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A Short History of UBB

AUSTRALIA Day 1975 marked a high point in the history of popular music in this country. The ABC's youth radio station 2JJ had begun broadcasting on January 19, 1974, and a year and one week later the station staged a triumphant free concert at Dawes Point, just beneath the southern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The line-up was a corker: Skyhooks, then at the peak of their record-breaking popularity; Ayers Rock, Australia 's premier serious rock outfit; and . . . Uncle Bob's Band?

Who the hell were they? And what were they doing on the bill? For anyone at the gig watching the band set up, it was obvious from the battered, home-made nature of much of their equipment and from the antics of their bumblefooted road crew that Uncle Bob's Band had a long way to go before they could hope to reach the stellar heights of the other bands on the bill. They appeared to be from another world.

And they were: for the previous 26 days they had been the house band on a Channel Ten double-decker bus as it visited every Sydney beach as part of the low-rent channel's summer promotion, a journey during which band members discovered the hitherto unknown joys of free beer and copped an eyeful of the sexual habits of some of the cast of Number 96, the station's only hit show. Now here they were on the bill with the hottest band in Oz rock history.

They were there because, before becoming Ten's temporary mobile house band, a choice driven by their need for a halfway hearable PA, which Ten's pay cheque bought them, they had also developed an inner-city reputation as a sure-fire dance band. Inevitably, this brought them within the radar of JJ's trend-attuned scouts, who quickly adopted them as Sydney 's version of Captain Matchbox. But with more of an edge. (The two bands always had a fraternal relationship – UBB even appeared on Wangaratta Wahine , providing bird noises . . .)

Uncle Bob's Band was Terry Darmody (vocals, harmonica),  
To Terry Darmody
Bob McGowan (guitar, mandolin, kazoo and vocals) and  
To Uncle Bob McGowan
Tony Burkys (guitar, vocals),  
To Tony Burkys
three former members of the Original Battersea Heroes, a cult jug band formed in the mid-1960s, which metamorphosed into the Heroes in the early ‘70s, made one stinker of an album and broke up.  
To the Original Battersea Heroes
Warwick Kennington on drums  
To Warwick Kennington
and John Taylor on bass were two young veterans of various mute inglorious Sydney bands, who discovered that they made instinctive vocal harmonies together.  
To John Taylor
Saxophonist Keith Shadwick, fresh from Sun, Renee Geyer's first band, was a latecomer, but he paid his dues on the Ten bus.  
To Keith Shadwick
They were young and imbued with the spirit of the age, and crazy enough to believe that they could make real music, and earn a living doing it. Their influences were diverse, from the crassest modern pop to the rawest Delta blues, a creative patchwork of 20th century popular music. Their motto wasn't, but could have been: “It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.” And swing they did.
To their diverse musical smorgasbord they added original material hewn from the same sources, drawing on that bumblefooted road crew, Mark (Basil) Butler and
 

John (The Doctor) Dease, who revealed some talent as lyricists. Tony, who had been writing for several years with the Heroes, fell upon their words and made them into UBB songs, as did all the other band members. Writing songs became a way of life in UBB.

 

Ironically, by being such an amalgam of the music that went before them, they were ahead of their time. Unlike today, in the ‘70s popular music was segregated into mutually exclusive channels, which infrequently converged, and consequently some audiences found the band's joyous genre-surfing too difficult to assimilate. Captain Matchbox had proved that if you stuck to one exotic genre you could flourish; mixing them up, as UBB did, invited confusion and resistance. But when the audience was with them, the magic was palpable, and dancing usually ensued.

Such moments generally occurred at the band's self-promoted gigs, at Balmain Town Hall and other inner-city venues, or at the Dural Memorial Hall in the then rural Hills district north of Sydney where half the band lived. Thousands of Sydneysiders still fondly remember the Adventures in Paradise series of shows at Dural and at Paddington Town Hall , and the sold-out Spring Cleaning and Desperate Straits shows at Balmain Town Hall.

For, not content with marginalising themselves with their unpigeonholeable repertoire, UBB had decided from the beginning that they would do everything themselves, from management down to midnight raids slapping up John's priceless posters (which the band and supporters had spent all day silk-screening in a farmhouse 80km away) on virgin walls or hoardings in the city.

It may have worked for the Grateful Dead in the huge US market, but not in Australia . After nearly two years of working their own gigs and other gigs from Pentridge jail to the Sydney Opera House and the Reefer Cabaret in Melbourne, and more concerts for JJ and ABC TV, the band bowed to market forces and signed up with a manager, former Skyhooks lead singer Steve Hill, and decamped for Melbourne, where audiences were more sympathetic to difference and there was a sniff of a recording contract in the air.

But while they developed a passionate following in Melbourne, the transplant didn't take, and by the end of 1976 it was all over. They did record an album with Dave Flett [LINK] producing at Richmond Recorders [LINK], but it was never mixed and the master tapes were later lost in a burglary. UBB became another footnote in Australian popular music, a “right bunch of ratbags”, as JJ's Chris Winter [LINK] dubbed them, who briefly brought colour and flair to the live music scene in Sydney and Melbourne but who left no official recorded legacy of their unique chemistry.

Until now. (OK, they're slow. But they like to get it right.)

Although UBB had broken up, most of its members remained friends, and in different combinations played together on and off, but always there was a gnawing sense of unfinished business. It wasn't until Bob's 50 th birthday celebration in 1995 that the band, minus Keith, finally reunited on stage.

That reunion was remarkable for the ease with which they slipped back into the groove. Songs they hadn't played in nearly 20 years came storming back. There was still something there. But with band members spread between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, some with young families to support, there was no obvious way to do anything about it. But they did, even if it took another nine years to do it, and in 2004 they put down 12 tracks at Delta Studios [LINK] in Epping. The result is Unfinished Business.

Are they old farts seduced by faded glories? Or mature artists who may yet turn out to be neglected masters of modern music? Let your ears be the judge.

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