Some years ago, the ABC ran an almost continuous promotion across several weeks for The Librarians, a poke at an occupation popularly synonymous with purse-lipped, dull people who love orderliness. The promo gag centred on a gormless Kym Gyngell taking his garage cover band very seriously, and channeling a flailing Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil. Along with a lot of weekend cover band tragics, I’m afraid I just didn’t see the joke.
In 2004, the seeds of my cover band The Original Faux Pas (later rebirthed as The Bleeding Hearts), emerged from secret afternoons in our guitarist’s living room to play a handful of classics like the Swallows’ It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion and Eydie Gormé’s Blame it on the bossa nova at my wife Trish’s 50th birthday. I was the singer.
Polite friends mumbled that we weren’t too bad, so of course there was then no stopping it. Over the next 14 years, we played 42 gigs in pubs, clubs, festivals, harbour cruises, conference dinners and house parties. On election night in 2007 we renamed ourselves Howard’s End, incontestably causing conservative prime minister John Howard to lose the election to Labor’s Kevin Rudd.
We always played to raise funds for causes and charities we liked and helped raise $127,000 for causes like the UNHCR, Amnesty International, the Cancer Council, domestic violence, and the homeless charity, Missionbeat. We played two well attended gigs in Glebe’s Harold Park Hotel for Peter Greste, the journalist jailed in Egypt, and later two for a school for girls in South Sudan, as featured in Tom Zubrycki’s 2017 documentary Hope Road.
In 2012, I tempted ABC Sydney’s breakfast radio host Adam Spencer to play with us in two fundraisers for Somalian refugees in a massive camp at Dolo in Ethiopia. I’d heard him explaining he was learning guitar and correctly anticipated that it would be every guitar student’s ambition to be invited to sit in with an acclaimed stadium-filling band like ours. We pulled $25,000 in door money and pledges given across both nights.
We played as the final band late at night at two festivals held on our long-time keyboardist’s farm at Ourimbah on the central coast north of Sydney, to raise money for multiple sclerosis research. There were about 400 at each event who danced and cheered throughout our set.
We realised we could get up there and make lots of people have a great night and help causes at the same time. As all bands will agree, nearly everyone is oblivious to the mistakes you make every night, including once when our keyboard player Rob Heard completely forgot to play the entire critical organ solo in the middle of the Doors’ Love her madly. All was forgiven and asking a few people in the crowd later, no one but us knew. But not once in 42 gigs did we ever have a song collapse and have to start again, something you often see with pub bands.
At the other end of the scale, we played two inexplicable fizzers. Our bass player Dave Petroni, had a small farm near Bowral in the southern highlands. The publican at his local pub begged him to bring the band to Bowral one Saturday night. So, along with our $300 soundie, we made the trek down the Hume highway. I’d plugged it across NSW that morning on ABC radio weekend’s Simon Marnie’s regular ‘what’s on’ segment. We were all anxious if security would be needed and whether we should have informed the local police to set up a traffic contraflow on the approaches to the pub.
We sound-checked at 6pm to an all but empty pub and then ordered pub food. At 6.30 the publican nervously asked when we planned to start playing. We told him about 8pm. “There won’t be anyone here by then” he told us. “They all go home by about 7.30 to watch telly.” At this point there were about 15 people in addition to us in the room. All but two were wives and friends.
The other two were an aged couple, the man in a wheelchair. They’d heard me spruiking it on the radio that morning and had driven down from Campbelltown. They left half way through our first set. So we played to ourselves, our dutiful entourage and a local gasbag who arrived late and told us he was very good mates with the shock jock Alan Jones who had a place down there. “I can get Alan to promote you guys next time you come down” he promised. The pub even messed up our name on the sign outside. Faux Pas? Paux Pas? Fox pus? Oxford/Cambridge, tomayto/tomarto?
