Elly McDonald

Writer

The girl with the glamorous job

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This week my geriatric father noticed the covered porch and decking area in my parents’ back yard is perfect to stage plays.

“Our first challenge,” he announced, “is to identify an audience.”

So it is with writing memoir pieces. Just as not even my brother-in-law is keen to watch McDonald family amateur theatrics, few can be genuinely interested in reading yer average memoir blog. I have an 84 year old friend who has kept a journal every day since age 12. I love him, but would I read extracts? I think not.

Last time I posted some memoir pieces, close on two years ago, I was met with resounding silence, followed by squawks at my candour / callousness. A dear friend suggested I continue writing but not write about myself. I know that friend has my best interests at heart.

One obvious problem with memoir pieces is that they entail writing about other people. Many years ago I published a book titled Other People (and other poems). Yes, those Other People might have been strangers in public places. Or they might have been people in my life whom my friends would recognize.

My friend-from-long-ago Don Walker tried to get around this issue in his memoir, Shots (Black Inc, 2010), by not naming anyone bar his Cold Chisel bandmates. I read an interview Don gave where he said it’s a terrible transgression to expose another person in print. I’m not sure how effectively Don got around this self-imposed constraint, as I haven’t yet read his book, but he’s a brilliant writer who lived interesting times so doubtless some day I will.

But back to me. LOL.

In those far back days, some people (magazine editors) thought readers (young women) might like to read about me. Not so much me, as that generic type, the Girl With a Glamorous Job. I was a rock music writer for 10 years. Apparently that was perceived as glamorous, as between 1980 and 1984 I was asked to participate in three feature articles profiling Girls With a Glamorous Job. I was also asked to write or be interviewed for two articles on sexism in the rock music industry, and to contribute to a radio program on that subject. Go figure.

I’ve made it difficult to write memoir pieces about that period of my life by the simple act of burning my mementoes. Almost everything burned or was shredded: the photo of me hanging off Jimmy Barnes’ shoulder, gazing at him adoringly, him charismatic, gazing straight to camera; the cryptic typed note from Don (WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF – I think it referred to the Girl Who Cried Woof); the plastic tag reading EXCESS BAGGAGE – ACCESS ALL AREAS gifted to me by an international star I hung out with in Sydney; the photo of said international star and me having dinner at the notorious Bourbon & Beefsteak Bar in Kings Cross, me starry-eyed (again), him looking like he’d posed for similar shots a time or two before; the various glossy 8×10 pics of friends playing live on stage I’d souvenir’d from rock photographers. Most of the 450 articles I’d written about rock bands. Letters, postcards and admin stuff documenting my life in Oz Rock.

Almost the only thing I kept was a letter Don Walker wrote me some years later, after I had moved to London. It contains a lovely anecdote about a London dinner party and the etymology of the bird name “jabiru”. The fact Don was wrong about the origins of “jabiru” only makes the letter the more delightful. (Does this count as exposing him in print?)

I also kept a handful of my articles that either had personal significance to me or that I thought were rather good. And I kept the magazine articles about me as a Girl With a Glamorous Job.

Here, for the delectation of whomever is still reading, are those articles, in reverse chronological order, with comments:

Cleo, March 1988:

A writer and publicist, Elly loves to party and to go to the movies or theatre. This sociable woman [yes, that’s what they wrote] walks “absolutely everywhere”, goes to the gym three times a week and loves to dance. She believes physical activity should be enjoyed. On being 26? “I feel confident about growing older, there’s no way I’d go back to being 20.” Her philosophy: It helps to smile a lot. Life is about fun for oneself and for others.

Did I say LOL? How about, ROFL? It’s true I walked everywhere (I had no car), true I was a gym-nut and true I loved to dance. It’s also true there was “no way I’d go back to being 20” (to quote Don Walker again, in a recent interview he said he’s not nostalgic for the early ‘80s; I don’t think I’m nostalgic so much as puzzled about that period of my life). That stuff about feeling confident, about embracing ageing, about smiling a lot? So not me. And godalmighty, what’s with the “fun for oneself and others” nonsense? That was never me. Even at that interview, what I tried to talk about was the gap between the ideal and actuality. I tried to talk about eating disorders. The writer’s eyes glazed over. She stopped taking shorthand notes and I guess I decided to just go bimbo.

Elly McDonald Writer 4

‘Girls with glamorous jobs’, Dolly, 1984 – by Andrea Jones (an outstanding rock journalist)

Elly McDonald would never have contemplated a career as a rock journalist – let alone writing about rock’n’roll – had it not been for a fateful encounter with Cold Chisel four years ago.

