Yaraandoo: One of Australia’s best (and rarest) progressive rock albums

Inspired by an indigenous Australian dreamtime story describing the birth of the southern cross constellation, guitarist and songwriter Rob Thomsett got together with a few mates and recorded Yaraandoo on a two-track recorder in Canberra in 1974. When they were done they pressed up just a hundred copies of their work on vinyl. It remains one of the best and rarest Australian progressive rock records of the 1970s.

I spoke to Rob Thomsett and synth player Steve Durie about their experience making music together in the 1970s and how Yaraandoo came about.

Rob Thomsett: I was born in Brisbane and like I guess a lot of kids in the 50’s was forced to learn how to play the piano and gave it up very quickly. Then I joined the naval college in Jervis bay of all things, 1966 it was, I heard on a cheap transistor radio from Sydney the Rolling Stones playing ‘Not Fade Away’ and literally my life changed that day. So, I’ve always had a special spot for the Stones because they ended with me being thrown out of the navy cause we formed a little band playing Rolling Stones stuff in the naval college and of course officers never did that. We used to hoon up the Sydney and get Rolling Stone looks, you know shirts and stuff, so i was thrown out and moved to Canberra.

Rob Thomsett: Dylan was strong and all those guys and I ended up in a band with Fred Aubrey. He was an amazing player, and a guy called Kevin Abbey and a guy called Guy Holden, and we joined a jug band. Played a place called ‘Folk Blues and Beyond’ which was held in a church hall in Lyneham, but it was packed every Sunday night, it was packed, it was wonderful and there was no stage you just got up. So, that was the start of it and i was playing bass then, then I started to play guitar, started moving to guitar early 70’s and by that stage I had joined a band called Astral Plane and that was sort of in my opinion the beginning of the peak of the Canberra era in terms of the popular music. You know we were listening to guys like Jethro Tull and I learnt to play flute as well as guitar. So Astral Plane’s first incarnation did a lot of Tull stuff and of course you go back and that was sort of wonderful music the first few Jethro Tull albums were mind-blowing to me.

Jordie Kilby:  Astral Plane are still really well remembered around Canberra these days as one of the best bands of their time. so, when the Hoadley’s battle of the bands came up they naturally entered.

Rob Thomsett:  We went in and were beaten by Salty Dog which was a band Gunther Gorman had and they were a great band they did  a lot of British blues rock stuff, and that was very important because we sort of had just been doing covers and I said, “You know screw that we’ll start writing our own stuff”, and the first thing we wrote, and I wrote fair bit of it, and Brian Fogwell who’s the other guitarist wrote a bit, it was a rock opera and it was incredibly pretentious, it was called Child Of The City and sort of had T.S Elliot quotes all over it and everything. We played it at Australlian National University and it was probably the first time in my life I understood what music was all about. Cause when we finished playing, we played for like an hour, we were over the top then, and we stopped playing and there was no sound, and I was just sort of oh well that was stuffed, then there was this incredible applause a good minute after we stopped playing and it was one of those really special moments. I always remember it. Just this stunned silence cause no one was doing that sort of stuff in Canberra in those days, playing totally original music and certainly not for a whole hour. It was a pretty seminal moment for me.

Jordie Kilby:  Running off the buzz from that gig they went looking for other places they might be able to perform the piece.

Rob Thomsett:  In those days it was really hard to find venues in Canberra, it was a lot smaller than it is now, and so a lot of times you just had to do it yourself. So, after we played at the ANU we hired The Playhouse. We all had day gigs so we all had a bit of money and we performed it again. And at that stage it was really clear to me, that’s what I wanted to do, which was just to dedicate to writing innovative stuff.

Jordie Kilby: There was a little spanner in the works though because not long after that Astral Plane broke up. But this turned out to be a blessing.

Rob Thomsett: John Hovell, who was the drummer, and myself joined two other guys Danny Goonan and John Socha who were in a really big band. I’m trying to remember their name but they did a lot of Cream stuff and things like that. We formed a band called Oak which stayed together for three years. In retrospect that was amazing stuff, we wrote all our own material and we put on three concerts once a year. We hired the Childers Street hall and they became really quite popular. I’ve got the posters, we silk screened our own posters. In fact, my wife Camille gave me one the concert posters for Christmas.

