Book review: Full Coverage: A History of Rock Journalism in Australia


By Samuel J Fell

Monash University Publishing, $36.99

From the 1970s into the 1990s, Sydney’s inner-city corner pubs teemed with beer-pit audiences lapping up local bands. Live music was the default option for countless people on a night out, and some bands could happily pack out multiple residencies each week, eliminating the need for touring. Author Samuel J Fell rightly describes the 1980s as a halcyon time for Australian rock; Sydney’s scene in particular. Between just two suburbs, for instance, Balmain and Rozelle, some 17 pubs (plus a club and a wine bar) hosted live music – before the bleating of nimbies saw this force for community cohesion replaced with poker machines or “fine dining”.

The subtitle of Fell’s book is not quite true, however. A History of Rock Journalism in Australia implies we might encounter samples of reviews and interviews, whether to show us the best (or worst) writing, or to exemplify changes in approach between publications and eras. Instead Fell (a well-credentialed music writer, and sometime contributor to this masthead) concentrates on a thorough timeline of the rock periodicals: when and where they started and stopped, who edited them and who wrote for them. He covers their internal politics and circulation figures, but he describes rather than shows us the nature of their content.

The only snippets actually quoted are editorials (usually first-issue mission statements or last-issue farewells), although he does laud many journalists and critics, and so we encounter the names, if not the writing, of Lily Brett, Ed Nimmervoll, Helen Garner, Richard Guilliatt, Annie Burton, Mark Mordue, Bruce Elder, Jen Brown, Stuart Coupe, Clinton Walker, Michael Smith, Bernard Zuel and many more.

Sometimes the history is fleshed out with interview-derived anecdotes of the contributors’ experiences, whether of bands, editors or working conditions. Brett’s account of being Go-Set’s roving reporter in the UK and US at the end of the 1960s is engrossing, with her very naivety playing its part in gaining her access to the day’s biggest stars. Somehow she and photographer Colin Beard were friendly with the Beatles’ press agent, Derek Taylor, and his imprimatur opened countless doors, providing Go-Set readers with insights into a glittering world that seemed extremely remote at the time.

Much more of that flesh comes from interviews with editors and publishers, and so the book becomes primarily a history of the birth pains and death throes; the frictions between editors and owners or between publications. The machinations surrounding hierarchical changes, bankruptcies, start-ups and competition for readership and advertising are compellingly conveyed, though, with many protagonists providing candid recollections of spats and triumphs.

Samuel J Fell. Photo supplied.

Setting the ball rolling was Go-Set, with Molly Meldrum as a columnist. While pop-oriented, it was not always lighter than air, as when it syndicated Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner’s extensive and sometimes electrifyingly blunt 1970 interview with John Lennon. From Go-Set, Fell takes us through the days of Planet, The Digger, RAM, Juke, Australian Rolling Stone, Roadrunner, and on to the heyday of the street press and the likes of On the Street and Drum Media. Beyond Sydney and Melbourne, he gives ample coverage to the magazines that sprang up in our other cities, and is especially effective at covering the various publications’ demise when the internet began obliterating print media of all sorts.

Finding space to provide journalistic samples would have been straightforward with tighter editing, as having spent a chapter giving us the run-down on magazine B, for instance, Fell routinely recapitulates where were up to in the history of magazine A in the next chapter, before continuing with the tale. These are wasted words. We want to read the writing as a priority over the politics of publishing.

It’s a book that cries out for an index, and it would have been marvellously enhanced by some photographs of the magazine covers and the protagonists, had these been affordable. Fell could also have nodded a little more to the rock journalism in the daily newspapers. Nonetheless, at least the existence of these assorted publications has now been thoroughly documented, and the information is never less than engaging.