Joy Division

 Joy Division

 Ian Curtis – circa 1979

 “Asylums with doors open wide / Where people had paid to see inside / For entertainment they watch his body twist / Behind his eyes, he says, ‘I still exist’ / This is the way, step inside…” – ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ (Joy Division)

The doctor shuffles his papers.  It’s never easy to deliver unpleasant news.  He looks at the young man seated on the other side of the desk, a gangly fellow with skin so pale it is almost translucent.  No sense in putting it off.  “You have epilepsy,” the doctor tells the patient.  This is a kind of short-circuit of the brain’s electrical functions which can produce involuntary spasms; a ‘fit’ or, more technically, ‘a grand mal seizure.’  The doctor offers words of reassurance.  It’s a terrible condition.  It won’t go away entirely, but it can be managed more effectively.  Take the prescribed medication, go to bed early, give up the alcohol, and avoid bright, flashing lights.  All very sensible, but not really the way a young man wants to live his life.  It’s even more troubling for this patient because he is the singer in a rock band.  How can he cope with this illness and still function in the group?  The patient’s name is Ian Curtis and the band is Joy Division.

Ian Kevin Curtis (15 July 1956 – 18 May 1980) is born in Memorial Hospital in Stretford, Lancashire in Great Britain.  He grows up in Macclesfield in Cheshire.  Aged 11, he wins a scholarship from The King’s School, Macclesfield.  Despite showing some talent with poetry, Ian is ‘not a dedicated student.’  He is a fan of rock music acts like David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.

After high school, Ian Curtis works ‘in a variety of jobs.’  His interest is really in music, literature and art.  On 23 August 1975 he marries Deborah Woodruff, a former school friend.  Ian is 19 and Deborah is 18.  Ian gets a job with the Civil Service, first in Manchester and later in Macclesfield.

In Salford, Greater Manchester dwells another pair of young men.  Bernard Sumner (born Bernard Dicken a.k.a. Bernard Albrecht, 4 January 1956) and Peter Hook (born Peter Acton or Peter Woodhead, the son of Irene Acton and John Woodhead, 13 February 1956) have been friends since they were 11 years old.  Both boys change their surnames to those of their respective step-fathers.  “It [Manchester] was such an ugly place,” recalls Bernard Sumner.  “You were thought of as factory fodder.”

On 20 July 1976 The Sex Pistols play a show at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall.  The Sex Pistols are a punk rock band.  Their snarling songs of disillusion are resonating with young audiences across the country.  Perhaps equally importantly, The Sex Pistols are fairly basic musicians, espousing a do-it-yourself ethic.  Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook separately attend this Sex Pistols show.  “I thought it was s**te,” exclaims Hook, but adds that it was also “chaotic, exciting.”  As Bernard Sumner says, “I could just about do that.”  And so, the two youths decide to form a band.  The day after the gig, Peter Hook borrows thirty-five pounds from this mother and buys a bass.  Bernard Sumner opts for a guitar.  Another lad they know, Terry Mason, also attended The Sex Pistols show and he buys a drumkit, so they have a band.  School friend Martin Gresty is offered the job of vocalist, but turns them down to work instead in a factory.  The youngsters place an advertisement for a vocalist in the window of the Virgin Records store in Manchester.  Ian Curtis responds.  The other aspiring musicians already know Ian, having met him at other bands’ concerts around the area.  “I knew he was all right to get on with and that’s what we based the whole group on,” says Bernard Sumner.  “If we liked someone, they were in.”  Perhaps they didn’t like Terry Mason so much, because the group soon has a vacancy for a drummer.  Terry Mason switches over to become the outfit’s manager.  Tony Tabac is added as drummer two days before their first gig.

For their first show, Curtis and company are billed as Stiff Kittens.  (Depending on which version of the legend you prefer, the name was suggested by either the manager, Richard Boon, or the frontman, Pete Shelley, of another Manchester group, The Buzzcocks.)  Shortly before the show, Stiff Kittens decide to change their name to Warsaw, a choice inspired by the David Bowie song ‘Warszawa’ from the album ‘Low’ (1977).  And so Warsaw make their public debut on 29 May 1977 as a support act for The Buzzcocks.

In June 1977 drummer Tony Tabac is replaced by Steve Brotherdale.  By July, Brotherdale too is shown the door.  Warsaw again resorts to placing an ad in a music shop window: “Drummer wanted for local punk band, Warsaw, phone Ian.”  The only applicant is a former school chum of Ian Curtis, Stephen Morris (born 26 October 1957).  With this addition, the line-up stabilises as: Ian Curtis (vocals, occasional guitar), Bernard Sumner (guitar, keyboards), Peter Hook (bass) and Stephen Morris (drums).

In December 1977 Warsaw records four tracks for what will be their first EP, released in June 1978.

Early in 1978, the band changes its name to avoid confusion with a London punk band called Warsaw Pakt.  Warsaw’s new name is Joy Division.  The name is taken from the novel ‘The House Of Dolls’ (1955) in which the prostitution wing of the World War Two concentration camp at Auschwitz, maintained by the Nazis and peopled by enslaved Jewish women, is dubbed ‘Camp Labour Via Joy’ or ‘Joy Division’.  Of course, there is nothing ‘joyful’ about it, but the music pumped out by the band formerly known as Warsaw is also grim.  The band members make an agreement that, if any of the quartet leaves, the group will abandon the Joy Division nomenclature.  Their first gig as Joy Division is at Pip’s Disco in Manchester on 25 January 1978.

RCA Records arranges for Joy Division to record a cover version of Nolan ‘N.F.’ Porter’s ‘Keep On Keepin’ On’.  Although the song has an interesting guitar line, it is basically a dance song and the still strongly punk-influenced Joy Division struggle with the concept.

At this time Tony Wilson has been the face of ‘So It Goes’, a program on Granada Television.  Spotting Tony Wilson at Rafter’s Club in Manchester on 14 April, Ian Curtis complains to him that Joy Division should be on his program.  Although ‘So It Goes’ has been cancelled, Tony Wilson is apparently already thinking of his next program and Joy Division were already factored into his calculations, so Curtis’ remonstrations have little positive effect.  However, he does catch the attention of Rob Gretton, the disc jockey at Rafter’s.  Rob Gretton replaces Terry Mason as Joy Division’s manager and plays an important role in the band’s improving fortunes.

In May 1978 Joy Division extricate themselves from their deal with RCA since it has not helped either party, Joy Division being unable to provide the expected cover version single.

In June 1978 the EP recorded the previous December, ‘An Ideal For Living’, is issued by Joy Division themselves on the Enigma label.  The four tracks are ‘Warsaw’, ‘Leaders Of Men’, ‘No Love Lost’ and ‘Failures’.  These songs are all fairly similar to many other punk bands of the day.  Peter Hook testifies that, “I wasn’t interested in depth or anything y’know, I just wanted to kick ‘em [the audience] in the teeth.”  ‘Warsaw’ counts down “Three, five, oh, one, two, five, go!” for the inexplicable chorus of “three one gee” over and over.  The ‘Leaders Of Men’ are said to be “born out of your frustration” while the ‘Failures’ are “all the failures of the modern man.”  Ian Curtis shoots out the words in standard punk manner.  He is barely recognisable on these recordings as the singer he would become.  ‘No Love Lost’ is probably the most interesting of the quartet with its lengthy loose-wire introduction and “I need it” chorus.  Most striking though is the spoken word midsection, intoned by Curtis, that references the inspiration for Joy Division’s name: “In the hand of one of the assistants she saw the same instrument which they had that morning inserted deep into her own body / She shuddered / Instinctively / No life at all in the house of dolls.”  The sleeve design features an Aryan drummer boy, leading to some grumbles about the band being Nazi sympathisers.

‘At A Later Date’, a track recorded live in October 1977, is included on the compilation album ‘Short Circuit: Live At The Electrical Circus’ (1978).

In September 1978, Tony Wilson makes good on his earlier intent and Joy Division make their television debut.

Perhaps more significantly, Tony Wilson starts his own record label, Factory Records.  Alan Erasmus is a partner in the operation.  Joy Division’s manager, Rob Gretton, is also made a partner in the label because Joy Division are one of the first acts signed.

In October 1978 Joy Division contribute two songs, ‘Glass’ and ‘Digital’, to the EP ‘A Factory Sample’.  These tracks begin the band’s association with producer Martin Hannett and the difference is marked.  Hannett is something of a technical whiz kid, inventing some of the devices used in the recording studio.  He is also a ‘spliffhead’ [i.e. a marijuana smoker] prone to giving the band bizarre directions like “a bit more yellow.”  With these songs, Ian Curtis’ voice drops to a very deep baritone, lending much more power and gravity to the vocals.  Electronic hand claps accompany the warning in ‘Glass’ that “Hearts fail / Young hearts fail.”  ‘Digital’ sports a particularly bouncy bass line as Ian Curtis sings “Feel it closing in / Day in / Day out.”

By now Joy Division are developing a distinctive sound.  Aside from the alteration in Ian Curtis’ vocal timbre, the key ingredient is Peter Hook’s style of bass playing.  Bass is often the least noticeable instrument in the sound mix, but that’s not the case here.  Peter Hook explains how his approach developed: “When I played low I couldn’t hear anything – at all!  When I played high I could pick it out…’Cos of the row, ‘Cos Barney’s amp was really loud…Then Ian just latched on to you playing high and he’d say, ‘That sounds good when you play high…Barney [the nickname of Bernard Sumner] plays guitar, we should work on that, it sounds really distinctive.’  Just a happy accident like that gave us our sound, y’know.”

“The chemistry was unbelievable,” Peter Hook claims.  “And it was easy, it was easy writing those songs and playing that well.”  The songwriting in Joy Division is credited to the band collectively, but it is acknowledged that the lyrics are all written by Ian Curtis.  “We haven’t got a message really; the lyrics are open to interpretation.  They’re multidimensional.  You can read into them what you like,” Curtis states.  However, the singer’s wife, Deborah Curtis, observes that “All of Ian’s spare time was spent reading and thinking about human suffering.”  Inevitably, this colours the gloomy, doom-laden lyrical landscape.  Yet guitarist Bernard Sumner points out that “We never really listened to his lyrics that much.”

“Ian was still working for the Civil Service,” says Deborah Curtis.  “As Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer, he worked closely with disabled people.”

On stage, Ian Curtis develops a highly individualised performance.  He flails about in an oddly rhythmic manner, almost like a marionette whose strings are tangled.  “A lot of people thought he was off his head on drugs,” Bernard Sumner notes, before countering, “He wasn’t.  Never, ever, ever…Music seemed to just put him in, like, a trance.”

On 27 December 1978, on the way home from a Joy Division gig at the Hope and Anchor pub in London, Ian Curtis has what Bernard Sumner describes as a “grand mal fit in the car.”  As a result of the seizure Curtis is taken to hospital.  “After that really he just got diagnosed with epilepsy,” Sumner concludes glumly.  Stephen Morris says that the epilepsy “was very, very strong…”  Referring both to the band and the singer’s home life, Deborah Curtis says they came to “the realisation that Ian’s illness was something we would have to learn to accommodate.”

Deborah Curtis delivers a daughter, Natalie (born 16 April 1979) to her husband, Ian Curtis.

June sees the release of Joy Division’s debut album, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (1979) (UK no. 71, AUS no. 82).  The waveform used for the cover image is that of Pulsar 1919 from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy.  One of Ian Curtis’ clients as a Disablement Resettlement Officer provides the inspiration for the album’s strongest song.  “‘She’s Lost Control’ was about a girl…that came in to see him,” explains Bernard Sumner.  “One day she didn’t come in and she died from a fit.”  The irony of these circumstances in light of Curtis’ own diagnosis of epilepsy (probably subsequent to the writing of the lyric) is inescapable.  Stephen Morris’ drums sound like banging plastic lids on this track.  A crawling ivy of bass and guitar winds about Curtis’ voice as he intones, “She turned to me and took me by the hand and said ‘I’ve lost control again’.”  The booming ‘Novelty’ suggests Curtis feels the weight of his new role as a rock star: “When people listen to you / Don’t you know it means a lot.”  The album also includes ‘Shadowplay’ and ‘Twenty Four Hours’.  Martin Hannett is rightly lauded for providing a sonic setting in which the instruments seem so separate and there is such clarity and space.  Yet, as Peter Hook declares, “The songs were great anyway.  Martin didn’t write them; he only produced them.” Despite Bernard Sumner’s uneasiness about the end product – “It was so dark…It’s too b****y heavy” – ‘Unknown Pleasures’ is Joy Division’s best album.  It catches the band afire with twitchy energy, counterbalancing the crushing weight of its themes.

Joy Division performs on Granada Television again in July 1979 and make their only national television appearance in September on a program called ‘Something Else’ on BBC2.

A gig at Futurama in Leeds in September proves fateful.  Amongst the crowd is a Belgian girl named Annik Honore (pronounced An-EEK on-OR).  She works as a secretary at the Belgian Embassy in London and is also a rock music fan.  “Ian on stage was something fascinating,” she recalls.  The feeling is mutual, as Ian Curtis takes an interest in this young lady.

Joy Division contribute two tracks to the compilation album ‘Earcom Two: Contradiction’ (1979), released in October.  Through the slow building psychic fog of ‘Autosuggestion’, Ian Curtis sings “Here / Everything is kept inside / So take your chances, step outside.”  ‘From Safety To Where’ alters from a slow-paced verse to a more propulsive chorus, but the lyrical images are similarly dour: “The memories scarred and the vision is blurred.”

A national tour as the support act to The Buzzcocks in October is a tipping point, providing sufficient income for the members of Joy Division to quit their day jobs.

A one-off single, ‘Transmission’ is released in November.  The bass and snappy percussion of ‘Transmission’ makes its exhortation to “Dance to the radio” irresistible.  Yet the song contains a darker undertow: “Touching from a distance / Further all the time.”

In January 1980 Joy Division undertake a European tour.  Annik Honore accompanies the band’s retinue on most of these dates.  She and Ian Curtis begin a ‘relationship’, though, at times, she has claimed this was not an ‘affair’, but a ‘close and platonic’ association.

All this time, Ian Curtis is still struggling with epilepsy.  He has two grand mal seizures.  “Considering he had such a horrible illness, he was a real trooper,” Peter Hook says admiringly.  “He didn’t want pity.  He didn’t want looking after.  He just got on with it.”

In March 1980 Joy Division release a limited edition single of just one thousand copies on the French Sordid Sentimentale label.  The songs are ‘Dead Souls’ backed with ‘Atmosphere’.  In ‘Dead Souls’ Ian Curtis pleads, “Someone take these dreams away / And point me to another day,” alternating between fluttering and hammering musical passages.  ‘Dead Souls’ offers the anguished singer no relief: “They keep calling me.”  ‘Atmosphere’ is all frosty keyboards and has the dirge-like incantation “Walk in silence / Don’t walk away / In silence.”

Work begins on Joy Division’s second album but the physical toll on Ian Curtis is mounting.  He has seizures on stage leaving him ‘feeling depressed and ashamed.’  Bernard Sumner describes the problem: “We didn’t have flashing lights, but sometimes a particular drum beat would do something to him.  He’d go off in a trance for a bit, then he’d lose it and have a fit.  We’d have to stop the show and carry him off to the dressing room where he’d cry his eyes out because this appalling thing had happened to him.”

On 7 April 1980 Ian Curtis attempts suicide with an overdose of Phenobarbital.  “It was a complete surprise,” says Bernard Sumner.  “When he took his overdose…it seems…unbelievable to me that we didn’t stop and sort him out,” admits Peter Hook with the benefit of hindsight.  Instead, at the next evening’s gig at Derby Hall in Bury, two guest vocalists, Alan Hempstall (of Crispy Ambulance) and Simon Topping (of A Certain Ratio) augment the band.  Ian Curtis performs a few songs, but the crowd, not fully comprehending the situation, riot.  Other April gigs are cancelled and Joy Division give what will be their final performance on 2 May 1980 at the University of Birmingham’s High Hall.  The last song they perform is ‘Digital’.

Joy Division’s first tour of the United States of America is planned for May 1980.  Ian Curtis is feeling troubled.  His illness weighs heavily upon him, but he doesn’t want to let the rest of the band or the record label down.  His domestic situation is a further source of concern, as he feels divided between Annik Honore and his wife and daughter.  Stephen Morris reports that Ian told him, “’I want to leave the band’, but then, ‘No, no’, he’s changed his mind.”

Deborah Curtis files for divorce.  Ian Curtis stays at his parents’ house.  On 17 May 1980 he asks Debbie to stay with him until he catches his train in the morning to join the band for the beginning of the U.S. tour, but she declines.  He tells her to leave him alone in the house at 77 Barton Street, Macclesfield.  He watches the Werner Herzog film ‘Stroszek’ (1977) and listens to Iggy Pop’s album, ‘The Idiot’ (1976).  In the early hours of 18 May 1980 Ian Curtis hangs himself using the kitchen’s washing line.  Debbie Curtis returns around midday and discovers his body.

The news is delivered via telephone to Peter Hook while he is having lunch with his partner, Iris Bates and their two children.  “Just couldn’t take it in, really,” admits Hook.  Stephen Morris says he felt, “Fifty per cent sad and fifty per cent angry…Angry at him…and angry at yourself for not doing something.”

The deceased singer is cremated.

Despite the death of Ian Curtis some previously completed Joy Division work is subsequently issued.  Two tracks surface in June 1980 on a flexi-disc from Factory Records.  The jerky ‘Komakino’ warns “This is the hour when the mysteries emerge.”  ‘Incubation’ is a slow-building instrumental and one of the few times Ian Curtis plays guitar on record.

In June 1980 Joy Division’s finest single, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (UK no. 13), is issued.  Deborah Curtis uses the title for Ian’s memorial stone.  Peter Hook recalls, “We wrote ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ in three hours.  We found the riff one night and Ian went ‘I’ve got an idea for that.’  When he sang it to us, we didn’t think ‘Oh, that’s about Debbie and Annik’…”  Bernard Sumner plays synthesiser on the song.  Peter Hook’s unmistakeable bass and Stephen Morris’ trap-drums power the catchy melody.  The lyrics ache with romantic conflict: “Why is the bedroom so cold? / Turned away on your side.”

Joy Division’s second album, ‘Closer’ (1980) (UK no. 6, AUS no. 23), is released in July.  The title is subject to multiple interpretations.  It may be considered ‘closer’ as in more intimate.  It may be considered ‘closer’ as in nearer to the band’s objectives.  Ian Curtis’ passing gives the title a third meaning: ‘closer’ as in bringing to a conclusion.  The cover image, chosen by Ian Curtis with the assistance of designer Peter Seville, is a photograph by Bernard Pierre Wolff.  With Ian Curtis’ death it takes on eerie significance.  It is a photo of the Appiani family tomb in Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno in Genoa, Italy.  ‘Closer’ includes ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, a song based on the 1970 book of the same name by J.G. Ballard.  On the propulsive ‘These Days’, Curtis sings “Spent all my time learning a killer’s art.”  The album as a whole features more keyboards and a slicker, synthetic sound.  Bernard Sumner opines, “I thought ‘Closer’ got closer to the sound that I particularly wanted.”  ‘Closer’ is ‘regarded by many critics as the most brilliant rock album of the 1980s’.  Yet it is also viewed as ‘one of the most depressing albums ever made.’

‘Still’ (1981) (UK no. 5, AUS no. 73) ‘collects the remainder of the group’s material, most of it in primitive form.’  ‘Substance’ (1988) (UK no. 7, US no. 146, AUS no. 53) is a compilation of hits and ‘several out-of-print singles.’  Factory Records goes bankrupt in 1992 and London Records acquires the Joy Division catalogue.

True to their earlier vow, the surviving members of Joy Division retire that band’s name after the death of Ian Curtis.  Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris are joined on keyboards by Morris’ girlfriend Gillian Gilbert in forming New Order.  Sumner assumes lead vocal duties as well as playing guitar and keyboards.

Ian Curtis’ death was a tragedy.  His life was marked by terrible illness and harrowing heartache.  Yet, amidst all that, he and his companions in Joy Division created music that has only gained in significance over the years.  Would he have lived a better, happier life had he abandoned his musical ambitions?  Perhaps, or maybe the lack of a creative outlet would have led him to the same dark place.  It’s impossible to know.  All that is left is to celebrate the life he had and be grateful for the music that is still there to be discovered and enjoyed.  ‘…Joy Division was determined to live up to the bitter irony of its name…Group leader Ian Curtis wrote and sang songs of unknowable dread, while the band played oppressively heavy beats and distorted, jangling chords,’  ‘It would be hard to find a darker place in music than Joy Division.  Their name, their lyrics and their singer were as big a black cloud as you could find in the sky.  And yet…you feel from this singer, beauty was truth and truth was beauty, and theirs was a search for both.’

Sources:

  1. wikipedia.org as at 8 April 2013
  2. ‘The Lost Boy’ by Andy Lowe (‘Total Film’ magazine no. 82, September 2007) p. 60, 61
  3. ‘Joy Division’ (2007) – A documentary film directed by Grant Gee (Brown Owl Films / Madman Entertainment)
  4. lyricsfreak.com as at 28 April 2013
  5. ‘Printed Noise’ fanzine, Ian Curtis interview quoted in (1) above
  6. ‘Touching From A Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division’ (1995) – Biography by Deborah Curtis quoted in (1), (2) p. 60 and (3) above.
  7. dontgetoutmuch.over.blog.com – Interview with Annik Honore (18 June 2010)
  8. answers.com as at 29 April 2013
  9. ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p, 267
  10. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 54
  11. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Alternative Scenes: Britain’ by Ken Tucker (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 583
  12. ‘U2 By U2’ (2009) – Bono’s description of Joy Division quoted in (1) above

Song lyrics copyright Fractured Music / Zomba Music

Last revised 4 September 2014

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Janis Joplin

 Janis Joplin

 Janis Joplin – circa 1970

 “Each time I tell myself that I, I can’t stand the pain / When you hold me in your arms and sing it once again” – ‘Piece Of My Heart’ (Jerry Ragavoy, Bert Berns)

The inscription on the tombstone reads: ‘The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.’  That epitaph is written by John Hammond of Columbia Records.  The grave is in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia, U.S.A.  It houses the mortal remains of Bessie Smith.  Her demise is a tragic tale.  An African-American blues singer, Bessie Smith sustained serious injuries in a car accident while on tour.  She was turned away from a ‘whites only’ hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and died on 26 September 1937.  It is not until 8 August 1970 that this tombstone is finally arranged for the singer.  It is paid for by Janis Joplin, a white American rock singer.  Janis Joplin’s demise is also a tragic tale.

Janis Joplin (19 January 1943 – 4 October 1970) is born in Port Arthur, Texas.  She later describes Port Arthur as “a little s***kicker town.”  Janis is the daughter of Seth Joplin, an employee of the oil company, Texaco, which manufactures fuel for motor vehicles.  Janis has two younger siblings: Michael and Laura.  It is ‘a comfortable middle class family.’

As a teenager, Janis Joplin is ‘overweight and has a severe case of acne.’  She becomes ‘something of a loner.’  “I was a weird kid,” Janis admits.

Like many other white youths of her generation, Janis Joplin discovers the blues.  A music of heartache, economic deprivation and sorrow, the blues is popularised by African-American recording artists in the 1920s to 1950s.  Youngsters like Janis Joplin feel this music resonates with their own adolescent angst.  Folk music, traditional songs passed down over generations, is another style that catches Janis’ interest.  The division between blues and folk is sometimes blurred.  Similarly, the borders between these genres and country music (rural, corn-fed twang) and bluegrass (hillbilly rock with a country accent) are indistinct.  Janis Joplin absorbs all these elements.  She particularly likes Leadbelly (a.k.a. Huddie Ledbetter) and the ‘Empress of the Blues’, Bessie Smith.  “I started singing blues because that’s what I always liked,” says Janis Joplin.

It is at a party that Janis Joplin first begins singing in public.  She goes on to sing in local bars and coffee houses.  This activity only increases when she moves to Austin to attend the University of Texas.  “At school I majored in art, painting,” Janis recalls.  She spends most of a year (1961) at the University of Texas.  After being voted ‘ugliest man on campus’, higher education loses any appeal for her.  “They laughed me out of class, out of town, out of the State,” is how Janis puts it.  “They thought I was completely insane…They didn’t like me.”

Somewhere around this time, Janis Joplin tries her hand at a few jobs.  In one of them, “I worked I.B.M. [International Business Machines] cards,” she recalls.  Writing out guides for punch cards is how programming is done at this time which is really the infancy of computers.  Her first recording is a commercial for a local bank.

“Texas is O.K. if you want to settle down, but it’s not for outrageous people, and I was always outrageous,” Janis Joplin offers by way of explaining her decision to relocate to San Francisco, California, in 1963.

From 1962 to 1963 Janis Joplin sings folk and blues in the bars of San Francisco, while ‘getting addicted to amphetamines.’  Her friends become so concerned, they club together to buy her a bus ticket back to Texas.  Janis abides by their wishes.  She intends to get herself straight, go back to college and get married.  When her fiancé runs off, Janis returns to San Francisco.  She will call this place her home from now on.

“I didn’t have any ambitions…I didn’t set out to be a singer,” Janis Joplin says.  Regardless, she falls in with a group of musicians working under the name of Big Brother And The Holding Company.  The rest of the line-up is Sam Andrew (guitar), James Gurley (guitar), Pete Albin (bass) and David Getz (drums).  Janis Joplin’s debut as the vocalist in Big Brother And The Holding Company takes place at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom on 11 June 1966.  The group’s name is derived from two sources.  ‘Big Brother’ is the name of the repressive authoritarian regime that controls society in George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ (1949).  In business terms, a ‘holding company’ is a corporate shell used to mask the identity of the true owners or controllers.  So both ‘Big Brother’ and ‘the holding company’ are terms that evoke a sort of paranoia about the rulers of society as we know it.  To understand why such a name is chosen, some historical context is needed.

In the mid to late 1960s San Francisco is the centre of the counter culture.  Dropouts, hippies, long-hairs, experimental drug users, all flock to the city by the bay.  These are the youngsters disillusioned with the conservative, commercialised existence of most U.S. citizens.  They try to create an alternative society, a ‘counter culture.’  Someone like Janis Joplin who has been reviled as a freak in straight-laced Texas, becomes a symbol of this new lifestyle.  Not only does she belong here, she is acclaimed.  Big Brother And The Holding Company, despite the political overtones of the name, are really more about a hedonistic pursuit of a life denied to ‘square’ society.

