Sunday, May 17, 2009

On A Diet? Try Some Sugar Free Wa Wa Nee

By the mid 80s, the peak of Australia’s famed pub-rock scene had arguably passed. Many of the acts that had cut their collective teeth on the thriving pub/club circuits of the mid 70s on, had subsequently been launched into the Australian, and in some cases, global rock stratosphere. They’d effectively outgrown the ‘pub rocker’ tag, and several were being mentioned in the same breath as ‘legend’ (or in some cases ‘veterans’). The likes of Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl, Radiators, The Runners, Sports, Uncanny X-Men, Men At Work, Rose Tattoo, Radio Birdman, Choirboys, Midnight Oil, The Angels, et al, were being supplanted at the grass roots level by a new generation of artists, many of whom were born of a stylistic breeding, that had more of a mixed musical pedigree about it (the likes of Boom Crash Opera, Big Pig, The Cruel Sea, Frente!, The Hippos, I’m Talking, Rockmelons, Go 101). That’s not to say that the traditional harder edged rock outfit had been rendered an anachronism on the Australian music scene, but live venues, and their patrons, were more accommodating of a broader blend of styles. In the early 80s, bands such as Machinations, Deckchairs Overboard, Non Stop Dancers, and Kids In The Kitchen, had mapped out the cross-over territory, brilliantly exploring the live dynamics of infusing funk, R&B, and dance elements into the pop-rock performance mix. Without this initial paving beyond traditional ways, the likes of funk-pop outfit Wa Wa Nee, could not have made such an impact nationally, and indeed, internationally, during the latter half of the decade.

During 1985, Paul Gray (vocals/keyboards), and Steve Williams (guitar/vocals), engaged the concept of marrying highly danceable synth driven funk grooves, with liberal dashes of screeching metalesque guitar, and presenting it in a savvy and sophisticated commercial package. After all, Prince had already proven that you could take a slick funk rhythm, lace it with ear splitting guitar licks (think ‘Let’s Go Crazy’), and if the basics of solid song arrangement, infectious melody, and performance dynamics were present, the ingredients could yield a seamless slice of irresistible pop music. The duo recorded several demo tracks from tunes they‘d written, presented them to CBS Records in late ‘85, and were promptly signed to a recording deal.

In January of ‘86, Gray and Williams (still in their early 20s) put together a full touring line-up of the band, that comprised bassist Geoff Lundren (ex-Solid Citizens), keyboardist and backing vocalist Elizabeth Lord, and American born drummer Chris Sweeney. Within a short period of time, Lundren had been replaced by Paul Gray’s younger brother Mark, and later in the year New Zealander Phil Witchett replaced Lord on keyboard duties. By April 1986, Wa Wa Nee were primed to unleash their funk-pop ferocity upon the Australian public. The lead out single, ‘Stimulation’, stimulated interest almost immediately, and debuted on the national charts during May. The single was backed by a quirky promo clip, which featured some clever stop motion animation, and played on Gray’s overt sexual image (mullet and all). ‘Stimulation’ had all the right ingredients to be a major hit, and peaked mid year at #2 nationally, held at bay by page three’s Samantha Fox. For anyone quick to write off the song as an ephemeral piece of throwaway pop, 27 weeks on the national chart proved otherwise.

Eager to establish themselves as more than just studio players, Gray and Williams took Wa Wa Nee on the road for an extensive touring schedule (playing 270 shows over the course of 1986), and proved themselves more than capable of reproducing the goods on stage. Gray also indulged in his love of jazz on the side, playing low key gigs at Sydney clubs on occasion, in keeping with his little known formative years as a professional musician. The duo astutely adopted a none too subtle image, born of the same elements that had defined the gaudier side of glam, and more narcissistic articulations of the ‘New Romantic’ movement. If over the top posturing and preening had been all they had to offer, Wa Wa Nee would have quickly gone by the wayside, but in Gray and Williams, they possessed two talented and accomplished musicians with the substance to back up the show. With ‘Stimulation’ still firmly entrenched in the upper reaches of the charts, Wa Wa Nee released their follow up single, ‘I Could Make You Love Me’, in August of ‘86. Produced by Chris Cameron, the track reminded me very much of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, circa ‘Pleasuredome’, with its spikes of grandiose synth, lashes of Steve Stevens style guitar (Williams idolised the Billy Idol guitarist), and Paul Gray doing his best Holly Johnson impression in parts. ‘I Could Make You Love Me’ lived up to its own claim, and soared to #5 on the Australian charts (it’s also my favourite Wa Wa Nee track).

With two top five singles in the bank, Wa Wa Nee’s much anticipated debut album hit Australian stores in November of ‘86. The self-titled affair had been co-produced by Gray and Jim Taig (aside from two tracks helmed by Cameron), and began climbing steadily up the national charts as single #3 was released in December. ‘Sugar Free’ may have been short on sweetness of title, but its insatiable hook laden nature, and funky grooves, made it irresistibly delicious to unabashed consumers of infectious pop. By early ‘87, Wa Wa Nee had notched up their third consecutive Australian top ten hit (#10) - three from three if you don’t mind - reaffirming Gray, Williams and co. as consummate craftsmen of catchy funk-pop. During the same period, the ‘Wa Wa Nee’ album reached a peak of #29 in Australia, eventually achieving platinum status (70,000 copies). It yielded one more top twenty single, with a remixed version of ‘One And One (Ain’t I Good Enough)’ (OZ#19). The track was also included in the limited edition ‘Mind Over Matter’ double single pack, in red vinyl if you please, which I also purchased at the time. The band (or at least the label) must have been seeing some of the financial returns from earlier efforts, as the promotional video for ‘One And One (Ain’t I Good Enough)’ was a mildly extravagant affair, though I’m not certain how it related to the song itself.

