Saturday, July 18, 2009

Models Of Modern Major Music Talent

There’s little doubt that the reunion of Sean Kelly and James Freud as creative entities, lent a new level of confidence, and vibrancy, to Models. James Freud’s seductively refined vocals, rock star strut, and polished playing, seemed a logical offset to Sean Kelly’s raw vocal vitality, jolting instrumentation, and all round manic edginess. Throw in Andrew Duffield’s inventive synth playing, and Barton Price’s powerhouse presence behind the drums, and the entire dynamics and texture of the band had shifted to a new level. There was every reason for those associated with Models to believe that this revitalised line-up possessed a commercial edge not apparent, or at least not realised, before.

Highly regarded producer Nick Launay (Birthday Party, Midnight Oil, Talking Heads, Kate Bush) was charged with the task of tapping into, and harnessing, this newly apparent pop-rock potential. The band worked on their new album during the first half of ‘83 (recorded in Sydney and mixed in London), and the first gem to be realised from the sessions arrived during September, in the form of the lead out single, ‘I Hear Motion’. The band approached the recording with a deliberate intent to shift the rhythm section more to the forefront, and instil a distinctly danceable flavour to proceedings. That’s not to say Models had in anyway forsaken their ballsy stylistic roots in complete deference to pop accessibility, but they were at least aiming to bridge the gap to formulate a hybrid style of sorts. When I hear ‘I Hear Motion’, I hear a finely tuned synth-rock machine springing to life. From the opening shots of Andrew Duffield’s synthesizer, followed by the explosion into action of Barton Price’s thunder clap of drums, I’m immersed in a cold, foreboding, yet hauntingly alluring world, that echoes strongly elements of the industrialised synth-pop that emerged out of Europe and the U.K. (early Human League, Ultravox, Daniel Miller, Faust, Kraftwerk). Kelly and Freud then kick start the pulsating guitar and bass components, but it’s Sean Kelly’s menacing vocals that add that extra layer of brilliance. Kelly oscillates between restrained snarls and explosive growls, delivering a lyric that synchs seamlessly with the background mechanics. To top things off, the song’s chorus chant incites you to stand up and march - I have no idea where too. There’s a strange and irrepressible sense of ebullience lurking in the surface menace. ‘I Hear Motion’ encapsulates both the old and new Models - the borderline chaos of disparate elements and styles, fine tuned to a polished end product. No doubt the band played the major part, but producer Nick Launay must surely be credited with achieving his brief of capturing the raw horsepower and extracting a thoroughbred performance from it. ‘I Hear Motion’ became Models first top twenty hit (OZ#16), and provided the gateway to a reinvented sound and image for the band (complete with slick ‘new romantic’ style suits in the promo video). As an aside, Andrew Duffield later revealed that his synth-riff in ‘I Hear Motion’ had been inspired by Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ - well if you’re going to be inspired, it might as well be by genius.

‘I Hear Motion’s source album, ‘The Pleasure Of Your Company’ (OZ#12), was released in October of ‘83, and quickly climbed up the national charts, in part on the back of the success of ‘I Hear Motion’. James Freud also took a share of lead vocal duties, and doubtless his smoother, ‘radio friendly’ vocals assisted in attracting a wider audience. In some respects, Kelly and Freud set up a very effective (and oft used) balance of sweet and sour in the vocal department. Fans had their first taste of the Models’ vocals, Freud-style, via the up-beat album track, ‘Facing The North Pole In August’. The occasional attack of the ‘bizzares’ crept into the mix, and why not, with ‘Watch Your Mouth’ resembling the bastard offspring of ‘Stray Cat Strut’ and a Phil Judd at his most eccentric. ‘No Shoulders, No Head’ surfaced during December as the album’s second single, but for mine, it was an oddly disengaging choice - the public at the time must have agreed, as the single failed to chart. But all was not lost, and over the 83/84 summer, Models snagged a support slot on David Bowie’s mammoth ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour of Australia (and maintained a hectic tour schedule in the ensuing months). Over time the term ‘crossover’ had begun to be attached to the Models’ brand, a reflection in part of their increasing commercial returns. By comparison to other Melbourne based acts such as Birthday Party or Hunters & Collectors, considered by some as ‘alternative’ or unconventional, Models’ had seemingly crossed the border into more commercial viable, or dare I say it, mainstream territory - but sold out they had not. The ‘crossover’ tag probably lost a little credibility with the chart performance of Models’ next single, ‘God Bless America’, released in April of ‘84. The song was backed by a very innovative and presumably costly video clip, shot in 3D, though perhaps the overheads were kept down by the fact that it was shot in a junkyard. The video clip did feature the band’s new backing singers, Kate Ceberano and Zan, of funk-soul outfit I’m Talking. But despite being an eminently listenable, and quite funky track, ‘God Bless America’ crawled to a disappointing #86 nationally.

