INTERVIEW WITH BARRIE MCASKILL

This interview was conducted by phone on 28 October 2008.

 

It’s fair to say that Barrie McAskill is the Kevin Bacon of Australian rock’n’roll. I defy anyone to not be able to connect him to every person involved in Australian rock’n’roll, and my guess is that it will take a lot less than six degrees of separation.

As the main man of the seminal Levi Smith’s Clefs McAskill developed a string of musicians that made a major impact on Australian music, yet his recorded output is tragically limited, and his contribution to Australian music criminally unacknowledged.

Barrie McAskill is a central figure in the history of Australian rock’n’roll, and the CD release of the single Levi Smith’s Clefs album, “Empty Monkey”, by Aztec Music is an opportune moment to give McAskill the opportunity to reflect on his immense contribution to some of the landmark moments in Australian rock’n’roll. He is as loquacious as he is talented, and in this far ranging conversation he moves from Adelaide rock to Ourimbah roll, and an amazing amount of music in between. No matter how you look at it, Barrie McAskill is truly one of the giants of Australian music.

 

On the early days in Adelaide

I was born in 1942, and by the time I was 20 I was called “the king of rock’n’roll” in Adelaide . The centre of the scene was the Palais, which drew 1000 kids on a Thursday night, and 2000 on a Saturday. The Sydney stars like Johnny O’Keefe, Col Joye, Lana Cantrell, the Bee Gees and Rob EG. From Melbourne it would be Johnny Chester, Malcolm Arthur and Betty McQuade. We’d drive out to the airport and pick them up, and then be their backing band for the shows.

Rock’n’roll was learning for us. There was only one hit parade each week on the radio, a Top 8, and it meant that as Australian musicians we got to hear the best of both the American and British music. We learned to do covers of these tracks and blended both American and British influences. Being in Adelaide , the English migrants came out to Elizabeth , and many were young, and they created a heck of a force.

We developed a different sound in Australia . You feel the rhythm of the land you’re in. Foe example the Average White Band had a white soul sound in Scotland . We have a different note here, in a sparse land, you have a clear pulse in a country, different tuning in different parts. Here the sea is C, the desert E. We developed a slightly quirky innocent soul feel in Australia .

For me personally, I was born on Henley Beach , and my playground was the beach and music was my environment. I listened to the radio and heard Ella (Fitzgerald), Bing ( Crosby ), Frank (Sinatra) and Louis (Armstrong). I’d try to do Louis and Bing together, and then as an 8 or 9 year old I joined the church choir at St Michael’s All Angels. Then I heard Johnny Ray, who was the first pop star, and then I saw Bill Haley live in Adelaide with Freddie Bell. Mum took me to see the “Rock Around the Clock” film and that was the end for me. At 14 I got a guitar for my birthday, heard Elvis singing “Heartbreak Hotel” and started singing it in front of the mirror.

 

On the impact of The Beatles

Adelaide was our Liverpool . There was little work here, and not a big enough population to support a real music industry. People are what makes the money. Thus we developed our own scene.

We were doing the same thing as The Beatles at the same time they were in Liverpool . I’d always had the urge to sing and wanted to put a good soul band together. Eventually, like The Beatles I’d end up playing with Tony Sheridan at the Whisky in Sydney .

It was after these changes that I left The Drifters to join the Clefs.

 

On moving to Melbourne

We got sick of waving goodbye to all the bands going back on a Sunday morning. The Clefs liked “Kommotion” and “Go!” so we decided to head for Melbourne in 1966. “Kommotion” was perfect timing, right before the news, five days a week. You’d be on for two or three weeks at a time.

You’d have the Kommotion kids miming. We were there the first time Molly (Meldrum) came on miming “Winchester Cathedral”. We were on next. He tripped over the camera lead and had to do it again. And then tripped over the camera lead again and had to do it a third time.

You would record on a Saturday morning at Nunawading. You’d record five shows in the morning before the orchestra came in. It really launched Australia ’s pop industry. We recorded some singles there, and then Tweed Harris (of the Clefs) wanted to form a pop supergroup, which became The Groove.

That’s when it changed from The Clefs to Levi Smith’s Clefs. We changed management to Peter Raphael, who also ran Go-Set. With Max Merritt, the Wild Cherries and Billy Thorpe, we were more of a soul stable. We were going to be the Levi Smith Affair, as a nod to Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, but Tweed wanted us to keep the Clefs name going, and that was Levi Smith’s Clefs.

 

On moving to Sydney

We were working in the Here Disco in Sydney , where Peter Raphael’s bands worked, when John Harrigan approached us on the last Sunday night to offer us three months work at the Whisky Au Go Go. It was forty minutes on, twenty off between 9pm and 3am. You had to be able to play in that environment, and if musicians couldn’t cut it they moved on. That hurt. Whisky became our Hamburg in a way. You would try to steer the musicians in the right direction. The musicians were always paid equally. I probably should’ve called the band Barry McAskill’s Clefs. I was doing all this work, but just disappeared into that. It meant there was no ego, it was a real collective, and we never had arguments over money.

