The Beeb Birtles Interview
DK: Let me introduce my next guest this way:
While scouring around on the Internet for information to help with background for various MILESAGO profiles, I discovered Beeb Birtles’ own, official website. Tenaciously, I left a message on his "guestbook" (as you do), and a few days later received a personal reply from BB himself! That in itself was a considerable thrill, and from then on we corresponded occasionally by e-mail. Now, notwithstanding my relatively vague contacts in the various media, I suggested to Beeb that it might be fun, and valuable promotion for him, to have a radio chat with one of Australia’s premier rock "gurus", David Kilby, who presents a wonderful Sunday morning magazine-style program on ABC Radio here - called, appropriately, Sundays. And so, after a bit of to-and-fro, it came to be! Following is the full transcript of the fascinating phone conversation that took place between Beeb and David, live-to-air on Sunday, 17th October, 1999. We here at MILESAGO trust that you’ll enjoy it!
Down The Line by The Hollies plays…DK: Okay, hands up those who thought I was gonna speak to one of The Hollies? No, I’ve already done that! My special guest this morning is Beeb Birtles, good morning Beeb!
BB: Good morning! Dave, is it?
DK: That’s right
BB: Hey Dave, now. you know, I remember that song so well because Zoot, before they were known as Zoot, were called Down The Line!
DK: Down The Line, and I believe, and you’ll be able to correct me Beeb, that it was actually The Hollies’ version of Down The Line that created the name?
BB: Uh-huh, that’s right. Well at first, you know, the first name that we actually had for the band was Times Unlimited, and that was fresh out of high school in Adelaide. I went to Plympton High School in Adelaide and that’s where I first got into music, with friends of mine
DK: And The Hollies were fairly influential for you, and your friends too, Beeb?
BB: Well they were influential because the lead guitarist in the group, a guy called John D’Arcy… now I think John for a time lived in Canberra [where DK is based]
DK: Did he really?
BB: Yeah, he did, he was playing with some bands around Canberra. And he was from Manchester, England which is where The Hollies were from, and so he was very influenced by The Hollies, and of course it was John who virtually first started teaching me how to sing harmonies to a lot of The Hollies’ songs
DK: Which of course for which The Hollies were justifiably famous, weren’t they, very distinctive harmonies
BB: Oh, yeah, yeah. They were one of the great harmony bands of all time, I think
DK: Beeb, can we go back a little further, because you were born in Holland, am I right?
BB: Uh-huh, that’s correct
DK: And your parents were musical, Beeb?
BB: They were. Both my parents sang in what’s called operettas. It was kind of like an amateur opera type of thing in Amsterdam, Holland, and one of my first recollections of seeing my parents actually live on stage was when I was very young and I went with my grandparents. They took me to the theatre to see my parents, and, er, I was so young that I actually called out my mother’s name from the audience! [laughs]… which was probably highly embarrassing to them, y’know? And it was really my mother who first started teaching me to sing harmony, because, as kids we had chores to do when we were growing up in Adelaide; and when I was doing some of my chores with my mother after dinner at night, we would sing together. And she would take the melody and I would take the harmony
DK: Go on! So what age were you when you came to Australia, Beeb?
BB: I was just going on ten years old. And of course we settled in Adelaide, South Australia, which is, y’know, my parents chose that town. And it was just shortly before the whole "British Invasion" and all of that happened
DK: Beeb, I’ve gotta ask you, tell us the origin of the name "Beeb". It’s such a memorable one
BB: Oh yeah! Actually, around the same time when I was going to Plympton high school, there was a cartoon series on TV called The Dick Tracy Show, and they had all different characters in it, like Mumbles and a little Chinese character. But there was also a character called Bee-Bee-Eyes! And, I don’t know why this happened, but the kids at school started calling me Bee-Bee-Eyes, which got abbreviated to Bee-Bee, and for most of my years in high school I was known as Bee-Bee. And then it was Darryl Cotton, the lead singer of Zoot, who abbreviated that to Beeb, and so it kinda stuck, and became my professional name. Because my last name is actually Bertelkamp, which is very Dutch-sounding, so I abbreviated that to Birtles and anglicised the spelling of it, and that’s how I got my name
DK: There’s a lot in a name, isn’t there, because people obviously will remember Beeb Birtles in any case for the wonderful tunes you’ve written, but having a name like that, that just rolls along with the alliteration and so on, is a tremendous asset, isn’t it?
