Remembering the Strange, Musically Challenged Time When Football Players Became (Terrible) Pop Stars

Monday June 17, 2019 Written by Andrew Mueller

This is an edited extract from Andrew Mueller's new book Carn: The Game, And The Country That Plays It, out today via HarperCollins.

Footy G2

St Kilda 12.4.76 Essendon 12.21.93
Moorabbin Oval
ROUND 17, 1981

There were 23,126 people at this game, which means there are 23,126 stories of what people did that morning, between getting up and making their way to Moorabbin. But it is possible, verging on outright likely, that some of those present revved themselves up for the day by dropping the needle on one of the strangest records ever released in Australia, to which two of this afternoon’s protagonists had contributed. The album was called Footy Favourites.

Footy Favourites featured one player from each of the VFL’s 12 clubs, singing a song each. It was not an altogether original concept. The previous year, the New South Wales Rugby Football League and Tooth’s Hotels had combined to sponsor the first Footy Favourites, a collection of popular hits interpreted by members of each of the 12 teams which constituted the NSWRFL. The results, while every bit as catastrophic as might have been anticipated, proved insufficient to deter a VFL response.

Credited with/blamed for the idea on the sleeve of the first Footy Favourites was Gene Pierson, who’d been a minor pop star in the late 1960s and early ’70s, then a promoter and manager. The link to the VFL was Jeff Joseph, who had at various points handled the affairs of The Seekers, The Mixtures and Zoot, but by 1981 was managing St Kilda’s Trevor Barker.

Barker was always going to struggle to avoid an attempt to escort him on the journey from The Winners to Countdown. Barker looked like a rock star – depending on the length of his blond mane, like The Sweet’s Brian Connolly, or Tom Petty. He played football like a rock star – flamboyant, expressive, at ease with applause, distinguished from workaday mortals by sartorial extravagance, in his case the long black sleeves he preferred.

Barker had played his first couple of seasons in the 25 guernsey, but by 1981 it was impossible to imagine him wearing any other number but 1 (which, like all St Kilda numbers of this period, was rendered in a voguish disco typeface). He’d even had a starring role in the video for one of the biggest-selling singles in Australian history – when Mike Brady hit the line evoking flying angels in the first chorus of ‘Up There Cazaly’, that was Barker soaring above South Melbourne captain Ricky Quade at the Lake Oval in 1977.

However, on the evidence of his version of Johnny Nash’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ on the VFL version of Footy Favourites, Barker sang about as capably as Brian Connolly or Tom Petty might have held down the centre half-forward spot. It was perhaps for this reason that any ideas of pitching Barker as a solo crooner had been abandoned, and accomplices solicited to fill an album. Among them was another of Jeff Joseph’s clients, also playing today at Moorabbin, Essendon’s Tim Watson. Only just 20, Watson was already in his fifth season – he had been, at 15 years and 305 days, the fourth-youngest debutant in League history – and blossoming into the champion who would underpin the Bombers’ eminence of the 1980s.

Watson’s contribution to Footy Favourites was ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town’, a Mel Tillis potboiler which had been a hit for Johnny Darrell and (more notably) for Kenny Rogers. It seemed a presumptuous choice by Watson – a first-person monologue by an embittered, crippled Korean War veteran wistfully pondering the murder of his vexingly gadabout wife.

Many years later, Watson shed light on the creative process behind Footy Favourites in a radio interview. He said he’d picked ‘Ruby’ because he thought, as a country song, it would be easy to sing – a common error of those who mistake the conversational warmth of the great country crooners for a lack of technical ability. He recalled the players involved in Footy Favourites being paid $500 each, and hustled into a South Melbourne studio in groups of four, for after-midnight sessions during the week, at which they were loosened up with whisky and what Watson described as ‘oregano cigarettes’. Watson recorded alongside South Melbourne’s Barry Round, who became so incapable while recording his appalling version of Elton John’s appalling ‘Little Jeannie’ that he could not even be roused by Footscray’s reigning Brownlow medallist Kelvin Templeton, delivering a spoken-word performance of the standard ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ with the approximate ardour of someone reading out their own ransom note at gunpoint.

It is difficult to isolate a definitive nadir on Footy Favourites, so unfalteringly abominable are the performances. Melbourne’s willowy winger Robert Flower, who chose The Village People’s ‘Macho Man’, possibly evades opprobrium on the grounds of self-parody, witting or otherwise – one of the most graceful players of his era, the considerable joy to be derived from watching Flower was always diluted by the fear that a decent hip-and-shoulder would snap him in two. Carlton’s Mark Maclure did to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ what many a burly enforcer had tried to do to Robert Flower, but at least ‘Imagine’, unlike Flower, deserved the treatment.

