Saturday, October 22, 2016

The star-crossed story of Planet Records: part 3!

Like they say, good things come to those who wait, and this blog series on legendary Melbourne record label Planet Records is no exception. I’m just sorry this instalment has come so long after the second – life has a habit of getting in the way, I’m afraid. 
(Note: for any readers who’ve found themselves here by chance and would like to check out the previous instalments, you’ll find part one here and part two here.) 

This time, I’ll be focusing on the label’s more rockin’output, which is why I’ve christened this post... 

ROCK'N'ROLL PLANET


The controversial case of the Elvis Presley sleeve

Last post, I mentioned Planet’s historic all-Australian rock’n’roll album, Rock’n’Roll Party, but even before that was released, the label had been making inroads into the rock’n’roll universe with some cool 45rpms. 
Peter McLean
By late 1957, label honchos Bob King Crawford and Marcus Herman were slowly phasing out 10” records in favour of 12” albums and 7” singles. Among the first of the 7-inchers was Peter McLean and the Henri Bounce All Stars’ cover of ‘Hard-Headed Woman’ (b/w ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’), released in November 1958. Both songs featured in the Elvis Presley flick King Creole, screening in Australia at the time; and had appeared on a single by the King himself earlier that year to coincide with the film’s US release. 

Never one to let an opportunity slip past unexploited, Bob approached the local distributors for Paramount Pictures and suggested that “it’d be great promotion and publicity for the film if we had Elvis on the cover of the single we were going to release.” In exchange for an image, Planet would promote the film’s Aussie release on the record cover. “And they OKed it,” Bob laughs. “The Colonel would’ve shot them all!”
If you own this record with this sleeve, you're sitting on a goldmine!
Within a matter of days, the distributor realised their mistake and demanded the cover be withdrawn. Marcus thinks they got an official legal letter; Bob can’t remember. 

Whatever the case, the single was already in the shops by then (nobody ever accused Planet of lying down on the job, after all). So rather than recall it, they simply didn’t print up any more of that particular cover. In other words, some copies were sold with the original sleeve, which has since gone on to become an incredibly rare and sought-after piece of Elvis music memorabilia! Kinda like that notorious Beatles ‘butcher’ album cover with all the bloody, beheaded dolls. Not even Bob or Marcus have a copy.

Asked if it was a hit, Marcus replies, “I wouldn’t say it was gigantic, but it was popular.” (Melbourne readers would be advised to check their older rellies’ record collections pronto…) 

Have a listen here:


Dig that honking sax and rockabilly guitar! And check out this Prestodisc of the same song:
Foxy flexi: a one-sided Prestodisc cardboard record!

PETER McLEAN
One of Planet’s main rock’n’rollers, 'Frantic' Peter McLean not only played a starring role on ‘Hard Headed Woman’ and the Rock’n’Roll Party album, but also had several other releases out on the label, including a spirited rendition of Jackie Wilson’s ‘Reet Petite’ and a swinging take on Tex Ritter’s ‘Jealous Heart’ (both with Henri Bounce, who I wrote about in the previous instalment, and his All Stars). 
Peter channeling his inner square
In the effusive sleeve liner notes on the back of his 1958 7” Planet EP, Sincerely, McLean is described as having ‘an intense magnetic appearance onstage,’ which ‘seems to place the audience in a spell, whilst his voice does the rest.’ You'd never guess it from the cover photo, but I guess we'll have to take their words for it...


And speaking of Elvis…

Malcolm Arthur was incredible too,” reflects Bob. “He was our Elvis.” A fair comparison: singer/guitarist Malcolm Arthur was a cute, self-taught rock’n’roller with a wild live reputation, whose sold-out gigs rang with the cries of adoring female fans. He was part of the Melbourne bill when Fabian toured Australia in 1959, along with The Thunderbirds, and would later go on to portray the King in a huge Elvis memorial concert staged by Bob in 1979 at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. 
Malcolm Arthur circa 1959
While Malcolm only released one song with Planet Records – a cover of Johnny Restivo’s 1959 hit ‘The Shape I’m In’ (it appeared on a 7” single he shared with Peter McLean, whose ‘Jealous Heart’ was on the flipside) — he was a regular performer at Planet’s popular lunchtime concerts at Melbourne Town Hall (more about those a bit later). Later, with his band The Knights (which featured Laurie Allen among its members), he had a single out on Marcus’s post-Planet label Crest Records.

‘The Shape I’m In’ is very similar in tempo to Restivo’s hit, and kicks off with the same rollicking piano intro, but doesn’t have the same clean, bright production or mannered rockabilly vocal. Personally, I reckon Malcolm Arthur and the Henri Bounce All Stars’ version has more feel: his vocal is sweet and natural, the guitar tone is rich and warm, and Bounce’s sax is cool as ever. 

Mixed into the recording, we hear girls screaming and shrieking excitedly: a playful allusion to the reaction the singer used to cause among his female fans at concerts!