BB: It is… I mean, Donna my wife sometimes says, when people [remark] "you have such an unusual name", she’s quick to point out to people that it’s no more unusual than Sting, or Cher, or people like that. People in music do sometimes have odd names, or different sounding names
DK: But just like that, we don’t forget Sting and we don’t forget Cher – I mean, Cher won’t let us anyway…
BB: [laughs] Right!
DK: But I don’t wanna dwell too long on that. Let’s get back to the music. Now, after Down The Line, that evolved gradually into Zoot? How did that happen?
BB: Yeah, well, if you remember a group called The Angels?
BB: Yeah, Doc Neeson [lead singer of The Angels] was living in Adelaide at that time, and he was in partnership with another guy, and I think they were seeking to do a management thing or something. And they really liked the group when it was called Down The Line but they didn’t like the name. And it was actually Doc Neeson who suggested: "y’know, you should change the name to something short and punchy like Zoot". I think he was meaning a name that really doesn’t mean anything, you know. And we didn’t hear any more from those guys as far as management was concerned, but we liked the name, and that’s how we came to change our name to Zoot
DK: Now here we are trying to get away from names and now we’ve got back into it again Beeb, but would he have got that from Zoot Money, the musician, or Zoot suit?
BB: I have no idea. To this day I’ve never spoken to Doc Neeson about this, or whether he even remembers saying this to us. It was just one of those things in history that happened, and then we locked into the name, and that’s what we were known as
DK: Now, was it a case of a slow hard grind in Adelaide, getting established as Zoot?
BB: Not really, because when we were still called Down [The Line]… I think we changed our name to Down The Line at the time that Darryl joined the group. Darryl was in another Adelaide band called the Murmen and when he joined [our] group, we decided on a name change. And it wasn’t too long after that when we changed our name to Zoot, and probably within a couple of years after that Zoot became a very popular Adelaide band, playing all the different places where you play in a particular town; and in late ’68 we decided that we couldn’t go any further in Adelaide. We had to either move or do something and that’s when we decided to move to Melbourne
DK: Move to Melbourne, right. What about your songwriting, Beeb, when did you start writing songs?
BB: You know, I started writing songs kinda late in Zoot, in fact probably just about after the Zoot broke up, Darryl and I wrote a song which ended up being the b-side of one of the Zoot singles. But I didn’t really take songwriting seriously until I left Zoot. I was a bass player with Zoot and then after I left the group I decided that I wasn’t really advancing on that instrument, and I decided to change to playing 6-string guitar, and along with that came the discovery that I could write songs! Because I loved melody so much, and that’s what started me writing songs. Of course by then, Darryl and I were in a duo called Frieze after Zoot broke up
DK: Now, I want to get to that in a moment, but let’s go back… I dunno whether this is the flipside that you’re talking about, but you certainly wrote it, called Little Roland Lost
BB: That’s the song!
DK: Okay, and this is the way it sounded
Little Roland Lost by Zoot plays…DK: A nice guitar solo too there, Beeb
BB: Guitar solo provided by Terry Britten from The Twilights
DK: Oh golly! And he did a bit of songwriting too!
BB: [chuckles] Yeah, a bit of a songwriter as well. [laughs] Yeah, I mean that was actually recorded for the first Zoot album that was called, er…
DK: Just Zoot
BB: Just Zoot, and it was around that time we were working with Terry. Terry produced a lot of those tracks
DK: And certainly went on to greater things like you did too
BB: Mmm, yeah, well Terry wrote What’s Love Got To Do With It? for Tina Turner
DK: Yeah, amazing. Beeb, is it apocryphal or is it true, that you were actually singing up behind John Farnham (or Johnny as he was then), at one stage?
