Little Pattie and Chrissy Amphlett
Jenny Valentish talks exclusively to ARIA Hall of Fame inductee – Patricia Amphlett, Chrissy’s cousin.
In the glamorous surrounds of Sydney’s QT hotel, Patricia Amphlett settles into a houndstooth armchair to summarise her life’s greatest hits into my dictaphone. Then she leaps up to mount a sofa and watch the Palestinians’ protest march pass by on Market Street.
“Wonderful,” she says, beckoning me over for a good view out of the window. Beneath us, the parade furls around onto George Street, bookended by police on horseback.
“They had so many women leading the march last week,” she says in approval; then patiently explains to a curious tourist what the purpose is of holding such a protest in Australia. Patricia has a way of speaking that’s both measured in pace and passionate in language, quite similar to her cousin Chrissy.
We first met when the campaign began for a Chrissy Amphlett laneway. Patricia toured potential laneways with Jessica Adams and Chrissy’s husband Charley Drayton and I. She enlightened us on what obstacles we may run into through the approval process, in the way that only someone who has recently been awarded a lifetime membership of the Labor Party can.
Pictured: the last stage of a search for a laneway for Chrissy begins with Jenny Valentish, Charley Drayton and Patricia’s husband, Lawrie Thompson
And now we’re here to reminisce on some key points in her career, and talk about what wonderful memorabilia she has stashed away at home that she can contribute to the digital Australian Music Museum – such as a photograph of the ‘It’s Time’ T-shirt she wore during the Gough Whitlam campaign, or the high-heeled Charles Jourdan sneakers that she’d worn on stage during the late-’60s.
Let’s go back to that first decade of Little Pattie’s career. Unusually for an era in which cover versions were king, her earliest material with EMI – ‘He’s My Blonde Headed Stompie Wompie Real Gone Surfer Boy’ and ‘Stompin at Maroubra’ – was written specifically for the fourteen-year-old, capitalising on her cute blonde bangs and surfie wardrobe. But I wonder if she was actually as acquainted with a surfboard as the Beach Boys were – i.e., with the exception of Dennis Wilson, not at all.
“I did attempt to ride a surfboard or two, but when you’re fourteen and you live near the beach, the two main reasons for going to the beach were boys and getting a sun tan,” she admits. “I don’t think I was successful in either of those wishes. As much as we lay there and giggled in our tiny triangle bikinis, the only time the boys came with us was when they were hungry. They’d rock up and say, ‘Any youse girls going to the shops?’”
These days a teenage act signed to a major record company might expect to be groomed and marketed within an inch of their lives, but Patricia remembers having to be much more of a self-starter than that.
“The executives and producers at EMI were fantastic towards me,” she acknowledges first. “Money wasn’t an issue and they protected me; I know that recording companies aren’t as supportive these days and the cost is carried by the performers and musicians. But there was no team as such. When I think of Chrissy, she had quite an entourage around her on occasions. I’m not sure I would have liked that.
“I think we were all genuine pioneers of the pop industry, thrown in at the deep end,” she says of her peers, such as Lynne Randell, Noeleen Batley, Marcie Jones and Betty McQuade. “We learned our craft as we went along. I had singing lessons and piano lessons, but that was all my training.”
While the moniker Little Pattie suggests an artist of inconsequential importance, she has disproved this time and time again by aligning herself with causes. In 1972 she spearheaded Gough Whitlam’s ‘It’s Time’ campaign (and is still a board member of the Whitlam Institute – part of the University of Western Sydney).
“My family would sit around and talk about politics, though it’s still considered fairly impolite to do so in public” she laughs. “My parents were Labor people and for what I thought were very good reasons. In 1972 it felt like the pendulum had swung and Labor could win the election. Gough Whitlam was charismatic and a man of integrity. People who had some overseas experiences, perhaps in Europe or America, felt that Australia was in the doldrums and culturally very starchy. It was time for a change.”
Jingle writers at an advertising company were employed to write the famous ‘It’s Time’ track, with some 50 household names filmed for the commercial. “We were sick of Australia going backwards,” Patricia says of the sentiment that united them.
