Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Virtuosity Of Versatility

Around April or May of ‘87, I had occasion to attend my very first over age gig - which just happened to be in a dank, smoke filled warehouse. The venue was essentially a very large room, with makeshift stage, and bars serving alcoholic beverages on opposing walls. As with most experiences of my youth, my recollections of the occasion are hazy, the miasma of my memories made all the more murky by my moderately inebriated state at the time. With little conviction, I recall the name of the venue was The Wharf, and since it was located down near the (then largely undeveloped) foreshore area of the city, that sounds reasonably convincing to me. With more certainty, in fact with absolute conviction, I can state that the gig was a double bill, with Crowded House as the headline act.

It was the first occasion of several that I was fortunate enough to see Neil and the lads i
n action, and this particular show would have coincided with the tail end of action for Crowded House’s debut album. I do recollect that Eddie Rayner was playing keyboards with them at the time, and that Neil performed a bare bones version of ‘Better Be Home Soon’, which would become a major hit from their sophomore set the following year. It’s likely that my primary motivation for going to the show was to see Crowded House in action, but that’s not to dismiss in any way the class and appeal of the support act that night - Weddings, Parties, Anything - undoubtedly one of the most underrated acts on the Australian music scene during the 80s and early 90s.

I’ve written before on this blog about the thriving Australian pub-rock scene of the late 70s and early 80s, that spawned a plethora of outstanding music artists. The Melbourne based outfit Weddings, Parties, Anything were one such act to emerge on the scene during that period. The band had its roots in the Victorian city of Geelong, with founding member Michael (Mick) Thomas (vocals/guitar/bass) forming a key component of local act The Never Never Band during 1978. It was during this period that another Geelong based group emerged, in the guise of The Goanna Band (later to evolve into Goanna). Thomas was partnered in The Never Never Band by Joe Nadoh (guitar), Wendy Harrison (bass), and Archie Cuthbertson (drums), and after much toiling on stage, the quartet managed to release an independent single during February of 1981, ‘It Doesn’t Mean Anything’. But a career as a singer/songwriter definitely did mean something to Mick Thomas, and following the dissolution of The Never Never Band, he continued to develop his craft as a songwriter, hued with long standing love of traditional folk. Thomas built his songs around a base of folk narrative structures, dressed with a canvas of melodic folk-rock, and by late 1983 he was ready to form a new band - Weddings, Parties, Anything (WPA) - through which to channel his material. The band name was derived from a lyric at the end of The Clash’s ‘Revolution Rock’, but WPA would borrow more than just nomenclatural inspiration from the post-punk scene.

Thomas and his new outfit set about establishing themselves on the highly competitive Melbourne pub circuit, with Wendy Joseph (piano accordion/violin), Paul Clarke (guitar), and David Adams (drums), completing the line-up. The band were immediately a cut apart from most of the competition, not only due to their effective blending of traditional folk instrumentation with surging electric guitar licks, but also for Thomas’ very conscious decision to deliver his vocals in his natural Australian accent - something that was (and is) a bit out of the norm on the Australian music scene (though obvious exceptions come to mind in the form of Paul Kelly, Goanna - with Shane Howard, and Midnight Oil - with Peter Garrett). Stylistically, WPA were difficult to compartmentalise, though as Ian McFarlane states in ‘The Encyclopaedia of Australian Rock and Pop’, comparisons were drawn with Irish outfit The Pogues. Whatever the specific formula, the chemistry worked and WPA soon built up a strong following of fans.

By early ‘85, Mark ‘Squeezebox Wally’ Wallace had joined in place of Wendy Joseph, and his inclusion in the ranks would further define the WPA sound (bringing the accordion more to the forefront of the instrumental mix). December ‘85 saw the issuing of the band’s eponymous debut EP, released via the Suffering Tram label. Early live favourites such as ‘Summons In The Morning’ were committed to vinyl for the first time. Over the ensuing couple of years, WPA underwent a seismic shift in staff, with Thomas and Wallace remaining core components throughout. Janine Hall (bass, ex-Young Charlatans), and Marcus Schintler (drums) came on board, but it was the recruitment of guitarist/vocalist Dave Steel that proved a shot in the arm for the band’s fortunes. Steel was a veteran of the Melbourne pub circuit, having cut his teeth in outfits such as Relaxed Mechanics, and Fire Below, the latter being the most successful of these ventures. After Fire Below was extinguished in early ‘86, Steel took up the post with Weddings, Parties, Anything, with a cache of compositions to supplement Thomas’ songbook.

