Saturday, October 22, 2016

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

Like they say, good things come to those who wait, and this blog series on legendary Melbourne record label Planet Records is no exception. I’m just sorry this instalment has come so long after the second – life has a habit of getting in the way, I’m afraid. 
(Note: for any readers who’ve found themselves here by chance and would like to check out the previous instalments, you’ll find part one here and part two here.) 

This time, I’ll be focusing on the label’s more rockin’output, which is why I’ve christened this post... 


The controversial case of the Elvis Presley sleeve

Last post, I mentioned Planet’s historic all-Australian rock’n’roll album, Rock’n’Roll Party, but even before that was released, the label had been making inroads into the rock’n’roll universe with some cool 45rpms. 
Peter McLean
By late 1957, label honchos Bob King Crawford and Marcus Herman were slowly phasing out 10” records in favour of 12” albums and 7” singles. Among the first of the 7-inchers was Peter McLean and the Henri Bounce All Stars’ cover of ‘Hard-Headed Woman’ (b/w ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’), released in November 1958. Both songs featured in the Elvis Presley flick King Creole, screening in Australia at the time; and had appeared on a single by the King himself earlier that year to coincide with the film’s US release. 

Never one to let an opportunity slip past unexploited, Bob approached the local distributors for Paramount Pictures and suggested that “it’d be great promotion and publicity for the film if we had Elvis on the cover of the single we were going to release.” In exchange for an image, Planet would promote the film’s Aussie release on the record cover. “And they OKed it,” Bob laughs. “The Colonel would’ve shot them all!”
If you own this record with this sleeve, you're sitting on a goldmine!
Within a matter of days, the distributor realised their mistake and demanded the cover be withdrawn. Marcus thinks they got an official legal letter; Bob can’t remember. 

Whatever the case, the single was already in the shops by then (nobody ever accused Planet of lying down on the job, after all). So rather than recall it, they simply didn’t print up any more of that particular cover. In other words, some copies were sold with the original sleeve, which has since gone on to become an incredibly rare and sought-after piece of Elvis music memorabilia! Kinda like that notorious Beatles ‘butcher’ album cover with all the bloody, beheaded dolls. Not even Bob or Marcus have a copy.

Asked if it was a hit, Marcus replies, “I wouldn’t say it was gigantic, but it was popular.” (Melbourne readers would be advised to check their older rellies’ record collections pronto…) 

Have a listen here:

Dig that honking sax and rockabilly guitar! And check out this Prestodisc of the same song:
Foxy flexi: a one-sided Prestodisc cardboard record!

One of Planet’s main rock’n’rollers, 'Frantic' Peter McLean not only played a starring role on ‘Hard Headed Woman’ and the Rock’n’Roll Party album, but also had several other releases out on the label, including a spirited rendition of Jackie Wilson’s ‘Reet Petite’ and a swinging take on Tex Ritter’s ‘Jealous Heart’ (both with Henri Bounce, who I wrote about in the previous instalment, and his All Stars). 
Peter channeling his inner square
In the effusive sleeve liner notes on the back of his 1958 7” Planet EP, Sincerely, McLean is described as having ‘an intense magnetic appearance onstage,’ which ‘seems to place the audience in a spell, whilst his voice does the rest.’ You'd never guess it from the cover photo, but I guess we'll have to take their words for it...

And speaking of Elvis…

Malcolm Arthur was incredible too,” reflects Bob. “He was our Elvis.” A fair comparison: singer/guitarist Malcolm Arthur was a cute, self-taught rock’n’roller with a wild live reputation, whose sold-out gigs rang with the cries of adoring female fans. He was part of the Melbourne bill when Fabian toured Australia in 1959, along with The Thunderbirds, and would later go on to portray the King in a huge Elvis memorial concert staged by Bob in 1979 at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. 
Malcolm Arthur circa 1959
While Malcolm only released one song with Planet Records – a cover of Johnny Restivo’s 1959 hit ‘The Shape I’m In’ (it appeared on a 7” single he shared with Peter McLean, whose ‘Jealous Heart’ was on the flipside) — he was a regular performer at Planet’s popular lunchtime concerts at Melbourne Town Hall (more about those a bit later). Later, with his band The Knights (which featured Laurie Allen among its members), he had a single out on Marcus’s post-Planet label Crest Records.

