The Dancehall Racketeers – Western Swing in Australia

Dancehall Racketeers Prince of Wales Hotel 1984

So much of the foundation of my playing was with the Melbourne based, Dancehall Racketeers –  a dedicated western swing band (Australia’s first) that was located about as far away as you can get from the originating hotbeds of Fort Worth and Tulsa etc. Actually then Melbourne, with such a vibrant live music culture, was one of the best places to locate bands and musicians who were faithful to many musical styles that had been neglected, discarded or modified beyond recognition from their halcyon days.

The Dancehall Racketeers was formed in June 1981 by Rick Dempster and my older brother Andy Baylor. The original line-up (which included Paul Neuendorf, Graeme Thomas and the Andrews brothers, Mike and Steve) made a big impact on Melbourne and Sydney, but unfortunately broke up after only seven months. After a twelve month hiatus, Rick and Andy sought about keeping it going, knowing that it still had unfulfilled potential. They were right, and with a new line-up that included my younger brother Peter, Ed Colbourne, Ian Hayes and I, it grew quickly and we were soon busy in a way that is hard to comprehend now. Rick and Andy were definitely our musical mentors and had the experience and knowledge to create and run a working band.

Right from the start, we were very different to anything else at the time. Western Swing is essentially a jazz/swing with folk roots style of playing, but due to a number of factors was almost hunted to extinction. The 1980s decade was becoming a period of highly processed pop music, androgynous popstars and electronic music was now taking over from guitars.

The music journalists at the time had a difficult time working us out and in looking for an angle, were often pretty edgy. To us, we were just playing and enjoying the music we loved and were trying, somewhat idealistically, to make a living from it. This article from the Sydney Morning Herald was a good example and it shows how hard it is to fit in to other people’s preconceptions of what music was supposed to be (click to open all attachments):

3 February 1984 SMH article

 

Most of the music we played back in the 1980s was from between 1932 and 1952. Now that we are now nearly as far away from the ’80s as we were then from those glory years, it’s obvious that music scene is as different now than to what it is was then compared to that period.

For a start learning to play was so much more difficult. In such an isolated place such as Australia, you had to be both dedicated and resourceful. Information was rare and inspiration had to be sought or manufactured. Everything was learned through trial and error.

The biggest help was that period coinciding with the big wave of old 78s being collected, valued and re-issued to a new generation via LP records.  This, along with the precious liner notes that gave historical context and documented the musicians, was the prime link to the sources of the music and proved to be the biggest inspiration. This was made possible to us by the presence of the most incredible record store ever: Hound Dogs Bop Shop – a veritable Aladdin’s cave of US roots music in a little shop in West Melbourne. This was the both the music source epicentre, as well as being a social hub – a type of Roman forum for enthusiasts of rockabilly, blues, western swing, bluegrass, and classic country music!

It’s hard to imagine now, but we were averaging around 5-6 gigs per week in Melbourne, mainly in the inner city as well the odd sojourn into the outer suburbs and regional towns as well as regular interstate tours.  We also did universities and colleges mainly during the daytime, particularly during the start of the academic year. This was indeed a frenetic pace, and also included lots of rehearsing, driving and all the other things that go into running a band.

We also had a dedicated soundman, Frank Cleary, as was the practice at the time (so the band had seven mouths to feed) and had to load and set up a PA system for nearly every show. We certainly weren’t the only band doing this kind of schedule!  The Friday newspaper gig guides then went for several pages and had separate sections for all kinds of music, so live music was a vital part of the entertainment scene back then. Gigs were either free or there was a cover charge of around $4.

Oct Nov 1983 Sydney tour

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other big difference then was recording music and selling it. Back then of course it was vinyl – 45s and LPs.

the-dancehall-racketeers-i-got-a-hole-in-my-pocket-1986

Selling recordings at gigs was much rarer. That was considered something that shops took care of and you never saw a cent from it! In any case, records were fragile, heavy and cumbersome so it made the whole thing something to avoid. Of course, the advent of CDs changed that completely and bands could not only record their own but got to have total control over their product.

dancehall-racketeers-LP cover 1986LP back cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our debut gig and first residency (every Friday night) was at the iconic Melbourne venue the Ivanhoe Hotel in Collingwood, known as the ‘Tote’. Hard to believe now, but this venue became the headquarters of punk and heavy metal bands and was later the symbol of the Save Live Music campaign. We did a lot of gigs on the rock scene at the time and were always the strange one at the party – we even did a gig supporting rock icon Robert Plant (who earlier came to see us at a gig and liked it). I’ll never forget pulling up in our little van with our entire musical possessions inside in between the several massive semi-trailers they had. As we pulled up, an identical van to ours stopped beside us and it turned out to be a fellow delivering cheese and crackers for their pre-gig snacks! The contrast couldn’t have been starker.

Rax@Tote'83

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music festivals weren’t that common then either. We would play probably only a couple of festivals each year, whereas now they are the staple of many bands’ existence. A memorable one was the 1984 Gympie Muster, then held on a farm and here we were on the bill with the great Chad Morgan:

Chad Morgan Dancehall Racketeers 1984

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the ’84 Port Fairy Folk Festival:

Dancehall Racketeers Port Fairy Folk Fest 84

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nowadays a lot of people save up their time and money and go to a festival and gorge on it for a weekend. While that is fine, it did have the effect of diminishing the demand for live music on a regular basis.

Because bands played so frequently then, musicians tended to play within the one band so much more as well. When you were a member of one band you rarely had time to freelance outwards. When I moved to Sydney in the late 1980s, this was the norm there however, and it took a little getting used to. These days, almost no musicians anywhere restrict their playing to just one band as it requires many different irons in the fire to make any kind of sustainable living.

From March 1983 through to 1986 in particular, we were really working hard. We even got a little mention in the December ’83 issue of US magazine for acoustic instruments, Frets:

Frets Magazine Dec 83 p64

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the end of 1987 we were about to notch up gig number 1000!

2 December 1987 1000 gigs

 

 

 

 

 

With such a pace and with everybody being pulled in different directions, it was inevitable that there would be changes. From ’85 there were a number of personnel changes and by the middle of 1988 the band had quit as a full time concern. However, the band continued to play many special gigs, festival appearances and even tours. One of the best was a tour in 1991 with Tex-Mex legend Flaco Jiminez and what a great experience that was. A fabulous hard working band.

Flaco tour

 

flaco photo

 

There has been many shows since albeit infrequently. The next one will be a gig at our old stomping ground, Collingwood on Friday 12 August and it promises to be a winner! One of the great things I enjoy about returning to Melbourne is catching up with so many people who came to all those gigs years ago – the reunion is certainly not only with the band members but with all those friends with whom we shared our youth with. See you there!

DancehallRacketeers Gem 2016

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