Hoodoo Gurus

 Hoodoo Gurus

 Dave Faulkner – circa 1986

 “Miss Freelove / Come back some time / Miss Freelove / Of ‘69’ – ‘Miss Freelove ‘69’ (Dave Faulkner)

What is kitsch?  It is ‘a style of mass produced art or design using cultural icons.  The term is generally reserved for unsubstantial or gaudy works, or works that are calculated to have popular appeal.’  It’s a term applied to some kinds of clothing, films, music or general bric-a-brac.  Roughly, when something is declared kitsch, it is out of style or gauche, yet because it is worn / made / played with a knowing wink, it becomes cool all over again.  It is adopting an arm’s length, ironic and humorous approach to the minutia of the consumer culture of the western world.  Australian band The Hoodoo Gurus seem to know all about it.  They exist in their own little bubble of kitsch culture; they are titans of the trivial.

Dave Faulkner, the leader of The Hoodoo Gurus may disagree: “We’re definitely not on a crusade for any sort of music, and it annoys me when people suggest we are…We’re not revivalists.”

The story of The Hoodoo Gurus begins in Perth, the capital city of the State of Western Australia.  Far removed from the east coast Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne, musicians in W.A. are free to develop in different, possibly more original ways.  Dave Faulkner (born 2 October 1957) grows up as a music fan.  The Master’s Apprentices (1965 – 1972), a band from (the marginally closer city of) Adelaide in South Australia, are an early favourite.  Faulkner’s own early career is a bit of a mish-mash of intersecting bands.  He serves in a ‘short-lived Perth punk unit’ called The Victims, who release an ‘autobiographical single’ in 1978 called ‘Television Addict’.  This demonstrates that young Dave sets out his stall quite early in the junk culture stakes.  The drummer in The Victims is James Baker (born 7 March 1954).  Another scrabbling Perth band of the time is The Scientists, a group spearheaded by Kim Salmons.  Dave Faulkner begins working with a band known simply as The Gurus.  He is then joined by ex-Scientist Rod Radalji in ‘an untitled band.’  A third member is recruited, another alumni of The Scientists, drummer James Baker – the same James Baker who served with Dave Faulkner in The Victims.  The group is rounded out by Kimble Rendall and, in 1981 they assume the name of Le Hoodoo Gurus.

In 1982 the group relocates to Sydney, New South Wales.  Le Hoodoo Gurus have an odd line-up with three guitarists (Faulkner, Radalji, Rendall), no bass player, and a drummer.  A track on their first album explains this oddity by creating the totally fictitious ‘Arthur’ who “Played the bass / He had an angel’s face / He jived with the Hoodoos, man / No one could take his place.”  It seems ‘Arthur’ “Needed extra cash / So he drove his brother’s cab”, making some more money as a taxi driver, only to perish in a traffic accident.  The band can’t bear to replace him.  It’s a typical example of the band’s wonky sense of humour.

Le Hoodoo Gurus release their first single in 1982.  ‘Leilani’ is written by Dave Faulkner.  The name is borrowed from an Australian racehorse, but the song is about a Pacific Island princess.  “Somewhere on a South Pacific island,” begins the tale, “Sits a young man staring at the sun / His native girlfriend died a death quite violent / A tribal sacrifice back to the earth / She was brown, her hair was black, her eyes were blue / A chief’s daughter, Leilani was her name.”  The young man pleads, “Leilani don’t go to the vol-ca-no.”  His cries are in vain because “The Ancient angry gods got in the way.”  A welter of faux native chants feature in the song: “Mtumba-hey-mtumba-ho” and a blood-curdling “Ungowa!!”  All this is set to a thudding glam rock grind that sounds uncomfortably similar to Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll, Parts 1 & 2” from 1972.  The young man is left to search for the remains of his loved one in “a terra cotta tile.”  The saga of ‘Leilani’ continues on the single’s flip-side.  The single is co-produced by the band and Martin Fabinyi, the head of Regular Records.

After ‘Leilani’, both Rod Radalji and Kimble Rendall leave the band.  They are replaced by guitarist Brad Shepherd (born 1 February 1961) and bassist Clyde Bramley.  The appointment of the latter puts a stop to questions about the lack of a bassist – and renders the witty ‘Arthur’ obsolete.  The French article is dropped and Le Hoodoo Gurus become The Hoodoo Gurus.  A hoodoo is a magic spell or a curse.  It is a term derived from the superstitious folklore of the southern American states.  A guru is a wise man or sage.  In combination, Hoodoo Gurus would be magical wise men – or maybe cursed messiahs?