Elly was an 18-year-old arts/law student at Monash University in Melbourne when she got involved with the campus radio station. They assigned her to interview Cold Chisel, who were, then, just on the verge of their huge success.

Looking back now, Elly cringingly [good word choice] recalls how inexperienced she was in both the art of interviewing and the ways of rock and roll. But despite this, the interview developed into a deep friendship with members of the band and it inspired her to do more interviews with other bands.

“It was an interesting time for the pub rock scene and people [Don Walker and Steve Prestwich] kept telling me to base myself in Sydney and write for RAM.”

So, at 18, Elly moved to Sydney, with the intention of working for an agency which handled bookings for bands. But when that prospect fell through, she took her friends’ advice and started writing for RAM.

“My first work was unsolicited. I wasn’t being assigned any work and the big features were generally being assigned to established writers. So I was doing features on bands who very often had no recording contract at all.”

Since then Elly has written for The Australian, Nation Review [in fact pre-dated my rock writing], Cleo, Rolling Stone and several literary publications.

“I prefer to do interviews after a show. I like to give the band 30 minutes to calm down after coming off stage and then do the interview, because all the thoughts I’m feeling about them as a band [wtf] are still fresh and the band is revved up and the atmosphere is there.”

Of all the bands Elly has been associated with or enjoys going to see live, her favourites are INXS, Midnight Oil and the now defunct Cold Chisel. Yet, of all of these, only Cold Chisel are personal friends [in 1984 that might have been stretching it].

Elly was quick to point out that being a rock writer didn’t guarantee that you instantly [or ever] became best friends with your favourite bands.

“Although you have the opportunity to meet people who may be interesting, short of actually throwing yourself at them [a tactic I never gave up on], the chances of you continuing contact are very slim – even if you do get on well [or are a drug dealer]”.

Though Elly did say that being a journalist meant you sometimes got into unusual situations with rock musicians. One of the most amusing of these, Elly recalled, concerned INXS and a cover story she was writing for RAM.

“I went down to Canberra with the band and I was meant to do an interview before the show and then come home with the road crew afterwards. For some reason Michael was really nervous [wired] and we didn’t get to do the interview – even after the show.

“We went back to the hotel and watched TV and every time I made interview noises, Michael would suddenly get intent on a piece of the action [that’s how Michael de-tensified]. Two’clock came and went and the road crew disappeared and there I was stuck in Canberra. Four o’clock came and went and eventually the band said, ‘Well, I guess we’d better go to bed’.

“I said ‘Hang on a minute, what about the interview?’ and Michael said ‘Oh yeah! The interview! … What are you going to do about bed?’ [I cannot believe I kept telling this anecdote.]

“I told him I didn’t know since the road crew had gone and he said ‘Well, I’ve got a spare bed in my room so if you come and sleep with me, we can do the interview’. [Shame! Shame!]

“So we actually did that, with him sitting in his bed and me sitting in my bed, gossiping away. It was like a real girls’ all-night pyjama party and it was really enjoyable in a totally, totally innocent way.”

Elly carefully pointed out [but too late] that meeting famous pop stars was not the motive behind her work.

“I am firstly a writer and the subject – rock’n’roll – comes a long way second.”

For anyone interested in creative writing, Elly said rock journalism was a good springboard. And freelancing, she explained, gave her a lot of freedom. “I am completely flexible and I have the freedom to do anything I want, to develop any interest I want.”

There are drawbacks though, like no holiday pay, no paid sick leave, no paid expenses [none of which I’d mentioned or indeed had ever given a moment’s thought]. Plus, the rock press’ rates of payment are only about a quarter of the recommended level.

“I do occasionally have terrible fears of being a little old lady living on cat food,” she joked. [That was no joke. ROFL many times over.]

Though these days Elly has many other creative irons in the fire, she maintained, “I’ll continue as a rock writer as long as I’m able to get the satisfaction out of it that I do now” [about one more year].

Graeme Shearer 2

‘The powerful business of rock music’, Cosmopolitan, 1982 – by Jacqueline R Hyams

Elly McDonald’s by-line is rapidly becoming familiar around the music scene. At only 21, she’s a Sydney-based rock writer, doing regular weekly columns for The Australian, frequent articles for industry “bibles” like Rolling Stone, The Record and RAM, as well as a number of other different publications.

She describes herself as “a typical rock and roll misfit” but, joking aside [why do they think I joke?], Elly’s a pretty, thoughtful sort of girl, overtly conscious of the writer’s responsibility to both audience and artist, whether reviewing a long awaited rock concert by an overseas artist or commenting on a new band that might be tomorrow’s success story.

