12 May 2015

Mal and me: Memories of working for the late 22nd Prime Minister of Australia

When I used to mix bands full time, and lived the strangely nomadic, semi-nocturnal life of the working sound engineer, casual acquaintances would often ask me, “What do you do for a living?”

If I replied that I worked in the Live Sound industry and did the sound for bands, their reaction was usually one of three generic types:

Older people would tend to say “Yes, I know that’s your hobby, but what’s your real job?” the implication being that working 24 hours days and nights without a suit and tie somehow wasn’t a real job. You could always feign deafness, cup your hand to your ear and say “WHAT? You’ll have to speak up – I’m a sound engineer!” but old folks often didn’t find that too funny!


Others would say: “Hmm, the sound business, eh? You’re just the guy I’m looking for. Can you have a look at my stereo – it hasn’t been working right since the cat had kittens on the tweeters!” A subset of these people were those who would follow up that question with, “What sort of a stereo should I buy?” Any answer more detailed than ‘buy the one that sounds best to you’ would guarantee a night being quizzed on esoteric aspects of hi fi, and possibly being forced to listen to a scratched, well-worn vinyl copy of Hot August Night on a 1960’s HMV 3-in-1at a level that would make a dead man’s ears bleed.

Jim Laing, one of my trusty assistants, got tired of this, and when asked about his job at parties decided to tell people he worked at the city morgue! A bad move – this turned out to be worse than telling the truth. Lots of people had a morbid fascination with this sort of thing, and would ask him all sorts of gruesome details, the answers to which he promptly made up on the spot. Some wanted to know if they would be able to come along and watch; some of the ladies wanted to do a lot more than watch!

And then he hit upon the best answer. When asked what he did for a job, he would reply that he held the ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ sign for the Country Roads Board! The idea of leaning on that sign all day sounded so ‘interesting’ that not one person ever wanted to know more!


The third response to telling people you mixed Live Sound was “Have you worked for anyone famous?” to which I would reply, “No, but I did stuff up the sound once for Malcolm Fraser!”

The gig was a large Rotary convention at the old Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne. All the big wheels were there (sorry – I couldn’t resist that!). We put up a large stack each side of the stage, and then built a tower out of instant scaffolding off to one side, where we placed the mixer and drive racks. The whole thing was checked thoroughly and ran like clockwork. Andy “Biffa” Johnson and myself were left in charge to babysit the system and make any changes as needed throughout the day.

For the main presenter’s microphone we had decided to use an EV electret condenser that had a really clean and snappy sparkle to it. It ran off either phantom power or a peculiar voltage battery that only EV seemed able to supply at great expense. Since the phantom power on the console had been playing up lately, we opted for batteries, mortgaged the factory and bought a couple of them.

Now, I don’t mean any disrespect to the Rotary people, who were really easy to get along with, but unless you were heavily involved with the organisation, it wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world to watch. Speech after speech by people droning on all day. So I stuck on a cassette and listened to it in headphones via the PFL, while Biffa dozed.

The keynote speech was to be given by Mal, and as the appointed time drew near, extra security people slowly filtered in and stood around the hall. The Rotary president came up to the mic, and said: “And now, ladies and gentlemen…the Prime Minister of Australia, the honourable Malcolm Fraser.”  The mic sounded sweet and clear – no problems there. I relaxed as the crowd leaped to their feet as Mal entered the room to riotous applause, and a couple of TV crew scuttled forward and quickly taped a couple of extra mics onto mine, to record sound for their video.

The Prime Minister walked on stage, acknowledged the crowd, and stepped up to the lectern.

As he began to speak, the microphone went dead!

Up in our little tower Biffa and I jumped to our feet as if we’d been given a liquid nitrogen enema!

“Quick, get down and change the mic” I whispered urgently to him, helping him on his way down the ladder with the toe of my shoe. “I’ll check the mixer to see if everything’s OK this end. Hurry!” As he was launched into mid-air I quickly scanned the desk, wiggled connectors, but everything seemed OK.

What could it be? I leaned on the desk (it was a Tapco Catalina, an early forerunner of Mackie) which had a switch that had caused grief to many an unsuspecting engineer. And I was about to become one of them. One of my fingers accidentally pushed the PFL to Main Outputs switch.

Whoops – my tape was still running!

BANG! Loud music blasted out of the speakers, and security men in trenchcoats rushed the stage, thinking a bomb had gone off. But no, it was only ZZ Top’s ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ rockin’ the joint! I yanked the master faders down as Biffa battled his way through the security cordon to get to the stage. Even without a mic I could hear him yelling “Come on, get outta my way, let’s go – go – go” in his usual tactful manner!

After what seemed an age he managed to get there, swapped the mic for a 58, and we were back in business. The Rotary president came back to the mic, tapped his fingers on it as people do, and the system gave a satisfying thud in response. He chuckled and said, “We just wanted to make sure we had your attention”, handed the stage back to Mal, who was looking a little shaken, to say the least, and the show went on.

When the Prime Minister finished his speech and left the hall, he was closely surrounded by his security people who all gave us filthy looks as they left.

During the rest of the afternoon I refrained from listening to any more music and studied the microphone carefully. I plugged it back in, checked it in the PFL – it worked perfectly. I shook it – it still worked. I shook it again – and it stopped!

Unscrewing the barrel to check the battery, I noticed that the spring terminals were not making a strong contact to the battery, and there was just enough slop in the fit for it to occasionally stop making contact by a gnat’s whisker. Enough to stop it working!

I roamed around the hall after the conference, chatting to delegates, and attempting to put some spin on the occurrence. But I needn’t have worried. The grand poobah was quite certain where the problem lay.

“Not your fault at all, old chap,” he confided in me. “Don’t blame yourself. It’s obvious what the problem was.“ He leaned over conspiratorially. “I blame radical left wing TV crews deliberately sabotaging the speech as a protest!”

“Hmm,” I nodded as he handed me the cheque. “You may be right!”

I’ve often wondered whether Mal ever told this story himself over the dinner table with friends. I know I have, and it usually gets a few chuckles. At the funeral his family all said he had a great sense of humour, so who knows? Maybe he did.



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