Saturday, February 28, 2009

From The Womb To Waking Hours - Early Mythology Of Del Amitri

Several times over the years I’ve undertaken the marathon road trip across country to visit my sister and her family in Adelaide. I have to admit to liking a good road trip, but I don’t recover from the 18-20 hour drives quite as resiliently as once I did, and with the price of fuel these days, they can be quite an expensive undertaking. If you take time to stop along the way though, it’s a great way to experience some parts of the country that you might not otherwise have occasion to visit. What, is this guy writing a music blog or a travel blog? Well, the connection to music, if by association only, is that for any road trip to be an enjoyable road trip, you need good driving music - particularly if you’re set to be staring at tarmac for two or three days straight. One such return journey to Adelaide in 2003 led me to rediscover my love for the music of Scottish country-folk edged rock band Del Amitri. I’d purchased their first ‘best of’ CD a couple of years previous, titled ‘Hatful Of Rain’, and from the outskirts of Adelaide to my front drive, Del Amitri provided the ideal travel companion - beats talking to the mileage markers. From ‘Cry To Be Found’ to ‘Don’t Come Home Too Soon’, it was the perfect soundtrack, and made an already enjoyable trip, all the more memorable. The sign of a great album, and I mean a genuinely great album (even if it’s a compilation), is not having to reach for the skip track forward button once, but rather having to control yourself from hitting the skip track backward button too frequently. And on that criterion alone, it’s a stone cold sober certainty that Del Amitri’s ‘Hatful Of Rain’ is a genuinely great album, from a genuinely classy band.

From their very origins, Justin Currie was the driving force behind Del Amitri’s journey. Singer/songwriter Currie had formed his first band whilst a student at Jordanhill College in the earliest stanzas of the 1980s. Over the next couple of years, Currie fronted the earliest incarnations of Del Amitri, originally known as Del Amitri Rialzo, handling both vocals and bass duties. Via their official website, Del Amitri have indicated that the original name meant nothing, and was designed to be completely nonsensical. Over the years speculation grew as to the meaning behind the name Del Amitri, with theories ranging from the Greek meaning for “from the womb” to the brand name for a handbag. Whatever the meaning, if there is one, it’s also evident that the band long ago grew weary of questions relating to the subject, so rather than risk raising the ire of Messrs Currie and Co., I’ll leave that facet of their story by adding that, if nothing else, the name Del Amitri simply sounds cool.

The line-up of Currie’s band was anything but stable over the first couple of years, with the likes of Donald Bentley (guitar) and James M Scobbie (guitar), backing the only constant element, Currie himself. During 1982, a then 17 year old Justin Currie placed an advertisement in the window of a Glasgow music store, asking for other musicians to give him a call. And so arrived the acknowledged original line-up for Del Amitri, featuring Currie (vocals/bass), art school graduates Iain Harvey (lead guitar) and Bryan Tolland (guitar), with Paul Tyagi (drums), who’d actually been with Currie since ’81. By 1983 the quartet were ready to make the jump onto vinyl, and released their debut single ‘Sense Sickness’ on the indie No Strings label, during August 1983. Actually they’d been heard on record two years earlier, albeit on a giveaway flexi-disc with the track ‘What She Calls It’, free with the fanzine ‘Stand And Deliver’. Del Amitri played a relentless schedule of gigs during this period, building up a solid fan base on the same touring circuits that fellow Scots’ indie acts Josef K, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera (see earlier post) had cut their teeth on during the early 80s. Due to their sharp edged acoustic-oriented rock, Del Amitri drew strong comparisons to fellow Glaswegians Orange Juice in particular.

Back in 1982, Justin Currie had sent a letter to famed BBC 1 DJ John Peel, along with a cassette recording of several early Del Amitri tracks. In the note (reproduced in the liner notes for the ‘Hatful Of Rain’ CD), Currie explained that Del Amitri hailed from Glasgow and had been playing together for a couple of months. The tape included a demo recording of the song ‘Footfall’, along with several live numbers (captured on a portable stereo recorder). Peel had assisted in launching numerous struggling bands over the preceding years, and in 1984 he played Del Amitri’s demo material on his radio show, and subsequently invited the lads in for a live radio appearance (Peel later returned the note to Currie - obviously how it ended up on the album liner notes). Having endured the hard yards of endless rehearsing, gigging, sleeping on friends living room floors, or in the back of vans, or worse, the light had appeared at the end of what had been a very long tunnel for Del Amitri - character building if not always fun. Throughout it all Justin Currie had emerged as a fine songwriter, with a gift for writing catchy hooks, and clever, subtly sardonic lyrics. In 1984 Chrysalis Records signed Del Amitri to their ancillary Big Star label (where all the faux-indie rock acts hung out).

In May 1985 Del Amitri released their eponymous debut album, backed by the singles ‘Sticks And Stones Girl’ and ‘Hammering Heart’. Their profile was boosted, well kinda, by an appearance on the cover of Melody Maker magazine (the cover feature was mistimed by being about six months prior to the belated released date of the album), and a support slot on The Smiths’ U.K. tour. Press reaction was uniformly positive, with much praise heaped upon Del Amitri’s melodic and intelligent folk tinged pop-rock melange, with admittedly post-punk overtones. Justin Currie drew comparison to Elvis Costello for his acerbic witticisms, and jaded life observations. Despite much hype though, the Hugh Jones produced set failed to find a significant audience amongst a typically fickle record buying public. Chrysalis then duly did what major labels duly do, and dumped Del Amitri from their roster, but only after the band had begged them to. To once more be label-less, may have been a blow to Currie and crew, but it was by no means a knock out blow. Del Amitri had established too strong a fan base, and it was this grass roots support that would prove invaluable in aiding them to traverse a difficult couple of years ahead.