‘The Shape I’m In’ is very similar in tempo to Restivo’s hit, and kicks off with the same rollicking piano intro, but doesn’t have the same clean, bright production or mannered rockabilly vocal. Personally, I reckon Malcolm Arthur and the Henri Bounce All Stars’ version has more feel: his vocal is sweet and natural, the guitar tone is rich and warm, and Bounce’s sax is cool as ever. 

Mixed into the recording, we hear girls screaming and shrieking excitedly: a playful allusion to the reaction the singer used to cause among his female fans at concerts!

Legend has it that Malcolm Arthur and the Henri Bounce All Stars recorded another single for Planet, ‘I Fall Apart’/’Nature Boy,’ but sadly that was never released.

For someone who was so popular back in the day, frustratingly little information exists online about Malcolm Arthur. “He’s still around,” Marcus says. “I think he did something a few years ago with some new songs, but I’m not sure.”

Other notable Planet rock’n’rollers 

Shooting stars in Planet’s rock’n’roll galaxy—fleeting yet unforgettable—The Blue Bops are probably the coolest (if not only) group to have come from the somewhat staid Melbourne suburb of Balwyn. 

Thanks to a record-collecting friend of mine, I own a copy of their only single on Planet (from late 1959), and it’s a right little cracker. The A-side is a rocked-up version of Nat King Cole’s 1950 smash, ‘Mona Lisa’, and on the flip, their high-energy rendition of Fabian’s hit ‘Tiger’ leaves the original in the dust.

Named after Gene Vincent’s ‘Blue Jean Bop’, The Blue Bops were comprised of the fabulously named Bruce Lee on vocals and bass, Geoff Somers and George Hopkins on guitar, and Ron Haydon on drums. On each side of the single, the label features a photo of two members: the same guy (I think) on the right, accompanied by what looks to be a different guy on the left each time. Sadly, that leaves one member whose face is lost in the mists of history. 

It's a mystery why this band weren't bigger, or why they never at least gained some kind of obscure legend status over the decades. Though both tracks are covers, The Blue Bops attack them with such youthful spirit and personality, they take them to another level. 

Propelled by Haydon’s unstoppable train-beat drums and played faster than Fabian’s original (which sounds like lounge music in comparison), ‘Tiger’ is pure F-U-N! Lee’s vocals are dynamic, the guitars are all tone, and the song is even interspersed with hilarious ‘tiger’ growls, contributed by one Marcus Herman! Just to top it off, the guitars surge in volume during the brief outro – talk about ending with a bang. Regrettably, this scorcher of a tune isn't on Youtube, so you'll have to take my word for it.

The Blue Bops weren’t the first to give 'Mona Lisa' the rock’n’roll treatment: Carl Mann got there first in March 1959 with his rockabilly rendition for Sun Records, and Conway Twitty did it about a month later, topping the Aussie charts in the process. But The Blue Bops sure put their own stamp on Nat King Cole's classic.

Closer to Twitty’s version than Mann’s, but different enough to make me wish they’d been around for longer and released more records, The Blue Bops’ take on the song is a bit more up-tempo, and enhanced by some killer guitar-work. Like so many Planet productions, it sounds really live and immediate: exactly the way rock’n’roll should be recorded. 

First things first: despite their near-identical names, Planet’s Johnny Guitar sounds nothing like the American blues and soul singer Johnny Guitar Watson! He does have a lovely rich voice, though, which he put to fine use on his one-and-only Planet single, ‘Raindrop’ b/w ‘My Baby Dolly’ (1959).

