Latest release: Don’t You Believe What You’ve Seen or You’ve Heard (Festival/Warner)
The Opera House stage is in darkness. A series of wires bent into the shape of an S start burning across the foot of the stage and the unmistakable sound of a chainsaw rips through the room. Wood flies everywhere as a man cuts his way out of a huge wooden box and the band burst into their set. It’s September 1974, and Skyhooks have just introduced themselves to Sydney.
“That was just after we released ‘Living in the 70s’ as a single and we were up there supporting Sherbet, of all people,” recalls guitarist ‘Bongo’ Bob Starkie. “I could hardly even hold a plectrum. The whole thing was really pretty scary for me, to be honest. To be on the stage at the Opera House, only a year after we’d started, virtually… it was pretty fast-track.”
Almost unknown outside of Melbourne, Skyhooks’ first album was still a month away from release.
“There was a lot of people just going, ‘Meh!'” Starkie continues, “especially the Sydneyites who were there for Sherbet – Who are these dickheads? And because [Sherbet] were riding so high, we became a threat. That’s what we loved! We loved blowing the headliner off the stage. That’s what gives you the motivation. And we did that for quite some time. We ended up getting up the top and then, of course, there was nowhere to go (but) down.”
Issued in October 1974, Living in the 70s was a sleeper until second single ‘Horror Movie’ came out in March the next year and hit #1. The album soon followed, staying at the top of the chart for an incredible four months. When Ego is Not a Dirty Word was released in July 1975, it hogged the #1 slot for eleven weeks. A little more than two years after being formed by songwriting bassist Greg Macainsh and his drummer friend Freddie Strauks, Skyhooks was now the biggest band in the country. Soon, America was beckoning, but the market there just didn’t understand this glammed-up mob of Melbourne misfits and wrote them off as nothing more than Kiss clones – a misappropriation if ever there was one. The band was simply too foreign, too Australian. Macainsh’s location-checking lyrical references gave Skyhooks a character that was unique to their homeland. It was a big part of their appeal.
“I think the reason we got so popular so quickly had a lot to do with that,” Bongo agrees. “It was like, Wow! This is an Australian band, unlike anybody else! It didn’t sound like anybody else, and we did write about Australian things. The first album was about Melbourne and the Vietnam War and the call-up and all that stuff. It was that first album, because it had ‘Carlton’ on it, ‘Toorak Cowboy’… it was a big hanger to hang that Australian thing off. And ‘Horror movie, it’s the 6.30 news’. That was very Australian too.”
Their experience across the Pacific inspired their next album, Straight in a Gay Gay World, a #2 success, but the band had hit so big so quickly that things, as Starkie says, “started to get a little bit weird.”
“Those [first] two albums were pretty much written before the first one was released, so we had a whole stack of tunes. After that, songs needed to be written and what have you,” the guitarist says. “Greg’s pretty highly strung. His health suffered from all these nerves and what have you and over the period of playing in Skyhooks we had to replace him with different bass players every now and then because his health would just drop away. I think he took the pressure on board a little too much when it came to moving forward with the songs and song writing.”
Despite the charisma and magnetism of singer Shirley Strachan and the group’s other guitarist Red Symons, Starkie asserts that Skyhooks was always Greg Macainsh’s band.
“He hired me, and I was there to play his songs, basically. But if you could come up with a song and it got up there, that was fine. You had to realise that it couldn’t just be any song. It had to be something in keeping with the spirit of the Skyhooks thing, which is just a little bit left of centre and basically have the middle finger up.”
It was only the contumacious Symons who managed to get Skyhooks to include his songs on their albums, and even convinced them to let him do the vocals as well.
“[Red] was always complaining about getting songs up, but basically we did every single song that he presented,” Starkie says. ” So I don’t know what his beef was. After a while it really gave Macainsh… it got on his nerves. And our nerves too. But he contributed some really great songs! I loved playing his songs! ‘Every Chase a Steeple’ and ‘Smut’ and ‘Mumbo Jumbo’…”
After the third album, Symons was gone; Strachan left after touring to support Guilty Until Proven Insane in 1978. The Skyhooks rocket ride was done by mid-1980, a little over seven years after it began, but their legacy was an astonishing catalogue of songs with vibrant characters and familiar settings that remain part of Australia’s musical lexicon. Other bands, most notably Cold Chisel, would soon follow in Skyhooks’ wake, writing songs with a typically Australian feel. Bongo Starkie pauses when he’s asked if Chisel could have become as successful with that formula as they eventually did without Skyhooks.
“Wow, I don’t know about that! He’s pretty special, that [Don Walker]. You’d have to ask him that!” he says after a moment. “I think the fact that Skyhooks could come out with very original tunes with an Australian bent to it gave a lot of people confidence. Of course now everybody wants to be original and write their own stuff to the point where a lot of it is absolute fucking crap!”
Forty years after Skyhooks rewrote Australian musical history, their first two albums have been repackaged as Don’t You Believe What You’ve Seen or You’ve Heard, with formerly unheard demos and a complete new live CD containing 14 tracks recorded at the height of their popularity. Even Bongo hasn’t heard some of these recordings, and is especially eager for the live album. He talks about the shows like he has just come off stage a few minutes ago.
“And all this live stuff… I haven’t heard most of that either,” he says with enthusiasm. “There’s a whole CD of live stuff that goes from 74 to 75. That was when we were at our peak, really. In all different places – the Opera House, Sydney State Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide – which was a fucking great room – and of course Festival Hall. Those shows were crazy. I love the live stuff.”
The surviving members of the band haven’t all played together since the cruel death of Shirley Strachan in a solo flying accident in 2001. With the remaster pending, however, they made a surprise appearance on Rockwiz with producer, friend and mentor Ross WIlson taking the vocalist role. Incredibly, Starkie explains, the idea came from the formerly recalcitrant Red Symons, who has long remained famously hostile in his attitude toward Skyhooks.
“For years, Red has not wanted to have anything to do with Skyhooks. He was adamant that ‘That was then and this is now and get fucked!'” Bongo says. “When I went to rehearsal I said to him, ‘How come you’re doing this?’ and he said, ‘Must’ve got me on a good day!’ So that was his attitude. I probably wouldn’t have done it if Red hadn’t done it. The chance to play with Red again, I wouldn’t let that one go. And it was good for Red too.”
The original plan, also apparently Red’s idea, was for them to regroup with Daryl Braithwaite and kick off the set with ‘Howzat’ as a bit of a gag, but the one-time Sherbet frontman’s voice went on him. Bringing in Ross Wilson was the natural choice.
“He’s like a sixth member, as far as I’m concerned. Very close,” says Starkie of Wilson, who produced the first three Skyhooks records. “I still pinch myself. It’s extraordinary having him as a friend, but also working with him. That’s where I got my PhD. I learned so much from him and we’ve done a lot together. It was a special moment.”
Performing ‘Horror Movie’, ‘Balwyn Calling’ and ‘All My Friends are Getting Married’, it was a one-off that isn’t likely to be repeated but evidently one that Bongo Starkie enjoyed immensely.
“It was just a very special moment. It was a nervy sort of show to do because you rock, you do three songs and then you’re off! You’re just warming up,” he says. The experience has fired him up again, like the 21 year old guitar player he was when he replaced his older brother in Skyhooks in 1973. “You know what? I wanna do a record! I want to do something else! It certainly did break the ice a bit. Red’s certainly warmed to it a bit more. I think he’s been carrying a few demons around and hopefully they’ve been dissolved.”