It was at the briefest of rehearsals for the 2016 Brown River Spectacular show and we were working through a song called Brunswick Street Girl – sung this year by Jemma Rowlands. When banjo player/singer Ayleen O’Hanlon enquired as to who wrote the song in the first place everyone seemed to jump in with great enthusiasm – as Melbourne musicians, this was a song we all knew. It’s from an album called Talking in Your Sleep – by The Warner Brothers, released in 1990. So, now I am asking, do you know this album? Because I am aware plenty of people don’t.
But as myself and organizer of the Brown River show Jon Von Goes tried to explain how significant and important this song (and that album) was, it occurred to me that quite a few records I hold really dearly were constructed, promoted and purchased outside of what is normally considered legitimate channels. By today’s standards they were simply records that never got a commercial release. Maybe it was because the discovery of them was so personal and memorable these became records I truly love.
As the proponents of music streaming are claiming to give you ‘every song ever made’ I am prepared to argue there will necessarily exist a litany of absolute gems that don’t find their way onto Spotify, Pandora or Apple Music.
Here’s the story of four albums: How I got ‘em and why I like ‘em.
(ex) Cat Heads: Our Frisco:
There seems to be a lot written about this album and this band on the web. It appears they are/were in some way an important part of the San Fransiscan local music scene in the early nineties. But the night we wandered into their gig there weren’t a lot of people there. It didn’t feel like an important show and we were surprised when we spoke to the band and they said it was their last performance.
We were travelling home from about four months in North America and we had a night to kill in San Francisco. The band was fried and I think by this stage of a long tour, particularly insular and troubled. Lawler was fed up and had even gone as far as to physically accost a drunken Paul Thomas as we checked into our hotel so all in all we were not a happy band. After sitting in our respective hotel rooms for a while we decided to head out and see what the town had to offer. We had a meal, saw some bands, drank some beer and contemplated the final leg of the journey home. It ended being a fun night and it was late when we stumbled into one last venue and met the (ex) Catheads. They were a nice bunch of guys and their show was really enjoyable in a very low-key way. As I said the place was hardly packed. We started talking to them and before we knew it we were buying their record – this was still just pre CD so it was vinyl all the way for us. Through the years I have owned it on CD as well and now as a download (with an extra three cracking tracks I might ad).
The record is a weird classic to my mind – strangely-lo-fi and quite unsettled it seems to jump between a fully-fledged concept album about San Fransisco (bookended by two instrumental tracks Fog Rolls In/ Fog Rolls Out) and a collection of demos (three vastly different versions of one song). It’s sprawling and ambitious, as pretentious as it is unassuming and when I hear it I am back in San Fransisco at the end of a tour. Or in the van driving up the Pacific Highway three months later listening to a cassette dub of it.
Lowest of the Low: Shakespeare My Butt: I have written about this record a hell of a lot over the years but it continues to be one we play at our house at certain times and it never seems to lose it’s appeal. Although it came into our lives well after we’d become regulars in downtown Toronto it still speaks to me of our time there. It still tells the tales of that city. We were handed the CD (1992 – and the CD format had taken hold) by a great friend and promoter Bruce Eaton one tour and it will always take me to times we spent hanging around his house in Kensington Market. It reminds me of the Grange Hotel and The Cameron House, The Siboney and The Horseshoe, and of the times that were not so good. So broke, so cold and far from home,1990 coming in from a long drive out east drunk and hungry and finding the town pretty well shut up on a Sunday night. And then the Hungarian Goulash Party Tavern was magically open but payday was five days away and then for the first time in my life realising that they would take a credit card and wasn’t that the start of something else totally? The Hungarian Goulash Party Tavern is gone now but my credit card debt seems a constant and Shakespeare My Butt still sounds as good as it did back in 1992. Weddings, Parties, Anything only ever played two shows with the Lowest of the Low. It was nowhere near enough.
