Mark J. Keenan
Spy you, Mike!
A year ago, my football team, the West Coast Eagles, became the AFL Premiers, winning the Grand Final in the final two minutes of the game with an incredible goal.
It was an emotional day. The seesawing stress of watching the game. The cliff-hanger result. But it wasn't just the football which affected me that day.
Earlier in the day I had read about the death of someone important to me. A person who I’d barely met but whose music had shaped me in my teenage years, become a huge part of who I was (and am), and created connections and friendships without which I would be an completely different person, in an entirely different place.
In the mid-80’s, I was a teenager living in Carnarvon, a coastal town in north-west WA. At the time the only TV channel available was the ABC and so my sister and I grew up on a diet of The Goodies, Doctor Who and The Two Ronnies. And Countdown.
I’ve loved music since I was young. I suppose it’s my mum’s fault. She would always have music on - in the house, in the car - and, if it wasn’t on, well she’d be singing. It didn’t matter what year it was from either. Mum was more than happy dancing to some top-of-the-pops single from yesteryear as she was to the latest Top 40 hits. Which is probably just as well, since the local radio station had plenty of the former.
Countdown was great and my sister and I would look forward to watching it every week. Every Sunday, we’d see the latest hits performed, get the gossip about what the next big thing was from Molly, then talk about it with our friends at school the next day.
When I was twelve, I bought my first album; Business As Usual, Men At Work. I still have it and, unbelievably after nearly forty years, it still plays fine! (and I still know all the words).
Over the next few years, I collected quite a few tapes. Using a cassette deck to record songs off Countdown or the radio worked fine of course, and was a good way to get the latest tracks without paying, but I liked to listen to albums, to hear the complete story the way the artist had intended. So I mowed lawns and cleaned gardens for the neighbours, saved up my pocket money, begged and borrowed, to expand my collection.
I’m not sure what my choices tell me about myself back then, but they certainly confirm I’ve always had wide, and seemingly contradictory, musical tastes. In my tape collection are a few things you’d expect like Prince, John Cougar, Madonna, Michael Jackson; and a few you might not like Art of Noise, Robert Cray, Sade, Herbie Hancock, The Style Council. There’s far more WHAM than many would admit to publicly, and a few odds and sods like the Breakin’ and Beat Street soundtrack; because even though living in outback Australia is nothing like living in LA or the Bronx, it didn’t mean your desire to be a “breaker” was any less. There are even early indications of the heavier side being conceived with Asia and Metallica making an appearance.
Mostly though my choices were being guided by Countdown and local radio. I probably thought this was fine but when, in 1985, the ABC started broadcasting a new programme, on Saturdays, called Beatbox, I was immediately drawn to it.
Created under a government funded initiative and involving a group of young, unemployed people from Sydney’s western suburbs working with ABC professionals, the show tackled topics which Australian youth cared about - racism, sexism, unemployment, homelessness. It was insightful, edgy, and fun.
And then there were the music videos.
These weren’t the same bands and artists you would see on Countdown. And they weren’t the same songs you would hear on the local radio station either. They were different. They were interesting. And, for someone like me, they were so much better.
It was on this TV show where I would see a music video, hear a song, and discover a band, which would get right under my skin.
A shipwreck on a beach. A gas-mask hanging from a piece of driftwood. Three men dressed in orange overalls, wearing black shades, playing guitars and drums.
One Of A Kind was the song.
Spy Vs Spy was the band.
Something about the song, and this band, “the Spies”, hit a nerve in me. I watched it over and over, wearing the VHS tape thin, copying the sound to a cassette so I could listen to it in my room.
I went to the local record store. They’d never heard of it, but said they’d look into it for me. Weeks later I walked out of the shop holding a cassette version of the band’s EP, Meet Us Inside.
If One Of A Kind blew my mind, the rest of the EP smashed what was left of it. Thumping drums, pounding bass, clever guitar riffs. And the lyrics; they were something else!
I played it over and again, watching Beatbox, Rock Arena and Countdown religiously each week, hoping for a new video and the announcement of an album release. And I was rewarded.
The Spies released a single, Injustice, complete with a video clip, which again included a ship wreck. A song about the oppression of indigenous Australians by early settlers, the footage included a reenactment of a battle between white men, riding horses and armed with rifles, and Aborigines, carrying boomerangs and spears. The message was clear, simple, and human.
In 1986, when their first full-length album, Harry’s Reasons, came out, the record store had a copy ready for me to buy.
We left Carnarvon at the end of that year. My dad worked at the satellite tracking station and it was being decommissioned, so we moved to Perth.
We’d moved to Carnarvon when I was five. I’d grown up there. I didn’t know anything else. We left behind eleven years of friendships, a decade plus of experiences, and travelled to a northern suburb of Perth, to start at a school many, many times larger than the ones in Carnarvon, and where, apart from my sister, I knew absolutely no one. And to make things even more interesting, I was in my final year of school.
