THE SUN - P76 (Zip)
NOBODY'S FOOLS - The Pyramidiacs
NO HIT WONDERS FROM DOWN UNDER - Beathoven & The Innocents (Zip)
THE ACTUAL SIZE - The Scruffs
This week's power pop orgy continues with the current albums by three of the bands I did manage to catch on the last night of the Lost Weekend festival at the Bridge Hotel back in October, plus the debut long player by the Scruffs, who played on the first night (and should not be confused with the 70's band of the same name, responsible for "Wanna Meet The Scruffs" and "Teenage Gurls").
Taking these records in the order in which I saw the bands on the night, we skip a great set from the Upsets and a more restrained, almost polite, set from Lynchpin and go straight to P76.
Into The Sun - P76
Okay, rather than beat around the bush, let me come straight out at the commencement of these proceedings and say that this album is a real corker. If your attention span is too short to read this whole review, then the answer you are looking for is: Yes, you should go out and buy this album.
Right from the opening "Me & Her, The Road And Our EJ", you can tell you're in for something pretty special. It's a hymn to girls, summer, long weekends, an open road and a car with the stereo "playing Stems and You Am I". It may only last 1:49, but in that brief passage of time it comes closer to capturing and conveying the joy of being alive and free and happy in this great, sunburnt land of ours than a dozen renditions of the national anthem or all of the jingoistic TV adverts Dick Smith has ever made, even if run one after another in an endless cycle until you cry out in despair and beg for mercy (or the soothing release of death).
That first song is undoubtedly one of the high points of the album, but if some of the other songs don't quite scale that peak, they don't fall too far short of it either. However, I'm not sure that I really want to go through this album laboriously track by track; aw fuck it, yes I do.
As if the faux sixties poster art on the cover, beckoning pale Poms to abandon their septic, er sceptred, isle and its miserable weather for the surf, sun and sand of God's own country wasn't clue enough, the next song, "Headed Straight For The Sun" makes it as plain as the chilblains on your lips. Only this song isn't about Poms, it's about Melbournites - jacking it all in and heading north to Brisbane. The grass may not be greener elsewhere, but if it's brown and dying where you are, then what have you got to lose by just taking a look around anyway?
Track three ("Let's Get Back To Where We Started") reminds me a lot of the Scruffs; no specific tune mind you, but the general ambience; sweet, but with a slight taste of sour on the back of the palate, a touch of the rough, with maybe just a smidgin of You Am I in the chorus. Not surprisingly, it's another song about summer.
If you've read the "Lost Weekend" compilation review, you'll already know that Dom Mariani produced the whole album and co-wrote the fourth track, "Sleeping In" (ex-Stem/Somelove Joe Algeri co-wrote another track on this album as well). It's flawless, even if the brief allusion to the Clash's "London Calling" in the opening beats does make the heart skip a beat of its own. I can't help thinking instantly of the film clip they did for it, with them playing in the rain, in the dark... but then the song soars into the sunshine of power pop perfection; ringing guitars and rising harmonies; all coming in through the window presumably, since we're not getting out of bed to open the door just yet...
"Something" seems strangely negative for such an upbeat song. "Nothing seems to last forever" we are told and we all "need something to pin [our] hopes on", but having stated this proposition, the singer declares "I've given up on trying". Nevertheless, even in the face of his own existential angst, he remains positively chirpy right up to the end.
At 5:20, "Golden Days" is longer than almost any other two songs on the album put together. It's a brooding, slow mounting reverie on the choices we make in life and what happens when you make that break out into the big, cruel world and then don't succeed. Almost an anthem to failure.
As if in response to the quandary posed by the previous song, "Summah Jane" looks at the other side of the same problem: what happens if you never take that big chance in the first place? Looks like you're damned if you and damned if you don't. Should have "Headed Straight For The Sun" and gone to Queensland when you had the chance, shouldn't you?
As if to balance out "Golden Days", "50,000-8 U-Turns" is bright riff that runs a mere 34 seconds; so quick it's over before you're even aware that it's started.
"Slow Down" tells us "It's not a race, slow it down [and] take your sweet time". Amen to that brother.
"Transit" is a lighthearted meditation on the fleeting nature of existence. Perhaps it's a commentary on those who ignored the advice of the previous track. It's also the song that was co-written with Joe Algeri.
"Social Insecurity" explores the contradictions of life on the dole; the security of cash in the hand from the government, bought and paid for by the insecurity of that comes from being marginalised. Apparently this is a reworking of a track that was on their first EP, "Life In General".
Last track is the solo acoustic "My Sunshine". Bright as you'd expect, but restrained.
