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RIP Robert 'Bo' Boehm

Robert ‘Bo’ Boehm

Bo’s mother gave birth to him following her daring escape from communist East Germany in the 1950s at the age of 17. Journeying from a Hamburg refugee hostel to a flat in Doveton, Bo grew up quickly, acting as a father figure to his two younger brothers while his Mum worked long shifts to pay the bills. In his teens he showed promise as a sportsman, playing VFA football and first-league cricket. His dramatic start to life imbued Bo with a strong belief that he was lucky, and his sense of gratitude for whatever life brought him never left, also paired with a fatalistic attitude derived from an awareness of the precariousness of existence.

My earliest encounters with Bo were on nights out at Fitzroy’s Punter’s Club during the 1990s, when he could be regularly spotted hunched behind the mixing desk conjuring up sonic alchemy for whatever act was onstage. An imposing presence with his combination of height, width and broken teeth, he didn’t strike me as someone I should necessarily engage with friendly banter. At some point circumstances conspired whereby he mixed my band Continuum and I was flattered by his friendly and complimentary comments. I had become aware of his legendary band Clowns Smiling Backwards, who were a unique fixture on the Melbourne inner-city scene during this era, and to feel like we were somehow in the same orbit gave me a sense of having somehow arrived somewhere, even if I wasn’t sure exactly where that was.

How to describe an act like Clowns Smiling Backwards? My recollections are varied and contradictory, as was the band. Industrial jackhammer percussion, vocals howled from within a vortex of primal despair, layer after layer of searing white noise, distortion and general unrelenting intensity, turned up as far as the lax noise restrictions of the 1990s would allow, fronted by an oversized singer/guitarist wearing an even more oversized moth-eaten old jumper. Think of the Underground Lovers on a dose of amphetamines and any cutesy indie trappings surgically removed with a chainsaw. When Clowns Smiling Backwards were in full force punters would stare in horrified incomprehension then flee to the shelter of the back bar like moths burned by the flame.  Then a few weeks later the Clowns would be back for another gig, performing a set of instrumental chilled dub and manipulated sonics with the audience lying back on the beer-soaked carpet luxuriantly soaking up the dose of frequencies.

They were that sort of band. No concession to commercialism or stylistic consistency was ever made. Between 1987 and 1995 a series of cassette and vinyl 7” releases showcased the bewildering and chaotic trajectory of Clowns Smiling Backwards, culminating in the CD release ‘Maze’. The lineup disintegrated into a floating array of idiosyncratic performers who would be roped in at short notice to realise Bo’s vision onstage, including some modest contributions from myself sometime in the late 90s. It was testament to his vision that none of us ever needed to ask Bo what the vision actually was. There were no rehearsals nor any direction provided. He picked his musicians precisely because he knew they had the creativity and resources to contribute something unique and that was all that was needed.

Alongside his own music, Bo found time to start his own studio, Phantom Tollbooth, and record the early work of acts such as Magic Dirt, The Mavis’s and the Powder Monkeys. He formed his own indie label, Giggle Records, releasing a string of records including the acclaimed ‘Screaming at the Mirror’ compilations of Melbourne post-punk and alternative music.

As the 90s drew to a close Clowns Smiling Backwards became known amongst Fitzroy venues as the anti-drawcard. Having no entertainment booked at all would get more bums on seats than booking them. Such was the loyalty and regard with which Bo was held that the band nonetheless still continued to get the bookings. However some kind of reinvention was clearly in order.

Bo’s 21st century project Winduptoys began as a solo side-project for low-key gigs during a Clowns Smiling Backwards hiatus. This enabled Bo to greatly expand his sonic palette, leaving the guitar at home and bringing along tape echo units, turntables, syndrums, grooveboxes and other noise-producing devices that he’d found in op shops or friends’ garages. After the seriousness and intensity of Clowns Smiling Backwards, Bo was able to indulge the light-hearted side of his personality, incorporating novelty records, children’s toys and general bleeps into the mix. It wasn’t long before the Winduptoys lineup was expanded with the addition of his old friend Jeremy Smith, forming the most enduring and productive musical partnership of Bo’s career.

Bo’s association with the Clan Analogue collective began in the late 1990s. Always keen to mix bands that were outside of the indie-rock square Bo jumped at any chance to man the desk when something different was on offer, becoming the regular sound engineer when Clan Analogue took over the Punter’s Club or Empress Hotel for a night. Knowing that his music was trending in an electronic direction and that his Giggle Records scene was to some extent dissolving I would drop encouraging hints that he should come along to Clan Analogue meetings and submit a track to one of our compilations. His work soon made it onto albums such as ‘Habitat: Environmental Sound Research’ and ‘Defocus: Low Res Productions’. By the time of the ‘In Version’ compilation Bo had succeeded in taking over a dominant chunk of the tracklist. Bo became one of the most enthusiastic and supportive Clan Analogue members, contributing remixes, DJ sets, live sound mixing and the hard-won wisdom of many years working at the music industry’s DIY coalface. As he became more confident in the development of his Winduptoys project, discussion started to turn towards releasing a debut album.

