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“Learning to play the typewriter” – Andrew McMillan’s life of words and rock ‘n roll

“The best advice that I ever got was given by members of Status Quo “Whatever you do, don’t puncture your skin.” Snort it, drink it, smoke it, swallow it … but don’t ever stick a needle in.”

Andrew McMillan passed away on 28 January 2012.

A year earlier we sat down with a bottle or two of red, a few smokes and yarned about his life as a rock ‘n roll wordsmith – and more.

Here are some of his thoughts about his life of words and rock ‘n roll.

Early days

Andrew MacMillan: When I was twelve I submitted a script for the TV show Homicide. Leonard Teale was my favourite.

I wrote it out in longhand and gave it to one of their scriptwriters who explained that they couldn’t go blowing up limousines and that Homicide was based on real murders, not those imagined by 12 year olds who wanted to see blood, gunfire and mayhem on the streets.

I won the Walcott Challenge Cup for poetry at [Brisbane] Grammar. I had poems and essays published in the school magazines.

In Sixth form I started writing for RAM [Rock Australia Magazine] out of my home town of Brisbane and suddenly I became the cool guy.

Bad Company, RAM magazine and learning to play the typewriter

The first rock and roll piece I wrote was for RAM about a Bad Company concert on March 15, 1975 at Brisbane’s Festival Hall.

I’d heard one of their songs on 3XY in Melbourne the previous Christmas and recognized it in an ad on 4IP in Brisbane.

4IP didn’t have them on the playlist because Bad Company weren’t Top 40, but I recognized the grab on the ad and went to see them.

Before I went to that gig Mum cooked spaghetti bolognese and counseled me against wasting $12 buying the ticket for the concert when I could buy the album for $12 and listen to it forever. I defied her.

The first issue of RAM had only just come out. I went to the concert, there were about four hundred people in a three thousand-seat venue. I put that down to local radio not supporting bands as they should. So I wrote a letter to the editor of RAM and it was published as a review.

I got a letter from the editor, Anthony O’Grady, saying: “Thanks for that. I tweaked it into a review and I’ve re-arranged a few things. Have a look at how it has been done. And send me more.

And then there was a cheque for $15.65.

I wrote a fair bit for RAM, about every second or third edition, concert reviews and stories about local bands.

By this time it was 1975 and Skyhooks, AC/DC and the rest came up.

Toward the end of the year Status Quo came to Brisbane and held a press conference at the airport.

I got busted in the school car-park. I was changing out of my school uniform and putting on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans to go to this press conference.

Earl Denning was my French teacher and Form Master. For the first time in my life I was wagging school.

He comes up and asks “What do you think you are doing?” so I explained that this British band Status Quo were having a press conference at the airport and I wanted to go and check it out and that I was writing for RAM magazine.

He said “Ok, you will probably learn more through that experience than you will I my class (laughs), I’ll mark you off on the roll. But I won’t take you seriously as a writer until you’ve written a book.

I did learn a lot at that press conference. There were all these cameras and boom mikes up the front. I just sat up the back and watched and listened. I might have made some notes.

At the end of it, as all the media mob were packing up their gear I was rolling a cigarette and Rick Parfitt, Status Quo’s guitarist, asks me “Can I bot a durrie off you mate?” He sat down and we had this wonderful chat for ten or fifteen minutes.

I was seventeen.

Each time Status Quo came through town after that we’d catch up and sit by the pool and just talk. Rick Parfitt and his mate Francis Rossi.

We were beside the pool at the Park Royal Hotel one day in about 1976 and somehow the subject got around to drugs. The best advice that I ever got in my life was given by members of Status QuoWhatever you do, don’t puncture your skin.

Snort it, drink it, smoke it, swallow it … but don’t ever stick a needle in.” Best advice I ever got.

I wrote about The Saints when they were coming up, around about the end of 1976. Mum got me a job with Festival Records in the warehouse. I didn’t last all that long.

After the short stint at Festival Records I went back to freelancing. Mum got me a Correspondent’s Typing Course, a typewriter and guitar.

I was writing longhand before that.

