The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world

The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world


The life of legendary larrikin Graeme ‘Shirley’ Strachan

By Jeff Apter











Where do you begin with a story about one of the iconic figures of Aussie Rock? Well Jeff Apter’s book starts in as good a place as any – Shirl onstage briefly with Rod Stewart in the 80’s post Skyhooks, not singing, or as a special guest, but fixing a cable as part of the crew for the night. He is of course recognised by the crowd as a bemused Rod sings on over chants of ‘Shirl, Shirl, Shirl’.



It’s a small shot of Shirl’s post-Skyhooks life that really captures the moment: and in part at least, encapsulates the story of Graeme ‘Shirley’ Strachan. Overall Apter does a very good job in portraying the everyman figure that Shirl actually probably was: a chippie, a surfie and a straight-forward bloke trapped in a rock star’s body.



The simplicity of Apter’s book makes it a comfortable read; and the fact that so many close family members and friends were involved in the creation of the book gives it a really warm feel.  



In essence Shirl’s story is a simple one: born in a garage in outer suburban Glen Waverley to real honest working class stock gives a young Graeme a set of solid values, together with a real workingman ethic. His ‘curse’ is that he also has a set of ‘itchy feet’, an eye for the ladies and a helluva voice – three things that always seem to hamper him from having that simple life he so clearly craves to varying degrees at various points in his life.



For fans there are some great stories about growing up and the music scene: early bands and jams and joining the fledgling Skyhooks, who he seems almost fated to rejoin after their original singer leaves after a disastrous Sunbury Festival.



From then on it’s a story that involves many of Australian music’s icons of the day: from Ross Wilson (of Daddy Cool) who produced the Skyhooks, to Mushroom’s head honcho Michael Gudinski, appearances on Molly Meldrum’s Countdown, and TV slots with Paul Hogan, Norman Gunston. And most of this against a background of Shirl living at home and liking nothing better than hitting the surf.



It’s interesting to read of a time when shows like Countdown could still open up the country for a band, and that relationship serves The Skyhooks well. There are some great vignettes where Shirl’s unease with the look and the costumes of the Glam Rock Glitter-Bandesque Skyhooks cause some tensions. There are also some wonderfully reflective anecdotes from the band, especially the mildly philosophical musings of Red Simons who at one point likens the coming of success to the same sort of changes you go through when having kids in that it reorganizes all of your relationships.




From there it gets kind of crazy and without ruining it for you there are some great stories from the peak of Skyhook-mania! There’s an insight on that great Strachan-Braithwaite and Skyhook-Sherbet rivalry that never really was! And the friendship that develops between Braithwaite and Strachan – two ‘tradies’ and surfers, is a nice touch.


Perhaps the high point of it all comes around the time of the ’75 vintage of Sunbury and the Moomba Festival. But then it all starts to change as Shirl realises how hard it will be to get back to normality when everyone knows your face. Then after the peak the killer blow comes with the US tour that really brings home how hard it was back then to go global from Down-under without relocating.



Throughout Shirl comes across as a man tempted by the bright lights and all that comes with them, but torn in two by just wanting the simple life. He’s also a man that no matter how hard he tries still keeps dipping his toe into both worlds.



The second part of the book is the real story of Shirl that covers his post-Skyhooks life as well as the bands periodic reformations. There are his forays into TV first with ‘Shirl’s Neighbourhood’ an anarchic kid’s show where he’s shadowed by a guy in a roo suit and a crow called Claude; then a stint in the Tatt’s Lotto draw before the long stint in ‘Our House’ where he gets to be himself.


The fluid transition from music to TV is no mean feat, but whether it’s Shirl’s nature and tenacity and his ability to charm, or good fortune, or a bit of both it certainly seems like he didn’t miss a beat. Of course it’s not all plain sailing: there’s the martial tensions, and an ill-fated album of cover songs between Skyhooks reunions. It’s telling that the last Skyhooks reunion is about the money and nice to see that they did finally get a payday!


All in all Shirl comes across as that everyday bloke that we all know, who just happened to live an extraordinary life that was tragically cut short too soon.



By Mark Diggins