Winduptoys shows were of that now seemingly forgotten dimension of electronic music performance where equipment malfunctions, electricity surges, incorrectly-patched cabling, misdirected knob-twiddling and general sonic chaos were considered part-and-parcel of the live experience. Hence some audiences had trouble comprehending the logic of the sounds they were hearing, particularly as the 2000s gathered pace and the momentum of electronic music production rolled inexorably into the domain of laptops and softsynths. To borrow a Gen-Y phrase, this music was random. My hunch was that in the context of a recorded album released into the modern electronic music landscape from a label with a reasonably respected critical reputation, Bo’s production and arrangement skills would step up to a new level and the record would make its mark as something qualitatively and uniquely different from the sounds that were regularly being heard around the traps. With Bo having hardly touched a computer in his life, let alone having any idea what a DAW was, Winduptoys’ music sizzled with voltage and a sense of sonic danger that seemed to be largely fading from new electronica. Luckily our distributor Creative Vibes were happy to subscribe to the plan even though, being Sydney-based, they didn’t know Bo from a bar of soap.

Once the Winduptoys debut album ‘Double Exposure’ came out in 2006 it seemed that Bo’s time had come and he was finally going to get his dues as one of the most innovative musicians working in electronic music in Australia. Bo had focused the chaos of their live shows, recording extensive studio jams with Jeremy and guest musicians, later editing, arranging and honing them on ADAT in a manner inspired by Krautrock pioneers such as Can. Reviews were glowing from all over the country. Triple-J’s Soundlab devoted 45 minutes to an in-depth interview and showcased the entire album over a number of weeks. Winduptoys flew to Sydney to perform with Severed Heads and the clip for ‘Switched On’ found some regular rotation on Rage. But Bo’s health issues which had laid dormant for several years were about to strike.

Bo had suffered a heart attack in 2001 while working in the studio on a project with his friend Baz Bardoe. After a period of recuperation Bo had found his feet once more and was working productively on the Winduptoys album. By mid-2006 they were gigging intensively while Bo continued his paid work as a live sound engineer. However a second and third heart attack later in the year forced Bo into early retirement. Housing uncertainty brought additional stress and for several years his music projects remained dormant. In the late 2000s Bo’s residential issues stabilised and he started once again to work on new material, however this came in fits and starts as he endured intermittent stays in hospital.

What were Bo’s influences? Late ‘60s British psychedelia, as seen in his first band, Too Much Hair For the BBC. 1980s Gothic and industrial music, as reflected in much of the Clowns Smiling Backwards catalogue. Post-punk music, particularly its wilder manifestations. Avant-garde 20th century classical. Exotica, lounge and kitsch, which wound its way into much of the Winduptoys work.  The pioneers of electronic music from whatever era. Classic dub permutations from King Tubby to Bill Laswell. Perhaps most strongly of all, the inspiration of 1970s Krautrock, such as the groundbreaking work of Neu, Cluster, Can, Tangerine Dream and of course Kraftwerk.

More so than anything else Bo had a love of newness in sound. He had that rare ability to grow older – retaining his love of the classic styles he’d grown up with and his deep insight into sound production – while always revelling in the new, interesting and inspirational. Artists with such a sensibility have an endless capability to reinvent, find new forms of expression and to remain forever young. Whether listening to the latest Melbourne post-punk bands, digging the sounds at an Earthcore bush rave or mixing a virtuoso turntablist performance, Bo’s enthusiasm was always for the new and innovative, and his perspective straddled generations of technical and artistic knowledge.

In a parallel Universe Bo moved on from music, adopted a healthy lifestyle and has forged a productive career over many years as a counsellor. While sharing a house with him for six months I was amazed at his consistent ability to see another’s point of view, provide wise counsel and intuitively assist with whatever life problems his friends were facing, not to mention his inherent inability to say anything unkind about anyone. His teenaged niece made regular phonecalls from interstate seeking his advice on all the issues faced in that phase of life. But such a career choice would have been music’s loss. After his first heart attack Bo told me he intended to devote the rest of his life to art. And he didn’t let us down.

Vale Bo, your kind will not come again.

