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This site contains 160 portraits of rock stars and associated essays on their lives and music.

In the ‘search…’ field at top right of the screen, enter the names of any of the 160 artists listed in the table below.  An excerpt (the first few lines of the essay) will appear.  Click on that sample and be taken to the full picture and essay.

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The Waifs

Donna Simpson – circa 2007

 “We were both 18 the year that we met…One look at me and you thought I was odd” – ’A Brief History’ (Josh Cunningham)

“There was a connection that Donna [Simpson] felt that I felt as well,” says Josh Cunningham.  “It’s always felt very much like a family to me.  And I felt instantly welcomed into that from the very start.”  Josh may have felt a musical connection to Donna Simpson, but it is a more personal connection he feels to Donna’s sister, Vikki Simpson.  Donna and Vikki meet Josh after the girls play a gig in Broome, Western Australia, in August 1992.  It is the complex web of musical and personal relationships between the three members of The Waifs – Donna Simpson, Vikki Simpson and Josh Cunningham – that powers the act.

Donna Simpson is born in Albany, Western Australia, in 1970.  Her sister, Vikki Simpson, is born in Albany, Western Australia, in 1974.  “I’m four years older than Vik,” Donna confirms.  Donna and Vikki are the daughters of Jimmy Simpson.  He is a fisherman and hauls in salmon.  “Yeah, we played in vats of blood and these fish guts,” says Vikki.  “It happened sort of three months a year.  And there’s three families that go out there, and we’re the third generation actually, so our grandfather, and our father, and now us…They sit on the beach and they watch for schools of salmon coming along, and it’s a very old method of fishing.”  Jimmy Simpson’s regular fishing spot is a locale known as Cozy Corner Beach.

Donna Simpson’s father buys her a guitar when she is a teenager.  “I was 15 years old, and I hated school, and I wasn’t doing well, and suddenly I found something I could do, and that just blew my mind and by the end of the first day of playing guitar I was playing Bob Dylan songs,” recalls Donna.  While the music of that folk rock icon is highly influential, it is on the songs of early rock ‘n’ roll act The Everly Brothers that Donna practices singing harmony with her younger sister.  Vikki explains, “I just took a higher harmony over her…I don’t know how to harmonise [in technical terms].  It just came naturally.”  Aside from Bob Dylan and The Everly Brothers, Vikki lists their influences as Neil Young, The Eagles, The Beach Boys and Michelle Shocked.

On Vikki Simpson’s last day of school, her elder sister picks her up in a yellow Kombi van.  “I’d said to Vikki, you know, ‘We should go ‘round Australia’,” says Donna Simpson.   She tells Vikki, “Let’s just get out of here.  Let’s go travelling.”  Donna explains her motivation this way: “We were from this town where if we saw a car come through from over east with eastern State number plates, I mean I would just look at these cars and think, ‘Wow, they’re from over east.  They’re from Sydney and Wollongong and..’  It was really exciting for us.  So I bought this old van and I went and picked her up from school.”

Donna and Vikki Simpson perform as a duo called Colours.  They tour Western Australia playing cover versions of Bob Dylan songs, Everly Brothers songs, and blues songs in bars and pubs.  After a show in Broome in August 1992, the girls meet Josh Cunningham.

Joshua Hayden Cunningham is born in 1974 in New South Wales, Australia.  His parents are farmers in Moruya.  Josh receives his first guitar in 1987 when he is 13.  Immediately before meeting the Simpson sisters, Josh Cunningham plays bass in an all-male band.

Donna Simpson says of Josh Cunningham, “He picked up my guitar and started playing it and I was just, wow, I’d never heard an acoustic guitar played like that, and I just said, ‘You should join our band’.”  On another occasion, Donna describes the meeting slightly differently: “We jammed for about ten minutes and I asked him to join the band and he said, ‘Okay’…just like that, and we became The Waifs.”  Actually, from the time the Simpson sisters meet Cunningham in August 1992, it is not until at least ‘a year later’ that The Colours become The Waifs…but more on that shortly.  When Josh Cunningham joins the act, it not only alters the musical character of the group, it changes their personal chemistry.  He and Vikki Simpson become romantically involved and, as Vikki says, “Through all those years of touring, there was that dynamic going on.”  Vikki muses that, “Donna was somebody I was totally dependent on…When Josh and I got involved, I totally abandoned her and all my focus and attention went to someone else.”  For her part, Donna says, “It was really hard for me because I’d just found this new best friend in my sister and she fell in love with this guy and suddenly there were three of us in the van.  I loved Josh and I loved him being with us, but the dynamics definitely changed.”  With the new addition, the line-up is fixed as: Donna Simpson (vocals, acoustic guitar), Vikki Simpson (vocals, harmonica, acoustic guitar) and Josh Cunningham (guitar, vocals, mandolin, ukulele, dobro).

Through the rest of 1992 and 1993, The Colours – now a three-piece act – tour the countryside.  By the end of 1993, “Things got really tough on the road,” says Donna Simpson.  “So we all decided to go home.  And Josh [Cunningham] went to his family [in New South Wales], and virtually walked into the house and his grandmother said, ‘Oh look at my waif, my waif.’  And then we [Donna and Vikki Simpson] went home to our family and our grandmother said, ‘Oh here come the waifs..’”  A ‘waif’ is a ‘homeless person, especially a neglected child.’  This shared experience inspires The Colours to adopt the new name of The Waifs when they reconvene.

The Waifs continue to tour Western Australia until February 1996 when the trio relocates to Melbourne, Victoria, on the east coast of Australia.  A recording contract is obtained with Outside Music and The Waifs prepare to make their first album.

The music of The Waifs is usually described as folk music or, later, as folk rock.  This is a similar trajectory to that undertaken by their early inspiration, Bob Dylan.  In the United States or the United Kingdom, folk music is often about preserving traditional songs from decades or centuries earlier.  Australia has a shorter history of European settlement.  ‘Bush bands’ preserve the tunes of Australia’s colonial past.  The Waifs have never been part of that scene.  Instead, they adapt some of the traits of folk music – harmonies, acoustic guitars – to their own vision.  The sound of The Waifs is a kind of organic, wholemeal interpretation of plaintive singer-songwriter pop.

The songwriting in The Waifs is roughly evenly divided between the three members: Donna Simpson, Vikki Simpson and Josh Cunningham.  Generally, the individual writers take the lead vocal to their own compositions – though Josh sometimes cedes his songs to the ladies.  Since harmony singing features so strongly in their work, Donna and Vikki’s voices often blend together.  Both of them retain strong Australian accents in their singing.  Donna, the elder sister with the lighter hair, has a slightly huskier voice with a deeper pitch.  Her songs are often more humorous but can also be quite dark.  By contrast, her dark-haired younger sister has a higher, quirkier vocal tone.  Vikki’s songs are more romantic.  These are generalisations of course, but may help novices distinguish the different contributors.

A lot of the style of The Waifs is built on the sisterly bond between Donna and Vikki Simpson.  “My fights with Vikki are notorious,” admits Donna.  “We’ve had punch-ups.  I once hit her with a tambourine on stage.”  Donna grumbles that her younger sister is “very bossy and controlling”, but also says, “I look up to and admire her.”  Vikki says of Donna, “She’s very motivated and follows through on ideas.”

The debut album, ‘The Waifs’ (1996), is released in May.  The disc is co-produced by The Waifs, Mick Thomas (from Australian band Weddings, Parties, Anything) and Jen Anderson.  The last-named also plays violin on the recording sessions.  The best of Josh Cunningham’s songs on this set may be the wide-eyed youthful exuberance of ‘Take It In’.  Vikki Simpson handles the lead vocal, urging, “Take it in, take it all in / Now is a time that / Will not come again.”  ‘Gillian’ (with a hard ‘g’ as in ‘gate’) appears to be a tribute to Josh’s mother; it’s a song full of homespun veranda wisdom.  Josh’s acoustic guitar stalks through ‘Brain Damage’.  ‘Shiny Apple’ – which inspires the cover image – has a strongly Spanish feel with its clapping percussion.  All these Josh Cunningham compositions are handed over to the girls – primarily Vikki Simpson – to sing.  The pick of Vikki’s own songs is probably the dashing ‘Company’: “I just need a little company / I can’t stand it here by myself.”  She also pens the rubbery swing of ‘Circles’.  Donna Simpson’s ‘Crazy Train’ becomes a long-time staple of The Waifs’ live shows.  “Crazy train, rolling down that crazy track,” belts out Donna, “Going to New Orleans and I ain’t coming back.”  Vikki Simpson’s harmonica wails over the bluesy rhythm.  Donna also inhabits the part of a busking girl who falls for the ‘Sunflower Man’ who puts a flower – rather than some cash – in her guitar case.  Another Donna Simpson song is ‘Billy Jones’, an ode to a transvestite (transsexual?) that incorporates unlikely elements of rap, hip-hop and funk.  ‘The Waifs’ may be the most underrated album in the group’s catalogue.  It is ‘a more than adequate stab at troubadour folk and acoustic pop.’

‘Shelter Me’ (1998) is the second album by The Waifs.  Josh Cunningham writes the title track, ‘Shelter Me’, a geed up ode to one’s parents it seems.  The girls sing, “Keep me safe from myself / I can’t do it without your help / Your love’s the finest thing I’ve ever known…I can offer no excuse for this senseless self-abuse.”  Vikki Simpson takes the lead vocal on the highlights from this album.  ‘The River’, written by Josh Cunningham, is dark and brooding with a refrain that goes, “Running from the heart of it / Right into the cause of it.”  Vikki’s own ‘Spotlight’ has a dramatic twang to it.  Jen Anderson once more contributes violin to this album.  Andrew Entsch plays bass and Jeff Algra is on drums for this disc, the presence of a rhythm section making The Waifs sound more like a band than a trio of folk singers.

In 1998 David Ross Macdonald (drums) becomes an ‘auxiliary member’ of The Waifs.  From this point, he will play drums for the band both live and in the recording studio.

‘Sink Or Swim’ (2000) is characterised as a ‘charmer.’  Donna Simpson contributes two of her lightest and wittiest songs.  In the song titled ‘The Waitress’, Donna plays the part of a cash-strapped girl “working as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant.”  Donna’s ‘The Haircut’ is almost a feminist tract.  It is most notable for this eyebrow-raising section: “So now when I make love / I make love to myself / I got no disease / So it’s good for my health / I got my hands in my pants / Down my Calvin Kleins / I don’t need you no more, baby / I can come every time.”  Josh Cunningham steps up to take the lead vocal on his own song, ‘A Brief History’, which is an ambling chronicle of The Waifs’ career.  He duets with Vikki Simpson on his composition ‘Love Serenade’ in which they playfully trade lines like, “Honey, I’m sitting on top of the world / Just thinking about you” and “I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true / Honey, I’m in love with you / Going to show you what I can do.”  Cunningham hands other pieces he’s written to Vikki Simpson to sing.  This includes tracks like ‘Lies’, which is light as a spring shower, and the jaunty traveller’s folk song ‘When I Die’ in which the narrator wants to be buried in their hometown.  Jen Anderson plays violin with The Waifs for the last time on this set.

Ben Franz (bass, dobro) joins The Waifs in 2001 as the band’s other ‘auxiliary member’ with drummer David Ross Macdonald.  The Waifs now have a stable rhythm section behind them.

In 2001 Phil Stevens becomes the manager of The Waifs.  He is already managing another act from Western Australia, The John Butler Trio.

In 2001 The Waifs play the prestigious Newport Folk Festival in the United States for the first time and are described as ‘the darlings of [that] year’s festival.’

In July 2002, The Waifs, John Butler and Phil Stevens join forces to found the Jarrah record label.  The Waifs’ earlier recordings are subsequently rereleased on Jarrah in Australia (and on Compass overseas).  The new recordings after this date are, of course, also on Jarrah.

‘Up All Night’ (2003) (AUS no. 3), released in January, is The Waifs’ best album.  It also features The Waifs’ best song, Donna Simpson’s ‘London Still’ (AUS no. 49).  It is a song of homesickness, a curious mix of happiness and sadness.  “Wonder if you can pick up my accent on the phone when I call across the country, when I call across the world,” ponders Donna with an aching sense of absence.  Yet she is also plainly enjoying her overseas adventures: “I took the tube over to Camden to wander around / Bought some funky records with that old Motown sound.”  In a later interview, Donna notes that, “We used to write about travelling and being free and they were great days.”  ‘London Still’ may be the best of the ‘travelling songs.’  It lacks the sense of wonder of something like ‘Take It In’, but replaces it with a more mature sensibility, a sense of loss as profound as gain.  ‘London Still’ captures The Waifs at this balancing point between innocence and experience.  Its gorgeous melody seals its place at the top of the heap.  Donna Simpson revisits her roots in the autobiographical ‘Fisherman’s Daughter’.  In this deeply-etched, bluesy-folk piece she claims, “I don’t like gold / And I don’t like pearls / I’m just your regular West Australian / Fisherman’s daughter / I’m a middle class / Folk singing, guitar-playing girl.”  ‘Highway One’ finds Donna stating, “I got a place I do call mine” and setting aside her wanderlust.  Los Angeles jazz musician Bobby Hutcherson is given a co-writer’s credit for ‘Highway One’ since it apparently takes some elements from his 1978 composition of the same name.  The pick of Josh Cunningham’s songs on ‘Up All Night’ is the remarkable ‘Lighthouse’, an unusual effort that is both poignant and kinda funky.  Vikki Simpson tears into the vocal, wailing, “Oh, lighthouse man, I’m all at sea / Shine a little lighthouse light on me.”  Vikki is also tasked with the lead vocal on Cunningham’s excoriating ‘Flesh and Blood’.  “All you’ll see is what you’re shown / Flesh and blood, skin and bone,” she snarls through gritted teeth.  Josh Cunningham takes the lead vocals himself for his bittersweet, nostalgic ‘Since I’ve Been Around’, revisiting his old hometown.  ‘Up All Night’ is co-produced by The Waifs, Chris Thompson and Steven Schram.  As well as the regular band members Ben Franz (bass) and David Ross Macdonald (drums), the sound is boosted by Bruce Haymes (keyboards) for this album only.  The result is a well rendered work of art as opposed to an endearing sketch.  ‘Up All Night’ is also the first Waifs album to make the charts.  Vikki Simpson reminisces, “We were nonchalant about releasing albums.  We’d released three already and had learned not to put too much hope behind an album because you’re usually disappointed.  So [the commercial success of ‘Up All Night’] was a surprise, but we took it in our stride.  It was all very exciting but it didn’t seem real to us because it was such a new experience.”  On another occasion, Vikki says, “The ‘Up All Night’ tour [was our most memorable]…Suddenly there was this whole wave of people that didn’t know anything about our back catalogue or our past history and were really there on the basis of one or two songs.  They were hearing the band for the first time.  That was really exciting.”

The Waifs are selected as the support act for the 2003 Australian tour by Bob Dylan, the recording artist who so influenced them in their earliest days.  They go on to join Dylan’s 2003 North American tour, including a second gig at the Newport Folk Festival.

On the 2003 Bob Dylan tour, The Waifs meet Ben Weaver, a U.S. singer-songwriter.  Donna Simpson falls in love with Ben Weaver.  “We just hit it off,” she reports.  “We drank a bottle of whiskey before the show.”  Donna Simpson goes on to marry Ben Weaver and they have a son named Franklin (born 2006).

Vikki Simpson pens The Waifs’ 2004 single ‘Bridal Train’ (AUS no. 50).  She offers this explanation of the song’s origin: “My grandmother was a war bride after the Second World War.  She met Bob Cain, he was an American sailor.  And they met in Perth [the capital city of Western Australia], and after a very brief engagement, married and then he was sent away.  She received a telegram at about midnight one night saying, ‘Pack your things.  There’s a train, the U.S. Navy is chartering a train to take war brides to Sydney [the capital city of New South Wales on Australia’s east coast].  And from Sydney you can board a ship, and we’ll take you across to America to be with your husbands.’”  And so, the lyrics to ‘Bridal Train’ say, “All the girls around Australia / Married to a Yankee sailor / The fare is paid across the sea / To the home of the brave and the land of the free / From west to east the young girls came / All aboard the bridal train / It was a farewell crossing of her land / She’s gone to meet her sailor man.”  Vikki’s vocal for this song is heart-rending.  Added poignancy comes from some delicate ukulele work by Josh Cunningham.

The romantic relationship between Vikki Simpson and Josh Cunningham ‘breaks down’ in 2004.  Her sister, Donna, comments, “When Josh and Vikki broke up…They were extremely private…That was a twelve-year relationship.”

‘A Brief History’ (2004) (AUS no. 23), released in November, is a double album of live recordings by The Waifs.  Actually, ‘Bridal Train’ is present both in its studio version and a live version.  As well as The Waifs’ best known tunes, the set includes live versions of The Waifs’ interpretations of Bob Dylan’s 1963 song ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ and country music legend Patsy Cline’s 1962 song ‘Crazy’.  Beyond that, there are interesting Waifs rarities like ‘Papa’, ‘Willow Tree’ and ‘Here If You Want’.

A quiet period for The Waifs follows from 2005 to 2007.  During this time, Vikki Simpson marries Matt Thorn.  From this point, she uses her married name, Vikki Thorn, when working with The Waifs.  Vikki and Matt live on a farm in Utah in the U.S.A.  They have three sons: Noah, Elijah and Jesse (the youngest is born in June 2011).

The Waifs return with ‘Sun Dirt Water’ (2007) (AUS no. 2) in September.  The title track, ‘Sun Dirt Water’ (AUS no. 32), is written by Vikki Thorn and is purportedly about her husband, Matt.  “Would you trade me for all the pretty girls / All the ones who came before?” asks Vikki in the opening lines.  With jazzy menace, she purrs, “Well if you’re holding out on something / Then just reach and you’ll rise above / Give me sun, give me dirt, give me water / Give me sweet everlasting love.”  In a slightly different interpretation, Donna Simpson claims to be the ‘dirt’ in the ‘Sun Dirt Water’ equation, leaving it open to speculation about which one of Vikki Thorn and Josh Cunningham is sun and which one is water.  The album’s other highlight is Donna Simpson’s ‘Vermillion’, a sad, hard luck tale of a rough upbringing.  ‘Vermillion’ is a shade of red, but it’s also the name of a real place.  As the tag line in the song puts it, “Ain’t never going back to Vermillion, South Dakota / I never could return.”  The album ‘Sun Dirt Water’ is described as ‘a new, more basic approach to roots music.’  However, after this album there are also rumours ‘that the group may have run its course.’

Donna Simpson goes through ‘serious personal problems that end in divorce and a period in rehab.’  In 2008 she is admitted to Hazeldean Treatment Center in Minnesota, U.S.A. ‘for alcohol addiction.’  During 2009 Donna Simpson and her husband, Ben Weaver, get a divorce.

‘Live From The Union Of Soul’ (2009) (AUS no. 48), issued in January, is another concert recording by The Waifs.  The performances are drawn from a tour The Waifs undertook with their label mates, The John Butler Trio.  Butler himself duets with The Waifs on a version of ‘From Little Things’, a song co-written by Australian singers Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody and originally recorded by Kelly in 1991 and Carmody in 1993.  Another Australian singer, Claire Bowditch, appears with The Waifs on this album for a rendition of ‘I Remember You’, a song made famous by Frank Ifield in 1962.

In 2009 Josh Cunningham undertakes a Bible study course in California, U.S.A. and begins a ‘voyage of discovery.’  “When I got to my mid-30s,” Josh attempts to explain, “I guess there comes a point in life when you start asking big questions.”  For Josh, the answers to those questions are found when he seriously devotes himself to Christianity.  In 2010 Josh Cunningham marries a woman named Jackie and they make a home for themselves in California ‘where he dedicates much of his time to this new-found religious faith.’

‘Temptation’ (2011) (AUS no. 8) is released in March.  Josh Cunningham’s religious dedication is underlined by songs like ‘Moses And The Lamb’ and the title track, ‘Temptation’.  The latter is a stark and harsh gospel song with Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson providing moaning harmonies.  “Forty days and nights in the wilderness Jesus hungered there,” Josh preaches, going on to insist, “Flee from me devil, flee / For I am on a narrow way and I have no need of thee.”  Vikki Thorn supplies some passionate harmonica and takes the lead vocal for the last part of the song ‘Temptation’.  Vikki’s own ‘Daydreamer’ is rickety vaudeville with Josh on banjo as she asks, “Where do we take it from here?”  Donna Simpson’s experiences with alcohol addiction are reflected in her songs like ‘I Learn The Hard Way’ and ‘Just Like Me’.  Donna’s ‘Falling’ is a love song that matches a raw vocal to a delicate melody as she acknowledges, “I’ve been in love once before / I know the drill, I know the score.”  Donna points out in an interview that, “Now Vikki and I write about probably the more mature relationships, real love, instead of that flossy love.”  Josh Cunningham says of ‘Temptation’, “This album is a return to our distinctive sound.  I think the last album, above all the others we have made, sounded like a departure.”  It may be closer to the mark to say that ‘Temptation’ sounds like a ‘particularly gruelling therapy session.’

Josh Cunningham releases a solo album, ‘Into Tomorrow’ (2011).

Donna Simpson finds new love in an unusual way.  She accepts a lift into Fremantle, Western Australia, from a fan who attends the gig The Waifs have just performed.  “I immediately fell in love with him,” reports Donna.  Publicly identified only as ‘JP’, Donna’s new love is a stonemason.  Donna has been living in Minneapolis since 2008.  “Then he [JP] came over to America and brought me home [to Fremantle] and now we have these two gorgeous little boys.”  Although they do not marry, Donna and JP have two sons, Blue (born October 2012) and Sonny Jim (born December 2013).  Franklin (or ‘Frankie’), Donna’s eldest son, remains in the U.S. with Donna’s ex-husband, Ben Weaver.

In 2014 Donna Simpson and Vikki Thorn play some gigs without Josh Cunningham under the name of The Stray Sisters.

The Waifs intend to write their next album collectively, but the experiment fails.  Instead, ‘Beautiful You’ (2015) (AUS no. 5), is made up of contributions from the act’s three individual songwriters.  Vikki Thorn contributes ‘Black Dirt Track’, a gently nostalgic reminiscence about the path once trod by “bare brown feet”.  Vikki asks, “Who could have known / I’d be walking it now / With a child of my own?”  Vikki also offers a ‘storming blues-rocker’ called ‘February’.  Josh Cunningham’s song ‘6000 Miles’ is ‘a country-tinged road trip.’  Donna Simpson pens the title track, ‘Beautiful You’, about ‘lending a helping hand to someone battling addiction’ (“If looks could kill you would have killed me a thousand times over”).  Donna’s contributions also include ‘When A Man Gets Down’, ‘an emotional post-mortem’, and ‘Rowena And Wallace’.  The album ‘Beautiful You’ is the work of ‘three separate individuals’ but ‘that’s the charm of The Waifs, that creative push and pull.’

Through years of recordings, gigs and tours, it was the personal relationships that existed between The Waifs that sustained them.  Over the course of their musical career, Donna Simpson, Vikki Thorn and Josh Cunningham all went through heartbreak and marriage and the girls also became mothers.  Even alcohol addiction (Donna), religious conversion (Josh) and residing overseas (all three of them) did not put an end to The Waifs.  The strength of that bond was stronger than their acoustic guitar strings.  The Waifs were ‘acoustic based but not exclusively or aggressively folky.’  They provided ‘music that entertained and touched the heart and soul –whether they were singing about Australian locations or places far flung.’

Sources:

  1. lyricsfreak.com as at 3 September 2015
  2. allmusic.com, ‘Sink Or Swim’ review by Jason MacNeil as at 4 September 2015
  3. ‘Enough Rope’ (Australian television program, Australian Broadcasting Commission) – interview with The Waifs conduction by Andrew Denton (20 August 2007) – text reproduced on abc.net.au/tv/enoughrope/transcripts/s20110240.htm
  4. allmusic.com, ‘The Waifs’ by Jason MacNeil as at 31 August 2015
  5. wikipedia.org as at 30 August 2015
  6. Lip magazine – ‘Interview: The Waifs’ by Dunja Nedic (10 February 2011) reproduced on lipmag.com
  7. ABC News – ‘Sisterhood Unites The Waifs as they Embark on National Tour’ by Claire Moodie (23 November 2014), abc.net.au
  8. thewaifs.com.au, ‘About’ – no author credited – as at 31 August 2015
  9. ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ (Sydney, New South Wales, Australian newspaper) – ‘Two of Us: Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson’ by Amy McNeilace (3 May 2014), reproduced on smh.com.au
  10. ‘The Australian Contemporary Dictionary’, Edited by J.B. Foreman, M.A. (Collins Publishers, 1969) p. 543
  11. allmusic.com, ‘The Waifs’ album review by Jason MacNeil as at 4 September 2015
  12. metrolyrics.com as at 3 September 2015
  13. allmusic.com, ‘Shelter Me’ review by Jason MacNeil as at 4 September 2015
  14. sing365.com as at 4 September 2015
  15. ‘Newport Daily News’ (U.S. newspaper) (August 2001) via (5) above
  16. allmusic.com, ‘Up All Night’ review by Jesse Jarnow as at 4 September 2015
  17. ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ (Sydney, New South Wales, Australian newspaper) (October 2003) via (5) above
  18. ‘Townsville Bulletin’ (Townsville, Queensland, Australian newspaper) – ‘Waifs Come Home’ by Kathy McCabe via (5) above
  19. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Victoria, Australian newspaper) – ‘Waifs Savour the Dylan Moment’ by Cameron Adams (6 September 2007), reproduced on heraldsun.com
  20. ‘The West Australian’ (Western Australia, Australian newspaper) – ‘Waif Finds Love with a Stray Fan’ by Lucy Gibson (19 March 2014), reproduced on au.news.yahoo.com/the west
  21. ‘The Waifs Newsletter’ by ‘Vikki Waif’ (26 July 2011, 25 November 2012, 18 January 2014, 22 February 2014) via (8) above
  22. allmusic.com, ‘Sun Dirt Water’ review by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr. as at 4 September 2015
  23. ‘The Australian’ (Australian newspaper) – ‘The Waifs: Key to Success’ by Iain Sheddon (19 February 2011), reproduced on theaustralian.com.au
  24. allmusic.com, ‘Live From The Union Of Soul’ review by Rick Anderson as at 4 September 2015
  25. allmusic.com, ‘Temptation’ review by Jon O’Brien as at 4 September 2015
  26. songmeanings.com as at 3 September 2015
  27. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Victoria, Australian newspaper) – ‘The Waifs’ Separate Lives Pay Off Again’ by Cameron Adams (13 August 2015) p. 38
  28. allmusic.com, ‘Beautiful You’ review by Timothy Monger as at 4 September 2015
  29. ‘A Brief History’ – Sleeve notes by Brian Wise (Jarrah Records, 2004) p. 3

Song lyrics copyright unknown

Last revised 14 September 2015

Sly And The Family Stone

Sly Stone – circa 1971

 “You can’t take me for granted and smile / Because I promise I’ll be gone for a while” – ’If You Want Me To Stay’ (Sylvester Stewart)

Will he turn up?  That’s the question on the minds of the audience at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. on 15 February 1970.  Sly Stone, the leader of Sly And The Family Stone, is beginning to develop a reputation for failing to turn up for his own concerts.  Generally, he just seems…flaky.  At an earlier stage of his career, Sly was an endearing oddball, but not it seems he is testing the patience of his fans and supporters.  As it happens, the star of the show arrives five hours late on this evening.  The ‘disquieted’ audience inflicts one thousand dollars’ worth of damage on the venue and eighteen audience members are arrested.  How did things get to this point?

Sly Stone is born Sylvester Stewart on 15 March 1943 in Denton, Texas, U.S.A.  He is the second child of K.C. Stewart and his wife, Alpha Stewart.  Sylvester has an older sister, Loretta.  He is born into a ‘deeply religious middle-class household.’  His parents are parishioners at the Church of God in Christ.

Sylvester Stewart is still a small child when his parents leave Texas with their two kids.  The Stewart family relocates to Vallejo, California, ‘a factory town on the wrong side of San Francisco Bay.’  K.C. Stewart, Sly’s father, runs a janitorial business in Vallejo and is a Deacon in the local Pentecostal Church.

The Stewart family expands with three more children born to K.C. and Alpha Stewart in Vallejo.  The three younger children are: a daughter, Rose (born Rosemary Stewart, 21 March 1945), a son, Freddie (born Frederick Jerome Stewart, 5 June 1947), and another daughter, Vet (born Vaetta Stewart, 2 May 1950).

At grade school, young Sylvester Stewart gains the nickname ‘Sly’.  A friend misspells Sylvester as ‘Slyvester’ and this is jokingly cut down to ‘Sly’.   In any case, ‘Sly’ is a common nickname for people named Sylvester.

The four younger children in the Stewart family – Sly, Rose, Freddie and Vet – begin performing as The Stewart Four in various churches around the San Francisco Bay area.  Their elder sister, Loretta, provides piano accompaniment to the youngsters’ vocal harmonies.  (Loretta bows out of music after this; she is the only one of the five Stewart children not to go on to a career in music.)  Vet Stewart recalls, “We travelled around from church to church, all over California, performing concerts.  We thought we were just like any other family.  We had no idea.”  In 1952, when Sly is 8 years old, The Stewart Four records a 78 R.P.M. single, ‘On The Battlefield’ (a.k.a. ‘On The Battlefield For My Lord’) backed with ‘Walking In Jesus’ Name’.  “I just remember the [recording] studio,” claims Sly.  “I just enjoyed singing in the choir…I remember I wanted to become a preacher at the time.”  This single is the only recorded work by The Stewart Four and the act quietly fades out as the kids grow older.

Although all the Stewart children display some musical aptitude, it is Sly who is considered a ‘musical prodigy.’  He learns to play piano by the time he is 7 years old and can also play guitar, bass and drums by the time he is 11.  Despite his multi-instrumental ability, during his high school years Sly mostly plays guitar.

When he is 16 Sylvester Stewart forms a vocal group, The Webs.  Late in 1959, The Webs merge with another Vallejo High School vocal group, The Viscounts.  The latter outfit includes Frank Arellano and Charlene Imhoff.  The new act carries on the name of The Viscounts and its new line-up is Frank Arellano, Charlene Imhoff, Sly Stewart, Maria ‘Ria’ Boldway and the brothers Charles and Vern Gebhardt.  A rather more professional act called The Viscounts had a hit in 1958 with a song called ‘Harlem Nocturne’.  To avoid confusion with these Viscounts, the teenagers change the name of their act to The Viscaynes.  The name is inspired by the Biscayne, a model of Chevy motor vehicle.  The ‘B’ is changed to ‘V’ to emphasise their Vallejo roots.  The 1961 edition of The Viscaynes consists of Frank Arellano, Charlene Imhoff, Sly Stewart, Ria Boldway, Charlie Gebhardt and Mike Stevens.  In 1961 they record the single ‘Yellow Moon’ b/w ‘Uncle Sam’.  It becomes ‘a regional hit’ in November 1961.  Another single is recorded, ‘Stop What You Are Doing’ b/w ‘I Guess I’ll Be’, which is credited to The Viscaynes And The Ramblers.  A second pressing changes the credit to Sly Stewart & The Viscaynes.  The second single is less successful.  By then, the kids are out of school and the act breaks up.

The interesting thing about The Viscaynes is that, with the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen to prefigure Sly And The Family Stone in some ways.  Firstly, the act has both male and female members.  Secondly, they are multi-racial.  Although most of the members of The Viscaynes are white kids, Sly Stewart is African-American and Frank Arellano is Filipino.

‘At Vallejo Junior College, Sly Stone majors in music for three semesters, with an emphasis on theory and composition, and sings in the college choir.’

Sylvester Stewart ‘puts various bar bands together for weekend dates.’  These outfits include the ‘short-lived’ Stewart Bros. with his sibling, Freddie.

A three-month course at the Chris Borden School of Modern Broadcasting gives Sylvester Stewart enough technical know-how to score a job as a disc jockey at radio station KSOL in 1964.  Using the name Sly Stone, Stewart plays ‘super soul.’  At this time, ‘soul’ is virtually a code word for ‘music made by African-Americans.’  With good humour, Sly recalls that, “I played [Bob] Dylan, the Beatles and The [Rolling] Stones.”  That means he played music by white recording artists as well as black recording artists.  “’But you’re not allowed to play white people, not at this radio station’, that’s what they said,” Sly reports.  “I said, ‘Okay’, and then I played what I want to play anyway.”  ‘Employing request lines and such stunts as flushing toilet sounds after [laxative product] Ex-Lax commercials and live piano renditions of “Happy Birthday” for listeners, he builds a solid following.’  Sly claims, “I used to sing all the time anyway.  I brought a piano in there [to the radio station].  Y’know some commercials, I made ‘em up myself.”

While working as a disc jockey, Sylvester Stewart continues to play in bands.  Even with this extra-curricular activity, money is still a problem.  “I was making thirty-five dollars a week.  [When the opportunity arose to act as a record producer] I had to produce…or steal.”

Two former disc jockeys, Tom ‘Big Daddy’ Donohue and Bob Mitchell, form Autumn Records and hire Sylvester Stewart to produce recording sessions for them.  Under the name of Danny Stewart, Sly is his own first customer.  But after two singles – ‘I Just Learned To Swim’ and ‘Buttermilk, Parts 1 & 2’ – prove ‘undistinguished’, he is encouraged to produce sessions for some other acts.  Sly produces recordings for The Beau Brummels, The Mojo Men, Bobby Freeman and Great Society.  The most successful of these efforts may be ‘C’mon and Swim’, which is a hit (US no. 5) in 1965 for Bobby Freeman.  The most significant though is Great Society, a band that includes singer Grace Slick who goes on to join Jefferson Airplane.  Sly puts the group through two hundred takes of a song called ‘Free Advice’…which winds up on the B side of ‘Somebody To Love’ (the latter song is more famously recorded soon after by Jefferson Airplane).

Sylvester Stewart’s youngest sister, Vet Stewart, begins a recording career of her own in 1966.  More accurately, the vocal group she forms begins a recording career.  The Heavenly Tones is a vocal group consisting of four African-American teenage girls: Vet Stewart, Mary McCreary, Elva ‘Tiny’ Morton and Tramaine Hawkins.  The Heavenly Tones issue an album, ‘I Love The Lord’ (1966) on the Gospel label, and a single, ‘He’s Alright’ b/w ‘Precious Lord’, on the Music City label.

While Sylvester Stewart works as a producer for Autumn Records, his alter ego Sly Stone continues to work as a disc jockey but moves from KSOL to KDIA in Oakland, California.  By 1966 he is also playing gigs with his own group, The Stoners – though the act ‘doesn’t last long.’  One of the members of The Stoners is Cynthia Robinson (born 12 January 1946 in Sacramento, California).  She is an African-American trumpet player.  Cynthia claims to have been unaware that the Sylvester Stewart she knows in The Stoners is also the Sly Stone she listens to on the radio.

Sly Stone’s brother, Freddie Stewart, has his own band: Freddie And The Stone Souls.  Sly plays with this act sometimes.  Freddie’s band has a white drummer, Greg Errico (born 1 September 1948 in San Francisco, California).  Greg has a cousin, Jerry Martini (born 1 October 1943 in Denver, Colorado).  Jerry is responsible for the next stage in the history of Sly And The Family Stone.  “I said [to Sly], ‘You’re a great disc jockey, but imagine what a great band leader you could be’,” recalls Jerry Martini.  Sly Stone acknowledges this important moment.  “Jerry Martini is the guy who really started it.  This guy plays saxophone in the group now…So we started looking around for everybody other than my brother [Freddie Stewart] and my sister [Rose Stewart] ‘cos they were automatically in if I said so.”

Sly And The Family Stone is founded in 1967.  The group’s first – and best – line-up is: Sly Stone (vocals, organ, guitar, bass, piano, horn and more), Freddie Stone (guitar, vocals), Rose Stone (piano, vocals), Jerry Martini (saxophone), Cynthia Robinson (trumpet, vocal ad libs), Larry Graham (bass, vocals) and Greg Errico (drums).  This is basically a merger of The Stoners (Sly and Cynthia) and The Stone Souls (Freddie and Greg).  Freddie Stewart and Rose Stewart both use the stage name Stone to match their brother, Sly.  Although Sly usually played guitar in The Stoners, in Sly And The Family Stone he most often plays organ.  Sometimes Sly plays guitar instead, depending on the needs of the song.  Sometimes he just sings.  Sometimes his multi-instrumental capabilities are put to use as a kind of utility musician.  The ‘vocal ad libs’ with which Cynthia Robinson is credited are not really backing vocals.  They are more like a bark or shout.  She often sounds like the master of ceremonies or the ringmaster of a circus…though it is, of course, Sly Stone who really occupies that role.

Larry Graham, Jr. is born 14 August 1946 in Beaumont, Texas, but grows up in Oakland, California.  He is the cousin of Sly, Freddie and Rose.  Larry’s parents were both professional musicians.  Alternating between bass and organ, Larry accompanies his mother, a professional pianist, for four years in local clubs before he is recruited to Sly And The Family Stone.

Sly Stone’s youngest sister, Vet Stewart, is never officially a member of Sly And The Family Stone.  Her vocal group, The Heavenly Tones, undergoes a shake-up in 1967.  Tramaine Hawkins leaves the act and, sticking with gospel music, she becomes quite successful as a solo act.  The other three girls – Vet Stewart, Mary McCreary and Elva ‘Tiny’ Morton – take on the new group name of Little Sister.  From the start, they provide backing vocals for Sly And The Family Stone.

The music played by Sly And The Family Stone is described as psychedelic soul or funk.  Soul is a genre that is almost exclusively the province of African-American acts.  The difference between soul and rhythm and blues – the other dominant style for African-American musicians of the era – is that soul has a greater gospel influence, borrowing vocal stylings and song structures from the music played in excitable, highly passionate black churches.  Psychedelic music evokes the experience of mind-altering drugs, usually by employing whimsical lyrical images and eccentric instrumentation and arrangements.  Psychedelic soul – taking the two genres in combination – is a heady, ecstatic brew that appeals to black hipsters of the late 1960s.  Funk has elements of rhythm and blues and soul but is marked out by its rhythmic power.  Funk is dance music.  It is sharply staccato with each instrument considered a drum, keeping an emphasis on the beat rather than longer notes.

“When we started doing our own thing, it really was our own thing, and we threw all the other things out the window,” reports Freddie Stone.  Sly Stone points out that, “The people in the group were R & B [rhythm and blues] and pop.  There were not only black people in the group or guys in the group.  There were guys and girls and black and white so you get all that input.  You get all that sound…In my mind…I thought if everybody could be represented on one stage and having fun it would psych the audience into havin’ fun.  Y’know what I mean?”  The music of Sly And The Family Stone proves attractive to a white audience as well as black listeners.  Sly offers this theory on why this multi-racial audience exists for his act: “I think it has to do with songs that involve everybody and a message that involves everybody.  Everybody wants to be happy and the songs that we do are songs that, I feel, should make everybody happy and I think that’s basically it.”  The group is ‘fitted in costumes that skirt the outer limits of hippie psychedelia, thrift shop chic, and eye-popping one-of-a-kind patterns.’  Rose Stone usually sports a platinum wig.  Sly Stone is perhaps the biggest dandy of the bunch, resembling nothing so much as the pimp behind a stable of ladies-of-the-night.  Bassist Larry Graham sums up the image of the group in these words: “It was very deliberate: men and women, different races, dressing different!…We were allowed to use our creativity, to have freedom of expression in how we played.”

