My (Not Very) Brilliant Songwriting Career

I was thirteen, maybe fourteen, when I started writing songs.  They were purpose-made for the band I was in and none of us really knew how to go about being a group.  We began with other people’s songs and found, to our surprise, that when we performed them they bore little resemblance to the originals.  Anyone hearing us may have sensed something vaguely familiar but would’ve struggled to identify which song we were attempting to perform.  Put it this way – our renditions of other people’s songs were such that vegetarians were advised to steer clear; so grave were our acts of musical butchery.  So we started writing our songs of our own.

I took it seriously.  In my teenage years, I took everything seriously and songwriting was no exception.  Every spare moment, I would scribble lyrics on a notepad.  It was common for me to return to class after a ‘study’ period, clutching freshly-minted lyrics to a new masterpiece whilst having learned nothing of the periodic table or science generally.  To put this in perspective, I can only say that science has endured to this day but my lyrics have not.  It’s for the best.

The great thing about songwriting is that you can – consciously or otherwise – write to the strengths of the players.  Even though our cover material had more in common with a car wreck than actual music, our original music actually sounded like…. music.  But writing music is one thing.  Getting anyone else to care about it is another matter entirely. 

 I recall, vividly, being asked to play at the school’s end of year dance at the Bittern Town Hall.  For the occasion, we rented a public address system so powerful that our music could be heard from Frankston and, possibly, outer space.  It was more than Bittern Town Hall required.  When time came for our big performance, I strode purposefully onto stage as we began performing our original songs.  I put my hand to my forehead to see past the stage lights and saw abandoned floorboards.

 Our original music had the effect of repelling the occupants of the dance floor to the nearest wall, to which they then clung as they sought to endure our musical assault on the senses.  A night that had been full of dancing and teenage frivolity was instantly transformed into a test of endurance.  An audience desperate to hear ‘Holiday’ by Madonna was, instead, subjected to the over-wrought lyrics of my tortured teenage soul.  It’s a wonder that the entire school didn’t drop out. 

 Despite that experience, I continued writing songs.  My bandmates were supportive, but they probably hoped if I kept going that I would – eventually – write something half decent.  Just as, theoretically speaking, a monkey might type ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ with enough time, my bandmates reasoned that I could – given a few decades – stumble by chance across something nearly as good as ‘Aga Do’ by Black Lace or anything by Kajagoogoo.  They waited in vain.

                The older I got, the less I was prone to treating the act of songwriting as therapy.  Songs could be playful.  Funny, even.  I discovered great songwriters like Loudon Wainwright III, John Prine and others who were able to include a fair dose of humour in their tunes.  Not that they couldn’t be touching or poignant too, more that their songs could be witty and engaging too.  It was inspiring.

 Things have changed a lot since I first started playing music.  You can now make a record in your bedroom and distribute it to the entire world through streaming platforms.  Granted, you’ll be paid a pittance but in theory at least, it’s easier to be heard than ever before.  These days, you don’t need a monster-sized public address system at the Bittern Town Hall.  Just a laptop.

 The local folk club had a theme night.  The theme in question was ‘heavenly bodies’.  There would, of course, be loads of songs about the stars and the moon.  It got me thinking – which planet doesn’t have a song?  The answer was both obvious and socially awkward.  That’s how we came to write a song about ‘Uranus’.  The premise of the song was to lament the fact that nobody writes songs about the planet Uranus and that things would be different if it had been given a better name.  I’ve never had more fun writing a song in my life.

 When the theme night arrived, there were lots of great songs from great songwriters, and lots of planets represented.  But not ours.  Ours would be the only song about Uranus.  At first I was confused by the audience response until someone explained they were clapping. In fact, instead of scrambling for the exit, people were laughing and cheering, particularly when we took songs by well-known artists and replaced the original planet with ‘Uranus’.  It was an entirely new experience.

There’s something to be said, I think, for persistence.  Or, perhaps, learning from your mistakes.  I’m not sure where we go to from here – Bittern Town Hall, probably.  But for the time being, ‘The Lonely Planet (No-one Sings About Uranus)’ by ‘A Band of Rain’ sits on streaming platforms for unwitting listeners to stumble across.  Maybe it will make them laugh.  Which, for a song, is a good thing.    

The Great Profanity Calamity

It’s so awkward.  You’re sitting with family members, having a pleasant time with music gently playing in the background before you’re unexpectedly deluged by f-bombs as the singer launches into a mode that can only be described as ‘nuclear gutter-mouth’.  When did singing and swearing become so hopelessly entwined?  Indeed, a cursory glance (a term which seems oddly apt) at the popular hits of today confirms that many artists have a vocabulary consistent with having been raised at sea.  It wasn’t always this way. 

Radio was once an expletive-free zone.  If John Denver’s house had a swear-jar, I’ll bet it was empty.  Even artists who liked to shock would avoid swear words, for fear they’d get less airplay.  But don’t think for a moment that the lack of curse words means older songs are genteel and overly polite.  Not at all.  Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ has a body count that would startle even the most hardened of gangster rappers but none of the cast stoop so far as to resort to using filthy language.  Or, at least, I don’t think they do.  (It’s in Italian, so I can’t be entirely sure.)

It used to be the same way for television.   When screening movies with questionable language, networks would often mute the sound as the actor spoke the offending word.  The effect was akin to having the line drop out for a just a moment.  I have a vivid recollection of watching John Singleton’s ‘Boyz In the Hood’ starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube and marvelling at the vast stretches of silence.  Some might consider this to be butchery, but I liked the expletive-free version.

