Happy Birthday Tim Ferguson
Writer Elle Russell profiles Tim Ferguson, born 16th November and the Doug Anthony All Stars.
Pilfering money from punter’s wallets. Running off with babies in prams and then accusing the bewildered mothers of bad parenting. Setting public rubbish bins on fire. Leading a crowd on a shop lifting tour through David Jones.
No, it’s not a rap sheet; it’s the Doug Anthony All Stars Canberra busking repertoire circa 1985.
While the description of the All Stars street performances read like a witness statement, these shambolic and subversive shows thrilled and terrified Canberra shoppers. It is precisely why on Saturday mornings, they had crowds of up to 150 people waiting for them to start busking at Petrie Plaza in Canberra’s Civic.
The Doug Anthony All Stars aka DAAS, clearly made an impression, as they are probably the only buskers in Australia, if not the planet, to have a plaque commemorating their antics. In 2003, the plaque featuring an image of the trio with the words ‘The Doug Anthony All Stars were born and died here” was installed where they used to busk at the intersection of City Walk and Petrie Plaza.
Richard Fidler, Tim Ferguson and Robert Piper started off doing comedic acoustic covers in the early 1980s but morphed into more of a darker performance group once Paul McDermott replaced Piper who had left to forge a career in the diplomatic corps.
After some success at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 1986, DAAS relocated to Victoria but found the Melbourne public more difficult to engage in their frivolity. The group jetted off to the Edinburgh Comedy Festival via Covent Garden and literally set the place on fire. DAAS famously incited a riot at the Bear Pit theatre and word spread about the Australian comedy rock stars who knew no fear.
Prior to returning to Melbourne, the DAAS had been phenomenally successful in the UK but in 1988, had to work hard for a crowd on Bourke and Swanston streets.
While Canberra audiences were savvy to the anarchic stylings of the comedy trio the rest of the country only caught up in 1989 once the ABC started showing the Big Gig on Tuesday nights.
Teenagers across Australia, many of who were listening to the Violent Femmes, The Dead Kennedys and Nick Cave, instantly embraced the DAAS with their entirely inappropriate but much beloved songs such as I Fuck Dogs and I Wanna Spill the Blood of a Hippy.
The irreverent All Stars were internationally successful comedians who gave fans their biggest shock when they announced that they would quit after a farewell tour in 1994.
The group reunited for a once off charity special in 2003 and again in 2008 and 2013 for DVD releases of their performances on The Big Gig and DAAS Kapital respectively.
While Richard now an ABC radio presenter, Paul stayed on our screens with shows such as Good News Week and Tim with Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and Funky Squad. Tim also teaches comedy. In 2010, Tim revealed that he’d been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis prior to the group’s split.
In 2014 the All Stars reunited for a 30th anniversary tour starting at Canberra’s Comedy Festival with Paul Livingston, better known as his alter ego of Flacco, instead of Fidler on guitar.
Now in their second year of world tours since reforming, AAMP spoke with Tim Ferguson about the Doug Anthony All Stars and their busking history.
What was a Doug Anthony All Stars busking performance like in Canberra?
“Busking in Petrie Plaza was always great fun. We’d have big revivals and marches, spontaneous protests, laying hands on people and exorcising their demons. I did a psychic act which I’m sure would be illegal in the Bourke Street Mall these days. I’d use my psychic powers to solve people’s problems. We’d reenact the burning of Joan of Arc. We’d put Paul in garbage bins and set fire to whatever was in them. We did this regularly.
One of the reasons why the Doug Anthony All Stars were so in your face and jumping up and down was because we built our act on the street where you need to do that to get attention.”
How did you manage to get away with that on the streets of Canberra?
“Canberra was the cocaine/heroin capital of Australia. There was also a punk scene in Canberra. The punks in Melbourne and Sydney revered the Canberra punks. They were tough. There were weekly brawls, fights and riots. All that stuff happened in the nation’s capital. We had several battles with the cops. Singing one more song, talking over them. It was a time when risk was possible. I guess that the cops thought, ‘At least they’ve gathered together. We can watch them all here.”
Do you think that you were able to get away with it because it was the eighties? Do you think it would work now?
“If you put someone in a bin and set fire to whatever else is in it, you’ll get a crowd. I love it when people talk about the eighties like it was some golden time. It was a time of the same old oppression. Australia had just lurched out of the Fraser era. It was the same old thing. There were laws. People were backwards. Joh Bjelke-Petersen was a serious contender for the prime ministership. This country has not changed at all. What’s happened is that comedians are just interested in different things. They’re not so interested in shocking for the hell of it. They’re talking about different issues but their performance style is not based upon making people feel in fear of, you know, their lives. In fear of being robbed. We’d take people’s money from their wallets and they’d come up and say, ‘Can I have my money back?’ And we’d say, ‘What money? There was no money in there.’ We were terrible.”
Did you actually keep the money?
“Hell yeah! It’s because they didn’t put any money in the guitar case.”
I take it you never got a busking licence.
“We didn’t have a busking licence. We just busked. Would you give a licence to the Doug Anthony All Stars? Oh, what’s that song? It’s about dogs. Lovely.
There wasn’t a permit system that we recognised. Nobody ever, oh, a couple of times cops would say ‘Oh you can’t do that.’ But they never asked for a licence.
We didn’t know you needed one. People coped with us.
We busked in the Bourke Street Mall outside Myer or David Jones or both. Sometimes the crowds would get so big, the trams would be dinging away. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. We were like, ‘We’re mid-song, pal.’ It was chaos. We would have been moved on if we were busking now.”
What were the Melbourne crowds like when you were busking?
