Ian McFarlane reviews the box set and talks to author David Pepperell (pictured).
100 Greatest Australian Singles of the ’60s by David N. Pepperell and Colin Talbot (Melbourne Books)
100 Greatest Australian Singles of the ’60s (4-CD box set, Festival/Warner)
Do you know which famous Melbourne instrumental band backed Betty McQuade on her 1961 hit ‘Midnight Bus’? Have you ever wondered what The Wild Cherries meant when they sang about a ‘Krome Plated Yabby’? Do you know how old the young Ross Wilson was when his group The Pink Finks hits the charts with their cover of ‘Louie Louie’?
The answers, and many other tales besides, are part of the vibrant and rich tapestry of stories that makes up the 100 Greatest Australian Singles of the ’60s. It was a more innocent time when that little black plastic platter, the 45-RPM single, was the currency of pop and rock ’n’ roll, a time when the kids kept a transistor radio glued to their ears just waiting to hear their favourite song… things like that really mattered in the 1960s. It’s not even just a case of nostalgia. For example the ’60s wasn’t my coming-of-age era, but I still love the music.
Of course, the ’60s was also a time of enormous social, cultural and political upheaval. It was a time when the rigors of the Vietnam War had started to erode the moral fabric of society with a less optimistic and more cynical culture emerging in its brutal wake. But… that’s another story so let’s just enjoy the music for now.
Compiled by David N. Pepperell and Colin Talbot, the book is easily digestible with entries kept to a pithy 400 word limit. I would have liked a little more detailed information, such as full song writer credits listed after each song title, plus record labels and catalogue numbers… but that’s just my own personal collector mentality. The occasional error has slipped passed the editing / proof-reading process: Glenn Shorrock, not Shorrack; Longreach, not Long Reach; song title ‘One Times, Two Times, Three Times, Four’, not ‘1x2x3x4’. But that’s nit-picking I guess; well I know the pitfalls involved in proof-reading.
The accompanying 4-CD box set is a major achievement in itself; the logistics of compiling 100 tracks is staggering. The listener wouldn’t care about that because it’s all about the enjoyment of the music.
Beware: any list that starts with ‘100 Greatest…’ is likely to provoke an immediate emotional response. Everyone will have an opinion. Why didn’t they include my favourite song? Why did they include that song? Why didn’t they include this song? I have my personal favourites but I’m not about to get into a discourse about the minutiae of the selection process – I’ll leave it to the reader / listener to make up their own minds – suffice to say that perhaps two examples the compilers have overlooked are ‘Hey, Western Union Man’ by Max Merritt and the Meteors and ‘Sorry’ by The Easybeats. In the case of The Easybeats, when you get five other singles out of 100 that just about makes up for it.
Out of the 100 Greatest Australian Singles of the ’60s, who are the local song writers that emerge at the top of the list? Johnny Young scores with four songs; Stevie Wright / George Young also with four; Brian Cadd, Barry Gibb and Nat Kipner with three each; and Terry Britten, Harry Vanda / George Young, Ian Clyne / Gerry Humphrys / Rob Lovett and Mick Bower with two each. (The elusive George Young takes the crown with a total of six credits).
The book / CD launch at the Memo Music Hall, St. Kilda (Sunday 1 November) was a magnificent event. Mick Hamilton (guitar; Moods, Vibrants) led the house band which comprised Chris Stockley (guitar; Axiom, Dingoes), Wayne Duncan (bass; Rondells, Daddy Cool), Gary Young (drums; Rondells, Daddy Cool) and John Grant (keyboards), plus Graeme Trottman (drums; Playboys) and Geoff Skewes (keyboards; Vibrants).
Featured vocalists were Ronnie Charles (The Groop), Danny Robinson (Wild Cherries), John Rupert Perry (Vibrants), Keith Glass (Cam-Pact), Tony Barber (Aztecs), Bobby Bright (Bobby & Laurie), Ross Wilson (Pink Finks, Daddy Cool), Ross D. Wylie and Normie Rowe. Aside from the great music it was the sheer excitement of seeing and hearing our home-grown heroes of the ’60s singing and performing so well and enthusiastically. There was a lot of love in the room that night.
