Roadies life not so rock n roll
Picture: Ben Crabtree/The West Australian

Sex, drugs . . . and rock'n'roll.

Well for the musos at least.

For the crews who kept the bands on the road and the stage during the glory days, it could be their teeth and hearing that are uppermost in their thoughts.

The first roadies reunion has turned into a campaign to support the former crews without whom many musicians and bands would not have made their fame and fortune.

Known as the Australian Road Crew Collective, they are aiming to set up a benevolent fund for roadies who have fallen on hard times and also hold a second reunion in Sydney in July.

About 200 people who had worked as roadies between 1968 and 1982 went to the first one held on a sunny Sunday afternoon - November 25 - at the St Kilda Bowling Club in Melbourne.

Sixty of these hardcore starters of the music industry who were invited couldn't turn up and organisers are still trying to locate at least another 40, but others flew in from all over the country and Singapore, Thailand, the United States and England.

They included some women, one of whom was a roadie with ACDC in the early days.

At least 70 have died - many from suicide - due, the others believe, to a feeling of abandonment.

The reunion came about when a couple of former roadies from Melbourne, including Ian (Piggy) Peel, wondered if old mates were still alive, and posted on a private page on Facebook. They were flooded with messages and photos.

Peel says the business name has now been registered, and they are working on a website.

He likened the roadies to war veterans, who may have been at war for five years in a highly intense situation and come back and think, `I'm lost'.

"You go, `Hang on there's a lot of rich people out there who have got rich by the sweat of our backs'," Peel says.

"The crews made the bands look and sound good but the respect didn't always come back."

Those years up until the early 90s were the halcyon days of Aussie rock'n'roll when, with not a huge amount of competition for the entertainment dollar, bands were making money playing at a wide variety of live venues as well as selling records.

Everybody knew each other, being a small fraternity.

"You'd be driving from Melbourne to Sydney and you'd see a truck coming . . . and you'd stop to say g'day," Ian `Smithy' Smith, one of the former roadies, says.

"You knew all the bands, all the venues, the radio stations.

"Just about every single one of them was a character. I used to look at it a bit like in the army, because at that period of time you recognised everybody else who was like you, particularly late 60s, early 70s."

And all the characters - most with long hair - had nicknames - Spider or Sneaky or Squirt or Rocket or Puckoon or Scrooge.

"I was fortunate I ended up with Smithy."

Smith started in the job as a fresh-faced 19-year-old from Perth working with a range of bands and singers including Sherbert, Daddy Cool and Billy Thorpe, then becoming tour manager of Cold Chisel and other bands before going into events management, with occasional touring.

You needed to know how to lift things properly so you didn't hurt yourself, electrics, sound, lighting and, of course, long-distance driving.

"We'd know how long it would take us to drive between every town in Australia. You'd know exactly how much fuel you needed to get from point A to point B."

In those days there was no such thing as fair work conditions, superannuation or leave loadings.

"It was back-breaking, really hard work, sometimes two to three gigs a day, packing things up, lifting things upstairs, driving overnight from Sydney to Melbourne, Sydney to Brisbane.

"I discovered if you were one step ahead and you were actually willing to take some sort of responsibility you could move up.

"I travelled the world. I heard fabulous music, met fabulous people, went to incredible places.

"I love hotels and airports, and hire cars and catering.

"I found it gruelling at times, lonely at times, weird at times but it was never not fun in some way or the other."

But going on the road has taken a great deal out of most of the roadies he saw at the reunion.

"The amount of guys I met who, because they were on the road for a long time, never formed relationships now are single, solo, still living at home with their parents.

"It was a dentists' nightmare. I've never seen so many missing teeth in one room in my life. A lot of it comes from bad diet . . . they used to have to provide a meal with the ticket you bought for a band so you'd get the worst chilli con carne with rice.

"Or they're deaf. We should have called it Hearing Aid.

"A lot are coming out with bad feet, backs, shoulders."

From the mid 80s the scene radically changed. Disco came in and electronic developments meant less people were needed.

With less venues for live music many small gigs ceased and the bigger ones used their own equipment, according to Peel.

"There was less requirement for bands to have permanent crew," he says.

Peel says he worked for 10 years from 1974 in the industry, including international touring in Europe with Eurythmics and Madness. But when he came home it had changed so much he moved into maritime work.

Meanwhile, a band might have a farewell tour and retire rich but the roadies were left behind.

"I guess a lot of people expected something out of it they didn't get."

Still some promoters and musicians who came to the reunion - and also played at it - couldn't believe the camaraderie that still exists among roadies, he says.

And what about the sex and drugs?

Peel believes that image tainted the whole industry, and the idea of groupies was a "social stigma" they put up with.

"A lot of crews they just worked their arses off, they didn't have time to get involved in any of that.

"The band was the sex, drugs and rock and roll and the crew were (the ones who) . . . set up and pulled down, sound engineers and welders and wiring guys and production guys . . . everything rolled into one."

The West Australian

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