It was 30 years ago today, karaoke taught the gigs to pay. And how they paid! As the 90s rolled in most of us still struggled to get a few hundred dollars out of any gig, but the standard fee for a karaoke show was a whopping $600. Just as duos and solos had replaced bands at some venues, karaoke, a major drawcard, was a new threat, and booking agents became unnerved as karaoke promoters began bypassing them and booking direct.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I hadn’t even heard of karaoke when I made the tragic mistake of abandoning my hard fought one-man-band agency gigs to do a residency in the Whitsunday Islands on the now commercially abandoned Brampton Island. The island, which boasted its own airport, was owned by TAA (Trans Australian Airlines), and I had to become a TAA employee to work there. This tropical paradise earned its reputation as the quintessential honeymooner’s resort. Sounds romantic enough, but I had wandered into a minefield.
The gig was to back a neurotic female singer and an annoying little French piano player, both of whom couldn’t figure out why the honeymooners went to bed so early leaving them bewildered and playing to a virtual furniture exhibition in the main lounge. To save face they convinced the management that a guitarist/vocalist would augment their failing performances, and this addition would be the catalyst for the guests to stream back en-masse. Well, who was I to tell them otherwise? I took the gig.
Not only did I have to deal with the neuroses of my two fellow band members, but I was forbidden by management to drink on duty, not even on the day of my duty. I’d front up to the bar and they’d point-blank refuse to serve me. Staff were only permitted to purchase one case of beer per week, which equated to 3.4 beers per day, or if taken to the extreme, since it was verboten to drink on performance days, 24 beers on Sunday night, my night off. Fortunately, backdoor deals with non-drinkers to acquire their beer ration came to the rescue, and the Sunday binge was avoided.
The island’s stringent regulations didn’t stop at alcohol. All hospitality staff, maintenance employees, and entertainers on Brampton were strictly forbidden to fraternise with the guests. In fact, staff quarters were deliberately built in an isolated section some 500 metres away from the main nerve centre. Staff members were encouraged to engage in gratuitous sex with each other, and any employee’s partner that applied for a position on the island was all but assured of acceptance. It was kind of like a Jonestown community without the massacre.
There’s a certain clique that exists amongst hospitality staff, and I’ve learned over the years that I don’t quite meet the criteria needed to enter that inner circle. So, I mostly mixed with the maintenance staff and Yvonne, the island’s only emu.
I first encountered Yvonne when she blocked my path whilst trekking the 500 metres to my debut performance in the guest’s lounge. I’d step one way and Yvonne would step in front of me. Fortunately, the gardener showed me how to get a special leaf that would appease her and she’d let me pass. Yvonne somehow learned the exact time I went to work each evening and she would meet me on the path where I’d pay the leaf toll and she would allow me to continue.
During band breaks I’d trek back to the staff section on the island, sit by a stagnant pond in the moonlight and surreptitiously sink a succession of stubbies before heading back for my next set with The Neurotics. These nightly transgressions invariably distorted my Portuguese renditions of Lambada.
Sunday night was the band’s night off, so the management introduced karaoke night, and this was my introduction to the forthcoming entertainment phenomenon, or some might say, debacle. You may question what I was doing retuning to my workplace on my night off. Well, there was absolutely nothing else to do on Brampton Island. It was either consume several beers alone down by the stagnant pond, somewhat depleting my beer ration, or off to the karaoke show after doing the Boston two-step with Yvonne.
Following several altercations with my fellow band members and management I was politely asked to leave. This was commonly referred to on the island as NBO (next boat out).
I said goodbye to Yvonne and headed back to Sydney where I discovered that my month-long absence had alienated most of my one-man-band agencies, and bookings were hard to come by. Karaoke was the light at the end of the tunnel.
I equipped myself with a Pioneer Laser Disc Player and a bunch of very expensive twelve-inch karaoke Laser Discs. I bought three TV sets and a light show and utilised my existing EV Tapco Entertainer PA. I named my fledgling production Karaoke Showtime. The agents didn’t want a bar of it, so it became a cold-calling marketing exercise in which I had to explain to pub and club managers ad nauseam exactly what karaoke was.
I was under the delusion that karaoke would be similar to what it was on Brampton or in Asia, where venues were brimming with either budding singers taking to the stage to brandish their hidden talents, or self-effacing patrons who sat at their tables with wireless microphones crooning dulcet tones to their sweethearts.
Conversely, I discovered that Australian karaoke venues were mostly frequented by punters who drank twelve beers or lost count of how many triple bourbons, Zombies or Margaritas they’d had, then staggered up to the stage to blunder into either a raucous and raspy rendition of Roxanne, a woeful out-of-time offering of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All, or an agonising and tuneless six minutes of Hotel California. And those who couldn’t carry a tune joined in the frivolities by invading the stage with their drunken football mates to put down a rugby scrum. Thus, my latest enterprise did not do a lot for my ongoing misanthropic outlook on life.
The backdrop for Karaoke Showtime featured Rosco slit drape hung on truss between two lighting poles and lit with an array of Par 56 cans. In a classic exhibition of schadenfreude (taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune), I still revel in the memory of seeing a drunken punter charge at my slit drape in an attempt to dive head-first through the glittering display. Unfortunately, he wasn’t aware that it was set up in front of a brick wall.
The last words spoken in the movie Christine by the movie’s female protagonist were, “God I hate rock ‘n’ roll.” The movie personified a 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine whose radio played rock ‘n’ roll as it went on its homicidal rampage. Similarly, when I think of the torment I went through with Karaoke Showtime in my short-lived venture, or when I see some discordant karaoke singer making an ass of themselves, a voice in my head resonates, “God I hate karaoke.”
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