The now quintet set to work with producer Alan Thorne on recording their debut album, originally intended as an independent release. But the suits at the WEA label saw a greater potential in WPA’s material - perhaps it was the likeness of acronym that appealed - and as a result, the band’s debut set, ‘Scorn Of The Women’ (OZ#52), benefited from nationwide marketing and distribution muscle in April of ‘87. WPA’s unabashed blending of cutting edge post-punk style rock with folk/bush balladry (and all stops in between), immediately endeared them to both critics and fans alike. In Thomas and Steel, the band had two accomplished songsmiths to draw upon, and the album yielded three singles, the rock edged Celtic styling of ‘Away Away’ (OZ#92), ‘Shotgun Wedding’ (penned by Steel), and ‘Hungry Years’ during the course of ‘87. Relentless touring, and much deserved airplay, combined to garner Wedding, Parties, Anything the Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) award for ‘Best New Talent’ - strange how most of these ‘new talents’ have been toiling away for years. A support slot for Irish folk-rock heavyweights The Pogues led into the band entering the recording studio once more, with the focus on recording a follow up album that would surpass the quality of their first.

‘Roaring Days’ (OZ#46 - the title taken from a Henry Lawson poem), released in April of ‘88, further strengthened WPA’s burgeoning reputation on the Australian scene as a class act - and marked the debut project for new bassist Peter Lawler. The album boasted the single ‘Say The Word’, and once more astutely combined contemporary folk-rock (imbued with a timeless quality, and more than a subtle hint of traditional Celtic roots), with thought provoking, and overtly left wing lyrics (again not unlike contemporaries Goanna and Midnight Oil). It was an album that reinforced the band’s reputation as not only accomplished players, but fine story tellers, as illustrated in tracks like ‘Industrial Town’. But just weeks into a support tour, which included their first foray into U.S. territory, WPA were dealt a blow with the departure of Dave Steel, who had decided to shift his base of operations to Sydney, and embark on a tilt at a solo career. Other mitigating factors in Steel’s split have been cited as exhaustion, and a level of personal frustration at taking a backseat to Mick Thomas in terms of material used for album releases.

Late in ‘88, Dave Steel released his debut solo single, ‘The Hardest Part’, which I just happened to purchase at the time (though to that point I admit I hadn’t bought anything by WPA). ‘The Hardest Part’ was a gentle, wistful take on the notion of a Christmas Carol, though from a uniquely Australian stance. Lyrics like “It’s midnight, Christ it’s thirty degrees (Celsius) outside” spoke volumes to me, and it was as finely crafted a bush ballad as you could hope to hear. Sadly, it was apparent that few did hear ‘The Hardest Part’, though I played the vinyl 45 relentlessly over the summer of ‘88/’89. I had to make do with that old vinyl copy until I came across a digital version on the wonderful blog That Striped Sunlight Sound (see link). Steel worked with acclaimed producer Graham ‘Buzz’ Bidstrup (of Angels fame) on his debut album ‘Bitter Sweet’. Released in September of ‘89, the album further solidified Dave Steel’s standing as a singer/songwriter of some distinction, and drew favourable comparison to the likes of Paul Kelly. 1991 saw the release of Steel’s sophomore album, ‘Angels Never Cry’, again helmed by Bidstrup, but offering up a panoramic soundscape of Steel’s talents as a singer/songwriter - anything from horn-driver boogie to country rock was on the menu - delivered with an all-star support cast of players. The more stripped back ‘The Last Radio’ hit the airwaves in August of ‘92, but flew largely under the radar of a grunge obsessed public. For a time Dave Steel took up a post with pop-rock outfit The Madisons, before forming his own band in 1993 - The Roadside Prophets. Neither album, ‘Cross My Palm’, nor EP, ‘Broken English’, proved profitable for the Prophets, and by 1994, Steel had returned to solo work. A long time in the Steel works, the album ‘Old Salt Blues’ washed ashore in record stores in mid ‘96, and in between times Steel had continued to tour with The Deadly Band - the backing outfit for Archie Roach and Ruby Turner. Over the course of the subsequent decade, he has maintained a presence on the Australian folk-rock and blues scene.

Without the strength of Steel in their structure, some may have doubted the band’s ability to remain afloat, but in guitarist Richard Burgmann (ex-Sunnyboys, Saints) an able replacement was found for Steel’s musical presence, and chief songsmith Mick Thomas was still at the helm to continue WPA’s tradition of powerful story telling through song. The band had by this time established an overarching sense of identity bound within a defiant and proud sense of Australianness - not an over the top expression of patriotism, but an exploration of people, places, events, and history, laced with colloquialisms and Australian folklore. WPA kept up their incessant touring schedule throughout 1988 and 1989, and also managed to release the quirkily titled EP, ‘Goat Dancing On The Tables’, prior to the release of their third full length set, ‘The Big Don’t Argue’ (OZ#63 - the album’s title borrowing heavily from football parlance). Produced by Jim Dickinson, ‘The Big Don’t Argue’ hit stores in October of ‘89, backed by a WEA marketing campaign which promoted it as an album boasting “11 songs about love, loneliness, and cannibalism”. Thomas took centre stage and poured his artistic heart into the likes of the traditional Australian folksong ‘Streets Of Forbes’ (just up the road from the Parkes’ radio telescope), ‘The Ballad Of Peggy And Col’, and ‘The Wind And The Rain’. WPA gained a support slot with pop-rock giants U2, and scored their second ARIA award, this time through ‘The Big Don’t Argue’ taking out ‘Best Indigenous Record’.