Legend has it that Malcolm Arthur and the Henri Bounce All Stars recorded another single for Planet, ‘I Fall Apart’/’Nature Boy,’ but sadly that was never released.


For someone who was so popular back in the day, frustratingly little information exists online about Malcolm Arthur. “He’s still around,” Marcus says. “I think he did something a few years ago with some new songs, but I’m not sure.”

Other notable Planet rock’n’rollers 


BALWYN'S FINEST, THE BLUE BOPS
Shooting stars in Planet’s rock’n’roll galaxy—fleeting yet unforgettable—The Blue Bops are probably the coolest (if not only) group to have come from the somewhat staid Melbourne suburb of Balwyn. 

Thanks to a record-collecting friend of mine, I own a copy of their only single on Planet (from late 1959), and it’s a right little cracker. The A-side is a rocked-up version of Nat King Cole’s 1950 smash, ‘Mona Lisa’, and on the flip, their high-energy rendition of Fabian’s hit ‘Tiger’ leaves the original in the dust.

Named after Gene Vincent’s ‘Blue Jean Bop’, The Blue Bops were comprised of the fabulously named Bruce Lee on vocals and bass, Geoff Somers and George Hopkins on guitar, and Ron Haydon on drums. On each side of the single, the label features a photo of two members: the same guy (I think) on the right, accompanied by what looks to be a different guy on the left each time. Sadly, that leaves one member whose face is lost in the mists of history. 

It's a mystery why this band weren't bigger, or why they never at least gained some kind of obscure legend status over the decades. Though both tracks are covers, The Blue Bops attack them with such youthful spirit and personality, they take them to another level. 

Propelled by Haydon’s unstoppable train-beat drums and played faster than Fabian’s original (which sounds like lounge music in comparison), ‘Tiger’ is pure F-U-N! Lee’s vocals are dynamic, the guitars are all tone, and the song is even interspersed with hilarious ‘tiger’ growls, contributed by one Marcus Herman! Just to top it off, the guitars surge in volume during the brief outro – talk about ending with a bang. Regrettably, this scorcher of a tune isn't on Youtube, so you'll have to take my word for it.

The Blue Bops weren’t the first to give 'Mona Lisa' the rock’n’roll treatment: Carl Mann got there first in March 1959 with his rockabilly rendition for Sun Records, and Conway Twitty did it about a month later, topping the Aussie charts in the process. But The Blue Bops sure put their own stamp on Nat King Cole's classic.


Closer to Twitty’s version than Mann’s, but different enough to make me wish they’d been around for longer and released more records, The Blue Bops’ take on the song is a bit more up-tempo, and enhanced by some killer guitar-work. Like so many Planet productions, it sounds really live and immediate: exactly the way rock’n’roll should be recorded. 

THE MYSTERIOUS JOHNNY GUITAR
First things first: despite their near-identical names, Planet’s Johnny Guitar sounds nothing like the American blues and soul singer Johnny Guitar Watson! He does have a lovely rich voice, though, which he put to fine use on his one-and-only Planet single, ‘Raindrop’ b/w ‘My Baby Dolly’ (1959).

Clocking in at just over a minute and a half, ‘Raindrop’ is a chirpy doo-wop number, featuring layers of harmonies and what sounds like a xylophone solo (!) in the middle. It goes like this:

The flipside ‘My Baby Dolly’ transcends its awful title with some cool understated guitar, great backing vox and a swinging rhythm. The ever-reliable Henri Bounce and the All Stars provide instrumental backing on both sides, with the help of The Moontones. Johnny Guitar is credited as the writer of both tunes. 

Though his real identity was not widely known at the time, it turns out that Johnny Guitar was actually a recently arrived British migrant named David Langdon. Post-Planet, he ended up playing in Malcolm Arthur’s band in the early 60s; he was also a guitar teacher at some stage (so at least he lived up to his name). 

THE EXPLOSIVE BEVERLEY DICK
Last but not least in this cavalcade of interplanetary talent, we have pioneering rock chick, Beverley Dick.

Described by Johnny O’Keefe as Melbourne’s best female rock’n’roll singer, Beverley “came initially from the country music scene,” remembers Bob. Having honed her skills in talent shows and church concerts since she was a child, she joined popular country-and-western group The Trailblazers in 1957 at the tender age of 17. The Trailblazers appeared weekly on radio station 3XY, where they’d squeeze into the tiny studio (there were more than 10 of them) and perform live over the airwaves. 

The Trailblazers Stage Show album was released on Planet in 1958, and boasts a typically striking technicolour cover. 

(I should mention that the album—as well as the Blue Bops and Johnny Guitar singles —was recorded at Planet’s flash new HQ at the Eastern Market on Bourke Street near the corner of Exhibition, where the label had moved in 1957 after outgrowing Marcus’s parents’ place.)

