Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Reels' Unique Musical Bait

Throughout the history of popular music, certain artists have been easier than others to classify, in terms of their stylistic allegiance. Generally speaking the Sex Pistols would be pigeonholed as punk, Charlie Rich classified as country, Donna Summer described as disco, and Frankie Yankovic (no relation to ‘Weird’ Al) perceived as polka. Other artists though have defied definition, opting instead (whether by chance or design) to remain outside the square, as stylistic itinerants. Australian band The Reels were one such artist, part synth-edged new wave outfit, part anachronism of the Australian music scene, during their tenure together from the late 70s through to early 90s. By offering up an eclectic mix of original new wave pop-rock material, and innovative arrangements of old standards in their repertoire, The Reels set themselves apart from the pop music pack, and in the process made a valuable, and oft underappreciated, contribution to Australia’s rich popular music heritage.

At the heart, soul, and very probably left big toe, of The Reels, was singer, songwriter, and keyboardist, Dave Mason (the son of one time New South Wales Liberal Party leader, John Mason). The band began its existence during the mid 70s as Native Sons, in the New South Wales regional centre of Dubbo. Mason’s ‘musical brothers’ included guitarist/keyboardist Craig Hooper, drummer John Bliss (ex-Thundaband), and Colin ‘Polly’ Newham on keyboards/sax/guitar. Native Sons were primarily a covers band in their early days, but soon established a strong following around their local district. During 1978 the future ‘Reels’ decided to go fishing in the bigger pond of Sydney, expanded their line-up to include bassist Paul Abrahams, and in the process evolved into The Brucelanders. Dave Mason began writing original material to supplement the covers, and during this period the band played a quirky mix of rhythm based pop and ska, influenced by the then cutting edge sounds of XTC, Specials, Madness and Devo. Mason’s manic vocal style was a feature in driving the band’s often furiously paced pop-rock, but over time both Mason and The Brucelanders began to infuse some of their songs with a slower tempo, taking on a melancholic, but soothing, edge, giving a hint as to their future direction. During their first year in the big pond, The Brucelanders not only managed to stay afloat, but were soon drawing good crowds in rock waters, normally dominated by bigger, louder ‘rock fish’, like Cold Chisel and Radio Birdman.

Local ABC rock radio station Double J (a precursor to JJJ), offered solid support, and by 1979 The Brucelanders, now known as The Reels, had hooked a recording deal with Mercury Records (through Polygram). Producer Mark Opitz (who at that stage had already worked extensively with The Angels) came on board to helm The Reels debut single ‘Love Will Find A Way’, released in October of ‘79. The catchy pop song garnered widespread airplay, and by November had debuted on the national charts, eventually peaking at #39 early in 1980. The follow up single ‘Prefab Heart’ hit the stores in February ‘80, within a few weeks had hit the charts (#52), and in just a few months The Reels had established a nationwide profile (helped along by the first of several appearances on ‘Countdown’). Both singles were featured on The Reels’ eponymous debut album (OZ#81) released just before Christmas ‘79. The album, also produced by Opitz, was recorded on a mobile recording unit on the verandah of a Dubbo country property (the drums had been recorded in a nearby paddock). Despite the laid back surroundings of its recording, the debut set effectively captured the bands trademark high energy, occasionally off kilter, brand of melodic pop. Most of the tracks were penned by Mason, but both Craig Hooper and Colin Newham contributed to the writing duties. Around the time that ‘Prefab Hearts’ was enjoying a run on the charts, The Reels added keyboardist Karen Ansell (ex-Romantics - not the U.S. band) to the line-up. That move marked the final stage in The Reels’ transition from common-or-garden rock outfit, to an all synthesizer line-up. The guitars had been dispensed with, and even bass player Paul Abrahams took to using a bass synth.

The Reels’ next single, ‘After The News’ (OZ#65), which was released in July 1980, was indicative of the band’s new musical bent. They’d also shifted along the musical spectrum to adopt a slower, more layered, and atmospheric feel to their sound. No doubt fast paced guitar driven bands were in plentiful supply at the time, so The Reels’ move, though a gamble, clearly positioned them as an almost unique musical entity on the Australian scene at that time. In July 1980, they further exemplified their growing status as a pop curiosity of merit, when they embarked on the ‘Reels By Rail’ east coast tour, during which they caught public trains between tour venues, including hopping aboard suburban services between city gigs. In November 1980, The Reels released the EP ‘Five Great Gift Ideas From The Reels’, just in time for the festive season, and in part because recording of their planned second album was turning into an epic. The EP featured, not surprisingly, five tracks, and aside from the jovially titled ‘The Bombs Dropped On Xmas’, the highlights were covers of the 1971 Freda Payne soul classic ‘Band Of Gold’, and the song which was identified as the ‘single’ release, ‘According To My Heart’, originally recorded by country crooner Jim Reeves in 1961. The song was about as far removed from a contemporary pop-rock hit as you could get, complete with Western motif promo video, but its inherent charms couldn’t deny The Reels their biggest hit to date (OZ#12), aided in no small part by an equally charming promo video, shot at the ranch of Australian country music legend Smokey Dawson (part of the medley B-side to The Reels 1980 single ‘After The News’ was ‘Media Themes For The Smokey Dawson Show’). Incidentally, ‘Five Great Gift Ideas From The Reels’ had been co-produced by Bruce Brown and Russell Dunlop, who were fresh from their own success with ‘Space Invaders’, under the moniker of Player1 (see April ‘08 post).

