Sunday, June 26, 2016

The star-crossed story of Planet Records: part 1

Quite often I find myself looking at older men and women on the train or tram, and wondering what they got up to when they were young. Were they living in Melbourne during the 1960s, and if so, did they ever go to Swinger at the Coburg Town Hall, for example, or walk down Collins Street when it looked like this, or attend one of the historic Who and Small Faces concerts at Festival Hall in 1968?

The bands and most of the venues may be long-gone and the cityscape is practically unrecognisable, but the fact is, history lives on all around us – in the form of the people who were there. Take these two cheeky old fellas, for instance…

These men – 88-year-old Bob King Crawford (left) and 85-year-old Marcus Herman (right) – changed the face of the Melbourne (and Australian) music industry. With talent, imagination and bucketloads of youthful confidence, they established the country’s first record label dedicated solely to Australian talent (not to mention the first label to release a full-length rock’n’roll album comprised entirely of Aussie performers) -- Planet Records. Surely, someone will script a TV mini-series about their exploits one day (in fact, I believe Bob has already written a play about it), but in the meantime, this is the first in a series of blog posts about this ground-breaking label. 

Planet Records existed for a decade, from 1951 to 1961. That’s a mighty long time ago, and as a result, some of the dates and details of this story may be a bit vague. But hey, who said music was an exact science? 


All hail the King: the early years of Bob King Crawford
Readers of this blog may recognise Bob King Crawford’s name from his appearance in last year’s series, The Wigged-Out World of The Mystrys. But his music career dates much further back than that. By the time he first registered Planet Records Ltd as a business name in 1951, Bob was already a fixture on the local scene as a jazz crooner, songwriter and record salesman at Franklin’s Record Bar in Bourke Street. 

Not only had his compositions been performed on ABC Radio when he was still a teenager (“My first song was broadcast when I was about 17 – it was called ‘Even When It’s Raining’”, he recalls) but he was vocalist for the popular Alan Rhodes band, gigging at hip nightspots such as Coconut Grove in South Yarra, Leonard’s Cabaret in St Kilda, and the Sunday Jump Club at the Oran (a venue that claimed to be ‘for Modernists only’ get the picture, Daddy-o), also in St Kilda.
Membership card for the very modern Jump Club
Not exactly the shy and retiring type, Bob put the ‘front’ in front man, enlisting his tailor to make him an eye-catching zoot suit to wear onstage with the band. Back in 1950s Melbourne, this caused more than a few double-takes. For one thing, it was a pretty extreme look compared to the conservatively cut suits of the day, but more significantly, zoot suits were associated with African- and Mexican-American jitterbug and swing subcultures. For a white Aussie bloke to wear one was quite a subversive fashion statement.
A zoot-suited Bob lets rip with 'Black and Blue'
Clad in his flashy stage attire, Bob used to put on quite a show. His Planet Records partner Marcus Herman remembers his performance style vividly: “He was very animated! If he was singing ‘Black and Blue’ he’d go ---” [Here, Marcus imitates Bob’s flamboyant stage moves, waving his arms around wildly.] Marcus's memories are supported by the following description of Bob in a publication from the time, The Listener In : "When on stage he continually weaves and moves in time with the rhythm."

Unsurprisingly, Bob was never troubled by nerves before a gig. “I have never been nervous. I probably would’ve been a much better performer if I had’ve been! To think there were people who used to vomit before they went onstage…”

The first incarnation of Planet Records was formed to capitalise on the Alan Rhodes band’s popularity; in June 1951 they released two shellac 78rpm ten-inches: ‘Blue Moon’ (a cover of the old Rogers and Hart tune)/‘Candy Store Blues’. and ‘Black and Blue’ (the Fats Waller song)/’Bumble Boogie’. Note the eye-catching label design and intergalactic slogan ‘Up Among the Stars’ – even then, the trademark King Crawford flair was evident. Unfortunately, these records are now rarer than rocking horse poop, and I haven’t had the pleasure of listening to them.
About ‘Blue Moon’, Bob says, “I’ve never liked the record”, before adding, “It outsold the Mel Torme version in Melbourne.” In other words, it was a success: Torme’s velvet-voiced recording of the song was a big deal back then. 

In Bob’s opinion, the other record – which also sold very well -- was more important. “Out of the sequence of stuff, ‘Black and Blue’ was my big number. The first Aboriginal protest song.” (NB: A firm believer in Indigenous rights, Bob has spent many years campaigning for an Australian flag that recognises our country’s first peoples. Meanwhile, Marcus would go on to produce the first album by a female Aboriginal artist, Georgia Lee, for his post-Planet label, Crest Record Co.) 

An early report of Planet's launch, from local publication, The Listener In
Fast forward to 1954 and Bob was moving and shaking more than ever. From organising, promoting and compering Make Way for the Bands, a series of huge swing, be-bop and jazz concerts; to opening his own record store, repping for different record labels, composing songs for other artists and managing PR for touring performers from overseas (phew!), he was certainly making his mark on the Melbourne music scene.

