The St Clair Recording Studio
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Some Historical Context: 56 Queens Road, Hurstville
The St. Clair Recording Studio operated for about a year from December 1965 to December 1966 (what is located at the address today?). There are no known photographs, and the press, including the local Hurstville papers, barely mentioned it. This is not surprising. The studio was hardly glamorous - it was a converted butcher's storeroom - and producers and sound engineers in the Australian music scene in 1966 generally received little recognition. Pop musicians on the other hand were given considerable publicity. Riotous tours guaranteed headlines, and the top Australian pop stars in 1966 were constantly in the news. Pop music was seen as ephemeral, but it made good copy. Sydney’s Daily Mirror ran a pop record review column each Thursday, and the Sunday Telegraph featured a record review column plus three or four pages devoted to the "Under 21s".
Everybody’s, a weekly magazine, allotted several pages to pop singers. Everybody’s was ironically titled. It was aimed purely at a young audience, and took a fan’s view of the pop world. It was enthusiastic and mostly uncritical. Melbourne’s Go-Set magazine was similar, with stories designed to sell records and enlarge concert audiences. This unspoken commercial agenda meant that Australian stars like Normie Rowe or The Easybeats were treated to the same amount of coverage as international pinups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or Elvis Presley. Once again, music industry figures rarely featured, although a very occasional piece on a new producer might appear. Ossie Byrne and Nat Kipner were not among them.
The St. Clair Studio had an open door policy. Anyone who wanted to pay five pounds ($10) per hour could hire the facilities. Within a few months, the newly emerged Spin Records’ roster of singers had a virtual monopoly of the bookings, not least the young Bee Gees, yet other artists also recorded there. It is worth noting the large number of migrants among the singers and musicians. There were many English born kids, like the Bee Gees, Tony Barber, Barrington Davis and the group Derek’s Accent; there was Marty Rhone with a Dutch-Indonesian heritage; there were Scots, Irish and Welsh; there were Greeks, Italians, Dutch, Poles, Lithuanians and Germans. There was an American producer, Nat Kipner. As an expression of Australia’s multiculturalism in the post war period, the studio is as good an example as any.
Despite the varied backgrounds of the artists, all the songs released are in English, and with the exception of Geoff Mack’s country music LP, all the songs are contemporary pop or rock’n’roll. World music as a form had already emerged – consider the Tokens’ "Wimoweh" or Rolf Harris’ "Sun Arise" – but it wasn’t emerging at St. Clair.
Also not emerging at St. Clair were the folk musicians of the 1960s Australian folk revival. There is nothing in the discography that even resembles a traditional folk song, Australian or otherwise. Folk’s lack of a large commercial market is one reason. Sonja Tallis, of Sydney folk duo, Sean and Sonja, lamented that the "folk business is just about dead, so I have to almost go pop in self defense." (1) Melbourne folk band, The Seekers, had already made the switch, with resounding international success. Equally as important, Australian folk music simply wasn’t "cool", its 1960s performers reverentially protective of the canon, and its supporters often snobbish about rock’n’roll and other forms of pop music.
It may be instructive to also consider other artists who didn’t record at St. Clair. Their non-inclusion may give some glimpse of how society in Australia was structured in 1966.
There is no evidence of an Aboriginal performer recording at St. Clair. Not that there weren’t Aboriginal performers recording elsewhere – Jimmy Little had been a star for Festival since the late 1950s, and Vic Simms, while still a teenager, had recorded novelty songs for the same label. The absence at St. Clair mirrors an earlier absence – prior to European settlement, the Hurstville Municipality was too thickly wooded for Aborigines to consider living there. Bands of Darug language speakers lived further down on the shores of Botany Bay, or on the banks of the Georges River. These bands moved through what is now Hurstville towards the plains of Liverpool, Bankstown or Parramatta where they could hunt for wallaby and kangaroo.