Initially, The Hoodoo Gurus are characterised as a ‘psychobilly group.’  This is a boutique genre mixing rockabilly (itself a blend of hillbilly music and rock ‘n’ roll) with imagery from horror films.  The most famous exponents are U.S. band The Cramps.  The Hoodoo Gurus are also likened to U.S. power pop bands like The Fleshtones or other local N.S.W. bands who nod towards that style, bands like The Flaming Hands, The Sunnyboys and The Hitmen.  Dave Faulkner argues, “We don’t want to be seen to be waving some sort of psychedelic or Sixties punk banner because that really isn’t what we are about.”  As they develop, it becomes clear that The Hoodoo Gurus musical tastes are more omnivorous.  They are mainly dedicated to loud guitars and catchy tunes.

Dave Faulkner remains the central figure in the band as the primary singer and songwriter.  Although he also plays guitar, Faulkner defers to Brad Shepherd as the band’s lead guitarist.  In the odd song that has keyboard touches, it is Faulkner who plays the piano or organ.

The Hoodoo Gurus’ first – and finest – album is ‘Stoneage Romeos’ (1983) (AUS no. 29).  The title is taken from a Three Stooges theatrical short feature.  The album is dedicated to 1960s television characters and stars like Larry Storch (from ‘F-Troop’), Arnold Ziffel (the pig from ‘Green Acres’) and familiar names from ‘Get Smart’ and ‘Petticoat Junction.’  The album includes a new version of ‘Leilani’ that trumps the comparatively thin sound of the single thanks to producer Alan Thorne and the band’s new line-up.  The revised version of ‘Leilani’ is the best song in the Hoodoo Gurus catalogue.  ‘I Want You Back’ is a tale of love lost and found set to whiplash guitars: “What’s worse / She thinks it’s true / She always was a little bit confusing / She wasn’t worth the time I had to lose.”  ‘My Girl’ (AUS no. 35) opts for a more classic rock approach with a guitar rhythm like a lost 1950s teen heartthrob’s single and an electric piano that seems to have wandered in a decade later from a 1960s bubble gum hit:  “Once a girl took my love until I couldn’t take any more / Then I tried to pretend not to see what I couldn’t ignore / My girl don’t love me at all.”  The video for the song portrays ‘My Girl’ as a wayward greyhound.  ‘Tojo’ (AUS no. 80) blends two different pieces of history relating to the city of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory.  General Hideki Tojo was Japan’s military dictator during World War Two.  As Australia’ northernmost major population centre, Darwin was often under threat of Japanese invasion during those years as the forces of Imperial Japan spread across the Pacific Ocean.  Secondly, Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin on 24-25 December 1974, inflicting serious damage.  Dave Faulkner’s lyric merges the two events with a  love story: “Tracy / Tracy was angry / A bad mood / A bad mood / I told her / That it’s an ill wind / Blows no good / Blows no good / Then she told me / Tojo / Never made it / Tojo / Never made it to Darwin.”  All this is carried on an appropriately cyclonic guitar riff.  Beyond this, ‘Stoneage Romeos’ includes ‘Arthur’, the story of the Gurus lost bassist; the ode to necrophilia, ‘Dig It Up’ (“My girlfriend lives in the ground”); a mad scientist story called ‘In The Echo Chamber’ (“It was like a Phil Spector nightmare,” it claims, referencing the record producer famed for his echo-laden ‘wall of sound’); and closes with the loopy ‘I Was A Kamikaze Pilot’ (“They gave me a plane, but I couldn’t fly it home”).  The album is ‘excellent’ and ‘influential.’

James Baker leaves The Hoodoo Gurus after this album.  His replacement on drums, Mark Kingsmill, debuts on the band’s second album.

