Remembering The Unstoppable Force Of Michael Gudinski

Such was Michael Gudinski's omnipresence in Australian music that it already feels like there's a statue of him outside Rod Laver Arena - glinting, glowing, with a finger pointing to the sky.

michael gudinski tribute photo

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That growl. That glint. That glow.

It’s ridiculous to be typing the line “Michael Gudinski has passed away peacefully in his sleep at age 68“. It doesn’t feel right.

The guy was insatiable. No way he was done with life. Gudinski just knocked innovative ABC music show The Sound outta the park and had secured the rights to bring US show Landmarks Live to Australia, which would’ve seen prominent (mostly Mushroom artists, sure) play in epic locations.

I saw Gudinski from a distance, then extremely loud and incredibly close. At age seven I was watching Bugs Bunny and eating Nutri Grain straight from the box. At the same age, Gudinski was already showing his entrepreneurial streak by charging people to park their Holden Toranas on his parent’s lawn next to Caulfield Racecourse. Good business. A young MG upped the ante not long after by selling watermelons to parched hippies at Sunbury ’72. He was obsessed with music and wanted to be around it, wanted to champion artists, wanted to make Australian audiences suck it up and get over the cultural cringe.

I learned these things when I read Stuart Coupe’s biography Gudinski: The Godfather of Australian Rock’n’Roll. As a fellow hustler, I appreciated his promoter masterstroke of flying to see bands when they were playing in, say, Ohio, not Los Angeles or New York. The artist dug the dedication, he’d made a friend for life. Yesterday, Bruce Springsteen said, “I’ve toured the world for 50 years and never met a better promoter.”

He was obsessed with music and wanted to be around it, wanted to champion artists, wanted to make Australian audiences suck it up and get over the cultural cringe.

I was led to the book through my work as a full-time music journalist for News Corp, a job I’d hustled for in 2006 in a very Gudinskian way: being in the right place at the right time while communicating just how much of a music nut I was and effectively taking the decision out of their hands. While writing about Mushroom bands such as Cloud Control, Alpine and Little Red, I came into Michael’s orbit. I was asked to write the band bio for Little Red’s breakthrough album Midnight, Remember.

The band, the label, and I went out for dinner at Circa above Prince of Wales to finalise the copy and make sure the messaging was right. MG materialised in the room and it quickly went from a meal to an event. Everyone at the table kept Michael in their peripheral vision, as if at a job interview. That was the thing when you were in a room with him, the same thought permeated your brain: “I’m in the same room as Michael Gudinski.”

After holding court for an hour and drinking red wine, he withdrew from the metaphorical spotlight and started speaking in hushed, strategic tones to his assistant and confidante Reegan Stark, who diligently took notes as MG plotted to expand his empire. I eavesdropped on a few off-the-record plans. Later I learned a fun fact: Michael Gudinski never sent emails. He made a million phone calls across all time zones but left the electronic missives to his team, the king of delegation.

Little Red played The Prince later, they killed it and it turned into a big night. I lost count of the number of times I’d roll into the HWT Towers in Melbourne bleary-eyed the day after a gig and debrief with my editors.

“Was Michael behind it?”

“Did he speak? I heard he went full Michael.”

“Only Michael could have pulled that off.”

The first time I spoke to MG was at The Espy’s 120-year birthday celebrations. We were walking to The Basement together (read: I was following him like William Miller in Almost Famous) to see Tex Perkins and The Ladyboyz and I decided halfway downstairs was the right time to tap him on the shoulder.

“Hi Michael, I’m Mikey Cahill from the good part of the Herald Sun, I do the Rock City column in Hit,” I proffered.

“Is Cameron (Adams) here?” he asked, referring to another News Corp journo, shaking my hand, eyes darting above my head.

A month later I was at a meeting with Renee Geyer and repeated something I’d heard: “Did Gudinski buy you a house as a thank you for all the money your records made him after you signed a bad deal?”

“He never shuts up about that,” Geyer shot back.

Kylie Minogue, Michael Gudinski, and Dannii Minogue. Photo Credit: Martin Philbey/Redferns

Gudinski surrounded himself with brilliant, sharp women. He knew the future was female way before it became a t-shirt. In July 2019 he told The Age: “I did the first Australian Go-Gos and Bangles tours in the ’80s. That’s when I realised that, on the road, the girls were no different to the boys. It further encouraged my belief that we need more women executives and female artists on our rosters.”

But just because he was all-powerful doesn’t mean he always got his way.

One of Mushroom’s offshoot labels, Liberator Music, is run by Nick Dunshea. He brought arty British buzz act Alt-J to town in 2012 as their debut album was exploding. “There’s a big vibe,” Gudinski quipped, perhaps his most-used sentence.