But perhaps surprisingly, a large part of that grass roots support emanated from the U.S., where a loyal network of fans took it upon themselves to fervently promote Del Amitri at makeshift gigs across the country during their 1986 tour, and provided a much welcomed alternative sleeping quarters to dossing in the tour van. Once more Justin and the lads were doing the hard yards, financed by themselves and a small, but unwavering fan base - it was the Del Amitri equivalent to The Beatles’ Hamburg experience. All the while through their challenging pop pilgrimage, Currie continued to hone his song writing skills, and by 1987 had accumulated a substantial cache of material. With word of mouth once more approaching fevered pitch shouting, Del Amitri’s credentials, not to mention potential, could no longer be ignore by the major labels. In 1987 A&M Records offered the band a new recording deal, and Del Amitri’s character building odyssey in rock’s wilderness had finally come to an welcome conclusion. During the same period Del Amitri’s ranks swelled by one, with the addition of keyboardist Andy Alston. Guitarist Mick Slaven took over from Bryan Tolland, but part way through the recording of Del Amitri’s sophomore album, Slaven was in turn replaced by David Cummings. The shake up in personnel also saw original drummer Paul Tyagis depart during the album sessions, with ex-Commotions’ sticks man Steven Irvine stepping into the fray for the balance of studio duties (Del Amitri had supported The Commotions on a 1986 tour). Brian McDermott was then recruited for Del Amitri’s follow up tour across 89/90.

It must have been a tumultuous year or so inside the Park Lane studio, but the end product, ‘Waking Hours’, was worth the ordeal. Through all their trials and tribulations, Del Amitri had emerged a mature and cohesive unit (well cohesive in stylistic terms). The album was released in the U.K. during July of ‘89, concurrent with the initial release of the single ‘Kiss This Thing Goodbye’, an appealing, bittersweet portion of folk-rock fare, with Scottish folk roots. Initially, neither album, nor single ‘Kiss This Thing Goodbye’ (UK#59) made much of an impact on the charts, whilst the initial follow up single in Britain, ‘Stone Cold Sober‘, in late ‘89, remained stone cold sober outside of the charts. But the groundswell of interest in Del Amitri eventually surged to the surface in early 1990, with the release of the world-weary folk lament ‘Nothing Ever Happens’. Currie, the accomplished wordsmith, shone through on the song’s lyrics, which commented on the banality and alienation of modern existence brought on by social inertia. ‘Nothing Ever Happens’ (UK#11/OZ#43) didn’t extend to Del Amitri’s commercial fortunes, which were suddenly very much on the ascent. ‘Kiss This Thing Goodbye’ was reissued shortly after, and second time around experience a much warmer reception (UK#43/OZ#28), and also proved the breakthrough single in the U.S. (#35 - #13 Modern Rock Tracks). For some reason ‘Stone Cold Sober’ wasn’t reissued in Britain, but did get a release in Australia (#70), where it was the third Del Amitri single in a row that I’d purchased on vinyl 45 (I mentioned in the previous Venetians post that I had a bit of an imbalance in my single/album buying ratio in those days). ‘Stone Cold Sober’ remains to this day, my favourite Del Amitri song, and its lyrics remain timeless in their potency. ‘Move Away Jimmy Blue’ (UK#36) was the next single lifted, and kept Del Amitri’s profile high into the second half of 1990. The Hugh Jones/Mark Freegard produced album ‘Waking Hours’ worked its way into both British (#6) and Australian (#9/US#95) top tens during the first half of 1990, with its subtle blending of 60s British guitar pop, traditional folk, and American brand country-flavoured rock, proving an appealing mix. In late 1990 Del Amitri released the stand-alone single ‘Spit In The Rain’ (UK#21), which rounded out a remarkable year in the band’s epic journey to date.

Friday, February 27, 2009

A Thriving Industry Propels The State Of The Nation

One of the motivating factors behind me continuing with Retro Universe, is my interest in learning more about artists that, previously, I didn’t know much about. One band that had a brief flirtation with mainstream success during the early to mid 80s was the New York, new wave synth-rock quartet Industry. My only knowledge of Industry (the band) comes via their minor chart hit during 1983, ‘State Of The Nation’, but given the quality of that song, I’m surprised they didn’t experience more chart action.

As if New York wasn’t industrious enough already, during 1980 a Long Island based Industry, of the musical variety, released their debut EP ‘Logging Time’ on the independent Metro Records label. Industry, the band, had been established a couple of years previous, and comprised the talents of Jon Carin (vocals/keyboards/synth, ex-Cathedral), Brian Unger (guitar/vocals), Rudy Perrone (bass/guitar, ex-Cathedral), and Mercury Caronia (drums). They played a cutting edge mix of post-punk, synth infused pop-rock, inspired by the likes of Ultravox and Joy Division, and quickly logged up a considerable number of live gigs on the U.S. East Coast. A second 12” titled ‘Turning To Light’ came to light during 1981, but chart action remained elusive for the quartet.

The song that brought Industry to the attention of the wider music industry was the catchy, synth-rock anti-war track ‘State Of The Nation’ in 1983. Lyrically it was unapologetic in its challenging of the concept of fighting for one’s country, or “fighting for the state of the nation”. Musically, it was a first class slice of infectious synth-rock. Backed by an extravagant promo video, ‘State Of The Nation’ debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 during November of ‘83, but languished in the lower reaches for eight weeks, not managing to march any higher than #81. A few months later ‘State Of The Nation’ performed similarly on the Australian charts (#78). Written by Jon Carin and Mercury Caronia, the track was lifted from Industry’s self titled EP release, which received five star studio treatment from producer Rhett Davies (worked with Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads, Dire Straits), and engineer Bob Clearmountain (worked with Roxy Music, Bryan Adams, David Bowie).

