Saturday, November 8, 2008

These Numbers Add Up To A Five Letter Word

In the history of popular music there have been a considerable number of brother/sister combinations feature in successful groups, but few have managed to play key roles in two separate acts. The Australian pop-rock bands The Numbers and The Maybe Dolls both featured one such brother/sister combo.

Annalisse Morrow (bass/vocals) and older brother Chris Morrow (guitar/vocals) joined drummer Marty Newcombe in adding up to the first line-up of The Numbers in early 1978. Their early material was born of the high energy post punk era, with a cleaner power-pop edge. They hit the thriving Sydney live circuit soon after and quickly established a strong fan base. In January 1979 Simon Vidale stepped in for Newcombe on drums, and soon after The Numbers scored a prized support slot with high profile U.K. band XTC on their Australian tour. The tour served to raise The Numbers’ profile nationally and provided them with invaluable experience playing to bigger venues/audiences.

In September ‘79 they issued their debut recording with the three track EP ‘Govt Boy’ on the independent Local label through Blacktown Music Co-Op. It was high energy guitar driven power pop, reminiscent of the likes of The Buzzcocks or The Ramones, and Chris Morrow actually sang lead on the title track. The EP didn’t crack the national charts but would later come to be regarded as a snapshot of The Numbers at their raw, energetic best. December ‘79 saw The Numbers sign to the higher profile Deluxe label, at that time alongside the likes of INXS and The Dugites (see previous post). In March 1980 they issued a new single with the Chris Morrow penned ‘The Modern Song’. Sister Annalisse was now handling vocals fulltime, and has cited Chrissie Hynde and Joan Armatrading as vocal influences, The radio friendly guitar-pop track was best received in the band’s home market of Sydney (#30), but also cracked the national top 50 (#47). An appearance on the iconic TV show Countdown further enhanced the trio’s growing reputation and profile.

That growing national profile was further consolidated by The Numbers next single, the paradoxically titled ‘Five Letter Word’ (which actually refers to the word ‘death’). It was another well crafted power-pop gem and actually out performed its predecessor by reaching #40 on the Australian charts during September 1980. A second appearance on Countdown followed, with singer Annalisse Morrow hosting the show (albeit nervously). In October 1980 The Numbers unveiled their debut self-titled album, produced by Cameron Allen, and recorded over just a few weeks. ‘The Numbers’ rose steadily up the national chart, with the band touring relentlessly in support. The hard work paid off with the album cracking the top 30 (#29) before the end of the year. There was a degree of criticism levelled at The Numbers over the brevity of the play duration of their debut album, which added up to a rather paltry 28 minutes - but in terms of quality over quantity the band had ticked all the right boxes. All up 1980 added up to a banner year for The Numbers, with Annalisse Morrow also nominated for the prestigious Australian ‘Queen of Pop’ title, but understandably she lost out to pop sensation Christie Allen (see earlier post).
In January ‘81 keyboardist Russell Handley (ex-Popular Mechanics) joined an expanded line-up for The Numbers, and soon after the third single from their debut album was released with ‘Mr. President’ failing to get elected to the national charts. The Handley keyboard experiment lasted little more than a month, and soon after drummer Simon Vidale also subtracted himself from The Numbers line-up. Original drummer Marty Newcombe returned to the fray, and The Numbers expanded once more to quartet status with the addition of bassist Gary Roberts (ex-Moving Parts). Annalisse Morrow had been freed up from her bass duties to focus her energies on lead vocals and rhythm guitar (supplementing brother Chris’ guitar work). In August The Numbers issued the single ‘Jericho’ which also missed the charts.

