Imagine being a working-class kid from Sydney’s suburbs, and the second car you ever bought was a Ferrari. But instead of being a rev-head, you were an aspiring rock muso. And the Ferrari was not a precision made, top-of-the-line spots car, but a Fender Stratocaster, with exactly the same specs as Formula One musos were using.
Young Jim Skiathitis, a kid from the southern suburbs of Sydney was able to achieve this in 1961. The teenaged Jim, and his mate, and drummer, Peter Hood, with the generous help of Peter’s dad going guarantor, went into J Stanley Johnson’s Music Store on George Street in Sydney and ordered a red Stratocaster, exactly the same as Hank Marvin from The Shadows used. When the guitar finally arrived from the US, it was a different red than ordered – it was Dakota red, not Fiesta red – but Jim’s disappointment vanished as soon as he played the Strat.
As young as they were, Jim, Peter, and the rest of the band they had formed – The Atlantics – were dead serious. The mere fact that they purchased as Fender Stratocaster, in Australia, as teenagers, in 1961 is testament to that seriousness.
Peter Hood had formed the band, and Jim had joined very early on. The band was heavily influenced by the surf music craze which had just hit Australia from the US and UK – bands like The Ventures and The Shadows. However, despite the maritime connotations of the name, The Atlantics was actually named after Atlantic Union Oil – the petrol company before it was re-branded as Esso.
The boys were lucky in that they were supported by their parents – particularly Peter’s father, who was a musician himself. Also, they were smart and innovative – writing their own compositions rather than covering the songs overseas surf music bands. This set The Atlantics apart. Their performances were visual and passionate; something that likely owes itself to the southern and eastern European backgrounds of Jim and two of the other band members. Growing up with the strong tradition of music linked to celebration and extroverted creative expression.
The band signed a contract with CBS Records and recorded an album of their original instrumental songs. The first single, ‘Bombora’, was a hit. A massive hit, both in Australia, and overseas. The Atlantics were the first Australian band to score a hit with an original composition.
Jim was a very experimental guitar player. He was using effects and alternative ways of playing the guitar from early on in the band’s career. ‘I believe we were the first to experiment with sounds and sound effects on guitar. I used to do sirens, machine guns, explosions, bird calls, space sounds and a lot more by using my pick, bits of metal or my teeth to hit, scrape or scratch the guitar with. In one song, ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ from the ‘Explosive Sounds of the Atlantics‘ album [CBS, 1964], there’s an eerie sort of breathing church organ sound effect on the song. That’s actually me blowing hard across the strings right above the pickups of the guitar to create that eerie breathing sound. It was all very innovative stuff at the time’.
The band’s second album reflected this guitar innovation. The single, ‘War of the Worlds’, was certainly a departure from ‘Bombora’ and the other catchy surf songs of the first album, and it may have been too much for the band’s radio-listening fans. The track features some highly imaginative guitar work, which was definitely ahead of its time. Using the edge of the plectrum on the roundwound strings to create a taught, rasping sound, and the tremolo to create a searing dive bomb effect, the instrumental song, which uses chromatic ascents to give a definite sense of drama, tells the story of the invaders from Mars.
Although the fans may not have been ready for progressive rock operas, they were ready for the Mersey Beat; and the surf music craze was swopped out for rock groups with lead singers. The Atlantics re-tooled, and added Johnny Rebb on vocals, who had been a quite successful solo artist in the 1950s and 60s. Their version of Screamin Jay Hawkins ‘I Put A Spell On You’, got them some modest chart success in 1966.
By 1970, the classic Atlantics ceased recording and touring, but the members were legendary enough to set up their own record label, Ramrod, and their own recording studio in the Sydney Suburb of Earlwood, called Atlantic Studios no less. Peter Hood and Jim Skiathitis also featured in many backing bands for other artists, including Johnny Rebb who had gone solo again.
Although Peter had retired his Dandy Australian made drum kit on which he had recorded and performed the classic early albums on, Jim never strayed from his Dakota red Stratocaster. The guitar has always been Jim’s number one. Although there is a bit of character-adding road-wear on the body, the guitar is in beautiful condition, and plays like bare feet in warm, wet sand. Smooth.
The Powerhouse Museum has always recognised the significance of The Atlantics and their influence on and achievements in Australian rock music. Peter Hood’s floor tom, which was used to write, record and perform ‘Bombora’ was borrowed from Peter and featured in the Museum’s exhibition Real Wild Child: A multimedia ride through Australian rock history from Johnny O’Keefe to Silverchair (1994).
When the Museum was made aware that not only Peter Hood’s floor tom, but also Jim Skiathitis’s Stratocaster were looking for a permanent home, work began on the acquisition of these iconic objects. Peter and Jim were seeking a buyer for the Strat, fully aware that a slab board body, pre-CBS Fender guitar would garner interest. The Museum recognised that the guitar and the drum embodied significance beyond their physical value and submitted an application to the Federal Government’s National Cultural Heritage fund. National Cultural Heritage assesses objects of significance to Australia and assists cultural institutions in ensuring culturally significant objects remain in Australia. The Museum’s application was successful, and with the assistance of National Cultural Heritage purchased the ‘Bombora’ guitar. Peter Hood also generously donated his floor tom drum, as an excellent accompanying object, to the Museum.
The guitar and drum join other significant objects in the Museum’s musical instrument collection, including instruments owned and used by Angus Young of AC/DC, Harry Vanda of the Easybeats, Deborah Conway, Ed Kuepper, Lucky Starr, and Chris Bailey of The Saints; as well as stage equipment used by Radio Birdman.
The Fender Stratocaster guitar was purchased by the MAAS Foundation with the assistance of the Australian Government through the National Cultural Heritage Account, 2019.
Written by Damian McDonald, Curator