“It’s very hard to get a balance between what you, the writer, actually think or feel about a band’s music and what you’re going to continue thinking,” explains Elly. [Say what? I think I meant it’s hard to know whether the band I rubbish now might not become the next big thing.]

In fact, she has a fairly musical background and plays the piano, guitar and viola quite well. [No, I played piano quite well and sang quite well. I’d done a few lessons on both the guitar and the viola.] Even at 13 Elly loved rock and roll and had dreams of being a record producer [for a nanosecond – also video director]. But writing seems to come easily to her; while still at school she wrote underground film reviews for the now defunct Nation Review.

Three years ago, while studying law at Monash University in Melbourne, Elly stumbled upon rock writing almost by chance. “The university has a radio station, 3MU, and at that time it was pretty disorganized. They’d set up an interview with Cold Chisel but nobody wanted to do it. It seemed discourteous to forget it, so I volunteered, wandered into the middle of a sound check and said ‘Who’s in this band?’ My knowledge of Australian rock was pretty sketchy then!”

But she got the interview [well, I was bloody there, weren’t I?]. And the next time Chisel were in town they rang her and asked her to do another one. “By that time I’d decided I liked it and had written a few more. But I was lucky; I interviewed the bands that kept playing and the ones I chose went on to have an extraordinary amount of success.”

Abandoning her studies [aptly put], Elly moved to Sydney and, she recalls, “through naivety rather than guile” managed to get the chance to write articles for RAM, “by ringing people I didn’t really know” and actually asking for opportunities rather than sitting around waiting for things to happen. She is, she explains, a great believer in risk taking – “you should always stick your neck out.” [My authentic voice. Sticking one’s neck out does occasionally result in losing one’s head.]

Eventually, Elly’s enthusiasm was noticed and editors started to hand out assignments. These days, nearly everything she does revolves around the industry; a night out means either going to a concert to do a review or going to see a band who might be long-time friends. But she claims she never made a conscious decision to become a rock writer: Rather, it was the realization that she could learn about any specific aspect of the industry by writing about it that spurred her on.

“I want to know how it all works so that one day I can get involved in something myself – if you use your commonsense you can have access to all kinds of people and discover, as a professional observer, much more than you would in any other situation. I’m very taken with the idea of getting into rock management even though it would not be the easiest of jobs [and I lasted just one day working alongside Vince Lovegrove when he managed Divinyls].”

Because freelance writing in such a specialized field is so competitive [read: because freelance writing pays so poorly and is not a fulltime gig], Elly has had to supplement her income by working part-time in a friend’s shop.

The women who genuinely love the business often drop out, Elly feels, because they just aren’t strong-minded enough. “It’s easy to believe the things they tell you about yourself in this industry but you have to present yourself in the way you want to be treated – and of course, you want to be treated well. And if you say something offbeat, you’d better be prepared to stick by your opinion because it’s bound to become public.”

I think this interview must have taken place shortly after I had a showdown with Oz Rock legend Ross Wilson in the Sebel Townhouse Bar over whether savage record reviews can be justified. I argued they can: as a critic I am honour-bound to provide a consumer service, warning prospective buyers off crap albums; I am not a publicist or A&R lackey. Ross argued a reviewer has a responsibility not to burn the artists but to provide constructive feedback. We had an audience. Out of that evening, Ross’s bandmate Eric McCusker, from Mondo Rock, became a friend of mine.

The journalist, Jacky Hyams, has a much more interesting story than I do. After many years in senior editing roles back in her native London, she published a memoir, Bombsites and Lollipops: My East End Childhood (John Blake, 2001), about growing up in a gangland family, with a father who was mates with the Kray Brothers. Jacky has a blog at jackyhyams.wordpress.com 

Elly_McDonald_Writer Cosmo

‘Women in rock OR Dorothy in the Land of Oz OR It’s a Long Way to the Top – If You’re Not a Band Mole! [sic]’, Tharunka, 1981 – by “Heather”

The last interview is with Elly McDonald. As well as having to contend with insolent attitudes towards females, she has to cope with the fact that she’s all of 20 years old.

We met at a Kings Cross coffee shop, and talked over cups of coffee and the noise of the clientele [sic – all spelling, grammar and punctuation errors hereafter are Tharunka’s].

Elly started out on doing a series of interviews for Monash Radio: “which I doubt a single Monash student would have listened to or remembered. Monash Radio basically is a group of people who hang around the radio station smoking dope and playing cards – and playing records when they remembered. But quite often they forgot to put the switch on so it doesn’t get broadcast.”

