Almanac Music: Skyhooks and me

Urgency. I reckon this is the best word. For they were always urgent. Midnight Oil was aggressive, and Sherbet was summery. But even when they were brooding, Skyhooks was urgent.

Learning of their 1991 reunification tour, some mates and I instantly booked our tickets. However, on the day of their Adelaide concert I awoke 565 kilometres away on the West Coast as I had to pack up my Ucontitchie Road farmhouse for the move to Kimba.

With my earthly goods flung through the front door of my new house, we leapt into my mate’s SS Commodore, pointed the 4.9 litre beast eastward, and rumbled the five hours, through a January thunderstorm, to North Adelaide’s Old Lion Hotel. We arrived with moments to spare. The pub already stinging in its smoky, hot fug. There were but three beers on tap. Red Symons was at his belligerent Red Faces best. It was a night of huge fun.

I love crowd singing on a live album. It amplifies the sense of being there, when in all likelihood, you weren’t. Great examples include “Army” from Ben Folds Live and, “‘Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis, but supreme for me is “All My Friends Are Getting Married” from Skyhooks’ Live in the Eighties. When Shirl invites the crowd to sing the chorus they do in such an adoring fashion. Back at the Old Lion this, too, was a highlight of that summer night.

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Sophomore albums often rate highly. Think Nevermind, The Bends and Astral Weeks. Buoyed by the acclaim of their debut offering, there’s often a young band or artist, teamed up with a noted producer. Their confidence is unparalleled. An equivalent could be, again from 1991, when Mark Waugh made an elegant hundred on debut at Adelaide Oval. However, a friend observed, “It’s not such a surprise. After all, you only get picked for your country because you’re in fantastic form.”

Bearing this in mind, Ego Is Not a Dirty Word is their finest album. I know that Living in the Seventies is the much-loved debut, selling over 300,000 copies, and enjoying the infamy of six of its offerings being banned. But, on this second release, there’s an increased breadth in the songs, with “Love’s Not Good Enough” musing on suburban loneliness, “Smartarse Songwriters” featuring Greg Macainsh’s meta-cognitive explorations, and the title track, pushing the patience of many (I can’t imagine Sir Joh was a fan) with its brazen reference to the triumvirate of Richard Nixon, Leonard Cohen, and in an Australian music first, Jesus.

My favourite is side 2, track 2. I know it’s a hundred types of wrong but I recently played it in the car for our boys on the way home from karate. On the first note of “Mercedes Ladies” they both giggled at the larrikinism of bass line, the cheeky guitars and Freddie’s comical tom-tom drumming. It rollicks along with the musical highlight the double hi-hat chick at the end of each line. It’s a great way to spend three minutes, and encapsulates the band, their time, and their legacy. In this, as in much of their material, Skyhooks satirise the suburbs while also rejoicing in them.

Of course, we’re all apprehended by our creative context. Even here in smug 2016, history will eventually scold us. 1975 imprisoned many with multiple charges: sexism, homophobia, stereotyping. But despite this Skyhooks also pioneered themes concerning the suburban and the local. It was music of the largely untold other; it was not of NYC or London.

Such is the significance of Skyhooks for me that the mention of Carlton evokes the song first, and the footy team second. The band’s collected lyrics still generate a google map of Melbourne, and a reference to Toorak or Balwyn returns me to my original conceptions of the city by the Yarra. If the Beatles are Liverpool, and the Rolling Stones are London, then Skyhooks are Melbourne. Their music has always presented the geography of a highly human environment, as there’s colourful pictures of grimy pubs, menacing streetscapes, and widescreen vistas too.

It was in my school mate Lumpy Nixon’s lounge room (I’m sure there were ceramic ducks flying up the wall) that I first saw, and heard Straight in a Gay, Gay World. I was mesmerised by the guitars on the title track, and the sonic trickery of a swarm of insects hovering overhead on the outro, moving from the left speaker to the right. I was fourteen and this was beyond cool.

The album’s artwork gripped me equally with its triptych of a solitary black sheep, butcher shop and lamb dinner. It was the first humorous cover I’d seen. The art often functioned as a portal to an album’s narrative. I was especially intrigued by Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and tried to decipher the cover photo of the two business men, one calmly ablaze, shaking hands on a Californian backlot. However, I couldn’t unlock its mystical meanings. In our age of Spotify and digital downloads, these happy distractions have largely disappeared. But vinyl’s fighting back.

