Australian bands, gramophones and wireless: adapting to new technology

19290722_Argus_Wireless-Broadcast
Argus, 22/07/1929, pg. 18

Introduction:

The Old Town Band
(Written for “The Land”)

The band was the life of the old town
The zest of its great events
When the great Pooh-Bah himself came down,
Or the prize merinos brought renown
Or the circus raised its tents.

There was music in the trombone
A martial note in the drum
And the boom of the bass was on its own
In the days before the gramophone
Ere the wireless craze had come.

Those were the day when the township band
Filled a place in pioneer life:
Cheered the struggle with virgin land
And gave the old battlers a helping hand
When droughts or plagues were rife.

Today the baton is laid aside
And the bandsmen rest in their graves:
They played their way o’er the great divide,
And are bandsmen now on the other side
In paradisian naves

And o’er the earth in tones forlorn
The saxophone raises its call.
The engines start their shrieks at dawn
The gramophone laughs the band to scorn,
And the wireless mocks them all.
(Excerpts from “The Old Town Band”, James, 1929)

So wrote Mr. A. A. James in 1929 for The Land newspaper in response to an article published in the Riverine Grazier which lamented the fact that the town of Hay in Southern New South Wales had lost its town band.  His prose was published in several other country newspapers at the time, as many town bands faced the same challenges.  Mr James singles out the gramophones and wireless as contributing factors, but was he right in suggesting so?  Was this new technology which proliferated during the early 1900s detrimental to our bands? It depends on the perception of the history at the time.  And thankfully, there is much history to examine.

In this post, the effects of new broadcasting technology on Australian bands will be looked at.  The early 1900s were a period of rapid technological change and our bands were nominally affected by these changes.  Throughout this early time period from 1900 – 1950, and Mr James’s poem sits roughly in the middle, a new life of music and entertainment was brought into the homes of Australians – enthusiastically so.  With this adoption of gramophones and wireless sets came the start of commentary and opinions from citizens which were written up in the newspapers.  Radio program notes published in newspapers became essential reading.

Through this all we find the relationships between audience and bands being rapidly changed.  Perhaps this is the deeper meaning of Mr James’s poem – he identified that people were more enamoured with sounds coming out of a box of wires than live instruments and musicians.  Both sides of this issue will be explored as some bands took advantage of the radio and found new audiences, while other bands could not compete.

Early transmissions:

Live performance was very much the norm of Australian brass bands in the early 1900s and engagement with audience was centred around this type of performing.   As well as this, the popularity of brass bands was obvious through their music and the crowds that they attracted.  Reports of 70,000 people cramming the streets of Melbourne to see the famous Besses o’ th’ Barn Band in a parade and 20,000-30,000 people watching the South Street marching sections were not uncommon (“Besses o’ th’ Barn Band,” 1907; Greaves, 1996).  Later in the 1920s there are stories about 5,000 people attending community song nights in local gardens, as was the case at Central Park in Malvern where the Malvern Tramways performed every week (Young, 1923).

In amongst the many accounts on live performances are a couple of unique stories.  In an earlier post regarding bands on Australian islands, the remarkable story of a performance by the Kingscote Brass Band (Kangaroo Island) was highlighted.  On the 20th of November 1906, the band performed a lunchtime concert which was transmitted via telephone to lighthouses at either end of Kangaroo Island – one seventy miles to the West of Kingscote and the other thirty miles to the East (“MUSIC FOR WATCHERS BY THE SEA.,” 1906).  According to the article in the Register, the concert was “very much appreciated” by both lighthouse keepers (“MUSIC FOR WATCHERS BY THE SEA.,” 1906).

However, this was not the first brass band concert broadcast via telephone in Australia.  According to an article published in the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, this took place in the preceding century, although the exact date is unclear.

A band conducted by Mr Edward Brown was practising at the old fire brigade station […] when the late Messrs Harry Batchelor and W. Pummell, compositors of the “Morning Bulletin” suggested that the playing be put “over the phone”.  Mr Rosenads, then in charge of the Rockhampton Telephone Exchange, agreed to the proposal.  There was a function at the School of Arts that night and the band was heard there “by quite a few who took turns at the earphone”.  Later the band was playing outside the Oddfellows Hall in Denham Street and by means of a “link-up” was heard at Mount Morgan.  “And very well, too” said Mr Brown. (“Band Music “Broadcast” Here Last Century,” 1945)

No doubt transmitting a performance via telephone would have seemed innovative and inventive, especially in these early times.  However, these were extremely rare and were not substitutes for live performances, they were mainly done out of opportunity – a way to see whether it could be done.  The major changes that were taking place were the recordings of bands on gramophone records, and the beginnings of radio broadcasts.

