By Peter Dewar
The Blackshaws Road stretch is hardly Abbey Road… but it leads to the Altona North door of a living Beatles’ encyclopaedia whose smarts helped kick start one of the worlds’ longest running Beatles radio programs.
Monday night, 10 pm. Graeme and two other Fab Four aficionados are in a sound booth selecting tracks from CDs for Stereo 974’s ‘Let It Be Beatles’ radio show. For the next two hours, a dedicated audience are taken on a Magical Mystery Tour of songs by the world’s most famous pop band.
“Roll up That’s an invitation Roll up for the Mystery Tour Roll up …”
In an instant, I’m back in a 60s lounge room. As a starry-eyed teen in Levi jeans, I’d be lost for hours, laying on the carpeted floor next to our family record player, mesmerised by the fantastical psychedelia on ‘A Magical Mystery Tour’ and ‘Sergeants Peppers’ album covers.
When the community radio program started on 3WRB in 1992, Graeme could have been mistaken for Merv Hughes, thanks to a heavy, black moustache. The show rocketed skywards in popularity, known for its depth of research and rare takes. One particular night, all 14 versions of ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ got a run.
‘I’m so proud of those letters,’ says Graeme, now turned gray and conjuring images of Henry Lawson more than anything. I tried to think of a Beatles character but couldn’t. And yes, there was a time before Facebook when listeners wrote in to say thanks for playing unheard tracks.
Today the audience is smaller… in the hundreds, but stretches as far as Portugal, Brazil and Beatles’ hometown Liverpool, and can still expect to learn something new about the iconic band in every show.
On the night I tune in, song selection is organised around pivotal junctures in The Beatles’ history: 1963 Sunday Night London Palladium performance and the moment ‘Beatlemania’ was coined by the London press; 1964 performance at Melbourne’s Festival Hall; ‘Hey Jude’ birthday tribute to Julian Lennon; 1970s press conference when Paul McCartney telegraphed the Beatles’ breakup while promoting his first solo album.
Graeme plays a Hollies’ track pointing out a line of lyrics so close to a Beatles’ song the familiar phrase was quite possibly ‘borrowed’ by the English band. Apparently, a bit of that went on back then.
A scratchy 60s recording features a rollicking interview between a former Melbourne radio/television personality and the Fab Four. Anticipating a tour Down Under, the carefree Cockney lads joke with a bewildered interviewer, speculating around Ringo’s possible Aboriginal ancestry; and in fits of laughter as to New Zealand’s whereabouts: ‘Off Australia’s reef… reef? Reefer.’
It wouldn’t be a show without the ‘We can work it out’ segment. More Beatles’ songs: this time, there’s a theme to decipher.
Graeme believes a discerning attitude to the music has helped keep the show going for more than two decades: ‘They like you to be straight up and honest about it,’ he says. ‘When I’m in, I’m certainly not lovin’ Paul McCartney.’
Attempts by McCartney, in Graeme’s eyes at least, to take credit for John Lennon’s work may have something to do with it. Oh, and then there’s the solo thing: ‘I don’t like the Wings’ stuff – its crap.’
Ouch. Wings’ fans, I feel your pain. And while countless McCartney fans may choose to disagree, as far as The Beatles are concerned, its hard to dispute Graeme’s credentials.
In the nineties, when a bagful of unreleased material hit Australian music stores, Graeme was quoted alongside famed Australian rock commentator Glenn A. Baker on the front page of The Age. In fact, Graeme is known internationally for his extensive Beatles collection, which earned him a mention in media academic Roy Shuker’s sociological work on music collectors – ‘Wax Trash and Vinyl Treasures: Record Collecting as a Social Practice’ (2010).
So when Andy Neill – associate of the worlds’ leading authority on The Beatles, Mark Lewisohn – was searching for information about The Beatles’ Melbourne performances for his upcoming book ‘Across The Universe: On Tour and On Stage’, it was only natural that he headed to North Altona. Still can’t believe I’m saying that. But in Graeme’s shed, surrounded by walls crammed with CDs, records, magazines, artwork and memorabilia, Neill sifted through press cuttings and listened to audio from the 60s.
On a Friday afternoon Graeme would do the rounds of Melbourne music stores, possessed by ‘ferocious fanaticism’, spending all but $20 of his pay on records.
To think of Graeme as a hoarder – or even eccentric – is to miss the point. Of collecting as much as anything else. Look around at the books, music or decorations in your own home: chances are, there’s an item or items that belong to yesterday. Like a talisman, they magically transport us to another place and time. Meeting Graeme helped me understand, we’re all collectors.
He began young as most career collectors do. Cards were first, comics came next and then music.
At home a crew would be congregating at ‘Club 38’, the bungalow out back. After Graeme arrived, they’d listen to music till early hours the next morning.
These days Graeme is less frenetic. Not after amassing an impressive music collection of some 30,000 items from sixties pop to punk. As for his Beatles collection: ‘Lots of records … 1500. Thousands of CDs. Thousands of magazines.’ And a limited number of memorabilia. It’s a vast collection best defined by the pursuit of knowledge. Which is where mature collectors end up – as historians.
There’s no doubt, Graeme is an untapped source of information. His man cave is a museum – tribute to my formative years, and I suspect, many others. But is it a sense of responsibility that drives him? ‘I don’t know … it just sort of takes you over,’ he says, in a reflective moment. ‘It’s like you’re in a different time period, reading things from a different time, a bit of a discovery.’
So when it comes to the favourite song in Graeme’s Beatles collection, what else could it be but a memory from childhood.
He was eleven years-old and lay asleep one morning as his brother went from their shared bedroom to the stereo player. He placed the Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ LP on the turnstile, and as it spun, a needle gently edged into a vinyl groove.
As a young Graeme stirred, half awake in his bed, ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ was playing.
Decades later, sitting in his shed, surrounded by a lifetime of collecting, the lyrics seem as vivid to him as they were then.
‘Please don’t wake me No don’t shake me Leave where I am I’m only sleeping’
‘They’ll probably play that at my funeral,’ says Graeme.
As for ‘Let It Be Beatles’ it could be another twenty-five years: ‘The Beatles are an industry,’ says Graeme who reckons ‘a book is published just about every three weeks’. ‘Regardless of what anyone does or says, there are thousands of hours of footage never released, thousands of outages …’
Just to press the point, Pattie Boyd, wife and muse to the late George Harrison and Eric Clapton brings an photographic exhibition and speaking tour to Melbourne in May.
Fertile ground for a new breed of Beatles’ collectors. For Graeme, there’s next weeks’ show and the urge to ‘keep goin’ as long as we physically can … or a younger generation takes it on.’
Let it be Beatles radio program: Monday nights, 10pm to 12 am. Stereo 974 on 97.4 FM.
Facebook: Let It Be Beatles @LIBBeatles
Graeme’s website for queries about his collection or artwork: www.twacorbiesdesign.com
WESTPECTIVE: Peter has always lived here. Writing about the west has opened his eyes to its many heroes.