Elly then progresses? to “Roadrunner”, “Ram” and [is] now a regular freelance contributor for the Australian.

“I am now a journalist who writes about rock as opposed to a rock writer – and there’s a huge difference. It was accidental that I fell into rock – and it wasn’t until I’d been doing it for a good nine months that I suddenly woke up and realized what I was [that happened?]

“Even then it was obvious it was a dead end job. There are no career prospects for a rock journalist unless you move into other facets of rock or other facets of journalism.

FROM RAM TO THE AUSTRALIAN

“I like the idea of writing to a non-rock audience. I like working for people who my bylines mean nothing [to] and who need convincing rock is worth covering at all, in the arts pages, which the editor does.

“One of the real pitfalls for rock writers is they start writing for the industry and start being ultra-conscious of whether or not attitudes they express are going to go down well with both the public and the industry factions. They start being terribly fashion-conscious [trend-conscious] in music and in criticism. And they also get this dreadful sort of personality journo, famous-rock-writer syndrome.”

TEETHING DIFFICULTIES

“When I first started on ‘Ram’, I had this paranoia, and it was paranoia, that the first relatively intelligent, 24 year old who walked in, who happened to be male, was going to oust me immediately. I don’t want this to reflect in any way on the people who worked for ‘Ram’ but it is male oriented, it is a male scene.

“But most of the problems I ran into was because of my own naivety. When I first started out I didn’t notice the difficulties of sexism. When I play back old taped interviews, there were a lot of propositions there. And I never, ever knew (laugh). It’s only now that I’ve got to be sort of paranoid and slightly more knowledgeable about it that I’ve been aware of a lot of the sexism.”

VENUES

“Venues are one of my big hates in rock and roll. There are few I find tolerable to spend six hours in. – Venues – yuk … what can I say!

“I’m very lucky in a way that if I really wanted to pull rank – if they’re close friends I can hide backstage and if they’re not, I can hide behind the mixer where they’ve closed off an area, so I don’t have to put up with extreme congestion – people standing on my toes, elbows in the face, beer all over my bodice and people pinching my bum all the time – sometimes I do that voluntarily and it usually deters me for a couple of months. So venue conditions – all I can do is look at it and say – ‘ain’t it awful’!

“Mind you – I’ve been thrown out of a few venues – I was thrown out of Bombay Rock (Melb), three times in a row. Just to give you an idea of how some venues operate was when – this was a long time ago – the Angels lighting guy [Ray Hawkins] went backstage, to do his job obviously, and the bouncer said ‘hey mate, you can’t go back stage’. Ray just ignored them, what else can you do (laughs), and they yanked him outside and beat him up. I was going ‘hey, he’s with the band’ sort of thing – they wouldn’t believe me and ended up shoving me out in the street. I had in my pocket at the time my Ram accreditation, my Monash Radio accreditation, my Dirty Pool card, which was the Angels management company at the time, and they wouldn’t let me see anyone. They wouldn’t let me back in the venue. Short of getting a fist in the face like Ray, there was nothing I could do but go home. Both those bouncers were sacked before 12 the next day.

“The second occasion is probably one of your sexist horror stories. I was invited to Bombay Rock by a major band [Icehouse] who were playing. The usual procedure when you’re on the guest list was not to line up in the queue (which this night stretched about four or five blocks), but to go straight through to the ticket box – tell them you’re on the list, they check it, and you go straight through. But the bouncer wouldn’t let me in to the ticket box. So I waited in the queue – 60 minutes later – not on the guest list! There was no way I was going to fork over $6 having waited for an hour, I had also paid a hefty taxi fare to get there. So I caught a cab over to where friends were playing (I though a couple of suburbs away), and I knew they were coming afterwards, so I went over there, and waited for them cause they’ll get in free no worries.

“Turned out that the venue was a long way away, which added immeasurably to my taxi fare, I got there, I came back with the other band [Cold Chisel], I got in with no trouble. I asked the band’s manager what had gone wrong – what had happened was, there had been a very long guest list so he’d gone through and crossed off all miscellaneous females regardless of the fact he knew me personally, he knew I was a friend of the band and that I’d been personally invited there by the band and that both in my social and professional capacity had every right to be there. So I was fairly uncontrollable after that.” [Ah yes. The charming Ray Hearn, messin’ wid me.]

And the third time?

“The third time I’d rather not mention – (laugh). The third one had nothing to do with working in rock [because there was no third time].

“But then again, there are so many people who stand there and bluff till kingdom come that, yes, they are the lead singer’s girlfriend, and yes, why the hell won’t you let them in. There are enough girls who do know all the names and do know all the right things to say. Sometimes the bouncers have a hard job.”

