Michael Gudinski was a serious burner of candles at both ends. In describing the flamboyant record executive and concert promoter, most of his friends talk about his “energy” and “passion”. Director, Paul Goldman, who admits to a spiky relationship with his subject, says he set out to avoid making a hagiography. Nevertheless, this is what he has delivered. Nobody who didn’t know Gudinski personally, could walk away from this feature-length documentary and see him as anything but a superhero of the Australian music industry.
There are constant hints of another Gudinski – arrogant, depressive, opportunistic, manipulative, overly fond of booze and recreational drugs – but these are mere crackles on the soundtrack of a remarkable life. If Gudinski could be a rogue, he was a lovable one.
Goldman’s plan for a more critical, more searching documentary was derailed by Gudinski’s sudden death in March 2021, at the age of 68, while they were preparing for a week of personal interviews. This also led to the old problem of nihil nisi bonum – the idea that one should only speak well of the dead. Even had Gudinski been in the peak of health one presumes his detractors would have been reluctant to go on the record. If the music world is anything like the visual arts, the complaints one hears in private are rarely voiced in public. That’s a job for mugs like me.
Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Melbourne, Gudinski could never convince his father that producing records was a real job. He wanted to do something that he loved and make a dollar from it. If that meant hanging out in smoky pubs every night, listening to bands, it didn’t mean Gudinski lacked a work ethic. In fact, he worked obsessively, turning his hobby into a profession, convincing himself that it was his mission to put Australian music on the map.
Coming out of the 1960s and into the 70s, Australia was in thrall of England and America. We listened to overseas bands and aped overseas fashions. The first local band Gudinski remembered seeing was The Loved Ones, whose reputation lingers. Then came Daddy Cool, Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, and a range of lesser lights.
In 1972 Gudinski started Mushroom Records with his buddy, Ray Evans. Their first release – a live triple LP set of the 1973 Sunbury Pop Festival – was more a statement of intent than a guaranteed money-spinner. Rather the opposite, in fact.
It was a rocky business, with Mushroom holding on by a thread until the Skyhooks arrived. This sassy, androgynous, absurdly theatrical outfit wrote risque songs about modern life, and suburbs in Melbourne. Utterly contemporary and shamelessly Australian, Gudinski saw them as a band that could take on the world. He signed them to Mushroom and convinced them to let him be their manager.
When the first Skyhooks Album, Living in the 70s, went platinum in 1974, Mushroom was saved – and effectively launched. The LP would go on to sell more than 200,000 copies, which was platinum four times over. When six out of ten tracks were banned by the Broadcasting authority because of sex and drug references, Gudinski knew this was brilliant publicity. It meant fans simply had to buy the record. I’ve still got a copy at home.
The other major factor in the success of Mushroom and the Skyhooks, was Countdown, the legendary ABC TV music program that was obligatory viewing for every teenager during the 70s. Australian audiences were becoming excited about local music, and Mushroom was the pioneering label everyone wanted to join.
If the Skyhooks were an instant success, Gudinski’s next signing, Kiwi band, Split Enz, took a long time to break through. The first incarnation of the group was so freakishly artistic they seemed destined to be a cult phenomenon. It wasn’t until Phil Judd departed, to be replaced by Tim Finn’s little brother, Neil, that Split Enz went storming up the charts. Meanwhile, the artistic Judd, showed he was capable of writing a perfect pop song, when his new band, The Swingers, went to No. 1, with Counting the Beat in 1980. Gudinski’s next big passion was for Hunters & Collectors, which again struggled to pay off, until they produced the anthemic Throw Your Arms Around Me in 1984.
By this stage, Gudinski had expanded his business model, launching the Frontier Touring Company in 1980. The first imported act that year was UK Squeeze, rapidly followed by The Police. Gudinski bonded with Sting, who speaks warmly of him in this doco. It would be the first of many personal relationships with visiting stars – from Bruce Springsteen to Billy Joel, to Shirley Manson. Each of them viewed Gudinski as a friend – more of a music fan than a businessman. Manson was delighted to find Mushroom staffed with strong, assertive women, ready to tell the boss exactly who he should and should not be signing.
One of the acts he was strong-armed into persevering with, was Paul Kelly, who had a difficult start at the label. Gudinski also needed convincing when Kylie Minogue sent a demo. His personal radar was so attuned to rock and roll, he shunned the thought of this bubble gum princess. It would be one of the most lucrative signings he ever made, as Kylie rocketed to the top of the international charts.
Although Gudinski was reluctant to sign Cold Chisel, he became lifelong friends with singer, Jimmy Barnes, who comes across as a soul mate. When Barnes left the group to pursue a solo career, Gudinski was rght on board. Seven number one hits would follow. Later on, Gudinski would find another best friend in Ed Sheeran, who says he never even noticed the 40-year age difference between them.
When Gudinski was finally persuaded to sell Mushroom to Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited in 1999, he entered a mini-crisis, but would bounce back with a new record label and a revived focus on live music, which was where the money had gone.
Most of us get fixated at a certain period of our lives. We keep listening to the same things, or maybe move on to other kinds of music, but Gudinski – advised by his kids and his staff – kept going to gigs, night after night, looking for new talent – and finding it in the form of Vance Joy or Gordi.
He was also a dedicated supporter of indigenous music, signing Archie Roach and Yothu Yindi, when there was little popular support for Aboriginal artists. For Gudinski, this was a matter of conscience rather than commerce, although his faith would be rewarded when Yothu Yindi had a huge hit with Treaty in 1991.
This documentary is not just a portrait of one man, but of fifty years of the Australian music industry. As such, it’s a tantalisingly rapid and partial overview, which may prompt vewers to check out the three-disc anthology released to coincide with the movie. There’s a neat symmetry with Mushroom’s Sunbury Pop Festival triple album. With both releases, one would have to be a music historian – or Michael Gudinski – to appreciate such a wide variety of acts. When the Mushroom mogul overcame his resistance to Kylie, he realised that in the music business, personal taste can be a liability.
Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story
Directed by Paul Goldman
Written by Sara Edwards, Paul Goldman, Bethany Jones
Starring: Michael Gudinski, Michael Chugg, Ray Evans, Jimmy Barnes, Sting, Dave Grohl, Paul Kelly, Kylie Minogue, Bruce Springsteen, Ed Sheeran, Mark Seymour, Greg Macainsh, Red Symons, Shirley Manson; Sue, Matt & Kate Gudinski
Australia, M, 111 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 2 September, 2023