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Book Extract: Stuart Coupe on Michael Gudinski's punk epiphany

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Music journalist Stuart Coupe’s recently released Gudinski: The Godfather of Australian Rock ‘n Roll looks at the Australian music pioneer’s impact on contemporary music from the 1960s until now. In the extracted chapter below Coupe writes that Gudinski’s lack of appreciation for Punk in the late 1970s certainly didn’t stop him embracing it. 
PUNK ROCK by Stuart Coupe 
Gudinski never really understood punk rock. Still doesn’t. His is a world of blues-based rock’n’roll and pub rock. Punk was the antithesis of everything that he loved in music – with the possible exception that both exuded a certain rebellious attitude. But not having the faintest understanding or appreciation of what it was all about wouldn’t stand in the way of him trying to make a buck from the new trend in music.
But as things evolved and the audience grew, out came the opportunists. Finally it became obvious to even the most conservative figures in the local industry that it couldn’t be ignored. It was a flourishing, exciting world, with most key record releases being seven-inch 45rpm singles released either by the bands themselves or by small fly-by-night independent labels. Punk rock was changing the face of the Melbourne – and national – music scene. While much of it was right under Gudinski’s nose it took an old-school music hustler by the name of Barry (or Barrie) Earl to push him into exploring if there was a serious earn to be made.
In what can only be described as an ill-conceived attempt to cash in on the movement, Earl went to Gudinski and convinced him that they should form a subsidiary label under the Mushroom umbrella.
The basic idea was that Suicide would sign the cream of the punk/New Wave bands, with an emphasis (as usual with Mushroom ventures in those days) on Melbourne-based artists. And instead of making a big commitment to recording albums with each artist (mind you, they’d get those rights squared away in case they wanted to later), Earl and Gudinski along with other partners Philip Jacobsen and Ray Evans’s opening salvo would be a sampler album on white vinyl with a couple of tracks from each of the best bands they could cajole into signing with them.
Some bands, of course, wanted in to the Suicide activity and all the benefits that were promised to accompany the association. James Freud, Sean Kelly, Peter Kidd and Graham Schiavello, collectively known as The Spred, rehearsed for Punk Gunk like there was no tomorrow. Earl had put the word out he’d be there. In a tiny, putrid Clifton Hill flat they wrote and learnt gems like ‘I Didn’t Know I Loved You Till I Saw You on the Dole’.
Punk Gunk was held – literally – on the street, in Faraday Street, Carlton. The PA was set up on the footpath and the audience assembled on the road. The Boys Next Door headlined.
Earl grabbed a whole swag of the Melbourne punk bands (most of whom could barely write, sing or play, but what the heck, this was punk rock). The process of finding the bands for the Suicide sampler album wasn’t exactly complicated or overly well researched. Mushroom went through the local gig guides, Earl in particular would go and check out those they thought might have suitable punk credentials – and then these bands were presented with contracts.
Many of the bands – especially those smart enough to get legal advice – kicked and screamed about a number of aspects of the Suicide/Mushroom contract, in particular the clause which held all participants to a ‘future publishing rights’ deal. All the artists would be obligated to record for Suicide/Mushroom for a further five-year period if the record company so desired. On the other hand, the label had no actual obligation to do anything at all. It was a typical record deal of the time – and one that hasn’t changed much over decades. The label holds all the cards and the artist does what they’re told.
There was a division between the so-called punk bands in Melbourne as to their position regarding Suicide. Some groups wouldn’t have anything to do with Earl and Gudinski on principle, while others thought it was a good opportunity to record.
There were other aspects tied into the deal with Earl and Gudinski. All the bands immediately went on the books of the Gudinski-owned Premier Artists booking agency, thereby ensuring a regular stream of live performance work. The rival Dirty Pool booking agency offered The Boys Next Door representation, which would have seen them in a position to tour nationally with other Dirty Pool artists such as Cold Chisel, The Angels and Icehouse (formerly Flowers), but they were locked into the deal with Premier. Earl and Gudinski wanted a piece of everything. And despite what the bands themselves wanted, they gained Earl as a manager. Nick Cave has recalled: ‘Barry Earl used to sit us in his office and tell us what stars we were going to be. He was a very convincing talker.’
Earl – and he was obviously involving Gudinski in all the decisions – was unquestionably cynical in his approach to these bands. He recorded them for a week in a studio run by Allan Eaton and then banged out the album, which they called Lethal Weapons. It had a hideously unsubtle cover featuring an image of a gun with blood dripping from the muzzle, and as marketing adjuncts came things like chewing gum. Punks chewed gum, didn’t they? Then they spat it at people, didn’t they? There were also promotional chocolate bullets. ‘It took me ten years to look at chocolate bullets again,’ Gudinski now says.
It soon became very clear to The Boys Next Door and many of the other bands that the label had absolutely no comprehension of the objectives or aesthetics of the new bands they had just signed. They’d simply swooped on a bunch of bands and neatly packaged them under the banner of Suicide Records. Once again, as with Mushroom Records, Gudinski was branding a label rather than the talent associated with it.
A year after Lethal Weapons was released, Harvey reflected: ‘We were young and stupid and as a result it was just a bit bland. I think that was very much a contributing factor for us spending the next year trying to be taken seriously: which was even worse for us than what we did on Lethal Weapons.’
Lethal Weapons, on white vinyl (coloured vinyl being something Stiff Records had been big on – ‘the quality was shit’, Gudinski now admits), was released in March 1978, and the reviews were pretty much universally negative, with the majority of critics levelling their most scathing criticism predominantly at the label, who were perceived to have got nothing right with this venture.
Despite Suicide’s collapse, and with Earl now out of the picture, Gudinski still wanted to release the recordings that The Boys Next Door had made under contract in June 1978. The band were horrified at the prospect of that album being released. By this time, former Young Charlatans member Roland S. Howard had joined the band. ‘When you’re that age a year is a really long time in your artistic development,’ he said. ‘By the time I joined it seemed ridiculous that the record should come out as it was. The record company magnanimously agreed that if we paid for the recording costs we could record some more songs.’


