At their height, in 1964, The Seekers bumped The Beatles and The Stones off the charts. And 62 years later they remain our most-loved and most successful musical export.
And we loved them even more because they came home.
Georgy Girl, the musical, written by Judith Durham’s brother-in-law, Patrick Edgeworth, is now playing at the State Theatre in Sydney. It celebrates their hits, some of the stories behind them, influential friends like brother and sister Tom and Dusty Springfield, and is a wonderful concert to boot.
The Seekers collected a mountain of No.1 hit records and awards of every size; in 1967 they were even Australians of the Year.
Of all their achievements, one of their most enduring was to teach us we could hear world-famous hit records sung in Australian accents – and be proud of it.
Athol Guy enthusiastically agrees. He was on the phone from his home in Victorian wine country.
Oh, God yeah! I know exactly what you’re saying. So many people were trying to clone themselves as American cahhhntry singerrrs. In the early days pop songs in this country came from overseas covers.
We did a lot of folky songs, like Pete Seeger and other great American groups, but we never had a tendency to do the dialect. On the Aussie-style songs, like South Australia, we always sang with a little Aussie twang. I hear that in our voices now. We never tried to be anybody else, even though we sang a lot of other people's songs.
Was there ever any pressure to sound more "international"? No, there wasn’t. The great Australian musician Horrie Dargie was always the one who convinced me you stayed natural, you were who you were, musically and in every other way. He put a press kit together with a black and white kine of a song we'd done on In Melbourne Tonight and by the time we got to England they were ready to present us a genuine true-blue Aussie band, you know, with no Trans-Atlantic trackings or anything. We'd only been in England two days and we were on national television singing With My Swag on My Shoulder. We knew who we were.
We still hear Aussie singers, well, we love Kylie Minogue dearly but she talks Melbourne and sings New York. There are lots of Aussie singers with two accents. Yeah, yeah [laughs]
What did it feel like for a bunch of ordinary Aussies to get a No.1? Oh, surreal. You live in the moment of course and at the time its like winning a grand final if you’re St Kilda [laughs]. It was a bit of magic carpet ride for us.
We did a couple of albums but we weren't considered a commercial quantity, you know. Eddie Jarrett, our manager, said to us we want to record a single, get it out there and see if we can get you some chart success. The person sitting around in that genre that we loved was Tom Springfield, ’cos we'd met [his sister] Dusty very early in the piece and via her we met Tom ’cos Keith was looking to buy a 12-string guitar which, you know, became an iconic part of our sound when we went into the studios with Tom.
What was Dusty Springfield like as a person? Oh, good. Lovely lady. We became great pals with Dusty. And went to a lot of parties at Dusty's place. You’ll have to read my nook to catch up with what happened there! [laughs]. She was a great pal.
Anyway, to cut to the chase, Tom said yeah, he'd like to try and write something for us, so he came into our office with the words of I'll Never Find Another You just handwritten on a piece of paper and Keith, our resident magpie still has it actually – quite a valuable little document.
We went into the studios on a Saturday morning – Abbey Road, where the Beatles and all the others created so many international smash hits – and put down two tracks, I’ll Never Find Another You and the B-side, in three hours. We sort of crossed over the Rubicon with that because there were riffs in that song and a middle eight that made it a different sort of song for us. God, you could imagine what would've happened if we'd said Oh, we're not too sure about this song . . . Huh!
The engineer we worked with in the studio, Norm Smith – he went on to become Hurricane Smith -- really liked it. He said Gee, I think, you know, it's a lovely sound. With our harmonies and the beautiful middle eight, Keith's 12-string and Judith’s great solo, a beautiful lead, it was a combination he said that he hadn't really heard, you know? Just a different sound.
It didn't get a lot of airplay at first ’cos the BBC didn't play records unless they were hits – so how the hell are you gonna get a hit! We were getting live exposure and we were singing the song but it wasn't getting airplay. Until Radio Caroline, one of the pirate radio ships, like in The Boat That Rocked, really broke it for us along with Radio Luxembourg where Ernie Sigley was a DJ.
They gave it a high rotation and whammy! I mean, it took off! It’d crept into the Top 40 just after it was released because we'd done a lot of TV and suddenly it went to 24, 12, 8, 4, as I recall.
We were in the EMI PR office this particular morning and the charts came out that day around about lunchtime, I think it was a Tuesday. We were talking with the PR people about some interviews they’d lined up for us. They were fantastic. EMI was being run by an Australian at that stage, a guy called Ken East.
Anyway, suddenly the door crashes off its hinges. A couple of the PR guys yelling at the top of their voices: "You're No 1!” “You're No 1!” "The record's gone to No 1!" Oh, God. chaos ensued. Oh, look it was so . . . this is the longest answer you’ll ever get to a simple question.
It was amazing. I mean, we jigged and danced and hugged each other. You know, it was just sensational. The funny moment came after we'd calmed down a bit. We dashed off into our manager's office, over in Regent Street, the Grade Organisation, They had a lovely bar downstairs, Verry's Bar. We all lobbed down there and we're standing around very excited and Eddie, our manager, orders champagne.
Me, like a dill, picked up one of the bottles and you know how they do it on the Grand Prix. I give the bottle a bit of a bloody shake and, er [laughs], well, it was just an instinctive thing to do you know? And this very well-dressed British businessman, a big bloke, got up, shaking champagne off his beautiful suit and he comes walking towards us and Eddie thought he was going to give us a doing over so he stepped in between us and starts saying Look, look, we're sorry.
And the guy says Oh. no, no, no. I’m not complaining. I’ve come over to congratulate them. I just heard what you're saying. I love them! [laughs] And he gave us each a lovely champagne-soaked hug. A very funny moment. Wish I had it on video.
A lot of your songs went to No.1 and to the top 5. But some didn't get airplay, yet they were so good. I’m thinking of that wonderful anthem Some Day, One Day. How come it was never as big? Look, I don't know. I think there might be a bit of a wear-out factor as you roll along. It was a great song and it should’ve been a No 1. Maybe the tempo had a bit to do with it. This is only my opinion but I think the recording of it coulda sat back a bit. Otherwise, I’m not sure, I mean we certainly got massive support from the industry on it, no doubt about that. That’s the inexact science of the game.
Whereas The Carnival is Over probably didn't catch the Americans emotionally the way it did in all other parts of the world, you know.
The Carnival is Over is such a sad, sad song! You don’t know the half of it. It's an old Russian folksong. Tom Springfield was looking for the follow-up to I'll Never Find Another You and A World of Our Own and our manager really wasn't sure about The Carnival is Over. We loved it. We thought it was beautiful. Tom found it on a record of the Ivan Rebroff Choir and you can imagine their sound. A real dirge.
He got the lyric, beautiful lyric and the song, Stenka Razzin. That was the Russian title of that song that the choir was singing and it was all about Stenka Razzin was an Admiral in the Russian Navy and his men mutinied 'cos they found he'd bought his fiancé onto their ship and they threatened to mutiny unless he threw her overboard! And he did! True story!
That's appalling! Hello darling, nice to see you, over you go!
You're carnival really is over!
Bloody hell! And you turn it into this huge hit. Amazing. It is amazing. When we went in and recorded the song, we laid it down pretty simple. We didn't overlay anything, straight out up around the mikes and Norm Smith, our engineer, God bless him, I'll never forget, he turned round and looked at us.
I wondered what he was gonna say. And he simply said you've done it again! [Athol was tearing up] And we all went, wow. He said that is unbelievable.
And just, as it was about to be released, we were playing in a theatre in Bournemouth, down in the south of England, doing a Sunday concert and no one had heard the song, right? The public hadn’t heard the song at all.
Well, we were up there singing and you can see the front 10 rows of the audience with the lighting and I promise you halfway through the song the tears were running down the faces. It’s amazing. Absolutely amazing.
