The world knows Beeb Birtles through his association with Little River Band – the Australian-based group that conquered the international music scene on stage and on record for a decade from 1975 – the first Australian act to achieve gold record status in the USA.
In Australian terms Little River Band was a “supergroup”, made up of band members who came into the group with established reputations. Australia knew Beeb Birtles well before the Little River Band days. You might say he was the supergroup’s first “super” member. You might also say he was the group’s heartbeat, its integrity, the intangible glue that helped LRB’s famously disparate membership manage to operate together. He was also an integral part of the group’s vocal armory, and part of its songwriting strength.
But let’s go back to the start.
The Beeb Birtles (Gerard Bertelkamp) who arrived in Australia with his family from Holland in 1959 initially played another part in Australian history. That vast under populated Southern hemisphere island colony had opened its arms to post-war Europe, offering new beginnings. That generation of post-war children was set to make a significant mark on world culture. In Australia, that experience, the thirst to make a difference, the quest to belong would be all that more intense, because of the cultural distance, because of the migrant factor.
The young Bertelkamp happened to find himself growing into his teenage years in Adelaide, which more than any other Australian city had evolved into a British enclave, and as the cultural and musical revolution that was about to sweep the world evolved in England it was Adelaide’s heartbeat that was racing fastest, Adelaide which heard and saw the latest as migrants stepped off the ships, Adelaide which most eagerly embraced and emulated this Great Adventure. The revolution was already well underway in 1966 when” Beeb” joined his first group.
Times Unlimited became Zoot, Beeb the bass playing, harmonising anchor behind the group’s charismatic chick-magnet lead singer Darryl Cotton. Beeb proved then, as he would continue to prove, that he was more interested in making an essential contribution than dominating the spotlight. He was happy to stand alongside Darryl, enough of a chick magnet in his own right to be satisfied on that level as well as the musical one.
After Zoot moved to Melbourne and enjoyed significant success as a pop group, they – and this might have been as Beeb’s instigation – were keen to improve themselves musically and brought in the multi-talented songwriting (equally handsome) Rick Springfield, pushing Beeb another step back into the shadows. He didn’t mind. The group was obviously much better for Rick’s entry.
Beeb next made his mark with Mississippi, Graeham Goble’s group. They’d had one major debut hit, and now needed to become a working band in order to survive. Attracted by the quality of the songs, by Graeham’s vision, the already famous, already legendary Beeb Birtles allowed himself to be diverted, agreed to pick up his bass again and give Mississippi the benefit of his experience and talent. Beeb and Graeham formed a unique bond. Mississippi eventually became Little River Band.
Commercially, in Australia, LRB’s strength was its “Supergroup” status – lead singer Glenn Shorrock had seen success previously with The Twilights and Axiom. Artistically their strength was the combined vocal front line, Glenn, Graeham and Beeb, and their individual songwriting. Graeham was (and is) one of the most melodic songwriters of our time. Glenn’s songs gave LRB its pop sense. Beeb’s songs had (and have) heart. It was Beeb who provided LRB with the song they needed as their first single (Curiosity Killed The Cat). As LRB’s career and music evolved, it was always Beeb’s songs that were the most honest, most real, the meat in the sandwich. If you knew Beeb, you knew how true his songs were to his own life experience.
Those LRB years are long behind Beeb Birtles, as is Australia. Life goes on. Music goes on. Whatever else has happened, whatever else will be, the essentials of Beeb Birtles’ character outlined above remain. He never was and never will be a scene-stealer. The song is what’s important, the task at hand, that’s the ultimate objective. And inside that song, inside whatever Beeb Birtles has put his mind to, you’ll sense a spirit of someone who has worked hard, thought hard, dug deep, at whatever the personal cost in order to arrive at the result we’re privileged to share.