Saturday, 24 November 2012

Whatever Happened To The Revolution? - Skyhooks, Whitlam and Australia’s cultural cringe by Paul B Spurling

This is an essay that I wrote as part of my BMus at NMIT this year.

Sadie, the cleaning lady
With trusty scrubbing brush and pale of water

‘Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)’ – Johnny Farnham (1967)

Home, Home, goin' alone to the sound of the military brass
Home, home, lovin' alone, layin' on
Arkansas grass

‘Arkansas Grass’ - Axiom (1969)

He bought his first dope outside the South Yarra Arms

‘Toorak Cowboy’ – Skyhooks (1975)

It is a widely held view that Robert Menzies was the most ardent anglophile to ever lead this country. His first visit to England at age 41 was said to have been a profoundly emotional experience, prompting him to exclaim that he had finally come “home” (Maloney 2007). Indeed sections of his 1963 speech during a reception for the Queen at Parliament House such as describing Her Majesty as "the living and lovely centre of our enduring alliance" and the reading from the work of 17th-century poet Thomas Ford ("I did but see her passing by/And yet I love her till I die.") are an entrenched part of Australian political folklore (Bryant 2011).

When viewing the black and white promotional film clip for John Farnham’s 1967 monster hit ‘Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)’ (Uptight 1967) through modern eyes the first thing one is struck by is its (in the most clichéd sense of the term) ‘Englishness’ - there’s the accent in the vocals, there’s the George Formby arrangement, not to mention the terminally polite (some would say ‘quaint’) persona that Farnham presents here.

However, I would argue that on closer inspection several things reveal themselves: the English accent actually comes and goes, giving the vocal performance a tentative quality - it is the sound of someone ‘hedging their bets’; the all-smiling politeness reveals itself to be closer to a sort of desperate obsequiousness. Rather than the ‘cheeky Cockney chappie’ that Farnham seems to be going for here, he comes across more like a bashful choirboy too eager to please. In short, this is not what Englishness looks like. This is what someone aspiring to Englishness looks like. Even though he was a year out of office by that stage it is easy to sense the spectre of Menzies and his perception of British superiority (the Australian-born and bred PM also famously announced that he was “British to (his) bootstraps”) looming large here.
(I am aware that the preceding example could possibly be clouded by the fact that John Farnham was born in England, but I would submit that as an artist he has always identified as Australian and was indeed ‘crowned’ Australian Of The Year in the nation’s bicentennial year no less)   

Fast forward to the mid-seventies. And Skyhooks make their first appearance (playing ‘Horror Movie’) on the newly-minted pop TV show Countdown (1975). Much has changed. In fact we’re now Alice through the proverbial looking glass: black & white is now colour (‘75 marked the introduction of colour television in Australia); Farnham’s forelock tugging has been replaced by a palpable irreverence or, to use Australian vernacular, ‘piss-taking’; ‘smart’ suits have been replaced by garish faux-glam garb; naiveté replaced by a worldly, sneering cynicism; and the innocuous (a less charitable onlooker might say ‘vacuous’) lyrical content of poor old ‘Sadie’ replaced by socio-political comment by way of a simple yet stunningly effective ‘horror film equals television news’ metaphor (“Horror movie, it’s the six thirty news” is, as the cliché goes, more relevant now than ever).

Looking at this performance in a bit more detail one’s attention is drawn to the following: in lead singer Graeme ‘Shirley’ Strachan’s facial expressions and general demeanour there’s more than a hint of ‘I could take it or leave it’, in fact at times, as Peter Wilmoth (1993, p.120) observed, Shirl here gives the distinct impression that he would rather be surfing (there’s also the (not so) small matter of the ludicrously large outstretched hand painted on the crotch of his tight satin jumpsuit); the gladiator’s hat worn by drummer Imants ‘Freddie’ Strauks; the black lipstick, white make-up and long black hair on Bob ‘Bongo’ Starkie, ensuring that he bears more than a passing resemblance to a pantomime Lady MacBeth; and of course Redmond ‘Red’ Symons who, with his blood-red Elvis cape and sub-kabuki make-up, is a remarkable combination of ingénue, geisha and the devil himself.