The Numbers returned to the studio in late November, looking to broaden their sound on album #2. They enlisted the production services of ex-Angels drummer turned producer Graham ‘Buzz’ Bidstrup. Early into the project both Roberts and Newcombe removed themselves from the recording equation, which left the Morrow siblings to complete the album, with the aid of Bidstrup back on the skins. Their sophomore album was released in April ‘82 and clocked in at 39 minutes, 51 seconds. In a thinly veiled return serve at critics who had lambasted the short duration of their debut, The Numbers named their follow up ‘39.51’ (OZ#94). The first single from the album was the more danceable pop number ‘Big Beat’ but the song didn’t manage to find a beat on the charts. The band hit the road again, and this time around the Morrows were joined by ex-Reels members Colin Newham (keyboards) and John Bliss (drums). By September both Newham and Bliss had left, and as the next single ‘Dreams From Yesterday’ hit the shelves, Annalisse and Chris Morrow opted to put the band on hiatus.

The Numbers emerged once more in March ‘83, again with an expanded line-up that now featured the Morrows, Craig Bloxom (bass), Marcus Phelan (guitar) and the return of drummer Simon Vidale. A few months later the band had cut back their numbers to the core trio of Annalisse and Chris Morrow with Vidale. With seemingly all possibly numbers and combinations exhausted, and still no major commercial breakthrough, the Morrows opted to cancel The Numbers before the end of ‘83.

Annalisse Morrow pursued several projects over the next few years. Her endeavours included developing a promising career in fashion design, playing a role in the television movie ‘Shout: The Johnny O’Keefe Story’, developing her own song writing, and becoming one half of the popular Sydney based jazz-blues duo Shatsi. Chris Morrow kept on writing and recording demos, and eventually released the solo single ‘Just What I Needed’ on the WEA label in March 1987. No doubt fans of The Numbers were starting to ask themselves the question “whatever happened to”, when Annalisse and Chris returned with a new project in 1990.

MPM comprised the Morrows either side of ex-Models drummer Barton Price. It was a short lived experiment though which ended after just three weeks of touring. But the creative energy was sparking once more, and during 1991 the talented sister-brother combo hit the road in earnest as the Maybe Dolls. Backing them this time around was ex-Icehouse drummer Paul Wheeler. With a high quality cache of new song material accumulated, the trio entered the studio to record an album. The lead out single ‘Nervous Kid’ (written by the Morrows with Barton Price) proved to be the biggest selling single of the Morrow’s career. Following its release in mid ‘91, the catchy guitar-pop track climbed steadily to a peak position of #27 during September. Released on the BMG label, the album ‘Propaganda’ (#30) further revitalised the fortunes for Annalisse and Chris Morrow on the Australian music scene in early 1992. The follow up single ‘Cool Jesus’ (#34) received a warm response from radio networks and public alike, and though the next two singles ‘Never Look Back’ and ‘Only Love’ missed the charts, the future looked promising for this latest vehicle for the combined creative vision of the Morrow siblings. A well received national tour continued throughout the first half of 1992, including a support slot on the Big Audio Dynamite II national tour. A second album was in the works when backing from the Maybe Dolls label was withdrawn, The duo attempted to get another deal but legal complications restricted access to some of the material they’d already recorded. With no record label and no prospect of future support on the horizon, regrettably Annalisse and Chris Morrow called an end to the band in 1993. The siblings had traversed a long and challenging path since the early days when they recited Monty Python sketches as they trekked around the country touring in an old Valiant car, but it seemed the road to rock riches had become impassable.

Disillusioned by the Maybe Dolls experience, Annalisse Morrow withdrew totally from performing music and has pursued a career as a design teacher. Brother Chris has also turned to a career teaching in higher education. In 2007 they were tracked down by the Melbourne nostalgia label Aztec Music, with a proposal to release a retrospective collection of The Numbers’ music. The 20 track compilation album ‘Numerology 1979-1982’ was issued in 2007, and featured the band’s six singles, two rare B-sides, highlights from their two albums and all three tracks from the rare ‘Govt Boy’ EP. If you like high quality, high energy pop-rock it’s a hidden gem worth checking out.

No comments: