Moggs Creek, Australia, 1983 to 2013
IN THE diary at the family beach-house my brother’s wife has written a list to sum up their short holiday with their two young children.
Rachel has not written ‘We made sandcastles at Fairhaven’ or ‘We walked to the Moggs Creek Picnic Ground’ or ‘We fed the rosellas on the verandah’. None of that stuff.
Rachel has written ten names, beginning with Michael Jackson and ending with The Doors.
The ten are names of some of the singers and bands that are part of the beach-house collection of 300 records, records that are, in their way, a form of family history. They are old records played on an old record player with an old needle, giving you wear and tear, crackling and scratching in stereo. It’s as if the needle rides the grooves of the vinyl like we ride the ups and downs of life.
About 40 of the records belonged to my parents, including Sing Along with Gracie Fields, Superstar; Johnny Farnham Sings The Shows; Bring Back Memories with Jimmy Shand; and its follow-up album Bring Back More Memories with Jimmy Shand. There are also albums by Glenn Miller, Harry James, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey.
But I don’t recall my parents playing records in my childhood in Geelong. Their music tastes, to me, seemed to be limited to cabaret performers on such shows as In Melbourne Tonight, The Two Ronnies, and that rare mix of music and sport, the trotting program The Penthouse Club.
I thought the family record-player was exclusively for the six children. We had a front bedroom we called The Sound Lounge, which was home to a hi-fi with a fake-wood finish, brown headphones the size of coconuts, dozens of records and a wall that was gradually covered with album and gig reviews cut out from newspapers.
Did my parents play their records in the family home, or only at the beach-house, where they lived their retirement? Was music a large part of their lives? Did Mum sing along with Gracie Fields in suburban Geelong or within cooee of the Great Ocean Road? Or both?
If we can’t remember our parents’ interest in music, how much more can we not remember of their lives? How much more do we not even know of their lives?
‘Mum used to play Harry James records to me at home,’ my younger brother Peter says. ‘She tried to teach me to sing along to songs like Chattanooga Choo Choo. She played some Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Even tried to teach me to dance.’
Except for the one box of my parents’ records, most records at the beach-house are all jumbled in together without any seeming order. Some bright spark, though, has placed a Sigue Sigue Sputnik record called Flaunt It in the parents’ box, between Barry Crocker and Danny Kaye albums.
Tracing the ownership of the records is a bit like creating a family tree. With some Herb Albert playing in the background and a breeze rustling the gum trees by the back door, I start making lists of the records. There are nine columns: one for each of the children, one for Mum and Dad, one for my brother’s wife and one titled Unsure. Under each column I write the names of the singers and the bands of the 300 records.
Before too long the columns seem to sort themselves roughly into genres: jazz, swing, musicals, art-rock, blues, singer-songwriters, Oz Rock, 1980s pop.
Many of the records belong to Peter, most of them bought in his late teenage years while living at the beach with Mum and Dad. As you flick from one box of records to another you find plenty of blues, from Robert Johnson to Robert Cray.
Peter’s taste in music was not shaped by the presence (or the pressure) of siblings; it was more formed by him becoming a musician. One day he was my little brother, the next day he was playing guitar, singing, writing songs and – eventually – recording a CD with blues and roots guitarist Jeff Lang.
Peter is part of the overlap in the family record collection. I ask him who bought the middle-of-the-road stuff: Dean Martin, Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach. Was it Mum, or himself?
‘It was both us,’ he says. ‘I bought some for myself, and some for Mum. And Mum bought a few of her own.’
I try to imagine my mother in a record shop, or maybe a department store, opening her purse expectantly, excited to be buying, say, a Dean Martin album. But I’m blinded by domestic details: Mum at the clothesline with pegs and washing, in the loungeroom with the ironing, at the Moggs Creek kitchen table with her best friend Betty.
Compiling the list, I make fairly confident assumptions about who may have bought which records but there are some albums that don’t seem to match anyone. Silver Convention, Chaka Khan and Felicity Kendal were never guests in The Sound Lounge in Geelong, as far as I can recall. (The 1981 Felicity Kendal album is actually an exercise record, with Kendal, better known for her acting in British comedies, gently giving exercise instructions over such songs as I Will Survive, YMCA and, um, Rhythm, Movement & Throbbing.)
My older brother, who has lived interstate for much of his life and has only visited the beach-house a handful of times over the past 20 years, has a few records here: some Hendrix, some J J Cale, some Cheech and Chong.
As I replace the Herb Albert record with a J J Cale album, I wonder what John listens to nowadays and whatever happened to his Yes, Santana, and Roxy Music albums. (I never cared much for the music of Roxy Music but I didn’t mind their album covers.)
‘I play more vinyl now than I have for years,’ John says in an email, a rare correspondence. ‘A few weeks ago I dug out all the Roxy Music albums and played them in order. It’s still a very powerful sound. Even if Bryan Ferry is a #$&! right-wing shit.’
Beach house records was published in the much-loved and now much-missed Great Ocean Quarterly, (volume 1:3, Spring 2014), with accompanying artwork by Peter O’Doherty and Chris O’Doherty (Reg Mombasa).