The glory and the madness of being a ’60s and ’70s Australian pop singer
- 1 of 3
- next ›
It begins in Brisbane in the late ’60s, when I was 11 and 12 years old. The Saturday afternoons were never-ending and on some of them, because of rain or there being no friends in the neighbourhood to play with, I’d lie on the floor of my parents’ lounge room, my chin cupped in my hands, looking at young men sing songs on TV about girls they loved, or girls who weren’t easy to love, or raindrops, or someone who’d “gone off to the Asian war”. And there were groups too, such as The Town Criers, Zoot and The Valentines, and although they were impressive, the miming and performance of the songs seemed more convincing when there was just one person to carry the façade, not a whole group bobbing and weaving pretending to be a ‘live’ band. The lone singer, the pop star, would draw you in and hold you, although you knew it was all make-believe.
The shows were called Uptight, Happening 70 and Happening 71, and they lasted for hours. It was possible to watch ten songs, leave during Johnny Farnham singing ‘Rose Coloured Glasses’, go and watch a soccer match, play with friends and then do some shopping with Mum and Dad, and walk back into the house and turn on to the Master’s Apprentices going into ‘5.10 Man’. The shows had pop-singer hosts who announced with a blend of jocularity and seriousness (mindful of a potential future career in TV) an array of Australian groups and singers performing their latest singles, interspersed with some very primitive overseas footage, proto-film clips of famous foreign acts. TV was still broadcast in black and white, and sometimes on these Brisbane afternoons when the sun was particularly strong, it would beam through the curtains and the figures on the screen, noble and full of life only seconds before, would with too much light turn to ghosts.
I didn’t buy any of the music I saw. I was too young, I had no record player and I was the eldest son of a sports-mad family. Soon, though, my parents bought me a small record player and at 16, with the savings from a Christmas job, I bought a stereo system with speakers and a guitar. Then came Countdown in late 1974, at first in black and white, and a few months later in glorious, eye-averting colour. Pop music suddenly looked like pop music should, and the late-’60s music shows were now “the silents” to Countdown’s “talkies” – it was a new era. Only a precious few of the older pop singers from the Uptight days made the leap to Countdown; Johnny Farnham hosted the first hour-long colour edition, but he was quickly gone – and there was no Ronnie Burns or Normie Rowe or Ross D Wylie or Issi Dye. The new pop star, made, it was claimed, by Countdown’s producers through the power and influence of the program itself, was John Paul Young. His real name was John Young; the ‘Paul’ was added to distinguish him from the pop singer and songwriter Johnny Young, who in the new decade was now the ‘father’ figure on Young Talent Time. John Paul Young’s first big hit was ‘Yesterday’s Hero’.
With Countdown just a small part of a wall of music I was listening to, I started my own band, The Go-Betweens, with fellow Queensland University student Grant McLennan in Brisbane in 1978. I was now recording, singing and writing songs myself, and after a few years we went off to England too, just like The Easybeats, Axiom and The Groop did back in the ’60s. The Go-Betweens stayed in London for five years, and from there we made albums, toured the world and kept ourselves busy in the hunt for recognition and success. The music of Uptight and Happening 70 was far behind me, and when interviewers asked about my influences I’d rattle off a long list of artists and groups that ran back to Bowie and Dylan and Buddy Holly. The Australian songs I had listened to as a 12-year-old either didn’t seem important enough to mention, or I assumed the names Ronnie Burns or Russell Morris would not register for Dutch or German rock journalists.
The first glimpse of a return came in the late ’80s, when Hey Hey It’s Saturday – a TV show loosely styled on the old Melbourne pop programs – ran a special on the ’60s, and there on stage, sitting in front of a backstage mirror, was Ross D Wylie singing his biggest hit, the gorgeous Johnny Young-penned anthem ‘The Star’. It was devastating television. The song had become a prophecy: all the string-driven angst of the original recording and its tale of a stranded pop star was now locked into Wylie’s face. The song’s chorus, “Here comes the star / he’s the idol of all the world”, had once been a declaration, but in light of the former Uptight host’s halting career it was possible to give the song a more tragic reading, and to Wylie’s great credit he did so. In the years that followed there was no link as singular or direct as this again, but I’d hear the odd song on golden-oldie AM radio, or I’d buy a greatest hits compilation for just one or two key tracks: Russell Morris singing ‘The Girl That I Love’, or Normie Rowe’s magic double punch ‘Ooh La La’ and ‘It’s Not Easy’, or anything from the Bee Gees between 1966 and 1970 – ‘I’ve Just Got To Get a Message to You’, ‘To Love Somebody’ and the one that started it all, their first big hit and the last song released before they sailed to England, ‘Spicks and Specks’.
