For some reason, I’ve read a lot of books about the Australian rock music industry.
I’m not sure exactly why – you’d think I’d read more books about theatre, or disability, or digital stuff. I thought it had something to do with my fan-boi mentality, maybe a hidden desire to be a groupie.
But I’ve come to think it has more to do with wanting to understand something about myself.
When my family came to Australia from the Netherlands in 1965, the Australian popular music scene was just starting to build into what we’d call an industry now.
And it’s no coincidence that a lot of it was shaped by the migrant experience: Johnny Young, the Bee Gees, the Young brothers, Jimmy Barnes … so maybe reading all those books about the popular music I grew up with was just me trying to understand the most predominant culture of my youth, right there on the radio or TV, on records or at local venues.
The books I’ve read about the Australian music industry have fallen into three main categories:
- Self-authored memoirs by performers or industry participants
- Profiles of performers or industry participants by other writers
- History, commentary and analysis by professional writers or industry participants
(* see the end of this post for my reading list)
Which brings me to Stuart Coupe’s new book. There’s some overlap between those categories, of course, but what we have in Shake Some Action is a full-on blend of all three – and that makes it especially interesting to me.
This is partly because of Coupe’s career path as a journalist, freelance writer and industry participant, and partly because of who and what he’s written about. And now he’s writing about himself.
I should make it clear that Shake Some Action doesn’t set out to analyse the industry. It’s just the story of how Coupe became what he is today and the various paths he took to get there, those paths intersecting with the careers of some of the cream of our rock and pop stars.
Coupe doesn’t take himself seriously, nor does he lay claim to any great plan. A lot of things just happened or seemed like a good idea, and his career was shaped by some key people who taught him some critical lessons. As a result, he got to write about, interview and work with people in the nascent Australian rock world, as well as overseas stars and would-be stars.
The book is really easy to read, well structured, smoothly written and often very funny. Coupe’s voice is very vernacular and direct, and he’s happy to share insights about himself that are less than self-complimentary.
He acknowledges the chances and direction given him by people like Anthony O’Grady, Lisa Wilkinson and David Dale who helped him learn his craft, often despite himself.
At the gossipy level of anecdotes, the book’s a goldmine of titbits about Jagger, Dylan, Springsteen, Gudinski, and many more. They alone are worth the price of admission.
But as I read on, I got the feeling there’s more to it than that.
Shake Some Action made me go back to Roger Grierson’s recent self-published memoir, Lobrow, not least because the two authors’ lives intersected when they ran the G.R.E.E.N. label together.
This was important for each of them, as it helped Grierson take a further step from performer to producer of other performers’ product, which would eventually see him rise to the top of our country’s biggest labels.
At the same time, it moved Coupe from being a writer about performers’ products to being an active participant in producing and promoting that product. In the course of their collaboration, they had a direct impact on the careers of some key performers and the path the industry took in Australia.
Coupe makes it sound like going from a label manager to an artist manager just kind of happened, but when the artist in question is Paul Kelly, it’s a bit of a big deal. Coupe came equipped with the skills to teach Kelly how to be interviewed but he also ran into the limits of his own expertise in management.
Even so, he engages with many of the big industry issues of the mid to late 20th century: how to crack the big market in the USA, artist rights, intellectual property, the performance circuits, the role of touring artists, how people get paid – or not.
He makes fun of his role at Dolly but even there he did something pretty important, bringing a subversive punk element to a popular teenage girls’ magazine.
He’s also not afraid to touch on the darker aspects of his life in the rock world, where drugs and alcohol are easy to get and relationships hard to maintain.
Coupe’s strength as an observer, a commentator, a participant, and a writer is that in speaking for himself, he speaks for many of us and to most of us, the kid from Launceston who made good.
An example of how that matters is his frequent references to changing his views on music, coming in later life to love records and performers he dismissed early on.
