The History of Roadrunner—Part 2: Growth Stage (Jan 1979—Jan 1980)

In January 1979, Roadrunner production editor Clive Dorman wrote to Michael Finucan at Brisbane community radio station 4ZZZ asking if he was interested in writing for us about what was happening in Brisbane. Dorman was upfront about the magazine’s financial situation. ‘We’re poor as hell and will be so until the cheques for national sales start coming in, in about three months time. However we think we’ll be able to start paying writers at least something to grumble about mid-year.’

The magazine had begun with no capital and no investors, and 12 months on went national with a print run of 11,000, a cover price of 50 cents—and still no capital and no investors. As Kris Kristofferson wrote, ‘When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.’

Bridge Press in Murray Bridge agreed to print the magazine on credit for a few issues, while enough ad revenue was coming in to cover other production costs, pay my rent and put food on the table. Michael Zerman also introduced me to a groovy bank manager, Phillip Virgo at the King William Street branch of the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney, who agreed to extend the magazine a small overdraft against future sales receipts.

Production moved to Geoffrey Gifford’s design studio in Glen Osmond Road, Eastwood, near iconic rock venue the Arkaba. Gifford recalls Clive Dorman arriving at the door one day with a huge phototypesetting machine, which he proceeded to install. As Gifford was also living at the premises, this was rather an imposition, but being the cultured soul he is, his protests were polite, muted and, well, ineffectual. The magazine promptly set up camp in his living room.

A new production routine evolved. Bridge Press provided printed layout sheets and Gifford and his offsider Trudy Hayter would stick down the phototype coming out of Dorman’s machine, the headlines, the bromides of photos, captions, page numbers and Gifford would weave magic with spot colour screens on the cover and centrespread. The day before print deadline usually involved myself and the production crew staying up all night to complete the artwork, then as the sun rose, jumping in someone’s car (I didn’t have one and in fact didn’t even have a driving licence) and motoring the 75 km up the South Eastern freeway to Murray Bridge.

The day before print deadline usually involved myself and the production crew staying up all night to complete the artwork, then as the sun rose, jumping in someone’s car and motoring the 75 km up the South Eastern freeway to Murray Bridge.

Once at Bridge Press, I would hand the artwork over to Neil the printer. Neil was a taciturn Aussie bloke, in his thirties, who always seemed faintly amused at the artistic covers we tried to create. But he was an excellent printer and always rose to any challenge we threw his way.

I was fascinated by the printing process and would watch intently as Neil made negatives from the pages, joined four negatives together then made the metal plates that were strapped onto the cylinders of the two-unit Goss Community web offset press. Coloured inks were added to the unit that was doing the spot colours, black ink to the rest, the large paper rolls were connected and when everything was in place, Neil pressed the go button. When the first few complete copies came out the end, he would stop the press, check the output, give me a copy for any comments and if all was well, away the machines went again.

The binding machine at the end of the press spat out bundles of 100, which on a print run of 10,000 meant there were 100 bundles. I (with whoever had accompanied me that day) loaded the 40 bundles for Sydney into their car and drove them the 250 metres down the road to the Murray Bridge railway station, labelled them, and booked them in as freight. Then back to the printer for the 35 bundles for Melbourne, back to the station then back to the printer to pick up the rest (Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, subscriptions, contributors and freebies). Then an hour’s drive back to Adelaide where I would collapse into bed. Hands-on? You betcha.

‘I don’t think you are far off achieving the sort of excellence you should be aiming for. There’s still a way to go but by god you’ve already covered most of the distance …’ — Ross Stapleton.

Contributors were enthusiastic, with Keith Shadwick writing in February that December 1978 (issue 9), with Joe Camilleri on the cover was ‘fucking good—keep it up!’ and Ross Stapleton saying February 1979 (issue 10) was about a ‘200 per cent improvement on the previous issue.’ Stapleton went on:

I don’t think you are far off achieving the sort of excellence you should be aiming for. There’s still a way to go but by god you’ve already covered most of the distance, the touchdown shouldn’t be nearly so difficult now. I don’t think the content can greatly improve, but visually I think that’s the area for the most concern. I’ll give you 7 out of 10. Keep up the great work.