In late 2009 I was in Melbourne for a meeting about a songwriters’ festival; among the participants was John Blanchfield. Halfway through the discussion I knew who he was, or had been – he was a ’60s pop star, a minor one, but his name had hung in my memory. After the meeting I asked if I could talk to him about his time as a pop singer. He told me of being 20 years old and driving to a Brisbane pub to be picked up in a van and taken to a lift in the basement of one of the city department stores. The lift would deliver him to a makeshift stage near the record department where 300 to 400 girls would be waiting. He’d mime to his latest single and then be bustled back to the lift with his clothes and composure in shreds. He’d get back in the van, be driven to his car at the pub, and then he’d go home. That was a routine Saturday morning in 1966. When he finished that story, he sat forward and said to me, “You can’t imagine what that was like.” I wanted to.
Then I met John Paul Young. It was March 2010 and the SBS TV show RocKwiz was in Brisbane for a two-night run of concerts and I was asked to sing a song. I’d be sharing a dressing room with the RocKwiz band and John Paul Young for both nights; this would be the second real pop star I’d ever met in my life, with only four months between each encounter.
The RocKwiz band had done the Countdown Spectacular tour in 2007 and they told me they’d given John Paul Young “the most likeable guy of the tour” award. It was easy to see why: he didn’t seem to have many scars, or airs, and he was comfortable sitting backstage joking and chatting. He talked of Sydney suburban dances in the late ’60s with his first band, Elm Tree, being auditioned by Jim Sharman for the first production of Jesus Christ Superstar, recording ‘Pasadena’, working with Vanda and Young, and being coached on how to sing ‘Love Is In The Air’. He was loose and happy, with hilarious stories of touring North Queensland with Sherbert. I also asked him about the art of pop singing, where and how he learned his gestures and technique, who had told him things. And I got to see him perform ‘Love Is In The Air’ from side of stage each night – JPY had it all: the slow wave of the arm, the judicious use of the smile, the tilted head as he sang, the rising on his toes as the song climbed: I wondered as I watched from the wings, was this a dying art?
That night I went home and wrote in my diary: “Met John Paul Young. Different era – he’s Australia’s Frank Sinatra. I’m thinking of a big pop article for the Monthly. Title – ‘Scream’. The good-looking boy singers from Normie to JPY. 1964–78 at a guess – ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ to ‘Love Is In The Air’. The hook is being a pop star when being a pop star meant something: mind derangement and thousands of girls tearing at your clothes, management sending you on mad tours, record companies with no thought of you beyond tomorrow. Groupies and cops at your door, and whether you have a job next week hanging on having a hit single. Imagine living that.”
There was one other thing: the songs. They are still brilliant and were always ambitious, but there are not too many of them. Pop singers, especially in the ’60s and early ’70s, did not make great albums. All the magic coalesced in the single. For the pop singer, the single is what the two-hour movie is to the film director or the novel is to the writer, and just as much preparation, work, love and agony goes into it. If a film director or a novelist can count three or four masterpieces on their hand and be acclaimed for these, why not the pop star? It was the songs written predominantly by Australians and recorded mostly in Melbourne in the late ’60s, which I heard and saw as a 12-year-old, that have come to mean so much to me as I have got older. What I didn’t catch in my parents’ lounge room was the reaction the songs were getting when performed outside the TV studio. They generated riots, interactions between crowd and solo performer in under-policed, low-staged concert halls that are completely unimaginable today. Photographs of the time show scenes of anarchy and high drama. Pop stars were living electric lives. It lasted a short time for some, longer for others; it was music delivered to screams. I wondered what that was like – and, when it was over, what that was like too.
It was October 1966 and the streets of Swinging London must have seemed very quiet to Normie Rowe. For the last 18 months, and 10,000 miles away, life had been lived at the ear-splitting volume of mid-’60s pop-stardom. He’d been the golden boy and no one was a bigger star or a bigger draw than he. It had been a rocket ride, and with him had been his band, The Playboys, his record label boss, Ivan Dayman, his record producer, Pat Aulton, his mentors, including 3KZ disc jockey Stan Rofe, his thousands of fans, his friends, his loving large family; and now every piece of that chain had been broken in an attempt to make Normie Rowe an international star. One person had been sent as an advance party to size up London and secure him a record deal, and that was Brisbane boy Ritchie Yorke. He was 21, Normie was 19 – everyone in the ’60s is young, and big decisions are going to be made. Armed with only a scrapbook filled with concert photos and articles, the very stuff of Normie’s recent life, and the phone number of The Seekers’ tour manager, Yorke had secured a record deal for his charge with the newly founded, Deutsche Grammophon–backed Polydor records. Normie Rowe was their third signing; the first two were The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream.
