How Roadrunner recorded our noisy history

By Nathan Davies
SA Weekend magazine, The Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 October 2019

To flick through the pages of The Big Beat – a bound collection of rock magazine Roadrunner – is to be transported to an Adelaide that no longer exists.

An Adelaide of smoke-filled, sticky-floored band rooms still a decade or two from being transformed into soulless pokie dens.

An Adelaide of photocopied band flyers sticky taped to Stobie poles and record shops – actual record shops – staffed by intimidating rock snobs ready to judge your every purchase.

Nick Cave is in the book, resplendent in a tuxedo out front of The Boys Next Door at the Highway Inn in Plympton. Yes, the Highway. There’s Debbie Harry, standing in front of a Datsun on Hindley St, holding what looks like a bag of onions with rock writer Stuart Coupe hanging out in the background in thongs and a knitted vest.

Bob Marley on stage at the Apollo, Joe Strummer at the Thebby, Peter Garrett at The Tivoli, Joe Camilleri at … the Sefton Park Target store.

For Donald Robertson, the man who founded and edited Roadrunner from 1978 until it finished in 1983, his dream was inspired by the punk fanzines that were popping up in the UK in 1976 and 1977.

“I was living there at the time, and I used to devour the weekly rock press,” Robertson says.

NME, Melody Maker, Sounds … and they talked about these fanzines that people like Mark P were creating, like Sniffin’ Glue and Other Rock ‘N’ Roll Habits. The message – certainly Mark P’s message – was ‘do it yourself’. That whole attitude, you know? Here’s a chord, here’s another one, here’s a third – now go form a band! It was an exaltation to inspire people who were moved by this music.”

Robertson was, very much, one of those “moved by this music”.

He remembers being so blown away by the Sex Pistols’ debut single ‘Anarchy in the UK’ that he hung his speakers out of his third-floor window so that the good burghers of Bath could hear this wonderful noise.

“I thought, ‘This is the sound of a youth revolution!’ It was so powerful, and it was so in tune with the times.”

When Robertson returned to Australia, he brought this zeal – and a stash of 25 new punk singles – with him. One person who shared this passion was writer and university newspaper editor Stuart Coupe, and the pair set about planning a fanzine of their own.

The zine was a minor hit, being distributed out of Adelaide record shop Modern Love Songs, and the pair were soon eyeing a larger prize. Roadrunner, named after the Jonathan Richman classic, was born.

“It grew very organically from the early issues, and got bigger and bigger as the year went on,” Robertson says.

“It was ‘South Australia only’ at first, but by the end of the first year I was faced with a choice and I quit my job and went for national distribution. We very quickly had an impact in New South Wales and Victoria.”

While punk music, and the punk ethos, was at the core of Roadrunner its team was never restricted to one genre.

“Our pitch was to write about the Adelaide music scene – the local acts and the acts that were coming through,” Robertson says.

“We’d write about The Beach Boys, Dylan, Weather Report, Chick Corea, even Billy Connolly. By the end of that first year though I realised that there wasn’t enough going on in Adelaide to sustain things and I’d have to write about what was going on in Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane, too.”

It was, Robertson says, a hand-to-mouth existence, with each issue of Roadrunner financing the next. On some occasions it was only the money he raised through flogging sample LPs to second-hand record shops that kept the whole operation afloat. It was never, however, not fun. When pushed to pick a favourite show from his time at Roadrunner, Robertson baulks

“How about a top three?” he asks.

“That would be The Clash at the Thebarton Theatre, an absolutely stunning show. No Fixed Address, they made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. They were so young, so different, so Aboriginal. And then probably Midnight Oil on Adelaide Uni’s Barr Smith Lawns. I was side stage, up close, and Midnight Oil in full flight were white hot.”

The Big Beat: Rock Music in Australia 1978-83, through the pages of Roadrunner magazine will be launched on October 16 at The Howling Owl, Vaughan Place, from 5.30pm. Signed copies will be available for $99. The book will be sold at: Dymocks, Imprints Booksellers, Dillons Books, Matilda Bookshop, Streetlight, Clarity Records, Big Star Records, Mr V Music.

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