Shorrock and awe
06 June 2010
Beatle or Goon? Glenn Shorrock would have just as readily traded places with Peter Sellers as Paul McCartney. In the early 70s, before his US breakthrough fronting Australia’s own Little River Band, Adelaide-raised Shorrock was a happy nobody in London, alternating between Indian-style spirituality and British-inspired silliness.
His first wife, whom he had taken to the UK when attempting to make it big alongside Brian Cadd and others in Australia’s first supergroup, Axiom, had left him. The band had fallen apart when their second album faltered, despite the heady promise of their Oz hits
A Little Ray of Sunshine
on their first LP,
Staying on in London and surviving on a weekly stipend with a recording company owned by Tom Jones’s manager, Shorrock started writing songs in earnest. The Beatles had split, but their musical and personal progression marked Shorrock for life: one 1972 single B-side he wrote and recorded was titled, worthily,
When God Plays His Guitar.
“I was into meditating and mysticism, macrobiotics and brown rice, oh yeah,” recalls Shorrock now, seated by his second wife, Jo, at the kitchen table in their beautiful high-ceilinged apartment in a subdivided 1860s cathedral-like sandstone brick house overlooking the water at Double Bay.
Is he still into the deeper stuff? “I don’t practice meditation as much as I should. I advise most people to withdraw and look to themselves; that’s the way of curing a lot of the world’s ills.
“I think if people change within, then [make] outward change, rather than trying to change without, without changing within…” He’s interrupted, before he can credit George Harrison with the lyrical interlude, by Jo making coffee at the sink, who cries out incredulously: “Oh, are you
Radio comedians The Goons and novelty songs such as Guy Mitchell’s
She Wears Red Feathers
(and a huly huly skirt) however were also an influence on Shorrock – which may explain his single Purple Umbrella, released under the absurd pseudonym André L’Escargot in 1971.
“Did you come up with that name?” Jo asks, erupting in a throaty, infectious chuckle.
“Yeah,” says Shorrock.
“You are so weird!”
“Andrew Snail,” he grins.
“You are too bizarre sometimes, Shorrock.”
At 66, Shorrock is planning Sydney and Melbourne concerts looking back on 45 years of recording – with the Twilights from 1960s Adelaide, Axiom and Little River Band – fleshed out with a 15-piece orchestra.
That’s a sharp increase in personnel usually required for his intimate “guerrilla” solo acoustic live shows of recent times – four people and a Tarago van – but still a world way from LRB’s 70s US heyday of stadiums and untold supporting musos and roadies.
Jo felt “embarrassed” being chauffeured around in limousines, though the heady success almost never happened. In late 1974, planning to return from London to Melbourne – he’d been paid a generous 100 pounds a week singing backup for Cliff Richard for two months at the Palladium – Shorrock received a call from fellow expat Aussie musician Beeb Birtles.
Birtles invited him to form a band with another London-based, Adelaide-raised singer-songwriter, Graeham Goble. Shorrock declined, then met the pair with mooted manager Glenn Wheatley – he had US record contacts – and was persuaded by the pair’s strong songs.
They all returned to Melbourne and formed Little River Band, and Shorrock met Jo at a studio in early 1975, recording LRB’s first single,
Curiosity Killed the Cat
, downstairs, while she toiled in production upstairs. She loved his sense of humour.
But US record boss Arty Mogul – who discovered Bob Dylan – told Wheatley about the Shorrock, Goble and Birtles harmonies: “Kid, have you ever run your fingernails down a blackboard? That’s what their music does to me.”
By 1976, with the release of
– penned by Goble, fronted by Shorrock – that all changed. Reminiscing is still a staple of US radio stations, with five million certified airplays to date. It was the first of LRB’s six top-10 US consecutive hits, and plenty more top 20 hits; a then unprecedented success that opened North America to Australian music.
The Shorrocks wed in 1980, relocating from Melbourne to Sydney. Apart from handling his bookings, billings and hirings, Jo’s job seems to be ensuring Shorrock’s self-importance never levitates too high.