It is perhaps Larry Graham who makes the greatest use of that ‘freedom of expression.’  He is ‘credited with the invention of the slapping technique’, though he calls it ‘thumpin’ and pluckin’.’  Larry developed the slap bass technique ‘in an earlier band to compensate for that band’s lack of a drummer.’  Rock music bass players sometimes use a plectrum in the same fashion as guitarists; in other instances, the thick bass strings are twanged with the fingertips.  Larry Graham virtually uses his thumb as a plectrum, ‘slapping’ at the face of the instrument.  Traditionally, bass is the most subtle and ‘invisible’ instrument in a rock band.  Graham’s style pushes the bass to the fore, threatening to snap strings through the aggressive playing.  The resultant flat and fat sound becomes synonymous with funk because it heightens the lower end of the mix and improves the ‘danceability’ of the groove and melody.

Virtually all of the songs recorded by Sly And The Family Stone are written by Sly Stone.  He also acts as the producer of their recording sessions.  As lead singer and multi-instrumentalist, he shapes the sound of the band.  There is a reason why the band is called ‘Sly And The Family Stone’, rather than just ‘The Family Stone.’  Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart) is the architect of the act’s music in all ways.

The first single by Sly And The Family Stone is 1967’s ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’.  It is released on a local label, Loadstone, and is a ‘regional hit.’  David Kapralik becomes the band’s manager and is later aided by Bubba Banks.  The act moves to Epic Records, a major U.S. label, which issues almost all of the subsequent recordings by Sly And The Family Stone.

Sly And The Family Stone issue their debut album, ‘A Whole New Thing’ (1967), in October.  ‘Underdog’ is the chosen single from the album.  It is assertive and brassy, championing the battlers…but it is not a hit.  Also present on this album is the robust and muscular ‘I Cannot Make It’.  ‘A Whole New Thing’ is described as the ‘most conventionally soul-like album’ by the group and ‘a wake-up call’ but, commercially, ‘the record stiffs.’

Late in 1967, Sly And The Family Stone enjoy their first real hit single.  ‘Dance To The Music’ (US no. 8, UK no. 7) is a whirling and joyous thing.  It blends doo wop harmonies with a funky groove.  The vocal is passed around the group.  It begins with trumpeter Cynthia Robinson commanding, “Get up and dance to the music!”  After some doo wop harmonising, guitarist Freddie Stone calls, “Hey Greg!”  “What?” responds drummer Greg Errico.  Freddie continues, “All we need is a drummer / For people who only need a beat, yeah / I’m gonna add a little guitar / And make it easy to move your feet.”  Bassist Larry Graham chimes in with a deep voice, “I’m gonna add some bottom / So that dancers just won’t hide.”  Sly Stone completes the round with the words, “You might like to hear my organ / I said, ‘Ride, Sally, ride’,” referencing ‘Mustang Sally’, the 1966 soul song made famous by Wilson Pickett.  ‘Dance To The Music’ (1968) (US no. 142) becomes the title track of the second album by Sly And The Family Stone, released in April.  This disc also includes the call-and-response stylings of ‘Are You Ready?’  Another track, ‘Higher’, goes unrecognised at the time but will be revisited later.

The group’s third album, ‘Life’ (1968) (US no. 195), follows five months later in September.  This ‘wildly experimental’ effort features the fairground funk of ‘Fun’, in which Sly Stone advises, “When I party, I party hearty / Fun is on my mind.”  Almost cartoonish, ‘M’Lady’ (US no. 93, UK no. 32) has bassist Larry Graham rumbling, “A pretty face, a pretty face / Oh what a gorgeous mind.”  The title track, ‘Life’ (US no. 93, UK no. 37), is carnival candy corn whose lyrics urge, “Life, life / Tell it like it is / You don’t have to die before you live.”  Another notable track on this set, ‘Love City’, is offset by blaring horns.

On 11 September 1968 Sly And The Family Stone arrive in London for a tour of the United Kingdom.  However bassist Larry Graham is charged with possession of cannabis.  Consequently, a BBC television appearance is cancelled and a London hotel refuses to honour the reservations of the group.  A week later, Sly And The Family Stone return to the U.S.A. without having given any British performances.

‘Everyday People’ (US no. 1, UK no. 36) is the first of three U.S. no. 1 singles by Sly And The Family Stone.  It has the longest reign as a chart-topper of the trio, holding that position from 15 February to 8 March 1969.  “The butcher, the banker, the drummer and then / Makes no difference what group I’m in,” runs the lyric, glorifying individuality and ignoring categorisation.  Rose Stone sings the refrain, “Different strokes for different folks,” the simple yet clear plea for racial harmony embodied by the band’s own multi-coloured membership.  The appeal of ‘Everyday People’ is only enhanced by its high quality flipside, the supple and percussive ‘Sing A Simple Song’ (US no. 89, UK no. 36).  Trumpeter Cynthia Robinson urges in her distinctive roar, “Sing a simple song / Try a little do re mi fah so la ti do.”  Or, as Sly Stone’s lead vocal puts it, “A simple song might make it better for a little while.”

‘Everyday People’ and ‘Sing A Simple Song’ are both included on ‘Stand’ (1969) (US no. 13, AUS no. 9), released in May.  This is the best album by Sly And The Family Stone.  The next single consists of two more songs from this set: ‘Stand’ b/w ‘I Want To Take You Higher’.  ‘Stand’ (US no. 22) is a rhythm and blues infused request for affirmative action: “Stand! / You’ve been sitting much too long / There’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong / Stand!”  Some see this song as a ‘Black Power anthem.’  ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ (US no. 60) is a reworking of ‘Higher’ from the group’s second album.  Against a chanting and pulsing backdrop, the lead vocal is passed around the group in this fashion: “(Freddie) Feeling’s gettin’ stronger / (Larry) Music’s gettin’ longer too / (Rose) Music is flashin’ me / (Sly) I want to take you higher.”  The incendiary funk of ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’ is ‘an ironic, humorous commentary on race relations.’  ‘Somebody’s Watching You’ features some throaty organ playing by Sly Stone.  ‘You Can Make It If You Try’ is group therapy in a groovy way – or a ‘motivational soul-sermon.’  ‘Stand’ is the ‘break-through success’ for Sly And The Family Stone.  It is ‘party politics at its most inclusive and exciting.’  This album is the act’s best because it balances utopian optimism with clear-eyed realism and pop melodies with relentless funk.  It is the quintessential work in their catalogue.

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair is held over 15-17 August 1969 at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York.  A star studded line-up of bands makes this the ultimate 1960s concert.  Sly And The Family Stone contribute an iconic performance.  ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ is ‘the high point’ and ‘seals their status as one of the most fashionable groups on the rock circuit.’  Sly Stone later muses, “The 1960s for me was Woodstock.  When I think about Woodstock, I think about hippies.”

Sly And The Family Stone release one more single in 1969, the deliciously lazy ‘Hot Fun In The Summertime’ (US no. 2).  Over a staccato piano figure, the lyrics nostalgically evoke, “Them summer days / Those summer days / That’s when I had most of my fun back.”

All seems sunny and triumphant for Sly And The Family Stone.  But darker clouds are on the horizon.  It is in 1969 that they become ‘heavy users of illegal drugs, primarily cocaine and P.C.P.’

Sly And The Family Stone enter 1970 with their second US no. 1 single.  ‘Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ (US no. 1) b/w ‘Everybody Is A Star’ tops the chart from 14 February to 21 February 1970.  ‘Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ is the best individual song by Sly And The Family Stone.  With Larry Graham’s popping bass, this is the ultimate funk song and remains virtually timeless.  The kooky phonetic spelling of the subtitle is just evidence of Sly Stone clowning about…but the lyrics, on closer examination, reveal an increasing level of darkness.  Sly chants, “Lookin’ at the devil / Grinnin’ at his gun / Fingers start shakin’ / I begin to run / Bullets start chasin’ / I begin to stop / We begin to wrestle / I was on the top.”  This is ‘slinky, hip dance music’ and an ‘amazing funk meditation.’  Although Sly may have the upper hand over ‘the devil’ at this point, the omens are in the lyrics as to the temporary nature of such a triumph: “Thank you for the party / I could never stay / Many thangs is on my mind / Words get in the way.”  Almost as good is the flipside, ‘Everybody Is A Star’.  Replete with doo wop harmonies, this song finds Rose Stone cooing, “Everybody is a star / I can feel it when you shine on me.”  Her brother Sly supplies the gorgeous sentiment, “I love you for who you are / Not the one you feel you have to be.”

On 15 February 1970 Sly And The Family Stone are late for a gig in Washington, D.C., and their tardiness provokes mayhem.  This is a harbinger of things to come.  Over the course of 1970, twenty-six of the group’s eighty gigs are cancelled because Sly is ‘a frequent no-show.’  Trumpeter Cynthia Robinson loyally defends the band’s leader, saying the late starts are often due to Sly waiting for other parties to get their act together.  Sly himself sees an underlying conspiracy to delay the band so late insurance fees can be collected.  Could this be true?  Or is it just paranoia?

The only other single from Sly And The Family Stone in 1970 is a rerelease of a 1969 single with the A and B sides reversed.  To honour its prominence at Woodstock in the previous year, ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ (US no. 38) is now backed with ‘Stand’.

Part of Sly Stone’s time in 1970 is occupied with Little Sister.  He produces two singles for the trio of backing vocalists for Sly And The Family Stone.  Little Sister (Vet Stone, Mary McCreary and Elva ‘Tiny’ Morton) issue their recordings on Sly’s own imprint, Stone Flower, through Atlantic Records.  The 1970 singles by Little Sister are ‘You’re The One (Pt. 1)’ (US no. 22) b/w ‘You’re The One (Pt. 2)’ and their version of ‘Somebody’s Watching You’ (US no. 32) b/w ‘Stanga’.  ‘Somebody’s Watching You’ is notable for being the ‘first major record to have a rhythm track created with a drum machine’, an automated percussion program.  Little Sister release one more single, ‘Stanga’, in 1972, which was already the B side of ‘Somebody’s Watching You’.  In 1972 Mary McCreary is replaced by Lucy Hambrick, but the act is all but finished by that time anyway.

In the absence of any new product, Epic issues Sly And The Family Stone’s ‘Greatest Hits’ (1970) (US no. 2) in November.  The album is revered by many not only for packaging the group’s best bits, but for many years it is the only album to include Sly And The Family Stone classics like ‘Hot Fun In The Summertime’, ‘Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ and ‘Everybody Is A Star’, songs that were previously available only on singles.

The ‘bad craziness’ really begins when Sly Stone leaves the San Francisco Bay area to make his place of residence in southern California.  In 1971 he buys a mansion in Bel Air that was once the home of wholesome film star Jeanette McDonald.  More recently, it has been home to John Phillips of folk rock act The Mamas And The Papas.  The neighbours are initially pleased to be rid of Phillips and his hippie hangers-on and feel more hopeful about the respectable sounding Sylvester Stewart moving in.  They quickly change their minds when Sly’s home becomes notorious for drugs, guns and guard dogs.  “The vibes were very dark at that point,” says saxophone player Jerry Martini with some understatement.

Sly Stone’s concert attendance record in 1971 remains questionable.  He misses twelve of his forty shows.

Sly And The Family Stone resurface with ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ (1971) (US no. 1, UK no. 31) in November.  This is a ‘dark, hazy and paranoid’ set.  It turns out ‘brilliantly, if darkly [and is] nothing like the chirpy albums that preceded it.’  The disc’s best known song is the third and final US no. 1 single for Sly And The Family Stone.  ‘Family Affair’ (US no. 1, UK no. 15) makes it to the top from 4 December to 18 December 1971.  This is a cantering funk song that avers, “Blood is thicker than mud.”  Sly Stone’s vocal is a sleepy drawl as he observes, “Newlywed a year ago / But you’re still checking each other out / Yeahh, hey.”  As with ‘Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’, there is a darker underside to the lyrics in ‘Family Affair’.  For example, consider these words: “You can’t cry, ‘coz you’ll look broke down / But you’re cryin’ anyway, ‘coz you’re all broke down.”  ‘Family Affair’ is described as ‘pure bile’ – but that seems a bit excessive.  It is more accessible than many other tracks on this album.  Haight-Ashbury is the street corner epicentre of the 1960s hippie culture, but Sly’s ‘Luv N’ Haight’ is a hazy freeform sketch framed by wah-wah guitar in which he numbly says, “Feel so good inside myself / Don’t want to move.”  ‘Poet’ is slow-motion funk (“I’m a songwriter, a poet”).  ‘Brave & Strong’ is a brassy motivational piece.  ‘Just Like A Baby’ is a swaying, soulful tune.  Aside from ‘Family Affair’, the album boasts two other hits.  One of these is ‘(You Caught Me) Smilin’’ (US no. 42), which sounds happy but is haunted by hungover horns.  Sly says he is, “Hangin’ loose / ‘Cause you ain’t used to seein’ me turnin’ on.”  ‘Runnin’ Away’ (US no. 23, UK no. 17) is a contradiction.  It is smooth, but has a choppy funk guitar and is threaded through with horns.  Sly Stone deploys a helium high vocal, squealing, “Ha ha, ha ha / You’re wearing out your shoes / Look at you, fooling you.”  The album closes with a slowed-down reimagining of ‘Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’, now titled ‘Thank You For Talkin’ To Me, Africa’.  It sounds bruised and sapped of energy.  The Family Stone are less involved in the recording sessions for this disc.  Sly Stone makes use of a drum machine and overdubbing to realise his more personal vision.  For some, ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ is Sly And The Family Stone’s masterwork, but it is undeniably ‘spare and bleak [if] fiercely compelling in its anguish over the unfulfilled promises of civil rights and the hippie counterculture.’

The cracks are beginning to show in The Family Stone.  In 1971, drummer Greg Errico is the first to quit.  Errico plays on some tracks on ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’; some tracks use a drum machine; and some tracks feature Errico’s temporary replacement, Gerry Gibson (1971-1972).

Bassist Larry Graham leaves Sly And The Family Stone in 1972.  Max Kerr fills in for a while in 1972 before Rustee Allen (born 13 March 1953 in Monroe, Louisiana) signs on as bassist in 1972.  A seventh member, Pat Rizzo (saxophone), joins in 1972.  Completing the overhaul is new drummer Andy Newmark (born 14 July 1950 in Port Chester, New York), who joins the group in 1973.  A veteran session musician, Newmark is white (like Greg Errico) and so also maintains the band’s racial balance.

During 1972-1973 Sly Stone has regular run-ins with the police.  In July 1972 he is arrested for possession of two vials of narcotics and two pounds of marijuana – but the charges are dropped when a judge decides there is insufficient evidence to prosecute.  Next, while sitting in a car in a friend’s driveway, he is busted for disturbing the peace.  After leaving a sickle cell anaemia telethon in Los Angeles, Sly is stopped and searched by police.  Before a concert at Madison Square Garden in New York, he is accused of threatening an old lady with a cap pistol.  In December 1972 police attend the singer’s Bel Air mansion after reports of a robbery and a dead body on the premises.  They find no such things, but handcuff Sly Stone and lead him away – for having no proof of identification.  Towards the end of winter, in early 1973 Sly’s L. A. home is raided again and he is charged with possession of cocaine, cannabis and dangerous drugs – and offering the latter for sale.  Sly gets probation for a year.  Questioned about his chances of jail time, Sly responds, “No more chance of going to jail than you think.  I don’t have those kinds of things to take care of.  I write songs.”

Sly Stone’s concerts remain uncertain propositions.  Early in 1973 he cancels a series of shows on the east coast of the U.S. after just two performances.  In his defence, the singer says, “Sometimes you don’t feel your soul at 7.30.  But we’ve been recording, rescheduling, regrouping and recoping on everything we like to do, what we have to do, and things we wish we could do.”

‘Fresh’ (1973) (US no. 7) is released in June.  This album is the first to feature new Family Stone members Rustee Allen, Pat Rizzo and Andy Newmark.  ‘Fresh’ is a ‘relatively lighter’ album than its predecessor; but given how dark was ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’, that’s not very surprising.  The best song on ‘Fresh’ is ‘If You Want Me To Stay’ (US no. 12).  Percolating and playful, the funky tune is built around a rubbery bass figure.  “If you want me to stay, I’ll be around today,” offers Sly Stone.  But he warns, “But I am about to go / And then you’ll know / For me to stay here / I got to be me.”  The song is lauded for its ‘sad-sack irony.’  Other songs on the album include the fishbone guitar of ‘In Time’; the sexed-up rhythm and blues of ‘Frisky’ (US no. 79); the skittering self-determination of ‘Skin I’m In’; the goosed-along pop of ‘If It Were Up To Me’ and the sad social commentary of ‘Babies Makin’ Babies’.  Also present is an unlikely cover version of Doris Day’s 1956 song ‘Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)’.

During 1973 Sly Stone begins keeping company with Kathy Silva, a white model and actress.  She not only becomes his girlfriend, Kathy Silva is the mother of his first child, Sylvester Jr. (born late 1973).  On 4 June 1974 Sly and Kathy marry onstage at Madison Square Garden before twenty-one thousand ‘guests’.  It is claimed that the event was dreamed up by Sly, Kathy and the singer’s manager to bolster ticket sales for a concert that wasn’t selling very well.

The cover image for ‘Small Talk’ (1974) (US no. 15), issued in July, is a picture of Sly Stone and new wife Kathy Silva with their son, Sylvester Jr.  The Family Stone has a couple of new members for this album.  Bill Lordan (born 22 May 1947) replaces Andy Newmark on drums and an extra member is added, Sid Page (violin).  This disc is home to ‘Time For Livin’’ (US no. 32), a funk stomp-along with Sid Page’s violin prominently featured.  The berserk ‘Loose Booty’ (US no. 84) has what initially sounds like nonsense doo wop syllables in the introduction, but what is actually being chanted is “Shadrach, Meshack, Abednego.”  According to the Book of Daniel in the Bible, these were three young men from Jerusalem who were condemned to death in a fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, when they wouldn’t bow to his rule.  The trio were saved from the flames by an angel.

On 30 October 1974 Kathy Silva files for divorce from Sly Stone.  After Sly’s dog mauls their son, Sylvester Jr., in 1976, Kathy is awarded custody of the child.

In 1974 the newest members of The Family Stone, Bill Lordan and Sid Page, both exit the band.  They are replaced by, respectively, Jim Strassburg (drums) and Vicki Blackwell (violin).

Sly And The Family Stone continue to miss shows.  In December 1974 the group fails to appear at a charity concert for muscular dystrophy in Washington, D.C.  The mood gets ugly until the crowd is let in free.  Sly Stone defends his absence by saying he was insulted that he was paid for what was supposed to be a benefit show.  After that, he ‘would have nothing to do with the money or the event.’  On 16 January 1975 Sly And The Family Stone begin an eight-show, six night residency at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.  Average attendance is two thousand per show – but the hall has six thousand seats.  The reason it is a ‘bomb at the box-office’ is attributed to ‘years of missed performances and sliding creativity.’

‘High Energy’ (1975) is just a repackaging of ‘A Whole New Thing’ and ‘Life’ as a double album.

‘High On You’ (1975) (US no. 45) is released in November.  Again, there are a couple of line-up changes in The Family Stone.  Jim Strassburg and Pat Rizzo are gone and Adam Veaner (drums) and Dennis Marcellino (born 17 January 1948 in San Francisco, California) (saxophone) are the newcomers.  The title track, ‘High On You’ (US no. 52), has Sly Stone smirking, “When push comes to shoving / I’d rather make some lovin’.”  The chorus is cried out over a thundering bass line.

For all intents and purposes The Family Stone disbands in 1975.  Some of the members work with Sly Stone again, but the group as a unit is history.  Sly’s albums continue to be credited to Sly And The Family Stone, but the music is provided by Sly’s multi-instrumental abilities or hired session musicians.

Sly Stone’s second child is born in 1976.  Sylvette (a.k.a. Phunne) is the daughter of Sly Stone and Cynthia Robinson, the long-time trumpet player of The Family Stone.  The little girl retains her mother’s surname.

‘Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back’ (1976) comes out in December – but fails to make the charts.  It is best known for the song ‘Blessing In Disguise’.  Epic Records closes out Sly Stone’s contract with ‘Ten Years Too Soon’ (1979), a collection of old material that was previously unreleased.  Somewhat questionably, ‘the original funky rhythm tracks are replaced with disco beats.’

Sly And The Family Stone move to Warner Bros. for ‘Back On The Right Track’ (1979) (US no. 152) in November.  Mark Davis produces this disc.  ‘Remember Who You Are’ (US no. 104), an ode to individuality, comes from this set.

In August 1981 Sly Stone is arrested on charges of cocaine possession.  Another cocaine possession charge follows in July 1982 – along with a charge for possessing ‘a small handgun.’  This debacle occurs after police intervene in a brawl at a hotel in the Los Angeles suburb of Westwood.  Sly vainly tried to avoid trouble by identifying himself as his brother Freddie.

‘Ain’t But The One Way’ (1982) is another Sly And The Family Stone album that fails to make the charts.  Stewart Levine co-produces this disc with Sly Stone.  The album is ‘critically panned and a commercial failure.’  Warner Bros. gives up on the act subsequently.

Sly Stone’s third child, his daughter Novena (Novi) Carmel (born 1982) is the child of his ‘new wife’, Olinka.

In 1983 Sly Stone is arrested three times.  In February, in Paxton, Illinois, the van in which he is travelling is pulled over because its registration has expired.  A search of the vehicle reveals a sawed-off shotgun and a quantity of ‘white powder.’  In June, in Fort Myers, Florida, Sly is charged with cocaine possession.  In August, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sly is charged with grand theft.  In an almost comical series of events, Maryanne Magness, part-owner of the hotel where the singer has recently stayed, claims he made off with her five thousand dollar gold ring.  Stone counters that he had tried the jewellery on and then, when Magness became ‘distracted’, he ‘forgot’ the ‘huge’ ring was still on his finger.  He gave it to his baby, Novi, to play with.  Sly is released on bail of ten thousand dollars in September – but only after being scolded by the judge for dozing through his own hearing.

In 1984 Sly Stone does a six-month rehabilitation program at the Lee Mental Clinic in Fort Myers, Florida.

Sly Stone is ‘arrested and imprisoned for cocaine possession by the end of 1987.’

‘I’m Back! Family And Friends’ (2011) is released on the Cleopatra label. This is an album of remixes and rerecordings of old hits by Sly And The Family Stone.  It contains three new songs: ‘Plain Jane’, ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’ and ‘Get Away’.

What happens to the rest of The Family Stone?

  • Freddie Stone (guitar) has a short recording contract with Motown Records after the mid-1970s. He fathers six children: Casey, Stacey, Freddie Jr., Simon, Joy and Krist.  In 1994 he becomes Pastor Frederick Stone at the Evangelist Temple Fellowship Center in Vallejo, California.  He records a contemporary gospel music album, ‘Everywhere You Are’ (2000), later reissued as ‘Right Now’.
  • Rose Stone (keyboards) marries Sly Stone’s former manager and co-producer Bubba Banks in 1975. She records an album for Motown, ‘Rose’ (1976), which is credited to Rose Banks.  She becomes part of the musical department at her brother Freddie’s church.  Rose Stone issues another album, ‘Already Motivated’ (2008).  She has a daughter named Lisa.
  • Vet Stone (backing vocals) takes on the unenviable task of trying to wrangle Sly Stone into shape after the departure of Jerry Goldstein (Sly’s manager from 1993 to 2006) and the deaths of K.C. and Alpha Stewart, the parents of the five Stewart children. She forms an act called Phunk Phamily Affair with Cynthia Robinson and Lisa Stone (Rose’s daughter).  This transforms into Family Stone.  Sly Stone attempts to produce some recordings for the act.
  • Cynthia Robinson (trumpet) is the only member of the classic Sly And The Family Stone line-up to regularly keep working with Sly Stone. She is the mother of two daughters: Laura Marie and (Sly’s child) Sylvette Phunne.  Cynthia also works with Graham Central Station circa 1974.  She works with familystoneexperience (2004-2005).  In 2006 Cynthia Robinson participates in a Family Stone reunion.
  • Greg Errico (drums) is part of familystoneexperience (2004-2005) and the 2006 Family Stone reunion.
  • Jerry Martini (saxophone) plays saxophone on ‘High On You’ (1975) by Sly And The Family Stone and ‘Now Do U Wanta Dance’ (1977) by Graham Central Station. Jerry Martini forms a band called Rubicon (1978-1979) with Max Haskett (lead vocals, horns), Brad Gillis (guitar), Jim Pugh (keyboards), Dennis Marcellino (saxophone) [another former member of Sly And The Family Stone], Jack Blades (bass) and Greg Eckler (vocals, drums).  Rubicon release two albums: ‘Rubicon’ (1978) and ‘American Dreams’ (1979).  The first album includes the single ‘I’m Gonna Take Care Of Everything’ (US no. 28).  [After Rubicon, two of that band’s members – Brad Gillis and Jack Blades – form Night Ranger (1982-1989, 1991-present), a ‘hard rock’ band that has a hit with the ‘power ballad’, ‘Sister Christian’ (US no. 5), in 1984.]  Rubicon reforms in the early 1990s as a ‘prog rock band.’  In this version, Jerry Martini is joined by: Greg Eckler (vocals, drums), David Christians (vocals, lead guitar), Randy Newhouse (acoustic guitar), Chuck Crenshaw (keyboards) and J.P. Michaels (vocals, bass).  This edition of the band issues the album ‘Best Of Rubicon’ and the single ‘Whipping Boy’.  Jerry Martini plays in familystoneexperience (2004-2005) with Cynthia Robinson, Greg Errico, Gail Muldrow and others.  After a stint with Prince’s touring band, Martini reunites with The Family Stone in 2006.
  • Larry Graham (bass) is perhaps the most successful former member of the classic Family Stone line-up. He forms Graham Central Station, ‘an exuberant mid-1970s funk group.’  The band’s name is a pun on Grand Central Station, New York’s railway hub.  When he leaves The Family Stone, Larry Graham begins to produce a U.S. group called Hot Chocolate (no relation to the more famous British act Hot Chocolate formed in 1970).  The U.S. Hot Chocolate consists of: Patrice ‘Chocolate’ Banks (vocals), David Vega (guitar), Hershall Kennedy (vocals, keyboards) and Willie Sparks (drums).  Kennedy and Sparks had worked with Little Sister, Vet Stone’s vocal group.  Instead of producing the act, bassist Larry Graham joins them and, with the addition of Robert ‘Butch’ Sam (keyboards), they become Graham Central Station.  Over the years the line-up changes a number of times, chalking up a total of twenty-six members.  The most notable later members may be Gail Muldrow and Gaylord Birch who replace Banks and Sparks from the group’s fifth album.  Family Stone veterans Freddie Stone, Rose Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Jerry Martini and Dennis Marcellino all do stints with Graham Central Station.  The group releases the albums ‘Graham Central Station’ (1974), ‘Release Yourself’ (1974), ‘Ain’t No Bout-A-Doubt It’ (1975), ‘Mirror’ (1976), ‘Now Do U Wanta Dance’ (1977) and ‘My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me’ (1978) before disbanding in 1979.  Larry Graham has a son, Darric.  In 1975 Larry Graham converts to the Jehovah’s Witness religion.  He later brings pop-funk star Prince into the Jehovah’s Witness fold.  As a solo act, Larry Graham releases the albums ‘Star Walk’ (1979), ‘One In A Million You’ (1980), ‘Just Be My Lady’ (1981), ‘Sooner Or Later’ (1982), ‘Victory’ (1982) and ‘Fired Up’ (1985).  Graham also has a hit in 1980 with the ballad ‘One In A Million You’ (US no. 9).  Other, less successful, singles by Larry Graham include ‘When We Get Married’ (US no. 76) in 1980, ‘Just Be My Lady’ (US no. 67) in 1981 and ‘Don’t Stop When You’re Hot’ (US no. 102) b/w ‘Sooner Or Later’ (US no. 110) in 1982.  Two concert recordings by Graham Central Station, ‘Live In Japan’ (1992) and ‘Live In London’ (1996), and the compilation set ‘The Best Of Larry Graham And Graham Central Station’ (1996), lead to the group reconvening for ‘Back By Popular Demand’ (1998).  The reunion is over by year’s end.  ‘Can You Handle This?’ (2003) is a live album from a 1975 concert.  Graham Central Station try another reunion for ‘Raise Up’ (2012).

Sly Stone was notorious for missing shows and ‘slowly succumbing to his addictions, which gradually sapped him of his once prodigious talents.’  Yet these negative aspects should not be why Sly And The Family Stone are remembered.  “I like to do positive things.  I don’t like to bring anybody down,” Sly once claimed.  It is these positive things that should be recalled.  Sly And The Family Stone was a glorious melting pot of men and women, blacks and whites.  The results could have simply been messy but thanks to Sly’s orchestration and vision, it was inspiring.  The lure of a functioning unit of equality and tolerance was intoxicating.  And it didn’t hurt that the positivity spread to their lyrics and their funky-as-can-be pop-dance grooves.  That’s the great achievement of Sly And The Family Stone and the reason why they remain revered.  Sly And The Family Stone ‘harnessed all the disparate musical and social trends of the late 1960s, creating a wild, brilliant fusion of soul, rock, rhythm and blues, psychedelia and funk that broke boundaries down without a second thought.’  Sly Stone was ‘a musical visionary of the highest order.’

Sources:

  1. azlyrics.com as at 11 August 2015
  2. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 148, 155, 156, 161, 169, 192, 193, 233, 238, 327
  3. ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 162, 164, 166, 167
  4. wikipedia.org as at 9 August 2015
  5. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Sly And The Family Stone’ by Dave Marsh (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 437, 438, 439
  6. ‘Vanity Fair’ (U.S. magazine) ‘Sly Stone’s Higher Power’ by David Kamp (August 2007) (reproduced on vanityfair.com)
  7. freddiestonecisum.com as at 9 August 2015 – ‘Bio’ – no author credited
  8. slystonemusic.com as at 10 August 2015 – ‘Biography’ – no author credited
  9. ‘Sly Stone: Portrait of a Legend’ – Documentary (Part 1 of 2) from the U.S. television program ‘Portrait of a Legend’ (early 1980s), host – James Darren, interviewer – Maria Shriver
  10. whitedoowopcollector.blogspot.com.au (18 April 2008) – no author credited
  11. youtube.com as at 9 August 2015
  12. ‘Sly & The Family Stone – Sly Stone from Radio DJ to Band Leader’ – Video documentary (19 September 2013?)
  13. Sly Stone interview conducted by Cherry Yanahiro (?) of WKPN (?) television (1976)
  14. Internet movie database – imdb.com – as at 12 August 2015
  15. allmusic.com, ‘Sly And The Family Stone’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 9 August 2015
  16. The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 94, 111, 212
  17. Video interview with Sly Stone conducted by Cori Jacobs (11 April 2012)
  18. ‘The Essential Sly & The Family Stone’ – Sleeve notes by Tom Sinclair (Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 2002) p. 4, 10, 11
  19. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 48, 50
  20. ‘The New York Times’ (U.S. newspaper) via (3) above p. 166
  21. allmusic.com, ‘Graham Central Station’ by Ron Wynn as at 9 August 2015

Song lyrics copyright Warner/Chappell Music except ‘Everyday People’ (Penjane Music (Australia) Pty Ltd), ‘Sing A Simple Song’ and ‘Loose Booty’ (both Control).

Last revised 19 February 2017

Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison – circa 1964

 “Call them as you see them / You’ll stand alone / You’re the best friend that you ever had, ohh, yeah” – ’Best Friend’ (Roy Orbison, Bill Dees)

Sometimes you just have to have the courage of your convictions.  In 1959 American singer, songwriter and guitarist Roy Orbison signs a recording contract with the ‘fledgling’ Monument Records.  Roy Orbison, at this time, is probably best known for his recordings with Sun Records in the 1950s.  Sun tended to specialise in rockabilly and Roy did some good material there but it ‘didn’t work out’ for him and that label.  Now, at Monument, Orbison works with producer Fred Foster.  Roy asks for a string section – violins, cellos.  That’s pretty unusual for a rock ‘n’ roll record.  But Orbison intends to ‘record his music exactly how he’d always dreamed it to sound like.’  Foster claims it won’t work, that people won’t be able to dance to this thing.  Roy’s response is that he doesn’t want them to dance; he wants them to hear him sing.  Roy Orbison gets his way.  Sometimes you just have to have the courage of your own convictions.

Roy Kelton Orbison a.k.a. ‘The Big O’ (23 April 1936 – 6 December 1988) is born in Vernon, Texas, U.S.A.  He is the son of Orbie Lee Orbison and his wife, Nadine Orbison (nee Schultz).  Orbie is an oil well driller and a car mechanic.  Nadine is a nurse.  Roy is their second child.  He has an older brother, Charlie, and will gain a younger brother, Grady.  All the kids in the family have poor eyesight.  Roy begins wearing thick glasses from an early age.

“When I was 6 years old,” Roy Orbison reminisces, “mom and dad gave me a guitar for my birthday, and daddy taught me the chords to ‘You Are My Sunshine’ [a popular song at the time].”  Roy had actually asked for a harmonica as his birthday present, but a guitar was what he received.  His older brother, Charlie, mentors young Roy on his guitar playing.  “I started singing when I was about 6 or 7 years old and I fell in love with it straight away, fell in love with my voice, listened to it and marvelled and that was wonderful.  It took me on through.  I never really wanted to do anything else.”  By the time he is 7, he is “finished, you know, for anything else.”

In 1942 the Orbison family moves to Fort Worth, Texas.  “Mom and dad were both working in a defence plant during World War Two,” says Roy Orbison.  Roy attends the Denver Ave Elementary School.  A polio epidemic in 1944 scares the family enough for them to retreat to Vernon, Texas, again.  There, they live with Roy’s maternal grandmother, a divorcee.  Roy Orbison writes his first song, ‘A Vow Of Love’, when he is 8.  The same year, the talented youngster makes his first singing appearance at a local radio station.

In 1945 Roy Orbison wins a talent contest on radio station KVWC in Vernon, Texas.  Following this, he has his own radio show on Saturdays.  In 1946 Roy Orbison wins another talent contest, this one with a travelling medicine show.  More change comes late in 1946: “When I was 10, we moved to Wink.”

Looking back, the adult Roy Orbison describes Wink, Texas, as, “football, oil fields, oil, grease and sand.”  Roy’s interests lie elsewhere.  “I got my group together when I was about 13.”  At the suggestion of one of their school teachers, Roy Orbison and his friends call their group The Wink Westerners.  The founding line-up in 1949 is: Roy Orbison (vocals, guitar), James Morrow (electric mandolin), Richard ‘Head’ West (piano), Charles ‘Slob’ Evans (upright bass) and Billy Pat ‘Spider’ Ellis (drums).  In 1949 rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t exist, so The Wink Westerners are mainly playing country music.  Roy Orbison’s influences have been listed as country music acts such as Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers.  Roy partially disputes this view.  “I wasn’t influenced by a lot of singers.  We used to have to sing everyone’s songs when we played for dances and things in order for people to come to the dances and pay their money.  We had to sing all the songs that were popular so [that included] a lot of influences from country to pop to standard songs, [but] no one individual.”  The Wink Westerners play on KERB radio in Kermit, Texas, in 1951 and, by 1953, have their own show on that station.  At school, Roy Orbison plays with the marching band and tries to learn the baritone horn.  He has no aptitude for football, but he does act as the manager of Wink High School’s Kittens football team in 1952.

“After high school,” explains Roy Orbison, “I still had my band, and we played dances in the evening.  I was working for El Paso Natural Gas in the daytime, cutting up steel and loading it onto trucks and chopping weeds and painting water towers.”  He also works for the county shovelling tar and works in the oil fields.

“Then I went to college for a year,” adds Roy Orbison.  This is the North Texas State College in Denton.  Roy studies geology with the idea that it will help him get a job in the oil fields if his hopes for a career in music are not realised.  Future pop star Pat Boone is one of Roy Orbison’s classmates.  Two other college friends at Denton are Wade Lee Moore and Dick Penner.  “It was a good year, but it was a lonely year,” is Orbison’s conclusion.

In autumn 1955 Roy Orbison moves to Odessa Junior College.  Roy considers a career as a teacher.  “I studied a bit at the university,” he recalls.  “A bit of English and history.  But it was just something to fall back on and, when I got to thinking about it, I didn’t want to fall back on it so I went ahead and went on tour [with my band].”  In 1955 Roy Orbison goes to an Elvis Presley show in Dallas.  This has a strong impact on Roy.  Seeing the young man who will be hailed as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll inspires Roy and his friends to become more like a rock ‘n’ roll band and less like a country music act.  Around this time (i.e. 1956), The Wink Westerners are reconstituted as The Teen Kings.  They go through ‘a few line-up shifts’, such as Jack Kennelly taking over on bass.

The Teen Kings enter the recording studio for the first time on 4 March 1956.  They work with producer Norman Petty at his studio in Clovis, New Mexico.  Petty is best known for his work with Buddy Holly starting in 1957.  The Teen Kings pay for their own recording session and cut two songs, ‘Ooby Dooby’ and ‘Hey Miss Fannie’.  ‘Ooby Dooby’ is written by Roy Orbison’s college buddies, Wade Lee Moore and Dick Penner.  The single is released on the Je-wel label on 19 March 1956.  In the finished version, the A side is ‘Trying To Get To You’ with ‘Ooby Dooby’ on the B side.  ‘Trying To Get To You’ is a cover version of a 1954 song by a Washington D.C. vocal group The Eagles [no relation to the 1970s country rock band of the same name].  Elvis Presley recorded an unreleased version of ‘Trying To Get To You’ in 1955 and, after Roy Orbison’s take on it, Elvis records ‘Trying To Get To You’ again and releases his version in August 1956.  ‘Ooby Dooby’ is a ‘Texas hit’ but doesn’t make the national charts.

“We used to have a television show in West Texas,” explains Roy Orbison.  He is referring to ‘Roy Orbison and The Teen Kings’ which screens on Saturday afternoons.  “[Sun Records recording artist] Johnny [Cash] came by so he could promote his public appearance.”  Cash advises Orbison that, “if you change your name and lower your voice, you’re gonna become a star, Roy.”  Both suggestions are ignored, but Orbison does have a question for his guest.  “I asked him how you got on records.  And he said, ‘Call Sam Phillips at Sun Records and tell him I told you to call.’  And I did that and Sam said, ‘Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company,’ and slammed down the phone.  So I sent him a recording later and we did get on the label, but John recommended me.”

Roy Orbison is signed to Sun Records on 26 March 1956.  Sun Records is famed as Elvis Presley’s first record label – but the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll moved to RCA in November 1955.  Sun is mainly devoted to rockabilly, a more hillbilly variant on early rock ‘n’ roll.  The music Roy Orbison records for Sun generally conforms to that blueprint.

At Sun Records, Roy Orbison’s first single is a re-recording of ‘Ooby Dooby’ (US no. 59).  In this twangy and raw slice of rockabilly, Orbison calls, “Hey baby, jump over here / When you do the ooby dooby / I just gotta be near.”  The energy is contagious.  The B side is a Roy Orbison composition, ‘Go! Go! Go!’, that is equally wild and loose.  ‘Ooby Dooby’ backed with ‘Go! Go! Go!’ is released in May 1956.  Fellow Sun label performer Jerry Lee Lewis puts out a cover version of ‘Go! Go! Go!’ under the amended title of ‘Down The Line’ in February 1958.

