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Normie Rowe can see the flashing blue light in his rear-view mirror. In the 1960s, Rowe was Australia’s biggest pop star. But it is 1975 and he knows his fame won’t carry much weight with the traffic cop walking towards his car.
Rowe started singing professionally at 14, and by 18 he had his first chart smash and his clothes were being ripped to shreds by screaming fans night after night. Just over a year later, Rowe had released five albums, boosted by a string of top-10 hits, one of which went to No. 1 and became the biggest-selling single of the decade in Australia.
Then, just two years later, it was all over. At the height of his success, Rowe’s birthdate was “plucked out of the barrel” as part of the National Service ballot. He was drafted into the Australian Army and sent to fight in Vietnam. Although he served his country with distinction, when he returned home his career was dead in the water. The public had moved on and the times had too. He had just turned 23.
The policeman is at the driver’s side window now. As he scrutinises Rowe’s licence, the copper has a quizzical expression. “Oh, you’re born on the same day as me. How come you got called up and I didn’t?”
This week sees the release of Frenzy! The 50th Anniversary Collection, an album celebrating the extraordinary career of our greatest pop star of the 1960s. The 30 songs on it burst with all the restless energy and unbounded optimism of that ebullient era, a time and place almost as unrecognisable to listeners today as that young man singing would be to Normie Rowe himself.
Rowe’s talent was first spotted by legendary Melbourne DJ Stan “The Man” Rofe, who saw him singing on the back of a truck at the Moomba Festival. Soon after, Rofe took him to Preston Town Hall and introduced him to dance promoter Kevin McClellan. Rowe vividly recalls getting pushed up on stage to sing with legendary instrumental group The Thunderbirds, singing Johnny Kidd & The Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over”. The song had recently been covered by his idol, Johnny Chester, and was a hit on Melbourne radio. As Rowe told the ABC’s Richard Fidler in 2012, “It was quite exciting for me because the band I was singing with was the band that actually recorded the backing for Johnny Chester. I mean, I got to sing with The Thunderbirds!”
McClellan employed Rowe for two years on his suburban dance circuit and Rowe started to build both an act and a following. His fanbase increased exponentially after he began appearing on television as a regular on The Go!! Show and the short-lived Teen Scene. By now, Brisbane-based promoter Ivan Dayman had taken over McClellan’s dance circuit and he began to notice how his door receipts increased whenever Rowe and his band, The Playboys, were booked. Dayman had recently expanded his empire with an in-house record label, Sunshine Records, as well as a management agency.
Although Dayman favoured other artists on his roster, he decided to give Normie Rowe and The Playboys a chance and flew producer Pat Aulton to Melbourne to record a single. Stan Rofe had suggested they try the old Gershwin standard “It Ain’t Necessarily So” as interpreted by English group Ian & The Zodiacs. The Playboys’ arrangement closely follows that of The Zodiacs, but Aulton had the inspired idea to modulate the song’s key up several times to amp up the excitement. The Playboys also give the backing a lot more edge, using a 12-string guitar to play the signature licks. Rowe takes the song to another level, delivering a dynamite vocal performance. In spirit this recording is closer to The Animals, with Eric Burdon, than the polite Zodiacs. Despite its being banned by Sydney’s popular 2SM for being sacrilegious – the station was owned by the Catholic Church – the single became an enormous hit nationally.
It was Rowe who found “I (Who Have Nothing)” for their second single. The song was only a modest success for Ben E. King in 1963 and, in fact, King’s version was itself a cover of an earlier Italian hit: they substituted King’s vocals over the original backing track, singing new lyrics in English. “I (Who Have Nothing)” has subsequently become a cabaret standard but Rowe’s was the first cover after King’s, and on the back of Normie’s histrionic vocal, The Playboys’ version entered the top 10.
The High Keys’ calypso-flavoured version of “Que Sera, Sera” was Rowe’s third single, suggested to him by Rofe. Under the direction of producer Nat Kipner, The Playboys copied it note for note, even down to the whistle heard before each verse. What makes their version distinctive is, again, Rowe’s raw, impassioned vocals. After hearing it, you find it hard to even remember Doris Day’s original.
“Que Sera, Sera” was an instant hit but its B-side has rightfully eclipsed it. “Shakin’ All Over” is a raw blast of ’60s punk: deadpan Farfisa organ, twanging surf guitar and Rowe’s incredible voice combining in a way that overshadows every other version, before or since. The Playboys emulate Johnny Chester’s 1961 hit but in the hands of Rowe and his band it becomes an epic career-defining song that coincidentally defined an era of Australian music. Spending 28 weeks on the charts, many of them at No. 1, and going on to sell 80,000 copies (some say 100,000), it was the high-water mark of post-Beatlemania rock in Australia. Soon the airwaves would be given over to psychedelic pop, acid-tinged blues, dreamy folk and all manner of other styles, but Normie Rowe in 1965 had a nation of teenagers screaming as one.