A parting of the ways then took place between record label WEA, and band WPA, with the latter going on to record their next release as an independent concern. The 1990 EP, ‘The Weddings Play Sports (And Falcons)’ (OZ#95), delivered what the title promised, in so much as it consisted of five cover versions of tracks by the Sports (see previous posts), with a version of ‘So Young’ (by Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons -see previous post) tacked on. The tide of success seemed to ebb for WPA thereafter, and during 1991, Mick Thomas put the band on a brief hiatus, so as to concentrate his energies on penning material for a new album. Ex-Huxton Creepers guitarist Paul Thomas replaced Burgmann for the recording of the 1992 album release, ‘Difficult Loves’, a labour of love that must have indeed proved difficult, being almost two years in the making. WPA signed with indie label rooArt, and ‘Difficult Loves’ (OZ#26) proved worth the wait. The album followed on from the timely release of its lead out single, ‘Father’s Day’, which hit the Australian charts during May of ‘92 (OZ#35). ‘Father’s Day’ was a shining example of emotive, and evocative folk-rock, and doubtless resonated strongly for many who succumbed to its strongly bittersweet lyrical theme. Clouds’ songstress Trish Young joined Thomas on vocals for the follow up single, ‘Step In Step Out’ (OZ#60), and by late ‘92 ‘Difficult Loves’ had notched up near gold sales - a damn fine effort considering the musical climate of the time. Not surprisingly, ‘Father’s Day’ gained WPA their third ARIA award, for ‘Best Single’. The influence of Weddings, Parties, Anything could also be heard at the time in up and coming Australian bands such as Frente!, and Things Of Stone And Wood, both of whom ironically garnered stronger commercial returns.

Over the ensuing year, WPA’s line-up remained stable, and yielded the follow up set, ‘King Tide’ (OZ#20) in October of ‘93. Long time friend Billy Bragg made a guest appearance on the track, ‘Island Of Humour’, though that track proved to be somewhat of a humorous island in an otherwise thematically dark affair. The associated singles, ‘Monday’s Experts’, and ‘The Rain In My Heart’ clearly reflected a more commercially accessible sound for WPA, though in no way a compromise of the band’s core stylistic integrity. The cover art featured Mick Thomas sitting atop the roof of a house, overlooking a flooded landscape, and in most respects ‘King Tide’ really did represent the high watermark for Weddings, Parties, Anything. By early 95, WPA had undergone further changes to its personnel, and surprisingly found themselves without a label stable. To satisfy the demands of its fans for new material, WPA took the unusual step of releasing their sixth album, ‘Donkey Serenade’, via mail order (this was pre-universal internet days), the largely stop-gap set comprising a mix of Thomas originals with cover material. By this time, WPA’s line-up had evolved to feature Mick Thomas, Paul Thomas, Mark Wallace, Jen Anderson (mandolin/vocals), Stephen O’Prey (bass), and Michael Barclay (drums). Mushroom backed the release of 1996’s ‘Riveresque’ (released for a time with a bonus album, ‘Garage Sale’), and this time around WPA focussed on consolidating their resurgent following at home. The album boasted a vibrancy of sound astutely juxtaposed against fervently emotive lyrical fare, illustrated best in tracks like ‘Luckiest Man’, and ‘For A Short Time’.

Sadly, for a short time defined the resurgence of Weddings, Parties, Anything, and following a boisterous 1998 farewell tour (which yielded the double album ‘They Were Better Live’) the band were effectively placed on indefinite hiatus. Mick Thomas took the decision to concentrate his creative energies on several solo projects that had been bubbling away in the background, including a musical titled ‘Over In The West’. He went on to combine further work as a playwright, with a new band enterprise called The Sure Thing. Over the ensuing decade, Mick Thomas has further enhanced his reputation as a unique and uncompromising artistic presence, and a cornerstone of the Australian folk-rock music scene, having released several critically lauded albums, including ‘The Horse’s Prayer’ and 2009’s ‘Spin! Spin! Spin!’, via his own label Croxton Records, and regularly producing material for other artists (including The Gadflys and The Waifs). Thankfully, on a number of occasions over recent years, Thomas has revived Weddings, Parties, Anything for a number of short tours and special concert events (though there are no plans for an album of new material in the works), reminding audiences of the existence of an Australian cultural treasure.

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