The four performers in Georgy Girl, the musical, have a sound that’s very close to your sound; the movements and stage presence is pretty spot on. Yet there’s a huge difference between putting four people together on stage and the actual four people who did it for real. To all intents and purposes it looks like the same act. What are the essential differences? Why couldn't those four go on the road and do what you did? Well, for starters, the four of us are four very different people, north, south, east and west. We come together unanimously, ah, musically. The thing that we were looking for when we went looking for a girl for our group, Keith and I are really well, you know, really very, very good harmony singers. Ah, Bruce has a beaut lead baritone voice. Keith has that lovely top range, nearly tenor voice. He can sing up near the roof when he has to. Except his harmony sits basically under Judith's in a way. Ah, and we found what we got when we opened our mouths, we got what we were looking for which was a blend. And when your ears hear harmony – any group can sing a harmony, anyone who knows music , you know, can sing a harmony – I’ll give you an example of that in a minute, but what we were searching for, the sound we were looking for was the blend of the four voices with a strong lead and our lead singer, when The Seekers were formed they were four boys, that came out of two be-bop groups that I had, the second one was a group with Keith called The Escorts, you couldn't call a group that these days [laughs], we existed? very well, we knew the sound we wanted, our lead singer opted out to get married so we, he had a beautiful tenor voice but with no vibrato, just a lovely straight-line tenor voice, the coathanger for us to hang all the harmonies on.
Anyway Ken opted out and I said to the boys we really want to get a girl like Ronnie, that you know, sings a bit like Ronnie Gilbert with The Weavers, with Pete Seeger's band, we knew two jazz singers in Melb and one was of course was Judith. Ah, anyway she turned up in my office one day. I hadn’t had time to hear her sing. She just turned up in my office one day. Ah, introduced herself. She said I hear you were gonna come and hear me sing? I said, Oh, yeah, I’d love to do that. She said When are you gonna do that? I said well, dunno, why don’t you come and sing with us tonight?
And she said. Someone pick me up and you know, just saw her in the show and you know, Brice brought her to sing with us that night and when we got into When the Stars Begin to Fall the harmonies just dropped straight into place and not just the harmonies but the blend and when you get a blend you almost get a fifth voice, you get real chume about you’re trying to produce. It really does chime. And in theatres of course that’s what you go looking for in the acoustics of the theatre.
The four guys in the show are fabulous and their versatility with the songs is absolutely fantastic. The challenge for these kids is to do it theatrically but not to lose the spirit of the music or the feel and sound of the group and that’s what they’ve done – a formidable job.
We couldn’t do it theatrically, that's not our bag, but they’ve done it. Now to go out and sorta be The Seekers they wouldn’t get the warmth that comes into our sound because they’re theatrical performers cos Judith has actually got a very strong voice but in many respects it's quite soft without being contradictory, tyyk recording-wise you would probably add just a little tweak to Judith’s voice to slot it in between the roughness of myself and Keith and Bruce cos we're pretty ballsy singers yo? We've got a very different timbre in our voices but Bruce sums it up beautifully this way, in a sense, he said we get our sound` because of a real anomaly. He said the fact is he said Judith and Athol sing perfectly in tune, ah, he said, I sing a little flat and Keith sings a little sharp. And he nailed it. Musicians, obviously understand that you know.
So we've created that you know, difference in our sound. If you listen to a group like The Ten Tenors, right?, you got 10 tenors up there [laughs] really giving everything as tenors you know, trying not to put too much vibrato in but that to me is not group singing yl That’s 10 individuals standing up really you know, giving it heaps. That’s not group singing or the sound you wanted. I mean, the three original tenors you know, perhaps got a little bit of a blend but they had three magnificent voices and you loved them for what they were individually and to see them together doing those arias and everything that’s really great but I don’t know the magic that we have is that as Bruce points it, simplistically that it just locks it all in and ah you know through our` ears it blends and it chimes and gives us that almost fifth voice that sits on top of it all, especially when you’re in a good concert hall with good acoustics. It's a beautiful `feeling and it brings the songs to life in a way that I don’t know that anybody else could.
