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Interview: Bongo from ‘Skyhooks’

1975 was a momentous year in Australia with the birth of Medibank, Double J, Countdown, Colour TV, and of course the release of Skyhook’s second album “Ego Is Not A Dirty Word”. On the album’s 40th anniversary we caught up with Skyhook's guitarist Bob ‘Bongo’ Starkie to talk about the band’s soon to be released Deluxe Box Set “Don’t You Believe What You’ve Seen Or You’ve Heard” and his legendary stage costumes.

So Bongo, what spurred the decision to release the upcoming Skyhooks Deluxe 3CD set?

Warner [Record Label] spearheaded this thing. They’ve re-mastered “Living In The 70’s” and then additional tracks such as demos, of which some never actually made it to record. I haven’t listened to the release yet by the way, so I’m quite interested to hear them!  I imagine myself, if I was listening to a Rolling Stones record, I’d get excited to listen to the demos of what they sounded like before they made the record. And these songs [on the re-release] are from back when I was 21, so it’s good to hear what we sounded like when we were just playing in a room [live]. There’s a track on (the re-release) called Sweet Sister and I loved playing that one live. It’s a fabulous tune but it never made it to record. And I’d love to hear the demo to the other side of it because we definitely did make a really nice recording of that song for the record, so I’m interested in hearing the difference.  

How were the tracks chosen for the “Skyhooks In Concert 1974-75” live album?

Warner mainly picked the songs for the record with help for a fan that stays in pretty good contact with us. We’ve got a pretty strong fan club and the guys who run that are kind of our central point of call, like they know more about Skyhooks than any of us. And the live record is recorded from venues like the Sydney Opera House, Sydney State Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide, Auburn Hall and Festival Hall in Melbourne. And the time it was recorded, September ’74 to December ’75, was kind of like our peak.

Are there any songs that aren’t on the re-release you feel should have been included?

I don’t think so…I mean we’ve gone for early Skyhooks. I mean those two records [“Living In The 70’s” and “Ego Is Not A Dirty Word”] were made not even 12 months apart. Basically it’s just collating that early period, ’74 to ’75, that’s what this [re-release] it all about. I mean there are other tracks from later years that I’d love to hear live but this [CD Set] is pretty good! 

Going back into the past now, most accounts of Skyhooks describe the band as “very different” in look, music, and especially lyrically. Who or what inspired the band’s music?

Ah, well Greg Macainsh was the main songwriter, like [Skyhooks] was really his band. So we kind of jumped on board his songwriting train. I guess it was the post-Menzies era, in that point of time the last call up [Conscription for the Vietnam War] was in 1970 I think…so I was in the last call up so I didn’t have to go. But the thing is it was this time when the politicians could send an 18-year-old kid to war! So it ended up when we came out of school and into university and what have you there were people rebelling. We had to stand up for our rights…it’s was all pretty tragic really. And so [Skyhooks] was a part of that. We were this cynical look at society and we came out firing on all cylinders! We had this great bunch of tunes and it went perfectly in sync with the time…Whitlam had just been sacked and everyone was up in arms. Then Countdown came along and put on colour TV and we could play our music into lounge rooms right around the nation every Sunday night! It just made our music explode. We didn’t expect it, it just kind of happened, and we were ready and primed for it.

Where did the unique look and style of Skyhooks originate?

We came out of an era where there were all these boogey bands and everyone’s got f*ckin long hair and standing around jeans and smoking dope! And so he [Macainsh] wanted to break free of that. He was part of this other band who were sort of like the Grateful Dead of that era and so he did this splinter group [Skyhooks] to write these songs about what was happening in society. And I think he might have gone to see Garry Glitter and was impressed by the presentation. So when I joined Skyhooks [being colourful] was part of the rules, no matter what the gig was! Like believe me they were pretty small gigs at this time and we had to turn up half an hour before the performance and go backstage to prepare, to change our persona from the street to stage. We gradually worked out our styles, like I was a little bit David Bowie-ish, or T-rex. But then it was the case of you come across silly looking pants or whatever and then buying something else to go with it. As we started to get bigger we got our own costume maker so they [personas] became a bit more full-on, like you could tell who Bongo was, who Red was etc. But [being colourful] was important because we’d walk on stage and the crowd would be “oh f*cking YEAH” y’know? We just looked so ridiculous and people just loved it! So I guess we were a semi-art-house band really…but you’ve got to realise they were very naïve times so that’s why some of it looks pretty ridiculous and tacky.

What was your favourite costume you donned during your time in Skyhooks?

I think my lizard costume was pretty good, y’know the one with the frilly collar and all that stuff. I still use it today, it’s my signature for when I go out and play Skyhooks songs or whatever. There was a point in time where I wanted to be completely unrecognisable so in the event we had enormous success people wouldn’t know who I was. So I used to put heavy amounts of make-up on and kind of morphed out of my lizard outfit into this baboon sort of outfit because I discovered ‘Bongo’ was a type of baboon in South America with a funny pink arse and weird looking head. So I found this cross between a wig and a hat in a David Jones bargain pile and I started wearing that, taking on the persona of this baboon. I ended up making an outfit that was a mix of the baboon and the lizard. And of course I made the outfit out of cotton and velvet, which is really warm, and so under lights, in effectively an overcoat and a wig on, my body temperature would go straight up! I’d lose about a kilogram every time we’d play by just sweating it out…it’s insane I didn’t die or anything! The things you do for art…

Skyhooks still holds a special place in the hearts of many Australians. Do you think the band’s music is timeless?

Ah definitely! When I was a teenager I was listening to blues artists from the ‘30’s and you’d go “wow, that old music!”, whereas now [Skyhooks] is like an Australian blues act, like the kids now who are looking for some interesting music there’s this body of music we played back then. And we’re uniquely Australia and nobody sounds like us. My daughter is going to university and her friends say “have you heard that [Skyhooks] record, it’s amazing!”, so people are going back and finding [our music]. People love stuff from the past and the ‘70’s in Australia was a particular amazing era of music with so many fantastic bands. In many respects it was the best era for bands and music coming from Australia. I think this [re-release] holds water. All the songs are well written and executed, and many of them still have meaning. I proud of them, they stand up and don’t sound like anyone else!

Which contemporary Australian or international artists have your attention at the moment?

I’m glad Lenard Cohen’s [recent album] is out! It’s hard for me to pick a particular person, but I love it when people from the past come back out and bring their original music. And Lenard is one of those classics where he had his thing and now he can come back and be better than he ever was, y’know? His music and his art is so pure and his shows are phenomenal! A great writer that means stuff is what I’m into. I love artists that are true to themselves and can come out and make a great album. Like Neil Young’s last album was a cracker! He just got up and he said “this is what I like, I want to jam for 20 minutes” and he basically made the music up as he went. He made a pure record, it sounded great, and it came straight from the heart, that’s the stuff I like.

Lastly, have you heard music by contemporary bands or musicians that you believe have been influenced by Skyhooks?

Never! We were too quirky, and I guess it would be hard for me to even recognise it cause all our songs are so different….

“Don’t You Believe What You’ve Seen Or You’ve Heard” is out now!  

The Deluxe 3CD Box Set includes re-mastered versions of their first two albums “Living In The 70’s” and “Ego Is Not A Dirty Word” plus live album “Skyhooks In Concert 1974-75”. 

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