When he says of Neil Young how his initial love of Harvest “had moved towards ‘fucking old hippie’ before he redeemed himself with Crazy Horse on records like Rust Never Sleeps in 1979. Once again, the change – and my embracing of his acoustic, country sounds – was with me, not Young”, he’s reflecting our experience (well, mine, anyway), as distinct from the artist’s own or, more damningly, the industry’s as to what will sell and what won’t.
I suspect we undervalue the role that writers like Coupe, Jeff Apter, Clinton Walker, and others play in helping us to understand ourselves through the lens of Australian music.
I enjoyed the hell out of Shake Some Action, and I reckon anyone who was into the late 20th century Australian music scene will, too.
* My reading list: these books are ones I’ve read that focus on Australian performers or the Australian music industry.
1) Self-authored memoirs by performers or industry participants
- Working Class Boy, Jimmy Barnes
- Working Class Man, Jimmy Barnes
- Every Day of My Life, Beeb Birtles
- The Best Years of Our Lives, Richard Clapton
- Will It Be Funny Tomorrow, Billy? Stephen Cummings
- Loud, Tana Douglas
- Big Blue Sky, Peter Garrett
- 1001 Australian Nights, Dave Graney
- Lobrow, Roger Grierson
- Nick of Time, Nick Hampton
- How to Make Gravy, Paul Kelly
- Something Quite Peculiar, Steve Kilbey
- Pink Suit for a Blue Day, Grace Knight
- Blowing My Own Trumpet, James Morrison
- Tex, Tex Perkins with Stuart Coupe
- Detours, Tim Rogers
- Man Out of Time, Broderick Smith
- The Jeff St John Story, Jeffrey St John
- Most People I Know (Think That I’m Crazy), Billy Thorpe
- Sex and Thugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll, Billy Thorpe
- Shots, Don Walker
- Paper Paradise, Glenn Wheatley
2) Profiles of performers or industry participants by other writers
- The Angels, Bob Yates
- Don’t Dream It’s Over: The Remarkable Life of Neil Finn, Jeff Apter
- Tragedy: The Sad Ballad of the Gibb Brothers, Jeff Apter
- Behind Dark Eyes: The True Story of Jon English, Jeff Apter
- Chasing the Dragon: The Life and Death of Marc Hunter, Jeff Apter
- Gudinski: The Godfather of Australian Rock’n’Roll, Stuart Coupe
- The Book of Daniel: From Silverchair to Dreams, Jeff Apter
- Paul Kelly: The Man, the Music, the Life In Between, Stuart Coupe
- Doc: The Life and Times of Aussie Rock Legend Doc Neeson, Jon Bradshaw & Anne Souter
- Johnny O’Keefe: Rocker. Legend. Wild One., Jeff Apter
- Sophistopunk: The Inside Story of Mark Opitz and Oz Rock, Luke Wallis
- Matt Taylor: I Remember When I Was Young, Phil Riseborough
- Healer: The Rise, Fall and Return of Tumbleweed, Glen Humphries
- High Voltage: The Life of Angus Young, Jeff Apter
- Friday on My Mind: The Life of George Young, Jeff Apter
- Malcolm Young: The Man Who Made AC/DC, Jeff Apter
3) History, commentary and analysis by professional writers or industry participants
- >Up from Down Under: How Australian Music Changed the World, Jeff Apter
- Rock Dogs: Politics and the Australian Music Industry, Marcus Breen
- The Promoters: Inside Stories from the Australian Rock Industry, Stuart Coupe
- Roadies: The Secret History of Australian Rock’n’Roll, Stuart Coupe
- Friday Night at the Oxford, Glen Humphries
- Songwriters Speak: Conversations about Creating Music, Debbie Kruger
- Pay to Play: The Australian Rock Music Industry, Wendy Milsom
- Rock This City: Live Music in Newcastle, 1970s-1980s, Gaye Sheather
- Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Clinton Walker
- Stranded: Australian Independent Music 1976-1992, Clinton Walker
- Suburban Songbook: Writing Hits in Post-War / Pre-Countdown Australia, Clinton Walker