‘Nothing else Roy Orbison records at Sun has any success.’  ‘Much of his later Sun material is weak in comparison’ to ‘Ooby Dooby’.  The best of these other Sun recordings is Roy’s next single, the 1956 track ‘Rock House’, written by Harold Jenkins and the label’s boss and record producer, Sam Phillips.  The song is simple and effective, with a dramatic stop-and-start arrangement.  Roy Orbison lives in Memphis, Tennessee, where Sun Records is located.  He invites his 15 year old girlfriend, Claudette Frady, to join him there.  Roy and Claudette live in separate rooms at Sam Phillips’ house.  In December 1956 The Teen Kings split up ‘over disputed writing credits and royalties.’  Subsequently, in the recording studio Roy Orbison just works with session musicians.  Despite reportedly wearing thick glasses from an early age, all the photos of Roy Orbison with The Teen Kings show him without any spectacles at all.  Buddy Holly becomes the first bespectacled rock star in 1957 and, following that, Roy is less self-conscious about wearing his own glasses.

In 1957 Roy Orbison releases two more singles for Sun Records.  Neither ‘Sweet And Easy To Love’ nor ‘Chicken-Hearted’ make the charts.  It is in 1957 that Roy Orbison marries his girlfriend, Claudette Frady.

In 1958 Roy Orbison leaves Sun Records.  He later muses that the Sun label “represented something unique…but it wasn’t a good [recording] studio.”  Orbison expresses dissatisfaction at the “unprofessionalism” of Sun’s boss, Sam Phillips.  “The industry just outgrew him overnight and he didn’t know it.”

In March 1958 Roy Orbison plays a gig in Hammond, Indiana.  On the same bill is The Everly Brothers.  They tell Roy they are looking for new material, so he plays them a song called ‘Claudette’, inspired by Roy’s new wife.  The Everlys like the song and release their version of it in March 1958 as the B side to their single ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’.  This leads to a publishing contract with Acuff Rose Music Publishing, the firm belonging to the manager of The Everly Brothers, Wesley Rose.  In 1958 Roy Orbison begins working with co-writer Joe Melson.

Roy and Claudette Orbison become parents for the first time in 1958 with the birth of their son, Roy Dewayne Orbison.  They go on to have two more sons: Anthony King Orbison (born 1962) and Wesley Orbison (born 1965).

It is a difficult time for Roy Orbison.  He ‘writes songs in the car because his wife and infant son fill their small apartment in Hendersonville, Tennessee.’

Wesley Rose secures a new recording contract for Roy Orbison with RCA.  Famed guitarist Chet Atkins is assigned to work with Roy as producer.  Two singles are issued on RCA in 1958: ‘Seems To Me’ and ‘Almost 18’.  Neither of these singles reaches the charts.  So Roy Orbison’s time at RCA is ‘short-lived and unproductive.’

Wesley Rose steps in again to find a new outlet for Roy Orbison’s recordings.  A deal is signed with a new company, Monument Records, in Nashville, Tennessee.  Producer and owner Fred Foster is the ‘perfect foil’ for Roy Orbison.

The music of Roy Orbison is probably best described as pop music.  It could be said that he was a rock ‘n’ roll act at Sun Records but, at Monument, it becomes obvious that Roy is ‘far more comfortable as a ballad singer than a hepped-up rockabilly jive cat.’  Yet calling Orbison’s sound ‘pop music’ seems like an understatement.  His recordings at Monument are ‘quasi-symphonic productions [in which he is] backed by surging strings, ominous drum rolls and heavenly choirs of back-up vocalists.’  Performer Buddy Holly and producer Phil Spector had, separately and individually, experimented with adding orchestral instruments to rock ‘n’ roll but, for Roy Orbison, almost the inverse occurs: he adds a pop sensibility to soaring, operatic musical settings.  Added to the mix are ‘Latin rhythms, martial beats, reminiscences of classical music [and] keening steel guitars.’

The most striking element of Roy Orbison’s sound is his own voice.  He has a ‘rich, supple voice.’  ‘His vocals are peerless, his range extraordinary.’  In some ways, Roy Orbison is more like an opera singer than a rock singer.  His approach is violently emotional and dramatic.  Few, if any, rock acts can match him for sheer pathos.

Around two-thirds of Roy Orbison’s most famous songs are written or co-written by Roy Orbison himself.  The balance of his output consists of cover versions of other artists’ songs or songs specifically written for Orbison.  Thematically, the common threads in Orbison’s compositions are sadness and dreams.  The motif of sadness is easily explained since it plays into his love of emotional ballads and suits his high-strung delivery.  Often this sadness is connected to the ever popular genre of love-gone-wrong songs.  However, sometimes that sadness is more accurately a form of loneliness.  Orbison muses, “There was a lot of loneliness in West Texas where I grew up.  We used to say it was the centre of everything, five hundred miles away from anything.”  When Roy Orbison sings of dreams he has an idiosyncratic view.  Most commonly, when rock singers such as Orbison’s contemporaries The Everly Brothers sing of dreams, it is an idealised imaginary realm of perfect love.  Yet Roy Orbison’s dream worlds have an unhealthy, sinister aspect.  Through a narcotic haze, a disturbing surrealistic world threatens to trap the dreamer with no prospect of escape.

Although Roy Orbison’s default mode may be aching ballads, it would be a mistake to think that he never rocks out.  He is ‘capable of a tough, bluesy swagger.’  Some of his best songs are rough and gritty, providing a welcome contrast to his more gauzy works.

Roy Orbison’s first single for Monument Records, 1959’s ‘Paper Boy’, fails to chart.  ‘Uptown’ (US no. 72), issued in late 1959, is a little more successful.  Co-written by Orbison and Joe Melson, ‘Uptown’ is the tale of an ambitious boy dreaming of a better life.  It is classy and cool as an ice cube in a glass.  However it is Orbison’s next single that really sets the pace.

The 1960 Roy Orbison single ‘Only The Lonely’ (US no. 2, UK no. 1, AUS no. 5) is an ‘epic success.’  It starts out with a string of nonsense syllables: “Dum Dumb Dummy Doo-Wah / Ooh Yay, Yay, Yah, Yeah” – an incantation that evokes both Buddy Holly and 1950s doo wop groups.  “Only the lonely / Know the way I feel tonight / Only the lonely / Know the feeling ain’t right,” sings Orbison, suddenly making self-pity seem both sharp and stylish.  ‘Only The Lonely’, co-written by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson, is ‘a beautiful, commercial pop ballad.’  Orbison offered it to both Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers and only after both acts rejected it, did he record it himself.  This seems somehow in keeping with the mournful persona the singer projects.  Here, Roy Orbison establishes the ‘rock ‘n’ roll archetypes of the underdog and the hopelessly romantic loser.’  The follow-up single to ‘Only The Lonely’ is ‘Blue Angel’ (US no. 4, UK no. 11, AUS no. 28).  Once again, there is a nonsense vocal line: “Sha la la dooby wah / Dumb dumb dumb / Yeh, yeh, um.”  Virtually swimming in sorrow, the singer consoles, “Oh Blue Angel, don’t you cry / Just because he said goodbye.”  Roy Orbison closes out 1960 with ‘I’m Hurtin’’ (US no. 27), wherein his wounded and soaring voice advises, “You walked away and the pain began / I knew I’d never love again.”  Like ‘Only The Lonely’, Roy Orbison co-writes both ‘Blue Angel’ and ‘I’m Hurtin’’ with Joe Melson.

Sun Records belatedly issues Roy Orbison’s first album ‘Roy Orbison At The Rock House’ (1961) which includes both ‘Ooby Dooby’ and ‘Rock House’.  Monument Records releases ‘Lonely And Blue’ (1961) which contains the songs ‘Only The Lonely’, ‘Blue Angel’ and ‘I’m Hurtin’’.  Sam Phillips produces ‘Roy Orbison At The Rock House’.  Fred Foster produces ‘Lonely And Blue’ and produces Orbison’s next three albums.  Roy Orbison releases two singles in 1961.  The first of these is ‘Running Scared’ (US no. 1, UK no. 9, AUS no. 5) b/w ‘Love Hurts’ (AUS no. 5).  ‘Running Scared’ is accurately described as ‘a rock ‘n’ roll Bolero.’  ‘The Bolero’ (1928) is an orchestral movement written by Maurice Ravel.  It has  a steady, implacable progression, increasing through each repetition, until it reaches a kind of crescendo.  ‘Running Scared’ has a very similar structure.  “Just running scared, each place we go / Yeah, runnin’ scared, what would I do / If he came back and wanted you?” is how the lyric begins.  Roy Orbison’s insecure narrator worries about losing his lover to a former partner of hers, someone apparently more impressive (“You loved him so”).  Yet, in the finale, the woman in question chooses Roy/the narrator, a choice that is accompanied by the song’s highest, most piercing note.  ‘Running Scared’ is co-written by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson.  The B side of the single, the agonised ‘Love Hurts’, is a cover version of a song first recorded by The Everly Brothers in 1960.  Roy Orbison’s second single for 1961 is ‘Crying’ (US no. 2, UK no. 25, AUS no. 1) b/w ‘Candy Man’ (US no. 25, AUS no. 1).  ‘Crying’ is another signature Roy Orbison song characterised by its despairing misery.  With a barely suppressed sob, he intones, “I was all right for a while, I could smile for a while / But when I saw you last night, you held my hand so tight when you stopped to say ‘hello’ / And though you wished me well, you couldn’t tell / That I’d been crying over you.”  ‘Crying’ is written by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson, but the flipside, ‘Candy Man’, is written by Beverly Ross and Fred Neill.  ‘Candy Man’ contrasts strongly with ‘Crying’ since it is one of the singer’s more forceful performances, highlighted by a harmonica riff.

Roy Orbison’s touring band is dubbed The Candy Men after his popular song ‘Candy Man’.  The singer is reputedly a hard taskmaster.  On one occasion, he dismisses all the group’s members ‘for not giving their best.’  The musicians from the opening act on that night, The Webs, are hired to become the new Candy Men.  One of the (former) Webs is Bobby Goldsboro, who goes on to have a hit in 1968 with the tear-jerker ‘Honey’.

The album ‘Crying’ (1962) (US no. 21) incorporates all four of Roy Orbison’s songs from 1961: ‘Running Scared’, ‘Love Hurts’, ‘Crying’ and ‘Candy Man’.  Also present is ‘Lana’, a doo wop love song about “The sweetest and the neatest / Little girl in the world”, written by Orbison and Joe Melson.  Orbison’s first single for 1962 is ‘Dream Baby’ (US no. 4, UK no. 2, AUS no. 2), written by Cindy Walker.  Rocking with a light touch, the song’s lyrics say, “Dream baby, got me dreamin’ sweet dreams / The whole day through,” then repeats the line, slyly altering the latter half to, “Night time too.”  ‘The Crowd’ (US no. 26, UK no. 40, AUS no. 25), written by Orbison and Joe Melson, adopts a ‘Bolero’ tempo akin to ‘Running Scared’ but is another of Orbison’s trademark meditations on loneliness.  ‘Dream Baby’, ‘The Crowd’ and another new single, ‘Evergreen’ (AUS no. 100), are the most recent entries on the compilation ‘Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits’ (1962) (US no. 13), issued in August.  Roy Orbison issues one more single after that in 1962: ‘Working For The Man’ (US no. 33, UK no. 50, AUS no. 1) b/w ‘Leah’ (US no. 25, AUS no. 1).  “Hey now, you better listen to me every one of you,” Orbison calls on ‘Working For The Man’.  “We got a lotta, lotta, lotta, lotta work to do / Forget about your women and that water can / Today you’re working for the man.”  This tough-minded track is awash with grunting and clanking.  Roy Orbison explains that the song was inspired by his days working for El Paso Natural Gas.  “Our straw boss was Mr Rose, and he wouldn’t cut me any slack,” Roy recalls.  ‘Leah’ is a South Seas fantasy involving pearl diving.  Both songs are written by Roy Orbison alone without any collaborators.

Roy Orbison is popular enough to have songwriters trying to get him to record their tunes.  One such composer is folk rock icon Bob Dylan.  “I didn’t know him as a singer, but he sent me a song, ‘Don’t Think Twice’ [which Dylan records in 1962] and I didn’t reckon much of him until afterwards [when he became more famous].”

Although Roy Orbison has been wearing spectacles most of his life, it is around this time that dark glasses become his visual symbol.  “It was a mistake,” Roy claims.  “I played a show in Alabama in 1963 and I left my clear pair [of glasses] on the plane…I had to go on that night in Alabama with the sunshades.  It wasn’t cool in those days.  I was a bit embarrassed.  Anyway, I came to England [in May 1963] for a tour with The Beatles and Gerry And The Pacemakers.”  This is The Beatles third national tour of Britain, but at the time they are still unknown to Americans – like Roy Orbison.  “I was worried more about whether I was going to go over well in a foreign country or not.  So they took pictures [of me in the dark glasses] and [those pictures] went around the world.”  And so the dark glasses become part of Roy Orbison’s image.  They also give rise to speculation about his eyesight.  “I see quite well.  I am a bit far-sighted.  They are corrective lenses, but I don’t need the dark glasses,” Roy clarifies.  Another component of his look is that he habitually wears dark clothes but this is almost as coincidental as the dark glasses.  “I used to play cowboys and Indians and when I played the cowboys I had to be the bad guy and I never had a black shirt to wear so when I grew up and made a bit of money, I wore a black shirt and liked them so that’s part of the image too.  I don’t always wear black…The image developed of a man of mystery and a quiet man in black and somewhat of a recluse, although I never was, really.”

The first of Roy Orbison’s singles for 1963 is ‘In Dreams’ (US no. 7, UK no. 6, AUS no. 1), written by the singer himself.  The startling opening image is: “A candy coloured clown they call the sandman / Tiptoes to my room every night.”  This misty, but deeply emotional, plaint suggests that, “In dreams I walk with you / In dreams I talk with you / In dreams you’re mine / All of the time / We’re together in dreams.”  On the face of it, ‘Falling’ (US no. 22, UK no. 4, AUS no. 3) – another Orbison solo composition – is simply a song of all-encompassing love.  But look deeper and it is rather twisted.  “It wasn’t true,” he confesses, “I used you and you were just someone new / To thrill this lonely heart of mine / I was lying all the time.”  Yet, in added complexity, Roy’s narrator wails, “But it’s different now, I’ve kissed you now.”  The flipside of ‘Falling’ is the lightly martial ‘Distant Drums’ (AUS no. 3).  The song is more commonly associated with Jim Reeves who, like Orbison, recorded it in 1963.  But it is released in 1966 by Reeves and his version becomes the definitive one.  Both sides of the next Orbison single are interesting but, like the earlier pairing of ‘Crying’ and ‘Candy Man’, it is the contrast that enlivens them.  Orbison co-writes ‘Blue Bayou’ (US no. 24, UK no. 3, AUS no. 1) with Joe Melson.  This is a rural Southern idyll with dreamy images of “Where you sleep all day and the catfish play on Blue Bayou / All those fishing boats with their sails afloat if I could only see / That familiar sunrise through sleepy eyes how happy I’d be.”  Turn the disc over and one finds ‘Mean Woman Blues’ (US no. 5, UK no. 3, AUS no. 1), a Claude Demetrius composition first recorded by Elvis Presley in 1957.  Roy Orbison attacks it with great energy, sounding almost unhinged.  ‘In Dreams’ and ‘Blue Bayou’ both show up on the album ‘In Dreams’ (1963) (US no. 35), released in July.  Also on this album is ‘(They Call You) Gigolette’, an Orbison & Melson song about a femme fatale that is highlighted by a gypsy violin.  Rounding out 1963 for Roy Orbison is the single ‘Pretty Paper’ (US no. 15, UK no. 6, AUS no. 4), a Christmas-for-the-poor song of sadness whose country music lilt is explained by the fact that it is penned by country music star Willie Nelson.

Roy Orbison’s first single for 1964 is ‘Borne On The Wind’ (UK no. 15, AUS no. 8), a song that is both snappy and eerie.  It is notable chiefly for introducing Bill Dees, who takes over from Joe Melson as Orbison’s most regular co-songwriter.  The B side of the single is a crazed cover version of Ray Charles’ 1959 hit ‘What’d I Say’ (AUS no. 8).  Orbison collaborates with Bill Dees for ‘It’s Over’ (US no. 9, UK no. 1, AUS no. 9).  This is another Orbison song with a ‘Bolero’ tempo, a trait enhanced by clacking percussion.  “Your baby doesn’t love you anymore,” is the blunt first line.  Dripping infinite sadness, Roy’s vocal advises that, “It breaks your heart in two / To know she’s been untrue.”  ‘When Orbison’s voice swells at the close of “It’s Over”, his love, his life and, indeed, the whole world seems to be coming to an end…’  ‘More Of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits’ (1964) (US no. 19), released in July, scoops up a number of hits that had previously been omitted from his other albums (i.e. ‘Working For The Man’, ‘Falling’, ‘Mean Woman Blues’, ‘Pretty Paper’, ‘Borne On The Wind’, ‘What’d I Say’ and ‘It’s Over’).  Roy Orbison tours Australia with U.S. pop group The Beach Boys in 1964.

Roy Orbison’s ‘biggest and best hit’ is released in 1964.  It is also ‘his hardest rocking.’  The genesis of the song takes place at Roy’s kitchen table.  His wife Claudette passes him on the way out the door for a trip into town.  He calls after her enquiring if she needs any spending money.  Her rejoinder is, “Pretty woman never needs money.”  Roy Orbison uses this as the inspiration for ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1), co-written with Bill Dees.  Over an aggressive rock beat, he sings, “Pretty woman, walking down the street / Pretty woman, the kind I like to meet.”  His singing is punctuated with such amusing asides as a cry for “Mercy” and a “grrr-owll.”  Just when it seems the narrator has lost his chance, the song winds up with the lines, “Is she walking back to me? / Yeah, she’s walking back to me / Ohh-hh, Pretty woman!”  Roy Orbison’s ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ tops the U.S. singles charts for three weeks from 26 September to 10 October 1964 and hits no. 1 in the U.K. on 14 November 1964 for one week only.  ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ ‘may well be the perfect pop song.’  It is not exactly typical for a Roy Orbison song.  If that criterion is applied, then his ‘best’ song may be something like ‘Only The Lonely’ or ‘Crying’.  However such is the irresistible power of ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ that it seems churlish to deny it is Roy Orbison’s best simply because it is a hard rocking tune.  After all, that quality is a big part of its appeal!

Roy Orbison’s only other release for 1964 is ‘She Wears My Ring’ (AUS no. 68), a track exhumed from the ‘Crying’ album, and released on an EP with ‘Wedding Day’, ‘Love Hurts’ and ‘Borne On The Wind’.

While Roy Orbison maintains a hectic touring schedule in 1964, things are not so good at home.  ‘Roy and [his wife] Claudette are building a home in Hendersonville [in Tennessee], but while he is out on the road, she begins an affair with their [building] contractor.’  Roy and Claudette divorce in November 1964 ‘over her infidelities.’  However, the couple remarry in August 1965.

On 21 January 1965 Roy Orbison begins an Australian tour in the company of British rock band The Rolling Stones.

The first Roy Orbison single for 1965 is ‘Goodnight’ (US no. 21, UK no. 14, AUS no. 6), a strumming ode in which the narrator cannot bear to part from his lover because he misses the way she bids him ‘Goodnight’.  ‘(Say) You’re My Girl’ (US no. 39, UK no. 23, AUS no. 8) is poppy and lightly groovy as the singer tries to win over the girl who has recently broken up with his best friend.  These songs, together with ‘Oh Pretty Woman’, are on the album ‘Orbisongs’ (1965) (US no. 136).  The album also holds Roy’s take on ‘Let The Good Times Roll’, Shirley (Goodman) And (Leonard) Lee’s 1956 hit.  These are the last releases for Monument Records.

‘A move to troubled MGM Records sends Roy Orbison’s career plummeting.’  On this label, ‘his songs start to sound like lesser variations of themselves…Contemporary trends in rock and soul are making him sound dated.’  In short, ‘the new songs are not as successful as the earlier ones.’

‘There Is Only One Roy Orbison’ (1965) (US no. 55) is the singer’s first album for MGM and is, admittedly, ‘among his most eloquent.’  This disc is home to the Roy Orbison and Bill Dees composition ‘Ride Away’ (US no. 25, UK no. 34, AUS no. 15).  It portrays the singer as an itinerant motorcycle rider in black: “Two wheels a-turnin’ / One girl a yearnin’ / Big motor burnin’ the road.”  Also present is Roy’s own version of ‘Claudette’, the song named for his wife, the composition he gave away to The Everly Brothers in 1958.  Roy Orbison and Bill Dees co-write the 1965 Roy Orbison single ‘Crawling Back’ (US no. 46, UK no. 19, AUS no. 14).  It is a hushed portrait of a broken spirit: “Only you and no one else / Can keep me crawling back.”  Rounding out the year is ‘Breakin’ Up Is Breakin’ My Heart’ (US no. 31, UK no. 22, AUS no. 19).  ‘Crawling Back’ and ‘Breakin’ Up Is Breakin’ My Heart’ are both on the album ‘The Orbison Way’ (1966) (US no. 128), released in January.  It will be over two decades before another Roy Orbison album makes the U.S. charts.

On 6 June 1966 Roy Orbison and his wife Claudette ride their motorcycles home from Bristol, Tennessee.  A pickup truck pulls out in front of Claudette’s ‘cycle on South Water Avenue in Gallatin, Tennessee.  She strikes the door of the vehicle and sustains injuries that prove fatal.  Roy Orbison witnesses the tragedy.  Claudette dies in his arms an hour later.  She was 24 years old.

Roy Orbison’s old record label dusts off a couple of his songs and releases them as singles.  ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ (US no. 81) comes from ‘Orbisongs’ while ‘Lana’ (UK no. 15, AUS no. 4) comes from the earlier album, ‘Crying’.  ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ and ‘Lana’ bracket the release of a new single, ‘Twinkletoes’ (US no. 34, UK no. 29, AUS no. 13), on MGM.  ‘Twinkletoes’ comes from the MGM album ‘The Classic Roy Orbison’ (1966), issued in July.  Despite the intimations of its title, this disc contains all new material, not past hits.

1967 starts with the January release of ‘Roy Orbison Sings Don Gibson’ (1967).  This is an album of Roy Orbison’s interpretations of songs written by country music artist Don Gibson.  The best known track is ‘Too Soon To Know’ (US no. 68, UK no. 3, AUS no. 20), a piano ballad about recovering from a lost love.  Wesley Rose produces this album with Jim Vienneau.  Rose is producer or co-producer on most of Orbison’s next few discs up to 1972.  Roy Orbison’s next move is to star in a motion picture, ‘The Fastest Guitar Alive’ (1967).  He is offered the starring role ‘after his friend Elvis Presley turns it down.’  The movie is set during the American Civil War.  Orbison plays the part of Johnny, ‘a Confederate super spy’, whose secret weapon is a guitar that shoots bullets.  The movie is a ‘critical and box-office flop’; ‘it is obvious his talents are not suited to movies.’  Inevitably, there is a soundtrack album, ‘The Fastest Guitar Alive – Soundtrack’ (1967).  From this disc comes the song ‘There Won’t Be Many Coming Home’ (UK no. 12, AUS no. 12), a lament for lost soldiers, and the Spanish guitar of ‘Best Friend’.  October brings a new album, ‘Cry Softly Lonely One’ (1967).  The best track from this set is ‘Communication Breakdown’ (US no. 60, AUS no. 64), written by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees.  Its guitar stutters out a kind of musical Morse code.  After the one-off single ‘So Good’ (US no. 132, UK no. 32, AUS no. 28), two more tracks from Roy’s latest album are issued as singles.  The title track, ‘Cry Softly Lonely One’ (US no. 52, AUS no. 10), is bathed in strings and features the singer’s upper register on the chorus.  It is followed by ‘She’ (US no. 119, AUS no. 23).

In 1968 Roy Orbison goes on tour in England.  At a gig in Leeds in August 1968 he meets Barbara Anne Marie Wilhonnen Jacobs, a German teenager.  She becomes the new woman in Roy Orbison’s life as he falls in love with her.

On 14 September 1968, while Roy Orbison is on tour in England, the Orbison family home at Old Hickory Lane in Henderson, Tennessee, burns to the ground.  Killed in the fire are Roy’s two eldest sons, Roy Jr. and Anthony.  His youngest boy, Wesley (aged 3) is saved by Roy’s parents.  Subsequently, Wesley is raised by his grandparents.  The deaths of two of his three children, coming a bit over two years after the death of their mother, are a terrible blow for Roy Orbison.

“I think the records were okay, maybe, through 1968 or so,” says Roy Orbison.  The first single for 1968 is the non-album track ‘Born To Be Loved By You’ (AUS no. 25).  The best for the year is ‘Walk On’ (US no. 121, UK no. 39, AUS no. 53), co-written by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees.  It is an anthem of pride and tears.  ‘Walk On’ and ‘Heartache’ (US no. 104, UK no. 44, AUS no. 57) – the last single for 1968 – can both be found on ‘Roy Orbison’s Many Moods’ (1969), released in May.

Roy Orbison’s girlfriend, Barbara Jacobs, moves to the U.S.A. late in 1968.  She and Roy marry on 25 March 1969.  Barbara is 19 at the time; Roy is 33.  The couple go on to have two sons: Roy Kelton Orbison, Jr. (born 18 October 1970) and Alex Orbison (born 1975).  In later years, Barbara Orbison acts as her husband’s business manager.

Three singles are released by Roy Orbison in 1969: ‘My Friend’ (UK no. 35, AUS no. 99), ‘Penny Arcade’ (US no. 133, UK no. 27, AUS no. 1) and ‘Break My Mind’ (AUS no. 26).  The best of these is ‘Penny Arcade’, a tribute to bright and diverting amusements.  Musically, it mixes rough horns with a tinkling xylophone.  ‘Penny Arcade’ is written by Sammy King.

The 1970s are not the best years of Roy Orbison’s career.  ‘The Big O’ (1970), released early in the year, is a U.K. album that includes the 1969 singles ‘Penny Arcade’ and ‘Break My Mind’.  ‘Hank Williams The Roy Orbison Way’ (1970), issued in August, is a set of cover versions of songs by country music great Hank Williams.  The one-off single ‘So Young’ (US no. 122, AUS no. 82) is also released in 1970.  After a quiet 1971, Orbison puts out two albums in 1972.  ‘Roy Orbison Sings’ (1972) comes out in May and, despite a conspicuous lack of commercial success, is still considered ‘one of his finest.’  It includes ‘God Love You’.  ‘Memphis’ (1972) follows in November and features a cover version of Chuck Berry’s 1959 hit ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ (AUS no. 84).  ‘Milestones’ (1973) is Roy Orbison’s last album for MGM.  He signs to Mercury in 1974 in a move that proves fairly unproductive, yielding the single ‘Still’ (AUS no. 56) in 1975 and the album ‘I’m Still In Love With You’ (1976).  Roy Orbison returns to Monument Records and reunites with producer Fred Foster for the album ‘Regeneration’ (1977).  The single from this album is ‘Belinda’.  Although there are great hopes for the project, Roy Orbison declares he is not happy with the results and annuls his contract with Monument.  He moves to Asylum Records for ‘Laminar Flow’ (1979) which yields ‘Easy Way Out’.

Roy Orbison sees Elvis Presley for the final time in 1976.  He attends Presley’s concert in Las Vegas, Nevada.  This turns out to be Elvis’ last concert there.  Seeing Roy Orbison in the audience, Elvis Presley announces him to the crowd via his stage microphone with the words, “Quite simply, the greatest singer in the world, Roy Orbison.”  Elvis Presley dies in 1977.

Heavy smoking and the years of life on the road as a touring musician take a toll on Roy Orbison.  He has a triple bypass in open heart surgery conducted on 18 January 1978 at St Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee.  The surgery is successful and the singer recovers.

Although the 1970s are fairly barren for Roy Orbison in commercial terms, a groundswell of appreciation for him builds.  Roy observes, “I think the renaissance started with Linda Ronstadt recording ‘Blue Bayou’, which wasn’t even the A side [of my 1963 single ‘Mean Woman Blues’] in America.  It sold seven to ten million for her, and I guess I felt validated or something.  That was in 1977.  And then Don McLean did ‘Crying’ [in 1981], and it was a hit.  Then Van Halen did ‘Pretty Woman’ [in 1982] and I won a Grammy with Emmylou Harris for the [1980] single ‘That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again’.”

‘That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again’ (US no. 55, AUS no. 97) comes from the soundtrack of the movie ‘Roadie’ (1980).  It is a pleasant country music duet with Emmylou Harris, a country rock singer.  The song is co-written by Roy Orbison and Chris Price.

‘The two decades between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s are undeniably tough ones’ for Roy Orbison.

‘Wild Hearts’ (UK no. 76) comes from the soundtrack to the movie ‘Insignificance’ (1985).  The album ‘Class Of 55’ (1985) reunites Roy Orbison with fellow Sun Records alumni Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.  ‘Coming Home’, co-written by Orbison, lyricist Will Jennings and country rocker J.D. Souther, is a reassuring, almost gospel sounding, track from this album.  Movie director David Lynch, who is a big fan of Roy Orbison, uses Roy’s 1963 hit ‘In Dreams’ in the motion picture ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986).  This leads to ‘In Dreams: The Greatest Hits’ (1987), a double album of fresh recordings by Roy Orbison of many of his best known songs.  Another movie, ‘Less Than Zero’ (1987), includes a new Roy Orbison song, the morbid ‘Life Fades Away’, co-written by Orbison and ‘ultra hard rocker’ Glen Danzig of the band called Danzig.  The soundtrack to ‘Hiding Out’ (1987) includes a duet version of ‘Crying’ that Roy Orbison records with country rock singer k.d. lang.

On 30 September 1987 Roy Orbison puts on a show for the cameras at the Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.  His special guests, acting as back-up musicians or backing singers, include such rock music luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes and k.d. lang.  The show is broadcast on Cinemax Cable TV in January 1988.  Released on video as ‘Roy Orbison: A Black and White Night’, it becomes very popular.  The live album, ‘A Black And White Night Live’ (1989) (US no. 123), counts among its highlights a 1984 Elvis Costello song, ‘The Comedians’, performed by Orbison and Roy’s rollicking rendition of his early songwriting triumph ‘Claudette’.

Roy Orbison begins work on a new album with Jeff Lynne (from British pop group The Electric Light Orchestra) acting as producer.  Lynne is also acting as producer for an album by American rocker Tom Petty (‘Full Moon Fever’ (1989)) and was the producer of ‘Cloud Nine’ (1987) by George Harrison, former member of The Beatles.  Harrison drops by the Petty recording sessions.  All of them express their admiration for Roy Orbison.  Petty toured with Bob Dylan in 1986.  Harrison also knows Dylan, having met him during The Beatles’ first U.S. tour in 1964.  Also Dylan appeared at Harrison’s charity concert for Bangladesh in 1971.  Orbison also knows Dylan – distantly – from having been offered ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right’ and is familiar with Harrison from touring with The Beatles in 1963.  With so many connections between them, the five men – Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, George Harrison and Bob Dylan – decide to record an album together.  To reduce the pressure on the supergroup, they all take false identities and (absurdly) pose as brothers known as The Traveling Wilburys.  Roy Orbison is Lefty Wilbury.  The album, ‘Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1’ (1988) (US no. 3, UK no. 16, AUS no. 1), is released in October.  It includes such popular new songs as ‘Handle With Care’ (US no. 45, UK no. 21, AUS no. 3) and ‘End Of The Line’ (US no. 63, AUS no. 11).  It seems an ideal launching pad for a revival of Roy Orbison’s career.

On 4 December 1988 Roy Orbison plays a gig at Highland Heights, Ohio.  It will turn out to be his final concert.

Roy Orbison had been experiencing chest pains since November 1988.  On 6 December 1988, after dinner at his mother’s home, he suffers a heart attack in the bathroom.  Although he is promptly taken to hospital, the singer dies there on 6 December 1988.  He was 52.

‘Mystery Girl’ (1989) (US no. 5) is posthumously released on Virgin Records in February.  Production duties on this album are shared by Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Mike Campbell (Tom Petty’s guitarist), T-Bone Burnett (the producer of ‘A Black And White Night’), Barbara Orbison and Bono (lead singer of Irish rock group U2).  The first single from the album is ‘You Got It’ (US no. 9, UK no. 3, AUS no. 1) b/w ‘The Only One’.  Produced by Jeff Lynne, ‘You Got It’ is co-written by three of The Traveling Wilburys: Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty.  “Anything you want / You got it / Anything you need / You got it / Anything at all / You got it, baby!” run the lyrics amidst cascading guitars and flourishes of musical punctuation.  The B side, ‘The Only One’ (also on ‘Mystery Girl’), is a brassy, aching, 1950s throwback co-produced by Roy Orbison and Mike Campbell and co-written by Wesley K. Orbison (Roy’s son by his first wife, Claudette) and Craig Wiseman.  ‘California Blue’ (UK no. 77, AUS no. 75) is produced by Jeff Lynne and, like ‘You Got It’, is co-written by Lynne, Orbison and Petty.  It’s a dreamy song, soft as a watercolour.  The title of the album, ‘Mystery Girl’, is a line from ‘She’s A Mystery To Me’ (UK no. 27), produced by Bono and co-written by Bono and his U2 colleague, The Edge.  The song is virtually hypnotic and Roy Orbison’s voice acts like a beacon in the blackness: “Darkness falls and she will take me by the hand / Take me to some twilight land / Where all but love is grey / Where I can’t find my way / Without her as my guide.”  Other notable tracks on ‘Mystery Girl’ include the slow and solemn ‘A Love So Beautiful’ (co-written by Lynne and Orbison); the bent ‘The Comedians’ which employs martial drumbeats (a song written by Elvis Costello that premiered on ‘A Black and White Night’); and the rattling rocker ‘(All I Can Do Is) Dream You’ (co-written by Billy Burnette [no relation to T-Bone] and David Malloy).  ‘Mystery Girl’ is Roy Orbison’s best album.  Although it can be argued that an album like ‘Crying’ better represents the peak of Roy Orbison’s career, Roy – and the industry as a whole – was more focussed on singles at the time.  Albums were little more than a few hits and some filler.  ‘Mystery Girl’ is a more cohesive work as a unit, an album.  It has an added poignancy due to Roy Orbison’s death only a short time before its release.  ‘Mystery Girl’ is Roy Orbison’s first full-length album of new material in ten years; it is also ‘the biggest selling album of his career.’

Virgin Records assembles one more album of Roy Orbison material from unused tracks, ‘King Of Hearts’ (1992) (US no. 179).  Various producers are used, but Jeff Lynne oversees the project.  ‘I Drove All Night’ (UK no. 7, AUS no. 22) chugs with locomotive power.  It is written by hit-makers Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.  ‘Heartbreak Radio’ (UK no. 36, AUS no. 31) is straightforward pop rock written by Frankie Miller and Troy Seals.  The dramatic ‘Wild Hearts Run Out Of Time’ is co-written by Roy Orbison and lyricist Will Jennings.

“People often ask me how I would like to be remembered and I answer that I would simply like to be remembered,” said Roy Orbison.  That desire was fulfilled.  Often Orbison is thought of as a tragic figure, not only because of the melancholy nature of many of his hits, but also the real life heartbreak associated with the untimely deaths of his first wife and his first two sons.  Orbison once reflected on this image: “The tragic life…that one period [1966-1968] of it was tragic.  But there were a lot of years before and a lot of years after, so that’s very far from the truth.”  Roy Orbison’s musical history can be divided into four parts: (1) the Sun Records rockabilly years (1956-1958); (2) the Monument Records classic period (1959-1964); (3) the MGM Records and other labels years of fitful success (1965-1986); and (4) the final period of restored power (1987-1988).  The rockabilly songs are a bit underrated – even by Orbison.  The long third phase still had some good songs (e.g. ‘Communication Breakdown’, ‘That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again’).  The final years are heartbreaking for the loss of what could have been but at least Orbison’s career ended on an upswing.  Yet his best years remain the 1959-1964 period, that odd twilight that followed Elvis Presley’s dominance and preceded the advent of The Beatles – two giant forces that shared a respect and admiration of Roy Orbison.  And how did he achieve his greatest works at Monument?  By defying conventional wisdom and having the courage of his convictions.  Roy Orbison purveyed a ‘quavering operatic voice and melodramatic narratives of unrequited love and yearning.’  ‘At a time when pop music was irredeemably lightweight, Orbison stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries…His songs compelled attention.’

Sources:

  1. metrolyrics.com as at 23 July 2015
  2. ‘The Essential Roy Orbison’ – Sleeve notes by Chet Flippo (Sony Music Entertainment, 2006) p. 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9
  3. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 42, 43
  4. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Roy Orbison’ by Ken Emerson (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 154, 155
  5. wikipedia.org as at 19 July 2015
  6. royorbison.com –‘Roy Orbison – Official Biography’ – no author credited (11 December 2012)
  7. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 21 July 2013
  8. ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine no. 544 – ‘Roy Orbison’s Triumphs and Tragedies’ – interview conducted by Steve Pond (26 January 1989) reproduced on rollingstone.com
  9. ‘Good Morning Britain’ (U.K. television program, TV-am (ITV) Network) – Roy Orbison interview conducted by Richard Keys and Anne Diamond (11 December 1987)
  10. biography.com – ‘Roy Orbison’ – no author credited – as at 20 July 2015
  11. allmusic.com, ‘Teen Kings’ by Bruce Eder as at 21 July 2015
  12. Internet movie database – imdb.com – as at 24 July 2015
  13. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 158
  14. lyricsfreak.com as at 23 July 2015
  15. findagrave.com – Claudette Frady Orbison – as at 22 July 2015
  16. jmeshel.com – Jeff Meshel’s World – ‘Roy Orbison: Oh Pretty Woman’ by Jeff Meshel (19 November 2010)
  17. allmusic.com, ‘Roy Orbison’ by Richie Unterberger as at 21 July 2015
  18. The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 175
  19. azlyrics.com as at 23 July 2015
  20. oldielyrics.com as at 23 July 2015
  21. ‘The Beatles’ edited by Jeremy Pascall, Robert Burt (Octopus Books, 1975) p. 15
  22. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 92, 93, 94, 98, 117
  23. ‘Roy Orbison – Black & White Night’ DVD – anonymous sleeve notes (Warner Vision Australia, 1999) p. 2

Song lyrics copyright: ‘Best Friend’, ‘Crying’, ‘Lana’, ‘Dream Baby’, ‘Crawling Back’ (all Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Barbara Orbison Music Company, Orbi-Lee Music, R-Key Darkus, BMG Rights Management, US, LLC); ‘Ooby Dooby’ (Peermusic Publishing); ‘Only The Lonely’ (Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Roy Orbison Music company, Sony ATV Music Pub. LLC); ‘Blue Angel’, ‘I’m Hurtin’’ (both Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Barbara Orbison Music Company, Roy Orbison Music Company); ‘Running Scared’, ‘Working For The Man’, ‘In Dreams’, ‘Falling’, ‘Blue Bayou’ (all Sony/ATV Acuff Rose Music, Orbi-Lee Music, Barbara Orbison Music Company, R-Key Darkus Music, Roy Orbison Music Company); ‘It’s Over’, ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ (both Sony/ATV Acuff Rose Music, Barbara Orbison Music Company, Roy Orbison Music Company); ‘Ride Away’ (Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music Inc., Barbara Orbison Music Company, Orbi-Lee Music, R-Key Darkus, BMG Rights Management US, LLC); ‘You Got It’ (Sony/ATV Acuff Rose Music, Gone Gator Music, EMI April Music Inc.); ‘She’s A Mystery To Me’ (Polygram Int. Music Publishing B.V.)

