Australian Crawl still light up
Quintessential surf-rock band Australian Crawl. Picture: Supplied

Australian Crawl were the quintessential surf-rock band - the salty 'n' tanned answer to Melbourne's suburban kooks Skyhooks or Adelaide's booze-soaked Cold Chisel.

Led by Nigerian-born singer/playboy James Reyne, the Crawl strolled off the beaches of their native Mornington Peninsula in 1978 to make a memorable debut on Countdown the following year. The marble-mouthed Reyne drawled Beautiful People out front with both his arms in plaster after a car accident - TV-land punters probably thought he'd been dumped on a reef by a monster wave.

From that unforgettable introduction, the Crawl were unstoppable, releasing three multi-platinum albums - The Boys Light Up, Sirocco and the aptly titled Sons of Beaches - between 1980-82, plus the 1983 Semantics EP which contained the chart-topping ballad, Reckless.

To this day, songs such as Errol, Downhearted and Things Don't Seem evoke sun-drenched images of rolling waves, sandy beaches and mullets with frosted tips.

Right when they seemed on the crest of a giant wave of success, the band got dumped. Drummer Bill McDonough left due to intra-band tensions, then his brother singer-guitarist Guy died in 1984 and the now self-managed group continued to fracture, culminating in the departure of bassist Paul Williams before their final album, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, was released in 1985.

Australian Crawl recorded their last Melbourne concert in January 1986 for the live album, The Final Wave, and - after playing their final show in Perth on February 1 - that was that.

Besides their albums being re-released on compact disc in the 90s and Reyne forging an ongoing successful solo career, we've not heard much out of camp Crawl since their mid-80s wipe-out - until now.

Thirty-five years on from the Crawl's first gig, web-surfing fans can finally get their entire catalogue from iTunes. A new 19-track best-of album, The Greatest Hits, is released today on CD. Deluxe editions of the four studio albums plus a double vinyl version of The Greatest Hits are expected later this year.

While Reyne was not available for a chat about the re-release, Williams was tracked down near Cairns where he and his wife were about to embark on a driving holiday.

"Grey nomads, hey," he laughs. "We'll be camping all the way up with the surfboard in the car and all that."

Unlike the Beach Boys, most of the members of Australian Crawl were keen surfers, as were their early fans.

"When we started playing, we would hire halls and you didn't even need emails or text messages, the surf crowd would just all roll up," Williams recalls. "We appealed to that crowd and we looked like that - we had the mushroom haircuts with the long hair, the thongs.

"There was an attempt to get a bit inner-city and hip there for a while with the straight-leg pants and the short haircuts you see in some of the later film clips," he continues, "but we always loved coming to Perth because that was such a beachy place. Whenever we went anywhere, we always went to the beach. It was just a natural thing for us."

The sun, surf and sex of the Crawl didn't initially go down well among Melbourne's inner-city scene, prompting Williams and Reyne to write the "big retort" Unpublished Critics, which appeared on 1981's Sirocco.

"We were upstarts, we were from out of town," Williams says.

"We weren't hip, you know.

"(Unpublished Critics is) mainly about these sort of dudes who would always go to see rock bands but they weren't there to enjoy the night. It was these smart-arse guys in other bands that didn't like us and they were always up the back. When you'd go and get a drink they'd be looking down on you."

Australian Crawl self-consciously tried to fight against the cultural cringe which had infected the national music scene up until the mid-seventies. Williams refers to band like Axiom, who scored a hit with Arkansas Grass in 1969, and Mississippi, who changed their name to Little River Band, as acts trying to identify as American.

He says Melbourne legends Skyhooks reversed that trend with songs littered with local references, such as Balwyn Calling, Carlton (Lygon Street Limbo) and Toorak Cowboy. "It made you feel like, 'Yeah, this is our place, this is where we're from and this is what we'll talk about'."

Australian Crawl followed the 'Hooks lead; debut single Beautiful People ridiculed the vacuous elite of suburbs like Toorak, with their "Robert Palmer T-shirt in their travel bag".

Another classic is Errol, a paean to swashbuckling Aussie actor Errol Flynn. "I still love the sound of it, it's my favourite," Williams says of the 1981 single penned by Reyne and Guy McDonough. "To me, it sounds like I'm riding on a wave when I hear that."

The local references continued through Daughters of the Northern Coast and, of course, the oft-covered Reckless, with its lines about Burke and Wills, the Manly Ferry and Circular Quay. Then there's The Boys Light Up, one of the band's biggest radio staples despite lyrics hinting at drugs and sexual shenanigans.

"Molly Meldrum heard that and went, 'Nup, that's not going on Countdown'," Williams laughs. "That got us publicity and helped us."

The online re-issue brings back plenty of good memories for the bassist but also some bittersweet ones. In addition to the late Guy McDonough, Brad Robinson (guitars/keys) died in 1996, while guitarist Simon Binks is apparently broke, bitter and estranged from Reyne, who himself seems uninterested in the current project.

While their contemporaries, including Hunters and Collectors and Cold Chisel, are back recording and/or touring, Australian Crawl will not follow suit and reunite.

"Honestly, with two of the crucial members not with us anymore, we're not in any shape or form to do anything like that," Williams says.

The Crawl's legacy remains strong - just turn on the radio.

"Driving up and down the coast, I can hear us in petrol stations and supermarkets," Williams says. "You talk to people, old friends, and they'll say, 'Your first album and Cold Chisel's East, we had them on either side of a cassette in the car and at parties'.

"It's so nice to be remembered like that by somebody, as the soundtrack to their lives. Without sounding too wanky, I'm proud of that."

The West Australian

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