I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many of Joe Camilleri’s Australian music peers and I’ve often remarked on how many of them were ‘ten pound Poms’.
Joe Camilleri says he was a five-pounder, but not a Pom, “We came on the five-pound scheme from Malta. There was only four of us when we came out – my Dad came out in 1949 and me and my two sisters and brother came out in 1950. I think for Mum it would have been an incredible struggle on that boat.”
“Four kids under six. Phyllis was six years old, Frank was five, I was three, and Maryanne was one.”
“I’ve never really had the opportunity to discuss it with them, but Malta was war-torn, it got a heavy beating, Malta. For Dad, he was going to go to Canada and I think someone who had just got back from Australia said, ‘That’s the place you need to go.'”
“So he chose Australia. They’re both buried here. I think they gave up so much for their children, and their own life, because the thing you have most of all is you want to be around your friends, but you come to a foreign land and all you have is your family. Most of the time, it’s not until years later that you connect, sometimes your friends come to Australia, and if they come to Australia, where do they go? It’s a big place! Malta is 16 miles square so it’s pretty easy to get around but if you’re living in Sydney and your buddy’s living in Perth – it’s a long walk.”
“I think for us, the hardest thing for my Dad was he would work two shifts. He wanted to get ahead,”
“He was a baker at night and a metal shop worker by day, so that was his two gigs for a number of years. He was a good handy guy, Dad. He was a spray painter for a number of years, worked on the wharves for a few years, he was just able to do that.”
“I envy carpenters, really, because anybody who can do something out of nothing … I forget that I do that with songwriting, too.”
“When I was working as a first-class machinist there was always some amount of pride in whatever it was I was finishing, they were one-off things whether it was for a big crane or a motorcycle, that was a nice feeling. Do I like putting nail in a wall? Yes I do!”
“I envy carpenters, really, because anybody who can do something out of nothing … I forget that I do that with songwriting, too. It’s an empty page and then it’s a full page and sometimes it’s really good, but there’s nothing quite like a tradesman who can come in and whip up a kitchen. I’m still amazed by that. Or they can fix a bathroom. We get an IKEA thing and look at it like it owes you money.”
“What was great about Countdown was that people knew about the bands, someone like Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons did very well.”
Joe Camilleri first came to my attention through television music show like Countdown. I was still in high school and lived for Sunday night when Countdown was on the telly. It seemed to be a really interesting time in Australian music when the industry became really healthy.
“I think because we didn’t have that information – the frontrunners like The Twilights and Johnny O’Keefe and all those people – you never got to hear about their successes or the hardship. If you won Battle of the Sounds, you didn’t win anything because you had to work on that boat for four weeks before you got to England, and then you had to work your passage back. So they were the real frontrunners. Countdown just became something else,”
“Of course it was looking for stars because it was a popularity thing, if the kids liked something it would automatically go on the charts if you were on Countdown. It was exciting. But they were looking for bands that didn’t necessarily have a record. And there were other shows that were like a fraternity of shows. The ABC had a 10 minute show just before Bellbird and they had lots of different acts, Billy Thorpe, The Pelaco Brothers – we didn’t have a record but we were playing in Sydney and they asked us to come to the studio.”
“What was great about Countdown was that people knew about the bands, someone like Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons did very well. I remember going on that with a single called ‘Run Rudolph Run’ but I hadn’t played as ‘The Falcons’ before that and they just put it on. One minute I’m playing and just having a lot of people come to see you play but no record, no anything, and the next thing you’ve got a record and no-one knows anything about it. They put you on Countdown and it’s in the charts. It’s amazing.”
“What was really great about Sounds was it went for a few hours on a Saturday morning. You could pretty much just ring them and say ‘We’re in town, can we pop in?’ and they’d have you in. They’d have you in and you’d just sit there in your drunken state, as shabby as you can be from the night before, and if you had a video, they’d play it. If you didn’t, you’d just have a chat.”
“You couldn’t do that today, today you’ve got to go through the wringer. It’s really tight. There was a beautiful time, not only because of Countdown but because there was something that was going on, I’ve always put it down to late night closing, the 10 o’clock close, it changed everything because instead of bands playing in halls, they were now playing in bars. So all of a sudden if you were half-decent, like The Falcons were, you’d have 700 people coming to a gig and getting on board a whole bunch of songs that nobody knows.”
