IF they ever make a music version of Mythbusters – and they really should – bandmates Pete de Jong and Mark Tinson would be ideal hosts.
So many stories have sprung up around their iconic Newcastle group the Heroes over the decades that it’s become increasingly difficult to separate the fact from fiction.
The rock’n’roll lifestyle was never conducive to accurate reminiscing.
Take the Star Hotel riot, for example.
Police estimates put the crowd at 4000, but more than double that number of Novocastrians must have claimed to have been there on that infamous night.
The Heroes were definitely there – they were on stage when the riot started. And it was a unique stage at that: located behind the bar and raised to the same level.
Out front was de Jong on vocals/guitars, Tinson to his left on guitar/vocals and Jim Porteus to his right on bass/vocals with Phil Screen at the back on drums. Now all aged in their early 60s, they are reuniting to revisit their youth via the release of their second album – 35 years after their self-titled debut!
‘‘In some ways there has always been sense of unfinished business about the band,’’ explains de Jong. ‘‘The Star Hotel has been a theme running throughout our lives. I mean almost every gig we do someone comes up to us and says they were there that night.
‘‘I even had a plumber come around to my place a couple of weeks ago and, when he heard my name, he looked at me and said ‘‘you were at the Star, right?’’
Right. But first, some background.
The Star’s owners, brewery Tooth and Co, had decided to shut the beloved but ailing pub with a week’s notice, so a farewell show was hastily convened. The fateful date: Wednesday, September 19, 1979.
Patrons tried to mount a late rescue – they even printed Save Our Star t-shirts and started a petition (sound familiar?). But the brewery was determined it was going to be last drinks for the hotel, which had operated on the site since 1885, with its distinctive facade dating from 1925.
The Star fronting King Street is now a tidy and respectable boutique apartment complex.
At its peak in the mid-1970s, the pub was a rambunctious affair stretching across three bars through to Hunter Street. Rock’n’roll and its accoutrements attracted the younger set to the southern side, foreign seamen and small-time thugs preferred the northern end, while wedged in between was a gay venue famous for drag acts such as Stella the Fella.
The romanticised version of history points to how the barriers between the bars – both physically and socially – were eventually eroded, leaving the clientele to mingle in some sort of bohemian melting pot.
Musicians and fans loved the place for what Tinson calls its ‘‘sense of belonging’’. It was a golden age for Newcastle rock. The Star offered free live music every night, and some afternoons. Names chalked on boards outside pubs around town included Meccalissa (later DV8), Atlantis, Total Fire Band, Juke Box, Benny & The Jets and Ward 10.
But as the 1970s closed, and the Star along with it, Newcastle’s perenially bored youth had grown lean and mean on a diet of copious live music (mostly melodic rock), $1 cans of beer (mostly Tooheys Draught) and blue-collar disenchantment (mostly with the world).
They were smouldering and the imploding Star was their incendiary device.
Closing time was 10 o’clock and the police, confronted by punters swilling and spilling into King Street and Devonshire Lane, wanted everyone to move on sooner rather than later.
Officers approached the Heroes mid song, with one of them rattling the microphone stand to get de Jong’s attention. The microphone whacked him in the mouth – a universal pet hate of singers.
It’s then that recollections get contentious.
If you ask the police, the band had a pivotal role in fuelling the violence. Ask the band, and the police might have kept a lid on proceedings if they allowed them to finish their set. Ask the police again, and they will tell you how a bunch of louts outside orchestrated the whole shebang.
Worst still, the beer had been turned off.
For the record, the interrupted song was Action by The Sweet, as in everyone wants a piece of it. The steaming band exited the stage, accompanied by a crowd dosed on dutch courage chanting less-than-polite suggestions about where the police should go.
‘‘There was such a racket, such a furore, we thought that if we didn’t get back on and play something it might turn ugly,’’ Tinson recalls and, being a lifetime teetotaller and non-smoker, his memory should be sharp.