She did though help her husband into the highest set of heels – his request – a cockatoo wig, fishnets and denim jacket in the mid-80s to impersonate Tina Turner performing
Nutbush City Limits
in his one-man touring show One for the Money; Shorrock is a talented mimic who can also do Elvis, Johnny O’Keefe and Joe Cocker.
“I still have people come up to me and say, ‘Your husband’s got great legs’,” sighs Jo. “It’s a strange reality for me.”
Shorrock inherited his humour from his Yorkshire-born father. “Dad was like,” he says, turning on a Yorkshire brogue, “‘I don’t drink, don’t smoke – I dance a bit!’”
Shorrock’s mother, a London-born “lady”, was less amused when the family arrived as assisted-passage immigrants from Kent, England at Adelaide’s Overseas Passenger Terminal – a shed in a mangrove swamp – in 1954. “My god my mother started crying and wouldn’t stop for nine months.”
Then 10-year-old Glenn was excited by the bright sunlight, despite the migrant camp’s military-style nissen huts and the water towers resembling watchtowers, but in 1955 his mother scooped Glenn and his sister up and returned to the UK. They returned in 1956, his mother willing to give Australia another go.
His father – who had a tenor voice and sang Italian opera arias phonetically in the shower – worked as a fitter and turner at the Weapons Research Establishment in Salisbury, and single-handedly built the family’s second home at Elizabeth. “I laboured with him for a while,” says Shorrock. Jo sharply sucks in her breath: “That’s debatable, according to your mother.”
Living in a migrant town, new arrivals from the UK would weekly get off the boat with new records and fashions. Shorrock started playing party gigs in a band called The Checkmates. They changed their name to the Twilights when their bass player got caught for receiving stolen property. The band moved to Melbourne, winning the 1966 Hoadleys Battle of the Sounds national competition and fame.
Not quite as famous though as LRB a decade later, in which Goble was the father figure – a stern foil to Shorrock’s show-pony foolery. Shorrock once said performing with Goble was “like having a policeman on stage every night” during their peak. Goble would give the band members critical “notes” after performances.
John Farnham replaced Shorrock as LRB lead singer in 1982. Shorrock wanted to take a year off touring, “spend the money and smell the roses”. Goble had “fallen in love with John’s voice”, having produced an album for him, and wanted Farnham in the band. Goble “lobbied and I lost,” says Shorrock, but adds “you don’t change your lead singer if its been successful”.
Shorrock returned to LRB six years later, seizing “a chance to redeem myself”, but the momentum had been lost – not even bringing in Beatles producer Sir George Martin to produce their 1988 album
could capture the old sales magic.
Shorrock departed again in 1996, but in 1998 came his career highlight: creating, producing and performing in
All You Need is Beatles
orchestral shows at the Opera House, persuading Sir George to bring out the scores for the
Between 2002 and 2007, Shorrock reunited again with Goble and Birtles for 71 live shows – forced to perform as BSG, having lost legal control of the name Little River Band. Guitarist Stephen Housden, who joined LRB in 1981, kept the trading name, licensing an LRB band with no original members that still tours the US, performing the back catalogue of hits penned by Goble, Shorrock and Birtles.
“It’s terribly distressing,” says Jo. “Yeah,” says Shorrock, “but one gets over it, I don’t think about it much.” “I do!” says his wife, “it still aggravates me terribly.” “If you bring it up,” he admits, “it’s kind of annoying.”
What was it like being on stage with Goble and Birtles again? “Uh…,” Shorrock hesitates, “I take the Fifth Amendment.”
“It’s a little bit complicated,” says Jo.
“We don’t hate each other,” he says, “but…”
“They’re just not best of chums, you know?”
Will he perform with Goble and Birtles again? “No,” he says emphatically. “Oh, never say never,” says Jo.
“Well,” says Shorrock, “the phrase I use is that ‘the door is locked, but I have the key’.” “Oh, that sounds a bit mean spirited,” says Jo. “Well,” he answers, “what are they going to do without me?”
Jo tells him that sounds like a sour note. “I’m saying,” he says, “I don’t feel the need to go back and be married to those guys again. We had a stormy marriage [but] a great marriage, yeah.”
Glenn Shorrock performs at the State Theatre on July 10