Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Maybe It's A Case Of Foreign Affairs - The Latter Years

It was almost eighteen months before Sharon O’Neill released her much anticipated fourth album ‘Foreign Affairs’, but the wait was most definitely worth it. The album is widely acknowledged as featuring some of O’Neill’s best work, and the commercial returns certainly reflected that view. The lead out single ‘Losing You’ was edgy pop-rock at its best, and following its April ‘83 debut on the Australian charts, climbed steadily to a peak of #26 nationally (hitting #8 in Melbourne). The album’s second single ‘Maxine’, like several of the tracks on ‘Foreign Affairs’, was born out of the period O’Neill had spent living in the Kings Cross district, inspired by the people and places she encountered. The song’s lyrics tell the story of its title character Maxine, a prostitute who is abducted, and brutally murdered. I can recall seeing the promotional video for the song on the ABC’s late night music program Rock Arena, and by 1983 standards it was a disturbingly graphic affair, which followed the tragic story behind the song, to the letter. For a song to have had such a dark and unsettling theme, yet still manage to peak inside the top 20 (OZ#16/NZ#18) was a remarkable feat, and reflective of the fact that it was a brilliantly crafted piece of work. ‘Foreign Affairs’ yielded a third minor hit in ‘Danger’ (OZ#78) which hit the charts late in ‘83, whilst the album itself achieved a peak position of #17 in Australia.

In mid ‘84 Sharon O’Neill hit the Australian top 40 with the surging single ‘Power’ (#36), and I can recall seeing the video for the track on the Saturday morning music video show ‘Sounds’, on a special program presented direct from Hamilton Island. Sharon O’Neill was on the island (whether on holiday or a publicity jaunt, I’m not sure), and appeared pretty carefree as she introduced the song’s video from the island’s beach. But trouble was brewing between O’Neill and her record label CBS, which escalated into a major dispute between the two parties. The resultant legal impasse effectively placed O’Neill’s recording career on indefinite hiatus, and due to contractual obligations to CBS, prevented her for several years from recording anywhere (she even turned to teaching aerobics classes in Sydney to supplement income). The whole drawn out affair didn’t curtail O’Neill’s ironic sense of humour, as during a presentation speech at the 1986 ‘Countdown Music & Video Awards’, she quipped that the reason no-one had heard from her in a while was because she’s take a leave of absence from music to study law. During the second half of ’84 she did contribute the song ‘Blood Red Roses’ to the film soundtrack ‘Street Hero’ (which also featured Dragon’s ‘Wilderworld’), through the Festival label, though I’m assuming the track was already in the can prior to the legal dispute with CBS.

But whilst Sharon O’Neill the recording artist was hamstrung by legal entanglements, Sharon O’Neill the songwriter kept busy over the next couple of years, with several high profile projects. She wrote two songs for the ABC teen drama series ‘Sweet And Sour’ which, ironically enough, focused on the highs and lows of the music business. O’Neill penned the songs ‘Glam To Wham’ (OZ#85), and the title track (OZ#13), both released as singles, and credited to the fictional rock band The Takeaways. Future Do-Re-Mi lead singer Deborah Conway provided the (uncredited) vocals for The Takeaways. Sharon O’Neill continued a fruitful association with the ABC, also writing music for the television series’ ‘Dancing Daze’ (1986) and ‘Just Friends’. During her ‘exile’ from the recording business, Sharon O’Neill also started up a productive song writing partnership with Dragon keyboardist Alan Mansfield (who had also played with Robert Palmer). O’Neill and Mansfield penned dozens of songs, four of which surfaced on Dragon’s brilliant 1989 album ‘Bondi Road’ (see earlier post), including the OZ#18 hit ‘Young Years’. The pair also penned the track ‘True Love’ with Mansfield’s former boss Robert Palmer.

When the litigious waters finally receded, Sharon O’Neill returned to the surface of the Australian pop-rock pond in late 1987 with the finely crafted album ‘Danced In The Fire’ (OZ#45), released on O’Neill’s new label stable Polydor. Much of the albums lyric content was reflective of, and informed by, the artists prolonged legal battle with her former label. The title track, ‘Danced In The Fire’ (OZ#98), released as the album’s second single, pulled no punches with the lyrics “The lawyers, love and litigation had cut her down to size. And what seemed like a normal and healthy thing, turned into a really ugly dream”, and gave a powerful insight into just how tough O’Neill’s creative spirit must have found it whilst restrained by litigious chains. The album’s lead out single ‘Physical Favours’ (OZ#39) represented Sharon O’Neill’s last incursion into the top fifty, and was as powerful a pop-rock track as any released during the late 80s. O’Neill also reaffirmed her diversity as an artist, by releasing the made for kids single ‘Water For The Flowers’ in 1989, once more for ABC Records.

In 1990 Sharon O’Neill released her second album for Polydor, and most recent to feature original material, titled ‘Edge Of Winter’. Whilst neither album, nor singles ‘Satin Sheets’ and ‘Poster Girl’, made any impact on the charts, the set was widely acknowledged as embodying the work of a mature artist in command of her craft. During the 90s O’Neill largely withdrew from recording and performing her own work, and focussed on her songwriting, often with creative, and now life, partner Alan Mansfield, penning songs for other artists, and children’s television. In 1998 she made a rare performance appearance at the Marc Hunter Good Vibrations Benefit concert, at Selinas in Sydney.

Late 2001 marked the return of Sharon O’Neill the performer, when she joined acclaimed New Zealand female vocal quartet When The Cat’s Away (a virtual supergroup - featuring Annie Crummer, Debbie Harwood, Kim Willoughby, and Margaret Urlich), and toured New Zealand extensively. O’Neill was a perfect fit for the chemistry of the group, and the magic was captured on the album ‘Live In Paradise’. In 2005 a comprehensive ‘best of’ CD was finally released (on Sony), and Sharon O’Neill also returned to the road as a touring act in support of Leo Sayer (with the two undertaking follow up tours together during 2006 and 2007). O’Neill was a major drawcard on the August/September ‘07 series of ‘Countdown Spectacular 2’ shows across Australia, sharing a billing with the likes of Rick Springfield and Richard Clapton. In 2007 she was a leading cast member in the touring musical ‘Let It Be’ (a Beatles tribute show), alongside Mark Williams, Glenn Shorrock, and Doug Parkinson, with partner Alan Mansfield playing keyboards in the Day Tripper backing band. Most recently Sharon O’Neill toured as a backing singer for 80s vocalists Paul Young (see future post) and Tony Hadley (Spandau Ballet) during late 2008. With a renewed vigour for performing and writing, there’s every chance we haven’t heard the last from Sharon O’Neill.

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