“Melbourne crowds were a bit standoffish. They didn’t quite know what to think of us at all because we didn’t mention the football in any of our humour. They weren’t quite sure what it was all about. In fact, Melbourne proved to be the coldest crowds we ever busked for. Because Melbourne, Queensland aside, is the heart of conservative Australia. So the antics that we were up to didn’t so much shock them as unnerve them. They’d laugh, but it was very hard to get them to come a bit closer so we wouldn’t have to sing so loud. Once they’ve got alcohol in their systems they’re fine but Melbournians in a public place tend to be quite standoffish. “
Apart from Canberra, where is the best place that you have ever busked?
“Covent Garden is hallowed ground for busking. It’s a beautiful plaza with no traffic sound so your voice can be heard. And people turn up to watch buskers. It’s the best place on earth to busk and you get lots of money from Italian tourists. “
What did you think of having a plaque dedicated to you?
“Great! It came completely out of the blue. We never thought that what we were doing was particularly important. The All Stars came from very different backgrounds. Paul was an artist, I was a gun enthusiast. Richard was a madman. He was out of control. I was just an anxious young man from the country, doing what country boys do. Paul was the most fucked up Catholic in Australia. The only thing that we agreed upon was that everything has to go. Society has to change. We had to change. We started doing comedy by saying ‘Everything you believe is wrong and here’s why.”
What made you decide to get the band back together?
“When we launched the DAAS Kapital DVD in 2013, the tickets were sold out in 24 hours. “(In fact the launch had to be moved from RMIT’s Capitol Theatre to the Melbourne Town Hall to accommodate the demand)
“We thought, we have to go on tour! For some reason, no one else was doing anything like it. People had said, ‘Oh you’re pushing boundaries.’
We thought we’d opened the door. But we closed up shop and The Wiggles took over. Australia returned to its natural conservatism.
We were all about inciting crowds to do things that they would never otherwise have thought of doing. We nearly got thrown out of the Edinburgh Festival because we were getting crowds to come and dance around a bonfire outside of the theatre we were performing at. People were dancing and the next thing we knew, people were screwing in the shadows just beyond the light of the flames. Of course once the Festival heard about this, the Police were called and said something about inciting public orgies. But the public loved us.
It doesn’t take much to get people to do things that they weren’t planning on doing. Nobody says, ‘I’m going to see the Doug Anthony All Stars. I’m going to dance naked ‘round a fire, burn my credit cards and have sex with strangers.’ It’s not what people say.
People seem to want that frisson of anarchy and we provide it. Sure, I do it in a wheelchair but that’s only because I can. But we all have matches.”
Once you returned to Melbourne in 1988, you continued to busk? Why’s that?
“It’s a great place to rehearse. If we had new songs, doing them on the street was a good way to see if they made people laugh and if they could grab people’s attention. If they did, they’d stay in the show. If not, we’d rework it and come back and try again. So it’s a free audience, a free rehearsal space and you get paid for rehearsing. It works beautifully.
I encourage all of the comedians that I teach to get on the street, stop people and practice their routines.“
Have any of them taken this advice?
“None of them have done this. Because they’re all panty waste nitwits. But the one who decides to do it will end up running the field. It’s on the street where you find real people who would love nothing more than two minutes of comedy for a dollar. If I stopped you and said ‘Excuse me madam, I’m working on a comedy routine. If I tell you my jokes for two minutes and you think it’s funny, will you give me a dollar?’
If I seem ok and I’m there with a girl who is holding a hat, you’re in a public place and then I start, ‘Light bulbs…What’s that about?”
My primary advice to all aspiring performers is to do it on the streets.
You have a ready audience and if your material works on the streets where people are free to just turn around and walk away, if it engages their attention and makes them laugh or smile or even better, makes them think that you’re worth a gold coin, then it’s done its job. It’s the best training ground because if you’re no good, you won’t get a crowd. Or you’ll get a crowd and they’ll walk away very quickly. And if it’s stand up comedy, for god’s sake, shout! What do I care if the trams are noisy? You stand on a box. Put a little sign out saying ‘Stand up comedian. Come closer’ and away you go. “
What can we expect from the current shows?
“It’s even more awful than it was before. I’ve got nothing to lose except for a Star Wars toy collection. It’s been great to work with both Pauls again. We’ve all got different skills. I’m still good looking with a fancy Colonial accent from growing up in Singapore. Our characters have changed. We could always pick on Richard. We can’t pick on Paul Livingston. He’s on painkillers. That and my wheelchair adds a layer of nervousness and uncertainty. Paul McDermott is much more panicked and nervous. He’s got two guys either side of him who are off their faces, but not on the drugs that he’s had any experience with. We may be toothless old lions but we have guns.“
Tour information: the Cheeky Monkey – DAAS Live Tour Dates
Tim Ferguson’s advice for aspiring performers
- Wear pants – “I’ve tried it the other way and people just get distracted.”
- Go busking – It’s a resource that is there all of the time. Other people queue for an open mic gig because everybody else is doing it. The only way to get ahead of the crowd is to break from the crowd.
- Don’t wear polyester in a garbage bin full of flames.
“We’d put Paul McDermott into a rubbish bin filled with paper and promptly set it on fire. One time, he wore polyester…”
- Sell merchandise “Working in show business is all about the money. It’s about having a career and a livelihood. We may have had vague political agendas but we were wholly in it for the money. In my screen writing class, the first thing I put on the board is a dollar sign. I point to it and say, ‘If you want that, shut up and listen to me.”
- Don’t hang out with comedians. “Comedians are the most depressed and jealous people on the planet. If you’re good, they want to kill you, or they want to sleep with you, which is why they’re telling you that your act is great. Go busking instead.”