I think we were struck by the sobering realisation the only way the event was taking place was that the staff from the Merri Creek Tavern had driven down to Gippsland from Northcote that morning to work the bar at the Archies Creek Hotel. Their roster had been decimated by the dreaded pandemic and Marki, Ash and Ro had stepped in at 24 hours notice to save the day. At least we weren’t going into this year with any illusions about putting the uncertainty and the disappointment behind us. But finally here we were half an hour before we were due to take the stage on New Years Day all tipsy with relief the show was actually going to happen. Jon Von Goes was there in his role as compere and talk actually began to turn to prospective shows and tours for the year ahead (Fools? Optimists? Us?) and in particular the upcoming Sing a Song of Sixpence songwriters in the round tour put together by Craig Delsinki.
One of the really nice touches Craig has put into these shows is that it isn’t just guest songwriters each night but a revolving cast of some pretty choice guest accompanists as well. Wally was chuckling that trombonist James McCauley was on quite a few of these dates. I replied it was pretty cheeky of him as an accordionist to be casting aspersions over anybody else’s choice of musical instrument. But he informed me it was simply the thought of a trombone in an acoustic (possibly incongruous) musical setting that made him think of a particular joke. Which joke was that I asked? You know the one he said - the one about the trombone playing Siamese twin and Tom Jones.
Of course - now I remembered! What a joke! It all came flooding back and as nobody else in the room was familiar with it, it fell to me to see how good my memory was. I’m not sure how acceptable it is in terms of modern political sensibilities but I have no intention of writing it here. Like the film The Aristocrats the humour of the story lies in its ability to be notably offensive and that’s all I’m going to say about it.
We were pretty sure it was Pete Lawler who introduced us to it back in the Weddings days. Or possibly our first manager John Sinclair who was never short of a ribald story, sitting around after a show. Jon Von Goes remarked that people don’t seem to tell jokes that much these days and we all agreed. Wally and I began to reminisce about the war years when each member of the Weddings seemed to have a signature joke we could trot out amongst our myriad tour stories as we travelled the world. I think back then we moved on so regularly that our off-stage routine became part of our identity. Yes, Pete had the one about the Scots hitchhiker forcing the hapless driver to masturbate, Wally had the story about the hasheesh inside his accordion, I had the one about the turtle’s picnic. Were we funny? Probably not, now I think of it. It was just something we did. Mouthy boys as we were.
And as stage time approached Jon asked what did WPA’s Paul Thomas have to contribute to this comedic repertoire way back then? Jon had gone to secondary school with Paul and as a life long friend is always after some dirt on his old buddy. We couldn’t think at first and then it came to us. It was the one about the guy who is convinced by the shonky menswear salesman to buy an ill-fitting suit off-the-rack.
I think my memory of it is bound with the first time Paul told it in the back of a Tarrago, probably on his first tour with the band and so it was an initiation as much as anything. The crucial thing here is the thought of it being told in a confined situation - most likely with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. The gist of the joke is that each time the hapless purchaser of the suit goes back to complain about the way his garment fits, the salesman placates hime by making him adjust his posture. Walk with his shoulders back, with his backside stuck out, with one leg stuck out to the side, with one arm tucked inside his jacket etc. The joke can go as long as the teller needs it to go. On an arduous late night drive back to the hotel, the longer the better.
And so on New Year’s Day as the show got closer the joke came flooding back to Wally and myself, and then we grasped for the punchline. Yes, we were pretty sure we had it. One person in the street says ‘Look at that poor disabled man struggling to walk’. Yes that’s it. But there was more to it wasn’t there? And then as we were actually leaving the band room to walk down to the stage Jon actually shouted out the reply which was the other half of the punchline ‘Yes, but doesn’t his suit fit him well!’
Jon was ebullient. ‘I actually told Paul that joke back in school!’ he yelled as we headed out the band room door. As we all marvelled at the way things come around and at the full circle the joke had made. And at the way world events throw people together and the way memories travel - that’s the real strength of stories and jokes, and even songs themselves then isn’t it? The way they travel across oceans and ages, stages and venues, schools, workplaces and people themselves. It was a wonderful little exchange that seemed to momentarily make the worry of the previous year subside as we walked happily through the crowd who had braved the day to be there in Gippsland. This was us taking the stage in the middle of a pandemic on New Year’s Day 2022 with our own set of songs and stories and at least for a few hours doing what we have spent a large part of our lives working up to. All jokes aside.
The last couple of days have been rough. We’ve lost a couple of good ones and it has been hard to stay focused on anything but the loss itself.
The higher profile of the two that have left us was Dave Heard. He was a DJ at Melbourne’s 3PBS FM and an absolute stalwart of the local music scene. He was a constant presence at shows for at over twenty years and on his weekly Acid Country program was never less than inclusive, creative and supportive. He was constant, uncomplicated and reliable. He made it easy. He made it fun. He was such a great bloke to run into and your night was always the better for it.
The other one we lost was Grant Smith. Less well known but still, in his own way an important figure for me and for a small group around the Weddings and my subsequent ensembles. I got to know Grant back in Geelong as I started playing music around the late eighties. We were all thrilled as the British music scene at the time exploded and seemed to give us some sort of blueprint to run things for ourselves. And Grant always seemed to be there. And your night was always the better for running into him as well.
Squeezebox Wally asked me yesterday when I had actually met Grant and it occurred to me I couldn’t pinpoint a single moment, more a gradual awareness of the man as things unfolded. Watching The Propellors at the Valley Inn, The Orphans at the back room of the Golf View or any given lineup of my various bands - Grant was a foot soldier who did more than make up the numbers. He was up the front, checking out your guitars and your effects pedals, talking to you at the bar, making the incoming members of a given group feel welcome and included. My sister loved him as he always had time for her at the shows when I sometimes didn’t.
The thing about both of these blokes is they were first and foremost ‘punters’. They just loved the gig for whatever it was, or might have been, on a given night. For Dave Heard there was not much in the way of stylistic qualification when it came to having people on his radio show. ‘Acid Country’ was a catch-all term that seemed to encompass anything and everything. Grant played the bass in any number of Geelong bands but in a similar way, as a patron there was no stylistic filter to the support he was prepared to show the bands and people he followed. He always loved and supported the Weddings or the Sure Things or the Roving Commission when I’m sure a lot of his friends didn’t.
