Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Sports - No Longer Strangers On The Music Scene

The third single from the ‘Don’t Throw Stones’ album was released in Australia mid year, but ‘Suspicious Minds’ (not the Elvis song) stalled at #74 nationally. As the single ‘Who Listens To The Radio’ was climbing up the U.S. charts (eventually to top out at #46), Mushroom released the U.K. recorded EP ‘O.K, U.K!’ in August ‘79, and soon after ‘Wedding Ring’ hit the Australian charts as a single. The Sports’ version didn’t replicate the top 10 achievements of the original Easybeats’ effort, but following its September ‘79 debut, ‘Wedding Ring’ went on to achieve #40 nationally (#37 Sydney, #29 Melbourne). Cummings flew over to the U.S. for a promotional tour in support of the repackaged ‘Don’t Throw Stones’ album (US#194), but The Sports couldn’t capitalise on the initial warm reception for ‘Who Listens To The Radio’.

In late ‘79 The Sports found time to take a breath and to take stock of the events of the preceding eighteen months. Cummings, Pendlebury and Armiger had continued to write over this period, and the band returned to the U.K. to lay down tracks for their next album. The album represented two important developments in The Sports’ sound - firstly it contained all original material, with a substantial portion contributed by the team of Cummings and Pendlebury, and secondly The Sports’ were clearly angling toward a slicker, more commercially accessible pop-rock sound, with echoes of British art-pop acts like XTC. This shift in focus was illustrated by the lead out single ‘Strangers On A Train’. The radio friendly pop-rock song immediately made an impact on the Australian charts in February 1980, and reached its final destination at #22 around six weeks later. Suddenly The Sports were challenging for A-list status on the Australian music scene, a challenge further energised by the release of the album ‘Suddenly’ in March of ‘80. The follow up single ‘Perhaps’ missed the mark, but that didn’t stop ‘Suddenly’ reaching #13 nationally by the middle of 1980.

During this period The Sports underwent several changes in personnel, including the departure of original members James Niven and Paul Hitchins. Skyhooks guitarist Red Symons filled in on keyboards for The Sports’ national tour with Mushroom label mates Split Enz during March/April ‘80, whilst Iain McLennan came on board as the new drummer. Following the tour, McLennan was forced to leave due to ongoing ill health, and his place was taken by another member of the Skyhooks fraternity, Freddy Strauks. Strauks was on the roster for the recording of The Sports fourth album during the second half of 1980, this time produced by Cameron Allan. Once again slickly produced original pop-rock numbers were the order of the day, though guitarist Martin Armiger became more of an equal contributor in the songwriting stakes, with Stephen Cummings and Andrew Pendlebury. The first single was the Cummings/Pendlebury penned ‘How Come’, which debuted on the national charts in April ‘81, and during its 17 week stay became The Sports highest charting single (#21). The source album was titled ‘Sondra’, named after Sondra Locke, one time partner and co-star of screen legend Clint Eastwood. ‘Sondra’ went on to peak at #20 nationally (the album, not the actress), and yielded the follow up singles ‘Stop The Baby Talking’ and ‘When We Go Out Tonight’, as well as the beautiful ballad ‘Black Stockings (For Chelsea)’, proving The Sports had considerable depth beyond the pop-rock surface.

Having focussed on recording original material over the previous couple of years, The Sports reminded us that they were equally adept at breathing new life into pop classics with the five track EP ‘The Sports Play Dylan (And Donovan)’, the title (and cover) of which left no doubt as to the nature of the material within. The single ‘Sunshine Superman’ (a cover of the 1966 Donovan #1) was released in November ‘81, and reached #72 nationally, whilst the EP peaked at #70. It would represent the last release prior to the break up of The Sports at the end of 1981. A year later Mushroom issued the aforementioned ‘anthology’ album ‘All Sports’ (OZ#35-1982). In late ‘87 the Raven Records label released the album ‘Missin’ Your Kissin’, which featured eleven tracks from a live performance at Melbourne’s Storey Hall in 1978, and five previously unreleased ‘studio rarities’. If you love your Sports then you’ll be pleased to know that a double album collection of their best work plus rarities titled ‘This Is Really Something’ was released in 1997, and offers an access all areas insight into The Sports’ career. The Sports reunited for a one off performance at 1998’s Mushroom Records 25th Anniversary concert.

Post-The Sports, guitarist Martin Armiger went into production and session work, and later became a successful composer for both film and television. Drummer Freddy Strauks joined Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons for a stint before hooking up once again with Skyhooks for several reunion escapades over the years. Bassist Robert Glover joined Wilder Wilde’s Big Kombi live act. Guitarist Andrew Pendlebury initially joined The Dugites (see May post) during 1982, but after a year he hooked up again with ex-Sports band mate Armiger for a stint with the Stephen Cummings Band. Pendlebury played on Cummings’ debut solo album ‘Senso’ (OZ#46) which yielded Stephen Cummings’ first post-Sports’ hit with ‘Backstabbers’ (OZ#40) in early ‘84. The pair maintained a regular association on record over the years, with Pendlebury a guest player on several Cummings albums. Pendlebury himself released his debut solo album ‘Between The Horizon And The Dockyard’ in July 1987, and was a part time player in the gospel/rockabilly outfit The Slaughtermen. He released two more solo albums ‘Tigerland’ (1988) and ‘Zing Went The Strings’ (1990) prior to scoring the Australian #49 hit ‘Calling You’ in 1992 with guest vocalist Kate Ceberano (of I’m Talking - see future post). The song was lifted from Pendlebury’s album ‘Don’t Hold Back That Feeling’. Pendlebury continued to release his own material and contribute to other artist’s work on a regular basis over the ensuing years.

Stephen Cummings has experienced the greatest amount of commercial return among The Sports’ alumnus. He scored two more Australian top 40 hits with ‘Gymnasium’ (OZ#27-1984), and ‘Hell (You’ve Put Me Through)’ (OZ#38-1990). His albums throughout the 80s and 90s regularly charted nationally, with highlights including ‘This Wonderful Life’ (OZ#69-1986), ‘Love Town’ (OZ#61-1988), the A.R.I.A. Award winning ‘A New Kind Of Blue’ (OZ#43-1989) and ‘Good Humour’ (OZ#40-1991). Over the last fifteen years Cummings has continued to garner rave reviews without ever scoring that one big hit. He has released no fewer than nineteen albums in total over the last 25 years, the most recent of which is ‘Happiest Man Alive’, released in September 2008.

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