12 thoughts on “RIP Robert 'Bo' Boehm”

  1. besides his own music Bo helped bands in the studio & live….check our record collections..the mavis,pray tv,
    magic dirt,bored,powder monkeys, freeloaders, feline touch, the swarm, many more
    thank you BO
    paul mchenry

  2. Bo’s inherent musical knowledge was remarkable, he laos he knew the trivial bits as well. As founder of the 60s Appreciation Society he also really knew his 60s music as diverse from Syd Barrett to Simon & Garfunkel, not mention film music also.

    Here’s Bo on The Purple Haze Archive Series of podcasts discussing & illuminating on popular 60s folk duo Simon & Garfunkel.

    Bo is sorely missed.


  3. Thanks for your comments Paul and Nick. I’d encourage anyone to add their recollections of Bo here so we can get a full picture recorded of all the stuff he did.

  4. I mixed loads of gigs in the 90s for lots of pretty ordinary bands at the Punters, Evelyn, Tote, Arthouse, Empress, etc, etc (and sometimes some really good ones!) and if I turned up to do the support band and Bo was there for the headliner I knew things would be set up properly and however dodgy the PA and mics we’d be getting the best sound out of it we could. Vale Bo, a big presence in all senses.

  5. I first met Bo at an Endeavor Hills coffee house he ran, back in 1980. The coffee house was called “Waves”, and it was a part of a house with a toilet, kitchen and a couple of “lounge” rooms. The coffee house operated every other Friday eve from 6 until whenever. Bo would set up his Vase amp, have a mic (with a sock over the head. Each fortnight it was a different colour). Sometimes there would only be Bo and myself that would get up to do some solo numbers. Sometimes we would do a few songs together. Bo had a steel stringed acoustic with stickers all over it. The action on the guitar was atrocious, and when I tried playing it, my fingers were sore for hours after. But Bo played it well. We talked a lot between brackets. We discussed Bob Dylan, Monty Python, Politics, religion, animals, musical instruments, football/cricket. Anything really. One night, Bo suggested we get together for a jam somewhere. He told me how he was part of an unemployed group that did stage shows about being unemployed (how apt, I thought). They were known as the Avenue Players. Anyway, 1 evening during the week, I rolled up to Bo’s house in Doveton (or his mums house) with 12 string and harmonica in hand. We played some songs, I played Bo some of my original writings (I was only 16 then, and my songs were a bit “over the top”). Bo played me some of his songs. Then he played some bass. We recorded the entire session. We kept playing and talking until his mother told us to quieten down. Bo invited me to the “Avenue Project”, a place where unemployed people got together in Dandenong. This was where the “Avenue Players” got together to rehearse, write songs and sketches etc. It was here I met the Avenue Players, then consisting (full time) of Bo, Rob “Tex” Norris, Dave Melville, Roger Bailey, and other people that came and went, with some names now escaping me. They were about to do a show down the coast somewhere (Dromana I think), and Bo asked me to play some guitar, and maybe get involved. The Fawklands War was also on at the time, and Bo was very anti war. So as well as doing unemployment issues in the show, he wanted to do some political points on the war. This, and the fact that I was all of a sudden part of the Avenue Players kind of got the other member’s noises out of joint. Looking back I understand why. During the show, Bo would walk out on stage with a army jacket and beret on and shout “Queens Army 8, Argentines 5. Next update in 15 minutes”. The audience (mainly young people) would laugh, with a slightly confused look. It greatly amused me.
    Anyway, after some time, I was accepted into the group, and not long after, I moved into a share house with Bo and Tex in Frankston. Here, we played music, wrote music and sketches, formed a band, broke up the band, reformed another band, and Bo would record EVERYTHING!!!! We had drums, bass, amps, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, tin whistles, harps, and Bo’s handy cassette recorder. The old house had a bedroom underneath, which we transformed into a rehearsal/recording area. In a way, this was where Bo really plied his recording knowledge. We would put in loops, play with effects, use all types of weird and wonderful instruments. And while the rest of us were smoking some interesting herbs and sucking down different types of alcohol, Bo would decline all our kind offers, preferring to partake in an apple cider on occasion.
    As part of the Avenue Players, we toured all over the place. The best one that I recall was the Morwell tour. We played at a community hall one night at a place called Budgerie (which we decided was really pronounced Buggery). There were hippies everywhere, so Bo blended in very well. There were 2 coldrons bubbling away on gas rings with stew. Help yourself to some lovely vegetarian stew they said. What they didn’t say was that one was full of magic mushies. Without going into detail of how, Bo ended up quite stones. Bo also hooked up with a young lady that night, who had a full leg plaster cast on. We lost Bo that night, but found him in the morning. He was still a bit “dazed”, and told us the story of how he and the lady friend were trying all night to get things “on”, however were thwarted by the full leg cast. Bo was quite upset, having been “amorous” all night without any success. The rest of us were crying with laughter.
    I moved out of the house after a few years, but we kept in contact, kept writing songs, and kept each other informed. If I was ever down or wanted to get something off my chest, Bo was my beating board. He would listen to my rants, offer some solace, and then we would play music.
    The last couple of times I caught up with Bo and Tex were fantastic. 1st time, we went to a pub for lunch. I had a mate with me that had never met either of my old mates. He was in stitches listening to us 3 recalling old times. He said to me later that he had never met more genuine mates that Bo and Tex. The last time was around 6 years ago when I picked Bo up from Northcote, and we went around to my parents house for a BBQ (Tofu Snags for Bo, naturally). My parents really liked Bo too. Even though Bo (when 1st introduced to my mum and dad) had hair down to his arse, and wore all these peace badges and dresses very peculiar, mum and dad just liked him straight off. During the last time we got together, we just laughed and chatted. No instruments that day. Just chat between the 3 of us, with others listening on. This is how I will remember my mate, Robert U “Bo” Boehm, formerly of 23 Hillcrest Road, Frankston, and proud founder/member of the Avenue Players.