As an uncle, I firmly believed it was my duty to ensure my nieces and nephews were exposed to a wide array of musical influences.  There’s not a child alive that won’t respond with pure delight to the sound of ‘Tutti Fruitti’ by Little Richard.  (Incidentally, I once planned to write an opera about Little Richard called ‘Cosi fan Tutti Fruitti’ but I struggled to attract investors.)  But as they grew up, I started to give them more challenging things to listen to.  I wrestled with all the big questions – like, what’s the best age to introduce a child to ‘Bad Motorfinger’ by Soundgarden?  Probably seven. 

Thinking back, the two words I struggled with most as an uncle were ‘age appropriate’.  Not just with music, either; the tendency to go ‘too early’ extended to books and movies too.  I let my enthusiasm get the better of me.  On reflection, even I would agree that Hunter S Thompson’s tale of drug-fuelled debauchery and excess as depicted in ‘Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas’ are best suited to someone who is older than twelve.  That said, the pre-pubescent recipient did go on to become a journalist so, perhaps, the book did its job.  For the sake of completeness, I should add that being a journalist is where the similarities between Hunter S Thompson and my nephew both begin and end.  But still.

I’d bought it as a gift.  It was a CD, back when people used to buy CDs so they could listen to the music of their choice anytime they liked, before those same miraculous little discs were relegated to the status of novelty drink coaster.  I’d picked up a copy of the latest album by the rap group, Beasties Boys, entitled ‘To The Five Boroughs’.    The reviews I’d read described it as a mature reflection of the impact of September 11 on their hometown of New York.  It sounded thoughtful.  Mature, even.  And it was.  At least, it was in part.

For those unfamiliar with it, the opening track of ‘To The Five Boroughs’ by Beastie Boys is entitled ‘Ch-Check It Out’.  But instead of an ode to stuttering, the song is in fact more of a promise to have a significant impact on a social occasion.  This impression is best captured in a phrase that, in the interests of politeness, I’ll describe as ‘turn this parent f-bombing party out’.  I’m paraphrasing, obviously.  It occurred to me at that moment, that I probably should have listened to the thing first before handing it to an eight year old at a family function.  The eight year old immediately put it on the stereo and turned it up as loud as he dared.

Soon the room was being showered in profanities.  Unfortunately for me, the swearing wasn’t a ‘hit and run’ situation where a single expletive can be masked by a well timed cough or clattering cutlery.  Rather, these words were the chorus and were repeated over and over and over again.  By the time the song ended, my strategic coughing was so severe that my father offered to call me an ambulance.  The eight year old – keen to distance himself from the ensuing controversy – loudly declared that the music was horrible and that this was the ‘worst gift of all time’.  That’s a direct quote.

That eight year old is now an adult and I know for a fact that he really likes the Beastie Boys.  And I’m confident that he’s heard if not used the words he encountered that day in a sentence.  Many times.  As for me, I regret nothing.  And if you know nothing of Beastie Boys, I can only encourage you to ch-check them out.  You could do a lot worse.  I swear.

Stacks On!  In Your Face with a Business Case

Huzzah!  Christina Aguilera is coming to perform a one-off show in Melbourne later this year.  The breathless announcement came earlier this week and made clear that this event is not a result of mere happenstance but has come to be because of a fabulous Government initiative.  Hooray for everyone!  But as overwhelmed with excitement as I am to the point of being barely able to function, given the recent somewhat unpleasant business involving a major international sporting event being dumped with all the dignity of a soiled mattress, it’s incumbent on all of us to ask one, simple question – does the business case stack up?

I’ll be honest; there was a time when I thought a ‘business case’ was the thing you used to take your lunch to work.  When I got my first office job, my business case was one I’d acquired from a second-hand store.  It was old and falling apart.  At one point, the handle unravelled; meaning that when I carried it, errant staples dug into the palm of my hand.  Then the bottom fell out, along with my lunch.  It was at that point that I decided that this particular business case no longer stacked up and I replaced it with a satchel.

I’ve since become aware that a business case is a key determinant as to whether something should or shouldn’t happen.  Often, they’re associated with large-scale events but there’s no reason why they couldn’t also help inform everyday activities.  Just yesterday, I declined to unload the dishwasher because the business case didn’t stack up.  This was in stark contrast to the dishes themselves, which stacked up quite neatly.  Having weighed up the likely economic cost and benefit of emptying the dishwasher, I concluded that the most fiscally responsible course from here on out would be to eat with my hands.  It’s working a treat.

I’m beginning to see everything in a completely different light.  I’ve decided that before I next agree to put the bins out, I should refer the question to an inquiry and see what the experts have to say.  From there, I’ll probably form some kind of committee to reject the report before engaging a second set of more expensive experts to give me another report that recommends the development of a business case.  Granted, by the time it’s done, there may well be rubbish piled up to the roof, but if I do ultimately decide to take the bins out, it’ll be a decision that’s supported by the best information available.  There’ll be no question that it stacks up.

For those of you who think the very idea of a business case is as interesting as sewing a button or cleaning the lint from your uncle’s favourite jacket, I can only say that you are monstrously mistaken.  A business case is so much more that a set of figures and financial analysis.  A decent business case is like a wild stallion that is prone to being spooked and easily startled.  It’s for this reason that opposing sides to an argument can have conflicting views on whether a particular business case stacks up or stacks down.