‘State Of The Nation’ apparently fared better on selected European and Asian charts, and gained Industry some support slots with the likes of Billy Idol and INXS. The song was featured on Industry’s debut, and only, album release ‘Stranger To Stranger’, released in early ‘84. Issued on Capitol Records, ‘Stranger To Stranger’ remained a relative stranger to most record buyers, and the follow up single ‘Still Of The Night’ didn’t manage to move inside the charts. The album was also produced by Rhett Davies, and the Roxy Music production influence shines through on tracks such as ‘Romantic Dreams’, lyrically a tale of unrequited love, and musically a homage to the lush synthesizer treatment Eno had pioneered a decade earlier.

Possibly recessionary factors brought on by modest record sales contributed to Industry folding shortly after. Chief songwriter Jon Carin did go on to work with some pop-rock luminaries over the next twenty years, including playing keyboards for Bryan Ferry at 1985’s ‘Live Aid’ (possibly the Rhett Davies connection coming in there). He also became a long term touring player with Pink Floyd, and worked with both David Gilmour and Roger Waters on their individual tours through the 90s and beyond. In 2006 Carin played a central role in Psychedelic Furs’ front man Richard Butler’s self titled solo album. Guitarist Brian Unger went on to record more work in the synth-pop vein, under the moniker of A Different Drum.

Jenny Morris Gives Body And Soul To Her Music - The Latter Years

With almost a decade as a professional musician under her belt, by 1986 Jenny Morris was ready to take the step up to bona fide pop-rock diva. At the conclusion of INXS’ ‘Listen Like Thieves’ world tour, Jenny Morris recorded the track ‘You’re Gonna Get Hurt’, written and produced by INXS songwriter and keyboardist Andrew Farriss, whilst on the U.S. leg of the INXS tour. It was recorded with backing by INXS members Andrew and Jon Farriss and Garry Gary Beers, along with ex-Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss (not a bad support cast). The single was released in September ‘86 and immediately started being added to radio playlists across Australia. By October, Jenny Morris had cracked the top forty for the first time, with ‘You’re Gonna Get Hurt’ eventually peaking at #24. Farriss had already resumed INXS duties (after playing a starring role in the song’s promo video with Kirk Pengilly), so producers Mark Moffatt and Ricky Fataar once again took over at the helm for work on Morris’ debut album.

The follow up single ‘Body And Soul’(composed by Morris) was yet another first rate pop-rock offering, but for some reason stalled just outside the top 50 (#55) in mid ‘87. Shortly after the album of the same name hit stores, and almost immediately hit the charts. ‘Body And Soul’ not only benefited from a seasoned and confident singer in Morris, but her talents were augmented by an impressive roster of guest players, including Tim Finn (ex-Split Enz), Mark Williams (‘Show No Mercy’), and Phil Small (ex-Cold Chisel). The album went on to achieve platinum accreditation, shifting more than 70,000 units in the process, and peaking at #13 nationally (NZ#21). The album spawned two further hits in ‘Lighthearted’ (OZ#70/NZ#46), preceded by the beautiful Neil Finn penned torch song ‘You I Know’, Jenny Morris’ first foray into the Australian top fifteen (#13/NZ#30). Morris also hit the road with her backing band, which over the course of the next couple of years boasted an exceptional rota of talent, including Amanda Vincent (ex-Eurogliders), Jehan Lindsay (ex-Richard Clapton Band), Paul Burton (ex-Mark Williams Band), and Roger Mason (ex-Models). Jenny Morris’ rise to the upper echelon of Australasian music, was confirmed via two Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Awards, for Most Popular Female Performer of 1987 and 1988.

Morris’ sophomore album took time to surface, but was without question worth the wait. In the interim she had married photographer Paul Clarke (who had appeared as the drummer in the promo video for ‘Body And Soul’), and started a family. Some of the changes in Jenny Morris’ personal life were reflected in her song writing (the gorgeous ’Little By Little’ a stand out example), whilst her confidence and maturity as a performer shone through in her performance. The lead out single ‘Saved Me’ hit the Australian charts in July of ‘89 (OZ#23/NZ#37), and featured a distinctly Latin-Spanish feel permeated by funk undertones, with the promo video shot in Nicaragua of all places. As ‘Saved Me’ was nearing its peak on the singles chart, its source album ‘Shiver’ (brought to you by the letter ‘S’) received a warm reception upon its release. This time Andrew Farriss was on hand to produce the entire album, which witnessed Morris’ song writing contribution extended to ten of the album’s eleven tracks. The second single lifted from ‘Shiver’ was ‘She Has To Be Loved’, a song which melded funk rhythms with an infectious pop hook. In addition, it featured a strong feminist theme, and quickly became a favourite among Morris’ female fans. ‘She Has To Be Loved’ became Jenny Morris’ first Australasian top ten hit (OZ#5/NZ#3) during October of ‘89. The album ‘Shiver’ continued a steady burn up the Australian national chart over the summer of 89/90, reaching a peak possie of #5, and establishing Jenny Morris as one of the hottest selling artists in Australia. The track ‘Aotearoa’ (a colloquial term for ‘Land Of The Long White Cloud’) received a special single release in New Zealand (#35), illustrating Morris’ affection for her homeland hadn’t diminished - Aotearoa also crops up in the lyrics for Split Enz’s 1982 chart topper ‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat’. The album ‘Shiver’ eventually shipped over 250,000 copies, achieving double platinum status in Australia. It spawned two more hit singles; ‘(Beggar On The) Street Of Love’ (OZ#58/NZ#51), written by legendary Australian songsmith Paul Kelly; and the reggae inspired ‘Self Deceiver’ (OZ#81), penned by Morris and Kelly.

