Working the stage: The Cockroaches' John Field.

Working the stage: The Cockroaches' John Field. Photo: Supplied

As I searched the streets of Manly for a phone booth, the thrill of my first gig with the Cockroaches was fast turning to terror of being late. John Field – lead guitarist, chief songwriter and talented swing bowler for Waverly Cricket Club – had picked me up earlier. Somehow we'd both set out without a venue address.

A phone call to management gave us the details and a reminder of our "downbeat" starting time. At the tender age of 18 and just out of boarding school, my rock apprenticeship had begun.

"Rule No 1: never be late for a gig," said John, half smiling. "In the rare circumstance of being late, gesture angrily to other band members as if there was a ridiculous traffic situation and plug in. Then channel the energy of the rush getting there into playing a brilliant gig."

Likely lads: The Cockroaches in about 1986.

Likely lads: The Cockroaches in about 1986. Photo: Supplied

We parked, then power-walked to the entrance of the Time & Tide Hotel in Dee Why. My sax case helped me get around the bouncers. The music grew louder; the Cockies had started their first song.

The environment was electric: sound pulsated from guitar amps, drums and vocal speakers – as band members bounced or grooved to the beat. Eldest brother Paul Field belted out vocals and leapt about, Anthony was a blend of Keith Richards and Elvis impersonations to his side as Jeff Fatt masterfully elicited organ sounds and Peter Mackie laid down solid bass lines across Tony Henry's powerful drumming.

 John picked up his waiting guitar and joined the punchy ska of Crackin' Up as I hastily assembled my horn and faced the audience. It was a room packed largely with women – something of a mirage for an inmate just out of St Joseph's College.

The Wiggles: Murray Cook, Greg Page, Anthony Field and Jeff Fatt.

The Wiggles: Murray Cook, Greg Page, Anthony Field and Jeff Fatt. Photo: Supplied

I took a deep breath and stepped up to a microphone - my preparation for this gig was listening to a mix tape to familiarise myself with sax parts of various soul covers such as Shot Gun (Jr Walker and the Allstars) and Land of a Thousand Dancers (Wilson Pickett) and Cockies originals from three albums (The Cockroaches - 1987, Fingertips – 1989 and Positive - 1990) like Permanently Single, Bit by Bit, Pour Out My Heart, You and Me, While We're Apart and Hope

"Come on Danny, blow that thang," yelled lead vocalist Paul Field, before launching into one of his trademark leaps. That was the first of many solos I played during a four-year tenure with the band. The top moment: playing to about 60,000 people at The Rocks at 3am before Juan Antonio Samaranch announced "Syd-err-ney" was to host the 2000 Olympics. 

By far the most frightening moment with the group came when I volunteered to help out fellow Cockroaches, Anthony Field and Jeff Fatt, at a gig they had been scheduled to play with another band – an outfit known to millions of pint-sized fans as the Wiggles.

Hard day's night: Dan Fallon recovers from a gig during his days with the Cockroaches.

Hard day's night: Dan Fallon recovers from a gig during his days with the Cockroaches. Photo: Supplied

They were mistakenly billed to play the day after the Cockroaches at Sanctuary Cove in Queensland, but Anthony and Jeff took an early flight, leaving John Field, trumpeter Dominic Lindsay and myself to entertain hundreds of children. We called ourselves the Friends of the Wiggles, but the kids weren't buying it. John had written many a Wiggles hit (Hot PotatoDorothy the Dinosaur) and we knew all the lyrics and moves. But the preschoolers could tell we weren't the real thing. I was soaked in sweat by the end of the show.

These days, the Wiggles have a different line-up. Anthony remains but Jeff has retired from performing,  as have the other original Wiggles, Murray Cook and Greg Page. The Cockroaches, too, have moved on. This month, though, the band will reunite (less one sax player) for two gigs.

When I started playing with the Cockroaches, I was studying jazz at the Conservatorium of Music. I instantly felt at home with these blokes, the music they played and loved (which stretched from local heroes Mental as Anything, to rock founders The Rolling Stones, to the genius of Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen and the heart of country in Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell) the crazy, improvised show they put on and their backstage/car park cricket. They were like older brothers. After the Cockroaches, I played with the John Field Band. John married my sister, Jac.

Long trips in the Tarago to country gigs seemed much faster with lively political debates ignited in the first kilometres: Paul Field represented the left and Tony Henry, the right. Anyone who took over driving duty was immediately under scrutiny and given a verbal barrage and critical chants if there was a misstep.

"I never forget you, as a rookie, being put behind the wheel of the Tarago," John reminds me. "For five kilometres you got hell. It was a very pressurised atmosphere driving in the Tarago with six other guys screaming at you."

Jeff Fatt was the most trusted driver (he never went to sleep once). He saved lives on one occasion in the '80s when a truck crossed onto the wrong side of the road, just over a rise, according to John.

"Fatty did a 360 (spin) at speed on gravel and got back on the road," John says. "We pulled over and we were all shaking and clapping Fatty for his awesome driving. He was an incredible driver."

By my first performance in 1992, the Cockroaches were pub rock veterans and coming down from their peak. They had had hits in 1987 and '88 with She's The One, Some Kind of Girl and Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love). They had been one of Australia's hardest working bands through the'80s: between 1986 and '88 they squeezed in 300 shows a year – from country B&S balls and local pubs to surf clubs and huge outdoor shows.