A second doozie was raising money for a major charity, at the Grandstand at Sydney University. The charity staff gushed with enthusiasm when I approached them, but disappointingly declined to push it on their website or by direct email to their Sydney supporters. Instead, they said they would ask a bunch of students who volunteered for them to leaflet lecture theatres and bring all their friends. But somehow, the two volunteer students who arrived late, apparently had no other friends. They sheepishly assisted in barbequing a few of the half tonne of sausages that the Grandstand management had generously donated to attract hordes of students from the adjacent colleges who would be clamouring to be there. A colleague of mine and band fan had dragged her three teenage kids along. They whined from the minute they arrived and had to be taken home by their embarrassed mother. We’d convinced another superb cover band we’d played with once before to share the gig. We had door takings about $60, well short of even paying our soundie, so the charity got nothing – the only time that ever happened.
Over the years we had five different guitarists, two of whom (Paul Grogan and Bob Jones) had very extensive band experience. We also had a veteran bass player, Dave Petroni, who could knock the socks off the Who’s John Entwhistle in My Generation, our anthem to zimmer frame rock. Some of us had limited to zero time in other bands, various commitment to practising, and musical abilities.
Like all bands, we had our share of tensions. A short-lived member said soto voce to our drummer one night that if he didn’t hit the skins more softly, he would walk out. We lived in hope until he soon moved along. One of our guitarists would often stop playing mid-song at rehearsal, shouting his exasperation at others he felt were not up to scratch on a song. This happened at more rehearsals than it didn’t. He’d rapidly apologise profusely, saying “sorry, sorry, sorry” ad libitum.
One night the other guitarist said cheerily “Hey, no need to apologise. We all know you’re an arsehole. You’ve just displayed it a bit earlier than usual tonight.”
Well, he was, and he wasn’t. His talent was the absolute backbone of the band for years. Everyone I’ve ever talked with who’s been in a band will tell similar stories of the foibles and peccadillos of just about everyone they ever played with, except of course themselves.
We all understood that we promoted ourselves as a dance band, so any dance floor clearers that anyone suggested we rehearse were supposed to be assessed against that criterion first. But everyone had different preferences like blues, country, or 60s pop which they tried to insinuate into rehearsals. Compromises saw core material retained that everyone liked but many songs were on death row, executed by anyone in the band who barely tolerated it after a gig when such a song had even half a bar of problems. We all had power of veto though: I refused to ever sing Nutbush City Limits, My Sharona, Smoke on the water or similar perennial entries on collections of best beer hall hits and ocean cruise liner request lists.
Dave, our bass player, would roll his eyes at anything remotely country, while Suzanne Plater who shared the lead vocals with me for several years was on a mission to be a white Etta James.
When Australia’s health minister, Nicola Roxon, led Australia to introduce plain tobacco packaging, Trish who was at that time doing back-up vocals, rewrote the lyrics to the Shangrila’s Leader of the Pack as a tribute to Nicola. Four of us were having dinner one night, and sang it to an iPad camera, with Trish in a lurid Julia Gillard $15 red wig. We put it up on YouTube and over the next months it had 1500 hits.
Exchange Hotel, Annandale
Some months later I was with a friend in a Canberra restaurant near Parliament House and in walked Nicola, soon joined by her parliamentary colleagues Jenny Macklin, Peter Garrett, Greg Combet, Kevin Rudd and Craig Emerson. We chatted to Nicola before the others arrived and then continued our dinner. As we were leaving, I heard a male voice behind me call my name. I turned and it was Peter Garrett who had followed us out. I’d never met him before. The next words of the world famous rock star turned politician were “I hear you are a world famous rock star!”
He said Nicola had sent the video link to many of her colleagues, and thought it was wonderful fun. The three of us stood on the footpath swapping early bad gig stories. A few months later, he sent me a birthday note for my 60th birthday, referencing the famous Spinal Tap scene about “turning it up to 11”.
It’s fashionable to put cover bands down, just because we get around. Several times we’ve played with earnest bands playing their often dreary ‘original material’. But when the crowd hears the ghosts of Roy Orbison with George Harrison and Tom Petty jangling out the opening to Handle with care, or the irresistible beat of T-Rex’s Get it on they are instantly on their feet. A few of the youngest head for the door, but for the rest, cover bands are a connection with a lifetime of songs that are hard-wired in our heads. The Rolling Stones’ Hey McLoud get offa my ewe has not been number one in New Zealand for 50 years for nothing.