‘Horror Movie’ was written by Skyhooks’ bassist Greg Macainish (who wrote most of the band’s material). Authenticity was a primary concern in his song-writing: “They (the songs) had to be about places I'd actually been to. I was a bit sceptical about Arkansas Grass by Axiom because I'm not sure any of the guys had been to Arkansas. And the song's about the American Civil War and I was sure they hadn't been to the war." (Jenkins 2004)

Billy Pinnell, a 45 year veteran of the Melbourne radio scene, says that Macainish’s  songs “exploded the cultural cringe” and in the process “legitimised Australian song-writing” (Jenkins 2004).

Freddie Strauks also alludes to a ‘cultural cringe’ when he mentions that up until the period under discussion “Australian musicians had an image of themselves as being less than good” (Wilmoth 1993, p.125). In plain terms, what we are talking about here is an old-fashioned inferiority complex.

So did this new attitude, this newfound pride in being an Australian musician emerge out of a vacuum or was there something going on in the broader socio-political arena that helped create the conditions in which a band like Skyhooks could flourish? What was happening?

Gough Whitlam was happening, that’s what. First coming to power in 1972, Whitlam (1985, p.553) himself states that his first task was to formulate “an acceptable philosophical basis for a major government commitment to the arts and cultural activity, something more than the provision of additional funds”. Implicit here seems to be that over and above simply throwing money at the problem, Gough sought to somehow instil in Australians an outlook that would help the arts to flourish. And, as he lamented at the time that “many of our finest artists are working overseas”, it could be assumed that addressing/redressing the infamous ‘cultural cringe’ would have formed at least some part of that “philosophical basis”.

Red Symons makes explicit the connection between this governmental mood-setting and Skyhooks’ success: “The national pride that Whitlam had encouraged meant that we could suddenly be proud of ourselves as Australians.” (Wilmoth 1993, p.126) 

The Oxford Dictionary (2012) defines a ‘revolution’ as a “dramatic and wide-reaching change in conditions, attitudes, or operation”. Under that definition, a strong argument could be made that in the mid-seventies Skyhooks with the Whitlam-led change in conditions and their new attitudes and modes of operation were spearheading nothing less than a revolution.

Every revolution needs a manifesto. And for Skyhooks it came in the form of their debut album ‘Living In The Seventies’. It’s their Das Kapital (or Little Red Book at a pinch); and it sets out their agenda over the course its ten tracks. Three of the songs name check Australian locales (in fact, in all three cases you don’t even have to wait until the lyrics kick in as the references are in the titles themselves): ‘Carlton (Lygon St Limbo)’ chronicles the “spaced out faces” in and around the “pizza places” along the strip close to Melbourne University - students of which made up a fair slice of Skyhooks’ audience at least in the early days (Nimmervoll n.d.); ‘Toorak Cowboy’ takes a shot at the rich and the aimless with specific place references coming thick and fast (“He gets his hair cut at Marini's, and he drives a Lamborghini”; “He bought his first dope outside the South Yarra Arms”); and in ‘Balwyn Calling’ the hapless narrator tries in vain to fend off unwanted advances from a girl who lives in, you guessed it, Balwyn (“Well you thought she would be a one nighter, But now she wants to squeeze you tighter, Cos you ain't safe when you get home, She's gonna call you on the telephone, Hey boy that’s Balwyn calling…”). There’s also the curious case of Red Symons’ ‘Smut’ which paints a rather seedy picture of a night out at the ‘cinema’ and has the main protagonist deploying a packet of Twisties (an Australian brand) in a way that I’m sure that the original makers could not have (and would not want to have) predicted.

By 1977, however, the revolution was over. The less arts-focussed Malcolm Fraser had deposed Whitlam as PM (in controversial circumstances which won’t be discussed here) and was firmly entrenched in the lodge (Whitlam (1985, p.555) claims that Fraser had the lodge’s music room converted into a ‘second toilet’). And Syhooks’ own bête noire Sherbet had well and truly taken over the mantle of ‘Australia’s biggest band’ with their massive hit ‘Howzat’ (Sherbet’s days as a force were numbered too as it turns out, but that’s another story).