‘Mars Needs Guitars’ (1985) (AUS no. 5, US no. 140) is a title probably inspired by the sci-fi movie ‘Mars Needs Women’ (1966).  The first single is ‘Bittersweet’ (AUS no. 16).  It opens with guitars throbbing like bruises as Dave Faulkner declares, “You are my sword / Your love is its own reward / My heart / I have found / Gets carved surely by the pound.”  The guitars break like waves on the shore as he continues, “God knows, I’ve tried / Tried to hold you with all my might / But time has won / And I could never be that strong / (Don’t cry) I couldn’t be that strong / (Don’t cry) That used to be my favourite song / (Don’t cry) Tears so bittersweet / Fill my eyes whenever we meet / It’s always bittersweet.”  ‘Poison Pen’ (AUS no. 76) is highlighted by a howling harmonica as Dave points out “Everyone enjoys sharing a rumour / But when it’s aimed at you, it loses its humour.”  In discussing another track, Faulkner explains, “‘Like Wow – Wipeout’ (AUS no. 15) we recorded thinking that we could make a bit of racket and have some studio fun…It wasn’t until the producer [Charles Fisher] was at us to put it on the album ‘Mars Needs Guitars’, that we had our biggest hit.”  True to that description, it’s a slice of guitar thrash:  “I kiss the ground on which you walk / I kiss the lips through which you talk / I kiss the city of New York / Where I first met you.”  The love-struck narrator admires, “Your dress / Your caress / Oh yes, yes, yes / I’m impressed.”  ‘Death Defying’ (AUS no. 43) on the other hand is almost countryish, with a lilting slide guitar: “All my friends are dead / Or they’re dying / And our laughter turns into crying / It’s death defying.”  This album also furthers the band’s fortunes internationally, becoming a ‘college radio smash’ in the U.S.A.

‘Blow Your Cool’ (1987) (AUS no. 2, US no. 120) features an ‘outbreak of melodicism’.  ‘What’s My Scene’ (AUS no. 3) finds Dave Faulkner providing an energetic acoustic guitar strum while Brad Shepherd’s electric guitar breathlessly slides in just as the singer intones, “And another thing / I’ve been wondering lately / Am I crazy / To believe in ideals? / Well, I’m a betting man / But it’s getting damn lonely / Oh honey, if only I was sure what I feel / What’s my scene?”  Even more pop-oriented is ‘Good Times’ (AUS no. 36), a virtual duet with ‘tourmates’, U.S. girl group The Bangles.  A jaunty piano underpins their lively massed shouts.  This album ‘lets go of some of the quirkiness and concentrates on the band’s pop power.’  Mark Opitz, producer of many Australian hard rock works, oversees this album.

Clyde Bramley steps down after ‘Blow Your Cool’.  Rick Grossman, formerly associated with Australian bands Matt Finish and The Divinyls, assumes the role of bass player in The Hoodoo Gurus.  This line-up (Faulkner, Shepherd, Grossman, and Kingsmill) proves to be the band’s most stable.

In 1988 The Hoodoo Gurus release a one-off single, ‘The Generation Gap’ (AUS no. 45).  This is a cover version of Jeannie C. Riley’s 1970 country and western song rendered in the Gurus more familiar rock style.  The track is self-produced by the band.

Dave Thoener produces ‘Magnum Cum Louder’ (1989) (AUS no. 13, US no. 101).  The title is a pun on ‘magnum cum lauda’, a Latin phrase attached to higher education diplomas meaning a great achievement, or worthy of distinction.  Dave Faulkner may view this as fitting since he says, “I think we really found our identity on ‘Magnum Cum Louder’.”  The first single is ‘Come Anytime’ (AUS no. 27).  Heralded by a fast acoustic flourish, Dave Faulkner asks, “What is it you want from me? / There isn’t much I will not do / If it’s only company / You know I might need that too / Won’t you…come anytime / I’m a man or measure / Come anytime / I await your pleasure.”  A warm keyboard tone enlivens the latter stages of the song.  ‘Axegrinder’ (AUS no. 60) is quite literal, as it is a harsh, metallic assault [a guitar is colloquially referred to as an ‘axe’].  The song contains some witty lines: “I don’t mince words / I spit ‘em out / I won’t leave room for any doubt.”  ‘Another World’ (AUS no. 85) is a light-hearted alien encounter as Dave observes that, for a visitor from outer space, “You can’t escape from gravity / For you this earth’s a prison.”