For the second national issue (issue 11) the cover story was from Brian Johnstone, an AAP journalist who I’d met through my housemate Larry Buttrose. Johnstone, who had previously contributed some well-researched articles about the state of the music industry in Adelaide, chipped in the tasty tale of the confected media outrage surrounding the Stranglers’ tour of Australia—not Mike Willesee or Molly Meldrum’s finest hour. The issue also featured part one of Ross Stapleton’s expose of agency manoeuvres in the live music business, which recounted some of the skirmishes resulting from the challenge newcomers Dirty Pool were making to the might of Michael Gudinski’s Premier-Harbour group.

After submitting his magnum opus about the Sports tour of the UK, Keith Shadwick in London was positive things were going in the right direction.

The real advantage of Roadrunner I think over Juke and RAM is good articles, in-depth studies, sensible reviews overall and their (sic) own overseas correspondents. RAM just reprints Melody Maker stuff etc etc. You agree?

Well, yes.

Bruce Milne

Ross Stapleton delivered a forensic account of Michael Gudinski’s vertically integrated music empire in May (issue 13) and followed up with a cover story on The Angels in June (issue 14). Some of the magazine’s founders were not impressed with the latter. Bruce Milne (left), who had succeeded Clinton Walker as Melbourne editor, wrote to me.

We are without any direction at all. As I understand it (and I’m saying this after discussions with Stuart, Clint and Peter Bakowski) we are supposed to be covering the new bands and offering the sort of down-to-ground stuff you won’t find in the other magazines. We don’t need to compete with the other magazines. So why are 4 of our 12 pages of articles devoted to the Angels? … I’d like to know what R/R wants so I can decide whether I want to write for it.

Oh dear. Growing pains. Was Roadrunner going to remain alternative or go mainstream? Was it going to stay credible or sell out?

As far as I can recall, I wanted both. I wanted to cover the up and coming bands and the new music but I also wanted to sell more copies and if that meant putting The Angels on the cover, then that was absolutely fine.

And we needed to sell more copies and more ads because the patience of some of our penniless contributors was beginning to wear thin.

‘We are without any direction at all. As I understand it … we are supposed to be covering the new bands and offering the sort of down-to-ground stuff you won’t find in the other magazines.’ — Bruce Milne.

Keith Shadwick wrote from London outlining his parlous financial state and seeking a monthly retainer.

I do really want to keep our good working relationship because I believe very much in you & in the magazine as a whole. I will need some money soon, however, to make ends meet. Can you dig it?

Clinton Walker did a cover story on Electronic Musick for July (issue 15) and when it came out he wrote saying he was most ‘most impressed’ and had a ‘rejuvenated interest’ in Roadrunner. But he was also facing hard times in Melbourne.

What else? Well, money. I don’t mind so much about not getting any (of course I’d love to though), but it is very hard for me to keep taking pix without some sort of financial support. It’s pretty hard taking pix on the dole’s $50 a week—for instance, I’m forking out $10 for some prints today and they’re going to you, and $10 away in one go really fucks my finances. I’d appreciate some money just to cover my costs.

Jillian Burt had been involved from the magazine’s very early days. She had relocated to Melbourne where she was still a contributor and gave a mixed review of the July issue.

The Angels interview (again) was a bit unnecessary. Doc Neeson didn’t say much or say it well. There has been heaps of criticism of the Angels by lots of people: that they’re derivative, contrived etc. How about a piece on the Angels that presents that view …

Clinton’s electronics are spot on and his Sydney bit delightful. The creatively obnoxious John McLaughlin bit was an absolute pleasure to read after all the holier-than-all stuff that’s been printed about him. It was like it was the second bloody coming, or so the promoters would have us believing.

