“I think it had lost touch entirely,” offers Albe Falzon of Surfing World in the early ‘70s. “What happened is we recognised, John [Witzig] and I, that there was a big shift in young people’s thinking and their surfing. Both of us realised that unless we could bring it into the here and now, we were going to be dragging our feet. So that’s when Tracks was born.”
There was a lot going on as the ‘60s became the ‘70s. A huge countercultural shift swept through a young generation. In Australian surfing that manifested in the country soul movement, surfers taking to the streets in protest, a constellation of new surfboard designs and a lot of pot being smoked.
Albe had left Surfing World as Bob struggled to keep it afloat financially. The magazine felt increasingly like an issue-by-issue proposition. But he was also frustrated that the magazine – and to a degree Bob himself, who was almost 40 – was out of touch, and wasn’t reflecting what he saw happening on beaches and in treehouses around Australia and beyond. Albe had also left to start work on a film project with a working title Morning of the Earth.
“I wanted to actually step out and put all my energy into that and not just keeping Surfing World alive with Bob, and that’s what happened. We wanted to move forward on a platform that was going to reflect what was going down globally with young people and with this great movement politically, environmentally, socially. John felt the same way and David Elfick felt it too. We all recognised that there was a big shift coming and we wanted it to be part of it.”
The first issue of Tracks hit the streets in October 1970. Immediately, the magazine shook things up, if, for no other reason, it was a newspaper. One of the major problems with publishing Surfing World at the time was the three-month turnaround with printing the magazine in Japan. In 1970, things were changing so quickly that three months might as well have been three years.
“Both John and I went, ‘The newspaper is the future because we can bring it back to Australia,’ recalls Albe. “We could print in Australia and have a deadline that was reduced from three months to a week or 10 days. We felt we were going to be instrumental in this huge movement that was happening at that point in time. The counterculture reflected that, and the magazine, Tracks, reflected that from the first issue.”
But as the magazine launched and the buzz around the new title began, there was one slight hitch for its new publishers. On September 29, just a few days before the first issue of Tracks went on sale, Bob Evans premiered his new surf film at Sydney Uni’s Union Theatre. Billed as, “The 1970 shortboard story” it was Bob’s conscious effort to stay on the pulse of a surfing landscape that was changing radically. And the name of his movie?
John Witzig had come up with ‘Tracks’ as the working title for their publishing project, but while Albe had still been at Surfing World he might have casually mentioned the name in passing to Bob… without of course mentioning that he was planning to start his own magazine under that name. Bob liked the name, and it became the working title for his 1970 film project.
“I often think about that,” offers Albe, who contends the name had been floating on the breeze. “Where did that come from? Maybe it was in the year before we started printing because John Witzig came up with the name Tracks. I think what happened is that if you look in Surfing Worldthe year before, you’ll find there’s a story there called ‘Tracks’. It was Greenough’s photos of the tracks behind his little board while he was surfing Lennox. So, it was a very parallel thing but I’m not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg.” Tracks the movie was released to modest success. Two years later Bob would release another movie, titled Invisible Tracks, which certainly wasn’t a coincidence.
From the first issues it was clear Tracks magazine had tapped the zeitgeist, while Surfing World’s fortunes were headed the other way, now owned by a big city publisher with no idea about surfing. But while Tracks was now officially the competition for Surfing World, the surf mag game was, as Goodvibes creator Tony Edwards would later describe it, “a stuffy little planet”. Just how stuffy was soon clear with Tracks and Surfing World being produced in the same house.
Frank Pithers was working for both titles at the same time, and both magazines were being produced out of the house he shared with Albe Falzon at Whale Beach. When asked how he’d split his time working between both mags, Frank replies, “Easy. I’d work on Surfing World in the bedroom upstairs, then I’d walk downstairs and work on Tracks . All the prints were done out of the same darkroom.”
Surfing World’s publishers had no idea about Frank’s arrangement with the competition, although when Surfing World ran a 10-page spread on Albe’s movie, Morning of the Earth it raised a few red flags. The Tracks guys (John Witzig parted ways in April ‘72) for their part were happy for Surfing World to co-exist. It kept Bob’s legacy alive, while occasionally being a useful promotional tool for their own movie projects. And to be fair, Surfing World at this stage wasn’t much competition.
Bob Evans meanwhile continued travelling, making and touring his films. Bob lived the next few years project-to-project, producing increasingly bold films that never received the critical acclaim or success they deserved. His film Family Free actually featured a sequence filmed in Bali. Bob had a mate who was a Qantas pilot who’d told him about the waves he’d flown over as he landed at Denpasar, and in August ’71 he flew to Bali with Mark Warren. They flew out a week before Albe’s crew arrived to film Morning of the Earth’s soon-to-be iconic Uluwatu sequence. Family Free also featured a scored soundtrack, including Tamam Shud. Family Free should have been a hit but wasn’t. The movie disappeared after release, before disappearing entirely for decades. Bob’s following film, Drouyn met a similar critical and commercial fate. Morning of the Earthmeanwhile… well, you know how that went.
The blazing success of both Tracks and Morning of the Earth was cooled for Albe because, in some way, it had come at the expense of his old friend and mentor, Bob Evans. “Maybe us starting our own magazine, was not in his best interest and I felt uncomfortable about that,” offers Albe. “The downside of it was that it ended our relationship. It wasn’t anything that fell apart with us, we were just doing our own thing. But in a really subconscious way, I could almost see the future playing out measured by our personal relationship. It was almost like I could see Bob’s demise and that something was going to change and it wasn’t just the magazine, it was in his personal life. It was and it did.”
Frank stayed close to Bob but struggled to get Tracks to promote Bob’s movies. “It was a bit of a weird dynamic,” he remembers. “They were a bit cold on helping him out, because they were the new kids on the block and Bob and his films were old school. I said, ‘We’ve gotta help this guy. We can’t just dump him.’ I’d speak to Bob on the phone and tell him, ‘Mate, your shots are as good as anyone’s. Your movies are as good as anyone’s.’ Then he did the Drouyn film with Bruce Channon. We did a story when he released Drouyn and that would have been the last time I saw him. We spoke on the phone a couple times when he was in America, and I wished him the best and said, ‘Don’t forget us, mate.’ He was a gem of a bloke, right to the end.”
Bob was working in Florida when it happened. “He used to look after himself and he’d just been for a jog,” recalls Frank. “He was staying in a motel room with a mate and said, ‘I feel a bit tired, I’m going to have a bit of a rest.’ He went to sit down and was dead before he hit the bed. Cerebral haemorrhage. Gone at 44, dead in a hotel on the other side of the world.”