With two platinum albums on the trot, Jenny Morris was in high demand as a touring act throughout 1990, and in addition to headlining tours around Australasia, she supported both Prince and Tears For Fears on overseas tours (for which Dweezil Zappa was her touring guitarist). On the recording front, Morris’ only release for 1990 arrived late in the year with the single ‘Piece Of My Heart’, a cover of the old Janis Joplin hit, which returned Morris to the top 30 early in 1991 (OZ#24). Over the next few months she returned to the studio to record her third album, this time with producers Nick Launay (credits with Midnight Oil, Killing Joke-see future post) and Mark Forrester at the helm. The lead out single ‘Break The Weather’, co-written by Jenny Morris and her brother Tam, stormed onto the Australasian charts in September ‘91, and established a high of #3 in Australia and #5 in New Zealand. The finely crafted album ‘Honey Child’ created sufficient buzz to notch up a second consecutive top ten album for Morris (OZ#6) late in ‘91. Although not released as a single, the stand out track for me was a cover of the old Squeeze hit ‘Tempted’. Once more an impressive roster of guest players was assembled, including Wendy Matthews and Midnight Oil’s Jim Moginie. ‘Honey Child’ spawned three more minor hits; ‘I’ve Had You’ (OZ#46/NZ#39), another Morris/Kelly collaboration; the funk laden ‘Zero’ (OZ#92/NZ#33), boasting the legendary rhythm section of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare (see earlier posts on Dave & Ansell Collins and Maxi Priest); and ‘Crackerjack Man’ (OZ#98), an emotion charged lamentation of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ of the world.

With three hit albums and a dozen hit singles in the can, it was high time for the obligatory ‘Best Of’ album. ‘The Story So Far’ was released in late ‘92, and boasted the usual suspect hits, in addition to Morris’ duet with Michael Hutchence on ‘Jackson’, and a re-recorded version of the old Crocodiles’ hit ‘Tears’ (OZ#99/NZ#18). The album sold steadily and peaked at #12 on the Australian charts during April ‘93, just after Jenny Morris had supported Paul McCartney on his ‘New World’ tour.

Over the next couple of years Jenny Morris balanced family duties with accumulating material for her next album project. Her next single ‘Price I Pay’, was a cover of the Billy Bragg song, and marked Morris’ last foray into the Australian charts when it peaked at #78 in 1994. Morris’ next four singles ‘Only We Can Hear’, ‘Rhythm And Flow’, ‘In Too Deep’, and ‘What Do I Do Now’, were spaced over a period of eighteen months, from mid ‘94 to early ‘96. All were culled from her fifth album ‘Salvation Jane’, which finally surfaced in August 1995. Released on the rooArt label, the album once again partnered Morris with the production talents of Andrew Farriss and Mark Moffatt, and the Electric Hippies (AKA Noiseworks’ alumnus Justin Stanley and Steve Balbi) also lent their flare to the project.

Following an extended period away from the music industry, during which Morris combined family duties with her growing commitment to environmental causes, she re-emerged in 2002 with the Nick Wales produced album ‘Hit & Myth’. The album reflected an artist finely attuned to her craft, but neither album, or singles ‘Home’ and ‘Downtime’, managed to return Jenny Morris to the chart environment. It mattered little though, as with twenty years of hits behind her, Morris didn’t need any further commercial affirmation of her talents. The 2005 live set ‘Alive’ (recorded at The Basement venue in Sydney) captured the best of Jenny Morris the performer, whilst 2006’s ‘Clear Blue In Stormy Skies’ featured a remodelling of several of her previous hits, including ‘Break In The Weather’ and QED’s ‘Everywhere I Go’ (and boasted contributions from Neil Finn). There’s no reason to think we’ve heard the last from Jenny Morris, but if for some reason she doesn’t add further to her discography, she is assured an enduring legacy as one of Australasia’s finest singer/songwriters to have emerged over the last 25 years.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jenny Morris - From Crocodile Tears To QED - The Early Years

During March of 1993, I embarked on the dream odyssey of attending five Paul McCartney concerts in the space of eight days. All of the shows were in Sydney, three at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, and two outdoor shows at Parramatta Stadium. It was as well I was only in my mid 20s then, otherwise I may not have had the endurance to combine clocking up full days at work, and two hour each way drives between my home base and Sydney (but then again many hardy souls manage that week in week out). Seeing the legendary Beatle in his only post Wings Australian tour to date, was motivation enough, and from time to time I’ll pop in the DVD release of McCartney’s ‘New World Tour’ to relive the memories. One stand out memory of the shows, that is non-McCartney in nature, is the support act for his Sydney gigs - singer Jenny Morris. The Kiwi born vocalist had already racked up almost twenty hits on the Australian singles charts in a career that had spanned over a decade, both as a solo artist and as lead singer with QED. I wasn’t one of those ‘last minute arrival’ concert goers, and so caught each of Morris’ support slot performances. It was the first time I’d seen her live, and like Fleetwood Mac’s 1990 support act Bang The Drum (see May post), I was mighty impressed with Jenny Morris’s on stage brilliance. McCartney’s final show in Sydney, and in Australia, for the tour, was an outdoor show at Parramatta Stadium (the acoustics were bloody awful). Sadly, a large portion of the crowd had decided about half way through Morris’ set (which I think ran about 25-30 minutes), that they wanted ‘Macca’. Jenny Morris carried on through a barrage of hoots and jeers, and I could tell by the final number that she was losing patience, in fact I’m pretty sure the set was cut short a song or two. It was one of those occasions where fire hoses should have been opened up on the rowdy section of the crowd. I remember thinking that it was disrespectful and downright disgraceful that such an esteemed figure on the Australasian music scene had been treated so shabbily. Jenny Morris may not have received due recognition of her considerable talents that evening, but her career achievements place her at the very vanguard of Australasian vocal talent.