But what recent weeks have demonstrated is that you no longer need two opposing sides to have conflicting views over a business case.  Rather, you need only one side and about fifteen months to undergo the metamorphosis from ‘stacked’ to ‘unstacked’.  This, it must be said, is groundbreaking. 

Previously, I was unaware that a business case could, in effect, go off like a carton of milk in the sun if given enough time.  Who was responsible for leaving the business case out of the fridge has, to date, not been satisfactorily answered and, I feel, whether or not an answer will or won’t be given may, of itself, be the subject of a business case.

Clearly, a business case can be a volatile thing, capable of turning at any moment, striking out at anyone unfortunate enough to be standing nearby.  What’s not clear is how something that, last year, stacked up, was a short time later found to be wanting; failing to stack up to the point of complete collapse.  Like fiscal Jenga, did someone pull out a vital block that caused the entire business case stack to collapse?  Who can say?

But if there’s anything that the calamitous experience of not hosting the Commonwealth Games has taught us, it’s that you should always have a Plan B.  I, for one, do not want a situation where Christina Aguilera is turned away at customs after arriving at Tullamarine Airport.  Luckily, I have the perfect solution.

As a teenager, I was in a band called 20/20 Vision. Once we played the Hastings Day Parade on a flatbed truck.  We stood on the back of that thing, trying to keep our balance as the generator powered our amps and guitars.  People loved it.  Mostly they loved the fact that we were moving and they only had to suffer through our original songs for a few seconds before we were gone, but they loved it all the same. 

If, God forbid, the business case should unexpectedly unstack itself before the big performance, my hope is that we can dig out the flatbed and the generator and send Christina Aguilera sailing down High Street Hastings on a Saturday morning.  Granted, she’s a fabulous artist who deserves more than a flatbed truck.  But I figure while it may not be ‘Beautiful’, at least it stacks up.

The Paradiddle Riddle of a Middle Life Crisis

Thank you!  Let me say with all sincerity how much I appreciate your cards, letters and gifts.  To those who went the extra mile and sent me a telegram, well done for knowing that telegrams still exist.  In the interests of honesty, I’ll simply say that I was mildly disappointed that these didn’t arrive in ‘gorilla-gram’ format, but I’ve learned not to be too fussy.  The thing is that you noticed.  I am grateful for all the ‘congratulations’ and best wishes that you have seen fit to shower upon me.  After all, it’s not everyday that you get to celebrate the start of a mid-life crisis.

Before you start, I’m here to say that a mid-life crisis is as legitimate a life milestone to celebrate as anything else, and I think it should be embraced.  Forget the shame and stigma that so often accompanies the slide into temporary insanity that, in cricket terms, would probably be described as a middle-order collapse.  Eighteenths and twenty firsts are wasted on the young; those kids barely know what to do with themselves.  But a midlife crisis is fueled both by a sense of urgency and, possibly, higher quality liquor.

I bought a drum kit.  I’ve always wanted one and after months of dithering, I finally lashed out and got one.  Granted, it’s not exactly a sports car or a hair transplant, but it is, nevertheless, a desperate and futile attempt to remake a life that – if we’re being entirely honest – has largely slipped me by.

But buying a drum kit is one thing.  Assembling it is another thing entirely, especially as it arrived in numerous boxes with zero in the way of instructions.  Perhaps that’s a good thing.  After all, my relationship with instructions is strained at best, if not entirely subsumed by hostility.  Forget weird drawings that don’t mean anything.  No instructions may well be the way of the future.

I have no intuition for putting things together.  I feel that the Alan key might be my natural adversary, right alongside the key of e-flat.  I dragged all the boxes up to my attic and began unpacking.  I considered making one of those ‘unboxing’ videos that are so popular on YouTube, but then decided that the world didn’t need to see me opening cardboard boxes and looking a little bit confused.  Perhaps it was the additional altitude, but once I finished hauling everything upstairs and was surrounded by a million hoops, nuts and assorted ephemera, I felt a little overwhelmed.

The solution was obvious.  The answers to most of life’s problems can be found in one place – the Internet.  Without a moment to lose, I quickly started googling until I could google no more.  After eight hours, I was no closer to assembling my drum kit but had a newfound respect for cats, especially when they’re using a typewriter.  (Who knew?  About seventy million other people, apparently.)

After a few days, I found some videos relevant to assembling a drum kit, including some hosted by humans rather than cats.  In a short period of time, I had made progress.  The kick drum started to look a lot like a kick drum.  The tom was mounted and hi-hats in place.  I even managed to assemble the wonderfully named ‘drum throne’. 

I stood back and marveled at what can only be described as the kind of achievement that deserves a plaque or, possibly, a statue.  I immediately took a photo and emailed it to IKEA to rebut their continued claim that my inability to assemble their furniture is more my problem than theirs.

Then I sat down.  My right hand reached across for the hi-hats while my left was perched over the snare drum, ready to strike.  I had my right foot on the kick pedal and the left controlling the hi-hats.  I was ready.  And then I started to play.  Or, at least, I tried to play.  The rhythm tripped and stuttered.  It sounded less like a beat than a mild telling off.  I tried to do a drum fill but missed and it went unfilled as a result.  In short, my attempt to hold something resembling a beat failed miserably.  Granted, I could claim I was engaging in some highfalutin jazz chicanery, but who was I fooling?  I was hopeless.

