‘How Could You Play Music That Loud?’ Michael Gudinski’s Life Story In 13 Songs

23 November 2023 | 9:10 am | Jeff Jenkins

After trying to tell the Gudinski story in 13 tours, here we attempt to do it in just 13 songs.

Michael Gudinski

Michael Gudinski (Supplied)

The challenge for the makers of the documentary Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story: how do you tell the late music mogul’s remarkable life story in just 111 minutes?

After trying to tell the Gudinski story in 13 tours, here we attempt to do it in just 13 songs. It comes ahead of the historic Mushroom 50 concert – celebrating the 50th anniversary of Gudinski’s greatest feat, the Mushroom Group – where this Sunday, a cohort of his most accomplished peers will convene in Melbourne (Naarm) to perform the 50 songs that made Mushroom the Australian music icon it is.

It’s a tale of school friends, keeping the faith, creative freedom, risk taking, noisy neighbours, practical jokes, mini-bar bills, and a deep love of music.

1. Chain – Black And Blue

After quitting school, Gudinski was the office boy at the Melbourne booking agency AMBO, who booked Aussie blues band Chain. “I would go in there to see the bigwigs and I’d end up talking to Michael because he loved music,” Matt Taylor recalls. “He was just 17 and his dad thought he was a bum because he had quit school, but he had more front than Myers.”

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Gudinski became Chain’s booking agent and manager. “Look,” Taylor says, “Michael was going to become a multi multi-millionaire no matter whether I was part of his story. But everyone needs someone to have faith in them, to give them a break, and that was us.”

At the Long Way To The Top concerts in 2002, Gudinski called Chain “the band that inspired me to start Mushroom Records”. Their biggest hit, Black And Blue, was, appropriately, a “work song”. Gudinski never rested. He was working till the day he died in 2021.

2. Madder Lake – 12lb Toothbrush

Mushroom’s first releases were singles by Madder Lake (Goodbye Lollipop) and Friends (a cover of Little Richard’s Lucille), released the week after the 1973 Sunbury festival. Madder Lake guitarist Brenden Mason and bass player Kerry McKenna had gone to school – Melbourne High – with Gudinski.

“In third form, our form teacher was Mr Harrowfield,” Mason recalls. “Possibly for convenience, he placed all the class in alphabetical order: Mason, McKenna … I have often thought that if my surname was Smith or Brown, Madder Lake would never have happened.”

12lb Toothbrush was the band’s biggest single, reaching the Top Ten in Melbourne – Mushroom’s first Top Ten hit. The strangely titled song is a good example of how Gudinski didn’t interfere in a band’s art. “It’s got nothing to do with toothbrushes,” Mason points out. “12lb Toothbrush was kind of our joke on the DJs. We knew it would get a bit of radio play and they had to announce a song called 12lb Toothbrush.”

3. Skyhooks – Horror Movie

Gudinski regularly said that Skyhooks saved Mushroom. The label was struggling until Living In The 70’s landed. The album spent 16 weeks at number one, becoming the then biggest-selling Australian album ever. Gudinski also managed Skyhooks and booked their gigs (pioneering the “360 deal”). “It was a team,” Gudinski recalled. “It was Elvis and Colonel Tom, it was Michael Gudinski and Skyhooks. We were really like a team of six.”

The record company boss had never seen mania like it – fans would camp outside his Toorak house, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols. Gudinski was even mobbed in Perth when he split his pants and was forced to wear a pair of Shirley Strachan’s silver stage pants. The fans spotted him and thought it was Shirl trying to give them the slip with a fake beard. Girls swooped on Gudinski, tugging on his facial hair. But they soon realised their mistake. One fan said, “We should have known – Shirley wouldn’t have legs like that.”

Horror Movie was Mushroom’s first national #1 single.

4. The Sports – Who Listens To The Radio

Gudinski always dreamed of having a number one in America. He thought he might get it with The Sports, who signed a huge US deal with Clive Davis and Arista Records. But Gudinski said he gave up management for ten years because of Sports singer Stephen Cummings – “he was traumatic to manage”.

