tend to cover things like the Rod Stewart tour and reprint articles from overseas. RAM reprints from the New Musical Express in the UK, while Juke occasionally reprints from Sounds, another UK mag. They reprint stories on the big overseas bands they can’t afford to cover themselves. Our stories from the USA and UK have all been written from Australian correspondents there.

Does Roadrunner material get lifted as well?

All the time. Last issue of Sydney ‘fanzine’ RAM had a big slab lifted from our previous issue, quoting ‘Roadrunner fanzine’. It was from our interview with John Dowler of Young Modern.

I think with this current issue, the first national issue, we’ve actually achieved that. It’s perhaps Australia’s first quality rock paper. I can’t think of any of higher quality.

Is there the possibility that with Roadrunner, Australia will have a quality rock press?

Oh most definitely. I think with this current issue, the first national issue, we’ve actually achieved that. It’s perhaps Australia’s first quality rock paper. I can’t think of any of higher quality.

Well what are your chances of competing with RAM and Juke? Will you start taking some of their readers?

I think there’s going to be a lot of overlapping readership. People will take one of each initially. In Sydney they’ll buy RAM and Roadrunner and in Melbourne they’ll buy Juke and Roadrunner. In a way we won’t be taking readers off them. RAM is fortnightly, Juke weekly, we’re monthly at the moment. But I think we cover areas in depth that they don’t touch on, especially outside Sydney and Melbourne. There are a lot of people who want to read about those areas.

Do you want to publish more often?

We’re aiming to print fortnightly within about three months. Weekly? No.

How’s the magazine doing financially?

Okay. We’ve got money to pay but money uncollected. We’re doing alright and we’ll do better soon.

What about payments for contributors?

They’re pretty low at the moment, but as our situation improves there’ll be an immediate flow-on to them.

Do you find the record companies get unhappy when you don’t cover their glamour acts? How does that side of things tally up? Do you have strained relations with any of the record companies?

Not at all. The record companies are happy to get any exposure they can for their artists. As editor I retain responsibility for what goes in the paper and no record company’s going to dictate to me what my cover story’s going to be. I’m going to dictate that. And in the same way, no record company’s going to dictate what goes inside either. If they give us records to review that’s great, but we’ll only review what we’ve got space for.

You’ve been through a lot of permutations since you put out Street Fever just over a year ago. Did you ever think Roadrunner would reach this point, especially with you as editor when you started with four or five other people as a collective?

Never imagined it.

Yet, if you look back, is it so surprising?

Well, I think that Stuart Coupe and myself were the prime movers of Roadrunner—we put out Street Fever together. He’s still involved in writing, for RAM. He’s number two there now I think.

Quite a meteoric rise in itself in less than a year.

If anything I think that shows just how thin the Australia rock press is and how easy it is to do something in the field. I mean for us to go in a year from nothing to a national magazine and do it without financial backing … I don’t know if it could happen anywhere else.

*          *          *

Main pic: Anarchy in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall—Lloyd with (right) Nick Hope from the Accountants.

Next: The History of Roadrunner—Part 2: Growth Stage.

The History of Roadrunner (PDF 429 Kb)

Every issue of Roadrunner (in Historical and Cultural Collections, University of Wollongong).


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