Rob Thomsett: Oak were real prog, really heavy two guitar lineup. I was playing flute by then and clarinet and harmonica as well. Again, a lot of it in retrospect was pretty self indulgent, but sort of around that era, that whole rock scene was exploding. There was Tully and Nutwood Rug Band and Jeff St John and The Id, and I think it was this wonderful blooming of people saying we can create any form of music we like and play it loud. With Oak we actually wrote three concerts and I’ve got tapes of all of them actually, and I put out two of the songs on one of my early cd’s when i got back to music in the early 2000’s. They’re pretty badly recorded. We used to play at a church in Lyneham and the oak tree was in front of it. That’s why we called ourselves Oak. At that stage my guitar playing was really becoming mature and the band was becoming great.

Jordie Kilby: In January of 1972, John Hovell approached keyboard player Steve Durie and asked him to join Oak.

Steve Durie: I knew of Oak because it formed out of probably some of the best-known original bands in Canberra, which was Astral Plane and Canyon, two bands coming together and forming ‘Oak’. I was well aware of them. I was impressed that they came and spoke to me and I had a session with him and met Rob that day and then spent 2 years working with him.

Jordie Kilby: During this period all the guys were expanding their musical horizons. There were some amazing Jazz fusion records coming out and they had a big impact on the style of the music that Oak began to play. 

Steve Durie:  Just in the tail end of the 60’s and the beginning of the 70’s you had this fusion of jazz and rock influences creating a whole bunch of different styles going. We were absorbing a lot of that stuff. Miles Davis and all of those bands that came out of Miles Davis, John McLaughlin stuff, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report. I guess we were synthesizing our own thing, our own impression, what we could do with that from our limited technical capabilities. And the particular combination of people that we were and creating what was then a very original sound in Canberra, which was definitely in the rock vain but had very strong jazz influence in it. 

Rob Thomsett: After the Child Of The City experience with Astral plane I really liked writing. Around about that same time I started crossing over into jazz. Bitches Brew was just unbelievable and really changed my attitude to music. Then all the spin-off bands from that wonderful era with Miles. So some of my ultimate favourite records still are out of that era: the first Weather Report album, the first Headhunters album. When we were in Oak I remember we spent an afternoon listening to the first Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Inner Mounting Flame album, and I can still remember that afternoon we just sat there. My wish is that everyone sits in a room once and listens to music and just, you know, just has their mind blown you know. That album was really important to me.

Jordie Kilby: Jazz and fusion weren’t the only influences running through the band. Steve Durie was soaking up the others whilst studying at the Canberra School of Music.

Steve Durie: I’d been playing the piano only a couple of years, other than a bit of tinkling as teenager, but I’d made a decision in 1970 that I’d actually go learn to play the piano. So, 70 and 71 I was studying the piano with a piano teacher and it was primarily classical stuff and in 71 I actually got into the school of music there and started studying composition with Larry Sitsky. So, I was coming from a recent but strong classical influence and then via Larry Sitsky getting exposed to contemporary music and Avant Garde musical influences. That was when I had the opportunity to join Oak.

Jordie Kilby: Most of the band had day jobs in the public service which enabled them to equip themselves with cutting edge technology and instruments.

Steve Durie: We had probably the first Mini-Moog synthesizer in Canberra and so that was very rare for a band to have a synthesizer in Canberra at the time. Larry Sitsky encouraged me at the time to take an interest in electronic music. Dawn Banks was out from the UK at that time doing a fellowship at the school of music at ANU and they set up an electronic music studio and I was one of several students at the school who was very involved with Dawn and the electronic music stuff there. I was doing all sorts of experimental work on a whole range of synthesizers that they had put together in that studio and as soon as Rob got on to that he said, oh gee, I’m gonna go and get you a synthesizer. He went and got a Mini-Moog himself and I came into band rehearsal one night and there’s this synth sitting there, so that became a primary instrument for me and obviously shaped a lot of the work I did in the band.

Jordie Kilby:  With Oak jamming regularly and their ability to express themselves growing all the time Rob began to cast around for a story that the band could breathe some musical life into.