The band movement is cautious:

In Australia, the pace of change from predominantly live music to a mix of live music, recorded music and broadcast music took place within the space of a couple of decades.  There were many commentators at the time who saw fit to try to warn of a decline of community bands and one or two had their voices repeated through many regional newspapers.  One of them was a Mr Will Lewis formerly of the Toowoomba Municipal Band who expressed a pessimistic attitude:

He was of the opinion that the day of the amateur brass band was waning, and gave as a reason the fact that the gramophone, by which one could hear the world’s greatest bands and orchestras – jazz and otherwise, was creating serious inroads upon the brass band, and further, that the advent of the radio was also having much to do with the decline of brass band popularity.  Even band contests were becoming less popular every year – at least with the general public – and the wireless and the gramophone were the two disturbing elements.  Bandsmen, naturally, would be the last persons to recognize this serious fact.” (““DAY OF AMATEUR BRASS BANDS WANING.”,” 1927)

Some might consider Mr Lewis to be alarmist, he could not predict the future, but he was commentating on the present.  For the brass bands it was a time of upheaval and some of them were rightfully concerned.  It could be said that many bands went defunct at this time due to the technological change however it is hard to document this at this time of writing.

The worry of band people was not helped by this small snippet of news in 1930 about the Royal Melbourne Show dropping the brass bands in favour of recorded music being played through loud speakers – and saving £140.00 (“MELBOURNE SHOW.,” 1930).

19300409_Brisbane-Courier_Melb-Show
Brisbane Courier, 09/04/1930, pg. 24

In 1938 a passionate call to old times was made by the Committee of the Sunshine Brass Band, based in western Melbourne.  While the crux of the article published in the Sunshine Advocate was to solicit funds and support, they also lamented the fact that times had changed, and that local brass bands were victims of change.  Below are some excerpts from the article:

Most old-established customs and usages have felt the influence of modern times, and not the least of these are district brass bands, which have had to fight against canned music retailed hourly over the wireless.  Gramophone recordings of the world’s best bands are sandwiched in between talks and appeals to buy somebody’s pills to improve health.

[…]

The older generation was a music loving people.  The possession of a piano was a hall-mark of respectability, and the education of the children was not considered complete unless music was included in the curriculum.

[…]

To hear a local band in the gardens on a Sunday afternoon and a warm evening were events that were looked forward to by the older generation.  They were delightful times, and people held communion with one another to the strains of pleasant and beautiful music, which acted as a tonic to their nervous system.

The Sunshine band committee realises that a return to the customs of other days is due, and propose to play near the railway station on warm Sunday evenings. (“Sunshine Band Needs More Public Support,” 1938)

This article was interesting in its sentiment and information.  We have here a brass band from the Melbourne environs trying to bring back former times through playing quality live music in a local place.  By this time however, music broadcasts were well and truly accepted so their words might have struck some memories amongst parts of the population. They were telling it as they saw it.

A similar sentiment to Mr. Lewis and Mr. James was also expressed in 1938 in an article published in the Sydney Mail by a contributor with the initials of W. P. T.  This article was more of a reminiscence of times gone by and he mentions several brass bands.  The opening of his article reads:

The brass band of the small country towns plays a very important part in the social life of the country, although such bands are not nearly as common as they were before the days of radio. (W. P. T., 1938).

It is an interesting observation to make and clearly some connection had been made in the minds of people that radios were somewhat to blame for the demise of smaller bands.

The other side to these views is that a number of bands had begun exploring what the new technology could do for them from the very beginning.

The band movement adapts:

In 1996, noted band historian Jack Greaves assisted in the compilation of a number of old recordings into a two-CD set titled “The Great Bands of Australia” (Greaves, 1996).  This CD set is remarkable not only for the breadth of recorded music from full band works, to marches, to solo items but also for the range of famous Australian bands.  From reading a catalogue entry of this work (linked), we can see that the recordings date back to 1912.  Some of the music can still be heard thanks to the work of the National Library of Australia and the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA).  Below is a link to one recording which is on the NFSA website:

The Newcastle Steelworks Band (1924) playing the “Honest Toil March” by William Rimmer

The gramophone meant that people could acquire recordings of music groups and play them in their own homes at a time of their choosing.  They did not have to go out to concerts or community events, or the band competitions.  It was one cause of alarm for the band movement, but some bands obviously saw fit to record their work and bring their playing to new audiences.  Recordings by many of the top bands of the day still exist and enthusiasts have made digital copies of old recordings.

Aside from the gramophone, the utilisation of the radio probably brought about the greatest change to society and to the band movement.  Referred to early as the wireless, Australia followed developments out of America and the United Kingdom and set up its own network of stations.  It is in the early 1920s when this was happening.

19230800_Box-Hill-Band_Radio-Studio
Newspaper unknown at the time of writing (Source: Box Hill Historical Society)

The year is 1923 and in the Melbourne suburb of Box Hill the first transmission of a live brass band over the wireless took place on the 1st of August (Elsum, 1924).  The picture above is reputed to be the Box Hill Brass Band sitting in the home of Mr H. Beattie, a wireless enthusiast who resided in Box Hill.  However, in some newspapers the band that participated in the first transmission was named as the Nunawading District Brass Band (“NUNAWADING BRASS BAND,” 1923).  This conjecture can be easily explained as Nunawading and Box Hill are near neighbouring suburbs and the then Parish of Nunawading encompassed Box Hill.  (The Box Hill Historical Society shares my confusion as the newspapers were not forthcoming as to the true identity of the band that was actually broadcast (Harris, 2020)).  Despite the confusion in the newspapers, the fact remains that a brass band of the local area had their music transmitted via wireless.