Fifteen years prior to that McCartney support gig, Jenny Morris joined her first professional band in New Zealand. Wide Mouthed Frogs were a neo-feminist themed all-amphibian, sorry girl, group formed during 1978. Inhabiting the musical pond with Morris (vocals), were Tina Matthews (bass), Kate Brockie (lead vocals), Andrea Gilkison (guitar), Bronwyn Murray (keyboards), and Sally Zwartz (drums). Over a period of time the Wide Mouthed Frogs became associated with a couple of members of another New Zealand outfit called the Spats. Spats drummer Bruno Lawrence had occasion to play saxophone with the girls at a number of gigs, and Spats’ keyboardist Peter Dasent took on the role of musical director for the group.

By 1980 the Spats had evolved into The Crocodiles, featuring Dasent, Fane Flaws (guitar/vocals), Tony Backhouse (guitar), Bruno Lawrence (drums), and Mark Hornibrook (bass). They offered an invitation to Morris to join as their lead vocalist, and she duly accepted the gig. Soon after, Hornibrook departed and was replaced by Wide Mouthed Frogs’ bassist Tina Matthews. The Crocodiles were taken on by manager Mike Chunn (ex-Split Enz bassist) who soon had them performing regularly at venues around Auckland. In early 1980 they played the high profile Sweetwaters Festival, coincidentally on the same bill that marked the triumphant return of Mi-Sex (see recent post) to New Zealand shores. Chomping at the bit, The Crocodiles soon after released their debut single, the appropriately titled, ‘Tears’. ‘Tears’ ran all the way to #17 on the N.Z. charts, and was matched by the performance of its source album, of the same name, produced by Glyn Tucker Jr., though the follow up single ‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’ didn’t fare so well.

Within months though, The Crocodiles began to unravel, firstly with drummer Bruno Lawrence leaving (he went on later to star in the first series of the acclaimed ‘Frontline’ series), followed soon after by guitarist and mainstay Fane Flaws. Ex-Whizz Kids drummer Ian Gilroy joined for their second album ‘Looking At Ourselves’, produced by Ian Morris (no relation), released in November 1980. Before year’s end The Crocodiles had picked up a swag of New Zealand music awards, but had also experienced a further major shake up in their ranks, with Gilroy (to The Swingers - see future post), Tina Matthews, and Peter Dasent all leaving for fresh waters. By the time of The Crocodiles return to Sweetwaters in early 1981, only Jenny Morris and Tony Backhouse remained from the original roster, with the addition of Rick Morris (guitar), Jonathon Swartz (bass), and Barton Price (drums). Soon after their Sweetwaters encore, the band’s manager Mike Chunn encouraged them to hop a plane across the Tasman, and try their fortunes in Australia. It signalled the beginning of the end for The Crocodiles, as within a few exasperating months of their arrival in Sydney, the band had split for good.

The other members of The Crocodiles went on to pursue various projects, the most notable being drummer Barton Price later hooking up with the Models (see future post). Jenny Morris stayed on in Australia to try and establish herself as a solo performer. Before the end of ‘81 she released her debut solo single ‘Puberty Blues’ (OZ#88). It was the title song lifted from the soundtrack to Bruce Beresford’s teen coming of age film, which hit Australian cinema screens over the summer of 81/82. Morris released a follow up single shortly after, but ‘Little By Little’ made little impact. For the remainder of 1982, through until early ‘84, she continued to score regular work as a session vocalist, contributing to work by ex-manager Mike Chunn’s brother Geoff (also ex-Split Enz); the Fane Flaws project I Am Joe’s Music; the 1983 Models’ album ‘The Pleasure Of Your Company’ (Barton Price’s first album outing with the band); and legendary New Zealand outfit D.D. Smash’s album ‘The Optimist’ - she went on to tour with D.D. Smash front man Dave Dobbyn (see earlier post), and the New Zealand version of The Party Boys. Morris’ name also cropped up on the credits to Sydney band The Drop Bears’ 1984 mini-LP, before contributing backing vocals to INXS’ first #1 album ‘The Swing’ - the beginnings of a creative association which would play a significant role in Morris’ future solo endeavours.

During the same period, late ‘83 to early ‘84, Jenny Morris joined with ex-Air Supply guitarist Rex Goh, and bassist Ian Belton (ex-Dave Dobbyn and Renee Geyer), to form the core of a new band, called QED. The trio were joined in studio by various session players, and producers Mark Moffatt (produced Saints, Mondo Rock, Tim Finn) and Ricky Fataar (produced Renee Geyer, Tim Finn, Kids In The Kitchen - also ex-Rutle!). Among the players contributing to QED’s first album, were keyboardist Amanda Vincent (Eurogliders and later the Jenny Morris band), drummer Steve Fearnly, saxophonist Tony Buchanan, and Fataar himself on drums. Morris brought a number of former Crocodiles’ songs to the project, whilst Goh and Morris co-wrote a number of new songs.

