Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Reels Hook Their Biggest Hit

With the Mercury years now behind them, The Reels took the unusual step of aligning themselves with the K-Tel label, a distribution company best known for releasing licensed compilation albums of current hits, along with budget ‘golden oldie’ releases. It was a shrewd move on the part of the band, because K-Tel were also known for their extensive marketing muscle, and the band’s next album project doubtless benefited from a national advertising campaign. With ‘Fairlight’ by their side, The Reels entered the studio to record an album of cover songs, titled ‘Beautiful’. It was an appealing blend of easy listening love songs, that to some possibly resembled Muzak, but which for the most part, treated its subject matter with genuine affection. The stand out track was also the lead out single, released in October 1982. ‘This Guy’s In Love (With You)’ was a faithful rendition of the classic Burt Bacharach and Hal David penned hit from the 60s. The song had originally been a hit for Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass (US#1/OZ#1/UK#3) in 1968, and was soon covered by Dionne Warwick as ‘This Girl’s In Love With You’ in 1969 (US#7/OZ#34). The Reels’ own contemporary take on the song propelled them into the Australian top ten (#7) for the first time, just before Christmas ‘82. Apart from the soothing synth treatment, and Mason’s crooning, the track’s seductive ambience also featured a sublime flugelhorn solo from Eddie Quanzo. Partly on the back of the single’s success, sales for The Reels’ ‘Beautiful’ album exceeded 40,000 copies in a six month period, and pushed the set to #32 nationally. The follow up single, a cover of the Fifth Dimension’s ‘Last Night (I Didn’t Get To Sleep At All)’, backed by the Tremeloes’ ‘Silence Is Golden’, couldn’t sustain the chart momentum into ‘83. The Reels’ new label stable, RCA Records, eventually took over distribution for ‘Beautiful’, but the K-Tel experiment had worked well.

In July 1983, the remaining trio of Reels jetted off to firstly Los Angeles, then London, and along the way recorded five tracks for inclusion on a new EP release, their first official new release for RCA. Bruce Brown (along with Tony Cohen) once again oversaw production for the 1983 EP ‘Pitt Street Farmers’, released in September ‘83. The track ‘Happiness’ was lifted as a single, but neither single nor EP resulted in any further happiness on the charts for The Reels. Soon after RCA did what most labels do soon after they sign an established act, and released a compilation of The Reels’ ‘best of’ to date, titled ‘Unreel’. In December ‘83, Mason and Co. released a retreated version of ‘Quasimodo’s Dream’, but yet again lack of airplay doomed the majestic song to remain a hidden gem. Soon after it appeared The Reels’ had reached the end credits, when singer Dave Mason was forced to retreat from the music scene, after contracting a debilitating bout of hepatitis. The Reels effectively disbanded at that point, with their other mainstay Craig Hooper hooking up with The Church as an auxiliary member (he contributed keyboards to their 1984 mini-LP ‘Persia’). Hooper then went on to join Neil Finn in his first post-Split Enz project, The Mullanes, but he left prior to the band evolving into Crowded House. Drummer Stefan Fidock later went on to play with the rock outfit Sacred Cowboys.

By August 1985, Dave Mason had sufficiently recovered his health, and alongside Hooper, revived The Reels as a going concern. Original members John Bliss and Colin ‘Polly’ Newham once more joined the fray for the next chapter in the band’s story. At that point they were still under contract to RCA, but that account was settled with the release of the October ‘85 single ‘It Must Be Love’ (previously a hit for both Labi Siffre and Madness). The Reels then signed on the dotted line with Regular Records, and in 1986 released a radically rearranged and relaxed rendition of the old Creedence Clearwater Revival #1 ‘Bad Moon Rising’. Produced by Mark Opitz, the gospel style version featured the use of the Vocoder voice synthesizer, an instrument used extensively by Mason to augment his vocals. ‘Bad Moon Rising’ rose to a surprise #11 on the Australian charts late in ‘86, but soon after The Reels were once more trimmed to a trio with the departure of Bliss (who went on to become somewhat of a lawn bowls guru).

