Almanac Music: In Praise of Lucky Oceans – and Robyn and Doug

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone

(Joni Mitchell)

 

There will be some of the opinion that ABC Radio National began a significant downhill slide at the time of the airing of the final episode of The Goon Show. The reverently irreverent, zany piece of post-war British surrealism had been banished to the unearthly timeslot of 5.30 am or some-such before Neddy Seagoon, Bloodnock, Eccles and all the gang finally got the chop. As Bluebottle would say “You rotten swine, you!”

 
And it continues. They’ve done it again, the rotten swines. The Daily Planet has been axed. The wonderful music show hosted by Lucky Oceans for the past 21 of its 26-year existence met its demise on 20 January. Decommissioned. Tragedy.

 
Whether or not the ABC has put up a parking lot is debatable but they have certainly paved paradise. For this was no ordinary music show. It was amazing. Listeners were provided with the opportunity to listen to and importantly, to learn so much more about music from Lucky and co-hosts Robyn Johnston and Doug Spencer. Every program brought a fusion of musical ideas. Often music from a well-known artist would be linked with a style of music or a performer the listener had never heard before. The extensive knowledge and research of the presenters produced diverse, erudite playlists that encompassed all manner of different instruments, artists and music. The overall production was of the highest quality. And it all added up to a wonderful journey through the music of the world.

 
In one of the programs during their final week, the three compadres were back together again. With great pride and equal humility the three spoke of the genesis of the program and of what it had become. The program began in 1990 after ABC management approached Robyn Johnston with the view of producing an evening music program to replace the mainly jazz influenced Round Midnight. Perth based Johnston, an experienced broadcaster with a “sense of audience”, co-opted Doug Spencer who possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of music and a capacity to work long hours. Rather than simply reading the liner notes from a grab-bag of CDs from the ABC sound library, the curated program involved rigorous research and a depth of content.

 
The Nightly Planet ran for two hours each evening for several years before the program was expanded to become a daily afternoon program as well and the mellifluous voice of Lucky Oceans was heard over the airwaves. Lucky had no prior experience in broadcasting but was an experienced musician who had gained fame playing pedal steel guitar as a member of the Grammy Award winning group Asleep At The Wheel. A search of Lucky’s biography will reward music trivia buffs with the link between Lucky and guitar maestro Michael Bloomfield.

 
Lucky’s vast music knowledge and his on-air delivery added another dimension to the Daily Planet. It was as if he and his musical guests had set up in the lounge in the home of the listener or the audience was transported to a music café or bar somewhere. The old steam radio at its finest.

 
The program encompassed the music of many different ethnic groups from all around the world in a variety of genres – jazz, blues, folk, roots, world and contemporary.

 
A great partnership blossomed between the three presenters. Both Robyn and Lucky have paid tribute to Doug for the building and development of the music resources. In the early 90s, the “democritisation of recording” led to a flourish of CD recordings, particularly from non-Western sources. Doug had a particular talent for sorting the interesting from the dross, the gems from the ordinary. He established a comprehensive sound library in the Perth studios of the ABC, the source of the program. He produced biographies of artists and placed post-it notes concerning significant track selections on CD’s. As a music buff in his teenage years Doug was entranced by the haunting bass of Richard Davis heard on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Further investigation into Davis led Doug to the music of Chick Corea and a link was made.

 
In similar manner, the Daily Planet always made interesting and often unexpected links and connections in music. Each program became a composition in itself due to the manner in which the playlist selections complemented each other. Alongside contemporary sounds, programs would introduce the audience to not-often-heard instruments such as the Norwegian drone fiddle, the long-necked wire-strung lute, the bodhran, the oud, the bouzoukis and even a gadulka (a Bulgarian fiddle) or a balafon (wooden xylophone).
A listener would hear Georgian lullabies, Klezmer music, Brazilian grooves, Flamenco guitar, the music of Mali, Bulgarian dance music, Asian flavours or Cuban jazz in company with classic New Orleans rhythm and blues.

 
One program featured the voice, and many different sounds that may be produced from that one primal instrument – Minnie Ripperton, Jackie Wilson and Hank Williams were heard alongside Tuvan throat singers, a Sardinian choir and artists from the North of India, the Congo and Hawaii.

