Many a legendary record label boss has gone down in history as the protagonist of a particular type of myth: that of the visionary genius with the magic ears who knew something everyone else didn’t. Think Creation Records boss Alan McGee signing Oasis, or Factory Records head Tony Wilson’s unflagging passion for Joy Division, or Seymour Stein signing the Ramones and Talking Heads to Sire Records. Hardly anyone remembers the failures, the misses, or how in most cases it ends in bankruptcy, legal woes, death, or all three.
The late, great Michael Solomon Gudinski was different in that he knew how to create his own luck. He didn’t have an infallible nose for success, as the histories of Mushroom and Liberation Records attest (even Frontier Touring had some notable failures). But what he did have was energy, a great instinct for people and a knack for finding ways to bounce from failure to success.
Need some examples? Happy to oblige.
He didn’t immediately get his biggest artist
Gudinski was a passionate music fan, but there was still a lot that he missed. He didn’t really get punk, legendarily passed on signing Cold Chisel, Little River Band and Men At Work, and despite briefly signing The Living End, still somehow missed the alternative music Ozsplosion which dominated the early ’90s. Nor did he especially like pop, which was part of the reason he didn’t even attend the initial 1987 meeting with the artist who was to effectively bankroll his empire from that point on: Kylie Minogue.
According to Stuart Coupe’s excellent biography Gudinski, Michael didn’t think the Neighbours star was a credible artist, and Minogue didn’t even especially think of herself as a singer. The one person who correctly thought she had incredible potential was Gudinski’s publicity manager Amanda Pelman – and MG trusted his staff’s instincts.
Gudinski changed his mind about Kylie’s star quality after meeting her, though, and once the hits came he became her greatest champion. The man was always a speedy learner.
He only kept Paul Kelly because he was kinda-sorta blackmailed into it
Gudinski had signed Paul Kelly for two terrifically underwhelming albums which had barely sold in the early ’80s. Kelly was actually out of contract with Mushroom as he started putting together the album which was to become 1985’s career-saving ‘Post’ (the one with ‘From St Kilda To Kings Cross’ on it).
When Mushroom’s head of PR Michelle Higgins heard he was shopping it around other record labels, she demanded that her boss re-sign Kelly and even added that she’d be staying in the Sebel Townhouse at Mushroom’s expense until he did so.
Not wanting to lose Higgins, Gudinski reluctantly brought Kelly back to the fold. And what a good idea that was: 1986’s ‘Before Too Long’ was the first in decades of hit singles and multi-platinum albums, and the publishing on Kelly’s songwriting catalogue alone made Gudinski millions.
Mushroom lost Nick Cave, but he came back into the fold
An ill-fated attempt to cash in on Melbourne’s ’70s punk upswell saw Mushroom create Suicide, a short-lived boutique label that attracted a bunch of Melbourne private schoolboys called The Boys Next Door, fronted by a chap named Nick Cave.
Suicide was a flop, but Mushroom kept their option on the Boys. However, the recording and release of their 1979 album ‘Door, Door’ was an experience which everyone involved hated. So much so, in fact, that when Mushroom dropped them shortly thereafter, the band fled to the UK and changed their name to The Birthday Party in order to distance themselves from their embarrassing Mushroomy past. And when that imploded, Cave and guitarist/drummer Mick Harvey put together a new project which became Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
The Bad Seeds and Mushroom’s worlds would collide again when Kylie teamed up with Cave and the Bad Seeds for the globally massive ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’. It took a while, but eventually those difficult punks gave MG another massive win.
His flop festival springboarded an enduring success
Gudinski started his entire career as a promoter via his involvement with the 1972 Sunbury Festival. But the idea of taking one on the road didn’t happen until 1986 when Gudinski, INXS manager Chris Murphy and Jimmy Barnes’ manager Mark Pope came up with the idea of sticking a bunch of Australian bands together – INXS, Barnes, Models, Mental As Anything, Divinyls, I’m Talking, The Saints and The Triffids – and zipping them around the national capitals under the banner of Australian Made.
It was a brilliant idea, and therefore a bit of a shame that Australian Made ended in literal fisticuffs between managers and was a huge money pit for everyone involved. But the tour was clearly a lightbulb moment for I’m Talking’s manager Ken West, who teamed up with promoter Vivian Lees in 1992 to create a similar sort of thing including international acts, called Big Day Out. And that really stuck in Gudinski’s craw.
So, three years later, Gudinski and Michael Chugg of Frontier Touring teamed with fellow promoter Michael Coppel to create Alternative Nation. Their “only intention”, as Chugg put it in his autobiography, was “blow[ing] the BDO out of the water”. Alternative Nation turned out to be an utter disaster, starting with the loss of headliners the Red Hot Chili Peppers and ending with catastrophic storms hitting all three of the tour’s outdoor venues on the day of the shows.
But Gudinski was able to turn even those lemons into lemonade. Adding Lou Reed to the Alternative Nation bill had given him an indication of the lucrative market for ‘heritage’ acts. And so he bought a 50 percent stake in A Day On The Green soon after its inaugural 2001 event and helped turn Michael and Anthea Newton’s festival into a perennial money-spinner for them and an easy Christmas present for your parents.
The Yothu Yindi ‘Treaty’ remix that pushed Native Title forward nearly didn’t happen
Gudinski signed several pivotal Indigenous artists to his labels over the course of his career, including Mushroom acts Archie Roach (whose ‘Took The Children Away’ brought the Stolen Generation into the public discourse) and Christine Anu (whose cover of Warumpi Band’s ‘My Island Home’ was a smash hit in 1995). However, one of the most interesting journeys was undertaken by a loose collection of musicians from Arnhem Land led by Mandawuy Yunupingu, a school principal who could only tour during holidays.
Gudinski had signed Yothu Yindi in 1988 after falling in love with their single ‘Mainstream’ and thinking they could be a great Australian rock band in the Warumpi mould. Despite his enthusiasm, stardom had failed to beckon for the group since: they had put out two albums and gotten some recognition thanks to tours with Midnight Oil (who also took them to the US) and Neil Young, but despite that, they were barely known beyond the Northern Territory and their music got little traction outside of community radio and the ABC.
But then Gudinski’s uncanny knack for hiring the right people struck again: in this case in the person of Gavin Campbell, who was head of Mushroom’s dance label Razor Recordings.
He’d happened upon Yothu Yindi in 1991 through the release of ‘Tribal Voice’ and wanted to remix ‘Treaty’, but the A&R team at the time didn’t think it a priority for such a small-time act. So Campbell and his partners in the Filthy Lucre DJ team effectively stole the master tapes, created a storming remix of ‘Treaty’, and then sneaked it onto the sound system at a party at Gudinski’s legendary mansion (supposedly by getting Molly Meldrum to put it on) because Campbell figured Gudinski wouldn’t be game to punish him in public.
He needn’t have worried: Gudinski loved it, the band loved it, and ‘Treaty’ took the subject of Native Title out of the headlines and onto the dancefloor – and the charts.