Extracts From Christie Eliezer's 'High Voltage Rock 'n' Roll'
High Voltage Rock 'n' Roll
As associates of Australia's foremost music business journalist and arguably the longest surviving and thriving music writer and critic, we're proud to host excerpts from Christie Eliezer's new book "High Voltage Rock 'n' Roll: The Movers and Shakers in the Australian Music Industry".
Christie's 320 page book is a fascinating look at the lives of seven top music industry identities who have pioneered various areas of the business. High Voltage is the true account from behind the scenes of the Australian music industry with entertaining and inspiring stories from seven industry legends: Michael Gudinski, Denis Handlin, Ian "Molly" Meldrum, John Woodruff, John Watson, Shane Simpson and Glenn Wheatley. These men, who have turned teen dreams into million-dollar fortunes, talk candidly about their big wins, even bigger losses and the ones that got away. It also looks at their businesses and some of their major deals.
We reproduce here, with permission of publisher Music Sales/Omnibus Press, small tasty portions of three chapters of Michael Gudinski, Molly Meldrum and John Woodruff, but rest assured they are but a fraction of the gold (and platinum) each chapter holds. Go to our online site where we are selling the whole book http://www.immedia.com.au/HighVoltage to buy either the electronic book in PDF format for $29.95 or the physical copy of the book by mail order for $34.95 (plus $8.80 postage and handling).
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Christie Eliezer began writing about rock music when he was still at high school, later becoming the features editor and editor of the iconic music weekly Juke. In this time he became a close confidante of the biggest stars and wrote his first book "Sherbet On Tour" in 1976. His byline has appeared in countless magazines, newspapers and in-flight publications in Australia and internationally. He has been on the board of associations as the Yamaha Rock Foundation and Ausmusic. These days he is the Australasian bureau chief of the music industry bible "Billboard" and writes a widely-read syndicated column on music and new technology. He also wrote the book "A Guide To The Music Business" for the Music Managers Forum, and working on his first film script.
My life has been hijacked by rock 'n' roll. Like me, none of the seven prominent music industry people that I've interviewed for this book expected to end up working in this industry, and certainly not for as long as they have. One of the seven was a mentor to me as I started out as a freelance journalist while still at school. The rest became my inspirations as I abandoned a career set by my politics and legal studies degree to become a long-time features editor, then editor, at the music weekly Juke, and now the Australasian bureau chief of Billboard magazine and a syndicated music industry columnist.
Back in 1994 a book entitled Music Business laid out the landscape of the Australian music industry for the first time. That book described, in layman's terms, how the business worked in Australia as a guide for prospective players. Apart from over 100 different music industry courses in Australia that now prescribe that book as a text, there are not too many music publishers, managers, agents, artists and others in the biz who don't refer to it for information.
I was commissioned by the publisher of Music Business to do this book—to interview seven "movers and shakers" in the industry to provide a heart and soul for the ideas shaped in Music Business.
A book like High Voltage Rock 'n' Roll could have included any number of worthy participants but I've chosen just seven. So why entrepreneur and Mushroom Records founder Michael Gudinski, SonyBMG Music Entertainment chairman and CEO Denis Handlin, record producer and broadcaster Ian "Molly" Meldrum, manager and publisher John Woodruff, manager and record company executive John Watson, entrepreneur Glenn Wheatley and lawyer Shane Simpson?
All have had long-term roles in the Australian music industry; all are very different types of people, responding very differently to challenges. They are self-made, and they've lived by their vision. Buddha once said, "All that we are is a result of what we have thought." High Voltage gets behind the 30-second grabs to look more closely at their ideas, their chutzpah and some of their multi-million-dollar deals. The music industry was—and is—more than just the business that made them rich and famous. It is a place that has allowed them to indulge their myriad of brilliant and crazy ideas.
High Voltage comes at a time when the music industry that these seven men grew up in is experiencing its biggest revolution yet. It also comes at a time when there is an unprecedented interest in the history of Australian contemporary music.
The challenge in writing the book, of course, was to pin these seven down. John Woodruff was holidaying with his wife Christine in Morocco and came home early to do his interview (well, actually, he came home early to accept his achievement award at the ARIA Hall of Fame, but I'm sticking to my story) before he headed off for a cruise around the world.
