Australia's greatest singles from the 1960s — a refractive, regional outpost of the US and UK

Engel Schmidl listened to four hours of the 100 Greatest Australian Singles of the 1960s in one sitting and nearly lost his groovy mind!

There’s that scene in Boogie Nights where Dirk, Reed and Todd go to the house of the drug dealer played by Alfred Molina, and they’re trying to score coke, all the while the drug dealer’s teenage boyfriend is letting off firecrackers, in the house, but Todd has other grand ideas, and before long there’s a shootout and Todd gets shot in the gut, while Dirk and Reed make off and live to score another day.

The scene starts off with Rick Springfield’s monster, US chart-topping 1981 hit Jessie’s Girl as the soundtrack. It’s the Rick Springfield song pretty much anyone who listened to radio in the 1980s knows. The song launched a showbiz career for Springfield in the US that continues to this day, with the Sydney-born musician/actor even appearing in True Detective as recurring character Dr Irving Pitlor.

Springfield was a member of Australian band Zoot between 1969 and 1971, in the band’s third lineup, along with Darryl Cotton, Beeb Birtles, and Rick Brewer. Cotton was a fine singer who a lot of people of a certain age probably remember better as a children’s TV show host, mucking about with Marty Monster on Saturday mornings. Beeb Birtles went on to bigger musical fame in perhaps Australia’s greatest yacht rock band, Little River Band (Air Supply fans might debate this contention). And Rick Brewer went on to play drums in various bands throughout the 1970s.

Which is a sort of roundabout way of telling you that Zoot is the band that leads off the new 4CD set, complete with companion book, titled 100 Greatest Australian Singles of the ‘60s, and that there are plenty of these pop culture nooks and crannies sprinkled throughout this 100-song collection.

Again, many people of a certain age probably remember Johnny Young as host of the long-running TV kids’ talent show Young Talent Time. People of a slightly older certain age probably have fond memories of Johnny Young as an actual pop star. My experience of Young as YTT host never led me to ever think I would be cranking the volume up on one of his songs, the infectiously groovy Mersey beat tune Step Back, written by the Easybeats team of Stevie Wright and George Young. It’s just one of the gems handpicked by music industry veterans David Pepperell and Colin Talbot.

Pepperell tells Daily Review the idea for the book and 4CD box set has been germinating for a while, but the pair had to slowly whittle down an initial selection of about 350 songs to the final hundred.

“The original idea was to do the best 100 Australian singles ever but that was quite obviously impossible, so then I thought maybe we could do the period 1955-80 but again we found that impossible to do so we narrowed it down to the ‘60s for a number of reasons,” Pepperell says.

“We started with 350… we listened to everything and sometimes things were on the list and we’d go back and listen to it and think it’s not as good as we had remembered, so it would be off the list.”

Pepperell says the choice of songs for the project was a matter of subjective taste and debate between him and Talbot, with songs that had an indefinable quality about them getting the nod over pure chart position.  

“The main criteria for a record to be in the book [and CD box set] was it had to be kind of special and unique. It had to have something that was memorable about it, whether it was a big hit or not. Lots of them were hits, but it didn’t really matter (if they weren’t big hits). We really wanted records that you would remember after you heard it.”

Pepperell and Talbot have selected a decent number of big names –The Seekers, Masters Apprentices, Easybeats, Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs, and even Johnny O’Keefe — but they’ve also plucked out a fair share of tunes that might be less familiar to anyone who wasn’t listening to Australian pop radio in the ‘60s, as well as some even more obscure material.

A joyous piece of time capsule silliness is the Rob E.G. single 55 Days at Peking, the theme song to a film of the same name from 1963, which showcases the excellent twangy guitar playing of Robbie Porter (Rob E.G.) that brings to mind popular guitar slingers of the time like Hank Marvin and Duane Eddy, all set to a Dimitri Tiomkin tune.

A lot of the material is also reflective of the Australian pop music scene as a sort of refractive and reflective regional outpost of both the UK and US pop scenes. The Anglophile bent of bands like the Easybeats is countered by the California dreaming of Axiom’s groovy anti-war song Arkansas Grass. The Easybeats would attempt to replicate their success Down Under with several stints in the UK, while Axiom, considered a “supergroup” of the Australian scene at the time, would eventually see both Brian Cadd and Glenn Shorrock spin-off into successful careers in the US — Shorrock hooking up with Zoot’s Beeb Birtles in Little River Band.

Pepperell says the hundred songs featured is a sampling of most of the pop music genres of the time, from the baroque pop of Procession’s acapella Anthem, which has a touch of the Zombies and some Harper’s Bizarre weirdness about it, to the bouzouki-inspired surfarama of The Atlantics’ Bombora.

“How they get that sound on Bombora is because the lead guitarist learnt to play a stringed instrument on a bouzouki. So he’s really playing bouzouki-style on a Fender Telecaster. Bouzouki players learnt to pick really fast and you hear that in his playing,” Pepperell explains.

“There was a huge diversity of music in the ’60s. There’s instrumental tracks in the songs we picked, soppy ballads to real garage rockers moving into psychedelic once you get to Elevator Driver and stuff by the Masters (Apprentices), so there was a real gamut of music. The early ’60s, the short back and sides grease-back boys were still going. Lonnie Lee and Lucky Starr, Johnny O’Keefe are all in the book because they were still having hits in the early ’60s.”

For anyone who didn’t grow up with the music of the 1960s, some of the styles might seem a little antiquated. Not all the songs included have necessarily aged that well. But you can still hear the craft and energy that made these songs great tunes 50 or so years ago.

I’ve never been especially fond of the Anglican church fete wholesomeness of The Seekers, but must say that their stuff holds up incredibly well — there’s a purity of sound and intention that just still rings true. The inclusion of other well-known acts, such as the Bee Gees, represented by Spicks and Specks, and Russell Morris’s trippy opus The Real Thing serve to remind just how good ‘60s pop can still sound.

Pepperell says while songs like The Real Thing, Friday on My Mind, and Spicks and Specks pretty much picked themselves, he did have to go into bat for some lesser known songs.

“The record I really fought for the most was The News doing SOS. It’s a very interesting record written by Edwin Starr, so it’s a Motown cover. The News didn’t last for very long, the record should’ve been a hit but I think it came up against something that was a lot bigger at EMI at the time, so it got lost in the wash. It’s probably the best Motown cover I’ve ever heard. If you listen to that record, it just jumps out of the transistor at you, it’s a killer.”

Sixties pop music may have been curated, documented and valorised to death by the Baby Boomer desire to return to the magic bus carpet ride days of peace, love and understanding, but 100 Greatest Australian Singles of the ‘60s gives us a fresh take on the contribution of Australian artists to the pop music of the decade.  

David Pepperell and Colin Talbot’s book 100 Greatest Australian Singles of the ‘60s is published by Melbourne Books and the 4CD box set is a Warner/Festival Records release.

You can buy the book here

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