Stuart Matchett

The news was better from New South Wales. After packing his bags for Sydney, Stuart Coupe had hit the ground running but after 12 months at RAM, he had an argument with the esteemed Anthony O’Grady (over the length of a Redgum album review I understand) and David Dale hired him to write a rock column for the Sun-Herald. The move also enabled Coupe to join forces with Stuart Matchett (left) to create a Sydney dream team for Roadrunner.

Subscriptions were one way to get sales money up front and I managed to sweeten the subscription offer with Roadrunner T-shirts. In July 1979 a year’s subscription was $8, with t-shirt added, $10. This sometimes put those on the front line in some peril.

Stuart Matchett wrote from Sydney.

There I was at the Bondi Lifesaver watching Sports when this woman said “hey! Fuckhead where’s my Roadrunner?”

it turned out I knew her—her name is Margaret Wertheim (I think)

she lives in Brisbane (I don’t know

and claims to have sent off money for a subscription and hasn’t seen a copy yet. Just thought I’d let you know.

Margaret’s subscription was promptly attended to, I can assure you.

‘There I was at the Bondi Lifesaver watching Sports when this woman said “hey! Fuckhead where’s my Roadrunner?” ‘ — Stuart Matchett.

In my July 1979 newsletter to contributors I brought people up to date with the magazine’s advertising, distribution and general financial situation.

Money. We have managed to knock $1000 off our print bill due to a concerted effort by Michael Zerman here in Adelaide, Bruce Milne in Melbourne and Stuart Coupe in Sydney. But we’re not out of the woods yet. We are going to have to pay $1000 a month to the printer if the paper is to continue. That shouldn’t be too hard as the big record companies have at last decide to come to the party. We have signed a 12 months advertising contract with Festival for one full page per issue which is going to be a help, but realistically we need about six pages of ads per issue if we are going to be able to pay everyone for what they write. If you have any good ideas for advertising contact Bruce Milne in Melbourne or Stuart Coupe in Sydney. We pay 20% commission for each ad when the ad is paid for (we have quite a lot of difficulty extracting the moola from certain of our advertisers) so if you can get the money pre-paid we get our money and you get yours and everyone is happy.

Distribution. Is still not good, particularly in Victoria. It’s O.K. in N.S.W. and not TOO bad in S.A. Scott Matheson is distributing in Qld. again as President Distributors fell through. White Rider Records are distributing in Perth. We are currently talking to Conpress who distribute Women’s Weekly and Rolling Stone about the possibility of them distributing us nationwide, which would solve most of our distribution problems I think. There’s nothing definite yet, but it is a possibility.

Keith Shadwick finally lost patience and gave me a blast in his letter of 10 July.

I’m really pissed off with what’s been happening, or rather not happening as well. What happened to the retainer? For three weeks I relied on the money coming and it didn’t—it left me up shit creek financially and now it’s too late to get a temporary job as all the Uni. Students have snapped them up. As you can see from the article I’ve enclosed, I’ve kept faith, deciding this can all be worked out in due time but for godsakes let me know one way of the other, please.

The problem with the paper is not that it’s not selling enough copies or getting enough ads. It’s that the people who distribute the paper and the companies who advertise in it are taking an inordinately long time to pay the money that they owe. In business terms this is known as a cash flow problem I am told.

My August letter to contributors explained the magazine’s situation.

Yup, Roadrunner has managed to keep the wolves from the door for another month. I reckon I should change the name of the mag to Houdini Weekly. The problem with the paper is not that it’s not selling enough copies or getting enough ads. It’s that the people who distribute the paper and the companies who advertise in it are taking an inordinately long time to pay the money that they owe. In business terms this is known as a cash flow problem I am told. The problem is compounded by the fact that the bulk of the paper’s revenue is located in Victoria and especially NSW. This means that I can’t just pop around to CBS/EMI/Festival and set up camp until the cheque for advertising is forthcoming. In fact, if production costs were not so cheap here in Adelaide, I would move the paper to Sydney tomorrow. I am thinking of moving it anyway, but am waiting on some production estimates from Stuart Coupe.

