MILESAGO - Recommended Reading

LONG WAY TIL YOU DROP

LONG WAY TIL YOU DROP
by Tony Barber
Five Mile Press, 2003
288 pages; illustrated
ISBN 174124077-8
RRP: AU$25.00

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REVIEW

THE MUSIC ... THE MEMORIES ... THE MUCUS ...

If you want a good read, some good laughs and an engaging insider's insight into a remarkable musical event, you'll really enjoy this book. It was originally touted as a warts-and-all exposť of what happened behind the scenes of the Long Way tour, but if you're expecting that kind of book -- and some evidently were -- you'll be disappointed.

That's not to say that the tour didn't have it's moments -- the cast and crew had to battle food poisoning, a vicious 'flu bug and a host of other ailments -- and there were a few tense moments, particularly in the latter stages. But what shines through is the humour, the camaraderie, and the joyous experience of old comrades getting back together for one more go-round -- the jokes, the pranks, the all-night parties, the bus and hotel hi-jinks (though no doubt a LOT tamer than in the old days) and the thrills and spills of the performances.

The book is essentially a journal-style account of the tour, with numerous digressions along the way. Barber is an engaging, witty writer with a great sense of humour and a charmingly self-deprecating manner --he's obviously a very likeable fellow. He's actually an good choice to write this story because he can approach it with a degree of objectivity. Tony quit pop music in the late Sixties and moved into other areas of business (he's a successful toy designer and a skilled artist, among many other accomplishments) so he can approach LWTTT as both an insider -- having been a member of the original Aztecs at the height of their fame -- and an outsider -- he'd been away from the biz for decades, had missed the amazing advances in technology, and had not performed live for over 30 years.

He's not afraid to have a go at himself and, occasionally at others, but it's all done in a gentle, good-natured way. No doubt the tour had its fair share of problems, crises and tantrums, but Tony has shown admirable restraint and doesn't delve into the dark stuff at all, preferring to focus on the positive aspects of the tour.

There may perhaps come a time when more of the inside story can be revealed, but that was obviously not Tony's agenda. Unfortunately, some of the people involved in LWTTT refused be involved with the book and I for one admire Tony for having the balls to name them -- to wit, Billy Thorpe, Amanda Pelman, Col Joye and Brian Cadd. It's a great shame that they didn't want to contribute, and it's hard to understand, except perhaps in the case of Col, who was probably caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, seeing that his brother, Kevin Jacobsen, was one of the promoters of the tour.

You can't help wondering what they were afraid of, but evidently it was worrying enough that some of these people actually tried to discourage Tony from writing his book and even tried to influence others not to talk to him. I can only assume this 'Gang Of Four' -- none of whom are exactly shrinking violets in the ego stakes -- had their own reasons to be concerned about what they thought Tony might write about them and/or about the tour. As it turned out, they had nothing to worry about, and frankly their refusal has only made them look foolish and more than a bit paranoid. Under the circumstances, I'd have to say it's no less than they deserve, and that it was downright curmudgeonly of them to react the way they did.

Much was written in the press about tour producer Amanda Pelman, and some of it was rather unfavourable. She has enjoyed a long and very successful career in the music industry and it's only fair to acknowledge that much of the success of the tour is due to her efforts. However, it's also pretty well known that Pelman didn't exactly endear herself to some of the LWTTT team.

There were several incidents which painted Ms Pelman in a rather bad light. One was the now-famous blue between Pelman and Renee Geyer, who was filling in for Marcia Hines. Renee did a few shows, but reportedly walked out of the Canberra concert just before the show. The cause of her sudden departure was a heated argument with Pelman over video footage Renee had been asked to provide. Ms Geyer later said that Pelman had acted so abusively that she simply told her to get stuffed (or words to that effect) and walked out. It was said that things got so heated that The Difficult Woman actually punched Pelman out during the contretemps. Renee subsequently denied this -- although she was honest enough to admit that she wished she had. Given Pelman's abrasive reputation (a business 'skill' she evidently learned from her former boss, Michael Gudinski) it's a fair bet that by the end of the regional leg of the tour, there were several others who would happily have done the same.

Pelman also made the papers when it was revealed that she and Brian Cadd had left their respective partners and had started a relationship during the tour. This is hardly shocking, and not really of any particular importance to the tour itself, but it's possible that Pelman worried that this too might find its way into Tony's book (it didn't, apart from his fairly obscure quips about a garden gnome).