This first transmission was actually a modulation test and the band was heard over all of Melbourne, parts of Victoria, and even interstate!  Much of the article published in the local Reporter newspaper listed the locations where the transmission was heard and the praise that was given:

For the next few days letters arrived from all points of the compass congratulating Mr Beattie and the Band, and expressing appreciation also of a speech by Cr. W. Young.  From Footscray to Armadale, from Sandringham to Camberwell, Essendon, Hawksburn, and wherever else in the metropolitan district, receiving stations listened in, the unanimous opinion expressed that it “was the best music ever heard by wireless”.  Wonthaggi sent a tribute, and the amateurs of Ararat wrote “Encore, we want more”, while far away Terang announced that the enthusiastic listeners in there were delighted.  The most interesting letter came from Strathfield, Sydney, 592 miles from the spot the Band played, stating that a number of visitors sat around a three-valve set with a loud speaker, and heard the performance from start to finish, announcing the strength and modulation to be perfect, and stating that after the Band had concluded with the National Anthem, local transmitters around Sydney could be heard enthusiastically discussing the test. (“NUNAWADING BRASS BAND,” 1923)

An achievement indeed!  Although this achievement had to be defended.  In early 1924, the Vice-President of the Nunawading District Brass Band, a Mr. W. M. R. Elsum wrote a letter to the Argus newspaper disputing that the Newcastle Steelworks Band was the first full band to have broadcasted a concert via wireless (Elsum, 1924).

Once people in Australia realised that music of this nature could be transmitted successfully, there was no stopping the progress – it is to say, in colloquial terms, the horse had well and truly bolted!  Radio stations and transmitters were set up all over the country and within years, much of the population could listen to a variety of programs (““Listening In”,” 1923).  The Queensland Government for example, started setting up a State based broadcasting service in 1925 (“STATE RADIO.,” 1925).  In New South Wales, innovation in programming was highlighted with the organising of a Radio Eisteddfod by the New South Wales Broadcasting Company which involved a section for brass bands (“RADIO EISTEDDFOD.,” 1928).  Although, the articles of the day were not clear as to who competed and if brass bands made it to the finals.

For the brass bands, radio stations seized upon them as a ready-made musical item and for some of the bands it led to new popularity – some, because radio stations were tending to use the same top-quality brass bands over and over again.  Additionally, as explored in a previous post, in 1930 the A.B.C. Military Band was established (“MILITARY BAND AT 3LO.,” 1930).  Initially conducted by Harry Shugg, it was further strengthened in 1933 and quickly became a stalwart of A.B.C. radio programming alongside the brass bands (“A BRASS BAND RECITAL.,” 1940; “Radio Programmes,” 1939).

S6.2_20180609_19310000_ABC-Military-Band_Postcard
1930 Postcard of the A.B.C. Military Band in a studio, conducted by Mr Harry Shugg. (Source: Victorian Collections: Victorian Bands’ League)

The Advertiser newspaper in Adelaide noted that “Brass band concerts have been remarkably popular” and one of the brass bands that station 5CL presented was “Holden’s Silver Band” (“5CL FEATURES,” 1930).  A highlight in Victoria of station 3LO’s programming was the “State Schools’ Brass Band contest, which was won by Wonthaggi.”  (Armadale came second and Princess Hill was third with Northcote awarded an honourable mention) – a contest which was adjudicated by the famous Percy Code (“RADIO SHOW.,” 1930).

Of course, like the concerts mentioned earlier in the post that were broadcast via telephone, there were other broadcasts that could be classed as novelty events.  In November 1932, thirty members of the Young Australia League band were taken up in the “Southern Cross” aircraft flown by Charles Kingsford-Smith where they were to “broadcast music at a height of 5000ft” (“MUSIC IN THE AIR,” 1932).

Now that radio broadcasting was fully entrenched and brass bands were a seemingly popular item, there were times when radio through it would be in the best interest of the band movement to have their events transmitted to the world.  The Victorian Centenary celebrations of 1934 were a case in point.  The Herald newspaper took aim at the Victorian Bands’ League for not being ambitious enough with their proposed event:

From the point of view of broadcasting, it is regrettable that the Victorian Bands’ League does not see its way to conduct at the Centenary celebration its proposed international brass band championship.  This would have been an event of exceptional interest, extending to distant peoples who know little of Australia and its progress.  More than that, good band music will be an influence joyous and vital.  If an international contest cannot be arranged it should be possible to provide an Imperial one. (“Broadcasting And Brass Bands,” 1933)

Through better technology and transmission, Australia was also exposed to performances from around the world.   Perhaps one of the more unusual concerts that was received was in 1935 when the Imperial Ethiopian Brass Band was heard via short-wave radio in Brisbane (“IMPERIAL ETHIOPIAN BRASS BAND,” 1935).  The transmission was reported to have been heard with “remarkable clarity” (“IMPERIAL ETHIOPIAN BRASS BAND,” 1935).  Over in Western Australia, the Kalgoorlie Brass Band conducted by Mr. Ted McMahon made history in 1937 when it was broadcast and relayed nationally through stations 6GF, 6WF and 6WA as part of a program to highlight local artists (“Kalgoorlie Band For National Broadcast,” 1937).