But in a sense the ‘damage’ had been done. Skyhooks may have lost the fight but, due to the huge influence they had on subsequent Australian songwriters, they won the war. Indeed we can see their influence everywhere: in Australian Crawl’s hit ‘Beautiful People’ in which James Reyne sings about (beautiful) people “going out tonight to get their Bombay rocks off” (the Bombay Rock being a notorious beer barn on Brunswick’s Sydney Rd), as well as the Reyne-penned ‘Reckless’ which talks about watching the Manly ferry cutting “its way to Circular Quay”; in the way Stephen Cummings name checks the Russell Street Police Headquarters in The Sports’ ‘Boys (What Did The Detectives Say?’; in the songs of Cold Chisel’s Don Walker such as ‘Flame Trees’ (his ode to Grafton), ‘Home And Broken Hearted (“hiked up to Sydney in the week before Christmas, it was 38 degrees in the shade, bought a second-hand Morris for a cheap 220 and I drove it down to Adelaide”), the blistering travelogue of ‘Hound Dog’ (“Ride the line to Hornsby station, find my circus animals again”), as well as ‘Saturday Night’, a song about Sydney which shares its name with a Skyhooks song  about Melbourne; and it is relatively easy to draw a line back to Skyhooks when hearing Paul Kelly’s now-iconic opening lines to his song ‘Leaps And Bounds’ (“I'm high on the hill looking over the bridge, to the MCG, and way up on high, the clock on the silo says eleven degrees”).

Whitlam’s legacy endures too, with programs initiated by his government such as the recognition of China, Legal Aid, Medicare, and even the national anthem (but unfortunately not free tertiary education) still with us to this day in one form or another.

One of the more successful recent chroniclers of the Australian urban experience by way of Skyhooksian place name checking is Newtown song-writer Tim Freedman. Songs of his that reference Australian places include: ‘Melbourne’ (“walking around the rainy city when there are things to do at home”); ‘Love This City’ (“holding court on Taylor Square”); and ‘God Drinks At The Sando’ about the Sandringham Hotel in Newtown. The debt that Freedman owes to Skyhooks was made relatively clear when in 1999 his band released a cover of Greg Macainish’s ‘Women In Uniform’ (Skyhooks’ last top ten hit in 1978 before the almost-novelty comeback single ‘Jukebox In Siberia’ in 1990). And the name of Freedman’s band? The Whitlams of course.


Maloney, S 2007, ‘Robert Menzies & Winston Churchill’, The Monthly, April (Issue 22), accessed 23 October 2012, <>

Bryant, N 2011, ‘What Do They Think Of Us?’, Correspondents Report, ABC Radio National Transcripts, accessed 27 October 2012, <>

Uptight 1967, ‘Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)’, YouTube video, posted May 2009, accessed October 1 2012, <>

Countdown 1975, ‘Horror Movie’, YouTube video, posted September 2008, accessed October 1 2012,  <>

Wilmoth, P 1993, Glad All Over: The Countdown Years 1974-87, McPhee Gribble, South Yarra

Jenkins, J 2004, ‘Songs of Melbourne’, The Age, 28 August, accessed 1 October 2012, <>

Whitlam, G 1985, The Whitlam Government: 1972-1975, Penguin Books, Ringwood

Oxford Dictionaries 2012, USA online version, accessed 28 October 2012, <>

Nimmervoll, E n.d., Skyhooks Biography, AllMusic, accessed 28 October 2012, <>

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Excerpt from The Camp by Paul B Spurling

The following is an excerpt from a chapter in my book Ways To Fall

It happened in an instant, my defection to the dark side. At the start of the bus trip down to the Phillip Island camp site I had been firmly on the side of the gods, strongly of the belief that whilst Kenworth trucks were aesthetically pleasing pieces of machinery, their appearance on the traffic landscape was not cause for the sort of wild celebrations a select group of boys from 6B insisted on indulging in. (The ‘Kenny Boys’, as they dubbed themselves, were led by Chris McDonald and David Burns (‘Macca & Burnsy’), a self-styled double-act who, with their bawdy banter and difference in their respective sizes, saw themselves as a junior version of The Two Ronnies; although the more general consensus was that they were a pair of cretinous buffoons.)
     It was Kenworth trucks that they were interested in rather than trucks per se. In fact the only time either Macca or Burnsy acknowledged any other brand’s right to even exist was when a particularly splendid Mack came into view. (“Not bad,” they had grudgingly admitted in unison. However this was quickly followed by a stern qualification from Macca: “Not as a good as a Kenny though.”)
      This Kenworth fixation stemmed from the fact that in the inexplicably popular BJ and the Bear – a TV show that explored, with great subtlety, the relationship between a man and his monkey – the central character (‘BJ’) drove a red and white Kenworth ‘K-100’.

