Throw Away to a Dream.
Hugh McLeod's 25 years. From SW 300.
My regular gig with Surfing World came off the back of a throwaway line. You know, the question asked in a flippant tone which back in the recesses of your subconscious is deadly serious.
Geoff Luton was editor of the then 12 year old magazine and I’d just dropped off an illustration for their latest issue. Sungravure, the colour publishing wing of Fairfax, owned S.W., which was at its lowest ebb in history. Looks and sales wise the thing was at rock bottom.
Geoff, a university graduate and editor in the conventional sense (read journalist dictator) was bravely trying to save the listing vessel from sinking under the weight of amateur layout and parent disinterest.
“Oh, if you ever want someone to design the mag properly, I need a job”, I cheerfully hung in the air on departure.
“Funny you should say that….” Geoff offered conspiratorially, “leave it with me.”
The year was 1973, personally huge on reflection. My wife Judi and I were hitched early April. We did the six months overseas thing straight away. Japan, Russia and London preceded an extended romp around Europe in the ubiquitous kombi. No surfboard, drinking cheap red wine, living on the smell of an oily rag, engaging some interesting characters, places and situations. A few very pivotal decisions. Like going to Switzerland instead of Morocco, as in beautiful scenery plays drugs and bandits. A stint in a London commercial art business convinced me that Australia was right up to speed in that area, had better weather and a cheaper cost of living plus I missed surfing. Homesick and broke, the two of us couldn’t wait to get home, where we set up in a unit on the Freshwater Queensie hill, with the second bedroom optimistically deigned my studio.
Mr Luton pulled some strings with Sungravure managing editor Keith Finlay and I jumped from unemployed to freelance Surfing World artist.
The mag was monthly so the challenge would have been daunting if not for my previous job at Paul Hamlyn books in Dee Why West as a publishing designer. Two years familiarity of that freak out moment when an editor dumps the manuscript, Illustrative material and format into a void filled only by your limited experience and unlimited imagination. I learnt on the ground there, a perfect primer to putting together SW.
Geoff was from Maroubra and well connected. He was responsible for content in the five issues we produced together (I was just the design artist). Material was hard to come by, but that first issued dated December ‘73 affirmed Geoff’s momentum. There were “how to” spreads on water photography (by Steve Core) and glassing a surfboard (by Midget). An interview with the then sixteen year old Mark Richards hinted foresight. There was lots of stuff about movies and a really cool travel story by Greg Crooks called “Ramblin”. Europe, the subcontinent, North Africa, U.S.A. This surfer from Curl Curl in Sydney captured the experience beautifully. There were a few funky word/photo combos and P.T. scoring a little Kirra section on the cover.
Personally page four gives me the warmest buzz. It’s an ad for Hot Buttered Surfboards which has a certain understated class, a timeless look which wouldn’t be out of place in the mag today, thirty six years later. Thought provoking, considering Terry’s still around producing modernised replicas of his signature picture boards and advertising them in S.W.
Over the next few issues future longtime associates started to appear in the pages. Bruce Channon notably, as a photographer, writer, film processor and interviewee. Photographers Dan Merkel, Warren Bolster, Peter Crawford, Peter Simons, Bernie Baker and Steve Core contributed regularly as did writers Bill Bennett, Paul Holmes, Graham Cassidy and the emerging Laurie McGinness. Eminent alumni indeed. Bennett film producer, Holmes author, Cassidy ASP head.
Things were turning around so Geoff Luton approached Sungravure with a proposed personal package reflecting his qualifications. Keith Finlay played hardball, Geoff stood on his principles and left. No editor.
I’d come into surfing’s inner circle as an outsider. My beach friends revolved around Freshie, its far flung expats and crew working in some of the Brookie board shops. No contest affiliations.
