What’s Rangoon To You Is Grafton To Me – why Double Jay’s 1978 radio road movie is a masterpiece

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How a range of forces combined to create one of ABC Radio’s most surreal audio adventures.

In 1978 the ABC’s renegade youth broadcaster Double Jay was a hotbed for audio experimentation. Live, cut-up, remix programming with no limits was the norm, the most notable regular slot being Sunday Night at the Movies.

Out of this era came What’s Rangoon To You Is Grafton To Me, a radio-movie that has been revisited many times since - at the ABC, on community radio and also via bootlegs.

With a mind-bending script, tripped-out music, sound effects and narration from ABC newsreader James Dibble, the program remains a reference point for creative audio in Australia.

Double J and Radio National will simulcast Rangoon tonight at 9pm and Sunday at 8pm. You can also stream the program now.

There’s been a lot of mystique around how the program was made, so we’ve sorted the truth from the fiction below, and explained why, after 37 years, it still blows our mind.


The concept


Whats Rangoon to You Is Grafton to Me by Russell Guy Book Cover

The road trip. It’s a classic framework for an unpredictable story.

The road trip embodies adventure and freedom, hitting the open road and leaving your worries for dust.

In a massive country like Australia the highways are our arteries. What happens in between the big smoke is exciting and volatile and Rangoon captures this perfectly.

There’s no doubt that surfer-poet writer Russell Guy may have been influenced by the adventure gonzo style (made famous by Hunter S. Thompson) or the earlier Beat poetry of Jack Kerouac.


The one-liners


You don’t get ‘cult radio’ status without having some killer one-liners that instantly burn into your memory.

Cats contribute to the psychic kitty.

The writing is absurd but somehow very relatable and uniquely Australian.

Although it was written in the ‘70s, most of the references - which include musicians, brands, culture and politics - are timeless and open to interpretation.

Lit up an Arnott's scotch finger biscuit.

So many people are affectionate about the program because it piques their curiosity by subverting thoughts and playing with contrasting concepts. Like most great art, there’s a personal connection.


The Dibble



James. Freaking. Dibble.

The late, great ABC newsman was a vital element to Rangoon’s success.

Jim read the first TV news bulletin on the ABC and worked for the public broadcaster for almost 30 years. He was the quintessential straight man. He was the voice of authority.

The persona offset the dreamlike poem and gave the absurdity some weight. It was a strangely compelling contrast.


The music


The track selection and original mix was by a producer called Graham Wyatt, whose taste in music is obviously unreal.

With standout tracks from Hendrix, Goblin and Jeff Beck mixed in with old-time standards from Harry Belafonte and The Glen Miller Band, it’s clear that every style of music was up for grabs.

In those days mixing radio was analogue and done entirely by ear – there was no computer screen in front of you. It would have been an extremely time-consuming process to work out which sections of songs worked together.

It’s clear that love and passion went into it, and the result is an entirely fresh composition.


The sound  


The 'snaking' pan effect of the original What's Rangoon To You Is Grafton To Me audio.

An incredible testament to Rangoon’s impact is that six years after the first broadcast, it was remastered in stereo. This is the only radio program we’ve heard of to be remixed in this way.

Geoff Overmyer and Chris Norris had the laborious task of finding and reassembling each cut, still in analogue, using tape and vinyl.

Luckily, they didn’t screw it up. The remastering gave the program a new life and cemented its place in the ABC radio history books.

RN sound engineer John Jacobs puts it best, “It’s like painting over a Da Vinci painting – you don’t change it, you just try and bring out the colours again”.

The long cross-fades, the space to breathe, the light use of frequency EQ and the panning all create an immersive listening experience that washes over you.

If you take a look at the waveform for Rangoon the first thing you’ll notice is how dynamic it is. A closer look shows how they took the master mix and tried to twist it, panning the whole thing from left to right. Whilst today all radio features are now digitally mixed for stereo, this technique is rarely used anymore.


The bootlegs


The 2JJJ team in the early '80s - Russell Guy has the bag on his head.

People have been trying to get their hands on their own copy of Rangoon since it first broadcast.

After rebroadcasts on Double Jay and community radio it was dubbed to cassette and shared widely from there.

When the internet rolled around, getting hold of a bootleg was just a click away. The most popular destination was a site set up in 1999 by mega-fan, Simon Rumble.

Over the years many fans have written in to Simon.

“I get about half a dozen emails every year from people who found it and rave about how awesome it is and thank me for putting it up, or people who have some little insight into how it was made” says Simon.

When the time is right, Simon says he looks forward to sharing it with his kids.

“It’s a beautiful piece of art. I discovered it when I was about 16 years of age, when I was discovering gonzo, psychedelic writing and music – it was all that stream-of-conscious stuff. I think that’s awesome and I’d love my kids to get into it”.


The legacy


The influence of Rangoon has gone beyond inspiring radiomakers and includes Australian musicians. Gotye’s said he’s a fan.

Just last week Tijuana Cartel released an album that pays tribute to Rangoon.

Paul George was the self-described “crazy” one from the band who became obsessed with the radio play.

“When I heard it I thought it’d be cool to use a couple of samples in a song and then I kept thinking that with every song that we wrote. Then [on] a few of the songs we used Rangoon as an inspiration for the lyrics.

“By the end of it I ended up with so much of What’s Rangoon in the album that I started trying to find where Russell lives”.

Paul got in touch with Rangoon author Russell Guy who approved the work and ended up collaborating with them on the album.

“He ended up coming from Alice Springs to my house for a couple of days and we bashed it out. He’s quite a creative human being so it was a lot of fun”.

The biggest lesson Paul learnt in the collaboration strikes to the core of Rangoon’s success.

“As abstract as it seems, everything has a purpose.”


Next week, RN’s Soundproof and Double J will broadcast an homage to Rangoon. With help from Mark Colvin and the support of the ABC’s Tony Barrell Fellowship, Double J’s Mike Williams gets back on the highway, in search of Rangoon.

Listen to What’s Rangoon to You is Grafton to Me now.