Shortly after I started my ‘Everywhere’ quest I decided to write to Geoff Mack to see if I could get a further insight into his iconic lyrics. So I sent a mail off to some anonymous PO Box in Sydney and promptly forgot about it. However a couple of months later whilst visiting Gulgong I was surprised and delighted to have a phone call from the gentleman himself when he kindly agreed I could visit. A couple of weeks and another phone call later and the meeting was set and I was now nervously strolling up his garden path.
Once at the door I pushed the bell but could not hear anything but I waited incase the bell was ringing in some far off corner of the property. Nothing happened so I tried the bell again, pushing a little harder and yes – the bell started to ring just the other side of the door. It rang… and rang and oh no… carried on ringing – I’d broken the bell push! As panic set in I tried pushing the bell push at different angles to stop it from ringing and from preventing the residents from thinking they had an impatient twit at the door holding the pusher. It was without success. Now, from the corner of my eye, I could see Geoff approaching with a stick! Fortunately Geoff took the incident all in his stride and after I asked for a screw driver, we soon had the bell fixed and I was advised it had never done that before. We then shook hands and Geoff led me in to his house, past his what I’ll call his hallway of fame and into the kitchen where coffee was soon brewing and a tape with no less than 31 different versions of “I’ve been everywhere” (there is actually over 100) was set playing in the background.
Now, imagine filming the highlights of your life and storing the resulting film reels in your cupboard. How many reels would do you think you would have by the time you shoot your last scene – one, two, six or maybe a dozen? This question came to mind after Geoff proudly showed me his collection of 16mm film recordings of some of the highlights of his life. I did not count his reels but they easily filled a closet from top to bottom and reflect the full life Geoff has lived.
If there were a film in Geoff’s film closet showing his birth it would be dated 20 December 1922 and shot in Surrey Hills, Victoria, Australia and it would not be long after this that Geoffs ability to entertain would soon be discovered. Geoff recalled to me how he was not the best pupil in the classroom (he described himself as a dud at school) with a relatively short attention span and recalled how a Sunday School parody of All things bright and Beautiful (which became “All things black and ugly, all slimy things that crawl, hooping cough and chicken pox the Lord God made them all”) was not welcomed by his teachers. But the Great Depression was about to hit Australia and with it Geoff was moved in and out of school as parental funding allowed.
It makes you wonder what the impact of a global depression and then, within 10 years the Second World War would have on a young man such as Geoff Mack just setting out in life. I’d like to think that Geoff was a bright beacon in such dark times and his abilities to entertain and make people laugh were a highly regarded currency. Perhaps this is so, as it was not long after Geoff joined the RAAF in 1942 as a mechanic he was soon performing at concert parties, supporting Gracie Fields, and serving in Borneo and later Japan (Geoff can sing Old MacDonald’s Farm in Japanese) with the occupation forces. Following the war, Geoff was in even greater demand. He worked with Australia’s largest Tent Show, Barton’s Follies and the Tivoli circuit and enjoyed trips that included Japan, England and Germany.
At this point, I ask Geoff about his nickname of TangleTongue. Apparently it started as TangleFoot and when he was in charge of the concert party it was known as the TangleFoot Show. Later, at an audition for the Tivoli, Mori DIamond who had the dancing school at the Tivoli, suggested he change the name to TangleTongue as it was not his foot he was tangling!
After a mug of coffee Geoff led me through to his lounge where he started to play a DVD which was a conversion of some of his 16mm film footage. The year was 1954 and Geoff was now married to Tabbi Frances and was stood alongside a 250cc motorcycle and sidecar outside his new brides parents London shop. It was the start of a journey – a journey from London to Sydney, Australia. The colour but soundless footage took me from one iconic location to another. A trip half way around the world from London to Sydney via Europe, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India (and the Taj Mahal) and Sri Lanka on a motorbike and side car that was clearly deteriorating as the journey progressed was documented. The film concluded with footage of the journey from Sri Lanka on a steamer to Fremantle and then the ride across the Nullabor to Sydney arriving on boxing day. Amazing.
With such a background the foundations were starting to fall in place for Geoff to write a song about travelling everywhere. But there were still a few years to pass before the now iconic lyrics would be penned.
Geoff showed me some more 16mm footage with that familiar 1950’s colourisation. In these following years Geoff and Tabby had teamed up with Lucky Grills to form the last of the big tent shows, Carol’s Varieties. They bought the trucks and equipment and set out touring Australia for 10 months in every year performing song, dance and comedy to audiences across the country. The footage showed a number of acts performing with Geoff and Tabbi frequently on stage too. Geoff said that, with the exception of him and Tabbi, all the other performers had now passed on.