Rob Thomsett: I became really interested in what was happening to Australian Aborigines because, you know, I was raised in a traditional racist Queensland family. I went to the National Library and found a book on aboriginal myths and read the Yaraandoo myth and for those folks who don’t know it it’s just beautiful. God creates the earth, its two men and women, there’s a famine, which is a great story for Australia, and they’re all dying and gods ban them from killing. But they kill a kangaroo rat and offer it to the third guy who goes off and refuses it like he’s true to the faith and he dies and then this gum tree takes off with his spirit in it, with the dead guy, and carries the dead aborigine up to the milky way and creates the southern cross. Just breathtakingly beautiful story. Of course you can see the similarities from that story and most other creation stories and that got me really interested in a whole bunch of standard creation stories and that just inspired the hell out of me and I started writing.

Steve Durie: The introduction Rob gave to me was the story of the legend of Yaraandoo and the birth of the southern cross. He was really excited about the legend and at that point he was only imaging the music or I think he had a few different sketches of things he would like to do with it. But he was imagining putting together this suite of music centred around the aboriginal legend of Yaraandoo. He was very excited. I can remember him dancing around the room imitating the various characters of the legend; the cockatoos, the aboriginals, and the rest of it. It was one of those Rob Thomsett performances that’s really persuasive and really captures you into the spirit of what you’re doing.

Jordie Kilby: As the Yaraandoo project was maturing into 1974, Oak were beginning to split up but members like Steve Durie and John Hovell continued to work on the Yaraandoo with Rob Thomsett. They were joined by other local musicians like drummer Alan Hodkinson and bass player Mato Thomsett. The scope of the project quickly captured the imaginations of all the players involved.

Steve Durie: What we were doing with Oak was we were doing concert music. A lot of it was very danceable, but it was concert music for people to listen to. There were various themes presented but probably most of the Oak shows were only loosely connected in terms of the story line. It was generally more instrumental music that was abstract and yet here he was proposing that we take those skills and ideas and capabilities that we had from a musical point of view and apply them to tell a story. That was pretty exciting in itself.

Jordie Kilby: The rehearsals and recordings for Yaraandoo took place towards the end of 1974 and into the beginning of 1975.

Steve Durie: I had moved from Canberra to Sydney by the time that we got well into Yaraandoo. I was doing some work up there and I came back to Canberra for several sessions to participate. So, Rob was sending me material that I was working with in Sydney and then I’d come down to either do a rehearsal or a recording session with the guys in Canberra.  I can just remember it’s just such a wonderful feeling to take a piece of music like that and sit down and work through it fairly quickly with a group of guys and then say “ok, here we go, let’s do a take.” So, for me a lot of that Yaraandoo stuff was again very live and vibrant because most of it was the first, second, third take that we put on to the record.

Rob Thomsett: And that was Yaraandoo. We recorded it on a two-track Tascam tape recorder. You know it was just amazing. Over dubbing to hell. Recording in lounge rooms and using lots of local musicians and me playing a lot myself.

Jordie Kilby: With the recording finished Rob pressed up 100 copies and distributed them amongst family, fans, and friends. So, the record was never really a big seller but while having a million selling record is something that many dream of it wasn’t necessarily the motivation for those that were playing on Yaraandoo.

Rob Thomsett:  One of the things that really changed my attitude to music was an interview in Downbeat, that i read years ago, with a guy called Elvin Jones who is without a doubt of the greatest drummer that has ever lived. He was playing in a club in New York and there was a whole bunch of drunk people and the interviewer in Downbeat magazine, who interviewed him after the gig, made the point that apparently there was only one person listening to him and the rest were just yelling and talking. Elvin Jones just said, “well, there was one cat listening that’s good enough for me”, and he played his ass off and that really got to me. And about the same time we saw AC/DC at Dickson High School, can you believe that! In fact, we were the oldest there with the two coppers who came and joined us at the back.  But it was a great story cause they came out, this was with Bon (Scott) and everyone, there was about 100 kids there. No more than that right. The whole auditorium was empty – it was a bloody gym, but they played their bums off. They played so loud the ceiling was flaking. The painting was peeling off it. A year later they were playing at Wembley in front of 150,000. AC/DC and these guys really understood it. I mean ultimately they’ve got different motives than Elvin but as long as one person is listening it’s worth doing, isn’t it?

You can connect with Rob Thomsett via his website which includes both old and contemporary recordings of his.

