Michael Gudinski: Every Poster Tells A Story
Michael Gudinski is “in paradise.” More specifically, he is in Port Douglas, where he is spending a few weeks taking a break from work in order to recuperate. Though,as those who have had even a passing involvement with Gudinski can attest, this simply is not an option for him. He is working “half days”, and admits that his wife isn’t too happy with the situation. He talks about his company as if in the first flush of a romance, at one point pausing to ask if he is being tape-recorded. “I’m talking quickly I know, I’m excited to be talking about work again.”
It stands to reason that he wouldn’t slow down, even in order to get his health back to 100%. A cursory glance at the coffee table book Every Poster Tells A Story, release to coincide with the 30th birthday celebrations of the Frontier Touring Co., reveals Gudinski’s tireless work ethic. Throughout his rapid-fire conversation with TMN, he constantly punctuates his points with the mantra that it hasn’t been a one-man effort, and names various members of the Mushroom Group who have been instrumental in various phases of the company’s life. Still, Gudinski has been at the helm during every major decision and movement the fiercely independent company has made, and the weighty book is a testament to the sheer bulk of successful shows that Frontier Touring have staged in Australia and New Zealand.
The book’s title, Every Poster Tells A Story – an appropriation of a Rod Stewart album title – is apt (even before Gudinski points out that the company has been responsible for most of Stewart’s Australian sojourns). This book may well be the closest Gudinski gets to writing his own memoirs. Aside from the foreword, which Gudinski dismisses as “a few jottings” but is worth the asking price alone for the few stories it offers, this decision not to write his own story is rooted in his overriding philosophy of placing integrity over an easy money grab.
“A lot of people have asked me to do a book myself and Michael Chugg, who was part of Frontier for a long time, wrote a book, but it’s been the furthest thing from my mind because I think when you’re working with artists, there’s an old saying: ‘What happens on the road, stays on the road.’ I’ve had a number of offers to write books over the years and that’s something that’s never appealed to me. We used to have a saying at Mushroom Music that our artists are our strength. Well, I think a very similar thing applies to the touring business, and we have let our tours speak for themselves.”
A coffee table book full of poster art therefore serves both as a pictorial chronology of the touring company’s various successes and failures, and as an artistic work in itself.
“I guess street art has become a popular thing over the past decade, and posters have been culturally a part of the business from the early ‘70s,” explains Gudinski. “It just seemed like a really interesting concept. As it turns out, we’ve had some people from overseas contact us, and we’re the first promotion company in the world that’s ever done anything like this, so it’s certainly getting a fantastic reaction and it shows that in this day and age, with big corporations, that an independent company can really stand up in the world and hold its head up.
“We’re the only promoters over here that have offices in Australia and New Zealand, and timing-wise it couldn’t have been more perfect, ‘cos in the Pollstar poll, we were named the number one promoters for the first six months [of 2011]. As it turns out, it was really well timed.”
One of the first things that becomes apparent – aside from the fact that Frontier seems to have toured every major artist in the world – is how pristinely preserved most of the posters are. On the odd occasion where a hand-written date or venue breaches the original design, it serves as a historical marker rather than an intrusion. However, it wasn’t simply a matter of digging through the company archives.
“It was a really laborious thing to get a lot of the posters together – you’d think that you’d keep one of everything but over the years there were a number of ones that were missing and we had to go to a number of poster collectors. It was quite ironic – we had people trying to sell our posters back to us.” At 283 pages and retailing at a reasonable $79:95, far from being a product made for profit – Gudinski admits the project will lose money – the book is more an exercise in preserving history.
“It was more [our intention] to do something of real quality and I think that’s what has really surprised people, that it’s a hardback book. We had different journalists from different eras to write something and it has given the book a bit more depth than a poster book. I noticed that coffee table books seem to be something that have become more popular and so many people in different age groups have been to these shows, whether it was a first show or whatever, and some of the support acts have now grown up and it’s very important to document this history.
“It’s tied in with our 30th anniversary and obviously we will send it to a lot of the acts we have worked with. It’s a great calling card to have sitting in the agency reception areas overseas and we’re selling a limited edition – we’ve had a good reaction from retailers and we’ll obviously be looking after the Frontier members.”
Despite its all-encompassing scope, there were a few accidental omissions. Gudinski sheepishly admits to missing a tour by “my very own Kylie Minogue… of all the people to miss out,” and a Hall and Oates tour poster was also overlooked.
The poster element is more than a mere visual representation, linking back to Gudinski’s early days postering in Melbourne and New York – albeit with less than triumphant results.