BB: Yeah, I had done some session work, just vocal session work – not only for John Farnham but I sang on some Russell Morris records and also did some background singing for Brian Cadd
DK: Did you really? Do you recall singing on this?
In My Room by Johnny Farnham plays…DK: The flipside to Sadie The Cleaning Lady
BB: Yeah, but you know what, I don’t recall singing on that
DK: Dontcha? [laughs]
BB: Was I credited as singing on that?
DK: Yeah! Somebody told me once that you were in the background, or some of Zoot were, whatever… you certainly were, so there we are
BB: Wow, how about that!
DK: In fact, that’s a much better side than Sadie The Cleaning Lady
BB: Yeah In My Room, that’s a fabulous song
DK: That’s good
BB: Yeah, very good
DK: So was the treatment that Zoot did of Eleanor Rigby. Can you tell us how that came about?
BB: Well, y’know, Zoot were making the transition from being the "think pink, think Zoot" thing, which was really starting to get old with us, and the majority of us hated wearing those pink clothes… So it was around the time when music was getting heavier. Black Sabbath was starting to release their records and it was shortly before Led Zeppelin came along…
DK: And a bit of Deep Purple and…
BB: Yeah, Deep Purple and bands like that. So we started taking a lot of the well known hit songs, you know, top forty songs and giving them a heavier treatment. And Eleanor Rigby wasn’t the only song that we treated like that – we did some songs by Neil Diamond, we did a version of Summer In The City, that was kind of our own version. But it was the version of Eleanor Rigby that Rick Springfield had a lot to do with
DK: Did he?
BB: Well, because of the distinctive guitar riff that opens that song. And it became so popular with our live audiences that we decided to record that song
DK: In a way, looking back, it’s unusual – it was such a big hit, when it wasn’t so long after The Beatles really, but just the treatment was so different isn’t it?
BB: Yeah, it wasn’t that long after The Beatles and the treatment definitely was very different. In fact, we got some very irate…
DK: [laughs] I bet you did!
BB: …from people who just absolutely loved The Beatles’ version and hated our version of the song! [laughs]
DK: Let’s give ‘em a chance to hate it all over again, Beeb; and then I wanna talk about the whole "pink" thing, ‘cos that was fascinating too
BB: Sure, okay
Eleanor Rigby by Zoot plays…
BB: Pretty heavy, huh?
DK: [laughs] Oh very heavy! Very heavy indeed [both chuckling] …Zoot’s version of Eleanor Rigby, a huge hit! Look, you just glossed over the "pink" thing though. Tell us a bit about that Beeb – the whole image of Zoot was pink, wasn’t it?
BB: Yeah, it was. At the time we were leaving Adelaide to go to Melbourne, we did some shows with The Twilights and [they] had another singer other than Glenn Shorrock, another guy called Paddy [MacCartney] was the other singer in the group. And he really loved [Zoot] and brought us to the attention of EMI records. And there was a guy in Melbourne who was a manager, called Wayne De Gruchy, and Wayne came over to see the group and saw a lot of potential in us becoming a very popular young band in Australia. And when they brought us over to Melbourne, he and another guy that owned the Bertie’s disco in Melbourne, decided that they needed a gimmick of some sort, to really get the band going. And the image that was decided on was "think pink, think Zoot"! It was this outrageous thing where the band dressed up in all-pink clothes, which of course, y’know, all the young girls loved us in these ridiculous outfits and all their boyfriends hated our guts, y’know? [both laughing] And that’s really how the whole thing came about… I always felt very very uncomfortable dressing that way, ‘cos it wasn’t me. But, at the same time…
DK: It worked
BB: Yeah, it worked, and you can’t knock the success that the band had over that two-year period between ’69 and ’71 when we travelled all over Australia and became a very popular teenybopper group back in those days
DK: But you’ve always had a thing about fashion in a way Beeb, because from when Zoot folded up, you went, as you remarked before, into the duo with Darryl Cotton calling yourself Frieze. And that also had a fashion connotation, didn’t it?