Michael Russell and I occupied the twin seats that separated Macca & Burnsy from most of their constituents; and along with hearing “Kenny!” every five minutes, we had to endure, in the down time between Kenworths, the Kenny Boys’ self-penned theme song – a largely tuneless (and disappointingly tame) ditty that portrayed them as a band of lovable rogues who were “always up to mischief wherever (they) may be”.
      It would have been an untenable situation but for a running commentary on proceedings that Michael and I instituted just after the appearance of the second Kenworth.
      We started out by discussing who we thought was “the stupidest” of the Kenny Boys. (Michael nominated Matthew Smith, citing his habit of yelling “Codger!” at any passing motorist over the age of forty as ample evidence of his intellectual shortcomings.) Then, as a direct response to a particularly distasteful episode whereby a Hino driver was cruelly mocked for driving a “shitbox” for a living, we started to theorise as to how each Kenny Boy would fare once they themselves made it to adulthood and found they had to hold down jobs of their own. (Michael’s forecast for poor old Burnsy was particularly bleak, having him jobless and living alone in a “shack” on the outskirts of town.)
      But somewhere around the sixty minute mark it occurred to me: these guys may have been facing bleak futures as bit players on the fringes of society, but right here right now they were centre stage; right here right now girls were watching them. And as enjoyable as it may have been, by sitting there making snide comments, Michael and I had fitted ourselves with the roles of mere spectators to the main event.
      This sat well enough with Michael. But not with me. After several years of soaking up compliments about my running ability (including regular assurances from no lesser an authority than Macca himself that I’d “go to the Olympics one day”) I had developed the sort of ego that meant that I could only go so long with the spotlight shining on someone other than me.
      So, when the Kenny Boys stood up to gauge the progress of the next Kenworth on the horizon as it made its slow but inevitable way towards our bus (which had maintained a funereal pace since the outset), I joined them.     
      Michael was less than amused.
      “What are you doing?” he said, his anger palpable.
      “Sorry,” I said, avoiding eye contact.
      I turned away from Michael and towards the Kenny Boys; but it seemed that there were doubters wherever I turned.
      “I didn’t know you were into Kennys,” said Macca, as he looked me up and down contemptuously. He wasn’t going to come right out and say it, but it was obvious that he didn’t consider me ‘tough’ enough to be granted Kenny Boy membership.
      What I needed was a pithy rejoinder that both established my credentials as a genuine Kenworth aficionado and debunked any notions that I was too effete for the supposedly rough and tumble world of cross country trucking.
      I couldn’t believe that they seemed to be buying it as I spewed out a hastily cobbled together ode to the trucker’s way of life, which I concluded with a suitably foul-mouthed reinforcement of the myth that truckies were forever having indiscriminate sexual interludes in their cabins.
      “Yeah!” said Burnsy lasciviously. I was in.
       As the truck prepared to overtake our bus I stood in hunched anticipation with my newfound comrades. Macca and Burnsy had, just seconds before, given the driver the all-important visual directive to ‘pull’ his horn. But so far: nothing. (Getting a Kenworth driver to sound his horn was the ultimate prize for the Kenny Boys. Again BJ and the Bear was to blame: the most moronic scene in the show’s opening credits sequence (and there were several strong contenders) depicted the chimpanzee (the confusingly named ‘Bear’) grinning idiotically whilst pulling the truck’s horn in order to attract the attention of a fellow Kenny driver (a ludicrously attractive human female); when she returns fire with a horn blast of her own it presumable sends Bear into a delirium (although we are thankfully spared having to witness such a disturbing spectacle).
      Then, just as things were starting to look grim on the horn front (Burnsy for one, had given up hope and had started to openly speculate about the hapless truckie’s private life) the truckie sounded the horn.
      The slightly mournful quality to the cow’s ‘moo’ of the horn was lost in the jubilant scenes that followed: some (including Burnsy who had presumably reversed his decision as to the truckie’s character) raised their arms in victory; some shouted indiscriminately; and some gave the truckie a spirited round of applause. Following Macca’s lead, I pumped both fists and yelled “Kenny!” like a sociopath.     
      The truck passed. Excitement levels returned to normal, and I sat back down. Michael looked at me. He didn’t have to say it: he now had a new contender for the stupidest Kenny Boy.