And the hit singles and albums kept coming, every one of them beautifully remastered by ex-Aztec Gil Matthews for this reissue. In the 1960s, ideas of fidelity and the technology available were very different from today and it requires a sympathetic approach to enhance the tonal quality without unbalancing the mix. Matthews has done a wonderful job here. “Tell Him I’m Not Home” and “The Breaking Point” reached No. 3 and No. 5 respectively. On the first, Rowe gives a comic twist to the song title and chorus hook, with his sing-song imitation of a teenage girl instructing, “Tell him I’m not home”. On “The Breaking Point” he’s almost psychotic, attacking the lyric with a deranged glee. These had both been Chuck Jackson songs originally, but Rowe was also recording songs by artists as diverse as The Zombies (“I Want You Back Again”), Ray Charles (“Unchain My Heart”) and Marvin Gaye (“Pride and Joy”, another top-10 hit for the band). Often the songs were sped up and made more raucous, as much in keeping with the frenzied atmosphere of his live shows as with the tempo of his life. Even the ballads had a vitality and an urgency, Rowe’s commanding vocal presence indelibly stamped on every one.
In mid-’66, Normie Rowe’s career had been one triumph after another, success piled on with ever greater success. He had been touring almost continuously. “We were doing one-night stands for six months at a time, with Sunday off for a bit of R and R,” Rowe told me last week. “One town, one night. So, we did 160 or 170 different towns each six months, and we did that three times.”
That hadn’t burnt him out, and it was felt by management that he should try recording in Britain and put a toe in international waters. It seemed to be the thing to do: The Easybeats had recently decamped to London and Rowe did likewise, with The Bee Gees following them both a few months later.
Things started looking good for Rowe immediately. He was one of the first signings for the newly formed Polydor, along with Jimi Hendrix and Cream. When it came time to record, rather than use The Playboys, his English producers decided to use the best of London’s session musicians. His studio band was Jimmy Page on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass and Clem Cattini on drums. Cattini played on 42 No. 1 UK hits, as well as being the drummer on Johnny Kidd & The Pirates’ original version of “Shakin’ All Over”. And with Page and Jones, Rowe had half of the nascent Led Zeppelin in the studio. The resulting singles, “Ooh La La” and “It’s Not Easy”, both charted in the top 3 at the same time in Australia, and were glorious slices of soulful pop. Rowe himself had never sounded better. His warm tenor voice now had more depth and nuance, and his delivery was relaxed and confident. Artistically he was at the peak of his powers.
Another recording session found him working with producer Giorgio Gomelsky on a song by Graham Gouldman (later of 10cc). Gouldman had written million sellers for The Hollies, The Yardbirds and others, and “Going Home” became Rowe’s next Australian hit, reaching 11 in the charts. However, it struck an ominous note. For the first time in his career his single hadn’t made the national top 10. “Going Home” also marked the first time that the production on a Normie Rowe record sounded more important than the song – and even the singer himself. The ill-fitting, baroque pop arrangement did Rowe no favours and there was worse ahead as his desperate record company pushed him in whatever direction the pop wind happened to be blowing.
After 10 months in London, it was time to regroup. Rowe’s Australian management were desperate to have him come home and tour. He was itching to get back to work with Pat Aulton and Bill Armstrong, and use the studio techniques he’d learnt in London. But two months after he returned, he received notice that he’d been drafted.
“My thoughts were, to be fair, if it’s okay for a bank jockey or a motor mechanic or a bloody school teacher or whoever to be called up, then it was okay for a pop singer to be called up, if all things were equal – but apparently all things weren’t equal.” That chance encounter with a traffic cop in 1975 had raised questions in Rowe’s mind that he still wants answered. At the time he was drafted, in late 1967, Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict had created huge political divisions. The National Service conscription scheme itself was deeply unpopular and there was widespread suspicion that it was being rorted to favour politicians’ sons. When our biggest pop star was sent off to war like any other conscript, it was seen as proof that the ballot system was fair.
The story might have ended there but for something that came to light in 2008.
Thirty years earlier, in 1978, Lieutenant-Colonel Beverly Smith was on his deathbed and confessed to his son that it had been his idea to draft Rowe – a publicity stunt to aid Harold Holt’s flagging government. Smith used as his example Elvis Presley, who alone had been drafted into the US Army on his date of birth, apparently at the suggestion of his manager, Colonel Parker. Rowe’s recruitment was a sensational news story and seen as a propaganda victory. Smith beseeched his son to contact Rowe and apologise on his behalf.
Rowe has no regrets about fighting at his country’s behest. But he made a lot of sacrifices in doing it, the sort only his loved ones and fellow veterans could understand. His concern is that he and others like him were singled out to make sacrifices that people in power and their children were not willing to make themselves. The Australian War Memorial disputes Rowe was specifically targeted, pointing to records showing he was selected in a supplementary ballot, for those abroad during the original ballot’s registration.
This weekend, Rowe is launching Frenzy, The 50th Anniversary Collection at the Memo Hall, a room at the back of the St Kilda RSL Club. It was also the location of Bill Armstrong’s first recording studio, where Normie recorded “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. As Rowe told me, “Fifty years of travelling around the world and we’ve found ourselves back where we started.”
For a few brief years Rowe created some of the best and most compelling rock’n’roll, rhythm and blues and straight-up pop music this country has seen. His place in the music pantheon is assured and these wonderfully remastered recordings are all you need to understand why.
SPOKEN WORD His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet
Katoomba Public School, June 6 Riverstage, Brisbane, June 12
Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until June 27
MULTIMEDIA Queensland Cabaret Festival
Brisbane Powerhouse, June 10–20
Sydney Opera House, June 12-27
VISUAL ART A Golden Age of China
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until June 21
VISUAL ART James Turrell: A Retrospective
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, until June 7
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 6, 2015 as "Shakin’ all over again".
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