Lucy Desoto’s scene is honest and versatile. The singer-songwriter, and now author of the new release Australia Rocks: Remembering the music of the 1950s to 1990s, states: “If it’s good, I like it. I love swing and blues music, jazz and Bob Dylan, Amy Winehouse, ACDC, Rose Tattoo and Stonefield, everything from Motown to Metal, but when I’m in the mood ABC Classic FM is bliss.”
In her author’s note, DeSoto writes that Gareth St John Thomas came up with the initial idea for the book. Australia Rocks has since developed into what it is today – an intellectual work of reference – and though DeSoto may have turned author, she did not turn informer. DeSoto states: “Initially, I was recommended to the publisher, Gareth St. John Thomas, by a friend. Gareth phoned me with his idea for a Father’s Day gift book. It was to be a coffee table book – an illustrated history of Australian rock music from the 1950s to the present day. He’d heard that I had 30 years’ experience as a musician in bands in the Australian pub rock scene and that I had a Doctorate from UTS, so he thought I might be a suitable candidate and asked me if I’d like to write the book. I thought it sounded like a great idea, and I wasn’t busy doing anything else, so I said yes. After a few months of negotiating, we agreed that the project would be best limited to an overview of the 20th century in Australian rock music– from 1950 – 2000.”
DeSoto elaborates: “There is a pivotal point after the Second World War when Australia’s colonial allegiance shifted from Britain to the U.S.A. At about the same time, rock’n roll music emerged in the USA as a style all on its own, from the fusion of swing, boogie-woogie and the blues. In the 50s, the post-war ‘Baby boom’ was underway – that is people all over the Allied and English speaking world started having babies in record numbers, maybe as a kind of post war reaction to the long season of death that overshadowed the first half of the century, with World War I & World War II being the main tragedies there. So the 1950s was a good place to start because there was a massive confluence of change taking place in Australia at the time and it was driven in many ways, by the influence of a new kind of cultural imperialism coming from the USA.”
DeSoto continues: “Sometime later, I’d delivered the first chapter, and there was some discussion about the tone of the book. The publishers felt it was too “academic” and they were disappointed with the lack of sordid gossip and scandal in the style of “Hollywood Babylon” but I argued that since it was to be an illustrated book, people would buy it firstly to look at the pictures and secondly, to browse through the text, reading bits and pieces as things caught their interest. Besides, I argued that some of the juiciest stories that I could tell concern people who are still my friends and I wanted to keep it that way. Rock’n roll commandment Number One is “what goes on the road, stays on the road”, not to mention defamation laws in Australia being probably the heaviest in the world, and I was not prepared to end up in court without any friends for the sake of a trashy book. So the book became a more formal, richer history than the publisher expected.”
The decades were set, and the musicians were friends, acquaintances, heroes, legends, rockstars. DeSoto states: “There was no real plan, except to include the underground scene as well as the familiar mainstream stars. The book evolved in an organic way and my focus was not particularly on individual bands, but on creating a kind of big cultural picture in which all the bands and their audiences functioned together – whether underground or mainstream. [pullquote]Some of the really significant acts in the history of the Australian music business got a mention because they’re so famous, everyone knows they provide a kind of landmark on the journey through history, but others got a mention because the underground or ‘undiscovered’ acts keep the business alive by providing the working environment for the lucky few who rise to prominence.[/pullquote] Most of the musicians or bands who showed some enthusiasm and responded to my messages or calls about the book pretty much made it into print. It was impossible to include photographs of people without permissions and copyright clearances and so most of the people who said yes and accepted my invitations to participate are in there. Some didn’t make it past the editing process – the publisher had the final say as to whose pictures appeared, and whose stories were suitable for a general publication. Some things required more patience than others, but in the end it all came together in its own time. Research is sometimes a slow dance between conscious expectations and mysterious possibilities. You ask for something and you get another thing… as the song goes, “if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need. There were also definite financial limits, so if your favourite band is not in the book, it’s probably because I just ran out of money in the end.”
