Monday, July 20, 2015

The wigged-out world of The Mystrys: part 1

Holy masked marauders, Batman! Some of you may have read my post last year about The Mystrys, Australia’s most mysterious one-hit wonders; their 1966 supernatural scorcher, 'Witch Girl' and the dodgy manager whose fraudulent ways caused their premature demise. Since then, I’ve met the band’s singing bassplayer Charles Bayliss and their songwriter/PR dynamo Bob ‘King’ Crawford, spoken to their lead guitarist Ziggy Zapata, and learnt loads more about the band’s fascinating story. Seriously, you couldn't dream this stuff up.

To coincide with my article about the group in the latest issue of Shindig! magazine, this is the first of two posts delving deeper into the wigged-out world of The Mystrys. Be warned: it's long, but hell -- what a rollicking ride it is!

For a quick recap, check out the original post
I’ll try not to repeat too much here (or replicate the Shindig! piece, for that matter) 


Before The Mystrys were even a twinkle in manager Michael Kopp’s eye, Charles, Ziggy and Bob were already involved in Melbourne’s music scene. 

Young Charlie Bayliss played bass in Isy and the Dynamics, the first rock’n’roll band in Australia with a female drummer. 

Charles: "There was another group in England who had a girl on drums [The Honeycombs], and as far as I know we were the only two bands in the world at the time with girl drummers. Her name was Isabelle so we called the group Isy and the Dynamics. The only problem was that she had to fix her make-up and wipe off the sweat and all that sort of thing between songs! But Isy was a good drummer."
Isy and the Dynamics: Charles Bayliss is on the right (photo courtesy Ziggy Zapata)
Always on the look-out for musical opportunities, Charles saw an ad in the paper seeking musos for a “gimmicky group”, and rang up about it. He explained he was a working musician, and told them where they could come and see him play. 

Charles: "At the time, we had a regular gig in the basement of a place at the top of Little Lonsdale Street. They came down to see us – the backer [Buff Parry], the manager [Michael Kopp] and his offsider [Gerry Valek] – and they approached me afterwards and said, We love the band, can you come and see us at the Southern Cross Hotel and we’ll tell you all about it. So I went – I hadn’t told all the others what was going on yet – and sat down with them, and they outlined … what they were looking for."

What they were looking for was a killer Aussie combo that’d give pasty Poms like The Beatles and Stones a run for their money. But when Charles told his bandmates about it, none of them were interested. (And this was before green velvet hoods came up in conversation!) Determined to make a go of it, he set about recruiting other members from around the local scene, encouraged by Kopp, Valek and the team’s songwriter Bob ‘King’ Crawford. 


Several years older than Charles and Ziggy, Bob 'King' Crawford was already a local legend through his work as a jazz crooner, comedian, concert promoter, composer and head of Planet Records, a ground-breaking record label which did more for Australian music in the 1950s and early 60s than this post could even hint at. (But here’s a hint all the same: not only did Planet Records release the first ever all-Australian rock’n’roll album, Rock’n’Roll Party in 1958, it was the first label in the world to use full-colour album covers. And just for good measure, how’s this for a stat: Bob ‘King’ Crawford was the most recorded Australian composer of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s! Clearly writer’s block was never an issue…)

Three Planet releases: Bob King Crawford is the bloke holding the pint glass above!
Kopp had brought Crawford on board to write songs for his enigmatic new supergroup. Although only the 'Witch Girl' single was ever recorded, Crawford wrote almost 30 numbers in total – all suitably weird and wonderful in theme. The list below was provided by the writer himself, and casts some light on the gems now lost to history…
Mystrys song list, courtesy Bob King Crawford
'The Divisible, Miserable, Invisible Man' – love it! 'The Devil Bitin’ in My Soul' – oh, to hear the lyrics to that! 'March of the Zombies' – the mind boggles! 

To be honest, it’s a mystery (no pun intended) to me why Kopp chose a sci-fi vibe for a band he’d devised to cash in on the success of the British invasion. I mean, there was nothing spacey about The Beatles, Stones et al in those days: songs like '2000 Light Years from Home' and 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' were still a year off. 


The first member Charles recruited was teenage guitar sensation Ziggy Zapata, from a group called The Untouchables. Just 19 at the time, Ziggy had only been playing guitar for two years but had learnt classical piano from the age of five. “I fell in love with Ziggy right away – he was a really nice guy,” Charles says. “Then the other guitarist, Kevin Thomas, came over and we clicked straight away. Very quiet guy, very timid, but loved his guitar playing, which was important.”