Following on from the disappointing performance of Models’ last two singles, Sean Kelly seemed poised to pull the plug on the band, and had reportedly been rehearsing with a new band. Recognising that Models may be on the threshold of the big time, Mushroom Records arranged for big shot American producer Reggie Lucas to produce a few new tracks. On the surface it seemed an odd move to hand pick a producer, with a background as a jazz musician, and most readily associated with dance/R&B material in the production stakes. But quality is quality, and the involvement of Lucas was enough to convince Kelly and the rest of Models to return to the studio and lay down some new cuts. The first result of the collaboration arrived in October of ‘84, in the form of the exceptional single ‘Big On Love’ (co-written by Kelly and producer Lucas). If ‘I Hear Motion’ evoked a sense of raw mechanics at work, ‘Big On Love’ lubricated the machinery with fluid funk. Of course the smoothness required a few rough edges, just to jolt the senses. Sean Kelly’s blistering, crunching guitar, and trademark vocals, infused the track with just the right amount of bullish attitude, projecting a primal lust into the lyrics. Above all else, ‘Big On Love’ is a kick ass song - a crying shame that more were not seduced by its lure (OZ#24). Although not immediately apparent at the time, ‘Big On Love’ served as an appetizer for Models’ next album - but there would be one or two more twists in the road before the band arrived at that station.

The latter part of ‘84 witnessed a couple of key events which further altered the bandscape for Models. Keyboard/synth player, and Sean Kelly’s lieutenant, Andrew Duffield, parted ways with Models in what could only be described as acrimonious circumstances. Details at the time were sketchy, and the matter was subject to much conjecture and scrutiny within the music industry and media, but it was never quite clear whether Duffield dived overboard, or was encouraged strongly to walk the plank. In his 1986 interview with Smash Hits magazine, Sean Kelly alluded to a key factor being the increased pace of creative output, something that apparently didn’t sit well with Duffield. Whatever was at the heart of events, it was a potentially cruel blow to the balance of the band going forward - or at least it could well have been, had Models continued on the same trajectory. Duffield’s replacement was found in the form of Roger Mason, James Freud’s old band mate from his Radio Stars/Berlin days (so there was kind of a ‘keeping it in the family’ ring to it). Meanwhile, Andrew Duffield continued to write and record his own music, and in 1988 released the solo album ‘Ten Happy Fingers’ on his own Retrograde label. I recall seeing an interview which featured Kelly and Duffield talking about Models (can’t quite recall the source - or vintage), and though the two were most definitely on talking terms, there were still one or two light hearted barbs made in reference to Duffield’s departure. Around the same time that Mason replaced Duffield, Models also decided to recruit a saxophone player, back in the days when they were in plentiful supply, and still a much valued commodity in the popular music industry. James Valentine had built up a strong rep around the traps, and he became the fifth Model at the end of ‘84, whilst Canadian songstress Wendy Matthews came on board as a backing vocalist (Matthews and Kelly would become a couple for the next eleven years).

Models then opted to shift their base of operations to Sydney, and signed to a new management company, MMA. Friends, mutual admirers, and the biggest band in the land, INXS, just happened to be the star client for MMA, under the management auspices of Chris Murphy. Models and INXS had been on friendly terms for years, and in a sense came up through the ranks during the same period - the difference now being that INXS was on the verge of cracking the international market - in a big way. The album to do that for INXS had been ‘The Swing’, on which Models’ Sean Kelly and Andrew Duffield had contributed some backing vocals. At INXS’ encouragement, Chris Murphy took a personal interest in helping Models achieve the same degree of commercial success being rained down upon INXS. But a tad more tweaking in the band’s sound and style would be required, to further align Models to a more commercially accessible pop-rock angle. The shift in approach would inform the style on their next album, but as ever, Models didn’t completely forsake their post-punk roots, and would manage to effectively weave the two strands together, with edgy synth-rock counterbalancing melodic pop-rock.

At the beginning of 1985, Models began work on material for their fourth studio album. Producer Reggie Lucas oversaw early production work on Models’ next single, with local hot shot producer Mark Opitz (Angels, Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl, INXS - surprise, surprise) later remixing the track. Opitz then assumed the reigns for the remainder of the album’s recording. In March of ‘85, Models signalled their clear intent to walk the radio-friendly pop line with the release of their new single. ‘Barbados’ was a slow tempo, reggae-tinged song, that was radically removed from the band’s previous single ‘Big On Love’ (ironically the recently departed Duffield co-wrote ‘Barbados’ with Freud). The song had a breezy, almost dreamy quality that washed over listeners with its warmth and charm. James Freud handled lead vocals, and his voice had a soulful, crooning quality to it, though given the song’s subject matter it could have been interpreted as a deliberately slurred edge. Despite the languid, sunny disposition of ‘Barbados’, lyrically, the song had a much darker side, exploring themes of alcoholism, and impending suicide. Freud acted out the character role in the accompanying promo video, directed by none other than Richard Lowenstein (who worked extensively with U2, and guess who else - INXS). The full version of the video didn’t make it past the television censors at the time, with the removal of several scenes relating to an inferred suicide by Freud’s lyrical character (the video’s theme was apparently inspired in part by the film ‘The Deer Hunter’). I’m Talking’s Zan Abeyratne, and Kate Ceberano, appeared in the video clip, with Ceberano credited with backing vocals for the track. Ironically the theme of alcoholism dealt with in the lyrics rang true in life for Freud, and the title of his first autobiography, released in 2002, was ‘I Am The Voice Left From Drinking’, a line lifted directly from the lyrics to ‘Barbados’ (in 2007 he published the follow up ‘I Am The Voice Left From Rehab’). ‘Barbados’ dawned on the Australian charts shortly after its release, and washed ashore to a high tide of #2 by mid year, establishing it as by far and away Models’ biggest selling single to date. But they were about to go one better.

Thanks to Warwick from 80s Dreamer blogspot (see link in Ultra Cool Retro Links) for helping out with some great source photos, little known tidbits, and access to a 1986 interview with Sean Kelly. To read the interview in full, and much more, check out Warwick's Models' fansite at -

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