Last revised 7 February 2017

Olivia Newton-John

Olivia Newton-John – circa 1981

“Where, where did my innocence go? / I, I was a young girl, you know” – ’A Little More Love’ (John Farrar)

He is blown away.  He is totally astonished.  He drops to his knees.  He falls on his face.  Danny Zuko just can’t believe it.  Sandy Olssen, the sweet girl he has been chasing, has undergone a stunning metamorphosis.  She is now a vixen in tight spandex pants and a leather jacket.  This is a scene from the movie ‘Grease’ (1978).  Danny is played by John Travolta and Sandy is played by Olivia Newton-John.  The importance of this moment is how it resonates with Olivia Newton-John’s public image as a singer.  For years, she has been viewed as being just as sweet as her character, Sandy.  Yet, almost simultaneously, outside of ‘Grease’, Olivia Newton-John reinvents herself as a more edgy and sexy performer.  The results are the best moments of her career.

Olivia Newton-John is born 26 September 1948 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England.  Her father is Brinley (‘Brin’) Newton-John.  Born in Wales, he is a former officer of MI5, the British spy agency.  Brin Newton-John has a more academic life by the time his daughter is born.  “My father was a headmaster in England,” Olivia says.  Her mother is Irene Helene Newton-John (nee Born).  Born in Germany, she and her family left that country before World War Two to avoid the Nazi regime.  “My grandfather on my mother’s side was Max Born and he won the Nobel Prize for quantum physics in 1952, I believe.  He was a very close friend of [famed physicist Albert] Einstein,” points out Olivia.  She adds, “My grandfather played wonderful piano.”  Olivia Newton-John is the youngest of three children.  Her elder brother, Hugh, becomes a doctor while her big sister, Rona, goes on to a career as an actress.

In 1954 the Newton-John family moves to Australia.  Brin Newton-John initiates the move to take up a new position as Professor of German and Master at Ormond College at the University of Melbourne in the Australian State of Victoria.  “When I was a young girl,” recalls Olivia Newton-John, “I was so crazy about animals that I wanted to do something associated with them, and I thought about being a vet.”  The little girl is also interested in music.  “I always sang as a child,” Olivia confirms, “and I always seemed to know the melody and lyrics of every song on the radio…Singing was kind of a family tradition.  My father had a wonderful bass baritone voice.  He was a Welshman, of course, and they can all sing.”

In 1959 Olivia Newton-John’s parents divorce.  “I think I got a little distracted by that,” Olivia admits.  “It affected my concentration at school.”  Brin Newton-John later remarries.  He has two children with his second wife, Valerie Cunningham.  Olivia’s half-siblings are Toby and Sarah.  While on the subject of extended family, Olivia Newton-John’s niece is Caroline Goldsmith who, as Tottie Goldsmith, becomes a member of Australian female vocal group The Chantoozies from 1986 to 1990.  Olivia attends Christchurch Grammar School in South Yarra where she meets Daryl Braithwaite, future vocalist of Australian pop group Sherbet.  She goes on to University High School in Melbourne.  “My education was in Australia and I always felt I was Australian, even though my passport was British,” says Olivia Newton-John.

Show business comes calling, albeit in an unusual fashion.  Olivia Newton-John wins a local contest as a look-alike for Hayley Mills, a popular British teen actress of the time.  “My sister [Rona] sent my photograph in,” reports Olivia.  “I guess I was probably 10.”  [Another source says she was 12 at that point.]

“My mum gave me my first guitar when I was about 14,” recalls Olivia Newton-John.  However, it is not as a guitarist, but as a singer, that she gets her next break.  “I met some young girls my own age and we started singing together [in a group] called The Sol 4 and we sang in jazz clubs.”  Olivia is about 14 at this time.  Sol 4 proves ‘short-lived.’  “My mother put an end to the girl group ‘cos she said it was taking away from my homework,” admits Olivia.  Instead, in 1962 she gets to put her nascent guitar skills to use playing folk songs on the weekend at a coffee shop owned by her brother-in-law.  The youngster is billed as ‘Lovely Livvy.’

Olivia Newton-John begins appearing on Australian television variety shows in 1964 such as ‘The Happy Show’ and ‘The Go Show.’  On the latter, she meets both Pat Carroll and John Farrar.  “We all knew each other from when we were really young,” observes Olivia.  “I entered this singing contest that was on a national television show and, long story short, I won it.”  This show is ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, hosted by Australian rock star Johnny O’Keefe.  The prize Olivia wins is a trip to England on a Sitmar cruise ship.  It is not something she undertakes immediately because she is just too busy.

When she is 16, Olivia Newton-John appears on the Australian television show ‘Time for Terry.’  Running from 1964 to 1966, this program is hosted by Terry O’Neill, an English comedian, entertainer and jazz musician.  In her 1965 gig on the show, Olivia meets Ian Turpie.  The 21 year old becomes her boyfriend.  Olivia and Ian both appear in the movie ‘Funny Things Happen Down Under’ (1965).  “Ian Turpie played the bad boy in the film and he was my boyfriend at the time,” she says with a smile.  Ian also has something to do with Olivia’s postponement of her trip to England.  “I didn’t want to go.  I had a boyfriend in Melbourne.”  Olivia’s mother, Irene, is not content with this situation.  A talent scout had contacted Irene and offered to manage her daughter.  Irene hotly rejected the offer and decided that if anyone was going to be Olivia’s manager it would be her mother.  Described as a ‘stage mum with big plans’, Irene Newton-John effectively puts an end to Olivia’s relationship with Ian Turpie in 1965.  Turpie goes on to be a showbiz identity in Australian and is probably most famous for hosting the television game show ‘The Price is Right’ (1981-1986).  And how did her mother tell Olivia of her plans for them to take up the trip to England?  “She grabbed me by the hair and said, ‘You’re going’,” recalls Olivia without any apparent resentment.

“My mother and I went to England in 1966,” says Olivia Newton-John.  “I was very homesick.”  Olivia cuts her first single, a cover version of Jackie De Shannon’s ‘’Till You Say You’ll Be Mine’, a song that was the B side to De Shannon’s more famous 1963 song ‘When You Walk In The Room’.  Olivia’s version is released on the Decca label.  The B side is ‘Forever’.  “After about three months, one of my friends, Pat Carroll, came over [to England],” says Olivia.  This reunion with her friend from ‘The Go Show’ days seems to lift the teen’s spirits.  They form a duo, Pat And Olivia.  One of their jobs is to give two shows a night at Raymond’s Review Bar in London.  It is only after they arrive at the venue that Pat And Olivia discover it is a strip club.  The two demure teens perform their usual routine – fully clothed – to a notably muted response from the patrons.  Pat And Olivia are promptly fired.  More significantly, the girls open some shows for The Shadows.

A brief digression on the subject of Cliff Richard and The Shadows:  Cliff Richard is a British pop star.  The Shadows is Cliff’s backing band.  The group also has a parallel career without Cliff, primarily recording instrumentals, which proves quite successful.  At the time Pat And Olivia tour with The Shadows, the line-up of the latter act is: Hank B. Marvin (guitar), Bruce Welch (guitar), John Rostill (bass) and Brian Bennett (drums).

The marriage of Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch and his first wife, Anne, ends in 1968.  Welch then begins a relationship with Olivia Newton-John.  The couple become engaged.

The Shadows tour Australia in 1968.  Pat Carroll and Olivia Newton-John tag along.  All these performers appear on a 1968 episode of the Australian edition of the television show ‘Bandstand’, hosted by Brian Henderson.  This is the local version of Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand.’  For whatever reason, bassist John Rostill does not make the trip to Australia.  Filling in for him is John Farrar, Pat and Olivia’s colleague from ‘The Go Show.’  The Shadows are ‘suitably impressed with his work.’  Born in Melbourne, John Farrar started out in a band called The Mustangs (1963-1964) before moving on to The Strangers (1964-1970).  The Strangers were the backing band on ‘The Go Show’ and that’s how he met Pat and Olivia.  While Olivia is romantically involved with Bruce Welch, Pat Carroll dates John Farrar.  Pat’s visa expires in 1968 so Olivia is left alone in England.  John Farrar and Pat Carroll marry in January 1970.  The Strangers disband in 1970 and John and Pat return to London.  Meantime, The Shadows called it quits in 1968 but John Farrar joins two of the act’s alumni in the awkwardly named Marvin, Welch & Farrar (1970-1973).

In 1970 Olivia Newton-John’s career in London takes another twist.  She recalls that, “[American] Don Kirshner, who had put The Monkees together, was looking for a new group, but to put them in films instead of television.”  [The Monkees had their own television show.]  Olivia Newton-John is enlisted for this new group, an outfit called Toomorrow [sic].  The act debuts in the film ‘Toomorrow’ (1970), which Olivia describes as, “a sci-fi musical.”  They also release an album, ‘Toomorrow’ (1970), from which comes the single ‘I Could Never Live Without Your Love’.  None of these projects is very successful and Toomorrow is disbanded as a ‘failure.’  “That was a disappointment [but] a learning experience,” says Olivia philosophically.

Picking herself up, Olivia Newton-John uses her connections to The Shadows (fiancé Bruce Welch and friend John Farrar) to meet Cliff Richard, the British pop star with whom The Shadows worked.  “I kind of auditioned for him,” says Olivia.  “[We] have a wonderful chemistry when we sing together.”  Olivia Newton-John becomes part of Cliff Richard’s touring show, appearing as an opening act at his concerts.  With this beachhead established, Olivia begins her solo recording career in earnest.

Olivia Newton-John’s musical style changes over the years.  In this first phase, she is encouraged by those around her (e.g. Bruce Welch, John Farrar) to sing country music primarily.  Olivia’s brand of country has strong pop overtones and some residual folk music influence as well.

Olivia Newton-John is not famed as a songwriter.  Although she does write a small amount of her catalogue, songwriting is not really her forte.  She records some cover versions, but most of her songs are originals written for her.  Her most prolific songwriter is her friend, John Farrar.  Here, not all the songwriters will be detailed, but the authors of at least Olivia Newton-John’s most famous songs will be cited.

The most distinctive aspect of Olivia Newton-John’s work is her voice.  Her singing is remarkably clean and sweet.  It is a voice well suited to pop, country and folk.  She has a great facility for harmonies.  Her friend Pat Carroll often provides backing vocals.  No musicians are particularly associated with Olivia Newton-John.  On stage and in the recording studio she works with session musicians and the playing is always very professional, if not particularly attention grabbing.

Olivia Newton-John starts out signed to Festival Records in Australia, Pye Records in the U.K. and Uni in the U.S.A.  The first single she releases for these labels is ‘If Not For You’ (AUS no. 7, UK no. 7, US no. 25) in Spring 1971.  Olivia explains how she came to do this song: “Cliff [Richard’s] manager Peter Gormley, who was also an Aussie, wanted me to record.  Bruce Welch and John Farrar recorded me doing a Bob Dylan song.”  Dylan released the song in October 1970 and it was covered by George Harrison in November 1970.  Olivia’s version is probably more like Harrison’s than Dylan’s, with its zinging slide guitar.  “If not for you / My sky would fall / Rain would gather too / Without your love I’d be nowhere at all / I’d be lost without you,” Olivia insists in a vocal that is gentle rather than powerful.  “To be honest, I didn’t like it.  I wasn’t crazy about the song,” confesses Olivia, before adding, “I was wrong, thank goodness…Thank goodness Peter [Gormley] picked it for me.”  The singer brought her dog to the studio during the recording of ‘If Not For You’.  The mutt knocks over a microphone stand and, allegedly, that sound can still be heard in the instrumental bridge near the end of the song.

‘If Not For You’ is followed by ‘Banks Of The Ohio’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 6, US no. 94), a traditional country music murder ballad arranged by Bruce Welch and John Farrar.  It is a bit difficult to credit someone as lovable as Olivia Newton-John as the blood-soaked narrator who sings, “I cried, ‘My God, what have I done? / I’ve killed the only man I love / He would not take me for his bride.”  ‘Banks Of The Ohio’ has a stronger country music flavour than its folk/pop predecessor and boasts impressive harmonies.

Olivia Newton-John’s debut album, ‘If Not For You’ (1971) (AUS no. 14, US no. 158), is released in November.  In the U.K. and the U.S. it is titled ‘Olivia Newton-John’.  Co-produced by John Farrar and Bruce Welch, this disc includes both ‘If Not For You’ and ‘Banks Of The Ohio’.

In April 1972 Olivia Newton-John and Bruce Welch split up.  Although they were engaged, the couple never married.

Olivia Newton-John maintains her link to Cliff Richard, appearing on his television variety show ‘It’s Cliff’ in 1972.

‘Olivia’ (1972) is the singer’s second album.  Again produced by Bruce Welch and John Farrar, this album contains Olivia Newton-John’s cover version of the 1971 George Harrison song ‘What Is Life’.

Olivia Newton-John achieves a U.S. breakthrough in 1973 with ‘Let Me Be There’ (AUS no. 11, US no. 6).  A light, country pop song, this finds Livvy asking, “Let me there in your morning / Let me be there in your night / Let me change whatever’s wrong and make it right.”  The song is written by John Rostill, John Farrar’s predecessor as bassist in The Shadows.  The U.S. market has some reservations about the newcomer singing country music, an indelibly American style.  Olivia recalls, “They weren’t very happy ‘cos I was an Australian singing country music produced by an Australian and an Englishman, John Farrar and Bruce Welch, written by an Englishman, John Rostill – so they weren’t very happy with me for a little while.”  The U.S. prejudice is overcome with the support of two American country music stars: “Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn stood up for me.”  The album ‘Let Me Be There’ (1973) (UK no. 37, US no. 54) is created for the U.S. market by Olivia’s new U.S. record label, MCA.  In addition to the title track, it includes a cover version of John Denver’s 1971 hit ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’ (UK no. 15, US no. 119) and some material from Olivia Newton-John’s previous two albums.  Production duties are shared between Bruce Welch, John Farrar and Alan Hawkshaw.

Two albums are released by Olivia Newton-John in 1974 – but one is aimed at the U.S. market and one for the U.K. and Australia.  The U.S. release is MCA’s ‘If You Love Me, Let Me Know’ (1974) (US no. 1), issued in May.  The title track, ‘If You Love Me (Let Me Know)’ (AUS no. 2, US no. 5), is another hit penned by John Rostill, the author of ‘Let Me Be There’.  “If you love me, let me know / If you don’t, then let me go / I can’t take another minute of a day without you in it,” sings Olivia Newton-John in a good natured way that counterpoints the lyrics desperation as the tune bops along pleasantly.  Again, a lot of material on this disc is assembled from earlier Australian and European releases, so Bruce Welch is still co-credited as producer with John Farrar.  ‘If You Love Me, Let Me Know’ also contains one other notable new song, ‘I Honestly Love You’, but since it is also on the 1974 Olivia Newton-John album for the non-U.S. market, let’s deal with that song there.

The Olivia Newton-John album devised for the U.K. and Australia is ‘Long Live Love’ (1974) (AUS no. 19, UK no. 40), produced by John Farrar and released on EMI.  The title track, ‘Long Live Love’ (AUS no. 11, UK no. 11), is written by Valerie Avon and Harold Spiro, and is described as an ‘oompah-oompah song.’  It is created for Olivia Newton-John to perform as England’s representative at the Eurovision Song Contest on 6 April 1974 in Brighton, U.K.  ONJ only manages to place fourth in the contest; the Swedish group Abba wins with ‘Waterloo’.  The Eurovision Song Contest means little in the U.S.A. at this time, so ‘Long Live Love’ is not added to Olivia’s U.S. album for the year. ‘If You Love Me, Let Me Know’ and ‘Long Live Love’ both include ‘I Honestly Love You’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 22, US no. 1), a song that becomes one of Olivia Newton-John’s most successful singles.  A heartfelt ballad, this song is framed with a string section and harp but, by keeping the focus on the basic piano accompaniment, it is incredibly moving.  “This is pure and simple / And you should realise / That it’s coming from my heart and not my head / I love you / I honestly love you,” sings Olivia Newton-John in a fragile voice on the verge of tears.  “The take we used was the first take,” she comments, underlining the pained immediacy of the performance.  ‘I Honestly Love You’ is composed by Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen and U.S. songwriter Jeff Barry and its success helps Allen’s own career.

On a holiday in the south of France in 1974 Olivia Newton-John meets Lee Kramer, a businessman in the import/export trade.  He becomes her boyfriend (1974 to 1979) and her manager ‘for most of the rest of the decade.’

Around this time, Olivia Newton-John’s music enters a new phase.  A song like ‘I Honestly Love You’ could be considered ‘country only in the loosest sense.’  Olivia’s new musical style is described as ‘soft rock’ and it ‘establishes her as a pop singer, not a country pop singer.’  It may be more accurate to call it ‘middle-of-the-road’, neither pop nor rock.  It is the sound of an all-round entertainer courting a more general audience.  It also sounds like it could be recorded by someone decades older than the 26 year old Olivia Newton-John.  However it is also impeccably polished, tuneful and endearing.

In 1975 Olivia Newton-John moves to the United States.  Fellow Australian expatriate singer “Helen Reddy…said to me, ‘If you want to make it in this country, you really have to be here.’”  Olivia takes that advice to heart and makes a new home for herself in Malibu, near Los Angeles, on a mountain ranch with space for the singer’s beloved dogs and horses.

‘Have You Never Been Mellow’ (1975) (AUS no. 13, UK no. 37, US no. 1) is released in February.  John Farrar remains as the producer for virtually all of Olivia Newton-John’s albums from this point.  Farrar writes the title song, ‘Have You Never Been Mellow’ (AUS no. 10, US no. 1), a piece that’s as soft as a pillow and glossy as a shampoo commercial.  “There was a time when I was in a hurry / As you are / I was / Like you,” Olivia coos soothingly, ironing out any stress.  The album’s next best known track is ‘Please Mr Please’ (AUS no. 35, UK no. 3), a request to stay away from a particular song on the jukebox that reminds the narrator of a lost love.  A lachrymose lament like this shows the country influence has yet to completely dissipate for Olivia.

‘Clearly Love’ (1975) (AUS no. 50, US no. 12) is Olivia Newton-John’s second album for the year.  The John Farrar song ‘Something Better To Do’ (AUS no. 60, US no. 13) is executed with an effortless, carefree manner.  Linda Hargrove pens ‘Let It Shine’ (US no. 30).

1976 also sees two albums released by Olivia Newton-John.  ‘Come On Over’ (1976) (AUS no. 29, UK no. 49, US no. 13) is issued in February.  Barry and Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees furnish the title track, ‘Come On Over’ (AUS no. 55, US no. 23).  Also present is a cover version of Dolly Parton’s 1973 country music standard ‘Jolene’ (AUS no. 29) – though Olivia Newton-John doesn’t release it as a single until 1978.  The second album for the year is ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’(1976) (AUS no. 88, US no. 30).  John Farrar writes the title track, the breezy ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ (AUS no. 93, US no. 33).  The lyrics gently cajole, “But on those days when nobody wants to know you / And all your smiles keep falling on stony ground…Don’t stop believin’ / You’ll get by / Bad days, bad days will hurry by.”  Also present on this disc is ‘Every Face Tells A Story’ (US no. 55), but more successful is ‘Sam’ (AUS no. 56, UK no. 6, US no. 20).  A waltzing piano accompanies Olivia’s lovelorn narrator who addresses the title character in this fashion: “I heard that you’re on your own now / So am I / I’m living alone now…Are you feeling lost, just like me? / Longing for company.”  ‘Sam’ is co-written by John Farrar, Donald Black and Farrar’s chum from The Shadows, Hank B. Marvin.  (From 1973 to 1976 John Farrar was part of a revived version of The Shadows.)  ‘Sam’ is a rare U.K. hit for Olivia Newton-John.  Since moving to the U.S., her songs have been popular in that country but that popularity seems to come at the expense of her British success.

‘Making A Good Thing Better’ (1977) (AUS no. 71, UK no. 60, US no. 34) is the title of Olivia Newton-John’s next album.  The title track, ‘Making A Good Thing Better’ (US no. 87) is released as a single.  Also on this album is a cover version of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ (AUS no. 32) from the musical ‘Evita’.  Julie Covington’s 1976 rendition is the original with Olivia’s take not released as a single until 1980.  Olivia Newton-John’s career seems to be slowing down.  Her image may be part of the problem.  Livvy quips, “There’s a rumour going around that I’m Miss Goody Two-Shoes from Australia.  Well, that’s a laugh.  I’m really Miss Good Two-Shoes from England.”  The compilation album ‘Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits’ (1977) (AUS no. 18, UK no. 19, US no. 13) appears to close this chapter.

“I guess my music changed from the 1970s to the 1980s because ‘Grease’ came along,” says Olivia Newton-John.  ‘Grease’ is a stage musical created by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey.  It is a loving homage to 1950s rock ‘n’ roll when greased down hair was fashionable.  It is a love story about bad boy Danny Zuko falling for good girl Sandy Olssen.  Olivia Newton-John applies for the female lead role when casting begins for a motion picture version of ‘Grease’.  “I was really nervous that I would look too old,” she admits.  By the time the movie opens, Olivia Newton-John is 29 and playing a teenager.  Her co-star, John Travolta (who plays Danny), is 24.  The soundtrack album, ‘Grease’ (1978) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 1, US no. 1) is released in April and the movie premieres on 16 June 1978.  The soundtrack augments the songs from the stage show with a handful of new compositions.  Two of these, penned by John Farrar, are among the most successful moments.  The ballad ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ (AUS no. 2, UK no. 2, US no. 3), sung by Olivia Newton-John’s character, Sandy Olssen, is a perfect pastiche of 1950s girl group sounds.  “I’m not the first to know there’s / Just no getting over you / But baby can’t you see / There’s nothing else for me to do / I’m hopelessly devoted to you,” swoons Olivia/Sandy.  By the end of the film, sweet little Sandy has transformed into a torrid man-eater who sternly warns Danny, “You better shape up / Cause I need a man / And my heart is set on you.”  This is an excerpt from the frenetic, galloping ‘You’re The One That I Want’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 1, US no. 1), a duet between Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta.  Also noteworthy is ‘Summer Nights’ (AUS no. 6, UK no. 1, US no. 5), a simultaneously dramatic and silly number from the original ‘Grease’ authors Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey.  It plays out as a contrasting account from Sandy and the girls and Danny and the boys and is performed by Newton-John, Travolta and ‘the cast of “Grease”.’  ‘Grease’ is a critical bombshell and a box-office smash.’  “’Grease’ changed my life in the most amazing way,” marvels Olivia Newton-John.

What ‘Grease’ does is propel Olivia Newton-John into a third musical phase.  For the first time in her career she becomes a rock singer.  Admittedly, it is still rock with a large dollop of pop mixed in.  ‘Grease’ took a jovial approach to rock ‘n’ roll with a nod and a wink, but, in her own career, Olivia Newton-John tackles rock music head on in a more serious and committed fashion.  Just as her character in ‘Grease’, Sandy Olssen, changed from the girl next door to tigerish vamp, Olivia Newton-John changes from sweet pop princess to ‘a mildly sexy pop singer.’

‘Totally Hot’ (1978) (AUS no. 7, UK no. 30, US no. 7) is the album that cements Olivia Newton-John’s status as a rock singer.  As usual, John Farrar supplies the song that is the highlight of the album, ‘A Little More Love’ (AUS no. 9, UK no. 4, US no. 3).  Olivia’s narrator is stalked by an electric guitar that at set intervals lashes out in stinging fashion.  “I wait in the heat,” she smoulders, “I know, know that you have you way / ‘Til you have to go home / ‘No’s a word I can’t say.”  The new image is a welcome change.  Farrar writes the unjustly overlooked title track, ‘Totally Hot’ (US no. 52).  This is a funky and brassy blast in which Olivia demands, “Gimme what you got / Ready or not / Our love is totally hot.”  The singer bravely tackles The Spencer Davis Group’s 1966 scorcher ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ without disgracing herself.  ‘Deeper Than The Night’ (AUS no. 74, UK no. 64, US no. 11) is soulful pop and ‘Dancin’ ‘Round And ‘Round’ (US no. 82) also comes from this set.  ‘Totally Hot’ is described as ‘a mixture of soft rock and light disco’ but this seems to underrate this effort.

In 1979 Olivia Newton-John is awarded an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list.

On 9 January 1979 Olivia Newton-John is one of the acts involved in a benefit show called ‘A Gift of Song – The Music for UNICEF Concert.’  This show is held at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City and raises money to battle world hunger.  Other performers on the bill include Abba, Rod Stewart, The Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Earth, Wind And Fire, John Denver, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge.

Following the success of ‘Grease’, Olivia Newton-John participates in another movie musical.  ‘Xanadu’ (1980) takes its name from the ‘stately pleasure dome’ erected by the conqueror Kublai Khan in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem ‘Kublai Khan – Or a Vision in a Dream, a Fragment’ (1797).  In the movie ‘Xanadu’, Olivia Newton-John plays the part of Kira, a ‘sexy muse’, a ‘girl who makes dreams come true.’  The film includes a roller disco scene and a scene with a Hollywood legend.  “I still can’t believe I danced with Gene Kelly,” marvels Olivia years later.  It’s not all fun and games though.  Olivia fractures her coccyx while filming the dance sequence for the song entitled ‘Suddenly’.  The soundtrack album, ‘Xanadu’ (1980) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 2, US no. 4), is released in August.  Side one of the disc features Olivia Newton-John’s music while side two features British pop group The Electric Light Orchestra (ELO).  The highlight of Livvy’s half is the John Farrar composition ‘Magic’ (AUS no. 4, UK no. 32, US no. 1).  Over a funky, skipping beat, Olivia/Kira gives a strangely bewitching performance, urging, “You have to believe we are magic / Nothing can stand in our way.”  Also on this side is the ballad ‘Suddenly’ (AUS no. 37, UK no. 15, US no. 20), a duet with Olivia’s friend and former mentor, Cliff Richard.  In addition, Olivia shows up on side two to duet with ELO on the title track, the shimmering and sparkling ‘Xanadu’ (AUS no. 2, UK no. 1, US no. 8).  Written and produced by ELO’s leader, Jeff Lynne, the lyrics to this song find Olivia/Kira describing “a place where nobody dared to go / The love that we came to know / They call it Xanadu.”  Olivia Newton-John later reflects that ‘Xanadu’, “was seen as a bit of a bomb.  Well, the movie itself was, but the music was very successful.”

During the making of ‘Xanadu’, Olivia Newton-John meets Matt Lattanzi.  “He was a dancer,” she recalls, who stood in for the film’s leading man in the choreographed scenes.  Subsequently, Matt Lattanzi works as both an actor and dancer.  He also becomes romantically involved with Olivia Newton-John.

In 1980 Olivia Newton-John and her friend Pat Carroll open ‘Koala Blue’.  Initially, this is a Los Angeles based import shop for Australian goods.  Over the years, ‘Koala Blue’ diversifies into a chain of women’s clothing boutiques and even starts its own brand of wine.  Eventually, it goes bankrupt in 1991 and closes down in 1992.

Around 1980 Roger Davies takes over from Lee Kramer as Olivia Newton-John’s manager.  He shepherds Olivia’s career through her next couple of albums.  Davies is an expatriate Australian.

‘Physical’ (1981) (AUS no. 3, UK no. 11, US no. 6) is Olivia Newton-John’s best album and the title track, ‘Physical’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 7, US no. 1), is her best individual song.  The authors of the song are Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick.  Kipner intended the song for Tina Turner but she rejected it for being ‘too obvious.’  Roger Davies is Tina Turner’s manager at the time.  Although Tina declines ‘Physical’, Davies thinks it is ‘perfect’ for his new client, Olivia Newton-John.  The lyrics give Olivia some concern, but Davies talks her into recording it.  Over a funky, dance pop beat, Olivia declares, “There’s nothing left to talk about ‘less it’s horizontally / Let’s get physical.”  She panics afterwards, thinking the song is too suggestive.  When a video is made for the song, director Brian Grant has the idea to make fun of the ‘overtly sexual lyrics’ by showing the singer as ‘a sexy aerobics fanatic’ in a gymnasium.  ‘Physical’ is banned by a couple of U.S. radio stations – one in Salt Lake City and one in Provo, Utah – because of ‘its veiled sexual content’…but of course that only enhances its popularity.  It is the no. 1 single in the U.S.A. for ten weeks from 21 November 1981 to 23 January 1982.  Aside from its popularity and catchy tune what makes ‘Physical’ Olivia Newton-John’s best song?  Primarily, it stands out for subverting her ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ image by putting her in ‘vixen mode.’  This echoes the transformative process of her character in ‘Grease’ and so personifies that crucial career crossroads.  It’s just plain fun to see a good girl gone bad – even if it is so unrealistic as to be humorous, rather than credible.  The producer of the ‘Physical’ album, John Farrar, writes another winsome hit for his charge, the playful ‘Make A Move On Me’ (AUS no. 8, UK no. 43, US no. 5).  Framed by synthesisers, Livvy cheerfully encourages her man with the lyrics, “I’m the one you want / That’s all I want to be / So come on baby make a move on me.”  Farrar also pens the album’s other hit, ‘Landslide’ (UK no. 18, US no. 52).  The disc even celebrates Olivia’s love of animals with ‘The Promise (Dolphin’s Song)’.  ‘Physical’ represents Olivia Newton-John’s most winning and well-balanced work and showcases her at the peak of her powers.

‘Olivia’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2’ (1982) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 8, US no. 16) is a compilation album that includes two new songs.  The clattering synthesiser of ‘Heart Attack’ (AUS no. 22, UK no. 46, US no. 3) sound like a (good) outtake from ‘Physical’.  The other new song is ‘Tied Up’ (AUS no. 54, US no. 38).

Olivia Newton-John reunites with her ‘Grease’ co-star John Travolta for the movie ‘Two of a Kind’ (1983).  David Foster produces the movie soundtrack, ‘Two Of A Kind’ (1983) (AUS no. 35, US no. 26), which is released in December.  Olivia plays the role of Debbie in the film.  The movie is described as ‘a bomb.’  The music from the film fares a bit better.  ‘Twist Of Fate’ (AUS no. 4, UK no. 57, US no. 5) is the best song from the album.  It is co-written by Steve Kipner and Peter Beckett.  A pulse beat underlies its busy synthesisers as Olivia wails, “This gift of life extension / By divine intervention / It’s gotta be a strange twist of fate / Telling me that heaven can wait.”  Also present is ‘Livin’ In Desperate Times’ (AUS no. 81) which has a very plastic 1980s sound with synthesisers and bass dominating the mix.

In December 1984, ‘around Christmas’, Olivia Newton-John marries Matt Lattanzi.  The couple had been living together for four years.

‘Soul Kiss’ (1985) (AUS no. 19, UK no. 66, US no. 29) finds Olivia Newton-John further developing the style of the ‘Physical’ album.  Mark Goldenberg writes the steamy title track, ‘Soul Kiss’ (AUS no. 20, US no. 20).  Olivia starts out sweetly, singing, “Soul kiss / You left me dreaming,” but later drops to a lower register to deliver the line, “I get down on my knees / (And beg you baby).”  The back cover of the album shows the singer reflected in a mirror with her back to the camera.  She is wearing ‘tight riding pants and boots [and] holding a crop’ while only a strategically placed scarf protects the modesty of her naked torso.  Bizarrely, she is pregnant at the time – though that is not visually obvious.  The riding crop is also brandished in the video for the clinically funky ‘Toughen Up’ (AUS no. 93), though in this case it is matched with a red riding jacket.  ‘Toughen Up’ is written by Graham Lyle and Terry Britten.

After the ‘Soul Kiss’ album, Olivia Newton-John parts ways with manager Roger Davies.

Olivia Newton-John and her husband Matt Lattanzi become parents with the arrival of their daughter, Chloe (born 17 January 1986).

‘The Rumour’ (1988) (AUS no. 29, US no. 67) is produced by Davitt Sigerson.  The title track, ‘The Rumour’ (AUS no. 34, US no. 62), is a duet with British pop star Elton John.  Elton co-writes the song with his lyricist, Bernie Taupin.  The album is ‘ignored’ by the marketplace.  It is Olivia’s last regular album for MCA.

Olivia Newton-John’s first album for Geffen Records is an oddity.  ‘Warm And Tender’ (1989) (US no. 124) consists of lullabies for children.

The ‘Grease Megamix’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 3) – a medley from ‘Grease’ – keeps Olivia Newton-John in the charts in 1990.

‘Back To Basics: The Essential Collection’ (1992) (AUS no. 2, UK no. 12, US no. 121), released in May, is a greatest hits set with four new songs added.  The new songs are ‘Deeper Than A River’, ‘Not Gonna Be The One’, ‘I Want To Be Wanted’ and ‘I Need Love’ (AUS no. 89, UK no. 75, US no. 96).  The last-named, a pop song with a skipping beat, is the best of the bunch.

Olivia Newton-John’s father, Brin, dies of liver cancer in 1992.  The same weekend, she gets further bad news.  “In June 1992, I discovered a lump in my breast,” she recalls.  A medical diagnosis confirms it is breast cancer.  “You just think, ‘Cancer?  I could die!’  It’s very frightening,” says Olivia.  ‘Over the next year, she successfully undergoes treatment for the disease.’  This involves a course of chemotherapy and a partial mastectomy.  “I used homeopathy, acupuncture, yoga and meditation in conjunction with my chemotherapy to help me get stronger again after the cancer,” she says.  “I also chanted with Buddhist friends and prayed with Christian friends.  I covered all my bases.”  In 1992, Olivia Newton-John returns to New South Wales in Australia to recuperate after battling breast cancer.  She then maintains homes in both the U.S. and Australia.

In September 1993 Olivia Newton-John’s husband, Matt Lattanzi, has an affair with Cindy Jessup, a physical therapist who is acting as the babysitter for Matt and Olivia’s daughter, Chloe.  This leads to Matt and Olivia separating.  The marriage ends in divorce in December 1995.

‘Gaia: One Woman’s Journey’ (1994) (AUS no. 7, UK no. 33)  is released on Hip-O Records.  It’s an unusual album because all the songs are written by Olivia Newton-John.  She also co-produces the album with Murray Burns and Colin Bayley.  ‘Gaia’ (pronounced guy-ya) is another name for Mother Earth, so the disc has a strong environmental message.  There are also songs reflecting the singer’s chemotherapy and battle with cancer.  The music is described as ‘adult contemporary’ or ‘new age.’  ‘No Matter What You Do’ (AUS no. 35) is the best known track.

In 1996 Olivia Newton-John meets Patrick McDermott.  He is a gaffer (head electrician) and cameraman on movie sets.  He becomes the new man in Olivia’s life and they date – on and off – for the next nine years.

‘Back With A Heart’ (1998) (AUS no. 66, US no. 59) is released by MCA in May.  Recorded in Nashville, the album sees Olivia Newton-John revisiting country music.  Multiple producers are used including John Farrar and David Foster.

In the same year, Olivia Newton-John performs a number of concerts in Australia, sharing the stage with Australian pop star John Farnham and Anthony Warlow, a man better known for appearing in Australian stage musicals.  These shows by the three singers are billed as ‘The Main Event.’  A live album, ‘Highlights From The Main Event’ (1998) (AUS no. 1) is credited to Olivia Newton-John, John Farnham and Anthony Warlow and is released in December.

Olivia Newton-John teams up again with John Farnham to sing at the Olympic Games in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia in 2000.  “Nothing I have done professionally will top the feeling I got singing with John Farnham at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney,” she gushes.

‘’Tis The Season’ (2000) is released in September by Hallmark Entertainment.  This is a collection of Christmas songs performed by Olivia Newton-John with U.S. country singer Vince Gill.  Also released in September is the concert recording ‘One Woman’s Live Journey’ (2000) (AUS no. 41).

‘(2)’ (2002) (AUS no. 5) is an album of duets.  Olivia Newton-John pairs with the likes of Australian rock star Billy Thorpe and Australian country singer Keith Urban.  This disc uses multiple producers: Olivia Newton-John, Charles Fisher, Richard Marx and Rick Nowels.  The disc is issued by Festival.

In February 2003 Olivia Newton-John opens her Gaia Retreat & Spa in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia.  Olivia’s mother dies in 2003.

‘Indigo: Women Of Song’ (2004) (AUS no. 15, UK no. 27) is issued by Festival.  On this disc Olivia Newton-John sings songs written or made famous by other women.

Olivia Newton-John’s boyfriend, Patrick McDermott, goes missing on 30 June 2005.  He vanishes when he goes on a fishing trip off the coast of California.  In a 2008 report, the U.S. Coast Guard suggests that ‘McDermott was lost at sea.’  Despite this, rumours persist of sightings of McDermott.  Some theorise that his ‘disappearance’ has been faked to dodge child support payments to his ex-wife, actress Yvette Nipar.  In April 2009 McDermott is found by reporters from ‘Dateline NBC’ in a Mexican beach town living under the alias of Pat Kim and working on a yacht that carries tourists in an out of a marina near Sayulita, Mexico.  His relationship with Olivia Newton-John is not resumed; it died along with him in June 2005.

Olivia Newton-John sticks to inspirational new age music for ‘Stronger Than Before’ (2006) (AUS no. 39), released in September.  This again chronicles her recovery from cancer.  It is released by the Hallmark label.

Olivia Newton-John receives an AO (Officer of the Order of Australia) title in the 2006 Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

EMI releases ‘Grace And Gratitude’ (2006) (AUS no. 86), produced by Amy Sky.  It has a similar theme to Olivia’s previous disc.

In 2007 it is revealed that Olivia Newton-John’s daughter, Chloe, is recovering from the eating disorder, anorexia.  ‘Christmas Wish’ (2007) (US no. 187) is produced by Amy Sky and issued by Warner Bros in October.  As the title suggests, this is another set of Christmas songs.  In 2007 Olivia Newton-John begins dating John Easterling a.k.a. ‘Amazon John’ of the Amazon Herb Company.  He and Livvy first met fifteen years earlier but romance did not blossom until 2007.  The couple go on to marry on 21 June 2008.

‘A Celebration In Song’ (2008), released in June, is another album of duets.  Olivia Newton-John’s singing partners here include Australian pop star (and fellow cancer survivor) Delta Goodrem and Livvy’s long-time friend, Cliff Richard.  Multiple producers are used.  This disc is issued by Warner Bros in Australia and on EMI for the rest of the world.

The Olivia Newton-John Wellness Centre is opened in June 2012 on the campus of the Austin Hospital in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.  The year closes with ‘This Christmas’ (2012) (AUS no. 33, US no. 81) in November.  This disc is issued by Universal Music Enterprises.  Here, Olivia Newton-John duets with John Travolta and various other guests on seasonal fare.  The album is produced by John Farrar and others.

A joint tour with John Farnham results in the concert album ‘Highlights From Two Strong Hearts Live’ (2015) (AUS no. 1) on Sony.

‘Liv On’ (2016) (AUS no. 70), released in October, is ‘a collaborative grief and healing album’ co-credited to Olivia Newton-John, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Amy Sky.  ‘Friends For Christmas’ (2016) (AUS no. 1), issued in November, is a set of festive season duets credited to John Farnham and Olivia Newton-John.

