March 1, 2020
People & Places

“I’m surprised I’ve lasted this long considering the hard living”

Rob Riley has lived the quintessential rock and roll life. He’s played in front of 120,000 people with Rose Tattoo, toured with Jimmy Barnes and Sherbet, and spent years drinking, smoking and snorting. Here, Rob reflects on life in the rock spotlight, losing his close mate Shirley Strachan and settling down with a Seaton girl.

Rob Riley in his studio at home with two favourite guitars – he’s used a Holden Kingswood badge to decorate their headstocks.

I’m Melbourne born and bred for 21 years. Mum and dad lived on the top of Mount Evelyn, top of the Dandenong ranges – so I’m a mountain man.

I was about seven when I discovered champion indigenous boxer Lionel Rose and he got me into music. He released a song called ‘I Thank You’ in 1970 and I remember listening to it with my dad on a crystal set I’d built.

I had to have the single, so mum and dad bought it for me, and I played it until it was totally fucked. The other side was called “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” and the backing band I’d seen on Reg Lindsay’s Country Hour. I love country music. The band was called the Hawking Brothers Country Five. That is what switched my whole music thing on. So, mum sent me to a bloke called Alan Prebble for formal guitar training. He was a Latin-style player and I went there for a couple of years until I was 10 and he couldn’t teach me anymore.

All I wanted to do was get close to what Lionel Rose and that band did. I was completely obsessed with it – you couldn’t take the guitar out of my hands. I just played and played!

In secondary school, I met a mate called David Wicks, and he had an electric guitar and an amplifier and he played bass. I said to my mate Paul Hitchins “you’ve got to learn how to play drums”. From then on we played in our band on the grass in the back yard. We were just kids. Years later Paul ended up being the drummer in a band called The Sports.

I had no idea about a living but I was good mechanically because I had motorbikes, and they’re my passion. I can pull an engine or motorbike apart and put it back together again – the same with a guitar amplifier and getting plenty of big shocks. I have to pull stuff apart and put it back together. I’ve got to fidget and fiddle with everything!

I put a band together called Lois Lane, and we played at parties and so forth. We went on to play at a competition, a festival thing in Melbourne called Hoadley’s Battle of the Bands, when I was 18. We won it. It was around 1974.

What that gave us was four hours in Allan Eaton’s recording studio and he was a very big deal so we thought we were into the big stuff then.

A mate of mine by the name of Jimmy Garlick saw me at the Oakleigh drive-in playing at a panel van show. He said, “I got a mate John Dallimore who plays guitar”, and then he tells him about me and the next thing you know I have the guys from a big pro-band called Redhouse at my house asking if I wanted to join the band for a 93-date tour with Sherbet on their “Photoplay tour”. That was the start of my professional life. I was 19 and they paid me $100 a week.

Mum hated me for that, as I was an apprentice diesel mechanic but I didn’t do my fourth year, so l didn’t get my indentures, my trade papers. She was always on at me about having a job.

Redhouse was a hard-rock pop style band, and it put me on that road. That tour was fantastic. Sherbert and us … we did nothing but get shitfaced, pissed, drunk stupid. But that experience taught me to do what was needed of me musically in a band and do what was requested. It taught me to be focused.

I left because I began to tire of being second guitarist – but like a big dickhead, I failed to realise JD (John Dallimore) was always the first guitar, the star of the show. I had a big ego tussle with myself, certainly not John Dallimore.

Then he got a record contract and asked me back, and we then moved to Sydney in the late 1970s as the band Dallimore. We lived in Bondi I used to hang out at the Astor Hotel, which is where I met the guys from Rose Tattoo, which I thought was a shit band but they were good blokes.

You had Peter Wells on slide guitar, he was the signature sound of Rose Tattoo, Dallas “Digger” Royall on drums and Geordie Leech on bass – they were great players.

Their guitar player Mick Cox was very unreliable, so their management came to the Caringbah Hotel where l was gigging one night, and asked me to join. I joined them around ’81 in England when they were touring in London and had a big hit with “Rock and Roll Outlaw”.