Clocking in at just over a minute and a half, ‘Raindrop’ is a chirpy doo-wop number, featuring layers of harmonies and what sounds like a xylophone solo (!) in the middle. It goes like this:

The flipside ‘My Baby Dolly’ transcends its awful title with some cool understated guitar, great backing vox and a swinging rhythm. The ever-reliable Henri Bounce and the All Stars provide instrumental backing on both sides, with the help of The Moontones. Johnny Guitar is credited as the writer of both tunes. 

Though his real identity was not widely known at the time, it turns out that Johnny Guitar was actually a recently arrived British migrant named David Langdon. Post-Planet, he ended up playing in Malcolm Arthur’s band in the early 60s; he was also a guitar teacher at some stage (so at least he lived up to his name). 

Last but not least in this cavalcade of interplanetary talent, we have pioneering rock chick, Beverley Dick.

Described by Johnny O’Keefe as Melbourne’s best female rock’n’roll singer, Beverley “came initially from the country music scene,” remembers Bob. Having honed her skills in talent shows and church concerts since she was a child, she joined popular country-and-western group The Trailblazers in 1957 at the tender age of 17. The Trailblazers appeared weekly on radio station 3XY, where they’d squeeze into the tiny studio (there were more than 10 of them) and perform live over the airwaves. 

The Trailblazers Stage Show album was released on Planet in 1958, and boasts a typically striking technicolour cover. 

(I should mention that the album—as well as the Blue Bops and Johnny Guitar singles —was recorded at Planet’s flash new HQ at the Eastern Market on Bourke Street near the corner of Exhibition, where the label had moved in 1957 after outgrowing Marcus’s parents’ place.)

Planet stalwart Henri Bounce was the first to recognise Beverley’s rock’n’roll potential, and asked her to take part in the Rock’n’Roll Party LP. Here she is singing one of the medleys, spanning ‘Be Bop-A-Lula’ (which, interestingly, isn’t even adapted to suit a female point of view), ‘We’re Gonna Teach You to Rock’ and ‘All Shook Up’. 

Bev's singing voice is cool, with none of those gurgling, semi-operatic stylings so common to female rockabilly singers these days. In fact, her vocals have just enough of an edge to suggest that she might’ve been something of a belter in concert. And what do you know? One reviewer who saw her perform observed: “She had such a soft little voice when announcing her numbers, but brother, when she started to shout (sorry, sing), I was intrigued by the change in her.” 

A genuine, ahem, trailblazer for Aussie women in rock’n’roll, Beverley held her own among the big boys, even touring regional Victoria in late 1959 with JOK, The Delltones, The Dee Jays, Lonnie Lee and Malcolm Arthur. How much fun would that travelling roadshow have been?
Is it just me, or does Lonnie Lee (left) look like he's in love with Bev? Malcolm Arthur is on the right
Read more about this unsung Melbourne rock-chick here.

Sticking it to the majors: radio domination and lunchtime concerts

Planet Records practically owned the Melbourne music scene in the late 50s, and not just because of their quality product. They also reaped the rewards when the major record labels got too big for their boots and ended up alienating the city’s radio stations.

“The major record companies had decided in their wisdom that they were going to charge all the radio stations a fee every time they played one of their records,” explains Bob. “We’d had such a bad time with the majors that when they approached us and said Will you join us? we said No, we’re going to go with the radio stations!” 

From the very beginning, the major labels had clearly felt threatened by the indie upstarts and done everything they could to make Planet feel unwelcome. “They instructed their agents-come-salesmen that they were not to display our records,” Bob recalls. “And they did standover stuff. Initially they were selling our records under the counter, but we were outselling most of the stuff anyway.”

“History repeated itself with my Crest label later, with a major English company sabotaging us to put us out of business,” Marcus adds.

There was even a mysterious fire at their Eastern Markets HQ: nothing was ever proven but, as Marcus remarks wryly, “It was very suss.”

Anyway, when Planet opted not to join the majors in extorting the radio stations, “We had so much airplay it was unbelievable!” Marcus exclaims. With the predictable result that the majors “hated us with a passion,” says Bob. Ha! Suckers.