For Janis Joplin, the drugs and the booze offer both escape from the confinement of a drone-like pre-planned existence and an anaesthetic from the pain of everyday life.  “I’m just a chick who is hung over at 11.00 in the morning,” she claims somewhat disingenuously.  Her hard-drinking, hard-living persona is also part of her public image, a way to seem like ‘one of the boys’, a means to fit in with this new environment.  The counter culture may be more welcoming, but this tribe has its own rituals.  Declining another drink or refusing drugs brings scorn from the pack and leads to isolation all over again.  So that’s not an option for someone who proclaims “I want people to love me…I dig it.”  This is not to say that Janis Joplin doesn’t crave these artificial stimulants.  “I’m a victim of my own insides,” she admits.

Those insides do not equip Janis Joplin for songwriting.  Although she pens the odd number, most of her output consists of cover versions or songs written for her by others.

Janis Joplin is better equipped as a singer.  For the most part her voice roars like a passing train, though, on occasion it slips into the tiny squeak of an abandoned child.  For all her brash demeanour and free-wheeling chic, there is a real vulnerability underlying all her work.  Part of this has to do with Janis Joplin’s own low self-esteem and her conception of herself as a woman.  In the late 1960s feminism and women’s liberation are yet to flower.  Though the seeds of these concepts are certainly present, it is the early 1970s before they properly bloom.  Thus, Janis Joplin’s attitudes belong to an earlier worldview.  She is frighteningly prone to bouts of uncertainty, doubtlessly due to incidents like ‘the ugliest man on campus’ slur and the runaway fiancé.  Janis sees herself as a victim, made to suffer by society in general and callous men in particular.  She yearns for love and affection and desperately pleads with the men in her songs to reward her steadfast devotion.  A later generation of female rock stars will threaten to unleash their venom on any man who does them wrong, but that’s not Janis.  The best she can do is wrap her insecurity in the armour of the good ol’ gal who can drink any man under the table with a hoarse cackle on her lips.

Although Big Brother And The Holding Company gig consistently around San Francisco, the first time most of America learns about Janis Joplin is when the group plays at the Monterey Festival in California over 16 – 18 June 1967.

Their debut album ‘Big Brother And The Holding Company’ (1967) (US no. 60) is released in August.  This set includes the pseudo-vaudeville of ‘Bye Bye Baby’ with its hippie lifestyle salute “I know you got things to do and places to be / I may end up livin’ in the street or sleepin’ underneath a tree.”  More representative is ‘Down On Me’ (US no. 43), a traditional song whose arrangement is credited to Janis Joplin.  It’s a raw and driving assault as Janis howls “Everywhere I go they’re down on me” with the pain of personal experience.

In January 1968 Janis Joplin signs a management contract with Albert Grossman, best known as the manager of 1960s counter culture icon Bob Dylan.  Grossman hooks up Big Brother And The Holding Company with Joe Simon who has been working with Dylan’s former backing group, The Band.  Simon produces ‘Cheap Thrills’ (1968) (US no. 1), an album whose cover art is a drawing by R(obert) Crumb, a cartoonist whose work is published in underground (i.e. non-mainstream) comix.  Released in August, this album features Janis Joplin’s greatest song, ‘Piece Of My Heart’ (US no. 12).  This is a track that was a minor pop hit (US no. 62) in 1967 for Erma Franklin, the elder sister of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.  Over serrated guitars, Joplin sings “Didn’t I make you feel like you were the only man? / Yeah, didn’t I give you nearly everything that a woman possibly can? / Honey, you know I did / And each time I tell myself that I think I’ve had enough / I want to show you, baby, that a woman can be tough.”  This neatly encapsulates the swing from needy victim to larger-than-life wild girl that is so much a part of Janis Joplin’s legend.  These characteristics make this her definitive performance.  Demonstrating considerable breadth, Big Brother also tackles a burnt-out version of ‘Summertime’, the George and Ira Gershwin piece from the musical ‘Porgy and Bess’.  Is there some envy in Joplin’s reading of the line “Your daddy’s rich and your ma’s so good looking”?  As well as tracks like ‘Combination Of The Two’ and ‘I Need A Man To Love’, ‘Cheap Thrills’ extends to a cover version of Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton’s ‘Ball And Chain’.  In this cry of pain, Janis Joplin finds that “When it’s too heavy, you can’t hold it in no more.”  She’s referring to a love that gnaws at her “Just ‘cause I got to need you.”

Big Brother And The Holding Company are described as ‘raucous, ill-disciplined, and in some areas, musically inept.’  Janis Joplin cheerfully acknowledges “We’re just a sloppy group of street-freaks.”  However, there is a common distinction made between the vocalist and the group: ‘The band are good, and with Joplin as vocalist, they are something special.’  It is also said that ‘there are tensions between Janis and the group.’  On 28 September 1968, manager Albert Grossman announces that Janis Joplin will leave Big Brother And The Holding Company in November after fulfilling current commitments.  According to Grossman’s statement, Janis and the rest are not “growing together anymore.”

Janis Joplin is one of the acts to appear at Woodstock, a three-day rock festival held over 15 -17 August 1969 on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York.  This is perhaps the apex of the utopian side of the counter culture and, as one of the icons of the hippie community, it is entirely fitting that Janis Joplin is part of this celebration.

‘I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama’ (1969) (US no. 5), released in September, is Janis Joplin’s first album apart from Big Brother And The Holding Company.  Sam Andrew from Big Brother plays on the album, but the makeshift Kozmic Blues Band while ‘more polished musically, are not nearly as sympathetic accompanists as Big Brother; purveying a soul-rock groove.’  The highlight of this ‘uneven’ set is the Jerry Ragavoy / Chip Taylor composition ‘Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)’.  Amid groovy syncopation, horns and organ, Janis promises to “Try / Just a little bit harder / So I can love, love, love him.”

At a concert in Tampa, Florida, on 15 November 1969 a police officer with a bullhorn urges Janis Joplin’s audience to sit down.  Janis shouts “Don’t f*** with those people!  Hey, Mister, what’re you so uptight about?  Did you buy a five-dollar ticket?”  Police backstage instruct the singer to tell the audience to sit down.  This draws an angry response from Joplin: “I’m not telling them s***!” She is arrested on a charge of using ‘vulgar and indecent language.’  Janis Joplin is released after posting a bond of five hundred and four dollars and the charges are eventually dropped.

In March 1970 Janis Joplin is fined for using profane language on stage at a concert.

Although superficially more popular and successful than ever, there is a growing void within Janis Joplin.  “Onstage, I make love to twenty five thousand people,” she declares, before adding, “then I go home alone.”  This sour realisation comes out again when she says, “I was the same chick, because I’ve been her forever, and I know her, and she ain’t no star: She’s lonely.”

On 12 July 1970 Janis Joplin debuts her new backing group, The Full Tilt Boogie Band, at a gig in Louisville, Kentucky.  Having ‘cleaned up her act’ Joplin hired this ‘bunch of straight musicians’ consisting of John Till (guitar), Ken Pearson (organ), Richard Bell (piano), Brad Campbell (bass) and Clark Pierson (drums).

On 8 August 1970 Janis Joplin sees to the erection of a tombstone on the grave of her teenage idol, Bessie Smith.

On 4 October 1970, less than two months later, Janis Joplin is found dead in a room at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood.  According to the autopsy report, she died of ‘acute heroine [sic] morphine intoxication due to injection of an overdose.’

At the time of her death, Janis Joplin had been working on a new album.  ‘Pearl’ (1971) (US no. 1) is released posthumously in January.  This album is unfinished – two tracks lack lead vocals – but it is issued anyway.  ‘Pearl’ was Janis Joplin’s nickname.  This ‘more assured and intimate album’ is produced by Paul Rothschild, best known for his work with The Doors.  Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ (US no. 1) is a posthumous hit for Janis Joplin.  The song’s simple country-folk setting making more poignant its assertion that “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”  ‘Move Over’ is one of Janis Joplin’s own compositions.  Its ominous downward-heading chords are belied by its rock bluster.  Janis repeats incredulously “You say that it’s over, baby” while arguing that “You know that I need a man.”  “Please don’t you do it to me,” she cries while struggling to master her emotions.  The throat-tearing ‘Cry Baby’ (US no. 42) is written by Jerry Ragavoy and Bert Berns.  Overflowing with compassion for a dumped guy, Joplin advises “But you know, honey, that I’ll always be around.”  ‘Get It While You Can’ (US no. 78) sounds almost like a gospel number with its strong organ tones and Janis’ heartfelt exhortation “If someone comes along’s gonna give you some love and affection / I say get it while you can.”  This is a Jerry Ragavoy / Mort Shuman tune.  The almost a cappella ‘Mercedes Benz’ lends a humorous note to the proceedings.  ‘Pearl’ is Janis Joplin’s best album.

Janis Joplin’s life ended tragically when she was only 27.  Her low self-esteem led her to play the victim in her songs and, perhaps, in her own life.  Yet it is Joplin’s achievements that should be remembered.  It’s not about the boozy good-time gal persona; it’s about a vulnerable young woman who, despite the cruelties of society, turned that sensitive nature into a means of creating music of great beauty.  Janis Joplin grew up admiring blues vocalist Bessie Smith.  If the blues is a way of turning pain into something more aesthetically satisfying, then rock singer Janis Joplin also led the life of a blues woman.  Let that – and her music – be her epitaph.  ‘Both a product and a victim of the drug culture, Janis remains the female personification of the psychedelic rock / hippie era.’  ‘Her metamorphosis from the ugly duckling of Port Arthur to the peacock of Haight – Ashbury [the street corner in San Francisco that is the centre of the area’s rock scene] meant that a woman could invent her own beauty.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 117, 131, 148, 161, 164, 174, 175, 177
  2. A Janis Joplin television interview in Louisville, Kentucky, c. 12 July 1970 (posted on You Tube 29 May 2011)
  3. janisjoplin.net as at 22 April 2013
  4. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 75, 76
  5. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 98, 124
  6. A 1969 Janis Joplin interview (posted on You Tube 11 April 2008)
  7. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Janis Joplin’ by Ellen Willis (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 382, 384
  8. ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ (U.S. TV program) – Janis Joplin interview conducted by Dick Cavett (3 August 1970, posted on You Tube 1 October 2009)
  9. wikipedia.org as at 1 April 2013
  10. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 119
  11. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 51, 65
  12. allmusic.com, ‘Janis Joplin’ by Richie Unterberger as at 21 April 2013
  13. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p.107

Song lyrics copyright as follows: ‘Piece Of My Heart’ (Webb IV Music & Ragmar Music Corp.); ‘Bye Bye Baby’ (Mainspring Watchworks Music); ‘Down On Me’ (Brent Music Corp.); ‘Summertime’ (Gershwin Pub. Corp. & New Dawn Music Corp.); ‘Ball And Chain’ (Cristeval Music & Bay-Tone Music Co.)’ ‘Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)’ (Ragmar Music Corp.); ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ (Combine Music Corp.); ‘Move Over’ (Strong Arm Music); ‘’Cry Baby’ (Robert Mellin Music Pub. Corp. / Rittenhouse Music, Inc.) and ‘Get It While You Can’ (Hill & Range Song, Inc. / Ragmar Music Corp.)

Last revised 4 September 2014

Elton John

 Elton John

 Elton John – circa 1978

 “And did you think / This fool could never win? / Well look at me / I’m a-comin’ back again” – ‘I’m Still Standing’ (Bernie Taupin, Elton John)

It’s preposterous.  It’s common knowledge that rock stars have more money than sense.  But usually, if they don’t waste all their ludicrously extravagant income on drugs and booze, they blow it on flashy cars or palatial mansions.  They don’t buy soccer teams.  Yet, in 1976, that is effectively what British rock star Elton John does.  He becomes chairman and director of the Watford Football Club, whom he has supported since he was a boy.  Elton is ‘unashamed of his wealth’ and ‘enjoys to the hilt the opportunities that fame brings him.’  Still, in addition to his lengthy history as a fan of the game, his cousin, Roy Dwight, was a professional player with Nottingham Forest Football Club.  Under Elton’s stewardship, Watford rises three divisions to be a first division club.  He sells Watford Football Club in 1987, only to repurchase it again in 1997, finally stepping down in 2002.  Those aghast at this pop star’s indulgence just don’t understand Elton John.  As a fourth division team, Watford are losers but, through his hard work and belief, Elton turns them into winners.  That is his own life story – an apparent loser who remakes himself into a winner.

The man who will become known as Elton John is born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on 25 March 1947 in ‘the anonymous town’ of Pinner, Middlesex, England.  He is the son of a former Royal Air Force trumpet player.  Young Reg demonstrates an early aptitude for the piano.  “I started playing by ear when I was about three,” recalls the pop star.  He takes formal lessons at an early age.  When he is 11, the boy wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.  Reg’s parents separate when he is 14, but his mother and new stepfather both encourage his interest in music and show business.  When he is 16, Reg leaves school.

In 1964 Reg Dwight is simultaneously holding three jobs.  In the day time, he is a messenger and tea-boy for a London music publishing company.  At night, he alternates between two gigs.  He belts out standards like ‘Roll Out The Barrel’ and ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ on the piano at the Northwood Hills Hotel for the pub’s patrons.  More importantly, in 1964 he begins working with a group called Bluesology.  “I was a very average organist in a very average band,” is how Elton describes it.  Although Reg Dwight may have been acceptable enough as a singer for the semi-inebriated pub crowd, it is a different story in Bluesology.  Stewart A. Brown is the vocalist and Reg is strictly the keyboards player.  Part of the reason for this has to do with image.  “I was quite an overweight young man,” admits Elton John, “and very shy.”  Bluesology rehearses at the Northwood Hills Hotel, but once Reg Dwight saves enough money to buy a Hohner electric piano and an amplifier, he quits his pub gig (and presumably his day job) to devote himself full-time to Bluesology.

From 1965 to 1966 Bluesology mainly serve as a backing band for visiting American recording artists best known for soul music or rhythm and blues.  Roy Tempest is the man who arranges these shows.  The acts for whom Bluesology provide backing include Major Lance, Billy Stewart, Doris Troy, and Patti Labelle And The Bluebells – though Wilson Pickett rejects their services outright.  It is not a financially lucrative business for the British lads.  They can’t afford roadies so they have to carry their own gear.  Since Reg is playing keyboards, it is particularly difficult for him.  The band nicknames the bespectacled pianist Hercules as he manfully hefts his burdens.

Bluesology takes a stab at cutting a single of their own and this is Reg Dwight’s first time on record.  It is a very obscure and long-forgotten release, but one of the numbers is out of Stewart A. Brown’s vocal range, so Reg gets to make his vocal debut on vinyl too.

Playing a gig at a club called The Cromwellian in 1966, Bluesology come to the attention of an aspiring British singer called Long John Baldry.  He takes on their services and reorganises Bluesology as his backing group (by this stage Bluesology’s fluctuating line-up no longer includes vocalist Stewart A. Brown).

Although Reg Dwight gets on well with Long John Baldry on a personal level, he chafes at the control Baldry exercises over Bluesology.  Accordingly, Reg begins to consider alternative options.  He auditions for other bands – the embryonic groups of musicians who would later become King Crimson and Gentle Giant – but is rejected.  In June 1967 a subsidiary of Liberty Records places an advertisement in the U.K. rock paper ‘New Musical Express’ looking for ‘new talent.’  Reg Dwight is one of those who respond.

In the meantime, Long John Baldry becomes impatient and launches a make-or-break campaign.  He forsakes Bluesology in October 1967 for a shot at the pop charts with ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’ (UK no. 1).  Success is his, but it proves fleeting.  The last line-up of Bluesology consists of Long John Baldry (vocals), Reg Dwight (keyboards), Neil Hubbard (guitar), Freddy Gand (bass), Pete Gavin (drums), Elton Dean (saxophone) and Marc Charig (trumpet).

With Baldry on the cabaret circuit and Bluesology disbanded, Reg Dwight applies for a job with Philips Records as a promoter of their product, a ‘record plugger.’  While waiting to hear about this opportunity, he gets an audition as a result of his response to Liberty Records advertisement.  The audition takes place in a recording studio.  Nervously, Reg Dwight finds the only things he can offer are the tunes he used to play at Northwood Hills Hotel (remember Reg was not the usual vocalist in Bluesology).  A song by Jim Reeves, ‘I Love You Because’, is one of the numbers he performs ‘to the horror of watching executives.’  Unsurprisingly, even given the rather broad terms of their advertisement, the folks from Liberty are at a loss for what they can do with Mr Dwight.  In the end, they give him a stack of lyrics submitted by another respondent to the ad, a young man from Lincolnshire named Bernie Taupin, and ask Reg to see if he can write some music to go with lyrics.  This turns out to be perhaps the most fortuitous moment in the career of Elton John.

Reg Dwight begins corresponding with Bernie Taupin.  Though they work together, the two do not meet face to face until months later in February 1968.  By that time, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, Reg Dwight has changed into Elton Hercules John.  The middle part of his new sobriquet is the nickname he earned hauling his keyboards with Bluesology.  The other parts are borrowed from his former musical companions, saxophonist Elton Reid and vocalist Long John Baldry.  Elton John is not just a stagename; the singer soon has his name officially changed via deed poll to Elton John.  “When I became Elton John it was like a new lease of life,” remarks the artist formerly known as Reginald Kenneth Dwight.

While Elton John and Bernie Taupin work up twenty songs, Liberty Records loses interest in them.  The duo becomes contracted as songwriters to Dick James Music.  Elton John’s first single is ‘I’ve Been Loving You’, released in March 1968.  This song and its flipside were actually written by Elton before he began collaborating with Bernie.  The single is not a success.  Dick James instructs his new charges to write ‘Top forty material’ that he can flog ‘to the easy listening top sellers of the day.’  This plan proves less than satisfactory.  Eventually, Steve Brown, a younger man in the Dick James Music office, advises Elton and Bernie to concentrate on their own material instead.  Elton John releases the single ‘Lady Samantha’ in 1969.  Steve Brown produces Elton John’s debut album, ‘Empty Sky’ (1969), issued in June.  This disc includes ‘Skyline Pigeon’ (and, in later reissues, ‘Lady Samantha’ is added as a bonus track).  This album is ‘a promising but ineffectual debut’ that attracts ‘fair reviews, but no sales.’

In the late 1960s Elton John is engaged to a secretary named Linda Woodrow.  The couple intend to marry but, for undisclosed reasons, the relationship instead falls apart.

The songwriting partnership of Elton John and Bernie Taupin is prodigiously productive.  The work begins with Bernie Taupin.  He often writes a song an hour.  One album is written in a mere two weeks.  Elton John then churns out the music, sometimes completing a song in less than thirty minutes.  He rarely alters a word his partner has provided.  Elton doesn’t even usually see Bernie.  “Writing rock ‘n’ roll songs on a piano is very difficult,” comments Elton, reflecting on how the instrument is better suited to other styles like classical or jazz.

Elton John’s voice has a pleasant sound, with a tendency to dip lower when the vocalist is tired or hoarse.  Mainly though, Elton’s voice is flexible enough to accommodate a number of different approaches so it frequently seems fresh and new.

At first, Elton John is marketed as a sensitive singer-songwriter (though, unlike other such artists, he works with a collaborator).  The early 1970s sees the rise of gentle, reflective songsmiths like James Taylor or Cat Stevens, but Elton’s work is less autobiographical – which is probably a consequence of the person singing the song (Elton) not being the person writing the words (Bernie).  Additionally, most of these singer-songwriters are plunking acoustic guitars.  It is mainly female singer-songwriters like Carole King or Laura Nyro who sit at the piano, so this is another point distinguishing Elton John.

‘Elton John’ (1970) (UK no. 5, US no. 4, AUS no. 2), released in April on the DJM label (Dick James Music), introduces producer Gus Dudgeon and arranger of strings Paul Buckmaster.  Their contributions make this a more professional sounding work.  In ‘Your Song’ (UK no. 7, US no. 8, AUS no. 11), Elton John and Bernie Taupin compose their first classic: “So excuse me forgetting, but these things I do / You see I’ve forgotten, if they’re green or they’re blue / Anyway the thing is, what I really mean / Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen.”  This is set to a simple, graceful piano accompaniment with violins and harps sweetening the end product.  This album also contains the pseudo-gospel ‘Border Song’ (US no. 92).

On 25 August 1970 Elton John makes his U.S. debut playing a show at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, California.  It is the beginning of a seventeen-day tour.  He is hailed ‘as the first superstar of the Seventies.’

‘Tumbleweed Connection’ (1970) (UK no. 2, US no. 5, AUS no. 4) in October is almost a concept album.  Bernie Taupin’s repeated use of Wild West imagery is given a thorough workout here.  While a country and western backing would have been the easy and obvious match, instead Elton John opts for a rustic, down-home flavour more akin to the work of Canadian rockers The Band.

On 17 November 1970 an Elton John concert in New York City is broadcast live on WPLJ-FM.  It is also recorded for the live album ‘11-17-70’ (1971) (UK no. 20, US no. 11, AUS no. 20) issued in the middle of 1971.  This is the first appearance on record of Elton’s regular supporting musicians Dee Murray (bass) and Nigel Olsson (drums).  The duo were previously in The Spencer Davis Group, albeit one of its less celebrated incarnations (October 1968 – July 1969).

‘Friends’ (1971) (US no. 36, AUS no. 19) was composed by Elton John and Bernie Taupin some time before their commercial fortunes improved, but this soundtrack to an ‘obscure’ movie is only issued in April 1971.

‘Madman Across The Water’ (1971) (UK no. 41, US no. 8, AUS no. 8) in November includes the song ‘Tiny Dancer’ (US no. 41, AUS no. 13) and is the only ‘real’ new Elton John album of the year.  This album ‘initiates a period…during which the artist can virtually do no wrong.’

There is a shift in perceptions about Elton John before his next album.  His sensitive singer-songwriter phase is over and he now becomes linked with the glam rock movement.  This celebrates ‘glamour’ with outrageous costumes and Elton adopts these stylistic extravagances with gusto.  The spectacles he wears to improve his flawed eyesight becomes spectacles in a different sense of the word; they are bizarre and flamboyant fashion statements.  He remains the same pudgy schlub that was Reg Dwight, but as Elton John he tries to drown out his physical shortcomings in an explosion of glitz and colour.  Beyond the visuals, glam rock also emphasises a thudding drum beat and huge, raw guitar riffs.  Elton John’s music slowly begins to take on a more aggressively rock approach too.  This is aided by the recruitment of guitarist Davey Johnstone who joins Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson in what is now called The Elton John Group.  This trio are the best accompanists Elton will have in his career.

‘Honky Chateau’ (1972) (UK no. 2, US no. 1, AUS no. 4) in May is the work of the new glam rock idol and The Elton John Group.  ‘Honky Cat’ (UK no. 31, US no. 8, AUS no. 78) still has traces of Bernie Taupin’s rural obsessions (“Boppin’ in the country / Fishin’ in a stream”) and features some strong piano playing from Elton.  The album’s most significant track is ‘Rocket Man’ (UK no. 2, US no. 6, AUS no. 13).  It borrows thematically from fellow glam rocker David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ with its tale of a lonely astronaut: “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids / In fact it’s cold as hell / And there’s no one there to raise them if you did.”  A sprinkling of studio effects overlay the keyboard skeleton of the song.  ‘Hercules’ is a bit of a jest based on the artist’s own self-appointed middle name.  ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’ is still gentle and reflective, but the imagery is more colourful and eccentric than in the previous era of Elton’s recordings.

“Success came very quickly.  I didn’t have time to get big-headed,” claims Elton John.  Certainly, the artist maintains a demanding schedule.

On 30 October 1972 Elton John appears in a Royal Command Performance before the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.  He is the first rock star to appear in such a show since The Beatles in November 1963.

‘Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player’ (1973) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) is released in January.  The album title may be inspired by Francois Truffaut’s film ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ (1962).  The album sports a cover image like an old-fashioned movie theatre.  This is appropriate since the album features the nostalgic ‘Crocodile Rock’ (UK no. 5, US no. 1, AUS no. 2).  This tune hooks into a general pop-cultural wave of misty-eyed remembrances of the 1950s.  “I remember when rock was young / Me and Susie had so much fun,” burbles Elton.  Allegedly, ‘Crocodile Rock’ is inspired by Australian group Daddy Cool’s ‘Eagle Rock’.  Also, its comical chorus evokes 1961 David Dante hit ‘Speedy Gonzales’, which became a bigger success for Pat Boone the following year (US no. 6).  Perhaps most importantly, for the first time this is an Elton John song that is unmistakably a rock ‘n’ roll piece.  Which is not to say he has entirely deserted gentler fare, as ‘Daniel’ (UK no. 4, US no. 2, AUS no. 7) ably demonstrates.  An electric piano neatly frames this ode to the narrator’s brother which some interpret as ‘an unlikely anti-war song.’

In 1973 Elton John and his manager, John Reid, create their own label, Rocket Records.  Elton himself, for the moment, remains contracted to the DJM label.  Nonetheless, Rocket Records finds success reviving the career of Neil Sedaka, a piano-playing pop star of the late 1950s – early 1960s, whose style, to some degree, mirrors Elton’s.  Kiki Dee, an overlooked female singer, also finds a more conducive atmosphere for her recordings at Rocket.

The double album ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ (1973) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1), released in October, is Elton John’s best album.  It is heralded by his best single, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’ (UK no. 7, US no. 12, AUS no. 31).  This is an atypically aggressive song that sounds almost like The Rolling Stones: “It’s getting’ late, have yer seen my mates / Ma, tell me when the boys get here.”  It also emulates working class glam rockers Slade (“My sister looks cute in her braces and boots”) and conjures up the Droogs love for ‘a spot of the old ultra-violence’ in Stanley Kubrick’s motion picture ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971).  Davey Johnstone’s guitar lives up to the demands of the scenario sketched out in the song.  The title track, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ (UK no. 6, US no. 2, AUS no. 3) references the magical path followed by Kansas farm girl Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939), the film based on L. Frank Baum’s children’s book ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1900).  The song itself weds ‘the fantastical imagery of glam to a Gershwin sweet melody’ [George and Ira Gershwin were very successful American songwriters during the 1930s and 1940s].  Bernie Taupin’s lyrics ask “When are you gonna come down? / When are you going to land? / I should have stayed on the farm / I should have listened to my old man.”  Elton John is particularly pleased when ‘Bennie And The Jets’ (UK no. 37, US no. 1, AUS no. 5) is not only a pop hit, but a success on the rhythm and blues charts.  A loving tribute to fans that’ve got “electric boots, a mohair suit”, the track features crowd sounds and an endearing stop-and-start arrangement.  A fan of a different sort features in ‘Candle In The Wind’ (UK no. 11, AUS no. 5).  “The young man in the twenty-second row” of the movie theatre bids “Goodbye Norma Jean” to movie-screen goddess Marilyn Monroe (who was born Norma Jean Mortensen a.k.a. Norma Jean Baker).  Every Monroe-watcher is moved by the song’s spot-on identification of their idol’s underlying vulnerability.  The album also encompasses the rocking ‘Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘N’ Roll)’ and the more reserved likes of ‘Funeral For A Friend’ and ‘Love Lies Bleeding’.

