Wednesday, August 12, 2009

An Uncanny Bunch Of Superhero Musicians

Late in 1983 I was strolling across the high school grounds one lunch time, as was my want to do, when I heard a local school band belting out the rollicking rocker ‘How Do You Get Your Kicks’, a song which had been the break through hit for Aussie pub rockers Uncanny X-Men, just a few months earlier. I’d already purchased the vinyl 45 single, but stood transfixed as these kids delivered their own adrenaline pumping take on the song. In hindsight, there must have been a relatively liberal school administration in place, because I don’t know of too many school campuses where cutting edge rock was played during lunch hours. Actually, from memory the band were rehearsing for the end of year school concert, and served up an equally barnstorming rendition of ‘How Do You Get Your Kicks’ the following week. Uncanny X-Men were still to hit the big time on the Australian music scene, but had caused a stir of their own over the preceding twelve months, wowing audiences and record industry types alike with their no holes barred brand of boisterous pub rock. Over the ensuing five years, that high energy sound would become somewhat of a trademark for these suburban rock heroes, but Uncanny X-Men would broaden their sound and develop a depth of quality that, for a time, promised to elevate them to A-list status on the Australian music scene.

Uncanny X-Men (of the rock group variety) came together originally as a Melbourne based four piece, during the closing chapters of 1980. Guitarist Ron Thiessen, drummer Nick Manthandos, and bassist Steve Harrison were the engine room that backed hyper-active vocalist Brian Mannix - Mannix by name, manic by nature. By early ‘81, they’d expanded to a five piece with the addition of guitarist Chuck Hargreaves, and soon began making an impact on the Melbourne pub/club circuit. Uncanny X-Men played an adrenalin surging mix of covers and original material, at venues like the Pier Hotel and Doncaster Inn. Vocalist Brian Mannix quickly became the focal point with his high energy stage antics, lycra pants, bleached blonde mullet, and mischievous, irreverent interaction with the audience. Anything from the Sex Pistols to Simon and Garfunkel got a look in, usually performed with a mischievously comic approach (sending up the original artists), alongside an increasing number of original songs penned by the band.

By late ‘82, Mushroom Records had come a knocking at Uncanny X-Men’s secret hideout (or possibly their front door), wanting to capture the band’s raw performance energy on vinyl. Just a few days after signing, Uncanny X-Men recorded their debut six track EP ‘Salive One!’ as essentially a live in-studio effort at AAV, on November 2nd, 1982, in front of a specially invited audience of 200. The EP featured the crowd favourite ‘Pakistan’, which was identified as the single for promotional purposes. During December ‘82, the EP peaked at #11 on the Melbourne charts, and #40 nationally, whilst Uncanny X-Men’s profile received a huge boost via a support slot for the touring Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (see previous post).

Early ‘83 saw the departure of bassist Steve Harrison, replaced by John Kirk, and the band entered the studio to record their follow up single. The aforementioned ‘How Do You Get Your Kicks’ was written by Skyhooks legend Greg Macainsh (who makes a cameo appearance in the spirited promo video - ah to be young and carefree), and co-produced by Macainsh and ex-Little River Band player David Briggs. The song encapsulated the good time, party hard attitude of Uncanny X-Men, and following its March ‘83 release, made a strong impact on the Melbourne charts (#17). A memorable appearance on Countdown during May helped push the single to #51 nationally. By mid ‘83, Craig Waugh (ex-Primal Tears) had stepped in for drummer Nick Manthandos, just in time for the release of Uncanny X-Men’s next single release, the Brian Mannix penned ‘Time Goes So Fast’ (OZ#63/#31 Melbourne). Over the remainder of ‘83 and first half of ‘84, Uncanny X-Men maintained a hectic schedule of live gigs, which further consolidated the bands reputation as a kick-ass live act.

During July of ‘84, the band entered AAV Studios once more, this time with a producer by the name of Rick ‘Pinko’ Sims, better known as Red Symons (also of Skyhooks infamy). They recorded two tracks, ‘Radio’, and the anti- establishment themed ‘Everybody Want To Work’. A few weeks later, two more tracks (‘Beach Party’ and ‘Little Girls’) were recorded at an Uncanny X-Men gig at the Chevron Hotel in Sydney. The four tracks comprised the band’s second EP, ‘Beach Party’, released in late August ‘84. ‘Everybody Wants To Work’ was identified as the lead track for promotional purposes (including a very entertaining promo clip), and the ‘Beach Party’ EP surfed to #32 nationally.

1985 would prove to be a banner year for Uncanny X-Men, kickstarting with a tour support slot for Rod Stewart (Mannix and Stewart no doubt compared hairstyles). In February, ‘The Party’ single livened up the national charts, and following another memorable appearance on Countdown, Uncanny X-Men scored their first top twenty hit (#18). ‘The Party’ was also synonymous with the lifestyle of diminutive singer Brian Mannix. In fact for a time Mannix’s larger than life profile threatened to overshadow the band itself. His public and private antics kept him in the public and media spotlight regularly, and he could always be counted on to offer up a mischievous quip, or cheeky obscenity - typical rock star stuff really. Mannix became a semi-regular host on Countdown (he was a favourite of Molly Meldrum), and I recall one particular show from as far back as late ‘83. Mannix caused a stir by taking a cheap shot at just about every artist that was featured on the show, from Meat Loaf, to Sheena Easton, and made comment about the “old guy” on the keyboards in a clip to the song ‘The Walls Came Down’ by The Call (the “old guy” was actually The Band legend Garth Hudson). It was all tongue in cheek stuff, and in hindsight amounted to nothing more than playful monkey business, but no doubt it elevated Mannix to somewhat of a ‘bad boy’ on the Australian music scene. Wild parties and arrests for obscene language aside, Mannix also managed his growing public profile quite astutely, via a regular newspaper column, and frequent appearances on television variety shows (and even an guest acting gig on the television drama ‘The Flying Doctors’).