The ‘brand spanking new’ advertising rate card offered the following pitch to advertisers.

Roadrunner is a monthly music magazine published in Adelaide and distributed throughout Australia, It provides in-depth coverage of the Australian music scene through its network of correspondents in all capital cities plus on the spot reports from writers overseas. The paper also includes a comprehensive review section which covers the latest album and single releases plus reviews of current films and books. Roadrunner has a distinctly Australian flavour for the simple reason that all articles and reviews are original, not reprinted from overseas magazines. If you are part of Australia’s ever growing music scene then Roadrunner is your paper.

The cost of a full-page ad was $280, half page $180. Inexcusably, no circulation or readership figures were included. Doh!

‘ … believe me hanging around record companies is one big drag—they’ll all be your friends superficially but that’s because they want things—it’s so nauseatingly insincere up here— …’ — Stuart Coupe.

Coupe sent me his thoughts about a proposed move to Sydney. In his considered opinion it was not a good idea. He felt the three important things were a regular contributors fee (‘even if it’s small it should be for all’); increased circulation in Sydney (‘have you suggested to Allan Rodney Wright that they flood shops with it?’) and sometime go fortnightly. ‘Given all this I realise you’re probably working your arse off just to keep things going,’ he conceded. And he was right! He said:

My feelings are the other three things are more important than sacrificing what appears to be an established production cycle—I’ll check but costs will skyrocket up here—no-one typesets for Clive’s price and no-one will print for anywhere (near) that money plus you’ve got the problem of finding more staff and let’s face it what extra could be done up here that you couldn’t do in Ad(elaide) or have me do here???????? … you really won’t get any closer to the higher echelons of record companies and the further you go up the worse they are—believe me hanging around record companies is one big drag—they’ll all be your friends superficially but that’s because they want things—it’s so nauseatingly insincere up here—the good thing about Adelaide is that you’re filtered from the bullshit …

I think the mag is at a crucial stage and if you keep up the present rate of work for another six months you’ll be here to stay for as long as you like and although a move to Sydney might be good then I think things would be thrown into chaos at this crucial time—my advice is get really established, get yourself a decent income equal to all the work you’re doing, start paying contributors, give me more to do, try to keep in closer contact and things’ll be great—what do ya think?

Anyway I better post this—keep it up—the paper gets better every issue and it’s important to keep it going, even if you’re bored shitless in Adelaide—Sydney has even more deadshits and most of them work in the music business …

I wrote to Keith Shadwick in London explaining the situation and he replied with the news that with the assistance of a somewhat exaggerated reference from Roadrunner, he had landed a position as editor of Music Trades International, a trade magazine, at a salary of £5500 p.a. and company car. ‘It won’t interfere with writing for Roadrunner,’ he assured me, ‘in fact it’ll help because I’ll then have a car and can go to a lot more gigs at night and out-of-town things.’

The communication from Melbourne was not so positive. In August, contributor Jillian Burt unloaded on the August issue (issue 16), saying it ‘has almost no redeeming features. You want criticism and comments, so here they are.’

‘Roadrunner as a whole is an in-joke, a slightly left-of-mainstream Juke. The paper is out-of-touch, has lost its impartiality and capacity for criticism.’ — Jillian Burt.

Roadrunner 16

Burt didn’t miss. Malicious Gossip was ‘overly smartarse and carelessly written and cumbersome to read.’ Stuart Coupe’s Jo Jo Zep piece was ‘ careless, gluggy and of no substance at all’. Keri Phillips’ interview with English rock journalists Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill of the New Musical Express was an ‘ “in media” wank’. The Young Modern story needed ‘more of them, less of Stuart (Coupe)’. The Angels—‘How tiresome, tedious, overdone. More Angels by Ross Stapleton, even more odious. It was an utter waste of space.’ She concluded:

Roadrunner as a whole is an in-joke, a slightly left-of-mainstream Juke. You are cast as the benevolent puppet of the record companies. The paper is out-of-touch, has lost its impartiality and capacity for criticism. With the tendency to cuddle up to hype so easily Roadrunner simpers not barks.