BB: Well it had a fashion connotation only because we were sponsored by a suit manufacturer called Frieze Brothers. In fact, the story is actually a lot more embarrassing than what… [laughing] Because, when we first met with these advertising people – Frieze Brothers was one of their clients – they came to us with the idea that they wanted us to form another group. And they wanted each of the guys in the band to be named after a material, meaning like a cloth material. So Darryl Cotton was fine!
DK: [laughs] Oh yes, of course
BB: But, you know, they wanted me to change my name to Terry Lene [both laughing uproariously] …and I was to have a brother called Crimp! And so, we had just come outta the Zoot thing and we just laughed in these guys’ faces and said "listen, you can’t be serious – we’ve just come from out of ‘think pink, think Zoot’ – we’ve been there and done that!" And so we talked them into doing a duo idea, and that’s where the suits came in, y’see?
DK: Good heavens. Alright, well that leads me…
BB: I have a story to tell Dave! [gleefully laughing]
DK: Oh yeah you certainly do, and in fact we’re gonna run out
of time before we hear the full story, but, um, I’m talking to Beeb Birtles,
my special guest, the famous Australian songwriter, who – I forgot to add
at the beginning – is talking to us from Nashville. And we’ll come to why
Beeb’s in Nashville and what he’s doing there a little later on… But I’m
sorry to do this to you Beeb: the next song I’m about to play is this…
Witchery by Little River Band plays…DK: Now we’re slowly evolving here, but that’s another song you co-wrote wasn’t it? And again, it’s got a fashion connotation
BB: It does. But the story to that one is a little bit different. Because when we were struggling as Mississippi and just about to become Little River Band, Glenn Wheatley our manager came to us and said "listen you guys, we can make some money if we write this commercial for the Witchery clothing stores around Australia". And so, as always when faced with a challenge, I kinda rise to the occasion, so… I sat down, and I remember the day I wrote the song, I had a terrible cold. I was sitting on the front steps of my flat in Melbourne and this song, Witchery, it was about the fastest song I’ve ever written. It fell out in about ten minutes. So we recorded this as a commercial for the Witchery stores and we made some money from doing that. And then, I don’t think Witchery really used it to their full advantage, because when it came time to record the Diamantina Cocktail album – Little River Band – I pitched that song for the recording of the album, ‘cos I thought it was too good to throw away. And Graham [Goble] and I ended up turning it into a three-minute song instead of a 60-second commercial. And it made the album and of course it became a single in Australia as well
DK: That’s right. And again, another testament to a great hook, isn’t it really – ‘cos it just keeps going round in your head all the time. Was clever as an ad, and worked as a song
BB: Well, that comes down to my love for writing choruses like that. I love it when I can write a hook like that, no matter what song it is, y’know? A song’s gotta have a pay-off like that in it, for me
DK: Look, I couldn’t agree more. I s’pose we’ve gotta move on… You mentioned Mississippi, because Frieze sort of, er, froze [!], and then Mississippi evolved from a big river into a Little River!!
BB: That’s right, that’s correct. I was in Melbourne one day and I was actually in between Frieze… I was working at the Australian Management and Booking Organisation (AMBO). A lady there who was kind enough to offer me a job for a few months to answer the phones there, and one day I was answering the phone and a voice came over the line and said "I wonder if you could help me, I’m looking for Beeb Birtles". And of course, I said "well, you’re talking to him!" And it was Graham Goble. And Graham had come over from Adelaide with his group, Alison Gros, and [they were] the band that recorded that Daddy Cool song, but in the Chipmunks version… [under the name Drummond, for the Fable label]
DK: Oh, yes!