Planet had a particularly good relationship with radio station 3UZ, partnering with them to stage huge fortnightly lunchtime ‘Rock’n’Pop Concerts’ at Melbourne Town Hall. For Planet, these shows were a brilliant promotional vehicle for their artists; for 3UZ, which broadcast them live, they were a handy way to poach their rival 3DB’s teenage audience. 

Marcus says the concerts, which started in April 1959 and went for two years, “were sell-outs every time. We’d pack the Town Hall.” It was two shillings (20c) to get in, and “We’d have two shows: one at 12.15, and the other was at 1.15,” says Bob. Sure beats aimlessly trawling the shops on your lunchbreak or wasting money on some overpriced CBD sandwich!
Malcolm Arthur driving the chickybabes wild at one of Planet's lunchtime concerts. Photo: Laurie Richards
“Almost all the top rockers except Johnny O’Keefe appeared, including our artists too,” Marcus says. “We’d usually have a Sydney artist as the headliner. But our artists more than held their own in terms of the excitement they created. So it was a great way to get them across to the public.”
Non-Planet artist Col Joye performing at a lunchtime concert
Photo: Laurie Richardson

Among the Planet performers regularly on the bill were Peter McLean, Henri Bounce and the All Stars, Malcolm Arthur, Margie Mills, The Moontones, The La Ronde Brothers, Jack O’Leary and Barry O’Dowd. 3UZ DJs Brian Taylor and Geoff Haynes acted as MCs. 

According to Bob and Marcus, the shows weren’t as hard to organise as you might expect. They’d rehearse the night before, and while Marcus hints that “there were some huge egos,” he hastens to point out that “they’d all respect each other. It was just egos as break-outs, not all the time. Someone would think, Oh I can do better than that.” Healthy competition, then?

“Mostly they were just so pleased to be there,” says Bob. 

Full-blown bobby-soxer hysteria was the order of the day. “The staff of 3UZ, even the management linked hands with us to keep the girls from tearing the guys down off the stage!” laughs Marcus. “We all had to act as our own security team!” 
And the girls went nuts: just a typical audience at a typical 3UZ lunchtime concert. Photo: Laurie Richards
Incredible to think these concerts pre-dated Beatlemania by a good five years. “We had to check the girls too, to make sure they weren’t too overwhelmed,” says Bob. “The management used to complain they had to clean the seats after the shows!” 

Right. That sounds like my cue to wind up this post…

In the next, and final, instalment of the Planet Records story:

More lessons for aspiring independent record label mavens, including
  • Hanging out with Eartha Kitt 
  • Having a cuppa with Spike Milligan’s mum 
  • PR stunts for pros
  • Be careful who you trust 

More Planet shenanigans

The star-crossed story of Planet Records: part 1

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

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

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The star-crossed story of Planet Records: part 2

Following Part One of this series, which was really more of a prequel, we come to the action-packed hey-day of Planet Records, the country’s first record label dedicated to all-Australian talent. Once again, the stars of the show are the label’s founders Bob King Crawford and Marcus Herman...
Remember these two? Bob (L) and Marcus (R) pose with a Planet record
Missed part 1? Catch up here. This instalment won’t make much sense otherwise.

What’s especially striking about the story of Planet Records is that even now, 55 years after the label folded, it reads like a step-by-step guide for aspiring independent record labels. Which is why it seems apt to name this post…

So you want to start a record label? An interPLANETary guide to success, steps 1-6

1) Define your point of difference 

Around the time of Planet’s rebirth, Bob King Crawford is quoted in an article as saying “I know what Australian artists can do. All they need is encouragement and this company aims to give them that.” By focusing solely on home-grown performers, Planet established its niche from the get-go, setting itself apart from majors such as Festival Records and EMI Australia, both of which released a lot of overseas talent in addition to local artists. 

In another newspaper story from the time, the Planet policy is defined even more clearly: “No artist is recorded who is not an Australian, a naturalised Australian, or, if British, has not lived in this country for two years.” And just in case any room for doubt remained, Planet record covers were emblazoned with the words ‘Proudly made in Australia.’ 

