Friday, August 21, 2009

Don't Fall In Love With A Ferret

Though he has continued to be a presence on the Australian music scene to this day, the name of Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum will no doubt forever be linked with the Australian music television show ‘Countdown’, which aired on ABC-TV from late 1974 to July 1987. Molly, as he is affectionately known, became one of the public faces of the Australian music industry, during a period where the music scene in Australia was still searching for a sure identity, and desperately seeking wider recognition from the rest of the world. Molly’s weekly ‘Humdrum’ segment became a staple of the ‘Countdown’ formula, and for any teenager of the 70s and 80s, Molly’s regular catchphrases such as ‘Do yourself a favour’, became part of the day to day vernacular. Molly’s other official role with ‘Countdown’ was as the show’s Talent Coordinator, and to his credit he played a key role in dozens of bands and singers getting their ‘lucky break’. The likes of Skyhooks, Supernaut, Mark Holden, Marcia Hines, Christie Allen, Real Life, Pseudo Echo, Kids In The Kitchen, Eurogliders et al, may still have made it on their own merit, but there’s little doubt that an endorsement from Molly, and an appearance on ‘Countdown’ (often on more than one occasion) did wonders to raise an artist’s profile.

It’s worth pointing out that, prior to ‘Countdown’, Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum had already carved out a career as a music journalist, and a record producer. During the late 60s, Meldrum had produced work for Masters Apprentices, and helmed production on one of Australia’s biggest #1 hits ever, the epic track ‘The Real Thing’, released by Russell Morris in 1969. By 1977, Meldrum had a fulltime involvement with the top rating ‘Countdown’ show, but was always on the look out for new talent - part of his role as the show’s ‘talent coordinator’ - and in 1976 a newly established folk-rock styled pop band called The Ferrets caught Molly’s eye and ear. The Ferrets would become one of that long list of artists to receive a major boost in fortunes via the patronage (directly/indirectly) of Molly Meldrum, and ‘Countdown’.

The core of The Ferrets came together in Sydney during early ‘75. Vocalist/guitarist Billy Miller, bassist Ken Firth, and guitarist Dave Springfield (State of origin unknown) originally played for a brief period as a trio, then during the latter half of ‘75, they hooked up with Melbourne boogie-rock outfit Buster Brown for that band’s closing chapters (referred to as Buster Brown Mark III). Buster Brown was led by a vocalist called Gary ‘Angry’ Anderson, who following the dissolution of Buster Brown in November of ‘75, went on to join seminal hard rock band Rose Tattoo. Miller, Firth, and Springfield then reconvened The Ferrets, set up operations in Melbourne, and added guitarist Philip Eisenberg to the line-up. Eisenberg had already worked with both Ken Firth and Billy Miller on the Australian stage production of the hit musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, which ran to sell out audiences from 1972 to 1974 (and featured the likes of Jon English, Marcia Hines, and John Paul Young in the cast).

It was soon after that Molly Meldrum took an interest in The Ferrets, and suggested experienced drummer Rick Brewer be recruited to the line-up. Brewer had already played with the likes of Zoot, and Jim Keays’ Southern Cross. Shortly after Brewer’s addition to the Ferret ranks in April of ‘76, the line-up was further expanded to include Billy Miller’s sisters, Jane (backing vocals/keyboards), and Pam (backing vocals). Within a few weeks Meldrum had secured a recording deal for The Ferrets with Michael Gudinski’s Mushroom Records label. Meldrum then organised time in between Countdown duties to helm production on The Ferrets’ debut album, work on which began in earnest during July of ‘76. It was possibly a case of revisiting the studio meticulousness of ‘The Real Thing’, and of course the increasing demands from Countdown for Molly Meldrum’s time, but recording for The Ferrets’ debut set took an eternity. In fact it was almost a year before the first product from the sessions was released to the public. The Ferrets’ debut single, ‘Robin Hood’, failed to make merry on the Australian charts upon its release in April of ‘77, but its follow up would create a considerable stir. The track ‘Lies’ had originally been slated as the A-side for The Ferrets’ second single, but took so much time for Molly Meldrum to craft to his satisfaction, that very little time was left to record a B-side. Reportedly, The Ferrets recorded the B-side, ‘Don’t Fall In Love’, in a frenetic three hour recording session. Shortly after the release of the single, Meldrum arranged for The Ferrets to appear ‘live’ on the ABC’s Countdown (in an episode hosted by Jon English - see previous post). Instead of performing the original A-side ‘Lies’, the band served up ‘Don’t Fall In Love’, a quirky little blues edged number. Public demand for ‘Don’t Fall In Love’ went through the roof, and the track was immediately shifted to the A-side on new pressings. ‘Don’t Fall In Love’ made its debut on the national charts during August of ‘77, and made steady progress to a peak of #2 nationally (#1 in Melbourne).