BB: …yeah, before they had recorded Kings Of The World and the whole Mississippi album. He was interested in me joining the group as the bass player, but of course by that time I wasn’t playing bass anymore, I was playing 6-string guitar. Anyway, I went over to the Fable label offices, and they played me the Mississippi album and that really just about blew me out the door! I thought it was so good, you know! Especially Kings Of The World
DK: Yeah, great, it’s still a great song
BB: And a single in Australia… And that’s how I came to join Mississippi
DK: And team up with another great songwriter too
BB: Well, yeah, a couple of great songwriters, really. Glenn Shorrock and Graham were very good songwriters in their own right, y’know?
DK: I tell you what, you were pretty nifty though because along the way here Beeb, I notice with singles that came out, Beeb Birtles appeared on the flipside, as writer
BB: Okay, that woulda been a democratic choice by the management of the band at the time, to try and even things out
DK: Yeah, it’s a good idea isn’t it, saves a lot of, er,… [both laughing] I dunno if there’s a word "disharmony", but there is now!
BB: Yeah, exactly, but we did stuff like that because the three writers in the group were pretty stubborn in their own right, really... I think we were brilliant together – at the same time there was a lot of tension between us
DK: And three very good songwriters, who, as you say, managed
to share. Well, here’s one that you wrote that a lotta people will remember,
and "oh, did Beeb Birtles write this?"…
Curiosity Killed The Cat by LRB playsDK: Another good hook there Beeb
BB: Yeah, you gotta have those choruses, y’know, ha ha!
DK: Certainly do! Beeb, the story of Little River Band’s been told many times but it just became internationally huge and you were stars and travelled the globe, but time’s gonna elude us – I’m not gonna travel down that path – I wanna deal with what you’re doing now. You left Australia when, in the early nineties, after Little River folded up?
BB: Well it was about almost seven years after I left Little River Band, but yeah, I decided to leave Australia to further my career and I left in January of ’92, and made my home in Nashville, Tennessee, where I continued to write songs. And actually I’ve fallen in with a lotta the guys that have moved to Nashville from the Los Angeles area. And one of those guys is a guy called Bill Cuomo, who has become my partner in an Internet label that we’ve started, called Sonic Sorbet Records
DK: Now, I want to talk about that too, but tell me about Bill Cuomo
BB: Well, Bill has a long history in music; Bill and I first met when Little River Band recorded Time Exposure on the island of Monserrat with George Martin, and Bill was flown over to the island to play synthesiser with us. So that was the first time I met him, and that was in the early 80s. And so about ten years later, we hooked up, y’know, together here in this town. But Bill is probably best known for his work for arranging the big hit song for Kim Carnes called Bette Davis Eyes
DK: Can we just hear a little snippet of that? This is your partner, and this won him an award, didn’t it?
BB: Oh yeah! I mean, Bette Davis Eyes sold something like 30 million singles around the world
DK: I’m not surprised, it’s still a classic, and it’s due to the arrangement. ‘Cos now and again on this program we play the original by Jackie De Shannon, and the difference between Jackie De Shannon and Kim Carnes is peaches and, er, apples, isn’t it?
BB: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right!
DK: Here’ a snippet of Beeb Birtles’ current partner
Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes plays…DK: It’s a great marriage, Beeb, of a remarkable voice, and just a fascinating arrangement
BB: Yeah, it’s a great arrangement. Y’know, the thing that a lotta people don’t know about Bill also, is that he was also a co-writer on that song for Steve Perry from Journey, he co-wrote that song Oh Sherry. I mean he’s worked with some big, big names in the industry when he was a session player in LA
DK: Well, he’s working with a big name now, Australia’s Beeb Birtles – I might as well suck up to you Beeb!
BB: [big laugh]
DK: Beeb, um, now tell us about the website and marketing via the web
BB: Well, it’s just a new thing that we’ve gotten into. We’re trying to expand ourselves to retail as well. But for now, Sonic Sorbet Records is the website
DK: Sonic Sorbet?
BB: Yeah, sorbet as in the cleanse your palate kinda sorbet!