The third story involving Pelman related to the arrangements for the regional tour and the considerable rancour that resulted from the dropping of some of the acts (notably Stevie Wright, Kevin Borich and Lonnie Lee). By all accounts the timing of the decision (only days before the tour began) and the manner in which the performers found out that they were 'surplus to requirements' left a lot to be desired. It was an unfortunate set of events which probably could have been handled a lot more diplomatically, but rightly or wrongly, Pelman was fingered as the 'baddie'.

Although she may have feared some kind of attack on her in the book, Tony is nothing if not a gentleman, and he treats her very kindly indeed. There is nothing negative at all in the book abobut her attitude or her behaviour, nothing of substance about her relationship with Cadd or her argument with Geyer. One is left wondering wonder why she was so concerned about it and why she evidently made such a a point about not wanting Tony to write his book.

LWTTT was very much Billy Thorpe's 'baby' and not surprisingly his presence permeates the book. Billy is, without question, a brilliant performer and a true legend of Australian music, and Barber openly acknowledges this, ranking Thorpie alongside JO'K as one of the greats of Australian rock. He's a forceful and dynamic character, but Tony's not afraid to have the occasional gentle poke at Thorpie's not inconsiderable ego (he was dubbed "The Bantam of the Popra" during the tour) and he also reveals (shock, horror) that, like so many of us, Billy is great at making promises but not so good at following through, as evidenced by the saga of Tony's long promised left-handed guitar, which never materialised.

There's a good deal to enjoy here -- we meet Tony's old bandmates from the Aztecs, including the irrepressible Col and Bluey and the dapper Vince Maloney, plus other members of the cast such as Spectrum's Mike Rudd. We learn the importance of locking your door at night, tremble at the precarious progress of Ray Columbus' mystery health tonic, witness the delightful 'husband-and-wife' bickering between Russell Morris and Jim Keays, and are privy to the banter, the quips, the camaraderie and the practical jokes that are part of life on the road. And yes, readers, it's about rock'n'roll, so there is a lot of fucking swearing in this book, OK?

Tony examines the strangeness of going back on the road and reliving past glories after years away from the scene, and the awkward moments that can occur in such circumstances. There are also some tantalising diversions back into history -- hinting at some very interesting stories yet to be told -- and Tony is to be congratulated for mentioning many of the members of the LWTTT road crew.

Equally praiseworthy is his discussion of some of the precedents for the LWTTT project, notably the two Sixties Reunion Parties organised by Sydney collector George Crotty in Sydney 2001 and 2002. Although tiny in scale compared to LWTTT, it's indisputable that it was George's tireless enthusiasm and networking that brought many Aussie performers of the Sixties and Seventies together for the first time in decades and laid very important groundwork for the LWTTT tour. Many were surprised by Thorpie's appearance at the second reunion (while the unfortunate George was fighting for his life in hospital after a near-fatal heart attack only days before) and within weeks it became pretty obvious that Billy had been there primarily to network for LWTTT. But Tony Barber is, as far as I know, the only person to give George Crotty the credit that is due to him, and I applaud him for that.

He also covers, in a very fair and low-key manner, some of those who for various reasons didn't end up on the LWTTT bill. Johnny Young was one particularly regrettable omission. As Tony points out, he was BIG star, had BIG hits, was a very important producer and writer, is still very well-known, and still regularly performs (his Go!! Show concerts are cited as another direct precedent for LWTTT). Johnny really should have been there and although he was approached for access to his film and video archive, scandalously, he didn't make the cut for the final list of performers, which many people (me included) felt was a major oversight.

Reviewer Julius Grafton comments on the fact that Tony doesn't mention the legal dispute that erupted late in the tour, between Brian De Courcy and his former partners Michael Chugg and Kevin Jacobsen (which was recently settled out of court) but given that the matter was before the courts by the time Barber started writing, it's hardly surprising that he doesn't discuss it. I do agree with Julius that an index and/or a list of cast and crew would have been helpful, (Stuart Coupe's recent book The Promoters has the same problem) but I guess Tony and his publishers probably figured it was a fair bet that most readers either went to LWTTT and probably have the programme, or that they wouldn't be that interested in the minutiae -- so it's only a minor criticism.