In 2012 Wally and I were lucky enough to be able to go and help a reunited Lowest of the Low tour the twentieth anniversary of that record and wasn’t that a mighty time? The first night of the tour in Buffalo, Wally and I kept bumping into each other excitedly running in and out of the band room as those beautiful tunes rolled out one after another. And each time we took another fine North American craft beer with us until we vowed to try and keep one beer per song as our nightly quota. But they’re quick songs and there’s fifteen of them in all and we are old guys and it was bound to end badly. The last night of that tour was at Massey Hall in Toronto and we wrote a song especially for the occasion called The Streets of Toronto. It finished with the verse:
I saw The Replacements in San Diego and that was quite nice
Saw Alex Chilton in Memphis, yeah that will suffice
But we saw ‘The Low’ at Lee’s Palace twice
So the rest can all got to hell
Oh the streets of Toronto we loved you so well
It is not my finest piece of work I will grant you but we meant it with all our hearts. It got a standing ovation and we haven’t touched it since. Still play Shakespeare My Butt regularly though.
The Warner Brothers: Talking in Your Sleep
Here’s the one that got me started on this rave. I first heard it being played at the Musicians Swop Shop in Carlton and in retrospect I figure it was no coincidence it was on loud and proud as they knew I was coming in to return some guitars they had lent to the Weddings one morning when we had a television appearance and hadn’t been able get into the band’s lock up. I guess they knew I would like it as I immediately asked who it was playing on the stereo, they explained who the band was, I bought the CD and it went from there. We did a stack of shows with them through the years – both as the Warner Brothers, then as Overnight Jones and ultimately back to the Warner Brothers again. They made a great record after that one, Dan and Stuey, the two writers made great records under their own names as well but it’s still Talking in My Sleep that means the most to me – and also to a lot of people who were around Melbourne at that particular time. They reformed recently as a thirtieth (!!!) anniversary of their inception and it was pretty much that album that got the majority representation.
Sean McMahon: Welcome to Gippsland
I was walking past the Last Record Store in Smith Street when I noticed this one in the window and I guess being born in Gippsland it got my attention. I went in and quizzed Alex about it and he explained to me that Sean had just turned up one day with the record finished and pressed and asked did he want to put it in the rack for sale. No promotion, no distribution, no live band to support the release – just a single unassuming CD. I’d just become aware of the band Downhills Home at this stage and had no idea that Sean was from there or any other band to be honest. But here was this brilliant concept album with guest character parts sung by Matt Walker, Liz Stringer and Laura Jean and when they finally played it live it was billed as a Downhills Home show and so it was a confused foray in a promotional sense but the record itself is really self-assured and quite timeless. The playing is understated, the singing is evocative, the songs are interlocking and self supporting, the whole thing totally lyrical.
And weirdly I think these albums all have something in common. They’re all sprawling, conceptually ambitious and in a weird endearing way, flawed pieces of work. All four are sonically imperfect as I guess they were all recorded without anything in the way of designated budgets. Anyone coming to them critically for the first time might very probably suggest some editing is in order but it is their unhurried breadth that gives them so much character and appeal. I know both The Lowest of the Low and The Warner Brothers for years were quite disparaging when discussing these records always claiming the next ‘properly recorded’ album would leave them for dead. But I think it is the absence of a commercial release that has let these albums be the idiosyncratic oddities that might resonate with a punter so thoroughly, so permanently. And certainly with three of the four albums I have written about here, they have lead to a lengthy association with the particular artists and a subsequent stack of releases I admire and stand by in every way.
In a general sense I think the point of this essay is to argue that how you discover and experience music is a really important part of why you might choose to like something. It’s not to say that you won’t buy a record from iTunes that you heard on a video hits channel or a commercial radio station and love that as well but I think the saving grace for me in the past couple of decades has been the mail order and the merchandise table – places where people can come to my recorded output in their own particular way, as their budget and ever-decreasing time frame might allow. It’s an experience that leads you to wonder mightn’t it render music a touch impersonal to suddenly want to own every song ever made at the touch of a computer mouse? I am about to finish writing this and head to the post office and then we are off to play a few local shows and see if we can sell some of the new single. So I’ll see you at the merch table folks – it doesn’t get much more personal than that. And anyway, back to the albums I have been writing about: who needs ‘every song ever made’ when you’ve got these four?