As Marcus Herman says, “We both had a terrific urge to make Australian stuff that was as good as, or better than, anything else.”
Like every other Planet release, this Trailblazers record was 'Proudly made in Australia'
2) Have faith in yourself and others will too 

A cursory glance at Bob King Crawford’s personal website says it all: this is one man who’s never suffered a moment of self-doubt in his life. 

Without such confidence propelling it, Planet Records may not have got off to the flying start it did. Its two young founders knew they were destined for greatness, but how did they convince others give them a go? To launch the label, Bob and Marcus decided an album of famous movie themes would be a sure-fire hit — especially if these themes were performed by popular local entertainer Stanfield Holliday on the prestigious Regent Theatre’s in-house Wurlitzer organ. Easier said than done.
The Regent Theatre's mighty Wurlitzer!
Somehow, this pair of untried entrepreneurs needed to convince the theatre’s management to let them set up their recording equipment on-site and cut a record. Says Bob: “Here we are with no real experience of anything but our own expertise, and we go to the manager of Hoyt’s Theatres [which owned the Regent]…and we talk them into letting us record their organ!” 

“Which was a big decision for them in those days,” adds Marcus. “We were such a small company.” Small in size, maybe, but big in bravado.

The result, a 10” LP called Themes from the Films, was a hit when it was released in the second half of 1954. Planet was back in orbit!
See here for the tracklist
Of course, when you’re onto a good thing, why stop at one? Themes from the Films 2 was released not long afterwards. 
See here for the tracklist

3) Choose the right artists

Let’s face it: Stanfield Holliday looks like a big old square, judging by the Themes from the Films covers. But the next Planet artist had considerably more ‘star quality’. Kenny Arnott was -- wait for it -- a hillbilly from Horsham. A self-taught guitarist who played his instrument upside-down and left-handed, Kenny was about 17 when he hit Melbourne-town in 1954, and soon gained a following as a result of his live performances and the radio show he hosted on station 3AK. 

Of course, as explained in the first instalment, the inspiration for Bob’s decision to resurrect Planet was his belief that Australian audiences would enjoy hearing country music performed by local artists. And who better to test his theory than this teenage sensation? 

Unfortunately, it’s all but impossible to track down any of the songs from Hillbilly Classics to listen to (a common problem with Planet Records releases), but take a look at this spectacular cover and tell me you wouldn’t buy it based on that alone! I’m not even a country-music fan, but I love the sepia-toned photo of Kenny all decked out in his finery, serenading a (seemingly ambivalent) dog under a tree. The bright yellow rope-lettering is fabulously old-school, and the Planet logo in the top left-hand corner seems oddly appropriate, given that the photo appears to have been taken at night.

Recorded in December 1954, Hillbilly Classics was, according to Bob, the first album in the world to have a full picture cover. The back cover was also put to good use, featuring informative liner notes about the artist plus details about the recording – something that no other labels bothered doing in those days.

Another (unofficial) world record set in the making of this album was the fact that it was recorded in what Bob described at the time as the “smallest studio in the world”: the hallway of Marcus’s parents’ house in Glen Iris!

Hillbilly Classics sold about 10,000 copies, a huge quantity for the era. It also launched what would be a long and prolific relationship between Planet and the handsome Horsham hillbilly. 
When was the last time you saw someone smoking on their album cover?
...or sitting in a tree, playing left-handed guitar?
Besides going on to become a big Planet star, Kenny Arnott was inducted to the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988.  

4) Be innovative 

Concentrating solely on local artists when nobody else was — being first in the world to use photo sleeves — many independent record labels would feel content to rest on their laurels by now, but not Planet.

In fact, if this was a late-night TV advertorial, someone would be exclaiming ‘But wait, there’s more!’ right about now. Unlike a late-night TV advertorial, however, what Planet came up with next was a damn sight more exciting than a free set of steak knives: it was a revolutionary recording technique invented by Marcus Herman known as the Marco Process.