Ziggy, Charles and Bob all agree that The Mystrys’ first drummer was sensational. Says Charles, “I’d known this drummer for a few years: I hadn’t worked much with him, however, every time I played with him I was very impressed. His name was Malcolm McPhee; he was a genius out of his own time. He used to sit and practise for six hours at a time; he’d work on his drums alongside Gene Krupa albums. He was a really mad drummer.” 

Bob adds, “He was amazing. Like nobody since or before. And I worked with Gene Krupa.” (Indeed he did: managing press and publicity for the famous American drummer’s 1954 Aussie tour. To welcome Krupa to Melbourne, Bob rustled up a bunch of students from Billy Hyde’s drumming school and lined them up on the airport tarmac with their kits, pounding out a greeting as he stepped off the plane. This talent for publicity stunts was not wasted on The Mystrys, as we shall see…)

(NB: It’s worth noting that Ziggy’s account of how the band’s line-up was finalised differs slightly from that of Charles, and can be found on his website here).


Bob King Crawford also met Michael Kopp via a newspaper ad. 
Planet Records had been defunct for a few years by this point, and he was working at Births, Deaths & Marriages, where “the money was so bad, I was going backwards.” 

“Then I saw this ad in the paper: Composer wanted. I’d never seen an ad like that! So I turned up at the place, a very posh office in the Southern Cross Hotel, with a secretary and the whole thing, and thought This is alright. They wanted songs written and they wanted them written fast." 

Having once composed 24 marches in one night, Bob was a shoo-in for the job. 

"They said, We’re going to put a group together and we’ll do recordings, we’ll have them rehearse, we’ll dress them, and we’ll pay them 20 dollars a week. Which it turned out they didn’t. There was Michael Kopp and this other giant person.” (The “giant person” was Gerry Valek. “He was a really big fella, carrying a lot of weight,” adds Charles of Kopp’s right-hand man.)
The band larking about with Bob King Crawford (top), Michael Kopp (carefully keeping his face obscured, middle) and Buff Parry (right) Photo courtesy Ziggy Zapata
When asked whether Kopp came across as legitimate at that fateful meeting, Bob recalls that “He knew what he was doing. He was a good conman.”

“He was convincing,” agrees Charles. Ziggy, too, was fooled. “He set up an office and hired a cute blonde babe to field calls for him. It was all façade, but we naïve musicians didn’t know that at the time.”

The suspicions didn’t come til later. Bob recalls one instance when Kopp rang him and invited him over to his place. On arriving at Kopp’s apartment, Bob noticed there were lots of cameras around the place but didn’t think too much of it. Kopp said he had a present for him, something special for Bob to do whatever he wanted with for the day… A door opened…. and out came two naked girls – a blonde and a brunette. Some present!

Being a married man, Bob declined the offer. It only occurred to him later that the whole scenario was a set-up. Those cameras weren’t there by accident – Kopp was hoping to get something over him. How very clichéd.


As part of his master plan, and before he’d even enlisted the band’s members, Kopp decided that The Mystrys’ identities would remain a secret. To ensure their anonymity, he had brainwave of making them wear tight-fitting, green velvet hoods. 

Charles recalls being told, “We want to promote you, but you’ll all have to sign declarations that you won’t divulge who you are because it must remain a secret.” Charles loved the idea, and even Ziggy, whose dislike of the masks is well documented on his website, was momentarily intrigued. “The name was OK — it was different and catchy, especially since we wore bags over our heads and that was the mystery of it all.”

As time wore on, the guys came to realise the hoods had their downsides. For one thing, they were extremely hot and uncomfortable. “You could hardly bloody move in the masks! It was horrendous, it really was,” chuckles Charles. “You basically only had eyes and a mouth. And of course, you’d look down at your instrument and you couldn’t see it properly.” 

What’s more, the hoods prevented them from forming any kind of relationship with their teenybopper fans, ruining “any chance of rock fans being attracted by the looks of the band members, which was the most important factor for anybody wishing to achieve pop stardom,” as Ziggy writes on his website. 
'Handsome lot aren't they?' - photo (and caption) provided by Bob King Crawford
Preceding masked acts like Los Straitjackets, The Mummies and TISM by decades, The Mystrys (and Michael Kopp) were well ahead of their time, distinguishing themselves from the pack in this way. But of course, the gimmick would’ve bombed if there hadn’t been genuine musical talent to support it.


