From a career spanning 50 years in the Latrobe Valley’s power industry, Nigel Rich sent the Struggle and Victory Project a treasure trove of old equipment and tools – but it was a plain envelope that contained the purest gold.
Rocking on when Prime Ministers and Presidents were babies
There – circa 1961, in glorious Kodachrome colour, all quiffs and ducktails in monogrammed cardigans – were the boys of the Nigel Rich Band. Nigel was the anchorman, on drums. His three brothers, Adrian, Peter and Colin were on guitars, with their mate Johnny Went on guitar and vocals.
‘We were a musical family, and so I was chosen to beat time on the bass drum as the children marched into class each morning at primary school,’ Nigel recalls.
Unfortunately, a touch of pre-pop star adulation from some Grade One girls saw Nigel’s budding career cut short and his drum removed. But the bug had struck, and Nigel determined that it was a drummer he was going to be.
Sparkie by day, sparking up by night
Nigel’s time in the power industry goes all the way back to 1956, when he started his apprenticeship at the SEC Yallourn Power Station, aged just 14.
‘All that I earned went to the family to help with the education of the younger ones,’ he says. ‘But in my third year, I was able to begin putting away a bit for myself – and eventually was able to come down to Melbourne and pay for my first drum kit.’
Nigel would make the trip to Melbourne for lessons every Saturday, while his younger brothers were learning the guitar back in Morwell. In 1960, it all came together as the Nigel Rich Band.
‘We played at dances all over the Valley and beyond – at Morwell, Moe, Sale and Mirboo North. They even crammed us into a tent studio at the local Channel 10 for a live telecast.’
Going pro…and going home
By the mid-60s, the boys began to go their separate ways and the band broke up. Nigel had left the SEC, and began work on the construction of Hazelwood Power Station.
‘I joined Johnny Fire and the Fireballs, and we were playing to adult audiences – and so you had to be pretty versatile and play a bit of everything, not just rock and roll,’ he says.
After a stint with GMH in Dandenong, Nigel decided to put the tools away for a while. He became a professional musician, working in the house band of a Leagues Club in Wagga Wagga.
‘Big acts came down from Sydney, and we did shows three nights a week and on Sunday mornings.’
And then tragedy struck.
‘I was getting ready to play on that dreadful day of 17 February 1967, when I got a phone call from my father,’ Nigel says, the emotions of the day still raw even after all the years. The Anglican vicar had brought the terrible news that Nigel’s youngest brother, 21-year-old Adrian, had been killed in action in Vietnam.
‘And he only had one more week left to serve before he would have come back to Australia.’
And a proud Unionist
Nigel headed back home to Morwell, and got a job as a Special Class Electrician in circuiting, working with his Dad at APM.
‘When I got there, no one wanted to be Shop Steward,’ he recalls. ‘So I put my hand up – and I was steward, a full-time relief-shift electrician…and playing in the band at nights.’
After 15 years on the circuit, the young ducktailed rock and rollers of 1960 were transformed into sideburns-and-moustache men, as the Nigel Rich Quartet now belted out smoky cabaret classics.
At his day job, it was no quiet time either.
At Hazelwood, Nigel had been part of an eight-week strike to get safety boots and overalls. Now, as steward at APM, he led the way in a seven-week strike. It was aimed at overturning an attempt by the Chief Electrical Inspector to issue limited electrical permits to fitters, to allow them to do electrical isolations and simple circuit wiring.
Nigel remained as an ETU shop steward continuously until 2006, at jobs including Jeeralang Gas Turbines and the Basslink Convertor Station. And all the while, Nigel kept playing.
These days, Nigel’s outlet for his music is with a drum machine and his granddaughter.