So there you have it - and all in a mere 31:41! Fades a little during the second half, but after the blazing opening of the first few songs, it would have been more than a miracle if they'd been able to keep up to that standard all the way through.
The good news is that this isn't the end though. On no, this album (at least the early pressing) comes bundled with their recent "Sunliner" EP, so there are another five tracks to enjoy. Well only three really, since "Headed Straight For The Sun" and "Slow Down" are also on the album and now that I check the small print, I see that even on the album they are credited to Michael Alonso as producer, not Dom Mariani. The album tracks do sound much crisper, but that's possibly just the mastering.
Of the other songs on the EP, the title track is another song about being in transit with the longing and loss of sleep that accompanies it. At just over one and a half minutes, it's like a flying visit from the band on one of their country tours. If you read Danny McDonald's tour diary in the second issue of Off The Hip magazine, you'll have no difficulty working out why traveling is such a wrenching and draining experience for him...
"It's What You Make Of It That Counts" is the standout of the three non album tracks. Slow and sombre, but still with plenty of jingle jangle. As the title suggests, it's about happiness, freedom and fulfillment; hardly minor themes.
Final track, "Another You", is another quickie; a seventy two second burst of energy about individuality and independence, although I'm not one hundred percent sure whether young Danny is singing about refusing to swamped by an overbearing girlfriend or about the direction and perception of his band. When he sings "And I don't want to be another you/And I don't want to see the world through the world through your eyes", is he really singing "I don't want to be another You Am I"? I'll have to leave that as a puzzle for the listeners at home to consider in their spare time...
Nobody's Fools - The Pyramidiacs
The first thing you have to realise is that all four members of the Pyramidiacs sing. In the credits on the back of the CD cover, they all even list "vocals" ahead of the instrument(s) they played. So the singing is important. It's not just any singing either, it's two part and four part harmonies, call and response, counterpoint... You name it, they can sing it and do so when it's appropriate. In fact, the vocals often are the lead instrument on most songs, giving this album such a rich, lush finish that it makes the P76 album sound positively austere in comparison.
This album is like a compendium of guitar pop. Aside from those obvious influences on every Australian guitar band such as the Stems and the Sunnyboys, at one time or another they've also acknowledged an interest in and/or passion for Badfinger, Big Star, the Replacements, the Fleshtones, the Plimsouls... the list goes on and on. You can hear these influences and much more throughout this album, but ultimately the shadows of the Beatles and the Beach Boys loom large across everything. Not as samples, or direct musical quotes, but more like generic themes upon which variations are constructed and explored; seeds from which new tunes germinate and blossom.
Rather than comparing the Pyramidiacs with other power pop bands, they really should be compared with a band like Sweden's Soundtrack of Our Lives, who seem to be working away steadily at creating their own alternative history of the sixties and seventies, rewriting basic pop, garage, psyche and folk rock structures into a unified whole. Similarly, the Pyramidiacs are creating a secret, parallel pop soundtrack for the lucky country and the new millennium (if not secret, then certainly invisible and unheard by anyone who relies on the radio for their musical awareness). Music for a generation which has grown up with the songs and sounds of the Beatles and the subsequent waves of "British Invasion" bands - not as some new, remarkable phenomenon, but as part of the background hum of their lives, right from their earliest beginnings in their mothers' wombs to the music accompanying every TV show and commercial.
Now I am definitely not going to go through this album track by track; I'd be here for weeks if I tried. From the opening self doubt (and maybe a little touch of schizophrenia as well) of Eddie Owen's "Stupid Questions" ("Are those voices in your head advising you of other plans?") to the closing "Afterthought", where Eddie tells us that "there's no room inside my head" (ah, some kind of closure, that should please guidance counselors, structured learning facilitators and other touchy-feelie types everywhere!), he and fellow guitarist/song writer Mick O'Regan take us on a Cook's tour of modern "light" music, a singing state of the nation (or at least the national psyche) through the eyes and ears of the carefree and the lovelorn, the playful and the pessimistic. Never harsh or overly aggressive, but sometimes surprisingly cynical (e.g. O'Regan's "K.R.A.P. TV"), the key seems to be love.
I'll concede that singing "All You Need Is Love" didn't do a lot to protect John Lennon from copping a handful of slugs from a magnum, Dirty Harry style, but it is what makes the world go round, especially if you're a teenager whose hormones are raging out of control (and let's face it, power pop has always been first and foremost about girls, followed closely by cars of course). It's true that probably none of the Pyramidiacs have been teenagers for some time, but through their songs they put themselves and their listeners back in touch with that time and those feelings. Complex questions of philosophy pale to insignificance when she says "Yeah, come on, we're outta there... take me home".