By mid ‘87, Wa Wa Nee were beginning to attract some attention in the U.S., aided by CBS confidence in the band’s sound being compatible with American tastes. ‘Sugar Free’ proved to be the breakthrough track for the band Stateside, hitting the Hot 100 in September, and peaking at #35. The band rush produced a second version of the promo video, especially for the U.S. market, and hit the country in October for a promotional tour. Back in 1987 it was a big deal for any Australian artist to crack the U.S. Hot 100, let alone the top forty, but unfortunately Wa Wa Nee’s momentum there couldn’t be sustained. In early ‘88, ‘Stimulation’ (US#86) failed to incite much passion, meaning a repackaged ‘Wa Wa Nee’ album didn’t receive that extra nudge needed to push it inside the top 100 (#123). Around the same time an album of extended remixes was also released for both Australian and U.S. markets.

The band returned home and began preparations for their sophomore album, but were dealt a cruel blow with the death of keyboardist Phil Witchett, prior to the album being completed. Wa Wa Nee would dedicate their second album to their former bandmate, and carried forward as the quartet of Paul Gray, Mark Gray, Steve Williams, and Chris Sweeney. In November of ‘88, ‘Can’t Control Myself’ was released as the lead out single, and stuck to pretty much the same tried and true funk-pop formula, with Gray doing his very best Prince impersonation - that’s not to say that it wasn’t a very engaging song. It was also evident, judging by promo appearances, that Gray and Williams had spent a considerable amount of time cultivating their respective mullet cuts. Despite still being able to ignite fits of hysterical screaming from scores of adoring teens, ‘Can’t Control Myself’ only managed a controlled ascent to #23 nationally. The follow up single, ‘So Good’, for mine suffered too much from that artificial sounding techno-pop element, that was beginning to seep into music in the late 80s. That said, it was decent enough in that generic dance-pop kind of way, and must have been doing something right, because it peaked at #29 nationally in early ‘89. The song’s promo clip caused a bit of stir, with its juxtaposition of religious imagery with a very attractive young lady in varying stages of undress - it was enough to make you blush!

And speaking of blush (I love a good segue way), Wa Wa Nee’s sophomore album ‘Blush’ was released in April of ‘89. Co-produced by Paul Gray and Robin Smith, the album actually out charted its predecessor, at least in terms of peak position (#27), but the decibel levels of teenage screams were on the decline, as were the band’s commercial fortunes. Wa Wa Nee’s final foray into the charts came in mid ‘89, with the single ‘I Want You’ (OZ#69). Gray and Williams realised that the band had run its course, and wisely pulled the plug on the Wa Wa Nee machine, late in ‘89.

Bassist Mark Gray went on to work with the Tania Bowra Band, the James Reyne Band (see earlier post), and played a bit of bass in studio for the next teen-scream sensation, Indecent Obsession (but don’t ever expect to read a post about them on this blog). Gifted guitarist Steve Williams went on to play with the James Freud Band, Mama’s Darlings, Richard Clapton Band, and Skunk. He spent time working and living in Europe (he originally hailed from Wales), before returning to settle in Australia. He has maintained an active interest in varying aspect of professional music, from teaching, playing in pub bands, and backing some of the country’s finest. In recent years, Williams was involved with a Led Zeppelin covers band called The Zep Boys, who performed a series of sell-out shows in 2006 with the Victorian Symphony Orchestra. He modified that concept to play some Deep Purple tribute shows in 2008, backing by the Australian Symphony Orchestra.

Vocalist/keyboardist Paul Gray has remained a key figure on the Australian music scene. He aided in the career rise of the sensational Deni Hines; played guitar on the 1992 album ‘Propaganda’ by Maybe Dolls (see earlier post); produced work for vocalist (and one time Nissan Cedric) Danni’elle Gaha; co-wrote the breakthrough hit for CDB, ‘Hook Me Up’; played and produced work for the likes of Lisa Maxwell, Kate Ceberano and Tina Arena. In more recent years, Gray has written and produced work for Australia ‘Popstars’ winner’s Bardot, and Scandal’Us. In 2006, he caught the retro bug, and revived some of Wa Wa Nee’s best on tour, alongside the likes of fellow 80s acts Pseudo Echo (see previous post), Boom Crash Opera (see future post), and Real Life (see previous post) - or at least the lead vocalists from those acts. In 2007, Gray wowed audiences on the ‘Countdown Spectacular 2’ series of concerts, sans mullet of course, serving up some sugar free stimulation for retro-heads.

It’s worth noting, that seven years after the Wa Wa Nee experience was over, Savage Garden (Darren Hayes and Daniel Jones) took the Paul Gray/Steve Williams blueprint, tweaked it a tad, and refined it to near perfection, in the process becoming one of the biggest selling Australian acts of all time.

Check out this first rate dedicated fan site for Wa Wa Nee -

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