I learnt to play the typewriter and I like the guitar but never learnt to do much with it.

The typewriter was a bright lemon thing, a portable that had a habit of sticking keys.

I’d set myself up in the dining room furthest away from Mum’s bedroom and pull the doors shut and put a blanket over the dining room table and work all night. I was writing stories for RAM, fiction and stories for the Cane Toad Times.

I’d have side three of Status Quo Live on constant repeat through the headphones from the stereo in the room next door. I would sit there typing with blankets to deaden the sound so I wouldn’t wake Mum up. I drank lots of coffee. I was buzzing.

To Sydney

I went down to Sydney for a week or so in ’76 while Anthony O’Grady, the Editor, assessed how I might go. Then he rejected me.

He figured I wasn’t ready but then I got The Saints story published in Sounds magazine in the UK and I got an invite to come down to Sydney and join the staff at RAM in July ’77 for a year.

I was staff writer and shit-kicker. It was good training. I was well aware of the need for a strong lede.

A mate, Peter Ford, recommended to Mum that she get me a copy of The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe.

A few pieces – Joe Eszterhas with “The Apocalypse of Charlie Simpson” – were just “Wow!

That was writing. That is how to tell a story, work on both sides to get your information.  Extraordinary stuff. It also had an excerpt from Michael Herr’s “Dispatches”, I think it might’ve been the Khe Sanh chapter. Fantastic writing.

In many ways I’m still stuck in that. But it has served me well.

I started off in Glebe in a house that was leaning over. Falling over. The top storey had a tar-paper roof and you could go up there for a drink – all longnecks. I think the leaning house of Glebe cost about $13 a week.

Then I moved to Chippendale and had a place on the second floor of a terrace with a funny bloke who lived downstairs. Peter Garrett came to the door once to visit me and this guy fled to his room and lit candles.

There was this huge bald man at the door.

I quit RAM because Philip Mason the publisher wouldn’t buy me a wad – not even a ream – of foolscap paper. I’d been using everyone else’s recycled paper off their typewriters. On the reverse side.

I went to [Anthony] O’Grady and said “I want a ream of paper.” He said “Go and talk to Phillip [Mason]” so I went to speak to Philip and he said “No” and I said, “Well, No. I go.” I finished what I had to do over the next few days, flew to Brisbane, stayed with Mum and for a few days and then hitchhiked to Darwin.

That was ’78.

The Oils and the Sydney sound

I did my first piece on Midnight Oil early in ’78. It happened accidentally really. I did what I guess was the first national pieces about them in RAM and TRACKS in ’78.

The story in TRACKS was about Garret being a “kneeler.” A body-boarder and not a “proper surfer.”

I liked their sound, but I’d never heard them or of them for some time.  They started playing at French’s wine bar on Oxford Street, a very small subterranean joint with an even smaller stage. And you would go in there and drink this head-cracking cheap cider.

There were a bunch of emergent pub bands working out of Sydney in those days. Cold Chisel, the Oils, Angels, Dragon and you had that Melbourne scene of The Sports and Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons and others, including Skyhooks before them.

There were a lot of crap acts. Kevin Borich comes to mind. He could play a nice guitar but couldn’t write a tune.

The Oils, Angels and Chisel – they all stood out for me because they were political, of-the-street.  Cold Chisel were very much of the working class – this was 1978.

Oils were greenish-tinged.

The Angels were just pure boogie theatre.

Dragon were a great band but they had some bloody awful nights.  I remember sneaking into their dressing room at the Stage Door Tavern one night and telling them what a woeful gig it had been. They just sat there dumbstruck.

Around that time I was going to gigs five or six nights a week, writing lots of short pieces and a few longer reviews every week. Plus other work of course.

If I’d had a slab of foolscap I’d still be writing on rock.

I was writing for RAM, Playboy, Penthouse and doing the Ward “Pally” Austin’s National Top 40 countdown. He was getting a grand a week. I was getting $50.

I got The Clash on radio all over the country on that show. “Oh, this British punk band have made a record … and you’ve got to hear this song “Complete Control” which they want to be a hit.”