The band cut their teeth at the Strawberry Hills Hotel on Elizabeth Street (formerly The Southern Cross Hotel) with the likes of Men At Work, Mental as Anything, the Sonny Boys and Le Hoodoo Gurus (as they were then known) dominating a vibrant scene in Surry Hills.

"Sometimes we did two gigs in a night," Paul Field says. "In those days nearly every pub had bands ... We rode the last wave of the pub rock era."

The Cockroaches – the name came from an alias the Rolling Stones used – formed in 1979 when the three Field brothers, Paul, John and Anthony, teamed up with classmate Tony Henry at St Joseph's College in Hunters Hill. Paul introduced his siblings to the Stones – they were already hooked on Elvis – and performing seemed like a natural progression.

"They would jump the wall [at school] and I would pick them up and take them to the gigs," says Paul. "Our first gig was in the school theatrette – we charged five cents [for admission] and gave it to the Missions."

Acting as promoter, manager and driver, Paul secured a pub gig in King's Cross.

"The Heritage Hotel was underneath a brothel called The World's Largest Bed," John recalls. "All of the prostitutes were on top of the first floor and this prostitute called out from the balcony, 'Come up here darlin'. We just thought, agh."

"I'm 16, Johnny's 17, Paul is maybe 18 – we were innocent guys straight out of Joeys," Anthony says. "It was insane, it was fantastic. It was frightening. We didn't realise our playing was so rudimentary, but it didn't matter … Our inadequacies were made up by our spirit."

But the Cockroaches honed their craft during countless hours on stage. They soon secured the services of keyboardist Jeff Fatt, who played with rockabilly groups The Roadmasters and The Model Husbands. The line up settled with Phil Robertson on bass before Peter Mackie stepped in in 1988.

What the Cockroaches had over many other bands was an ability to connect with their audience. John and Anthony inspired anarchy – one minute leading a scene from Les Miserables or recreating John F Kennedy's assassination on stage, and the next making up a song on the spot (such as Do the Monkey). Paul was a powerful singer and leader who kept the gig from descending into mayhem. Jeff was a gifted keyboard player and the rhythm section was tight. It didn't hurt that all of the band members were handsome, as well.

"Ninety per cent of the clientele that came to see us were women, which was fantastic for us," says Anthony, laughing.

"We were a great party band and this was predominantly because of John and Paul," Anthony says. "The personalities were kind of opposite each other: Paul was very serious, straight up and down and a really solid rock singer and did a lot of great jumps and that acrobatics. Johnny was this carefree, charismatic guy and he was the audience and band leader really. He used to lead the audience – like he still does – and the band – like he still does."

 "Johnny has always written great pop songs – they were really great, fun pop songs – this was our first album."

A year before they signed for their first major label album, the band was playing for packed audiences. They were the biggest unsigned band in the country. When their first album finally came out, it sold 10,000 copies in five days.

In the burgeoning drugs scene of the '80s, the Cockroaches were the clean-cut choirboys of the rock scene. "The drug dealers didn't come anywhere near us because they knew that no-one was going to buy anything," Anthony says. "I lost about three or four friends from other bands to heroin."

But, when it came to girls, there were rock'n'roll moments. Some female fans erected a kind of tent embassy outside John and Anthony's home in Maroubra. "They were there for a couple of weeks," says Anthony. "We used to come out in our pyjamas and give them toast and water and stuff."

As well as touring with and looking up to Mental as Anything and the Hoodoo Gurus, the Cockies were themselves awestruck when they went on the road with INXS, Anthony says. The Cockroaches could hardly believe their own fame.

"The first day we toured with INXS – before they got big in America – we were like these kids basically backstage and in walks INXS, a supermodel on the arm of each member of INXS and they were all dressed in these big Matrix-like coats and they all had hair down to their hips and we all of us just thought 'these guys are like real rock stars, they are the real thing'. There was just an incredible air about them and we felt very intimidated."

By the early '90s, the live music scene began to change. The Cockroaches had been playing five or six times a week in pubs up and down the coast, from Canberra to Cairns. But the venues began to drop off.

"The occupational health and safety and fire laws came in later and closed a lot of pubs [as music venues]," Anthony says. "Also the poker machines got into pubs."

That may have made it easier for him to make the decision to study early childhood education. He started focusing on the Wiggles, roping in Jeff Fatt along with some musical mates from Macquarie University.

"Paul was not happy, mate," says Anthony. "I just lost the vibe for it ... The Wiggles came later – after I'd basically left."

Paul had doubts about Anthony's decision to pursue children's music. "He would play stuff to John and I and we would go, 'Oh yeah', but not really get into it ... I thought it was risky and really wanted to keep the Cockies going."

The brothers did eventually get involved in the new band, John as songwriter and Paul as manager.

Initially, Anthony was reluctant about the idea of a Cockroaches reunion, but he says he is enjoying seeing his old bandmates in action. "I was really dreading it but it was great," he says. "You've got the memories of what it was like. It's going to be a blast."

As Anthony says, you never forget your first performance together.

"Dan, I think you would have had the same vibe I did when I played the Heritage Hotel," Anthony says. "It was the same feeling – 'like, what the hell'. I am on stage and there are people here that aren't wearing school uniforms!"

The Cockroaches play Dee Why RSL on June 14 and Rooty Hill RSL on June 27. Hey Let's Go! The Best of the Cockroaches is released on June 13.

Daniel Fallon is a member of the John Field Band.