While all this had been going on the radio had been locked on 3MP; however MP’s relentlessly inoffensive, some-would-say boring playlist had meant that it had gone largely unnoticed. It turned out however that Frank Wood, who occupied a seat near the front of the bus, had been lobbying hard for a) the dial to be turned to the more palatable 3XY, and b) for the volume to be increased.
      Frank was that rare breed: a boy from 6B with no interest in Kenworth trucks; and, unlike myself, he was unwavering on this issue; and I suspect that his campaign, whilst mostly fuelled by an understandable loathing of Anne Murray’s ‘You Needed Me’ (which 3MP seemed to play it on the hour, every hour), was, in part, a ploy to drown out the Kenny Boys.
      (It was at the previous year’s house sports carnival that Frank had first announced himself as a unique character; a man who ran his own race, if you will. It was the second to last event of the day: the Grade 5 boys 4x100 relay; and I just anchored my team to a relatively easy win. After crossing the finish line I looked back to the crowd expecting to accept a few plaudits, as presumably the emphatic victory could only have served to enhance my reputation as a future Olympian; but, for once, nobody was interested. They were all looking at Frank, who was running the last leg for what must have been one of the weakest relay teams ever fielded in house sports history – he was still a good 70 metres from home and had the straight to himself. And the reason everyone was looking his way, and not at me (the rightful star of the show) was that he was taking full advantage of the similarities in shape and dimension between a gold relay baton and a particular musical instrument. Yes, he completed the final 70 metres of the race skipping and simulating playing the flute. I may have won the race, but Frank had won over the crowd; my, I thought, awesome display of athletic prowess turned out to be no match for the world’s most sarcastic Pied Piper impersonator.)
      The bus driver gave in to Frank’s hectoring about five minutes after my induction into the Kenny Boys and the radio was switched to 3XY. The first few songs came and went without incident; neither Dire Straits’ ‘Water Of Love’ nor Nicolette Larson’s (sublime) ‘Lotta Love’ was ever going to cause a riot. In fact, they were drowned out by another round or two of the Kenny Boys theme (which I declined to participate in, citing unfamiliarity with the lyrics – a relatively weak excuse as they were tattooed on my brain by that stage).
      Next up was ‘YMCA’ by the Village People; and its galvanising effect was immediate, managing as it did to bring several disparate groups together including (but not limited to): the oft-maligned Recorder Girls, some of whom were so musical that they nonchalantly sang close harmony lines during the chorus; the Guitar Boys, nominal guitar students who, between them, barely managed to pitch a single note; and of course the Kenny Boys themselves who, with Macca acting as the sort of choirmaster one might find in prison, belted out the irresistible chorus with such conviction that the seemingly impossible happened – a Kenworth went by completely unnoticed.
      So, for just over four minutes we were all singing from the same hymn book; united by a song with possibly the most homoerotic subtext in pop history no less (its only serious rival in this regard being the Village People’s similarly themed follow-up ‘In The Navy’).
      And it should be noted here that our enjoyment of ‘YMCA’ was entirely genuine; there was not a trace of irony, no sense of kitsch.
      Those things hadn’t been invented yet.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Paul's Incomplete Guide To Classic Pop 1975-79 Part 5

'Sultans Of Swing' by Dire Straits (1978)

It's like this: A friend relays a story from the previous weekend about a desperate pair of small time jazzers. He gives the protagonists names like Harry and George. But you know it's actually about him. He peppers the conversation with quasi-hip references to 'the jazz goin' down' and the like. His delivery is cool, detached, inexpressive even. Paradoxically perhaps, this draws you in. All the while he's fiddling around with an old Fender Stratocaster. And he punctuates the story with crisp chords, fills and lines, picks and scrapes, the likes of which you've never really heard before. In fact, after a while you realize that the real star of this little anecdote is the guitar. Whilst telling you the story he's managed to come up with the single purest distillation of the 'Strat' sound that there's ever been. And as the story ends you think, why doesn't this guy quit his teaching job and become a star?