Sandy Olssen’s reinvention of herself in ‘Grease’ mirrored Olivia Newton-John’s reinvention of herself.  Her best work was the more rock-influenced pop she recorded from 1978 to 1986.  However, the varied nature of Olivia’s overall catalogue meant that different audiences may have preferred different periods.  Some loved her country pop from 1971 to 1974 or her middle-of-the-road pop from 1975 to 1977 or perhaps even the mix of new age, Christmas albums and concert recordings that comprised her post 1986 career.  Each of those phases were valid and, together, comprise a portrait of an artist whose diverse catalogue is united by her pure and gentle voice.  Olivia Newton-John ‘made the transition from popular country pop singer to popular mainstream soft rock singer.’  Her career ‘straddled the musical fields of pop, middle-of-the–road and country.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Olivia Newton-John: The Singles Collection 1971-1992’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Festival Mushroom Records, 1992) p. 2,3
  2. wikipedia.org as at 2 July 2015, 1 January 2016, 7 January 2017
  3. Internet movie database – imdb.com – as at 4 July 2015
  4. brainyquote.com as at 3 July 2015
  5. liketotatally80s.com – ’10 Things You Might Not Know About Olivia Newton-John’ – no author credited – as at 3 July 2015
  6. Celebrity Profile – Olivia Newton-John – E! Cable Channel, au.eonline.com as at 3 July 2015
  7. ‘Talking Heads’ (Australian television program, ABC Network) – Olivia Newton-John interview conducted by Peter Thompson (13 July 2009) – reproduced on abc.net.au
  8. ‘Brin Newton-John: Scholar Looked Ahead’ by Alison Branley (13 October 2012) – reproduced on newsstore.fairfax.com.au
  9. wn.com – ‘I Dated Olivia Newton-John says Sherbet’s Daryl Braithwaite’ – Showbiz News by Rebecca Davies (16 January 2012)
  10. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 3 July 2013
  11. allmusic.com, ‘Olivia Newton-John’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 3 July 2015
  12. ‘This Is Your Life’ (Australian television program, Nine Network) – hosted by Mike Munro (2004)
  13. ‘Bandstand’ (Australian television program, Nine Network) – hosted by Brian Henderson (1968) – Two episodes reproduced on the DVD ‘Bandstand Live – Cilla Black & The Shadows’ (Umbrella Entertainment, 2014)
  14. ‘Woman’s Day’ (Australian magazine) – ‘Olivia Newton-John: Ian Turpie Was My First True Love’ – no author credited (19 March 2012) – reproduced on womansday.com.au
  15. famousfix.com as at 3 July 2015
  16. olivianewton-john.com – bio – no author credited – as at 3 July 2015
  17. The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 169
  18. ‘The Daily Express’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘Whatever Happened to The Shadows’ Bruce Welch?’ by Peter Robertson (21 June 2014) – reproduced on express.co.uk
  19. ‘Billboard’ (U.S. music magazine) – John Farrar bio by Ed Hogan, Bruce Eder as at 3 July 2013 on billboard.com
  20. onlyolivia.com – Olivia Newton-John biography by ‘Richard’ as at 2 July 2015
  21. azlyrics.com as at 4 July 2015
  22. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 285, 294, 332, 336
  23. lyricsfreak.com as at 4 July 2015
  24. songfacts.com as at 3 July 2015
  25. biography.com – Olivia Newton-John – no author credited – as at 2 July 2015
  26. ‘National Enquirer’ (U.S. publication) – posted by Pusssykatt on groups.google.com as at 3 July 2015
  27. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) – ‘John & ONJ’s Big Night Out’ by Cameron Adams (25 June 2015) p. 48
  28. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 154

Song lyrics copyright unknown with the following exceptions: ‘A Little More Love’, ‘Totally Hot’, ‘Make A Move On Me’ (all three John Farrar Music); ‘If Not For You’ (Big Sky Music); ‘Banks Of The Ohio’ (Blue Gum Music Ltd); ‘Let Me Be There’ (Sony ATV Music Publishing, LLC); ‘If You Love Me (Let Me Know) (EMI/Al Gallico Music); ‘I Honestly Love You’ (Woolnough Music, Jeff Barry Int., Irving Music Inc.); ‘Sam’ (Universal – Songs of Polygram International, Inc., Dick James Music Ltd, Carlin Music Corp., Birnstock Pub. Co. O.B.O. Blue Gum Music Inc.); ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ (Warner/Chappell Music Inc.). ‘You’re The One That I Want’, ‘Xanadu’, ‘Twist Of Fate’ (all three – Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music Inc.); ‘Physical’ (Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Terry Shaddick Music); and ‘Soul Kiss’ (Universal Music Publishing Inc.)

Last revised 12 January 2017

Madness

Suggs – circa 1982

 “This may not be uptown Jamaica / But we promise you a treat” – ’The Prince’ (Lee Thompson)

“Hey you!” bawls Chas Smash, the master of ceremonies for British ska band Madness.  “Don’t watch that!  Watch this!  This is the heavy, heavy monster sound!  The nuttiest sound around!  So if you’ve come in off the street, and you’re beginning to feel the heat…Well, listen buster, you better start to move your feet to the rockingest rocksteady beat of Madness!  One…step…beyond!”  With that, the group launches into the wildly eccentric ‘One Step Beyond’.  They pull faces, bounce around like hyperactive jumping beans and generally behave like lunatics.  In short, it’s madness!

Madness is a fairly democratic outfit, but the best starting point for their story may be keyboardist Mike Barson.

Michael Barson (a.k.a. ‘Mr B’, ‘Monsieur Barso’ or ‘Barzo’) is born 21 April 1958 in Edinburgh, Scotland.  He grows up in North London with his two brothers, Dan and Ben.  By the mid-1970s he is friends with Lee Thompson.

Lee Jay Thompson (a.k.a. ‘Kix’ or ‘El Thommo’) is born 5 October 1957 in St Pancras, London.  He has a difficult youth, spending some time in Borstal, a type of detention centre in the U.K. for delinquent young people.

Mike Barson and Lee Thompson get up to some mischief in the mid-1970s as graffiti artists.  Putting their ‘tags’ – ‘Mr B’ and ‘Kix’, respectively – on various walls, or anything else that stays still long enough.  Their minds turn in a different direction when they meet Chris Foreman.

Christopher John Foreman (a.k.a. ‘Chrissy Boy’) is born 8 August 1956 in St Pancras, London – which is also Lee Thompson’s birthplace.  Chris buys his first guitar when he is 17.  By 1976, Chris Foreman is married to Susan, his childhood sweetheart, and they have a son, Matthew (born 1976).

In 1976 Mike Barson, Lee Thompson and Chris Foreman decide to form a band.  The group is named The Invaders – or The North London Invaders.  The founding line-up is: Dikron Tulane (lead vocals), Chris Foreman (guitar), Mike Barson (keyboards), Lee Thompson (saxophone), Chas Smash (bass) and John Hasler (drums).

Chas Smash (a.k.a. ‘Carl’) is born Cathyl Joseph Smyth on 14 January 1959 in Marleybone, London.  ‘Cathyl’ is Gaelic for Charles – meaning ‘a great warrior.’  This seems the most likely explanation for why Chas is sometimes later referred to as ‘Carl’ – meaning ‘strong’, a similar meaning to Charles.  Cathyl Smith’s father works overseas for long periods so the boy doesn’t see a lot of his father.  From his teens, Cathyl is with Jo, the girl who becomes his partner in life.  Cathyl Smith explains his more familiar name this way: “Chas Smash came from the days before Madness was a band…We used to spray our names on walls…Chas Smash was my tag.”

“We called ourselves The North London Invaders at first,” recalls keyboardist Mike Barson.  “We started off rehearsing in my mum’s house.”

1977 is a tumultuous year for the band.  There are a number of line-up changes.  Bassist Chas Smash leaves after an argument with keyboardist Mike Barson.  His replacement, Gavin Rodgers (bass), is the brother of Mike Barson’s girlfriend at the time, Kerstin Rodgers.  Saxophone player Lee Thompson leaves the group…but by 1978 Thompson is rehired.  Drummer John Hasler is replaced by Garry Dovey (drums).  Lead vocalist Dikron Tulane also exits, turning his hand to acting instead.  The band’s new vocalist is Suggs.

Suggs is born Graham McPherson on 13 January 1961 [Friday the 13th] in Hastings, Sussex, England.  He is the only child of William Rutherford McPherson and Edith Gower, a couple who are married in the previous year, 1960.  William McPherson leaves by the time his son is 3.  “I don’t know [what happened to him],” says Suggs, “but what I’ve heard hasn’t been good; [being addicted to] heroin, injecting his eyeballs with paraffin, [and] being sectioned [to a mental hospital].  He must be dead now, I mean, he would have got in touch if he was alive, wouldn’t he?  Yeah, he must be dead, poor b*gger.”  Suggs later discovers that his father remarried before passing away in 1975.  “I only lived with my mum, so we were free agents,” Suggs recalls.  “She was a [jazz] singer in the pubs and clubs.  We moved to Liverpool, then London.  I lived with relations in Wales for a while, and came back to London.  Because I was an only child I was pretty insular and stubborn.  All the upheaval made me lazy academically, so by the time I got to Quinton Kynaston School in St Johns Wood, I didn’t bother much.”  His school chums call Graham McPherson ‘Grey’ or ‘Mac’, but he worries about being singled out due to his Scottish surname.  When he is around 15, this prompts the lad to seek a new identity.  “So I got hold of my mum’s book about jazz musicians, stuck a pin into a page and it landed on Peter Suggs, the drummer in an obscure jazz band in Kentucky.  The name resonated with me and I’ve been Suggs ever since.”  Suggs leaves school when he is 15 and works at a butcher’s for eight months, making sausages and scraping lard off metal trays.  Suggs attends his first rock concert in 1976, a show by The Who, supported by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.  It seems that Suggs returns to school, for he claims, “I stayed on to the sixth form for social security reasons, and got two o-levels and a CSE on the way [‘o-levels’ are ‘ordinary levels’ – passing marks, part of the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE)].  I met Mike Barson hanging around Hampstead School.”  Suggs adds, “I hadn’t any intentions to become a singer.”  He muses, “We grew up together through all that really weird period from teenage into adulthood…We were all kinds of leaders of our own little gangs of people in and around the same area of Kentish Town and Hampstead.  And by some natural filtering, we all ended up in this room together, playing instruments.”  Suggs admits in conclusion that, “I certainly didn’t do much at school.  Most of the band didn’t.”

Suggs’ stint as lead vocalist for the band is nearly over before it begins.  In 1977 he is temporarily dismissed.  “I was sacked,” he says ruefully.  “We used to rehearse on Saturdays and the band started to get annoyed that I was away every other weekend.  I was watching Chelsea [Football Club]!”  Presumably, Suggs either curbs his soccer mania or the band accommodates his absences in their rehearsal schedule.  In 1978 he is back in the group.

More line-up changes await the group in 1978.  The rhythm section of bassist Gavin Rodgers and drummer Garry Dovey is replaced by, respectively, Mark Bedford and Daniel Woodgate.

Mark William Bedford (a.k.a. ‘Bedders’) is born 24 August 1961 in Islington, London, England.  Mark starts to buy records when he is 11 or 12 and takes up the bass when he is 13.  He knows drummer Garry Dovey so when The North London Invaders get a gig at the William Ellis School in Kentish Town – the school Mark attends – he is invited to a band rehearsal.  When bassist Gavin Rodgers departs, Mark Bedford joins the band.  This proves opportune.  Saxophone player Lee Thompson subsequently has a ‘scuffle’ with drummer Garry Dovey and the latter quits.  Mark Bedford knowns another drummer and recommends Daniel Woodgate.

Daniel Mark Woodgate (a.k.a. ‘Woody’) is born 19 October 1960 in Kensington, London, England.  He and his younger brother, Nick, are raised by their divorced father.  Woody gets his first drumkit when he is 12.  After leaving school, Daniel Woodgate works as a sign writer / printer and then becomes a labourer on a building site.  Parallel to this, Daniel and his brother Nick (on guitar) form a band called Steel Erection and play some gigs.  (Nick Woodgate is later diagnosed with schizophrenia so Daniel Woodgate uses his fame to act as an advocate for mental health causes.)  From Steel Erection, Daniel Woodgate is invited to join The North London Invaders in 1978.

The band changes its name in 1979.  Keyboardist Mike Barson explains that, “We had to change the name because there was already another band called [The North London Invaders].”  The group is briefly known as Morris And The Minors before settling on their familiar name.  Drummer Daniel Woodgate explains how the name is chosen: “There they stood with names flying from all sides of the room…A small voice from somewhere in the room suggested the band should select a name from the songs played in the set.  The set list was inspected and [guitarist] Chrissy Boy said: – Madness.  [The band performs a cover of Prince Buster’s ‘Madness’.]  The band said yes, but Chris said, ‘Oh no’ – but ‘Madness’ it was.”  They play their first gig as Madness at the Hope & Anchor pub in Islington on 3 May 1979.

Chas Smash, the former bass player with The North London Invaders in 1976, is still a ‘friend of the band who dances onstage at concerts.’  ‘One Step Beyond’, another cover of a Prince Buster tune, is part of the repertoire of Madness.  “[Saxophone player] Lee [Thompson] asked me to introduce The Mads [on stage],” recalls Chas Smash.  “So I made up the intro and because I could shout loudest, they let me shout, ‘One Step Beyond’, a few times before they’d kick me off.  After a while I got well p***ed off being kicked off so I started moving about, avoiding them.  Everyone thought, ‘Wow!  A new dance!’  Ha ha.  I haven’t stopped moving yet.”  In this way, Chas Smash comes to (re) join Madness.

The definitive seven piece line-up of Madness is now assembled.  The members of the group are: Suggs (lead vocals), Chas Smash (vocals, trumpet, dancing), Chris Foreman (guitar), Mike Barson (keyboards), Lee Thompson (saxophone), Mark Bedford (bass) and Daniel Woodgate (drums).  “We were seven extroverts,” notes Suggs.  The group is also sometimes referred to as The Nutty Boys.  Mike Barson explains where that name comes from: “Lee Thompson, on sax, had the concept of The Nutty Boys.  He came in one day with ‘that nutty sound’ sprayed on his jacket and talked about our music being a mixture of pop and circus.”

Madness secures a deal with the 2 Tone label and their recording career begins.

The band’s vocalist, Suggs, helpfully describes Madness’ sound as “a mixture of blue beat, ska and pop.”  ‘Blue beat’ is a term meaning ‘any of various styles of Jamaican music, popular in the United Kingdom in the 1960s.’  More directly, Blue Beat Records is an English record label that releases Jamaican rhythm and blues and ska music from 1960 to 1967.  Ska is a direct precursor of the better known reggae music.  Both styles have a loping rhythm with the accent on the ‘wrong’ beat – to the ears of white British audiences anyway.  The differences between ska and reggae are: ska is from the 1960s, is apolitical and fast-paced; reggae is from the 1970s, has a distinct religious/political agenda and is slower.  Madness is a band that grows up in and around Kentish Town, the NW5 district of London, where there is a large population of Jamaican immigrants.  So although the members of Madness are all white English boys, they are more familiar with Jamaican music than average British youngsters.

The pop element in the sound of Madness has a distinctly British flavour.  Saxophone player Lee Thompson notes that, “Along came Ian Dury celebrating real life in England.  That was a huge inspiration.”  Dury’s career spans pub rock, punk rock and new wave.  Suggs adds to the list of influences: “[Dury] and Ray Davies [of 1960s U.K. rock group The Kinks] writing about the inconsequential bits of ordinary working life and making them poetic.”  Both Ian Dury and Ray Davies evoke an even older British tradition, the music hall.  Roughly analogous to American vaudeville, the British music hall was the domain of singers and dancers, storytellers and comedians, all round entertainers.  This sort of chummy, knock-about humour is a part of the musical D.N.A. of Madness.

Many Madness songs are intentionally humorous.  Coupled with the band’s on stage clowning, it is easy to perceive Madness as a light comedy act.  This is, however, not entirely correct.  In poring over the minutia of daily life in England it is almost inevitable that an element of social commentary – perhaps even outright social criticism – creeps into the Madness songbook.  As vocalist Suggs puts it, the band is both “farcical and serious.”  Most of the band members were raised by single parents so the group also becomes a surrogate family for the boys.  “It has a lot to do with absentee parents,” admits Chas Smash.  It also provides the group with a sense of balance.  “We always kept our feet on the ground,” concludes Lee Thompson.

Although Madness record some cover versions, the bulk of their output consists of original material.  All the band members contribute to the songwriting, but to varying degrees.  If there is a dominant figure in the songwriting department, it is probably Mike Barson.  Guitarist Chris Foreman acknowledges that, “Mike Barson – our genius keyboard player – he’ll go, ‘I’ve got this riff,’ and suddenly it’ll be really good.”  Though as Suggs adds, “No matter what it started out as, it ends up as a Madness song because of the way we all play it.”  Here, not all the songwriting credits will be noted, but most will be provided, particularly for the most famous Madness songs, so the contributions of the various members may be taken into consideration.

The fact that Madness start out signed to the 2 Tone label is significant.  Ska music, even in its 1960s heyday, was enjoyed by a cult following in Britain rather than a major audience.  The revival of ska in the late 1970s-early 1980s is possibly more high profile.  The main driver is another U.K. band, The Specials.  2 Tone is the label created by The Specials.  The label name is not only a nod to its black-and-white graphics but the racially integrated membership of 2 Tone acts like The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat.  Although Madness obviously shares their love for ska – a music originated by black people in Jamaica – they are all white boys with not a single person of colour in their line-up.  Early in their career, Madness is linked to skinhead fans.  Chas Smash makes matters worse in an interview when he says, “We don’t care if people are in the National Front as long as they’re having a good time.”  The National Front is an ultra-right wing organisation notorious for racial bigotry against anyone who is not white.  Madness quickly has to deny that they are racists and they disown skinheads and such extremists.

Madness’ first single, ‘The Prince’ (UK no. 16), is released in September 1979.  Written by saxophone player Lee Thompson, ‘The Prince’ is a tribute to one of the leaders of Jamaica’s 1960s ska scene, Prince Buster (real name Cecil Bustamente Campbell).  The track is a lively slice of hard ska.

Madness goes on a U.K. tour with 2 Tone label mates The Specials and The Selecter.  After the tour, Madness parts ways with 2 Tone and sign up with Stiff Records instead, the home of Ian Dury, one of the band’s biggest influences.

‘One Step Beyond’ (1979) (UK no. 2, US no. 128) is Madness’ debut album.  It is released by Stiff Records in October.  The band works with the production duo of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley.  This pair produces all of Madness’ albums except where otherwise noted.  ‘One Step Beyond’ is Madness’ best album.  Their pop skills may improve on later releases, but their debut has the strongest ska flavour.  Madness is a good pop group, but one of many.  As a British ska act, their only real rivals are The Specials.  Therefore, ‘One Step Beyond’ is their most distinctive release and their most artistically satisfying album.  Vocalist Suggs points out that ‘One Step Beyond’ is also “still our best-selling album.”  He also nods to the competition between Madness and The Specials: “Although it was friendly, we were trying to make an album that was better than theirs.”  Whether leaving the 2 Tone label of their sponsors is perceived as betrayal or growing into maturity, their debut on Stiff Records adds an edge to the contest.  The distinctive album cover shows the members of Madness taking the literal ‘One Step Beyond’ in close unison.  According to Suggs, the move is inspired by the squatting hop known as ‘the duck walk’ originated in the 1950s by Chuck Berry, though Suggs has a more recent antecedent in mind: “Ian Dury’s old band, Kilburn And The High Roads, did the duck walk on the back of their album, so we did the same for a laugh – and it became iconic.”  The title track, ‘One Step Beyond’ (UK no. 7), is a cover version of a Prince Buster song from 1965.  It was originally the B side to Prince Buster’s most famous tune, ‘Al Capone’.  In 1967, ‘Al Capone’ became a U.K. hit (no. 18).  Virtually an instrumental, ‘One Step Beyond’ lets Lee Thompson’s berserk saxophone off the leash.  “Chas Smash came up with the [vocal] intro [to ‘One Step Beyond’],” says Suggs.  “It was inspired by the shouty, slightly preposterous…intros you got on Jamaican records.”  ‘Madness’, the revved-up happy ska number which gives the group its name, is also present on this album.  Another Prince Buster cover version, the original was released in Jamaica in 1963.  The most successful of the original compositions is Mike Barson’s ‘My Girl’ (UK no. 3).  “This song is about a phone call [from Kerstin Rodgers] I had while I was trying to write a song,” says the keyboardist.  “It’s my favourite song off ‘One Step Beyond’.”  “My girl’s mad at me, been on the telephone for an hour / We hardly said a word, I tried and tried, but I could not be heard,” runs the lyric to this slyly arranged, topsy-turvy piece, before it blooms into a sweet chorus.  Another Barson composition is ‘Bed And Breakfast Man’, which has a nicely shuffling rhythm.  “Well, this song was in fact started off by Chrissy Boy [guitarist Chris Foreman] who made up the first line, ‘There’s a man I know.’  So anyway after he got stuck I took over.  It’s about John Hasler who used to be our drummer and also used to go round Chris’ house round about dinner time.”  The album contains at least one more noteworthy piece…but more on that momentarily.  ‘One Step Beyond’ remains the definitive Madness album.

The EP ‘Work, Rest And Play’ (UK no. 6) is released in March 1980.  This little disc is spearheaded by a track from the debut album, ‘One Step Beyond’, a track called ‘Night Boat To Cairo’.  This is a bonkers travelogue co-written by vocalist Suggs and keyboardist Mike Barson.  “Mike had written a very Eastern sounding tune,” explains Suggs, “which inspired me…to tosh-out a verse…in a similar vein.  The Nile, Cairo, an old barge and a toothless oarsman…A few mysterious images.”

‘Absolutely’ (1980) (UK no. 2, US no. 146), the second album by Madness, is released in September.  This is a slicker product than the debut album.  ‘Absolutely’ contains Madness’ best song, ‘Baggy Trousers’ (UK no. 3, AUS no. 30).  It is co-written by vocalist Suggs and guitarist Chris Foreman.  “A song about school,” explains Suggs.  “I wrote a list of everything I could remember about the one I went to…I then thought about how boring it must have been from a teacher’s point of view.”  And so the lyric runs, “Baggy trousers, dirty shirt / Pulling hair and eating dirt / Teacher comes to break it up / Back of the head with a plastic cup.”  Here is the band’s beloved English life in miniature but it is married to an intoxicating fairground melody whose chorus rightly celebrates, “Oh what fun we had.”  Mike Barson’s piano can barely keep up with the frantic rhythm.  To seal the deal, the video for the song has saxophonist Lee Thompson suspended on wires, floating through the air like a demented angel.  ‘Baggy Trousers’ encapsulates the charm of Madness.  ‘Embarrassment’ (UK no. 4) is Madness’ first hit to contain a measure of social commentary.  Lee Thompson, who co-writes the song with Mike Barson, explains, “I thought I’d write a song on the reactions I got from some folk towards young girls having half caste babies.”  By castigating the bigots who consider such girls an ‘embarrassment’, Madness lay to rest any early misconceptions about them being racists.  The song’s arrangement is bold and brassy.  Mike Barson and Lee Thompson also co-write ‘Take It Or Leave It’.  The trilling organ and twirly music seem at odds with the serious theme: “You’re in one way traffic, can’t you see? / Before a head on crash, try to steer free / When (if) it’s too late, don’t come cry to me.”  The instrumental ‘Return Of The Los Palmas 7’ (UK no. 7) is seasick lounge music.  Authorship on the track is shared by Mike Barson and Madness’ rhythm section, bassist Mark Bedford and drummer Daniel Woodgate.

The Nutty Boys is not just another name for Madness; it’s the name of a side-project for two members of Madness: Lee Thompson (saxophone) and Chris Foreman (guitar).  Actually the act was meant to be called Crunch! but the publicity mixes up the album name (which is meant to be the same as the act’s name).  In any case, the album ‘Crunch’ (1980) is attributed to The Nutty Boys.

In 1980 Madness’ drummer Daniel Woodgate marries Jane Crockford.  Woody’s bride is the bass player in all-girl punk band The Mo-Dettes (1979-1982).  The marriage lasts fifteen years, from 1980 to 1995.

In October 1981 comes Madness’ motion picture debut, ‘Take it or Leave it’ (1981).  It is financed by Stiff Records.  The film does well on video.

‘7’ (1981) (UK no. 5) is the title of Madness’ third album – because the group has seven members.  It is released in October, the same month as the film ‘Take it or Leave it’.  The chiming ‘Grey Day’ (UK no. 4, AUS no. 82) paints a dreary picture: “The sky outside is wet and grey / So begins another weary day-ay-ay.”  Keyboardist Mike Barson is the author of ‘Grey Day’.  ‘Shut Up’ (UK no. 7) appears to be narrated by a burglar.  The song is co-written by vocalist Suggs and guitarist Chris Foreman.  The track has a honking sax and dramatic piano.  The title is a curiosity since it never shows up in the lyric.  Chrissy Boy offers this explanation: “When Suggs originally wrote the lyrics, it was a ten minute opus and it had the words ‘shut up’ in the chorus.  [The song was cut down to] three minutes…but [‘Shut Up’ was] kept as a title for sentimental reasons, O.K.?”  Foreman co-writes ‘Cardiac Arrest’ (UK no. 14) with vocalist / dancer Chas Smash.  A precision pressed tune, ‘Cardiac Arrest’ has difficulty getting radio airplay…perhaps because this fable about a work obsessed drone suffering a heart attack is a bit too confronting.  Its more modest success spoils the group’s run of top ten singles.  The notable flipside to ‘Cardiac Arrest’ is the madcap bustle of ‘In The City’ (a track that is added to ‘7’ in some territories).

‘It Must Be Love’ (UK no. 4, US no. 33, AUS no. 6) is a one-off single by Madness released on 25 November 1981 (before ‘Cardiac Arrest’ from ‘7’).  This is a cover version of a song released by Labi Siffre in 1971.  This is a polished piece of pop from Madness, a song that is both accessible and huggable.  As bassist Mark Bedford says, “It must be one of the most widely liked Madness singles.”

In 1981 Suggs marries Bette Bright (born Anne Martin).  She is the vocalist for U.K. band Deaf School.  The couple go on to have two daughters, Scarlett (born 1984) and Viva (born 1986).

Released on 30 April 1982, the rollicking ‘House Of Fun’ (UK no. 1, AUS no. 5) is a one-off single and Madness’ only song to top the singles chart.  It features twirling sax and skeletal keyboards are overlaid.  The topic is pure sexed-up vaudeville.  A boy has just turned 16 and goes to buy prophylactics.  Trying to use euphemisms to procure his purchase, he is turned away by the chemist who advises him to try a joke shop instead, the titular ‘House Of Fun’.  “I think it’s about coming of age,” is the innocuous description from guitarist Chris Foreman.  The song is co-written by keyboardist Mike Barson and saxophone player Lee Thompson.

The compilation album ‘Complete Madness’ (1982) (UK no. 1) is released in April and seems to cap off the group’s impressive success rate.

‘Driving In My Car’ (UK no. 4, AUS no. 20) is a one-off single released by Madness on 24 July 1982.  Written by keyboardist Mike Barson, this is a staccato, choppy-sounding piece of whimsy.  “I like driving in my care, it’s not quite a Jaguar / I like driving in my car, I’m satisfied I’ve got this far,” runs the playful lyric.

‘The Rise & Fall’ (1982) (UK no. 10) is released in October.  The album’s most famous song is ‘Our House’ (UK no. 5, US no. 7, AUS no. 17), a charming – and very British – pop song composed by guitarist Chris Foreman and master of ceremonies Chas Smash.  The chorus chants, “Our house / In the middle of our street,” while the verses pore over such details as these: “Our house it has a crowd / There’s always something happening / And it’s usually quite loud.”  The disc is also home to ‘Tomorrow’s (Just Another Day)’ (UK no. 8, AUS no. 98), a track Chas Smash co-writes with keyboardist Mike Barson.  The song’s mood is grim but it has a skipping rhythm and is infused with a bluesy harmonica (played by Chas).  Another track from the album, ‘Madness (It’s All In The Mind)’, forms the other half of a double A side single with ‘Tomorrow’s (Just Another Day)’.  Chris Foreman is the songwriter for ‘Madness (is All In The Mind)’, a downbeat, jazzy turn with Chas Smash on lead vocals.

The first two Madness albums were released in the U.S. on Sire Records.  Geffen Records tries to give the band a U.S. breakthrough with the American market compilation ‘Madness’ (1983) (US no. 41), released in January.  However, despite the odd success here and there, Madness remains largely a British phenomenon.

Madness release two one-off singles in 1983.  ‘Wings Of A Dove’ (UK no. 2, AUS no. 72) is co-written by vocalists Suggs and Chas Smash with Chas singing lead on the song.  It’s a Caribbean sing-along with steel drums lending it a sunny sound.  More weather is invoked for ‘The Sun And The Rain’ (UK no. 5, US no. 72), a Mike Barson song notable for a jaunty piano.  Although in the U.K. they are stand-alone singles, ‘Wings Of A Dove’ and ‘The Sun And The Rain’ are both included on some overseas versions of Madness’ next album.

In 1983 Mike Barson marries his Dutch girlfriend, Sandra, and moves to Amsterdam.  Mike and Sandra have three sons: Jamie (born 1989), Timothy (born 1991) and Joey (born 1996).  By 2008 the marriage is over.

Mike Barson advises the group in October 1983 that he will be leaving but agrees to stay on until the next album is completed.

‘Keep Moving’ (1984) (UK no. 6, US no. 109) is released in February.  Chas Smash provides the lead vocal on ‘Michael Caine’ (UK no. 11), a song he co-writes with drummer Daniel Woodgate.  This song is, of course, a tribute to the British actor Michael Caine.  ‘(My Name Is) Michael Caine’ also features a distinctively hard bass line from Mark Bedford.  Bedders co-writes ‘One Better Day’ (UK no. 17) with Suggs, Madness’ more familiar lead singer.  ‘One Better Day’ is lyrically bleak, but musically it resembles jazz-inflected lounge music.  The album is also home to the hard-edged ‘Victoria Gardens’, co-written by Chas Smash and keyboardist Mike Barson.  This is Madness’ last album for Stiff Records.

Steve Nieve (keyboards) takes over Mike Barson’s role in the band’s line-up.  “Mike left, the records got darker and darker lyrically and the fun started to go out of it,” admits Suggs.  ‘The band’s fortunes begin to decline over the course of 1984.’

By 1984 saxophone player Lee Thompson is married to Debbie Fordham.  They have three children: Tuesday (born 1984), Daley (born 1986) and Kai (born 1995).

1985 brings a Madness side-project called The Fink Brothers.  Suggs and Chas Smash take the roles of Angel Fink and Ratty Fink.  The Fink Brothers’ one and only single is ‘Mutants In Mega-City One’ (UK no. 50), released in 1985.  The Fink Brothers take their name from a pair of villainous characters in ‘Judge Dredd’, a feature in the IPC Publications U.K. comic ‘2000 A.D.’  Similarly, Mega-City One is the futuristic fictional locale in which the ‘Judge Dredd’ series is set.

‘Mad Not Mad’ (1985) (UK no. 16), released in September, is Madness’ first release on their own Zarjazz label, a subsidiary of Virgin Records.  ‘Zarjaz’ (with one ‘z’) is a word meaning ‘great’ or ‘very good.’  It is part of the (fictional) language of Betelgeuse employed by Tharg The Mighty, the fictional editor of the ‘2000 A.D.’ comic.  ‘Mad Not Mad’ is Madness’ first album without Mike Barson and is Steve Nieve’s debut with the group.  ‘Yesterday’s Men’ (UK no. 18, AUS no. 34) is a blindly hopeful song set to a swaying rhythm.  It is co-written by guitarist Chris Foreman and vocalist Suggs.  Chrissy Boy co-writes ‘Uncle Sam’ (UK no. 21) with saxophone player Lee Thompson.  This Caribbean tune is probably about America, but it remains ambiguous since it just refers to “Sailing across the sea to see my Uncle Sam.”  Steve Nieve provides a reedy organ to Madness’ cover version of ‘Sweetest Girl’ (UK no. 35), a song originally recorded by Scritti Politti in 1981.

Madness decides to call it a day.  Their final single, ‘Waiting For The Ghost Train’ (UK no. 18), is released on 27 October 1986, shortly after their disbandment is announced.  ‘Waiting For The Ghost Train’ is written by vocalist Suggs and is about South Africa’s apartheid policy of racial discrimination at the time.  The song is a haunting, cacophonous clatter with long-time keyboardist Mike Barson returning for a final guest appearance with the band.  ‘Waiting For The Ghost Train’ is included on ‘Utter Madness’ (1986) (UK no. 29), released in November, a compilation of hits that appears to put a full stop to the band’s story.  “If we’d had a break, possibly we wouldn’t have split up,” theorises Suggs.  Nevertheless, Madness is dormant for eighteen months from mid-1986 through 1987.

Chas Smash and his partner Jo become parents for the first time with the arrival of Caspar (born 1986).  Chas and Jo go on to have another two children, Milo (born 1991) and Eloise (born 1995).  The relationship between Chas and Jo lasts up until they separate in 2005.

In 1987 bass player Mark Bedford begins a relationship with Cress, his long-term partner.  Bedders and Cress have two daughters, Alice (born 1993) and Olivia (born 1997).

“I was lost for six months,” admits vocalist Suggs.  “The band broke up, I broke down.”

Eventually, some of the group drift back together.  Suggs (vocals), Chas Smash (vocals), Lee Thompson (saxophone) and Chris Foreman (guitar) bill themselves as The Madness, rather than Madness.

‘The Madness’ (1988) (UK no. 65) is the sole album attributed to this configuration of the group.  It is released on Virgin Records, the Zarjazz imprint having been consigned to history.  The production on the disc is credited to ‘The Three Eyes.’  Although never officially confirmed, it is thought that this is a pseudonym for The Madness.  In other words, the album is probably self-produced.  The singles from The Madness are ‘I Pronounce You’ (UK no. 44) and ‘What’s That’ (UK no. 92).

Given the fairly muted reception awarded ‘The Madness’, the group disbands again in 1988.

The Nutty Boys – Lee Thompson and Chris Foreman – release an EP in 1992 titled ‘It’s OK, I’m A Policeman.’

In summer 1992 Madness reunite for two concerts in London’s Finsbury Park.  This brings together the seven members of the classic Madness line-up: Suggs, Chas Smash, Chris Foreman, Mike Barson, Lee Thompson, Mark Bedford and Daniel Woodgate.  The group labels the shows ‘Madstock’, a pun on probably history’s most famous rock festival, 1969’s Woodstock.  The shows spawn a live album, ‘Madstock’ (1992) (UK no. 22), and a cover version of Jimmy Cliff’s 1972 reggae classic, ‘The Harder They Come’ (UK no. 44).  The experience is positive enough for Madness to continue to hold a ‘Madstock’ festival each year up to 1996.

Although Madness is reuniting each summer, the group does not return to the recording studio yet.

By 1993 the first marriage of guitarist Chris Foreman is over and he is married to his second wife, Lauren.  Chris and Lauren have a son, Felix (born 1993).

Drummer Daniel Woodgate and his girlfriend Siobhan have a daughter, Iona (born 1994).  Siobhan becomes Woody’s second wife in 1997 and they have a second daughter, Mary (born 1997).

In 1995 Lee Thompson and Chris Foreman issue a single.  No longer The Nutty Boys, they go with the name they originally intended, Crunch, to release ‘Magic Carpet’.

Madness vocalist Suggs begins a solo career with the album ‘The Lone Ranger’ (1995) (UK no. 14), released in October.  This album includes a cover version of the 1966 Beatles’ song ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ (UK no. 7) as well as original material such as ‘Camden Town’ (UK no. 14) and ‘The Tune’ (UK no. 33).  There is also a cover of the 1970 Simon And Garfunkel song ‘Cecilia’ (UK no. 4) as well as the original ‘No More Alcohol’ (UK no. 24) (revised from the album track ‘Alcohol’).  At the end of 1995 Suggs issues ‘The Christmas EP’ which includes ‘The Tune’ again.  In 1997 Suggs records the one-off single ‘Blue Day’ (UK no. 97) which becomes the official song of his beloved Chelsea Football Club.  Suggs’ second album, ‘The Three Pyramids Club’ (1998) (UK no. 82), includes ‘I Am’ (UK no. 38).

Madness finally returns to the recording studio for ‘Wonderful’ (1999) (UK no. 17).  The disc is released on Virgin and produced by the familiar long-time production team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley.  ‘Wonderful’ includes Madness’ biggest latter-day hit, ‘Lovestruck’ (UK no. 10).  In this tinkly pop song, the inebriated narrator croons, “Oh lovestruck, I’ve fallen for a lamppost / Given her my utmost, spilling out my deepest feelings.”  ‘Lovestruck’ is co-written by Mike Barson and Lee Thompson.  The same team also pens ‘Drip Fed Fred’ (UK no. 55), while Chas Smash authors ‘Johnny The Horse’ (UK no. 44).

By 2002 guitarist Chris Foreman’s second marriage is over and he has wed for a third time.  Chrissy Boy and third wife, Melissa, have a son, Frankie (born 2002).

‘Our House’, a musical based on the songs of Madness, premieres at the Cambridge Theatre in 2002.  “We’d got a great writer, Tim Firth,” says Suggs, Madness’ lead singer.  “We didn’t want it to be a biographical thing about Madness, but it tells…of split families, which most of us came from.”

‘The Dangerman Sessions Vol. 1’ (2005) (UK no. 11) is released on the V2 label.  The disc boasts a host of producers.  This is partly due to the nature of the album.  The content is entirely cover versions of songs by other artists so it employs different producers to enhance the variety.  The most successful piece from the album is ‘Shame And Scandal’ (UK no. 38), a track originally recorded in 1963 by Sir Lancelot as ‘Shame And Scandal In The Family’.

When Chas Smash and his partner Jo separate in 2005, it heralds a tumultuous time for Chas.  He starts doing transcendental meditation, spends time in a rehab facility, and – in 2008 – relocates to Ibiza, Spain.

The ska throwback ‘Sorry’ (UK no. 23) is a one-off Madness single released in 2007.

‘The Liberty Of Norton Folgate’ (2009) (UK no. 5) is perhaps the best received of the latter-day Madness albums.  It is issued on the Lucky Seven label and reunites the band with producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley.  Suggs describes this as “a really dense British pop album.”  The best track on the album may be ‘NW5’ (UK no. 24), co-written by saxophonist Lee Thompson and keyboardist Mike Barson.  A doom-haunted number, it features a string section and a menacing piano sound.  Lee Thompson combines with drummer Daniel Woodgate to write ‘Dust Devil’ (UK no. 64), while vocalist Suggs provides ‘Forever Young’ (UK no. 199).

In May 2012 Madness’ keyboardist Mike Barson marries his ‘long-term girlfriend’, but her name seems to be kept out of public knowledge.

‘Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja’ (2012) (UK no. 10) is released in October.  The album title is ‘yes yes’ repeated in French, Spanish and German.  Multiple producers are employed on this album – including the familiar Clive Langer – but the bulk of the most effective tracks are produced by Stephen Street.  These include Mike Barson’s ‘Never Know Your Name’ (UK no. 88).

