Geelong, and Point Lonsdale Caravan Park, 1974
Oh I finally decide my future lies beyond the Yellow Brick Road
It would be unusual that an Elton John song could be viewed as a song of rebellion. Way back in 1974 that song, and that marvellous album of the same title, led me off in a direction differing to the path of my elders.
I grew up in a household that was musically set in Beethoven and other classical music, Gilbert and Sullivan, brass band records, male choral music and Methodist hymns.
Mum was a piano teacher who taught lessons after school in our lounge room to many private students. She was a well-known soprano and alto in the musical circles around Geelong, and conductor of our church choir. She was a child prodigy as a pianist and won awards at the Melbourne Town Hall for piano performance.
Dad was in the church choir too. He was virtually a founding member of the International Harvester Male Chorus. As England was famous for its brass bands in industry, the International Harvester Company, which produced agricultural machinery, had a male choir that performed a repertoire of songs from musicals, sacred songs, spirituals and more in performances all over Victoria.
It was a rite of passage that each of my brothers and I took turns to go away for weekend tours with Dad, on a bus, to destinations such as Swan Hill, Wonthaggi or Wangaratta with the Harvester Chorus. They even produced records. (Their 1979 album was called A Harvest Of Songs and included Remember Me, O Mighty One and Get Me To The Church On Time.) Dad passed away just before the choir had their 1000th performance, in 1998.
Mum and Dad were fantastic parents-both were very musically talented and both were very loving. But not too keen on, you know, pop music.
Like my brother before me, and my other brother after me, we all learnt piano from Mum. Growing up I knew of The Beatles and did have a transistor radio, so I was aware of rock and roll. But that genre was not really welcomed on Mum and Dad’s Kriesler stereo in the lounge room.
By age fourteen, and due to the influence of friends at school, high school socials, my older brother’s records and a friend up the street whose family would regularly buy current singles, I bit the bullet and asked Mum and Dad for the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album for Christmas.
There was some hesitation, some tension, but luckily my wish was granted.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road sure was on high rotation at home. It was a delight to look at, let alone to listen to. A double album , a gatefold album, beautiful artwork and great songs.
Mum even thought that Funeral For A Friend sounded a bit like a Bach chorale. I was careful to not play Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting too loudly. My older brother had the album on cassette in his EJ Holden wagon. I remember listening to it on our way to and from the Test matches at the MCG. Grey Seal is good driving music.
But now there was another level of rebellion. While in Allans music shop I discovered an Elton John piano song book. I was always too shy to play piano in front of others. Playing a minuet or study in A minor doesn’t exactly excite your peers and could have led to ridicule. I pleaded with Mum for the Elton John songbook. She relented, eventually, but I remember having to work out the music by myself, and in between the expected piano practice of real music.
I especially associate the title song with holidays at the Point Lonsdale caravan park. Our family had a caravan there for two weeks of the summer vacation: the camp beds and sleeping bags set up in the annexe, the smell of the warm canvas and sea air in the morning, beach every day, communal toilets, lots of salads, Mum and Dad playing Scrabble every night, and hanging out with the kids from the neighbouring caravans.
I remember taking that record away with us, not because we had a record player there, but because after Point Lonsdale I was off to stay with a school friend at Barwon Heads who had one. I was haunted by the title song and was often singing it to myself as I was walking along the beach. The ‘andante’ pace of the song matches the rise and fall of cargo ships travelling between Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean on their way to Bass Strait.
It was in stark contrast to the people in the tent next door continually playing Skyhooks’ Living In the 70’s that summer, particularly Horror Movie.
Playing classical music was not for me. I taught myself guitar and even took saxophone lessons. I think Mum and Dad sensed, and put up with, the change. Mum even supported me buying my first electric piano when I was seventeen. The same level of support wasn’t there when I wanted to buy a two oscillator Korg mono synthesizer soon after. For that purchase I had to borrow money from my older brother.
I continued the piano lessons until I was 18 but also became more proficient in playing songs in front of others – Elton’s Song For Guy became my ‘party piece’. Unfortunately the nocturnes, studies and Rondos made their way to the bottom of the pile of music books. The record collection expanded to Status Quo, Deep Purple and The Eagles. The piano repertoire expanded to Billy Joel and beyond. Rocket Man is still fun to play and sing.
©David Oke. More stories by David Oke