Sungravure tried to get a regular journalist on board as editor but I convinced Keith we needed a great surfer photographer who knew everyone. The bloke I had in mind had just produced a wonderful spread for us on the fledging Pa Bendall Pro, but concentrated on the hotter action up the coast at Noosa. (A precursor to the way we would approach the golden egg of contests.) He was, of course, B.C. Bruce threw off plans to attend Film and Television School and plunged into the fray. I hope he forgives me.
1974 was post hippy. Peace, love and happiness in many cases had given way to nasty addictions. Flower child ramblings were already kind of embarrassing. Paranoia seeped onto beaches like effluent in a sou’easter and total waste cases were now part of the landscape. Which reminds me that beach pollution was still a huge concern and the main reason I started regularly surfing at the northern most end of the peninsula. Manly, Freshie and Curl Curl were inundated with chopped up shit whenever onshores blew from that quarter.
There was almost a parting of the ways when pro surfing’s first scent wafted into Australia. A lot of top draw performers returned to the competitive fold, no doubt hoping long held pipedreams of a circuit would come to fruition. Others took their exile into darker corners. The surfing lifestyle alternative was, slave away in the pit, or go on the dole, or resort to nefarious business dealings. Or get a real job.
It was into this optimistic contest atmosphere Bruce and I sailed the ship, albeit with a corporate captain.
Just turning up somewhere and hoping for good surfers got old fast. Competitions provided an undiluted pool of talent to shoot. The skill, picked up in time, was to not make it look like a contest but an adventure.
Although a retrospective flick kills off the illusion we concentrated on these gatherings, I can see why we went down that route for some issues. The August ’74 offering featured two contests, the pro inaugural Coke and the amateur Australian.
Warriewood, Fairy Bower and North Narra for the cash with Michael Peterson, Ian Cairns, Nat Young, Terry Fitzgerald, Peter Townend, Simon Anderson, Rabbit Bartholomew, Ted Spencer, Brad Mayes, Jeff Hakman, Peter Drouyn, Andrew McKinnon, Richard Harvey, Mark Warren, Paul Neilsen, Col Smith, Mark Richards, Reno Abellira, Grant Oliver, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Ron Ford, Gerry Lopez, Tony Hardwick and Owl Chapman. Great story by Paul Holmes.
The very next spread it’s straight into Burleigh barrels for the trophies with a cast including many of the aforementioned, plus grass roots legends like Tony “Doris” Eltherington, Butch Cooney, Steve Jones, David McDonald, Peter “Grubby” McCabe and Steve Corrigan. Some really funny, non-p.c. scribblings from “Dappa” Oliver accompanied the pics (even Keno and Baba Looey got a mention for those who know).
To anyone with a rudimentary grasp of surfing history that roll-call spans eras, philosophies, surfboard designers, underground heroes, explorers and outrageous characters enough to blow your mind. Later in our tenure we wouldn’t have approached the spread in such an all action way, but that’s progression (or maturity). In those days it was easy to mix with competitors and be relatively loose around contest areas. No plastic identity tags hanging round your neck. Initial infatuation wore off and later on good waves would dictate what sort of coverage we’d give events. Most often the non-singlet wearing warmups and lateys would be the fertile ground we’d plough.
By the late seventies our whole approach had changed to one or two big spreads presented each season as epic roadtrips spiced with personal sessions along the way, especially at the northern points. Currumbin, Broken Head and the Pass while they were unfashionable and long boards were under the house left some indelible memories, as did heaps of surf only south coast hit and run escapes.
So, raw materials to hand, there evolved a routine we’d pretty much follow ’til ’78/’79 when we bought the magazine from Peter Mirams. Put the thing together on the northern beaches then traipse over the bridge to various city locations to deliver our proud offering hopefully in return for some booty.
Sungravure was factory scenes at grimy Rosebury and Raymond Chandler misty streetlight moments avoiding Central gangs in Regent Street. Union power then overstepped the negotiation mark leaving left wing comrades unemployed and us with a benefactor from the Eastern suburbs set.