In October 2014 Chas Smash announces he is leaving Madness.  He is not replaced.  The group carries on as a six-piece.

Due to their ‘Nutty Boys’ image, Madness was easily mistaken for a novelty act.  Their longevity provided a convincing counter argument.  The group – particularly keyboardist Mike Barson – had a flair for timeless pop.  Their music was rarely purely pop; it was normally shaded by some tropical Caribbean sounds.  The most satisfying of these was ska – though that thread was largely excised from the group’s sound by the mid-1980s.  The band provided “the nuttiest sound around…[the] rocksteady beat of Madness.”  An ‘appealing mixture of ska, music hall, pop, rhythm and blues, visual humour and biting yet amusing social comment [made] Madness [the] most consistent U.K. hit makers of the 1980s.’  Madness was ‘one of the leading bands of the ska revival of the late 1970s and early 1980s.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Complete Madness’ – Sleeve notes by Madness (Union Square Music Ltd, 2009 reissue) p. 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12
  2. wikipedia.org as at 16 June 2015
  3. Internet movie database – imdb.com – as at 19 June 2015
  4. ‘The Sun’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘Where’d Madness Go?’ by Sue Evison (18 October 2002) (reproduced on robomod.net/pipermail/madness/2002.October/000148.html)
  5. ‘The Guardian’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘Suggs and Mike Barson of Madness: How we made One Step Beyond’ by Dave Simpson (25 November 2014) (reproduced on theguardian.com)
  6. facebook.com – Chas Smash (16 August 2013)
  7. facebook.com – Chas Smash – posting by Jackie Gibbons (16 August 2013)
  8. ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘Madness: Suggs on 30 Years as Music’s Most Dysfunctional Family’ by Sheryl Garratt (22 October 2012) (reproduced on telegraph.co.uk)
  9. msmarmitelover.com – blog by Kerstin Rodgers (26 May 2008)
  10. ‘Something for the Weekend’ (U.K. television program, Channel 4) – Suggs interview conducted by Tim Lovejoy, Louise Redknapp (8 January 2012)
  11. ‘The Daily Mail’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘My Madness Life: How the Bizarre Death of Suggs’s Cat set him on a Personal Odyssey to Retrace his Chaotic Childhood – and Launch an Emotional One-Man Show’ by Richard Barber (21 November 2011) (reproduced on dailymail.co.uk)
  12. anglomanagement.co.uk – Madness (2012)
  13. ‘New Musical Express’ (U.K. music newspaper) (1979) (via (2) above)
  14. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 135, 136
  15. allmusic.com, ‘Madness’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 17 June 2015
  16. ‘The Daily Express’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘My Favourite Photograph: Suggs of Madness’ by Simon Button (22 June 2014) (reproduced on express.co.uk)
  17. lyricsfreak.com as at 20 June 2015
  18. ‘The Sun’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘Suggs: I Almost Went Mad’ by Sue Evison (18 October 2002) (reproduced on robomod.net/pipermail/madness/2002.October/000148.html)

Song lyrics copyright EMI Music Publishing Ltd. with the exceptions of ‘House Of Fun’, ‘Driving In My Car’ and ‘Our House’ (all Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

Last revised 1 July 2015

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson – circa 1936

“Went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees” – ’Cross Road Blues’ (Robert Johnson)

It is a dark night.  Robert Johnson, an aspiring African-American blues musician, stands at the side of the road.  He shivers – but it may not be due to the temperature.  ‘He has been instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation [in Mississippi, U.S.A.] at midnight.’  Amongst those of a superstitious way of thinking, the crossroad has a special significance.  If a person is buried at a crossroad, should their unclean spirit return, the ghost will allegedly be unsure which path to take, sparing God-fearing folks from its depredations.  Additionally, socially, ‘the crossroad epitomises the vulnerability of a black in a hostile world.  To find oneself at a crossroad after dark is to be stranded on open ground, an easy mark for whites who don’t like the idea of a black man on the move.’  Robert Johnson ‘is met by a larger black man (actually the devil).’  Lucifer takes Johnson’s guitar and retunes it, somehow conferring supernatural musical ability upon Johnson.  ‘In exchange for his soul, Robert Johnson is able to create the blues for which he becomes famous.’  Or so the legend goes…

The life and music of Robert Johnson predate the birth of rock ‘n’ roll by many years.  Yet ‘Robert Johnson helps invent the rock star lifestyle.’  This is borne out in both elements of his personal life and the subjects of his songs.  Because Johnson predates rock, he also predates rock journalism.  Only two photographs of him are known to exist and there are no interviews in which his thoughts and views are preserved for history.  Consequently, ‘much of Johnson’s life is shrouded in mystery.’  As best as can be determined, the story of Robert Johnson goes like this…

Robert Leroy Johnson (8 May 1911 – 16 August 1938) is born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, U.S.A.  He is the child of Julia Majors Dodds and Noah Johnson.  Robert is the ‘product of an extra-marital relationship.’  Julian Ann Majors married Charles Dodds, Jr. in February 1889.  Charles Dodds, Jr. is ‘a successful and well-respected, land-owning farmer, carpenter and wicker-furniture maker.’  He and Julia have six daughters and a son.  Dodds also has a mistress, Serena, who gives him two more sons.  ‘Following a dispute with white landowners’ around 1907, Charles Dodds, Jr. is hastily forced off his property.  Leaving Julia behind, Dodds flees to Memphis, Tennessee, with Serena and her boys.  In Memphis, the fugitive assumes the name of ‘Charles Spencer.’

Deserted, Julia Dodds finds comfort in Noah Johnson, a man ten years younger than she (Julia is born in October 1874, Noah in December 1884).  Noah Johnson is a farmer.  Their son, Robert, is born when Julia is 36 years old.  The couple also have a younger daughter, Carrie.  Julia Dodds signs on with a labour supplier.  She lives in migrant labour camps for a couple of years.

By 1914 Julia Dodds has drifted north from Mississippi to the neighbouring State of Tennessee where, in Memphis, she reunites with Charles Spencer (formerly Dodds).  The Spencer household is a full one since it holds ten children: Julia and Charles’ six offspring, the two sons of Charles and Serena (his mistress), and Julia’s two children fathered by Noah Johnson.  The peripatetic Julia Dodds wanders off, leaving Robert and his sister Carrie to be raised by Charles Spencer and family.

Characterised as ‘too disobedient’ and ‘strong-willed’, Robert Johnson is eventually packed off to live with his mother in 1918.  By this time, Julia Dodds is living in Robinsonville, Mississippi, thirty miles south of Memphis, Tennessee.  In October 1916 she remarried.  Robert’s new stepfather is Willie ‘Dusty’ Willis, ‘a hard working little fellow’ who is twenty-four years younger than his new wife.  Still known as Robert Spencer, their new addition to the household attends Tunica Indian Creek School on the Abbay & Leatherman Plantation.  As a teenager, Robert is told of his true father but he continues to use the name Robert Spencer until the mid-1920s.  At school, Robert shows his first signs of interest in music, learning to play the harmonica and Jew’s harp.  More formal studies are of less interest; he is ‘not a zealous student’ and displays a ‘lack of interest.’  Poor eyesight gives him an excuse to quit school.

After finishing school, Robert Johnson begins to learn to play the guitar.  He has more enthusiasm than skill at first.  Early inspirations and mentors include Ernest ‘Whiskey Red’ Brown, Willie Brown [no relation] and Charlie Patton.

In February 1929, the 17 year old Robert Johnson marries 16 year old Virginia Travis.  Although still playing guitar, Johnson is, at the time, ‘reluctant to consider himself anything but a farmer.’  He and Virginia live with Robert’s older half-sister, Bessie, and her husband, Granville Hines, on the Kline Plantation east of Robinsonville, Mississippi.  Virginia quickly falls pregnant, but both she and their baby son die in childbirth in April 1930.  Virginia’s relatives take the news hard and blame Robert.  In the African-American community in that time and era, the only ‘proper’ function of music is in praise of the Lord.  Gospel music and hymns are respectable, but anything more secular is frowned upon.  Robert Johnson’s blues music is considered to be ‘selling your soul to the devil.’  The death of the young man’s wife and child is considered to be ‘just punishment’ for his ‘sins.’  This scorn only serves to spur Robert Johnson on with his musical aspirations.

Less than two months after the untimely demise of Virginia Johnson, a blues musician named Son House comes to live in Robinsonville for a time.  Robert Johnson is fascinated by this ‘precarious combination of bluesman and preacher’ who proves highly influential.

Robert Johnson ‘abandons farming’ and ‘adopts the ways of a determined rounder.’  He returns to Hazlehurst, Mississippi, the area where he was born.  A lot of highways are in the process of being built and the road gangs and lumber camps provide an audience for the ‘jook joints’ and informal Saturday night parties that employ blues musicians like Johnson.  He finds a new mentor in the person of Ike Zinerman, a local blues musician, ‘an obscure figure who boasts that his mastery of his instrument stems from some graveyard conjury.’  It is in 1930 that Robert Johnson is purported to strike his own bargain with Satan.  For those disinclined to credit such supernatural agencies, it is claimed that Johnson’s ‘skills are acquired in a far more conventional manner, born…of a concentrated Christian work ethic.’  In any case, Robert Johnson fades from sight for about a year.  On his return, his greatly improved guitar skills highly impress musicians who were formerly his idols or mentors.

Robert Johnson was always ‘a good looking boy.’  He was ‘always attractive to women.’  He fathers a child with Vergie Mae Smith in Hazlehurst.  Years later, in 1998 Claud Johnson is named Robert Johnson’s legal heir.  Not that Robert Johnson is much of a father figure.  He moves on to other women; ‘He has…trouble keeping his hands off them.’

In May 1931 Robert Johnson marries for the second time.  Callie Etta Craft is more than ten years older than her new spouse.  She has been married twice before and has three young children.  ‘She idolises Robert, fusses over him, cooks for him, [and] treats him like a king.’  The marriage is even kept secret, ‘lest it cramp his lecherous style’, though Callie blindly trusts him.  In 1932 they move to Clarksdale, Mississippi, as Robert seeks to exploit work opportunities.  Robert deserts Callie.  She suffers a breakdown.  Callie returns to her family and home.  She dies in 1934 without Robert Johnson ever seeing her again.

Robert Johnson becomes a ‘walking’ bluesman, an itinerant musician.  He ‘stays with members of his large extended family or with women friends…He supposedly asks homely young women living in the country with their families whether he can go home with them, and in most cases he is accepted, until a boyfriend arrives or Johnson is ready to move on.’  Robert Johnson never marries again.  Perhaps his most notable later relationship is with Estelle Coleman in 1936.  She is fifteen years older than him.  He spends some time at her house in Helena, Arkansas, and befriends her son, Robert Lockwood, Jr.  Willie Mae Powell is another of Johnson’s inamoratas.

Robert Johnson becomes an inveterate traveller.  ‘Moving around the way he does and playing in so many different places to so many different people all the time, he has to be able to play almost anything which is requested.’  His ‘repertoire includes blues standards, his own compositions, and even such popular tunes of the day as “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”.’  Although Robert Johnson is a popular attraction, he has an ambition to also become a recording artist like other bluesmen such as Willie Brown, Son House and Charlie Patton.

H.C. Speir has a music store in Jackson, Mississippi.  This business also has a facility to make records for the personal use of paying customers.  Robert Johnson avails himself of this studio.  Speir is sufficiently impressed to pass Johnson’s details on to Ernie Oertle, a salesman and talent scout for the American Record Corporation.  Robert Johnson is subsequently signed to the Vocalion record label and his first recording session is arranged.

The music of Robert Johnson predates rock ‘n’ roll. He is a blues musician.  The blues has a long history.  Its roots lie in Africa.  Negro slaves brought to the United States to work on cotton plantations bring their music with them.  These ‘work songs’ have an understandably mournful character.  This is due to the harsh conditions faced by the slave labourers.  Because the singers are melancholy, they are ‘blue’ (i.e. sad).  The blues is a music of sadness.  Yet is also about transcendence; it is about taking that sadness and finding a kind of beauty within it.  By the time Robert Johnson enters the recording studio, slavery has long been abolished but many African-Americans still live in impoverished circumstances.  Moreover, the blues is as much about emotional hardship as economic hardship.  Robert Johnson is described as ‘doomed, haunted, driven by demons, a tormented genius.’

All the songs Robert Johnson records are his own compositions.  As a songwriter, Johnson’s major themes are the darkly supernatural, thwarted love, alcohol and the travelling life.  Additionally, he writes a lot of sexual innuendo cloaked in double entendres.  Looking over that list, Johnson could pass for a rock singer or even a heavy metal artist.

To modern listeners unfamiliar with Robert Johnson, his work can be challenging to absorb.  The recordings are extremely spartan, just Johnson’s voice and acoustic guitar.  There are no other instruments, no other musicians.  Many of the songs have a similar tempo and sound.  It is really only with repeated exposure that more individual nuances become noticeable.

Legend has it that Robert Johnson is very shy.  This is at least partly prompted by his habit of turning away to face the wall while recording.  A more interesting latter day interpretation of his behaviour is that he was using a technique called ‘corner loading.’  Rather than let his voice and guitar notes drift off into dead air, by bouncing them off a wall or corner, he was trapping the echo and making a more vibrant and indelible sound.

Robert Johnson’s complete recording career consists of only twenty-nine songs.  These are put down in two recording sessions, bot under the supervision of producer Don Law.  Sixteen songs are recorded in San Antonio, Texas, between 23 November 1936 and 27 November 1936.  These tracks are: ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’, ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’, ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind’, ‘When You Got A Good Friend’, ‘Come On In My Kitchen’, ‘Terraplane Blues’, ‘Phonograph Blues’, ’32-20 Blues’, ‘They’re Red Hot’, ‘Dead Shrimp Blues’, ‘Cross Road Blues’, ‘Walkin’ Blues’, ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down’, ‘Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)’ and ‘If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day’.  A further thirteen songs are recorded in Dallas, Texas, from 19 June 1937 to 20 June 1937.  These tracks are: ‘Stones In My Passway’, ‘I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man’, ‘From Four Until Late’, ‘Hell Hound On My Trail’, ‘Little Queen Of Spades’, ‘Malted Milk’, ‘Drunken Hearted Man’, ‘Me And The Devil Blues’, ‘Stop Breakin’ Down Blues’, ‘Traveling Riverside Blues’, ‘Honeymoon Blues’, ‘Love In Vain Blues’ and ‘Milkcow’s Calf Blues’.  (Note: It is possible that some other songs were recorded, but lost to history.)

Robert Johnson’s music is first released on 78s.  A ‘78’ is a shellac or vinyl record designed to be played on a phonograph set to 78 revolutions per minute (rpm).  The ‘78’ is virtually extinct by the mid-1950s.  Rock ‘n’ roll records are usually either singles (small discs played at 45 rpm) or albums (large discs with more material that are played at 33 1/3 rpm).  Physically, a 78 is about the same size as the later albums but, usually, only with one song per side – a format akin to singles of a later day.

Vocalion issues twelve Robert Johnson 78s.  Nines are issued in 1937, two in 1938, and a final disc is posthumously issued in 1939.  The 1937 releases are: ‘Terraplane Blues’ backed with ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’ (03416); ’32-20 Blues’ b/w ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down’ (03445); ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’ b/w ‘Dead Shrimp Blues’ (03475); ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind’ b/w ‘Cross Road Blues’ (03519); ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ b/w ‘They’re Red Hot’ (03563); ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ b/w ‘Walkin’ Blues’ (03601); ‘From Four Until Late’ b/w ‘Hell Hound On My Trail’ (03623); ‘Malted Milk’ b/w ‘Milkcow’s Calf Blues’ (03665) and ‘Stones In My Passway’ b/w ‘I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man’ (03723).  The two 78s issued in 1938 are: ‘Stop Breakin’ Down Blues’ b/w ‘Honeymoon Blues’ (04002) and ‘Little Queen Of Spades’ b/w ‘Me And The Devil Blues’ (04108).  The final Robert Johnson 78, issued in 1939, is ‘Love In Vain Blues’ b/w ‘Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)’ (04630).  This accounts for only twenty-four of the twenty-nine songs in Johnson’s oeuvre.  This means that five Robert Johnson tracks are never issued on 78.  These unreleased items are: ‘When You Got A Good Friend’, ‘Phonograph Blues’, ‘If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day’, ‘Drunken Hearted Man’ and ‘Traveling Riverside Blues’.  Let’s look at ten of Robert Johnson’s best songs – with some honourable mentions and interesting notes about some of the rest.

  1. ‘Terraplane Blues’ is a ‘moderate regional hit’ selling five thousand copies. It is the ‘only real hit during his lifetime’ and ‘the song for which he is most widely remembered.’  It boasts a wild, twanging guitar chord and shivery atmosphere.  This ‘lewd composition compares a woman to an automobile.’  The ‘Terraplane’ is a car brand and model of the Hudson Motor Company manufactured from 1932 to 1938.  “Who been drivin’ my Terraplane now for you since I been gone?” asks Robert Johnson.  He goes on to claim, “I’m gonna get down in this connection, keep on tanglin’ with your wires…” and “When I mash down on your little starter, then your spark plug will give me fire.”
  1. ‘Cross Road Blues’ is Robert Johnson’s greatest song. It directly addresses the central element of Johnson’s legend, his alleged deal with the devil.  It has been said that ‘the most likely source of the tale is Johnson himself.’  ‘Cross Road Blues’ is acknowledged as ‘the most fearsome of the inaugural tracks.’  The sound is hard and metallic.  In an agonised voice, Robert Johnson sings, “That I got the Cross Road Blues this mornin’, Lord, babe, I’m sinkin’ down.”  His conviction is inescapable.
  1. ‘Hell Hound On My Trail’ is a ‘haunting one-of-a-kind performance.’ “Blues fallin’ down like hail,” notes Robert Johnson, “There’s a hell hound on my trail.”  If Johnson sold his soul at the cross roads, this is the sound of the debt collector coming after this sad and doomed creature.
  1. ‘Love In Vain Blues’ is Robert Johnson at his most wounded and heartsick.  “Well it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to tell, when all your love’s in vain,” he mourns.  With unbearable sadness, Johnson howls, “Ou hou ou ou, hoo, Willie Mae,” evidently pointing to Willie Mae Powell as the inspiration for the song.  The singer’s ‘moaning at the end of “Love In Vain” is still one of the saddest sounds ever heard.’  This is ‘a timeless romantic lament.’
  1. ‘Me And The Devil Blues’ mixes a tickling guitar with a yowling vocal. “And I said, ‘Hello Satan / I believe it’s time for me to go’ / Me and the devil walkin’ side by side,” is another reminder of Robert Johnson’s legendary infernal bargain.  This ‘hair-raising anthem of dashed hopes’ seems to envision Johnson’s ultimate fate: “You may bury my body, woo / Down by the highway side / So my old evil spirit / Can get a Greyhound bus and ride.”
  1. ‘Preachin’ Blues’ is a ‘distant relation of Son House’s “Preaching The Blues”’, it is said, due to a stylistic similarity between this Robert Johnson tune and the work of one of his main inspirations. Over a fast stroked guitar, Johnson sings with wild abandon, “The blues, is a low down, shakin’ chill, yes, preach ‘em now.”
  1. ‘Stop Breakin’ Down Blues’ is perhaps the most modern sounding piece in Robert Johnson’s catalogue. Over a rumbling, locomotive rhythm, he barks, “I can’t walk the streets now, can’t consulate my mind / Some no good woman she starts breakin’ down.”
  1. ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ is a song that ‘beguiles us.’ It’s a bit of an oddity.  Robert Johnson was not from Chicago, though that city in Illinois becomes important for blues music in the 1950s particularly.  Johnson may well have visited Chicago in his travels but the lyric is rather geographically scrambled: “Baby don’t you want to go / Back to the land of California / To my sweet home Chicago.”  California is, of course, on the west coast of the U.S. while Chicago is in the Midwest.  The swaying and rocking melody is entrancing enough to make up for such incongruities though.
  1. ‘Stones In My Passway’ has Robert Johnson pickin’ and strummin’ his guitar, twanging a note or two for added embellishment. “I got stones in my passway / And my road seems dark as night,” he sings.  This is ‘the sound of a doomed man thinking out loud.’
  1. ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’ has a cantering rhythm and teasing guitar. “I’m gonna get up in the mornin’,” avers Robert Johnson, “I believe I’ll dust my broom / Girlfriend, the black man you been lovin’, girlfriend, can get my room.”  Love has obviously gone wrong, but Johnson is quitting, rather than being dismissed.  The authorship of the song belongs to Robert Johnson but sometimes causes some confusion.  Firstly, the song seems based on ‘I Believe I’ll Make A Change’, a 1932 song by Pinetop And Lindbergh (a.k.a. The Sparks Brothers).  More often, it is claimed that bluesman Elmore James is the author of this piece.  James’ 1951 take on ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’ is justly considered a ‘classic.’  Though Elmore James may have reinvented the song, there is no doubt that Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording is the original.

Some other notes on the remainder of Robert Johnson’s body of work: ‘When You Got A Good Friend’ is not about a male buddy; it’s about a woman (“I mistreated my baby…Anytime I think about it, I just wring my hands and cry”).  ‘Come On In My Kitchen’, ‘Phonograph Blues’, ‘Dead Shrimp Blues’ and ‘Milkcow’s Calf Blues’ can all be given a more ribald and salacious interpretation than the face value of their lyrics would indicate…if the listener is so inclined. ’32-20 Blues’ takes on a more sinister meaning when it is understood that the .32-20 is a Winchester rifle cartridge (“Take my 32-20, now, and cut her half in two”).  ‘They’re Red Hot’ is Johnson at his most humorous, adopting a silly nasal voice to bawl out the lyrics like a carnival barker.  ‘If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day’ is part religious Armageddon and part love gone wrong (“Lord, the little woman I’m lovin’ wouldn’t have no right to pray”) with Johnson’s fingers just about flying off the top of the fretboard.  ‘Malted Milk’ is, contrary to the title, about alcohol: ‘Written – or at least recorded – in 1937, a few years after prohibition ended, it seems likely that Robert Johnson’s “Malted Milk” refers to some other malt-based beverages better known than milk for making heads feel “funny, funny”…’  ‘Traveling Riverside Blues’ opens with Johnson warning, “If your man gets personal..” and leads to him saying, “Now you can squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg.”  In ‘Honeymoon Blues’, Robert Johnson vows, “Bettie Mae, Bettie Mae, you shall be my wife some day.”  ‘Bettie Mae’ does not seem to match up with any of the singer’s well known lovers so she is either fictitious – or the one who got away…

Robert Johnson’s status as a recording artist brings him additional fame and fortune.  ‘He is able to go nearly anywhere and find an eager, expectant crowd.’  There is a downside.  ‘He becomes erratic, often moody, but always ambitious.’  Robert Johnson also wonders about his natural father, Noah Johnson: ‘In adulthood, he vacillates between contemptuous disinterest in him and a distempered desire to locate him.’

Fittingly, for a man whose ‘life is shrouded in mystery’, Robert Johnson’s end is also riddled with contradictions.

On a Saturday night in July 1938 Robert Johnson plays a show at the Three Forks Store & Jook House in Greenwood, Mississippi.  The story goes that Johnson is ‘friends’ with the wife of the man who runs the jook house and is rather indiscreet in conducting a liaison with that woman.  The proprietor then doses Johnson’s drink – he would ‘guzzle any form of white lightning or grain alcohol’ – and the singer becomes incapacitated, ‘displaying definite signs of poisoning.’  (In alternate versions of the legend: ‘Johnson is poisoned by a jealous girlfriend’; Johnson was ‘attempting to rekindle a relationship with the owner’s wife’; Johnson ‘got himself pie-eyed…and flirted with his employer’s wife’; the singer consumes a ‘bottle of whiskey poisoned by [the jealous] husband’; and it is ‘tainted rye’ that lays him low.)

The end does not come immediately.  Robert Johnson is ‘young and virile enough to withstand the poisoning.’  He lies ‘deathly ill for weeks.’  Johnson is given around the clock care by a couple of female fans of his at their home, Star of the West, a cotton plantation just across the Tallahatchie River.  Despite all this, Robert Johnson passes away on Tuesday, 16 August 1958.  He was 27 years old.  It is claimed that Johnson ‘lingered on in agony for several days before expiring.’  Another account has it that he took three days to die in a ‘convulsive state of severe pain.’  Most commonly, the form of poison is thought to be strychnine – but the symptoms and duration do not seem consistent with strychnine.  In one version of the legend, Johnson ‘successfully sweats the poison out of his system, but catches pneumonia’ in his weakened state – and there is no cure for pneumonia prior to 1946.  The owner of the plantation where the singer expires reports that Robert Johnson ‘died of syphilis.’  Perhaps the only thing to say is the ‘cause of death is still unknown.’  Robert Johnson’s alleged dying words are, “I pray that my redeemer will come and take me from my grave.”

After Vocalion issues ‘Love In Vain Blues’ b/w ‘Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)’ in 1939, Robert Johnson’s work goes out of print.  He becomes a favourite among blues aficionados, but fades from a wider public awareness.  Although he is considered ‘the single most important influence on the Chicago blues of the 1950s and 1960s’, this boom period is centred on electric guitar, not the acoustic tones of Johnson’s instrument.

Columbia Records issues ‘King Of The Delta Blues Singers’ (1961).  This is Robert Johnson’s most significant album.  It collects his work on a standard format 33 1/3 rpm album for the first time and brings him to the attention of a whole new generation.  It is successful enough to spawn a second volume, ‘King Of The Delta Blues Singers Vol. II’ (1970).  Each of these discs holds sixteen tracks.  It may be realised that this adds up to thirty-two songs…yet Johnson’s body of work consists of only twenty-nine songs.  The discrepancy is accounted for by three songs appearing on both discs (‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’, ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind’ and ‘Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)’).  This also means that the five tracks unreleased by Vocalion are finally officially available.

Rock artists record cover versions of Robert Johnson’s songs, enhancing his reputation for newer listeners.  Two of the more famous covers are ‘Crossroads’ by Cream (from ‘Wheels Of Fire’ (1968)) and ‘Stop Breaking Down’ by The Rolling Stones (on ‘Exile On Main Street’ (1972)).  It should also be noted that the lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Lemon Song’ (on ‘Led Zeppelin II’ (1969)) borrow liberally from ‘Traveling Riverside Blues’.

Robert Johnson’s catalogue is repackaged again as ‘Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings’ (1990) and ‘Robert Johnson – The Centennial Collection’ (2011).

Robert Johnson anticipated many characteristics of rock ‘n’ roll in both his life and music.  In life, he was a touring musician who loved his women and his alcohol and died tragically at a young age.  Musically, Johnson’s songs embraced such familiar rock music themes as the supernatural, thwarted love, alcohol and life on the road – as well as adding a generous dollop of sexual innuendo.  Whether Robert Johnson’s talent was really the result of a deal with the devil, his music has exhibited a staying power and fascination that seems almost otherworldly.  Robert Johnson ‘stirred controversy, excited fans and inspired legions of other musicians.’  He was ‘the most celebrated figure in the history of the blues.’

Sources:

  1. lyricsfreak.com as at 3 June 2015
  2. wikipedia.org as at 13 May 2015
  3. ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 90, 93, 96, 97
  4. ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ (video documentary) by Marty Singh, Aiden Prewett (DevilBlueFilms, 27 July 2014?)
  5. biography.com – Robert Johnson – no author credited – as at 3 June 2015
  6. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 3 June 2013
  7. rollingstone.com – Robert Johnson biography – no author credited – as at 3 June 2015
  8. ‘Robert Johnson – The Centennial Collection’ – ‘A Biography Reassessed and Amended upon the 100th Anniversary of his Birth’ by Stephen C. La Vere (Sony Music Corporation, 2011) p. 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 19
  9. allmusic.com, ‘Robert Johnson’ by Cub Koda as at 3 June 2015
  10. famousfix.com as at 3 June 2015
  11. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 34, 35
  12. ‘Robert Johnson – The Centennial Collection’ – ‘A History of the Recorded Masters’ by Stephen C. La Vere (Sony Music Corporation, 2011) p. 20
  13. ‘Robert Johnson – The Centennial Collection’ – ‘Robert Johnson: A Century and Beyond’ by Ted Gioia (Sony Music Corporation, 2011) p. 3, 4
  14. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 70
  15. jstor.org – ‘Black Music Research Journal’ Vol. 32 No. 1 (Spring 2012) – Board of Trustees, University of Illinois – David Brackett – ‘Preaching Blues’
  16. foodculture.com – no author credited – 8 November 2010
  17. songlyrics.com as at 5 June 2015

Song lyrics copyright The Bicycle Music Company with the exceptions of ‘Traveling Riverside Blues’ and ‘Honeymoon Blues’ (both Handlebar Music O.B.O Standing Ovation Music)

Last revised 16 June 2015

Green Day

Billie Joe Armstrong – circa 1995

“Somebody keep my balance / I think I’m falling off / Into a state of regression / The expiration date / Rapidly coming up” – ’Jaded’ (Billie Joe Armstrong / Green Day)

Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt recalls being contacted by the group’s frontman, vocalist and guitarist: “Billie [Joe Armstrong] called me at one point and said, ‘Do you even want to do this anymore?’”  It is 2003.  The future of American pop punk band Green Day is uncertain.  Is their story over?  Is a slow decline all that’s left?  Or could it be that their greatest triumph is just over the horizon?

Billie Joe Armstrong is born 17 February 1972 in Oakland, California, U.S.A.  Actually, he is born in Piedmont, a small town surrounded by the city of Oakland.  “My mom was from Oklahoma,” he later explains, “Hence the name Billie Joe…It’s not William Joseph, it’s ‘just’ Billie Joe.”  He is the son of Andrew ‘Andy’ Armstrong and Andy’s wife, Ollie Jackson.  Andy Armstrong is a jazz musician, but he also pays the bills by driving a truck for the supermarket chain, Safeway.  Billie Joe is the youngest of six children.  His elder siblings are David, Alan, Marci, Hollie and Anna.  His eldest sibling, David, is 22 years older than Billie Joe.  Ollie Jackson is 40 years old when she gives birth to Billie Joe.  The racial heritage behind Billie Joe Armstrong is a mix of Scottish, Irish, English, Welsh, Italian, German, Spanish and possibly Cherokee Native American.

Billie Joe Armstrong is raised in Rodeo, California.  “My brother David was a great athlete and I knew there was no way I could live up to that,” Billie Joe says.  Instead, he follows his father’s example and turns to music.  The precocious child starts his recording career early.  Billie Joe Armstrong records his first single, ‘Look For Love’ on Fiat Records, when he is only 5 years old.  (Note: The flipside of the single is a promotional interview with the youngster.  A brief excerpt from this interview prefaces the new Green Day song ‘Maria’ recorded for the compilation album ‘International Superhits’ (2001).)

Andy Armstrong, Billie Joe’s father, dies of oesophageal cancer on 10 September 1982.  Billie Joe is 10 years old at the time.  His mother, Ollie Jackson, works at Rod’s Hickory Pit Restaurant in El Cerrito, California.  Ollie Jackson remarries but Billie Joe does not get on well with his stepfather.  The conflict pushes him further into music.

At Hillcrest Elementary School, Billie Joe Armstrong meets future Green Day member Mike Dirnt.  “I think we ended up playing out first show together in seventh grade at the [Carquinez] Middle School dance or something like that,” recalls Armstrong.

Mike Dirnt is born Michael Ryan Pritchard on 4 May 1972 in Berkley, California, U.S.A.  The baby is given up for adoption, since his biological mother is a heroin addict and unable to care for her offspring.  (His biological mother dies on 9 January 2013.  Mike meets her for the first time only one month before her death.)  When he is six weeks old, baby Michael is placed with his adoptive parents, Frank Pritchard and Cheryl Nasser.  Michael is raised alongside his sister, Myla.  However, their parents divorce.  Mike’s stagename originates at grade school when he mimes playing a bass guitar, singing, “dirnt, dirnt, dirnt.”  Mike Dirnt meets Billie Joe Armstrong at the Hillcrest Elementary School cafeteria when the boys are 10 years old.

When they are 14 years old, Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt form their first band, Sweet Children.  The 1986 line-up of Sweet Children is: Billie Joe Armstrong (vocals, guitar), Mike Dirnt (guitar, vocals), Sean Hughes (bass, vocals) and Raj Punjabi (drums).  By 1987, Raj Punjabi is replaced by John Kiffmeyer (drums) (born 11 July 1969), who is sometimes known under the alias of ‘Al Sobrante’.  Sweet Children play their first gig at Rod’s Hickory Pit (the restaurant that employs Billie Joe’s mother) in 1987.  Sean Hughes leaves the group in 1988 after a few performances.  Mike Dirnt moves to bass and the group takes on its most familiar configuration as a trio.

Sweet Children see out the rest of their school days dividing their time between gigs and classes.  “There were never really parents or anything like that around,” comments Billie Joe Armstrong with a hint of sadness.  It has been said that the boys come from ‘dysfunctional family backgrounds.’  That may be an overstatement, but it seems Billie Joe and his friends largely make their own way.  The days pass at John Swett High School and Pinole Valley High School.  In April 1989, Sweet Children change the name of the band to Green Day.  The new name is selected ‘because of their fondness for marijuana.’  Their first show as Green Day is in the college town of Davis, approximately an hour north east of San Francisco Bay.  One of the band’s most important venues is The Alternative Music Foundation at 924 Gilman St in the West Berkley area of Berkley, California.  More popularly known by its fans as ‘Gilman’, it is at this punk club that Green Day develops a lot of their early style.  Green Day is signed to the Lookout label, an underground punk rock specialist.

Green Day is normally considered a punk rock band.  The odd thing about that is that the main era of punk rock is the mid-1970s to the late 1970s – about a decade and a half before Green Day begin their recording career.  The American band The Ramones is usually considered the first punk rock act but, arguably, the genre reaches full flower when it travels to the U.K. and gives birth to bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash.  Billie Joe Armstrong nods to punk’s transatlantic background when he says, “I sound like an Englishman impersonating an American impersonating an Englishman.”  Punk strips away much of the pretension rock has accumulated.  It is loud, obnoxious and bratty.  “Punk is not just the sound, the music.  Punk is a lifestyle,” notes Armstrong.  An anti-authoritarian attitude is important.  This often involves a political agenda as well – at least in the British variant.

Although punk’s heyday is over by the late 1970s, it never really goes away.  Pockets of punk rock fans keep the flame burning.  One such breeding ground is the San Francisco Bay area, the scene from which Green Day emerges.  Perhaps they could be considered ‘neo-punks’?

The punk rock tag soon proves needlessly limiting for Green Day in any case.  ‘Pop punk’ is another common description since Green Day wed punk’s sneering attitude to catchy tunes with sing-along choruses.  The alternative rock label is also applied.  Alternative rock is simply music that avoids mainstream commercial dissemination in favour of appealing to a cult audience of possibly better educated, savvier listeners.  Green Day’s punk background fits well with this sort of purposeful outsider status.  Punk remains the starting point, the basic language, of any Green Day song.  “Punk will never be dead to me,” vows Billie Joe Armstrong.

The songwriting credits for Green Day songs usually list the band as a whole as the composer of the music.  Billie Joe Armstrong writes the vast bulk of the lyrics, though other band members normally get to pen the lyrics of a song or two per album.  It appears that Billie Joe Armstrong is the main songwriter and is generally the creative spearhead of Green Day.

The EP ‘1000 Hours’ is Green Day’s first recording.  It is released in 1989.

Billie Joe Armstrong drops out of high school on 16 February 1990, one day before he turns 18.  Mike Dirnt graduates high school, but has no plans for college.

‘39/Smooth’ (1990), released in April, is the first album by Green Day.  Like its successor, this disc is co-produced by Andy Ernst and Green Day.

A second EP, ‘Slappy’, is released in 1990 by Green Day.  (‘1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours’ (1991) is a compilation of the debut EP, debut album and second EP.)

Billie Joe Armstrong begins dating Adrienne Nesser in 1990 after meeting her at a Green Day concert in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Late in 1990, drummer John Kiffmeyer a.k.a. Al Sobrante leaves Green Day and goes back to college.  His replacement is Tre Cool.  This creates the definitive Green Day line-up of: Billie Joe Armstrong (vocals, guitar), Mike Dirnt (bass, vocals) and Tre Cool (drums).

Tre Cool is born Frank Edwin Wright III on 9 December 1972 in Frankfurt, West Germany.  As his birthplace suggests, Tre has a German heritage.  His father, Frank Wright, Jr., was a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War.  Tre has an older sister named Lori.  When Tre is still very young, the Wright family relocates to Willits, California.  This results in some sources mistakenly listing Willits as Tre’s birthplace.  In Willits, Tre’s father works as a house builder.

Frank Edwin Wright III picks up the name ‘Tre’ fairly early.  It is a common nickname for a person whose father and grandfather shared their name.  Being the third with the name, ‘Tre’ – Spanish for ‘three’ – makes sense as a pet name.  Tre takes to playing the drums early and is not shy about his prowess: “I’m the greatest rock drummer on the planet and you suck.”  His neighbour, Larry Livermore, is the singer with a band called The Lookouts.  When he is only 12 years old, Tre is recruited to join The Lookouts.  “I didn’t have a normal childhood by any means,” Tre notes.  It is Larry Livermore, his new musical collaborator, who gives the drummer the name Tre Cool.  It’s a pun on the French word ‘tres’ (meaning ‘very’), so ‘Tre Cool’ means ‘very cool’.  Music tends to overshadow school for Tre Cool but, as he later says, “I never completed high school and I am very rich and very successful.”

‘Kerplunk’ (1992), Green Day’s second album, is drummer Tre Cool’s debut with the trio.  The album is notable for an early version of ‘Welcome To Paradise’, a song Green Day reworks on their next album.

‘Kerplunk’ is Green Day’s last album on the Lookout label.  The group moves to Reprise Records.  Since this is a much larger organisation, the move outrages some punk purists.  Hardcore audiences brand the trio ‘sell-outs’ and quite a backlash is stirred up.  From 1994 Green Day is banned from the punk mecca Gilman – though years later they are sufficiently forgiven to make a couple of low-key appearances at the venue that kick-started their career.

Tre Cool recalls that, “Back in 1993 and 1994…my dad built this tour bus for us out of a bookmobile.  We toured in it for the first year.”  The drummer notes, “It was a really bad idea by the way.”

‘Dookie’ (1994) (US no. 2, UK no. 13, AUS no. 1) is Green Day’s first album on the Reprise label.  The disc is released in February.  It begins a long-lasting association with Rob Cavallo, who co-produces with the group most of the band’s subsequent albums.  The album’s title is a reference to the group ‘often suffering from diarrhoea, which they referred to as “liquid dookie”, as a result of eating spoiled food while on tour.’  ‘Dookie’ offers a raft of notable tracks.  ‘Longview’ (UK no. 30, AUS no. 33) throbs with the exhortation “Bite my lip and close my eyes / Take me away to paradise.”  Yet this ode to pleasuring oneself ultimately finds, “When masturbation’s lost its fun / You’re f***ing breaking.”  Billie Joe Armstrong describes ‘Longview’ as “cheap self-therapy from watching too much TV.”  The buzzsaw onslaught of ‘Welcome To Paradise’ (UK no. 20, AUS no. 44) is a revisitation of a track from the group’s previous album.  ‘Basket Case’ (UK no. 6, AUS no. 85) asks, “Do you have the time / To listen to me whine?”  Lost and spinning about, Armstrong’s narrator admits, “Sometimes I give myself the creeps.”  When I Come Around’ (UK no. 27, AUS no. 7) has a solid and sturdy riff.  The rough ‘She’ has a female protagonist oppressed by society, accounting for its underlying melancholy colours.  (Note: Although none of these songs reach the mainstream U.S. pop charts, some of them do quite well on the ‘Modern Rock’ chart which has a more alternative music orientation.)  With ‘Dookie’, Green Day ‘break through into the mainstream.’  The lyrics of the album ‘speak of self-loathing and insanity, masturbation and hatred of elders.’  ‘Dookie’ is ‘the album that jump-starts the 1990s punk pop revival.’