A lot of players went back to Melbourne , but Whisky was the top disco in the country. I was the party nine till three. It was a picnic for a young fella like myself. The Pill had just been invented. It was a very nice period before AIDS when you could explore sexuality without taboos. I think that was a good thing, because you can’t put handcuffs on people’s lifestyles.

There were six hundred US servicemen arriving in Sydney on R and R from Vietnam every three days. In the crossover time, you’d have 1 200 servicemen. They had to have $3 000 to spend to be allowed into the country. I’ve worked out that I played to 76 000 Americans without ever leaving the country. It was an amazing scene. You also had all the Aussie soldiers, and an amazing mixture of people. Sean Connery came in one night and listened to the band. People like the Harlem Globetrotters, the Roller Game stars, wrestlers, all the Australian stars like Normie (Rowe) and Thorpie would come in after their gigs, because the Whisky was open until three. Anyone who wanted to come and have a play with the band could do so in the second last set of the night, I’d always do the last set. One night I was singing “Everybody Wants Somebody” and this skinny little white kid gets up and starts singing on Inez’ microphone. I nearly threw him off until I realised it was Steve Marriott. My only regret is that I never had time to really say hello to any of them.

The Whisky was really professionally run, the PA, lights and microphones were all there. Melbourne became the scene for pop, and Sydney for soul. That was very much the American influence. It was the city of international rhythms with all the soldiers coming there.

 

On the Empty Monkey album

Jimmy Stewart visited the Whisky and asked the question, “why haven’t you blokes recorded?” There was a simple answer, we were too busy. I’d run dances right from the start, and was used to doing everything. I’d always been a workhorse, and initially there were no record contracts because there were no recording studios. It was The Drifters who wired up Pepper’s Studio in Adelaide .

We went into Sweet Peach’s Gamba Studios the week after leaving Whisky in 1970 and I sang it live. There was enough material for a double LP, and I have the only acetate of the entire session. Sweet Peach were trying to steal the band, and that eventually led to the split and the forming of Fraternity. The whole band left in Melbourne , so I formed a new Levi Smith’s Clefs and went back to my residency at the Whisky and did another six months. I then moved to Chequers nightclub to get that up and running. I did a show on a Sunday night with a ten piece band that ended up jam packed. We had the A & R man from Festival playing us acetates of Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and that became a big influence. We ended up doing Chequers six nights a week for a year.

 

On the Ourimbah Pop Festival

Ourimbah was our Woodstock . Levi Smith’s Clefs were to be the last band on. I was flying up from Melbourne , and there were problems with flights. The band missed flights and I ended up dressed in my kaftan with only my bass player Bruce. I had to pick up a band, and ended up with Thorpie playing harmonica, and Max Merritt and Wendy Sadington singing with me.

   

From left to right: Wendy Sadington, Max Merritt, Barrie McAskill and Billy Thorpe

on stage at the Ourimbah Pop Festival. January 1970.

 

Photo courtesy of Barrie McAskill

 

On the live circuit in the early seventies

As the industry grew, tou had to make records to draw a crowd. You didn’t really make any money from records until Little River Band, INXS and John Farnham with “Whispering Jack”.

I’d always drawn a crowd without having records because I had a reputation as a live performer.

After Chequers I really had nowhere else to go. I just had to keep playing the traps. I can only remember two bad nights in all those shows I’ve done. Once at the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown , when I was pissed and started swearing, and one night in Gosford. I was already feeling crook, and we had a UBU light show and they turned the fog on and it went straight down my throat. It was oil based and I started coughing and ended up at Gosford Hospital .

 

Today

I left Sydney in 1989, and have spent a lot of time doing jingles and voiceovers. My wife Jan and I often perform as a duet around Adelaide .

Looking back, that first lineup of Levi Smiths Clefs was pretty good. I became the conductor of a symphony orchestra with that band.

Who would I most like to sing a duet with? My wife Jan,  who learnt her craft in London doing sessions and jingles. She has perfect harmony. The other singer it would be good to sing with would be Lou Rawls. The song I’d like to sing? John Mayer’s “Waiting For the World to Change”. That has a great feel.

 

Empty Monkey (Aztec Music)

“Empty Monkey” has been released as a double CD through Aztec Music. It contains all the “Empty Monkey” sessions, plus bonus Levi Smith’s Clefs tracks and extensive liner notes. It remains a classic of the Australian music scene. It is progressive, intelligent and inspired fusing a range of rock, jazz and progressive influences. It was original at the time, and has stood up amazingly well across the nearly four decades it has taken to finally hear it in digital quality.

“Empty Monkey” has long been a collector’s item of the highest order, and this Aztec Music release now makes it accessible to everyone. If you have any interest in the richness, depth and history of Australian music, it is simply essential. It will help you appreciate the crucial role Barrie McAskill has played in Australian rock’n’roll history. In the USA he would’ve been a massive star who would be still spoken about in hushed tones. In Australia he remains one of our best kept national secrets. He is a living national treasure, and “Empty Monkey” is essential listening. It captures the wild, elemental singer sounds of who was so rarely pinned down in the confines of a studio. There is all the energy, passion and sublime musical dexterity of one of our true pioneers.

 

For further information on Barrie McAskill, and the opportunity to purchase more of his music, his website is loaded with information. It can be accessed at: http://www.mcaskill.com.au/index.html

   

 


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