A lot of people remember Grant for his outrageous coif and his willingness to embrace the stand out fashion of the day (the late eighties to be specific). And it has to be said, at times his hair was impressive and imposing but if it was the defining thing for some, the important thing for me is that for the man himself it never seemed to be more than an amusing side show. It was always the gig, the band, the act, that took centre stage.
What occurs to me now is that both of these blokes were able to make a real difference to my life as an artist in their own quiet way. They were both supportive, constant and lacking in any sort of prohibitive judgement of what I might have been doing at a given time. The thing about Dave Heard is that when a new artist came to town he wasn’t just the guy at the radio station with the laconic drawl who seemed to have done his homework. He soon became the guy from the radio station who came to the gig and hung out and introduced the interstate band to three other bands who they might play with the next time they were in town.
And Grant was the same. People met each other via his patronage. In his own way he was a conversation starter and it’s too easy to discount the general contribution he made as the person up the front of the stage or the guy at the bar. It is the loyalty and the constancy of the contribution that matters so much to people making music on a totally Independent level.
I think both Grant and Dave epitomise for me the positive difference that simple involvement and participation can make. As someone that survives on reasonably small margins and finely cut budgets it is not always the weight of numbers that matters, but sometimes the actual quality of the support. Both of these people were totally receptive and encouraging of any new endeavour or release. Grant especially had been there in some of the headiest most commercially vindicated times of our career (he was actually the hairdresser who cut our hair side stage during a gig with Billy Bragg when Billy had been chiding us all tour about being scruffy) but he never fell into the trap of being sentimentally fixated on the past. Quite the opposite. For him they were all just albums and tours that happened on the way to the next one. Dave was the same. He was happy to have his name on the door at a WPA reunion show but in the band room he would always be asking me when the next Roving Commission album was due or who we had coming up at the Merri Creek Tavern or which Brooke was in the band this year.
This is simply the side of these two particular gentlemen that I knew and I concede there must be whole other worlds they inhabited for their respective families and friendship groups that I can only guess at. My heart goes out to them for their loss and I’m convinced they will be sorely missed on levels deeper than the publicly recognised ones I have described here. I’m not sure if Dave Heard and Grant Smith actually knew each other. All I know for certain is they inhabited the same space on any number of occasions - and they certainly both made a difference.
As I write it’s early August 2021 and in these times of covid we’ve just had to knock almost an entire tour on the head. Pretty much blow by blow, week by week, show by show the dominos have fallen. It’s been excruciating. It’s drawn some blood from all of us in the band, from the publicist, from the booking and travel agents. And from the punters.
I think the years proceeding the formation of the Weddings really left a mark on my psyche. The years when I had trouble getting gigs, and then when I did get them the trouble became getting people to come along. In the scheme of things it wasn’t a long period at all but at the time it seemed to stretch indefinitely. When you are eighteen or nineteen years old things like that feel insurmountable. Consequently, I’ve never taken gigs for granted and this extends to an absolute hatred for cancelling or rescheduling.
Pre-covid there are so few I can remember it’s probably worth listing the really memorable ones. Here’s three:
Red Deer, Canada - late 1980’s.
It was possibly the Weddings second tour of Canada and we’d worked hard, really hard. Six sometimes seven shows a week for three months - meaning Monday or Tuesday nights we inevitably were stuck doing a crazy door deal in some tiny venue in a regional town. Petrol money, accomodation, they’ll feed you, get you drunk etc was the logic behind this but as the tour wore on it started to grind. And the extra shows kept appearing on our tour schedule. Yes, just appearing as if by magic. Petrol money, accomodation, beer money, a college town where so and so picked up a really good crowd. A local promoter that is hot for the band and will really do the work. At best a paltry guarantee and a cold band house at the back of the venue and……the promoter has got you boys pizza for dinner! Fuck it - we’re in!
And while the city shows seemed to be getting stronger and stronger (and there was the odd out of the way place that seemed to warm to us) there was one that had found its way onto the list that was giving everyone an uneasy feeling. Red Deer.
Initially Vancouver was supposed to be the last show of the tour with a couple of days for us to make our way back to Australia where we were due to start work right away. But Red Deer suddenly became the last date of the tour meaning we would play there and then fly out of Calgary for home. We’d told the booking agent we didn’t think it was a good idea. We’d told the tour manager and we’d told management we didn’t think it was a good idea. But apparently we were getting airplay on the local radio station and there was a promoter who loved the band. And while Red Deer is a very long drive from Vancouver there would be.... (wait for it) beer and pizza and somewhere to stay.
I’m not sure if it was my insecurity or a lack of unity within the band but more often than not we’d back down in this situation and just play the show. It just seemed easier somehow and with a generally optimistic outlook we’d find ourselves back in the van and on our way. But something had begun to shift in terms of our relationship with the industry generally and with our management particularly. Maybe we were becoming more confident. Perhaps we were just getting fed up with it all. And so even though we kept on saying we weren’t going to play the show in Red Deer and even though somehow it remained on the list, and even though it was still in the adds and on the posters, we were adamant - we weren’t going to play the show.
The catalyst for the change in attitude was quite possibly that Vancouver had become such a strong city for the band. We seemed to just work in that place. We made friends there. We went to parties, we danced to Ethel Merman singing there’s no Business Like Show Business, we went to restaurants, we got recognised in the street. We stayed on Granville Street we stayed out late, we scored drugs and went to strip shows. We filled The Town Pump in Gastown and we partied with Art Bergman at the Commodore Ballroom. We absolutely loved Vancouver and here we were being told we were going to have to drive ten hours to a place we knew nothing about and no - it just wasn’t going to happen.
The showdown with management happened in the band room at the Town Pump. It was a great venue for us and I think a good band room - up a staircase at the back of the venue from memory - roomy and filled with lots of old equipment, bric a brac, clothes and props. We had buckets of beer to drink as the argument ensued post gig - surely the worst time to discuss something like this. It didn’t matter what management said, we weren’t going to drive the ten hours to Red Deer. But the argument seemed to go forever, around and around and as the night dragged on I found myself getting colder and colder and finally I spied an old worn tweed jacket lying in what was quite possibly a lost and found pile of clothes. I put it on. It fitted perfectly and looked okay in a shabby-chic Withnail and I sort of way. We won the argument and got to cancel the show in Red Deer and as a weird sort of punishment I returned to Australia with a chronic case of scabies courtesy of the Town-Pump-band-room-jacket. Maybe it served me right. Maybe we should’ve played Red Deer after all.