But somewhere along the way, Planet Records had fallen off the radar. That is, until Bob noticed how popular country music was becoming – and it occurred to him that local audiences might enjoy hearing country music performed by Australian bands. It was time to get Planet back in orbit…

Wired for sound: the precocious technical wizardry of Marcus Herman
While Bob King Crawford was busy building his career as an entertainment industry all-rounder, teenage Bing Crosby fan Marcus Herman was cutting his teeth as a sound engineer in his own studio, Marco Recording Studio, which he’d set up at his parents’ place in South Yarra. It was the logical outcome for a technical whizz-kid who’d started tinkering with electronics at an age most children are still playing with Lego (although in this digital day and age, that may have changed). 

“I first got interested in technical things about the age of seven, when I tried to repair my grandfather and grandmother’s radio which was broken down, without anyone knowing,” he remembers. “I was trying to repair it, and got thrown across the room from the electrical shock. But I came back to it and fixed it. I don’t know what I did – it was valves with little caps on the top – but I looked around for things that didn’t seem right and managed to fix it.” An auspicious debut! 

A very young Marcus Herman at work
After graduating from high school, Marcus worked for his father’s upmarket furriers’ business in the Block Arcade for a couple of years, while “doing private recordings for people" in his spare time. "I built the first homemade tape recorder in Australia – by bringing in a deck from England…that would have been the late 40s I think.” He also built his own record player, so he could listen to his prized Bing Crosby 78s.  

Like Bob, Marcus was entirely self-taught. “I was a frustrated singer who never did anything about it except sing for fun at home and that’s what led me to make recordings. Also to make records of things that were rare and not available, that I’d record, mainly from the radio, and eventually cut onto disc. This was before tape.”

He also recorded people direct to disc – local musos who wanted their own personal record, for example – and started gaining a reputation for his skill. “It was because musicians started to recommend me that I left my dad’s work.” When his parents moved house, Marcus, who was about 18 at this point, went with did his studio equipment.

“I originally started Marco Recording Studio (a play on words on my name) from home in South Yarra. Then we moved to Glen Iris, which is where Bob met me. The studio was in a back room that was meant to be a sun room. I asked Mum and Dad if I could knock out a wall between that and the veranda, which also had a wall, and they said no, you’d better not. They shouldn’t have said ‘better not’ because that sounded like a bit of a maybe to me, and when they were both away for the day, I knocked the wall down! Lined it with canite and everything!” 

Like the saying goes, it’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission!

Written in the stars? Aunt Ethel and Planetary destiny
Before he started thinking about recruiting a sound engineer, Bob realised that Planet’s resurrection would take funds he didn’t have. So he asked his dear Aunt Ethel for a loan. Ethel, who either had a soft spot for her nephew or a nose for a good investment, gave him the princely sum of 90 pounds. According to Marcus’s estimation, that was the equivalent of about eight weeks’ wages. 
The Block Arcade (where Aunt Ethel worked)
Photo: Mark Strizic
It’s here that things get a bit fatey. Well before he’d met or heard of Bob, Marcus already knew Ethel. “I knew her because she was a milliner and she worked in the Block Arcade where my father’s business was. Dad thought the world of her, and we’d often chat to her.” 

When I exclaim what a small world it is, he disagrees. “I don’t really think it is a small world. I’m into metaphysics and things; I believe we’ve all planned it at some level. Not to the exact detail…”

“I haven’t heard this version!” Bob remarks, looking somewhat bemused.

Marcus continues: “I reckon that between lifetimes, we say, The type of situation I want next time is such-and-such, and I believe we meet people that are in our travelling show, under different guises. I might have been a girl last time…”

And Bob might’ve been his mum in a past life, I suggest. “He could have been! Easy!”

“I’m remembering now!” jokes Bob. (Rest assured, there are more metaphysical adventures to come in this story.). 

As for whether Ethel actually liked any of the records Planet put out, Bob has no idea. Marcus, however, is willing to hazard a guess: “They were probably too modern for her I’d say. She was an old-fashioned type of lady.”

A meeting of the minds
But it wasn’t Aunt Ethel who introduced Bob and Marcus. A mutual friend called Gordon Wall was responsible for bringing the two together. Marcus knew Gordon through the Bing Crosby Fan Club, and Bob knew him through Alan Rhodes, who worked with him at a printing firm. 

Aware that Bob was on the look-out for a suitably qualified sound technician for the new-look Planet Records, Gordon mentioned Marcus as a possibility. However, he had one major reservation about introducing them…

Recalls Marcus: “He said I wouldn’t understand Bob’s quirky sense of humour! And he was right – I don’t understand it!” The two men chuckle like a pair of naughty boys.

Eventually Gordon bit the bullet and drove Bob to Glen Iris to meet Marcus one night. “I got out of the car and Gordon said again he thought it'd be a waste of time,” says Bob. “But we went in for a chat, and after the first three minutes Marcus and I started cracking jokes. Which Gordon wasn’t appreciating—eventually he just walked out and sat in the car. And left us to it!”

And so began a new chapter in Australian music history...

So you want to start a record label? An interPLANETary guide to success

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

Planet Records finale: PR stunts, Red Indian spirits...and Eartha Kitt