Developed by Marcus because “there was a limit to how far the recording could go,” the Marco Process gave Planet the ability to fit more music on a record – without compromising the sound quality or tone. So instead of squeezing four tracks onto a 7” record (if they were lucky), they were now able to fit six: all sounding pristine.
On the back it says, Microgroove 45rpm, extra extended play
Asked to explain the technicalities behind the process in layperson’s terms, Marcus obliges: “Technically for one reason it was to make anything that had an automatic cut-off not to cut off prematurely before the track had finished. I worked out a way of getting the grooves closer together and equalising or reshaping the grooves on certain frequencies so that it wouldn’t break into the next groove. So that was really what it was all about.” 

Right then. I assume someone out there understands that! Still, even the most technologically challenged numpties among us can appreciate what a massive leap forward this represented for the recording industry in general. 

So how long did it take Marcus to perfect? Six months? A year? Try one week. 
“Today, that wouldn’t be anything,” he remarks modestly. “Because everything’s known about how to work with audio. But just the fact that I was the first to think it up…” 

Needless to say, once the major players in the industry got wind of Marcus’s invention, they were falling over themselves to acquire it. Phillips even offered him ₤10,000, only for him to turn them down and take off on holiday, leaving the media gob-smacked in his wake. 
Clipping from one of Bob King Crawford's innumerable scrapbooks
“I was on holiday and Bob rang me up to tell me, The Herald cars are going around with you on banners on the side saying ‘Recording Engineer Goes on Holiday after Being Offered 10,000 Pounds!’ That would have bought me a home and set me up as a youngster. But I would’ve had to agree to never do anything for anybody else, Today it’d be called restricted or something else [restraint of trading laws?] but back then we could make any deal at all. Rightly or wrongly, I said no.”

“Basically you were keeping it for Australian talent,” Bob reminds him. Indeed, in the article pictured above, Bob declares: “We feel this new development will give us the chance we’ve been waiting for to make a dent in the Australian record business. For the present we will hold it exclusive to Australian artists and use it to help sell Australian talent to the Australian public.”

5) Work hard, have fun and don’t waste time

During Planet’s first few years, Bob and Marcus worked like Trojans from their Tooronga Road HQ (ie the Herman family home) to establish the label. They’d get the important stuff done during the day, have dinner with Marcus’s parents, then concentrate on more menial tasks (like sticking tax labels on records) into the night.

Says Marcus: “Sometimes we’d work up until about 1 or 2 in the morning. Mum and Dad wanted Bob to stay over when we did those late nights but Bob was very strict about wanting to go home. Yet he’d always make his deadlines the next day regardless of how late it was.”

Far from finding it a drag, they loved every minute of it. “It was great fun!” Bob remembers fondly. “It was fantastic! We laughed and laughed.”

“Producing things and being so involved with them – that gave you a good feeling too,” Marcus says. “The last thing Bob and I ever seemed to think about was the money. Just the fact that it was all working.”
Just another day in the studio for baby Bob Crawford!
This sense of fun and passion for their work filtered through to their recording sessions, as Bob describes here: 

“It worked this way: we had a three-hour call. First hour: lots of fun, lots of laughter, great. Second hour: a little bit more serious, Third hour: very serious! But sometimes we’d do a whole LP within three hours. We had no money. A three-hour call was a three-hour call.”
Clearly Bob's work ethic didn't change post-Planet

“I can recall so many of the artists saying You guys relax us, we’re never as relaxed as this normally,” says Marcus.

“While they were lying on the floor!” adds Bob, laughing.

This efficient system of having fun while working fast served them well: according to Bob, the whole turnaround time between recording and release occurring within a couple of months. “We had no option. We had to make a recording, get it out and get sales, because we financed ourselves – we had no-one else financing us.”

No wonder Planet was so prolific! According to an article in Big Beat of the Fifties magazine, they released about 40 7” EPs between 1955 and 1961 – and that’s before we even get to the full-length albums and 7” singles. A pretty impressive output for an indie label, wouldn’t you say?