These formative years of radio shaped the way Australians heard and digested music.  Clearly the brass bands were a useful addition to radio programs, and they presented some quality music.  Obviously, some bands, namely country bands, had been left out of this success.  What were the feelings of the listeners?

Too many bands or not enough bands?:

As mentioned, the first wireless transmission of a brass band took place in 1923 so another part of this story is the opinions of listeners, and there were many opinions.  Most accounts were diplomatic about the popularity of brass bands, but some listeners and commentators asked whether there were too many bands, or could the broadcasters play more bands.  Opinions were divided; Australians clearly had their choices.

As early as 1925 letters were seen in newspapers criticising the musical choices of radio stations.  Some of the language was blunt as this letter signed by “Condensor” and published in the Herald shows:

Sir,  – We quite agree with your correspondent “Radio” who complains of the number of brass bands broadcast from 3LG.  Night after night we have to put our phones down, sick and tired of brass.  Surely one night a week is enough to satisfy anyone. (Condensor, 1925)

Interestingly we also see opinions from commentators.  A Mr Robert McCall, writing for the Australian Women’s Weekly column, “Music Radio” asks a question at the head of one his columns, “Band Music On the Air Will it be Overdone?” (McCall, 1933).  He asked the question because of a decision by the A.B.C.:

Is the Australian Broadcasting Commission overdoing band programmes?  Next week there will be bands on the air on six nights – one night the popular brass ensemble from the Malvern Tramways and on five the newly-formed A.B.C. Military Band. (McCall, 1933)

He went on to write:

Bands, both brass and military, always have been popular in Australia and the commission will find a vast and most receptive audience for its several months season by the band conducted by Captain Adkins from Kneller Hall.

[…]

The bands’ programmes are sure to stimulate the already widespread interest in band work, but I feel that their greatest service should lie in lifting the usual band repertoire out of the ruck of the commonplace.  It is about time that such hardy perennials as “Zampa,” “Poet and Peasant,” “Light Cavalry,” and those ill-sounding selections from grand and light operas were given a rest.

[…]

At the same time it should not be forgotten that in recent years some of the most important composers of the day have been seized with the possibilities of bands.  Men such as Holst and Elgar have written compositions specially for them.  Nor are these works complex and unlistenable.

Band music gives pleasure to thousands.  It can still do so, and yet be artistic and original. (McCall, 1933)

McCall provides an interesting opinion.  It seems he was not against the idea of bands being programmed six nights in a row.  Rather, he was taking the view of a music critic and expressing concern that the usual repertoire played by bands per se was not palatable to the ordinary listener.

To counter some of the detractors, there were always people who liked the regularity of brass and military bands on the radio.  The target of their letter writing was the radio stations themselves and certain listeners scolded the A.B.C. in particular for altering the programming of regular band programs (Breynard, 1934; Mounsey, 1939).  One of the stronger responses came from Mr J. L. C. White, then Secretary of the Victorian Bands’ League of which his words were quoted in an article published in The Argus newspaper in March 1951:

Victoria’s 3,500 registered brass bandsmen and their fans were receiving no encouragement from the A.B.C. or commercial broadcasting stations, Mr. J. L. C. white said yesterday.

[…]

He was commenting on a letter to The Argus pointing out that packed houses for the Black Watch band had proved that good bands were still popular.

The letter asked why radio listeners were not given more band music.

Mr. White said: “A poll would show that 90% of radio listeners enjoy band music.”

“More bands than ever are being formed now, and their music is as popular as ever.” (“He wants more band music broadcast,” 1951)

It is of course some months after this article was published that the A.B.C. Military Band was made redundant in October 1951 (“A.B.C. Band’s Farewell,” 1951).

After these formative times, the status quo of brass bands had changed.  Live performances continued, but radio and recording also occupied the bands.  Some bands found a new market by producing small recordings of marches for use in schools and marching groups of with three such recordings are cited with details of the recordings linked here (Malvern Municipal Band, 1958, 1970; Preston Municipal Brass Band, 1956).

Conclusion:

In the course of these years it is possible to follow divergent streams of opinion.  Firstly, there were the bands who were concerned by the impact of new technology and were worried about the erosion of their traditional ways of doing things.  Then there were the bands that embraced recording and broadcasting.  And of course, the second divergent opinion was evident regarding the content of radio programs and programming.  It was not exactly win-win situations for everyone.  Strength of feeling in the band movement was strong.

It is doubtful to see whether the same debate would take place nowadays regarding new technology.  There was a time past in the early days of the internet when community bands could not see the use of a website or email.  It would seem that history keeps repeating itself whenever there is a new technological development.

To finish this post, it would be remiss not to end with another old recording.  Here is a YouTube with the Newcastle Steelworks Band of 1924 playing the piece “Zelda” by Percy Code with famous Cornetist Arthur Stender as the soloist (Vintage Sounds & Code, 2019).

