Money, not ego, was a dirty word

He was the flamboyant, high-voiced frontman of arguably Australia's biggest rock outfit of the mid-'70s, a band whose lewd lyrics saw several songs banned by radio, such censorship helping propel Living in the 70s and Ego is not a Dirty Word to the top of the album charts.

Graeme ''Shirley'' Strachan, the working-class Melbourne bloke who shot to fame as the charismatic Skyhooks singer through exposure on the ABC's national show Countdown, never lost his earthiness as a chippie.

Humour was an essential requirement, given his laughable income of $150 a week from the band at the height of Skyhooks' fame, although Strachan could occasionally get angry that the band's producer, Ross Wilson, was making as much, maybe more.

In the thick of fame, ''Shirl the curl'' was forced to return to building sites or work as a roadie to help pay the bills, bumping in gear for Abba and Rod Stewart's Australian tours.

Rock writer Jeff Apter counts himself a Skyhooks fan and started contemplating a biography of Strachan while writing his last book, on the late Dragon frontman Marc Hunter. But while Hunter had the dark side of heroin use, Strachan, who died 11 years ago while piloting a helicopter, had no such seamy narrative.

Strachan was no fan of drink and dope. A former surfie, he experimented early on with marijuana but pragmatically decided that smoking and imbibing too much grog just slowed him down the next morning.

Rather, Strachan's ''battle'', says Apter, ''was with himself''.

The girls threw themselves at Strachan on and off stage and he partook liberally of the groupies, although it was his lack of ambition for fatherhood that would ultimately cost him his first marriage.

Strachan was a natural on stage but Apter uncovered a more nuanced vision of Strachan as a fidgety performer who had a touch of attention deficit disorder, who could pick away at someone's weaknesses when they annoyed him.

Jennifer Hooks, the producer of the children's show Strachan later fronted, Shirl's Neighbourhood, describes him as a ''complex'' character. Apter elaborates: ''He was an intelligent guy but he was more street-smart than anything else.''

Much to the distaste of some of his rock and pop contemporaries, Strachan wanted a job hosting a television show; as a kid he dreamed of emulating In Melbourne Tonight host Graham Kennedy. What he didn't want was to devote the rest of his life to the hard slog of trying to achieve wider music fame.

This was clear after Skyhooks' popularity had peaked and a new record producer, US-born Eddie Leonetti, was brought in to oversee the band's 1978 album, Guilty Until Proven Insane.

Strachan, Apter writes, ''wasn't too thrilled by this permed American poodle and his opinions''. That album, which included Why Don't You All Get F---ed?, would be Strachan's last fronting of the group in the '70s. But given that fellow band member Greg Macainsh wrote most of the songs, wasn't Strachan's poor remuneration in the mid-'70s simply the standard rock story of a non-songwriter?

''Given Australia didn't have a very well-developed music industry at that point, there were certain quite shrewd operators like [Mushroom Records founder Michael] Gudinski and other people who … knew where the money was to be made,'' Apter explains. ''And I think a lot of these bands were happy to do it because they were just so excited about being in the spotlight…

''In the case of Shirl and Skyhooks, come the second go round, they'd learnt a lot. Shirl said: 'When we come back for these reunions [in 1984 and accompanied by new material in 1990] we're going to do it for the money. We're going to make all the money that we didn't the first time around.'

''And they did, and then some.''

Part of Skyhooks' domestic appeal was they sang about Australian places and themes, such as Toorak Cowboy.

Yet this parochialism saw Skyhooks fizz on tour in the US: the audiences didn't understand the thickly accented Aussie banter between Strachan and guitarist Red Symons, much less the places invoked in song. This was still a few years before Men at Work's US breakthrough and the success of Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee.

While the rest of Skyhooks spent their career slapping on make-up and lipstick in the manner of David Bowie, Strachan felt less need to be flamboyant and abandoned stage make-up early.

''He very quickly found out that, if he played himself, he was much more comfortable and much more successful,'' Apter says.

Shirl by Jeff Apter is published by Hardie Grant, $29.95.

The story Money, not ego, was a dirty word first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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