Sunday, January 18, 2009

A 64 Bit Hit From Mi-Sex

By the late 70s the computer game craze had officially invaded countless shopping malls, and corner milk bars, and was quickly invading suburban homes the world over. The ‘Space Invaders’ arcade game had swept the world, and was consuming coins as fast as mints could print them. The Atari 2600 gaming console had made all of the fun and excitement (and addiction) of arcade games accessible from the comfort of your living room. During 1979 an Australian based band, hailing originally from New Zealand, captured the futurism and frenetic energy of computer games in a #1 hit titled ‘Computer Games’, and in the process carved out a permanent niche for themselves in Australasian pop-rock culture.

In 1972 a 22 year old singer by the name of Steve Gilpin took out the grand final of New Zealand’s ‘New Faces’ television talent program, going one better than another singer/songwriter by the name of Shona Laing (see earlier post). Over the course of the next five years Gilpin became a major drawcard on the New Zealand club and cabaret circuit, but by late ’76 he’d had enough of the tuxedo and bow tie, and wanted to have a tilt at being a rock singer. Gilpin had seen the prog-rock group Father Thyme playing, and floated the idea to the group of doing something together in early ‘77. Father Thyme members Alan Moon (keyboards), and Don Martin (bass) said yes and the trio set about completing the line-up for a new band. They hooked up with guitarist Kevin Stanton (ex-Think; Brigade) and drummer Phil Smart, to form Fragments Of Time. Smart and Moon were soon replaced by Richard Hodgkinson, and Murray Burns (ex-Red Rose) respectively, and Fragments Of Time soon took on the name Mi-Sex - the name taken in reference to a song by one of their key influences Ultravox (‘My Sex’), and on the suggestion of Gilpin, they decided to give being a ‘new wave’ band a go. With a new wardrobe of matching leather kit, short cropped hair, and a tough guy attitude, Mi-Sex soon had eyes sharply focussed across the Tasman, at Australia. They actually signed briefly with EMI New Zealand during early ‘78, but released only one single ‘Straight Laddie’ (originally recorded as a demo), which failed to make any impact. Mi-Sex continued playing a frenetic schedule at venues across New Zealand’s North Island, looking to raise enough money to fund their move to Australia. Having witnessed what fellow Kiwi acts Split Enz, and Dragon, had managed to achieve in the considerably more lucrative Australian market, Mi-Sex opted for the sooner, rather than later, approach, and shifted operations to Australia during August ‘78.

Based in Sydney, Mi-Sex scored an early support slot with Australian rock sensation Jeff St. John. Within just six months, Mi-Sex had honed their rock edged, synth driven, new wave sound to the point of being the fourth biggest live drawcard on the thriving Sydney music scene - only outdone by Aussie rock heavyweights Cold Chisel, The Angels, and Midnight Oil. Musically, the various members of Mi-Sex brought an interesting selection of influences to the mix, with keyboardist Murray Burns a bit of a devotee of prog-rock, and guitarist Stanton leaning toward the heavier rock side of the spectrum. Their stage show featured a lot of futuristic imagery and kit (a strong element to certain factions of the ‘new wave’ movement), with a meticulously choreographed laser light show, helping to create an ‘other-worldly’ atmosphere to their image, akin to the likes of Tubeway Army and Ultravox, though paradoxically derivative of the band’s art-rock origins (think Roxy Music and Yes).

With a substantive, and ever growing, audience base, it was a given Mi-Sex would attract major label attention, and in February ‘79 expatriate Kiwi Alan Galbraith signed the band to a recording deal at CBS. In June ‘79 Mi-Sex released their first major single with ‘But You Don’t Care’. The guitar driven pop-rock number achieved a very creditable #25 on the Australia charts during July, and peaked at #33 in the lads native New Zealand. Mi-Sex had out performed both Split Enz and Dragon, in terms of their initial foray into the Australian music scene, but they were about to be elevated to a whole new level of commercial and critical acclaim.

As ‘But You Don’t Care’ was climbing the charts, CBS released Mi-Sex’s debut album ‘Graffiti Crimes’, produced by Peter Dawkins (worked with Dragon, Finch, John Farnham to name a few), and recorded over just a ten day period. Soon after, Mi-Sex found themselves in the coveted support slot for Talking Heads’ Australian tour, and soon after that as headliners on their own national tour. By September the ‘Graffiti Crimes’ album had climbed steadily to write its name at #16 on the Australian national charts (NZ#6), but the band had just recorded a new song, not featured on the original Australian pressings of ‘Graffiti Crimes’ (but later added), that was about to become their biggest hit. In September ‘79 Mi-Sex released the electro-pop anthem ‘Computer Games’, and the song exploded onto the Australian and New Zealand charts soon after. Penned by Stanton, Burns and Gilpin, it was meticulously crafted in every regard, pieced together so that every element served a specific, and concurrently collective purpose, to draw the listener inside an intriguingly futuristic and alien world. Stanton’s guitar riff and Burn’s synthesizer sequences burrowed into the consciousness, and Gilpin’s distinctive halting, almost yelping vocal style added a manic urgency to the song. ‘Computer Games’ encapsulated inside of four minutes the ultimate gaming experience, paradoxically eliciting almost primal responses via a contrived technological vehicle. The song was backed by, what was then, a cutting edge, and very clever, music video, which featured Gilpin and Co. breaking into a ‘high-tech’ computer lab on an apparent quest for answers to what lay within. One of the lasting images of 70s/80s pop music videos, for me, is Mi-Sex performing in front of a virtual computer game - complete with marauding Tie Fighters. Mi-Sex had already performed on ‘Countdown’ with ‘But You Don’t Care’ but their appearance in late ‘79 performing ‘Computer Games’, with full laser light spectacular as accompaniment, signalled their arrival as genuine heavyweights of the Australian pop-rock scene.

Whatever the cause, whatever the effect - ‘Computer Games’ became one of the defining pop-rock songs of the Australasian music-scape. It ascended to #1 on the Australian charts during November ‘79 and hit the top five in New Zealand, just as the band were on a national tour in support of Cheap Trick (see Nov post). By April 1980 ‘Computer Games’ had charted in more than 20 countries, and had peaked inside the top ten in Canada, France, Austria, Italy, West Germany and South Africa, though the U.S. (#61 - Club Play chart) and Britain remained largely unconquered territories. On the back of the phenomenal success of ‘Computer Games’, the ‘Graffiti Crimes’ album received an international release on the Columbia label (Epic in the U.S.), and went on to sell over half a million copies worldwide. To reflect their new found status, Mi-Sex were one of the headlining acts (alongside The Angels, Cold Chisel, Dragon, Renee Geyer, Skyhooks and Split Enz) at the November ‘79 ‘Concert of the Decade’, held on the steps of the Sydney Opera House before a crowd of 160,000. Soon after Mi-Sex found themselves on a month long tour of the North America during April 1980, supporting the likes of Iggy Pop and The Ramones along the way, in addition to scoring several headline shows at club venues. Whilst they were off jet setting, Mi-Sex received three gongs at the 1979 ‘TV Week/Countdown’ Awards ceremony - Most Popular Record for ‘Computer Games’; Best Australian Single for ‘Computer Games’; and the Johnny O’Keefe Memorial Award for Most Promising New Talent.

With so much commercial success and critic adulation, Mi-Sex faced the unenviable task of living up to the considerable expectation awaiting their next release.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good write up, I love Mi-Sex, so many more great songs on the albums ... ;D