Cummings wrote candidly about his relationship with Gudinski in his memoir, Will It Be Funny Tomorrow, Billy? “I have it on good authority that Michael Gudinski once asserted to an assembled group of industry types at a reception for Jimmy Barnes that after working with me in The Sports he vowed never to manage an artist again – so execrable was the experience.”

Cummings called Gudinski “an offensive and abusive bear of a man, [though] at least he went to gigs and liked music”.

“We had an interesting relationship,” the singer reflects. “Gudinski was ambitious to have a hit in America and for a short while it looked like I was the one who might get it for him. When it didn’t happen, he was at some subliminal level like a lover scorned.”

Who Listens To The Radio was Mushroom’s first Top 50 hit in the US, peaking at #45 in 1979.

5. Split Enz – I Got You

By the time Split Enz came to write songs for True Colours, their fifth album, the band had been dropped by their UK label and even their Australian supporters were wavering. As reported in the Ego documentary, Gudinski’s good mate Ian “Molly” Meldrum had urged the Mushroom boss to drop the band.

But Gudinski kept the faith. “Fortunately, Michael believed in the band so much, he ignored my advice,” Molly says. “I don’t like to say this too often, but Michael, you were right.”

I Got You was the song that turned everything around. Tim Finn says the song’s success – it spent eight weeks on top – took everyone by surprise. “Michael Gudinski certainly didn’t recognise it as being a hit single. No one did, really, until it started getting airplay, then people started going, ‘Oh, it’s a hit, it’s a hit.’ But when we handed in True Colours nobody said, ‘Oh yeah, this is going to be the breakthrough record.’”

Gudinski’s memory was slightly different. “There was a myth at the time that I had said there were no hit singles on True Colours after first hearing the record. The truth is that the album was so strong that I was instantly taken aback and identified many potential singles.”

“I’m not sure he always got us,” Finn says in Ego. “But he believed in us and allowed us to do our thing.”

True Colours became Mushroom’s first Top 40 album in the US.

6. Renée Geyer – Say I Love You

In the mid-’70s, Gudinski shared a house on Toorak Road in Melbourne with Renée Geyer, Molly Meldrum, and his Mushroom co-founder Ray Evans, who also managed Geyer. The cover photo of her Ready To Deal album was taken at that house, and it was the site of some legendary parties, with Gudinski recalling: “We’d buy 200 bucks worth of Bodega, at 80c a bottle – I still can’t look at champagne because of it – and $100 worth of KFC.”

Say I Love You was Geyer’s biggest hit, reaching the Top Five in 1981.

When he inducted Renée Geyer into the ARIA Hall Of Fame in 2005, Gudinski called her “the greatest female singer of my lifetime in Australia... yes, you’re a difficult woman, but you’re bloody fantastic”.

7. Hunters & Collectors – Talking To A Stranger

Gudinski started Mushroom’s White Label when they signed the fiercely independent Hunters & Collectors. They released their single Talking To A Stranger – which ran for more than seven minutes – with the label listing just White Label Records, not Mushroom.

At the time, Gudinski and his wife Sue were living in a little Victorian terrace house in Leopold Street, South Yarra. One night, about 4am, the doorbell rang and Gudinski found Molly and three mates at the door. The Countdown star was carrying a record and before Gudinski could stop him, he’d placed it on the record player and turned it up so loud the speakers were shaking. Molly played it three times before Gudinski got a chance to speak.

“Molly, for fuck’s sake,” the Mushroom boss screamed, “it’s our song!”

The next morning, the doorbell rang again. It was Gudinski’s neighbours. “How are you?” they asked. “I’m fucked,” the label boss replied.

“Well, no wonder you’re fucked... how could you play music that loud?”

8. Jimmy Barnes – Working Class Man

As Frontier Touring director Gerard Schlaghecke explains in Ego, Gudinski loved Jimmy Barnes. He loved his music, his friendship, and the fact he’d finally found someone who could keep up with him.

But Barnesy loved reminding Gudinski that he had knocked back the chance to sign Cold Chisel. In the ’70s, Mushroom was offered two Adelaide bands: Chisel and Stars. Gudinski passed on Chisel and signed Stars – but was adamant the demos he heard didn’t feature Barnesy.