Glenn Wheatley took time off from preparing his court case to talk about the ups and downs of high finance, and proofed his chapter while "on the inside".
The Ian Meldrum chapter was done on the run as he juggled his TV filming commitments and record production sessions between Melbourne, Bangkok and London.
Shane Simpson set off on a six-month trek through the wilds of Europe days after he answered why he wears bow ties and why he set up the Arts Law Centre of Australia for poverty-stricken artists.
Michael Gudinski gave up a rare Sunday afternoon at home to give his most revealing interview over a Chinese banquet, and finished checking the facts and figures about dawn, just hours before he boarded a plane for yet another city.
Denis Handlin juggled international flights, SonyBMG signings, ARIA meetings and charity commitments to talk about a career that started in the warehouse of his record company and ended in the chairman's office.
John Watson put himself under the spotlight at a time when Silverchair, Missy Higgins and Wolfmother were simultaneously exploding in the charts—and calmly never missed a beat.
I thank each of them for their time, their love, their encouragement, their candour, their ideas, and, above all, for their roles in creating music that served as a soundtrack to my life and to millions of others.
Extracts from: High Voltage Rock 'n' Roll
The Movers and Shakers in the Australian Music Industry
1. He should be so lucky
Michael Gudinski, chairman of the Mushroom Group of Companies, has had his share of sleepless nights. One was when the Skyhooks released their second album Ego Is Not A Dirty Word in July 1975. Much was riding on this record. The band's first album Living In The '70s had a year before broken all sales records for an Australian album. It shifted 226,000 units, occupied the #1 spot for 16 weeks, and stayed in the charts for over 12 months. Its massive success had rescued Mushroom Records from bankruptcy, after two years of sinking money into critically acclaimed cool acts that seldom recouped their investment. In fact, when the Skyhooks walked into the studios to start recording the second album, the studio locked them out — until they got paid the bills from the first. When they finished recording Ego, the studio would not release the tapes unless Gudinski came down and wrote out a cheque first. Ego Is Not A Dirty Word proved that Skyhooks were no one trick pony: it was #1 for 11 weeks and sold 210,000 units. The influx of money allowed Gudinski to pay off debts, sign more acts and expand Mushroom's operations.
Then there was the time when Gudinski discovered to his horror that his biggest selling act was being wooed away. The act was the US band Garbage, who were signed to Mushroom for all territories outside North America. Their first two albums clicked up five million each worldwide. The deal had been done through Mushroom UK's London-based general manager Gary Ashley, and included a key man clause that Gudinski was not aware of. When Ashley moved on after a bust-up with Gudinski, Garbage were open game. Sir Richard Branson began wooing them with a £5 million offer for his V2 Records, an offer Gudinski could not match. He flew quickly to America with the UK operations' new head, Korda Marshall, and made his pitch. Luckily for him, Garbage put loyalty above money and re-signed with Mushroom.
The most troubled night, though, was for the 2004 Eagles' Farewell Tour, one of the most expensive concert series ever staged in Australia. The band was reportedly paid A$1.3 million per show in Australia by Gudinski's Frontier Touring Company. At the time, tours to Australia by superstars had trebled in production costs within three years, to between $6 million to $10 million. Another $1 million had to be spent on marketing the tour to convince people they were dipping into their credit cards for a "show of a lifetime".
The dilemma for Gudinski was if there were enough people willing to fork out for front row tickets priced at a high $557.60 (you got a private bar, a drink and an Eagles cushion to sit on), with other tickets ranging from $228 to $140 and then $95.40 for those in the nosebleed section (binoculars not included). The band's array of equipment was so huge 14 semi-trailers were needed to move them around the country. For an independent operator like Gudinski, it was a massive financial risk. As it turned out, the Eagles became the biggest grossing tour in Australian history. Six shows ballooned to 15. The tour extended to Thanksgiving Day, and the Eagles intended to fly back to America to spend it with their families. They finally agreed to celebrate the holiday in Australia if Gudinski threw on a huge dinner for them and their 120-strong entourage and with the additional proviso he get them the largest turkeys to be found in the Southern Hemisphere. Frontier Touring does not reveal its figures. But sources say the tour shifted 250,000 tickets and grossed $40 million. The four Sydney shows alone grossed $8.8 million. Three Brisbane shows made $5 million.
