Reporter: Ray Martin
Producer: Sandra Cleary
Before AC/DC, before INXS, before the Bee Gees, even before the Easybeats, Australia had a supergroup that was as big and as successful as any band in the world.
They were and are The Seekers: Judith Durham, Athol Guy, Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley.
The Seekers started out in 1962, an endearingly daggy folk group that, against all odds, outsold the Rolling Stones, played alongside The Beatles and drew two hundred thousand people to a single concert.
They've been through their ups and downs, as you do over a half century but now, they're back and their songs are as contagious as ever.
STORY – RAY MARTIN: In the back-streets of Melbourne, the Seekers are in harmony once again. Judith Durham’s voice is still exquisite, backed up by Athol Guy on bass, Bruce Woodley on banjo, and Keith Potger on guitar. It’s their golden anniversary - but just close your eyes for a minute and you’re back in the frenzy of the sixties, when these four suburban Melbournites were knocking the biggest bands in the world right off the charts.
JUDITH: It was that we were a misfit almost, that, yes, we were outselling the Beatles. One of the Rolling Stones albums, ‘Goats Head Soup’, was kept off the top of the charts because we were there. Nobody realised that music like ours would sell, not just to Rolling Stones fans, but also the whole - all generations.
RAY MARTIN: Clean-cut and nice, they conquered the universe - but Melbourne and the Yarra was always home. Still a teenager, Judith joined the all-boy folk band the Seekers in 1962. It was a different time and a different place. It’s 50 years since you began, can you believe that?
JUDITH: Oh Ray.
ATHOL: It’s hard.
BRUCE: Very hard.
KEITH: It’s unbelievable. You have to say it quickly, Ray.
JUDITH: It’s – no, you can’t. It’s astonishing, and of course, we may have wrinkles, or our hair’s changed colour, or whatever.
KEITH: What do you mean, we may have wrinkles?
JUDITH: But we’re still the same people.
RAY MARTIN: It was the cut-crystal sound of Judith Durham’s soprano that made the Seekers so special, even in the Treble Clef coffee shop in Prahran where they first sang folk and gospel half a century ago. Were you aware that night, this is special, this is a truly beautiful, clear voice?
JUDITH: No, just say no.
KEITH: No, I can’t remember. We were too interested in the spaghetti and meatballs that they paid us with, you know, for our gig dollars.
BRUCE: I tell you what I did notice, was that audience reaction, to this, what we were doing. Audience reaction was very strong.
RAY MARTIN: After two years of cafes and small clubs at home, they signed on as the boat band on the SS Fairsky, bound for London. They played everything from Elvis to evergreens. It was just a 10-week summer holiday that launched an unlikely 50-year career. Dressed up as if they were going to church, they seemed way out of step with the sixties revolution. While the Stones strutted the stadiums and upset the parents, the Seekers polished their shoes and paid their dues on the English club circuit.
BRUCE: We did the show and it was full of, you know, lovely people with cloth caps and scarves, and drinking brown ale, and having moustaches - and that was just the women, Ray. But we followed the bingo caller, didn’t we? And some bloke with a heavy Yorkshire accent grabbed the microphone, and he told the audience to shut up, and he said, it’s - I’ll try the accent – “It’s come to my attention, certain of our members have been seen relieving themselves against the west wall of this club.” He said, “It’s bloody disgusting and it’s got to stop, ladies and gentlemen, the Seekers.”
RAY MARTIN: In the famous Abbey Road studios they record ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’, and overnight they’re top of the pops, at the London Palladium with an unbelievable cast of characters.
BRUCE: That was probably the biggest line-up of star names ever, wouldn’t you say? I mean, the Animals, the Stones, the Beatles, the Yardbirds, the Searchers, Dusty Springfield, the Moody Blues. It went on and on.
RAY MARTIN: And what did you think – did you, had you become an international group at that stage, or in your own heads, or were you thinking, we’re still the kids from Melbourne?
KEITH: No, I think we were still coming to grips with that. Standing on the side of the stage and being part of that line up was just phenomenal for me as well. I can remember it so clearly.
ATHOL: John Lennon walked past our dressing room. And he said, “You’re not a bad little band, you know, but they’re all here to see us.”
RAY MARTIN: But back home, they came just to see the Seekers.
JUDITH: I never dreamt we’d come back here 50 years later. It’s astonishing.
ATHOL: It’s changed, it’s changed.
BRUCE: It’s very, very different now.
RAY MARTIN: 200,000 screaming fans, one hot afternoon at the Myer Bowl, is still the biggest crowd the Bowl has ever seen – and their TV special here is still one of the highest rating shows ever on Australian television.