In the beginning, things went well for The Mystrys. Caught up in the excitement and fun of being part of such an unusual project, they rehearsed solidly (and in secret) at a studio in Acland Street, St Kilda, working up their set and preparing for recording. The manic and mind-bending 'Witch Girl' was an obvious choice for the single; with the slower, more reflective 'Land of the Green Sun' slated for the B-side. 

“We recorded these two numbers at Armstrong’s with Roger Savage,” Charles recalls. Where else? Everyone from The Easybeats to MPD Ltd recorded at Armstrong’s during the 1960s: the cutting-edge South Melbourne studio was one of the country’s best. As was Roger Savage, the sound engineer. A recent arrival from England, Savage had worked with The Rolling Stones at Olympic Studios and was “a fantastic technician,” according to Charles — just the man to capture The Mystrys’ unique sound. (Savage later went on to forge an illustrious film career, doing sound for movies like Mad Max, Babe and Shine, and being nominated for an Oscar for his work on Moulin Rouge)

“The sound just wasn’t available in those days, nobody was doing it. And Roger Savage…he had an eight-track recorder – the first eight-track that came into Australia.  Or was it a 16-tracker? It was the first one that came into Australia, and we were about the first ones to record on it.”

Ziggy elaborates: “We just recorded both tracks, first the instruments, then the voice tracks, more or less like it is done these days. The strange sounds on ‘Witch Girl’ were concocted by Roger Savage and added to the track.”

Having detailed the single’s finer points in my original Mystrys post, as well as in the Shindig! article, I won’t describe it here. Suffice it to say, there was nothing on the Australian charts at the time that sounded even remotely like it. (In fact, the song I think 'Witch Girl' most resembles — or, more to the point, which most resembles 'Witch Girl' — came two years later: “Journey to the Center of the Mind” by The Amboy Dukes.)

Bob had big plans for the band’s recording career. “My idea was that we’d do what the Beatles did: we’d do an EP of four songs. Not the songs that were recorded — these were better and more commercial. We’d get the money from that and do two more straight afterwards … have all the stuff ready to go. Of course, the next thing I find was that Michael Kopp had chosen two other songs.” 

Although The Mystrys hadn’t yet played live and were an unknown quantity on the Melbourne scene, their single climbed the charts, first as a promo copy on Kopp’s own flash-in-the-pan label Orbit, then on the Festival-owned subsidiary Leedon. (Curiously, radio stations wouldn’t play its flipside, “because they said it was a protest song and the Vietnam War was on,” explains Charles. With its idealistic lyrics about food for nations to share, freedom being more than a word, and war not existing, it’s easy to see how broadcasters arrived at this conclusion. A shame, really, as this otherworldly number is quite a technicolour trip.)

Meanwhile, the hype surrounding the band was building, helped along by appearances on teen music programs such as The Go!! Show and Kommotion, some hilarious media write-ups, and even a promotional music video dreamed up by Michael Kopp. 


“That film he made of The Mystrys was brilliant,” remembers Bob. Charles agrees. “It was just so innovative. Nobody was making videos in conjunction with their numbers in those days.”

Frustratingly, a copy of the 'Witch Girl' video cannot be found. It's not on Youtube, and a search of the National Film and Sound Archive meets with a dead end. (One article from the time mentions it was sold to the BBC and CBS in Canada, although whether that’s truth or spin is anyone’s guess.)

If Charles’s description is anything to go by, the clip was fab!

“So we had this girl in a sports car behind a screen, and they had lights behind her, throwing an image onto the movie screen, and the cameras were actually shooting from the other side. And we were there playing 'Witch Girl'. She had a scarf around her neck, and a fan in the front was blowing the scarf, [making it look like] the scarf was wavering in the wind, you see. Then they went up on the ICI Building, and they dropped the scarf, and filmed it just floating away. And that was the end of the video."

Of course, being almost 50 years ago, some details are a bit foggy. “I can’t remember where we filmed it — I’m sure it wasn’t at Acland St.”

Ziggy’s memories are vaguer still. “I don’t even remember doing a video of 'Witch Girl'. I’d even forgotten about the Mystrys until I was reminded of the band 40 years later!”