Being a tour promoter is not for the faint hearted. An hour after tickets go on sale at 9 am, they will know if they are going to blow a few million dollars or deposit it in the bank. The slightest problem can turn a superstar tour into an inexplicable disaster. A visit by Bruce Springsteen lost $1.3 million because it took place just after the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Australian Government's warning for people to stay away from large gatherings was misread by some to mean concerts by American icons whose signature tune was "Born in The USA". A Santana tour stiffed because the American-Mexican guitarist came out six months before a star-studded comeback album pulled him out of the wilderness and made him a superstar.
Gudinski lost a bundle on Eminem; visa problems with Immigration officials over the rap superstar's previous court appearances in America meant that he did not have enough time to market the tour properly. Another disaster was 1995's Alternative Nation, a series of concerts held in three cities during the Easter long weekend in which Gudinski's Frontier Touring teamed with rival Michael Coppel Presents. Everything went wrong although the bill was a strong one. Two major acts, headliners Red Hot Chili Peppers and Stone Temple Pilots, pulled out. They were replaced by Nine Inch Nails and Lou Reed, who were paid a fortune to get them on board at short notice, but who added nothing to boosting extra ticket sales. A last minute change in venue in Sydney meant that the kids had to work out whether they wanted to make the trek way out to the boondocks. The Brisbane venue was right next to a church and the faithful were less than impressed with American rapper Ice T's copious and highly amplified use of the word "motherfucker" during his set. The kids thought the tour was a cash-in on the highly successful Big Day Out tour which shifted 250,000 tickets over six cities. Alternative Nation's broadcast partner Triple M playlist did not include most of the "alternative" acts to provide publicity. Finally torrential rains wiped out Alternative Nation. The talk was that the festival lost $500,000 each day.
Frontier Touring's late 1980s team up of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Liza Minelli almost ground to a halt midway. A Sydney newspaper review suggested that Davis Jr. was the star of the show. Cranky Frankie blew a fuse. "Get packed. We! are! leaving! right! now!" he screamed. "I'll never play with the black cocksucker again!" They calmed him down after explaining there were no available flights to America at that time of the night, and certainly not for another 12 hours, and Sinatra sulkily went on to finish the tour. But after returning to America, he never did a show again with Davis Jr.
However, the concert that was to cause Gudinski the most amount of grief — more personal than financial — came in May 2005. Kylie Minogue's Showgirl tour had already sold over 200,000 tickets with a reported gross of $20 million for 20 shows before it started in Sydney on Thursday May 19. It was the biggest tour by a female artist (although that record was beaten in May 2007 by American singer P!nk whose 35 concerts for Michael Coppel shifted 307,000 tickets).
Minogue's massive stage show had arrived by boat from the UK and had been set up at the Sydney venue. She had arrived with her 100-strong entourage on the weekend. She had taken her boyfriend, French actor Olivier Martinez to her half a million dollar hideaway on a koala bear sanctuary called French Island off the Victorian coast, they dined at seafood restaurants around the city, and visited her parents' mansion in leafy Canterbury. Plans were for Minogue, her long time manager Terry Blamey and Gudinski to fly on the Tuesday to Sydney for the first full-dress rehearsal.
That morning, Minogue's long time manager Terry Blamey called Gudinski at home and said, "I need to come around and see you."
2. There's a meaning there but the meaning there...
As a record producer, Meldrum has notched up a series of chart topping singles. They have included Somebody's Image's "Hush", Russell Morris' "The Real Thing (Pts 1 & 2)" and "Part 3 Into Paper Walls", Ronnie Burns' "Smiley", Colleen Hewitt's "Day By Day" and The Ferrets' "Don't Fall In Love". Other tracks by Supernaut and the Masters Apprentices were also hits.
Yet he has not been paid for any of them.
"In the early days of Somebody's Image, Ronnie Burns and Russell Morris, I was writing for Go-Set magazine. At the time there was this big payola scandal in America where people were being paid money to play records on radio. On my part, I thought it was a conflict of interest to produce the records and then have to write about them or the artists. So I thought, I won't take a fee, and use this as a learning process.