References:

5CL FEATURES : Brass Band Concert. (1930, 23 August). Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 – 1931), p. 9. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article30503444

A.B.C. Band’s Farewell. (1951, 15 October). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 3. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205334832

A.B.C. Military Band – Conductor: Harry Shugg. (1930?). Victorian Collections : Victorian Bands’ League [Postcard : L13.8cm – W8.8cm]. Retrieved from https://victoriancollections.net.au/items/5b39988221ea6d0008c461a6

Band Music “Broadcast” Here Last Century. (1945, 16 October). Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954), p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56391096

Besses o’ th’ Barn Band. (1907, 09 August). Quiz (Adelaide, SA : 1900 – 1909), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article166338966

A BRASS BAND RECITAL. (1940, 28 May). Macleay Argus (Kempsey, NSW : 1885 – 1907; 1909 – 1910; 1912 – 1913; 1915 – 1916; 1918 – 1954), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article234489582

Breynard, S. (1934, 10 August). RADIO SERVICES : Brass Band Music : To the Editor, Letter to Editor. Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), p. 24. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article74106904

Broadcasting And Brass Bands. (1933, 21 February). Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article243056460

Condensor. (1925, 27 August). TOO MUCH BRASS. Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article243624609

“DAY OF AMATEUR BRASS BANDS WANING.”. (1927, 14 September). Casino and Kyogle Courier and North Coast Advertiser (NSW : 1904 – 1932), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article233826047

Elsum, W. M. H. (1924, 23 February). BROADCASTING BY WIRELESS : To the Editor of the Argus, Letter to Editor. Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 20. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1934742

Greaves, J. (1996). The great bands of Australia [sound recording]. Australia’s heritage in sound. [2 sound discs (CD)]. [Australia]: Sound Heritage Association.

Harris, H. (2020, 22 July). [Re: Brass band 1st radio broadcast].

He wants more band music broadcast. (1951, 13 March). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 9. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23036508

IMPERIAL ETHIOPIAN BRASS BAND : Heard by Short Wave Wireless. (1935, 29 November). Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), p. 14. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article35923328

James, A. A. (1929, 25 January). The Old Town Band : (Written for “The Land”). Land (Sydney, NSW : 1911 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article117237132

Kalgoorlie Band For National Broadcast. (1937, 16 July). Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 – 1954), p. 4. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article87578534

“Listening In” : The Wonders of Wireless. (1923, 04 September). Horsham Times (Vic. : 1882 – 1954), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article72734927

Malvern Municipal Band. (1958). On One Fine Day [Vinyl, LP, 10”]. Melbourne, Victoria: W & G Distributing Co. Pty. Ltd. .

Malvern Municipal Band. (1970). On Marching with Malvern [Vinyl, LP, Album]. Melbourne, Victoria: W & G Distributing Co. Pty. Ltd.

McCall, R. (1933, 23 December). MUSIC RADIO : Band Music on the Air : Will it be Overdone? Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), p. 16. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article51189093

MELBOURNE SHOW : Brass Bands to be Superseded. (1930, 09 April). Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), p. 24. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article21518117

MILITARY BAND AT 3LO. (1930, 29 October). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 15. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4214065

Mounsey, T. B. (1939, 20 December). Brass Band Broadcasting, Letter. Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 10. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205593992

MUSIC FOR WATCHERS BY THE SEA. (1906, 21 November). Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 – 1929), p. 7. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56693536

MUSIC IN THE AIR : Y.A.L. Band at 5000ft. Will Broadcast. (1932, 19 November). Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), p. 3. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article230575146

NUNAWADING BRASS BAND : Unique Wireless Demonstration. (1923, 10 August). Reporter (Box Hill, Vic. : 1889 – 1925), p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article257201010

Preston Municipal Brass Band. (1956). On Under the Baton [Vinyl, LP, 10”, Album]. Thornbury, Victoria: Cyril Stevens Recording Studios.

RADIO EISTEDDFOD. (1928, 05 October). Macleay Argus (Kempsey, NSW : 1885 – 1907; 1909 – 1910; 1912 – 1913; 1915 – 1916; 1918 – 1954), p. 9. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article234464548

Radio Programmes : A.B.C. Highlights for Next Week : Brass Band Recitals. (1939, 03 February). Nambucca and Bellinger News (NSW : 1911 – 1945), p. 4. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article214648292

RADIO SHOW : Schools’ Band Competition. (1930, 25 July). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 11. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article202468625

STATE RADIO : World Range : Erecting the Station. (1925, 21 January). Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1907 – 1954), p. 12. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article61570872

Sunshine Band Needs More Public Support : Committee’s Plan to Stimulate Interest. (1938, 21 January). Sunshine Advocate (Vic. : 1924 – 1954), p. 4. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75199111

Vintage Sounds, & Code, P. (2019). Australian Newcastle Steelworks Band – Zelda (Percy Code) (1924). Vintage Sounds [YouTube Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Fn8VgZK9Yc

W. P. T. (1938, 28 December). Brass Bands of the Bush. Sydney Mail (NSW : 1912 – 1938), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article166525297

WIRELESS BROADCASTING : New Service Begins. (1929, 22 July). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 18. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4023301

Young, G. (1923). The Malvern Tramways Band : An Appreciation. In Community singing : St. Kilda Esplanade every Wednesday evening : words of songs & program (pp. 24). Malvern, Vic.: Malvern Tramways Band.