 
Social issues were also tackled, subtly, without preaching. Chip Taylor (he wrote Wild Thing) was featured with songs he had written after hearing the stories of prison inmates and in a later program Refugee Children, a song concerning refugee children he met while on tour in Sweden.

 
Every now and then a guest presenter would appear with Lucky – Don Walker, Kasey Chambers, Stephen Pigram, members of the touring Louisiana swamp heritage band Lil’ Band O’ Gold (with whom Lucky played pedal steel guitar on their Australian tour of 2012, including the legendary Moruya concert which I was fortunate to attend) and even Tom Waits. The program showcasing the music and musical influences of Stephen Pigram produced a rare gem in the form of 1960s indigenous artist Dougie Young singing The Land Where the Crow Flies Backward. Lucky described it as “Slim Dusty meets Leadbelly”.

 
Australian artists and their music whether jazz, folk, blues or contemporary were integral to The Daily Planet. The aforementioned Perry Keyes (see http://www.footyalmanac.com.au/sunnyholt-perry-keyes/) was among them.
And there it is – gone. First, the afternoon Daily Planet was truncated and then cut completely. Now the evening edition has disappeared from the airwaves. Musician Heath Cullen (see http://heathcullen.com/news/2016/11/22/save-abc-radio-national-music) states that “In Lucky’s show, I found a daily dose of new inspiration and discovered much of the music that would become a tangible part of who I am as an artist, as a human.”

 
As well as the Daily Planet, other quality music programs have also met their demise including The Inside Sleeve (considerably improved under the stewardship of presenter Paul Gough), the immediacy of live performance heard in Alice Keith’s The Live Set (you can still catch the final few programs at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/liveset/past-programs/), a gold nugget in the form of The Rhythm Divine hosted by Geoff Wood and the at times manic musical offerings from Michael Mackenzie on RN Afternoons. In an open letter (see https://www.savernmusic.com/open-letter/ ) and accompanying petition (signed by over twenty thousand supporters) to the ABC Board and Managing Director Michelle Guthrie, over one hundred Australia music luminaries and organisations representing many thousands of music lovers lamented the cuts which “contradict the intent and spirit of the ABC Charter”. The Charter outlines, as part of its function, “broadcasting programs that contribute a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian Community” and to “encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia.”

 
Things don’t last forever, I know. We have been fortunate that Lucky, Robyn, Doug and company were afforded artistic freedom by ABC management for all this time.

 
And what of the future? At this stage ABC digital radio (Double J) music is no replacement. It is not heard on a national basis and much of it presenter-less or narrow themed. They sorely need someone like Doug and his post-it notes. Maybe it’s the music they play but for me it just doesn’t cut the mustard. Much of it is similar to podcasts available from all over. I don’t get the sense that I am sharing the musical moment – Lucky is not in the room.

 
What remains on ABC Radio National is a groundhog day of some very good (and some very ordinary) spoken word programs. Many of these can be heard as podcasts while past editions of the Daily Planet cannot. Ironically there now appear to be more repeats on RN than one would hear on a FM station playing golden oldies. However, the outstanding ABC Music Show remains. On a recent exceptional program celebrating the music legacy of Chuck Berry, presenter Andrew Ford and guest Brian Ritchie (Violent Femmes) connected the dots between the lyrics of Chuck’s Too Much Monkey Business and Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Lucky Oceans would have done that – and then some.

I just want to hear some rhythm
I want a thousand guitars
I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices speaking in tongues

(Bruce Springsteen)

 

Lucky Oceans

About Peter Crossing

Peter Crossing loves the pure ‘n natch’l blues. A conflicted Crows supporter and former resident of Canberra, he has enjoyed the fact that GWS brought an exciting style of Australian football to the National capital. He is a member of the silver fox faction of the Adelaide Uni Greys.

Comments

  1. Yes, very sad. Life’s rhythms take you here and there and for a while I was hearing Lucky Oceans mid-afternoon. It was a great discovery and he became a go-to.

    Thanks for this piece.