“Over the years there’ve been poster wars in different cities,” Gudinski recalls. “It’s relevant to me because when I was a young kid working part time I used to put up posters for a local dance promoter in Melbourne and I got grabbed by the police one night. Another time in New York we were putting up these huge posters for The Sports [A Mushroom band active between ’76 and ’81 who released a number of records, including the excellent Don’t Throw Stones], and we’d been working for hours, glue and stuff all over us and the next day the poster mafia had, within 24 hours, covered every poster we’d put up.
“It just creates a vibe in a city,” he says of street posters, “and I think in recent times, all forms of street art have become accepted. In a lot of cities you have certain councils that don’t make it that easy but we continue to do posters and I guess in the last decade or two those pole posters have become a big thing in Sydney- that’s not something that’s nearly as big in Melbourne.”
The book also reveals the changing mechanics of tour poster design, another victim of the increasing globalisation of the touring industry. “What’s interesting to a lot of people is, in the earlier years, we were able to create our own artwork, so we have original artwork for a lot of the tours here in Australia, whereas over the past decade or two, artists themselves are dictating this. You become part of a world tour and the art becomes very generic. Over time, some of the styles have come back in, and some of the posters look absolutely ridiculous. But it’s just such a part of rock ‘n’ roll, street posters.”
More than a tome on the art and evolution of the tour poster, this book serves as a reminder of the scope of Frontier’s vision. Each tour is lovingly represented, and the poster placement within the book seems more driven by design than the size or prominence of a certain act or tour. The book also showcases Frontier’s singular vision and fearless risk-taking.
“When I look through the book there are some tours I don’t want to remember, there’s some tours I remember vividly and there’s some tours I’d completely forgotten about,” Gudinski laughs. “Looking back at some of the acts we’d picked very early on, such as Arrested Development, they are still touring. One of the things with Frontier that helped us become very successful was we weren’t scared to do new artists, we weren’t scared to support club level bands, right through to them becoming stadium acts. We did the very first Police tour, and we did the very last show of the original Police lineup, the culmination of the Synchronicity world tour at the Melbourne Showgrounds. It just shows the diversity of shows… Jeff Buckley, who we did two fantastic tours with, tragically died. For some people, seeing those posters alone will be great.
“Another thing that comes out of the book is that we created some special highlights that ended up becoming worldwide events,” he continues. “For example, Billy Joel and Elton John opened Melbourne Casino and we put that together, two acts that seemed the complete opposite: one being an ex-boxer, one being a colourful gay; one being from England, one being from America, and from that one show Billy and Elton toured together for seven or eight years. I made a joke that I should have gotten a commission for starting the thing off, and now they continue to tour around the world.”
A similar situation occurred when, at an early version of the now-famous Farm Aid benefit concerts in America, Gudinski witnessed Bob Dylan and Tom Petty perform together and floated the idea of the two doing a joint Australian tour to Dylan’s manager at the time, Elliot Roberts. “He looked at me like I was an absolute idiot.” However, four months later, Gudinski recieved a 4am phone call.
“When you get a phone call that late you think that it’s going to be bad news. Elliot rings us and he says ‘have I woken you up?’ as if he didn’t know what time it was, and I said ‘of course you’ve woken me up,’ and he said ‘well, I think it’s worth waking up for. You know when you were joking around, talking about Bob and Tom doing a tour, we’d like to have a go, do you think it’d work in Australia and New Zealand?’…I couldn’t really go back to sleep after that…”
As the title attests, every poster tells a story, and despite the promises that there won’t be a tell-all book, Gudinski still bestows TMN with a handful of epic stories, some of which seem too farfetched for Spinal Tap. Like the time Bob Dylan demanded his catering services… at 6am.
“Bob was coming back to Australia and wanted to rehearse somewhere,” begins Gudinski, “and we had the Mercury Lounge at the casino, which was a great irony within itself because there was a lot of controversy surrounding the casino – some acts wouldn’t play it. I thought the antithesis of it all was that Bob Dylan not only rehearsed there for four days but, as part of that, he agreed to do a one-off gig on the Sunday night.
“It was one of the most amazing gigs we had there. The condition was that tickets couldn’t be bootlegged or sold on and that at 6am in the morning I’d be there with coffee and donuts and everyone would have to come and buy their tickets. Bob was one of the first artists concerned about people who buy tickets in bulk and add-on. I was there in the morning and the first 800 people that were there would be the ones that got the tickets. If Bob Dylan plays your nightclub, any promoter would be up at the crack of dawn with coffee and donuts, which was a unique request.”