On 2 July 1994 Billie Joe Armstrong marries Adrienne Nesser.  The couple go on to have two sons: Joseph (born 26 February 1995) and Jakob (born 12 September 1998).

‘At the end of the summer, [Green Day] steals the show at [music festival] Woodstock ’94.’  Billie Joe Armstrong’s mother is less impressed.  She is ‘disgusted to see her son drop his pants and swear at the audience when the band leaves the stage prematurely after being pelted with mud.’

In 1994 Green Day drummer Tre Cool becomes romantically involved with photographer Lisea Lyons.  The couple have a daughter, Ramona (born 12 January 1995).  The little girl is named after Joey Ramone, vocalist of punk rock’s pioneering act, The Ramones.  “I always said the world is a better place because of Joey Ramone,” says Tre Cool.  Tre marries Lisea Lyons in 1995, but the couple divorce the following year.  Lisea leaves the marriage, taking baby Ramona with her.

In an interview published on 24 January 1995 Billie Joe Armstrong confesses that he is bisexual.

In 1995 Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt begins dating a woman named Anastasia.  They marry in 1996.  The relationship ends the same year, but their child, Estelle-Desiree (born April 1997), comes along subsequently.

‘Insomniac’ (1995) (US no. 2, UK no. 8, AUS no. 5), Green Day’s follow-up to ‘Dookie’, arrives in October.  The title is not a reference to partying; it is inspired by members of the band becoming fathers and being kept awake by their new families.  ‘Geek Stink Breath’ (UK no. 16, AUS no. 40) is a song that wallows in the lowlife as the character narrating sings, “I’m blowing off steam with Meth Amphetamine.”  The careening ‘Stuck With Me’ (UK no. 24, AUS no. 46) stubbornly faces down the upper classes.  The agonised static transmission of ‘Brain Stew’ (UK no. 28, AUS no. 88) hews close to the inspiration for ‘Insomniac’: “I’m having trouble trying to sleep…”  ‘Jaded’ is a thundering gallop towards oblivion.  However the best of the bunch may be the swaggering ‘Walking Contradiction’ in which Billie Joe Armstrong (playing a character rather than being autobiographical?) sings, “I’m a smart-a** but I’m playing dumb.”  ‘‘Insomniac’ performs well initially…yet none of its singles…is as popular as those from ‘Dookie’.’

In early 1996 Billie Joe Armstrong is arrested for indecent exposure after a Green Day show in Wisconsin, U.S.A.

‘Nimrod’ (1997) (US no. 10, UK no. 11, AUS no. 3) is spearheaded by a strutting, rockabilly-punk number about a boozer who has fallen off the wagon and is now ‘Hitchin’ A Ride’ (UK no. 25, AUS no. 26).  ‘Good Riddance’ (UK no. 11, AUS no. 2) is reputedly inspired by Billie Joe Armstrong’s break-up with a girlfriend around the time of ‘Dookie’ – but how that fits in with him dating Adrienne Nesser around the same time is anyone’s guess.  Despite its scornful title, ‘Good Riddance’ is actually awash in melodic nostalgia as more accurately reflected in its subtitle, ‘(Time Of Your Life)’: “It’s something unpredictable / But in the end is right / I hope you had the time of your life.”  It is the soundtrack to many weddings and end of school proms.  With its acoustic guitar and what sounds like a cello, there are some who doubt ‘Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)’ is sufficiently punk.  Bassist Mike Dirnt argues that, “Putting that song on our record was probably the most punk thing we could do.”  In other words, punk is all about defying convention.  The sparkling and sparky ‘Redundant’ (AUS no. 2) admits, “Now I cannot speak / I lost my voice / I’m speechless and redundant / ‘Cause I love you’s not enough / I’m lost for words.”  ‘Nice Guys Finish Last’ (AUS no. 88) is a pummelling reminder of Green Day’s rock credentials.

Green Day’s fifth album, ‘Warning’ (2000) (US no. 4, UK no. 4, AUS no. 7), is ‘refreshingly poppy.’  Produced by Green Day with no outside co-producer, this disc features even more acoustic guitar, alienating some punk purists even further.  Yet Green Day is rapidly outgrowing artificial limitations and this set is one of the more underrated works in their catalogue.  Although hardly their biggest hit, ‘Minority’ (UK no. 18, AUS no. 29) – a track from this album – is actually Green Day’s best individual song.  This is an anthem to non-conformity.  It is arrogant and unbowed.  As such, it sums up the best values of Green Day.  Sure, it is bratty, but it has purpose and an admirably indelible stamp of individuality and character.  “I want to be the minority / I don’t need your authority,” sneers Billie Joe Armstrong, “Down with the moral majority / ‘Cause I want to be the minority.”  The singer and songwriter explains that, “’Minority’ is about being an individual.  It’s like you have to sift through the darkness to find your place and be that individual you want to be your entire life.”  The title track, ‘Warning’ (UK no. 27, AUS no. 19) begins, “This is a public service announcement / This is only a test / Emergency evacuation protest / May impair your ability to operate machinery,” then blossoms into a catchy chorus and layered acoustic guitars.  The swaying pop melody of ‘Waiting’ (UK no. 34) is at odds with the face-smashing chords the song also boasts.  ‘Macy’s Day Parade’ is a plaintive acoustic view of an empty society.

In 2000 Green Day drummer Tre Cool marries Claudia Suarez (Bovino).  They go on to have a son together, Frankito (born 26 March 2001).  The baby’s name means ‘Little Frank’.  It may be remembered that Tre Cool’s real name is Frank Edwin Wright III.  Tre and Claudia divorce in 2003.

Green Day release the EP ‘Tune In, Tokyo…’ (US no. 198) in October 2001.  This is followed a month later by the compilation disc, ‘International Superhits’ (2001) (US no. 40, UK no. 15, AUS no. 11).  This collection of popular songs also includes two high quality new additions, ‘Maria’ and ‘Poprocks & Coke’.

On 5 January 2003 Billie Joe Armstrong is arrested for driving while under the influence of alcohol.

In 2003 Green Day record an album to be titled ‘Cigarettes And Valentines’.  However, the tapes go missing.  There is some question about whether the recordings are stolen or just mislaid.  Normally, in such circumstances, a band will go back to work and try to recreate the album.  However, Green Day choose to just abandon the project and forget it.  This leads to some speculation that ‘Cigarettes And Valentines’ may have been substandard, not exactly the band’s best work.

After the ‘Cigarettes And Valentines’ mess, Green Day experience a collective disenchantment.  Their albums have been selling in dwindling quantities since ‘Dookie’.  This is not apparent by a simple glance at their highest chart placings, but is revealed in their overall sales figures after the album’s main selling period has passed.  The cumulative sales for ‘Dookie’ are 10 million units (U.S.) and 20 million (worldwide).  ‘Insomniac’ registers sales of 2.1 million (U.S.); ‘Nimrod’ also chalks up 2.1 million (U.S.); and ‘Warning’ achieves ‘only’ 1.2 million (U.S.).  It is this growing crisis of confidence that prompts Billie Joe Armstrong to call Mike Dirnt and ask if he even wants to continue as Green Day.  The boys decide they will soldier on – and are soon amply rewarded for their faith.

Over the next decade, Green Day drummer Tre Cool embarks on a series of romantic relationships.  He is linked to: Torry Castellano (2003-2004), drummer with all-girl hard rock band The Donnas; Caramia Provenzano (2009-2010), a model; Ruri Hegarty (2009-2010) [yes, that is the same period as Caramia Provenzano], a host on cable television music station MTV; Dena Roberson (2010-2011), a ballet dancer; Karli Henneman (2012), a model and artist; and Purista Blenk (2012-2013), a businesswoman.

While Green Day is recording their next album they also record an album of synth pop called ‘Money Money 2020’ (2003) under the alias of The Network.  It is never officially acknowledged that Green Day is The Network, but it seems to be widely known.

In 2004 Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt marries Sarah Garrity – but they divorce in the same year.

‘American Idiot’ (2004) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) is Green Day’s best album.  On this disc, they reunite with long-time co-producer Rob Cavallo.  ‘American Idiot’ is a loosely-knit concept album, a punk rock opera.  “After recording it, we knew we had accomplished something distinctly above anything else we had ever done,” claims bassist Mike Dirnt.  His comrade, Billie Joe Armstrong, puts it this way: “Either people will think this is great or they will think it sucks and we’re crazy.”  The fast and shuddering title track, ‘American Idiot’ (US no. 61, UK no. 3, AUS no. 7), is perceived by some as an attack on U.S. President George Bush and the war on Iraq.  “I never really got into the political thing until I felt like…I had to,” says Billie Joe Armstrong, almost apologetically.  Most of the album is a sprawling love story about St Jimmy and a girl referred to only as ‘Whatshername.’  St Jimmy is also the ‘Jesus Of Suburbia’ (UK no. 17, AUS no. 24) – though it’s possible that may be a different person completely.  The album contains two medleys that run over nine minutes each: ‘Jesus Of Suburbia’ (‘Jesus Of Suburbia’, ‘City Of The Damned’, ‘I Don’t Care’, ‘Dearly Beloved’, Tales Of Another Broken Home’) and ‘Homecoming’ (‘The Death Of St Jimmy’, ‘East 12th St’, ‘Nobody Loves You’, Rock And Roll Girlfriend’, ‘We’re Coming Home Again’).  Tre Cool pens the words to ‘Rock And Roll Girlfriend’ while Mike Dirnt does the same for ‘Nobody Loves You’, the childish sing-song that is the first track completed for the album.  The tribute to a wild girl, ‘She’s A Rebel’, contains the lyric that is interpreted into the album’s cover: “She’s holding on my heart like a hand grenade.”  Among the more successful tracks on ‘American Idiot’ are the following: ‘Boulevard Of Broken Dreams’ (US no. 2, UK no. 5, AUS no. 5) is sighing and acoustic coloured, but cannot be called soft.  ‘Holiday’ (US no. 19, UK no. 11, AUS no. 24) is an air-punching riff monster in which Billie Joe Armstrong proclaims, “I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies / This is the dawning of the rest of our lives / On holiday.”  The album’s most lingering success is ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ (US no. 6, UK no. 8, AUS no. 13), an acoustic tune that could be described as a ballad.  It is claimed by some that ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ is inspired by the death of Armstrong’s father – on 10 September 1982.  The lyrics say, “Summer has come and gone / The innocent can never last / Wake me up when September ends / Like my father’s come to pass.”  ‘American Idiot’ is an ambitious work but it is also well realised.  It is a critical and commercial hit for Green Day, reaffirming their purpose and direction.  It is an ‘aggressive rock opera that becomes a surprise success.’

The live album ‘Bullet In A Bible’ (2005) (US no. 8, UK no. 6, AUS no. 8) is released in November.  The hard charging ‘The Saints Are Coming’ (US no. 51, UK no. 2, AUS no. 1) is a 2006 single, a duet with Irish rock supergroup U2, and is included on a U2 compilation album.  Then there is another weird outing for a Green Day alter ego.  ‘Stop Drop And Roll’ (2008) (US no. 21, UK no. 75) is attributed to The Foxboro Hot Tubs and is an album of garage rock.

On 14 March 2009 Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt marries Brittney Cade.  The couple have two children: a son named Brixton (born 11 October 2008) and a daughter named Ryan (born 29 November 2010).

‘21st Century Breakdown’ (2009) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2), released in May, is ‘another ambitious rock opera.’  This time the protagonists are named Christian and Gloria.  Billie Joe Armstrong says of the storyline, “It’s chaos and desperation.  Y’know there’s an angry mob, a city on fire, while you’re making out with your girlfriend in the middle of it.”  The album’s most satisfying moment is the riff happy ‘Know Your Enemy’ (US no. 28, UK no. 21, AUS no. 20).  It’s nearest rival is ’21 Guns’ (US no. 22, UK no. 36, AUS no. 14) which has a more diverse musical palette, moving from acoustic guitar and keyboards on the verses to an emotionally stirring big chorus.  Other notable tracks on ‘21st Century Breakdown’ include ‘East Jesus Nowhere’, the title track ‘21st Century Breakdown’ and ‘Last Of The American Girls’.  The album is co-produced by Butch Vig and Green Day.

Green Day’s previous rock opera, ‘American Idiot’, becomes a stage musical in September 2009 with a performance at the Berkley Repertory Theatre.  ‘American Idiot’ is staged at various venues subsequently until the show closes on 21 April 2011.  Initially, Tony Vincent is the leading performer, but Billie Joe Armstrong puts in three stints in his place: 28 September to 30 October 2010, a further fifty performances starting on 1 January 2011, and the final stretch from 5 April to 24 April 2011.

‘Awesome As F***’ (2011) (US no. 14, UK no. 14, AUS no. 69), released in March, is another live album by Green Day.  On 1 September 2011 Billie Joe Armstrong is taken off a Southwest Airlines flight for wearing his pants too low.  ‘On The Radio’ (2012), issued in January, is a souvenir of a live Green Day show performed for radio.

In the lead up to the next Green Day album, the group’s leader, Billie Joe Armstrong, has a personal crisis.  On 21 September 2012, he has ‘an on-stage breakdown during a set Green Day play at the iHeartRadio music festival in Las Vegas.  Days later it is announced that Armstrong enters rehab for undisclosed substance abuse; not long after the band’s touring plans for 2013 are cancelled.’

It turns out that Green Day release three individual albums over the next three months: ‘Uno’ (2012) (US no. 2, UK no. 2, AUS no. 3) on 24 September; ‘Dos’ (2012) (US no. 9, UK no. 10, AUS no. 10) on 13 November; and ‘Tre’ (2012) (US no. 13, UK no. 31, AUS no. 22) on 11 December.  An image of a different member of the trio appears on each of the covers (named for the Spanish words for ‘one, two, three’): Billie Joe Armstrong on ‘Uno’, Mike Dirnt on ‘Dos’ and, of course, Tre Cool on ‘Tre’ – the last-named being the whole point of the pun.  For these discs, Green Day reunite with long-time co-producer Rob Cavallo.  Their success is hampered somewhat by Billie Joe Armstrong’s crisis and the band’s scuppered tour plans.  The best tracks are all on ‘Uno’.  In the loose and choppy ‘Oh Love’ (US no. 97), Armstrong pleads, “Won’t you rain on me tonight?”  This is an ‘anthemic arena rocker.’  ‘Disco-rock’ is the chosen mode for the more unusual ‘Kill The DJ’ (UK no. 110).  “Shoot the f***in’ DJ / Shoot that f***er down,” is the exhortation in this dance music gone wrong track.  ‘Let Yourself Go’ (UK no. 193) is a punk throwback that, fittingly, snarls, “I don’t give a f*** anyway.”  The most notable track from ‘Dos’ may be ‘Stray Heart’, while ‘Tre’ is home to ‘The Forgotten’ and ‘X-Kid’.

In late 2012, Green Day takes on a fourth member – Jason White (guitar) (born 11 November 1973).  This may be an attempt to reduce the pressure on the beleaguered Billie Joe Armstrong.  Jason White is married to Janna Rollins.  They have two children, a boy named Sonny (born January 2013) and a daughter named Shelby (born May 2014).

On 11 October 2014, Green Day drummer Tre Cool marries Sara Rose Lippert, a former Miss Supercross.

By 2016, guitarist Jason White is back to being a ‘touring member’ of Green Day and the band has resumed its classic configuration as a trio.

‘Revolution Radio’ (2016) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2) is released on 7 October.  The album’s first single, ‘Bang Bang’ (UK no. 84, AUS no. 83), is about the ‘culture of mass shooting.’  This ‘storming angry-but-accessible pop/rock tune’ is written from ‘the point of view of a gunman using Facebook to outline his plans for a massacre.’  The narrator is “Daddy’s little psycho and mommy’s little soldier,” as the lyrics put it.  ‘Still Breathing’ goes from quieter verses to a high energy chorus while expressing vague amazement at the singer’s own continuing survival.  All the songs on ‘Revolution Radio’ are group compositions with the exception of ‘Ordinary World’, ‘a tender (but not soft) lullaby’, written by Billy Joe Armstrong alone.

Green Day’s career could have ended in 2003.  Instead, they persevered, making the triumphant ‘American Idiot’.  Yet there were other critical moments when the band could also have ceased.  For instance, the underground backlash when they signed with Reprise in 1994 could have derailed them.  Similarly, Billie Joe Armstrong’s ‘breakdown’ in 2012 could have brought Green Day undone.  Rock music is always a moment-to-moment proposition.  Green Day achieved many great moments.  “Do you even want to do this anymore?” Armstrong once asked bassist Mike Dirnt.  Perhaps the best answer is Armstrong’s own words: “I’m not as depressed as I used to be.  The [anti-depressant] Prozac’s working!”  Green Day was ‘one of the most popular rock bands of the 1990s and 2000s.’  They were ‘punk revivalists who recharged the energy of speedy, catchy three-chord punk pop songs.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Biography – Green Day’ (video) – bio.com (7 August 2011?)
  2. Internet movie database – imdb.com – as at 14 May 2015
  3. wikipedia.org as at 13 May 2015, 4 January 2017
  4. brainyquote.com as at 13 May 2015
  5. allmusic.com, ‘Green Day’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 16 May 2015
  6. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 186
  7. greendayauthority.com as at 13 May 2015
  8. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 13 May 2013
  9. diffuser.fm – ‘I5 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About Green Day’ by John Robinson as at 15 May 2015
  10. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 57
  11. ‘The Advocate’ (24 January 1995) via (8) above
  12. famousfix.com as at 13 May 2015
  13. ‘American Idiot’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Reprise Records, 2004) p. 20
  14. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – ‘Return of the Idiot Brother’ – review of ‘Revolution Radio’ by Cameron Adams (6 October 2016) p. 38

Song lyrics copyright WB Music Corp. / Green Daze Music administered by WB Music Corp., ASCAP

Last revised 12 January 2017

Fats Domino

Fats Domino – circa 1954

“They call, they call me the fat man / ‘Cause I weigh two hundred pounds” – ’The Fat Man’ (Dave Bartholomew, Stanley A. Kessler, Antoine Domino, William E. Taylor)

Not every rock star is a sex symbol.  Fats Domino is a roly-poly figure seated at a piano.  This is not to say he has no charisma.  However Fats’ appeal is a sort of avuncular charm, a genial, welcoming presence.  He may offer a knowing nod or a shy smile but he is unlikely to cause swooning in the audience.

The recording artist who will become famous as Fats Domino is born Antoine Domino, Jr. on 26 February 1928 in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.A.  The first name is pronounced ‘Ann-Twahn’.  Baby Antoine is born at home, delivered by his midwife grandmother.  Antoine Domino, Sr. and his wife will have nine children including Antoine, Jr.  The family is newly arrived from Vacherie, Louisiana.  They come from a French Creole background.  ‘Creole’ is a term used to identify those descended from settlers in Colonial French Louisiana.  They are usually persons of African ancestry – such as the Domino family.

Antoine Domino, Jr. is raised in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.  His family is musically inclined.  Antoine Domino, Sr. is ‘a well-known violinist.’  However it is the piano that attracts his son.  “When I first started out, every house had the old upright pianos,” Fats recalls.  When the boy is 9 years old, he is shown how to play, the keys marked out for him.  “My brother-in-law used to show me the chords,” says Fats.  His brother-in-law is Harrison Verrett, a jazz guitarist.  Although he is twenty years older than Fats, Harrison Verrett becomes ‘a mainstay for years in Fats’ band on guitar.’  Once he learns to play, ‘music seems to become the consuming interest in Domino’s life.’

“I used to work on an ice truck,” Fats Domino remembers.  “That was when I was, I’d say 12 years old.”  In those times, refrigerators are not yet common household appliances.  Food and drink is kept cool in an ‘ice-box’ or ‘ice-chest’, an item that requires a block of ice.  Hence, young Antoine Domino works on an ice truck, a vehicle that delivers large bricks of ice to neighbourhood homes.  Antoine leaves school when he is 14.  He appears to have no regrets about his truncated academic life.  He later reflects, “A lot of fellows nowadays have a B.A., M.D. or Ph.D.  Unfortunately, they don’t have a J.O.B.”  Antoine Domino is gainfully employed.  “Around 15 I was playin’ in little night clubs three nights a week and from there I used to work in a factory making bed springs.  Around 1945 I started playin’ at a place called The Hideaway.”  His gigs at this venue will soon prove significant, but there are some important events that pre-date that.

In 1947 Antoine Domino, Jr. begins working with a New Orleans band leader named Billy Diamond.  He plays piano in Diamond’s band, The Solid Senders.  It is Diamond who nicknames Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino.  This is said to be after such noted pianists as Fats Waller and Fats Pichon.  However, it would seem a distortion to claim that the sobriquet has no connection to the portly physique of the ivory-tinkler.

In 1948 Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino marries Rosemary Hall.  Just as he came from a large family, Fats and his wife will also have a sizable brood.  They go on to have eight children, four boys and four girls.  In a recurring motif, all the kids are given names starting with the letter ‘A’.  They are: Andre, Adonica, Antoine III, Andrea, Anola, Antonio, Antoinette and Anatole.  Since some of those names are unusual, let’s point out that the girls are Adonica, Andrea, Anola and Antoinette.

Fats Domino continues to play solo gigs at The Hideaway.  In 1949, when Fats is 21, one of these shows is seen by Dave Bartholomew.  A fellow African-American, Dave Bartholomew is a trumpet-player, bandleader, entrepreneur and an artists & repertoire agent for Imperial Records, a label based on the west coast of the U.S.A.  Dave Bartholomew is impressed with Fats Domino.  Bartholomew brings Imperial president Lew Chudd to see the discovery and Fats Domino is subsequently signed to Imperial as a recording artist.

‘The Fat Man’, released in 1949, is the debut single by Fats Domino.  It is ‘a candidate for the first rock ‘n’ roll record.’  The catch is that ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ – as a term and a genre – does not really exist until the mid-1950s.  ‘The Fat Man’ is described as ‘a conventional enough blues.’  It is pounding and insistent, notable for Fats’ falsetto “wa-wa-wa” vocal riff.  ‘The Fat Man’ reaches no. 6 on the rhythm and blues record chart in 1950 – but it is not a pop hit.

At the dawn of the 1950s the pop charts and country charts are almost entirely the province of white recording artists and the hits on these charts sell to white audiences.  The unofficially segregated rhythm and blues chart is similarly devoted to black artists and audiences.  It is rare for a song or artist to cross the lines between the different markets.

Fats Domino’s singles sell well from 1950 to 1955.  All of the following songs are top ten hits on the rhythm and blues charts – but only two of them make the pop charts as well: 1950 – ‘’Every Night About This Time’; 1951 – ‘Rockin’ Chair’; 1952 – ‘Goin’ Home’ (US no. 30), ‘How Long’; 1953 – ‘Goin’ To The River’ (US no. 24), ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’, ‘Rose Mary’, ‘Something’s Wrong’; 1954 – ‘You Done Me Wrong’.  ‘Goin’ Home’ is the only one to reach no. 1 on the rhythm and blues chart.  Artistically, ‘Goin’ To The River’ may be the best of the bunch with Fats’ narrator, a wronged lover, contemplating suicide.  It sports the same falsetto “wa-wa” as ‘The Fat Man’.  Things change in 1955 for Fats Domino with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.

Fats Domino is one of the first generation of rock stars.  His music helps formulate what is thought of as rock ‘n’ roll.  “What they call rock ‘n’ roll is rhythm and blues that I’ve been playing for fifteen years in New Orleans,” Fats says in his amiable fashion.  Rock ‘n’ roll is usually considered to be born from a merger of (white) country music and (black) rhythm and blues.  Obviously, Fats Domino has rhythm and blues credentials, but he is well placed to accept the new merged form.  “I loved country music!” he exclaims.  Dave Bartholomew, Fats’ collaborator and record producer, expresses a view that he always regarded Domino as a country and western singer.

Fats Domino’s music also draws on a deeper and richer heritage, the musical history of New Orleans.  The city has claims to being the home of jazz as well as blues.  Elements of these styles percolate up through the music of Fats Domino.  Perhaps most important is the work of Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd), a barrelhouse piano player whose style informs most boogie-woogie piano players, including Fats Domino.  Louis Jordan (born in Arkansas, later of Texas-Oklahoma), a saxophone player fond of lightly humorous songs with a boogie beat, is singled out by Fats Domino as an influence.  Similarly, Amos Milburn’s brand of jump-blues from the U.S. west coast impresses Fats.  One of the hallmarks of Fats Domino’s playing is the use of piano triplets.  Most commonly, beats are divided by two.  A piano triplet squeezes in three notes per beat.  “I heard that one time on an Amos Milburn record,” Fats confesses.  His vocal style is harder to pin down.  “I don’t know where I got that from,” says Mr Domino, “it was just something natural, just the way I talk.”

The majority of Fats Domino’s songs are co-written by Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew.  It is also Dave Bartholomew who serves as producer on these recordings.  “Dave was a good man to work with in the [recording] studio,” Domino acknowledges.  The musicians who play on Fats Domino’s recordings are drawn from Dave Bartholomew’s regular session musicians and members of Fats’ live band.  Collectively, these musicians include: Dave Bartholomew (trumpet), Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler (saxophone), Herb Hardesty (saxophone), Reggie Houston (saxophone), Lee Allen (saxophone), Fred Kemp (saxophone), Walter Nelson (guitar), Frank Fields (bass), Earl Palmer (drums), Smokey Johnson (drums).

Although most of Fats Domino’s recordings are original songs, these are supplemented by his renditions of standards.  A ‘standard’ is ‘a tune or song of established popularity.’  It is a cover version, but a song that has been covered many times by many different artists, perhaps to the point where it is no longer closely identified with any one performer.

When rock ‘n’ roll becomes popular, Fats Domino’s music breaks through to a wider audience.  He has pop hits, not just rhythm and blues hits.  His listeners are white kids as well as black kids.  Fats Domino’s appeal is broad.

Fats Domino’s first real crossover pop hit is ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ (US no. 10, UK no. 23), which is released in August 1955.  Over a punchy, staccato arrangement, Domino sings, “You made me cry / When you said ‘goodbye’ / Ain’t that a shame / My tears fell like rain.”  The singer explains the inspiration for ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ this way: “When I wrote ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ I saw somebody doing something to somebody that they wasn’t supposed to be doing.”

The debut album by Fats Domino, ‘Carry On Rockin’’ (1955) is released in November.  Imperial reissues it the following May as the better known ‘Rock And Rollin’ With Fats Domino’ (1956) (US no. 17).  This set includes past hits such as ‘The Fat Man’, ‘Goin’ To The River’ and ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ as well as his next single, ‘Bo Weevil’.  Also present is ‘Poor Me’ which, despite its self-pitying lyric, is musically strong.  Fats Domino – and indeed the nascent rock ‘n’ roll industry – is more oriented towards singles than albums, but this is perhaps Fats’ best album.  Along with a clutch of classics from his repertoire, it captures him at the crucial moment of rock ‘n’ roll’s birth and his breakthrough to a more general market.

It is necessary to briefly digress in order to explain Imperial Records’ approach to albums and singles.  It is quite alien by modern practices, but not very different to other record companies at the time.  Singles are chosen in a manner that doesn’t always align with the albums released around the same time.  Some old hits go years before popping up on an album, some ‘new’ singles are actually tracks pulled off albums released much earlier.  Popular songs are sometimes rerecorded – or just re-presented – on later albums.  The single is still the focus of the company; albums are little more than a marketing cash-in.

‘Bo Weevil’ (US no. 35) is released as a single in January 1956.  This “sweet little country song” is a rural trill that demonstrates Fats Domino’s facility with a more country and western influenced number.

March 1956 brings the single ‘I’m In Love Again’ (US no. 3, UK no. 12) backed with ‘My Blue Heaven’ (US no. 19).  “Yes it’s me and I’m in love again / Had no lovin’ since you know when,” sings Fats Domino in the former, his voice establishing a dialogue with the blaring saxophone.  This song also carries the humorous plea, “Baby don’t you let your dog bite me!”  ‘My Blue Heaven’ is a standard written in 1924 by George A. Whiting (lyrics) & Walter Donaldson (music).  It is recorded by Tommy Lyman in 1927, is a hit for crooner Gene Austin in 1928 and is also recorded by Jimmie Lunceford in 1935.  Fats Domino gives it a syncopated showbiz rendition.  July 1956 sees the release of ‘When My Dreamboat Comes Home’ (US no. 14) b/w ‘So Long’ (US no. 44).  The first-named again shows Fats Domino’s ease with country music since ‘When My Dreamboat Comes Home’ is identified with country music icon Patsy Cline.  ‘So Long’, written by Domino and Dave Bartholomew, is a lowing song of ache.  The first three of these four songs are included on the album ‘Rock And Rollin’ (1956) released in August.  ‘So Long’ appears on Fats’ next album.

Fats Domino’s next single is his greatest.  ‘Blueberry Hill’ (US no. 2, UK no. 6), released in September 1956, becomes Fats Domino’s signature tune.  “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill,” Fats confides knowingly and teenage audiences put their own lascivious interpretation on exactly what that means.  This somewhat masks the sorrow present later in the song.  “But all those vows you made / Were never to be / Though we’re apart, you’re part of me still,” the lyrics add.  The strolling melody employed is a classic example of Fats Domino’s style…but he didn’t write ‘Blueberry Hill’.  The authors of the song are Al Lewis, Larry Stock and Vincent Rose.  ‘Blueberry Hill’ was first recorded in 1940 by The Sammy Kaye Orchestra with Tommy Ryan on vocals.  Subsequently, cowboy troubadour Gene Autry recorded a version of ‘Blueberry Hill’ in 1941 while trumpet-player Louis Armstrong put out a version in 1949.  So whose idea was it for Fats Domino to tackle ‘Blueberry Hill’?  “It was my idea,” claims Domino.  “I wanted to do that.  I liked that record ‘cause I heard it by Louis Armstrong and I said, ‘That number’s gonna fit me fine.’”  ‘Blueberry Hill’ is the highpoint of Fats Domino’s career.  Two months later, in November 1956, the song causes a riot at a Fats Domino gig in North Carolina.  ‘Fats is unceremoniously compelled to flee through a window.’

The flipside of ‘Blueberry Hill’, the brassy love song ‘Honey Chile’ (US no. 29), is also a success, albeit on a more modest scale.  ‘Blue Monday’ (US no. 5, UK no. 23) b/w ‘What’s The Reason (I’m Not Pleasing You)?’ (US no. 50) is issued in December 1956.  The jazzy, laid-back ‘Blue Monday’, written by Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew, starts out saying, “Blue Monday, how I hate blue Monday / Got to work like a slave all day,” and proceeds to count through the days to “Friday I get my pay.”  The tootling ‘What’s The Reason (I’m Not Pleasing You)?’ is another standard, a song recorded by big band leader Jimmie Grier in 1934.  ‘So Long’, ‘Blueberry Hill’, ‘Honey Chile’, ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘What’s The Reason (I’m Not Pleasing You)?’ are all rounded up on the album ‘This Is Fats Domino’ (1956).  It is released in December, just four months after its predecessor.  This rich album also features the silly love song ‘La-La’ and revisits ‘Poor Me’ from two albums earlier.

Fats Domino begins 1957 with March’s ‘I’m Walkin’’ (US no. 4, UK no. 19): “I’m walkin’ yes, indeed / And I’m talkin’ about you and me / I’m hopin’ that you’ll come back to me.”  This Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew composition is an energetic piece, enlivened by handclaps.  ‘I’m Walkin’’ is included on the March album, ‘Here Stands Fats Domino’ (1957).  Also present is the fun call-and-response of ‘Hey Fat Man’, a solo credit for Fats as songwriter.  ‘Here Stands Fats Domino’ is the artist’s only album release of 1957.

A number of other Fats Domino singles are issued in 1957 but Imperial Records scatters them about various later albums in characteristic – if incomprehensible – fashion.  The other 1957 singles are: April’s ‘Valley Of Tears’ (US no. 8, UK no. 25) b/w ‘It’s You I Love’ (US no. 6); July’s ‘When I See You’ (US no. 29) b/w ‘What Will I Tell My Heart?’ (US no. 64); September’s ‘Wait And See’ (US no. 23) b/w ‘I Still Love You’ (US no. 79); and December’s ‘The Big Beat’ (US no. 26, UK no. 20) b/w ‘I Want You To Know’ (US no. 32).  ‘Valley Of Tears’ is probably the best of these songs.  “Everyone understands me / In the valley of tears,” sings Fats Domino in a song that proves misery loves company.  The song has a gospel feel with cooing female backing vocals.  Honourable mentions go to the break-up song ‘What Will I Tell My Heart?’ [a song identified with jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald], the confident ‘Wait And See’, the breezy ‘I Still Love You’ and the light-hearted rock ‘n’ roll tribute ‘The Big Beat’.

The 1958 Fats Domino singles are: February’s ‘Yes My Darling’ (US no. 55); April’s ‘Sick And Tired’ (US no. 22, UK no. 26) b/w ‘No No’ (US no. 55); ‘July’s ‘Little Mary’ (US no. 48); August’s ‘Young School Girl’ (US no. 92); and October’s ‘Whole Lotta Loving’ (US no. 6) b/w ‘Coquette’ (US no. 92).  The best of these is the robust ‘Whole Lotta Loving’.  In the same year, Fats Domino releases three albums – two of them in August.  The August releases are ‘This Is Fats’ (1958) [includes ‘Valley Of Tears’ and ‘The Rooster Song’ – which equates men with barnyard fowls] and ‘The Fabulous Mr. D’ (1958) [includes ‘Big Beat’, ‘What Will I Tell My Heart?’ and ‘Young School Girl’].  December’s ‘Fats Domino Swings’ (1958) is a compendium of old hits.

Moving into 1959, Fats Domino maintains a steady pace.  Hit singles for 1959 are: January’s ‘Telling Lies’ (US no. 50) b/w ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ (US no. 50); April’s ‘I’m Ready’ (US no. 16) b/w ‘Margie’ (US no. 51); July’s ‘I Want To Walk You Home’ (US no. 8, UK no. 14) b/w ‘I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday’ (US no. 17); and October’s ‘Be My Guest’ (US no. 8, UK no. 11) b/w ‘I’ve Been Around’ (US no. 33).  ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ is a traditional American gospel hymn whose authors are lost to history.  It was first recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1938.  Most of Fats Domino’s 1959 hits are on ‘Let’s Play Fats Domino’ (1959), released in September.

The first wave of rock stars begin to fade away as the 1950s draw to a close, Fats Domino remains relatively consistent compared to most of his peers, but commercially and aesthetically his work begins to fare more poorly.

The 1960 Fats Domino singles are: January’s ‘Country Boy’ (US no. 25, UK no. 19) b/w ‘If You Need Me’ (US no. 98); April’s ‘Tell Me That You Love Me’ (US no. 51) b/w ‘Before I Grow Too Old’ (US no. 84, UK no. 17); June’s ‘Walking To New Orleans’ (US no. 6, UK no. 19) b/w ‘Don’t Come Knockin’’ (US no. 21); August’s ‘Three Nights A Week’ (US no. 15, UK no. 45) b/w ‘Put Your Arms Around Me Honey’ (US no. 58); and October’s ‘My Girl Josephine’ (US no. 14, UK no. 32) b/w ‘Natural Born Lover’ (US no. 38).  The biggest hit, ‘Walking To New Orleans’, has a trudging rhythm and a string section in the background.  ‘My Girl Josephine’ is a jovial paean to a young girl who is growing up to be a beauty.  The January album, ‘Fats Domino Sings Million Record Hits’ (1960) includes such 1959 hits as ‘Margie’ and ‘I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday’.  October’s ‘A Lot Of Dominos’ (1960) holds ‘Walking To New Orleans’ and ‘My Girl Josephine’.

The year of 1961 brings these Fats Domino singles: January’s ‘Ain’t That Just Like A Woman’ (US no. 33) b/w ‘What A Price’ (US no. 22); March’s ‘Shu Rah’ (US no. 32) b/w ‘I Fell In Love On Monday’ (US no. 32); May’s ‘It Keeps Rainin’’ (US no. 23, UK no. 49); July’s ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’ (US no. 15); September’s ‘What A Party’ (US no. 22, UK no. 43) b/w ‘Rockin’ Bicycle’ (US no. 83); and November’s ‘I Hear You Knocking’ (US no. 67) b/w ‘Jambalaya’ (US no. 30, UK no. 41).  The best of these singles is probably ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’, a tight and choppy declaration of love.  ‘Jambalaya’ is a revved-up version of the 1952 song by country music legend Hank Williams.  There are three Fats Domino albums released in 1961: January’s ‘I Miss You So’ (1961), June’s ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’ (1961) and October’s ‘What A Party’ (1961)‘Let The Four Winds Blow’ is one of the better regarded Fats Domino albums.

Change looms in 1962.  Fats Domino’s recording career continues with the following singles: February’s ‘You Win Again’ (US no. 22) b/w ‘Ida Jane’ (US no. 90); May’s ‘My Real Name’ (US no. 59); July’s ‘Dance With Mr Domino’ (US no. 98) b/w ‘Nothing New (Same Old Thing)’ (US no. 77); and September’s ‘Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?’ (US no. 79) b/w ‘Stop The Clock’ (US no. 103).  The contemporaneous albums are: February’s ‘Twistin’ The Stomp’ (1962), May’s ‘Million Sellers By Fats’ (1962) [a collection of latter day hits] and September’s ‘Just Domino’ (1962).

At the end of 1962, ‘declining sales’ lead to Fats Domino parting ways with Imperial Records.  “I stuck with them until they sold out,” says Fats.  Significantly, this parting also ends Fats Domino’s association with producer / co-writer Dave Bartholomew.

Although Fats Domino may have exited Imperial Records, the company is not above using whatever Fats Domino material they have left over.  So, in 1963, Imperial puts out the Fats Domino singles ‘Hum Diddy Doo’ (US no. 124), ‘You Always Hurt The One You Love’ (US no. 102) and ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ (US no. 114), with a final single, ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ (US no. 112), tipping into 1964.  Imperial’s final Fats Domino albums are ‘Let’s Dance With Domino’ (1963), ‘Here He Comes Again’ (1963) and ‘Walking To New Orleans’ (1963).

Fats Domino moves to ABC Records where he works with producer Felton Jarvis and arranger Bill Justis.  He remains there for two years, 1963 and 1964.  The 1963 singles are:  ‘There Goes (My Heart Again)’ (US no. 59) b/w ‘Can’t Go On Without You’ (US no. 123), ‘When I’m Walking (Let Me Walk)’ (US no. 114) b/w ‘I’ve Got A Right To Cry’ (US no. 128), ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’ (US no. 35, UK no. 34) and ‘Who Cares’ (US no. 63) b/w ‘Just A Lonely Man’ (US no. 108).  ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’ is a standard published in 1935.  It was first recorded by Al Bowlly with Ray Noble And His Orchestra in 1935, but Nat King Cole’s 1951 version is perhaps better known.  The 1964 singles are: ‘Lazy Lady’ (US no. 86) b/w ‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’ (US no. 122), ‘Mary Oh Mary’ (US no. 127), ‘Sally Was A Good Girl’ (US no. 99) and ‘Heartbreak Hill’ (US no. 99).  The ABC albums are: ‘Here Comes Fats Domino’ (1963) and ‘Fats On Fire’ (1964).