I read once that Keith Moon from The Who would forget how to be Keith Moon of The Who and it would take him a while to remember whenever the band came back from a break.  In my case, the break lasted a couple decades and, if I’m honest, I was never Keith Moon to begin with.  Maybe I’ll get better.  My neighbours are certainly hoping that I do.

I’m not sure what it is that draws us back to the things we loved in our youth.  Whether it’s having either the time or the resources to get things we’ve long coveted or trying to find something of ourselves we may have lost along the way, I really don’t know.  But I find that I’m often drawn back to the past and the people who built it.  As for the drum kit, I’m determined to figure it out, but for now it definitely has the upper hand.  I feel that if I keep on trying, eventually, perhaps inevitably, things will fall into place.

Et Tu, Mike Brady?  Football’s Greatest Hit

At fourteen years of age, my partner Katrina relocated from Dublin to Melbourne.  It was difficult.  Finding herself in Diamond Creek, she experienced a full-blown culture shock exacerbated by incessant sunlight, the threat of reptiles and, of course, Mike Brady.  The first time Katrina heard ‘Up There Cazaly’, she’d no idea what a ‘cazaly’ was.  As best as she could tell, ‘Up There Cazaly’ was a uniquely Australian way of saying, if not ‘up your jumper’, then up somewhere else located a short distance away.  She didn’t know the half of it.

Some disputes are interminable.  They endure long past the point of common sense and exhaust everyone involved.  But whilst geo-political tugs of war get all the limelight, there are lesser-known rivalries that simmer way for decades almost without anyone noticing.  Then, without warning, some small shift sees all hell, if not break loose, then ruffle its feathers and puff out its chest.  I’m speaking of ‘Mike Brady Presents: The Songs of Football’s Greatest Sons’ by (somewhat unsurprisingly) Mike Brady.

Until recently, I had no quarrel with Mike Brady.  Instead, my conflict was with my brother, Cameron, and our dispute centered on ownership of the Mike’s classic album ‘Mike Brady Presents: The Songs of Football’s Greatest Sons’.  More than just a piece of vinyl with a collection of highly hummable but deeply specific tunes about football players, the album is the centerpiece of our shared childhood.  If I’m honest, it’s possibly the album we listened to most when we were growing up.

Our father brought it home from work.  He did that sometimes.  When you least expected it, he’d arrive with something amazing.  I can still remember the day he appeared with ‘The Smurf Song’ as a single.  We played it for hours.  I may have painted one of my brothers blue just to see what would happen.  It was a hugely transformative moment.  Indeed, I thought that was the greatest day of my life.  Until, that is, Mike Brady turned up.

If I’m being honest, I’d never heard of most of the players Mike decided to honour in song.  Kevin Murray, Keith Greg, Graeme ‘Polly’ Farmer and Peter Hudson were each sung about with great gusto and although I was unfamiliar with their work as footballers, Mike’s songs transformed them into grand mythical figures.  These were not men anymore but gods and heroes.  The songs had high-drama, tragedy and success against the odds.  The album made most operas seem as pedestrian as a trip down to the shops.  It was a triumph.

We played the record often.  At some point, my brother upped the ante, finding a microphone and plugging it in to the stereo, wailing along to ‘Flying High To Glory’ – a tune celebrating John Coleman – in a way that was so profoundly tuneless that our chickens stopped laying eggs for a time.

We loved the record as kids.  It’s fair to say that in the history of recorded music, there’s been no other like it.  Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is all well and good, but none of the songs mention Mr. Football, Teddy Whitten.  Granted, Led Zeppelin rocks like a three-legged chair but they never wrote a song called ‘Bobby Dazzler’ about South Melbourne’s three-time Brownlow medalist, Bob Skilton.  More’s the pity.

In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that an album about footballers peaked at a relatively modest forty-four on the charts, especially when ‘Baby Shark’ is the world’s most-watched YouTube video.  It makes no sense.  But as much fun as we had, we (eventually) grew up and put Mike Brady’s masterpiece quietly to one side.  There it might have remained, had Mike Brady himself not intervened.

The record belongs to my father but, for some time, my brother has been positioning himself as the rightful heir.  These manoeuvres can only be described as ‘Machiavellian’ in nature and make ‘Succession’ look like a veritable tea party by comparison.  For the most part, I have suffered this with good grace, until I received a message on my phone.  From Mike Brady.

It was a video.  In it, Mike addressed me directly, telling me that my brother, not I, should inherit his album and that I should come to terms with this reality.  I was incensed.  In a futile attempt to calm down, I immediately played ‘The Smurf Song’ at full volume but it was no use.  How dare he!  Mike Brady’s decision to interfere with the internal affairs of the broader McCullough family was nothing short of an outrage.  I’d half a mind to tell him to take his opinions and shove them fair up his Cazaly.

Cam, on the other hand, is cock-a-hoop.  He believes that enlisting Mike Brady to adjudicate our petty squabble is the ultimate power move.  He may be right.  But although he may one day have possession of ‘Mike Brady Presents: The Songs of Football’s Greatest Sons’, there’s one thing he doesn’t have – a turntable on which to play it.  I’ll only say that if it stops him from singing along, it’s for the best.  I’m sure Mike would agree with that much.