That something they played was original anthem The Star and The Slaughter. Listen to the lyrics and you would swear the encore was written for that evening. It’s another song about ‘‘action’’, but this was a home-grown offering of the violent rather than the vampish kind:
‘‘I want action, I want fighting in the streets,
I’m gonna take this town by storm,
Gonna burn the village down,
Take no hostage, give no quarter,
They will remember the night of
the star and the slaughter.’’
And remember it they did. One legend fell and another rose that night. The Star and The Slaughter was indeed prophetic, but not as you might presume. The song was penned 12 months beforehand, and it wasn’t even about the hotel. Well, not at first anyway.
'‘OK, this is the true story behind The Star and The Slaughter,’’ de Jong offers.
‘‘It comes from our old bass player, a guy called Allan Cook, who was a bit of a hippie – a gentle lentil if you like. He came along to rehearsal one day and he had this song, and it was almost like country rock.
‘‘It obviously wasn’t a bad song, but it was kind of lame, so we put it through the Heroes process and changed the feel. Tinno chunked out the guitar and slowed it down.’’
Rumour has it the band actually tweaked the lyrics before that encore to make the song more appropriate for the occasion.
‘‘That’s not true either,’’ de Jong says.
‘‘It was originally written about a rock star who returns to his home town to have revenge on the doubters.’’
Now doubters are always going to doubt and haters are going to hate, but whatever happened inside the venue that night was soon subsumed by what happened outside.
King Street was a battle zone. Cop cars overturned and burning. Cans, bottles, rocks and abuse hurled at ‘‘heavy-handed’’ police out-muscled a hundred to one. Punters sprayed with fire hoses. Scores of people, including a dozen officers, injured in a fracas lasting an hour and a half.
Newcastle had never seen such civil unrest. This was a rock’n’roll rebellion.
''The police apparently failed to realise the mood of the people at the hotel,’’ Star licensee Don Graham, a rather controversial figure himself, claimed at the time.
‘‘The young people of Newcastle felt they were having something taken from them.’’
In the wash-up, more than 40 people were charged with almost 100 offences, including de Jong who was accused of inciting the crowd (the charge was downgraded and he got away with a $200 fine). Talk was that out-of-towners were the main troublemakers but court lists show the majority arrested were locals.
‘‘When we finally stopped playing, I said over the PA: ‘We’ve got to go because when the pigs say you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go’,’’ de Jong recalled. ‘‘Yes, that was a poor choice of words, I admit, but once they worked out the chronology of what happened that night they realised it had already gone crazy outside.’’
It was branded Newcastle’s ‘‘night of infamy’’. The police reckoned the riot was planned and provoked. Then premier Neville Wran described it as a ‘‘shocking, disgraceful episode’’, a senior city detective said ‘‘anybody who calls himself a Novocastrian should be ashamed’’, and this newspaper editorialised on what it called the ‘‘shameful actions of a moronic mob’’.
Images were beamed around the globe.
Photographs from Ron Bell and moving pictures from Barry Nancarrow captured the chaos better than any words ever could. Even the BBC picked it up as a novelty item at the end of their evening television news: ‘‘This is what happens when you try to close a pub down in Australia ...’’
Having little choice but to ride that wave of infamy, the Heroes risked becoming anti-heroes in the eyes of the authorities. But the cool kids loved them all the more for it. So did the music industry. They had cred in spades.
Everyone wanted a piece of their action.
Harry Vanda and George Young – the hit-making producers who had been together since playing with The Easybeats in the mid-1960s – even came up to catch a gig at Stewarts & Lloyds (which became Tubemakers Recreation Club then Club Phoenix and now Wests Mayfield).
Vanda and Young steered them towards a multi-album deal with luminary label Alberts, home to some of Australia’s greatest rock acts, including AC/DC, Rose Tattoo, The Choirboys, The Angels, John Paul Young and Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs.
The Heroes pressed record, but the political climate was deemed still too hot for them to release The Star and The Slaughter, so the producers opted instead for the sexually suggestive Baby’s Had A Taste.