The lead out single was the up-tempo synth pop number ‘Everywhere I Go’, which hit the Australian charts in December 1983. In early ‘84 QED performed the song ‘live’ on ‘Countdown’, an appearance that no doubt aided in boosting the song’s national chart peak to #19 soon after (#6 in Sydney). EMI had released QED’s debut album ‘Animal Magic’ during the same period, but sales remained sluggish. The follow up single ‘Solo And More’ hit the shelves in March of ‘84, but missed the charts completely, although the third single (and best IMHO) ‘This One’ reached a solid #45 nationally during the second half of ‘84. I’m not aware if QED toured much as a live act, which may have been a contributing factor to their album ‘Animal Magic’ failing to cast a spell on the record buying public. At any rate, QED ended up being a one album only project, and during 1984 Jenny Morris returned to session/touring work with other artists (Belton went on to play with Mondo Rock, and Goh with Eurogliders).

Morris had developed an exceptional chemistry with INXS, and was invited to sing a duet with Michael Hutchence on a cover of the old Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood hit ‘Jackson’, included as a bonus track on the April ‘85 (cassette only) INXS EP release ‘Dekadance’ (OZ#2) - she later performed the song ‘Jackson’ live with INXS as part of the last ever ‘Countdown’, broadcast in July ‘87. Jenny Morris was then invited by INXS to sing backing vocals on their 85/86 ‘Listen Like Thieves’ world tour. She took time out late in ‘85 to record and release her first single for WEA, titled ‘Get Some Humour’ (OZ#92), which featured a contribution from Dave Dobbyn, but it would take a song penned by friend and INXS songwriter Andrew Farriss, to provide Jenny Morris with the breakthrough hit needed to really launch her as a solo artist.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ram Jam's Rollicking Rock Anthem

In 1977, popular music was in a heightened state of flux, with all manner of musical strands woven across the airwaves and throughout the music charts. In amongst the stylistic fluidity, or anything goes chaos if you like, an East Coast based U.S. rock quartet, known as Ram Jam, released their barnstorming, Southern-boogie infused, hard rock take on a traditional blues-folk number. The track had been recorded 35 years previous by a legendary blues-based folksinger called Hudie Ledbetter, better known to blues aficionados as Leadbelly. Fuelled by a snarling lead vocal, and crunching guitar riffs, Ram Jam’s raging, rollicking rendering of ‘Black Betty’ became a world wide smash, and earned the band the, in this case an accurate, tag of one hit wonders.

Ram Jam were a quickly assembled, short lived outfit, formed around ex-Lemon Pipers’ guitarist Bill Bartlett. The Lemon Pipers had experienced their fifteen minutes of fame back in 1968 with the U.S.#1 ‘Green Tambourine’, which was representative of the band’s style of psychedelic-laced bubblegum pop. To be fair, The Lemon Pipers shelf life exceeded fifteen minutes, but not much more than a year, as they broke up shortly after their minor follow up hits, ‘Rice Is Nice’ and ‘Jelly Jungle (of Orange Marmalade)’ - something tells me The Lemon Pipers had a culinary bent, or wrote songs on an empty stomach.

After The Lemon Pipers project went sour, Bill Bartlett formed a new outfit called Starstruck, which originally included fellow ex-Pipers’ Steve Walmsley (bass) and Bob Nave (organ). The Cincinatti based Starstruck played around the traps for a few years, and by the mid 70s Bill Bartlett decided to re-record an old a cappella song, recorded by Leadbelly in 1941. Bluesman Leadbelly had adapted his version of ‘Black Betty’ from an old African-American ‘work song’, and his version clocked in at just 59 seconds. Bartlett built some guitar riffs around the lyrics, and added a new arrangement, that extended the duration of ‘Black Betty’ to around two and half minutes. Bartlett (lead vocals and guitar) recorded his version of ‘Black Betty’ with Starstruck, which at that time also included guitarist Tom Kurtz, bassist David Goldflies, and drummer Dave Fleeman. Starstruck’s version of ‘Black Betty’ received a regional only release on the band’s own Truckstar label. The high energy, hard rock song sold well locally, and soon came to the attention of New York production team, Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz. Kasenetz and Katz had been a one of the driving forces, if not the virtual auteur, behind the whole late 60s ‘bubblegum pop’ movement (which included The Lemon Pipers), and had been the brains and production team behind 1910 Fruitgum Company, Crazy Elephant, and The Ohio Express. Kasenetz and Katz got the Epic label behind ‘Black Betty’, and the song received wider release as a single in mid ‘77, but credited to the hastily assembled band Ram Jam. ‘Black Betty’ debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 during June, and by September ‘77 had peaked at #18. During the same period it rocketed up both British (#7) and Australian (#3) charts, finishing 1977 as one of the biggest selling international hits of the year. In the U.S. ‘Black Betty’ attracted a deal of controversy, from objections expressed by several high profile civil rights groups over the song’s lyrics, but rather than hindering the its commercial appeal, the added publicity probably aided in driving the song further up the charts. Whatever the song’s origins, or questionable lyrical theme, Ram Jam’s rock-a-fied version was far removed, and deserved to be a hit on musical merit alone.

Bartlett was joined in studio by vocalist Mike Scavone, drummer Pete Charles and bassist Howie Blauvelt (who had played extensively with a young Billy Joel in 60s outfits, The Hassles and El Primo), to record material for an album release. By late ‘77 Ram Jam’s eponymous debut album hit the shelves, and soon after hit the charts (US#34/OZ#16). It boasted a string of rousing hard rock numbers, probably ideal for sparking a dull party into life, but aside from ‘Black Betty’, the set failed to spawn any further hits. Guitarist Jimmy Santoro was added to the line-up for Ram Jam’s subsequent national tour.