Much of this album is deceptively simple, but repeated listenings reward the ear with nuances missed during earlier playings. Despite that, the band seems to have little trouble reproducing these songs when they play live. In the process they are retrieving pop music from the endless, unimaginative machinations of the satanically bland corporate factories (and pastiche merchants like Jeff Lynne). I guess you could say that these are the cantatas and chorales of the post-Sergeant Pepper generation.
Once again, for the slow learners and those who can't seem to help moving their lips when they read: buy this album.
Actually, my favourite Pyramidiacs song is probably still "Everything", from the "All You Want" album. Unfortunately they hardly ever seem to do that one any more, despite the fact that the almost as good, but not quite, "Fickle" from the even earlier "Teeter Totter" album turns up in their live set all the time... However, I do live in hope.
No Hit Wonders From Down Under - Beathoven & The Innocents
No, it's not the Innocents fronted by someone called Beathoven, nor are they two separate bands. It's one band with two names. Before they were the Innocents, they were Beathoven (yeah I know, but that was a long time ago and that sort of thing was considered cute then; anyway, around the same time there was a guy with shocking dress sense running around calling himself William Shakespeare, so Beathoven doesn't sound nearly so twee when considered in that context).
This 32 track two CD set contains close to the complete works of the band, under both names, starting with their first, very Beatle-ish single "Darlin'" from 1976 and extending all the way up to a reunion recording from 2000. But wait, there's more: a gallery of band photos; copies of some of the fan letters the band received in its heyday (including home phone numbers, desperate pleas for "you's to write back to me" and even the almost obligatory "Beathoven are spunks"); reviews and articles from the eighties; eulogies to an enviable roll call of former drummers and roadies that is almost worthy of Spinal Tap; plus a variety of quicktime clips, including snippets of their Countdown audition tape from 1976, some fairly lo fi clips from their early days in Hobart and two of their later triumphant appearances on Countdown.
To complete the picture, there is also footage of their failure to win the King Of Pop award for best new band of 1978; they were from Hobart and lost in Melbourne to Melbourne's Sports, though they did beat Adelaide's Cold Chisel and the soon-to-be Models, who were still going under the Teenage Radio Stars banner at that time.
As a quality package, this set gives the recent Vanilla Chainsaws retrospective from Tronador Music in Brazil a healthy run for its money. It has been put out by Zip records, responsible for the recent releases by P76, Superscope and the Chevelles and seemingly craving out quite a niche for itself as the new home of power pop, in this country at least. Not surprisingly they're billing this as power pop as well, although I'm not completely convinced. To these ears many of these songs, especially the early ones, don't have enough up front guitar to be power pop, leaving the band in a no man's land midway between the likes of their Countdown contemporaries Sherbet and Hush - like an Air Supply with several extra testicles.
Don't get me wrong, there's some stunning stuff here and it does get closer to power pop around the time of "She Could See It Coming" (which was a cover, not an original) and the subsequent "Rock And Roll Tonight" and "Absence" (both co-written with US legend Kim Fowley - now there's a story, but don't take my word for it, read the extensive notes), but even their much vaunted classic "Sooner Or Later" sounds like it owes a lot more to the Four Seasons than to the Raspberries or Badfinger.
Like far too many bands, particularly Australian bands (or so it often seems), their story is one of young talent and enthusiasm betrayed by blinkered philistinism and the senile sloth of bloated record company executives too stupid to see what was right under their noses. Along the way there were also the usual trials and tribulations, like having their equipment stolen or (a new one to me) nearly dying of carbon monoxide poisoning after burning some painted fence palings one night to keep warm in their rented communal house.
Having built up a solid teen following through playing blue light discos and high school lunchtime concerts (cleverly focusing on girls schools in particular), the band signed to EMI, who promptly overrode the band's choice of song for the first single. When the company's own choice failed to set the charts alight, due in no small part to a lack of promotion by the company (and this despite it being picked as a "chart buster" by Countdown), they received a letter from EMI General Manager John Kerr telling them that they were being shoved out the door (coincidentally the letter was dated 11/11/78, the third anniversary of the sacking of the Whitlam government by another John Kerr).
Part of EMI's problem with the band was their image, dressing only in black and white - black top hats and tails over white shirts (resembling a group of cheeky chimney sweeps having a night out on the town). Since EMI was having considerable success with the Little River Band at the time, apparently they expected something similar from every other band they signed. Ironically the film clip made for the band's "Shy Girl" single, with them in their black and white garb pretending to play live in an empty white TV studio, looks like it could have been the blueprint for the Knack's subsequent film clip (though minus the top hats) when their big break came following the release of their Toyota advert ("My Corona") not long afterwards on EMI's US subsidiary Capitol Records...