“The word would get out, kind of like Facebook does today but with drums and smoke,” laughs Joe.
“The live thing is healthy again, I think. I’ve played pretty much everywhere around the world and Australian bands can rock. I think it’s because of the pub scene. The pub scene was a really hard scene because if they didn’t like it they’d let you know pretty quickly. It was tough. You were kind of invisible, but not invisible. You would know what a good track was. You would play your repertoire, you would play your album, you would play it in, you would know pretty much how the audience reacted to it,”
“I remember ‘Shape I’m In’ at Croxton Park – I can remember it like it was yesterday. I said, ‘I’ve got this song, it’s called The Shape I’m In, and the audience started grooving to this half-finished song. The roadie came up to me and said, ‘I think that’s your single.'”
“Many a song got left on the road because you develop. If you did 10 shows to get to Sydney, by the time you got to Sydney you’d have a pretty good idea of what you were playing and what you thought was pretty strong, because the last thing you wanted to do was be downtrodden by the audience. It was tough, but it was good training. That’s why I think when the (Black) Sorrows played in Europe for the first time, it didn’t matter if we were two miles apart from each other on a stage, we could play together and it made a really big difference to us.”
“It can be stressful, there’s peaks and valleys in all this stuff. You’re always having a good look at yourself and you’re always asking the question because no-one taps me on the shoulder to say ‘Look, I think it’s time to make another album’.”
“I was never a popstar. I don’t know how people perceive me really, but I imagine have followed what I do on a different level, not just from the hit songs but because my audiences have liked what I’ve done as a collection of music on an album. Not necessarily the Shape I’m Ins or Hit and Runs or the Harley and Rose … those things are valuable to you as a performer but maybe I realised kind of early that my whole thing would have to be (that) we’re all in the same boat – the audience and the performer – so I’m more than happy to leave Harley and Rose out if it didn’t work on the night. But there’s nothing scheduled, there’s nothing planned. I haven’t had a song list unless doing something really small, or filming or something. With the APIA tour I had to actually do those songs because it wasn’t my bad so I had to behave a bit. But when you’re doing your own show it’s more about the event of what you’ve got to offer.”
“Even though it’s my 50th year (in the music industry) I didn’t start recording really until 1975, or 1972 … around that time … so my whole thing is that if we can do it where there’s no trigger points, each song belongs as part of the collection of the night rather than ‘here’s the songs, you can buy this’. My thing is to be as free as I can both musically and from a performance point of view. I think what I’ve been able to achieve is that people realise if they come and see me in a couple of weeks time it’s not going to be the same. Some of the songs might be the same but there’ll be different things.”
“It can be stressful, there’s peaks and valleys in all this stuff. You’re always having a good look at yourself and you’re always asking the question because no-one taps me on the shoulder to say ‘Look, I think it’s time to make another album’. It’s kinda good. I like being an independent artist on that level.”
Joe Camilleri is already up to album number 45 and working on another.
“I’ve got this new double album called ‘Endless Sleep’. I’ve already got a title for it. When I was recording Certified Blue I was also recording other songs for what I just thought was entertainment value. I tried to get inspired by something so I’d play on the piano something like Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, and then I’d find another way of getting into that song and maybe we’d record it and just leave it. But then I realised it’s the inspiration of these people, whether it’s Gil Scott Heron or Lou Reed, so when I finished Certified Blue I had about nine of these songs and I realised that they (the artists) were all departed.”
“And I thought there’s some kind of message here – I was just doing it because I liked the songs, I wasn’t paying any attention to this, and so when I realised that most of them had departed I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is what I need to do’, even though I’m writing new songs, I need to make this record. The song from the 1950s by Jody Reynolds called ‘Endless Sleep’ came up in my head and I thought ‘there it is, it’s the title of the album and the reason I’m doing this record’.
What’s the first song Joe Camilleri remembers hearing?
“There was this woman in Carlton. Some of the houses in Carlton had their windows right on the street, there was no front yard. There was this woman called Aunty Darcy, we used to call her that, I don’t know why, but she was a music fan and she would open the window and just give us stuff,”
“She would say ‘come and have a listen to this’ and I remember her saying ‘this is the new thing’ and I guess I probably thought it was going to be Doris Day or something, but it was Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and The Comets. I remember hearing that.”