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And finally to Shirl. He’d a remarkably complex voice, blending a tradie’s building site swagger with the footballer’s front-bar cockiness. It was effortlessly confident, and also reassuring, saying, “Why would you live anywhere else?” as it slapped your back and shouted, “Forget about it, I’ll buy you a beer!” He sung to, and for, us. But, his vowels were knowingly crisp and aware of the telling subtext. He delivered his stories with affection, while also investing the songs, as appropriate, with a sneer. “Million Dollar Riff” could be his best performance. Shirl was the perfect front man.

I love that I can go years without listening to a band, and then one afternoon find myself dragging out a dusty CD, and with the opening chords, being teleported to a distant, thrilling place. With Skyhooks that place is removed and unreconstructed, but from time to time, I really enjoy going back there.

 

About Mickey Randall

Favourite film: The Shawshank Redemption Favourite song: Khe Sahn Favourite holiday destination: Gold Coast Favourite food: steak Favourite beer: VB Best player seen: Dogga Worst player seen: Frogga Last score on beep test: 3.14159 Favourite minor character in Joyce’s Ulysses: Punch Costello

Comments

  1. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Nice tribute to an audacious and groundbreaking band, Mickey. My older brother loved the Skyhooks and that rubbed off on me even though I was scared of Greg McCainsh because of his make-up and the fact that his expression never changed. So many ripper songs, guitar riffs and vocals by Shirl. ‘Livin’ in the 70s’ and ‘Horror Movie’ still make me air guitar with gusto. Have played them again after reading your piece. Cheers

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I love that I loved Skyhooks too. But having witnessed their rise, plateau and sad decline(s) I kinda moved on.

    But much of what you say here gets a big ‘me too’. They were incredibly important, perhaps more culturally than musically.

    I really enjoyed revisiting their first two albums recently (didn’t Fred use a lot of cowbell !). Maybe because they were among first handful of albums I had, I played them too often and they lost their magic.

    Clutching at analogies, they were my first musical crush, but not the love of my life.

  3. Luke Reynolds says

    It was that 1991 reformation that made me aware of the ‘Hooks. “Jukebox in Siberia” got an 11 year old me hooked. The greatest hits album from that year blew me away.
    Buying and listening to all the older albums on CD a few years later was richly rewarding. The first two are classics. ‘Straight in a Gay Gay World’ should be rated higher. “Guilty Until Proven Insane” holds up very well.
    Enjoyed your point about their live work, absolutely love the “Live! Be in it” album, the “Bruce Suite” always brings a smile. Sadly I’m too young to have seen them live. I’ve been lucky to see most of my favourite acts over the last 18 years but there will always be a Skyhooks sized gap in my gig list. RIP Shirl.
    Thanks Mickey

  4. As mentioned elsewhere I really enjoyed this great yarn, Mickey.
    I was never a huge Skyhooks fan, but appreciated their artistry, talent,
    and the fact that they were doing stuff that no-one else (in Australia
    at least!) was doing.
    “Horror movie, it’s the six-thirty news”
    Talk about a lyric that stands the test of time!

  5. E.regnans says

    Thanks Mickey,
    Great images of the road trip(s).

    I’ve never listened with concentration to Skyhooks.
    But even from this vantage point of 2016, as you say, we can appreciate their telling of local stories.
    In the eighties we had Paul Kelly singing about St Kilda, Adelaide, South Dowling.
    Now we have Courtney Barnett and De-preston.
    Someone had to blaze a trail.

  6. Dave Brown says

    Satirise while rejoicing in – a pretty good way to be, I reckon, Mickey. Don’t think I ever got to see a band at the Old Lion (maybe once but in no way memorable). The downstairs room was reserved pretty much as a stop on the North Adelaide leg of pub crawls by the time I worked my way through the system.

  7. Thanks to everyone for the comments.

    Although I was a young ‘un when Skyhooks was making a splash I’m interested in their legacy. I’m cautious about identifying chronological cause and effect; a band existing in the 1970’s doesn’t mean it influences those who came after, but I’d be confident that Skyhooks have been significant in this. As Swish suggests they’re probably more vital to us culturally than musically. I agree. Gudinski is certainly interesting on the band and their influence, but this is possibly as they made him his initial coin.

    In researching for this piece I spent some time examining Macainsh’s lyrics, and I don’t think it uncharitable to note that some of the band’s later catalogue was lacking the potency of the early work. The local detail in some of these seemed tired and forced.