I’d never been overseas before and I was shitting myself. l didn’t know any of their material or songs as l took no notice of it.

They were huge in Europe and I’d just stepped into “superduperdom”, the world stage. It was incredible. There was piss, drugs, women, all that stuff. I was 25 and we toured and toured and toured.

The band was huge – huge crowds. I think the greatest moments of Rose Tattoo were the festivals – from 20,000 to 120,000 people – it was fuckin’ unbelievable.

We supported a local german band called “Bohse Onkels” (Wicked Uncles in English) and played in front of 120,000 fans at The Lausitzring race track-speedway.

The greatest thing about it is you are playing your own songs to these people and they’re singing all the words back at you. To me, that is the epitome of reaching the higher plane, if you will.

Rob (centre back) with Rose Tattoo.

I wrote “We Can’t Be Beaten” with Angry Anderson and I wrote three other tracks off the album “Scarred for Life”, including the title track. They were all singles that did well. I’m not a whinger, and I don’t write love songs – I’m more of a shitcanner. I look at myself as a 63-year-old man now, shitcanning everything.

Angry Anderson and I really didn’t get on during those days, because I believe he made so many bad decisions in his leadership of Rose Tattoo as a company, that he completely fucked it and I was always very pissed off about that. I tried talking sense into him but then again he’s nine years up on me and he is Rose Tattoo, so I can carry on all I want, and my points were always mute. But it caused a lot of stress between us. I was constantly saying “stick it up your arse” and I was off and then I’d be back again. I was on and off with Rose Tattoo for 30-odd years.

After Rose Tattoo I played in the Party Boys for about two and a half years with Richard Clapton singing for the first six months and then Shirley Strachan [of Skyhooks fame]. Shirl and I struck up an incredible friendship – he was such a nice guy. Sadly, he died in a helicopter crash when he was told he shouldn’t fly in the roaring winds – he put himself into the side of a mountain and died. Such a terrible loss for all of us.

I was always just a guitar player in a band, but I suppose I attained a certain level of fame. It really was the high life. I think I must have snorted more cocaine than they could make and drank more piss than Carlton United could manufacture so it was very much the high life in those days.

It was flat out and I could tolerate it in those days but these days I’m just a grumpy old man.

Then Jimmy Barnes tracked me down and asked me to play in his band and replace Chris Stockley for the “Working Class Man” tour.

So I went back to Sydney and Jim paid me $500 a week. Jim was fantastic to work with. Big loves there indeed!

Everything ran on cocaine back then, but they were incredible days. I was playing in the number one band in the land and on tour with a number one album and it was just fuckin’ over the top.

In my more sober moments it was a bit surreal but it all just fitted together beautifully.

I had a girlfriend in Sydney for 10 years on and off, but she gave me a good whipping. She was a tyrant. But I was loyal. When I’m with a partner I’m always monogamous. That’s the kind of animal I am. But I had to leave Sydney because of her, and I couldn’t get to Mars. Mars wasn’t far enough away.

Then the Jimmy Barnes tour finished after about 12 months and the record company told Jim you’ve got to get rid of the old fat guys, so he had to and he did. I was 29 years old. That was deemed old.

So, Jim had to piss us all off and the bass player Bruce Howe (Mickey Finn), who became a most dear friend and mentor, from Adelaide said “why don’t you come to Adelaide?” Why would I do that? I’ve never pulled a root there. Anyway, that was 33 years ago and wild horses could not drag me away now. I absolutely love this place.

Bruce and I put a band together called the Mega Boys and had a good run here. Then I had a little trio called The Gems, which had a good run, and then I was in The Nazz. All local acts!

I met a Seaton girl, Robyn, at the British Hotel when I was playing in the Nazz. Her brother Trevor said, “you’ve got to come and see this guitar player, he’s hilarious”. She’d been looking for a bloke for a few years so she came down and thought that was a bit of what she wanted. I said “do you want to get something to eat, some Mexican?” We went out but it was a Wednesday and unbeknownst to me every fuckin’ Mexican restaurant in Adelaide was closed on a Wednesday. Eventually, I moved into her place. You’ve got high and low maintenance women and she was low maintenance. She didn’t whinge about anything and she is just a hard worker, devoted to her parents, and she’s houseproud and keeps a really tight ship – and kicks my arse big time and makes sure I get shit done.