Yorke had also been scouring the London music publishers for songs for Normie to record. There were two that stood out: ‘Ooh La La’ and ‘It’s Not Easy’. Crucially they had not been covered and were ballads, the form that best suited Rowe’s voice and temperament. They were recorded separately but with the same producers over the next months. Lyrically the songs speak to each other. ‘Ooh La La’, with its aching opening line, “I said I loved you, but I lost my head over you”, is someone squeezing out of a relationship they no longer want, while ‘It’s Not Easy’ is the begging, “How much more do you need to keep you satisfied?”, of someone who wants the other person to stay. Normie plays both roles, luxuriating in the sacrifice of one, desperate and imploring in the other, and aided by a rich reverb-laden sound he delivers two of the greatest vocal performances ever given by an Australian in a recording studio. ‘It’s Not Easy’, done in a first take, is especially strong, with Normie loading emotion using fantastic control and attack. He’s been taken there by the production: ‘Ooh La La’ is stately, ‘It’s Not Easy’ is full Walker Brothers cinemascope with a 36-piece orchestra, prominent timpani, cascading piano runs, and the bass at a ridiculous level pumping the run-out choruses. These records are an island and also represent a magic moment lost. ‘It’s Not Easy’ will not chart in the UK; both songs will be smashes back in Australia, bringing Normie home. Here they will be influential records, setting a benchmark that Australian pop singers will try to reach over the next few years.
Normie was the break from the late-’50s and early ’60s rockers such as Johnny O’Keefe, Johnny Chester and Billy Thorpe. He was the first true ’60s pop star in Australia, and it is hard for anyone under 50 to realise just how big and successful he was, particularly from ’65 to ’66. The dividing line had been The Beatles, whose early singles, with their pace and melodic sophistication, had ended the first golden age of rock ’n’ roll. The ’60s were on, and Normie was young enough to position himself after the Fab Four and release his first records into a pop scene hungry for good-looking boys who could sing.
Ronnie Burns was a window dresser in Myers in Melbourne in 1964. He was proud of one particular display and thought he was being called to management offices for praise only to be told he had a decision to make: either cut his hair or be fired. (Normie had heard this ultimatum already from his employer PMG, a forerunner to Telstra, and he’d quit, corporate Australia not being awake to the changing times.) Ronnie was soon on the street, final pay packet in hand and with one determined new thought: “I want my name in lights.” He was handsome, a smart dresser and possessed a pleasant, smooth-sounding voice, all the qualifications you needed for a shot at ’60s pop-stardom. By ’66 he had a stint in a group called The Flies behind him and was a solo artist putting out singles that were hitting the lower levels of the Melbourne charts; he needed a break. It came from Sydney, two unreleased songs sent down by the Bee Gees: ‘Exit, Stage Right’ and ‘Coalman’. Both songs were smart, Revolver-influenced pop, and with his voice recorded over the existing backing tracks, Ronnie became a bona fide pop star and for a short time the challenger to London-based Normie.
Barry Gibb is the crown prince of Australian pop, and although the Bee Gees will leave Sydney for England at the very end of ’66 with only their first-ever hit ‘Spicks and Specks’ in the charts, they will be an absent but continuing influence on the Australian pop scene for the following years. The mere fact that this extraordinarily talented set of brothers were in and around the scene will have its impact, as will the songs they give to artists such as Ronnie Burns and Jon Blanchfield. In 1967 Johnny Young, another Melbourne-based pop star with a similar set of talents to Ronnie Burns but with perhaps a lick more show business and sugar, leaves for the lights of London as well. There he is anointed with a new Bee Gees’ song, ‘Craise Finton Park’, as his first British single and, more importantly, receives tuition from Barry Gibb in the art of pop songwriting. The results will be an amazing run of quality songs; from his return in early ’68 Johnny Young joins an unlikely group of songwriters, including future hippie hit-maker Hans Poulsen, ex-Twilights member Terry Britten, and Brian Cadd and Don Mudie from Axiom who produce the biggest concentration of Australian material ever to hit the top of the charts.