Ian McFarlane in conversation with compiler David N. Pepperell
Congratulations on the book / CD and the launch, David. Have you come down from the high of the event?
The launch was a fabulous night, I’m still exhausted. Then the next day I had about 170 emails, they were just flying in. I replied to all of those to thank everybody who sent good wishes. Then there were about 95 notifications on Facebook as well. People have written such nice things, they’ve posted stacks of photos. A great deal of Monday and Tuesday morning was spent dealing with that. It was tremendous. The whole response has been beyond our wildest dreams.
What was the selection process; how did you get down to the 100 Greatest Australian Singles of the ’60s?
Well, Colin and I decided to start off with a list of as many singles we could think of. I had 200, he had 150. I think there were 50 doubles which had a good chance of getting in, of course. That took us back to 300. Many more came in and went. We made a decision that no one artist would get more than four, although The Easybeats get five. We just couldn’t get them below five, but even then we didn’t include ‘Sorry’ which a lot of people are sorry about (laughs)!
But in the end it took us about four months of emailing and meeting once a week. Then we eventually whittled it down to something that we thought was okay. In the process, Karen Marks had contacted us and said she was very interested in publishing the book. I’d also had a coffee with David Laing at Warner, another thing that I do here and there. I’d mentioned it to him ‘how about putting out a CD to go with it, we’ll pick 25 good tracks’. And he said, ‘no forget that, we’ll do the whole 100!’. Then he got his licensing people to clear the tracks which took a long time. He’s amazing.
We got 99 of the 100 tracks for the CD. We couldn’t get ‘Good Looking Boy’ by Patsy Ann Noble, she refused to give us permission. Look, I wrote to her and I sent her my extremely laudatory essay on her record and we just couldn’t budge her. So what we did was replace that with the B-side of Normie Rowe’s double sided hit ‘Que Sera, Sera’ which was ‘Shakin’ All Over’, which isn’t half bad really. That’s just about the classic Normie Rowe song, it’s glued to him as much as the original is to Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. It’s become a real theme song for him, he still finishes up his shows with that song. He did the most wonderful version.
How did you stick to the 400 word limit for each entry? I would have been tempted to write three times that much.
It was just a rule we decided on. Originally we’d decided on 300 words but we seemed to be going over the limit so we went to about 400 words. We wanted the text to fit on one page. And we didn’t want small print because the demographic for this, as you can imagine, their eyes aren’t too good! (laughs). So in the end we decided on 350-400 words for each record.
I think it’s much better like that. It’s meant to be a fun read. Look, it is a coffee table book… it’s meant to just be sitting there and you pick it up and read a few entries at your leisure, then you put it down again. It can be read from front to back in one go if somebody wants to, but it can also just be a dip-in book for when you feel like it.
There are so many great stories involved and it builds up a whole picture of the time. For example, you read the entries on Normie Rowe and you realise that he was just this young kid thrust into the limelight, he had enormous success very quickly, ventured to the UK, dipped out there and then when he came home he got conscripted.
Yes, in some ways that was a tragedy. It’s my contention that he’s the greatest pop singer that we ever had and because of the Vietnam thing… I couldn’t say he was forgotten but it’s not far off really. Where as John Farnham is filling out three Myer Music Bowl concerts. No knocking Johnny, he’s a great singer and a great performer but to me it should be Normie filling up three Myer Music Bowls. He’s a wonderful artist, a fabulous singer. And such an emotive singer. Normie always reads the lyric, he always makes sense of it. That’s what I like about him. And he can rock and he can sing a beautiful ballad.
Then you have someone like Ross Wilson who has kept a high profile career going.