Planet stalwart Henri Bounce was the first to recognise Beverley’s rock’n’roll potential, and asked her to take part in the Rock’n’Roll Party LP. Here she is singing one of the medleys, spanning ‘Be Bop-A-Lula’ (which, interestingly, isn’t even adapted to suit a female point of view), ‘We’re Gonna Teach You to Rock’ and ‘All Shook Up’. 

Bev's singing voice is cool, with none of those gurgling, semi-operatic stylings so common to female rockabilly singers these days. In fact, her vocals have just enough of an edge to suggest that she might’ve been something of a belter in concert. And what do you know? One reviewer who saw her perform observed: “She had such a soft little voice when announcing her numbers, but brother, when she started to shout (sorry, sing), I was intrigued by the change in her.” 

A genuine, ahem, trailblazer for Aussie women in rock’n’roll, Beverley held her own among the big boys, even touring regional Victoria in late 1959 with JOK, The Delltones, The Dee Jays, Lonnie Lee and Malcolm Arthur. How much fun would that travelling roadshow have been?
Is it just me, or does Lonnie Lee (left) look like he's in love with Bev? Malcolm Arthur is on the right
Read more about this unsung Melbourne rock-chick here.


Sticking it to the majors: radio domination and lunchtime concerts

Planet Records practically owned the Melbourne music scene in the late 50s, and not just because of their quality product. They also reaped the rewards when the major record labels got too big for their boots and ended up alienating the city’s radio stations.

“The major record companies had decided in their wisdom that they were going to charge all the radio stations a fee every time they played one of their records,” explains Bob. “We’d had such a bad time with the majors that when they approached us and said Will you join us? we said No, we’re going to go with the radio stations!” 

From the very beginning, the major labels had clearly felt threatened by the indie upstarts and done everything they could to make Planet feel unwelcome. “They instructed their agents-come-salesmen that they were not to display our records,” Bob recalls. “And they did standover stuff. Initially they were selling our records under the counter, but we were outselling most of the stuff anyway.”

“History repeated itself with my Crest label later, with a major English company sabotaging us to put us out of business,” Marcus adds.

There was even a mysterious fire at their Eastern Markets HQ: nothing was ever proven but, as Marcus remarks wryly, “It was very suss.”

Anyway, when Planet opted not to join the majors in extorting the radio stations, “We had so much airplay it was unbelievable!” Marcus exclaims. With the predictable result that the majors “hated us with a passion,” says Bob. Ha! Suckers.

Planet had a particularly good relationship with radio station 3UZ, partnering with them to stage huge fortnightly lunchtime ‘Rock’n’Pop Concerts’ at Melbourne Town Hall. For Planet, these shows were a brilliant promotional vehicle for their artists; for 3UZ, which broadcast them live, they were a handy way to poach their rival 3DB’s teenage audience. 

Marcus says the concerts, which started in April 1959 and went for two years, “were sell-outs every time. We’d pack the Town Hall.” It was two shillings (20c) to get in, and “We’d have two shows: one at 12.15, and the other was at 1.15,” says Bob. Sure beats aimlessly trawling the shops on your lunchbreak or wasting money on some overpriced CBD sandwich!
Malcolm Arthur driving the chickybabes wild at one of Planet's lunchtime concerts. Photo: Laurie Richards
“Almost all the top rockers except Johnny O’Keefe appeared, including our artists too,” Marcus says. “We’d usually have a Sydney artist as the headliner. But our artists more than held their own in terms of the excitement they created. So it was a great way to get them across to the public.”
Non-Planet artist Col Joye performing at a lunchtime concert
Photo: Laurie Richardson

Among the Planet performers regularly on the bill were Peter McLean, Henri Bounce and the All Stars, Malcolm Arthur, Margie Mills, The Moontones, The La Ronde Brothers, Jack O’Leary and Barry O’Dowd. 3UZ DJs Brian Taylor and Geoff Haynes acted as MCs. 

According to Bob and Marcus, the shows weren’t as hard to organise as you might expect. They’d rehearse the night before, and while Marcus hints that “there were some huge egos,” he hastens to point out that “they’d all respect each other. It was just egos as break-outs, not all the time. Someone would think, Oh I can do better than that.” Healthy competition, then?

“Mostly they were just so pleased to be there,” says Bob. 

Full-blown bobby-soxer hysteria was the order of the day. “The staff of 3UZ, even the management linked hands with us to keep the girls from tearing the guys down off the stage!” laughs Marcus. “We all had to act as our own security team!” 
And the girls went nuts: just a typical audience at a typical 3UZ lunchtime concert. Photo: Laurie Richards
Incredible to think these concerts pre-dated Beatlemania by a good five years. “We had to check the girls too, to make sure they weren’t too overwhelmed,” says Bob. “The management used to complain they had to clean the seats after the shows!” 

Right. That sounds like my cue to wind up this post…

In the next, and final, instalment of the Planet Records story:

More lessons for aspiring independent record label mavens, including
  • Hanging out with Eartha Kitt 
  • Having a cuppa with Spike Milligan’s mum 
  • PR stunts for pros
  • Be careful who you trust