Waltzing Matilda Hotel , Melbourne - circa 1990
Probably not that long after Red Deer, the same problems, the same management. The same feeling that so many of the gigs we played were pointless - but back in Australia now. It was winter and the band had partially relocated to Sydney but here we were in Melbourne for weeks on end with Pete and I staying in a cheap hotel in East Melbourne and we seemed to be constantly driving out of town to play to half filled rooms. There was no pizza involved but plenty of soul searching as to the importance of constantly playing ill promoted shows with little chance of success - financially or in terms of the band’s morale.
This particular night Pete was feeling ill with some sort of flu or cold and I think it was us being mischievous more than anything but pretty much on a whim we decided the gig was off. Pete rang the tour manager late in the afternoon and said he was crook and that I was coming down with the same thing and with very little argument that was it. No show for us. Maybe the tour manager was becoming aware of the growing dissatisfaction in the group and wanted to illustrate a point to the management. Maybe. In the days before mobile phones it was pretty easy to become uncontactable. We said we were too sick and tired to do the gig. Pete hung up the public phone at the hotel and that was that.
Which should have been the end of it but we quickly found ourselves bored and with a Saturday night free. Suddenly, like a school kid who has convinced his mum to let him stay home, once the school bell had sounded Pete and I were feeling a little better. And so we drifted into town and had something to eat in China Town which made us feel better still. And so we went to a pub where we ran into the Machinations from Sydney and they were playing a University show at the Town Hall to which we went to as their guests. And after the show they were going down to St Kilda to see Jermaine Jackson and did we want to come with them in their van? By this time we were feeling quite a lot better.
As we were passing the Prince of Wales where the Go-Betweens were playing I spotted Grant McLennan walking up the steps and so I jumped out of the tour van at the lights and hit him up for my name on the door which was a bit more my style than Jermaine Jackson. But Pete continued on with The Machinations to the Palace which would have been fine except when Jermaine Jackson started (apparently) Pete got excited and went up the front and actually climbed on the PA with a bunch of punters to dance which might have been fine except the show got reviewed on the radio and they actually mentioned Pete from Weddings, Parties, Anything boogie-ing his heart out which somehow got back to the management who were furious with us and the rest of the band weren’t exactly thrilled either. Maybe we should have just done the show at the Waltzing Matilda, taken a flu tablet and gone to bed. No, it was important we’d made our point. Sure it was. Really.
Bergamo, Italy - 1998
Mark McCartney and I had been in Europe for the best part of six months. It had started well and after the pressures of the Weddings it was blissfully unstructured. We’d play any show we could get and be happy if we got asked back for however much money. Our costs were low and so we just kept on playing. We’d gone to Austria pretty early on in the run and enjoyed the few shows in various faux Irish, English and even Australian bars (run by a South African). It has been great and when we heard there were more gigs going at what should have been the end of the trip we got a cheap flight from Edinburgh and we were back in Vienna, ready to rock.
The people we were staying with - friends of a friend - had started booking shows after seeing us the first time around. They were new to the business but they managed to pull together quite a few shows. We caught trains out to weird little towns and played to people who had no idea what we were singing about. The gigs kept on coming and it was great to look at the list of exotic sounding places we had no idea of or what to expect from the shows.
When the trips out of town were finished we’d return to Vienna to sleep on the floor of our booker’s apartment. It wasn’t an ideal set up domestically and while the gigs were okay we should’ve realised we had overstayed our welcome. We tried to stay out during the day and give them space which meant we’d get back to the flat late and dishevelled (drunk). Consequently there was a fair degree of non communication going on and while they insisted we keep on staying with them it became evident we were in the way.
There was one show on the list that seemed to be causing our hosts some consternation - Bergamo, northern Italy. Twelve hours away by train. Initially we were up for it but as our hosts began arguing about the merits of travelling all that way to a place where we weren’t known on a strait door deal we started to wonder. And then it turned out there was no accomodation involved and the booking person who wanted us to do the show just said something like ‘Oh they are Italians, they will love you and someone will invite you back to their place to eat and they will have a room for you to stay and it will be wonderful’. It was sounding less and less appealing as the days dragged on. It was the final show of the tour.
By the time we made the decision not to play Bergamo things had deteriorated with our hosts and the mixed messages were coming fast and thick. You should go, you must stay. We wouldn’t dream of you wasting your money on a hotel, you can’t stay here any longer. We returned to Vienna from a show a couple of hours out of town and we couldn’t find out hosts anywhere. We didn’t have a key to get in. We went to a gig some friends were playing to hang out for a few hours, we got back to the flat late and they had left a note on the door saying to meet them at a club in town. We got there and they wanted to dance, wanted us to drink. We were dog tired and just wanted to sleep. We had to come back to the apartment and drink wine with them. By now they were both in agreement we had to play the final show in Bergamo. We just nodded and said of course we would.
Next day the silent treatment began again. It was a small flat and things were very tense. So we booked in at a cheap hotel, played one last show in town and secretly bought train tickets - not to Bergamo but to Amsterdam from where were flying home. But we didn’t tell our hosts as we were too scared of a potentially hysterical response. We nervously grabbed our equipment and made our way to Westbahnhoff station which wasn’t a long way from their apartment - so we prayed they wouldn’t chance upon us in the street. We got our compartment nice and early and settled all our luggage on board. We waited until they train was ready to leave, until the final announcement had been made and I hit the button on the public phone on the platform and heard the coins drop. Thanks for everything I said but we are not going to play the show in Italy and we are leaving Vienna - now. The whistle blew and the train started shunting as I heard them shrieking like banshees on the other end of the line, I had to run across the platform to jump on board as the train left the station and we settled into our compartment where a couple of nice beers were waiting as Europe began to roll on by in the darkness. Escape from Vienna on the night train to Amsterdam. It sounds pretty exotic although all these years later I can’t help but think so does Bergamo.
Sitting here in lockdown now with twenty two shows just cancelled I reckon I’d be glad to play any of these gigs.