‘Age of Consent’ and ‘Smiley’, written by Terry Britten and Johnny Young respectively, were songs that satisfied a wish in Ronnie Burns, shared by many other pop singers, to sing more meaningful lyrics as the ’60s progressed. They were his most successful singles and his best, and they were aided by two changes that swept through late-’60s pop making: advances in recording technology, which gave more options to overdub instruments to create a deeper, richer sound, and the advent of psychedelia. It made for an odd coupling, the conservative nature of chart pop and the sounds dreamt up by musicians on mind-expanding drugs, but pop soaked up psychedelia very well; hit records now had flutes and piccolos wailing in the chorus, dense orchestration in odd places, ringing 12-string guitars intros and choirs. It also brought in a wardrobe change: out went the mod suits and Cuban heels and in came the swirling coloured shirts and brocade jackets. A look at TV footage of Ronnie Burns shows him riding this wave perfectly, and with ‘Smiley’ he had his first and only number one hit in December ’69. The follow-up single, ‘Prophet’, though, was a step too far. It had the message – “Hari rama hari krishna / show me the way” was the opening line – but it didn’t have the prerequisite for pop in any era: a good tune.
There are many ways of measuring and charting the changes in the ’60s in Australia and there’s also a shortcut: look at the career and personage of Ian Meldrum. Born, as most prominent ’60s musicians and singers were, in the years just after World War II, he was by the early ’60s living in Melbourne with a diverse set of interests that included surfing at Port Leo, musicals (West Side Story, Hello Dolly, My Fair Lady), studying law, and a growing involvement with pop music resulting in him being thrown out of The Beatles’ June ’64 concert for “over-enthusiasm”. Plus he spent nine years living in Ronnie Burns’s house with the Burns family. It would require a Tom Wolfe to properly scope the dimensions of the Meldrum personality and the rapid career it facilitated, but, as the decade proceeds, Meldrum’s influence grows. He manages Russell Morris’ first band, Somebody’s Image, producing their first hit, ‘Hush’, and then when Morris goes solo, he secures ‘The Real Thing’ from Johnny Young and produces it. He will mime to records on Kommotion, he will be in London with The Groop, he will co-produce ‘Smiley’ and he will, through his pop column in the premier music magazine Go-Set, introduce a dizzy camp style of reporting that is very ‘pop’ and that comes to flavour the Australian pop scene for many years, including on Countdown. And it will be through the pages of Go-Set that he will gain the ‘Molly’ moniker from fellow columnist Stan ‘The Man’ Rofe, and from these pages ‘Molly’ will tangle with another man with a woman’s name, Darryl ‘Sadie’ Sambell – Johnny Farnham’s manager.
John Farnham hates his first single, ‘Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)’, but actually it’s not as bad as some other ’60s hits: it has some charm and it is sung well. The scarring for Farnham perhaps comes from having begun his career with a novelty song and for that single to have then become the biggest-selling Australian record of the ’60s. He can’t escape it. Some of the singles he made after ‘Sadie’ are good: ‘Friday Kind of Monday’ is fine sunshine pop, and the two Hans Poulsen songs, ‘Jamie’ and ‘Rose Coloured Glasses’, are beautifully written soft psychedelia. Other big hits followed, including ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ (a number one hit) and ‘One’, but all the time with Farnham there are forces pulling at him that are particular to the ’60s pop star. A manager who doesn’t want you to marry, and who is pulling you to more middle-of-the-road, light-entertainment career choices, is the same person who has brought you success – and anyway, it’s too late to go back to the trade job now. Farnham resembled Ronnie Burns and Johnny Young in his lovability and poise, but he also resembled Johnny O’Keefe and Normie Rowe in his having a big voice; unlike the latter two, though, his demons were under control. By ’71 he was in the musical comedy Charlie Girl and in dire need of a new manager.
1971 was also the year of the Bee Gees’ triumphant return tour to Australia – much had changed for them. They now had a set full of worldwide top-ten hits, and a film of their concert in Melbourne shows a band at the peak of its power. There is an orchestra onstage conducted by their string arranger Bill Shepard, and just an electric guitarist and drummer to support Barry Gibb’s guitar and Maurice Gibb’s bass and piano, but the balance is just right. The Bee Gees also look the best they ever will: suits and waistcoats, beards on Barry and Maurice, and a sense of command in their eyes as the drums and strings surge through the songs. This was the homecoming of a style of songwriting and a style of performance that had been very influential on Australian pop over the previous five years. Johnny Young had learnt at their feet, and the hypnotically paced, story-lined songs with big choruses were one legacy, and the sincerity and ache of their delivery from pop singers such as Ronnie Burns, Ross D Wylie and Johnny Farnham was another. From The Beatles at Festival Hall in ’64 to the Bee Gees in ’71 – it is tempting to see these concerts as bracketing an era.