Dumped, but not yet ready to chuck in the towel, the band regrouped in Sydney under future Hoodoo Gurus manager Michael McMartin, changed their name to the Innocents, signed to RCA and released "Sooner Or Later", the song which EMI had rejected. With the original "B" side ("Bad Girl") rewritten as "The B-Side", it reached the top ten around the country. Airplay in France and Germany led to requests to release it in those countries too, but such requests were ignored and the band was consigned to the tender mercies of the same publicity guru who had tried to launch Johnny O'Keefe in the US as the "Boomerang Kid". Not surprisingly, their international career was stillborn and the band slowly disintegrated.
The real surprise is that after twenty years in the wilderness following their break up, the band are back and sounding better than ever - first at the International Pop Overthrow in Los Angeles and more recently at the Lost Weekend pop festival here in Sydney, where I caught one of the smoothest sets in living memory ("I Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" in particular was achingly beautiful). It was like checking into the Hilton and sleeping on clean satin sheets after six months on rough cotton, without having washed them even once!
Now that they're "out of retirement and back into debt", as they put it, apparently a new album is to follow in the new year. Should be interesting, but definitely do catch them live in the meantime if the opportunity presents itself.
Well I've rambled on far too long already and the nurse will be around soon with my medication, but I've still got the Scruffs' album to go and I'll be damned if I'm going to shortchange them.
The Actual Size - The Scruffs
They've quoted the dB's as an influence and you can certainly hear some of that, but like the Pyramidiacs their sound also builds on many of the key elements of the sixties. I've sometimes thought that the Finkers play the Beach Boys to the Pyramidiacs' Beatles, which probably puts the Scruffs somewhere between the Who and the Small Faces - melodic when they want to be, but with a tougher surface and the odd rough edge as well. There might even be a snatch of late period Yardbirds in there.
The album opens with "Let You Down", something they assure us they don't want to do, while sounding like the Beach Boys crashing a You Am I recording session. From there it hardly lets up, except for the acoustic "It's Not Me" and the very restrained "Little Bird". Unlike P76, the Scruffs place their major acoustic number in the middle of the album to act like a half time breather, or a palate refreshing sorbet between two generous courses at your favourite restaurant (my favourite restaurant used to do a brilliant tequila and mint sorbet, but unfortunately fell victim to the "prevailing economic climate").
"Little Bird", with its slow piano intro over restrained brush work on the snare drum, comes as the second to last track, a final mournful pit stop before the closing "You Make Me Nervous" smashes the last nail home with the aid of a driving bass, screeching guitar runs and some Stones-ish "ooh oohs" in the background, making it sound almost like a lost "Exiles On Main Street" outtake.
Other highlights of the album for me, as you'd already know from the "Lost Weekend" compilation review, are "Trash" and "N Scale". "Trash" is a rollicking ode to a lady friend, who sounds like she might be a lot of fun at a party - provided she wasn't your date, while "N Scale" seems to be about every boy's first real love - his model train.
I guess the Scruffs are technically Ryan Ellsmore's baby, but it's certainly no one man band, with ample space provided for Dan Bell's thundering bass, Richard Weinman's sharp, mathematically precise drums and Matt Galvin, who seems to have been in most of the east coast power pop bands that Michael Carpenter hasn't (and a few that he has) adding some serious weight to the guitar attack - not much jingle jangle here, but copious chunky chords - together with some atmospheric keyboards and the lead vocals on the hardnosed and unapologetic "My Friends Are So Boring". There are also one or two guest appearances from some of the usual suspects.
Yep, I'm afraid you really do need to buy this album too. Even more than that though, you need to catch these guys live because, since their sojourn to Spain (the only place you can buy the album, unless you get it direct from their web site), their shows have been real rip snorters. This is definitely a band that has to be seen in the flesh to be heard at their best. Meantime, for those unfortunates neither in Spain nor Sydney, I guess the album will have to do.
So let me see, that's three albums now that you definitely have to buy, with one more you can treat as an optional extra while you wait for their new album. Probably makes reading this review a pretty expensive process for you... Sorry about that.
Okay, look at this way: after you've bought these albums, you'll always have
them. If you waste your money on other things, like going down to the pub and
getting plastered under the mistaken belief that you're having fun, all you're
left with next morning is a hangover and maybe some stains on your trousers
that are probably going to be a bit embarrassing to have to explain. Buying
these records is a simpler, cleaner solution. Think about it.
- John McPharlin
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