Almanac Music: Mark Gillespie and my part in his downfall

 

On the 11th of November, the music world lost a true talent with the sad passing of Mark Gillespie. ‘Who?’ you might be asking. Although he wasn’t a household name, Mark Gillespie’s deeply personal and prosaic songs propelled him into the rarified singer/songwriter atmosphere reserved only for the champions of their craft. I’ll leave it to the music historians to list his many accomplishments but I want to share three enduring memories of seeing him live in Melbourne.

 

I was in my Heidelberg share-house in 1980 when I heard a RRR promo for a night of music at Borskai Receptions in North Fitzroy…no, I’d never heard of it either. The night would feature three bands with the top of bill being Mark Gillespie and his band. At the time, barely a day would go by without me playing his seminal debut album Only Human. I knew that album inside out. I remember a friend asking me what sort of music it was. The best comparison I could come up with was somehow crossing Jackson Browne’s melancholia with the vivid psychedelic poetry of Lou Reed. Anyway, after thumbing through a phone book (remember those?), I found the address of Borskai Receptions and talked my then girlfriend into a three band gig on a Sunday night.

 

I can’t remember the first band but the second band was something akin to a religious revival show. Scores of enthusiastic dancers invaded the dance floor, revelling in the high energy spiritual rock. Almost as surprising as their fervent zeal for the band was the fact that most of them left the gig after the band finished. By now, there were maybe thirty or so people left in the big long reception room when Mark Gillespie took the stage with his band of Ross Hannaford, Joe Creighton and Mark Meyer.

 

The scant numbers might have looked a bit off-putting but it made no difference to the band. They put on a masterful performance of almost the entire Only Human album, curiously leaving out only the evocative ballad ‘Long and Strong’. I remember walking into the bathroom after the show had finished to see drummer Mark Meyer vigorously drying his sweat-soaked hair with a towel. He had put everything into the show as had bassist Joe Creighton and guitarist Ross ‘Hanna’ Hannaford. My girlfriend battled through the whole performance but would have to tolerate my completest fetish when the first song I played in the car on the way home was the omitted classic ‘Long and Strong’.

 


‘Long and Strong’ – Mark Gillespie

 

I told everyone about that gig. I was a one-man PR department for Mark Gillespie although it would transpire, not a very effective one. Another RRR promo in 1981 heralded Mark Gillespie’s upcoming gig at The Polaris Inn: another of the great Melbourne inner city music venues of the 70’s and 80’s. I immediately got on the blower to some kindred spirits. I knew I wouldn’t need to twist any arms: these blokes were already true fans and ardent gig-goers. So on the Friday night, we walked into the bandroom at Polaris Inn (later to be known as ‘Hearts’) anticipating a brilliant night of top-drawer music. I remember some of us remarking on the fact that there weren’t many people there yet, to which the others replied that the place would surely fill up as showtime approached. It didn’t.

 

Expanding the band to five, Mark added the stunning vocalist Lisa Bade to provide background vocals. The six of us took up a spot close to the stage while a few smaller cliques of punters looked on in a fairly disinterested manner. What was the matter with these people? This was the era of ‘Supper Tickets’ which meant that if you left before 10.00pm, you got your money back at the door, and so they all did. The five piece band took the stage to play to the crowd of six. It was impossible to escape the disappointment and bemusement of the band. Before playing the first song, Mark eyeballed us and asked “you guys aren’t going anywhere, are you?” We joked that we actually had a party to go to, and quick as a flash, a few of the band quipped that they would come too.

 

By this stage, there was a working version of the eponymous ‘Nothing Special’, and ‘Pile Up’ from the same album, augmenting the standards from Only Human. Lisa stepped into the spotlight to sing her smouldering version of ‘Long and Strong’ – I went weak at the knees. Hanna played beautifully tasteful licks, while Joe Creighton and Mark Meyer provided a rock solid rhythm section. We were small in number but enthusiastic in our response to this glorious collection of songs. Half in jest and half seriously, Mark asked at one point if we wanted to hear anything in particular. I’d like to think that the (very) small audience allowed the band to stretch out musically on that occasion, road-testing a few new songs. Again, it was a gig that should’ve been seen by hundreds, not a handful. I’ve told that story numerous times, usually adding that on that night, the band almost outnumbered the crowd.