Monday, 5 March 2012

Paul's Incomplete Guide To Classic Pop 1975-79 Part 4

'Surrender' by Cheap Trick (1978)

"Surrender, surrender, but don't give yourself away." Now there's a credo to live by. (More on that later.)
      I’ll get straight to it: Cheap Trick should have been the biggest band in the world. Photogenic front man who was as gifted a vocalist as any in rock. Check. Even more photogenic bass player. Check. ‘Quirky looking’ guitarist who could churn out brilliant power pop at will. Check. An even more quirky looking drummer who played ‘songs’ rather than ‘beats’. Checkmate. Ah, that it were a perfect world…
      One of the main reasons Cheap Trick never achieved the world-straddling success (and, no ‘The Flame’ doesn’t count, thanks for asking) they deserved was their lyrics, even though those very same lyrics were among the group's strongest virtues. The words were just too darkly comic, too snidely cynical, too brilliantly subversive for mass consumption.   
      ‘Surrender’ is Cheap Trick’s best song; and a good encapsulation of what made them great, as well as what made them a difficult sell too.
      Here’s the first verse:

Mother told me, yes she told me, I'd meet girls like you
She also told me, "Stay away you'll never know what you'll catch
Just the other day I heard of a soldier's falling off
Some Indonesian junk that's going round…”

Suffice to say we’re a long way from McCartney’s mull in Kintyre with its comforting mists rolling in from the sea.
      “I heard of a soldier’s falling off, some Indonesian junk that’s going round” can be read (at least) three ways: the most literal interpretation is off an army man falling off an Indonesian boat (boats are known as ‘junks’ around parts of SE Asia); a deeper reading involves some poor bastard on the nod (or ‘falling off’) due to a lethal dose of heroin; the third interpretation concerns a lethal dose of a different kind – a case of venereal disease so extreme that it’s caused some astonishingly unlucky soldier’s penis to fall off (hence the placement of the possessive apostrophe in the lyric above).
      And it’s a hell-ride from there.
      In the second verse the father enters the picture; and he’s quick to assure the kid that Mom knows of what she speaks; that, in fact, she was once in the Women’s Army Corps:

Father says, "Your mother's right, she's really up on things
Before we married, Mommy served in the WACs in the Philippines"
Now, I had heard the WACs recruited old maids for the war
But mommy isn't one of those I've known her all these years…

Here the kid seems to be reticent to believe what he knows deep down to be true: his parents are cooler than he is. He completely overreaches in his attempt to discredit Dad by making himself out to be more worldly than he is; the nonsense about 'old maids' only serves to discredit himself. (An earlier version of the song leaves no doubt as to kid's insecurities in the worldliness stakes, with the preposterous false-bravado of  “Now, I had heard that WACs were dykes, either that, old maids or whores.”)
      Any doubts the preceding verses throw up as to who's cooler are removed once and for all in the Freudian nightmare that is the final verse:

Whatever happened to all this season's losers of the year?
Every time I got to thinking, where'd they disappear?
But when I woke up, Mom and Dad are rolling on the couch
Rolling numbers, rock and rollin', got my KISS records out...

That's one hell of a role reversal. The kid walks in to find that his parents are not only having sex (and are, by extension, debunking the whole 'no sex after marriage' myth), they're also smoking dope and listening to loud stupid rock music. 

Now, those choruses:

Mommy's alright, Daddy's alright, they just seem a little weird
Surrender, surrender, but don't give yourself away...

The moral of the parents' 'weird' behavior (as outlined above) is, I think, this: When you become an adult you are joining a world often marked by pain and compromise; but it is possible to retain your youthful exuberance, your childlike wonder, the things that make you you; and never mistake innocence for naivete (the parents here are demonstrably not naive with their talk of death and disease, but they are, I would argue, innocents).
      This is possibly the best, and most honest, song about growing up that I've heard. The parents have 'surrendered' to adulthood; they've had a kid. But they haven't given themselves away.
      And to me, that’s the only way to fall.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Paul's Incomplete Guide To Classic Pop 1975-79 Part 3

Meat Loaf - You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night) & Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad (1978)