‘Caribou’ (1974) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) hosts ‘The Bitch Is Back’ (UK no. 15, US no. 4, AUS no. 53), a sister to ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’.  A scratching, stuttering guitar introduces sentiments like “I don’t like those! / My God, what’s that?! / Oh, it’s full of nasty habits / When the bitch gets back.”  Released in June, ‘Caribou’ is also home to ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ (UK no. 16, US no. 2, AUS no. 13), a big production-number ballad.  The whole album is recorded in three or four days, but Elton John is dissatisfied with the vocals, particularly on ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’.  Ironically, the song goes on to win a Grammy Award for best vocal performance.

Elton John’s next single is a cover version of The Beatles’ song ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’.  Elton respectfully seeks the permission of the song’s author, ex-Beatle John Lennon.  Agreement is offered but, in exchange, Lennon asks Elton John to provide backing vocals for his next single, ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’.  Elton consents but raises the stakes by wagering that if Lennon’s single reaches no. 1, he has to perform on stage with Elton.  The bet is accepted, and when Elton wins, John Lennon dutifully joins the piano player in Elton’s show at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 28 November 1974.  Unknown to his guest, Elton has also arranged for Lennon’s estranged wife, Yoko Ono, to be in the audience.  She comes backstage afterwards and the couple begin to reconcile.  As fate has it, this show also turns out to be John Lennon’s final public performance.

A breezy one-off single, ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ (UK no. 12, US no. 1, AUS no. 4), in 1975 precedes Elton John’s next album.  ‘Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy’ (1975) (UK no. 2, US no. 1, AUS no. 1), released in May, purports to be an autobiographical version of the story of the songwriting partnership of, respectively, Elton John and Bernie Taupin.  ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ (UK no. 22, US no. 4, AUS no. 54) is about a suicide attempt Elton made years ago.  The concept of the album may be a bit daunting for the duo because it is said that ‘Taupin lacks both the honesty and the intellectual discipline to bring it off.’

Although The Elton John Group plays on this album, it is their last work collectively.  Guitarist Davey Johnstone stays on a little longer, working with other musicians.

‘Rock Of The Westies’ (1975) (UK no. 5, US no. 1, AUS no. 4) in October is best known for the tropical single ‘Island Girl’ (UK no. 14, US no. 1, AUS no. 12).

Ken Russell’s movie version of ‘Tommy’ (1975), the rock opera conceived by U.K. rock band The Who, features Elton John in the pivotal role of the Pinball Wizard.  His version of the song, ‘Pinball Wizard’ (UK no. 7, AUS no. 88), is issued as a single.  This is the last of Elton John’s works that might be considered glam rock.  The glam era has about run its course.  Elton John’s singer-songwriter phase (1969 -1971) was followed by his glam rock phase (1972 – 1975).  From here on, Elton John’s music does not fit into any other movement; it is simply his own brand of avuncular pop.  There are gestures to other styles or passing trends, but Elton is not readily acknowledged as part of any other genre.

On 7 March 1976 a likeness of Elton John is added to the famous Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London.  He is the first personality from the rock ‘n’ roll business since The Beatles in 1964 to be given this honour.

In June 1976 Elton John and Kiki Dee, who records for Elton’s Rocket Records label, have a hit with a sprightly duet entitled ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1).  Elton doesn’t write the song; it is co-credited to Ann Orson and Carte Blanche.  ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ is actually Elton’s first no. 1 single in his homeland of England despite years of success.

In 1976 Elton John tells the press he is bisexual.  Latterly, he claims ‘that the confession was a compromise, since he was afraid to reveal he was homosexual.’

Also in 1976 Elton John becomes the chairman and director of Watford Football Club.

‘Blue Moves’ (1976) (UK no. 3, US no. 3, AUS no. 8), released in October, is a double album.  It is the first of Elton John’s albums on his own Rocket Records label.  The single released from this set, ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’ (UK no. 11, US no. 6, AUS no. 19), is a glum piano ballad.  ‘Blue Moves’ also marks the end of Elton John’s songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin…at least for now.

‘Ego’ (UK no. 34, US no. 34, AUS no. 40) is an odd single issued in 1978.

For his next album, ‘A Single Man’ (1978) (UK no. 8, US no. 15, AUS no. 8), Elton John collaborates with lyricist Gary Osborne.  The jaunty ‘Part-Time Love’ (UK no. 15, US no. 22, AUS no. 12) hails from this album.  The set also includes the haunting instrumental ‘Song For Guy’ (UK no. 4, US no. 110, AUS no. 14), a tribute to an office-boy killed in a car accident.  Hence, the only line in the ‘instrumental’ is “Life is a temporary thing.”  Elton John co-produces ‘A Single Man’ with Clive Franks, making it the first Elton John album since ‘Empty Sky’ not to be produced by Gus Dudgeon.

‘The Thom Bell Sessions’ is an experimental EP from 1979.  Thom Bell is best known for producing sweet soul material from the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia for artists like The Stylistics in the early 1970s.  His work with Elton John yields ‘Mama Can’t Buy You Love’ (US no. 9, AUS no. 82).  From here, it is but a small step to a full-blown disco album, ‘Victim Of Love’ (1979) (UK no. 41, US no. 35, AUS no. 20).  Characterised as ‘a commercial disappointment’, this dance-oriented disc is represented on the singles chart by the title track, ‘Victim Of Love’ (US no. 31, AUS no. 38).

Heading into the 1980s, ’21 At 33’ (1980) (UK no. 12, US no. 13, AUS no. 7) is, again, co-produced with Clive Franks.  The 33 year old Elton John is again working with Bernie Taupin, though it is no longer an exclusive arrangement.  ‘Little Jeannie’ (UK no. 33, US no. 3, AUS no. 9), a sweet number featuring an electric piano, is the album’s calling card.  ‘Sartorial Eloquence’ (UK no. 44, US no. 39, AUS no. 91) is also from this set.

John Lennon is murdered on 8 December 1980.  ‘The Fox’ (1981) (UK no. 12, US no. 21, AUS no. 2) is most notable for beginning a long association with producer Chris Thomas who seems to get good results from his veteran charge.  Elton John’s next album, ‘Jump Up’ (1982) (UK no. 13, US no. 17, AUS no. 3), offers a memorial to the slain Beatle, ‘Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)’ (UK no. 51, US no. 13, AUS no. 63).  ‘Blue Eyes’ (UK no. 8, US no. 12, AUS no. 4) is one of Elton’s more successful ballads (and is co-written by Gary Osborne).  The more aggressive ‘Dear John’ (not about Lennon) shows Elton still able to rock out when the mood takes him.

‘Too Low For Zero’ (1983) (UK no. 7, US no. 25, AUS no. 2) may be the best of Elton John’s 1980s albums.  The resolute ‘I’m Still Standing’ (UK no. 47, US no. 12, AUS no. 3) sees the artist taking dominion over his craft and celebrating his longevity in stirring fashion.  Equally satisfying is ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’ (UK no. 5, US no. 4, AUS no. 4), a rolling, heartfelt number co-written by Elton John, Bernie Taupin and the guitarist from Elton’s glory days, Davey Johnstone.  But perhaps the biggest indicator of the future is ‘Kiss The Bride’ (UK no. 20, US no. 25, AUS no. 25).  It’s a catchy tune certainly, but it is the implications it has for Elton’s private life that make it noteworthy.  In the song, the narrator is not keen to surrender a former love to matrimony with a new man, but Elton has a different future awaiting him.

On 18 February 1984 Elton John marries Renate Blauel, a German recording engineer…a female German recording engineer.  At this point, Elton is publicly known as bisexual, but he admits later that he knew he was homosexual before the marriage took place.  This makes the whole business more mystifying.  Perhaps the marriage is a last-ditch attempt at courting social acceptance, a goal that always seems to beckon to the ostracised Reg Dwight who still lurks beneath the shiny exterior of Elton John.

‘Breaking Hearts’ (1984) (UK no. 2, US no. 20, AUS no. 1) offers ‘Sad Songs (Say So Much)’ (UK no. 7, US no. 5, AUS no. 4), an ode to the healing power of music: “Guess there are times when we all need to share a little pain…And it’s times like these when we all need to hear the radio.”  ‘Passengers’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 9) is an oddball concoction of flutes and off-kilter rhythms composed by the quartet of Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Davey Johnstone and Phineas McHize.

‘Ice On Fire’ (1985) (UK no. 3, US no. 48, AUS no. 6) takes its title from the album’s first single, ‘Nikita’ (UK no. 3, US no. 7, AUS no. 3): “With eyes that looked like ice on fire / The human heart a captive in the snow.”  The song serenades a Russian beauty whose love is unattainable since she is on the other side of the Iron Curtain separating communist Russian from democracy.  “And if there comes a time,” counsels the lyric, “Guns and gates no longer hold you in / And if you’re free to make a choice / Just look towards the west and find a friend.”  This is all very poignant, but lyricist Bernie Taupin seems a bit confused.  Although it may sound pretty to Anglo ears, ‘Nikita’ is a man’s name in Russia, not a woman’s.  Most famously, the Soviet premier from 1953 to 1964 was Nikita Khrushchev.  Perhaps this is some subtle nod to Elton John’s unspoken homosexuality, but Nikita Khrushchev was hardly anyone’s idea of a handsome man.  Backing vocals on ‘Nikita’ are supplied by George Michael, a younger famous British pop singer – who will also later be outed as homosexual.  ‘Wrap Her Up’ (UK no. 12, US no. 20, AUS no. 20) features George Michael more prominently.  It expresses thoroughly heterosexual sentiments and is also mildly amusing.  Gus Dudgeon returns to production duties for ‘Ice On Fire’ and the follow-up, ‘Leather Jackets’ (1986) (UK no. 24, US no. 91, AUS no. 4).

Chris Thomas is back on deck for ‘Reg Strikes Back’ (1988) (UK no. 18, US no. 16, AUS no. 13).  This showcases ‘I Don’t Want To Go On With You Like That’ (UK no. 30, US no. 2, AUS no. 16), a song that features a more modern electronic keyboard sound.

Elton John and Renate Blauel divorce in 1988 and Elton declares he is ‘comfortable’ being gay.

‘Sleeping With The Enemy’ (1989) (UK no. 1, US no. 23, AUS no. 2) retains the services of Chris Thomas.  The album’s highlight is ‘Sacrifice’ (UK no. 55, US no. 18, AUS no. 7), a lovelorn song that mixes tenderness with a mechanical synthesiser and robotic rhythmic base.  ‘Club At The End Of The Street’ (UK no. 47, US no. 28, AUS no. 19) is a more upbeat piece.

‘The One’ (1992) (UK no. 2, US no. 8, AUS no. 2) is followed by ‘Duets’ (1993) (UK no. 5, US no. 25, AUS no. 12).  A double album, ‘Duets’ includes a co-starring role for George Michael as he and Elton John recreate ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 3).

Tim Rice, best known for his collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (1971), acts as lyricist for Elton John on the soundtrack for ‘The Lion King’ (1994) (US no. 1), an animated film from the Disney Studio.  The sumptuous ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ (UK no. 14, US no. 4, AUS no. 9) is the best known song from this project.

Greg Penny acts as co-producer with Elton John for ‘Made In England’ (1995) (UK no. 3, US no. 13, AUS no. 6), but Chris Thomas returns for ‘The Big Picture’ (1997) (UK no. 3, US no. 9, AUS no. 5). The latter album includes ‘Something About The Way You Look Tonight’ (AUS no. 32).

When England’s Princess Diana dies in a tragic car crash in 1997, Elton John reworks ‘Candle In The Wind’, changing it from a tribute to Marilyn Monroe to a tribute to Diana Spencer.  The public grief over the death translates into significant sales for the revised version of ‘Candle In The Wind’ (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1).

In 1998 a knighthood is bestowed on the singer making him Sir Elton John.

Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice work together on a stage musical and the accompanying album of ‘Aida’ (1999) (UK no. 29, US no. 41).

Patrick Leonard assumes production duties for ‘Songs From The West Coast’ (2001) (UK no. 2, US no. 15, AUS no. 7).  This disc includes ‘This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore’ (UK no. 24).  Elton John himself produces ‘Peachtree Road’ (2004) (UK no. 21, US no. 17, AUS no. 44).

On 21 December 2005 Elton John enters into a civil partnership with his male lover, David Furnish.  With the aid of a surrogate mother, the couple have two sons: Zachary (born 25 December 2010) and Elijah (born 11 January 2013).

‘The Captain And The Kid’ (2006) (UK no. 6, US no. 18, AUS no. 37) is co-produced by Elton John and Matt Still.  American roots music identity T-Bone Burnett produces ‘The Union’ (2010) (UK no. 12, US no. 3, AUS no. 28), an album co-credited to Elton John and Leon Russell.  The latter is an American perhaps best known for his piano work with English rock singer Joe Cocker in the early 1970s.  Australian duo P’Nau use their dance music and remix expertise to reinvent some of Elton John’s songs for ‘Good Morning To The Night’ (2012) (UK no. 1).  The title is a line from 1972’s ‘Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters’.  T-Bone Burnett continues to serve as producer on ‘The Diving Board’ (2013) (UK no. 3, US no. 4, AUS no. 26), keeping the instrumentation pared down and simple.

‘Wonderful Crazy Night’ (2016) (UK no. 6, US no. 8, AUS no. 11) is co-produced by T-Bone Burnett and Elton John.  This set shows Elton ‘ready to have fun’ and displaying a ‘fair amount of joy and swagger.’  The general mood is exemplified by the ‘ebullient’ title track, ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’.

When Elton John assumed the post of chairman and director of Watford Football Club, he helped turn an unfancied sporting team into a bigger success than virtually anyone could have anticipated.  When unprepossessing Reg Dwight became flamboyant Elton John he made a similar transition that defied the odds and conventional wisdom.  Perhaps that ability to alchemically turn lead dross into treasured gold on a personal level is the most valuable lesson in the legend of Elton John.  ‘In terms of sales and lasting popularity, Elton John was the biggest pop superstar of the early 1970s.’  Elton John was ‘a purveyor of glamour, spectacle and pretty tunes.’

Sources:

  1. wikipedia.org as at 1 April 2013, 1 January 2014, 3 January 2017
  2. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 122,123
  3. allmusic.com, ‘Elton John’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 20 December 2001
  4. ‘Best of Vox Pop – Raw and Uncut Interview’ – 1987 Elton John interview posted on You Tube
  5. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 116, 117, 230
  6. shortlist.com – 2010 Elton John interview
  7. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 74, 87, 93
  8. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Elton John’ by Robert Christgau (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 528, 529
  9. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 175, 178, 205, 227, 234, 254
  10. ‘L.A. Times’ (Los Angeles, U.S.A. newspaper) quoted in 9 (above) p. 183
  11. You Tube – David Frost interview with Elton John (1991? Posted 15 March 2001)
  12. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p.171
  13. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 48
  14. allmusic.com – review of ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 3 January 2017

Song lyrics copyright PolyGram Music Publishing with the exceptions of ‘I’m Still Standing’, ‘The Bitch Is Back’, Song For Guy’ and ‘Nikita’ (all Warner Chappell Music)

Last revised 11 January 2017

Billy Joel

 Billy Joel

 Billy Joel – circa 1987

 “Some are satin, some are steel / Some are silk and some are leather / They’re the faces of the stranger / But we love to try them on” – ‘The Stranger’ (Billy Joel)

Is Billy Joel a tender balladeer?  Is Billy Joel a hairy-chested rock ‘n’ roller?  Or is he really Bill Martin, a lounge lizard who frequents sleazy bars?  Will the real Billy Joel please stand up?

Billy Joel is born William Martin Joel on 9 May 1949 in Hicksville, a suburb of Long Island, in the State of New York, U.S.A.  His father, Howard Joel, is born in Nuremberg, Germany.  Being of the Jewish faith, Howard Joel is confined in Dachau prison camp during World War Two.  After the war, as an employee of General Electric, he immigrates via Cuba to the United States.  Howard Joel marries a girl named Rosalind, whom he meets when she is performing in an amateur production of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.  Making a home in the Bronx in New York, they become the parents of two children.  The family then moves to Levittown, Long Island, an impersonal tract of cheap housing created for returned servicemen.  “The houses looked so much alike that if you stumbled home drunk, you never knew where you’d end up,” is how Billy Joel describes it.

Howard Joel is a classically trained pianist.  The family has a Lester upright piano in the living room and young Billy takes to making a noise on the instrument.  Despite his father’s musical background, it is actually Rosalind Joel who sends her son to formal piano lessons.  Partly this is so the boy may emulate his father and partly just to get the racket the youngster makes to take some more harmonious shape.  Growing up, the Joel household was full of music.  Billy recalls hearing “classical music, Broadway musicals, pop music.”  The Joels are ‘mildly middle class’, but this changes when the couple divorce.  Billy is 7 at the time.  He lives with his mother, who scrapes by on a secretary’s salary.  Howard Joel moves to Vienna, Austria, but sends ‘small support’ payments to his ex-wife.

Approaching his teens, Billy Joel proves to be a troublesome youth.  He joins the Parkway Green Gang and becomes involved in petty crime ‘robbing stores, fighting with rival gangs, drinking wine, and sniffing glue.’  He also boxes as a welterweight for three years.  He fights twenty-two bouts as a teenager and wins the welterweight championship in the Long Island Police Boys Club League.  During one of the fights, his nose is broken, giving him a ‘puggish’ appearance for the rest of his life.

During Billy Joel’s teens, the British band The Beatles visits the U.S. for the first time.  He remembers watching them on television’s ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1964.  Like many other youths, he is inspired by their music.  The ‘sissy piano lessons’ now take on new value.  While still a student at Hicksville High, Billy forms a group called The Echoes.  They specialise in playing cover versions of songs by The Beatles and other new British acts like The Rolling Stones and The Dave Clark Five who are making their presence felt on the U.S. pop charts.  The Echoes get some gigs in New York City.  While still just 16, in 1965 Billy Joel appears on record for the first time as a session pianist for producer George ‘Shadow’ Morton, the man best known for producing The Shangri-La’s song ‘The Leader Of The Pack’ in 1964.  Later in 1965, The Echoes change their name twice: first to The Emerald Lords, then to The Lost Souls.  Billy’s extra-curricular activities do not go unnoticed by his teachers.  Scheduled to graduate Hicksville High in 1967, he is told that his absenteeism will prevent this.  So Billy Joel drops out of school.

The aspiring musician joins The Hassles, ‘a local Long Island rock ‘n’ roll band.’  The other members of this outfit are John Dizek (vocals), Richard McKenna (guitar), Harry Weber (organ) and Jon Small (drums).  The first album, ‘The Hassles’ (1967), consists mainly of cover versions of soul songs.  Harry Weber is dismissed ‘due to excessive drug use’ and his place is taken by Howie Blauvelt (bass).  John Dizek departs after the first album and Bill Joel assumes lead vocal duties as well as being the piano player.  The revised line-up cuts a second album, ‘Hour Of The Wolf’ (1969), which is mainly written by Billy Joel.  Both albums by The Hassles ‘fail commercially.’  Elizabeth Weber, the sister of the departed Harry Weber, is the girlfriend of drummer Jon Small and becomes his wife.  The Hassles break-up in 1969.

Billy Joel works on a barge, dredging up oysters.  When his long-time girlfriend splits up with him, Joel is so dispirited he attempts suicide in 1970 by drinking furniture polish.  Following this, he checks himself into Meadowbrook Hospital in East Meadow, Long Island.  After three weeks under observation in the mental ward, Billy Joel decides to leave the facility.

Attila is duo Billy Joel forms with the former drummer from The Hassles, Jon Small.  The act consists of the two of them, with Billy Joel’s organ playing fed through various effects to create a ‘heavy psychedelic hard rock album’ called, simply, ‘Attila’ (1970).  It is ‘an immediate bomb’ and Attila dissolves.  During this time, Billy Joel is romancing Elizabeth Small, who eventually leaves her husband to be with Joel.

Licking his wounds, Billy Joel writes rock criticism for a magazine called ‘Changes’.  He also plays piano on various commercial jingles including one for Bachman pretzels that features the vocals of Chubby Checker, the singer who, ten years earlier, popularised the dance-step called the twist.

In 1971 Billy Joel signs a recording contract as a solo act with Family Productions, a company owned by Artie Ripp.  Billy Joel is financially mistreated.  The contract entitles the recording company to an onerous amount on each and every Billy Joel album in perpetuity.  The first album under the deal is ‘Cold Spring Harbor’ (1971) (US no. 158, UK no. 95).  The album contains the ballad ‘She’s Got A Way’, but the production job on the album is so bad Billy Joel is extremely disillusioned.

Early in 1972 Billy Joel moves to Los Angeles, California, with his girlfriend, Elizabeth Small.  He starts playing in bars under the name of Bill Martin, trying to distance himself from his less than successful past.  In this guise he noodles about with a kind of smoky jazz and cabaret, soaking up the piano bar ambience.  At the beginning of 1973, Elizabeth Small enrols in a Graduate School of Management course at the University of California in Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.).  She and Billy Joel marry on 5 September 1973.

A Philadelphia radio station plays a live version of ‘Captain Jack’, an ode to adolescent existential angst, and this catches the ear of representatives of Columbia Records.  They learn of Billy Joel’s contract with Artie Ripp’s Family Productions which is currently doing neither ‘Bill Martin’ nor Artie Ripp any good since ‘Billy Joel’ doesn’t exist and is not promoting his previous album or working on a new disc.  Columbia buys out Billy Joel’s contract, but it is an ugly, complicated deal.

Billy Joel’s first album for Columbia is ‘Piano Man’ (1973) (US no. 27, UK no. 98, AUS no. 14), released in October.  The title track, ‘Piano Man’ (US no. 25, UK no. 136, AUS no. 20), draws on Joel’s experience as ‘Bill Martin’: “It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday / The regular crowd shuffles in / There’s an old man sitting next to me / Making love to his tonic and gin.”  The disc also includes ‘Captain Jack’.  Casting Billy Joel as a troubadour, the album ‘Piano Man’ is a big breakthrough.  Billy Joel is financially mistreated – again.  Despite impressive sales, the singer makes very little money from the disc as Columbia seeks to recoup its outlay.  Distressed, Joel turns to his wife, who has now graduated from U.C.L.A., and asks her to sort out his finances and, subsequently, act as his manager.

Since ‘Piano Man’ is Billy Joel’s first fully realised album, this may be an opportune point to pause and consider the elements of his style.

Billy Joel is a self-created artist.  He writes and sings all his own material except for a few rare cover versions.  He is also a musician, playing piano, organ, synthesiser and any manner of keyboard.  There is a temptation to see him as an American answer to Elton John.  However, this does Billy Joel a disservice.  Elton John rarely writes his own lyrics, normally relying on others – primarily Bernie Taupin – to provide the words.  Billy Joel’s lyrics are as sharp as his music and they are both his own work.  “I actually start most songs with music, the lyrics come afterward,” explains Joel.

Defining Billy Joel’s music is difficult because he assumes a number of different styles.  “I don’t want to limit my diet sampling only one vegetable in the garden,” explains the piano man.  In the songs Billy Joel records there are elements of pop music, rock, Broadway show tunes, classical music and cocktail bar jazz.

Strangely, after ‘Piano Man’ Billy Joel’s next two albums do not fare as well.  ‘Street Life Serenade’ (1975) (US no. 35, AUS no. 85) features ‘The Entertainer’ (US no. 34, AUS no. 89), wherein the author cynically examines commercial reality amidst swirls of synthesiser: “Today I am your champion, I may have won your hearts / But I know the game, you’ll forget may name / I won’t be here in another year / If I don’t stay on the charts.”  For ‘Turnstiles’ (1976) (US no. 122, AUS no. 12) Billy Joel returns to New York, a move celebrated in the dramatic ‘Say Goodbye To Hollywood’ and the grandiose ‘New York State Of Mind.’

Starting with the ‘Turnstiles’ album, Billy Joel adopts a different approach.  He begins recording with musicians from his touring band rather than solely using session musicians.  The difference is clear and the singer seems more comfortable.  The group includes David Brown (guitar), Russell Javers (guitar), Doug Stegmeyer (bass), Liberty De Vitto (drums) and Richie Cannata (saxophone, flute, organ).

Billy Joel’s next album, ‘The Stranger’ (1977) (US no. 2, UK no. 24, AUS no. 2), is his masterpiece.  It begins a ten year association with record producer Phil Ramone who lends a big-screen cinematic sweep to Billy Joel’s compositions while keeping the music tight, sharp and glossy.  ‘Just The Way You Are’ (US no. 3, UK no. 19, AUS no. 6) becomes a ‘wedding band standard’ and the source of the perception of Joel as a tender balladeer.  Yet it remains his finest song.  His electric keyboards are tastefully offset by a saxophone solo played by Phil Woods.  There is genuine emotion in the song’s depiction of a couple in a long-term relationship: “Don’t go changing, to try and please me / You never let me down before / Don’t imagine you’re too familiar / And I don’t see you anymore.”  However, ‘The Stranger’ is not simply a suite of ballads; it has a much wider agenda.  The title track, ‘The Stranger’, most obviously warns that things are not always what they seem.  ‘Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)’ (US no. 17, UK no. 35, AUS no. 99) clearly evokes the neighbourhood of “Mama Leone” and “Mister Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan Street.”  The orchestration and saxophone provide immigrant colours to the portrait.  The song also reflects on the pressure to increase your earnings (“Is that all you get for your money?”) and to be upwardly mobile (“Good luck movin’ up ‘cause I’m / Movin’ out”).  This theme of trying to avoid anxiety (“Slow down you crazy child”) is returned to in ‘Vienna’, which, as may be recalled, is the foreign locale to which Billy’s father, Howard Joel, decamped.  These aspirational immigrant neighbourhoods exist just around the musical corner from the Catholic community in ‘Only The Good Die Young’ (US no. 24), a song that is not “so much anti-Catholic as pro-lust” according to its author.  Billy Joel’s narrator bids “Come out Virginia, don’t let me wait / You Catholic girls start much too late.”  The Virginia who is the subject of the sprightly tune is Virginia Callahan, a real-life early fan, back in Joel’s days with The Hassles.  As well as another classy ballad, ‘She’s Always A Woman’ (US no. 17, UK no. 29), ‘The Stranger’ hosts ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’.  This sprawling piece passes through three movements.  Firstly, a couple goes out to dinner “In our old familiar place.”  This prompts a reminiscence about “My sweet romantic teenage nights” and a reflection on Brenda and Eddie, “The king and the queen of the prom” who “Got a divorce as a matter of course / And parted the closest of friends.”  The song then ends with a return to the restaurant scene.  In one composition, ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’ skilfully encapsulates all the album’s themes: tender ballads, the immigrant experience, wild teenagers and financial pressures.  Not coincidentally, these are also the fabric from which Billy Joel’s life is woven.