The unpredictability and speed of musical change in the ’60s music scene had been remarkable. A fleet-footed musician would have been playing surf guitar in ’62, beat and blues licks in ’64, choppy garage rock in ’66 and dreamy wah-wahed mayhem by ’68; and there were bands who went through all these styles and had the photos to prove it. The motor was extraordinarily high record sales – numbers that dwarf the Top 40 of today. It was, though, a very tribal scene: primitive telecommunications and expensive air travel had each capital city as a fiefdom in the hands of the local pop TV show, mad radio DJs, hometown band support, fan clubs and independent record labels. Pop stars had to ride this hurricane. One worry was the draft. And a look at the virtually unchanged line-ups of the top pop groups and pop singers reveals very few got the call-up or answered it. The most prominent person to serve in Vietnam was Normie Rowe and it derailed his career. He returned in ’70 to a much-changed music scene, losing his pop crown much as O’Keefe had done with the coming of The Beatles. Many years later Johnny Young admitted that the real subject of ‘Smiley’ – the story of the young boy who “went off to the Asian war” and lost his laughter – was his friend Normie Rowe.
The final jump to Countdown can seem far (it didn’t as a teenager), and the show can be regarded as both the start of a brand-new pop world and the end result of a number of forces that run back to the ’60s. Countdown certainly believed in the pop star, but the young audience’s need for fresh faces meant moving the ’60s pop singers out of the limelight, a sad twist given that certain acts the show venerated, such as Rod Stewart, Bon Scott and three of the members of ABBA, were actually older than Normie Rowe. But what counted was not having a past. The next generation of pop fans, known as ‘teenyboppers’, didn’t want dreamy-eyed men singing string-driven ballads, they wanted something more gritty, with more stomp to the beat. John Paul Young sang through his teeth and didn’t gaze at the stars; he was cheeky too, the girls liked that, and one time on Countdown he changed an introduction he was supposed to give and casually said what could be the most famous line uttered in the history of Australian pop: “Now here’s boring old Molly with his boring old humdrum.” Meldrum had finally been outed on TV.
Ronnie Burns is probably the performer I remember most from watching Uptight. Before I interviewed him in an upstairs cafe in Launceston in early September, he told me two things: “I live in the present” and “I’m very proud of the music that I made.” They were statements of intent. In person Ronnie talked happily and candidly of the ’60s and early ’70s – the hot years of his days as a pop star; and he was equally forthcoming on the ups and downs over the decades that followed.
He has two passions today. One is his wife, to whom he has been married for 40 years. Ronnie is proud to note that he was the first big pop star to marry. His manager was against it, worried that his female fans would desert him. Ronnie and Maggie went through with the ceremony, with hundreds of fans outside the church and Molly as matron of honour. When I listen back to the tape of our interview, there is a noticeable lift in his voice when Maggie enters the story. “I’d just thought I’d seen an angel,” he says of their first meeting and, most engagingly from a grade-A ’60s pin-up boy, “I didn’t have to be a chick magnet anymore.” She helped inspire Burns, the son of a butcher, to read books, and this is perhaps the far-off starting point of what has drawn both of them to the greatest project of their lives. The Appin Hall Children’s Foundation is a self-sustaining refuge for children suffering from serious illness or destitution. After a two-hour interview and despite his need to get away, his enthusiasm can’t stop him from rolling out the architectural plans he’s just picked up, which show the remarkable village he and Maggie are on the way to building.
John Farnham was the one pop singer I didn’t get to interview, and that was factored in from the start. He was the one who got away, the one who went from grainy black-and-white pop-show footage to the wide-screen Technicolor of ’80s stadium-rock success. It was Johnny Farnham, out of all the ’60s boys, who forged the golden career; there may have been some intimation of it back then through singing power and stagecraft, but any reading of his career shows someone who has fought his way to the top out of some very tight corners. Guiding him since 1980 has been his manager, Glenn Wheatley, and, just as there has been no success story as big and long in Australian rock as Farnham’s, there has also been no tighter or more scrutinised artist–manager relationship than theirs. Wheatley has one other place in the story, being the bass player in the Master’s Apprentices from ’68 to ’71, and as I walked down the long stairs to his rented Point Piper apartment I didn’t know if I was more excited to be meeting Australia’s most famous rock manager or the guy I saw swinging a bass next to Jim Keays on ‘Turn Up Your Radio’.