But there were some positives to the move.
For a start, there was more than one place to buy music. Dada Records, on Pier St in the city, was like heaven. They had albums and singles for artists I liked, others I had never heard of, and, of course, the Spies. And they had band shirts. When the Spies new album, A.O. Mod. T.V. Vers, came out in 1987, I bought it, and a Spies tank top with an illustration of a secret agent watching a secret agent on television on the front.
I don’t recall why I bought a tank-top and not a shirt. It certainly wasn’t to show off my ‘guns’ which were even less existent then than they are now. Anyhow, I that’s what I did.
I’ve never worn any item of clothing as much as that tank top. I lived in it. People who knew me back at that time will attest to the fact I wore a Spies top everywhere, and everyday. And for a time, at least a year, I only had one. Luckily for those closest to me, I was still at a school where uniforms were mandatory, so it was only weekends when I could wear it for any length of time.
I didn’t know it, but through this purchase, the Spies were about to exert a significant force on my future. And not just my immediate future either; which mostly involved trying to avoid my mum from confiscating the over-worn apparel and trying to fit in to a new school with my ‘country town’ way of talking.
The Spies played their first ever Perth gig at Canterbury Court in 1987. It was an underage show - how lucky was that!
I went to that show with a friend from school, Rob, who’d agreed to come along despite not knowing much about the band.
I stood at the front, next to a low stage, enthralled through the whole set.
It was incredible.
Craig Bloxom, bass guitar hung low across his tall frame, belting out the lyrics and loping across the stage while Cliff Grigg, sticks flying wildly, smashed the drums behind him, and Mike Weiley, on the left of the stage, slashed his way through the guitar riffs.
The Spies wrote and recorded great songs, but it’s when they played live that they really created the magic.
I have been to hundreds of live gigs and seen some incredible artists but, for me, nothing beats the energy and the feeling I got from being at a Spies show.
On the last day of school term, we were told we could ditch the uniform, and dress casual. There are no prizes for guessing my choice of clothing for this special occasion.
In the afternoon, I was sitting at the back of the maths classroom when a pile of books were placed onto the bench next to me and a blonde guy, 6 foot something, with a huge grin and a Midnight Oil tank top, sat down next to me. His name was Phil and he’d spotted my Spies top. We got talking about music and have been best friends ever since.
Up until I met Phil, I’d had a plan. Actually it was probably more like an idea, or a dream, than a plan. I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know how I would do it, and I certainly didn’t know what I needed to do next, but I knew it was what I wanted to do.
On the other hand, Phil, and his mates Jason and Danny, not only knew what they wanted to do, but exactly how they were going to do it. They were going to be engineers, and they were going to study at the University of Western Australia. Simple!
It’s hard to know why I made the choices I did back in 1987. At a very real level, I was struggling with adjusting to the city, and I was missing my old friends, but with less distractions, I found myself doing really well at school. I wanted to write, and I was, both for school and for myself, but there didn’t seem any clear path for becoming an author.
So, I took the more obvious path and followed my three mates to UWA to study engineering.
It might seem like I chose my friends over my dream of writing. In some ways, I guess it’s true. In any case, I prefer to think I chose to defer one dream, to find, and follow, another.
Engineering has been really good to me. In fact, it’s been great. I’ve travelled the world, worked on incredible projects, met amazing people, formed lasting friendships and been involved in making a difference - personally and through business - to individuals and to communities.
And now, I’ve reached a point, some thirty plus years later, where I can make the space in my life to do what I’ve always wanted to do; write!
One year ago, Mike Weiley, guitarist and founding member of the band Spy v Spy, passed away. He was only 59.
I saw the Spies play dozens of times, including their first ever show in Perth; I’ve owned every album they’ve made, and bought every shirt they ever sold. In the four years while I studied my engineering degree, and the following two years while I did a masters, I wore a Spies shirt every single day. Maybe this was a little over the top, but it never seemed like it to me!
I met Mike only once, and briefly, after the band’s Sunday session gig at the Fitzgerald Hotel was stopped early, due to complaining local residents. I shouldn’t have even been there - it was still more than three months until I’d turn eighteen. I certainly shouldn’t have climbed onto stage after the band had been taken off and grabbed the microphone to ask everyone "how about a hand for the band". But I was, and I did, and I'm still happy about it, all these years later.
When I found out about Mike death, I felt sad. And, for a while, I felt like part of me was missing. But then I put on an old bootleg cassette recording we'd made at a Spies gig at the Charles Hotel, and I just felt grateful for the impact the music of Mike, Craig and Cliff had been on me and on my life. Spy you, Mike.