Tony also reveals the real story behind the much-commented-on deletion of the proposed JO'K tribute, in which the original Dee Jays were to have performed live to a video projection of O'Keefe in his heyday. Inexplicably, both Festival Records and the O'Keefe estate refused permission for his music or image to be used, so the spot had to be cancelled, to the disappointment of many. Again, one is left wondering "Why?"

The capital city tour was a big hit, but the regional tour, sadly, was considerably less successful, largely because of economic factors beyond the promoters' control (such as the drought). Dates had to be cancelled, most of the performers had to take a pay cut and some of the major acts from the capital cities tour were 'included out' at the last moment. But, if Tony's account is to believed, these setbacks didn't really affect the spirit of the remaining cast and crew, which is really what this fine little book is about.

The Long Way tour was in many respects a 'soft target' for the critics. It's all too easy to resort to ageist jokes and predictable comments of the "lock up your grannies" variety, and certainly there were plenty of hacks who did exactly that. The ageing of the Baby Boom generation is a peculiar phenomenon, but its one that people like Tony Barber, Billy Thorpe and their colleagues face in a very particular way, because they have grown up in public and have had to grow older with the fixed sights and sounds recorded in their youth -- many of which were constantly on view during the tour.

Tony takes such 'criticism' in good humour this, and is obviously not so emotionally blind to more risible aspects of the tour that he takes offence. But he is, I have to say, remarkably generous in dealing with the review of the Sydney concert by my one of my least favourite music writers, Bruce Elder, who trotted out his predictable, tired old "Australians aren't good enough" cultural-cringe routine, panning both the show and the performers, as he has done with so often before and with equally little justification. But Tony acknowledges that Elder finished by saying that in the case of LWTTT, the critics' opinions were probably irrelevant. I'm less generous than Tony -- I wonder why Mr Elder's bothers, and I am still at a loss to understand why people still pay for him to write such rubbish or why they read it.

Writers like Elder may dismiss LWTTT as an indulgent nostalgia fest that cynically exploited a credulous baby-boomer audience, but in my view, they missed the point entirely. True, some people probably made a great deal of money from the tour, and it seems that not many of those people were the performers. But it was also a hugely risky venture with no certainty of success, and the promoters do deserve full credit for bringing it to fruition in such a spectacular fashion. They also deserve great credit -- which Tony accords them -- for including Stevie Wright, who as it turned out gave the show an emotional centre it might otherwise have lacked, and for picking a couple of pretty left-field acts including Lobby Loyde and the great Tamam Shud.

The key point about LWTT -- and I hope I speak for many who attended -- was that we were not there to simply wallow in nostalgia and pretend we were back in 'the good old days'. Actually, in my case, I was still in primary school when most of these performers were at their peak, so I can hardly be accused of being nostalgic -- I wasn't even there. Many of us never saw a lot of the acts on the bill in their heyday, so LWTTT gave us a unique opportunity to see and hear them at their very best. And it was a genuine pleasure for audiences to discover that many of the performers sounded at least as good, if not better, than in their heyday. As Tony points out, Russell Morris and Normie Rowe were just such cases, delivering show-stopping performances every night.

Also, a lot of people (me included) feel that many great local performers have never really been accorded the full measure of appreciation and respect that they deserve, and I think that for a large proportion of the LWTTT audience, the tour offered them the chance to hear their idols of yesteryear in a setting that did them justice and gave them one last chance to show them them how loved and respected they really are.

There's also a sense of wistfulness beneath the surface, and Tony touches on this, mentioning some of the performers who could not be there -- like the late, great Laurie Allen who passed away shortly before the tour began -- and the saddest fact, that LWTTT would very likely be the first, last and only time that all of these performers would ever play together.

Long Way Til You Drop is not an earth-shattering book by any means, but it's a very enjoyable, affectionate and well-written book with plenty of laughs and a lot of heart. Barber approaches his subject with understanding and good humour, and has produced a warm, amusing and very readable memoir of a special moment in our music history. It will obviously appeal most to those who saw the tour but it's recommended to anyone who has an interest in Aussie music of the period. Good stuff.

REFERENCES / LINKS
Long Way To The Top official website
http://www.longwaytothetop.com.au/

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