Traditional Aboriginal music, with didgeridoo, clap sticks and chanting, was almost never heard in Australian urban areas in the 1960s, and records were hard to find. That situation has improved markedly since the 1980s, but prior to that date there were only two pop releases based on traditional Aboriginal songs: Rolf Harris’ "Sun Arise", recorded in England in 1962, and Galurrwuy Tunupingu’s "Gurindji Blues" released in 1971. (2)
There were also no openly gay performers, male or female, recorded at St. Clair. The 1965 Australian of the Year had been Sir Robert Helpmann. With pink dyed hair and a penchant for mink coats, Sir Robert was a camp icon. His celebrity status confirmed the popular image of what constituted a gay man. Less ostentatious gays, ie most gays, with a more traditionally masculine style of dress and behaviour, were often not recognised as homosexual, and almost never declared themselves as such. Gay rights arrived in Australia in the 1970s, and then almost exclusively in the larger Australian cities, especially Sydney. Legislative condemnation of male homosexuality in Australia at the time was inextricably bound with the "taint" of convictism, with homophobia another weapon in the arsenal of a conservative, insecure society still deeply suspicious of minorities.
After Ossie Byrne moved to London in 1967, he declared himself as gay. While operating the St. Clair Studio, he had been a single man with a broken marriage behind him. Maurice Gibb in a Mojo Music magazine interview said Ossie "concealed" his homosexuality, and that he’d "really loved [the Bee Gees] all along". (3) Maurice, I think, is saying he reckoned Ossie fancied them, but it is equally likely that Ossie thought of the Gibbs as a surrogate family, and was hurt at the Bee Gees’ decision to continue without him. He also might not have "concealed" his sexuality at all, the Gibb boys being simply too inexperienced to notice. And had Ossie "concealed" his homosexuality, it may have been the result of confusion about his sexuality, a self-protective act of repression, or a conscious decision not to endanger his relationships with the boys’ father, Hugh Gibb, and the Bee Gees themselves. Whatever the case, Ossie Byrne in London was able to lead a different lifestyle to what he’d left behind in Australia.
Female vocalists, like Anne Shelton and April Byron, were in the minority. 1966 pop music favoured beat groups, either a quartet modelled on The Beatles, or a quintet like the Rolling Stones. Male singers and groups were in fashion, even though solo female singers like Dusty Springfield and female groups like the Supremes were having hits. St Clair followed these trends closely. Most recordings were by male groups, or male solo singers with all male musicians backing them. Invariably, the girl singers were backed by male musicians.
Aged people did not record at St. Clair. The most senior was Geoff Mack who was in his forties when he recorded there. Apart from him, nearly all of the St. Clair performers were teenagers. Barry Gibb, Marty Rhone and April Byron were 18. Twins Maurice and Robin Gibb, Barrington Davis, Bip Addison, and Anne Shelton were 16. Most of these minors had left school and were involved in a full-time show business career. That made them no different to Australia’s 1966 pop aristocracy like Little Pattie, Normie Rowe, and The Easybeats; all of them, apart from The ‘Beat’s drummer Snowy Fleet, were teenagers and professional entertainers. Pop music was young music played by young people. Today’s stricter educational demands, and tighter hotel and club laws, would probably not allow 16 and 17 year-olds to leave their studies and sing professionally.
Without exception, these teenage performers saw Ossie Byrne, 40, and Nat Kipner, 42, as "old". Some interviewees said Nat seemed the junior of the two, since he "had more hair" and was "younger at heart". Ossie was remembered as very quietly spoken and balding, though a 1966 photo shows him reasonably well thatched. The gulf between these two generations may have been exaggerated by war service. For Ossie in particular, the war had been profoundly traumatic, with the consequences of his war injuries always with him.
The young ages of the singers and musicians complicated contractual obligations. Hugh Gibb had pointed out that the Bee Gees’ Leedon contract was unenforceable because of the boys’ ages. Bearing this in mind, were royalties ever paid to Ossie Byrne’s Down Under label performers? No. If this looks like a classic case of capital exploiting labour, it’s true that the recording industry is unregulated, and rife with exploitation. In the 1960s it is said that hardly any Australian artists made money from their recordings. The Australian market was too small. Records were used to advertise an act’s musical wares, with a hit elevating the performance fee and opening up markets for tours into other towns or states.