Michael Kopp may have come up with the masks, but besides this, he and Gerry “really had no idea what they wanted to do. It turned out I had to come up with the ideas,” Bob says. 

Taking the extraterrestrial concept and running with it, Bob spun a weird and wacky web of intrigue around the band, captivating and irritating journalists in equal measure. “It was just amazing. I mean, the media – anything I told them, they printed it. It was crazy!” he laughs.
Among his more creative stories are the following:
  • The Mystrys performed two inches off the ground, and didn’t have any shadows
  • The members were aliens from a planet outside the reach of Earth’s telescopes, whose journey to Earth took several years in a faster-than-the-speed-of-light spaceship (check out the previous post for details of their intergalactic pseudonyms)
  • The members were aged anywhere between 643 and 850 years old
  • They played 35 instruments between them
  • Due to contractual obligations, they ate, slept, showered and played with their hoods on, and didn’t even know what each other looked like
  • There was a fifth, invisible member, Finstar.

Another Crawford-generated rumour that fuelled much speculation was the one about The Mystrys being The Beatles on holiday in Australia! 
Scrapbook clipping courtesy Ziggy Zapata
This excerpt from an interview with Bob and the band in TV Times (8 June 1966) gives an inkling of the snarkier journalistic reactions they provoked:
Mr King-Crawford broke in. “It may interest you to know,” he said, “that the boys have five bodyguards – to protect them from any fans who might want to tear off their face-pieces and discover their true identities.”“Aren’t the boys afraid,” I asked him, “that no-one will really CARE what their true identity is? What a let-down it would be for a mob of screaming teenage girls to rip off those masks and find five complete unknowns underneath.”
And then there were the publicity stunts. Pointing out a photo (below) in one of Bob’s scrapbooks, Charles comments: “See this one here? We’re in a pool at a motel named The California in Armadale. We turned up, obviously all dressed in masks and everything else –”

“— I wanted to get a shot of the heads all just above the water –” explains Bob.

“But somebody saw us walking in and they thought it was a hold-up. So they called the police.” says Charles. “Two divvie vans and a station wagon turned up with all these police in them.” 

Bob: “And they weren’t joking; they weren’t at all amused about it. I kept saying ‘they can’t take the masks off, their identities are a deadly secret!’”

“That was funny,” laughs Charles. “It was just a little bit short of World War II,” Bob observes wryly.
In the pool at the California: I think I'd be mildly disturbed to come across this scene too! Courtesy Ziggy Zapata
Another time they were walking through the Southern Cross Hotel with their guitars, only for a guest to call the cops, convinced some kind of criminal act was unfolding. After all, felons always wander around in green velvet hoods while carrying musical instruments, right?
Salad, sir? The Mystrys having lunch at the Southern Cross, Courtesy Ziggy Zapata


By the time the band made their live debut at one of Brian de Courcy’s popular suburban ‘Mentone Mod’ dances, Mystrys mania was at fever pitch. “It took off,” Charles recalls. “Everyone wanted to know who we were, girls were trying to take the masks off … going crazy trying to find out who we were. It was really an exciting time.”

Ziggy remembers another gig at Malvern Town Hall, where the group hid in a caravan organised by Michael Kopp to protect their anonymity while “groupies banged on the door” outside. “Michael wouldn’t let them near,” he says.  
Scrapbook clipping courtesy Ziggy Zapata
“The whole concept worked so well, and they were choreographed,” Bob adds. 
That's right: not only did they wear masks and matching tailored suits, tell hilarious porkies about their identity and play pounding paranormal pop, but The Mystrys had choreographed stage moves into the bargain! It’s almost too much fabulosity for this brain to process!

Curiously, before the band could consolidate on their popularity in Melbourne, Michael Kopp sent them on a tour of regional Victoria and South Australia. 

“We weren’t around long enough to say ‘OK we’re going to play regular gigs in Melbourne,’” Charles reflects. “And I’ve gotta be honest: the so-called management didn’t want to expose us too much. We were on The Go!! Show so we had that kind of exposure; we were interviewed; we played at a couple of places here but then we went on tour. And the tour lasted about four months. We were away for a long time.”

In part 2: on tour with The Mystrys; the truth comes out; what happened next…
Photo courtesy Ziggy Zapata

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