“I think those days everybody had a piano or some sort of musical instrument because that’s what you would do at night, you’d sit around the piano and sing songs. My brother played the piano accordion and we would do that.”
“I used to love the radio and I loved to sing the songs of the day, but wasn’t until about 1961, 1962 – it was when I heard The Searchers, I probably heard The Searchers before The Beatles because they all came out around the same time. There was this noise about this new thing, this British beat, and there was The (Rolling) Stones, The Animals, and The Kinks – all this music was coming out at the same time and that’s when I got pretty much hooked on the whole idea.”
“I loved all the Elvis Presley things but I didn’t have the money for that sort of stuff. The Shadows was the first record I bought, maybe it was the only album I could find at the time, but it wasn’t until the sixties really that I went nuts and went back and found all those records that the Rolling Stones did great versions of, Otis Redding or Howlin’ Wolf, that was a kind of secret, this thing that kind of came upon you and WOW! It was insane staff. It was dark and it was mysterious and it had something else. But it was kind of like the British beat going back 10 years and buying that stuff. There was an album called, I think, ‘Fresh Berries’ it had just Chuck Berry songs. It had ‘Carol’ on it and it had all these other songs that the Rolling Stones were playing, they did pretty good versions and they souped them up a bit, but you realise the depth of Chuck Berry playing those songs because he really was the Shakespeare of rock & roll.”
“I’d just had enough. I had this really beautiful 13-piece band and we went around the country and we had two hit singles, a pretty big record with a chart record but I wasn’t very happy with the record.”
The early part of Joe Camilleri’s career, the Countdown era, was one thing, but then in the 1980s Joe returned with The Black Sorrows which went huge.
“By accident of course! I was pouring coffees. I’d just had a hit with Taxi Mary and Walk On By – the great Walk On By which I think I ruined although it was an interesting verison of that song. I just gave up. I said ‘I’m just gonna take some time out’ and I got a job as a vegie roadie working at the Footscray market. It was just taking vegetables from trucks and putting them on other trucks, so that was my gig,”
“I’d just had enough. I had this really beautiful 13-piece band and we went around the country and we had two hit singles, a pretty big record with a chart record but I wasn’t very happy with the record. It could have been so much better and it was my fault that it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but anyway, it yielded these two songs and we got to play and I got to do something that I wanted to do which was play with the cha band and six horns and high-heeled boots and gay cavalier and all that nonsense, but it just left me wanting. It was nice, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I thought, ‘I’m just gonna get a job’, it wasn’t much of a job, it was three hours a day but you had to get up at 5am, done by 9am, and you had $20 a day and all the vegetables you can eat, so I got this other job by meeting a guy who loved Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons. He’d just opened a restaurant and he said, ‘Why don’t you come and work for me, I’ll give you a job, you can pour some coffees’, so that was my gig at this place called the Cafe Neon.
“So I did that and Chris said, ‘Why don’t you do something on a Sunday afternoon?’ and that’s how it all started.”
“I was in love with this music called zydeco music and no-one really knew much about it here, maybe some taste-makers might have known about it, it was an unusual connection. We had the piano accordion/violin sound, and then there was the clarinet and saxophone – we made up the horn section and the four of us made up this sound, it was kind of a nice sound,”
“I recorded an album of covers really, except for one song called Blow Joe Blow, and we did a couple of shows and people went nuts for it because it was different. It might not have been great but it was heartfelt. And of course it yielded a hit out of the weirdest thing,”
“Elvis Costello was in town, we toured with Elvis. Across the road from where he was staying was this place called ‘Discurio’ – somewhere like that. I would go to the record stores and actually sell them to the record stores. In fact next door to the Cafe Neon was a butcher shop and I sold him 10 copies, that was a new cut of meat!”
“But that’s what you did. We made the record in a day, a guy I knew designed the cover, another guy could make a screenprint, so we screenprinted them and put them on the line, we did some t-shirts at the same time and got them out there,”
“But he (Costello) found this record and I swear to you that he spent more time talking about this particular record than talking about what he’s doing on tour.”