    Thanks Bo!

    Tony “Anton” Bowes

  6. I met Bo, a few times in the 80’s, mostly in Skillshare. But since no-one else has mentioned it, I thought it was worth posting that Clowns smiling backwards is the one of the bands that feature on the Spill records compilation “Kraftworks” from 1999.

    I only have the promotional copy, but the mp3 of Clowns smiling backwards doing Kraftwerk’s “Hall of mirrors” can be heard on the above website

  7. bo was a gentleman, a music scholar, and an artist of the sweetest kind. devoted to music…a rare breed…sad to think i’ll never see him again…but, as they say, at least there’s the music…RESPECTAMUNDO!

  8. I did a radio show with Bo on 3PBS FM back in 1988-9 – The Embryo Show early Pink Floyd Show – we played the Syd Barrett Opel album within weeks of release – Bo had an amazing Syd Barrett collection with articles back to 1966. Sadly Missed. RIP Bo

  9. Back in the mid-90s I stumbled upon a band mid-week at the Evelyn(!) playing a weird and totally exhilarating mix of psychedelic, dubby, industrial shoegaze and they totally changed me. That band was the semi-legendary Clowns Smiling Backwards.

    Bo changed my entire understanding of what a live band could sound like when he mixed my first band some time in the mid 90s. He not only cared, but was passionate about making a bunch of broke dudes with pawnshop instruments sound (as much as possible) like a world-class band. Well, I don’t know about world-class, but it sounded great to me. There’s nothing like a $100 3/4 size kids drumkit booming liek a Bonham-esque hammer of the gods!

    After that first chance meeting he became out go-to live engineer, mixing us at all the usual suspects around Melbourne at that time, and accompanying us on a memorable, if shambolic, interstate tour.
    I will never forget the look of excitement on his face when we asked him to mix us at The Hifi (by far the biggest PA I have ever played through)!

    We recorded a few compilation tracks with him at the now-gone Sublime studio in Brunswick (RIP, also) – a process which it would not be an exaggeration to say changed my outlook on music and therefore life.
    Bo brought the enthusiasm and love of sound of a true creative engineer to the live (and studio) mixing desk in the tradition of the dub greats.

    Bands come and go, and years after I stopped working with Bo we would still bump into each other in the street and at gigs. He would often have a book or cd or tape that he thought would interest me – a beautifully unexpected and selfless gift (memorably, bootlegs of the very first Austalian tour by the Cure, and long-lost live recordings of another short-lived band of my own).

    Bo remains a touchstone of my creative life, a truly inspiring artist and human being.

  10. This is fantastic to read all these memories about Bo and the waves Coffee house that he always ended up playing my favorite in Knock Knock Knocking on the waves coffee house door instead of Knock Knock Knocking on Heavens door REST IN PEACE BIG BROTHER

  11. Thanks for the obit, Mr. Wilson, eloquently put!
    At several gigs – Punters Club and others – where I was using woefully underpowered, mid-range gear, with lots of voices going up the same pipe, Bo somehow managed to magically get my sound clear, phat and punchy. Not to mention, just a damn nice and intelligent guy to talk to.
    He is, and will be missed.

  12. Thank you Bo for hep with recordings in the early days, you were a pleasure to work with!!
    thanks for the enthusiasm you’ve given the Melbourne scene!

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