Australian Theatre History. The Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory

Peter Mulheisen

 

It’s my 50th year on the planet this year so a bit of retrospectivity is probably in order.

About half of my lifetime ago via a circuitous route I get invited to play in a band called the Vipers with the Conway brothers who had just folded the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band. At a point not long after the band was somehow incorporated into the Soapbox Circus (an APG project) and went off doing lunchtime shows at workplaces as diverse as Dickensian tramway depots and jails and gargantuan aircraft hangers.

 

I was still doing a day job at this time which was OK until the touring started at which point I got the flick because I was never there (we did Tasmania & WA in short order). The APG kindly agreed to guarantee me a weekly wage of $120. I had a new baby and house payments and all of a sudden I was a professional musician.

I find it a little hard to separate the APG stuff from the later, separate Matchbox band memories, but suffice it to say that it was a brilliant experience to have and my feeling is that I really lucked into it. Today and even then, I look at young guys who are very good musicians and yet they starve or work in shit gigs, for nothing, just to do it and I feel very fortunate.

 

“Frontiers breed two things, pioneers and cowboys”

 

The Soapbox Circus was a pioneering cowboy outfit (in the technical sense anyway) - the musicians were generally pretty rough and the acrobats were well ...just.., but it was great fun and a great workshop for the things that came out of it, the Matchbox band and Circus Oz. But the feeling was great, it allowed us to mostly get away with murder on any number of levels.

Peak moments for me would have included, in no particular order,

1.     Frightening the audience by doing Chairman Mao exercises.

2.     Graham Isaacs stunning bunyip song.

3.     Doing the Timor Show at Gough Whitlams New Years Eve party (1976-7).

4.     The March of the Hobbits featuring Gough (Again) and Hawkey at the Princes Theatre 1977 Election campaign.

5.     The Women’s Weekly Centrefold.

6.     The Great East Coast Tour featuring the Great Truck Crash. The illustrated man. Half a mile of wrecked circus spread along a roadside. (Me playing borrowed basses from Lismore to Cairns - my fingers ache at the memory).

7.     Incidents (betrayals, intrigues, attempted murders) related to various people’s love/lust lives.

8.     Incidents related to various people’s personal animosities (although it was a big enough crew to avoid anyone you couldn’t handle at any particular time and hang out with the people you liked).

9.     The Maintain the Rage Gig on the lawn in front of old parliament house (1977) Gough in attendance again.

10.  The Great Stumble Forward album, done live at the Pram.

11.  The blessed relief of hemorrhoids getting me out of the Wall of Human Flesh.

12.  Our Captain.

13.  The Spagonis.

14.  The Paddo Town Hall gigs

15.  Dimboola the movie.(actually done after the split).

 

 

After touring Soapbox came back and did an in-house production at the Pram. Smack’n the Dacks, (nothing to do with body packers). It got an abysmal review but developed a perverse following. The horror of musicians having to do LINES, all the spaces allowing a cigarette break sussed out in the first week and downhill from there.

 

Then the band did the Jaffas ad (my most famous piece of writing- the music anyway) which funded the second album, Slightly Troppo, which stiffed. An error in the remix removed most of the bottom end which seriously limited its already minor sales potential, although funnily enough when I was in Sydney 2 years ago I met a taxi driver who’d just bought it that day. Very small world.

 

Then, Circus Oz. Which was good and is now much better. Making the tent (not me personally), setting up the tent, overnight to Adelaide and the same again, human people lifting caravans onto semi trailers. I suppose my predominant interest had been music and being a band just seemed that much more straightforward and satisfying than disappearing behind an act every second song, especially when the acts were good as they increasingly became. So then it split- the boys in the band had got slick enough to gig by themselves and did and that was great too but that’s another story (and there is a seriously funny film script in a short series of gigs on a particular tour if anyone’s interested)

 

I was never really clear about how I fitted into the APG itself (whether I was a member of the collective f’rinstance or just hired help). I avoided meetings as much as possible. I was occasionally accused of a negative attitude or lectured at (in a very sincere way) by some more zealous siblings. Sometimes this was sanctimonious shit, but there was an occasional profound insight for which I remain indebted. From this distance it does seem that the Pram was an incredibly right thing to have happened and I hope that the history that created it might re-present itself (although it’s doubtful given the wonderful world these days) for another bunch of young people to have a go and create something as important as the APG doubtlessly was. I still regard the people I know from the Pram as family and it’ll be good to see what’s become of the ones I’m no longer in touch with. Goddeblesserung.

 

biography

Peter Muhleisen was a pharmacist prior to running away with the circus. He subsequently survived as a musician until 1983, playing with The Matchbox Band (until 1980) The NightHawks (80-83) and in the Rock Doctors (1982-3). After his cheekbones went he resumed working as a pharmacist and is currently senior pharmacist at Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre in Melbourne. His Pram Factory baby (Greta) is now all growed up and he has a new son Will (1992 crop) and is still married to Suze.



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