Meanwhile at Mushroom, a mild panic set in as the public at large were asking “where’s the album”, and Molly Meldrum had yet to finish it. Eventually work on The Ferrets’ debut set was wrapped up in August by the band themselves, along with sound engineers Tony Cohen and Ian MacKenzie. When the album ‘Dreams Of A Love’ eventually surfaced in October of ‘77, the role of producer was credited to one ‘Willie Everfinish’, a tongue in cheek pseudonym for Molly Meldrum. The eventual ‘rush release’ of ‘Dreams Of A Love’ also revealed another piece of unfinished business - the album cover. In lieu of the finished artwork, Mushroom packaged the initial run of the album in a plain white cardboard sleeve, with ‘The Ferrets’ stamped on the cover. Purchasers were assured that once the finished album cover was available that they could return to their local record bar and exchange the plain white cover for the proper one - the eventual finished cover became quite an iconic image in Australian popular music history. The fact that Mushroom Records took such an unusual step was indicative of the high level of consumer demand for a Ferrets’ album. Despite all the hoopla, ‘Dreams Of A Love’ only managed a peak of #21 on the national album charts late in ‘77. The promo video for the follow up single, ‘Janie May’, was premiered on Countdown during November of ‘77. I don’t recall the episode from when it aired, but it was one of first Countdowns that I recorded when the ABC’s all night music program Rage began airing repeats of Countdown back in the mid 90s. The program also featured Molly’s infamous ‘Silver Jubilee’ interview with Prince Charles, and Andy Gibb happened to be at #1 that particular week with ‘I Just Want To Be Your Everything’. ‘Janie May’ (OZ#35/#19 Melbourne)was catchy enough, though nothing special, but the clip was more memorable, and featured The Ferrets performing on a Melbourne train. The Ferrets were later named ‘Best Australian TV Performer’ at the 1977 ‘King of Pop Awards’.

Before year’s end, The Ferrets had lost a couple of members, with both Pam Miller and Philip Eisenberg leaving the group (or perhaps they fell asleep on the train filming ‘Janie May’). After the April ‘78 stand alone single ‘Are You Looking At Me?’ (no connection to ‘Taxi Driver’) bombed, two more Ferrets left the cage, in Jane Miller and Ken Firth. Ex-Jim Keays’ Band bassist George Cross replaced Firth, and The Ferrets carried on touring as the quartet of Billy Miller, Rick Brewer, Dave Springfield and George Cross. That was the line-up which recorded The Ferrets’ sophomore album, ‘Fame At Any Price’ (OZ#96), released to little fanfare in November of ‘78. Neither the Tony Cohen produced album, or associated singles, ‘This Night’ and ‘Tripsville’, did anything to revive the ailing Ferrets’ outfit. Late ‘78 saw the Charisma label back a U.K./Europe release of The Ferrets’ first album and the single ‘Don’t Fall In Love’, but neither made an impact. By early ‘79, Ric Petropolis had replaced Cross, but The Ferrets had entered their closing credits, and by March the band had called it a day.

Billy Miller and Ken Firth joined up again in the band The Great Blokes which lasted till 1982, and Miller co-wrote a track from the soundtrack album to the Australian film ‘Starstruck’ (the Jo Kennedy vehicle). Fellow Ferrets’ alumni Springfield, Petropolis and Brewer hooked up with Miller’s little brother Kenny in The Motivators (again till around 1982), who issued a self titled album and several singles during 1980/81. Phil Eisenberg formed the rockabilly/R&B outfit The Mighty Guys with Mick Hamilton and Leon Isackson, and stayed with that band till 1985. After The Great Blokes, Billy Miller formed a new band called The Spaniards with ex-Stars’ player Mick Pealing and Mark Mannock. The Spaniards issued a handful of singles and the mini-album ‘Locked In A Dance’ during the mid 80s. He went on to play stints with Interchange Bench during the 90s, and over the last ten years or so has been a frequent collaborator with Dave Graney’s musical endeavours. In 2006, Billy Miller performed The Ferrets’ biggest hit ‘Don’t Fall In Love’, as part of the Australia wide Countdown Spectacular Tour.

No comments: