Carlton (Lygon Street Limbo) (G Macainsh) – Skyhooks 1974
Skyhooks started out as two Norwood High School (Melb) buddies Greg Macainsch and Fred Strauks who were inspired by Chuck Berry, the Kinks and Bob Dylan and formed a garage band called Reuben Tice who specialized in Grateful Dead covers, and original songs that referenced their Melbourne suburbs.
Within several years the band made their debut performance as the Skyhooks (the name was taken from a 1950’s sci-fi B movie, Earth vs the Flying Saucers) at St. Jude’s Church Hall (Carlton) and gravitated towards becoming an anti-glitter band who dressed eccentrically and wore makeup as part of a parody of the glitter poseurs and glam groups who were dominating charts here and overseas. When the original lead singer Steve Hill realized the confronting public image the band were intent on creating, and after his underwhelming performance as front man at the band’s 1974 Sunbury debut gig, he quit.
Hill was replaced by Graham “Shirley” Strachan, a high-pitched, blond-curled apprentice carpenter and surfer, whose smart-arse, jumped-up cheeky chappie stage persona, and neurotic twitchy vocals, made him the perfect front-man. He wore figure-hugging jumpsuits with an outstretched red hand painted on the crotch and adopted a laconic surfer dude persona at live performances.
But Shirley didn’t get to hog the spotlight, each member of the band had their own unique spin on costume and performance – lead guitarist Red Symons in satin and matching cape, his tongue flicking like a lizard, bassist Greg Macainsh in platinum hair, drop earrings, yellow suit and Stetson hat, guitarist Bob Starkie impersonating a frill neck lizard or Zorro or Morticia Adams, and drummer Fred Strauks alternating between a Roman centurion’s helmet and a blinking spaceman suit that flashed on an off during drum solos – they were startling, unique, talented, and their arrival coincided with the launch of colour television in Australia. The newspapers of the time observed that “Their music had been described as camp rock, rock and rouge, glitter rock, punk rock, revolutionary theatre rock, and even as an explosion of the decadent decade!” (The Australian 1974).
Despite the band’s bizarre appearance their success was founded on the unerringly accurate and ironically satirical songs of bassist Greg Macainsh who traded in clever, colloquial lyrics which name checked Melbourne locations – Balwyn, Carlton, Toorak, Lygon Street (see above), etc. and challenged censors with their strong drug and sex references. Macainsh was at a Boy Scout jamboree in Dandenong when he first heard the wildness and abandon of the Beatles’ I Saw Her Standing There, and immediately decided that his future was in a rock and roll band, not collecting merit badges and singing Kumbaya around the campfire.
Thereafter he recalled that period in his life in the liner notes to the Great Australian Songbook “I was an intense 23-year-old with a Fender Precision and inner discomfort that would not easily subside … the lyrics to the songs (on the debut album Living In The Seventies) were scrawled down in a notebook in my downstairs room at North Warrandyte.” Ross Wilson became their producer and Michael Gudinski signed them up to his fledgling Mushroom Records label, they recorded their debut album Living in the 70’s at TCS studios (Melb) in only 100 hours, and it went to #1 and stayed on top for sixteen weeks, so eclipsing the previous record-holder, Daddy Cool’s’’, Daddy Who? Daddy Cool, as the biggest-selling album in Australian music history to that time, after sales climbed to over 240,000, and the album clocked up 56 weeks on the charts.
The two big hits off the album were the title track Living in the Seventies and the follow up Horror Movie, a provocative song about the carnage and destruction served up in the evening television news each night, which became the band’s first #1 single in December 1974; it was backed with Carlton (Lygon Street Limbo) which was equally as good, as it peered into the lives of the denizens of one of Melbourne’s oldest and most bohemian suburbs – Carlton.
In the 1970’s Carlton was the counterculture capital of Melbourne, occupying a position on the fringes of Melbourne University and RMIT, it had a long tradition of intellectual and artistic pursuits, student activism, a vibrant migrant community, and along its main thoroughfare Lygon Street, a veritable “Little Italy” of trattorias, baristas, providores, and drinking haunts like Jimmy Watson’s wine bar.
It was also a melting pot of artistic confluences, Betty Burstall’s La Mama Theatre pioneered fringe stage productions and young playwrights David Williamson, Jack Hibberd, Richard Frankland and Barry Dickens all go their start there, and the live music scene was brilliant. At different times through the seventies such local music luminaries as Ross Wilson, Paul Kelly, Stephen Cummings, Joe Camilleri, Jane Clifton, Red Symonds, Bob Starkie, and others resided there, and became part of the “Carlton band” culture.
Greg Macainsh was a film school graduate with an eye for visual impact and a penchant for acerbic lyrics, he targeted the inner-city trendies, observing their foibles and customs, as he did so well in Carlton (Lygon Street Limbo). “…All those pizza places and spaced out faces/They all get on the beat…When the sun sets over Carlton/ And you’re out to make a deal/ Check out who you’re talkin’ to/ And make sure their real…” was a salutary warning to those who did deals in the pubs and back lanes of Carlton to be wary of their sources, while other local stereotypes were gently satirised “ All those grey-haired writers and drunken fighters/They all step out in line… When the sun sets over Carlton/ And the day begins to fade/All those night-time junkies and long-haired monkeys/ They all pull up the shade…”
Skyhooks were a tight band, there were obviously egos at play here, Symons and Macainsh had their differences, and Shirley Strachan grew tired of the publicity and invasion of privacy associated with pop stardom, but they were a brilliant live band, who delivered both musically and visually. Carlton is a bouncy 70’s-era pop song, no dramatic chord changes or anthemic riffs, which only served to artfully conceal the subversive nature of the lyrics, by December 1974 the Hooks simultaneously occupied the #1 positions on both the album and singles charts nationally. The promo clip is a live performance of the song in 1984 with the band mingling with an assortment of Carlton “characters” on stage – a pizza chef, waitresses, punks, schoolkids, a roller skater, and an underworld type in a white suit.
The band would continue to dominate the charts with their next album, Ego Is Not A Dirty Word, during a golden run for the band in 1975 when they would take three more singles into the top ten – Ego Is Not A Dirty Word (#2 April), All My Friends Are Getting Married (#2 July) and Million Dollar Riff (#6 November).