Bartlett departed Ram Jam after the initial tour wrapped up, and Santoro stayed on as a fulltime member for Ram Jam’s sophomore release. 1978’s ‘Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Ram’ was reportedly a fully fledged heavy metal affair, but aside from appealing to hard core metal heads, the album sank without a trace, and soon thereafter Ram Jam followed suit. Rock journeyman Howie Blauvelt went on to play with funk-blues outfit Spitball, and remained an active member until his death from a heart attack in 1993, whilst drummer Pete Charles has also passed away. Jimmy Santoro went on to combine playing in local New York bands with a career as a music teacher. Vocalist Mike Scavone left the music scene behind for a number of years, prior to dusting off the vocal chords (is that actually possible?) for a reunion with his old high school band The Doughboys. Billy Bartlett continued a forty-plus year love affair with music, going on to specialise as a boogie-woogie piano player.

As for the song ‘Black Betty’, in 1990 Ben Leibrand remixed Ram Jam’s original version, and released it as ‘Black Betty (Rough ‘N Ready Mix)’, as if it wasn’t already rough ‘n ready enough. The remixed version became a top twenty hit in both Britain (#13) and Australia (#18). Bartlett’s hard rock, guitar driven adaptation has been covered numerous times over the last thirty years, and Australia’s own punk-glam rock powerhouse Spider Bait revived the track once more in 2004. Backed by an equally frenetic video, Spider Bait’s manic-tempo version spent three weeks atop the Australian charts.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Venetians Open Up On The Australian Charts

During the late 80s my 45 singles buying habit was at its peak. Most weeks I’d keenly listen and watch out for the new release tracks, and more often than not would trek off to my local record bar the very same day I heard a track I liked - occasionally to be disappointed that it hadn’t been officially released as a single yet. I still purchased various artist compilation albums, though not as frequently as I’d done a few years earlier, and would generally buy albums by my favourite artists as they were released. But CD’s were still exceedingly pricey, and the selection of titles was limited at best. It was rare to find a new release CD title under $30, where as vinyl 45’s were still around $3-4. My singles to album purchase ratio during, say 87-89, was around five to one. But as time went on CD albums became more affordable (and available), and the vinyl 45 single format began to be phased out. CD singles were comparatively expensive, and over time the balance in my buying habits shifted markedly toward album purchases. After a brief flirtation with cassingles, I continued to buy CD singles through the 90s and beyond, but more often than not, if I heard a song or two that appealed from a particular artist, I’d track down their album. In recent years most music fans buying habits (including mine) have been influenced by the advent of online downloads. Now if I hear (or see) a track that I like, via radio or music video, I can (in most cases) download it from the comfort of my own home, and with albums I no longer have to purchase every track, and can pick and choose the one’s I like. For my favourite artists, I still have a preference for purchasing the albums on actual CD - it just seems more…legit to me. From time to time I’ll indulge in a nostalgia session with my stack of old 45’s, and realise that, as convenient as downloading music is, I kind of miss those days of flipping through rack upon rack of vinyl 45s.

During those heady, vinyl scented days of the late 80s, it wasn’t uncommon for me to purchase three of four singles by an artist from the same album - bad economics in hindsight - but habits are strong creatures that often lure one’s mind from logical pathways, and along curiously eccentric ones instead. I can recall purchasing several vinyl 45 singles by Crowded House, from their debut set, before later purchasing all of their albums on CD, and I did a similar thing for the single releases from the mega-selling ‘Fore’ album, by Huey Lewis & The News. Yet another artist to lure me back to the record bar for return visits, was the Australian band Venetians, whose flirtation with the big time just happened to occur during the mid to late 80s.

Venetians were yet another of those second tier Australian bands, that were seemingly on the cusp of cracking the A-list, but never quite managed to make that quantum leap, despite racking up nine charting singles, including a top ten during 1986, with ‘So Much For Love’, and two top forty albums. But the origins of the band were, well, less than conventional. English singer/ songwriter Rik Swinn (born Richard Swinn Brewer) arrived in Australia during 1982, and among his luggage were the mastertapes for a bunch of songs he’d recorded in the ‘old dart’ with producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven. Swinn shopped the songs around, and was duly offered a recording deal with the Festival Records subsidiary Parole. During the first half of ‘83 Swinn spent time in the studio tidying up several of the tracks for commercial release. Rather than releasing the songs under his own name, it was agreed that Swinn’s musical offerings would be hitched to a band wagon, I mean name, and the name that was devised for the, then, studio based project, was Venetians. In a later press release (1986), the band stated the name was inspired by the historical traders of Venice (sounds plausible).

The single ‘Sound On Sound’ was released under the Venetians’ moniker during May of ‘83, and the synth-pop single, much in the vein of contemporaries Ultravox and Heaven 17 (see earlier post), garnered solid airplay around parts of Australia, enough at least to push it to #85 on the national chart by mid year. The follow up single ‘Chinese I’s (Here Come The Minute Men)’ matched the quality of its predecessor, and then some. Backed by a first rate promo video, the atmospheric synth-pop classic may have only reached #63 on the Australian charts in late ‘83/early ‘84, but it was deserving of a considerably higher standing. Regardless, by 1984 the Venetians brand had established a solid profile on the Australian music scene, even if the name Rik Swinn was still largely unknown to the public at large. Swinn needed to take the next step in the evolution of Venetians - to form an actual working band. In the weeks following his arrival in Australia, Swinn had responded to a newspaper ad, placed by two musicians looking for a lead singer, and had worked with the future members of Venetians whilst rerecording his early demos in 1983. During 1984 a touring line-up of the band was firmly in place, and featured Swinn, guitarist Peter Watson (ex-Scandal), bassist Dave Skeet, keyboardist Matthew Hughes (ex-Gotham City), and N.Z. born drummer Tim Powles (ex-Ward 13 - see future post). The newly assembled Venetians outfit hit the road running (at least they had plenty of original material already), and quickly established a solid reputation on the pub circuit. They soon found themselves scoring a support slot on Split Enz’s legendary ‘Enz With A Bang’ tour in late ’84. During the same period, Venetians released their third single (and first as an actual band), with ‘Ooh La La’, and by early ‘85 the band were primed to undertake the next step - to record a debut album.