‘52nd Street’ (1978) (US no. 1, UK no. 10, AUS no. 1) ‘expands on ‘The Stranger’s sound.  Their variety is what makes them so successful.’  ‘My Life’ (US no. 3, UK no. 12, AUS no. 6) is, on the surface, a catchy pop song powered by a bouncing keyboard riff.  But a look at the lyrics paints a self-assertive image of battles with society’s expectations of financial improvement: “I never said you had to offer me a second chance / I never said I was a victim of circumstance.”  The more aggressive rock of ‘Big Shot’ (US no. 14, AUS no. 91) offers a scalding swipe at someone who fails to resist the high life.  Billy Joel is on record as saying the subject of the song is Bianca Jagger, the jet-set socialite wife of Mick Jagger, whose marriage to The Rolling Stones’ singer is, at this time in history, falling apart.  This appears to be borne out by lines like “They were all impressed with your Halston dress / And the people that you knew at Elaine’s.”  Yet, at other times, the song seems self-excoriating, Billy Joel mocking his own fame: “You had to have a white hot spotlight / You had to be a big shot last night.”  ‘Honesty’ (US no. 24, AUS no. 80) (“Is hardly ever heard / And mostly what I need from you”) is a stark piano ballad while ‘Stiletto’ offers some of Joel’s most impressive rattling of the keyboard.

An overtly rock ‘n’ roll stance is adopted for ‘Glass Houses’ (1980) (US no. 1, UK no. 4, AUS no. 2).  Apparently troubled by the perception that he is purely a smarmy vendor of soppy love songs, Billy Joel seem intent on reinventing himself as an adult version of his leather-jacketed, switchblade-bearing teenage self.  The lead single, ‘You May Be Right’ (US no. 7, AUS no. 28), apes The Rolling Stones style of riff-based rock to great effect: “Remember how I found you there / Alone in your electric chair / I told you dirty jokes until you smiled.”  ‘It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me’ (US no. 1, UK no. 14, AUS no. 10) finds Billy Joel jockeying for position amongst the new wave rock stars: “Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways / It’s still rock and roll to me.”  The soft-centred, continental ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ (US no. 19) seems a bit out of place here, but other tracks like ‘Sometimes A Fantasy’ (US no. 36), ‘I Don’t Want To Be Alone Anymore’ and the withering ‘All For Layna’ (UK no. 40) establish the album’s rock credentials.  The old adage has it that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, but tossing about some rock seems to be worthwhile in this case.

‘Songs In The Attic’ (1981) (US no. 8, UK no. 57, AUS no. 9) buys Billy Joel some breathing space by trotting out songs from prior to ‘The Stranger’ in a live concert context and so introduces them to some of his newer fans.  Revised versions of ‘Say Goodbye To Hollywood’ (US no. 17) and ‘She’s Got A Way’ (US no. 23) are released as singles from this set.

As if to assert his rock ‘n’ roll image, Billy Joel has a motorcycle accident on 15 April 1982.  He breaks his wrist.  Major surgery and a month of therapy in hospital are required for his recovery.

On 20 July 1982 Billy Joel divorces his wife, Elizabeth (formerly Elizabeth Small, Elizabeth Weber).

Billy Joel still yearns ‘to be taken seriously as a composer’ and ‘The Nylon Curtain’ (1982) (US no. 1, UK no. 27, AUS no. 4) is his attempt to satisfy that urge.  A semi-concept album ‘about baby boomers [the children born in the first fifteen years or so after the end of World War Two] and their experiences’, it aims at weightier thematic concerns than some of his previous work.  ‘Pressure’ (US no. 20, AUS no. 16) is probably Billy Joel’s definitive statement on a subject he has tackled before.  The busy synthesisers fit with the early 1980s passion for synth-pop and frame such sentiments as these: “But you will come to a place where the only thing you feel / Are loaded guns in your face / And you’ll have to deal with / Pressure.”  Although ‘Allentown’ (US no. 17, AUS no. 49) is literally about a locale in Pennsylvania, it’s fairly easy to transpose it to Billy Joel’s native Levittown, Long Island.  It’s the same sort of post-war housing development whose children wait for the fulfilment of “The promises our teachers gave / If we worked hard / If we behaved.”  The ambitious ‘Goodnight Saigon’ (US no. 56, UK no. 29) deals with young soldiers being trained for the war in Vietnam.  ‘The Nylon Curtain’ is a comparatively bleak album, which may explain why it is ‘a commercial disappointment’ though it fares better with the critics, earning favourable reviews.

Early in 1983 Billy Joel begins dating a model named Christie Brinkley.  This new romance is one of the two factors influencing the next release from the piano man.  The other factor is the music of the pre-Beatles late 1950s – early 1960s era.  Billy Joel lovingly recreates the styles of that time on ‘An Innocent Man’ (1983) (US no. 4, UK no. 2, AUS no. 3).  The brassy ‘Tell Her About It’ (US no. 1, UK no. 4, AUS no. 9) urges communication, for men-folk to verbalise their feelings to their partners because, otherwise “She’ll get to worrying / Just because you haven’t spoken for so long / And though you may not have done anything / Will that be a consolation when she’s gone?”  ‘Uptown Girl’ (US no. 3, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) expertly imitates the multi-part harmonies of Italo-pop sensations Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons.  Christie Brinkley stars in the video for the song as the uptown girl who’s “been living in her white-bread world” and never “had a backstreet guy” like Billy Joel.  While ‘Uptown Girl’ is a peppy stomp, ‘The Longest Time’ (US no. 14, UK no. 25, AUS no. 15) is a lush, almost a cappella, rendering of Joel’s own multi-tracked self-harmonising.  The title track, ‘An Innocent Man’ (US no. 10, UK no. 8, AUS no. 23) is more elegant and ‘Keeping The Faith’ (US no. 18) rejoices in the minutiae: “I put on my shark skin jacket / You know the kind with the velvet collar / And ditty-bop shades.”  The Parkway Green Gang would have been proud!  After the dour ‘The Nylon Curtain’, ‘An Innocent Man’ is more playful.

On 23 March 1985 Billy Joel marries Christie Brinkley.  Their daughter, Alexa Ray Joel, is born on 29 December 1985.

The ‘Greatest Hits Vols. 1 & 2’ (1985) (US no. 6, UK no. 7, AUS no. 2) set includes two new Billy Joel songs, the rubbery ‘You’re Only Human’ (US no. 9, UK no. 94, AUS no. 6) and the more epic ‘The Night Is Still Young’ (US no. 34, AUS no. 82).

‘The Bridge’ (1986) (US no. 7, UK no. 38, AUS no. 2) is the last of Billy Joel’s albums produced by Phil Ramone.  The album as a whole is the work of a loved-up family man, as most clearly displayed on ‘This Is The Time’ (US no. 18, AUS no. 73): “This is the time to remember / ‘Cause it will not last forever / These are the days to hold on to / ‘Cause we won’t although we’ll want to.”  The startlingly abrasive guitar crunch of ‘A Matter Of Trust’ (US no. 10, UK no. 52, AUS no. 3) offers similar sentiments: “Some love is just a lie of the heart / The cold remains of what began with a passionate start / But that can’t happen to us / Because it’s always been a matter of trust.”  It’s an indication of Billy Joel’s standing in the music industry that where once he sought to emulate piano-playing soul legend Ray Charles on ‘New York State Of Mind’, here he actually duets with Ray Charles on ‘Baby Grand’ (US no. 75, AUS no. 78).

A series of shows in the Soviet Union yields the live double album ‘Kohuept’ (1987) (US no. 38, UK no. 92, AUS no. 10), the Russian word for ‘concert’.  This album includes a cover version of The Beatles’ ‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’ (AUS no. 33).

Billy Joel is financially mistreated – for a third time.  In 1989 he fires ‘his long-time manager and former brother-in-law’ Frank Weber after an audit turns up financial discrepancies.  Frank Weber responds with a lawsuit.  It’s questionable wisdom hiring as your manager the guy who was fired from The Hassles ‘due to excessive drug use’ and who just happens to be your ex-wife’s brother.  When the dust settles in January 1991, Billy Joel wins the court case.

‘Storm Front’ (1989) (US no. 1, UK no. 5, AUS no. 1) sees changes on either side of the recording studio control booth.  This album is co-produced by Billy Joel and Foreigner’s Mick Jones.  Foreigner have enjoyed success in the 1980s with a couple of big ballads but their basic reputation was built on their abilities as a hard rock band.  Since Billy Joel is coming at it from the other direction (i.e. he has had a couple of rock hits but his reputation is built on his ballads), it probably seems like a good fit.  For this album, Billy Joel also substantially restructures his usual backing group.  Guitarist David Brown and drummer Liberty De Vitto are retained, but they are joined by Jeff Jacobs (keyboards), Schuyler Deale (bass) and Crystal Talieferro (percussion, backing vocals).  The album’s best song is ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ (US no. 1, UK no. 7, AUS no. 2), a trawl through modern history from 1949 to 1989, ticking off pop culture icons like Marilyn Monroe, Josef Stalin , Elvis Presley, Mickey Mantle and more, with a catchy chorus attached.  Other compositions are performed in a rather more brutal fashion, but still have charms.  ‘I Go To Extremes’ (US no. 6, UK no. 70, AUS no. 48) is almost an anthem for mood swings.  ‘Leningrad’ (UK no. 53, AUS no. 90) harks back to Billy Joel’s Russian visit, ‘The Downeaster “Alexa”’ (US no. 57, UK no. 76) is an ode to a fishing boat rather obviously named after Joel’s daughter, while ‘And So It Goes’ (US no. 37) is a ballad of a darker hue than is customary for the artist.  The album also includes the fervent ‘Shameless’.

Billy Joel is financially mistreated – yet again.  In mid-1992 he files a lawsuit against his former lawyer, Frank Grubman, for ‘fraud, breach of contract and malpractice.’  The two settle out of court in October 1993.

‘River Of Dreams’ (1993) (US no. 1, UK no. 3, AUS no. 1) is produced by veteran session guitarist (for artists other than Billy Joel), Danny Kortchmar.  The title track, ‘River Of Dreams’ (US no. 3, UK no. 3, AUS no. 1), actually comes to Billy Joel during night-time slumber.  Hence it opens with the lines “In the middle of the night / I go walking in my sleep.”  In the vision he sees a ceremonial religious dunking and so the song says “God knows I’ve never been a spiritual man / Baptised by the fire, I wade into the river / That runs to the promised land.”  The dreamscape extends to the musical arrangement that mixes gospel airs, an African spiritual and an intermittent falsetto vocal.  It’s an arrangement that only makes sense in dream logic, though Joel does his best to meld the disparate elements in the waking world.  ‘All About Soul’ (US no. 29, UK no. 32, AUS no. 34) struggles to add some swing to its confessional shout.  ‘Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)’ (US no. 77) is a self-explanatory evening benediction to a child.  Only backing vocalist Crystal Talieferro is retained from Billy Joel’s usual support team for this album.

After the tour to support ‘The River Of Dreams’ album, Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley divorce on 25 August 1994.

‘The River Of Dreams’ is Billy Joel’s last album of commercial pop or rock.  Quite why this is the case is a bit hard to fathom.  His achievements may be declining, but many artists labour for years without attaining anything approaching the success of ‘The River Of Dreams’, so why stop here?

‘Greatest Hits Vol. 3’ (1997) (US no. 9, UK no. 23, AUS no. 12) includes three new songs but they are non-originals, cover versions of tracks penned by famous singer-songwriters Bob Dylan, Carole King and Leonard Cohen.

‘Fantasies & Delusions’ (2001) (US no. 83) is Billy Joel’s first new album in nearly a decade – but it is classical music.  He seems to have abandoned mainstream, commercial rock ‘n’ roll.

In 2002 Billy Joel spends some time in Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut.  This is a ‘substance abuse and psychiatric centre.’

On 2 October 2004 Billy Joel marries his third wife, Katie Lee.

In March 2005 Billy Joel spends thirty days at the Betty Ford Clinic for ‘alcohol related problems.’

On 17 June 2009 Billy Joel and Katie Lee split up.

Without knowing all the intimate details, it appears that ‘alcohol related problems’ is the most likely explanation for this artist’s retreat from the music business.

Was Billy Joel a tender balladeer, a hairy-chested rock ‘n’ roller or a lounge lizard named Bill Martin?  He was all three.  He was also a classical musician and a pop tunesmith who forged links between Broadway show tunes and three minute teen dramas.  It’s impossible to separate the disparate parts that, collectively, made up ‘Billy Joel music.’  Why would you want to?  That variety was part of his strength.  Billy Joel’s ‘fusion of two distinct eras made him a superstar in the late 1970s and 1980s, as he racked up an impressive string of multi-platinum albums and hit singles.’  He ‘successfully merged the vernaculars of Hollywood sound stages with those of [classical musician Franz] Schubert and [the 1940s pop songwriters of] Tin Pan Alley, along with the warm ambiance of [Frank] Sinatra saloon albums, 1950s car-radio pop, the sound of the Beatles-led British Invasion [of the U.S. pop charts], and the rich melodicism of post-new wave rock.  It was a remarkable feat…yet completely his own.’

Sources:

  1. allmusic.com, ‘Billy Joel’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 29 August 2001
  2. ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 244, 248, 249
  3. ‘The South Bank Show’ (London Weekend Television) Billy Joel interview conducted by Melvyn Bragg (6 September 2010)
  4. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Brill Building Pop’ by Greg Shaw, ‘The Girl Groups’ by Greil Marcus (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 150, 191
  5. wikipedia.org as at 25 March 2013
  6. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 45, 66
  7. performingsongwriter.com as at 17 April 2013
  8. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 119
  9. songfacts.com as at 16 April 2013
  10. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 339

Song lyrics copyright EMI Songs Australia Pty. Ltd.

Last revised 4 September 2014

Jet

 Jet

 Nic Cester – circa 2006

 “So one, two, three, take my hand and come with me / Because you look so fine / And I really wanna make you mine” – ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ (Nic Cester, Cameron Muncey)

A tambourine shakes.  A bass guitar shuffle picks out a melody.  Somebody clears their throat.  A stern drumbeat is laid down.  An electric guitar sparks up with a sound like someone has stuck their finger in an electrical socket.  A chugging rhythm guitar propels the song forward.  And then the vocals start…This is the introduction to ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ by Australian rock band Jet.  For most people, it is also their introduction to Jet in any way, shape or form.  Although this song may start this way, the story of the band of course starts at an earlier point.

Nic Cester is born Nicholas John Cester on 6 July 1979.  His father, John Cester, is Australian born but of Italian parentage.  John Cester runs a spice factory.  Nic’s mother is Scottish.  Nic’s uncle on his father’s side is Eugene Cester, who performs as Eugene De La Hot Croix Bun with T.I.S.M. (This Is Serious, Mum), an Australian band of musical pranksters.  Nic claims it was watching his uncle play guitar that made him want to take up the instrument.

Nic Cester is the eldest of four brothers.  Also crucial to the story of Jet is Nic’s younger sibling, Chris Cester (born 16 September 1980).  Nic and Chris Cester grow up in Dingley Village, in the suburbs of the State of Victoria.  They attend St Bede’s College in Mentone.  Cameron Muncey (born 4 February 1980) is a school friend of Nic’s and the two boys decide to put together a band.  Like most school boy bands, this outfit duly runs its course.  In 1996, Nic and Cameron decide to start again, this time including Nic’s younger brother, Chris, on drums.

By 2001 Chris Cester is working as a forklift operator in a local factory (perhaps the family business?).  The band he formed with Chris Cester and Cameron Muncey is now rounded out by keyboardist Jason Doukas, an old High School friend of Chris, and bassist Doug Armstrong, whom the Cester boys met while working at their father’s spice factory.  In this form, they play their first professional gigs and take the band name, Jet.  Allegedly, the name is chosen because it is short and so will be written larger on advertisements where multiple bands are listed.  Given the boys’ interest in ‘classic rock’, it may also be inspired by the Paul McCartney And Wings song, ‘Jet’.

Jason Doukas’ stay in the band proves brief.  The new four-piece Jet secure a regular gig at the Duke of Windsor, a pub in Chapel Street, Windsor, Victoria.  It is here they are spotted by Dave ‘The Major’ Powell, who becomes the group’s manager.

One night in 2002 Mark Wilson shows up at a Jet concert.  Mark is playing bass in a band called The Ca$inos.  Although Jet already have a bassist, they offer the job to Mark Wilson.  He initially declines because of his existing commitments, but a few days later reconsiders and says he will join Jet instead.

The line-up of Jet is now fixed as Nic Cester (vocals, guitar), Cameron Muncey (guitar, vocals), Mark Wilson (bass, keyboards) and Chris Cester (drums, vocals).

Jet records a vinyl-only EP called ‘Dirty Sweet’ (after a line in the song by T-Rex, ‘Bang A Gong (Get It On)’: “You’re dirty sweet and you’re my girl”).  This quickly sells through two printings and is re-released by Elektra Records in 2003 (UK no. 131).  ‘Dirty Sweet’ includes ‘Take It Or Leave It’, a song that will be included on Jet’s first album.  Jet are signed to a recording contract by EMI Music in Australia.

Nic Cester is the main vocalist for Jet.  Chris Cester sings a few numbers and Cameron Muncey gets one lead vocal, but Nic’s the most familiar voice of the band.

“Everyone in the band writes,” notes Nic Cester.  “We are all pretty passionate guys,” adds Mark Wilson.  “We won’t fight, but we will argue.”  Roughly a quarter of Jet’s material is written in conjunction by the trio of Nic Cester, Chris Cester and Cameron Muncey.  Equalling that is the number of songs co-written by the Cester brothers.  Aside from that, the group members write in different combinations.  Only Chris and Nic have solo songwriting credits (three songs and six songs respectively).  What this boils down to is that Nic Cester is probably the main songwriter in Jet, but it is far from total domination.

Jet are best known as a hard rock band, but this is a slight distortion.  Around half their songs are ballads, slower numbers or more introspective compositions.  These tracks are less often chosen as singles so it is understandable that the band’s image is more readily linked to the aggressive, flat-out pieces.

Jet have a gift for writing songs that seem instantly familiar.  Although the song may be new, there is a nagging feeling that it is reminiscent of something some other artist has previously recorded.  It ranges from very difficult to impossible to identify the source material inspirations for Jet’s songs.  A list of artists whose work may be seen as incorporated into Jet’s oeuvre may include AC/DC, The Beatles, The Easybeats, The Faces, The Knack, John Lennon, The Loved Ones, Paul McCartney, Iggy Pop, The Rolling Stones, T-Rex and You Am I.  Nic Cester regards ‘The Beatles as his greatest musical influence.’

Just as Jet’s compositions are instantly familiar, their image similarly strikes subconscious chords of recognition.  The shaggy hair, the occasional three-day growth, the sunglasses, the leather jackets, Chris’ military dress cap, Cam’s Flying-V guitar, Nic’s fabulous collection of scarves…all these things are classic rock style items.  If a computer was programmed to produce a definitive rock band, it would probably closely resemble Jet.

Jet’s first album is ‘Get Born’ (2003) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 14, US no. 26).  There is a story that the title is inspired by the movie ‘The Bourne Identity’ (2002) in which various nefarious persons attempt to ‘get’ the amnesiac super-spy Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon).  More likely, ‘get born’ is simply a way of saying ‘get started’ or ‘begin here’; an appropriate sentiment for a debut album.  The first single – and Jet’s greatest song – is ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ (AUS no. 20, UK no. 23, US no. 24).  It’s elemental rock and a definitive statement of their musical style.  Nic Cester’s narrator is bewitched by this girl’s “Big black boots / Long brown hair / She’s so cute with her / ‘Get back’ stare.”  The song is co-written by Nic Cester, Chris Cester and Cameron Muncey and features ‘crisp guitars and stop-start tempos.’  ‘Rollover DJ’ (AUS no. 31, UK no. 34) is more pop-oriented.  As Beatles fans, Jet would be thrilled to have here the services of keyboardist Billy Preston who played on Beatles songs like ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Get Back’.  The song is also something of a back-hander to dance music being favoured over rock: “I wanna move but it don’t feel right / ‘Cos you’ve been playin’ other people’s songs all night.”  This Cester brothers co-composition dismisses the disc jockey with the sentiment “I know that you think you’re a star / A pill-poppin’ jukebox is all that you are.”  ‘Cold Hard Bitch’ (AUS no. 33, UK no. 34, US no. 35) is a galvanising, straight-up shot of rock.  Nic sings, “Cold hard bitch / Just a kiss on the lips / And I was on my knees.”  Equally bracing is ‘Get Me Outta Here’ (UK no. 37), re-recorded from the ‘Dirty Sweet’ EP.  In the song, the narrator boasts he will “Drink all night and talkin’ s*** all day / I’m gonna get me / Out of here.”  This song refers to “L.A.” and the album is recorded at Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles, California, in the U.S.A.  This is early evidence of Jet’s international focus.  Yet, they are not ignoring their origins either.  One of the slower songs, the countryish blues of ‘Move On’, nods toward “Ten thirty-four / Flinders Street Station [the major railway stop in Melbourne, capital city of Victoria, Australia] / Lookin’ down the tracks.”  Nic Cester’s solo composition, ‘Look What You’ve Done’ (AUS no. 12, UK no. 28, US no. 37), is perhaps the most satisfying of the downbeat numbers.  Mark Wilson plays piano on this track, as Nic urges “Take my photo off the wall / If it just won’t sing for you.”  The closing track, ‘Timothy’, is said to be dedicated to Cameron Muncey’s elder brother who died before Cam’s birth.  ‘Get Born’ is produced by Dave Sardy and stands as Jet’s best album.

‘Get Born’ is a tremendous success commercially and creatively.  Almost immediately, there are doubts about whether Jet can repeat the feat or if it is just a fluke.  “Obviously, there’s a huge amount of pressure,” Nic Cester acknowledges.

One of the ways Nic Cester copes – and spends some of his newfound income – is buying a home in Como, Italy.  This is relatively removed from the rock music scene.  Nic also maintains a home in Melbourne though, and says “I always get pretty excited coming back to Melbourne.  Home is home, wherever you’ve been.”  Nic shares his homes with Pia McGeoch, his girlfriend (later fiancée).

In August 2004, John Cester, the father of Nic and Chris Cester, dies of cancer.  “That was the most horrible thing that ever happened to me in my life,” claims Nic.  It seems to hit Nic particularly hard.  It derails his songwriting and delays Jet recording a second album.  Chris Cester steps up to get the process started and his elder brother soon follows suit.

‘Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is’ (AUS no. 14, UK no. 23, US no. 61), written by Nic Cester, Chris Cester and Cameron Muncey, is the first single.  Audiences are surprised because Nic sings the verses (for the first and last time) in a high falsetto.  “She’s a loaded gun / In my shaking hands / Am I in hell / Or the promised land?” asks Nic.  This song is included on the album ‘Shine On’ (2006) (AUS no. 3, UK no. 13, US no. 16).  Nic Cester alone writes the title song. “Shine On’ (AUS no. 54, UK no. 114) is written from the imagined perspective of his late father: “Please don’t cry / You know I’m leaving here tonight / Before I go, I want you to know / There will always be a light.”  Guest musician Steve Hesketh plays piano on this aching ballad whose emotional content is enhanced by a chorus of gospel voices.  A handful of numbers seem concerned with women’s self-esteem and trying to live up to the images perpetuated by models.  There is the acoustic ‘Shiny Magazine’, and ‘Skin And Bones’ pleads “Please don’t go too far / I swear I love you, just the way you are.”  Paris Hilton, jet-setting heiress, is rumoured to be the target of ‘Rip It Up’ (AUS no. 49): “From the bedroom baby to the city a’ light / You look pretty good / But you’re not so bright / Flashing your stash ain’t nothing new / I’ll get you my pretty / Your little dog too.”  ‘Shine On’ is, again, produced by Dave Sardy, and is described as ‘another joyfully old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll album immersed in the classics.’  Yet ‘critical reaction to the album is mixed.’

For their third album, Jet act as co-producers with Chris ‘Frenchie’ Smith.  ‘Shaka Rock’ (2009) (AUS no. 5, UK no. 53, US no. 27) is heralded by Chris Cester’s ‘She’s A Genius’ (AUS no. 20, UK no. 124), though it is Nic Cester who provides the lead vocal.  This buffeting song states “My girl’s ready to take control / She just blows my mind / She only listens to the radio to see who’s alive.”  ‘Black Hearts (On Fire)’, a mixture of tension and release, is the second single.  However, Cameron Muncey sees the third single, ‘Seventeen’ (AUS no. 31), as “a step forward for us songwriting wise.”  He co-writes the song with the Cester brothers and it features a dynamic contrast between guitar and piano: “I get back home at a quarter to four / What you doin’ with you keys inside my door / Seventeen and you’ve never been here before.”  “We put a lot of time and energy into [this album],” notes Nic Cester.

Just as a new album seems to be about due, on 26 March 2012 these tidings appear on Jet’s website and on Facebook: “A message to our fans: After many successful years of writing, recording, and touring we wish to announce our discontinuation as a group.  From the many pubs, theatres, stadiums and festivals all across the world it was the fans that made our amazing story possible and we wish to thank them all.  Thank you and goodnight.”

A few weeks later, Chris Cester says in an interview, “I think the band’s been slowly disintegrating and slowly breaking up since the ‘Shine On’ sessions…Nic’s the one who is mainly responsible for pulling the pin professionally.”

The success of the mighty ‘Get Born’ both ensured Jet’s fame and blighted the rest of their career.  It’s such a great album, their other discs paled in comparison.  This unfairly obscured the charms of those later works.  There is much to like about ‘Shine On’ and ‘Shaka Rock’ and if the debut disc had not been so impressive, that might be more readily acknowledged and appreciated.  Jet’s work ‘sounded like The Rolling Stones, the b**** out stadium rock of AC/DC and the soundtrack to the coolest chewing gum ad of all time.’  The group offered up ‘skuzzy [sic] old-fashioned hard rock.’