The Mushroom boss wanted them to play the Forum Theatre (2000 people) while Dunshea insisted two shows at Ding Dong Lounge (320) was the right move. Somehow, Dunshea won that battle and fans were literally climbing up the balcony to try and sneak in. The shows have become folkloric, the most coveted ticket in town. Fast forward three years later, Alt-J headlined Rod Laver Arena. I saw MG at the afterparty. “Amazing! They’ve never had a hit!” he barked, equal parts impressed and baffled.

Mostly though, he did get his way. When triple j (read: Richard Kingsmill) gave push-back on a new band called The Rubens, the story goes MG was having none of it. Gudinski made a couple of passionate phone calls then went into the Sydney offices of the youth broadcaster and played ‘My Gun’ at full volume. The Rubens were added to rotation.

Two years later ‘Hoops’ pipped ‘King Kunta’ by Kendrick Lamar for the top spot on the Hottest 100.

Some battles were ongoing when he shuffled off this mortal coil. I interviewed Ed Sheeran’s manager, Stuart Camp, on stage at The Australian Music Prize awards in 2018 and asked him how we could stop Viagogo. MG was in the crowd, so I threw the question to him.

“The Federal Government needs to stop Viagogo destroying our live music industry,” he spat, arms jutting.

Shortly after, he and Ed Sheeran’s team announced they would not accept Viagogo tickets at their events. “They’re a scourge in our industry. Aside from being a marketplace for fraudulent tickets their whole purchase process is a sham. They lie, they mislead, they take advantage of fans.”

Gudinski with Ed Sheeran. Photo Credit: Matt Jelonek/WireImage

I’ve shared a stage once with Michael, although it wasn’t planned. I was tapped to host a concert by The Teskey Brothers at Colonial Brewery in Port Melbourne for 400 rowdy fans and, well, I was a little nervous. Would their fans boo me because of my Rupert Murdoch connection? What if someone piffs a can at me? What if I my zipper was down?

I smashed a tequila shot backstage, walked onto stage and introduced myself: “Good evening ladies and gentlemen and however you identify, my name is Michael Gudinski.”

MG turned up later, sniggered when he heard the story and insisted on jumping up to speak before the headline act. When I introduced him on stage it gave me a neat call-back. He bounded onto stage, the crowd hung on every tangential word, until he nearly lost them with some ramble before righting the ship with an emphatic “GO YOU TESKEYS!”

That night I saw something I’d heard whispers about: Gudinski standing at the back of the room near the exit to make sure nobody left (NB: those that did made his shitlist).

As a DJ I guestimate I play at least one Mushroom Group song in every set I do. Last Friday at The Espy I spun Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons’ ‘Shape I’m In’ (a song born in St Kilda), the following day it was the Kylie Minogue remix ‘Can’t Get Blue Monday Out of My Head’ then on Sunday at Riverland Bar felt like the right time to drop ‘Bittersweet’ by Hoodoo Gurus. This weekend I’ll play Hunters and Collectors’ ‘When The River Runs Dry’, Garbage’s ‘Vow’, Split Enz’s ‘One Step Ahead’ and DMA’s ‘Life is a Game of Changing (Willaris K remix)’.

Gudinski’s legacy is everywhere and his record labels are the conduits, not the other way around.

It’s not common knowledge that Gudinski evaded the grim reaper a few years back when he beat cancer. A few news sites had obituaries ready to go.

The last time I saw Michael Gudinski was three months ago at a film screening. It was Classic Gudinski, working the room, gliding between handshakes, personal jokes, scathing asides while dropping trinkets of knowledge about a new multi-million-dollar Mark Wahlberg project his Mushroom Creative House team had secured.

“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.”

The Sound is a real achievement, great execution,” I said as his eyes briefly settled on me. “They’ve done a great job,” he gravelled, “but it’s costing me a packet.”

David Bowie once said: “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”. We know what will happen next. Just like his mates — and fellow St Kilda tragics — Shane Warne and Molly Meldrum, they’ll erect a statue of Michael Gudinski. We know what it will look like: one finger raised, wild Papa Smurf hair blown back, you-bloody-beauty expression on his arched jaw, winners are grinners.

Such was Gudinski’s omnipresence in the Australian music industry and wider cultural landscape that it feels like there already is a gold statue outside Rod Laver Arena. I’m sure I’ve driven past it on the banks of the Yarra and seen Michael there — growling, glinting, glowing.

Mikey Cahill is a music journalist for The Age and NME Australia and a former columnist for the Herald Sun (the good bit). Follow him on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mushroom Group