Just want to ask you about politics for a moment. Your, it's a fair call that The Seekers were never outspoken politically, as opposed to other high-profile folk performers of the era who actually got quite angry and did a lot of protest songs. You guys didn't. And when you did the occasional Bob Dylan cover it wasn’t angry.
I'm wondering if that may have been personally frustrating for somebody who ended up going into politics at 31 and getting an increased majority after three terms, you obviously had something to say politically that maybe you weren't able to do as part of The Seekers? No. You're right. I've never seen The Seekers as a vehicle for, you know, any sort of social comment. I think you either go out as a social-commentary group or you go out as an emotional commentary group, from that point of view, you know. Folk music can cut either way, can’t it. OIt either cuts to the heart or it cuts to the cerebral side and cuts when you want to go out and shout loudly,. ah, and music never really wanted to sahout. We found terrific musicality in all those Dylan songs and again the versatility of those songs lent themselves to certainly anger if you wanted to portray it that way but we wanted to portray the music in a sense that hits the spirit, hits the soul and moves people. I mean the main mission for us is to elevate the spirit. We've always know that from thew time we sat down in the little coffee lounge. The first thing that someone came up to us on opening night when we'd just opened our mouths, no rehearsal, no nothing, ah, said my God you made us all feel so good! you know?
If wanted, we could make 'em angry. That's easy enough to do. I mean I can do my nut as easy as anybody else can. From a political point of view I watched through though we weren't there of course in Aussie but t we watched the Vietnam demonstrations, we'd lost, we watched a lot of angry people and there was a moment for that,. you know , and it was an awful time and ah you know we're coming up to time now when we remember all those things on Anzac Day of course. The spirit of it all. I remember Paul Hasluck [Governor-General, 1969-74] saying a placard may demonstrate whether the participant call spell correctly but it's incomplete evidence as to whether he can think.
Going into politics I always had a deep-seated interest, probably more if I could put it this way, I had a real interest in government, I had a real interest in the Parliament and I had a real love of the Senate in fact. In a sense even almost like the American senate system although ours used to you know a more relevant house of review for legislation as opposed to what it is these days and I guess you know through my 20s I took a great deal of interest in what was happ3ning in the Parliament, in politics in the UK and the unions who were rampant, ah, it was all fascinating stuff for me and of course when I got home and got closer to what was really happening I found my values were still very much allied to the Liberal movement. I’d been a member of the Young Libs when I was much younger – more socially more than anything lese. They used to get me to bring my little group to sing at the parties, I think it was mores social than anything but at least I wasn't an agitating student, I didn’t get into any of that stuff. I was too busy working and playing footy! (??)
You’ve given the Liberal party some of the best years of your life. Have you ever wavered from voting Liberal? Ahhhhhh, nooo, I haven't I've stuck true to the . . . I’m a real left-wing Liberal if that makes any sense. I'm pretty close to the centre. I had a few moments when I was in the Parliament on state issues where I did feel moved to cross the floor on a couple of issues which produced a little bit of shock=horror. One was to support an amendment. Brian Dixon and I crossed the floor lone day to support an amendment that Barry Jones brought up when we were debating capital punishment and these sort of little incidents just give you a bit of glimpse of where I probably sat. The good thing that ha[ppened to me was n I saw a year with Henry Bolte [Vic premier, 1955-72] and then I was there with Dick Hamer [Vic premier, 1972-81], of course, who was a wonderful man. Dick really was the true Liberal. He really was. I saw eye to eye with him on most matters and when I think you get mentors like him you don’t move too far.
