Young, in love and from Newcastle? I took her to see the Castanet Club

Young, in love and from Newcastle? I took her to see the Castanet Club

I sometimes think all I ever did in Newcastle was float around. On foot, on my pushbike, and, when my mum and dad bought me my first car (an old white 1967 Toyota Super Deluxe Sedan with a broken bucket-seat that made me look like I was hunched and possessed over the wheel), floating even further …

South, along the Pacific Highway, to the Mawson Hotel and Swansea Workers to see young unknown bands like Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil, or princely poets of the coast like Richard Clapton; west, up into the Valley, past Maitland or Raymond Terrace, where the grasses always seemed to be like dead summer straw, the fields of lucerne forever psychedelically green; and east, firing myself along a deserted Hunter Street at night, up around the beach road from Nobbys to Merewether and back again for another loop, just me and the seagulls and the dark waves breaking, solitary parked cars sheeted by street-lights with lovers silhouetted inside.

A feeling of exhilaration and space, or sudden lonely threat, would come in with each tide and evening as if the town had some other life I’d only ever half-know. All the while Double J played on my car radio, transmitting from Sydney after midnight via the local ABC station, singing to me of alternate worlds.

Mark Mordue in the ’80s: I was still discovering the nature of Newcastle, home to all these ugly-beautiful freaks and dreamers like me.Credit:Brett Cheshire for SMH

Newcastle has always been a town of moods, with its odd enclaves and hidden corners to dream in or be wary of: places where the present falls back into history and the ghosts whisper that nothing much has changed in a hundred years. I think of myself on foot again, late at night with a few friends from uni, a six-pack of beer under each of our arms, staggering about illegally through the docks and fenced-off warehouses and across the railway line that ran through the heart of town, climbing up onto a thin metal bridge, talking about life and music and hoisting our cans on to the tracks below.

Then I picture myself once more on those night-drives. Rising over the hill near Merewether to see Hunter Street and all of Newcastle glittering below, before turning back to my suburbs. Green lights all the way down King Street, some great song or other rushing me on through a lit-up rosary of luck … green, green, everything’s gone green.

Queues outside the original Castanet Club HQ in Newcastle, c 1982-83.Credit:Maynard

Speeding past the hallucinatory oranges and blues of the industrial estates around BHP. Maybe veering across to Kooragang, a man-made island in the wetlands, its great T-Rex cranes frozen in the air, enormous sick hills of yellow sulphur smouldering in the darkness. My father somewhere amid it all, working the dog watch while I blast the Jam’s That’s Entertainment from my radio.

By my late teens I was sharing a student house in Mayfield that was right round the corner from BHP. Black grit would fall on everything. Other student houses were nearby – although in Newcastle everything was nearby really. Each place was a dishevelled, welcoming hub of creativity … a bush-band home over there; a theatre-loving place over here; a punk house up the top of town; backyard parties, verandah life, all kinds of people crossing over, every place rough and crazy with charm, and decorated to uniquely makeshift tastes.

Each place was a dishevelled, welcoming hub of creativity … a bush-band home over there; a punk house up the top of town

Shows on buses were a feature of the Castanet Club: this poster was for 1982’s The World Is Your Sandwich.Credit:

In those endless days and nights, I’d fancy myself to be a little like Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, the possessor of some incredible story I was still discovering the nature of. Newcastle: home to all these ugly-beautiful freaks and dreamers like me.

There was something about the mongrel enthusiasm of the University of Newcastle that accepted people from all walks of life, allowing them to gather and be who they were in ways that would have been unimaginable a year or two before in high school. It was an important hot-house for what the Castanet Club became.

I met John Hay there, the first openly gay guy I ever knew, a bold thing to do in Newcastle way back in the late 1970s. Dux of his school, a university medallist, John was supremely intelligent and wickedly funny, as well as being a total B-52’s nut. He ended up playing keyboards with the Castanets and DJing between their sets, the likes of Rock Lobster and, later, Deee-Lite’s Groove Is in the Heart anthems to his soul.

Backstage with the Castanet Club c1984: John Hay is in the front row at far left (striped shirt).

I still remember the first time I saw Stephen Abbott performing. It was at the University of Newcastle too, in a small rehearsal room shaped like a slice of cake. The space could fit maybe 20 people at most. Steve did a solo performance of about half an hour. His monologue was like something out of Beckett or Pinter, clownish, wild, and ferociously entrapped. At its peak he broke into tears. I had never seen anything so intense before in my life.

Steve Abbott became famous for his Sandman character: “His monologue was like something out of Beckett or Pinter”. Credit:

The next time I saw Steve was in a band called Musical Flags. There had been a change of pace. Steve was the guitarist and singer. He favoured wearing board shorts and gaudy striped shirts, or half-arsed lifesaver regalia. It was dagsville-plus. The Musical Flags packed out wherever they played, a group so popular they seemed more like a craze than a band.

With his ring-dark eyes and expressively rubber face, there was far more of the pure clown in Steve out front of this unit. He was one of those guys who only had to look up to have everyone in the room cracking up. Steve’s quips, physical comedy and repartee came at light-speed. His original songs had a definite Jonathan Richman vibe, minor odes to life and love that walked the line between being hilariously ridiculous and surprising you with how deep with pathos and local reality they could be. There was a whiff of genius to them.

Michael Bell’s poster for the Back to Front Show, 1983.Credit:

Out of this group the Castanet Club would find its roots and evolve. With Steve, it seemed to me, at the heart of it. Even so, the Castanet Club became such a big and rolling collective that I find it hard now to separate the actual members from casual performers and a rolling camp of supporters that seemed to be there every night, not to mention the proverbial “party afterwards at Fox and Mandy’s place!” Fox and Mandy, the hosts with the most, who gave us a place to be together and unwind.