So then, because Ward Pally Austin’s show was syndicated across the country, The Clash would get a one-off play in places as far-flung as Karratha and Katoomba.

I didn’t break The Clash in Australia but I got them on the air.

I’d finish the scripts for Ward Pally Austin’s show at about eight in the morning and I’d have this bottle of white wine I was drinking while I was doing it and walk over to the station, slide down the black rubber on the long escalator down to the train and sweep past people, jump onto the train and end up at radio 2UW.

Slap the script down.

I really liked The Sports, particularly after Martin Armiger joined them. He gave them an edge that took them away from their early rockabilly influences.

And I just loved Jo Jo Zep [and the Falcons] doing The Cthulhu live. They never got it down well on vinyl. A great song.

INXS came through – they were so fresh, they had real sex appeal. And they wrote good songs – they were always a good pop band.

I enjoyed INXS until I gave them a terrible review. We didn’t have much to do with each other after that.

Then you had bands like The Models going through tumultuous lineup changes and musical changes and differences. That was fabulous to write about and follow through.

I first caught up with The Models in Hobart. I was on holiday down on the Ovens River at a place a mate and I named Do-Long bridge. We were listening to Matt Finish, the live recording – just fantastic. And the Apocalypse Now soundtrack.

There was a little bridge over the river and we hung out there and took a lot of speed and drank a lot of bourbon whiskey. Did cocaine and smoked joints.

This was about 1982 I suppose. We cracked the second bag on the drive back to Sydney and realized we’d been snorting the cocaine all the time and then the speed kicked in.

We’d been snorting from the wrong bag. By this time I was so wired I jumped on a ferry and went to Devonport, hitch-hiked down the east coast of Tasmania.

I lost my job with the Sunday Telegraph because I’d failed to file. Caught up with The Models somewhere near Hobart.

Loved them.

Some favourite moments?

The first time I saw Radio Birdman was in 1976 at the Hurstville Civic Centre. Loved them ever since.

Midnight Oil at the Marrara Festival. Garrett pulled his beanie off and his head was just steaming. I was loaded up on speed and climbing around the scaffolding taking photographs. I’m not a photographer. I’m blind.

The Swamp Jockeys gig on the rooftop of the Darwin Worker’s Club in 1985 was a definite highlight.

You were mixing that gig – it was a Warumpi Band show. I can’t remember much of that gig because someone stood on my glasses. Wild dancing in Cuban heels on broken beer bottles and my eye-glasses!

That gig swung me towards the Territory. It was great gig, great people, all let loose on an open car park in the middle of town. We owned the city that night. It was more fun than I’d probably had at any gig in Sydney in all that time.

Hey, this is Darwin, what gives?

I came back up to Darwin in ’85 with the Warumpi Band on their “Big Name, No Blankets” tour.

Came back in ’86 to record and produce the Swamp Jockey’s “MangoDingo” recording, came back later that year with the “Blackfella, Whitefella” Midnight Oil and Warumpi Band tour. The only credit that I got from the Swamp Jockeys was a “thanks to …”.

Managers – I shit ‘em.

 Then I spent the next couple of years in Sydney researching and writing my first book Strict Rules and not going out that often because my real focus was on the Territory, Aboriginal life up here and the bands.

I came back here in ’88 with Denise Officer-Brewster – covered by Building Bridges. I wrote a story about the first festival of Aboriginal rock music for Rolling Stone.

I came up for a weekend and sat around for a month and decided to move here.

I went back to Sydney for the launch of Strict Rules, about the Blackfella, Whitefella tour with Midnight Oil and Warumpi Band.

Packed up my house and moved up here for good in late ’88.

That’s all for now.

==================

Photograph by Glenn Campbell

You can read more about Andrew McMillan at The Northern Myth here, here, here, here and finally here.

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  • 1
    Hector Lung
    Posted January 29, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Great memories there. I was a big fan of RAM, and writers like McMillan made it a must read. Captured what was a monstrous period of OZ rock!

  • 2
    Posted January 30, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this, Bob.

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