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Coalman – (B R/M Gibb) 1966 and Exit Stage Right (B R/M Gibb) 1967 and Age of Consent (T Britten) 1968 and Smiley (J Young) – Ronnie Burns 1969

Ronnie Burns (1946) was a butcher’s son from Footscray (Melb), who was an original member of the Flies, a Melbourne-based Beatles-influenced quartet, who came to prominence as the resident act at Pinocchio’s disco. Their hair was long, and they traded on the insect-inspired name of their idols, but without any imaginative “beat” connotations. Their first few singles, Doin’ the Mod, and Can’t You Feel were minor hits, but they nailed the support slot on the Rolling Stones/Roy Orbison tour of Australia in 1965. Below – The Flies, Ronnie Burns at far right.

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Later that year Burns left the Flies, but his early solo efforts, Very Last Day, and True, True Lovin’, both released in 1966, did not penetrate the top 40, and he would not hit the charts until 1967, when he recorded a Bee Gees composition – Coalman.

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The song reflected the influence of the Beatles and particularly the backmasking effects heard on the Rubber Soul (Rain in ’65) and Revolver albums (I’m Only Sleeping and Tomorrow Never Knows in ‘66). When the record was produced in Sydney by Nat Kipner at Ossie Byrne’s St. Clair Studio, the Bee Gees had gifted Burns an unreleased backing track they had recorded which opened with one of the earliest examples of backmasking or reverse tape effects on an Australian recording. The Gibb brothers also featured on harmony backing vocals and the Strangers provided solid instrumental support. Burns simply recorded his vocals over the Bee Gees original demo version, and then promoted the song via appearances on the Go!!Show and Teen Scene, and articles in Go Set magazine, by his good friend Ian Meldrum.

El cheapo vid, stock footage of coalmen in the UK.

It was Ronnie Burns first top ten hit (#6), and although the lyrical juxtapositions were a bit naff, pairing Coalman with Soulman, who will help you if he can, and take your hand etc; and certainly indicated liberal use of the rhyming phrase book by the Gibb brothers; the Burns/Bee Gees vocals were right on the money, and the production also benefitted from the Bee Gees production innovations. Burns followed up with yet another Bee Gees song in the following year, and hit the charts again. Below L-R – The Bee Gees, Record Cover, Ronnie Burns and Barry Gibb in London, flared trousers and Cuban heels were de rigeur.

Exit Stage Right was a top 30 hit that ticked all the boxes for a beat song of the era, catchy lyrics, brisk beat, and a simple arrangement with guitars, drums, and bass to the fore, with the Bee Gees once again providing backing vocals, Nat Kipner produced the track at Bill Armstrong’s studio (Melb).

Go!!Show appearance by Ronnie.

Burns continued to raise his profile in the absence of Normie Rowe who was away on National Service in Vietnam, via TV appearances on the Go!!Show and Uptight and in the pages of Go-Set magazine where journalist Ian Meldrum, who had become a childhood friend after he lived with the Burns family for several years, ensured lots of positive spin, for his mate.  

Burns would record his first movie title track for a film starring James Mason and a young and lissome Helen Mirren, which was being shot in Queensland, at the time. Age of Consent was a Lolita-like tale of an older man’s infatuation with a young girl, and Terry Britten, lead guitarist for the Twilights and emerging songwriter, penned the song. The production standards on this record set a benchmark for Burns at this time, the intro features piano, oboe, and wistful flutes and is supported by lush orchestration including strings, drums, brass and a beguiling violin solo at the bridge, the Twilights capably backed the record as well, to produce a solid #18 hit for Burns.

A mid-tempo ballad which got publicity via the movie and the pairing of co-stars James Mason and a very young Helen Mirren.

Ronnie lost his way with his next single released in April ’69 with How’d We Ever Get This Way which barely cracked the top 100 but he returned to form with his biggest hit in November – the Johnny Young- composition Smiley. 

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The Master Apprentices Wars or Hands of Time can rightly claim to be the first Australian record to directly protest the Vietnam War, but Smiley was a worthy addition to the protest genre, inspired by the conscription of Normie Rowe and his subsequent posting to serve in Vietnam. The Smiley in question was Normie, but it could easily have been any young Aussie male who got drafted. The character Smiley had also been made famous in two movies made in Australia in the 1950’s, Smiley and ironically Smiley Gets His Gun, about a lovable young larrikin living in a country town played by Colin Petersen, who would one day become drummer with the Bee Gees. The Ian Meldrum-produced song featured electric keyboards, flute, a sophisticated orchestral arrangement and backing singers, for one of the best songs of that year.

Johnny Young’s tribute to Corporal Normie Rowe, as recorded by Ronnie Burns.

Smiley was a #2 hit for Ronnie Burns who would chart less frequently in the future, but would return to the music scene in the 1990’s as part of the heritage rock act Cotton, Morris and Burns. Below L-R Ronnie’s Tasteful Nude Shot, Burns/Cotton/Morris, and older/distinguished Ronnie.

In 1970 Ronnie Burns would marry Maggie Stewart, a dance/mimer he met on the TV show Kommotion, Maggie also appeared as a dancer on Bobby and Laurie’s Dig We Must, and was the choreographer on Johnny Young’s Young Talent Time, a show on which Ronnie was a regular judge. Their first child Lauren was born in 1974 and was followed seven years later by Michael, in 2004 Ronnie and Maggie followed their dream and relocated to a large renovated house on 30 hectares near Cradle Mountain in northern Tasmania. Here they established Appin Hall, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing temporary accommodation for ill, disadvantaged and distressed children. In 2015 the Tasmanian facility was closed and Ronnie and Maggie began looking to establish an arm of Appin Hall in  the East Gippsland area of Victoria. Below Ronnie with baby Lauren, Ronnie and wife Maggie, daughter Lauren with her Taekwondo Gold Medal from the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

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