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The Versatile Saxophone of Ted White

In 2013 I interviewed Ted White about his career as a saxophonist both in Australia and the U.K. His horn work can be heard on classic recordings that include the Arena LP and Stratusphunk with Bruce Clarke. The interview was subsequently used to build an episode of the podcast RareCollections which I hosted with my father, David Kilby. What follows is a transcript of that episode. I hope to publish transcripts of other interviews we did for RareCollections in the coming months so that all the good information contained within them can be read for the first time.

Jordie Kilby – There were some really exciting experimental jazz and electronic music that came out of the studios of Bruce Clarke in Melbourne in the late  60s & 70s. Now Clark was in the business of producing  TV and radio commercials  and a very good business it was for him too, but when the work was done and the musicians were still around in the studio there was always time for a bit of playing around…..

Ted White – John Lewis from the Modern Jazz Quartet came down one afternoon and looked at us like  and thought we’re all Martians, you know he couldn’t understand what we were doing, and we couldn’t either. It was one of those things  that you play or  see for  twenty seconds, then you wait for 12 more seconds and then you play and hey one of those you know.

David Kilby – A lot of the stuff was never released, but there are few interesting examples of some of the things they got up to. Now the voice you just heard belongs to Ted White and you’ll get a chance to hear him blow his sax in a moment, when this piece your hearing really opens up. It’s a version of  Oliver Nelson’s Three Seconds and the track comes from an album called Stratusphunk, released in 1974, and credited to the Bruce Clarke Quintet .

TW – Well we were electric at that time, I had an electric saxophone with a ring multivio with all these wizz-bang things you know, and I went in and saw Bruce, and Bruce was just at that time experimenting with the Moog synthesizers and all that sort of thing, and we went into the studio and I did a couple of things with the electric thing for him on commercials, and then he decided to form the group with Keith Sterling as well on trumpet. He had an electric hook up as well with wah wah pedals and all sorts of stuff like that, and that’s how we put out the album.

DK – This is RareCollections and the theme for this show is Ted White. Ted was a great and versatile sax player who has worked not only with Bruce Clarke, but led the band on the great arena LP, played bebop and big band jazz in England during the 50’s, toured Europe with the Maori Hi-Five, played on more TV shows than you can poke wharpy stick at, and even had a very small part as an extra in the film Cleopatra. Now there’s some great stories to be told ,so stick around and enjoy the man and the music.

JK – Now, in case you hadn’t already picked it up Ted was born in the UK and he started playing sax when he was sixteen, and he got his initial break  in a somewhat unconventional way.

TW – I’d had the saxophone about a week and I was practising my front room and a guy walked by and sort of came up the steps and knocked on the front door and said “have you got a  tenor sax”, I can hear you, and I said” yeah”,  and he said  “well we want someone for my band”, and I said “well you’ll still be looking because I’ve only  had it  a week”. Fortunately for me I’d had piano lessons when I was about five or six, but which got cut out because of the war, so I could read the treble clef and so he said “well, come along to the band and see how things go”.  And I went along and that’s how it all started.

DK – Now he stayed with that band until 1954 when the new movie about the life of Glen Miller opened.

TW – And the local Odeon had a competition with the bands to play Glen Miller tunes and see who  won. Well we came second, it was only a seven piece, and the band that won it, I had a couple of solos, and they offered me the job. And so I left that band and went with Len Turner, another band which was working  the American  bases at the time. I was also an apprentice at that time, an engineering apprenticeship, and I was coming home at 5 o’clock and 6 o’clock in the morning, and then I would get up and start work at 8 o’clock,  you know, and it got very tiring. In the end I gave the apprenticeship away.

DK – Once he committed to the life of a musician he threw himself into the thriving UK band scene.

TW- There was so much work in the 50’s. You know you just couldn’t stop.  If you got upset with one band you’d go down to Archer Street in London on a Monday afternoon and pick up another job almost immediately. It was a fantastic time for musos.

JK – Ted was gigging 6 nights a week at his peak. Often starting the evening with a big band on the Mecca Ballroom circuit or in a military base somewhere. And then after that he’d go onto a club in search of a smaller jam.