Sources:

  1. wikipedia.org as at 25 March 2013
  2. ‘Australian Story’, (Australian television program, ABC Network) (25 April 2011)
  3. allmusic.com, ‘Jet’ by Mackenzie Wilson as at 13 April 2013
  4. Winnipeg’s Best Rock Power 97, Canadian radio interview with Nic Cester and Mark Wilson conducted by Casey Workman (25 August 2009)
  5. ABC Radio National, Australian radio interview with Nic Cester and Mark Wilson conducted by Robbie Buck (13 August 2010)
  6. lyricsfreak.com as at 25 March 2013
  7. New Musical Express (UK Music Paper) quoted in (1) above
  8. New Musical Express (UK Music Paper) quoted on a sticker on the CD case of ‘Get Born’ (EMI Music, 2003)

Song lyrics copyright Universal Music with the exceptions of ‘Skin And Bones’ (Universal Music / Steve Hesketh (Control)); and ‘She’s A Genius’ and ‘Seventeen’ (both Get-Jet Music, Inc. (ASCAP))

Last revised 26 August 2014

Jefferson Airplane

 Jefferson Airplane

 Grace Slick – circa 1967

 “We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent…and young” – ‘We Can Be Together’ (Paul Kantner)

It raises eyebrows.  In the late 1960s the black power salute – a clenched fist at the end of an upthrust arm – is a symbol associated with radical groups of militant African-Americans ready to take a stand against the alleged oppression of the white authorities.  It’s a gesture that raises eyebrows.  In the first half of the twentieth century, Al Jolson is one of America’s most popular singers.  Because many of the songs he sings come from the negro community, Jolson usually performs in ‘blackface’ with dark greasepaint smeared over his white features.  By the ‘enlightened’ standards of the late 1960s, Al Jolson’s performances are looked back on with raised eyebrows.  On 15 December 1968, the U.S. rock band, The Jefferson Airplane, perform their song, ‘Crown Of Creation’ on the television program ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’.  The band’s vocalist performs in blackface and raises a black-gloved fist in the black power salute.  It raises eyebrows…and is one of a number of controversial incidents that leads to the cancellation of the TV show on 9 March 1969.  As may be surmised from the blackface reference, the members of The Jefferson Airplane are white – and that lead vocalist is a woman.  Meet Grace Slick, ladies and gentlemen.

Although Grace Slick may be the most famous (or notorious) member of The Jefferson Airplane, she is not part of that San Francisco band’s original line-up.

The story really begins with Marty Balin (born Martyn Jerel Buchwald, 30 January 1942).  Although born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Marty Balin grows up in California.  A handsome youth, Marty starts out as an actor, then branches into folk music.  This is a gentle, acoustic brand of music with leftist political consciousness woven into the lyrics.  Marty works with a combo known as The Town Criers in 1963 – 1964.

In 1964 Marty Balin sees the film ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964) starring British rock group, The Beatles.  Just as this movie inspires other folk musicians to convert to rock music and form such bands as The Byrds and The Lovin’ Spoonful, Marty Balin is similarly caught up in the notion of forming a rock band.  The first person he turns to is native San Franciscan Paul Kantner (born 12 March 1942).  The pair know each other from San Francisco’s coffee-house circuit of folk clubs where the bespectacled Kantner plays guitar and banjo.  Marty Balin is also acquainted with a female vocalist, Signe Toly (born 15 September 1941), originally from Washington, D.C.  Kantner and Toly are both folkies like Balin, but if Marty Balin intends to revisit his early interest in the rock ‘n’ roll music of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard – not to mention his new guiding light, The Beatles – he needs some rock ‘n’ roll musicians.  Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (born 23 December 1940) is of Finnish descent.  Like Signe Toly, he is originally from Washington D.C. but is now ‘a locally celebrated guitar picker’ in San Francisco.  The founding line-up is rounded out with bassist Bob Harvey (born 1938) and drummer Jerry Peloquin.

The band’s name, The Jefferson Airplane, is derived from a nickname applied to guitarist Jorma Kaukonen.  A famed blues guitarist from decades past is Blind Lemon Jefferson.  Kaukonen has a wider musical background than some of his new bandmates, playing blues and jazz as well as rock and folk.  So one witty friend mashes together the name of one of the U.S.A.’s greatest Presidents, Thomas Jefferson, and the bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and refers to Kaukonen as Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane.  The last part of the appellation presumably nods to Jorma Kaukonen’s ‘flights’ of improvisational guitar work.  Since Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane is a bit unwieldy, the band just uses the last two words: Jefferson Airplane.

Bob Harvey and Jerry Peloquin prove not to be suitable for the embryonic band and are quickly replaced.  Jack Casady (born John William Casady, 13 April 1944) is a school friend of Jorma Kaukonen from Washington D.C.  He is lured west to take up the position of bassist in The Jefferson Airplane.  Marty Balin chooses Canadian-born Skip Spence (born Alexander Spence, 18 April 1946 – 16 April 1999) because “he looked like a drummer.”  Even though he is actually a guitarist, Skip Spence takes up the position at the drumkit despite being ‘not particularly at ease in that role.’  Spence is the last to join in mid-1965.

The Jefferson Airplane make their live debut on 13 August 1965 at the Matrix Club in San Francisco ‘playing electrified blues and folk covers, plus a few originals.’  The Matrix Club becomes a regular stop for the band as they build an audience.  It has particular significance for vocalist Signe Toly.  She falls in love with the club’s lighting director, Jerry Anderson.  They marry in 1965 and she performs under the name Signe Toly Anderson.

As The Jefferson Airplane begins its ascent, so does the San Francisco music scene.  A band called The Charlatans are arguably the first of this new flock of San Francisco bands, predating The Jefferson Airplane.  The Charlatans are soon joined not only by Marty Balin’s band of misfits, but other groups like The Grateful Dead, The Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother And The Holding Company, and Country Joe And The Fish.  Like The Jefferson Airplane, most of these musicians are folkies turned rockers.  They might sound a bit clumsy at first, but the local audiences value spirit over technique.  A big part of the San Francisco scene is the sense of community.  Youths across America are moving to the city by the bay.  Disillusioned with commerce and authority, they are drop-outs.  Wishing to avoid the beginning of America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam, they are pacifists.  Interested in mind-expanding drugs, they are chemical cowboys.  Long-haired, bearded, somewhat unkempt, they are the successors to the beatniks of the late 1950s – early 1960s.  Attired in tie-dyed t-shirts, headbands and second-hand store bargains, they are the flower children.  Added together, these elements comprise a counter culture, an alternative community to straight-laced, conservative America.  The Jefferson Airplane are one of the standard-bearers for this movement.

Bill Graham, a new promoter on the San Francisco scene, opens a venue called the Fillmore Auditorium.  The Jefferson Airplane are one of the first acts he books to appear there.  This leads to the band scoring a recording contract with RCA.  They are the first of the new San Francisco bands to sign with a major record label.

The Jefferson’s Airplane’s first single, Marty Balin’s ‘It’s No Secret’, is released in February 1966.  The song maintains a galloping pace as Marty asserts “Everybody knows how I feel” and assures the object of his affections of “How strong my love is for you.”  This song is included on the group’s first LP.

The debut album, ‘Jefferson Airplane Takes Off’ (1966) (US no. 128), is released in August.  This set includes the ominous electric folk of ‘Blues From An Airplane’, a track co-written by Marty Balin and Skip Spence.  Although the album arouses interest, this first effort is ‘only marginally representative’ of what the band becomes.

In the wake of the debut album, The Jefferson Airplane undergoes two line-up changes.  Skip Spence decides to leave.  He goes on to form his own group, Moby Grape, where he is vocalist and guitarist instead of being stuck behind the drumkit.  His replacement in The Jefferson Airplane is Spencer Dryden (7 April 1938 – 11 January 2005), who has a pedigree in playing jazz.  Secondly, Signe Toly Anderson is now heavily pregnant, making touring difficult.  She also wants to take time out to have her baby.  The band decides to let her go and fills her position by hiring Grace Slick.

Grace Slick (born 30 October 1939) is the key element that transforms The Jefferson Airplane.  She is born Grace Barnett Wing in Evanston, Illinois.  She is of Norwegian and Swedish descent.  She is the daughter of Ivan W. Wing and Virginia Barnett.  “My mother was a singer,” Grace recalls, but also remembers her parents as Republicans and conservatives.  In other words, they were aligned with the right-wing of the American political landscape.  The family moves to San Francisco in the early 1950s.  Grace attends Palo Alto High School and then goes on to Finch College in New York in 1957 – 1958, switching to the University of Miami in Florida for 1958 – 1959.  When she returns to San Francisco, Grace Wing is somewhat different.  “I’ve always been just a little bit to the left of a Sandinista,” she later says with a chuckle, comparing herself to the left-wing Nicaraguan revolutionaries of 1979 to 1981.  “And I’ve been that way since I was about 21.”  In 1961, Grace Wing marries Gerald ‘Jerry’ Slick.  Grace puts her new husband through college by working as a fashion model.  As The Jefferson Airplane are setting out, Grace and Jerry Slick are also forming a band, The Great Society, with Jerry’s brother, Darby Slick.  The Great Society are often the support act for The Jefferson Airplane.  Allegedly, when the circumstances permit, Paul Kantner of The Jefferson Airplane goes along to The Great Society’s separate gigs just so he can hear Grace sing.  With The Great Society winding down, Grace Slick is free to accept the invitation to join The Jefferson Airplane.  She makes her debut with her new musical collaborators at the Fillmore in San Francisco on 14 October 1966.

The classic Jefferson Airplane line-up is now assembled.  The six members of the group basically split into two halves.  Grace Slick, Marty Balin and Paul Kantner are the pilots.  Each of them writes and sings, swapping the spotlight between them.  Marty Balin founded the group and his sweet voice and accessible tunes are still an important feature of their act.  Grace Slick though is revolutionary.  She sings with a tight ‘icy fury’ like some rock version of a Valkyrie.  In many ways, Grace Slick is the first modern ‘rock chick’.  She is not some compliant girl-next-door; she is a fully independent woman.  Paul Kantner’s deep voice falls somewhere between the extremes of Balin and Slick.  Collectively, they sing ‘at the interval of a fifth, a folk harmony style that gives a hollow, austere sound unlike the sweet “close” harmony of singing in thirds.’  The other half of the band, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden, are the engine.  Kaukonen is an inventive guitarist and the dominant musical voice in the band.  Jack Casady plays with a supple dexterity, his long-time friendship with Kaukonen allowing him to keep pace with the guitarist.  Spencer Dryden’s jazz chops likewise stand him in good stead for the angular turns the arrangements require at times.  All together, this is a potent combination.

The Jefferson Airplane’s second album, ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ (1967) (US no. 3), is issued in April and comes to be one of the definitive works of ‘the summer of love.’  It is the group’s greatest achievement.  This disc features two songs Grace Slick brings with her from her days in The Great Society.  ‘Somebody To Love’ (US no. 5) is co-written by Grace, Jerry and Darby Slick.  “When the truth is found to be lies / And all the joy within you dies / Don’t you want somebody to love?” asks Grace.  Marty Balin echoes her voice and the song is pushed forth in a catchy rock arrangement showing no trace of their folk music background.  Even better is Grace Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’ (US no. 8), the best Jefferson Airplane song.  “I was born in the year of the rabbit [according to Chinese astrology],” Grace Slick begins to explain in an interview.  But, of course, the real inspiration is Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’ (1865) in whose pages Alice follows a white rabbit into Wonderland.  “The story of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ is very much how I experienced things,” Grace claims.  “She grew up in rigid Victorian England but she arrives in Wonderland and suddenly it’s nuts.”  The song’s author draws the comparison to her own experiences in San Francisco’s counter culture.  The song is a haunting bolero, set to a marching rhythm.  “One pill makes you larger / And one pill makes you small / And the ones that mother gives you / Don’t do anything at all,” sings Grace Slick, blending Carroll’s whimsy with the altered reality of the drug culture.  The song increases in intensity as she sings, “And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom / And your mind is moving low.”  At the climax, all that’s left is to cry “Remember what the dormouse said: / ‘Feed your head’!”  Marty Balin is also well-represented with ‘3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds’ which sounds like an accurate reading of Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar speed.  “Take me to a circus tent / Where I can easily pay my rent / And all the other freaks all share my cares,” sounds like the story of all the dropouts arriving in the ‘Wonderland’ of San Francisco.  Marty also offers the loose energy of ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’ and the gentle tambourine-tapping of ‘Today’.  The album is ‘a hallucinatory distillation of folk-blues vocals, garage-rock guitar and crisp pop songwriting.’

The Jefferson Airplane are one of the bands at the Monterey Pop Festival held on 16 -18 June 1967.  Held at Monterey, California, this is perhaps the first major rock festival and functions like a gathering of the counter culture tribes.

The next album for The Jefferson Airplane, ‘After Bathing At Baxter’s’ (1967) (US no. 17), is an even more psychedelic and experimental outing.  Jorma Kaukonen contributes the electric rave-up, ‘The Last Wall Of The Castle’ that preaches “Understanding is a virtue” and features an explosive guitar solo.  Paul Kantner composes three-quarters of this album, released in November, while Marty Balin is reduced to a half-credit on one song.  Kantner justifies this by explaining that he is the only one in the band who can write on the road and The Jefferson Airplane is doing a lot of touring at this point.  Perhaps the best of Kantner’s numbers here is ‘Watch Her Ride’ (US no. 61): “All I see is you / All I feel is you for me / And I would really like to watch you ride / And always feel you by my side.”  This disc also includes the nine-minute Kaukonen / Casady / Dryden jam ‘Spayre Change’; Grace Slick’s riff on author James Joyce, ‘Rejoyce’; and ‘You, Me And Pooneil’ (US no. 42).

‘Crown of Creation’ (1968) (US no. 6) is issued in September.  The title track, ‘Crown Of Creation’ (US no. 64), is a Paul Kantner composition that has ‘some quite breathtaking ensemble vocalising’ and contends that the subject (humanity itself?) is the highpoint of natural development.  (This is also the song Grace Slick performs on TV in blackface in December.)  Grace Slick’s ‘Lather’ is one of the band’s weirder moments.  It’s an ode to a 30 year old whose peers are either working in banks or driving tanks, “But wait, old Lather’s productive, you know / He produces the finest of sound / Putting drumsticks on either side of his nose / And snorting the best licks in town.”  Slightly more conventional is her ‘Greasy Heart’ (US no. 98), which is almost funky while also showcasing some guitar and talking of a “Woman with a greasy heart / Automatic man.”  Also included on this album is ‘Triad’, a song written by David Crosby.  It was rejected by Crosby’s former band, The Byrds, because its subject is a ménage-a-trois, but the fearless Jefferson Airplane don’t baulk at the sexually adventurous material.

In 1969 Paul Kantner and Grace Slick become a couple.  Grace’s divorce from Jerry Slick is not finalised until 1971.  Kantner’s fascination with Grace is clear from when he attended Great Society gigs and it seems likely that ‘Watch Her Ride’ is written about her.

On 16 May 1969 bassist Jack Casady is arrested in New Orleans’ Royal Orleans Hotel for possession of marijuana.  He receives a suspended sentence of two and a half years.

The Jefferson Airplane perform at the Woodstock Music Festival held in upstate New York over 15 – 17 August 1969.  This gathering is the high-point of the counter culture, so it is fitting that The Jefferson Airplane, one of the acts most identified with the hippie ethos, are present.

‘Volunteers’ (1969) (US no. 13, UK no. 34), released in November, is ‘The Airplane’s most overtly political venture.’  Marty Balin is limited to co-writing the title track, ‘Volunteers’ (US no. 65), with Grace Slick.  This is a stirring chant of “Got a revolution / Got to revolution” where it is claimed that “Our generation got soul.”  Paul Kantner’s ‘We Can Be Together’ sounds almost patriotic despite proclamations that “We are all outlaws in the eyes of America” and “We are forces of chaos and anarchy.”  Grace Slick evidently enjoys belting out this song’s declaration of “Up against the wall motherf***ers” to the forces of authority.  The song ‘Wooden Ships’ also shows up on the debut album by Crosby, Stills And Nash, David Crosby’s post-Byrds outfit, since it is co-written by Kantner, Crosby and Stephen Stills.  It is a gentler piece featuring piano and acoustic guitar.  There is also room for weirdness like Grace Slick’s ‘Eskimo Blue Day’ and Paul Kantner’s ‘The Farm’, a rural number with mice, bunnies and a toad named Lightning.

Just as The Jefferson Airplane appeared at Woodstock, the utopian high of the hippie era, they are also present at what is, arguably, the death-knell of that era.  They are one of the support acts at The Rolling Stones free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway on 6 December 1969 where the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, acting as security, get out of hand and a black youth is fatally stabbed.

Tricia Nixon, daughter of U.S. President Richard Nixon, hosts a tea party at the White House on 24 April 1970 for alumni of Finch College.  As may be recalled, Grace Slick attended Finch College, so she is dutifully invited.  The singer shows up with Abby Hoffman as an escort.  Hoffman is a well-known radical and currently on trial for conspiring to instigate a riot at the 1968 Democratic Party political convention in Chicago.  Unsurprisingly, Slick and Hoffman are turned away at the gate.  Grace Slick’s threat to introduce Ms Nixon to tea laced with the mind-expanding drug L.S.D. goes unfulfilled.

On 16 May 1970 Marty Balin is arrested for marijuana possession and contributing to the delinquency of minors.  When police raid his hotel room in Bloomington, Minnesota, Balin, his friend Terry Cost, and Jefferson Airplane soundman Gary O’Dell are found with the drugs and ‘several girls aged 12 to 17.’  Balin’s appeal against a sentence of one year’s hard labour is successful, but he still has to pay a one hundred dollar fine.

1970 is a transitional year for The Jefferson Airplane.  Drummer Spencer Dryden exits and founder Marty Balin also departs, demonstrating ‘the dominance of the Slick and Kantner at the expense of Balin.’  Grace Slick falls pregnant with Paul Kantner’s child, necessitating a curtailing of the band’s performing schedule.  Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady form a side project called Hot Tuna.  This starts out as an ‘electric blues country band’ featuring veteran fiddle player Papa John Creach (born John Henry Creach, 5 May 1917 – 22 February 1994) and drummer Joey Covington (born 27 June 1945).  Hot Tuna will, in future, sometimes open the show for The Jefferson Airplane proper.  Over time, Hot Tuna alters into an ‘early heavy metal band.’  Paul Kantner has his own side project, Jefferson Starship.  A science-fiction fan, Kantner records ‘Blows Against The Empire’ (1970) and attributes it to Paul Kantner And Jefferson Starship.  Alongside usual confederates Slick, Kaukonen and Casady, this album has contributions from Kenny Stavropolous (drums), Harvey Brooks (bass) and Phil Sawyer (sound affects) as well as famous guests David Crosby and Graham Nash (from Crosby, Stills And Nash) and Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart (two members of The Grateful Dead).

In October 1970 the pregnant Grace Slick tells the press that she intends to name her child god.  “No last name, no capital G.  And he can change his name when he feels like it.”  As it turns out, she and Paul Kantner become the parents of a baby girl they name China Wing Kantner (born 25 January 1971).

When The Jefferson Airplane reconvenes in 1971, Joey Covington and Papa John Creach from Hot Tuna are added to the group.  Recording is delayed when Grace Slick has a car accident on 13 May 1971, smashing her Mercedes into a concrete wall near San Francisco’s famed Golden Gate Bridge.

‘Bark’ (1971) (US no. 11, UK no. 42) is released in September on The Jefferson Airplane’s self-created record label, Grunt, a subsidiary of RCA.  Paul Kantner’s ‘When The Earth Moves Again’ is a pompous, stately piece that makes use of Papa John Creach’s solo violin.  Kantner also contributes a rave-up called ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Island’.  Outclassing them both is Grace Slick’s ‘Law Man’.  “Well, I’m afraid you just walked in here at the wrong time / You know my old man’s gun has never been fired but there’s a first time,” she warns the officer, before admitting “You look a lot younger than me / And I’d hate to shoot a baby.”  Jorma Kaukonen’s caustic guitar sounds as dangerous as the singer.  ‘Bark’ is not very well regarded.  Both it and the follow-up, ‘Long John Silver’ (1972) (US no. 20, UK no. 30) released in July, are said to show ‘similar degrees of flaccidity and self-indulgence.’  The latter disc includes Paul Kantner’s ‘Alexander The Medium’ (i.e. not Alexander the Great, rather than a song about a clairvoyant).  The title track, ‘Long John Silver’ (US no. 102), is issued as a single.

The Jefferson Airplane display a continuing gift for getting into trouble with the authorities.  A show in Akron, Ohio, on 21 August 1972 is subject to a bomb-threat.  This puts the police on edge and when some concert-goers toss rocks at the cops, the officers respond with tear gas.  From the stage, bassist Jack Casady objects and is arrested.  When Grace Slick and Paul Kantner try to ensure their colleague’s welfare, Grace is sprayed with mace and Paul Kantner has his ‘head slammed to the floor.’

David Frieberg (born 24 August 1938), from fellow San Franciscan band Quicksilver Messenger Service, is added to Jefferson Airplane in 1973 to provide vocals and bass.

Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady decide to concentrate on Hot Tuna and absent themselves from The Jefferson Airplane later in 1973.  The duo is unavailable when a tour is planned for 1974.

The decision is made to modify the band’s name from now on to Jefferson Starship, the label Paul Kantner previously used for ‘Blows Against The Empire’ in 1970.  The new line-up consists of Paul Kantner (vocals, guitar), Grace Slick (vocals), David Frieberg (vocals, bass), Craig Chaquico (guitar), Peter Kaukonen (guitar), Pete Sears (bass), John Barbata (drums) (born 1 April 1945) and Papa John Creach (fiddle).  This formation begins its first tour under The Jefferson Starship banner on 19 March 1974.  They issue ‘Dragon Fly’ (1974) (US no. 11) in September, which includes ‘Ride The Tiger’ (US no. 84) and ‘Caroline’, a Paul Kantner tune to which Marty Balin provides vocals and lyrics.  Marty appears on stage with his old confederates at the Winterland venue in San Francisco on 21 November 1974 and says, “These guys are great.  The energy is back.”

After the expression of such sentiments, it is no surprise that Marty Balin is officially part of the band again for ‘Red Octopus’ (1975) (US no. 1).  His song, ‘Miracles’ (US no. 3), is the album’s biggest hit.  Jefferson Starship is a little more streamlined on this outing though with Peter Kaukonen out of the picture.

Paul Kantner’s romantic relationship with Grace Slick ends in 1975.  Despite the couple having a daughter, China, they never marry.

Papa John Creach’s services have been dispensed with by the time of ‘Spitfire’ (1976) (US no. 3, UK no. 30).  This album yields the single ‘With Your Love’ (US no. 12).

In 1976 Grace Slick marries Skip Johnston, a lighting director for The Jefferson Starship’s stage shows who becomes her personal manager.

‘Earth’ (1978) (US no. 5) introduces Steve Shuster on saxophone.  The album includes ‘Count On Me’ (US no. 8), ‘Runaway’ (US no. 12), ‘Crazy Feelin’’ (US no. 54) and ‘Light The Sky On Fire’ (US no. 66).

Following this album, first Grace Slick, then Marty Balin and John Barbata all leave the group.  Grace’s departure occurs on 19 June 1978, two days after being unable to go onstage at a gig in Germany because she is ‘in the midst of a long bout with alcoholism.’  Paul Kantner is left to reorganise the band.  He adopts an approach closer to heavy metal or corporate rock.  Mickey Thomas, best known for providing the vocals on Elvin Bishop’s 1976 hit ‘Fooled Around And Fell In Love’ (US no. 3), becomes the new vocalist in Jefferson Starship on 12 April 1979.  Aynsley Dunbar, a former sideman to British guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck, takes over on drums.

‘Freedom At Point Zero’ (1979) (US no. 10, UK no. 22) is the first album by either The Jefferson Airplane or The Jefferson Starship to have no female vocals.  It includes ‘Jane’ (US no. 14, UK no. 21), a pummelling hard rock song that ranks among the better efforts in the latter part of the group’s career.

‘Modern Times’ (1981) (US no. 26) is recorded without saxophonist Steve Shuster who has departed the group’s ranks.  Grace Slick is back in the fold, but is only present on some tracks since the recording was nearly completed before her return.

‘Winds Of Change’ (1983) (US no. 26) has Grace Slick more firmly on board ‘having resolved her bout with alcohol and various personal problems.’  It also sees Don Baldwin replace Aynsley Dunbar on drums.  ‘Nuclear Furniture’ (1984) (US no. 28) adds keyboards player Peter Wolf.

At this point, Paul Kantner, the only person present on every Jefferson Airplane / Jefferson Starship album, leaves the band.  It seems he takes the Jefferson prefix with him because the group modifies its name to, simply, Starship.  David Frieberg also exits.

Starship consists of Mickey Thomas (vocals), Grace Slick (vocals), Craig Chaquico (guitar), Peter Wolf (keyboards), Pete Sears (bass) and Don Baldwin (drums).  Their first single, ‘We Built This City’ (US no. 1, UK no. 12), proves to be one of the biggest hits by any version of the band.  Presumably, it refers to San Francisco when it claims “We built this city on rock ‘n’ roll.”  Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick share the vocals on the song.  It is written by keyboardist Peter Wolf, Bernie Taupin (pop star Elton John’s usual lyricist), Dennis Lambert and Martin Page.  The album, ‘Knee Deep In The Hoopla’ (1985) (US no. 7), takes its name from another line in the song.  The reference roughly means drowning in hyperbole.  ‘Sara’ (US no. 1, UK no. 66), a song featuring Mickey Thomas as vocalist, is another success from this album.

Starship sheds Pete Sears for the follow-up, ‘No Protection’ (1987) (US no. 12, UK no. 26).  This disc also scores commercially with the singles ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) and ‘It’s Not Over (Til It’s Over)’ (US no. 9, UK no. 86).

‘Love Among The Cannibals’ (1989) proves to the last album issued under the Starship cognomen.  It’s recorded without Grace Slick or Peter Wolf.  Mickey Thomas, Craig Chaquico and Don Baldwin are joined by Mark Morgan (keyboards) and Brett Bloomfield (bass), but it is the last outing for all five.

In August 1989, the same month in which ‘Love Among The Cannibals’ is released, an album titled simply ‘Jefferson Airplane’ (1989) (US no. 85), is issued.  This is the work of Grace Slick (vocals), Marty Balin (vocals), Paul Kantner (vocals, guitar), Jorma Kaukonen (guitar) and Jack Casady (bass).  In other words the most familiar names in the band’s history are back together.  Though he is a hired hand rather than an official member, Kenny Aronoff (best known for his work with heartland rocker John Mellencamp) plays drums on the album.  Though this back-to-basics line-up seems like a good idea, the combination proves short-lived.

Grace Slick exits the music business completely.

Paul Kantner reactivates The Jefferson Starship brand in 1992 and is joined by Mark ‘Slick’ Aguilar (guitar), Darby Gould (vocals), Tim Gorman (keyboards), Jack Casady (bass) and Prairie Prince (drums).  In 1993 Marty Balin joins in.

Grace Slick’s marriage to Skip Johnston ends in divorce in 1994.

Peter Kaukonen returns to Jefferson Starship in 1994, but leaves again in 1995.  Darby Gould and Tim Gorman also leave in 1995.

