For an almost mythical snapshot of early ’80s Australian beach culture and the promise of an endless youthful summer, re-watch the music video for Australian Crawl’s 1981 hit Errol.
The band members, all tanned and lithe and grinning from ear to ear, run along the beach on the Gold Coast, catch glassy waves, water-ski, plummet down water slides and frolic in a jacuzzi, guzzling champagne with beautiful women. They look like a gang of mates having the time of their lives.
And that’s pretty much what they were. They met as schoolboys at Peninsula Grammar in Victoria, all keen sportsmen who were on the swim team. They formed a band almost as a lark, but rose to fame quickly through relentless gigging and enduring songs such as The Boys Light Up, Beautiful People and Downhearted from their 1980 debut album.
By the time Errol was released as the first single of follow-up album Sirocco – which became the second best-selling album in Australia in 1981, behind John Lennon’s Double Fantasy and ahead of AC/DC’s Back In Black – they were among the biggest bands in the country.
But that dream run was about to end. Within four years, singer-songwriter-guitarist Guy McDonough, who had battled alcohol and heroin addiction, was dead at the age of 28 from a viral infection; one by one, band members were sacked or left as the band changed direction and tried to make it in the US; and the whole thing ended with a 1985 album that was a creative and commercial flop – yet they had to undertake a tour to pay off the $400,000 debt they’d accrued recording it.
A decade later, when they were inducted into the ARIA Hall Of Fame in 1996, guitarist/keyboardist Brad Robinson was unable to attend because he was nearing the end of a three-year battle with lymphoma. He died two weeks later aged 38.
Drummer Bill McDonough, Guy’s older brother, wasn’t at the induction either – because he wasn’t invited. He writes about it in his memoir Sons Of Beaches, published in November. The snub obviously still stings today.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “To not invite me and not have me there to represent Guy and myself, with all we did with regard to the band … well, it was just terrible.”
So, what happened to those guys in the Errol video, who looked like they were on top of the world?
“We were all really close,” says former lead singer James Reyne, whose tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of the band’s compilation album Crawl File reaches Sydney this week. “And I know it’s a cliche, but in a band you’re like brothers, so you have your fights, and you have your moments, and you get over them. But then things change. So, yes, there was a point when Bill was asked to leave the band. It was a band decision and a majority vote.”
“I’m aware he’s written a book, but I haven’t read it, so I don’t know if he dwells on that. And I’m not going to diss Bill. I mean, obviously if you’re asked to leave a band, you’re not going to be happy about it. I understand that. But it was so long ago. The band finished in 1986. I’m 66 years old, and I’ve had a 38-year solo career since then.”
McDonough’s book is largely about his relationship with his brother Guy. But of course, Australian Crawl formed a big part of that relationship. And it’s obvious from talking to McDonough that he wishes things had panned out differently.
‘The egos of certain members of the band got out of control and we lost that brotherhood.’
“I’ve been extremely careful in the book to be respectful to people in the band,” he says. “I haven’t gone for the backstabbing reveal or tried to settle old scores. But if you read between the lines, you can gather that as fame and fortune came upon us, the egos of certain members of the band got out of control and we lost that brotherhood. That’s when things got ugly and fell apart.”
There are now two Australian Crawl camps, who deal with each other only through their managers when it comes to business decisions. The final sad part of the story is lead guitarist Simon Binks, who suffered a brain injury following a car crash while in 1995 after drinking. He went on to almost scupper a million-dollar deal the band was making with Universal Music by doing an ill-advised interview with A Current Affair in 2014, where he lamented his lack of songwriting credits, vilifying Reyne in the process.
Reyne and McDonough own homes only a few kilometres from each other on Mornington Peninsula, but haven’t spoken since Robinson’s funeral in 1996. The irony is that both men, when asked for their memories of the band, have similar stories to tell about how much they loved being in Australian Crawl.
“There were long periods of complete togetherness,” says Reyne. “We were a big party band and we’d go out and have a great time together. We’d crack up at all our in-jokes and I just remember a lot of laughter.”
“I still have dreams about being in Australian Crawl,” says McDonough.
“Some are sad, but most of them are happy, and they’re the ones I prefer to remember, the ones where we’re all Peninsula Grammar mates who somehow became rock stars.”
For so many people growing up in the ’80s, Australian Crawl songs were the soundtrack of the era. How do Reyne and McDonough feel when they hear those songs now?
“If one of the old songs comes on in the supermarket I have to leave,” says Reyne. “And the reason I can’t listen to that stuff any more is because of the singer. It’s because of my voice. I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s barely controlled yelling. I’m a much better singer now.”
McDonough was in a plumbing store recently picking up a new loo seat for his home renovations
“I’m standing there after talking to the guy behind the counter, and I’m wearing a torn t-shirt and have paint all over me, and when he comes back with the toilet seat, Downhearted comes on the sound system. And he starts singing along to it. And I thought to myself, ‘Do I say something? Do I say, I used to be in Australian Crawl and I co-wrote that song’?”
He chose not to keep quiet. Instead, he just paid and walked out of the store, with a new toilet seat under his arm and a smile he couldn’t wipe off his face.
James Reyne’s Crawl File tour reaches Penrith Panthers on February 9, Selina’s on February 10 and Dee Why RSL on May 10. Sons Of Beaches by Bill McDonough is out now through Ultimo Press.