    I’ve noted my admiration for Courtney Barnett on this site previously, and could argue that she continues the tradition. I especially like her use of local detail too, and love her song “Canned Tomatoes” which makes the only reference I’ve heard to that most Australian of taxes, “rego.” It’s brilliant and listening to this in Singapore, made me extra homesick.

    I still get the mail for you
    I leave it at the door
    Every letter seems a warning
    Pay your rego by the fourth.

    Thanks again.

  8. Good onya Mikey. Memories of a great band who sung about the world we lived in. It wasn’t about St Louis or Pasadena, nor Arkansas Grass. They spoke about a world we knew and still know.

    Close to home, just around the corner in fact, the Lygon Street Limbo rings as true now as in 1974. I’ve worn my Blue Jeans, seen All My Friends Getting Married, whilst nowadays I feel like A Straight In A Gay, Gay World.

    A great band whose music still resonates now.

    Let It Rock.

    Glen!

  9. Great memories there MIckey. Saw them plenty of times at Memorial Drive. Seemed like there was an “Australian Music To The World” concert every year. Still rate “Living In The 70s” as a classic with its incisive, short, sharp ditties.
    I can’t recall ever going to the Old Lion but do remember seeing Mother Goose at the Arkaba !?

  10. Thanks Glen! They were great fun, and didn’t take themselves too seriously although I glanced at a recent article in which one of the original members claimed to be disappointed at their portrayal in the series “Molly.”

    Budge- on their 1991 tour Skyhooks played three nights at the Old Lion. I’ve not been there for years, but it’d certainly changed over time. I’ve fond memories of the boutique brewery it housed; you could get a good pilsner and a ploughman’s lunch. Then it became a concert venue and I think it’s now more upmarket. “Baked Beans” by Mother Goose an iconic song and music clip when I was a boy. Good stuff.

  11. Thanks Mickey, for another insightful piece. I think hearing “Love’s Not Good Enough” all those years ago, as a teenager, was one of those moments one realises that pop can get under your skin, can dig deeper, can leave you to ponder. And, of course, as a teenager, I didn’t have much of an idea about love at all. Probably no idea.

    Here’s a little story about Skyhooks and a Garland Jeffreys song called Wild In The Streets:
    http://www.stereostories.com/wild-in-the-streets-by-garland-jeffreys-and-skyhooks/

  12. Thanks Vin. I reckon this is among their best songs. The length allows it to build and the guitars are a highlight while lyrically it shows a broody maturation. It stands up pretty well, whereas some of their catalogue doesn’t. But this is true of any performer. Just recently I tried listening to Wings Back to the Egg and found it unfathomably dreadful. Even Macca can misfire.

    I’ll check out the link too.

  13. Olga Hessey says

    Just discovered Back to the egg recently and have to disagree. Getting closer, we’re open tonight, spin it on, old siam sir, to you, after the ball and winter rose are all great songs.

  14. Rick Kane says

    Great piece MR.

    Macca can misfire a lot!

    I reckon Swish has nailed it. They are Australia of the 70s and while the nostalgia is worth indulging from time to time they hardly come to mind when discussing great bands. Greg Macainsh, at his best was a great songwriter but too often fell for vaudeville (and that doesn’t last).

    Er, re blazing trails for Australian references in songs, I reckon Slim Dusty was the trail blazer. (If CJ Dennis was a songwriter then he would take the cake).

    Slim’s song When the Rain Tumbles Down in July was written and recorded in the mid 40s. It is a very Australian setting. Then there’s Camooweal (1970). Brilliant by the way. And many more besides.

    The Skyhooks carried on a fine tradition and opened up the suburbs as a text to mine. That is their legacy. That’s not too shabby a thing at all.

    Cheers

  15. Olga- I should appropriately contextualise my view on Back to the Egg. I’d previously been listening to Venus and Mars and Band on the Run which both contain some fine Macca moments. Wings’ final release (possibly for good reason, I’d argue) was always going to suffer alongside these two.

    Rick- as always you’ve made a timely contribution to the dialogue. I agree with your judgments on Skyhooks cultural legacy, and will take in the Slim songs you reference (not Slim Shady mind you) later today. “The suburbs as a text” is a nice phrase and concept. With your consent I might just pop this in some curriculum I’m writing!

    Thanks again.

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