The Flying Folk Club Spandex Spectacular

The moment has arrived.  After three decades of retirement, I am returning to the stage.  I’m not sure I’m ready.  And I’m certain the gig-going public are equally unprepared for the musical maelstrom that’s about to be unleashed.  Doubtless, there will yelling, screaming and thrashing about – that’s certainly the way audiences used to react to my efforts. Luckily, I have lots of experience. 

Musicians are often lured out of retirement with the promise of obscene riches.  Not me.  My glorious return has been secured on the vague promise of a complimentary counter meal.  I’m pretty sure The Eagles insisted on more than a chicken parma before agreeing to play ‘Hotel California’ for the three millionth time.  In actual fact, I’ll be paying to play.  Whilst shelling out your own hard-earned cash is not very rock roll, even the most hardcore musician must accept that there are reasonable administrative fees associated with these kinds of events.  Rock on!

I agreed to perform at a folk club theme night.  I have never before performed at a folk club theme night.  But I’m going to assume that a gig is a gig and it’ll be much the same as the gigs I played in the eighties.  Which is when I last performed.  Suffice to say, I’m quietly confident that I won’t be the only performer on the night wearing spandex.  Or who brings home made pyrotechnics.  I plan to arrive early so I can attach a cable to the roof, which I’ll connect to harness so as to recreate ‘The Flying Jon’ from the ‘Living In A Prayer’ video by Bon Jovi.  You can learn a lot from that music video.  Or, if not a lot, then how to fly out over an audience.

The theme for the night was ‘metals’.  Given my experience out the front of a hard rock combo in the metal era, this was clearly playing to my strengths. Unfortunately, the rules required that the song reference a metal of some kind rather than the band itself, completely ruining my plan to do an entire set of Nickelback songs on ukulele and washboard.  We asked to do ‘Brass in Pocket’ but someone else had already claimed it. We were left with no choice – we would need to write our own song.

As themes go, ‘metals’ is interesting.  There are lots of songs about gold and silver. There’s at least one about titanium.  Maybe copper, too. But there are plenty of metals that never get a look in.  It was time to set the second straight.  

We decided to write verses that referenced other musicians and their metal songs.  It resulted in lines such as ‘Bing Crosby’s Silver Bells, is a journey into hell’ and ‘If you want to keep it classy, then sing some Shirley Bassey’.  That kind of thing. For the chorus, we listed less popular metals like Zinc, Praseodymium and Gadolinium, noting that incorporating them into a song could see you become ‘Tungsten tied’.  We were all set to perform.

The great thing about spandex is that it stretches. In practical terms, it means I can use the same spandex bodysuit I used in the nineteen eighties for my gig. Granted, the leopard skin pattern was being forced into some pretty unusual shapes and, frankly, it looked as though it belonged to a really big leopard, but I figured if I wore it to work the day before, it should be alright on the night.

When the day arrived, we got to the folk club early. I attached my ‘Flying Jon’ harness to the roof.  Ideally, the roof would be eight metres high.  Unfortunately, the roof was two and a half metres tall, practically guaranteeing that when I leapt, I’d take out tables four through seven. Everyone has to make sacrifices; in this case tables four through seven.  That’s showbiz.

As other performers arrived, a certain theme emerged.  Namely, flannel. I began to feel self conscious. No-one wants to be the spandex cork bobbing in a sea of lumberjacks.   Ironically, a leopard’s spots are to help him camouflage himself.  Leopard skin print on a body suit, however, was having much the opposite effect.  I sat patiently at our table and ordered my complimentary chicken parma from the bar.

Finally, it was our turn to hit the stage.  The crowd fell into a stunned silence as we entered.  It is, I later learned, unusual for acts at a folk club to emerge through a curtain of dry ice. As we started to strum our guitars, I decided it was time to leap into the audience.  Luckily, the cable to the roof remained firmly in place. The same, however, could not be said for my leopard skin jump suit.  The additional strain of the harness and cable was too much.  With its physical integrity fatally compromised; table four was confronted by the sight of a middle age man bursting out of a leopard whilst strumming a ‘G’ chord.  They didn’t cheer so much as scream.

To say that I hit the wrong note would be something of an understatement.  I immediately announced my retirement.  It suits me.  The leopard skin spandex jump suit has been buried in the back yard.  It’s for the best.  Indeed, it may be another thirty years before I perform in public again.  But when I do, watch out!  Especially if you’re seated at tables four through seven.

I Sing The Body Electric Guitar

Secrets – we all have them.  For some, a secret is an idea; a piece of information we carry in our souls.  Others hide their secrets in a deep, dark and inaccessible emotional cavern that, with any luck, will never be found.  That’s all right for some.  For others, however, a secret is less existential as it is physical.  And whether you hide that thing in a roof cavity or bury it in a backyard, someone’s going to find it eventually. For me, my deepest, darkest secret is on DVD.

I know how that sounds – as though I’ve been part of something truly salacious or, worse still, was once a contestant on ‘Married At First Sight’, but no.  My secret is much more disturbing than that.  It involves things that, all this time later, I find it difficult if not impossible to face up to.  But as dark as a secret might be, there comes a time when a secret must be shared with someone else, either in the interests of transparency or to give them one last chance to get out whilst they still can.  That time had arrived.