Mushroom desperately wanted a single from the band, who bluntly ruled out any selection from the tracks recorded the previous year. The band settled on ‘Shivers’, a song written by Howard for The Young Charlatans but now sung by Cave. Gudinski was just not getting it, even then.
To his credit, Gudinski was correct in realising that Australia was unlikely to take to The Boys Next Door. Door, Door had struggled to sell 2000 copies, which was a slap in the face for a band who had an extremely high opinion of themselves. Mushroom and Gudinski were probably happy to see the back of what could easily have turned into a very expensive liability. Still, Gudinski passed up his opportunity to continue working with what evolved into The Birthday Party and its eventual superstar singer Nick Cave.
At the time, The Boys Next Door hadn’t received any royalties for Door, Door and probably didn’t really expect to see any for some time – if at all. Gudinski allowed Mushroom’s option to drop that year, rendering the contract null and void. As Harvey said years later: ‘Mushroom started paying us royalties for Door, Door in 1987, after they reorganised the company and put someone in accounts to sort it out . . . they were just disorganised.’
In years to come Gudinski would find himself with proto-punk band X on the books. Ironically, too, Nick Cave would eventually return to the fold in a circuitous path via his UK label Mute’s licensing deal with Liberation.
There is a saying that punk rock changed just about every record label on the planet. Not Mushroom, it didn’t. Then and now Mushroom is not a label that breaks ground, and when it tries to latch on to a trend – as with Suicide Records and some decades later when it played catch-up on the grunge movement – it gets it all wrong. It’s not good at hip but it’s damn good at solid and nurturing.
[box]Extract from Stuart Coupe’s Gudinski –The Godfather of Australian Rock ‘n’ Roll is published by Hachette Australia. You can buy the book here. Main image of Michael Gudinski by David Cairn reproduced by permission of Hachette.[/box]

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