"When Countdown started, I had an agreement with (the show's executive producer) Michael Shrimpton. I could continue to produce records but I would not be paid for them. And these records would not be played on Countdown until they made the Top 20."
For someone who remains in the centre of the music industry, Meldrum's ambitions are a throwback to another era. There are no strategic plans on developing a brand name or contacts. There are no gameplans for income streams increments.
"I'm terrible with business," he wails. "That's why I have an accountant. My attention span is so tiny that I trust him totally."
What has worked is a remarkable ability for being at the right place at the right time.
Meldrum: "I don't see things in life as challenges. If it's fun to do, you do it. The opportunities were there. If you wanted to do something, you just went ahead and did it. If you were good at it, it became a success. That doesn't appear to be in the case in this particular time."
Very little is known about Meldrum's early days. In interviews he is forthright and honest, but he asks not to have to touch on that topic. He was born January 29 in 1946 in Orbost, in Victoria's regional wheat area of the Mallee. He grew up with his grandmother and then with a series of aunts. His nickname at school was Malleeroot. Years later in his journalism days, when Melbourne dj Stan Rofe christened him "Molly" as a pun on "band moll", the nickname seemed to fit. In any case, it stuck.
He went to school in Melbourne. He had designs on being a radio jock and went to a radio school. After six days, the school owner suggested the lad possibly should find another calling in life. He then started a law course at Melbourne University.
Life was lonely in the city. He'd observed future pop star Ronnie Burns going off to work at a clothes store in the city. One day, on a hunch, he knocked on the back door of the Burns family house and asked, "Do you mind if I come in and ask you and your parents if I could come and live with you for two weeks?"
Burns had no clue who he was. He said firmly, "Look, my dad's a butcher, he gets up at 3 am, we're a private family, we don't have house guests. But come in and speak to mum and dad."
Ronnie Burns: "He was a smooth talker. They said, 'OK, you can stay for two weeks' and set up a bed for him. He stayed for nine and a half years. We couldn't get rid of him! He'd always be having people over. Russell Morris, Colleen Hewitt, my mum would be making them big cups of tea and they'd call her Auntie Edna and they became part of our family. But I admire him totally. Even then he wanted to be a guru of the pop scene, and he went out and did just that, he lived his dream."
Like many of his generation, Beatlemania hit Meldrum and Burns with a sledgehammer. When The Fab Four arrived in Australia in June 1964 for their sole tour here, the country went berserk. In February that year, 10,000 fans met them when they flew into New York. But four months later, 250,000 people lined the streets of Melbourne as their procession made its way to the Southern Cross Hotel. TV news cameras caught a teenaged Meldrum leaping on the bonnet of the Beatles' car. During their show at Festival Hall, Meldrum screamed so much that he and Ronnie Burns got thrown out by security. They spent the rest of the concert tearfully banging on the stage door trying to get back in.
Meldrum's move to a career in music began when the self-confessed surf bum started hanging out with '60s hit band The Groop. He helped load their equipment in and out of shows. He moved in those social circles where just by being there, he was asked to write an article for weekly pop magazine Go-Set which was set up by three university students in 1966.
At its peak, Go-Set hit a circulation of 120,000 — which no other music magazine in Australia had ever done, or ever did after. It also gave Meldrum his voice and personality. Most of his stories would be dictated to his secretary, Glenys Long, as he'd be pacing up and down the office rattling off whatever five things were on his mind. Theirs was a stormy relationship. They'd throw typewriters at each other, or try to push each other into the filing cabinet. Not onto the file cabinets, but inside the cabinet.
When Go-Set gave him his own column, originally called Keyholes, that set him up as an icon. It was outspoken and often controversial — and Go-Set was astute enough to place it opposite a similarly hard hitting column by dj Stan Rofe. The two provoked each other in print each week, and readers bought the publication to catch up with the latest of their on-going catfight.
Around this time, the cast of TV's Kommotion — the weekday evening "mime" show produced between 1965 and 1967 by ATV-O and Willard King Productions — walked out. The editor of Go-Set told Meldrum to apply. Meldrum was reluctant.
"Go on, it'll be good publicity for the magazine," the editor insisted.
Other dancers on the show included Ian "Turps" Turpie, Grant Rule who would become a producer of Countdown, Denise "Ding Dong" Drysdale and Maggie Stewart who later married Ronnie Burns.