Have you ever seen that footage of the Loch Ness monster?  It’s grainy and weird and it’s hard to be sure you’re seeing what you think you’re seeing.  This footage is almost identical except that it includes guitars and a mullet.  Or, to be precise, my mullet; in all its bouncy, resplendent glory.  And a saxophone.  (It was, after all, the eighties, when the law required that every emotional apex and valley had to be accompanied by the honking rich sounds of a saxophone.)  Put another way; imagine if the Loch Ness monster had, rather than simply tentatively sticking his head out of the water, been a teenager fronting a band. Then you’ll get the idea.

I suppose I should just come right out and say it – I was in a rock band as a teenager.  If that doesn’t horrify you, then there are some additional pieces of information I feel I ought to disclose.  The first is that we were no regular teenage rock band.  Covers of ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘Louie Louie’ weren’t for us. Nor did we bang out sketchy versions of Australian Crawl or Cold Chisel songs.  In fact, we didn’t do covers songs at all.  We only performed originals.

If that’s not enough to inspire you to spontaneously stuff marshmallows into your ears, I’m not sure what would.  As teenagers, we looked around at the other bands and the abysmal but crowd-pleasing covers they were doing and decided that we’d write our own songs.  It was a breathtakingly arrogant thing to do.  On a practical note (F# most likely), it wasn’t just that we were ambitious; some of us were limited in terms of our musical abilities and were incapable of playing the songs of others.  If you can’t imitate, you must create.  So we did.

The second key fact is this: we were a band that met at church and all our song lyrics were religious.  No, really.  To the extent that it was technically possible to accumulate cool points for being in a rock band, they vanished the moment we opened our mouths.  We wanted to be cool.  We thought we were cool.  But by any objective measure, we were not cool and this DVD is proof of that.

Originally, it would have been shot on video.  As a result, the images are somewhat unstable and, once in a while, a line of interference runs down the screen like a picture with a bad aerial.  We are playing in a church hall in Cheltenham.  Presumably, we were there to keep ‘the kids’ off the mean streets of Southland or similar.  That said, it is also possible that our music inspired some to a life of crime. I couldn’t blame them.  We were introduced by some incredibly uncool looking fellow who, most likely, was the leader of the local Youth Group. Then we hit the stage.

I was wearing a suit vest and had a mop of hair that might as well have been on loan from Princess Diana.  All our songs had long, serious neo-classical synthesizer introductions, to create a suitably joyless atmosphere.  We were a serious band with a serious message. That message should probably have been ‘block your ears’, but it wasn’t.  As the neo-classical synth intro came to an end, the guitars and drums kicked in.  As the lead singer, it was my job to be a focal point.  I achieved this by reacting as though a large amount of electricity had just been directed through my body.  It was not pretty.  

It’s inevitable – there’s a point in any relationship where you’ve got to drag out the skeletons lest they should be discovered at some future point and you’re accused of concealing something.  As I played the DVD, I’ll admit I found it difficult to watch.  That, primarily, was because I was incapable of removing my hands from my face.  Beside me, the footage was greeted with sensitivity. In particular, the kind of sensitivity that involves falling off the couch with uncontrollable fits of laughter.  Which is fair enough.

We leave our past behind for a reason.  But it’s still very much a part of us, no matter what we do.  And to share that with someone else and have them accept it is a mighty thing indeed.  It’s thirty-five years since that performance. It may well be another thirty-five years before I can watch that DVD again.  Here’s hoping.

The DIY Acid Wash Wipeout

To be honest, I’d forgotten.  But all it took was a split second and thirty years of time travel for it to come back to me with all the force of a meteorite.  Without warning, it appeared on my phone, sent by a friend.  A photograph. Not just of me, but of the band I was in as a teenager.  It would have been about 1986 or so and I was all of fourteen years old.  My eyes were immediately drawn to my trousers where there was an uncomfortable truth to confront – I was wearing acid wash jeans.

For those who’ve never been in a band photo, there are a few things you ought to know.  Band photos are the antithesis of a ‘happy snap’. It’s not enough to take a picture of a musical group gathered around as the drummer blows out the candles on his birthday cake.  In the eighties especially, band photos were a super serious business.  You had to look as though the weight of the world was on your shoulders, which it probably was, because of the massive shoulder pads you were wearing.  

We were publicizing our first major gig – playing on the back of a flatbed truck in a children’s playground in Balnarring.  Granted, it’s not exactly the Tennis Centre, but most major concerts don’t have a fully functioning seesaw like ours did.  The photo was taken on the road outside the Hastings Uniting Church, which we had used for rehearsals; having, as it did, both a stage and a public address system.  As a bonus, the pulpit was the ideal place to set your lyrics out.  But a photo inside the church wouldn’t pass muster.  No way.  The photo needed to capture our raw fourteen-year-old intensity, which, at the time, was bubbling away like nobody’s business akin to a forgotten casserole left on the cooker of humanity.  Or, instead of intensity, it could have just been hormones.  Whatever the case, the photo needed to capture it.

As a result, we stood on the street.  By which I don’t mean that we stood politely on the footpath as if waiting for a bus to arrive but, rather, smack, bang in the middle of the road; an obstacle to on-coming traffic. I don’t know how long it took us to make the photographer happy, but the second thing I noticed (after my acid wash jeans) was the car creeping over our drummer, Chris’s, shoulder.

I know, I know.  There’s no need to be ashamed at the fact of having worn acid wash jeans.  It was the eighties and wearing acid wash clothing, together with a ‘Fido Dido’ or ‘Hypercolour’ t-shirt was as good as compulsory.  But these were no ordinary acid wash.  These, to my great shame, were homemade acid wash jeans.  

