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).


cdmaniac said...

Great Stuff!
Youve Piqued my Interest.
You dont happen to have anymore rips.
Please contact me at my blog.

A. FlockOfSeagulls AKA Rhys Jones said...

Thanks cdmaniac,
have posted comment on your site re. Venetians tracks.

cdmaniac said...

My E-mail is in my profile.
I want Chinese Is for sure & whatever else you want to send.
I just DL'd the "Amazing World" LP if you'd like it.

A. FlockOfSeagulls AKA Rhys Jones said...

No problem, can definetely do Chinese Is, and a couple of other earlier ones. Having some bandwidth issues at present, but will get them to your email next 24/48 hours.
Have already got 'Amazing World' LP, but thanks for the offer.

cdmaniac said...

Great Thanks!!