Then there was the time Frankie came to Sydney…
“I was the non-scholastic black sheep of the family, and my father viewed me going into the music business when I left school at 17 as an absolute disaster – he threw me out of the house. I wish that he was still alive when we did Frank Sinatra, ‘cos that would have been the one act he’d have love to have seen. For us, who started off as alternative rock promoters, it really showed that we were able to promote all different type of shows. It was a pretty amazing combination: Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jnr. It was a big risk, a high ticket price. It was certainly towards the end of his career  and he certainly was Cranky Franky, and because Sammy Davis had come to Australia so often and was so embraced by Australians on this tour, one night I got a phone call – I think it was the night before the last night in Sydney – from our security guard who said ‘Listen, I thought I’d better let you know that Frank has gone to the airport and he is going to leave’, I said ‘What d’ya mean he is going to leave, he’s still got another show to do?’ So I rang his manager who said ‘Everything’s going to be OK, Frank’s just carrying on.’
“It just shows the ego on some artists, even though they were such good friends, he was so pissed of that Sammy Davis had gone over so much better then him that night that he was threatening to go back to America. He ended up staying.
“Every night the tradition would be we’d book the best Italian restaurant in Sydney, and you can imagine me back then with my long hair and beard in the best Italian resturants in Sydney, but you mention Frank Sinatra’s name and they would keep the restaurant open, wait ‘til the end of the show, we’d have a police escort, and the restaurant would be emptied. So I had the best calling card, and for the next ten years, twenty years and to this day, the restaurants we went to with Frank Sinatra – they’ve never forgotten it and I’ve never forgotten it.
“I remember one night my wife and I were at dinner with him and Sammy Davis Jnr. and Barbara [Marx, Frank’s wife]. Barbara and Frank started having an argument about when their plane was going to leave, their private jet to go to some show, and I just wanted to crawl under the table, but it was just so amazing witnessing it. I guess at that time we were half the age of the artists- he certainly wasn’t the most friendly character, but it was a successful tour and we got through it.”
Despite all the big name acts Gudinski has toured – he names The Eagles’ famous Hell Freezes Over reunion tour and Madonna’s only Australian tour to date as professional highlights – there is one pint-sized popette that remains his unabashed favourite. “I couldn’t be more proud to see Kylie come up as a touring artist to one of the greatest all time live performers, to see her become what she has become,” Gudinski enthuses. It’s not surprising. The one thing that comes crashing into focus throughout is that Frontier, Mushroom, and the industry in general is still a pet project for Gudinski, driven more by passion than fashion, or mere business decisions alone. Which is why the failures still sting. He speaks of the ill-fated 1995 festival Alternative Nation with the freshness of a recently jilted lover.
“I think it’s one of the worst experiences we’ve ever had, it was really a frustration for us – we did it together with Michael Coppel, we had a massive lineup, it was our entry, and it not only rained, it downpoured! We had three massive shows in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and it didn’t just rain one night, it poured every night and one of our greatest errors was not to have a go the next year and keep Alternative Nation going because that really was our Big Day Out, and still one of the frustrations from Frontier’s point of view is that we haven’t really come up with a continuing festival.
“I think Alternative Nation was a great mistake. I think we should have kept going with it, and if you have a look at the lineup [Nine Inch Nails,Lou Reed, Faith No More, Violent Femmes, Primus, Ice T, Live andThe Flaming Lips, to name a few], some of them hadn’t even broken yet, it was just so far ahead of its time. We were always pretty ballsy and the shows went on, but just seeing the fans getting absolutely rained all over, seeing the acts have the balls to perform and to back it up in three different cities in a row, it was just so sad.”
Despite this regret, and the many successes over the past thirty years, Gudinski is looking forward to the next thirty, regardless of whether he will be around to see them through.
“We’ve got a pretty active twelve months coming up and I just hope to be alive and kicking for the next thirty years – with the lifestyle I lead there’s basically not much chance, but Frontier will be staying independent and will continue to provide some great and unique entertainment.
“Let’s face it, when I started in this business an album cost a lot more than a concert ticket and now it’s gone completely the other way, which is why it’s important to make the experience as good as possible. What’s really changed is rock music in the ‘60s and ‘70s was so rebellious and yet, to this day, governments still put so much money into opera and theatre and ballet whereas to the general public and to the masses, rock and roll will never die. There are so many different forms of it, and I just love my job.”
With that, Gudinski again promises there won’t be an autobiography, and goes back to ‘recuperating’ by working half days in paradise, although one suspects that his idea of a half-day isn’t strictly calendar-based and, for all his pristine surrounds, his idea of paradise may be located within an office in Dundas Lane, Melbourne.