Album recollection #4 Riveresque - Weddings, Parties, Anything
It’s somehow fitting this album opens with the song Houses. Because it was recorded in a house where we were all staying together. A house where we’d done pre-production for an earlier record and decided that we should perhaps be making our own records in a place like that. And because at the time we were all getting on well enough to be in a confined place for a couple of weeks without throttling each other. Strange.
As we pulled up to the house I whispered to Jen Anderson to run up the stairs before anyone else and turn left at the top meaning she would claim the primo renovated bedroom looking out across the valley. Instead she turned left after the first flight of stairs at the mezzanine and ended up in one of the dusty under-reconstruction dog boxes (former servant’s quarters most likely) and Stephen O’Prey managed to claim the palatial suite. But somehow this was all right and such was the humour of the band as it was back then everyone seemed to see the funny side. Even though Stephen got the good room.
That big old sandstone house in northern Tasmania had been such an important place for me, and inadvertently the Weddings. Looking back to 1984 after a fledgling WPA had done a few shows around Melbourne and then fallen flat, it was in that very kitchen I sat with my brother, his wife, and her father and a couple of other friends, and played and played and dissected, discussed and deconstructed just what a repertoire a band like the Weddings might have and what it could sound like. I recall it was Christmas and to date the only one I have ever spent out of Victoria actually. Also strange.
And so it was significant to be back there 20 years later recording with the band. Even though Pete Lawler had departed the previous year I think the line up felt strong and invigorated at the time. There was a sense of unity and purpose that was served well by being sequestered in a small town in the Fingal Valley. We were here to make a record. A statement. The last band in town. The only band in town. Ever.
A lot of the album was tracked with people in various rooms of the sprawling old former country Inn but that song Houses was recorded in the big kitchen with everyone in together. Six people sitting facing each other with a slow combustion stove crackling away to heat the water for our showers and our evening meal. And I think you can hear it all. It was a few days into the session and we had set up ‘in the round’ to grab a few informal B-side type tracks but something about the informality and the sensitivity of this song just seemed to lend itself to this format.
To his credit, our engineer Cameron Craig was all too happy to go for it. Even though it was well into the nineties it should be remembered those draconian studio principles of keeping the instruments separate (‘separation - so we have control when we mix them all together’) and making sure everything was 100% on the beat (‘not moving around too much’) were still really dominant and compulsive elements in the way people judged their recordings. And so it was good we were in a position to really say how we wanted it to sound. We wanted it to sound like us sitting around a kitchen. Even more strange.
So often you read about bands ‘making the record they always wanted to make’. And here were doing it. Sadly, like so many of those records, it turned out to be a valedictory address.
I think we were there in the town of Avoca for about two weeks. In that time Stephen O’Prey managed to get barred from the pub and we had to play an actual gig there to get him allowed back in. The phone booth down the street was given a fair working over as everyone made their daily three minute connection to loved ones back on the mainland (Oh, how heavenly the time before mobiles). We received one request for a booking for a 40th birthday party on the strength of being called Weddings, Parties, Anything (little did I think that 40th birthday parties would become a staple later on in my performing career). We worked hard. We made a record. And although at times personal hygiene was compromised it was an invigorating exercise.
Surreal that six months later we found ourselves sitting together not in a half renovated nineteenth century rural Tasmanian kitchen but around the table at an Albert Park restaurant. And it was here the people from Mushroom Records told us that the album was finished as a commercial proposition and that a ‘Best Of’ compilation was to be our next release. It suddenly felt a long way from a sandstone kitchen in Tasmania.
Would it have changed anything had we known this was to be the last time we would work with a ‘name’ overseas producer on a big budget album? Possibly not. It certainly didn’t seem final at the time. It didn’t feel anything like a watershed moment for the band or myself. But thinking back it was the only time we entered a studio on the back of any sort of success and commercial expectation. By definition this would serve to make it different from any other recording before or after.
It was 1992 and after years of trying we’d finally had a bona fide hit single with Father’s Day and then Step in Step Out, while not a hit in its own right, had received generous airplay as well. We were signed to RooArt who decided this was ‘job done’ for the Difficult Loves album and to not go with a third single. It was time to put all our energy and resources into a new record - King Tide.
They were insistent we needed a new producer to take us to the next level and consequently started throwing names at us. The well know American producer Don Dixon had seen us play at a festival in Winnipeg and had said to me he thought we ‘rocked with authority’. But he was out of our league apparently. Englishman Hugh Jones had mixed the two successful singles from Difficult Loves (Father’s Day and Step in Step Out) and he seemed to be the flavour of the month for Australian bands having done The Saints All Fools Day and Died Pretty’s Doughboy Hollow. So yes, he was the one, we all agreed. The problem was Hugh was a busy man and time seemed crucial as we felt the need to capitalise on the success of Difficult Loves. We needed to make a record right away.
So the plan was we would record in Melbourne with Paul Kosky who was working out of Tim Finn’s Periscope Studio in Caulfield and then go to London to mix at Master Rock Studios in London with Hugh Jones. It was a cost effective option as Periscope was modestly priced being basically a facility set up by Tim Finn in his solid old suburban brick house. And this would off-set Master Rock which was pretty expensive. It was the first time we had gone into a non traditional studio set up making it a precursor to the way music would increasingly be made through my career. Paul Kosky had come out of the Melbourne studio system and had some good credits to his name having worked on Crowded House’s Woodface and later on Killing Heidi.
It was a good plan but in reality it meant separating the record into two distinct parts, much more so than we’d ever done in the past. And before anything could happen being the nineties there was the pre-production to be done. It was so much more of an issue in those days as studios were a lot more expensive so it made sense to have things worked out before the clock was ticking away at $150 an hour. For this task we decided to head out of town once more, down to Waratah Bay in Gippsland. To a pretty flimsy fibro shack we had hired out of the RACV magazine (this was way before Airbnb) under the pretences of "a bit of a think tank". The owners were more than a little surprised/peeved when they turned up to find a full band set up in their precious back bedroom. Much to their ire we spent two weeks there with the rowdiest days being the weekend in the middle when a bunch of people came down culminating in a ridiculous all night jam session. It was fun, we got stuff worked out and then we came back to Melbourne to begin working at Periscope.