It’s not unusual (in fact it’s pretty much the norm) for the lead singers in rock bands to attract more than their share of the spotlight, but as a unit Uncanny X-Men were also going from strength to strength. They surprised a lot of critics and fans alike with their next single, the poignant ballad ‘50 Years’. Whilst the question of “where will we be in 50 years” remained unanswered (I think most of us over 30 know), it was clear that Uncanny X-Men found a place in the national top ten with their latest single. ‘50 Years’ achieved gold status within just a few weeks (OZ#4), and provided the perfect entrée for Uncanny X-Men’s debut full length album. ‘Cos Life Hurts’ made an immediate impact on the charts following its June ‘85 release. It peaked at #3 nationally, fended off from #1 by the likes of Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers In Arms’, and Eurythmics’ ‘Be Yourself Tonight’ sets, and by August had notched up sales of over 100,000 (double platinum). Most of the album was produced by Red Symons at Platinum Studios in Melbourne, however, the next single lifted from ‘Cos Life Hurts’ had been produced by Dragon’s Alan Mansfield. ‘Still Waiting’ didn’t have to linger long to find a place inside the Australian charts (#43), and helped push the chart life of ‘Cos Life Hurts’ out to a duration of 33 weeks. During July the band were chosen to feature in the line-up for the Oz For Africa concert (Australia’s contribution to the Live Aid effort), and performed their hits ‘Everybody Wants To Work’ and ‘50 Years’. Further proof of Uncanny X-Men’s popularity at that time, was their official fan club, dubbed the X-Maniacs, which at the time had the largest membership of any music artist fan club in Australia (not sure if there was any kind of initiation ceremony to join).

Uncanny X-Men’s line-up had remained stable over the preceding couple of years - Wolverine, Cyclops, Colossus…no wait sorry, bit of a Stan Lee comic moment there. Anyway, in early ‘86 guitarist Ron Thiessen left to take up residency with Sydney band Kings of the Sun (see future post). Joey Amenta (ex-Russell Morris, ex-Moving Pictures, ex-Wendy and the Rocketts, ex-everybody really - see previous post) came aboard as a temporary measure, as recording began on Uncanny X-Men’s follow up album. The band had just signed on with CBS, and returned to Melbourne’s Platinum Studios, along with producer Kevin Beamish (worked with REO Speed wagon - see future post). Ex-Adventure guitarist Brett Kingman joined as a fulltime member, though Joey Amenta played on some of the sessions. The first single to surface was ‘I Am’, released in May of ‘86, and by mid year Uncanny X-Men had once more infiltrated the national top twenty (#18). The rousing ‘Don’t Wake Me’ followed a few months later and set the alarm at #31 nationally during October. Both tracks were lifted from Uncanny X-Men’s sophomore album, ‘What You Give Is What You Get’ (OZ#19), released in November of ‘86. The album also featured guest players Andy Thompson (sax), and Michael Caruna (keyboards), and the band were definitely showing signs of stretching their stylistic legs. The performance of the follow up singles, ‘Nothing Touches My World’ (OZ#97), and the very polished ‘Start Believing’ (OZ#63), was disappointing during the first half of ‘87. ‘Start Believing’ was an excellent song, and reflected a band who had struck upon a sophisticated and mature sound, though perhaps that was part of the issue in its lack of commercial appeal - afterall Uncanny X-Men were known best for their rollicking rock rhetoric.

As is the nature of most bands, a combination of factors led to Uncanny X-Men parting ways by the end of 1987. With the writing on the wall, the band had one last blast with a farewell gig held at the Armadale Hotel in Melbourne during December. Mannix, Kingman and Waugh continued playing together in the newly formed, though short lived, Dead Legends (with bassist Derek O’Leary). Chuck Hargreaves went on to tour with Daryl Braithwaite’s band, Waugh later joined the outfit Horsehead, whilst Kingman was involved with several bands of the ensuing years, including James Reyne’s band, Bigger Than Jesus, and Gas (which featured former Cattletruck front man Paul Janovskis - see previous post). As for Mr. Mannix, he turned to acting for a period of time, appearing in the stage play ‘Bad Boy Johnny and the Prophets of Doom’ (and contributing to the soundtrack album). In 1991, Mannix released his one and only solo album, a self titled effort, and for the remainder of the 90s balanced playing in local pub rock outfits, and acting on television.

In 1998, Mannix organised a brief reunion of Uncanny X-Men for a series of live shows, but the band went their separate ways again thereafter. Uncanny X-Men may not have been around for a long time, but undoubtedly they were around for a good time. If you’d like to delve more into the world of the Uncanny X-Men (the musical variety), I would highly recommend the following fan site: http://uncannyxmen.homestead.com/index.html

2 comments:

Captain Fancypants said...

Just fantastic Mr Gulls. This review now linked on my site also, as I had forgotten "How do you get your kicks" as a great film clip of the 80's Cheers and keep up the good work
Captain Fancypants from CDU - the band!

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Hey Captain - glad you liked the Uncanny X-Men post. Brian and the boys were one of the great party bands of the 80s. Thanks for the link too - always happy to be associated with the CDU website.
Cheers mate.
Mr Gulls