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY

“Last year I worked 50/50 Melb/Sydney, so I had quite a lot of experience with people, bands and attitudes as well as how things work in both cities. There’s a huge difference in the way the two cities operate musically. But it keeps a good balance effect.

“It seems to be moving back towards Melbourne. The smaller bands seem to be more interesting and creative in Melbourne. I think that’s partly because in the ‘79/’80 period when Sydney was really right on top, these little Melbourne bands were looking up at the commercial monsters and thinking – ah, that’s [not] what I want to be.”

FUCK UPS

I put this question for each of the women, purely for its humorous connotations. But in the case of Elly McDonald, I had to tread a touch lighter; for two reasons: Firstly, being notably young in her field gives less time to look back and laugh, and secondly, because of the well known incident when Ian Meldrum called her a “silly female” on national television. Without going into too much detail, the incident occurred when Ian decided to have a special section in Countdown where he picks up mistakes in the rock media:

“You might be getting at the Russell Morris incident. There’s a fair story behind that. It all comes back to me being at fault, but not quite at fault in the way that it appears. I did realize he was using a cordless guitar. I would like that to be known (laughs). It was simply bad wording on my part. If I had looked at it for more than two seconds I would have noticed – and changed it. I apologized to Russell, he apologized to me, Ian Meldrum hasn’t – but never mind.

“In Sydney it was a big joke – ‘Elly wouldn’t know a guitar from a walrus’.”

Elly was confused by the walrus. I did not recognize Russell was playing cordless guitar and I could have stared at my review a long time without ever recognizing I was in error. I wish my editors had seen what I could not. Also, about that apology from Russell – I went to review a pub gig of his and he gave me a lift home, except ‘home’ in Melbourne was my parents’ house in Camberwell, as distinct from my own flat, in Sydney. Russell was happily sitting on my parents’ kitchen bench swinging his legs when I mentioned my folks were asleep upstairs. I have never seen a man so startled. God knows how he thought I planned to deliver my apology, but he was out of that house in seconds. The next time I visited his record company, Mushroom, their publicity manager Michelle Higgins made cracks about me still living with Mummy and Daddy. I can’t say relations between me and Mushroom, and its artists, were ever good.

CRITICAL WRITINGS

“If I didn’t like a band I had to review – there’s no point going out there and running them into the ground. Mainly ‘cause that’s too easy. There are still too many bands who are still in the developing stage, you could kill in one blow. But why? Even if it was wildly averse to my personal taste you’ve got to look at it from the points of view, is there an audience for that band, if so why does that audience like them?

“As Ed St John (Rolling Stone) once said of Australian Crawl – the inherent faults are so obvious they’re not even worth mentioning.”

WOMEN MUSICIANS

“I think they’re in the best position of any women in rock and roll because where they prove themselves is on stage. If they can cut it on stage, it’s very hard for people to put you [them] down. Where it hurts, of course, if where people putting you down is interfering with your ability to do your job well. Women muso’s are in a good spot, because they’re not necessarily obliged to get involved in the politics.”

Speechless. I was so naïve. Even years later, in 1990, I was oblivious. I was asked to write an article on sexism in Oz Rock as it affected women recording artists by Shona Martyn, who was then editor of GH a.k.a HQ magazine and is now publishing director for Random House Australia. She mentioned a couple of women singers whose careers had not developed. I immediately phoned my former RAM editor Anthony O’Grady for the inside story then phoned Shona back saying “Anthony O’Grady says there was no sexism, they just weren’t good enough and record companies are brutal.” I did no further research and dropped the story.

ADVICE TO BUDDING FEMALE JOURNALISTS

“I wouldn’t advise any young, intelligent woman to take up rock journalism because there’s no prospects – other facets of the industry, sure, the day a woman is put in the A&R position in a major record company I’ll cheer, but I think that day is a long way off yet. Again, I don’t want to put anyone down – but they put you into PR ‘cause you’re pretty and ‘cause you smile. But A&R, this is when credibility comes in – [it’s thought that] if she suggests to sign up some band, chances are she’s fucking them.”

Elly McDonald Writer 2

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Elly McDonald

Art lover. Loves her family and her dog. Worked in the Australian rock music industry as a journalist and published widely as a poet before moving to London and spending the better part of a decade in advertising agencies. Returned to Australia and briefly tried teaching, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees but also as a high school classroom teacher. Has travelled Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, Northern India, East Asia, coastal USA, some Pacific Islands, and Australia.

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