I’m good with tools and I love welding and drilling and cutting and fabricating, so I’ve built a lot of the place [our home] myself. She’s put up with me and she’s great. When you’ve lived hard like me, you remember how not to ruin everything.

Robyn had a son from a previous relationship who lives with us. I’ve got four kids. A one-night stand gave me twins – a girl and a boy in Melbourne. I just met my daughter for the first time. She’s 27. I was playing in the Angry Anderson “Bound for Glory” tour and these young girls got on the bus and I wasn’t interested but it happened and it must have been the quickest sex ever and I never saw her again. Then nine months later the management comes into the dressing room and says “you’re the proud father of twins”. I’m standing there with all the guys in the band and they’re all laughing. I didn’t know where they were and it was hard to track people down back then.

One of Rob’s many band line-ups.

My daughter Jess found me through a radio show in Melbourne, a talkback thing about finding people. They wanted me to air my dirty laundry on air but I said I didn’t want to do that. I’ve met up with Jess a couple of times so far. She has three kids, and they call me grandpa. I haven’t met my son though.

My eldest daughter is Jemma. I was with her mother Cath for three years. I was always around when Jemma was little. I used to do the school pick up and drop off and have her on weekends.

After Cath and I split up she got married and moved to Queensland and Jemma went with them and that was absolutely and totally devastating. Jemma has three kids now.

One of my passions is restoring small Dodge trucks but you have to lift everything – big engines, big gearboxes, big axles, big everything, and it just fucks you. All my shoulders are gone, my knees are gone, my hips are bad. My spine is destroyed from decades of throwing band gear around and I reckon there’ll be some surgery coming on my back at some time in the very near future.

I’m also doing up my hot rod – I’ve got an “inter”, an International that looks the same as the Dodge. I’ve got one that’s going to get a Jaguar front end and a Ford rear end and an LS 2 Chev engine with a six-speed auto behind it with air conditioning. So, she’ll be a real nice modern little truck that I’ll use as my everyday driver.

I’m also passionate about my motorbikes. I‘ve got a Triumph Rocket 3 Roadster, and I’ve got a XV-TR1 1000 Yamaha and an SR 500 Yamaha and a postie bike. And they all work.

Rob on his 2.3-litre Triumph motorcycle. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

I’ve been into the guitar amplifier thing all my life, and for about the last 10 years seriously, studying and reading all things relating to the thermionic valve, and mentoring from local musicians, like Nick Kipridis (Streamliners), Jesse Dean Freeman (Hammond organ extraordinaire) and Brian Morrison (guitar man supreme), are the local fellas who are the valve experts. I love it – the building, the tinkering and the understanding of how things work. I love putting it together and having it actually work – and then playing through it. That is so gratifying for me. I still love to play when people want me to, but apparently no one wants me as I seem to be way too Aussie in my personality and attitude (I’ve always called a spade a spade) for the people that run festivals and so on. A great disappointment to me indeed!

I worry about everything these days, politics and people’s attitudes. When you have kids you think: fuck me, what kind of world are they going to inherit?

I’m also a dedicated tragic Trekkie (Star Trek). I just love it. As they say in Trekkie talk if you went back in time and changed anything, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now. So, I’m pretty pleased that I’ve got this far. As a matter of fact, I’m surprised I’ve lasted this long considering the hard living. I’m a bit of a wreck but the brain’s still good. And I defy anybody to live in my body and roll out of bed every morning and not feel the pain.

These days I’m a homebody – I love drinking beer and I love having a joint. So, I’m cool for a hot one and hot for a cool one. I wrote that into a song called “Let’s get this party crackin”!

I built a recording studio at home and I get creative in there. My passion is to create and play my music to people who want to hear it. That remains my passion and hopefully, I can do it for a few more years yet.

My South Australian Life is a new first-person series, published each Sunday.

Read our previous profiles here.

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