When Kommotion closed down after Actors Equity banned miming on television, Meldrum moved on to Uptight, a four-hour Saturday morning show which ran between 1967 and 1969.
Around this time, the sounds on Beatles' albums like Revolver and Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band had inspired him to want to become a record producer. Through The Groop, he met Bill Armstrong, who ran Armstrong Studios in South Melbourne. Armstrong allowed him to hang around and learn the craft by being be a panel operator. Meldrum was lucky that British producer Roger Savage — he had produced the Rolling Stones' first single "Come On" — had migrated to Melbourne in 1964 and working at Armstrongs, recording The Easybeats and Bobby & Laurie.
Meldrum's first record production was in November 1967 with Somebody's Image, whom he had started to manage.
3. Pool's gold
Dirty Pool was set up in Sydney in 1978 as a booking agency and management company, in competition to Michael Gudinski's Sydney based Harbour Agency and Melbourne based Premier Artists.
Woodruff had issues with those agencies. He thought they played favourites with the acts they managed directly, the accounting sometimes did not tally, and they'd often book three big bands in the same area and split the audience.
Woodruff teamed with Rod Willis, who was booking acts at Harbour Agency, Michael Gudinski's agency in Sydney at the time. Willis, one time college rugby champ who had gone to the UK and tour managed bands like Fleetwood Mac and King Crimson, had returned to Adelaide and managed the fast rising Cold Chisel.
The third partner was a friend of the pair, also from Adelaide. Ray Hearn had been a roadie with brass band Kush, then made a pilgrimage to London where he worked in a record store, and then returned to South Australia and ran a new wave club. He initially pitched to manage the R&B band Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons. When the idea of Dirty Pool was mooted, the three approached an electro-pop band called Flowers. It was fronted by Iva Davies, a former oboe player with an orchestra; and its bassist Keith Welsh who had a head for business, did the bookings.
Willis was still working for Harbour Agency while preparing to launch Dirty Pool. They were also going to poach office manager Jenny Elliott and another agent Richard McDonald. As the idea of Dirty Pool took hold, there'd be secret meetings, notes dropped on desks, and people being cajoled out of offices for whispered conversations. In the days before Dirty Pool launched, the three of them went on a strike mission, flying around the country visiting all the promoters and some media to make a splash.
They wanted to create an agency that would dominate the country. But they still managed to have some fun. Dirty Pool's telephone number used to belong to the local Bob Jane tyre T-mart in Bondi Junction. Virtually every second call was from someone wanting to buy something for their Commodores. Finally, Hearn went down to a junk store and bought some tyre levers and hammers. When a call came for Bob Jane, the Dirty Pool crew would start banging on the levers, and Hearn would say, "The guy who runs this place is an asshole, if you come over now, I'll give you all four of these $50 tyres for $50." Finally the Bob Jane people twigged and called by begging them to stop.
Dirty Pool would also later manage chart busters as Johnny Diesel, Do Re Mi and Boom Crash Opera.
Dirty Pool would offer one of their hit bands to a venue for 90% of the door deal but Dirty Pool would do all the promotion. Or they would have to agree to Dirty Pool allowing x amount of people into their venues. Or simply, Dirty Pool would open up new venues and provide the support for whoever was running it.
Before Dirty Pool, The Angels were in the black, and making enough money to employ a large road crew and hire a state of the art. They could also put aside good money for themselves so that they could have a good lifestyle and indulge in their interests. (Guitarist Rick Brewster, for instance, had a penchant for collecting the old red telephone booths which were being phased out of action. Doc had begun to travel to Ireland to learn its literature).
The Angels could do a run of, say, four shows at a venue. They'd charge $8 a head, and they'd pull in 1200 fans a night, for each of those. The band would be paid $4,000 for each of those nights. The bulk went to Gudinski's agency. Dirty Pool would change that.
Woodruff: "Once we changed the situation, they started to make some pretty fabulous amounts of money. One year The Angels did 236 shows in Australia in one year, there wouldn't have been one of those that was less than 1200 people. Bars licensed for 350 would squeeze in three times more people because there was money to be made. A five night run through Brisbane would draw 1500 people per night charging $10 or $11 per person. That's $15,000 a night on five nights. That's just serious, serious money —$75,000 in five days for a 5 tonne truck, a 4-man road crew and a band. In the late 70's and early 80's that was a serious rack of money. And Chisel were also doing that kind of business."