And so we arrive in 1959 and Geoff had been working at a Holiday resort in Coolingatta in Queensland for some time when he received an invitation to perform a cabaret act in Sydney. He wanted to write an opening number for this new act so whilst sitting in his panel van, with maps for Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria alongside him, he started penning his opening act. Geoff confirmed that the song was written in Queensland, not Sydney as sometimes is reported and the maps available to him explain why, with the exception of Darwin, there are no towns in the song from the Northern Territory, West Australia, South Australia or Tasmania.
The original opening to the song (although Geoff will tell you its actually a chant) went “It’s Nice to be back in Sydney and you ask me what I’ve seen, if you settle back and listen I’ll tell you exactly where I’ve been” and took the title “The Swagman Rock” and soon became a mainstay of his act and became frequently requested.
In the mean time a music publisher from New Zealand, Johnny Devlon contacted Geoff seeking some songs that he would consider placing with his company. Geoff took along five of his best but Johnny had heard the song about the town names and wondered where that was – it was added to the collection of six songs after some modification to give it some proper verses.
In 1961 Geoff presented the his songs to the A&R manager at Festival Records in Sydney and was advised that he needed to change the name of “Swagman Rock” as rock and roll would be dead in a year. Geoff quickly changed the name himself to “I’ve been everywhere” as he had heard that using someone else’s suggestion could result in a lower fee. I’ve been everywhere was officially born and in January 1962 I”ve been everywhere was recorded by Australian singer Lucky Starr. Surprisingly Geoff would not know of the initial success of his song until he heard it on the radio whilst working in Queensland. Thanks to the airtime it received it ‘Everywhere’ went straight to number one where it remained for fifteen weeks. Geoff thought he had a five minute wonder and continues to be surprised by its ongoing success.
At this point I hear the music coming from the kitchen as one of the versions of “I’ve been everywhere” continues to play. Geoff himself has written a number of versions including New Zealand, UK, USA and Canadian releases (all recorded by Lucky Starr as Lucky’s Been Everywhere) and German and even Japanese versions as well as an edition using medical conditions instead of place names. As Geoff kindly cracks open a bottle of beer I ask him how he feels about being possibly best remembered for “I’ve been everywhere”. He philosophically comments that you can not choose how you’re remembered but did pass a comment about writer Bob Merrill who composed some amazing pieces but is best remembered as the novelty song “How much is that doggie in the window”. Indeed, whilst the country music fraternity have adopted Geoff as one of their own and acknowledged his achievements with many awards, Geoff foremost considers himself an entertainer and variety artist.
Before heading off, I ask Geoff about several of the more difficult to locate locations in I’ve been everywhere and he thankfully helps solve a few puzzles for me. He also kindly signs a I’ve been everywhere record and some sheet music. We then walk out the lounge, past the closet containing the film and take a couple of photos by a wall containing some of his showbiz momentos, we say farewell, shake hands and depart.
As I wander down the footpath, I know that I’ve now just met the real “I’ve been everywhere” man and indeed, he has been to nearly all the locations in the song (he’s not been to Birdsville yet) and many more besides. His film archive represents just a small glimpse into the full life he has lived. Thank you Geoff for sharing some time with me and for the opportunity to witness for myself what a great guy you are.
1942 Geoff joined the RAAF as a mechanic but before long he was performing at concert parties.
1945 Whilst in Borneo Geoff is spotted by staff members of radio station 2SM whilst supporting Gracie Fields resulting in him doing some radio broadcasts and touring with Barton’s Follies (Australia’s largest Tent Show) followed on his return. Geoff then went to Japan with the occupation forces,
1947 Returns to Australia to work at the Tivoli before heading back to Japan.
1948 Geoff sails from Yokohama to England and then spends a year in Germany working for the American Special Services.
1950 Geoff returns to Sydney for 10 months working in clubs before going back to London to appear on BBC Television. Whilst visiting Germany met his wife to be, dancer and entertainer Tabbi Frances.
1954 The now married couple moved back to Australia but to put any future I’ve been anywhere into perspective drove on a motorbike all the way from London to Sydney via Europe, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka.
1962 January– Lucky Starr records I’ve been everywhere. It goes straight to number one in the Australian charts where it remains for 15 weeks.
1962 – Canadian Hank Snow recocrds I’ve been everywhere. It reaches number 1 in the US Country Music chart and 68 in the Billboard Hot 100 – the United States music industry standard singles popularity chart.
1963 Geoff was inducted into the International Songwriters Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee
Mid 1960’s Geoff meets Hank Snow who was touring Australia as part of Australian Country Music star Reg Lindsay’s National tour.
1978 Inducted into the Hands of Fame, Tamworth NSW
1997 Tamworth Song Writer’s Association Song Maker Award
2005 Medal of the Order of Australia for “service to country music and to the community, particularly through support for senior citizens’ groups”.