In fairness to Ossie Byrne and Nat Kipner, they had the usual overheads like studio and equipment costs, telephone, rates, electricity etc. Nat had a family to support, and Ossie had bought the Queens Rd. studio and his house in Hurstville. Nat and Ossie were not performers, therefore the sale of records represented a significant portion of their income. Most of the St Clair artists were still living at home, had no dependants, were too young to own cars and were driven around by their parents. Finally, none of the Down Under singles were hits, so there was no large profit to play with.
Nat Kipner was writer or co-writer on many tunes recorded at St. Clair. Was this egoistic self-promotion, an example of young talent being railroaded into recording someone else’s material? Well, hardly. Spin’s biggest act, the Bee Gees, never recorded a Nat Kipner song. He instead encouraged them to write their own material. He in fact encouraged all the Spin acts to write their own tunes, or record original material. How altruistic can a fledling record company be? Not very, of course, the commercial pressures ensure that the bottom line will be the arbiter of what’s released. So why did Spin issue so many original Australian compositions? The answer seems to be that Kipner liked the songs and he liked the songwriters.
Pop music itself was still seen as somehow subversive in 1966, a rebuff to the Protestant work ethic, and a threat to conservative Australian values, especially the value given to respecting property. Rock’n’roll shows in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s had witnessed sporadic outbursts of violence, occasionally provoked by an overly officious police force. In the media’s reports, working class youth violence became tied to the rock’n’roll phenomenon. The music was decried, as in America and Britain, for debasing morals and fermenting rebellion. Gang violence, with bodgies and widgies assaulting law abiding citizens and each other, was often presented as the natural consequence of allowing rock’n’roll shows to continue.
Where did Nat Kipner stand in respect to rock’n’roll’s rebel status? Definitely not on the side of the wowsers. He had helped orchestrate some of the famous Normie Rowe concerts where teams of girls, trained by Normie’s management, had invaded the stage. He’d produced a series of joyfully raucous singles that made most sense by providing an excuse to leap around and shout. Then in his 40s, Nat saw the music’s rebel image as being of little consequence. It was just another marketing strategy.
The music’s "Americanism" was often portrayed as negative in the popular press. Gaudy, shallow "Americanism" was seen as battling steady, quality "Britishness" in a contest for the soul of Australia. This contest was another round in a long-running battle over what could constitute a pure Australian culture. Purity was an important concept for defenders of a conservative view of Australia. Racial purity had been entrenched in the White Australia policy, still active in 1966. Sexual purity was highly desirable for all young women before marriage, though young men were not so strictly bound by conservative sexual mores. Some heterosexual experience was thought perhaps a good thing for young men; it provided knowledge for married life and supposedly removed any doubts of homosexuality. Pure "Britishness" was promoted as the Australian’s true heritage.
Rock’n’roll and its "Americanism" challenged purity on all these levels. The name "rock’n’roll" was itself a black euphemism for sex, while the music was said to encourage promiscuity and licentiousness. Racial purity was challenged by many of rock’n’roll’s best performers simply being black, with that affrontery compounded by their talent. Chuck Berry’s poetic lyricism, Little Richard’s flamboyent piano style, Big Joe Turner’s effortless vocal mastery, all taunted white racist claims that blacks were inherently inferior. Australia’s comforting racism, drawn on to excuse ill treatment of Aborigines, was confronted time and again by a succession of highly accomplished touring black American performers.