Gave you got an opinion on here we are in Australia, why do we have such a revolving door in the PM's office? Well, politics has changed pretty dramatically. We never got driven mad by the opinion polls. we went did the job, came up to the next ejection. We had a very solid platform of policies. I think there's a lot of expediency unfortunately I've never believed in three year terms. State Parliament’s not four-year terms. I think it was one of the first things I got into when I went into State Parliament. Three years is too short. Four years, I mean overseas, the UK's five years. You get governments of expediency / They s[end the last year trying get re-elected. I mean it . . . it doesn’t allow enough time for serious long-term planning and [policy and you get caught up in that and there is a bit of a tendency to whether it's with you know we've gotten too close ton the presidential system or where in a sense politicians are trying to run their affairs like businesspeople do./ you know good businessmen don’t necessarily made good parliamentarians, you know . The art of consensus has to ato be alive and well in politics otherwise you get nowhere
On that score, are you happy with Malcolm Turnbull's performance so far? Ahhh, I think it's the time test isn’t it. And it’s too short a time period but you do get hung on your own petard if that's the right expression when you do pronounce the reasons as to why there ought to be a change. I think Malcolm’s was sprt of heavily base o you know opinion polls and other issues, er, er, I think policy wise, policies are the foundation on which good government's built. And I wish him all the best. I think there are a lot of there are lots and lots of great people in our Parliament and I think we've just hit a little bit of a brick wall over the ;last decade haven’t we?
We certainly have! Such a very long list of Prime Ministers in a very short time! Yeah, it's something I think we're only really able to analyse in the years to come,. I don’t know where the parliament’s heading of course, the fragmentation of the senate hasn’t helped. the sorta style of gov ernemnt we’ve grown up with, all been used to, er, um, you know the way the independents have been able to get on the score card through the preference system that someone needs to explain to me one day (smiles)
Do you miss performing? I think I would yeah. I’ve got my own little mini-musical that I use for Morning Melodies, you know the classic Morning Melodies that we run around the country and I’ve got my own little group, local friends and we've produced a little min90-musical called The Seekers Story which is more like a little biog from my end with videos telling the story of the group. A lot of live music in it. We do play tribute to the big hits of course. sing them live. Ah, but I created that for the regional areas for their Morning Melodies, for the elderly cits.
Oh, it's great fun. Through that you see I get to meet people out in the country that wouldn’t get to meet after our shows or around the place in the city cos they can't get to town to see our concerts or the musical . . . and what I like abut it is the fact that we pop out into the foyer at the end of each show and these are the people, as you were saying before, you grew up round the piano with us as part of your family and these people now in their late 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s 90s, we even had a centenarian there the other day. Lovely people. And they just, the warmth you get from them just in those few moments you can share with them is for me what it's all about., yeah. All my life I’ve been in the people business you know the connection with these people out there who made us what we are in so many ways it s a wonderful thing. I particularly like the blokes when you walk down the end of the foyer, tie ;ladies will always cop a hello, they’re pretty cheeky, oh, hello, always wanted to meet yer and have a few piccies and in this day and age there are the selfies and all the other things that you have, take it with them. But the blokes always hang back a little bit. But I absolutely love it when you can see, they just walk over, you know, they're farmers and others from the country and they just take your hand a quick shake, good on yer mate,. really, loved yer music.
I love that! I just . .. it connects me with what I've grown up with and reminds me of the great life that I had and hopefully our music will still resonate through their families maybe fro another 50 years who knows.
There's a question you haven’t asked me but I’ll ask myself and give you the answer.
Go fer it. No, I've been asked quite a few times what's it like watching the kids on stage portraying us? I'd love to be able to say this, if you can fit it in the interview: For me, after I got to meet Glaston [Toft] a coupla times, a delightful young man as they all are, Mike [McLeish], Phillip [Lowe] and Pippa [Grandison] – as Bruce Woodley, Keith Potger and Judith Durham – who's just absolutely gorgeous – sitting and watching them there for the first time and being asked what it was like and getting to know 'em a little, it was like sitting there watching my son and his group play a tribute to his old man's band.
Isn’t that great!
That's the way it felt. I said to them I want you guys to get the warmth and the affection that we get. That's my hope for you And they’re getting it. They are getting it in spades which is great. They're lovely kids, great performers.
I’ll make sure that gets into the story.
Wonderful. I appreciate that.
Georgy Girl, the musical, is now at the State Theatre until June 1, then Perth, July 8 to 24. Tickets and details here.