Wheatley is surprising. I was expecting someone ‘bigger’, definitely someone with more show business in them. He is quiet, interested and polite. He comes from Brisbane and as an 18-year-old was organising gigs successfully enough to incur the wrath of the local promoter and to buy himself a new car. His entrepreneurial skills were already there and so, surprisingly, was the friendship with Farnham. The bass player with the bad boys of pop and the squeaky-clean pop singer would seem odd acquaintances, but both had Darryl Sambell as a manager, and one of the features of the ’60s music scene is how close the bands and the pop stars were, the gap between rock and pop only growing as the ’70s progressed. Wheatley is proud but not effusive about his time in the Master’s Apprentices; when he does sit forward on the edge of his chair and become really animated, he’s talking about the strategies involved in the release of John Farnham’s new album and the regional-city tour he is undertaking. This still fires him, and the sentence I have in my head when leaving is this: Glenn Wheatley is a manager with a rock-star past, not a rock star who became a manager.
The next day a train from Sydney Central takes me up to a small town 20 minutes south of Newcastle, where John Paul Young and his son pick me up and take me to their house. John left Sydney, selling up in Bondi in the late ’80s, and he is happy in modesty, anonymity and backwoods comfort. He is a lovely man and amazingly grounded considering all that has happened in his professional life. He was born in Glasgow in 1950, and is just three years younger than Normie Rowe. “He was the first King of Pop and I was the last,” he will say, and later I will hold the 1978 TV Week King of Pop Award that is kept over the fireplace. He tells me many interesting things: how he turned down the chance to be the next David Cassidy in the US, how he ended up taking over Stevie Wright’s band in the ’70s, and that any other singer would have ridden the overseas success of ‘Love Is In The Air’ much further than he did. I ask him if he has any regrets about that, and he tells me that if his mum and dad had stayed in working-class Glasgow and not come to Australia, he would have been married at 17 and had five kids by the time he was 25; everything John Paul Young has done has been weighed against that potential outcome.
I arrive at Molly’s Melbourne house at 11 am and he is up and padding around with bare feet, all in black, offering the first of what will be constant rounds of coffee. He presents a contrast to his onscreen persona, physically less imposing but verbally far better. We cover the ’60s, and I have to pull him up at one stage and ask exactly how he did it – how he managed in the space of 18 months to go from roadie-ing for The Groop, to appearing on Kommotion, to producing big-hit records. His answer doesn’t cover the machinations of the process, but it evokes the spirit: “I was a bit of a gypsy … a surfing mentality was almost a nomadic mentality … in a nomadic life you learn to mix with different people.” The next day he is to fly off to interview Bruce Springsteen, Susan Boyle and Mariah Carey.
I’d left the interview with Normie Rowe to last. His friends had told me that he could be “difficult”. They didn’t have to: all the others’ lives, Farnham’s included, run on lines that are relatively straight – all four former pop stars are still in relationships that began when they were pop singers. By contrast, Normie’s story is built on mountains and deep valleys, triumph and tragedy, on-camera punch-ups and Vietnam, years in the clubs, a son who died young, marriages – there is a whirlwind around Normie and all of it is in his music. It’s the voice and what goes into the voice; he will explain to me the “emotional loading” he puts into songs, how before doing a vocal for a recent number he gauged all that he could put into his performance and then pulled back two-thirds, and if you’ve heard the one-third he did give, you can only wonder what will happen on the day when Normie Rowe gives 100% in a recording studio. The building will collapse.
He wasn’t difficult, he wasn’t hard, he was fantastic, and for three and a half hours I spoke with a ‘music man’. He went into blues, soul, spirituals, seeing Hendrix, Dylan and Pink. He acknowledged Stan Rofe, and the amount of singing and performing he did before becoming famous. This was important, as was the balance and warmth he got from his family. We covered his pop-star years and he confirmed that for all the success and adulation there was no real money made in the ’60s by the artists. The screams and hysteria onstage and the madness and pace offstage seemed distant to him now, as it did for the others. There was still a tiny sense of embarrassment in all of them that their music had provoked such a hysterical response, but it was a long time ago and they were young, so young.
Everyone in the ’60s is young, and they are in recording studios, on radio, at the top of the charts, and all of this is happening for the first time – the refinements will come in the following decades, and by then everyone with power will be older and wiser. But once upon a time …
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.