TW- I mean I was still playing when Charlie Parker was alive and there was no vocals at that time, there was purely instrumental music.  In those days if you played a good solo the crowd use to shout “go, blow, blow” and all would really get excited about everything, but of course they don’t do that anymore.  Every band now has virtually 85% vocals, which is a shame. That’s killed instrumental music.

When I was probably 11 or 12, we could get the Hot Club of Paris on the radio in London and I use to listen Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, things like that. So I think this, this is good music. There was a friend of mine, from a different school, came to me and said “I’ve  got these records of Alan Dean”. Alan Dean was later in Sydney, he had a recording studio there. So I met him years later and said to him “now you’re the cause of my downfall”.  You know I used to listen to Alan Dean. Ronnie Scott and Johnny Dankworth were in his band. I think they’d been on the boats, been to America and they came back to England and it was like a refreshing thing you know, it was away from the Dixieland, but you know, sort of more contemporary music, and that’s how we all got involved.

DK – In 1958 Ted made his very first appearance on vinyl playing sax with Chico Arnez.

TW – Well his real name was Jack Davis, he was a bass player and his father was a bass player and I think his grandfather was a bass player. They were a family of bass players. But he decided to form a Latin American band. We had 5 trumpets and 1 trombone, 4 saxes and about 6 rhythm.

JK – They gigged around London and they had a residency at the  Edmundo Ros Club on a Sunday night.

TW – Robert Mitchum was there, he use to like the band.

DK – Ah did he? Because he liked that sort of music didn’t he? That and West Indian music.

TW – Yeah and I think on the second album, I think he was on the cover or back sleeve of the cover on the second album. But I’d left the band by then. Well, after we played it was funny because Jack lived in Battersea, and after we’d finished we’d all go back to his place for drinks and play cards and he’d try to win all our gig money back of us by playing cards. And of course Robert Mitchum was there.

JK – The album Ted is on is called ‘This Is Chico”.

JK – In 1963 Ted moved to Australia, but in the 6 months or so before he decided to leave he was encouraged by some mates to sign up to work as an extra  on some movies being shot in London and he ended up getting screen time in 3 films. A documentary about the atomic bomb, Tarnished Heroes, and Cleopatra which was staring of course Elizabeth Taylor.

TW – It was in February in England which was below freezing and we had to get dressed up. I was suggested to hold this spear, or something like that. We had to get wearing the plastic Roman armour that they issue you and then sprayed down with a sun tan and then given a blanket and then got out on the set. This was of course about 6:30 or 7 o’clock in the morning and it was absolutely freezing. We waited and waited and waited because Elizabeth Taylor didn’t turn up. So we were all paid off. We came back I think and we did it the second day, did the same deal and got paid off again, and she had pneumonia and she didn’t do the thing and they eventually, I think they kept some of the long shots  of that day because it really looked like Rome. The set was  fantastic. Then of course they went to Italy and made the movie .

DK – Ted’s ticket to Australia came via a popular actor and TV personality, Digby Wolf.

TW – He said if you come out to Australia, he said I’ve got another show lined up in Brisbane. I want you to be the band leader because its aimed like the Gleason and Sammy Spear – Sammy Spear was a musical director and he wore a funny jacket and Gleason tore shreds out of him all the time. So he says I don’t want to do that to an Aussie, but I can do it to you because I know you.  So we got to the Chevron and we were out sitting by the pool, living like a Raja on Channel Seven’s budget, and we got a telegram from the States from Chris Bearde to go back and write Laugh-In. So he says “I’m going back to write Laugh-In, what do you want to do?” So I said “I’m quite happy where I am thank you very much”, and I stayed and got a job in the Surfers Paradise Hotel with an eight piece band there.

DK – In 1965 Ted hooked up with the Maori Hi-Five.

TW-I was working in the hotel with the band and the entertainment manager of the Chevron spotted me out and said “look I’ve got a Maori group over here and I want you to come over and try and, you know.” They couldn’t read music  that was the thing,  and everything was like, I’d have to play for them or write myself a piece of music and then play it for them to teach them.  You know they’ve got ears like parrots –  they could just pick it up.  Incredible musos they were. So I started off working the lights over there for them. I had another quartet in a nightclub called Digby’s, which was on the Gold Coast, and I used to work the lights and then he said why don’t you come and, you know your doing a few musical things, why don’t you come and join them? Which I did. And then they got a chance to go overseas, with an agent in London, and I joined the band.