Bat Out Of Hell. A Dickensian dichotomy of a record. The best of times: 'You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth' and 'Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad'. The worst of times: The bloated title track, and the never-ending and ever-dreadful 'Paradise By The Dashboard Lights'.
      The Springsteen connection: Much of the Bat Out Of Hell plays like Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run album beamed in from a parallel universe. And Born To Run's key ingredient (apart from Bruce himself) was Roy Bittan's piano. It is his romantically wide-screen playing that helps elevate the relatively well-worn 'teenage wasteland' concerns of Born To Run songs like 'Thunder Road' and 'Jungleland' to almost mythical status. In these songs, as in all great rock 'n' roll, the musical backdrop implies a profundity that simply isn't there on paper.
      Take this line from Thunder Road: "Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays..."
      Okay, as rock lyrics go, it's not bad; in fact, it's really good. But when combined with Bittan's lyrical arpeggios it is transformed into a thing of almost unbearable beauty (and is there anything more profound than real beauty?).
      What has Bruce Springsteen's piano player got to do with Bat Out Of Hell? Well, a lot as it happens. Meat Loaf and his songwriter Jim Steinman were so keen to make a record that sounded like Born To Run that they hired, you guessed it, Roy Bittan to play piano on every track. And they got Bruce's drummer Max Weinberg to play drums.
      A theory: There is an inverse relationship between the quality of Bat Out Of Hell's songs and their similarities to Bruce. So, the more Meat Loaf tries to play Springsteen at his own game, the worse the result. For instance, the title track 'Bat Out Of Hell' is, in its lyrical concerns, arrangement, and even melody, a thinly veiled 'Thunder Road' re-write; and it's horrible. Whereas, perhaps the album's high point, 'Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad', is the least Springsteen sounding track on the record (as 'Bat' producer Todd Rundgren once pointed out, it could almost have been an Eagles song with its smooth harmonies and vaguely country lilt).
      And another thing: There's a bit in 'You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth' when Meat Loaf sings "You know there's not another moment, not another moment, not another moment to waste" over an ascending chord progression. It's probably my favourite moment in all of music.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Paul's Incomplete Guide To Classic Pop 1975-79 Part 2

'That's Rock 'n' Roll' - Shaun Cassidy (1977)

In 1977 I was still a year away from being a regular (or even semi-regular) radio listener; and the main way I got to hear pop music was through after-school turntable play at friends' places; and of all the songs I got introduced to in this way 'That's Rock 'n' Roll' was easily my favourite. And I still like it a great deal...
      ...but, I’m prepared to admit that despite the fact that it was written by power pop wunderkind and sometimes genuine rocker Eric Carmen (yes it’s true, the guy who sang the exquisitely awful ‘Hungry Eyes’ from Dirty Dancing used to be good, very good; check out the first Raspberries album for proof), ‘That's Rock ‘n’ Roll’ fits nicely into sub-category of songs about rock ‘n’ roll that contain very little actual rock ’n’ roll (other prime examples being Billy Joel’s 1980 hit ‘It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me’ and Starship’s massively over-produced ‘We Built This City’ from 1985); with the most glaringly un-rock ‘n’ roll aspects being the virtually non-existent drums, Cassidy’s overly breathy rendering of the lyric, and the sax fills and solo that no one would ever confuse with Clarence Clemons (or The Stones’ Bobby Keys).
      The Joe Hardy connection: At the time Shaun Cassidy was starring in a television series called The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries in which he played Joe Hardy, an ameuter sleuth, who together with his brother Frank (played by Parker Stevenson), maintained impeccable hairstyles (whilst solving the odd 'mystery'). 
      (The Hardy Boys story lines were interspersed with largely separate Nancy Drew mysteries with Pamela Sue Martin playing the feisty girl detective; and I managed to develop a bit of a pre-adolescent crush on Pamela Sue, which is probably not of any real interest to anybody, and is certainly not germane to the topic…)
      Anyway, the ninth episode in the first series ('The Mystery of the Flying Courier') opens with Joe Hardy giving a fully arranged rendition of  'That's Rock 'n' Roll'. The fact that Joe had no solid background in singing, let alone performing dead-on Shaun Cassidy covers, seems to have been conveniently overlooked in the name of stunningly cynical cross-promotion. I would say that it's worth seeking out the episode and/or the series on DVD, but that would be being untruthful...