By the time we had recorded the album at Tim Finn's home studio in Hawthorn I think the concept of actually going away to record, (rather than just rehearse) was getting stronger and stronger. It would mean being totally being in control of our own destiny but it would take finding ourselves without (another) record deal to do it. (See the story about making the album Riveresque).
The recording of King Tide was an odd uneven kind of process. Pete Lawler and I had talked extensively about the prospect of doing a far more polished and layered record. Working with Jim Dickinson and Alan Thorn had ultimately given us the confidence to experiment in the studio and not see every session as a race to record the whole band in single takes. I think we had finally begun to understand the process and not feel threatened by it. Periscope just wasn’t the sort of studio where a whole band could be setting up to record in full ‘takes’ anyway. There was a control room and a room that could fit the drums - that was about it. So anything else that went down with the initial bed drum tracks was just a guide track to be replaced later.
And it’s not to say this was to everyone’s liking. Paul Thomas was troubled by the fact that all the guitars would go on later and a lot of the songs didn’t even have provision for lead breaks. A lot of the percussion was less than traditional as well. We were using an Optigon on one track - a sort of primitive sampler and other tracks just had various sequenced noises - shakers, tambourines, handclaps etc. Listening back now nothing sounds too outlandish or original but the process itself was a departure from the few albums before it and there was a some discomfort in the band for sure.
I don’t remember much else really. It was a long drive across town from home in Northcote to Caulfield every day for two weeks I know that. We had a bunch of primary school kids come in to sing on the track Live it Everyday and had to put them out in the backyard as they wouldn't fit in the studio - and that was an exercise in diplomacy. Atilla the Stockbroker was in town and he dropped in to drink beer and annoy the guy running the studio and so that required even more diplomacy. We played a lot of pool (full sized table in the loungeroom) and got the tracks down and then it was time to go to London and mix them.
Pete and I were the ones who went which didn’t go down super well with the rest of the band. I think the people with young kids were happy enough to have a few weeks off but it was divisive. Paul Kosky wanted to mix the record here or be one of the people going to London, so did some of the others in the band. There were meetings, phone calls, more meetings but in the end it was myself and Pete Lawler that went as planned.
Master Rock studios were great. Hugh Jones was really good to work with and supplied something we hadn’t really had on a record before. It was a lot of hanging around for me and Pete as Hugh tended to start late and work through the night. We stayed at the Columbia Hotel in Lancaster Gate and caught the bus up to Kilburn every day. We hung out with friends. Billy Bragg came in and sang on Island of Humour and Hugh Jones mixed and mixed in a way I had never seen before. We got it done, we came home with the record we thought the record company wanted….and then the real trouble began.
No matter how many times I’ve had it recommended to me the fact remains that six Sundays of my life have been spent in the town of Memphis and every time I have resisted the prospect of attending Al Green’s church. And it’s not as if I haven’t been tempted. So many times people have told me what an inspiring phenomena it is. The singing, the faith, the testimony, the community. Other performers, band mates, close friends, tourist brochures - all with the same intense recommendation. But there it is. I’ve chosen not to go and so you have to ask why.
The simple answer is I have never been comfortable with the whole idea. Witnessing something other people take so seriously when I am just a middle class interloper from another country gawking up the back. To say gospel music just doesn’t do it for me is simplistic. Like everyone else I watched Vika and Linda doing their Sunday morning online streams during lockdown with a great sense of joy and relief (wasn’t it just a highlight of the week in some ways?). I stood side stage with the rest of the Weddings at Bluesfest, Winnepeg and any number of festivals to be thrilled by the Five Blind Boys. Of course I did, but this has never been a heart and soul acceptance of the form. Maybe I’m too analytical, too aware of my own overeducated self to be comfortable with the raw emotion of it. I just can’t stand all that preaching I guess. And to say I’m not filled with the light of the lord is an understatement. I was bought up in a mildly religious family but made my own choices a long time ago. Choices I am pretty happy with.
But then scroll through to 2020 and between Melbourne’s two lockdowns Craig 'Delsinki' Johnston invites me to be part of the Keep the Circle Unbroken streaming show at the Memo. I am missing live gigs big time and there’s no way I am going to pass up the chance to play with such a ripping bunch of players and vocalists. So many good performers I’d never shared a stage with and even though there was no audience there was easily enough people in the room (technicians, other players, venue staff) for it to feel like an actual gig.
And then there was the music itself - songs I seemed to inherently know (even if I didn’t really). But something about the overall choice of repertoire was as pervasive as it was uncanny. It was simply a good bunch of tunes to sing - easy, and fun. Weirdly those simple gospel songs seemed to be able to worm their way into my consciousness and somehow I found myself getting off on the raw emotion, the life and death of it all. Just quietly. Perhaps it was the feeling that in light of the pandemic we were living through something momentous that made it make sense. At the time I didn’t think too much on it. I put it down to the fact I was just glad to play something resembling an actual show.
By March 2021 Craig Delsinki had received funding to take the Keep the Circle Unbroken show on the road to regional Victoria. On the actual proper-live-shows-to-a-live-audience road. The concept he had was to have a core band of players (his band Row Jerry Crow) and then augment that with a bunch of guest vocalists and instrumentalists coming in and out, each and every night. In this context the wisdom of the repertoire became even more crucial and inspired. These are songs made to be learnt quickly and easily - whether they be country standards, Oz Rock bangers (courtesy of myself, Tim Rogers, Paul Woseen, Mick Pealing, Midnight Oil, Gangajang etc) and, yes, of course, Gospel standards.
The first of my shows was in Traralgon. Some of the band I had met before at the Memo in 2020, but most of the vocalists were new to me, and so were quite a few of the players. Dion Hirini played guitar that night and I was immediately struck by the fact that while he wasn’t a bluegrass picker in the traditional sense it didn’t phase him in the least. He just went with the songs and played his own parts which were tuneful and inspired. It was musical, joyous and original. It took no time for me to realise he was a force.
When he sang it was another thing entirely. Initially I got the feeling the music meant something more to him than it meant me. It was so real, so emotional I think it made me somehow question my own contribution - pretty much like the reason I have never attended Al Green’s church. But the further the show went that night the more I forgot my inhibition in this regard and by the end I was happily singing along with the Angel Band, Flying Away in the Morning - Keeping the Circle Unbroken.