JK – Ted travelled with the band to Europe and back. Stopping in South-East Asia along the way. While in the UK,  Ted says they were the highest paid unknown act working the club circuit.

DK – After returning to Australia he settled in Sydney where he soon found work playing with Ian Saxon and his band The Sound. They did a national tour and cut one single before splitting. The B side of the single was written by Ted and well give you a taste of that now.

JK – That’s a bit of Love Doesn’t Always Find A Way by Ian Saxon and The Sound from 1970. It was after Ian Saxon left the group to join jazz-rock outfit SCRA that Ted moved to Melbourne where he was to base himself for the next decade or so. By day he’d often work sessions at the Bruce Clarke studios in Saint Kilda backing artists or cutting jingles.

TW- I used to work a lot with Peter Best. Remember the one about Norm?

JK – Life Be In It?

TW- Yeah that one. Well the one I did was Norm dreaming.  It was one of them. I had to play the alto in an echo chamber sort of thing as though we were in his brain, you know.

DK – But by night he worked gigs, sometimes live, and sometimes on television. One long term gig he had was as part of the band on Ernie Sigley’s massively popular evening TV show .

TW- The entrance to the band room was a bottle of red wine or a bottle of wine every night. So there was 8 of us in the band so you can imagine how much wine we had. Whatever used to happen in the band room Ernie used to come and have a drink with us and that would end up on the show. Because he’d tap into everybody’s conversation and then roast you on national television.   

DK – It was while he was working on the Ernie Sigley Show  that he got a chance to make the Arena album that has since developed a reputation for being one of the finest jazz-funk LP’s ever cut in Australia.

TW- The Arena one was never intended to be an album. It was just a fact that the owner of the studio  had got a new desk and his engineer said to me “bring some of your mates in and record a couple of things” to let him have a good go at the desk. Which we did. I wrote a couple of things out on the quick went in and recorded them and thinking no more of it. Then they were interested….”oh you better come and do some more.” So we did 7 tracks  thinking well that’s it. We didn’t get paid or anything like that for it. Just purely a labour of love and much to our surprise he put it out as a  album.

DK – In fact the band on the LP is pretty much the same guys who were working the Sigley show with Ted.

TW – It was Bobby was on bass

JK – that’s Bob Arrowsmith

TW – Graham was on drums

JK – that’s Graham Morgan

TW – So I was on saxophones and another one of our mates  Jonesey….

JK – That’s Peter Jones

TW – he use to come in now and again but he was a jazz player and a good writer and used to do his own  commercials jingles and things. And Charles Gould. He was a guitarist who was in the ABC show band.

DK – When you think of the kind of stuff the band must have been playing on TV, and then listen to a song like The Long One, you can’t help but think they must have relished the opportunity to cut loose a bit.

TW – I’ve always been involved in that sort of music you know, that stretched out stuff. Music that you can have a blow on you know, where you can stretch out as a soloist.

JK – That’s Arena from their self-titled LP from 1976 and the track is called The Long One and it features some really tasty sax from the subject of this episode of RareCollections – Ted White.

DK – As you can probably imagine a sax player like Ted has had, over the years, the opportunity to back some of the biggest name in show business, when they’ve toured down under and he remembers a few fondly.

TW-Sammy Davis was great. Mel Torme was fantastic. Jerry Lewis was good.  I played with Clark Terry when he came out. He set the music out and we organised the band and we did a concert with Clark terry which was fantastic.

Well we’re close now to the run out groove of another episode of the show. We might finish up with a track from the 1972 LP Vichyssoise by Bruce Clarke and Maryan Kenyon. Its an LP that Ted was also involved with during his  early days in Melbourne and one that’s quite different to the Stratusphunk album that we began the show with.

TW – It wasn’t a call a three hour call or anything where we did the album. It was done over a few days, or perhaps a couple of weeks or something. It was a bigger band and on some days we had like 5 saxes, trombones, and trumpets, and all that sort of thing on a couple of tracks. And on another one we did with four flutes and strings.

JK – We will finish with Apricot Hot and it features Ted and his mates in the brass and woodwind sections being run through a Moog synthesizer, for a little bit of added colour.