Bob Howe - My Musical Life

Chapter Two – The Early Seventies

Before we made the long trip to Australia, I first had to make the shorter but no less dramatic trip from Junior to Grammar school. Where Abbots Farm had been a progressive and relaxed place, Lawrence Sheriff was a very different experience. After the final junior exam, known then as the ‘Eleven-Plus’ (the average age of the students taking it), The scouts march had set off Lawrence Sheriff SchoolI would receive a scholarship to Grammar School, in this case Lawrence Sheriff – a school largely regarded as a stepping stone to the infamous Rugby School (that of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ and the creation site of Rugby Football). Music wasn’t part of the curriculum but Latin was and I also had to endure an embarrassing year of Woodwork that served to highlight what would become a lifelong aversion to tools. In the following year I was able to switch to Art instead, but that term would be cut short by our emigration. Despite the fact that soccer was the most popular game in the nation, we were trained in rugger (Rugby Union) and endless cross-country runs where I was usually found trailing at the back of the pack. Hockey was only a slight improvement for me but I did manage to score in the only game I ever played for the school.

I shed no tears on leaving this seemingly austere establishment halfway through my second year and in February of 1970, we were bound for Australia. Mum and I were in overcoats we left Heathrow Airport on a BOAC charter flight full of ‘ten-pound Poms’, leaving behind six-feet of snow and dreaming of sunshine. We were still wearing those coats when we left the plane during our second refuelling stop in Darwin and as I crossed the tarmac I assumed the heat was coming from the jet engines. I soon realised why grown men were walking around in shorts; something I’d never seen off the sport’s field. Eventually we arrived in Sydney – Mum with a hundred dollars in her Hello Skippy 1970pocket, a suitcase under one arm and me under the other. I had brought very little except my clarinet and a youngster’s faith that everything would turn out fine. Mum soon found work and toiled long and hard to provide for us. We stayed the first few weeks with the Baratinskas family; friends from England who arrived a year earlier. I shared a room with their son Vincent who was a few years older than me and he had the first two Led Zeppelin LPs in his collection along with I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama by Janis Joplin and The Big Brother Holding Company. What an ear-opener they would prove to be! Soon Mum found us our own place and before we got a television set, we would listen to the small plastic transistor radio my Gran had bought me the previous Christmas. Top-forty hits like All Right Now by Free and Little Green Bag by The George Baker Selection still take me straight back to 1970 and there was whole stack of local music that I had never heard before! Some had a familiar yet fresh ring about it, such as the heavy version of Eleanor Rigby by Zoot (with Rick Springfield on guitar) but there were many new sounds to discover; solo singers with teen-idol status and bands that were a bit rougher, searching to break new musical boundaries.

Westfield High was to be my new school and I was accelerated into the start of Third Year, making me the youngest in the class by up to eighteen months or more below my fellow classmates. I was given some choice of subjects (hooray, there was a music class!) and for some subjects, a choice of level of study. Despite some minor hiccups such as turning up the first day to find myself the only student in school wearing shorts (blush) things didn’t go too badly at first. The landscape seemed so bright and the sky so high (you’ll appreciate that if you’ve experienced London and Sydney) and I would walk home from school with the transistor radio glued to my ear, sometimes pausing to buy a bottle of soft drink from the corner milk bar. The suburb of Fairfield West still felt semi-rural then – no inside toilets or any kerbs on the outlying roads – and life was more carefree. I found some lads at school (Gary and Garry, bass and guitar) who had a band with their friend (Keith, drums) and I was invited to hear them rehearse.Kapok acoustic I wanted to join in but the clarinet was not going to cut it. I began plotting to get a guitar of my own and meantime I borrowed an instruction book and began to ‘practice’ on a drawing of a guitar neck I had made and taped to my school ruler. By the time my fourteenth birthday rolled around I had enough pocket money to buy a ‘Kapok’ brand acoustic guitar for $14.95 (pictured left) and the man at the shop threw in a free plectrum! Gary had lent me the sheet music to Let It Be by The Beatles (single songs cost 40c back then) and I had already memorised the chords so I practically picked up the guitar and played it. Well, almost…I still had some basic techniques to master like pushing those steel strings all the way down to the fretboard and how to strum and change the chords in time. I backtracked a bit to some guitar lessons I had cut out of the pop magazine Go-Set and before long I was really playing tunes like Morningtown Ride by The Seekers and more importantly, the basic Twelve-bar-blues (the basis of every classic rock song).

