There are a spate of fortieth celebrations happening around the country this year in relation to our music industry. Triple J, 4ZZZ plus TV’s weekly addictive dose of Countdown. And it’s also been four decades since the iconic Skyhooks launched themselves into the airwaves, hearts and musical history. Blank’s Carmel E Lewis spoke to the band’s legendary guitarist Bongo ahead of the release of a three-disk deluxe CD box-set that’s been master-minded and remastered by Warner Music.
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I’m honoured and a tad nervous to be chatting via phone to the one and only Bob ‘Bongo’ Starkie, legendary guitarist with the mighty ‘Hooks. I needn’t have felt the latter as he is very affable and easy going, and, as I discover, quite the storyteller I discover.
I start by stupidly blurting, “How did you come by the name Bongo?” As I’m saying it and he starts explaining it, I realise I already know the answer. I’ve known it forever.
“It came from how Richard Starkie became Ringo. I’m Robert or Bob Starkie so became Bongo.” Doh.
Bongo Starkie is pretty chuffed with what Warner have produced, though he hasn’t actually got his hands on a physical CD set yet. It had just been released on the day we speak and it’s expected that stores will be rushed by die-hard fans for the limited edition release.
Fellow ‘Hook, bass guitarist Greg Macainish, oversaw the whole production.
As well as umpteen well known recorded tracks, there is a disc of live recordings from places such as Festival Hall in Melbourne and Reefer Cabaret at Ormond Hall. Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide and the Sydney Opera House and State Theatre.
There are also live demo recordings that never made the light of day… or night. 44 tracks all up.
Bob says he is pretty curious to revisit these tunes from so long ago. The tracks are taken from the ‘Hooks early body of work from ’74 – ’75 which saw them at their most prolific and popular. First album Living in the 70s became the highest selling album by an Australian act at the time. Ego is not a Dirty Word was their second album.
All the songs are so familiar they are etched into my brain and psyche. As soon as you hear the titles you instantly remember the words and automatically start singing along. The ‘Hooks were uniquely Australian in a whole new way. In the pubs it was pretty much blues and boogie and on the air waves was innocuous pop. They were “glam”, art-house and flamboyant in a sea of dirty denim and froth. Their outrageous costumes and make-up were as much a part of their performances as the music.
The ‘Hooks sang about Australian places that weren’t out whoop-whoop but right here in the suburbs, particularly around Melbourne.They sang about issues relevant at the time especially to teenagers and young adults. These young guys were facing conscription for Vietnam and the real and horrifying possibility of warfare. It was a generation that was politically and socially aware and active..
Horror Movie typifies this, the hideous Vietnam war and other atrocities seen on screens every night during the “6.30 news”. But their songs reflected all aspects of society and adolescence.
Bob recalls playing up here on the Gold Coast in the 70’s, at the Jet Club and the Playroom, and being kicked out of their hotel in Brisbane. Joh was kicking everybody out of everywhere, I tell him.
I was just a kid growing up in Bendigo a couple of hours north of Melbourne, but we often went to the ‘big smoke’, so I knew all those
places and suburbs in Melbourne the ‘Hooks sang about. Not long later I was living down there and doing most of those things. Well not the Toorak thing.
I recount to Bob how a group of us Bendigo kids gathered around the stereo on the 1979/80 New Years Eve and blasted the hell out of Living in The 70’s over and over.
I then ask another probably obvious and stupid question which has most likely been asked to death. Is there any chance of a Skyhooks reunion? Once again I reckon I know the answer before Bob can reply with a sigh.
“No one could match Shirl’s vocal range, not even John Farnham. Plus his stage presence and personality and larrikin cheekiness could never be duplicated,” he said.
Sadly, Australia lost one of its most talented and underrated performers, Graham ‘Shirley’ Strachan to a helicopter crash in 2001.
I’d put some feelers out to facebook friends about what questions/topics I should mention to Bongo. One response was to ask him about the time he carved the word c**t into Frank Stivala’s desk with an axe while chasing money.
I approach the subject apprehensively. “If you don’t want it mentioned that’s okay. I can keep it off the record,” I say tentatively.
“No, say what you like”, says Bob.
He has me in hysterics as he recounts this tale and the phone line is crackly so I miss some bits.
I’m not sure why (Frank) a Victorian politician was involved in a Skyhook’s gig, but he also shared an office in the same building as Michael Gudinski and Mushroom Records .
So Skyhooks are booked to play this gig in Doncaster. All the band and crew show up and wait. Bongo keeps phoning Frank to confirm.
Frank says, “Yes, yes. No worries Bob.” They wait, and wait. Finally they are told it was never confirmed. There is no gig. Not only did they not get paid, it had cost them to be there..
“So of course I ended up with egg on my face,” Bob said. “I had to take it, I took the heat. You know if you play in a band, any way they can stick it to you they will. But I was getting more pissed off. So I thought, right, I’m gonna go get my dad’s axe and chop up his fucking desk.”
“I went round to my dad’s and got the chainsaw out of the shed. I go down to the Mushroom building and I’m sitting in the car park trying to get this chainsaw working. Dad’s hopeless at maintaining his tools and the bloody thing just would not start. So I’m in a lather.”
“So I go back down Chapel Street to the hardware store and buy an axe”.
“An axe?” I exclaim. “Like a tommy hawk thing?”
“No, it’s a full size axe,” Bob continued. “Anyway I get back down there and the bloody thing’s not sharp. It’s fucking blunt. So I go back to the hardware store and buy a sharpening thing. You know those sharpening stones? So I’m back in the car park sharpening this axe.”
Then I go up the back stairs, down the corridor and turn left. I pass Gudinski’s office. He’s not in there but Gary Astley, a manager is sitting behind his desk on the phone, looking blankly into the distance.”
“I see Frank in his office down the corridor on his phone. I walk down past all these offices and walk in. I jump up on his desk and start chopping, you know, the word for female anatomy into it. You can chop the letters into like squares. Frank’s still on the phone and I’m swearing, effin this and effn that. So I chop the phone lines.”
“Then I jump down off the desk, swing the axe over my shoulder, and walk back down the corridor. Gudinski and Stivala’s offices are in a direct line of vision. Gary is still sitting there, gaping and looking blank. No one said a thing.”
“So the next day I’m driving down the street and you know how they have those big newspaper headlines out the front of shops? Well there it is, this massive headline…
“SKYHOOK GOES BERSERK WITH AXE!!!”
Bongo says the desk was replaced within minutes. I ponder what became of it. It should be in a Skyhook’s museum or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
There’s another story about Rio de Janeiro Bob moved there for a couple of years to get a break from drinking and things.
I’m joking when I say, “So you did a Ronald Biggs?
“Yeah, I met Ronnie. We used to go up to his house in Rio’s foothills and play pool. It was the Aussies versus the Pomms. I could never play pool to save my life but I thrashed Biggsy.”
Then he shares a tale about sailing down to some islands south of Rio, seeing this house for sale right on the beach in this beautiful little fishing village.
Bob says to Ronnie, “Do you want to go halves?” And they did.
Don’t you believe what you’ve seen or you’ve heard. I believe everything that I hear from Bob “Bongo” Starkie. And I sure as hell would like to have seen it. I What a legend, what a story-teller, what a troubadour.
What a legacy Bob and Skyhooks have left for Australia, its people and its rock and roll history.
Do yourselves a favour, as Molly always told us. Have a listen to these precious, musical gems.