I donated articles and assistance to Roadrunner because I believed in the notion of a smart paper that concentrated on the small Australian bands without being afraid to step on record company toes. I believed Roadrunner to be a paper with foresight and objectivity, that it is not. I’m bitterly disappointed with your lack of regard for the contributors, financially and otherwise. I’m consequently relinquishing any association I have with Roadrunner. Prove me wrong, make Roadrunner worthwhile.

Ouch.

Jo Jo Zep at Target

Joe Camilleri from Jo Jo Zep doing what it takes to promote his new album Screaming Targets at the Sefton Park Shopping Centre, Main North Road, Adelaide in July 1979 (pic; Eric Algra)

In my September newsletter to contributors I announced that Rob James had joined the paper and would be handling administration and financial matters. ‘Rob used to work on an Adelaide mag called Magnetic Tadpole and has a long and murky record in enterprises of this type. He is in Melbourne at the moment trying to sort out the paper’s affairs over there (particularly the distribution).’ I also mentioned that Toby Creswell and Richard McGregor (Rolling Stone) had started writing for the paper.

One of the first things Rob James did was organise a contra deal through Ogilvy & Mather (Australia) with the coach company Ansett Pioneer. The deal was for 5 free-of-charge tickets Adelaide-Sydney return in return for a full-page ad. The deal enabled me to get up to Sydney, meet key contributors like Stuart Matchett, nail down some advertising contracts with record companies (including with Phil Mortlock at WEA and Martin Fabinyi at Regular Records) and generally hang out and network for a week or so in the buzzing Sydney scene.

We put together a benefit concert for the magazine in Adelaide—two local bands, Lemmy Caution and the U-Bombs donated their services and we brought the Boys Next Door over from Melbourne as headliners. Held at the Burnside Town Hall on 28 September, it was a mild success.

We put together a benefit concert for the magazine in Adelaide—two local bands, Lemmy Caution and the U-Bombs donated their services and we brought the Boys Next Door over from Melbourne as headliners.

On the Melbourne front, Bruce Milne tendered his resignation as Melbourne editor on 2 October. He wrote:

Not because of any great grudges or bullshit like that but because—
a) I’m not interested enough in the job and consequently aren’t committed enough
b) My involvement with other things makes it slightly unethical
c) I’m just too busy at present.

So my stand is—I’ll help in any way I can, I’ll remain a contributor, and aid you whenever necessary. OK?

Bruce followed up in November.

I’ve heard about the financial problems and I’m worried. I’m concerned firstly because I realize it’s a business with your name so that debts (ultimately) fall on your head. I’m also concerned because Roadrunner must continue. There is a huge need for it and despite any differences between us I don’t ever want to see it fail.

I have some suggestions:

1) A benefit concert in Melbourne. Stuart mentioned to me plans for one in Sydney. I’m sure I could organise one at the Crystal Ballroom early next year.
2) Roadrunner is still not reaching Melbourne shops. If you’ll give me the same cut as Melbourne W/salers I’ll distribute to the import shops.
3) Clint, Phil Brophy and I are bringing out a booklet of the complete Oz New Wave discography. Really complete—titles, catalogue #s, photos, studios used, producers, # pressed, release dates etc etc. When we’ve got it printed (Jan) and know how much it will cost you’re welcome to sell copies thru the mag and make a retailers profit.

I can’t stress enough that I want to see Roadrunner continue and will help if I’m needed. You’re always welcome to stay if you’re in town.

At the suggestion of Moira Manos, the new head of Virgin Records Australia, I send some copies of the mag to her brother in law, Chris Salewicz, a staff writer at New Musical Express in London. Chris wrote back in November and offered to do a ‘monthly think piece—with all relevant quotes—about what’s going on in London’. This didn’t eventuate, but he did contribute some impressive feature articles in the years to come.