Judgement 1971

Teisco electric

Every minute that I wasn’t at school I practised the guitar and Mum had to endure endless performances as I learnt new songs daily and devoured whole collections by my favourite bands. Gary had lots of music books and I copied out many Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival songs by hand and they would become the staples of our own repertoire. Garry the guitarist had left now and I became the de facto lead singer. I didn’t really matter because we had no gigs and were just playing for fun. Gary played a left-handed copy of a ‘Beatle-bass’ through his own amplifier and at first I strummed my guitar and sang through a tape recorder microphone, amplified through the reel-to-reel tape recorder itself, and hung around my neck in a harmonica holder. Over the next year I acquired a Teisco electric guitar (pictured right) that someone was throwing away and then eventually I bought a second-hand Riviera (pictured below left) for $35 that was much easier on the fingers. Keith’s dad owned a car radio business and one of his technicians kindly built me an guitar combo box for just the cost of the parts and using a 15-watt valve amplifier that was lying around and two eight-inch Phillips speakers. He built the wooden frame and covered it with vinyl and put gold-flecked speaker cloth across the front and it was a beauty! It also had several inputs, including two for microphones, so now I could sing and play through the same box!

Riviera electricWe called ourselves ‘Judgement’ after a song by the local blues band Chain and we would play at weekends, first at Gary’s house, then ours (often in the garden – note the Hills Hoist in the photo above; belated apologies to all our neighbours) and sometimes, my favourite, Keith’s father’s workshop – the echoic acoustics were just perfect for playing Deep Purple songs. I was too young to drive but Keith had a panel van and I still recall the thrill of listening to the album Machine Head by Deep Purple for the first time on his quadraphonic 8-track player. He would show great concern one day at my expression when listening to George Harrison’s classic guitar solo on the album version of Let It Be; I wasn’t ill, just profoundly moved by the playing. To this day I’ll never understand why they used a different solo oJudgementn the single version or the more recent ‘Naked’ release. We kept on rehearsing and eventually we played eight ‘real’ gigs; the first was an engagement party for a friend of a friend. They requested we play Pasadena, a recent hit by John Paul Young and they bought us the sheet music, so we happily added it to our song list. My mum was working in the offices of Commonwealth Engineering and knew John when he was an apprentice sheet metal worker by day and in the band Elm Tree at night, before he became a solo star. The engagement party was closely followed by the 1st Milperra Brownie and Guides Basket Cabaret and Dance, and (on my 16th birthday) one where Keith’s dad hired us to play at a film night at his Masonic Lodge (where I felt a bit radical for singing John Lennon’s Crippled Inside). Our band kept rehearsing – for what we didn’t know – and although we played the odd wedding and 21st party, by the time I got my first car (and old Volkswagen Beetle), we began to drift apart and Judgement ceased to be.

Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, it's off to work I go...In the middle of all that, I had left school. My fourth year was marred by the arrival of a new bombastic and sadistic history teacher, but I passed my School Certificate at the age of fourteen and had won two school prizes. I was all set to carry on for two more years to complete my Higher School Certificate, when Helen, the only other potential music student, decided to change subjects. The school couldn’t supply a teacher just for me, so faced with the choices of change schools or learning by correspondence, I took the third option and left for the real world. Mum got permission from the child welfare department and I applied to join the Bank as a junior clerk. They wanted to wait for those exam results to be published so I had just turned fifteen when I joined the workforce, early in 1972. In my first suit and carrying a new briefcase (thanks Mum), I took the train into the city to the branch at the corner of Bathurst and Castlereagh Streets, all set to become the youngest bank manager in history (dear reader, I wouldn’t bother skipping ahead to find out if that happened or not!). By now, without a band, I had gone into a folky phase and was immersed in the music of Bob Dylan and his early influence, Woody Guthrie (I have always researched my favourite artists and explored their roots). The clarinet was now gathering dust so I traded it in on a copy of a Gibson Hummingbird acoustic guitar. My first supervisor at the bank, also a Bob, suggested I check out the underground folk club in the city called Pact Folk. It was literally underground, in the cellar of the YWCA and Bob wrote down a list of the best singers to watch out for; Mike McLellan, Marion Henderson and the like and as he predicted, I found it very enjoyable. I discovered that their Friday night version, The Cellar, encouraged new performers so I began taking my guitar there and on the 2nd November 1973, the day before the last performance by Judgement, I made my solo for The Cellar I was the first act on the bill for a while, for which I received a share of the proceeds…sometimes as much as two dollars! As well as the valuable experience, I got to watch the rest of the shows and during the next two years found myself opening for Doug Ashdown, Allan Caswell and Richard Clapton, all of whom will appear again later in my story. Eventually I would work my way up to an appearance on the Saturday night show singing my big number, Alberta, Let Your Hair Hang Down, complete with harmonica solo, and also opening for Jon English at the Kirk Gallery in Surry Hills (an old church that was host some wonderful concerts) and for blues master Dutch Tilders at the Elizabeth Hotel.