A terrace at Woollahra played host to the people who ran new owner P.M. Publications along with status titles like Pol and Belle. Outrageous parties were thrown with us as wide eyed observers of alternative sexuality and lifestyle excess. Hilarious moments like B.C. sliding down a wall cartoon style and me driving Crawfo home in the old beetle to awake and remember nothing. I had to ring his wife Gail in that cold fright morning to see if he’d had made it, only to be informed I’d driven down the Roseville Bridge median strip. P.C. could spin a yarn though.
Coming from totally different circles the surfers and style setters viewed each other with amusement but a certain respect grew out of mutual enthusiasm and a professional approach to our work. The P.M. crew were very supportive of our little oddity title so it was incredibly sad when financial imbalance fractured the fledging publisher. The silver lining had B.C. and I now running our own show.
Amazingly from that time right up until we sold SW to the Breaker quartet around ’97/‘98 production followed a specific and successful path.
Progression like a light box replacing east facing windows and dedicated work space improving on various bedrooms and lounge room corners, along with tweaking of all important photographic equipment, built a tight unit. Digital streamlining it wasn’t though. Bruce and I would check the whole photo stash on a light box, edit it down, then using page frames we’d project the slides onto a wall. Surprise croppings, fragment gems, action epiphanies and ultimate length of spreads were usually sussed at this stage. We’d often get pretty stoked with possibilities while squinting at those images.
A blueprint of the whole mag on a grid would follow. We put a lot of effort into the plan and variety of visuals. Portraits, line-ups and mood would always complement the primary surf action, if available. S.W.’s are still remembered years later for good reason. Sting in the tail praise from former production line lackeys just doesn’t get the time we put into pacing.
Handwritten stories had to be typed and marked up for the setter who produced strip galleys to paste up on the artwork. Most headlines were hand lettered or rubdown Letraset. Every colour photo had to be traced on the boards in position, black and whites exposed in a darkroom then positioned. A prayer was then said as the whole thing jetted away for printing.
Our ownership time frame was broken up by domestic machinations like the arrival of offspring and moving house while the magazine changed subtly with various contributors. Writers were always hard to find. It’s a sometimes tortuous, thankless endeavour committing thought and opinion to words.
Two specials. Jack Finlay tore himself apart to lay down beautiful prose while Derek Hynd turned a phrase with rapier wit and evocative description. There were heaps of others of course, most notably the Fitz whose hip lingo stream of consciousness occasionally colours the old book today. Simon Moore, son of our mentor Jack, sparked us up with his later-period pieces and old friend Bob Cooper’s grasp of language was inspiring. Paradoxically photographers were plentiful, 88 “regulars” last count (lots of good friends).
There were so many highlights through the guts of our reign it would be just way too hard and unfair to pinpoint all the special stuff. Just think founder Evo had the mag less than ten years, so our stand was two and a half times longer. Hopefully three generations of people, places and trips can still be pried from my memory elsewhere, but I grabbed a strong looking mag from the pile at random to illustrate how this task at hand has almost infinite possibilities.
Number 181 from 1980. Postpunk New Wave territory. Thruster invention. M.R.’s second world title. Really eye catching big logo cover with a back of the wave Tom Peterson reo shot by Marty Tullemans. Inside there’s two great interviews - Simon Anderson discussing shaping and Derek Hynd his life, along with an all encompassing spread on “the Gatta” by Murray Bourton. You could write a whole article on that one issue. Historic portraits, surfing, line ups, ideas, some mind-boggling, name-laden news and, as it was for most of our tenure, the ’Curl on the back cover (featuring Buttons throwing the shaka in what looks like a wetsuit made from stretchy striped board bag material, parodying Echo Beach). A preliminary skirmish in the industry wars.
Mid-nineties saw us printing in Oz with exceptional results but getting frustrated with news stand claustrophobia and an inability to alert advertisers to the smoke ’n’ mirrors space promotions of competing media conglomerates. Figures were invented, crap was believed (without backup proof).
