Unsung, unseen and misunderstood, the life of a roadie is a mystery to all but those who rely on their rare skills, night in, night out. But without their efforts behind the curtain, the show doesn’t go on.
After tackling the gregarious creed of Australia’s impresarios in 2003’s The Promoters, and the legendary Michael Gudinski in 2015’s Gudinski, Stuart Coupe turns his attention to those hardworking heroes behind the scenes of concerts and gigs. Those guys and girls who make it all happen, who’ve got the best stories, and whose names you don’t know.
TIO caught up with Coupe for a glance behind the action of his latest work, Roadies.
Stuart, after studying Michael Gudinski, arguably the best-known music industry character in the southern hemisphere, you’ve changed direction and placed the spotlight on those lesser known characters. Why so?
Well, it was because of my research for the Gudinski book that this idea really formed. One person helping me with info about Melbourne in the late 1960s, early 1970s was Adrian Anderson, a key figure in the Australian Road Crew Association (ARCA). Adrian told me about the hideous suicide rate amongst road crew and also the myriad of other mental health issues.
Later, I heard Neil Finn on an ARIA Awards telecast thanking his crew and I also found a 1983 Sun Herald newspaper column I’d written about a female roadie I knew who’d died in a car accident whilst working for The Johnnys.
All of that rattled around and then I realised there was only one book ever written by an Australian roadie – Ron Clayton’s book about his 50 years – yes – with TMG, so I thought it was time to give a voice to these very very unsung heroes of the Australian music industry. Then I had to set about getting their confidence and trust.
In a nutshell, what’s the life of a roadie like?
Crazily hard work, requiring long hours, a lot of physical work and a very smart, lateral thinking brain. Roadies, I realised, don’t ask if something is possible – they just work out how to do what may seem impossible.
They have to have incredible technical smarts, a personality that can deal with anything thrown at them, and a remote interest in sleep.
I think it attracts a particular individual. You have to love both the lifestyle and music.
What did you learn –that you didn’t already know — about roadies from embarking on this voyage of discovery?
I gained even more respect for these individuals. I learnt that the world’s first female roadie was an Australian — Tana Douglas — and that she did front of house for AC/DC when she was 16 and 17 years of age.
I heard — to my surprise — more firearms stories than I ever imagined I would. And I was stunned by the level of violence directed at road crews, particularly in regional towns and cities.
In The Promoters, you explored the dearth of female concert organisers. I imagine female roadies are rare as hen’s teeth. Why, and is that changing?
The road crew world has predominantly been a male dominated one — but I discovered more women working in the industry in the early days than I had expected. And as I said, hearing Tana Douglas’ story was a revelation.
It is and was a tough, physically demanding lifestyle — one which of course women can do but I think in the past maybe it was considered a daunting, macho world where they didn’t feel welcomed or comfortable, even if they may well have been.
Today, it’s fantastic to see more and more women involved. I think there’s a changed workplace environment, a different, highly technical skill set required which leads to a more diverse crew make up. And I think that’s great.
Finally, would you recommend your friends’ kids to become roadies?
It’s a very different world today to what it was in the ’60s/’70s/’80s – it’s highly skilled work with a very high level of occupational health and safety. If someone loves music, the lifestyle and the ingenuity combined with hard work then why not.
And always remember — the best training is on the job training. Start doing whatever you can, listen, watch and learn. Australian road crews are the most respected in the world, for their skills, sense of humour, problem solving and sheer work capacities and capabilities.
Roadies – the Secret History of Australian Rock’n’Roll by Stuart Coupe is out now through Hachette Australia. Buy it here.
Lars Brandle has reported at the frontline of the international music industry for almost 20 years. A former musician, Lars joined the American music trade “bible” Billboard in 2000 and went on to serve as Global News Editor, based in London. Now Billboard’s Australia correspondent and senior writer with The Industry Observer, Lars’ voice has been heard on CNN, the BBC and ABC, American Public Media's Marketplace and South Africa's EastCoast Radio, and he has spoken at Midem in Cannes, Music Matters in Singapore, Amsterdam Dance Event, London's City Showcase and at industry gatherings on both sides of the Tasman. His works have been published by Reuters, Media Week, Spin, and The Hollywood Reporter, and he has featured as a pundit in the Australian Financial Review, Business Review Weekly and Britain’s The Independent.