Home made acid wash jeans are significant for a number of reasons.  Firstly, there’s no one else to blame for the results. And, secondly, it reveals a grim desperation to achieve acid wash status. I appreciate this must confound younger readers who have grown up hearing tales of their parents being forced to wear acid wash when, in actual fact, we quested after acid wash denim as if our lives depended on it.  Acid wash jeans are much like greatness.  Some are born to acid wash denim, others have acid wash denim thrust upon them.  Others like me, however, took matters into our own hands.

Today’s generation probably can’t get their heads around this kind of ingenuity.  I don’t want to big note myself, but it’s fair to describe my DIY acid wash as next level MacGuyver-esque genius.  First of all, you get a bucket, cram your jeans in and pour over some bleach and leave it to soak.  Then, critically, you must thoroughly wash the jeans before wearing them unless you want to suffer permanent scarring below the hips. (Although those chemicals can help with the high notes.)

Clearly, I was so pleased with my efforts that I wore my acid wash jeans, along with my (acid-wash free) denim jacket to our very first band photo session.  That’s right – not only did I ‘double denim’, I did so in two completely incompatible styles.  At the time, I thought I was super cool.  In retrospect, I’m amazed that the car visible over Chris’s shoulder didn’t immediately speed up and start tooting its horn with the aim of scattering us like chickens.  I knew so little then.

As for the concert, I take my share of responsibility.  Namely, I must reconcile myself to the fact that there are probably people who attended our gig in the Balnarring playground more than thirty years ago who, to this day, hate music as a result.  And avoid seesaws at all costs.  I probably wore the homemade acid wash jeans to the gig proper, which, at least, may have distracted from the music, at least for a little while. 

And as for that photo? Once you get past the super-serious facial expressions that border on pouting, the flagrant double denim and homemade acid wash, I actually like it a lot.  It was the first tangible evidence to the outside world that we were a band.  Unified in purpose. Bound together by music. Shrouded in acid wash.  If it was a fashion statement, it mostly consisted of profanities, but that’s okay.  We were a real band.  And, for the moment, that was enough.

Sitting on the Randy Van Hornes of a Dilemma

There’s a record in a frame that hangs in my house. Unfortunately, it’s not a platinum, gold, silver or even polystyrene disc denoting sales in the greater Tyabb region, but a gift from my father.  Worse still, the framed record is not one I had anything to do with but one by ‘The Randy Van Horne Singers’.  I’ve never listened to it.  Having it in a frame kind of ensures that I never will.  I should be grateful.  There’s a sticker on the front of the frame that simply reads: In case of emergency, break glass.

This is just one of several framed artifacts gifted to me in a picture frame by my father. There’s also his Wham! T-shirt (no, that’s not a typo).  It too got the full framing treatment after I wrote a story about it. About how my father managed to get a free t-shirt from a work colleague and then tried to gift it to me. To a teenage boy, nothing could be less cool than a Wham! t-shirt and wearing such a t-shirt would be to invite derision from everyone I ever met from that point on.   Which, for any teenager, is a horrifying thought.

I was openly repulsed by the offer.  Despite or, more likely, because of that, my father insisted on wearing said Wham! t-shirt whenever and wherever he could.  It was an on-going source of embarrassment on such a scale that my father thought it worth preserving for all time, and put it in a frame. The reasons for Randy Van Horne’s elevation to the ‘McCullough Hall of Frame’ are more to do with my persistent, albeit incredibly well founded criticisms of my father’s record collection.  

Most of his LPs came from a record club. Presumably, the first rule of record club is you do not talk about record club.  The second rule of record club is that, under no circumstances, should you play anything they send you.  Ever.  They seemed to specialize in unknown pieces by well-known composers. With a generous serve of the Randy Van Horne Singers.  But I really shouldn’t judge.  For when it comes to criticizing people for their musical choices, I am very much occupying a glass house, full of glass modular furniture with a glass front door with Mick, Keef, Ronnie and the rest of the Stones as guests whom I am ready to throw at the slightest provocation.

I didn’t collect the dodgy music of others.  I made my own dodgy music with my friends. It’s one thing to horrify your peers with your poor musical choices but it’s another thing altogether to be able to clear a dance floor as if someone had just yelled ‘fire!’ with one of your original compositions.  There are classmates of mine who are probably still recovering from the time we performed for the end of year school dance at the Bittern Town Hall. Some of them have probably avoided music altogether since that fateful night.  A case of ‘once Bittern, twice shy’ if you will.

Sadly, our performances are not framed and hanging on my wall like the Randy Van Horne Singers.  I do, however, have a DVD of one of our gigs.  It was in Cheltenham, I think, which I regarded then as ‘the city’.  I was wearing a shirt with a suit vest because, frankly, that’s how things rolled in the eighties. My brother was wearing a really big woolly jumper and had used so much hairspray that there was probably a hole in the ozone named in his honour.  

We played our particular brand of rock and roll to a group of impassive people who, presumably, had remained only because they were unclear where to find the exits.  As each song finished, there was applause, although mostly I was only one clapping.  But as challenging as the music was, it was the sight of myself attempting to dance that proved most difficult of all.  What I lacked in skill, poise and grace, I attempted to make up for with sheer, frenzied energy.  The results were close to catastrophic as limbs flailed like one of those blow-up things they put outside car parks to get your attention.  It was not a pretty sight.