Geoffrey Gifford moved out of Glen Osmond Road to a first floor studio at 240 Rundle Street in the city and the Roadrunner office moved to the front room of Robbie James’s house in Parkside.

The last four issues of the year contained some real highlights. The Knack/B52s/Sports cover in September (issue 17) was smart and cheeky. Geoffrey Gifford’s graphic ‘Powerpop’ cover for October (issue 18) was arty and classy—and the centrespread on Mental As Anything looked superb. The cover for issue 19 in November (a live shot of British rock’n’reggae band the Members) wasn’t outstanding, but issue 20—a double issue celebrating the end of the 70s—was far and away the best the magazine had yet produced.

Michelle Higgins and Donald Robertson

Having a quiet word in the ear of Michelle Higgins, National Promotions Manager for Mushroom Records, at the South Australian Music Awards, the Old Lion Hotel, North Adelaide, December 1979.

I don’t recall whether it was Ray Hearn and John Woodruffe of Dirty Pool (the Sydney management agency that had The Angels, Cold Chisel and Flowers) or Chris Gunn (who managed Adelaide politico-folkies Redgum), who introduced me to Phil Gerlach of G&S Management Services. Whoever it was, it was very welcome, and Roadrunner appointed G&S as accountants and financial and management consultants in January 1980. Apart from doing the books properly, G&S with its aura of respectability, was invaluable in negotiating an ongoing relationship with Bridge Press. This involved paying for each issue up front and knocking a bit off the accumulated debt every month—a satisfactory situation for both parties.

The reaction to the double issue has been most heartening. That is the standard of layout and design that all future editions must be judged on. The quality of the writing has always been excellent but finally I think we achieved a visual style that was commensurate with it.

I wrote to all contributors in January on my newly acquired second hand Olivetti portable typewriter.

Well, friends, the eighties start here. Contrary to what you may have heard, (if you haven’t, don’t worry about it) Roadrunner has not curled up and died. Financially things are tight (when haven’t they been?) particularly due to the extra expenditure involved in putting out the double edition, but with everything else looking so promising I certainly don’t feel that it’s time to throw in the towel.

The reaction to the double issue has been most heartening. That is the standard of layout and design that all future editions must be judged on. The quality of the writing has always been excellent but finally I think we achieved a visual style that was commensurate with it. I would like to thank you all for your contributions and I hope I can count on your continuing support for the year ahead.

To raise some much needed capital for the paper we have decided to put on benefits in Melbourne and Sydney. The Melbourne one is arranged for the 27th January at the Crystal Ballroom and will feature three top bands (details TBA).

Roadrunner has always been undercapitalised, in fact apart from a loan from Stuart Matchett early last year, the paper has survived on the money it has made from advertising and sales. Hopefully the money we make from these benefits will put us on a solid financial base. As you probably know, there is a considerable delay between putting an issue out and receiving sales money for it. With a monthly paper like RR it’s about two and a half months. If we had all the money from copies that we’ve sold we’d be fine.

Partly to speed up this process and partly to effectively compete with RAM, Juke and Rolling Stone, I have decided to publish the paper fortnightly from the first issue in February. I estimate that by the end of March the increased revenue from this move will enable us to pay contributors at the rate of $20 per thousand words. Payment has been a long time coming, but coming it is.

Another development that is going to increase our sales is the soon to be signed agreement with the Herald and Weekly Times for distribution in Victoria and Queensland. The agreement has been drawn up and sent to H&WT and we are just awaiting their formal approval.

It seemed Roadrunner could look forward to the 80s with some optimism.

However as the old proverb says, there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.

*          *          *

Main pic: The Hitmen covet the cover of Roadrunner at the Marryatville Hotel, Adelaide, August 1979. Left to right: Tony Vidale, Johnny Kannis, Chris Masuak, Warwick Gilbert and Mark Kingsmill.

Next: The History of Roadrunner—Part 3: Maturity Stage.

The History of Roadrunner (PDF 429 Kb)

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

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