 

The A.B.C. Military Band: an ensemble of the times

S6.2_20180609_19310000_ABC-Military-Band_Postcard
Postcard of the A.B.C Military Band. Possibly in 1930 or 1931 (Source: Victorian Collections : Victorian Bands’ League Archives)

Introduction:

To view the early history of bands in this country would be to see a history that is based around brass bands.  This was no accident as much of the brass band culture was imported into the Antipodes by early settlers from the United Kingdom (Bythell, 2000).  However, in amongst this brass band culture, there were a few oddities in the form of military bands – bands that included woodwinds.  They were a rarity, but they certainly existed.  One of the most famous groups was the A.B.C. Military Band which was only in operation from 1930 – 1951.  This ensemble built an enviable reputation for their playing, sound, and demeanor.

Military bands were not new ensembles in Australia, certainly not in name.  But the A.B.C. Military Band accomplished much more than previous ensembles, no doubt partly due to the broadcasting resources of the A.B.C.’s radio network.  Also, it provided many musicians with a unique employment opportunity, guidance by the best wind band conductors that could be found, and a large following through Australia.

This post will delve into the short history of the band with material mainly found through the Trove archive and will highlight some of the more interesting stories of this ensemble.  Depending on which history is read, most will say the band started in 1933 however this isn’t the case as it essentially started in 1930.  There are only limited photos of the band that seem to exist which are displayed with this post.

Unfortunately, the band is no longer part of the musical landscape, so we have only articles and photos that preserve the memory.  And as will be seen, in the end, the ensemble was closed due to reasons that are only too familiar today.

1930-1933: Starting a band:

To start this small history, we need to see what the A.B.C. was doing regarding the running and broadcasting of its own ensembles.  From using the Trove archive, we can find that in-house ensembles were barely getting started if they existed at all.  Interestingly there was one that stood out.  In 1929 the Table Talk newspaper published an article on the famous conductor Percy Code, who was an eminent bandsman and composer.  Percy, in amongst his other musical activities, was the conductor of the 3LO Orchestra which was labeled as being the “National Broadcasting Orchestra” – the A.B.C., at the insistence of the Government, had taken over several radio services and when taking over 3LO had gained an orchestra as well! (Bradish, 1929).  Unfortunately, this article is the only mention of such an orchestra although 3LO broadcast many forms of music during this time, including brass bands (“3LO.,” 1929).

19301029_Argus_ABC-Mil-Band-Shugg
Argus, 29/10/1930, p. 15

In 1930, articles first start appearing mentioning a newly-formed A.B.C Military Band.  Although, just about all of the articles only provided details on when the band could be heard on the radio (“MILITARY BAND AT 3LO.,” 1930).  What we do know is that the great Harry Shugg, the famous conductor of the Malvern Tramways Band, was the first conductor of the band in 1930, a position he apparently held until 1933 (“CONDUCTOR AT 18.,” 1931).  The Postcard at the start of this post shows him in front of the band in what looks like a recording studio.

 

19340000_ABC-Mil-Band-Perth
ABC Military Band on Tour, Possibly in 1934 (Source: Western Australia Television History)

1933 – 1934: Guest Conductor, Capt. Adkins:

This time period was perhaps the most interesting for the A.B.C. Military Band with superb guest conductors, a new focus on musicality and National tours (Ken, 2012).  In November 1933 the A.B.C. assembled 40 musicians from around Australia to form a new Military Band, which, according to the article, was only supposed to be engaged for 10 weeks (“A.B.C. MILITARY BAND.,” 1933).  They were initially conducted by their deputy conductor, Mr. R. McAnally (another prominent bandsman), until the guest conductor Capt. H. E. Adkins, the then Director of the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, commenced his position (“A.B.C. MILITARY BAND.,” 1933).

19340303_WeeklyTimes_Adkins
Weekly Times, 03/03/1934, p. 8

Capt. Adkins arrived in Australia in December 1933 and immediately started conducting the band.  He apparently had trepidations over what he was about to do but was quickly won over after his first rehearsal with the ensemble (“A.B.C. BAND,” 1933).  When speaking at a club in Sydney about his initial experiences with the band, he said that while on his way out from England, “I had a feeling of anxiety, but it disappeared after our first practice yesterday.  I was very agreeably surprised, and in a few months’ time the band will be the equal of any in the world” (“A.B.C. BAND,” 1933).  The band commenced touring around Australia and the choice of Capt. Adkins as Guest Conductor won praise in many places.  The Evening News from Rockhampton was one newspaper that published an enthusiastic article by stating at one point that Capt. Adkins , “…is recognized as the world’s greatest authority on woodwind instruments” (“A.B.C. National Military Band.,” 1934).  Likewise, a reporter with the pseudonym of “G.K.M.” writing for the Weekly Times newspaper congratulated the A.B.C. and noted that Capt. Adkins “…is setting a new standard for Australian bandsmen.” (G.K.M., 1934).  A month later the Weekly Times published a picture of Capt. Adkins at his farewell from Australia (“The Adkins Way,” 1934).

A later article from 1941, published in the Portland Guardian after Capt. Adkins had left the band (and Australia), followed through on some of memories and anecdotes of his tenure in front of the band.  We see a bandsman who was brought out to bring an ensemble up to a very fine standard of playing – and that’s exactly what he did!

Cleve Martin, now deputy-conductor, and E Flat clarinetist under Adkins, is one who remembers the swaggering, lovable, downright English band-leader.