In January ‘87 another cover song followed with The Reels’ version of the light and frothy pop classic, ‘Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)’, performed with a very sunny, reggae tinged feel. The track may have originally grown to the top of the charts for Edison Lighthouse during 1970, but The Reels’ version withered somewhat on the vine (OZ#70). The single’s B-side reflected the more serious facet of The Reels, with their second trilogy of ‘Media Themes’, this time based on the weighty subject matters of Chernobyl, Kakadu, and the Rainbow Warrior. Soon after The Reels hit the road once more for their ‘Reels By Request’ tour. The tour was characterised as such, because at the door of each venue, patrons were handed a list of songs from the band’s now extensive repertoire. During the show they were encouraged to shout out the songs they wanted played. The song that was ‘shouted’ loudest, was ‘delivered’ next by the band. By October ‘87, The Reels had modified the theme to become the ‘All Australian Reels by Request’ tour - the main difference being the song listing featured all Australian numbers. Over the course of that tour, The Reels honed their renditions of Aussie classics, giving each a unique Reels-style treatment. The tour experience eventually led into the first full studio album from the band in six years.

In October ‘88, RCA released The Reels ‘Neighbours’ (OZ#81) album (strictly no association with the Australian soap of the ‘u’ variety spelling). Bruce Brown once more returned to helm the project, this time alongside Mason and Hooper. The album featured thirteen tracks, all covers of Australasian pop-rock classics, but all radically redefined in terms of style. INXS’ ‘Original Sin’ was reworked as a soulful ballad, Dragon’s ‘Are You Old Enough?’ morphed into a reggae style muzak number, the Jimmy Barnes’ scream fest ‘Working Class Man’ became one for the traditional folk fans, whilst the Cold Chisel classic ‘Forever Now’ went down home country-blues. The man who wrote ‘Forever Now’, Cold Chisel drummer Steve Prestwich, played drums on The Reels’ version, which was released as a single early in ‘89 (OZ#94). ‘Are You Old Enough?’ was also released as single in February ‘89, but failed to come of age on the charts (despite the bargain price of $2.99). In 1989, Dave Mason appeared alongside Nick Cave in the Australian feature film ‘Ghosts…Of The Civil Dead’ (Mason played the prison queen Lilly).

Both Mason, and The Reels, remained quiet over the next couple of years (though rumour has it they recorded an album of heavy metal covers which has never been released), but in September 1991 they re-emerged with their first original composition single in five years. ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’, written by Mason, was a very contemporary, early 90s sounding dance track, which sounded more like a throwaway Janet Jackson track that classic Reels. By this point The Reels were the duo of Mason and Hooper, and in November ‘92 they released a reworked version, of their reworked version, of ‘Bad Moon Rising’, credited as the ‘Filthy Lucre Mix’. The song was remixed by Gavin Campbell and Robert Goodge, the same team behind the mega-selling remix of Yothu Yindi’s ‘Treaty’. Unfortunately the Filthy Lucre team couldn’t repeat the magic for The Reels. The track was included on the new RCA career retrospective ‘Requiem’, released originally in December ‘92. The cover art featured a curious mix of the sweet and the macabre, an undercurrent that in many respects defined much of The Reels music. The release of ‘Requiem’ coincided with the dissolution of The Reels, which essentially meant mainstays Mason and Hooper went their separate ways.

After nearly fifteen years, during which time he tinkered on the fringes of the music scene, Dave Mason brought The Reels brand back to life in 2007, with the release of the album ‘Reelsville’, featuring stripped down and reworked versions of earlier Reels’ hits. Soon after, the 1992 ‘Requiem’ compilation was repackaged and released as ‘Reel To Reel’, with Mason contributing newly penned liner notes for each track. Over the ensuing year Mason joined with two former players in Reels history, John Bliss and Colin ‘Polly’ Newham’, to play a number of shows throughout 2008.

Though they never ascended to the heights of commercial success their music warranted, Dave Mason and The Reels did achieve what they undoubtedly set out to do, in carving out a unique niche in Australian popular music history, through an inventive, and largely uncompromising expression of their own unique interpretation of popular music, past and present.


Walter said...

Who wrote this? Honestly, it was really good - are you turning these into a books.This has become my favourite new blog.

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Many thanks Walter for the positive feedback :)
Hmmm publishing a book...that does appeal, but alas my meandering thoughts on the great music/artists of yester-year will have to be expressed via blogging for now - which is not altogether a bad thing ;)