Fats Domino’s ‘career as an important artist is essentially over in the mid-1960s.’

In 1965 Fats Domino moves to Mercury Records but only releases a couple of singles and a live album recorded in Las Vegas, ‘Fats Domino ‘65’ (1965).

There is a brief reunion with Dave Bartholomew on the latter’s new Broadmoor label around 1967.  This small label cuts only two singles.

Reprise Records issues the optimistically titled ‘Fats Is Back’ (1968), produced by Richard Perry.  A cover version of ‘Lady Madonna’ (US no. 100), a song by British superstars The Beatles, becomes Fats Domino’s last notable single when it is released in 1968 – the same year in which the original is issued.

In the late 1960s-early 1970s nostalgic interest in 1950s rock ‘n’ roll gives Fats Domino some renewed popularity in revival shows.  Warner Bros. releases ‘Fats’ (1970).

Fats Domino performs in Las Vegas and takes on occasional cabaret dates and overseas tours.  Polydor/Sonet releases Domino’s album ‘Sleeping On The Job’ (1978).

Subsequently, Fats Domino slips into semi-retirement in his New Orleans home.

When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans in August 2005, ghoulish rumours suggest Fats Domino has perished in the natural disaster.  Thankfully, those stories prove false.  “I was sleeping [when Katrina hit],” says Fats.  After being missing for several days, he is rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter on 1 September 2005.  Domino’s home is severely affected.  “We’ve lost everything,” he admits.  The disaster leads to Fats Domino recording a new album, ‘Alive And Kickin’’ (2006), through the Tipitina’s Foundation.

Fats Domino may not have looked like a rock star, but he became ‘the most popular exponent of the classic New Orleans rhythm and blues sound…[a] relaxed, lolling boogie-woogie style.’  Fats Domino’s best work was recorded in the mid to late 1950s but five years’ worth of notable material can be added to either side of that reckoning.  As ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ became ‘rock’, part of its early sound was lost.  Fats Domino’s music put the ‘roll’ into rock ‘n’ roll.  Whether it was as playful as a rolling mountain stream or as forceful as a rolling freight train, that rounded movement underpinned all his work.  Fats Domino’s ‘pounding up-tempo piano style made him a natural rock ‘n’ roller.’  ‘He was simply the most consistent, predictable hit-maker of…all [the early rockers] over a period of nearly twenty years.’

Sources:

  1. azlyrics.com as at 4 May 2015
  2. wikipedia.org as at 1 May 2015
  3. yahoo.answers.com (2007)
  4. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 4 April 2013
  5. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 21, 64
  6. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Rock Begins’ by Robert Palmer, ‘The Sound of New Orleans’ by Langdon Winner, ‘Fats Domino’ by Peter Guralnick (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 9, 37, 38, 49, 50
  7. ‘Backtalk: Fats Domino (interview)’ – conducted by Michael Hurt (1 June 2004) (reproduced on offbeat.com)
  8. Internet movie database – imdb.com – as at 3 May 2015
  9. famousfix.com as at 3 May 2015
  10. youtube.com as at 3 May 2015
  11. allmusic.com, ‘Fats Domino’ by Richie Unterberger as at 2 May 2015
  12. youtube.com – Fats Domino’s preamble to video of ‘The Fat Man’
  13. dummies.com – piano triplets – anonymous – as at 4 May 2015
  14. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 28
  15. lpdiscography.com as at 3 May 2015
  16. ‘Fats Domino – Rock ‘N’ Roll Legends Collection’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (One & Only Records, 2013) p. 3
  17. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 14
  18. fatsonline.nl as at 9 May 2015
  19. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 67, 68
  20. ‘CBS Evening News’ (U.S. television program, CBS Network) – report by Byron Pitts (25 February 2006)
  21. ‘Washington Post’ (U.S. newspaper) via (2) above
  22. lyricsfreak.com as at 4 May 2015
  23. metrolyrics.com as at 9 May 2015

Song lyrics copyright unknown with the exceptions of ‘The Fat Man’ (Hi-Lo Music, EMI Unart Catalog Inc.), ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ (Songs of Fairchild O.B.O., Molique Music, EMI Unart Catalog Inc.), ‘Bo Weevil’ (Sony/ATV Publishing LLC), ‘Blueberry Hill’ (Chappell & Co., Inc., Redwood Music Ltd., Larry Spier Music LLC O.B.O. Larry Stock Music), ‘I’m Walkin’’ (EMI Unart Catalog Inc.), ‘Valley Of Tears’ (EMI Music Publishing)

Last revised 13 May 2015

Nick Cave

Nick Cave – circa 1997

“I found God and all his devils inside her” – ’Do You Love Me?’ (Nick Cave, Martyn P. Casey)

The man in the black coat gesticulates wildly.  His voice rises and falls.  He seems transported, almost possessed by spirits.  His audience yells encouragement…or backs away in fear.  Is this a description of a rock star or a revivalist preacher?  In the case of Nick Cave, the line between the two can seem blurred.

This is the story of Nick Cave.  It encompasses his work with The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds and Grinderman.

Nicholas Edward Cave is born 22 September 1957 in Warracknabeal, Victoria, Australia.  He is the son of Colin Frank Cave and Dawn Cave (nee Treadwell).  “My father was an English Literature teacher and he was very much interested in poetry and theatre as well,” says Nick.  Dawn Cave is a librarian.  “The family has a background in education,” Nick elaborates.  Nick Cave is the third of four children.  His siblings are: Tim (born 1953), Peter (born 1954) and Julie (born 1959).  Warracknabeal, the original hometown of the Cave family, is a fairly small place in a rural part of Victoria.  When Nick is 3 years old, the family relocates to Wangaratta which, while still being of a rural character, is considerably larger.  (According to the 2014 census, the respective populations are 2, 745 for Warracknabeal and 26, 815 for Wangaratta.)

In Wangaratta, Nick Cave makes a new friend.  “Deanna was a girl I knew when I was about 8.  She lived in a trailer on the outskirts of town with her old man who was basically this drunken wretch of a character,” Nick recalls.  When he is 9 years old, Nick Cave begins singing with the Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral Choir.  Cave states, “I was three years in the choir so I had a good understanding of the Bible just from being in church a lot.”  A more secular influence is a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who moved towards country music: “I used to watch ‘The Johnny Cash Show’ on television in Wangaratta when I was about 9 or 10 years old…I saw that music could be an evil thing – a beautiful, evil thing.”  Although Nick Cave is Australian, Johnny Cash is American and – as Cave later puts it – “My influences were American – blues music and country music.”  Nick’s little friend Deanna gets into trouble.  She shoots a man and a woman and is taken away to a ‘child psychiatric place.’  By this time, Nick is in high school and his parents make the decision to send him off to the city, ‘the big smoke.’  Nick Cave is actually expelled from Wangaratta High School when he is 13.

In 1970 Nick Cave starts attending Caulfield Grammar, a boarding school that is much nearer the Victorian State capital of Melbourne.  Nick Cave describes Caulfield Grammar as “a rich private school.”  Although Nick Cave is considered quite handsome and charming in a raffish way, it was not always the case.  “At school I was an anti-magnet for women,” he confesses.  In 1973, Nick Cave and some other Caulfield Grammar School lads form a band.  His confederates include Mick Harvey and Phill Calvert who will both have lengthy associations with Cave.  The full line-up is: Nick Cave (vocals), Mick Harvey (guitar), John Cocivera (guitar), Chris Coyne (saxophone), Brett Purcell (bass) and Phill Calvert (drums).  ‘They play school dances, barbecues and parties, Nick usually picking a name [for the group] on the spot if they are asked for one.’  The boys’ repertoire consists of cover versions of 1960s rock songs and rhythm and blues tunes as well as darker 1970s heroes like Lou Reed and Alice Cooper.

Nick Cave’s days at Caulfield Grammar School end in 1975.  From 1976 to 1977 Nick Cave attends the Caulfield Institute of Technology (now Monash University, Caulfield Campus).  Nick is an art student.  “I really wanted to be a painter,” he remarks, “but I failed at art school…”

Coinciding with his move to higher education, Nick Cave’s musical ambitions also become more serious.  His school-boy band undergoes a membership shake-up now that Caulfield Grammar has been left behind.  The reorganised crew takes the name The Boys Next Door in 1976.  The name may have been one of many designations the band had during 1973-1975, but this is a somewhat different beast.  Instead of a six-piece, the 1976 Boys Next Door is a four-piece act consisting of: Nick Cave (vocals), Mick Harvey (guitar), Tracy Pew (bass) and Phill Calvert (drums).  By this time, punk rock is beginning to flower.  Along with acts like The Saints and Radio Birdman, The Boys Next Door is one of Australia’s first punk acts.  The style involves fast, loud music, stripped of pretensions.  “We were influenced by punk rock, and [international] groups like The Stooges and The Sex Pistols,” Nick Cave allows, “but it was really the lifestyle and attitude that influenced us.”

When Nick Cave is 19 his father dies in a car accident.  Nick receives the news while being bailed out on a burglary charge at the St Kilda Police Station, near Melbourne.  Nick says his father, “died at a point in my life when I was most confused.”  He reflects on his father’s passing that, “He was there one minute and gone the next and that had a huge impact for many years, and still does, over what I’ve done creatively.”

After leaving art school in 1977 Nick Cave begins using heroin.

The first single released by The Boys Next Door is a 1978 cover version of the 1966 Nancy Sinatra hit, ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’.  This is one of three tracks by The Boys Next Door on the sampler album ‘Lethal Weapons’ (1978), released in May.  Their other contributions are ‘Masturbation Generation’ and ‘Boy Hiro’.  ‘Lethal Weapons’ is issued by Suicide Records and the disc is divided between The Boys Next Door, Teenage Radio Stars, JAB and X-Ray-Z.

The Boys Next Door expand to become a five-piece band with the addition of Rowland S. Howard (guitar) in December 1978.

From 1979 to 1983 Nick Cave is in a romantic relationship with Anita Lane.  She co-writes some of the songs Nick sings such as ‘Dead Joe’, ‘Kiss Me Black’, ‘A Dead Song’, ‘From Her To Eternity’ and ‘Stranger Than Kindness’.

‘Door, Door’ (1979) is the debut album by The Boys Next Door.  It is released by Australia’s Mushroom Records.  The disc is self-produced by the band.  Songwriting is generally credited to the group but, separately, Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard are the main songwriters.  The disc’s best known track, ‘Shivers’, was penned by Howard when he was 16.  It was first performed by Howard’s previous band, The Young Charlatans.  ‘Shivers’ is a slow-paced number, perhaps more new wave than punk.  It is banned by radio ‘because of a reference to suicide’ (the opening line is, “I’ve been contemplating suicide”).

Moving to Missing Link Records, The Boys Next Door release the EP ‘Hee Haw’ in December 1979.  The five tracks on the EP are: ‘A Catholic Skin’, ‘The Red Clock’, ‘Faint Heart’, ‘Death By Drowning’ and ‘The Hair Shirt’.

In 1980 Nick Cave and his bandmates leave Australia and base themselves in London, England.  Although Nick Cave visits Australia again, from this point on it is no longer his main place of residence.  With the relocation comes a new name for Cave’s group.  The Boys Next Door become The Birthday Party.  They name themselves after ‘The Birthday Party’ (1957), a rather confrontational play written by Harold Pinter.  This is perhaps fitting since the band’s concerts are described as ‘orgies of self-hatred, disdain and ear-bleeding intensity.’

‘The Birthday Party’ (1980) is co-produced by The Birthday Party, Tony Cohen and Keith Glass.  This disc is home to such tracks as ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Mr Clarinet’.  The pick of the album may be the feedback-heavy ‘The Friend Catcher’.  It contains a repetitive “hee haw” lyric, but is not from the ‘Hee Haw’ EP.  By now, The Birthday Party’s music is described as ‘post punk’; it contains elements of punk, rockabilly, free jazz and blues, ‘but defies concise categorisation.’

‘Prayers On Fire’ (1981) is released by Missing Link in Australia but 4AD issues the album in the U.K.  The Birthday Party and Tony Cohen act as co-producers.  In the video for this set’s best known track, ‘Nick The Stripper’, vocalist Nick Cave is seen naked from the waist up with the word ‘hell’ daubed in black paint across his chest.  “What The Birthday Party was doing was putting forth some version of hell,” Cave later tells an interviewer.  ‘Nick The Stripper’ features Tracy Pew’s thudding bass, is punctuated by brass, and is a ball of barely contained chaos.  “’Nick The Stripper’ was as close to a pop song as The Birthday Party ever got,” claims Cave, describing it as a “very strange, twisted little song.”  Another song from this album, ‘Release The Bats’, is a bouncy, rockabilly smash-up about ‘vampire sex.’

‘Drunk On The Pope’s Blood / The Agony Is The Ecstasy’ is an EP by The Birthday Party and Lydia Lunch.  It is released in February 1982.

Birthday Party bassist Tracy Pew is jailed in Australia for drunk driving and petty theft early in 1982.  Consequently, The Birthday Party uses a number of fill-in bassists: Chris Walsh (February 1982), Barry Adamson (April-May 1982) and Harry Howard (June-July 1982).  Barry Adamson comes from the British band Magazine and will later have a long association with Nick Cave.  Tracy Pew returns to the group in July 1982.

The Birthday Party album ‘Junkyard’ (1982) (UK no. 72), released in May, is the only one of their albums, EPs and singles to reach the commercial sales charts…albeit in a very modest way.  Now The Birthday Party is viewed as ‘goth pioneers.’  ‘Goth’ is a kind of blend of early rock, horror movie theatrics and a morose air of gloom.  This album’s ‘Dead Joe’ embodies that with rat-a-tat percussion, a chanted vocal and a riotous approach.  Tracy Pew laid down most of the bass parts for this album before his incarceration, but Barry Adamson plays bass on some songs.  ‘Junkyard’ divides production credit amongst Richard Mazda, Tony Cohen and Nick Launay.

Drummer Phill Calvert leaves The Birthday Party – or is ‘ejected’ – later in 1982.  Guitarist Mick Harvey demonstrates his versatility by assuming the role of drummer and The Birthday Party carries on as a four-piece band.  Jeffrey Wegener, from Australian band The Laughing Clowns, plays drums with The Birthday Party on some gigs in January 1983.  This temporarily returns the group to five-piece status, but Mick Harvey soon returns to drums.

The Birthday Party EP ‘Mutiny’ is released on Mute Records in February 1983.  The EP has four tracks: ‘Jennifer’s Veil’, ‘Say A Spell’, ‘Swampland’ and ‘Mutiny In Heaven’.  Blixa Bargeld, from German band Einsturzende Neubaten (which means ‘Collapsing New Buildings’) makes a guest appearance on guitar on the track ‘Mutiny In Heaven’.  Bargeld will later have a long association with Nick Cave.  ‘Mutiny’ is recorded in Berlin, Germany, and Cave describes the EP as “a document of the group in collapse.  The four songs are utterly dissimilar to each other…”

Des Hefner is brought in on drums for some Birthday Party shows in May and June 1983.  This is necessary because guitarist/drummer Mick Harvey leaves the group.

The Birthday Party’s final work is the EP ‘The Bad Seed’, released by 4AD in November 1983.

The end of The Birthday Party late in 1983 is attributed to tension between Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard ‘as well as work and drug-related exhaustion.’  Nick Cave puts it this way: “We drank a lot.  We experimented with drugs…We took a lot of drugs for a long time…It was clear that it was a dead end.”

Note: Tracy Pew dies on 7 November 1986 due to a brain haemorrhage after sustaining head injuries as a result of an epileptic seizure.  Rowland S. Howard dies from liver cancer on 30 December 2009.

Nick Cave returns to Australia for a while late in 1983 after The Birthday Party splits up.  He is a bit aimless.  Long-time compatriot Mick Harvey finds Cave and helps him focus on a solo career.  They put together a new band.  Some gigs are played under the banner of Nick Cave And The Cavemen, then they are billed as Man Or Myth.  Finally, they settle on a name taken from the final EP by The Birthday Party: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.

Defining the type of music played by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds is a difficult task.  The Boys Next Door started out as a punk band, but even by the time they became The Birthday Party, that label was ill-fitting.  The music of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds has been described variously as post punk, experimental rock, alternative rock, garage rock, or, simply, rock.  However they also draw on older song forms such as blues and gospel.  All these tags are accurate on occasion for specific individual songs.  The trouble is that makes it sound like the band’s music is wildly inconsistent – which is untrue.  There is a unifying vision behind the various songs and that vision belongs to Nick Cave.  Perhaps the only way to really describe their sound is to call it ‘Nick Cave music.’

The songwriting credits on the recordings by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds split roughly equally between solo compositions by Nick Cave and collaborations between Cave and various Bad Seeds.  Although all the musicians who pass through the ranks of the group provide useful input, Cave’s main lieutenants are probably Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld and Barry Adamson.  Interestingly, they are all multi-instrumentalists.  This adds weight to the idea that, almost by necessity, The Bad Seeds are musically fluid.  The songwriting credits will not be detailed for all songs listed here, only for certain key compositions.  “Songwriting for me is the thing that makes me feel special in some way…It’s the one aspect of my life where I don’t feel mediocre,” says Nick Cave.

In the earlier part of his career, Nick Cave is seen purely as a vocalist.  Later, he sometimes plays guitar, but is more commonly seen seated at a piano.  As a musician, Cave is competent rather than exceptional.  “I’ve always felt like an imposter, in the whole, as a musician,” he says modestly.

Many Nick Cave songs feature religious imagery.  It would seem reasonable to get Cave to explain his religious views but it is notoriously difficult to get a straight answer from him on this subject.  Maybe his views change over time?  It’s hard to say.  Perhaps in this instance, it’s best just to let Nick Cave speak for himself: “I was reading the Bible a lot through my 20s, mostly the Old Testament, just because I was knocked out by the language…I felt that the God being talked about there…was this insane, vindictive patriarch…I gave up reading the Old Testament after a while because I think it was having a bad effect on me …I started reading the New Testament…Personally, I find the story of Christ incredibly moving…I’m not religious, and I’m not a Christian, but I do reserve the right to believe in the possibility of a God…I believe in God in spite of religion, not because of it…”

The other main tenet in Nick Cave’s music is an air of gloom.  Once more, Nick Cave expresses himself in glorious contradictions: “I saw the world as a bad place.  A kind of punishing place.  Certainly my life felt like that…I’m kind of a hard-wired pessimist…I don’t write happy songs…Despite what people may think, I’m not interested in being dark all the time…”

Nick Cave’s commercial fortunes are variable.  Some of his work sells very well; some does not.  Cruelly, some of his best work is amongst the least commercially successful.  “I always thought my records were number one; it’s just the charts didn’t think so,” he quips.

The first line-up of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds is assembled in 1983.  The members are: Nick Cave (vocals, keyboards, guitar), Mick Harvey (guitar, bass, drums, vocals), Blixa Bargeld (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Barry Adamson (bass, guitar, drums, keyboards, vocals) and Hugo Race (guitar, vocals).

‘From Her To Eternity’ (1984) (UK no. 40) is the first album by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.  The title is a pun on the famed movie ‘From Here To Eternity’ (1953).  This album is released by Mute Records who go on to release almost all the recordings by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.  ‘From Her To Eternity’ is produced by The Bad Seeds and Flood (a.k.a. Mark Ellis).  The single from the album is a cover version of the Elvis Presley hit from 1969 ‘In The Ghetto’ (UK no. 84).  Perhaps more characteristic is the title track, ‘From Her To Eternity’.  Nick Cave’s passionate vocal delivery fights through an odd mix of sounds and the whole thing threatens to collapse into chaos.  It’s not that far removed from the recordings of The Birthday Party.

From 1984 to 1989 Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds work in Berlin, Germany.  “We weren’t getting the kind of recognition I thought we deserved,” says Cave, justifying the move.  “We were kind of adopted by the Berlin scene.”

Hugo Race exits The Bad Seeds in 1984 and Thomas Wydler (drums) is brought into the fold in 1985.

‘The First Born Is Dead’ (1985) (UK no. 53) is the second album by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.  The group again co-produces with Flood.  This disc is home to ‘Tupelo’.  Geographically, Tupelo is a city in the U.S. State of Mississippi.  It is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley.  Nick Cave claims that, “’Tupelo’ is based on [bluesman] John Lee Hooker’s extraordinary song [‘Tupelo, Mississippi’ from 1959] about the flood of Tupelo.”  The song opens with the sound of a rainstorm from which emerges Barry Adamson’s thudding bass figure.  Allegedly playing the part of a ‘visionary Southern preacher’, Cave’s magnificent vocal performance exhorts and declaims.  “The beast it cometh, cometh down,” he snarls.  “Oh God help Tupelo,” he quavers.  “No bird can fly, no fish can swim / Until the King is born,” he offers cryptically.  Is ‘the King’ Elvis Presley?  Or, perhaps more likely, the second coming of the Lord?  The words to ‘Tupelo’ are penned by Nick Cave, the music is co-written by Barry Adamson and Mick Harvey.

‘Kicking Against The Pricks’ (1986) (UK no. 89) consists entirely of cover versions of songs by other artists.  ‘The Singer’ is the chosen single from this album.  Released in August, the album is co-produced by Flood and erstwhile Birthday Party producer Tony Cohen.

‘Your Funeral…My Trial’ (1986) (AUS no. 98) follows three months later in November.  This album is also co-produced by Flood and Tony Cohen.  The highlights of this album include the off-kilter psycho circus of ‘The Carny’ and the hushed rockabilly-gone-wrong strum of ‘Stranger Than Kindness’.

Barry Adamson leaves The Bad Seeds in 1986.  Two new members join the group in the same year:  Kid Congo Powers (guitar) and Roland Wolf (keyboards, guitar, bass).  Kid Congo Powers hails from U.S. goth rockabilly outfit The Cramps.

‘Tender Prey’ (1988) (UK no. 67) is the best album by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.  They co-produce the disc with Flood.  The album includes ‘The Mercy Seat’ (UK no. 86), ‘a terrifying, tension-wracked evocation of the tortured mind of a Death Row prisoner.’  “Into the mercy seat I climb / My head is shaved, my head is wired,” sings Cave in the voice of the condemned being seated in the electric chair.  Since this is a Nick Cave song, Biblical references are babbled out: “In heaven His throne is made of gold / The ark of his testament is stowed…Down here it’s made of wood and wire / And my body is on fire / And God is never far away.”  The lyrics to ‘The Mercy Seat’ are written by Nick Cave and the music is co-written by Cave and Mick Harvey.  By contrast, ‘Deanna’ is written by Nick Cave alone.  He describes it as “1960s garage band music.”  It is Nick Cave himself who plays the cheesy Hammond organ lines that give the song that flavour.  ‘Deanna’ is also a rare, semi-autobiographical piece.  It may be recalled that Deanna was Nick’s childhood companion who was taken away after a shooting.  Hence the song contains lyrics like, “We discuss the murder plan / We discuss murder and the murder act.”  ‘Tender Prey’ seems the best summation of Nick Cave’s multi-faceted talents.

In 1988 Nick Cave becomes a published author.  ‘King Ink’ (1988) is a collection of lyrics and plays and is followed by the similar ‘King Ink II’ (1997).  ‘And the Ass Saw the Angel’ (1989) is an original novel, a rambling account of the life of the fictitious Euchrid Eucrow.  Nick Cave also pens another novel, ‘The Death of Bunny Munro’ (2009).

Nick Cave still uses heroin.  “I can’t help it that I take that particular drug,” he says in 1988.

In 1989 Roland Wolf’s time with The Bad Seeds comes to an end.

From 1989 to 1993 Nick Cave is in a romantic relationship with Brazilian journalist Viviane Carneiro.  This union produces Cave’s first child, a son named Luke (born 1991).

‘The Good Son’ (1990) (AUS no. 93, UK no. 47) is described as Nick Cave’s ‘most relaxed, quiet album.’  Released in April, the disc is produced by The Bad Seeds.  ‘The Ship Song’ (UK no. 84) is a stately, grandiose ballad in which Cave intones, “Come sail your ships around me / And burn your bridges down / We make a little history, baby / Every time you come around.”  ‘The Weeping Song’ is more dramatic and thudding.  Guitarist Blixa Bargeld plays the part of the father, telling his offspring (Cave), “Go son, go down to the water / And see the women weeping there / Then go up into the mountains / The men they are weeping too.”  On the chorus, the vocalists are encouraged by brisk clapping that seems to have been imported from a Spanish flamenco.  It’s an unlikely combination, but it works well.  Both ‘The Ship Song’ and ‘The Weeping Song’ are Nick Cave solo compositions.  (Note: Although the ‘song’ motif extends to two other tracks – ‘The Hammer Song’ and ‘The Witness Song’ – it does not apply to the whole album.)

Later in 1990, The Bad Seeds undergo more membership changes.  Kid Congo Powers departs and Martyn P. Casey (bass, vocals) and Conway Savage (keyboards, vocals) join the group.  Martyn P. Casey is a veteran of respected Australian band The Triffids.

Although still involved with Viviane Carneiro at the time, Nick Cave has a liaison with Beau Lazenby that results in the birth of his second son, Jethro (born 1991).  Nick doesn’t actually meet Jethro until the boy is 8 years old.

‘Henry’s Dream’ (1992) (AUS no. 41, UK no. 29), released in April, is produced by David Briggs.  The highlight of this set may be ‘Straight To You’ (AUS no. 96, UK no. 72), a flickering, candle-light ballad written by Nick Cave and featuring sensitive piano work by Conway Savage.  This disc is also home to ‘I Had A Dream, Joe’ (AUS no. 75, UK no. 85).

Later in 1992, Nick Cave duets with The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan on the one-off single ‘What A Wonderful World’ (AUS no. 89, UK no. 72).

‘Live Seeds’ (1993) is a concert recording.

‘Let Love In’ (1994) (AUS no. 8, UK no. 12) is released in April and is produced by Tony Cohen.  This album boasts some of Nick Cave’s best songs.  ‘Do You Love Me?’ (AUS no. 62, UK no. 68) is a shuddering, refracted piece of garage rock.  “I found her on a night of fire and noise,” Cave sings gruffly, speaking of “My lady of the various sorrows.”  He sees “Her shadow fanged and hairy and mad.”  The lyrics to ‘Do You Love Me?’ are authored by Nick Cave and he co-writes the music with bassist Martyn P. Casey.  ‘Nobody’s Baby Now’ is a solo Cave composition.  This twisted doo wop number finds Cave dragging in religious references again: “I’ve searched the holy books / I tried to unravel the mystery of Jesus Christ, the saviour.”  ‘Loverman’ (UK no. 88) also hails from this album.  However, Nick Cave’s best individual song is this disc’s ‘Red Right Hand’ (AUS no. 62, UK no. 68).  “On a gathering storm comes a tall, handsome man / In a dusty black coat with a red right hand,” snarls Cave.  Apparently, the inspiration for the song is John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667), the vengeful hand of God being interpreted by Cave as a ‘red right hand.’  “He’ll reach deep into the hole / Heal your shrinking soul,” sings Cave.  ‘Red Right Hand’ has a strangely spooky atmosphere with its throaty organ and musical punctuation in the form of what sounds like an anvil being struck.  It’s difficult to call this music ‘rock ‘n’ roll’, but it’s definitely ‘Nick Cave music.’  In fact, with its religious nods, Cave’s death-defying vocal and sympathetic backing from The Bad Seeds, this is the Nick Cave song.  The words are Nick Cave’s and he co-writes the music with Mick Harvey and Thomas Wydler.

Later in 1994 Jim Sclavunos (percussion, drums, organ) joins the Bad Seeds.  Warren Ellis (violin, mandolin, viola) is a guest with the group beginning in 1994, though he doesn’t officially join until 1997.

Unlikely as it may seem from the title, ‘Murder Ballads’ (1996) (AUS no. 3, UK no. 8) is Nick Cave’s ‘most commercially successful album to date.’  It is co-produced by Victor Van Vugt and The Bad Seeds.  Helping the album’s fortunes is the single ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ (AUS no. 2, UK no. 11).  On this song, Nick Cave duets with Australian pop princess Kylie Minogue.  It is a mutually beneficial association.  Cave borrows some of Minogue’s wider popular appeal and reaps the sales dividends.  Minogue’s credibility is substantially enhanced.  Written by Nick Cave alone, ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ is a string-soaked sinister saga.  “They call me the wild rose / But my name was Elisa Day,” breathes Kylie Minogue.  The character she plays in the song is romanced by Cave’s character…but it doesn’t end well.  “And the last thing I heard was a muttered word / As he knelt smiling above me with a rock in his fist,” she gasps.  “All beauty must die,” insists Cave’s blood-stained swain who, “Lent down and planted a rose between her teeth.”  ‘Henry Lee’ (AUS no. 72, UK no. 36) is another duet, but on this one Cave is partnered by P.J. Harvey – U.K. singer Polly Jean Harvey whose brand of indie rock is as shape-shifting as Nick Cave’s.  Cave and Harvey share a romantic relationship between 1996 and 1997, lending some added poignancy to their collaboration here.  In this folky, piano-based song, Cave’s character, Henry Lee, is the victim and Harvey is the killer: “She leaned herself against a fence / Just for a kiss or two / And with a little pen-knife held in her hand / She plugged him through and through.”  ‘Henry Lee’ is a traditional folk song, though Cave claims the credit for the music in his version.  With a name like ‘Murder Ballads’, it may be thought the album assembles songs of death from the ages, but there are only two traditional pieces and a Bob Dylan cover version amongst a predominantly original menu of songs.

‘The Boatman’s Call’ (1997) (AUS no. 5, UK no. 8) is an ‘introspective and personal’ album.  “The more personal songwriting came about with ‘The Boatman’s Call’,” agrees Nick Cave.  “As much as I love that record, there is an element that disgusts me in as much as I think, at the time, I was some kind of thing that sought out disaster.”  There doesn’t seem much doubt that the declamatory ‘West Country Girl’ is about former love P.J. Harvey, but there is more room for speculation about other tracks on this disc, works produced by Flood, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.  ‘Into My Arms’ (AUS no. 26, UK no. 53) is a bare bones piano piece.  Although it has been described as a ‘beautiful ballad’, structurally it is closer to a gospel hymn.  As if to confirm its religious origins, its opening line references the Lord but, this being a song written by Nick Cave alone, there is a twist: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God,” he insists, before adding in a conciliatory fashion, “But I know, darling, that you do.”  The song’s overall effect, through minimalism, is very moving.  A spidery web of guitar frames ‘(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?’ (UK no. 67), another solo Cave composition.  In the passionate mid-section, Cave cries, “We will know, won’t we? / The stars will explode in the sky / But they don’t, do they? / Stars have their moment and then they die.”  ‘The Boatman’s Call’ is ‘restrained [and] intimate.’

In 1997 Nick Cave begins dating U.K. model Susie Bick.  The couple marry in 1999.  They have two sons, twin boys, Arthur and Earl (born 2000).

In 1998 Nick Cave finally gives up both drugs and alcohol.

After a longer than usual interval, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds return with ‘No More Shall We Part’ (2001) (AUS no. 4, UK no. 15, US no. 180), which they co-produce with Tony Cohen.  This is a ‘piano-laden’ album.  ‘As I Sat Sadly By Her Side’ (AUS no. 80, UK no. 42) is a domestic piano ballad.  This disc is also home to ‘Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow’ (UK no. 52) and ‘Love Letter’ (AUS no. 86).

‘Nocturama’ (2003) (AUS no. 8, UK no. 20, US no. 182) is co-produced by Nick Launay, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.  Launay produces the next three Nick Cave studio albums.  ‘Bring It On’ (UK no. 58), a duet with Chris Bailey from Australian punk pioneers The Saints, comes from this album.  The song has a staccato rhythm that branches into a more widescreen sound.  Also present is ‘Rock Of Gibraltar’ (UK no. 136).

Long-time sideman Blixa Bargeld leaves The Bad Seeds in 2003.  Stepping into the group in 2003 is James Johnston (organ, guitar), who had guested with The Bad Seeds for a while in 1994.

‘Abattoir Blues / The Lyre Of Orpheus’ (2004) (AUS no. 5, UK no. 4, US no. 64) is a double album.  ‘Nature Boy’ (AUS no. 88, UK no. 37) is not a cover of the old Nat King Cole song, but a new, full-blooded rocker with a 1960s tinge.  Another track from this set, ‘Breathless’ (UK no. 45), evokes the beauty of nature and idyllic love with a surprising flute introduction.  ‘Get Ready For Love’ is a more soul-inflected outing.

Nick Cave writes the screenplay for the Australian western ‘The Proposition’ (2006).  He goes on to write another screenplay, ‘The Wettest County in the World’, which is made into the film ‘Lawless’ (2012), set in the U.S. during the prohibition era.

‘The Abattoir Blues Tour’ (2007), released in March, is a document of The Bad Seeds in concert.

‘Grinderman’ (2007) (AUS no. 14, UK no. 23, US no. 150), also released in March, is a Nick Cave side project.  The band called Grinderman sees Cave and three of The Bad Seeds join forces: Nick Cave (vocals, guitar), Warren Ellis (guitar, violin, various instruments), Martyn P. Casey (bass) and Jim Sclavunos (drums).  Grinderman is a rougher, rawer experience than The Bad Seeds.  The group take their name from bluesman Memphis Slim’s song ‘Grinderman Blues’.  The best known song from this album, ‘No Pussy Blues’ (UK no. 64), is a funny, love-starved exclamation that is also very noisy.

Part of the Grinderman ethos seems to leak back into the next album by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!’ (2008) (AUS no. 2, UK no. 4, US no. 64), released in March.  The title track, ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig’ (AUS no. 73, UK no. 66) is one of the more accessible Nick Cave performances with its riffing guitar and organ.  Never exactly a hit machine, Nick Cave’s last charting single is this album’s ‘More News From Nowhere’ (UK no. 171).  ‘Live At The Royal Albert Hall’ (2008) follows in November.

James Johnston exits The Bad Seeds in 2008.

Mick Harvey leaves The Bad Seeds in 2009.  Harvey has worked with Nick Cave almost consistently since their days at Caulfield Grammar School so he is Cave’s longest serving associate.

‘Grinderman 2’ (2010) (AUS no. 9, UK no. 14, US no. 38) is the second album from the Grinderman project.  It also proves to be their final outing, as the quartet concentrate on their work with The Bad Seeds instead.

Leaving behind their long-time label Mute, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ next album is released on their own Bad Seeds Ltd label.  ‘Push The Sky Away’ (2013) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 3, US no. 29) features Cave’s wife, Susie, in the nude on the album cover alongside her (fully clothed) spouse.  The disc is issued in February.  It is followed in November by ‘Live From KCRW’ (2013), a radio broadcast captured for posterity.

’20,000 Days on Earth’ (2014) is a documentary directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard.  The title is a reference to Nick Cave’s age at the time.  The film is an oblique view of the singer – which may be the only way to approach as unusual a character as Cave.  A more standard approach may have been less successful in capturing his essence.

Nick Cave’s son, Arthur, dies on 14 July 2015 as a result of injuries sustained after falling off a cliff at Ovingdean, near Brighton, England.

Just as ’20,000 Days on Earth’ showed Nick Cave working on ‘Push The Sky Away’, Andrew Dominik’s documentary ‘Once More with Feeling’ (2016), released on 8 September, shows Cave working on the album which is released one day after the film.

‘Skeleton Tree’ (2016) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 2, US no. 27), by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, is issued on 9 September.  The disc is co-produced by Nick Cave, Warren Ellis and Nick Launay.  All the lyrics are penned by Cave and the music is co-written by Cave and Ellis.  Most of the album was written before the death of Nick Cave’s son, Arthur, on 14 July 2015.  However several lyrics were subsequently amended as Cave tried to process the grief he was feeling.  Accordingly, the songs on ‘Skeleton Tree’ are built around the themes of death and loss.  The disc is less polished and the production is purposefully minimal.  Listening to tracks like ‘We No Who U R’, ‘Rings Of Saturn’, ‘Jesus Alone’ and ‘Magneto’ is a ‘harrowing’ experience.

“What the journey is…is to make some order out of the chaos,” suggested Nick Cave.  His life and music had no shortage of chaos.  Where ‘order’ was imposed may be a matter of judgment and personal taste.  Some of his most artistically satisfying work was a chaotic clatter that resisted order.  His music encompassed such diverse genres as punk, goth, new wave, rockabilly, gospel, hymns, blues and garage rock.  Not all of it worked.  Not all of it found a mass audience.  Nick Cave was a hell raiser and a holy man, a holy fool and hell bent.  Through it all though, he remained one of a kind, the one and only Nick Cave.  ‘The transformation of Nick Cave from post punk racketeer to suave balladeer was as effortless as it once seemed improbable.’  The story of Nick Cave is ‘one of the most singular, and often extreme, journeys in contemporary music.

Sources:

  1. wikipedia.org as at 3 March 2015, 17 July 2015, 4 January 2017
  2. ‘The South Bank Show’ (U.K. television program, London Weekend Television) – Produced & directed by Archie Powell (10 August 2003)
  3. brainyquote.com as at 7 April 2015
  4. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 4 April 2013
  5. ‘In Search of Nick Cave’ by Deborah Torpey – the situation.com.au as at 23 April 2014
  6. ‘The Guardian’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘Nick Cave: “I Have to Spend Hours Talking to F***ing Idiots Like You”’ – interview with Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds conducted by Jack Barrow (1988) (reproduced on theguardian.com)
  7. ‘The Big Australian Rock Book’, ‘The Birthday Party’ by Marie Ryan (Megabooks, 1985) p. 70, 71
  8. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 117
  9. stripedsunlight.blogspot.com.au/2008/03/lethal-weapons-suicide-label-punk.html by Bob Nebe (15 March 2008)
  10. messandnoise.com/articles/3853723 – by Dolores San Miguel (22 January 2010)
  11. famousfix.com as at 4 April 2015
  12. ‘The Best Of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ – Sleeve notes by Sean O’Hagen (Mute Records Ltd, 1998) p. 10, 11, 18, 19
  13. Internet movie database – imdb.com – as at 9 April 2015
  14. allmusic.com, ‘Nick Cave’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 8 March 2015
  15. allmusic.com, ‘Mutiny’ review by Ned Raggett as at 8 March 2015
  16. ‘Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service’ (U.K. radio program, BBC Radio 6) (12 September 2010) via (1) above
  17. rxlyrics.com for John Lee Hooker information as at 9 April 2015
  18. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 273, 274
  19. lyricsfreak.com as at 7 April 2015
  20. ‘Murder Ballads’ – Sleeve notes (Mute Records Ltd, 1996) via (1) above
  21. ‘The Age’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – ‘The Light in the Cave’ – by Stephen Dalton (19 September 2004) (reproduced on theage.com.au)
  22. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – ‘A King Mourns his Little Prince’ – review of ‘Skeleton Tree’ by Mikey Cahill (15 September 2016) p. 38

Song lyrics copyright unknown with the exception of ‘Do You Love Me?’ (Universal Music Publishing Group)

Last revised 12 January 2017