Our product was strong and broadening away from the youth tunnel vision prevalent. I guess logical progression given our ages. S.W. was running spectrum board design stuff, searching interviews with legends like Simon Buttonshaw, Damon Eastaugh, Terry Richardson and Paul Joske as well as the far flung travel adventures and cutting edge performers so long our staple. Airs and reverses were commonplace, mutant tow-ins hadn’t yet appeared.
By this stage Bruce had his enthusiasm diluted by fruitless cold calling and I was stubbornly avoiding the computer jockey yoke so, when a purchase carrot was dangled by an acolyte of the Packer organisation, we began to think sell. Luckily good friends alerted us to hidden poison in our retirement plan but by then the motivation needed to run the show at our own high standard had begun to wane. The baton was passed.
My inspiration for conjuring up SW was always surfing, music, and for writing, a detailed diary. This 300th project required a descent to my magazine archive and was a bit like “Please massa, don’t make me go to the dungeon - you know what’s down there!”
Reading old mags it’s hard to resist being sucked down the nostalgia vortex or joining some sort of retro caravan. (As an aside, in 1986 we coined the term “retro” after I saw “retrospective” on a jazz LP cover in CA Magazine. We also did a whole issue in 1978 titled “The Search”. Recycling is a positive endeavour.)
I always saw myself (still do) as what the advertising business used to call a “visualiser”. One thing I’m proud of is a talent I discovered for pushing the same barrow a heap of different ways. Creating spaces which captured surfing’s romantic side while still retaining the action spice. A bit of escapism amongst the nuts and bolts was needed to give the magazine its cred. (Part of this was not giving up surf spots.)
Writing and photography were pretty much crafts pursued out of necessity. Hopefully my skill improved with experience.
The surfing scene as I see it now is in a pretty healthy state, especially the experimentation with boards and a revitalised alternative culture. Mass market corporations, overcrowding, misguided history revisionists and digital plagiarists are balanced by equipment tolerance, grounded pros rewarded well and a new spark of creativity. Young guns like Julian Wilson and Heath Joske are proficient on long boards and short. High performance mal riders can hang ten and get air with style. The fish phenomenon is still influencing shapers (my second issue, Jan ‘74 featuring David Nuuhiwa driving a short thick rail line on the cover, carried a photo inside of Jeff Ching posing with his facsimile of Steve Lis’ 1971 invention). Finless trips, antique and new are in the line-up. To me, an old bastard who loves his cutbacks, it would be like sliding through a red light on black ice. Difficult, but maybe sometimes these things are a product of boredom. Do all-boarders cease to be “individuals” when a whole bunch of people jump on the bandwagon? Better stop before I get to stand-up goat boats made legit by the advertising dollar. Ironically I’d be embarrassed to wear Billabong today, but not Honolua. Marketing works? (No it was on sale.)
I’ve come full circle. My kids are adults doing their own thing, my wife’s gone back to work in the outside world and I’m just craving a clean, fun, uncrowded surf. No photo baggage distractions.
In Bruce and my time at Surfing World passion was a prerequisite, actually loving the surfing act itself. To produce the stuff we did for so long, obsession and rubber deadlines needed to be constant companions. The thing was with you 24/7 and fortune never rose on the horizon. I’d like to think we helped people dream a bit.
After some casting about, Surfing World looks to have hooked into an expansive identity through the current team. Where will you blokes be in a quarter of a century?
The Tallying Process.
- Photos were counted as a “page presence”
- One photo on one page represented 1 point.
- Two or more photos on one page represented 1 point.
- Double spreads were awarded 2 points.
- Covers were awarded 5 points
- Only editorial pages were counted.
- All headshots and surf shots were counted.
- Every SW magazine, book and photo annual was tabulated.
- Unknown surfers and empty waves (sadly) were not tabulated.
- If surfers finished with the same number of pages, countbacks were done in relation to number of covers, then centrespreads to determine placing.
- The cut off to make the 300 was an 11 page presence.
The full list can be found in the latest Surfing World Magazine – on sale now.
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