'Mull Of Kintyre' by Wings

Mrs Parsons. She was the first (and only) teacher I had who name-checked pop singers and popular songs on a regular basis. She urged us to post a copy of the times-table on the back of the toilet door "next to a poster of Rod Stewart!". She was directly responsible for me starting to listen to the radio.
      In early 1978, one of her fellow teachers had managed to procure the sheet music to 'Mull Of Kintyre'; and when he came into our classroom to hand it over to Mrs Parsons she couldn't hide her excitement.
      "Ah, this is what I’ve been waiting for,” she said.
      Suddenly, the maths we were doing was of little or no importance. She went and got her nylon-stringed acoustic guitar out from behind her desk; she opened the booklet; and she started to strum her way through the (fairly rudimentary) chord changes. 
      Then she paused: “If you don’t know this song, then you don’t listen to the radio enough.”
      I didn’t know it.
      That night when I got home I tuned in to 3XY (1420 on the dial) and, in that moment, my world  turned from black and white into colour. I sat there transfixed as unfamiliar singles spilled out one after the other. (Songs I heard on that first night included 'Wuthering Heights' by Kate Bush, 'Stayin' Alive' by The Bee Gees, 'You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth' by Meat Loaf, and the reigning number one 'Isn't It Time' by The Babys).
      'Mull Of Kintyre' itself is a ponderous dirge of a thing and under normal circumstances wouldn't be a song that I'd give any thought to; but it was the catalyst for opening up a world that has sustained me during some very dark times. And that's good enough for me...

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Paul's Incomplete Guide To Classic Pop 1975-79 Part 1

'January' by Pilot (1975)

"January, sick and tired, you've been hanging on me." Heard that everywhere in 1975. Never knew what it meant. Never realised that January was a girl's name like May, April or June. Never realised that the song was, like a lot of vital art, probably alluding to a faltering relationship. I actually thought the lyric was "January, second time you've been hanging on me" and that the singer was lamenting the fact that he'd had a disastrous start to the last couple of years - damn that month of January.
      To latter-day ears it sounds a lot like what a mid-'70s McCartney-led Beatles single would have been like had they stayed together (one can easily imagine 'January' joining 'Michelle', 'Eleanor', 'Prudence' and the rest of an illustrious group of girls feted by the Beatles in song).

'Single Bed' by Noosha Fox (1976)

S-s-s-single bed. Clap. Clap. S-s-s-single bed. Clap. Clap. If the anemic, forty-something, Noosha Fox took a demo of this song to a record company today she'd be summarily escorted from the premises by security guards under strict instructions never to let her darken their door again - her mere presence having the potential to 'harm the brand' or some such. 
      In 1976, however, things were different. You could have very little going for you image-wise – she also had lank, lifeless hair and sang like a Frenchwoman impersonating an Englishwoman – but if your song had a hook that was catchy enough to get a run in the schoolyard, then you had a hit on your hands.
      Maybe the hint of permissiveness in the lyric also helped its chances. After all, Noosha spends much of the song affirming that her bed isn’t big enough for two. Is she happy about this state of affairs? No, we – the playground jury – assumed not. 
      There was still some ambiguity though: was the fact that “all (she) got is a single bed” an admittance of defeat, that she’d be sleeping alone, perhaps, to take it to its extreme, in perpetuity?; or would these would-be lovers run the risk of being cramped and make-do with the titular single bed?
      I personally think its success was all down to those handclaps…

'The Way That You Do It' by Pussyfoot
More Beatles influence (it sounds almost exactly like Ob La Di ob La Da). And more Gallic flavour (this time courtesy of a ludicrous, and stridently meaningless faux-French refrain that can best be 'translated' as "ooh nunna hiyah, ooh nunna hiyah, hiyah). 
      Again, the Beatles influence went unnoticed by me at the time: although other acts were having huge success releasing tracks highly derivatibe of the Fab Four (ELO and 10cc being the most obvious, but by no means only, examples), the Beatles themselves were not particularly in vogue either as a group (Beatles nostalgia as we know it today only truely kicked in with the advent of the CD and the re-release of their albums on that format), or as individuals (John had 'retired' and become the world's most musically gifted house husband; George was releasing hitless albums that you've never heard of like Extra Texture (1975) and Thirty-Three & 1/3 (1976); McCartney had hit a mid-career slump (Wings At The Speed Of Sound anyone? Didn't think so.); and Ringo, I'm not sure what Ringo was doing.

'Glass Of Champagne' by Sailor 

Hello Sailor...goodbye.