The next show was at the Bundy Hall outside Sale. Tim Rogers was on the bill this night, the hall looked fantastic and the crowd were up for whatever the show had to offer. Craig Delsinki mentioned to me that a few weeks earlier when Tim had guested he had played a song of his own as part of the set. Would I like to do one as well this night he enquired? Sure - which one of Tim’s songs has they put in the set? Heavy Heart was the choice - mine could go in right before that perhaps? And then we forgot about it until out of the blue in the middle of the show he decided I should play a song and so taking the word ‘heart’ as a theme I thought Rain in My Heart was the quickest and easiest tune in my back catalogue to teach a band in front of 100 paying punters. It’s in ‘F’ I yelled with a fair bit of G minor, B flat and occasionally a phrase might finish on a C. Simple. It turned out the fiddle player John Kendall knew it fairly well from seeing the Weddings back in the day and the rest of the band fell in around it. By the time it got to the instrumental verse Dion and John traded solos as if they had been playing it for years and there was enough people in the crowd who knew the chorus to teach it to the rest. A resounding success I thought.
And thinking about The Rain in My Heart - it’s a song about life and death and finding strength in others. It’s got a simple chorus that repeats and repeats and repeats. It didn’t feel out of place on the list that night. After the show Dion told me he loved it and was looking forward to playing it later on in the tour. I was understandably chuffed to hear that. We shared a few jokes, a few road stories and then he left to drive back to Melbourne.
And then his heart failed and he passed later that night.
But the tour went on. I played on five more shows and suddenly the gospel stuff took on a meaning and power I’d never thought possible. A few days later I attended Dion’s funeral service at the Memo and once again music played an enormous part in that and it was fully evident the songs - be they Christian or Maori in origin - weren’t just there to make up some regimented part of the service. It had a sense of being and place in a spiritual way I had never witnessed.
There are people that would tell me that gospel music is the heart and soul of why we play music in the first place and normally I scoff and say no, it’s not why I choose to play music and leave it at that. But something in my brief encounter with a player and person like Dion Hirini throws all this into a great and joyous doubt. I was proud to sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot in a St Kilda backstreet with the rest of the Keep the Circle Unbroken people as the hearse took Dion away that day. When it got to the verse he had sung in the set a week earlier ‘and if I get there before you do’ I was struck with the realisation that if it’s about connection and potency, life and death, then yes, these are the songs you want, the songs we all need to see us through.
And next time I am in Memphis on a Sunday will I attend Al’s church? Probably not.
Condolences to Dion’s family and his partner Lisa
He said he’d spent the whole of the gruelling four month second lockdown in Melbourne dreaming of playing a gig in a dry paddock. On the back of a truck. In front of a broken windmill. And here he was actually doing it!
Somehow this resonated with me. As Bruce Springsteen once commented in reference to the ‘coffee colour Cadillac’ of Chuck Berry’s Nadine – nobody’s ever seen that car but we all know exactly what it looks like. And there I was in a southern Gippsland paddock thinking the same. That without realising it I had somehow been craving this gig and this moment. As soon as he said it I knew I had also been dreaming of this show. This vista of dry fields, an old shearing shed, a smattering of utes and a bunch of people sitting eating barbecue at plastic tables. And yes, it must be said – a broken windmill.
It was on the second week of our National Tour of Victoria and we were booked to play a Thursday evening way down in South Gippsland. To our delight when we arrived we found that musical comedian Rusty Berther was to be the compere and that Harry Hookey was also on the bill. The show was a sort of benefit/relief event for drought affected farmers and while no big deal in itself it was a good natured affair. We were treated well and were all incredibly grateful to be there. Rusty was his normal witty, pithy comedic self and while I know he was joking when he made the comment about playing the show on the back of the truck it somehow rang true with all of us there that day.
As career musicians we are conditioned to concentrate on the big shows. The ones that will bring in the revenue to put the tour finances into the black. Theses are the ones we plan to record and film, the ones where we make the profound statements and deliver the classic performances we hope we will be remembered for. But perhaps in many ways, it is the incidental shows that define us.
As the timeline of the second lockdown ballooned and we began to wonder what the rest of our year would look like it was the lack of possibility that began to ware on many of us so heavily. Any given year a musician might spend long periods not playing or touring. But it is always the chance that you will do something before the end of the month, or the year that fuels you creatively. To have that taken away was debilitating for so many people in a variety of occupations. For people that have been prepared to trade financial and occupational certainty for this privilege the weight was amplified.
The two albums we were able to record in isolation in 2020 provided a great lifeline and relief for myself and (I hope) for the members of our band. For the most part it was the main creative connection on offer. This was done with full recognition that nothing will ever replace the feeling of fronting up to a new studio with your fellow musicians to see what you are able to create with the confines of your small group of players. And I’m sure during both lockdowns as we beavered away in our own back rooms and sent the files flying wildly through cyberspace we all wondered if the amazing studios of Memphis a few years back hadn’t been some sort of dream.
Just like the thought of playing actual shows to actual people and not a camera or iPhone screen had become an abstract concept in itself. That the idea of performing and touring, on any level had suddenly become illusive. But it was an illusion that finally, excruciatingly, thankfully had given way to reality. Just like the dream of a dry paddock and a stage on the back of the truck. And a broken windmill.
I had begun to wonder if it had been such a good idea in the first place. The thought of getting people to pay for us to record a cover song of their choice had seemed feasible enough I suppose. And when you are sitting around brainstorming on ideas for your crowd funding campaign you often tend to charge from one thought to another without much sense of the consequence. But suddenly there we were with sixteen songs to record and didn’t they seem to be a motley rag tag collection to contemplate? How was I going to sing these tunes? How could we possibly make them ours in a short period of time? Rod Stewart, Ewan McColl, Fleetwood Mac, The Sunnyboys, Carter USM, Kenny Rogers, Prince, Sebadoh….what do they have in common apart from from the fact we would be covering them? Not a thing that I could see.