There is a deal of irony in so many of the St. Clair artists being British born, and presumably immersed in "Britishness", yet all being enthralled by American music, and by implication "Americanism". White English bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Pretty Things, The Animals and The Yardbirds toured Australia in the period 1964-1967. Every one of these bands was an American black music stylist, based on a mix of blues, soul and the rock’n’roll of Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. Black American music, either in the original American form, or more usually its British copy, returned as one of the staples of Australian pop by 1966. The St Clair Studio made its own contributions to the genre, with many of the St. Clair recordings being either suburban r’n’b, or a punk soul hybrid.
Despite Geoff Mack’s country LP, St. Clair was a studio, and a clientel, devoted to urban music – R’n’B, pop, punk, rockabilly, rock’n’roll, white soul. The bush ethos of the bronzed Aussie, both the rural positivism of Banjo Paterson and the bush tragedies of Henry Lawson, were ignored. In their place were city blues, adolescent angst and quirky humour based on references to mass media advertising campaigns and other contemporary pop songs.
The urban preference was fitting since Australia is one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world. Hurstville was, then and now, a suburban landscape; from its higher vantages you can see the skyscrapers of Sydney’s CBD. Nowadays, there are enough high-rise flats to think of Hurstville itself as urban, especially as city status was conferred in 1989. The city has had two great periods of population growth: the first was in the two decades after the railway was opened in1884, and the second was in the three decades after 1945, when Australia’s immigration policy fed off the aftermath of WW2.
War is crucial to the story of the St. Clair Recording Studio. All of the migrant kids who recorded at St. Clair had arrived in Australia with their families as part of the post WW2 immigration boom. In 1966, another war, the Vietnam War, was looming large in the minds of Australia's older teenage boys. Military conscription for 20 year old males had been introduced in late 1964. If your birthdate was pulled out of the barrel, two years National Service awaited, with the likely prospect of a tour in Vietnam. At 19, "King of Pop" Normie Rowe was conscripted. So was Marty Rhone who'd recorded at St. Clair with his band the Soul Agents. If you were a young man of 18 and married, like Barry Gibb, National Service was obviously of major concern.
Nearly all of the older males involved with the studio had served during WW2. Ossie Byrne and Geoff Mack had been in the RAAF, Nat Kipner had been in the US Air Force. Nat’s old partner in the Sunshine label in Brisbane, Ivan Dayman, had also been in the RAAF.
Ossie never spoke about his war traumas, and Nat Kipner was unaware of Ossie’s war service. Geoff Mack never discussed the war with Ossie either, though he knew that Ossie had also been in the RAAF. This reticence is so common to be almost the rule with Australian veterans. Australian WW2 veteran Ted Mulligan recently said he "can’t recall talking to any of his mates about their actual war experiences. "They’d tell you funny yarns, but not the actual details, no." (4)
The St. Clair studio will be acknowledged for the creation of the Bee Gees’ first international hit, "Spicks and Specks", as well as for the many other entertaining recordings made there. It is worth remembering that the studio, like so much in post war Australia, owed its existence to returned servicemen who bore the weight of their war years with considerable grace and remarkable stoicism.
Copyright 2002. Bill Casey
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1. Sun-Herald, 7Aug 1966, p.80.
2. Both songs were written by white men, "Gurindji Blues" by Ted Egan and "Sun Arise" by Rolf Harris and Harry Butler. "Sun Arise" was a top 5 hit in the UK and was covered by, unlikely as it sounds, Alice Cooper in 1971. "Gurindji Blues" had little airplay, with radio stations baulking at the chorus, "Poor bugger me, Gurindji". It is a compelling record, the first ever Aboriginal land rights protest song, and one of the most important, if little-known, Australian folk compositions.
3. Mojo Music Magazine, June 1996, p.35
4. Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine, 9 November 2002, p.41
- Evans, Raymond, "To try to ruin": rock’n’roll, youth culture and law and order in Brisbane, 1956-1957, in The Forgotten Fifties, edited by John Murphy and Judith Smart, Australian Historical Studies, No. 109, Oct. 1997.
- Davison, Graeme, The use and abuse of Australian history, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, 2000.
- White, Richard, Inventing Australia, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1981.