As I write, the thought we might actually get back to Memphis to record once again after all this time grows daily as a reality – and so I think it’s time I try to gather my thoughts about the experience of recording The Big Don’t Argue there all those years ago.
When I think of the forces that actually lead to us making that trip it’s no wonder it proved a difficult record to promote and one the record company were never sure about (one that would ultimately see us part ways with WEA Records). I think there was a thought that sending Weddings, Parties, Anything to America to record would tone the band down a bit and make us broader (more international?) in our outlook and appeal. But it did pretty much the opposite of that and in producer Jim Dickinson we found a kindred spirit who only served to exacerbate our sense of being a rag tag bunch of misfits from a far flung country. We were happy with Jim referring to us in an interview as being ‘ the most primitive bunch of white men he’d ever met’. We could use that.
Suddenly we were hanging out with Mojo Nixon and Alex Chilton (well, Pete and I stood in the queue with him for some barbecue at an Ardent studio function). We were partying with the Georgia Satellites and being regaled with stories of The Replacements, Ry Cooder, of Tav Falco and a young Elvis Presley. And every night after recording we would go and hang in Beale St inevitably ending up lying on the grass and watching an old blues guy called Uncle Ben play his gnarly one chord Shopping Trolly Blues. All these things only made us want to turn our idiosyncratic-volume-bone up to eleven. Our buddies from Toronto turned up with cases of beer and one of them ended up being thrown in gaol for the entire weekend. Yes, things were going exactly to plan.
And so three months later when I was back in Sydney and I turned on Triple J to hear Streets of Forbes blaring out of the speaker and the obvious discomfort and lack of enthusiasm of the back announcement I thought to myself ‘oh hell, what in the fuck have we done’. Then a few months later once we were up to our third (unsuccessful) single from the album I had the onerous task of phoning Jim in Memphis to ask if he could perform some sort of edit/remix to the track Darlin’ Please. I could hear the bemused reluctance in his voice. It was painfully obvious that on a commercial level the whole project was a debacle.
But on a creative personal level perhaps it was a lot more positive. It was the experience of being in a place where recording music is regarded as an art form and an industry – an industry with a proud and justified history – that made us feel strongly that we had a lot more to give and that we could run our own race from there on in. We had recorded in the same place a lot of seriously successful and iconic music had been created. I think the fact Jim and John Hampton (the engineer for the sessions) took us so seriously counted for a lot. There was no sense of our inexperience in the studio being in any way a problem. Our opinions seemed to count in a way they hadn’t for a lot of people in Australia.
I still remember the first phone call from Jim that came totally unexpectedly at a house where I was living in Sydney in the late eighties. Suddenly there was this southern American drawl coming down the line, seemingly casual but enthused at the same time. He and his wife Mary Lindsay had been listening to the first two WPA albums as he was on a list of producers the record company had been approaching for expressions of interest. The Infanticide of Marie Farrar was the song that had piqued his interest. He loved the gravity of it, the poetry and the audacity of us using a Brecht poem in this way. Recently when I approached Mary Lindsay about the possibility of taking the current line-up of the Roving Commission over to record it was as if the years fell away and she exclaimed that the Weddings had been one of hers and Jim’s favourite bands. And then Kevin Houston, the engineer who currently works in the studio Jim bequeathed to his sons commented that he still remembers Jim coming into studios in Memphis after we had finished The Big Don’t Argue and telling people how proud he was of the album he had done with the strange band from Australia.
And so beyond that it’s all a bit of a blur. There was the initial introductory trip made by myself and my partner at the time. We stayed at the grand Peabody Hotel (the one where Malcolm Fraser lost his trousers) and got stung a fortune for room service. We got driven around town by Herbie O’Mell, Jim’s manager and went to dinner at Jim’s house. I played Jim a bunch of songs on the acoustic guitar and he made some notes. We met Jim and Mary Lindsay’s sons Cody and Luther. It was a long time ago.
And then when the band came in there was a function on a riverboat for all the artists recording at Ardent Studios. We did a few demos at the Sam Phillips studio with Roland Janes (Jerry Lee Lewis’ guitarist) before we hit Ardent Studios and began work in earnest. We stayed in a house across the parking lot from the studio and we walked to the Piggly Wiggly supermarket for our groceries. There was cyclone warnings on television every day between the seemingly interminable series of basketball. The rest of the band went to Graceland while I stayed at the studio to do vocals. We got to see Alex Chilton play with a three piece combo in a tiny venue. We saw Mojo Nixon play with a band called the Dick Nixons. We went to a barbecue festival and ate a mountain of pork ribs and drank generic American beer. We recorded onto a weird digital format I’ve never seen since but Jim felt it worked for bands like us. They could dump various takes into the machine and edit things together which was a really new concept in 1989. It had worked for The Replacements so we were all for it. Everyone at Ardent said after The Replacements we were the nicest and best behaved band Jim had bought in for some time. I think that was a compliment. We got involved in an argument about AFL from a newspaper article someone had sent and someone dismissed a player’s action as a ‘big don’t argue’ at which Jim turned around casually and said ‘I think you’ve got your album title right there’. My brother Steve turned up with the photo that would eventually become the album’s cover. He did the artwork in a hotel room in Toronto a week later. We got the record done in under a month which, in those days was considered really quick.
Some people from the record company in New York and then Sydney turned up and Jim charmed them masterfully. Diplomacy aside, I don’t think anyone was fooled. The process hadn’t turned us into the band some people were hoping it would and maybe we all knew that the money that had been spent wasn’t going to render much in the way of hits just yet. It was the end of the eighties and the purse strings would start to tighten right across the music industry and so perhaps we made that trip just in time. In retrospect I feel really grateful to the record company people involved for supporting the project. It was a risk that possibly didn’t stand a great chance of paying off in the short term commercial sense but was really crucial to our development. By the end of that album’s release period we were touring with U2 and we felt invigorated enough to be planning our next album already. This time a little closer to home.