Urgency. I reckon this is the best word. For they were always urgent. Midnight Oil was aggressive, and Sherbet was summery. But even when they were brooding, Skyhooks was urgent.
Learning of their 1991 reunification tour, some mates and I instantly booked our tickets. However, on the day of their Adelaide concert I awoke 565 kilometres away on the West Coast as I had to pack up my Ucontitchie Road farmhouse for the move to Kimba.
With my earthly goods flung through the front door of my new house, we leapt into my mate’s SS Commodore, pointed the 4.9 litre beast eastward, and rumbled the five hours, through a January thunderstorm, to North Adelaide’s Old Lion Hotel. We arrived with moments to spare. The pub already stinging in its smoky, hot fug. There were but three beers on tap. Red Symons was at his belligerent Red Faces best. It was a night of huge fun.
I love crowd singing on a live album. It amplifies the sense of being there, when in all likelihood, you weren’t. Great examples include “Army” from Ben Folds Live and,” Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis, but supreme for me is “All My Friends Are Getting Married” from Skyhooks’ Live in the Eighties. When Shirl invites the crowd to sing the chorus they do in such an adoring fashion. Back at the Old Lion this, too, was a highlight of that summer night.
Sophomore albums often rate highly. Think Nevermind, The Bends and Astral Weeks. Buoyed by the acclaim of their debut offering, there’s often a young band or artist, teamed up with a noted producer. Their confidence is unparalleled. An equivalent could be, again from 1991, when Mark Waugh made an elegant hundred on debut at Adelaide Oval. However, a friend observed, “It’s not such a surprise. After all, you only get picked for your country because you’re in fantastic form.”
Bearing this in mind, Ego Is Not a Dirty Word is their finest album. I know that Living in the Seventies is the much-loved debut, selling over 300,000 copies, and enjoying the infamy of six of its offerings being banned. But, on this second release, there’s an increased breadth in the songs, with “Love’s Not Good Enough” musing on suburban loneliness, “Smartarse Songwriters” featuring Greg Macainsh’s meta-cognitive explorations, and the title track, pushing the patience of many (I can’t imagine Sir Joh was a fan) with its brazen reference to the triumvirate of Richard Nixon, Leonard Cohen, and in an Australian music first, Jesus.
My favourite is side 2, track 2. I know it’s a hundred types of wrong but I recently played it in the car for our boys on the way home from karate. On the first note of “Mercedes Ladies” they both giggled at the larrikinism of bass line, the cheeky guitars and Freddie’s comical tom-tom drumming. It rollicks along with the musical highlight the double hi-hat chick at the end of each line. It’s a great way to spend three minutes, and encapsulates the band, their time, and their legacy. In this, as in much of their material, Skyhooks satirise the suburbs while also rejoicing in them.
Of course, we’re all apprehended by our creative context. Even here in smug 2016, history will eventually scold us. 1975 imprisoned many with multiple charges: sexism, homophobia, stereotyping. But despite this Skyhooks also pioneered themes concerning the suburban and the local. It was music of the largely untold other; it was not of NYC or London.
Such is the significance of Skyhooks for me that the mention of Carlton evokes the song first, and the footy team second. The band’s collected lyrics still generate a google map of Melbourne, and a reference to Toorak or Balwyn returns me to my original conceptions of the city by the Yarra. If the Beatles are Liverpool, and the Rolling Stones are London, then Skyhooks are Melbourne. Their music has always presented the geography of a highly human environment, as there’s colourful pictures of grimy pubs, menacing streetscapes, and widescreen vistas too.
It was in my school mate Lumpy Nixon’s lounge room (I’m sure there were ceramic ducks flying up the wall) that I first saw, and heard Straight in a Gay, Gay World. I was mesmerised by the guitars on the title track, and the sonic trickery of a swarm of insects hovering overhead on the outro, moving from the left speaker to the right. I was fourteen and this was beyond cool.
The album’s artwork gripped me equally with its triptych of a solitary black sheep, butcher shop and lamb dinner. It was the first humorous cover I’d seen. The art often functioned as a portal to an album’s narrative. I was especially intrigued by Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and tried to decipher the cover photo of the two business men, one calmly ablaze, shaking hands on a Californian backlot. However, I couldn’t unlock its mystical meanings. In our age of Spotify and digital downloads, these happy distractions have largely disappeared. But vinyl’s fighting back.
And finally to Shirl. He’d a remarkably complex voice, blending a tradie’s building site swagger with the footballer’s front-bar cockiness. It was effortlessly confident, and also reassuring, saying, “Why would you live anywhere else?” as it slapped your back and shouted, “Forget about it, I’ll buy you a beer!” He sung to, and for, us. But, his vowels were knowingly crisp and aware of the telling subtext. He delivered his stories with affection, while also investing the songs, as appropriate, with a sneer. “Million Dollar Riff” could be his best performance. Shirl was the perfect front man.
I love that I can go years without listening to a band, and then one afternoon find myself dragging out a dusty CD, and with the opening chords, being teleported to a distant, thrilling place. With Skyhooks that place is removed and unreconstructed, but from time to time, I really enjoy going back there.