“Take this so-and-so stand away, I never use the thing”

That first remark from Captain Adkins was typical of his downright ‘take no nonsense’ style,” says Cleve Martin. It was a blitz beginning with the Empire’s No. 1 bandsman, but the players soon became used to his roars and worked hard to give him the precision that he sought.

“The musical monologue is my method of conducting,” Adkins explained to the boys.  “I’ll talk to you all the time during rehearsal and in public performances.”

(“STARS OF THE RADIO,” 1941)

There was much more that Adkins did for the band and much more on how he acted in front of band members and audience. Firm, but fair would probably be an accurate way to describe his mannerisms, without being too over the top:

He could become personal, although never malicious.  To a drummer : “I love every hair on your bald head, but when I say roll on the drums – roll!!!”

(“STARS OF THE RADIO,” 1941)

He was truly loyal to this band, so much so that he could not say goodbye to them in person when it was time to go.

His comradeship with the National Military Band was staunch.  Beneath the brusque sergeant-major manner was a soft nature.  He demanded the best possible playing, but also worked himself, and was deeply appreciative of the band’s response.  He expressed his attitude in a farewell wire to the band : “Sorry I failed to see you off.  At the last moment I realised I could not face it.”  At the hotel that night, someone noticed that he was on the verge of tears.

(“STARS OF THE RADIO,” 1941)

Having finished his guest appointment, Capt. Adkins returned home to England and Stephen Yorke resumed his direction of the band.

 

19410000_Hood_ABC-Mil-Band
ABC Military Band playing with ABC commentator on a vessel. (Source: flickr : Australian National Maritime Museum)

1934 – 1951: Concerts, the War and the final years:

As with any organization of its size, the A.B.C. was not immune to industrial trouble and in the middle part of 1934, there was a court case over the rate of pay for the Military Band musicians (“IN THE LAW COURTS,” 1934).  Stephen Yorke had taken over as conductor by this time and was asked to give evidence in court.  The crux of the issue was over which players in the band deserved extra remuneration as the court had decided that the band was like an orchestra with actual principal players.  Mr. Yorke apparently stated that any player in the band could be considered a principal player as they all played some kind of solo part – but he didn’t have knowledge of the industrial award that distinguished between “leaders” and “principals” (“IN THE LAW COURTS,” 1934).  Whereas the Musicians’ Union countered that the principal players should be the first player of any class of instrument, and any single players of an instrument (“IN THE LAW COURTS,” 1934).  Capt. Adkins in his treatise had said that “the oboe was essentially a solo and color instrument.  Therefore an oboe player must be called upon at times to perform work comparable to that of a principal.” (“IN THE LAW COURTS,” 1934).  The final decision was that the commission followed the argument put forward by the Musicians’ Union where the principal players were the first players of a group of instruments and any player of single instruments were considered to be the principals (“IN THE LAW COURTS,” 1934).

In the year of 1936, we see the band, under the baton of Stephen Yorke, continue their series of broadcasts, concerts and other engagements around Australia.  Under Mr. Yorke, the reviews indicate that the quality and standard have not diminished, and they are receiving rave reviews (“A.B.C. Military Band.,” 1936).  Unfortunately, the A.B.C. raised the ire of some listeners who wanted more brass band music to be played, and berated the A.B.C. for putting on the wrong kind of music –they expressed support for regular performances of the military band as well (“A.B.C. Neglects the Bands.,” 1938).
In 1939 the Second World War started, and the Military Band was there to lift the spirits of Australians over the radio with patriotic music.  As can be seen in the article here published by the Shepparton Advertiser, it enthusiastically endorses the music played by the band on the radio for lifting spirits of all Australians (“NATIONAL MILITARY BAND SESSIONS,” 1941).

19410127_SheppartonAdv_ABC-Mil-Band-Sessions
Shepparton Advertiser, 27/01/1941, p. 4

As with most other organizations war hit home with the sad passing of an ex-member of the band at Tobruk.  The Smith’s Weekly newspaper from October 1941 published an obituary for Clarinetist John Smith, and highlighted his musical excellence:

A brilliant young musician, he took two scholarships at the Sydney Conservatorium for clarinet playing, and was considered one of the finest artists on that instrument in Australia.

Graduating from the Conservatorium, he went straight into the A.B.C. Military Band.  At the time of his enlistment he was a member of a leading Sydney theatre orchestra.

About 12 months ago he went overseas with a battalion of Pioneers, and served throughout the Middle East.

He wrote to a friend in the A.B.C. Military Band:

“My work in field stretcher-bearing which is the fate of all good bandsmen. It has proved quite interesting, though sometimes hard to take.  It has given me the opportunity of witnessing some examples of sheer braver and doggedness that other chaps probably never see.”

(“Ex-A.B.C. Musician Killed At Tobruk,” 1941)

Sadly, it was through doing this job that Smith lost his life.

After the conclusion of hostilities, we see the band resume its normal activities of performances and broadcasts which continued through the rest of the 1940’s (“A.B.C. BAND CONCERT,” 1946; “A.B.C. BAND RECITAL,” 1948).  Stephen Yorke was still the conductor of the band.