 

Fast forward to 1992: the ‘unplugged’ era was well and truly upon us. Clapton’s multi-platinum album inspired many attempts at this short-lived (and in some cases, highly cynical) recycling of artists’ back catalogues. I think it was through Brian Wise’s ‘Off The Record’ gig guide on RRR that I heard about Mark Gillespie’s return to Australia from his travels in Asia. He was performing an assortment of his tried-and-true songs, as well as previewing songs from the forthcoming album ‘Flame’, at Dan O’Connell’s in Carlton, playing only with Joe Creighton. An ‘unplugged’ Mark Gillespie? This, I had to see. You know what I’m going to say next, don’t you.

 

Yes, the curse continued although this time, at least the crowd made it to double figures. I know I’m one of many who revere Mark Gillespie as one of the greatest singer/songwriters this country has ever produced, but where was his legion of fans?  Was Mark destined to always play to dozens rather than hundreds? On this night in 1992 at Dan O’Connell’s, it seemed that the answer was ‘yes’. I persuaded a mate from work that he would love the gig and would be thanking me afterwards. He did like it, and he did thank me, but despite the efforts of Mark and Joe who transformed some of Mark’s standards into acoustic gems, you couldn’t help but feel for them. I remember some of Joe’s new solo stuff, later to be released on the 1992 album Holywell, also getting a run that night. Unfortunately, Holywell was another well-kept secret that deserved a much wider audience.  It was another tremendous gig which will long be remembered by the 20 or so who were there that night.

 

In closing, I can only apologise for my part in Mark Gillespie’s downfall. I was a devoted fan but a very poor promoter. At least I can say that the shows I saw were very…intimate. He will always be one of my very favourites with Only Human featuring in my ‘top ten records that changed my life’. He will be sadly missed by a small but dedicated band of followers who delighted in his poignant, imaginative and emotive songs.

 

Vale Mark Gillespie. Dig out Only Human and give it a listen – you’ll thank me.

 

 

We’ll do our best to publish two books in the lead-up to Christmas 2021. The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020  and the 2021 edition to celebrate the Dees’ magnificent premiership season(title is up for discussion at the moment!). These books will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers and Demons season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from these two Covid winters. Enquiries HERE

 

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Comments

  1. A big loss indeed Ian. I saw him in packed rooms quite a few times in that period most notably in two in the same street being the Continental and the Station in Greville Street. He was at the top of my list of artists I’d like to see return but it seems he’d long ago put performance and recording in the rear view mirror. Here is my favourite from that album (and from his whole catalogue)

  2. Beautiful reminisces of better times. I was also a huge fan from the moment I heard that magnificent bass lick in Only Human. I saw Mark and the band at the Prospect Hill Hotel and thankfully there was a decent crowd in the time. I was somewhat distracted as I was trying to cut a prospective girlfriend away from the arms of her current (soon to be ex) beau but the music got the better of me that night. Those were glory days for pub gigs and even Swinburne used to put on bands every month in Ethel Hall. I am so sorry to hear of Marks death but happy that I have a full collection of his works to remember him by.

  3. Richard Griffiths says

    Nice tribute. I had Only Human (somehow lost it with numerous other vinyls of the time) and it stands up today. One of the great Australian Albums. I saw him at Prospect Hill in Kew and The London Tavern Caulfield RIP.

  4. A fabulous read, Ian.
    Only Human is a glorious album, and really does hold up well.
    How fortune dictates success and/or failure in the music business!

    RIP Mark Gillespie

  5. Tony Forbes says

    Fab story Ian. I love that album too and have it on CDwith some bonus tracks. Never got to see him live but still pull that album out and play it on a regular basis and it still sounds great! Mark never embraced the commercial side of the music industry. RIP Mark

  6. John Ogburn says

    Great tribute to an amazing musician.I had followed him since the early eighties .I travelled the world with my Walkman listening to Mark..Never saw him live unfortunately ,I lived in Sydney .I as well promoted him ,obviously not well like you.Its bloody tragic in my opinion, ,his star shone to brightly RIP Mark

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