ATHOL: Someone asked me, was I nervous, when we all walked on? And I said, well, I actually had palpitations. So if we actually had an audience today, what would we sing for them?
JUDITH: Well, we’d have to do ‘Georgie Girl’, cause that was our big hit. We hadn’t realised how much of people’s family life we’d become, so for 10% of the Melbourne population to roll up - one in ten, you know - on that day, was an absolute demonstration that people, so much, were willing to go through hell and high water to see us.
RAY MARTIN: What we now know that, in a sense, “Georgie Girl” was actually Judith. With the adulation came a deep anxiety. This reluctant star was suffering eating disorders and insecurities which ultimately pulled the Seekers apart. Judith, you’ve written honestly and openly about this anxiety you had at the same time. You’re on top of the world as a group, musically, but you’re feeling ugly and fat and terribly low esteem?
JUDITH: Yes. I mean, it sounds extreme, but that is how I felt.
RAY MARTIN: All of which you weren’t, of course, but that’s what you felt.
JUDITH: I was. No, no, no, you’ve put it into perfect, I couldn’t express it more. Now I understand, it’s part of all sorts of influences that young girls go through. And I think-
RAY MARTIN: You had three big brothers, didn’t you?
JUDITH: Well I did. But I think in a way, therefore, I thought maybe I was unattractive to people. So it was almost like I had to get outside of the group, and the confines of the group, to realise that I was attractive and I was acceptable.
RAY MARTIN: You had no idea that there were blokes all round the world who were in love with you?
JUDITH: Not really, no. 20 years later, I did. If I’d known that I was, as you say, if men – if I thought men were in love with me all over the world, I don’t know how I would have handled that.
RAY MARTIN: What would you have done?
JUDITH: Well, I don’t know. I mean, it’s hard to know. What would any girl do? It might go to your head, and you might act differently, and I certainly had no way of knowing.
RAY MARTIN: The words would turn out to be prophetic - the carnival was over. In 1968, barely six years together, Judith dropped a bombshell and said that she was quitting.
BRUCE: I think when it came to the moment of the finality of it - it was, for me, a very difficult thing to face, and it was quite sad.
RAY MARTIN: Judith, in your biography, at the end of it, not so many years ago, you said that you had been ungrateful. What did you mean?
JUDITH: Well, I think it was that inability to appreciate what we’d achieved. I see it now as ingratitude, but it goes far beyond that. I mean, some people struggle all their lives, you know, 40 years in show business, and then an overnight success. We weren’t like that. We got on a boat, got to England, we were on television that night after we arrived in England. So there’s no sense of struggle. So you can’t appreciate something when you haven’t struggled, so there’s a lack of gratitude for it.
RAY MARTIN: So what about the fans then? You’ve got to tell the fans, um, that the Seekers are no more.
JUDITH: I didn’t understand the depth of grief that people were experiencing.
ATHOL: And yet the world out there, our followers, they’re all heartbroken. And we didn’t-
JUDITH: Absolutely heartbroken.
RAY MARTIN: Did you feel guilty?
JUDITH: I’ve felt guilty ever since.
RAY MARTIN: So they each went their separate ways - until one night, 25 long years later, in 1993, they got back together and they sang like songbirds.
BRUCE: It was very, very emotional actually. And I really appreciated it very much.
RAY MARTIN: Did you cry?
BRUCE: Yeah, I did a bit, and I thanked Judith for being - I said, “What you did was very brave.” I did say that, and she said –
RAY MARTIN: To leave you mean?
BRUCE: She said – I’ll have to say that she said, “I’m sorry if I ever hurt you.” And I said, “The moment you said that, everything was gone.” It was a beautiful moment of four friends getting together, and for me it was one of the most seminal moments of my life.
JUDITH: Bruce is gorgeous.
RAY MARTIN: So that was the silver anniversary, and now it’s gold. And there’s even this old Beatles song to help them remember all they’ve achieved, in their life together. So why did you choose this song?
JUDITH: Because I feel it’s very much our own story. At this age, we’re all now of course around 70, and all of us relate so strongly, all these years now. It keeps people positive. People are so depressed. They’re taking medication, and all they need is beautiful music.
RAY MARTIN: A bit of music. Turn on the Seekers. They’re the only sixties band still together in their original line-up. All these years later, it’s a new album and a new tour, but the same old distinctive Seekers sing-along sound. Is this it? Is the carnival over after this tour?
JUDITH: We’ve been saying that for the last 25 years, haven’t we?
RAY MARTIN: We expect the 60th, and 70th?
JUDITH: Yes, why not? Why not?