Countdown came calling, as did support slots with AC/DC (whose guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young just happened to be the younger brother of producer George), top 10 local chart success and interstate tours.
Of course, it’s not what you know in the industry, it’s who you sleep with ... sorry, I mean, who you play with that matters. The Heroes had pedigree: Tinson, Porteus and Screen trace their roots back to 1974 and the glam-shock outfit Rabbit (think lots of hair, tight lycra, platform shoes and posing tough). Rabbit’s singer was none other than Dave Evans, who was Acca Dacca’s first frontman.
When they eventually do come up with a Mythbusters on music, they will need to examine the tapes from the Heroes’ second appearance on Countdown.
The political heat eventually died down enough for the band to be invited back on to push their second single, The Star and The Slaughter. But it all sparked up again when the live performance was spliced with TV footage from the rampage, replete with a studio audience of youngsters punching the air.
‘‘It was also the producer’s idea to include a police car as part of the set,’’ says Tinson, who finished the song standing on the roof of said faux police car, with blue lights flashing.
‘‘Of course, there was a bit of an outcry and we were edited out the repeat of Countdown the following Saturday night.’’
The Heroes were never to grace Countdown again, unlike Cold Chisel who trashed the stage and their instruments as some sort of surly non-conformity statement at the Countdown Awards the same year.
Actually, it’s best not to mention Cold Chisel and the Heroes in the same sentence. Fans of the latter still get their ears out of joint when they hear the former’s song Star Hotel, released a year after The Star And The Slaughter. Some people outside of Newcastle are still under the misapprehension that Chisel performed on the night of the riot, but they never even played at the place.
‘‘Cold Chisel did go to the Star Hotel ... once,’’ Heroes drummer Screenie has explained. ‘‘They walked in on a Saturday afternoon when we were playing there. They stayed for three songs, then left.’’
The Heroes are confident punters will hang around a bit longer when they re-form to launch their second album, So Far, at Newcastle’s Cambridge Hotel on Saturday, January 17. They will hit the stage around 9.30pm, with support from The Bounty Hunters (featuring old mate David Hinds, who played guitar in Rabbit).
‘‘The Heroes still enjoy playing together and people still enjoy hearing us play,’’ says de Jong, who has long partnered Porteus in cover bands such as The Smarts, Heartfelt Rodneys and Django Wrango.
‘‘I think the connection is we take people back to a special time in their lives.
‘‘Music for many people is like a form of time travel. You can hear a song and suddenly you’re back to that magic age between 18 and 23, you’ve got a bit of spare cash, you have no responsibilities, and the world is your oyster.’’
Tinson, who operates a home studio and retired recently as a Hunter TAFE music business teacher, is regarded as the godfather of Newcastle guitar bands.
As a player, he has backed everyone from the Ted Mulry to Swanee and Doug Parkinson himself. His credits as a producer/engineer cross the generations, from DV8 through to the Screaming Jets and Silverchair.
Tinson and de Jong also combine to compose advertising jingles, with Muso’s Corner being among their most prominent.
The pair wrote the impressive new Heroes album between them, including shared billing on three tracks, plus an instrumental and two other reworked numbers from the early 1980s that never saw the light of vinyl, and a guest appearance from Angry Anderson.
They sold about 20,000 copies of their self-titled LP, but would be happy just to recoup the costs on its independent follow-up.
So what will 18- to 23-year-olds of today think about the Heroes on CD, or on stage?
‘‘I don’t really care what the kids think,’’ Tinson laughs. ‘‘If anything, they would probably see the band and say ‘Oh, so that’s how you do it’. Nowadays, you see such a low level of musicianship and stage craft. We were lucky because back then we were playing seven gigs a week, so we learnt a lot. But now the kids struggle to even find a place to play, which is the real shame of this whole story.’’
The Heroes launch So Far at the Cambridge Hotel on Saturday, January 17.
Copies of the new album and remastered first album are available as a $34.95 package from heroesband.com.au.