The low point on the album – which, by definition, might be the low point of recorded sound – is furnished either by Geelong winger Michael Turner with his version of Peter Allen’s ‘I Go to Rio’, or by David Cloke, then of Richmond, later of Collingwood, with his reading of Wayne Carson Thompson’s ‘The Letter’. While Turner is just about a worse singer than Cloke, ‘I Go to Rio’ is one of those songs so routinely butchered in karaoke abattoirs that one more tone-deaf squawk-through makes little odds. Cloke, however, chose to tackle a genuine masterpiece – ‘The Letter’ was a U.S. chart-topper in 1967 for The Box Tops, featuring on vocals a teenage Alex Chilton, later of Big Star – and Cloke tackled it much as he often tackled opponents, leaving ‘The Letter’ a mangled, limping ruin.

Suspicions that Footy Favourites was an exercise in phoned-in opportunism, rather than a pure-hearted articulation of the contents of its contributors’ souls, were not ameliorated by an inquisitive contrast of the track listing of the VFL version with its NSWRFL predecessor: nine of the songs on the former had been covered on the latter. Comparing them further, it is hard to avoid noticing other similarities, and equally difficult to rise above suspicions that the evil geniuses behind the enterprise just decided they might as well double their money by wheeling baffled players of different codes in front of exactly the same backing tracks – although, in fairness, certain of these were pretty rocking, as might have been expected, given the involvement of Peter Cupples and John French.

Cupples had been the singer in Stylus, an Australian soul outfit who’d become the first all-white group signed by Motown. French had engineered Skyhooks’ ‘Living in the 70s’ and ‘Ego Is Not a Dirty Word’ – and, by way of demonstrating his ease with all points sublime to ridiculous, would go on to assemble a resume including Not Drowning Waving’s elegiac ‘The Cold & the Crackle’ and Joe Dolce’s idiotic ‘Shaddap You Face’. Their arrangements of Carole King’s ‘Hard Rock Café’ and The Police’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ deserved better than, respectively, the performances of Laurie Serafini and Michael Moncrieff.

Serafini, the keystone of Fitzroy’s defence, sang ‘Hard Rock Café’ like a tourist soliciting treatment for an awkward holiday ailment with the aid of the ‘at the doctors’ section of his phrasebook. Moncrieff, Hawthorn’s full-forward, sounded like he’d not only never heard ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ before, but any pop music whatsoever. North Melbourne’s Wayne Schimmelbusch (Ray Brown & The Whispers’ ‘20 Miles’) could perhaps be excused – even admired – for stepping up as his club’s captain, in the manner of an officer hurling himself upon a grenade to spare his men. Which left Collingwood’s Ray Shaw (Frederic Weatherly’s ‘Danny Boy’) to qualify for the very highest praise that might be honestly bestowed upon any selection from Footy Favourites, i.e. that it was merely fucking awful.

The two stars of Footy Favourites who appeared at Moorabbin this afternoon both submitted convincing reminders of what they were actually good at – despite, as was often the case, Moorabbin being affected by a peculiar microclimate which appeared to prevail only in its vicinity. Much of St Kilda’s home ground was more suitable for bog-snorkelling than football, almost as if some devious schemer associated with the club had deliberately overwatered the surface to slow up more skilful opponents. Nevertheless, Barker was able to ascend from Moorabbin’s mire to a characteristically spectacular mark in front of the members’ stand in the third quarter, and Watson harvested from the swamp a best-on-ground 31 disposals.

Trevor Barker was not the last Australian football player to participate in the making of a terrible record. But he remains the one with the most convincing claim to the title of rock star. Barker was as loyal to St Kilda, the team whose cheer squad he’d joined as a boy, as a glamorous singer refusing to abandon his band of old friends for a more lucrative solo career, much as Zoot had been ditched by Rick Springfield. Despite many offers from more successful sides, which during Barker’s time was any of them, he stayed a Saint the entirety of his 230-game career, 165 of which St Kilda lost, and for at least half of which Barker took 22 cents of every dollar the chronically cash-strapped club owed him. When one of the two St Kilda best-and-fairest awards he won came with a car, Barker returned it.

And Barker died young, though not in a manner that piques the boneheaded admiration earned by rock’n’roll burnouts: he was claimed by cancer in 1996, aged 39. Thousands filled Moorabbin Town Hall, and the footpaths outside, for his funeral. As is the case with all such tragedies, the overwhelming aspect was the future denied: in this specific instance, a nigh certain return to St Kilda as coach (after retiring as a player, Barker took Sandringham to two VFA premierships). The corollary, if no consolation, is a glorious youth, dazzling frozen in memory.

Footy cover G1

This is an edited extract from Carn: The Game, And The Country That Plays It by Andrew Mueller, published by HarperCollins. To read the full article, replete with its numerous-yet-gripping footnotes, head to your local bookstore or grab a copy online.