Ross really did achieve his potential. I was always amused by Ross because he was so serious about what he was doing. When he had The Pink Finks originally, they were the only band ever where girls and liquor were banned from practice (laughs!). All most guys did at practice in those days was drink and try and impress the girls that they’d brought along. Ross was right about that because when you did that you never wrote any new tunes. And Ross always had this great attitude towards music; he always wanted to have a career in music and that’s exactly what’s happened with him, he’s kept going and been very successful.
I looked at the song writer credits and have come up with some interesting facts and figures. You’ve got Johnny Young with four songs…
Well, he had so many #1 hits at the time. He was probably our most successful songwriter in the ’60s. Johnny was just red hot at the time. You had Ross D. Wylie doing ‘The Star’, Russell Morris with ‘The Real Thing’, ‘Smiley’ for Ronnie Burns and ‘I Thank You’ by Lionel Rose. They’re all in the book. He was just on a purple patch, Johnny, he could do no wrong for a time there. He’s also in the book for ‘Step Back’ and ‘Cara-Lyn’, what a killer single that was.
Stevie Wright and George Young wrote ‘Step Back’ and that song writing team is well represented, as is Harry Vanda and George Young.
Well, The Easybeats had so many hits!
Barry Gibb gets three songs.
The Gibbs didn’t have much success at first in Australia, but they wrote a lot of hit songs for other people. Ronnie Burns’ hits that they wrote were huge. And why ‘Coalman’ and ‘Exit Stage Right’ sound so good is because it was the Bee Gees on backing vocals.
You’ve got those wonderful photos from Colin Beard and Jim Colbert in the book; it’s impressive that you called on those guys for the photos.
Look we had to, we wanted to of course. It’s very hard to get good photographs of groups from the ’60s. The ’70s is easy because there were more rock photographers around then. In the ’60s, it was really only the mainstream press, the Fairfax press, and a number of individuals such as Colin Beard from Go-Set, Jim Colbert did Listener In TV. The other one was the other Laurie Richards, the photographer, not the promoter. Those three guys photographed just about everybody at the time. I think Jim used to go to the Thumpin’ Tum all the time. He’s got so many photos from the Tum. So we got in touch with them and organised a deal where they got paid for the photos. So I think they’re very happy that the book’s out.
One of the best photos in the book is the colour photo of the Masters Apprentices which was a transparency given to us by Jim Keays. Jim would loved to have been involved in the launch, he was so excited about the book coming out. Such a wonderful performer and a great champion of the local music scene. He passed away last year, we all miss him terribly.
What are your favourite Australian singles of the ’60s?
I think that the best Australian single of the ’60s was ‘The Real Thing’ by Russell Morris. I can’t fault that song, if you look at everything in the recording. But my favourite single in the book is ‘Midnight Bus’ by Betty McQuade. Always loved that single, loved it from the first time I heard it. I saw Betty sing it a couple of times. And when her voice burrs in the third chorus when she sings ‘loved and lost my baby on the midnight bus’, it still sends chills down my spine. It was a natural thing that happened to her voice on the session, I don’t think she would have done more than a couple of takes. She’s backed by The Thunderbirds, although they were uncredited at the time because they were signed to W&G. That’s my favourite but I do think that Russell’s is the best.
So that’s the spread of the book, 1961 for Betty to 1969 for Russell.
What we’re most proud of with the book is that it’s got so much diversity, it ranges over everything. A lot of people have said to me it’s not heavy on garage rock, it’s not rock ’n’ roll dominated, it’s got four instrumentals, it’s got 10 female vocals, it’s got psychedelic stuff, pop stuff, it’s got something for everybody. The music of the ’60s was so diverse. There was so much going on, so much great production and some many great vocals. One of my other favourites is ‘One’ by Johnny Farnham, that’s one of the best records he ever made. And Harry Nilsson who wrote the song gets one song writing credit in the book. That’s cute. I was working at EMI when that came out and I remember thinking ‘what a glorious vocal’. It’s better than the Three Dog Night version; it’s even better than Nilsson’s version, I think.