Over late 80/early 81, The Reels continued the marathon process of recording their sophomore album. By March 1981 work had neared completion, but prior to the lead out single being released, Colin ‘Polly’ Newham decided to leave the band, albeit temporarily (he went on to play with Ya Ya Choral, Mondo Rock, and during 1982 with The Numbers - see Nov. post). The single ‘Shout And Deliver’ (OZ#43) announced the arrival of a landmark album in the history of Australian popular music. By now The Reels were also producing their own work (credited as ‘Reel Production’), and the album ‘Quasimodo’s Dream’ was an auspicious start to the band’s newly established creative autonomy. The stark cover art belied the richly textured musical offering within. The previous few singles, including ‘According To My Heart’ were part of the mix (‘According To My Heart’ was included at the behest of the record label, and went against the band’s express wishes), but aside from the catchy ‘Shout And Deliver’, the highlight was the album’s atmospheric title track. The haunting ‘Quasimodo’s Dream’ was a sublimely produced piece of work, the stark simplicity of which, proved to have an increasingly mesmerising lure with each listen. Mason’s heartfelt vocals were blended seamlessly with a relentless and hypnotically rhythmic synth backing. The track ‘Quasimodo’s Dream’ was later covered by a number of artists, including Kate Ceberano (see future post), on her breakthrough 1989 album ‘Brave’. In 2001 it was voted by the Australian Performing Right Association (A.P.R.A.) as one of the top ten Australian songs of all time - actually it came in at #10. The album of the same name, which took nine months to record (at the famed Albert Studios), had peaked at #27 on the Australian charts during June of ‘81, but regrettably commercial radio failed to get behind the single release of ‘Quasimodo’s Dream’, which missed the charts, despite The Reels performing the song on Countdown during August of ‘81. Another album track, ‘Kitchen Man’, lent its name to The Reels’ next Australian tour, which was launched with the band inviting the local music media to a luxury hotel, and providing them with breakfast. The Reels also took the ‘kitchen’ motif on the road with them, with their stage set-up resembling a fully functional kitchen, though I’m not sure if any of the band took to playing the spoons.

But as the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth - or some such nonsense - and though the ‘Kitchen Man’ tour attracted plenty of patrons, The Reels soon after underwent a shake-up in their roster. Drummer John Bliss had left soon after the release of ‘Quasimodo’s Dream’, and had been replaced by Stefan Fidock (also ex-Romantics). In November ‘81 The Reels released their final single for Mercury Records with ‘No.3’ (OZ#94), a song which marked a bit of a departure from recent fare, and a return to earlier up tempo, guitar-synth pop. The single also marked the final outing with the group for Karen Ansell, who released a one off solo single with Mushroom in April ‘83, titled ‘No Commotion’, before going on to a successful career in computer animation. Bassist Paul Abrahams also left The Reels during this period, and went on to join John Bliss for a time in one of several incarnations of The Numbers (see Nov. post). The Reels were now operating as the trio of Dave Mason, Craig Hooper and Stefan Fidock, and continued to tour into 1982, with their live sound augmented by backing tapes. Like another Australian act, Icehouse (see Sep. post), for their next studio project, The Reels would employ a brand spanking new ‘Fairlight’ synthesizer, to once more redefine their sound.


Anonymous said...

nice try but not accurate...looks like ill have to write the book..hehehe
john bliss

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Hi John,
cheers for the comment. Like so many great Aussie artists, volume and accuracy of info is far to scant - but I took a shot :)
I'll keep an eye out for that book, and look forward to reading an insiders account of one of Australia's most underrated bands.
All the best.

Anonymous said...

Great information, thank you for making this available, and from what I remember as a fan it's right on the money, even if it doesn't stroke one of the band member's ego. Thanks.

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Thanks 'Anonymous' - glad I got somewhere near the ballpark of accuracy :)