We just liked him 'cos he was Shirl

Graeme "Shirley" Strachan
Singer, TV and radio presenter

A helicopter crash in appalling conditions on the Queensland Sunshine Coast on Wednesday took the life of Graeme "Shirley" Strachan, leaving many friends and admirers in grief. He had just turned 49.

Born Graeme Ronald Strachan in East Malvern, Melbourne, Shirl was the son of Joyce and Ronald Strachan, the eldest of an energetic, happy brood of four. The only Scouts badge his mum could remember him earning was one in "entertainment". He had a steady girl in Form Two, and was sacked from Mt Waverley High's first-aid room after being caught applying mouth-to-mouth to a girl who was fully conscious.

His dad became a carpenter after World War II and Shirl, who by his own admission had "always shone in woodwork", grabbed the chance to follow in his father's trade. First year at trades school he was runner-up to the dux of his class; the second year he topped a building technicians' course.

The surf was a first love, but music drew him - the thrills, the travel; a special way of moving through life. At trades school he met a couple of guys who raved about the drumming skills of a guy named Freddy Strauks and took him to see an unnamed band at the Village Green with Strauks and Greg Macainsh on bass. He made friends with Strauks, singing in cars with him on the way to parties, but it took a while before he was asked to join a band with him and Macainsh called Claptrap, which changed its name to Frame. He stuck with the band for a year and a half, finishing his carpentry apprenticeship in the meantime. Then he jumped into the Kombi which had carried Frame's gear around and headed for Phillip Island to surf and be a chippie.

It was as a hardcore surf freak, a scene in which nicknames are practically compulsory, that Graeme became Shirley, named for his high tenor voice and Shirley Temple curls. Speaking to me for my book Skyhooks' Million Dollar Riff, Shirl described carpentry Phillip Island-style: "You'd get up in the morning and look out the window and say 'yeah'. Then you'd go down to Woolami and check it out. There'd be a few bars there, and you'd go surfing. Then you'd have lunch and perhaps a couple of hours' work, and then it's high tide, so you go surfing again."

Stints on crayfishing and shark boats followed. His girlfriend Sandy (later to become his first wife) was off to Perth, so Shirl headed back to Melbourne. Later that day he was lead singer of a bright young Melbourne glam-rock band called Skyhooks.

Skyhooks - gorgeous, brash, cross-dressing boys flaunting their tight lurex butts in a sea of earnest, whiskered jeans'n'blues - won over a ruthless suck-more-piss crowd and every schoolkid in the continent (except those so devoted to Sherbet; they had to like them in secret).

They saved Mushroom Records from the first of its many near-death experiences with the enormous multi-platinum success of their much-banned first album Living in the '70s. Skyhooks revolutionised the music industry in three ways: culturally; in terms of artist control; and through their extraordinary skills as musicians, writers and entertainers. King tides of money flooded into the business in the wake of their sold-out tours and massive hit records.

Australian music at last got a look-in on radio and TV. Skyhooks' songs and performances had the "it" factor. But by connecting with any crowd - be it roughhead, arty, teenybopper, you name it - Shirley opened the tills. As frontman and sometimes even tour manager, Shirley was often at the helm, bore the brunt of the waves. There was an Anzac Day concert in 1975 which was simply bedlam.

Around then, when Skyhooks mania was in full explosion mode, it all got too much for him. He took two weeks off in Bali and then married his second wife, Sue, in England. There were rumours in the media about him leaving the band. Shirl returned and the band's career took off again, bigger than ever, with Ego Is Not a Dirty Word.

"He was very professional and practical," remembers Macainsh. "If there was a job that needed to be done - building sets, whatever - he'd get out the tools. It was part of his Capricorn nature to want to understand most practical aspects of the business, right from the Countdown days. I remember once we were told to shut up and not interfere behind the scenes. Shirl had a stand-off with the floor manager over that."

Skyhooks guitarist Bob "Bongo" Starkie says: "Good man down. Doesn't surprise me that he went down upside down in a helicopter. He always had to have a joystick in his hand. He was always his own man; he stood up to anyone. Called a spade a spade.

"He was really the glue between us and the audience - the key to our success. He'd have them in 30 seconds. Even later on, he always felt like he was one of the road crew, driving the forklift. Lately Shirl had became very close to my daughter, Indiana, taking her out on a fishing boat. He was really good with kids."

Red Symons, renowned post-Skyhooks as the heartless terror of the Hey, Hey It's Saturday segment Red Faces, was yesterday unready to deal with phone calls. His wife, Elly, spoke of people coming up to them in the streets distraught and talking about how Skyhooks had been their first concert, their first record.

Band manager and record boss Michael Gudinski's voice was also uncharacteristically gruff as he prepared to meet the other band members yesterday afternoon at his Frontier Tours office. On tour he often shared a room with Shirl, whose popularity and appetite for partying sometimes kept him out till all hours.

"The brat. He was a surfie, a chippie with an incredible work ethic. He'd be up at the crack of dawn, driving me to his own interview. He had a take-no-prisoners attitude and was an incredible prankster. I've still got that upturned finger he gave me sitting on my desk. That says it all - stick it up them."

After the itchy-foot syndrome which characterised his life took hold and Shirley left Skyhooks, he enjoyed great popularity as the host of the TV show Shirl's Neighbourhood and on radio - particularly as Triple M's breakfast announcer from 1994-97. In 1993 he joined the founding team of Channel 9's Our House - still running and consistently a top 10 TV show.

Executive producer Tim Cobbin was yesterday afternoon having a drink with devastated fellow workers.

"Apart from Shirl's professionalism, he was a great communicator and a great friend," he says. "Totally outspoken always, shot from the hip. Exuberant, enthusiastic, life-embracing. I hear Shirl would rather have fish and chips with the roadies than champagne out the front, and that's how I remember him, too.

"When he sent in an audition tape to David Lyle, the man who set up Our House, he thought, 'why would we be interested in a washed-up rock star?' But when he came in to do a live audition, he was just too good. He's been the heart and soul of the show for 8 years. We just don't know what we're going to do without him, we really don't."

Cobbin last spoke to "the Mouth", as I often called him in Skyhooks' days, on Tuesday. He'd just lost 10kg on a vegetarian diet and was really enjoying his helicopter pilot training.

"He couldn't wait for summer to go surfing," Cobbin says. "Everything about him was just living life to the full, God love him. It's like we've lost a member of the family. He thought he was kind of bulletproof. Part of me thinks it was way too soon for him to go."

Strauks, reflecting on the loss of Shirl, says: "[The age of] 49 is a time when you feel like you've completed a lot of stuff. When I spoke to Shirl on Tuesday he sounded the most relaxed and happy and at peace I've ever heard him. I went through crying, anger, denial.

"I think the soul makes these decisions. He's really flying now."

Shirley never had children of his own. He is survived by his wife of 26 years, Sue Strachan.

Jen Jewel Brown

Jen Jewel Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer who wrote Skyhooks' Million Dollar Riff (Dingo Books, 1975).