But despite the fact that I couldn’t much sing and certainly couldn’t dance, my friends all stood beside me on stage.  Whatever limitations we had as a group, we had learned to work together to create something.  We were a team.  That band was not so much about music (as the DVD made clear) but about friendship.

I learned last week that the father of our drummer, Chris, had passed away.  It had been years since we’d been in touch, but that week we were on the phone to each other.  Even after all this time, the sound of his voice was so familiar to me and it made me happy to hear him speak even in that moment of impossible grief. We made plans of a kind.  To get the band back together.  To be in each other’s company once again. And, possibly, to dance.

I find I’m making a lot of lists.  They’re lists of ‘things to do when this mess is over’. I’ve added ‘band reunion’ to it. For all the catastrophe of the past eighteen months, I’m starting to think about what’s important.  That very much includes my old band.  I can’t wait.  Maybe we’ll play a song or two.  And if we do, I’ll take a picture rather than make a DVD. Then I’ll take that picture and put it in a frame and on my wall, right next to the Randy Van Horne Singers. Where it belongs.

For Better or Worse, Music is the roadmap to your soul

I have a lot of CDs.  For those who don’t remember, CDs (or ‘compact discs’) were how you purchased music back when people still bought music rather than rented it.  Hard to imagine now, I know.  I used to buy CDs weekly.  Each Saturday, I’d take a trip to the store and make what I hoped would be wise and judicious selections.  I’d fossick around for hours before marching up to the counter. As I did, I’d always be looking for some flash of recognition from the person tallying my purchases – a small facial inflection that said ‘this person really knows their stuff.’  I don’t know why approval is so important when it comes to music, it just is.

My purchases were a mix of the well-researched and pure, gut instinct.  It might have been an article I’d read about the band or a review in a music magazine that piqued my musical interest.  Or the cover.  More often than not, I wouldn’t have heard the songs before buying them.  It was a leap of faith into the musical unknown.  An act of curiosity designed to expand my horizons.  Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.  There are definitely some CDs that were played once in the car on the way back from shopping and were never played again. 

The role of CDs in my life has changed.  I used to have a box of CDs that I carried around in the car, swapping out the contents based on my taste at the time.  I did this to ensure that I had access to high quality music whenever I was driving.  Traffic lights were opportunities to change discs.  During this time, I mastered the art of being able to swap CDs without looking.  In my house, every flat surface was occupied by a small pile of CDs, waiting patiently to be played.  No more.

I was in high school when compact discs first appeared. It was in a music class and the teacher spoke of CDs as if they were an invention that would rival penicillin in terms of sheer usefulness to human kind.  I couldn’t tell you the name of the piece, but it was classical music rather than pop.  The teacher put it in and pressed play before a look of pure serenity came over his face.  This, he claimed, was nothing short of a miracle.  The difference, it was said, was quality.

I was a tape person at the time.  Most kids were.  I owned very few records and generally avoided them.  The record player was located in the living room. This meant that music played on the record player would be music the whole house would have to listen to. There are seven people in my immediate family – the chances of consensus on anything, much less music, were slim to none.  My father owned records by the Randy Van Horne Singers and of the Beatles once predicted that ‘people would never tolerate that kind of rubbish’; he wasn’t going to think much of the things I wanted to play.  In Venn diagram terms, there was nothing to work with.

Music is personal.  Which is why tape decks were so vitally important.  I had a tape deck in my room and there I could listen to anything I wanted.  I could also tape songs I liked off the radio.  This was an art in itself.  You had to have the tape cued up and leap upon the ‘record’ button within the first two seconds of your song coming on.  Sometimes the disc jockey would ruin it by talking over the intro.  (Surely they knew they were ruining the home taping efforts of teenagers everywhere when they did this.  Maybe that was the point.)

I was proud of my efforts.  Every mix tape was a work of art and the latest tape was always the best one I’d ever made.  I don’t know what became of those cassettes.  I’m not sure I even own a tape deck now.  It goes to show how far the cassette has fallen – from indispensible to relic within a couple of decades.  

As I packed my CDs into boxes this week, I was confronted by every choice I’d ever made on those Saturday mornings.  Some I was proud of.  Some were mystifying.  More than just my musical taste at a particular point in time, these CDs were tangible evidence of the person I was trying to be.  They were like musical fingerprints.  

A box set of Maria Callas because I wanted to understand opera (not sure I succeeded, still trying though).  A copy of ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye because it was reputed to be one of the greatest albums of all time (which it is).   Dave Pike’s ‘Jazz for the Jet Set’ because the cover had a lady with a fishbowl on her head.  (Which, apparently, was enough to prompt me to buy it.) What owning a copy of Aaron Carter’s debut album says about me is not worth thinking about.  Yikes.

Being reminded of all those decisions is kind of melancholy.  But the strangest thing about packing up my CDs is wondering whether I’ll ever see them again.  There was a time in my life when they were organized on shelves in alphabetical order and in categories.  Now they’re housed in cardboard.  It’s quite the fall from grace.  Packing them away is an oddly melancholy experience. But they served me well. Doubtless they’ll be packed away for some time yet.  Maybe they can hang out with my cassettes and exchange musical war stories. I get the feeling that my CDs and cassettes would have a lot in common.  Rock on.