Ageing Skydaddies farewell Shirl

Ross Hannaford’s trademark rota-blade hat was a tad unfortunate, all things considered. And then there was the man in the audience who, when asked from the stage what he did, said quietly: “I fix helicopters”.

But it was the night after the death of rock larrikin Shirley Strachan in a helicopter crash, and nothing could spoil the way that his mates in the Old Skydaddies were belting out his songs to an audience that had grown up with Shirl.

“Tonight we’re living in the 70s” roared Frankie J.Holden and they roared back.

They were 20 years older than they had been in the 70s and often kilos heavier; they sat with middle-aged sobriety in padded chairs. But the man with white hair and bushy eyebrows carrying a jug of beer across the room could still sing all the words to You Just Like Me Cos I’m Good in Bed.

Many had phoned the Windy Hill Social Club to check that the show was still on – two of the band were part of the old Skyhooks – but Frankie J.Holden said that it was showbiz tradition, and that Shirl would have told them to go for it.

He always went for it himself, said guitarist Bob Starkie and drummer Imants (Freddy) Strauks, original Skyhooks. Strauks said: “He threw himself into life, no holds barred; he was full on, every ounce of him.” Said Starkie: “No way he would have died on a golf course of a heart attack.”
Strauks, who had played with Strachan in an earlier band, Frame, remembers a young guy so shy that he sang whole brackets facing the drummer because he couldn’t dare to face the audience.

“I used to say `turn around mate the audience is that way’. He was a shy, private, gentle sort of guy.”
He grew out of it. “He was the glue between Skyhooks and the audience,” said Starkie. “He could go out and, whether it was a party or a stadium, he had the audience in 30seconds. Skyhooks was OK on record, but live was where we really built a huge following and Shirl was key to that. He had take-no-prisoners sort of honesty that was key to the success of the music.

“The whole Skyhooks thing – there was a chemistry between the five of us and we have altered that chemistry on occasion and it was never the same … we were like brothers and it’s a big loss.”

Looking back, Strauks is struck by the near misses Shirl had: the time his skateboard went under a bus and him almost with it, the times he broke a wrist and arm. Strauks said Strachan died peaceful. He had refused a $1million offer to reform the band because he was content with life.

The audience of forty-somethings was full of people who spent their youth with Strachan. Darrell Lake (Swampie), a motor mechanic, reckons “he’s a deadset legend; just the larrikin in him and the villain in him … I was basically in tears to be honest with you”.

Holden is not quite Shirl without the curls but Balwyn Callin’ almost sounded like the real thing. Then you remember: you’ll never hear the real thing live again.


RED SYMONS: Skyhooks guitarist and friend

`In these situations you have to ask yourself whether you actually had closure with the person, whether the situation was resolved, whether there were things left unsaid. And I’m happy to say that with Shirley I have many times in the last 10 years said `I love you’ and I don’t have to do it now.’

MICHAEL GUDINSKI: Friend and head of Frontier Touring company

`There was a Skyhooks before Shirley, and there was a Skyhooks after Shirley, but there really was only one Skyhooks and that was the Skyhooks he was the leader of and Mushroom Records muchly wouldn’t be here without them. I’m shattered and shocked and sad. I’m quite emotional, because it was more than business.’
IAN “MOLLY” MELDRUM: Countdown presenter

`Being a performer was secondary to Shirl. He had far more important things in his life than just being the lead singer of Skyhooks (and those were) just being a bloke basically, being a carpenter, being the surfie, being what he wanted to.’

BILLY THORPE: Rock legend

`It’s a terrible shock, tragedy. He was a lovely bloke. There are only so many beacons in the entertainment business in this country, and he was one of them. That song Living in the ’70s said it all for them really, and Skyhooks kind of defined that type of pop music in that decade.’

JOHNNY YOUNG: Founder of Young Talent Time

`Very sad and tragic and a dreadful loss. I was always a big fan. He was a friend of everybody’s in our business. We were all sort of brothers-in-arm, so it is like losing one of our family. He left his mark with his music and what he did on television and it is very sad for Sue and all of his family. It is a big loss to the industry.’

DARYL BRAITHWAITE: Sherbert lead singer

`It is a sad loss, incredibly sad. I was just starting to get to know him, and it might sound strange that it took 25 years, but now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t know him better. Skyhooks were like the Rolling Stones of Australia. He’ll be sadly missed.’

First published in The Age.