As another measure of the quality of musicians that were associated with the band, one of them was Tuba player Cliff Goodchild.  Cliff’s first real musical position was with the A.B.C. Military Band and after the band ended he gained a position with the Sydney Symphony, a position he held for 36 years (Veitch, 2008).  He was also a consummate bandsman and over his lifetime held positions as “Secretary of the National Band Council of Australia, President of the Band Association of NSW, founder and co-organiser of the NSW School Bands Festival and formed a number of bands, including the Waverly Bondi Beach Brass Band and the Sydney Brass” (Veitch, 2008).

In 1951, we see that funding cuts brought about by the Australian Federal Government of the time leave the A.B.C. no choice but to close the band (“A.B.C. Band’s Farewell,” 1951).  This was a bitter end to a no doubt special period in Australian ensembles where we had a band that was excellent in its playing and revered throughout Australia. At the final concert in Sydney, conductor Stephen Yorke thanked the band and the audiences for their appreciation of the ensemble (“A.B.C. Band’s Farewell,” 1951).

19511015_TheAge_ABC-Mil-Band-Farewell
The Age, 15/10/1951, p. 3

Conclusion:

By all accounts this was a truly remarkable band; the finest musicians from all over Australia brought together under various conductors and being boosted to higher and higher levels.  A band that all Australians supported and were proud of. We see the high praise given to the conductors and musicians and with the broadcasting resources of the A.B.C., the sound of the band is heard Australia-wide.  From reading the articles of the time, we just have to wonder why they would cut such a fine ensemble?  But as we know, governments change and priorities change.  Who knows what the band could have become had the Federal government of the day not enforced funding cuts?

References:

3LO : St. Augustine’s Band. (1929, 05 October). Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 – 1931), p. 10. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article29626577

6WF20: A.B.C. Military Band [Online photograph]. (1934?). Western Australian Television History (WA TV History). Retrieved from http://watvhistory.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/6WF20.jpg

0016: A.B.C. Military Band – Conductor: Harry Shugg [Online postcard]. (1930?, 02 July, 2018). Victorian Collections : Victorian Bands’ League. Retrieved from https://victoriancollections.net.au/items/5b39988221ea6d0008c461a6

The Adkins Way. (1934, 03 March). Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article223202315

A.B.C. BAND : Visiting Conductor’s Praise. (1933, 16 December). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 12. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article11721475

A.B.C. BAND CONCERT. (1946, 02 June). Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article229456055

A.B.C. BAND RECITAL. (1948, 30 May). Truth (Sydney, NSW : 1894 – 1954), p. 7. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article169373651

A.B.C. Band’s Farewell. (1951, 15 October). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 3. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205334832

A.B.C. Military Band. (1936, 17 August). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 10. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article204916718

A.B.C. MILITARY BAND : Forty Players Selected. (1933, 14 November). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 12. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article203351163

A.B.C. National Military Band. (1934, 16 January 1934). Evening News (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1924 – 1941), p. 9. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article201261855

A.B.C. Neglects the Bands. (1938, 02 May). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 10. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article206948874

Bradish, C. R. (1929, 05 September). Prominent Personalities : PERCY CODE | CONDUCTOR OF NATIONAL BROADCASTING ORCHESTRA. Table Talk (Melbourne, Vic. : 1885 – 1939), p. 13. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article146712994

Bythell, D. (2000). The Brass Band in the Antipodes : The Transplantation of British Popular Culture. In T. Herbert (Ed.), The British brass band : a musical and social history (pp. 217-244). Oxford: Clarendon Press ; New York : Oxford University Press.

CONDUCTOR AT 18 : Harry Shugg’s Career. : PROMINENT BANDSMAN. (1931, 01 January). Advocate (Burnie, Tas. : 1890 – 1954), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article67694778

Ex-A.B.C. Musician Killed At Tobruk. (1941, 11 October). Smith’s Weekly (Sydney, NSW : 1919 – 1950), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article234602068

G.K.M. (1934, 17 February). New Standard in Band Music. Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954), p. 22. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article223199691

Hood, S. J. (n.d., 02 August, 2006). 00034964: ABC Military Band playing with ABC commentator on a vessel, 1933-1951 [Online photograph]. flickr : Australian National Maritime Museum. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/anmm_thecommons/8527077760

IN THE LAW COURTS : A.B.C. Military Band : Extra Pay for Principals. : Court Decides Who They Are. (1934, 11 July). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 12. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205536311

Ken. (2012, 20 August). The 6WF Story – Part 2 of 3 : The Australian Broadcasting Commission. Blog post Retrieved from http://watvhistory.com/2012/08/the-6wf-story-part-2-of-3/

MILITARY BAND AT 3LO. (1930, 29 October). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 15. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4214065

NATIONAL MILITARY BAND SESSIONS. (1941, 27 January). Shepparton Advertiser (Vic. : 1914 – 1953), p. 4. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article175188421

STARS OF THE RADIO : Founder of the National Military Band : Picturesque Major Adkins. (1941, 27 November). Portland Guardian (Vic. : 1876 – 1953), p. 1. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article64402540

Veitch, H. (2008, 02 August). Bold as brass in pushing the bands : Cliff Goodchild, 1926-2008. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/news/obituaries/bold-as-brass-in-pushing-the-bands/2008/08/01/1217097525143.html