The release of the album 'Step Off The Edge' (OZ#95) in May '85, signalled Venetians taking a step closer to a mainstream pop-rock audience, though the single lifted ‘Shine The Light’ (#91), only managed a faint glow in the lower reaches of the Australian charts. Further high profile support gigs for Icehouse and Nik Kershaw (see previous posts) followed, but if Venetians had undergone a review of their progress as a rock band at that stage, it might have read “shows potential - could do better”. In late ‘85, Rik Swinn and the band began work on their sophomore album, this time with acclaimed producer Mark Opitz at the helm (Peter Blyton on some tracks). Opitz had already become one of the leading producers on the Australian music scene, having been at the helm for albums from such Australian rock luminaries as The Angels, INXS, Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl, Models and Eurogliders. If Venetians were to elevate themselves beyond a loyal cult following, Opitz was the man to have on board. The first signs that Mark Opitz had indeed helped Venetians fulfil some of that potential, came via the single ‘So Much For Love’, released in December ‘85. The Rik Swinn written song, took the basic recipe from earlier Venetians material, but added layers of pop-rock goodness to the mix. It was true also that Venetians had blossomed beyond being just a song writing vehicle for Rik Swinn, with the band’s collective chemistry gelling nicely. ‘So Much For Love’ was classic, slickly produced 80s pop-rock, and by March of ‘86 had shot to #8 on the Australian national chart, aided in part by a slick promo video, directed by future motion picture director Alex Proyas.

The follow up single, ‘Inspiration’ (OZ#39), gave another strong hint as to what could be expected from Venetians’ sophomore album. ‘Calling In The Lions’ was released in mid ‘86, and on the back of two top 40 singles, and a high profile tour in support of the Church, the album climbed steadily to a peak of #33 in Australia. It’s worth noting that Wendy Matthews (see earlier Absent Friends post - ‘Battle Of Supergroups’) contributed backing vocals to several tracks on the album, which also yielded the much underrated hit single ‘If Somebody Loves You’ (OZ#67). In early ‘87, Venetians then received the good news that Chrysalis Records had decided to release both ‘Calling In The Lions’ and ‘So Much For Love’ Stateside, though neither made a roar on the charts. Whilst the band continued a hectic tour schedule throughout the first half of ‘87, they experienced the first shake up in their ranks, when keyboardist Matthew Hughes decided to leave the band.

Following the departure of Hughes, the remaining population of the Venetians’ world decided to continue operations as a quartet, with both Peter Watson and Dave Skeet covering synth/keyboard roles in studio. Venetians retreated from touring for the remainder of ‘87 and into ‘88, to focus their energies on writing and recording a follow up to ‘Calling In The Lions’. The lead out single (and title track), ‘Amazing World’, was unveiled in November ‘87, but despite being a first class pop-rock offering, the track only achieved a modest #77 on the Australian charts. Fine tuning on the album continued well into 1988, with producer Mark Opitz once more overseeing operations, and it was May before the next Venetians’ single hit stores. ‘Bitter Tears’ reinforced that Venetians were a band seemingly just hitting their creative stride, and by mid year they’d racked up their second top 30 hit (#24) with yet another illustration of slickly produced, soul edged pop-rock, that in hindsight reminds me very much of the Kane Gang (see earlier post), and I can also hear where a band like Bang The Drum (see earlier post) were arguably influenced in style. ‘Amazing World’, the album, hit the shelves shortly after, and almost matched the commercial returns of its predecessor (#38). Venetians added Lee Borkman (keyboards) and Steve Ball (bass) to their stage line-up, and once more hit the road, by now a finely honed, seasoned unit. But they only had one more chart entry remaining in the tank, with the single ‘Must Believe’ (OZ#81) in late ‘88, the third track lifted from ‘Amazing World’ (and third in a row that I had purchased on vinyl 45).

By early ‘89, Venetians had wound up touring commitments, and soon thereafter Rik Swinn wound up the band. Swinn later played a role in the ‘Burning Bridges’ album project, and a one off concert by a specially assembled ‘supergroup’, The Grubbs - which also featured GANGgajang members Mark Callaghan, Geoffrey Stapleton and Robbie James, James Valentine (Models), Craig Hooper (The Reels), and future Ghostwriters Rob Hirst (Midnight Oil) and Rick Grossman (Hoodoo Gurus). Of all of the Venetians’ alumnus, drummer Tim Powles has maintained the highest profile on the Australian music scene. Powles went on to play with Divinyls, Angry Anderson, Ana Christensen, and later the Church, for whom he went on to work in both a management and production capacity. Guitarist Dave Skeet worked on staff with MCA in the U.S. during the 90s (as producer/session player), prior to returning to Sydney in 1999 to hook up once more with Powles, working on production at Powles’ Spacejunk studio (now a thriving Sydney based production house).