  2. ‘The Inside Sleeve’, now Lucky. RN is going to hell.

  3. Colin Ritchie says:

    Together with Brian Wise from “Off the Record” on 3RRR, Lucky introduced me to so much music I would never have heard, and I thank both for opening up my mind to a wider and greater diversity of music that now sits in my music collection.

  4. Peter_B says:

    Well said PC. As a folkie/roots/alt-country/jangly pop music fan (with bits of anything melodic – jazz, classical, world – thrown in) – I was a fan of Lucky and the Daily Planet crew when work permitted me to listen. Not often and AM radio is not a good source for music clarity. But it was often stimulating.

    The media/entertainment access world is changing so rapidly with digital and on-line technology. I can remember as an SA country teenager listening to Chris Winter’s Room to Move bouncing in off the ionosphere late at night from Sydney on my housebrick tranny. Heard so many things I would never have heard on Adelaide pop stations. I still have the Mahavishnu Orchestra vinyl in the shed somewhere!!
    How to find and support interesting music is a challenge. This is what I do – but would appreciate other’s habits and thoughts:
    – I pay $40 a year for a digital subscription to Rhythms Magazine on my IPad. Brian Wise was the founder and Catherine Britt is the editor now. Have read it on and off for over 20 years. Fits my tastes and sensibility. Great source of ideas and inspiration when I am getting stale. Found Jason Isbell through Rhythms.
    – Listen to Brian Wise Off the Record streamed from Melbourne on 3RRR via the IPad most Saturday mornings. 6am start is a bit of a stretch in the Perth Summertime.
    – Dabbled with both Spotify and now Apple Music – as our house is full of IPads. The $12 a month lets me listen to anything. Artists get .0000000001 cents a play – which sucks – but we all have to adapt to an on-line world. The algorithms are surprisingly good at picking up your tastes. I get a weekly update of a “Favourites” and a “New Artists” playlist – fits my tastes and lots of new and old pleasant surprises. “Singer-Songwriter” new music playlist updated regularly and also gets high rotation.
    – Go to local concerts sporadically. Particularly WAAPA at Edith Cowan Uni – as its close and affordable. Hugh Jackman, Tim Minchin, Frances O’Connor, Lisa McLune, William McInnes – are all graduates. I get them early and cheap.

    Haven’t bought a CD for years. The old stereo and amp rarely get played. Digital and decent Bluetooth speaker most of the time. Mono is the new quadriphonic!!
    Onya for sticking up for new, local and creative talent

  5. Thank you Peter, for your comprehensive appreciation of The Daily Planet and other RN music programs. I enjoyed The Daily Planet for some time and, more recently, The Inside Sleeve. As you say, things don’t last forever. More’s the pity in these instances.

  6. Rick Kane says:

    Wow Peter, that was a great tribute. Lucky Oceans is a fave of mine. There aint an instrument sounds better IMHO than pedal steel guitar. And he is one of the best players of that beautiful sounding instrument. I don’t miss too many things about Perth except for family, friends, beaches. And sitting in the small courtyard beer garden of the Newport hotel on a Saturday afternoon listening to Lucky Oceans playing with Peter Busher in Dude Ranch, or years before at the Subi and Seaview with Jim Fisher and the Outlaws. Just love the sounds he created with pedal steel. I moved to Melbourne in 1992 so have only rarely seen him and his Zydecats play since back then. However, in the late 90s when I stumbled on him ruminating about some middle-eastern music on a Radio National program I was hooked. Now I’m gutted. What a travesty. The Planet was essential listening. That and Twang on Triple R here in Melbourne and Late Night Live. You can raffle the rest. Thanks again, for capturing the essence of a wonderful show.

  7. Barbara Preston says:

    I miss these RN music programs! Thank you, Peter – I have just come across this post … I would pay for a regular podcast of the Planet (or similar)

  8. William H says:

    I have it on good authority that, in response to being challenged in the corridors of the ABC by a staff member about the cuts to these RN music programs, Michelle Guthrie batted away the criticism with “You can’t appreciate what a small decision this was for me.” How do you deal with that kind of insensitivity and lack of understanding of the ABC’s audience and its place in our cultural lives?

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