There was always a communal feeling of friends entertaining one another in their lounge room or backyard.

Each person involved with the Castanet Club, on stage and off, contributed to what they were. There was always a communal feeling of friends entertaining one another in their lounge room or backyard. It just got more and more sharp and expansive, until all of a sudden the Castanet Club really did have their own club behind the Clarendon Hotel, a bizarre highlight being the night they hosted Tiny Tim. There was also the Back to Front Room, a wonderful absurdist play that featured pieces of furniture that came alive and communicated with one another. Warren Coleman did his “Human TV” act, including episodes of Shintaro on the glitch. As I recall, Steve Abbott was the lounge chair, lugubrious and burdened, eager to be liked.

Warren Coleman and Angela Moore before a 1985 season at Belvoir St Theatre.Credit:Trevor James Robert Dallen

Poster art and set design for the Back to Front Room was by Michael Bell. He was influenced by Zap Comics, Pop Art and Martin Sharp. Michael’s acid-trip circus aesthetic made itself very comfortable in the Castanet Club world. Stephen Clark contributed too, from creating badges and T-shirts to each week’s freshly drawn menu for Bronwyn Rice’s unbelievably delicious and cheap food, which Stephen enhanced with art-deco curlicues, still-lifes and rudely Wildean figures.

I forget how Warren Coleman (later known as Bowling Man) and Mikey Robins first dropped into the picture. The Castanets seemed to just absorb friends and their talents in a free-for-all. But Warren and Mikey were, unbelievably, just as fast as Steve in any match of wits and elasticated facial humour.

Watching Warren and Mikey improvise a comedy exchange, built around a slide show they had never seen before, remains one of the great theatrical events of my life and typical of the unexpected entertainment that could come out of a Castanet Club evening. Together with Russell Cheek – who transmogrified from an elegantly plush theatrical presence into the roadie “Douggie”, a grotesque character sprung salivating like some terrible mistake by Barry Humphries – Warren, Mikey and Steve all seemed to have physically hybridised themselves somewhere between strands of spaghetti and bowls of jelly. It was as if the humour was running right through their bodies.

Comedy and cabaret were absolutely a feature of the Castanet Club, but I’d hate people to think of them as only that. Amid all the humour there would be moments in song that genuinely inspired and moved. Lana Caruso would step up and sing what is still the greatest version of Heatwave I have ever heard in my life.

Angela Moore as her stage persona Shirley Purvis, in 1988.Credit:Colin Townsend

Jacqui Amidy likewise provided a vibe that edged itself between Joni Mitchell and the smokier jazz-blues stylings of her beloved Billie Holiday. Then there was Angela Moore, who could move from the most beautiful presence dressed in velvet and stars to become Shirley Purvis, an old lady whose mischievously friendly chit-chat led to the most stomach-hurting humour.

Thinking of Ange’s character Shirley (based on her grandmother, it was rumoured), I am reminded of the Castanet Club’s bottomless ability to create believable characters and sympathetic figures we knew as part of who we were.

I hope you can begin to see an aesthetic here: Jonathan Richman, the B-52s, Tiny Tim, Martin Sharp, Barry Humphries, Tom Jones (a template for “Lance Norton”), Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Elvis movies, afternoon TV shows, cabaret entertainment and commedia dell’arte … and the nature of Newcastle itself, a steel town that could be harsh and intolerant, but which had somehow made those “different” all the closer, breeding generation after generation of artists, bands, writers and performers – entire communities of heart and talent, of which the Castanet Club have become a benchmark and even a legend.

Surging talents: Castanet Club c1987 (from left) Mikey Robins, Russell Cheek, Maynard, Kathy Bluff, Jacqueline Amidy, Steve Abbott, Penny Biggins, Kylie Thomas (front), Warren Coleman, Glenn Butcher, Angela Moore, Rodney Cambridge, Jodi Shields. Credit:

The Castanets would go on to take the Edinburgh Festival by storm. They’d collaborate in a feature film made by Neil Armfield, perhaps Australia’s greatest ever theatre director. Steve wound up on Triple J playing another much-loved character and storyteller, Sandman. Mikey would land at Triple J as well, becoming a nationally known comedian and TV host on the ABC.

Sometime crooner Tony Squires would develop into a major sportswriter and television critic and host a few popular and innovative sports shows. Maynard would make a career as an absurdist and wildly popular DJ in Sydney. Russell would win the quiz show Sale of the Century as well as star in a stunningly beautiful mime and shadow play at Belvoir Street that met with rave reviews.

Maynard would become a Triple J presenter and absurdist comedian.Credit:

On and on the list goes. All this talent surging out in so many different directions across the country, from radio to television, from music to book publishing, from theatre to film. All of them still at work now. I think about what made them and what made me.

I think about the shows and the parties and the company of my fellow Novocastrians, and that strange warm feeling of home that you get with people you’ve grown up with – no matter where you gather. I think about being young and in love and taking a girlfriend I wanted to impress on a double-decker bus trip cum theatre event called Swinging Safari that travelled through Bondi and Double Bay and Clovelly with staged performances by the Castanet Club along the way.

I think about walking along Bondi Beach when John Hay told his Castanet compadre Peter Mahony and me that he had AIDS and it would not be long before he died. I think about Steve Abbott and the tears of the clown. I think about what it means to have been alive in Newcastle with friends as talented as these.

This is an extract from The Castanet Club: Tales of an artistic collective born in Newcastle 1982-1991, available at shopify.

The Castanet Club: An exhibition you can dance to will open at the Newcastle Museum later this month; a documentary about the group will be online at

Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.

Most Viewed in Culture

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article