DK: Exactly, that’s a nice name too, yeah, go on…
BB: Uh-huh, and the first release for the label, funnily enough, was my very first solo album, which was called Driven By Dreams
DK: Now, this has taken a long time to have a solo album, hasn’t it Beeb?
BB: It has taken a long time, because to be quite honest with you, it’s taken me a long time to find my direction…
DK: And d’you think you’ve found it?
BB: …to find out who Beeb Birtles really is in my own right. And I think I’ve found it now. Mainly because of the fact that I’ve placed a lot of importance on the people I surround myself with. And the people I’m recording with now in Nashville, I feel really comfortable with, everybody’s into it, and the product I think speaks for itself. There’s some very different sounding stuff, but still songs! With those hooky choruses as I like to write. And now we’re onto our second or third product from Sonic Sorbet and we’re slowly expanding as a label, y’know?
DK: And people can visit you on the web?
BB: Yeah, it’s www.sonicsorbet.com!
DK: That’s simple [reiterates URL address] And the new album is called Driven By Dreams. Beeb, I love the album, and I was sorta wondering which one we’d play to go out with, but, er, for the lyrics I like Pictures In The Attic. Can you tell us just a little about that?
BB: Well actually, working with these guys here in Nashville, one of the guys I’m working with is the drummer that’s on my project, a guy called Ron Krasinski, and every now and again he’ll throw me some musical pieces, you know? And he threw me a musical piece, and he said "for what it’s worth, I’ve called this one Pictures In The Attic ...". ‘Course he didn’t have any words for it at all, but the title just rang home with me! And I thought, wow, that’s a great concept, and so, I virtually wrote the whole song to the title. And of course I think the title is very, er, I think it probably hits home with a lotta people right now, if they’re going through this particular situation. It’s really about, y’know, two people have gotten married and they’ve raised the family, but once the kids have grown and they’ve left home, they find out that they have very little in common. And that’s basically what the song is about
DK: We might go out with that one Beeb, and congratulations on the album
BB: Well thank you very much!
DK: And I’ve really enjoyed our chat!
BB: And thanks you for taking the time to talk to me, I’ve really – this has been fun, I’ve really enjoyed it!
DK: That’s great, thanks a lot Beeb
BB: Yeah, take care
DK: All the best, you too…bye bye. So the album’s called Driven
By Dreams. It’s the first solo album after all this time, by Beeb
Birtles… and I just thought, this one, yeah, it’s nice…
Pictures In The Attic from Beeb Birtles’ new album Driven By Dreams plays…DK: It’s full of memorable songs, love the lyrics! Beeb Birtles – hope you enjoyed that!
"…can’t you see, we are victims of theft, when pictures in the attic are all we have left…"
This material © 1999 – David Kilby, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Milesago. Reproduction in any manner without permission of the copyright holders is expressly forbidden and subject to applicable laws.
MILESAGO says many thanks to:
- Beeb Birtles and Sonic Sorbet
- David Kilby and ABC Radio 2CN Canberra
and especially Paul Culnane for getting the ball rolling!
Photography by Jim Herrington.
Visit Sonic Sorbet Records
- sample and buy Beeb's new album!
Zoot Locker [EMI EMY.502, also on CD] 1980
1. You Better Get Going Now
3. Monty And Me
4. It’s About Time
6. Yes I’m Glad
7. Little Roland Lost
8. She’s Alright
9. Sha La La
11. Mr Songwriter
12. Strange Things
13. Hey Pinky
14. Evil Child
15. Eleanor Rigby
1: Written by Jackie Lomax; produced by David McKay
2, 5, 6: Written & produced by Terry Britten
3: Written by Hans Poulsen & Bruce Woodley; produced by Ian Meldrum
4: Written by Brian Cadd & Don Mudie; produced by Howard Gable
7: Written by Darryl Cotton & Beeb Birtles; produced by Terry Britten, with his guitar contributions
8: Written by Terry Britten; produced by Howard Gable
9-14: Written by Rick Springfield; produced by Howard Gable
15: Written by John Lennon & Paul McCartney; produced by Howard Gable