Chris Smith (keyboards) joins in time for ‘Windows Of Heaven’ (1998), the first Jefferson Starship album of new material in fourteen years (or nine years if you are inclined to count Jefferson Airplane or Starship albums in the reckoning).

Jack Casady and Marty Balin both call it a day in 2000.  Don Baldwin rejoins as second drummer in 2005.

‘Jefferson’s Tree Of Liberty’ (2008), ten years after the previous Jefferson Starship album, is the work of new recruit Cathy Richardson (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Paul Kantner (vocals, guitar), Jeff ‘Slick’ Aguilar (guitar), Chris Smith (keyboards), Don Baldwin (drums) and Prairie Prince (drums).

It’s a long way from the heady days of San Francisco in the 1960s.  The various incarnations of this act all produced some notable work but the essential core seems to be the four albums from ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ (1967) to ‘Volunteers’ (1969).  During that time, the band were exciting social radicals and musical visionaries.  Other incarnations may have enjoyed greater commercial dividends, but are less historically significant.  Grace Slick’s musical persona in particular threw off the shackles that confined so many earlier female rock stars and established new roles for women in bands for decades to follow.  ‘The [Jefferson] Airplane were San Francisco’s first and finest…They were to San Francisco what The Beatles had been to Liverpool…’  ‘The striking beauty of singer Grace Slick belied a venomous vocal bite; the band’s sublime, three-part harmonies often descended into stoned, on-stage battle cries; and the electrifying runs of bassist Jack Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen poured tripped-out, Eastern-scented oil over the fiery folk-rock veneer of the band’s material.’

Sources:

  1. lyricsfreak.com as at 18 March 2013, 15 September 2014
  2. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 105, 121, 131, 151, 156, 158, 161, 165, 171, 172, 182, 186, 203, 226, 234, 285, 297, 328
  3. allmusic.com, ‘Jefferson Airplane’ by William Ruhlmann as at 18 March 2013
  4. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 117, 118, 119, 160
  5. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘The Sound of San Francisco’ and ‘The Jefferson Airplane’ both by Charles Perry (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 362, 363, 378, 379
  6. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 113
  7. wikipedia.org as at 18 March 2013
  8. limelightagency.com – 2007 Grace Slick interview
  9. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 53, 67
  10. ‘The Jefferson Airplane Collection’ – Sleeve notes by Dennis Turner (BMG Music / Castle Communication PLC, 1988) p. 4
  11. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 92

Song lyrics copyright unavailable with the exceptions of: ‘We Can Be Together’, ‘It’s No Secret’, ‘Watch Her Ride’ and ‘Volunteers’ (all Universal Music Publishing, EMI Music Publishing); and ‘Somebody To Love’ and ‘Greasy Heart’ (both Universal Music Publishing Group)

Last revised 17 September 2014

The Jam

 The Jam

 Paul Weller – circa 1980

 “Even in school I felt quite sure / That I would be on top / And I’d look down upon the map / The teachers who said I’d be nothing” – ‘This Is The Modern World’ (Paul Weller)

The schoolboy scribbles on his books.  Like many another young scholar, he etches the names of his favourite bands on the covers of his classroom texts.  The names inscribed include The Beatles, The Who and The Jam.  The odd thing about this is that the last named combo, The Jam, doesn’t exist.  They will in the future – but only after they make the transition from the daydream of an idle youth to a flesh-and-blood band.  It will be up to this schoolboy to create The Jam himself.  His name is Paul Weller.

Born 25 May 1958 in Sheerwater, a town near Woking in Surrey, England, Paul Weller comes from a solidly working-class family.  His father, John Weller, is, at different times, a taxi-driver and a brick-layer.  Paul’s mother is a cleaner.  The youngster grows up to attend Sheerwater County Secondary School.  It is at this institution that Paul’s dreams of The Jam are birthed and it is also here that they become reality.

In 1975 Paul Weller forms The Jam with three school friends.  In the parlance of musicians, a ‘jam’ is an unstructured method of playing, involving multiple musicians.  It may use a recognisable song as a starting point, but then expands through improvisation.  It is a mode pioneered in jazz but also adopted by some rock acts, most noticeably the late 1960s hippie era performers.  Paul Weller’s Jam proves to have no real proclivity for jamming.  It probably just sounds like a cool name to the young schoolboy.

Taking the role of vocalist and bassist in The Jam for himself, Paul Weller is joined by: Steve Brookes (guitar), Bruce Foxton (guitar) (born 1 September 1955) and Rick Buckler (born Paul Richard Buckler, 6 December 1955).  For unknown reasons – that are probably best left to the imagination – Buckler is nicknamed Pube.  The quartet begins playing rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues at local youth clubs and social gatherings.  Steve Brookes drops out relatively quickly.  His departure necessitates a reshuffle that sees Paul Weller switch to vocals and guitar while Bruce Foxton takes over on bass.  The Jam remains a trio consisting of Weller, Foxton and Buckler for the rest of their career.

The Jam make their London debut at the 100 Club in summer 1976.  They first draw attention because the clothes they wear are reminiscent of the mods.  In the mid-1960s, mods (short for ‘moderns’) were carefully groomed youths who sported parkas, pop art designs, winkle-picker shoes and travelled about on motor scooters.  The Who, one of the bands young Paul Weller idolised, were closely identified with the mod movement.  The Jam are described as ‘the new Who’ because they owe a debt to that band musically as well as visually.  Almost coincidentally, the advent of The Jam coincides with the rise of punk rock.  Punk espouses a harsher aesthetic, but its emphasis on youth, revolutionary politics, and a do-it-yourself approach appeals to The Jam and they are co-opted into the movement.  They become seen as punks as much as mod revivalists.

On 25 February 1977 The Jam are signed to Polydor Records.  The label missed out on putting earlier punk bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash under contract, so The Jam are their attempt to get a slice of the punk market.  John Weller, Paul’s father, acts as the group’s manager and will retain that post throughout their career.  He is influential also in his son’s political and social views.  The Jam lean towards a left-wing, working man’s view of the community.

Paul Weller is the central figure in The Jam.  As singer, guitarist and main songwriter, his position is dominant.  Bruce Foxton supplies the occasional song and lead vocal, but it is Weller’s show.  Although The Jam do nothing to disabuse those who see them as a punk band, because their influences delve back to The Who and The Beatles, there is always a bit more to them than frothing at the mouth punk proselytisers.

The Jam’s debut single, ‘In The City’ (UK no. 40), is released on 29 April 1977.  It’s a thrashing ball of energy in which Paul Weller insists “I wanna tell you / About the young idea.”  He skids his plectrum down the guitar string, producing a shredding effect in keeping with the torn-paper graphics beloved by punk acts.  ‘In The City’ is included on the debut album released in May, ‘In The City’ (1977) (UK no. 20).  The album also includes ‘Away From The Numbers’, a plea for a life removed from the commercial dictates of metropolitan existence.  This ‘excellent’ album is recorded in a mere eleven days.

Like all but The Jam’s final effort, this album is co-produced by Chris Parry and Vic Smith.  The latter becomes better known as Vic Coppersmith-Heaven from 1978 and produces album number four on his own.

On 1 May 1977 The Clash kick off their ‘White Riot’ tour of the U.K.  They are supported by other, newer punk rock acts like The Buzzcocks and, on some dates, The Jam.

‘All Around The World’ (UK no. 13) is a single by The Jam released on 23 July 1977.  With its cries of “Oi!” and “youth explosion!” it’s a battering assault – which may be its appeal.

In the wake of this single, The Jam embark on their own full-scale British tour.

On 15 Ocrober 1977 The Jam release the single ‘The Modern World’ (UK no. 36).  Paul Weller expresses his frustration with being saddled with the reputation of being a mod revivalist: “What kind of fool do you think I am? / To think I know nothing of the modern world.”  The arrangement is neater and stronger than the band’s previous outings.  The namesake album, ‘This Is The Modern World’ (1977) (UK no. 22, US no. 201) is released in November.

Also in November 1977, The Jam undertake their first shows in the United States of America.  It is a brief outing that is ‘not successful’ and leaves ‘bitter memories of the U.S. in the minds of the band.’

Things may be more profitable for The Jam in the U.K. but scarcely more pleasant.  While headlining their own tour, they get into a scuffle with some rugby players in a hotel in Leeds.  Paul Weller breaks several of his opponents’ bones and is charged with assault.  Eventually, the Leeds Crown Court acquits him of the charge.

Bruce Foxton’s ‘News Of The World’ (UK no. 27) is a shot at the press: “Little men tapping things out / Points of view / Remember their views are not the gospel truth.”  This single is released in March 1978.

On 16 March 1978 The Jam begin a second U.S. tour, but it is as unsuccessful as the first.

The Jam perform at the Reading Festival in the U.K. in August 1978.

On 20 August 1978 the band releases the single ‘David Watts’ backed with ‘A-Bomb in Wardour Street’ (UK no. 25).  ‘David Watts’ is a cover of a song by British band The Kinks, peers of The Who.  More interesting is the flipside.  “The streets are filled with blood / Cataclysmic overtones,” prophesies Paul Weller in this vision of urban mayhem.  The tense atmosphere of the song is punctuated with a hand-clap rhythm and a strangled guitar part that almost resembles an Indian sitar.

Around this time punk makes way for new wave, a more mild-mannered cousin.  The Jam are simply reclassified from punk to new wave without any fuss or bother.

The nightmare of modern life remains Paul Weller’s theme with ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’ (UK no. 15).  This tale of violence on a railway platform offers a chilling and disturbing account: “I first felt a fist / And then a kick / I couldn’t help smell their breath / They smelled of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs [a U.K. prison] / And too many right-wing meetings.”  The bass line spasms along with the victimised narrator.  This single is issued on 21 October 1978.

‘David Watts’, ‘A-Bomb In Wardour Street’ and ‘Down In The Tube Stations At Midnight’ are all included on The Jam’s third album, ‘All Mod Cons’ (1978) (UK no. 6, US no. 204), released in November.  The title is real estate jargon for ‘all modern conveniences’, but also plays on The Jam’s reputation, warranted or not, of being a latter-day mod band.  The album boasts a series of well-drawn portraits.  There is the venomous barb directed at ‘Mr Clean’: “I hate you / And your wife / And If I get the chance, I’ll f*** up your life.”  ‘Billy Hunt’ is a similarly angry young man: “No one pushes Billy Hunt around / Well they do, but not for long.”  The U.S. edition of ‘All Mod Cons’ omits ‘Billy Hunt’ in favour of ‘The Butterfly Collector’.  The story of a sort of high-rent groupie, ‘The Butterfly Collector’ is decried with the words “There’s tarts and whores / But you’re much more / You’re a different kind / ‘Cos you want their minds.”  Paul Weller proves capable of gentler sentiments with the acoustic ballad ‘English Rose’.  ‘All Mod Cons’ is seen as ‘a turning point’ with Weller’s compositions becoming ‘more melodic, complex and lyrically incisive.’

The single ‘Strange Town’ (UK no. 15), released on 17 March 1979, finds a person unfamiliar with London “tryin’ to find a friend in Oxford Street.”  Appropriately, the song is carried by a marching rhythm.

Paul Weller (still only 21 at the time) returns to the theme of youth from ‘In The City’ and ‘All Around The World’ for The Jam’s next single.  In ‘When You’re Young’ (UK no. 17), issued on 25 August 1979, Weller sagely observes “Life is a drink and you get drunk when you’re young.”

‘The Eton Rifles’ (UK no. 3, AUS no. 50) is The Jam’s best song.  This single, released on 3 November 1979, finds the narrator urging some working class lads to “Sup up your beer / And collect your fags” and join in a physical manifestation of Britain’s ancestral class war.  “We come out of it naturally the worst,” admits the singer, “We were no match for your untamed wit / But some of the lads said they’ll be back next week.”  Paul Weller’s feedback-drenched guitar conjures up a sonic depiction of the battlefield.  ‘The Eton Rifles’ is included on the album released the same month, ‘Setting Sons’ (1979) (UK no. 4, US no. 137).  This is, loosely, a concept album.  Three songs in particular chronicle the history of three friends (and are performed by a three piece band).  They start out ‘Thick As Thieves’ in difficult days (“Times were so tough / But not as tough as they are now”); go to war in ‘Little Boy Soldiers’ (“Better to take your shots and drop down dead / They send you home in a pine overcoat with a letter to your Mum / Saying ‘Find enclosed one son, one medal and a note-to-say-we-won”); and wind up at the mercy of “the wheels of commerce” under a ‘Burning Sun’ (“I’m really sorry that I can’t be there / But work comes first, I’m sure you understand”).  ‘Setting Sons’ finds room for a song about an overly ardent fan (‘Girl On The Phone’), a troubled housewife (‘Private Hell’), a put-upon office drone (‘Smithers-Jones’ – a Bruce Foxton piece) and suburban youths (‘Saturday’s Kids’).  This album is the apex of The Jam’s career.

‘Going Underground’ (UK no. 1, AUS no. 50) b/w ‘Dreams Of Children’ is released on 10 March 1980.  ‘Going Underground’ is powered by The Jam’s characteristic dry surge.  “Something’s happening here today / A show of strength with your boy’s brigade,” notes Paul Weller, but there is a subtle shift in stance.  Where previously ‘The Eton Rifles’ portrayed (albeit sarcastically) fighting in the streets, now “This boy shouts / This boy screams” and advocates dropping out of a society from which he feels alienated.  On the flipside, Weller looks to the innocence of the ‘Dreams Of Children’, but wakes up to “this modern nightmare.”  Musically, with what sounds like backwards-playing guitarwork, the track harks back to the psychedelic Sixties, an era that would be congruent with Weller’s own childhood.  This single is the first since Gary Glitter’s ‘I Love You Love Me Love’ in 1973 to enter the U.K. singles charts at number one.  Such an achievement confirms The Jam ‘as full-fledged rock stars in Britain.’

‘Start’ (UK no. 1, AUS no. 50), released on 11 August 1980, heralds The Jam’s next album, ‘Sound Affects’ (1980) (UK no. 2, US no. 72), in November.  Included on that disc, ‘Start’, at least in musical terms, is very similar to The Beatles’ song, ‘Taxman’, from 1966.  The Jam’s effort is actually a plea for communication amongst the increasingly isolated citizens of the twentieth century: “If we get through for two minutes only / It will be a start.”  The other single from the album is ‘That’s Entertainment’ (UK no. 21, AUS no. 50).  Released on 7 February 1981, this dour catalogue of urban misery depicts such events as “Lights going out and a kick in the b***s” as what passes for diversion amongst the human wreckage.  A light acoustic guitar strum does nothing to lessen the impact of the song.  Other tracks on this album include the ode to cold, hard cash, ‘Pretty Green’; the romantic ‘Monday’; a shot at neo-fascists who ‘Set The House Ablaze’; and a musing over inequality in society as embodied by the ‘Man In The Corner Shop’ and those with whom he comes into contact.  ‘Sound Affects’ is deemed to be an ‘ambitious’ album.

Fittingly enough, ‘Funeral Pyre’ (UK no. 4, AUS no. 72), released on 6 June 1981, denotes an ending of sorts.  Over some persistent drum beats from Rick Buckler, Paul Weller urges “Shed your tears / And lose your guilt” while bemoaning “The weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger.”  By this time, new wave is beginning to wind down.  This is perhaps the last single by The Jam that fits under the banner of new wave.

From this point on, The Jam seem to want to emulate rhythm and blues songs or soul acts from the 1960s.  The mods, on whom The Jam were originally modelled, were also fans of these musical styles, so there is a certain logic to the progression.  Increasingly, The Jam are augmented by additional musicians.  Although keyboard touches had been used in a number of songs from ‘The Eton Rifles’ onwards, there is now not only keyboards, but brass, string sections and female backing vocals.  Additionally, Paul Weller seems to step back a bit as a guitarist, concentrating on his vocals and letting the extra instruments carry the weight.

The first fruit of this modified approach is the single ‘Absolute Beginners’ (UK no. 4), issued on 24 October 1981.  It’s all about the brass on this song with massed trumpets blowing up a storm.

By contrast, a throaty organ dominates the A-side of the single issued on 29 January 1982, ‘A Town Called Malice’ (UK no. 1, AUS no. 15) b/w ‘Precious’.  A funky bass and a hand-clapping rhythm gives ‘A Town Called Malice’ a compulsive groove, against which the lyrics stand out in stark relief: “A hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts / Hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry.”  Paul Weller states in an interview that, “’A Town Called Malice’ was about the U.K. under [conservative Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher.”  And, as the chorus puts it, “It’s up to us to change a town called Malice.”  ‘Precious’, the other side of the single is pseudo funk with Weller’s guitar mouthwash swirling past gnashing horn lines.  Both these songs are contained on ‘The Gift’ (1982) (UK no. 1, US no. 82), released in March.  Another track, ‘Just Who Is The 5 O’Clock Hero’ (UK no. 8), is released as a single on 3 July 1982.  This album uses a new producer, Peter Wilson, perhaps because the band’s new musical style requires a new set of ears in the control booth of the recording studio.

The single ‘The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow)’ (UK no. 2, AUS no. 91) depicts a thwarted lover witnessing the object of his affection getting married to another man.  It’s a stately piece with strident female backing vocals, banks of violins and what sounds almost like church bells.  This single is put out on 10 September 1982.

On 30 October 1982 Paul Weller announces The Jam will disband at the end of the year.  “It really dawned on me,” he explains, “how secure the situation was, the fact that we could go on for the next ten years, making records, getting hit records, getting bigger and bigger and all the rest of it.  That frightened me because I realised we were going to end up the same, like the rest of them.”  By this, he means acts like The Rolling Stones and The Who, bands whom Weller considers to have “overstayed their welcome.”  John Weller, the band’s manager (and Paul’s father), thinks his son is ‘bonkers’.  Bruce Foxton feels betrayed.  Rick Buckler accepts the situation philosophically.

The Jam’s farewell single, ‘Beat Surrender’ (UK no. 1, AUS no. 35), closes the book on 26 November 1982.  “All the things I care about / Are packed into one punch / All the things I’m not sure about / Are sorted out at once,” sings Paul Weller.  The band’s latter-day style is maintained here with female backing vocals and plentiful keyboards.

“I didn’t shed a tear at the final gig,” claims Paul Weller.  “I felt a sense of relief.”

The Jam, like Paul Weller’s early idols The Beatles, never reunite.  Paul Weller forms a new act, The Style Council (1983 – 1990) to more fully explore his interest in rhythm and blues and soul.  He then goes on to a solo career.  In later years, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler work together again.  Taking their name from The Jam’s final album, Rick Buckler forms a band called The Gift in November 2005 with Russell Hastings (vocals, guitar) and Dave Moore (bass).  When Bruce Foxton joins on bass in 2007, Dave Moore moves to guitar and keyboards and the group name is changed to From The Jam.  They relive The Jam’s hits for audiences old and new until Rick Buckler quits on 16 September 2009 and the enterprise collapses.

So that is the story of The Jam: eight years (1975 – 1982), six albums, and a clutch of stand-alone singles.  The group moved from punk (‘In The City’ through ‘News Of The World’) to new wave (‘A-Bomb In Wardour Street’ through ‘Funeral Pyre’) to neo-soul (‘Absolute Beginners’ through ‘Beat Surrender’).  A constant through these musical changes was Paul Weller’s lyrical concerns:  a left-wing political view, urban nightmares, and a celebration of youth.  Along the way The Jam probably inspired many young listeners.  Another generation of schoolboys scribbled the name of their favourite bands on their textbooks, including among those bands The Jam, an outfit that were not just the dream of a schoolkid, but a flesh-and-blood entity…and one worthy of being remembered.  The Jam was ‘one of the most important bands in the U.K. in the 1980s.’  ‘As The Jam grew more popular and musically accessible, [Paul] Weller became more insistent and stubborn about his beliefs.’

Sources:

  1. wikipedia.org as at 18 March 2013
  2. allmusic.com, ‘The Jam’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 23 august 2001
  3. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 110
  4. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 116
  5. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 267, 270, 282, 310, 345
  6. huffingtonpost.co.uk, Paul Weller interview dated 5 November 2012
  7. ‘New Musical Express’, Paul Weller interview quoted in (5) (above) p. 345

Song lyrics copyright C. Control with the exception of ‘Funeral Pyre’ (Warner Chappell)

Last revised 26 August 2014

Joe Jackson

 Joe Jackson

 Joe Jackson – circa 1982

 “What’s a man now? / What’s a man mean? / Is he rough or is he rugged? / Is he cultural and clean?” – ‘Real Men’ (Joe Jackson)

Spiv rock is something that never really catches on.  A ‘spiv’ is a flashily dressed person living on his wits, but not a criminal.  Spiv rock is a label attached to the work of Joe Jackson at the dawn of his career because he is a natty dresser and exudes a certain confrontational attitude.  It doesn’t stick because Joe Jackson proves to be a mercurial talent.  His whole career is a testament to this.

The artist who becomes known as Joe Jackson is born David Ian Jackson on 11 August 1954 in Burton-Upon-Trent, Staffordshire, England.  He is raised in Portsmouth.  The boy learns to play violin when he is 11 and convinces his parents to buy a piano, which he teaches himself to play as a teenager.  At High School, David Jackson also studies percussion and oboe and begins to write songs.  After his High School years end, he wins a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music to study piano and composition.  Jackson attends this institution from 1971 to 1974.  It is a bit murky exactly when David Jackson becomes Joe Jackson.  The earliest accounts suggest it is a nickname bestowed upon him by classmates in 1972.

Between 1974 and 1978, David (or Joe?) Jackson kicks around trying to find the right path for himself.  He plays with ‘various pub rock outfits and top forty cover bands.’  The earliest of these seems to be Edward Bear.  More notable is an outfit called Arms And Legs.  By some reckonings, this is when the Joe Jackson tag is adopted, with the Joe part being a gag about his resemblance to the puppet star of the Gerry Anderson produced television show ‘Joe 90’ (1968 -1969).  Joe Jackson is hired as the musical director of the Portsmouth Playboy Club.  While holding this position, Jackson masterminds the career of Coffee And Cream, contestants on the British television talent search program ‘Opportunity Knocks.’  All this time, Jackson is writing songs.  He records a demo of his work that scores him first, a publishing deal with Albion Music, then a recording contract with A & M Records in 1978.

In 1979 Joe Jackson releases his first single, ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’ (UK no. 13, US no. 21, AUS no. 13).  “Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street / From my window, I’m staring as my coffee grows cold,” he sings over the loping reggae rhythm of the first verse.  By contrast, the chorus blooms into a more assertive style of new wave rock…before dropping back to reggae for the next verse.  Jackson explains this is “just one of those songs that started with the title.”  He adds that, “it was a great surprise to me when some people interpreted it as angry.”  Perhaps the listeners’ reaction is understandable in light of lines like, “Listen you! Take your hands off her hand / I get so mean / Around the scene.”  ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’ is included on Joe Jackson’s debut album, ‘Look Sharp’ (1979) (UK no. 40, US no. 20), produced by David Kershenbaum.  The performer is accompanied by The Joe Jackson Band: Gary Sanford (guitar), Graham Maby (bass, vocals) and Dave Houghton (drums, vocals).  This is an incredibly tight combo that displays an almost telepathic understanding of the intent of their leader who provides lead vocals and occasional piano.  This ‘accomplished debut’ also includes ‘Got The Time’ and ‘Sunday Papers.’

The term spiv rock is used in an attempt to describe Joe Jackson’s sound.  Although also inadequate, the less specific new wave tag is probably closer.  Joe Jackson is correctly compared to Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, ‘the three angry young men’ of British new wave music.  New wave takes some of the brash attitude of its immediate predecessor, punk rock, and fuses it to a more forward-looking, less political, vision.  Yet, as Joe Jackson’s background at the Royal Academy of Music already foreshadows, he has a wider skill set and is not inclined to subscribe to any limitation on what kind of music he should perform.  Jackson writes nearly all his own material, though some later projects purposefully cast him as an interpreter rather than on originator.

‘I’m The Man’ (1979) (UK no. 12, US no. 22) retains the services of both David Kershenbaum and The Joe Jackson Band, though this album is seen as ‘power pop.’  The title track, ‘I’m The Man’, finds Jackson playing the role of the ultimate con man.  He acts out the character of the chap who foists on our consumerist society skateboards, the hula hoop, the yoyo and “Kung Fu / Oh, that was one of my good ones / Well, what’s a few broken bones / When we all know it’s good clean fun?”  The band attacks the song with such a frantic pace that it seems they are bound to come off the rails completely – but of course they are far too disciplined for such a mishap.  Also present is Joe Jackson’s best song, ‘It’s Different For Girls’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 85).  The attention-grabbing opening lines are: “What the hell is wrong with you tonight? / I can’t seem to say or do the right thing.” This may appear abrasive, but the song actually develops into an unbearably tender examination of the age old conflict between the two parties in a romantic relationship.  Sure, the frustration with the opposite number’s inexplicable moods comes through loud and clear, but so does the underlying love.  The tension is only partly relieved by a ringing guitar motif that dissipates and coalesces at regular intervals in the track.

The Joe Jackson Band make their last appearance (for some time anyway) on ‘Beat Crazy’ (1980) (UK no. 42, US no. 41), an album on which Joe Jackson assumes the role of producer as well.  The off-kilter rhythms of the title track, ‘Beat Crazy’, create a world where “Kids today / They’re all the same / All call themselves some crazy name / Yeah! Mods and rockers and Beatle freaks.”  With its emphasis on a kind of retro-beatnik atmosphere, along with doses of reggae and its faster-paced cousin, ska, this album proves more challenging.  Joe Jackson is only beginning his mission to subvert the expectations of his audience.

‘Jumpin’ Jive’ (1981) (UK no. 14, US no. 42) sees Joe Jackson deemphasise his own music in favour of recreating the 1940s era of big brass bands, swing music, and jump blues.  ‘Jumpin’ Jive’ (UK no. 43, AUS no. 61) is a Cab Calloway song Jackson exhumes and enlivens.  Louis Jordan numbers are also given the treatment.  Jackson tours with an old style big band to promote the album, but makes it clear from the outset that this is a one-off concept.