“Most of this record was from an album called ‘Another Saturday Night’ and that’s where I got to hear someone like Bobby Charles, and zydeco music was sort of like New Orleans music but they used it in a different way, they used those R&B songs where they went back to the fifties and sometimes sang in French. I did a song called ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ and that particular song turned it around for this band,”
“We’d only done maybe two or three shows for this record. It was recorded in an afternoon and that was under circumstances – we weren’t allowed to keep the tapes, we only had a day to record, it was a demonstration for the studio because they got a new desk in and wanted someone to try it out. That’s how it happened. We recorded a couple of extra songs but I never got to keep the tape. Everything was just by chance,”
“I don’t know if you run out of gas, but from the point of view of playing together it was so manic. You’re doing 300 shows a year and you’re playing all over the world and something had to go. Unfortunately for me I got a thing where I couldn’t fly anymore.”
“But that led me to that point where we were a really big band and we were recording things like ‘Chained To The Wheel’ and we had the Bull sisters and we’re playing all over the world and we’re getting gold records in different parts of the world and platinum records in Australia and multi-platinum records. It took us on a wonderful journey,”
“But once again the bigger you get, the harder it is to stay there. I always ask, ‘Why is it that Paul McCartney wrote so many songs but he can’t have a hit record anymore?’. I don’t know if you run out of gas, but from the point of view of playing together it was so manic. You’re doing 300 shows a year and you’re playing all over the world and something had to go. Unfortunately for me I got a thing where I couldn’t fly anymore. I didn’t fly for about four years so if I was touring I’d have to catch a train. If I was coming to Sydney I’d have to go overnight and it was kind of annoying for people.”
“It was just really tough. We had a hit in Germany and I just couldn’t go. But I couldn’t tell anyone I couldn’t fly anymore. And flying really killed my overseas commitment to taking the band there, so if you can’t go there … today you can do different things. I remember I made a decision to go and live in England because if we were going to do it we had to base ourselves somewhere in Europe where we could jump off. I was with Sony at the time and they were trying to get me to go to Germany. They said, ‘This is going to be a top single, top 10, it’s already 18, get your keester down there and do it pronto!’ They’re not used to people saying, ‘No’.”
” I’d only get on a plane under certain circumstances; I had to have valium, I had to be in an aisle seat, I had to have water, I had to have someone to talk to, I had to be allowed to get off if I needed to get off.”
“They think I want a business class ticket. I don’t care what sort of ticket it was, I couldn’t get on a plane, and I thought at the time that I was the only person in the universe who couldn’t do this, I thought it was a real sign of weakness and that created a really bad thing in me. I was at a point where if the sky was grey I felt claustrophobic. I couldn’t get outside the house unless it was a blue day. So I’m putting all these things in front of myself not knowing how to get any assistance,”
“It was Harlan (Joe’s son) strangely enough who saved my life, because I decided I was going to fight it. I was ready to get off this plane. I’d only get on a plane under certain circumstances; I had to have valium, I had to be in an aisle seat, I had to have water, I had to have someone to talk to, I had to be allowed to get off if I needed to get off – all these different things. And then Harlan got sick on a plane and somehow everything changed. It wasn’t about me anymore, it was about the things I really loved,”
“It was a small trigger and it took me another three years, but I was then able to slowly do things and strip away these things. It was all about fear of failure, I think.”
“Here I am, 66, and I’m still throwing it out, but you wouldn’t have thought that at the time, you’d just think it’s the end.”
“All those little things that I didn’t have with The Falcons. When I was playing with The Falcons, even though I was the leader of the band I only ever felt like I was just one of the musicians because we’re all in it together. It’s a nice thing to know that nobody got anymore than anybody else. Sometimes these are the things that you struggle with. Even in a world where money becomes evil, some people will start making money and if you don’t look after everybody else some of them don’t make anything apart from their gig fee. All those things were able to be rectified but in those days we were all in it because it was all beer and skittles! Wagon Wheels and malted milks! There was NO money so it wasn’t an issue!”
“We’d do 300 shows a year with The Falcons, or The Sorrows, we’d get $300 a week, or $250 a week, we’d have four weeks off, or six weeks off – two weeks making a record, and you’d get paid those six weeks. The roadies were being paid while we weren’t working for those six week as well. So of course when the band finally broke up, we didn’t have any money because everyone else had it. Everyone else that wasn’t involved in the band made the bulk of our hard work. But no-one felt bad about it. We all felt, ‘Gee whiz if you can hang out til you’re 30 and you’re in a band, are you crazy? There goes your rock & roll shoes!'”
