Recently, I stood at a piece of ground where a rock’n’roll legend was born. “Right here by this gate” he told me. It was a rusted, crooked gate. A kind of back entrance to a home where the occupants priorities lay somewhere away from mowing the lawn and straightening the fence.
The beauty of this place is that it’s probably one of the most sought after pieces of real estate in Australia. Part of a small bunch of houses atop a wide open grass slope, serving as an amphitheatre to the stage of Botany Bay and, in a recent time, the arrival of the first boats. He owns it all, as a traditional tribal elder. It’s his birthright. Bidjigal land, on which he was born, raised and stringently confined, until Buddy Holly came to town.
The man’s name is Vic Simms. You won’t have heard of him. I’ll put a fifty on it. Though he is, undoubtedly, a national treasure. He is also my friend and I call him Uncle. We all should.
When I stood with Uncle Vic in his home of La Perouse, I thought about how and why I wound up there, with him. About two years ago I was working at 98.9fm in Brisbane. I was transferring a pile of analogue recordings from First Nations artists on to a digital archive.
One DAT that showed up on my desk, like most of them, had no label of its contents, save for a post-it note, which read ‘Do Not Touch’. On it was ‘The Loner’, an album written and recorded by Vic Simms. It blew my mind. I hit record on the computer and play on the DAT machine and listened to every word. I started writing down the words to a particular song; Poor Folks Happiness. I got stuck on one of the phrases, so I asked around the office to see if anyone could figure it out.
Eventually, the Boss came downstairs, handed me his mobile phone and said “here, call him”. By this point, I’d learnt that ‘The Loner’ was impossible to get an original copy of. I’d also learnt of the incredible circumstances and the myths surrounding this album and the man who made it. ‘The Loner’ was recorded in 1973 in the kitchen of Bathurst Goal, notorious at the time for a series of large riots. In an attempt to restore some positive public relations, Vic was granted one hour to record the entire album, with a band he’d never met. We were as surprised as each other to be speaking on the phone.
I know what he was thinking; “who the fuck is this kid from Queensland ringing me up at home, rabbiting on about some songs I recorded 40 years ago in prison?” I asked him if he could tell me what the phrase was that was puzzling me. I also asked for his permission, should I want to play, or record ‘Poor Folks Happiness’. He said yes, so I did. I went into the studio at work and knocked out my own version of the song.
I then posted a copy to Vic. I still knew little about Vic Simms the man, but I did know by then that he speaks the truth, so I was stoked when he phoned me up and said that he liked my recording. So much in fact, that he suggested I record more. “Kinda like an EP” he said, “call it “The Loner Revisited or something”. I was so honoured. I told him that I’d love to, though if I were to do it, I’d have to do it properly and, at that point, I didn’t have much time or money to do it properly. “No rush” was his response.
Enter Simon. Simon Homer runs Plus 1 Records, the label that Halfway is signed to. I play keys in Halfway. I told him about my cool little story at a barbecue and gave him a burned copy of “The Loner” that I had sitting in my car. Everyone that Simon spoke to after that had the same reaction as he did; “that’s fucking cool!” While Simon began fishing for ways to make the project happen, my five years at 98.9fm came to an end.
The job had served me well, but I just didn’t wanna be there anymore. I was sitting on my friends front deck in Bardon, scared, broke and wondering what the hell I was gonna do with myself. Then Simon rang me and gave me my answer. Rock’n’roll saves the day!
We sat and met. “You’ve gotta get a band together” Simon told me. He rattled off an impressive list of peeps who could potentially be involved. I thought about it for a while. “Let’s get the boys from the Medics!”
The style of music we were looking at wasn’t exactly in the Medics bag, but I’d seen them play and knew the guys had it in them. It was an attitude that took me. Also, of course, they’re a Black band, which was a must. Their first reaction was the same as most others – “really…?”. Yep!
We met around a table of beers at the Bardon Bowls Club and after a few, they were pumped. So was I. When we got together for our first rehearsal, I was nervous. “Is this gamble gonna pay off?” It did. They got it. And after two or three practices they were nailing it. I was bloody happy.
Then I texted Uncle Vic. He was filthy. And I’d fucked up. If you’re gonna do something like this for someone, don’t leave them in the dark. I’d left it too long between phone calls and Vic had decided that, like countless times before, he’d been done over. He replied in no uncertain terms that he’d have no part in it. I was devo’d. But I rang and rang and finally Vic answered his phone.
He gave me a piece of his mind and I took it. After all, we still hadn’t even met face-to-face. I decided not to back down. I told him it was gonna happen and it was gonna be awesome and he should at least be on my side or it was all pointless. I convinced him to catch a train up from Sydney, to come up and meet my family, to stay at my house, to meet Simon and to meet the boys.
The night before Vic arrived, I was at the Bardon Bowls Club and I won two meat trays. Barbecue at my place! I invited everyone around. And Vic invited his friend and brother, Roger Knox, another musical treasure, who happened to be in town. We sat under my house and listened as Uncle Vic and Uncle Roger told some of the best yarns we’d ever heard.
Of their prison tours together, of departed comrades and of Uncle Roger surviving two plane crashes in one day. Wow. The best thing about that weekend was that Vic and I got along famously. He was as relieved as I was. By this point, word had got around about our project. Russell Hopkinson – an avid music fan and drummer for You Am I – was just one person to voice their desire to play on the recordings. We already had a rhythm section, but I wanted him involved. Rusty and Vic knew each other.
Rusty was the only person I knew that actually had an original copy of “The Loner”, along with some even rarer Vic Simms recordings. So I asked Rusty if he would produce the album. We found a small window of time that suited all parties and he flew in to Brisbane for the main sessions. We had a list as long as my arm of musicians wanting in. All sorts of musicians.
People I admired, people I idolised and people that would add a lot of weight to public interest in the album. Unfortunately though, I just couldn’t find a place for them without it sounding silly, like ‘We Are The World’ or something. Some players I just couldn’t say no to, through either their stubbornness or mine.
Over the four days of tracking, we had some very cool guests drop in and play. I could name them, but I wanna wait till the records out… Spend five minutes with Vic Simms and you’ll have a story. His life is full of them. I’m so proud to create and share this story with Uncle Vic. Especially the soundtrack.