You have to wait till page 491 of Keith Richards’ biography to read the essential lines that resonate for anyone who’s been in a band. “The real release is getting on stage. Once we’re up there doing it, it’s sheer fun and joy …feeding off the energy that we get back from an audience. That’s my fuel … I get an incredible raging glee when they get out of their seats. Yeah, come on, let it go. Give me some energy and I’ll give you double back.”
Anyone who’s had a band behind them playing the guitar power chords in Hunters and Collectors’ Holy Grail or has belted out the Young Rascals’ Good Lovin’or the Stones’ Rocks Off knows that feeling when you play to a room full of people wanting to let loose on the weekend with a loud band playing anthems from across their lives. It’s exhilarating.
Turn it up to 11
Now it’s true that there were some differences and similarities between us and the Stones. We had to lug our own gear and we never had a jet but some of us are nearly the same age as Keef and the rest. When I sing to the smiley one in the one row deep mosh pit that “I’m a king bee. I can buzz better baby, when your man is gone”, it may not have quite the same potential as Mick singing it. But the Canada Bay Club, where we once played to 35 mostly non-dancers, was our equivalent of the Stones’ Crawdaddy Club in Richmond south of London in the early 1960s. The barman at the Canada Bay Club who said he was the brother of a member of the original AC/DC, swore we had the same potential. He’d know, right? So we played a blinder in the second set and hit them with our rhythm sticks.
As support act at Wamberal Surf Club to some local favourites (who unforgivably played a Neil Diamond song), we were each serially approached afterwards by a drunk middle aged woman, indecently younger than most of us. But we all drove home able to say we had attracted our first groupie. Band crowds aren’t pleased much easier than Japanese conference delegates in kimonos on a Sydney harbour cruise in summer. They stare at you for about 20 minutes, then start to pogo and go nuts. While they can make strange requests like The lady in red in the middle of a sweating dance set, I’ll have them anytime over kids who are dragooned by their parents to come and hear this great music. They look pole-axed with disdain and then leave.
Wednesday nights rehearsing at Stagedoor studios in Alexandria is the best $25 a head of fun it’s possible to have. Over the years we shared the venue with uncounted death metal thrash bands, but also silverchair, Barnsey, the Angels, the Choirboys, various Australian Idol winners and even that astute judge of talent Marcia Hines who all had booked adjacent rooms on the same nights as us to quietly pick up tips. We just walked past them and they tried to look cool, pretending not to know us.
One night we were all set to rehearse the Angels’ Take a long line until we heard the unmistakable riff seeping from beneath the soundproof door in the next studio room. It was the Angels rehearsing a comeback tour. Uh-oh. Park that one.
In my mid 50s, a sports car proved an empty illusion. When I brought a sleek black Nissan 300ZX with a sports exhaust home, my wife named it the Jeff Fenech-mobile, after the gold chain wearing Australian boxer, the Marrickville Mauler. “Why didn’t you just pick up a megaphone at a disposal store and walk down the street telling everyone you are worried about your dick? It would have been a lot cheaper” she said.
But a cover band is the real thing. After several Nellie Melba departures as a back-up singer, she soon became as addicted as the rest of us, and switched to keyboard. We had a sax player who was a senior partner in Australia’s biggest law firm. His wife said he was helpless after just a couple of gigs. Paul Grogan who played lead guitar with us for much of the period and works for a big health charity, played Brisbane pubs in the 80s and then wrote love songs for Filipino pop singers, but he could cut it like Carlos Santana on a good night.
One Christmas, I saw a band of guys in their late 60s singing crooner and 2CH hits-and-memories songs to an enraptured room at my late mother-in-law’s nursing home. One was a state parliamentarian. Not our demographic, yet. But each generation defines itself partly by the music that refuses to leave its collective heads. Cover bands will not fade away.
Here’s a collection of some of our performances