For his next trick, Joe Jackson heads to New York to record ‘Night And Day’ (1982) (UK no. 3, US no. 4).  This is ‘one of his most satisfying works’ and the best and most cohesive album in his catalogue.  David Kershenbaum is recalled to co-produce the disc.  This time, Joe Jackson attempts to transport the old school sophistication of Cole Porter to a contemporary setting.  There are no guitars on the album and Jackson’s own piano-playing is thrust to the fore.  At times, the album teeters on the verge of being bland, but Jackson’s own tastefulness always keeps the balance right, injecting touches of jazz, funk, and salsa.  ‘Real Men’ (AUS no. 6) is a more dramatic update on the “war between the sexes” theme of ‘It’s Different For Girls.’  However, its wider scope also touches on ideas of homosexuality and masculine identity.  “Take your mind back / I don’t know when / Sometime when it always seemed to be just us and them,” Jackson urges, struggling with confusion.  The delicate piano notes of the verses open out to rousing, almost operatic ‘choruses’ before collapsing back again.  The confronting nature of ‘Real Men’ is a bit too unsettling for some listeners.  More popular and accessible is ‘Steppin’ Out’ (UK no. 6, US no. 6, AUS no. 30).  Riding on a neon pulse, this song is full of excitement about a big night out on the town.  “You / Can dress in pink and blue just like a child / And in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile / We’ll be there in just a while,” Jackson sings gleefully.  ‘Breaking Us In Two’ (UK no. 59, US no. 18, AUS no. 90) is a more adult piece, the piano lines drifting across metronomic drums.  In a weary, yet sympathetic voice, the singer asks, “Don’t you feel like trying something new? / Don’t you feel like breaking out or breaking us in two?”  The aching ‘Slow Song’ is one of Joe Jackson’s own favourites from amongst his compositions.

Following this album, Joe Jackson again takes a side path, writing the soundtrack to the movie ‘Mike’s Murder’ (1983) (US no. 64).

‘Body & Soul’ (1984) (UK no. 14, US no. 20) returns to the spirit of ‘Night And Day’, but this time Joe Jackson, with co-producer David Kershenbaum, puts more of a jazzy spin on proceedings and horns and brass predominate.  ‘You Can’t Get What You Want (‘Til You Know What You Want)’ (US no. 15, AUS no. 96) exemplifies this modified flight-path with its uptown trumpets and saxophone, popping bass and funky guitar.  ‘Be My Number Two’ (UK no. 70) slows the tempo and is closer to ‘Night And Day’.  Jackson tries to entice his partner with the promise that “There won’t be too much to do, just smile when I feel blue.”  As usual, the piano work is immaculate.

In a surprise move, Joe Jackson’s next album, ‘Big World’ (1986) (UK no. 41, US no. 34), is his nearest to mainstream rock since ‘I’m The Man’.  Still, he has to find a new wrinkle.  In this case, the album is recorded live in front of a silent audience.  The all new songs are performed by a band Jackson has put through numerous rehearsals until they are extremely tight.  ‘Jet Set’ is a scathing put-down of ugly tourists abroad.  ‘Right And Wrong’ (AUS no. 64) is a shot at the conservative government of the right-wing political party but “They’re not talking ‘bout right or left / They’re talkin’ bout, t-t-talkin’ bout / Right and wrong / Do you know the difference?”  The song’s in-the-pocket rhythm is a marvel.  When Jackson sings the opening line of this song, “Stop everything”, the band literally does freeze in place…only to resume a moment later without a hair out of place.  A skipping guitar rhythm lends a light-hearted air to ‘Hometown’: “Sometimes I just want to go back to my hometown / Though I know it’s not the same.”  This intelligent and impressive album, again co-produced by David Kershenbaum, is underrated, suffering ‘decidedly mixed reviews’ and becoming ‘only a moderate hit’.  Part of the problem may be that the album is designed as a compact disc (CD), a market still in its infancy.  On vinyl, ‘Big World’ is awkwardly packaged as a double album with the fourth side blank, since it is too long for a single record but not long enough for two full vinyl discs.

Unapologetic, Joe Jackson doesn’t make things easier for himself with ‘Will Power’ (1987) (US no. 131), a completely instrumental album, and ‘Tucker’ (1988), another movie soundtrack.

Assuming full production duties, Jackson’s next album, ‘Blaze Of Glory’ (1989) (UK no. 36, US no. 61), is a loosely autobiographical suite of songs.  “Stop!  What’s that sound? / The death rattle of this rusty old town / Stop! / Listen again / It’s the sound of laughter all along the Thames [river in London].”  So goes the opening to ‘Down To London’, the tale of aspiring rockers migrating to the nation’s capital.  It is set to a chattering piano, spanked tambourine and female backing vocals.  The keyboards lift like the sunrise for ‘Nineteen Forever’ (AUS no. 79): “Sometimes I feel so alive / Sometimes I see so clear / Just like the way we always were / So young and free from fear.”  Following this album’s ‘commercial failure’, A & M Records drops Joe Jackson.

Landing at Virgin Records, ‘Laughter & Lust’ (1991) (UK no. 41, US no. 116), despite being a ‘straight-ahead pop / rock record’ meets with ‘little commercial success.’  ‘Night Music’ (1994) is a mix of pop, classical and show tunes that attracts ‘mixed reviews and poor sales.’  It is also Joe Jackson’s last release on Virgin.

It is some indicator of the state of his career that Joe Jackson’s next releases are issued under the label of Sony Classical.  He appears to turn his back on rock music completely.  ‘Heaven & Hell’ (1997) is based on the seven deadly sins.  ‘Symphony No. 1’ (1999) is classical music played by musicians from jazz and rock backgrounds.  ‘Night And Day II’ (2000) is a belated attempt at a sequel to one of Joe Jackson’s most popular albums.

Just when it seems least likely, the contrary artist reunites with the three musicians who comprised The Joe Jackson Band and backed him on his first three albums.  Together they cut ‘Volume 4’ (2003) and ‘Rain’ (2008).  These albums are released on the Rykodisc label.

Joe Jackson’s next project, ‘The Duke’ (2012) is issued by Razor & Tie and is a tribute to jazz great Duke Ellington.  Jackson acts as musical arranger for the disc, handing vocals to the likes of Sharon Jones and Iggy Pop.

Looking over Joe Jackson’s career, it is not surprising that spiv rock did not become a new sub-genre of rock music.  Jackson displayed a restless inability to follow any one path for too long.  Sometimes this has been to his financial detriment, alienating audiences whose interest or tolerance he exhausted.  Each stylistic shift seemed to cost him some listeners without a commensurate gain in new fans.  Yet every artist must follow their muse, wherever it leads.  Coming from a background in classical music, Joe Jackson was probably more resistant to the hunt for a hit song or album than some of his rock music peers.  Yet, when the stars aligned, he produced rock music the equal of any of those rivals.  ‘Once he had a taste of success, Jackson didn’t become more accessible – he became weirder, crafting a number of self-consciously difficult records intended to push the boundaries of pop.’  Joe Jackson was a ‘literate rocker whose songs pointedly rejected the utopian sentiments and romantic excesses of the previous generation.’

Sources:

  1. ‘The Little Oxford Dictionary’ – Compiled by George Ostler (Oxford University Press, 1975) p. 531
  2. wikipedia.org as at 11 March 2013
  3. ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p, 251, 252
  4. allmusic.com, ‘Joe Jackson’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 13 May 2002
  5. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 109
  6. songfacts.com – Joe Jackson interview dated 25 June 2012
  7. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll’, ‘The Evolution of the Singer-Songwriter’ by Stephen Holden (Plexus Publishing Limited,1992) p.482

Song lyrics copyright Warner / Chappell

Last revised 26 August 2014

INXS

INXS

 Michael Hutchence – circa 1987

 “Watch the world argue / Argue with itself / Who’s gonna teach me / Peace and happiness?” – ‘Dancing On The Jetty’ (Michael Hutchence, Andrew Farriss)

Michael Hutchence sashays across the stage.  The vocalist with Australian rock band INXS is in his element.  It is July 1985.  A major gathering of Australian bands have been assembled for this show.  Sixteen acts perform prior to INXS: Mental As Anything, The Machinations, I’m Talking, The Models, Do-Re-Mi, Electric Pandas, Dragon, Men At Work, Australian Crawl, The Party Girls, Uncanny X-Men, Goanna, Little River Band, Mondo Rock, The Angels, and Renee Geyer.  It is a mark of INXS’ position within the industry at the time that they are chosen to close the show.  The occasion is Oz for Africa, a benefit performance to raise money for those starving in Ethiopia.  It links into a number of concerts held around the world that day.  The main shows are in London in the U.K. and Philadelphia in the U.S.A.  INXS’ set is broadcast by the BBC in the U.K., while the performances by Men At Work and Little River Band are picked up by the ABC network in the U.S.A.  The whole project – multiple concerts, television broadcasts, fund-raising – is known as Live Aid.  The name is adapted from Band Aid, the tag attached to an all-star single the previous Christmas in support of the same cause.  The person behind Band Aid and Live Aid is Bob Geldof, the vocalist in Irish rock band The Boomtown Rats.  Geldof is virtually treated like a saint for his efforts.  Although his path and that of INXS touch only in the most fleeting way on this day, he will play a crucial role again in their lives twelve years later.

Michael Kelland John Hutchence (22 January 1960 – 22 November 1997) is born in Lane Cove, near Sydney, the latter being the capital city of the Australian State of New South Wales.  His parents, Kelland Hutchence and Patricia Kennedy, wed the previous year, 1959.  Kelland – or ‘Kell’ – is a Sydney businessman.  Patricia Kennedy is a make-up artist.  She has a daughter, Tina Burgess (born 1947), from a previous relationship, so Tina is Michael’s half-sister.  Kell Hutchence’s business interests result in the family relocating a number of times.  They move north to Brisbane in Queensland, the State directly above New South Wales.  Michael’s younger brother, Rhett (born 1962), is born in Brisbane.  The family then moves to Hong Kong.  Michael attends the King George V School in Kowloon, Hong Kong.  He becomes quite a good swimmer but his ambitions are derailed by a broken arm.  In 1972 the Hutchence family returns to Sydney.  Michael goes to Killarney Heights High School.  His father says that, as a teenager, Michael was quite reserved.  He was always interested in poetry.  He joined the boy scouts.  Michael is almost ‘roughed up as the new boy in high school in Sydney.’  He is saved from this fate by another student: Andrew Farriss.

Andrew Farriss is the second of four children born to Dennis and Jill Farriss in Perth, Western Australia.  They have three sons: Tim (born 16 August 1957), Andrew (born 27 March 1954) and Jon (born 10 August 1961).  They also have a daughter, Alison, who is their youngest child.  The Farriss family move right across the continent to New South Wales where Andrew meets Michael Hutchence.

“Andrew had the most interesting music,” comments Michael Hutchence, explaining what drew him to his new friend.  The Farriss family are quite musical.  Andrew looks to put together a band of his own.  Michael recalls his astonishment when Andrew said to him, “Here’s a microphone.  Do you want to sing?”  Together with some school friends, Michael and Andrew begin playing gigs under the name of Doctor Dolphin.  They are joined by bass player Garry Gary Beers.  “We found Garry at the beach,” notes Michael.  Actually all the boys are now attending Davidson High School.  Garry Gary Beers (born William Gary Beers, 22 June 1957) is from the beachside suburb of Manley, New South Wales.  His odd double first name is given to him at high school.

Tim Farriss, the eldest of the Farriss boys, is not in Doctor Dolphin.  That’s because he already has his own band.  Guinness is formed in 1971, a year before Michael Hutchence returns to Sydney from Hong Kong.  Evidently, Tim didn’t see fit to invite his younger brother, Andrew, to join Guinness, which may explain why Andrew wanted to put together his own group.  Somebody who does join Tim’s group is Kirk Pengilly (born 4 July 1958).  Kirk was born in Kew, Victoria, the State that makes up the lower third of the east coast of Australia’s mainland.  Kirk’s family moved to Sydney in 1966 and he went on to attend Forest High School with Tim.

Michael Hutchence’s parents separate when he is 15 years old.  For a short time in 1976, Michael lives in California in the U.S.A. with his mother, Patricia, and half-sister, Tina.  This departure of their lead vocalist puts Doctor Dolphin out of business.

Michael Hutchence and his mother return to Australia.  Michael seeks out his old bandmates and finds they have reorganised.  The two schoolboy bands, Doctor Dolphin and Guinness, have merged.  The youngest of the Farriss boys, Jon, quits school to join his siblings’ band.  With a line-up of Michael Hutchence (vocals), Tim Farriss (guitar), Andrew Farriss (keyboards, guitar), Kirk Pengilly (guitar, saxophone), Garry Gary Beers (bass) and Jon Farriss (drums), The Farriss Brothers debut on 16 August 1977.  It’s a prosaic, if accurate, name for the group.

The Farriss Brothers (the band) is almost scuppered when the Farriss brothers (the family) move back to Perth in Western Australia in 1978.  However, such is the bond between the boys by this time, that Michael Hutchence, Kirk Pengilly and Garry Gary Beers move to Perth as well.  According to Michael Hutchence, “It was really just a garage band at the start – no great aspirations.”  He adds though that “it was the start of something.”  For a while the band performs under the name of The Vegetables.

In 1979 the six friends move back to Sydney, independent of their families.  Gigging again as The Farriss Brothers, they receive some well-meant advice from Gary Morris, the manager of fellow Australian band, Midnight Oil.  He thinks ‘they should make themselves “inaccessible”, with Michael singing from behind bars.’  The concept doesn’t stick but the ‘inaccessible’ tag is adapted to the group’s new name: INXS (pronounced ‘in excess’; early mispronunciations include ‘inks’ and ‘eye en ex ess’).

In 1980 INXS are signed to a recording contract with Deluxe Records by Michael Browning.  A former manager of Australian hard rock band AC/DC, Browning took his severance pay and set up this label.  INXS join The Numbers, The Dugites and Toy Love as Deluxe’s first clients.  “INXS got signed not because some A & R [Artists & Repertoire] guy thought we’d sell a lot of records, but because we sold out so many venues,” points out Andrew Farriss.  “No journalist picked us as the next big thing.  There were thousands of kids coming to see us.”

From a ‘reserved’ teenager, Michael Hutchence has grown into a consummate frontman.  With a cascade of butterscotch coloured curls falling across his face, he is adored by female fans.  He prances about the stage as if his legs are collapsible stilts, striking poses that draw comparisons with other great rock frontmen of the past such as Mick Jagger of the The Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison of The Doors.  Hutchence acknowledges “I’m fairly arrogant…as I was when I was 17.”  His attitude to fame is variable.  “We don’t have much of a star system in Australia…It doesn’t mean much,” he says on one occasion.  Yet he is also quoted as saying, “I love being famous.  It’s like a totally Freudian thing [a reference to psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, the ‘father of psychoanalysis’] – it makes me feel wanted and loved and noticed.  Anyone would want that, wouldn’t they?”  Hutchence is content to ‘assert himself on stage rather than through the media.’

Although all the members of INXS contribute to the band’s songwriting, the bulk of their output is composed in tandem by Michael Hutchence and Andrew Farriss as, respectively, lyricist and musician.  Michael’s early interest in poetry comes out here.  He rarely writes a straight narrative, preferring something more akin to Japanese haiku, a series of disconnected images that, when added together, form a bigger picture.

It takes an album or two before INXS discovers its musical style.  When they do, the band’s sonic signature becomes a crossbreed of funk and rock.  Most Australian bands on the pub circuit pump out a fairly unadorned brand of hard rock.  It’s a brave move for some white boys in a distant continent to try to play funk, a bass-heavy dance music created by African-Americans.  “We always had sax and keyboards doing some very strange things in our songs.  We always had a bit of finesse in our arrangements,” argues Michael Hutchence.  Yet “no matter what we were playing we had to do it in front of a thousand p***ed Aussies –We had to go for it, all the way.”

In May 1980 INXS release their first single, ‘Simple Simon’, backed with ‘We Are The Vegetables’.  On these songs Michael Hutchence babbles like he is calling a horse race.  The band are playing something close to ska, the faster cousin of reggae, a music popularised in England at the time by acts like The Specials and Madness.  The B side is a holdover from 1978 when INXS were briefly known as The Vegetables.

‘INXS’ (1980) (AUS no. 27, US no. 165), the debut album, is released five months later in October.  All the tracks on this disc, produced by Duncan McGuire and INXS, are credited as group compositions.  ‘Wishy Washy’ and ‘Learn To Smile’ still sound vaguely like ska music, particularly in Andrew Farriss’ keyboard textures.  ‘In Vain’ demonstrates a greater depth and originality, but the real prize is ‘Just Keep Walking’ (AUS no. 38).  Tim Farriss’ piercing guitar accompanies an insistent marching rhythm as Michael Hutchence describes “Fast car driving / Sleek and modern / Public transit / Photos waiting / Blood and glass / Three points of rain / Carpet lining / Seats reclining / Clever words and smooth tongue talking / Shove it, brother / Just keep walking.”  (Note: It is said that Garry Gary Beers name is misprinted on the sleeve and this, rather than a childhood nickname, may be the source of his doubled first name.)

On 6 February 1981 Tim Farriss marries Bethany Anne (Buffy) Reefman.  The couple go on to have two sons, James and Jake.

In 1981 Michelle Bennett becomes Michael Hutchence’s girlfriend.  Although they never wed, the relationship last until 1987.  Michael’s mother, Patricia Kennedy, says Michelle is the only girl he ever talked about marrying.  During this time, Michael is also romantically linked with American singers Belinda Carlisle of The Go-Go’s (in 1984) and Terri Nunn of Berlin (in 1987).

INXS have a hit with the 1981 single ‘The Loved One’ (AUS no. 18).  This is a cover version of a brooding song first recorded in 1966 by another Australian band, the similarly-named Loved Ones.

For their second album, ‘Underneath The Colours’ (1981) (AUS no. 15), in October, INXS bring in Australian singer-songwriter Richard Clapton to act as producer.  It’s an unusual choice, but works quite well.  The group composition ‘Fair Weather Ahead’ sounds like a holdover from the previous album.  This disc’s ‘standout single’ is ‘Stay Young’ (AUS no. 21) on which Michael Hutchence urges “Keep that biting lip / Know what I mean /Sweat upon the brow / That’s what I want.”  Andrew Farriss’ keyboards still betray a ska influence, but ‘Stay Young’ pioneers the unusual arrangement of hard and fast verses leading to a slower, creamier chorus.  The opposite is a more common formula in rock music.  The title track, ‘Underneath The Colours’, has a pleasantly dream-like, unfocussed quality.  This is INXS’ last album for Deluxe, their manager, Chris Murphy, taking them to Warner Brothers records from this point on.

Around this time, Kirk Pengilly begins a relationship with Karen Hutchinson.  They later have a daughter, April (born 1988).

‘Shabooh Shoobah’ (1982) (AUS no. 5, US no. 46) is the third album by INXS.  It is produced by Mark Opitz.  While the first two INXS albums showed promise, this effort is a substantial improvement.  “I can listen to it comfortably,” claims Michael Hutchence.  “I couldn’t do that with the others.”  Leading the charge is ‘The One Thing’ (AUS no. 14, US no. 30), ‘a torpedo-rock burst of futurist disco’: “Well you know just what you do to me / The way you move, soft and slippery / Cut the night just like a razor / Rarely talk and that’s the danger.”  Like ‘Stay Young’, this song adopts the fast verse / slow chorus model and adds what Hutchence describes as “that mixture of funk and rock.”  Bookending he album is ‘Don’t Change’ (AUS no. 14, US no. 80), a group composition of anthemic optimism that offers a “Resolution of happiness / Things have been dark for too long.”  In between these two poles are Andrew Farriss’ ‘To Look At You’ (AUS no. 36), a subtly thoughtful number, and the chattering groove of ‘Black And White’ (AUS no. 24).  INXS begin their first U.S. tour in March 1983.

The next album by INXS, ‘The Swing’ (1984) (AUS no. 1, US no. 52), is their best.  Most of the material is produced by Nick Launay, who lends interesting sonic textures throughout the disc.  The one song Launay does not produce is the first single, ‘Original Sin’ (AUS no. 1, US no. 58).  This is produced by Nile Rodgers of American disco music greats, Chic.  Daryl Hall, half of the U.S. pop vocal duo Daryl Hall And John Oates, supplies backing vocals on this track.  As may be expected with Nile Rodgers at the controls, this track makes the most of INXS’ dance music proclivity while the lyrics push a line in miscegenation: “Dream on black boy / Dream on white girl / And wake up to a brand new day.”  ‘I Send A Message’ (AUS no. 3, US no. 77) is built around robotic electro-keyboards with Sean Kelly of Australian band The Models providing some welcome oddball grit to the backing vocals.  Michael Hutchence barks, “I miss the people / I miss the fun / You’re my apparition / She’s-a my only one”…and the song stops dead in its tracks…only to start up again as though its batteries have been replaced.  New Zealand-born singer Jenny Morris practically duets with Hutchence on ‘Burn For You’ (AUS no. 3): “Tilt my hat / At the sun / And the shadows they burn dark / Light me and I’ll burn for you / And the love song never stops.”  Musically, ‘Burn For You’ mixes percussion, synthesisers and some more tinkly-bonk keyboards.  Andrew Farriss later produces an album for Jenny Morris.  Songs like ‘Dancing On The Jetty’ (AUS no. 39) demonstrate that, with this album, INXS are, to borrow the words of Michael Hutchence, “moving just far enough away” from their previous sound to appear fresh without losing the qualities that make their music satisfying.  This disc shows ‘a mood of confidence and united determination.’

On 15 July 1985 INXS make their triumphant appearance at ‘Oz for Africa’ / ‘Live Aid’.  It’s a pivotal moment in the group’s upward journey.

‘Listen Like Thieves’ (1985) (AUS no. 3, US no. 11, UK no. 48) in October is the first of three INXS albums produced by Chris Thomas.  It opens with their greatest single, ‘What You Need’ (AUS no. 2, US no. 5, UK no. 51).  This is a sharp-cornered blast of art rock funk, highlighted by a fuzz guitar section from Tim Farriss and a blaring saxophone solo from Kirk Pengilly.  “Ain’t no sense in all your crying,” Michael Hutchence sings defiantly, insisting, “Pick it up / Throw it into shape.”  The noodling funk of the title track, ‘Listen Like Thieves’ (AUS no. 28, US no. 54, UK no. 46), holds a declaration of originality: “Everybody’s / Down on their knees / Listen like thieves / But who needs that / When it’s all in your hands.”  The song ‘Listen Like Thieves’ is credited to Andrew Farriss, Michael Hutchence and Garry Gary Beers as composers.  ‘Kiss The Dirt (Falling Down The Mountain)’ (AUS no. 15, UK no. 54) has an unusual hold-and-release style with bold strokes of guitar.  Both ‘Shine Like It Does’ and Andrew Farriss’ ‘This Time’ (AUS no. 19, US no. 81, UK no. 79), a plea for peace between a squabbling couple, add gentler notes to the proceedings without losing momentum.  They are the exceptions though, because Chris Thomas’ approach is to ‘encourage the group to sound more on record like they do on stage.’  In other words, they are urged to rock harder.

Between albums, INXS cut the 1987 single ‘Good Times’ (AUS no. 2, US no. 47, UK no. 18), a duet with Australian rock star Jimmy Barnes.  This is a creditable cover version of a 1968 hit by legendary antipodean band The Easybeats.

Released in October, ‘Kick’ (1987) (AUS no. 1, US no. 3, UK no. 9) is ‘the album that makes [INXS] international superstars’ and is considered by some to be ‘the definitive INXS album.’  The steamy ‘Need You Tonight’ (AUS no. 3, US no. 1, UK no. 2) finds Michael Hutchence in a lusty, breathless state, singing “I need you tonight / ‘Cos I’m not sleepin’ / There’s something about you, girl / That makes me sweat.”  Andrew Farriss’ ‘Mediate’ is a nice add-on to the end of ‘Need You Tonight’.  The horny ‘Devil Inside’ (AUS no. 6, US no. 2, UK no. 47) is built on a fuzz guitar figure and continues the theme of intimacy: “Look at them go / Look at them kick / Makes you wonder / How the other half lives.”  ‘New Sensation’ (AUS no. 8, US no. 3, UK no. 25) has a rhythm guitar bedrock and booming drums from which Hutchence hollers, “And the sun comes like a god into our room / All perfect light and promises.”  ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ (AUS no. 14, US no. 7, UK no. 24) is a fresh field for INXS.  A string section of cellos and violins is paired with an anguished sense of strength in sadness.  “We could live for a thousand years,” suggests the lyric, “But if I hurt you / I’ll make wine from your tears.”  It’s an unusual song in the band’s repertoire, but succeeds largely because it is so boldly unique.  ‘Kick’ also includes such notable pieces as ‘Mystify’ (UK no. 14), the title track ‘Kick’, and Michael Hutchence’s ‘Guns In The Sky’, a tirade against the U.S. government’s proposed Laser Defence System.

When not travelling the globe, Michael Hutchence now makes his home in Hong Kong, the land where he lived for some time as a youngster.

With his seven-year relationship with Michelle Bennett ending in 1987, Michael Hutchence has a brief fling with Australian actress Virginia Hey in 1988.  More notable is his 1989-1991 romance with Kylie Minogue.  With Michael Hutchence’s encouragement, the singer / actress goes from cute girl-next-door to an edgier, more experimental and sexier persona.

On 22 April 1989 Andrew Farriss marries Shelley Banks, a woman he met in 1987.  Andrew and Shelley go on to have three children: Grace, Josephine and Matthew.

There is a view that, after ‘Kick’, ‘success goes to the group’s head.’  In 1988 Michael Hutchence declares, “the more we indulge ourselves…the more success we have.”

‘X’ (1990) (AUS no. 1, US no. 5, UK no. 2) has a lot to live up to.  It gets off to a good start with ‘Suicide Blonde’ (AUS no. 2, US no. 9, UK no. 11).  American blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite contributes some scorching work as Michael Hutchence denounces the woman of the title: “Suicide blonde was the colour of her hair / Like a cheap distraction for a new affair.”  For a change of pace, Hutchence co-writes with the youngest of the Farriss brothers, drummer Jon Farriss, for ‘Disappear’ (AUS no. 23, US no. 8, UK no. 21).  Its drip-fed beats make it seem like the soundtrack for an aerobics class and Michael flings himself into the vocals with matching enthusiasm: “You’re so fine / Lose my mind / And the world seems to disappear.”  ‘Bitter Tears’ (AUS no. 36, UK no. 46, UK no. 30) is probably the album’s next most satisfying outing.  ‘The Stairs’ is a bit more grandiose than usual and producer Chris Thomas takes a co-songwriting credit with Hutchence and Andrew Farriss for ‘By My Side’ (AUS no. 23, UK no. 42).

As his relationship with Kylie Minogue concludes, Michael Hutchence has a brief liaison with Kristen Zang in 1991, then moves on to model Helena Christensen who becomes his lady love for the period 1991-1995.

‘Live Baby Live’ (1991) (AUS no. 3, US no. 72, UK no. 8) is a concert album drawn from INXS shows recorded in a variety of cities, including London, New York, Paris and Sydney.  A new song recorded in the studio, ‘Shining Star’ (AUS no. 21, UK no. 27), is slipped into the contents.  ‘Live Baby Live’ takes its title from the opening words of ‘New Sensation’, a track originally heard on ‘Kick’ (though on ‘Kick’ that’s ‘live’ (rhymes with give) rather than ‘live’ (rhymes with hive)).