Q: What were you trying to achieve with Dirty Pool?
Woodruff: "We were trying to get a company that would have ultimate control over every aspect of the live situation. That marketed the gigs. Booked the gigs. Managed the bands. Offered the promoters a contract and ensured these contracts would not be broken. They would deliver the band for that price and not change it because the band had a hit on the charts, deliver a full house behind the band for that price, and ensure the band would get marketed properly so that we could come back into the market again sooner than we could before cos we had eaten the ass out of it. You could say we make sure we weren't ripped off, and it was rather nice to all be running a business on the agency commissions and hanging onto the management commissions. Because we had such successful bands, we were all living off the agent commission and the management commissions. We were just a bit of a bank. So it was a lovely way to be. The money was good, it was a lot of work, and it was a lot of fun and it was interesting working with those guys."
Q: Was it always going to be just the three of you?
Woodruff: "The thing with the three of us was that we had our own bands. We weren't exactly interchangeable. But if Rod wasn't there, I could step in and look after what needed to be done with Cold Chisel, and vice versa. We brought in Jeremy Fabinyi with Mental As Anything and Vince Lovegrove with the Divinyls.
But not on the management side because we didn't have that relationship where any of the three of us could step in and do what was needed for their bands. So these bands were put in the agency but they were never part of the actual company. We operated really successfully for about 10 years. In fact on the tenth birthday I broke it up."
Q: How did Dirty Pool come to change the lives of the bands that were involved?
Woodruff: "It doubled their income for starters. Just by picking up those extra margins by marketing the bands properly. We made sure we didn't put one of our bands against each other. If we played (the Victorian regional town of) Bendigo in the May school holidays, then none of our other bands would go there for a period. It's not like 'Wow, Chisel made a killing there, let's get the Angels in there next weekend' because Bendigo just doesn't have that kind of money. So our acts did pretty well after that. We also promoted half our gigs, so that took the promoter's margin, which if we'd outsourced would have been 20%.
"It also made the acts enormously aware of the fact that it was all down to them. They realised they were responsible for their own demise or success and they realised that they were in charge of their own futures. That was a really positive side. It was good for us too, we really enjoyed it. We had some of the best staff that went through the music business, and they all went on to do other great things. If you were an assistant at Dirty Pool, it had such a reputation and profile that you could get a job anywhere else in the music industry. If the three of us were all overseas at the same time, the agency would look after the Australian end, and that was a big advantage as well.
Q: What major changes did Dirty Pool bring to the music scene?
Woodruff: "Live contracts, they had never been there before. Marketing the bands. Self promotion. Like actually saying to promoters and venue owners, 'Don't do anything, we'll do it all, just give us the venue, we'll do it all." Plus the younger acts that came in, like Boom Crash Opera and Baby Animals, had an
elder peer group to look up to. It wasn't a bunch of individuals just coming to pick up their work sheets. There was a family atmosphere, the bands would hang out in the office together and learn from the others. Plus, the other agencies would have been horrified if they'd known the amount of medium and small acts that wanted to come over to us. We'd say no, which put us in a sweet position!"
Q: At its peak how much would Dirty Pool gross in a year?
Woodruff: "I couldn't tell you. I know that it was enough for me to buy my house."
Q: How and why did you finally put an end to it in 1987?
Woodruff: It was coming up to the 10th birthday, Rolling Stone magazine was doing a big feature, which I did with them called "Dirty Pool For The First 10 Years". As I was telling them the story I thought, 'Hmmm most of this story was told in the first three years, the last seven years had been a bit of a cruise'. It was time to do other things. It was only Rod and Ray I had to convince (to end it).
"Our annual general meeting was coming up. We'd always have it in some swanky place because our accountant would tell us we'd made too much money and we needed to spend some of it. We had one that lasted three days in a bar house in Japan. This particular one was in a pretty swank hotel in Cairns. We could have just as easily had it in the Sydney office. Anyway I got up there and said, 'I think it's over, it's time to go our separate ways'. We'd agreed that if one person said the partnership was over, it was over."