DEC 4 Podcast Companion: Steve Collins - Once Upon a Time in Sydney
Pub Rock and Radio in 1970s Sydney, Australia
We’re delighted for this episode of the DEC4 Podcast to be joined by a genuine legend of Australian radio, Steve Collins, who takes us on a nostalgic, personal journey through the intense Sydney music scene of the 1970s. As well as his studio work for pioneering radio station 2JJ, he was at the heart of an incredible era of authentic, in-your-face live music, working at iconic venues including the Revesby Workers’ Club and Hordern Pavilion, handling sound and lighting, security, and mixing with some iconic, era-defining Australian and international artists.
Steve explains how social changes throughout the 1960s, including mass opposition to the war in Vietnam and the burgeoning rock music scene, inspired Australian youth to find a collective voice for the first time.
Australia’s military involvement in the war began in 1962. The highly contentious National Service Act of 1964 allowed young men to be selectively conscripted by what was essentially a lottery system. Approximately 15 000 ‘Nashos’ saw active service in Vietnam, of which 200 were killed and 1 200 wounded. (Department of Veterans Affairs figures).
According to the Australian War Memorial;
“…From the time of the arrival of the first members…in 1962, almost 60,000 Australians, including ground troops and air force and navy personnel, served in Vietnam; 521 died as a result of the war and over 3,000 were wounded. The war was the cause of the greatest social and political dissent in Australia since the conscription referendums of the First World War. Many draft resisters, conscientious objectors, and protesters were fined or jailed, while soldiers met a hostile reception on their return home…”
The last Australian personnel departed Vietnam in mid-1973. The war left a generational legacy of PTSD, as well as terminal illness and congenital disorders resulting from the deployment of Agent Orange, a blended chemical deployed as a defoliant.
Inevitably protest music emerged, including Ronnie Burns’ Smiley, (1969), written by Johnny Young, and later Khe Sanh (1978), by Don Walker of hard-working pub rock legends, Cold Chisel, whom Steve credits as the best of all, and recounts the first night they played the Revesby Workers’ Club, at which time the club ran out of Bourbon by 8.00 pm.
By the 1970s, liquor licensing laws had been relaxed, hotel opening times had been extended, and the pub rock scene in Sydney dominated, seven nights a week.
Steve takes us back to the earliest days of ACDC, on the pub and club circuit before they established their hard-rock credentials, and became, according to Steve, the most important band to come out of Australia.
Steve remembers the impact made by bands like Chain and Radio Birdman on the live scene, recalls booking a surf-guitar group, The Sunsets, only to discover that they’d transitioned into a psychedelic act named Tamam Shud, and offers scientific proof that Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs were the loudest of all. One band on the circuit, Free Beer, offered pubs the ultimate showbill to bring in the punters.
Jeff St John and Copperwine were a popular attraction, with Jeff himself performing with spectacular energy and vocal range from a wheelchair. According to a 1989 article in The Herald Sun, he always claimed he had sustained spinal injuries in a car accident, but in 1981, the Year of Disabled Persons, he revealed the truth in that he had suffered from Spina Bifida since birth, but had wanted to be recognised for his music, not for his ‘physical novelty’. In addition to his music career, he spoke to thousands of young people each year as part of the Royal North Shore Hospital’s spinal cord injury awareness team. Jeff St John passed away in 2018, aged 71.
According to his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald,
“…He landed the support role on national tours by Bo Diddley (and) Chuck Berry…Diddley was so enamoured by St John's vocal virtuosity that he invited him back on stage each night for high-flying duets…”
Sydney also became an attractive and lucrative destination for international artists, including Chuck Berry, whose famously eccentric work habits were on display when he played the Revesby Workers’ Club. In line with his usual practice, Chuck Berry didn’t rehearse with his pickup band, arrived for the show at the last possible moment, and levied a substantial cash deposit, 1 000 US Dollars, to be forfeited to him if the band didn’t meet his satisfaction. He made an abrupt exit at the end of this performance, and handed back the cash on his way out.
Influential youth-orientated radio station 2JJ began broadcasting to Sydney in January, 1975. For a wider context, Australian Music History lists the top selling singles for that year;
As part of Australia’s public broadcasting network and therefore unburdened by legislative censorship and the expectations of image-conscious owners and corporate advertisers, 2JJ had unprecedented creative freedom, and no management structure. It was established under the Labor Government of progressively minded Gough Whitlam, whose tenure would end abruptly in November, 1975, under endlessly controversial circumstances. JJ continued, and in 1980 was rebranded JJJ and moved from the AM to the FM band, and in 1989 began broadcasting to other capital cities. By 1995 it also extended to regional areas.
There’s some more on JJ’s beginnings thanks to the Radio Heritage Foundation;
You can relive the first euphoric moments of 2JJ with Holger Brockman here, as You Just Like Me Cos I’m Good in Bed by Skyhooks, otherwise banned by commercial radio, hits the turntable. There follows a fascinating, short documentary from the rebooted JJ Digital to celebrate the 40th anniversary, featuring recollections from Holger Brockman himself and an edited montage of the first hour on air.
Thanks to Adrian Zorec’s channel on YouTube;
Cold Chisel’s Khe Sanh, mentioned earlier, was also banned from commercial airplay, but found a home on JJ’s playlist. This artistic freedom also extended to radio comedy. The Naked Vicar Show was originally an audio production at 2JJ, featuring Australian comedy and acting legends Noeline Brown, Ross Higgins (1931-2016) and Kev Golsby, with Steve Collins credited for sound effects, but later transferred to television on the commercial Seven Network with an expanded cast. It was created and written by Garry Reilly and Tony Sattler, and laid the foundation for one of the classic golden era Australian sitcoms, Kingswood Country (1980-84).
Pre-dating JJ, and on ABC Television, was GTK (Get to Know), a music performance and interview programme slotted in as an afternoon filler in the network’s daily schedule, from 1969-75. The total number of episodes is unclear, but its 1000th episode was celebrated in 1973.
Steve recalls many bands recording at ABC studios, including Chicago Blues outfit Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers, and one of the most influential of all, Alexis Korner.
Huge thanks to Steve for sharing his knowledge and these incredible memories with us, and taking us back in time to a remarkable, lost era.
During our podcast, we barely scraped the surface, there’s so much more to learn about and explore. Here are a few suggestions to get started:
There are numerous clips from GTK to be found on YouTube, featuring interviews and/or performances from many of the artists referenced by Steve in the podcast, including:
Renee Geyer - Masters Apprentices - Chain - Wendy Saddington - Jeff St John -Tamam Shud - Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs - Lobby Loyde and Coloured Balls - The Angels - Skyhooks -Rolling Stones - Sherbet - Doug Parkinson - Little River Band
Search prominent and more obscure artists, bands and venues on these great sites. (Australian Music History looks like it hasn’t been updated recently, but has some great information and images).
Bondi Lifesaver (A book promo with some interesting pics and facts)