When we came to the first recording session for the project the problem I was faced with was the efficiency of the band in learning the songs from the original recorded versions. Through the years my method for learning any cover tune is to slowly inhabit it – often from memory. I play around with the key, the rhythm and see what I can justifiably alter to make it play like something I might have written myself. I just wasn’t ready for the speed at which Ben Franz and Nick O’Mara could transcribe the tunes and by the end of the first few hours my head was spinning as I tried to grapple with the delivery of this oddball repertoire. But some were easier than others and once we had the band sounding okay in an old hall up in the Wimmera where we were booked to play toward the end of the Coldwater Roadsongs national tour I had to come to a decision there was nothing for it but to trust my fellow band members and just play the songs as they saw fit. At least Ben and Nick would make sure we were actually getting the songs ’right’ as they were in their original incarnations. Admittedly I have been less than diligent through the years in regard to the finer points of some of the songs I have chosen to cover.
So, after that first session in the Banyena Hall we had half a dozen bed tracks. Then another afternoon set up at The Merri Creek Tavern rendered us another seven. I recorded one on my own in my home studio and then a free afternoon in southern Tasmania saw Jac Tonks, Nick O’Mara and myself at Jethro Pickett’s wonderful Rolling on a River studio where we polished off the last two.
It wasn’t until Squeezebox Wally came over to start work on the keyboard parts I started to gain any sense of attachment to the tunes. As we quickly ploughed through the accordion and piano parts it all began to make sense. The simple truth is that as a musical entity we actually mean vastly different things to different people.
The one thing that we found pretty much totally absent from all the choices was the whole modern idea of ‘classic songwriting’. Not a Townes Van Zandt or John Prine tune in sight. The one Bob Dylan tune requested was as close as it would get to this ideal although the tune Winterlude is surely one of his more idiosyncratic and plain oddball ditties. But looking at the tunes as a whole set we came to the realisation that they are strong character tunes – vivid and personal. The character in Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to town is a real person. So is the bloke walking to band practise past the foundry where modern warfare was invented (Bishop Allen’s The Monitor). The person in Dirty Old Town met their love by the gasworks croft, the guy in One Perfect Day contemplates a partner who has moved to London (I have updated this lyric and he is now following her on Instagram), Ringling Road has us falling in with a dysfunctional circus troupe, I’m Shaking (Sunnyboys), Landslide (Fleetwood Mac) and Taillights Fade (Buffalo Tom) are epics of angst and self evaluation. Grace is the love song of a condemned political prisoner and When You Were Mine is just plain weird. How is it possible to follow him whenever he’s with you? Isn’t it a little strange to be letting your romantic competition sleep in between you and your partner? Am I overthinking this? Of course I’m overthinking it but still – the point remains there is a really vivid character to be seen in nearly all of these tunes.
The one real hatchet job I ended up doing was on Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun basically because as it stood the whole song felt dependent on his razor sharp comedic delivery – making it (in its original form) a song purely about Tim Minchin. But in losing half the words the sentiment becomes a little more universal and there is still a tangible character there, making his way home for Christmas, watching his small daughter being ‘handed ‘round the room like a puppy at a primary school’. What a beautiful line that is.
And so I think simply that I am grateful to the punters who ‘bought’ these songs – not just for the financial benefit but for the lesson it teaches us. That songs appeal to people on a variety of levels, all as valid as each other and that the songs of mine which have resonated most through the years aren’t examples of ‘classic songwriting’ but are generally strong character pieces that people can somehow identify with. I’m not sure if it will be possible to gather these tunes together for some sort of release but I hope we can make it work as the bottom line is it has proven a really fun bunch of songs to play. I hope they are half as much fun to listen to. Time to get back to work.
As co-writes go Boxing Day Drive was almost as convoluted as the songwriting process gets. And so it makes me think of the various co-writes I have been involved in over the years. Of sitting with James Blundell and Leigh Kernaghan at one of the Mushroom songwriter’s junkets and trying to work out just why the irrepressible character in the song Never Gonna Get Me Down was ‘never going to be got down’. Of waiting on Felicity Urquhart after she’d been ferried back from Sydney to the Hunter Valley by helicopter after having sung for president George Bush. Are You a Good Man? was the song we wrote that day. Finding myself in Music Row in Nashville with a professional songwriter who half way through the process remarked in an off-hand kind of way “well, Kenney Chesney sure as hell ain’t gonna be cutting this one” (What I Really Wanted to Say). I sat with a book of Sydney Nolan paintings on the lawn at Mount Macedon with Paul Kelly and added a few spare bits to Our Sunshine before leaving him with the barest of chord progressions and a title which was to become In the Perfect World later that afternoon.
In most of these cases it seems to be a matter of trying to establish what you are trying to say, what the song is about. Quite often it’s almost a matter of agreeing on the pre-history of a character or a point where you are focusing your attention. After that it is a simple matter of getting the words to rhyme and writing a nifty bridge that brings you back to a final decisively profound verse that gets you into a repeated play-out on a chorus that people are going to have stuck in their head for weeks after a first listen. Yes, it’s simple really. But with Boxing Day Drive all I really had were the words ‘Boxing Day’ to begin with and no real idea of anything after that. No ‘angle’ to speak of.
It was Christmas 2017 and I’d just taken delivery of a brand new mandolin courtesy of our friends at Auden guitars in England. I took it down to the show we were playing Christmas eve at the Caravan Club in Oakleigh and we passed it around the band room all agreeing it was a fine little instrument. As it goes in that situation you can often start playing some little snippet over and over wondering just where it comes from. Perhaps on a mandolin the simplest of half remembered chord progressions can start to become their own riff. A riff that drives it’s own tune and ultimately a full song. And so by the time we had played the show that night and I’d fronted up at the family Christmas dinner the next day and then found myself at home later that night the tune was taking shape. The blessed relief of Boxing Day saw me sitting out the back yard strumming the new mandolin in a sort of distracted daze. And every time I played through what was to become the chorus and riff of the song all that would come into my head were the words Boxing Day.
Hell, it was Boxing Day – I had made it to another one! And for anyone involved with Weddings, Parties, Anything in the heyday of the band Boxing Day was indeed seen as an accomplishment – a sort of holy grail to aspire to during the relentless odyssey and madness of seven straight pre-Christmas shows. Seven chaotic days of celebration which were only to be followed by the commitment and awkwardly executed filthy hungover responsibility of a family Christmas dinner. Most years Boxing Day was the first chance any of us ever had to feel grounded at all. And so I suppose with that sense of relief built into my personal DNA those two words keep returning to me insistently as I began to set up a full set of chords and a tune. As I borrowed sequences from various other songs (as you do) no words were forthcoming. No subject matter other than, you guessed it Boxing Day.
