A classic last hurrah from the best band you’ve never heard
“A right bunch of ratbags” - 2JJ/JJJ legend Chris Winter
“For a few years, four decades ago, Uncle Bob’s Band was, hands down, the best rock & roll band in Australia” - Toby Creswell, “The Lost Domain”, in Rock Country (Hardie Grant 2013)
AUSTRALIA Day 1975 marked a high point in the history of popular music in this country. The ABC's youth radio station 2JJ had begun broadcasting on January 19, 1974, and a year and one week later the station staged a triumphant free concert at Dawes Point, just beneath the southern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The line-up was a corker, a celebration of how much Australian rock music had
grown: Skyhooks, then at the peak of their record-breaking popularity; Ayers Rock, Australia 's premier serious rock outfit; and . . . Uncle Bob's Band.
Who the hell was that? And what was it doing on the bill? For anyone at the gig watching the band set up, it was obvious from the battered, home-made nature of much of its equipment and from the antics of its bumblefooted road crew that Uncle Bob's Band had a long way to go before it could hope to reach the stellar heights of the others on the bill.
But once UBB started playing and listeners’ feet began tapping it was clear why it was there. It had developed an inner-city reputation as a sure-fire dance band, and inevitably this had brought it within the radar of JJ's trend-attuned scouts, with the result that the station adopted UBB as Sydney's version of Captain Matchbox. UBB shared much with Matchbox, including an attitude, but their forte was mixing classic rock n roll with the swing of Django Reinhardt or Fats Waller, or the pure country of Hank Williams, touching on the Beatles, the Band and the Rolling Stones and all points between, surfing genres with rare aplomb.
But that eclectic repertoire was marketing death in the era of pub rock, and even though the band’s audience loved it, the dominant booking agencies were more interested in the Alberts bands such as the Angels, Rose Tattoo, Ted Mulry Gang, et al, or Mushroom acts such as Skyhooks or Ol’ 55. So UBB took matters in hand, and promoted its own shows, often in the wilds of Sydney’s Hills District, around Dural and Glenorie, where much of the band lived, having fled from urban angst. Its Adventures in Paradise shows at Dural Memorial Hall and Paddington Town Hall (over three nights) are still remembered fondly by those who were lucky enough to be there.
With ex-Skyhooks lead singer Steve Hill on board as manager the band moved to Melbourne in late 1975 on the promise of a recording contract. Although UBB recorded an album at Richmond Recorders, with Dave Flett from Captain Matchbox producing, the contract never eventuated and the band called it a day in 1977. And a musical memory it became.
However, the nucleus continued playing in the ensuing years, recording an album, Unfinished Business, in 2006, which was released in 2016. Now, forty-plus years in the making, comes Now and Then, the album UBB should have made in 1976, and it is a classic. It will also be the band’s final album, for it was recorded in the midst of a developing tragedy, the terminal illness of band namesake and master guitarist Uncle Bob McGowan, who shrugged off his date with eternity to record three standout tracks before succumbing to his disease in October 2018, aged 73.
Now & Then, which will be released in May/June, was made possible because of a GoFundeMe campaign that raised $10000 in three months (ironically, $5000 came from the patriarch of the Albert family, Robert Albert). It is a mix of the 1976-77 tracks and a raft a new songs written as recently as last year. And once again Dave Flett has produced.
Two bonus live tracks capture the band’s rare onstage magic. The third bonus track is truly special, a gift from Uncle Bob McGowan himself, first heard by band members as they filed out behind his coffin at his funeral service.
Bob McGowan (electric and acoustic guitar, mandolin, vocals). Formerly a member of The Original Battersea Heroes Jug Band (which became The Heroes); later with The Works and The Hoochie Coochie Men. He died in 2018.
Tony Burkys (electric and acoustic guitar, double bass, vocals). Formerly a member of The Original Battersea Heroes Jug Band (which became The Heroes) and The 69ers, and after UBB, Swing 42.
Terry Darmody (harmonica, kazoo and vocals). Formerly a member of The Original Battersea Heroes Jug Band (which became The Heroes).
Warwick Kennington (drums and vocals). Later with The Works, The Fabulous Zarzoff Brothers and The Eddys.
John Taylor (bass and vocals). Later with Little Heroes and The Hoochie Coochie Men.
Keith Shadwick (tenor saxophone, flute, vocals). Formerly with Sun, later with The Bleeding Hearts. He died in 2006.
Unusually, UBB has two non-playing members, the Word Department, lyricists and former roadies John Dease and Mark Butler, who have written the lyrics for much of the band’s original material, most often in tandem with composer Tony Burkys. They have contributed to nine of the songs on Now & Then.
And who the hell is Bob?
There are many Bobs.
Bob Menzies, whose avuncular presence towered over the band members for most of their childhoods, perhaps?
Bob Dylan, of course, who influenced all of them in some way, Darmody, Butler and Dease particularly.
And don’t forget Bob Hope, and not only because it rhymes with dope.