Drummer Jon Farriss marries Leslie Bega on 14 February 1992.

‘Welcome To Wherever You Are’ (1992) (AUS no. 2, US no. 16, UK no. 1) is released in August.  Described as ‘their most adventurous’ album, this set is co-produced by INXS and Mark Opitz, the man who produced ‘Shabooh Shoobah’.  The album is notable for a reduction in the number of songs contributed by Michael Hutchence and Andrew Farriss, though the duo does provide such fare as ‘Not Enough Time’ (US no. 28) and ‘Taste It’ (AUS no. 36, US no. 101, UK no. 21).  Andrew Farriss steps up as the sole songwriter on ‘Beautiful Girl’ (AUS no. 34, US no. 46, UK no. 23); ‘Baby Don’t Cry’ (AUS no. 30, UK no. 20) which employs a full orchestra for accompaniment; and the album’s best cut, ‘Heaven Sent’ (AUS no. 13, UK no. 31).  The oddly processed vocals on the last-named song seem to emphasise the comparatively diminished input of INXS’ lead vocalist.

Mark Opitz and INXS again share a production credit for the follow-up, ‘Full Moon, Dirty Hearts’ (1993) (AUS no. 4, US no. 53, UK no. 3) in November.  The crashing, tumultuous ‘The Gift’ (AUS no. 16, UK no. 11) is probably the highpoint of the album.  This song is another offering from the ‘Disappear’ pairing of Michael Hutchence and Jon Farriss.  The album is ‘generally ignored.’

By this time, Kirk Pengilly’s ten year relationship with Karen Hutchinson is over.  In December 1993 he marries Deni Hines, an Australian singer.  She is the daughter of Marcia Hines, an African-American singer who left the U.S. to become a pop star in Australia in the 1970s.  Kirk and Deni’s marriage lasts only ten months.  He then becomes engaged to DJ (disc jockey) Louise Hegarty, a relationship that lasts seven years, though they never wed.

INXS change record labels in 1994, moving to Polygram.  They soon change managers as well.

In 1994 Michael Hutchence is interviewed by Paula Yates for the British television program ‘The Tube’ on Channel 4.  According to Paula, she and Michael have sex for the first time about half an hour later.  Paula Yates is married to Bob Geldof, the man who put together the Live Aid charity concerts.  Yates and Geldof split up in 1995 and divorce in May 1996.  By that time, Paula Yates is pregnant with Michael Hutchence’s child.  Their daughter, Heavenly Hiriani Tiger Lily Hutchence is born 22 July 1996.  The child becomes known as Tiger or Tiger Lily.  The relationship between Michael Hutchence and Paula Yates is rather volatile.

‘Elegantly Wasted’ (1996) (AUS no. 14, US no. 41, UK no. 16) is the next album for INXS.  Michael Hutchence claims that the title is “just a phrase that popped into my head.”  It actually dates back to journalists’ description for Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones at the height of his heroin addiction.

Michael Hutchence is very troubled himself.  He is not interested in marrying Paula Yates or anybody.  “I’m happily unmarried,” he says.  Michael’s mother claims he has ‘drug habits’ and his personality has changed during his time with Paula.  He is seeing a psychiatrist and taking the anti-depressant Prozac.  Paula is said to have made threats against both her own life and Tiger Lily’s in an increasingly desperate attempt to keep Michael.  Instead, Michael Hutchence returns to Sydney and has a brief relationship with Australian actress Kym Wilson in 1997.

INXS begin rehearsals for their ‘Lose Your Head’ tour, celebrating twenty years together without a line-up change.  On 21 November 1997, after rehearsals with the group, Michael Hutchence has dinner with his father and stepmother.  He returns to his hotel room at the Sydney Carlton Ritz.  There follows a ‘heated’ phone call from Bob Geldof.  Michael himself phones his ex-girlfriend, Michelle Bennett.  When hotel staff enter the singer’s room the next day, they find him dead, his naked body suspended by a leather belt wrapped about his throat.  He was 37.  Rumours suggest his death is the result of an ‘auto-erotic accident’, but Michael’s father gruffly dismisses such talk.  Michael’s relatives are more aware than the general public of his depression and personal problems.  The coroner’s official verdict is that Michael Hutchence deliberately committed suicide.  In a sad postscript, Paula Yates dies of an accidental heroin overdose on 17 September 2000.  Tiger Lily is brought up with her half-sisters by Bob Geldof.

In 1999 Jon Farriss divorces his wife, Leslie.

Despite the death of Michael Hutchence, INXS continue to perform.  They use a series of guest vocalists.  Black singer Terence Trent D’Arby is the first in 1999.  New Zealand-born Jon Stevens, formerly with Australian band Noiseworks, takes on the role from 2000 to 2003.  Mark Burnett, a ‘reality show maverick’, enters into business with INXS to produce ‘Rock Star’ in 2005, a television program on the U.S. CBS Network that will track contestants competing for the prize of becoming the new vocalist for INXS.  The winner is Canadian J.D. Fortune (born Jason Dean Bennison, 1 September 1973).  With J.D. Fortune, INXS cut a new album, ‘Switch’ (2005) (AUS no. 18, US no. 17).

In 2006 Jon Farriss marries his second wife, Kerry Norris.  They go on to have a daughter named Avani (born 6 October 2008) and a son named Danan (born 15 November 2010).

In September 2007 Garry Gary Beers marries a woman named Jourdan.  They have twins, a girl named Isla and a boy named August.  Beers already has three children.  He has two daughters, Lucy and Matilda, from his first marriage to Jodie Crompton.  He also has a son, Benjamin, from a short relationship with Shelley Preston in 1997-1998.

On 10 October 2010 Kirk Pengilly marries Australian women’s surfing champion, Layne Beachley.

J.D. Fortune’s reputed ‘cocaine habit’ alienates him from his colleagues in INXS.  Although he remains the official frontman, the band uses guest vocalists like Rob Thomas (of Matchbox 20) and Ben Harper on ‘Original Sin’ (2010) (AUS no. 49), an album of fresh recordings of the band’s past hits.

J.D. Fortune is officially dismissed in August 2011.  Ciaran Gribbin from Northern Ireland acts as vocalist for INXS from 2011 to 2012.  ON 11 December 2012 INXS announce they will no longer be touring.

His marriage to Shelley Banks over, Andrew Farris marries his new wife, Marlina, on 4 October 2013.

INXS did their best work on their first seven albums: ‘INXS’ (1980) to ‘X’ (1990).  In the early 1990s, they became ‘boxed in’ by their trademark sound and struggled in later years to regain their potency.  In retrospect, carrying on after the death of Michael Hutchence seems ill-considered, but it is always easier to be wise after the fact.  Presumably, the rest of the close-knit group thought their chemistry would see them through.  When Michael Hutchence was part of that formula, the group scaled great heights.  There is an eerie significance in Bob Geldof being distantly associated with both one of the INXS’ greatest triumphs (their Live Aid show) and their greatest tragedy (Michael Hutchence’s death).  INXS were ‘different from the pack; young and energetic, not afraid to look and behave like rock stars.’  INXS ‘harnessed its hard rock, dance and new wave influences into a sleek, stylish groove.”

Sources:

  1. wikipedia.org as at 8 July 2013, 18 February 2015
  2. ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p. 245
  3. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 8 July 2013
  4. Internet movie database – imdb.com – as at 8 July 2013
  5. UK.INXSFAN – Michael Hutchence – (video) documentary Pt. 1 of 5 (18 May 2010)
  6. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 68, 128, 129, 136, 150, 155, 198
  7. ‘The Swing & Other Stories’ video documentary – Michael Hutchence interview conducted by Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum (1984)
  8. ‘The Big Australian Rock Book’, ‘INXS’ by David Fricke (Megabooks, 1985) p 49, 50
  9. ‘INXS – The Greatest Hits’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (EastWest / Warner Music, 1994) p. 4, 5, 6, 11, 12
  10. ‘Rocking Tonite’ (Canadian television program) – Michael Hutchence interview (1988)
  11. lyricsfreak.com as at 10 August 2013
  12. whosdatedwho.com as at 11 August 2013
  13. ‘This Morning’ (U.K. television program, Independent Television Network) – Patricia Kennedy and Tina Burgess interview conducted by Patricia Glossop (30 October 2000)
  14. allmusic.com, ‘INXS’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 10 August 2013
  15. music.ninemsn.com.au as at 5 August 2013
  16. VHI music video network – Michael Hutchence and Tim Farriss interview conducted by A.J. Hammer (1996)

Song lyrics copyright MCA Music (1980-1984), MMA Music International (1985-1990)

Last revised 19 November 2013

Icehouse

 Icehouse

 Iva Davies – circa 1984

“The devil lives inside the icehouse / At least that’s what the old ones say / They say, ‘He came here a long time ago / He came here in the winter snow’ / Now it’s colder every day’ – ‘Icehouse’ (Iva Davies)

Though he’s hardly ‘the devil’, the man at the centre of the Icehouse is Iva Davies.  At various points, Icehouse more or less resembles a band, but through a passing parade of musicians, the only constant is Davies.  Does this make him a cold-blooded martinet?  Is he more comfortable with chilly technology than hot musicians?

The man who comes to be known as Iva Davies is born Ivor Arthur Davies on 22 May 1955 in Wauchope, New South Wales, Australia.  His father is a forester; his mother is a pianist who sings in local choirs.  The family comes from a Welsh background.  Ivor begins to learn to play music with the bagpipes as a 6 year old.  He moves on to piano and then at 11 he switches to the oboe.  This coincides with the family’s move to Epping, N.S.W.  Young Ivor takes this woodwind instrument with him to the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music where he undertakes a performance diploma as an oboist.  It is important to realise that all through these years, he is not listening to rock music.  “I sort of missed all that because I was studying classical music,” he confirms.  There are ‘no pop classics etched in his adolescent memories.’  Once he turns 15, Ivor is ‘a professional classical musician, picking up poorly paid work in orchestras, recital groups, musical comedies and musical transcription.’  It is work of a different sort that proves more fateful for his musical career.

Despite his composing aspirations, Ivor Davies finds he needs to take a part-time job as a cleaner at a squash court in Lindfield to obtain some cash.  The woman who manages the facility has a teenage son of her own, Keith Welsh.  Ivor and Keith become friends. The two lads live near each other.  Keith has musical ambitions too, but, unlike Ivor, his interests are more inclined towards pop music.  Ivor is soon converted by Keith’s interest in rock stars.  “I had a fascination for these people almost instantly,” recalls Davies.  “I plunged in with people who had vaguely alternative heroes like Lou Reed and David Bowie…I got swept up.”

In 1975 Ivor Davies signs a solo recording deal.  His first release is ‘a glam pop’ single called ‘Leading Lady’.  On the label his first name is misspelled as Iva.  He decides to keep the new spelling as his stagename to remind himself how silly the music business can be.  A second single fails to ‘turn him into an instant star’ and Iva Davies is forced to reassess his options.

In 1977 Iva Davies decides to form a group instead of pursuing a solo career.  Iva teaches himself to play guitar and begins dressing in black leather.  He forms a trio called Flowers with old friend Keith Welsh (bass) and Don Brown (drums).  In 1978 Flowers expands to a quartet with the addition of Michael Hoste (keyboards).  They perform ‘note-for-note versions’ of songs by acts like David Bowie, Lou Reed, T-Rex, Roxy Music, Iggy Pop, The Kinks, The Easybeats and The Sex Pistols.  “It never occurred to me that it might be really uncool to do things exactly the same as the originals,” admits Davies.  Still, Flowers reputation as ‘a live juke-box’ sees them obtain a recording contract.

The list of acts whose songs Iva Davies and his buddies are performing gives an indication of the direction the band takes.  They mix together the basic songwriting appeal of 1960s rock, the flash of early 1970s glam rock bands and a late 1970s new wave sensibility.  So although these are simple tunes with strong guitar chords and big drums, there is also a creeping lyrical twitchiness and a patina of cold, technological keyboard colours.  Iva Davies is the focus of the band as singer, guitarist and songwriter.

Before Flowers first recording session, there are a couple of personnel changes.  Michael Hoste and Don Brown are out, replaced in 1979 by Anthony Smith (A.K.A. Anthony Hall) (keyboards) and John Lloyd (drums).  With this line-up Flowers cut ‘Can’t Help Myself’ (AUS no. 10).  A brooding synthesiser hovers over a simple bass and drum rhythm, then Iva Davies sings, “She comes / Walkin’ down the street / That’s the kind / Hey / That’s the kind I want to meet” [a guitar flicks] “I think I’m making it up / I should be pulling it down / And it’s beginning  to show / I get it fixed in my head / And it won’t let go / Oh, I can’t help myself / When I feel this way I want to be someone else.”  Here can be seen the simple structures of 1960s pop, the flair of glam rock and the paranoia of new wave in perfect balance.  The playing shows immense restraint, with Iva’s guitar kept in check, released only strategically – to great effect – allowing Keith Welsh’s bass to breathe and carry the melody.

A full-length album follows, ‘Icehouse’ (1980) (AUS no. 4).  Bear in mind that, at this point, the name of the band is still Flowers; only the album is named Icehouse.  This is the best album for Iva Davies and company.  Cameron Allan’s production work is excellent, particularly beneficial to John Lloyd’s drums.  Really though, this is the best complete musical ensemble for Iva’s compositions.  Their greatest song is ‘We Can Get Together’ (AUS no. 16).  A blizzard of ringing guitar notes coalesces into a propulsive pop tune.  The guitar chords thicken and Iva’s vocal performance grows more desperate as he urges, “There must be something we can talk about / Maybe there’s something here that we can do / Don’t go back home, babe / Don’t go too far / Maybe there’s one more thing / Whenever you come this way / Baby, we can get together (Ohh-oh) / We can get together.”  ‘Walls’ (AUS no. 20) claims, “Through the walls the sound is crawling / Down the corridors and halls / It cracks the ceiling / The windows and the doors.”  This brittle edginess is made more unsettling by a welter of whispers late in the song that remain naggingly difficult to decipher.  The title track, ‘Icehouse’ (US no. 28), is stately, yet frosty.  It consists mainly of synthesisers and keyboard tones over a drumbeat, with a late guitar line adding force and drama.  ‘Sister’ is also built on synthesisers, but in this case they are much busier.  ‘Sister’ is co-written by Iva Davies and former keyboardist Michael Hoste, indicating this composition probably dates back to an earlier time – though Hoste does provide additional keyboards on this album.  ‘Icehouse’ also includes an alternate version of ‘Can’t Help Myself’, which is interesting in its skittering guitar overlay, but not as sturdy as the superior version released earlier as a single.  Also present are the gangster saga, ‘Fatman’, and the anthem to alienation, ‘Not My Kind’, that closes the album.  This debut is a ‘runaway success’.

Flowers begin to attract attention internationally, but because another act has the name Flowers registered in the U.S.A., a name change is required.  This is how Flowers becomes Icehouse.  They tour the U.S. ‘with slight chart success’ and the U.K. ‘to fierce anti-Australian backlash.’  A new one-off single, ‘another strong dance cut’, ‘Love In Motion’ (AUS no. 10), is released in 1982.  While backing vocals go “Boop boop”, Ivan Davies slowly intones lines like “Oh no, there she goes / Tell you that girl is love in motion.”  It is only ‘later discovered that Iva Davies recorded the song all by himself between gigs in London.  After just one album, Icehouse is a group in name only.’

Iva Davies begins work on a second album.  Keith Forsey, an associate of disco mastermind Giorgio Moroder, produces the album and provides percussion.  The rest of the instruments – guitars, keyboards, bass, Linn drum programming and CMI Fairlight synthesiser – are all played by Davies.  “I didn’t really mean to do the album on my own,” he claims.  “My original intention was to put some demos on tape and get everyone to add bits, but when you’re working with fully programmable instruments there’s really no need for any assistance; you just set it all up, run the tape and out comes the song.”  Despite the high technology involved, the second album by Icehouse (though the first under that name rather than Flowers) is titled ‘Primitive Man’ (1982) (AUS no. 3, US no. 129, UK no. 64).  The name is taken from the opening track (and first single) ‘Great Southern Land’ (AUS no. 5, UK no. 83).  Over banks of scudding synths and a thudding beat, Iva sings of “living in the summer for a million years” and how this “burns you black…like a primitive man.”  This is a reference to the indigenous Australians, the dark-skinned aboriginal race.  The song also touches on other aspects of Australian history such as the country being used as a penal colony by the English (“anyone will tell you it’s a prisoner’s island”).  The author expresses some trepidation in a later interview about his subject: “All I knew was I’d written a song about Australia and if I got it wrong, then there was real potential of it blowing up in my face.”  Overseas, Icehouse gains a foothold in England with ‘Hey Little Girl’ (AUS no. 7, US no. 31, UK no. 17), though Iva notes, “Luck and good timing are hugely important in Britain.”  “Hey little girl / Where will you hide?” he asks in the song, “Who can you run to now?”  Inexorable synthesisers mercilessly frame the sentiment “When everything goes wrong / Sometimes it makes no sense.”  If ‘Hey Little Girl’ evokes David Bowie, then ‘Street Café’ (AUS no. 57, UK no. 62) leans towards Roxy Music.  “No matter where the road may take you / We’ll meet again someday / You know we’ll meet someday, someday / At the street café,” the lyrics conclude.  This ‘ambitious’ album stretches to include a tribute to Iva’s rock roots with ‘Glam’ and a slice of ancient history in an account of Helen of Troy called ‘Trojan Blue.’

To promote ‘Primitive Man’, Iva Davies puts together a new line-up of Icehouse in 1982.  John Lloyd (drums) is retained from the previous edition, Michael Hoste (keyboards) is recalled, and they are joined by Bob Kretschmer (guitar), Guy Pratt (bass) and Andy Qunta (keyboards).  Pratt and Qunta are U.K. musicians, giving the band a more international make-up.  Michael Hoste leaves before work begins again in the recording studio.

The third Icehouse album is ‘Sidewalk’ (1984) (AUS no. 8).  This disc is produced and written by Iva Davies and though ostensibly recorded by the group, it is alleged that the band members are only brought in ‘at the very last minute.’  The first single is ‘Taking The Town’ (AUS no. 29), an anthem to a night on the tiles: “We’re gonna turn it all upside down / Yeah, we’re taking this town.”  The cause is greatly aided by Guy Pratt’s popping bass and a lusty chorus of male voices.  Pratt uses a more rubbery tone for the reflective ‘Dusty Pages’ (AUS no. 82) which balances acoustic guitar against hanging synth notes.  The sad and gritty ‘Don’t Believe Anymore’ (AUS no. 31) features a saxophone solo from guest musician Joe Camilleri of Australian band Jo Jo Zep.

Between this album and the next by Icehouse, Iva Davies and Bob Kretschmer work on ‘Boxes’, a ballet for the Sydney Dance Company.  This is notable because it is here that Iva Davies meets Tonia Kelly, the company’s principal dancer, who becomes romantically involved with the singer.

With a new album pending, Icehouse undergoes another membership reshuffle.  Only Bob Kretschmer (guitar) and Andy Qunta (keyboards) continue, with Simon Lloyd (saxophone, keyboards), Glen Krawczyk (bass) and Paul Wheeler (drums) being enlisted.  With ‘Measure For Measure’ (1986) (AUS no. 8, US no. 55) for the first time Iva Davies shares songwriting credit for the album with Bob Kretschmer.  This ‘tougher’ album is produced by Rhett Davies (no relation) and David Lord.  The album’s title supposedly refers to ‘Iva’s desire to keep everything in balance, ‘Measure For Measure’.’  The first single is ‘No Promises’ (AUS no. 30, US no. 9, UK no. 72).  Synthesisers ooze over a click track as the vocalist conjures up “A winter’s palace / From ‘The Arabian Nights’ / White waves on an ocean / Gems from a golden age.”  He offers “No promises / But if you should fall…”  From this piece, delicate as cut-glass, the balance swings to the bruising ‘glam rock flavoured’ ‘Baby You’re So Strange’ (AUS no. 14).  “Well you tell me I’m the one / And you tell me not to come / Oh yeah,” sings Iva Davies with annoyance as guitar riffs stagger about him.  He goes on to ask in mock disbelief “Do you believe it? / Could it be another man? / Well, I just don’t understand / Baby, you’re so strange.”  He concludes that the object of this harangue is “positively weird.”  Between these two extremes, the album revisits the underworld of criminals for ‘Mr Big’ (AUS no. 18) and travels ‘Cross The Border’ (AUS no. 65, US no. 19) where one-time Roxy Music member Brian Eno offers a guest vocal, enunciating “East, west / Point to the nation / North, south / Block the connection.”

The next Icehouse album follows relatively quickly.  ‘Man Of Colours’ (1987) (AUS no. 1, US no. 43, UK no. 93) is released sixteen months after its predecessor.  Perhaps due to this brief interval, there is only one change in the musicians on board: Stephen Morgan is the new bass player.  Even producer David Lord (who produced half the previous effort) is retained.  ‘Man Of Colours’ is hailed as ‘the most focused Icehouse record yet.’  With half a million in domestic sales, it becomes Australia’s second–biggest selling album to that time (after John Farnham’s ‘Whispering Jack’); it is the first Australian album to spawn five top forty hits; and is the group’s most successful internationally.  The first single, ‘Crazy’ (AUS no. 3, US no. 10, UK no. 38), is co-written by Iva Davies, Bob Kretschmer and Andy Qunta.  Iva’s not exactly flattering response to an admirer is “You have to be crazy, baby / To want a guy like me / Yeah, you have to be out of your mind / Crazy!”  Iva co-writes ‘Electric Blue’ (AUS no. 1, US no. 10, UK no. 53) with John Oates, half of the U.S. hit-making duo Daryl Hall And John Oates.  Somewhat ruefully, Iva protests in an interview, “I never wanted to be known as the ‘Electric Blue’ guy.  That song was actually our only number one hit in Australia, but it wasn’t what I thought best represented Icehouse as I saw us.”  The album’s other hits are ‘My Obsession’ (AUS no. 5); the title track, ‘Man Of Colours’ (AUS no. 28), an ode to a painter at his easel; and ‘Nothing Too Serious’ (AUS no. 29).

Icehouse takes a breath by releasing the compilation album ‘Great Southern Land’ (1989) (AUS no. 2).  This includes two new songs, ‘Touch The Fire’ (AUS no. 13) and ‘Jimmy Dean’ (AUS no. 47).

Though Bob Kretschmer co-writes with Iva Davies most of the tracks on ‘Code Blue’ (1990) (AUS no. 9), he has left the band by the time the album is released.  Andy Qunta also departs in the wake of ‘Man Of Colours’.  Their replacements are Paul Gildea (guitar) and Roger Mason (keyboards), the latter a veteran of Australian band The Models.  ‘Code Blue’ is produced by Nick Launay.  The album is a loosely conceptual work.  Reflecting on his earlier composition ‘Great Southern Land’, Iva Davies tries to write a whole album of distinctly Australian songs.  These are not so much patriotic anthems, but stories inspired by local headlines, albeit clipped from the pages of history rather than current events.  Thus the rough likeness on the cover is that of Australian aviation pioneer Charles Kingsford Smith.  The album includes such tunes as ‘Big Fun’ (AUS no. 47), ‘Miss Devine’ (AUS no. 16), ‘Anything Is Possible’ (AUS no. 49), ‘Mercy On The Boy’ and ‘Knockin’ ‘Em Down.’

Also in 1990, Iva Davies marries Tonia Kelly, his dancer girlfriend.  The couple go on to have two children, a daughter named Brynn (born 1993) and a son named Evan (born 1996).

Icehouse record another album, ‘Big Wheel’ (1993) (AUS no. 46).  Iva Davies produces this disc himself.  As may be expected, there are some comings and goings amongst the rest of the band.  Simon Lloyd is out and Tony Llewellyn (keyboards) and David Chapman (guitar) are in, though the existing keyboardist and guitarist – Roger Mason and Paul Gildea, respectively – are still on hand.

In 1994 Iva Davies decides to deactivate Icehouse.  He remains involved with music but eschews the merry-go-round of the pop charts and the wider rock ‘n’ roll industry.

Eventually, in 2011 Iva Davies decides to promote some of the band’s history with some new musicians.  This crew consists of Paul Gildea (guitar), Michael Paynter (keyboards, guitar), Glenn Reither (keyboards, saxophone), Steve Bull (bass) and Peter Maslen (drums).

‘DubHouse Live’ (2014) sees Icehouse recasting their past hits as reggae songs.

So was Iva Davies a cold-blooded martinet?  No, that seems unlikely.  It’s hard to deny there was a large turnover in personnel in Icehouse, but there doesn’t seem to be any horror stories about Davies as the band’s director.  The loss of the other original members of Flowers appears almost accidental (“I didn’t really mean to do the album on my own”).  Original bassist Keith Welsh, later became involved in managing Icehouse, and remained a life-long friend.  Michael Hoste and John Lloyd both returned for a second tour of duty in the band.  Bob Kretschmer was given substantial creative input.  Kretschmer, Andy Qunta, Paul Wheeler and Paul Gildea all put in lengthy sojourns in the ranks.  This is not the behaviour of oppressed musicians.  Although Icehouse have often been at the cutting edge of technology at the time (e.g. the CMI Fairlight synthesiser), Iva Davies continued to use flesh-and-blood collaborators when, as ‘Primitive Man’ showed, he could do a very credible job as a multi-instrumentalist without all the other people to accommodate.  The fact that he chose to work with other players is an indication of someone who values human interaction at least as much – and probably more – than ‘scanners and tapes’ (to borrow a line from ‘Sister’).  The nearest explanation to offer for the chopping and changing in the band is that Iva was so intent on chasing his musical vision that everything else, including the other people in the group, was of secondary concern.  Since a great number of positive results were achieved, it’s hard to fault the methods.  It may not be for everyone, but it worked for Icehouse.  The act ‘developed a strongly atmospheric style that went some way towards attaining a form of Australian electronic music.’  ‘Group or not, the sound [of Icehouse] remained the same.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ (Sydney, Australia newspaper) (4 August 2012) on smh.com.au
  2. wikipedia.org as at 11 March 2013, 1 January 2015
  3. ‘The Big Australian Rock Book’, ‘Icehouse’ by Bruce Elder (Megabooks, 1985) p 67
  4. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 131, 135, 136, 155, 158
  5. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 107
  6. ‘Digging A Hole’ – (6 October 2012) on guestlisted.blogspot.com.au
  7. sonicnet.com (as at 30 August 2001) p. 1
  8. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia newspaper) – ‘DubHouse Live’ review by Cameron Adams (30 January 2014) p. 44

Song lyrics copyright EMI Songs Australia

Last revised 2 January 2015