“Here I am, 66, and I’m still throwing it out, but you wouldn’t have thought that at the time, you’d just think it’s the end.”
“Making those first four records independently with The Sorrows, it wasn’t that hard, apart from the Dear Children album, which is my favourite record. Not because it has great songs on it, but because it was what I call my ‘wedding album’ – I must have played a hundred weddings to make that album. To get a gold record from Sony for that – it’s the only record that I have anywhere in that house. I don’t have any paraphenalia, nothing. Just that gold record. And I’ve had multi-platinum records and gold singles and all that kind of nonsense, ARIAs, but nothing belongs in my house. Nothing beats that ‘wedding album’.”
“It was the struggle of that record. It was, ‘I’ve got to make this properly, I’ve got to record it on two-inch (tape), I can’t be muching around with that A-DAT stuff, I’ve got to make this on two-inch, I’ve got 24 tracks, I’ve got a limited amount of time, I’m going to run out of time, I’ve got $400 and it’s like putting money in a machine. They gave me some liberties and I got it done and it was just beautiful to hear it on the radio.”
“Some people are really blessed and they have a beautiful voice – I don’t have all those things. I have a different thing but I have things that other people don’t have. Maybe it’s called tenacity.”
So is Joe Camilleri a happy man?
“Yeah. I am happy. I do believe that it’s always half-full. As you get a bit older, you get a few barnacles and you struggle. With pain. I don’t call it real pain because I imagine people with real pain, but I still have an upbeat concept and I still love doing the things that I like to do and that makes me good.”
“The really nice thing is playing music, I think that’s the only time I can say I really get lost. I have responsibilities like we all have. I’ve got five children. I’ve got a whole bunch of things I have to deal with on a financial basis, I have a record label, I have to look after certain things, and I’m only good if people allow me to be that, if they want to hire me. If I don’t have a job, I don’t have a job.”
“On some levels I’ve been really fortunate, and I think some of that is because of the way I’ve navigated through things. Whether it’s been a dumb way or not, I don’t know. I don’t worry about it. You’re gonna get ripped off; I’ve been ripped off. I don’t care for thinking about it. It doesn’t put my stomach in a knot. There’s been plenty of guys who haven’t paid me. There’s been lots of stuff where record companies have … I mean, how do you know what your royalty rates are? Who cares? I’m interested in the day. I’m interested in what’s going to be tomorrow. It doesn’t take much for me to smile. I look forward to playing and it’s kinda nice when people say nice things about you but also if they say nice things about your art, or your work, or whatever you want to call music.”
“I love having an idea and finishing it. That’s my tradesman bit! I actually do love that and I’m working on four or five songs at any one time. Like we all are! Some people are really blessed and they have a beautiful voice – I don’t have all those things. I have a different thing but I have things that other people don’t have. Maybe it’s called tenacity. Maybe it’s a bunch of different things. I look forward to getting better at what I do, so that’s good. I kick myself up the keester for being lazy – if I’ve got an idea and I can’t finish it.”
I mention to Joe that having this conversation with him is a bit like watching an artist with six unfinished paintings on easels and is figuring out at which point they each become finished.
“Imagine Picasso doing that! Putting his brush in a bit of paint and walking past and just going ‘splot’ – that’s done! As a producer I fight the struggle with songs because I know every note on there. So I can’t listen to the record. I can listen to playing it live because it’s happening, but I can’t listen to the record.”
“Unlike The Falcons where you work through the song, with The Sorrows you don’t have that opportunity to work through the songs, you have that time in the studio to work through the songs because it is a band, but it’s not a band. It’s a band of people that get together.”
“I’m just honoured to be part of the Australian musical landscape, really. Forget about the hits and stuff, although the hits made a big difference, but there’s just something about people enjoying what you do,”
“The best drug you can have is when an audience is singing back something that you’ve written. It’s an incredible feeling. I do it on a small scale but imagine what it’s like for the Stones. People just going nuts and saying, ‘I really dig this song and I don’t even know what it’s about.'”