ad for The Cellar

After six months in the bank I was due for advancement in training to become a teller (cashier) but unfortunately a union rule said I needed to be 18 years old to handle the money. Various inconsistencies in the rules back then made it all right for me to count the money after hours but not for the public, and I also found myself as the armed escort when we delivered the foreign currency to head office in Martin Place. They told me it was just an insurance requirement and my only instruction was “…don’t shoot anybody”. Nevertheless, I don’t know how safe my delivery partner felt with a bag of cash strapped to his wrist and a 15 year old with a loaded revolver under his suit jacket for protection! Still, faced with another two and a half years before promotion I started to lose heart. I applied for a transfer to a branch closer to home and moved to the Cabramatta branch but then a week later our name came up on the housing list and we moved to Eastlakes, so I transferred again, this time to Kingsford. Palace Theatre Bar coaterAbout this time, Christmas of 1973, the organiser of The Cellar sent a few of us folkies to sing a night as an audition at the Palace Theatre Bar, one of several bars that had opened in the city arcade that the Hilton Hotel owned and above which they were building the first Sydney Hilton. Realising the ‘happy hour’ patrons wouldn’t want earnest folk anthems with their gin and tonic, I reverted to my band repertoire and threw in a few happy pop songs. It did the trick and much to the organiser’s surprise, the hotel management picked me to do a run of eleven nights leading up to Christmas. I wasn’t going to let my age get in the way of this as well, so with a slip of the pen while signing the contract, I was in and now a real professional! I have to say that the audience wasn’t really that interested in the music as they were the festive spirit, but I did notice one recurring face taking note. On a break I wandered downstairs to the Marble Bar and realised that face belonged to their singer who was doing a similar job to me.  Faced with the same lack of audience adulation, he had been wandering in his breaks and eventually we would meet and chat. He turned out to be a lovely chap named Geoff ‘Tangletongue’ Mack and I would learn that he had written the song I’ve Been Everywhere which was a smash hit for Lucky Starr and had been a U.S. hit for Hank Snow. Years later, after countless cover versions, it was also one of the last songs recorded by Johnny Cash. Geoff, Lucky and Johnny will reappear later in the story (but not Hank).

denim jacket!Things seemed to be progressing nicely and the only criticism I received was that my repertoire and style were too heavily influenced by Bob Dylan. I couldn’t see it myself; after all I did throw in the odd Woody Guthrie song to break things up! It came to a head at the Parramatta Psychiatric Hospital where, after being mistaken for a patient (true), I took to the stage to sing while the youngsters of the 1st Australian Folk Dance Group changed costumes for their next number. Fair enough, I was wearing a denim jacket and sporting an acoustic guitar and a harmonica brace, but I thought my slightly obscure choice of It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry made up for that. As I finished the number there was polite applause and then a voice from the back of the hall called, “Hey, you sound like Bob Dylan”. So it was true! Crestfallen, I began to diversify from that day onwards…