6) Make your brand instantly recognisable

With his instinct for standing out from the pack, Bob Crawford was well aware of the power of first impressions. And it’s fair to say that Planet’s eye-catching record-cover artwork -- usually designed by husband-and-wife team Gordon Wall and Helen Powell -- contributed to its success (not to mention its enduring charm even now). Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but these records are a different matter.

Hillbilly Classics is an early example, but wrap your eyes around these beauties:
‘For singin’, for dancin’, and vitalizin’ lame parties’— that’s what you need in a record!

Patti Stewart had been Bob’s singing teacher and featured on several Planet releases, singing and playing piano and piano accordion. Yet again, I’ve been unable to find any of her music to listen to online, but her legend certainly lives on through unbelievably fantastic record covers like the one above. 

And, best of all, inside a glass of beer on the masterpiece below:

Surely one of the funniest record covers ever, 30 Party Songs stars none other than Bob King Crawford as ‘Mr Smooth’, a persona he sometimes adopted when doing stand-up comedy. Indeed, it was not unheard of for Planet to use its own staff and family as cover models in an effort to cut costs…with eye-popping results, as you can see.

Another cover featuring Planet people – artists, staff and family -- is Time for a Party, below:

This cover is also noteworthy for being a very early example of the four-colour process printing the label started using for its covers (yes, another world record), and has an appealingly technicolour feel about it.

Then there's this doozy:

You see, Planet’s performers may have all been natural or naturalised Australians, but the music they played wasn’t limited by geography (or genre, for that matter). Latin rhythms, Irish and Scottish folk music and Italian party songs comprised some of the label’s more multicultural moments, while World War favourites, marching-band tunes, yodelling and Christmas carols were among its more esoteric genres (in this author’s opinion at least!).

And here is one of Planet’s most iconic, historic and downright legendary albums:

Released in late 1958, Rock’n’Roll Party was the first full-length rock’n’roll album featuring all-Australian performers.

True, the likes of JOK, Frankie Davidson, Vic Sabrino and the Schneider Sisters may have recorded rock’n’roll before any Planet artists, but only on EPs or singles. This really does seem to be the first 12-inch album. Why it doesn’t have more of a name in the rock’n’roll history books, I’m not sure.

The candy-coloured cover is a story in itself. “It was the first record cover ever paid for by an outside firm,” Bob explains – the outside firm being Saba of California, a fashion label that agreed to foot the printing bill in exchange for their clothes being featured on the cover. 

Taken in Fitzroy Gardens, the cover photo features the LP’s stars, Peter McLean and the Henri Bounce All Stars performing in the background as four glamorous young ladies dance together on the grass. In the centre, wearing the hot-pink frock, is famous model and TV personality Arlene Andrewartha.

Below is the track listing: as you'll see, the album was comprised of a series of rock’n’roll medleys rather than single standalone songs.

Obviously, they’re almost all American compositions, but the sharp-eyed among you may notice an intriguing title on Side B called ‘Deniliquin Rock’. Penned by Bob King Crawford himself, this song was for the ‘juvenile deniliquins’ (geddit?!). And from the super-brief snippet of this tune that I’ve heard (go to about 22:40 on this podcast), it sounds like it was a cracker! (For those not from Australia, Deniliquin is a country town in Victoria.)

Anyway, this is one of the rare Planet releases where I’ve been able to track down some audio! It’s a crackly recording, but the energy and talent are palpable:


And another one. OK, so Jerry Lee did ‘em better, but they still get the feet tapping!

NB: A regular Planet performer, Henri Bounce was a well-known saxophonist and band leader around Melbourne. The year after the Rock'n'Roll Party album, he joined The Thunderbirds, one of the city's best-loved early rock'n'roll bands. But by the sounds of it, Bounce was also something of a hard man: even though he actually had half his leg bitten off by a Great White in 1964 when he was swimming in the ocean off Lady Julia Percy Island (hence the bizarre slides in this Youtube track), he, ahem, bounced back soon after, and never let his injury cramp his style. 

More Planet shenanigans
The star-crossed story of Planet Records: part 1

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

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

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