“I bet you think I’m kinky, right?” asks a voice at the opening of ‘Miss Freelove ‘69’ (AUS no. 19), the first taste of the album titled ‘Kinky’ (1991) (AUS no. 8, US no. 172).  ‘Miss Freelove ‘69’ is described as ‘a smirking look at flower-power romance.’  With a sitar on the opening and soulful female backing vocals, it certainly tries to evoke the era.  The lyrics state: “You can take me anywhere / I’ll strip down to my underwear / If you give me half a chance / Hippie free love, outtasite / I’m gonna turn off every light / And hold a private dance.”  When “Someone called the cops on us,” the attending officers “Checked their badges at the door / Joined the action on the floor / And they laid their nightsticks down.”  The weariness of hard-travelling colours ‘1000 Miles Away’ (AUS no. 37) as Dave Faulkner rues the fact that he will spend “Half my life in airports / Doing crosswords or attempting to sleep / And when the bar is open / You’ll often find me warming a seat.”  The album also includes the daydreaming ‘Castles In The Air’ and ‘A Place In The Sun’ (AUS no. 99) where the guitars seem to shift in and out of focus.

Ed Stasium produces both ‘Kinky’ and its ‘harder-edged’ successor, ‘Crank’ (1994) (AUS no. 2).  This album includes the singles ‘The Right Time’ (AUS no. 41), ‘You Open My Eyes’ (AUS no. 43) and ‘Less Than A Feeling’ (AUS no. 26).  Both ‘Crank’ and ‘Blue Cave’ (1996) are viewed as ‘weaker efforts.’  Faced with an assessment that ‘it seems unlikely that The Hoodoo Gurus will rise above their current cult status’, the group disbands in 1998.

The Hoodoo Gurus regroup in 2003 and seem willing to accept an elder statesmen role.  The first fruit of this new era is ‘Mach Schau’ (2004).  The title is a pun on ‘mak show’, the exhortation used in Hamburg, Germany, to push the not-yet-famous Beatles to perform more energetically, to ‘make show’.  In The Hoodoo Gurus version, they use ‘Mach’, the measurement for jet speed (e.g. a plane that travels at Mach 2).  ‘Purity Of Essence’ (2010) (AUS no. 16) continues the band’s latter-day career.

So are The Hoodoo Gurus kitsch?  Their body of work is definitely ‘mass-produced art’.  It is probably ‘calculated to have popular appeal’; though it may be directed at a more educated cult audience rather than the masses.  “You can get away with a lot more when you play at inner-city venues than you can in the suburbs,” observed Dave Faulkner.  He moderated this by saying that the suburban audience “will appreciate a good song” even if rather than “meditate on the delicacies of the songwriting…They want the rush that music with real impact can give you.”  The Hoodoo Gurus would probably have accepted ‘gaudy’ as a description, but would take issue with being considered ‘unsubstantial.’  Faulkner contended, “I don’t care if people see me as an artist, although equally I don’t want to be seen as someone with nothing to say.”  Perhaps it can be accepted that The Hoodoo Gurus are kitsch – in a nice way.  They were entertainingly low-browed, rather than appallingly tacky.  ‘The Hoodoo Gurus were a wonderful hybrid of trash pop culture, infectious songs, and great live performances.’  ‘Australia’s Hoodoo Gurus were largely the product of their influences; unlike most bands, however, the Gurus channelled their inspiration…to create a distinctly kitschy and catchy sound.’

Sources:

  1. wikipedia.org as at 4 March 2013
  2. ‘The Big Australian Rock Book’, ‘Hoodoo Gurus’ by Ed St.John (Megabooks, 1985) p 82, 161
  3. sonicnet.com (as at 28 August 2001) p. 1
  4. allmusic.com, ‘Hoodoo Gurus’ by Jason Ankeny as at 7 December 2001
  5. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 143, 164
  6. ‘DVD & Video Guide 2007’ by Mick Martin, Marsha Porter (Ballantine Books, 2006( p. 715
  7. expressmag.com – 2012 Dave Faulkner interview (as at 4 March 2013)
  8. ‘Digging A Hole’ – Dave Faulkner interview dated 22 April 2010 (guestlisted.blogspot.com.au as at 4 March 2013)
  9. ‘The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away’ by Allan Williams, William Marshall (Coronet Books, 1975) p. 181

Song lyrics copyright EMI Music (1982-1983, 1991) and Mushroom Music (1985-1989)

Last revised 26 August 2014

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