In an attempt to keep me stimulated, the bank moved me back to the city and their computer centre where I worked shifts in the reconciliation department, basically correcting human errors that the computers had rejected. These were the days when calculators were the size of a television and the computers occupied whole floors of buildings and were fed punch cards for data. The highlight of the job was rushing through the late shift on a Tuesday evening so we could finish just in time to retire to the staff room and watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus on the television. Before long, ironically like the accountant looking for excitement in their famous comedy sketch, I too left the bank and moved to the daredevil world of…insurance! Now in a sparkling new office overlooking Sydney Harbour I was handed the ‘too hard’ box of claims, but absolutely no training or instruction. Hour after hour, I literally shuffled these bits of paper trying to make some sense but no order appeared in these random forms and after three and a half weeks I resigned, but now my true destiny was starting to come into focus.

my Beetle!A few weeks earlier, in August of 1974, I had met Captain Quench and that encounter would start a whole new train of thought in my mind. It began when I answered a classified advertisement in the paper and had driven out in the suburbs to meet a girl who was “influenced by Janis Joplin” and looking for band members. She greeted me at her door and we went out to the kerb where my Beetle car was loaded with whatever equipment I had managed to fit into it. I took out just my guitar case and placed it to one side. Suddenly a Ute with Captain Quench emblazoned on the side (a popular soft-drink delivery service of the time) screeched to halt in front of us. A tall man with mirrored sunglasses got out and strode purposely over towards us. I thought it must have been a friend of hers and probably she was thinking it was someone I knew. “Play the guitar, do you, mate…sing a bit too?” “Mostly folk and a bit of pop”, I replied. He explained that he was a singing bass player who had a three night a week gig at the nearby Greystanes Inn and had just had a disagreement with his duo partner who had now split and left him in the lurch. If he didn’t find a replacement today he would probably lose the job altogether. Spotting my guitar case must have been like an omen for him. He said that if I was to follow him to the pub right now, we could sing a couple of songs for the landlord. As I loaded my guitar back into the car, the now dejected girl singer was mumbling something about “…well, if you’re only in it for the bread, maaaannn…” to which I replied, “…not really, but, um…bye now!” Things unfolded just as Geoff (for that was his real name) hoped with the publican giving us the nod of approval and seeing as Geoff’s speciality was country music and mine folk, we wasted no time coming up with the highly original name for the new duo…The Country Folk. We played Thursday, Friday and Saturday each week and for the first two of those I had to rush out after work, drive from Circular Quay down the entire length of Parramatta Road and run on stage to start on time. The landlord’s wife would save me a hamburger Gibson Hummingbird copy guitarto eat in the first break and then it was back on stage. I bought a pick-up that clipped on to my Gibson Hummingbird copy guitar to amplify its sound. Things went very well and we expanded to a quartet, adding a drummer and another guitarist. As well as absorbing Geoff’s repertoire of country songs, my car radio was now tuned to 2KY who broadcast nothing but country (and horse races). Merle Haggard’s first live album got a lot of airtime back then, as did Charlie Rich and Jimmy Buffett who had both just crossed over on to the pop charts. It was a furthering of my education that would later be invaluable – as was the realisation that playing for $20 a gig meant I was earning more for 3 nights than I was for 5 days in the office. I wasn’t quite confident enough to make the full leap just yet, but it sure made leaving the insurance company a lot easier. We played 56 gigs at the Greystanes Inn, ending on my 18th birthday and the following week I played my last show with them on New Year’s Eve.

I took some daytime work from a temp agency and ended up working for a Kawasaki motorcycle dealer who shared premises with a Volkswagen showroom on the corner of Parramatta Road and Australia Street in Camperdown. It was reconciliation time again as I corrected the mistakes that the salesmen had fed into the new computer system. A few weeks later there was a heavy downpour and someone shouted to me that I should check on my car and I thought they said the water was three feet from my car. It turned out there was only three feet of my Beetle poking out of the water! The park further up Australia Street had blocked storm drains and the rain had accumulated in the dip of the road. I dove in fully dressed and swam to the car as it floated and bobbed about and managed to prevent it from banging against the building walls. The next day as it dried out and I waited for the repair bill, my supervisor came with more bad news; the salesmen had followed my advice so well they had stopped making so many mistakes and there was little for me to correct anymore so I was out of a job. Fate would have a couple of aces up her sleeve for me though…


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