And so, in the spirit of the way the current album was unfolding I thought it was another I would send to Ayleen. I recorded what I had onto the iPad and sent it off into the ether. Well, about two kilometres away to Brunswick actually where she was residing at the time. She liked the tune, the riff and the feel of the thing generally and all too soon she had returned a mostly finished song. A song of regret and rebuilding. Of someone trying to re-establish themselves after a break up of some sort. I suppose it was all right and the sense of sweet remembrance and sentimentality suited the tune quite well. It was all fine.
Except for the fact the words Boxing Day were nowhere to be found. I listened to the end of the informal recording she sent back and scanned the verses she had written. No, they weren’t there.
As it has tended to run with the pair of us we were both very careful in raising any objection to something the other had written. And so I was very tentative as I bought this up and she commented (as she tended to do in this situation) just how nerve wracking it is to send your idea off to be dissected by someone else. By me. But she admitted she had no idea just how attached I was to the idea of Boxing Day being the name of the song, and the first two words of the lyric. And so she went back to what she had sent me and made a pretty perfunctory adjustment.
Promises and old songs
Maybe there’ll one to keep
In this fading light
Yes, I liked this idea. Some doleful songwriter sitting out the back ruefully strumming away lamenting a relationship that hadn’t quite made it to the end of the year. It put me in mind of Cold Chisel’s Home and Broken Hearted from their first album. For me surely one of the greatest yuletide lyrics ever produced.
I hitched up to Sydney in the week before Christmas
It was twenty eight degrees in the shade
I bought a second hand Morris for a cheap 220
And I drove it down to Adelaide
It boiled for an hour twenty miles out of Houston
I thought that it would never end
But I knew I’d be home for Christmas with my Sandy
And a few extra dollars to spend
Home and broken hearted
I been pasted to the telephone
And Boxing Day break was wasted sitting here on my own
The beer we bought for Christmas ran dry this afternoon
On the radio it’s New Year’s Eve
What a low down time of the year to pack your luggage and leave
Yes, we were really close now. I added a few words here and there and refined the tune slightly. Yes, I was sure we had it. Another contender to place in the song arsenal to take to Memphis with us in June.
By this time Ayleen had already taken off for America in what was to be the first of her two trips there in 2018. I kept working at the song and when I was sure it was totally finished committed it to the Voice Recorder Pro app on the iPad and sent it off to her for a final listen before it took it’s place in the archive. By this stage I thought its inclusion in the form it was taking was a formality. I sent it to Wally and he liked it as well. Done.
Or so I thought – but no. Ayleen suddenly decided she didn’t like it and perhaps emboldened by her surroundings in America (or the miles between us) thought it was too negative. Maybe it lacked the blind optimism this particular time of the year can produce in people as they look to the new year and find an innate hankering to get started on the next part of their lives. It needed something else she thought.
I was kind of stunned by this as I tend to be scornful of second guessers (And this was second guessing I reasoned). I think the whole experience of the first few Weddings records made me see that indecision is the enemy in so many ways when trying to create art under any sort of constraint. When you read that an album, or film cost some mega amount to produce you can be sure it was the prevaricating, the re-doing of completed sequences and the lack of decisiveness that took up a fair amount of the budget. The fact we had a good cache of finished songs we had already chosen was the only thing that stopped Scorn of the Women and Roaring Days descending into complete chaos. Jim Dickinson came in for The Big Don’t Argue and only strengthened our conviction that it is important to make decisions and stick to them.
But here I was with a fully completed song, and while I liked what it had become, it was in no way one of the corner stone tracks of the album. And we were about to spend valuable time pulling it to pieces? Really?
But wait. Ayleen had this idea that it would be about a drive. A big, five day drive. With someone trying to get to someone else and make something ‘right’. And it could have lyrics about the Pacific Highway and she wrote of ‘loading up this old wagon’, which would ultimately phrase much better as ‘loading up the covered wagon’. And so before I realised what was happening I was well into a total rewrite. And there was suddenly an extra word in the title. It was now called Boxing Day Drive. And somewhere in the midst of all this my wife and I took our daughter to see the marvellous animated film Coco and there was a chord progression that I would never have worked out for myself except for the fact they made the Day-of-the-dead Mariachi character play it visually, believably on the guitar and I went home and stuck that in there as well (even ‘though Wally feels my musical debt for this piece is far more to Tim Rogers than a dead animated Mexican).
I had emailed Ayleen back with a rough of how the new verses might run, all the time hanging onto the chorus she had written which was more or less the only bit to survive each incarnation of the song. She came up with the line ‘on the road to make it right’ which was a really fitting way for the chorus to finish each time and so all it needed was colour I thought. It needed context.
And what comes to mind when I think of the Great Pacific Highway? Road signs of course! Road signs and traffic snarls as you enter various towns where the traffic seems to be perennially cut down to one lane because of FUCKING ROADWORKS. What’s the first thing a person walking into a back yard celebration somewhere after a monster drive is going to say when asked how the drive was? Single lane, fucking roadworks. Of course they’ll say that. Of course they will.
And so I emailed Ayleen wherever she was sojourning in the states and asked how she felt about the profanity and the barrage of road signs in the bridge bit and she loved it all. She loved it and I did too and it was easy to see now it could actually be a corner stone track on the album. Hell – it could (would) even be the opening track of the album.
Kevin Houston called it a ‘power pop masterpiece’ reminding us that Jim Dickinson had recorded Alex Chilton and therefore Memphis was one of the homes of the power pop genre. Boo Mitchell from Royal studios sat in on a later playback and gave us the definitive quote of the session:
“Damn that’s some badass shit – you went down the hill and then you came back up again”
And even though I am pretty sure he was referring to the general arrangement of the recorded version maybe in some way he uncannily referenced the writing process of the song. Where we did in fact, go down the hill and then come back up again. It was protracted and inefficient from my viewpoint, but ultimately rewarding. It’s not how I set out to write songs but I think you take ‘em where you find ‘em and that’s how we found this one.
And so anyway if you’ve read this far you probably could have listened to the song twice….why don’t you just pop over to Bandcamp and have a listen. Maybe even buy a copy?