The most obscure hit songs in Australian history: Part three
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07.12.2022

The most obscure hit songs in Australian history: Part three

Obscure hit songs
Words by John Phillips

Here are three more classic but largely forgotten Australian songs that deserve a rehearing.

We continue our look at some of the hard-working bands and artists of the 70s and early 80s that worked the gruelling pub and club circuit of the time.

This month’s chosen three have interesting but contrasting stories. One flew its flag in the early seventies, producing an absolute Australian classic, before its founder changed career and left for Canada. One was an outlier who left the music industry jaded, to find another life helping others. The other highly regarded band is still playing regular gigs today, and seems to be having a ball.

Keep up with the latest music news, features, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

‘Comin’ Home’ – The Radiators (1979)

Highest Chart Position:  33 (Kent Music Report)

The Radiators is a popular, hard-working pub rock band from Western Sydney which, despite occasional line-up changes, has never disbanded and is still regularly playing gigs to this day. The band was formed in 1978 by four ex-members of Sydney hard rock band Big Swifty:  Brian Nichol (lead vocals, guitar), Stephen “Fess” Parker (lead guitar), Brendan Callinan (keyboards), and Chris Tagg (drums). They were joined on bass by former Twister member Geoff Turner.

Comin’ Home, written by Geoff Turner, was the band’s first single, and appeared the following year on their first album Feel the Heat (1980). It’s a fast-paced chugging foot-stomper, tightly played and well-crafted by a band renowned as masters of full-on pub rock. And the song is catchy! “Don’t worry / It’s all right / I’ll be comin’ home to see you tonight” sings Nichol in a voice reminiscent of John Lyndon and Iggy Pop. The song was featured on Countdown, and years later The Radiators performed it live for the 2007 “Countdown Spectacular 2” concert series in August and September2007. It also appeared on the associated 3-CD set Countdown Spectacular Live – Volume Two which was released later that year.

The band now comprises original members Brian Nichol and Geoff Turner, alongside Mark Lucas on drums and Martin Cilia on guitar, and continues to tour extensively. Check out the official website at www.theradiators.com

‘Gypsy Queen’ – Country Radio (1972)

Highest Chart Position – 11

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SGJHzKlatk

Country Radio was a country-rock band led by Sydney-born singer–songwriter and guitarist Greg Quill. The band, which was also known as Greg Quill and Country Radio, was formed in June 1970 to promote his first commercial recording, the single Fleetwood Plain, and the subsequent album of the same name. Gypsy Queen was the band’s second single.

The lineup that recorded this classic in Melbourne in April 1972 comprised Greg Quill on guitar and lead vocals, co-writer Kerryn Tolhurst on mandolin, John A Bird on keyboards, Chris Blanchflower on harmonica, John Du Bois on bass, and Tony Bolton on drums. It was produced by John French, whose production and engineering credits include Spectrum, Russell Morris, Madder Lake, Company Caine, The La De Das, The Dingoes and Skyhooks.

Gypsy Queen is a rousing and uplifting multi-instrumental melding of mandolin, piano, harmonica, guitar, bass and drums. It bears the mark of influential American country / folk-rock bands of the time such as The Band and The Eagles. Kerryn Tolhurst’s catchy mandolin introduction leads us into a wistful paen to the freedom of life on the road: “I’m singing for the dark and lonely highway / I’m singing for the rivers and the sea / I’m singing for the country roads and byways”. The playing is masterful and the arrangement inspired, culminating in the vocal chorus “’Gonna find the Gypsy Queen / Show me things I’ve never seen”. Harmonica, piano leads and fluid bass roll the song to its conclusion, “And I wonder as I go / is there anyone alone / to sing for me”.

Gypsy Queen reached no. 11 on the charts, and shared the 1972 APRA Song of the Year award with Kings of the World by Adelaide band Mississipi.

After performing at Sunbury 1973, Kerryn Tolhurst left suddenly to briefly join Mississipi, before founding The Dingoes with singer and harmonica player Broderick Smith. Country Radio struggled on with frequent lineup changes, but the relentless touring had taken its toll. Quill dissolved the band in December 1973.

In 1978 Quill stopped performing and moved to Toronto, Canada, to resume his journalism career, becoming, amongst other media roles, the entertainment writer for the Toronto Star. He returned to Melbourne for a visit in 1999, having not played professionally for nearly twenty years, and was flattered to find that his legacy was remembered by top local musicians such as Joe Camilleri. He was inspired to resume his musical career on his return to Canada, alongside his journalism.

Greg Quill died suddenly on 5 May 2013 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He was 66.

‘Nothing Special’ – Mark Gillespie (1981)

Highest Chart Position – 46

Mark Gillespie was an enigmatic Melbourne singer-songwriter and musician whose love-hate relationship with the commercial music industry resulted in sporadic recordings of exceptional quality, interspersed with reclusive escapes to Asia.

A restless, creative soul, Gillespie was part of the 70s inner-Melbourne Carlton scene, and a regular at inner-north venues such as Martinis and Bombay Rock. He was a poet and writer who also studied architecture at the University of Melbourne, and was a co-founder of Outback Press.

Nothing Special was released in February 1982 on Glen Wheatley’s Wheatley label. The song is the first single from his second album Sweet Nothing, which followed his highly acclaimed 1980 debut album Only Human. Gillespie was a reluctant promoter and media performer who had fled to Asia after making the first album. He returned to make Sweet Nothing and a third album, Ring of Truth, before disappearing to Bangladesh for nine years.

The Nothing Special lineup comprised Gillespie on guitar and vocals, piano, synth and clarinet, Tim Partridge on bass, Mark Meyer on drums, Trevor Courtney on percussion, and Lisa Bade on harmony vocals.

Nothing Special is in fact very special indeed. It speaks of the despair of the oppressed and the spiritually lost – “the weary, and the lame”, who talk about the mythical Midnight Special train ‘’comin’ round the bend…  to take me/ out of this Hell’’. Over a tightly-arranged, bluesy gospel rhythm, Gillespie tells us that there are no “Midnight Specials” coming to rescue us from our miseries – ‘’it passed me by, and I watched it go…  Yeah, but out of the ashes / no Phoenix rose, girl”. The song, despite its pessimistic lyrics, is catchy and uplifting. “Get on board the midnight Special” sings the gospel chorus, to which Gillespie responds ‘’Ain’t nothing special… there’s nothing special in this world”. The percussion is reminiscent of a sledgehammer striking a steel railway spike. The song ends with a lone gospel train whistle: hoo hoo  hooooo.

Mark Gillespie returned to Australia in 1992 to make the critically acclaimed Flame album, before quitting the music industry for good, jaded and disillusioned. He returned to Bangladesh where he set up a refuge for women and children, and lived the rest of his life alongside locals in a rural village. He died in a Dhaka hospital on 11 November 2021.

Next time: Chain; Billy Field; Jimmy and the Boys

The most obscure hit songs in Australian history: Part three

The most obscure hit songs in Australian history: Part one