DeSoto’s own musical journey is an interesting one but it was not the focus as it was “extremely personal” and she thought it would be “impossible trying to create the objective distance needed to speak about the history of Australian rock music in a personal context.” She states: “I thought about promoting the bands that I’ve played in, but it seemed a bit opportunistic to use the book to do that. The history I wanted to write was a much broader story, so I avoided reflecting specifically on my own experiences. Even though I made that choice, I think all the gigs I’ve played, and all the fellow travelers I’ve played with and met along the way, they all add up to who I am and they become somehow embedded in how I perceive reality and how I wrote the book. I loved being on the road and playing in bands in pubs and clubs with Pete Wells. We travelled together for 21 years before he died. He was my lover, my mentor and my best friend, and he encouraged and supported my desire to conjure up the rock’n roll genie under all circumstances, through thick and thin. Before I met Pete I’d been singing with blues bands in Sydney and writing my own songs –I put a band together called The Living Daylights, with guitarist Rob Lucky and bass player Ronnie Lamont and I sang with Sally King in a band called The Champions way back then. We played around inner city gigs in Sydney during the late 70s and very early 80s. When I met Pete he’d just left Rose Tattoo – it was 1983 – and he was looking for something to do musically. He was working in the Cross in the Illustrated Man Tattoo shop on William Street in those days, so we were introduced by a mutual friend, guitarist Chris Turner, it was one Sunday afternoon at a jam session at the Bondi Royal Hotel. A few weeks later we put a four piece band together called King Biscuit Blues Band, with a local drummer and Geordie Leach on bass. A few months later, we all decided to leave Sydney together to start a new chapter in life in the border town of Coolangatta. That was the beginning of a real conscious commitment to rock’n roll for me. Until then, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I just loved to play, so I bought a new keyboard and never looked back. I was incredibly lucky to have Pete there to back me up. Otherwise I think I’d be dead, or in gaol. He didn’t take any shit from me. He always brought me straight back down to earth and into the moment. In some ways he was like my guardian angel. We played together in various line-ups for the next 20 years.”
Instead, Australia Rocks captures the rich history of music in Australia through primary sources, documents and images, and puts them in context. Political, social, national and international events are analysed in relation to their influence on music in Australia. DeSoto was particularly surprised at the political influence of the Labour Government in the early 70s. She explains: “The immense influence of the Whitlam era was a surprise to me. Gough Whitlam envisaged a national agenda that valued equity under the law for every Australian person. The Commonwealth was a term that literally meant the common wealth and it was something that all the people shared in common. Whitlam set a national agenda for innovation in every field, from Art to Science, to Foreign Policy and Social Justice on every level of society and with an aim for national political and cultural independence. It was because of his encouragement of the Arts that the live music scene in Australia took root and flourished in the 70s. Australians are still the beneficiaries of his benevolent leadership, but much of his brilliant vision was blotted out by the creeping, constant takeover of the Australian way of life by American corporate interests and their economic priorities over the years. It was a surprise to put all that into perspective.”
In addition to music and writing, DeSoto says that photography is something she’s done in “phases throughout life” though band photography was not ever her focus. She states: “I’ve been much more interested in landscapes and art photography over the years. There’s one shot of mine in the book – of the CAAMA building in Alice Springs, near where I live.” Her favourite decade for music was the 70s. She explains: “I like the 70s because that’s when I became a teenager. Both my parents were born in the 1920s, so their world view was very straight and for me, in amongst the fibro boxes of the outer- Western suburbs in Sydney, 70s rock music offered the thrill of exotic feelings and ideas, it opened up what seemed like a magic portal into another dimension of consciousness and that gave me inspiration, hope and so much pleasure it’s hard to describe, but I think most people understand that connection to music – it’s a soul thing.”
DeSoto hopes that with Australia Rocks! “people get to get to do a bit of time travelling – down memory lane as well as a look back into recent history – to remember and maybe even realize for the first time how good life is and how everything in connected, because Australia is unique but music doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”
DeSoto’s Australia Rocks: Remembering the music of the 1950s to 1990s is a must-have for every music lover’s coffee table.
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