When Chisel announced they were breaking up 40 years ago, Gudinski finally got to sign his mate. “It was a frightening world out there,” the singer recalls. “I was wondering what I was going to do and how it was going to work. Luckily for me, I had a great ally, partner and sounding board in Michael Gudinski.”

Barnesy invited Gudinski to Sydney, where he was working on his debut solo album with producer Mark Opitz at Rhinoceros Studios. The singer was buzzing: “Michael, Michael, wait till you hear these new songs! It’s a new direction for me, a lot different, but it’s the new music... it’s gonna blow everyone away. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Barnesy played Gudinski five songs – five hokey, corny, terrible country songs, handing his new boss the cassette, which was labelled “Jim’s Barn Band”. The blood drained from Gudinski’s face. But if Barnesy wanted to make a country album, he would back him in.

He then realised he was the victim of an elaborate practical joke. The following year, Jimmy Barnes would release his signature song, Working Class Man, and Gudinski tried everything he could to break his friend in the US. But Working Class Man peaked at #74.

9. Paul Kelly – Before Too Long

By 1986, Paul Kelly had released three albums on Mushroom. Talk had peaked at #44, while Manila and Post failed to chart. The singer planned to leave the label and sign with Regular Records. But Mushroom staffer Michelle Higgins had other ideas. She locked herself in a room at Sydney’s Sebel Townhouse – refusing to leave until Gudinski re-signed the artist.

After nearly a week – and a reported mini-bar bill of $4000 (The SaintsChris Bailey helped with the drinking) – the deal was done and Gudinski pleaded, “Please get out of that damn Sebel!”

Their faith was rewarded when Paul Kelly’s next single, Before Too Long, was his radio breakthrough and first Top 20 hit.

10. Kylie Minogue – Locomotion

Mushroom Records was built on rock. Gudinski was reportedly reluctant to sign Neighbours star Kylie Minogue. A soapie star on Mushroom? I don’t think so.

“Some people rang me up and said, ‘This is the end’,” Gudinski recalled after the company signed Kylie. I’d be lying if I said I ever envisaged her having the career she’s had,” Gudinski admitted in 2012. But he embraced her like a daughter.

Locomotion ended up spending seven weeks at #1, becoming Mushroom’s biggest single. And it gave Gudinski his greatest chart success in the US, peaking at #3 on the Billboard charts in 1988.

11. Archie Roach – Took The Children Away

There’s a poignant moment in the Ego documentary when Gudinski talks about Archie Roach being a member of the Stolen Generations. The Mushroom boss recounts the story of how his older sister had been killed by the Nazis during World War II.

Paul Kelly admired Gudinski’s support of Roach, who released Took The Children Away in 1990. “Michael had backed Archie’s first record, Charcoal Lane, well aware commercial stations wouldn’t play it, and continued to back Archie and many other First Nations artists over many years,” Kelly said. “He believed their music and storytelling, that their various perspectives were an important part of the national conversation.”

12. Yothu Yindi – Treaty

Gudinski also loved Yothu Yindi. Their first album failed to crack the Top 40, but he gave them a second shot. That album, Tribal Voice, featured a song called Treaty, which was remixed by Melbourne’s Filthy Lucre team – Gavin Campbell, Robert Goodge and Paul Main.

Campbell premiered the new mix at Gudinski’s Christmas party, instructing Molly Meldrum to “put it on and turn it up”. Treaty became the first Top 40 hit by an Indigenous band and Tribal Voice hit the Top Five and went double platinum.

13. The Temper Trap – Sweet Disposition

As revealed in the Ego documentary, Gudinski played Sweet Disposition so often, he drove the Mushroom staff and his mates, like Barnesy, crazy. This was a personal project for the music mogul – much of The Temper Trap’s debut album, Conditions, was written at his house in Mount Macedon.

Radio’s reluctance to play the single infuriated Gudinski and he refused to relent until it became a hit (#6 in the UK, #14 in Australia). “Had it not been a hit in England, the song could have been lost,” he said. “It’s a song that will go on. It’s one of the greatest Australian songs of all time.”

Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story is now available on DVD/Blu-Ray via the Madman Shop.

The Mushroom 50 Live concert is at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday, 26 November, shown nationwide on the Seven Network at 7pm AEDT.