In 1976, Little Pattie went off to Vietnam to entertain the troops – and she still counts them as her faithful fans – and friends – appearing at a Vietnam Veteran’s Day concert in Brisbane recently on August 18th.
“They’re my heroes really,” she says. “I think they’re under-recognised and misunderstood, because that particular war we had to learn quite a bit from in terms of how to treat soldiers when they come home. These days you’re offered counselling and treated very differently. The public felt as though we’d ‘lost’ the Vietnam War, which was an incredibly unpopular war anyway, and so our troops didn’t come back as heroes. But the government sent them there.”
Patricia carried on this tradition by playing to troops in Iraq in both 2005 and 2006. Not many recording artists could say they’ve stayed in one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces, but then not many artists stay the distance when it comes to their beliefs.
“Going to Vietnam changed me as a person in a positive way, because until I was seventeen, I was spoon fed,” she says. “None of us had to do much deep thinking about things and we accept everything around us. Going to a war zone and seeing such horrible things, and seeing soldiers just a little younger than I, wondering why they’re there, it shaped the way I am today, to a great degree.”
In 1986, Patricia married Lawrie Thompson, then the drummer with the Channel Nine orchestra and band. They met when she appeared on daytime television. “People would say, ‘Oh, you both married drummers,’” she laughs, referring to Chrissy’s husband (and former Divinyls drummer) Charley Drayton. “And Chrissy would say, ‘Yes, but mine’s black.’ She was outrageous.”
YouTube Video: Chrissy Inducts Little Pattie – ‘Aria Hall Of Fame’ 2009
While it’s little known, Patricia and Lawrie were leading a double life in Quorrobolong on the edge of the Hunter Valley. They both completed a class in animal husbandry at tech (Patricia topped the class) and then bred Murray grey cattle, learning how to farm as they went along. After ten years they gave up the farm when Lawrie got an enviable gig drumming in Sydney six nights a week. “We never quite became hardened farmers – we had to ear tag them, of course, but on the tags we put the names of jazz musicians and rock musicians instead of farmers.”
It was about bloody time, when Patricia Amphlett was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2006 – by none other than Chrissy Amphlett. “She was a lot sicker than she said she was,” Patricia says sadly. “She was so brave and beautiful to do that.”
In her speech, Chrissy says of Pattie, “She was my hero when Mum would gather us around to watch Bandstand. Tricia was a super star in the ’60s, which was a tough call. She was determined to survive and succeed, and she’s done just that.”
Chrissy shared with the audience Patricia’s work with Vietnam veteran amputees: “She’d take a delegation of them to Vietnam and they’d sit in front of the Vietcong amputees and try and forgive each other. She’d sit at the end of the table, and two former enemies were brought together by Little Pattie – this 4’10” woman in her high heels and battle gear, sitting weeping alongside these burly men, also weeping.”
The icing on the cake was a “lovely letter” from Gough Whitlam, offering his congratulations.
Patricia continues to be a high achiever, managing to fit in performing, music teaching (Nikki Webster is a past student) being president of the MEAA, board member of the National Film and Sound Archive; a trustee of the Jessie Street Trust and a patron of Forces Entertainment.
At exactly ten years Chrissy’s senior, Patricia says she gave the Divinyls singer advice when she asked for it, “but she didn’t need it really. I didn’t realise I was a pioneer in my era, but she was the best pioneer, because she made it de rigeur for women to front a band and be equal, if not superior, to men. Before she came along… no matter how many hit records I had, I never topped a bill, because it was a bloke’s business. It’s quite amazing that female performers are as supportive of our male colleagues as we are.”
The idea of a laneway in Chrissy’s honour is one that Patricia feels strongly about. “I thought: of course! Why not? It’s a given. Most of my family is from Melbourne so I was aware of all the lanes named after famous people. I will be eternally grateful to all the people involved in this wonderful campaign and I think we’ll all cry when it happens,” she says. “Chrissy would get off on it big time. So often, I say, ‘Why isn’t she here?’ She’d love the I Touch Myself project and she’d love the laneway. She’d probably say to me, ‘That’s my lane!’ and be childlike with her love for it. She’d walk up and down it, probably incognito, sussing out who was walking along her lane and who was looking at her name.”
Images: Copyright Individuals and AMMP