Family album cover
Family album cover

Family ties remembered as the band played on

IT ALL started, I mean really started, when Burt Bacharach heard them playing in a coffee shop. Coffee shops were where the scene was at in the early 1970s. It's where bands made a name for themselves before they became stars.

Sometimes Family - the Christian-orientated music group made up of the Fraser Coast's Phil and Ian Truscott, and Ian Smallbone - would play up to 13 shows in a weekend. Twenty minutes here, twenty minutes there. Cutting their teeth.

The band's South Australian promoter Richard Berry, of Solsound Promotions, tells it like this: "They were singing in a coffee lounge and Burt Bacharach walked in, he was on tour, and that's when they were invited to be his support act."

Phil Truscott's recollection is a little different, but not much. He remembers Family's former manager, David Smallbone, who is Ian's brother and worked in promotions for Channel 7, got talking to Bacharach's promoter. He talked the band onto the tour then and there.

"He went to see Burt Bacharach's promoter in Sydney and said: 'Can I put this group on a tour with Burt?' and he said: 'Yes'," Phil says.

Family were big stars in their day. Girls loved them because they were young, hip and handsome. Television stations loved them because they were family-friendly with clean reputations. And promoters loved them because they filled venues.

They had nine commercial hit songs, their own record label, released 18 albums, played every major venue in each mainland Australian state - including the Opera House multiple times - toured the USA twice, New Zealand numerous times and even Papua New Guinea. They were big.

Phil says the band's first gig as a trio was at a Pennant Hills shopping centre, but they didn't get their name until the next day when they were performing at the University of Queensland and the MC wanted to introduce them. He suggested Family. So they went along with it. Simple.

Former Member for Maryborough Chris Foley was one of the band's stable of artists on Rhema Records some years later. He says they were able to do what few other Christian music groups of that era could do - cross over into the mainstream scene.

"They were the first and I think the only ones to ever (cross over) like they did," Foley says.

"They were a straight-out Christian band but all the major radio stations - 4BC, 4IP, all those - they all had them on high-rotation play because they were just brilliant."

He says Family's three-part harmonies were something else, out of this world really. Right up there with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the folk rock supergroup made up of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young.

Phil remembers it being about six months from the band forming to it having its first big hit. Their manager had been pushing them to one of the record bosses telling him, "These guys could make it, that they could do something and be something special."

The bosses kept saying: "Not gospel. We can't do anything with a gospel group". But once they toured with Burt Bacharach the bosses relented and agreed to a one-album deal - though it came with a twist.

"A week after the manager of the record company said he would give us a go, he went to the US and in the US he heard a song called Hallelujah Day by Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five," Phil says. "He came back to Sydney and threw the record on David's desk and then he played it to us and said, 'We're going to put this one out as a radio single on your album and see how it goes.'

"Well, this was about '73 - ours went to about number seven and Michael Jackson's to 23 - it was the same song we had just changed one word but that was when things really began to take off."

The thing about Family is they were one of the more controversial groups of their time.

They might have been clean-skins and Christians and all that, but they were also pioneers, and pioneers often experience bumpy beginnings.

Berry says some mainstream artists and fans had problems accepting Family because in part they performed Christian songs, while the Christians didn't always accept them because part of the band's list of tracks included mainstream hits. Ironically, that controversy was also the band's recipe for success.

"We believed it was the right thing to do because we wanted to sing not just for churches - that was the reason we did it," Phil explains.

"I never felt it compromised my Christian values, why would it? Music's music. It was invented by God anyway so it doesn't matter.

"We did make a stance. Anything anti-gospel we wouldn't do. But love songs. What's wrong with that? I mean, we all fall in love. So that was our stance, nothing that was anti."

Prolific times followed the band from 1973 to 1980, when it broke up. The life of a musician isn't always glamorous. Sometimes it's sleeping on couches and playing to four or five people. Other times it's riding in vans for days, dreaming of seeing your family and wishing for normality. You end up wanting a break. You want the ride to be over.

Retirement from touring was brief but good just the same. The boys pursued careers in the corporate and professional worlds. They watched their children grow up a little. They made sure their wives were happy. Content.

"We were sick of it. We had families and we were always away. We broke up and had an official breaking-up tour at Sydney's Town Hall and then someone said, 'Come back and do a tour' because we owned part of a record company and it had financial troubles," Phil says.

"So we came back in '83 and made more money from '83 to '93 than we had made ever - I don't know why that was."

That period saw the band play shows spasmodically. A few shows here. A few there.

These days Family only gets together for one-off performances, usually in aid of charity. Phil Truscott is a councillor, Ian Truscott is a doctor and Ian Smallbone is a church minister. They're not rock stars. Ian Truscott says they enjoy watching their children achieve rather than themselves, but he looks back on their success fondly.

"Probably one of the more memorable things was when we first played at the Sydney Town Hall and I remember going out onto the stage and the screaming was unbelievable. I physically looked around and thought, 'Are The Beatles here?'" he tells me.

Phil admits he doesn't love it anymore, not like he used to. But he's proud of the past. "One thing I would say is it's been an absolute pleasure; I wouldn't give it up for the world, even the hard times. Because the hard times make you what you are."

The band in more recent times preparing for a one-off show at Ipwsich.
The band in more recent times preparing for a one-off show at Ipwsich.