Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Would the Real Johnny Greenwood Please Stand Up?

There is almost nothing on the internet about Johnny Greenwood, the Australian country artist. The man has a delicate, frail voice - almost in a Pip Proud sort of way. The only records I have managed to find thus far are The Singing Transport Man (RCA 1976) and Big Rigs & Truckstops (Colonial). Both records feature a great deal of his own compositions, many of which have appeared on various Slim Dusty Truckin' albums. Each time I go and play his music on last.fm it assumes I am listening to some guy from Radiohead, which to me is quite an insulting insinuation if I've ever seen one. I believe he used to host a Country Music program on Logan's 101FM once upon a time. These two albums are well worth looking out for if you're a fan of Trucking Country records.

What I did find was this little blurb on a site called Queensland Country Style, which had this to say about the great man.

Johnny was born in Brisbane 1939. He started singing and playing in 1955 and was one of the first country artists to appear on television. His first record was "Loving Arms" on W & G label - more records followed and encouraged by their popularity spent many months performing overseas in Great Britain, Europe, North Africa and New Zealand.

Johnny’s biggest recording success came signing to RCA records that included "The Goondiwindi Grey", "Tibrogargan" and "The Singing Transport Man" - he also recorded for "Astor & Colonial" labels having sold well over 100,000 records to date. At one point made the top 20 Parade, outselling Elvis Presley, David Bowie and The Sweet.

One of the highlights of his career was being the support act for the Marty Robbins Tour in 1967.
Other highlights has been appearing on TV Shows with the likes of Country Homestead, Conway Country, The Late Show, John Crook Show, Country Roads, That’s Australia and Must Be Country.

Inducted into the "Hands of Fame" in 1980 and is still performing today - all this mainly as part time performer.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The great Apartments of Sydney

I wrote this on my old Myspace blog earlier this year. Seeing I don't really want to bother with the past, I thought that I might place this piece here...

I've always found Sydney to be an unusual place. A place with the terrace houses, long lost musical scenes and quite simply, it's size can be a little daunting.

Nevertheless, I took the rare chance to venture down just the other day. I was there for a few hours in September, driving my newly acquired DS21 up from Melbourne and stopping slap/bang in the middle of Chinatown. A little lunch and for a quick dash around the shops on Pitt St was the extent of the last visit.

Looking up at the subject title and trying to get back to the point, I realised why I am writing this. I went down to see the Apartments - a band who have recently decided to start playing again.

A lot of people find their way into the world of the Apartments via The Go-Betweens and that's understandable. A casual Go-betweens fan may realise that the band's singer and songwriter, Peter Milton Walsh was in the band for all of five minutes in late 1978. Someone who's a little more than casual may know that both Forster and McLennan wrote songs about him, namely 'Don't Let Him Come Back and 'That Way'.

I've always been the type of person who studies record sleeves. It's a great pity that I can't get an honorary doctorate in record sleeves, but maybe I just haven't looked into it enough.

When I bought my first Laughing Clowns record, it was at a time in Brisbane where you just could not buy anything by them second hand, and the CDs weren't readily available. This was the early 90s. The first Clowns record I managed to procure was the 12" for Eternally Yours. How I got into the Clowns is another story altogether, so I'll cut that bit out and get to where I am meant to be heading here.

So there it was - the record. The Judi Dransfield artwork. The credits. Now I looked at the musicians who played on this 12" and saw Jeffrey Wegener (who I knew was working part-time at this hideous record store in Adelaide St), Louise Elliott, Chris Abrahams and Peter Walsh. Now it got me thinking: is this the producer Peter Walsh - the chap who produced that Church record I have? It couldn't be - it turned out it wasn't. It was Peter Milton Walsh. So I worked out he had this band called the Apartments. I remember flicking through some 7" singles in the same shop I bought this Clowns record from and seeing a title by this band called The Apartments.

The next day, I rushed back into the store and bought it. I played it. I played it again. And again. And again. It was really quirky pop music. The vocal was so strange, so detached from any other singer I had heard to that point. The piano on the record is so basic, yet it makes the b-side seem like it should be the a.

Quite simply, it blew me away - I'd never heard something like this before. The lyrics made you feel like if you hadn't been like the character in the songs before, then you will be at some point in your life. Maybe you hadn't even lived.

The single was All You Wanted, released by Hot in late 1984 - not long after Walsh had completed his 12 months in Laughing Clowns. A 12 months which saw the release of one record (Law of Nature) and two tours of both Europe and Australia. Law Of Nature was the first true lyrical record which Kuepper wrote on his own, and it's a record I play more than any other of the 40-odd records he's responsible for. I'm sidetracking again.

That one pivotal moment of my youth where I heard the Apartments for the first time led me along this path of wanting to see them perform. In time, I had managed to learn a little more about them and all I could find was a series of dead-ends that took me many years to work out. It continues to be an adventure, I guess. There's still a lot of unanswered questions and I don't really mind. I'm not into the gossip aspect of musician, but I do like to know how someone gets to where they are - just in case I may want to take that trip myself. I hope that made sense - it's hard for me to articulate what I am trying to say.

Peter Milton Walsh did play a show in Brisbane at one of the spring Livid festivals with Amanda Brown, but by the time I knew about it... well, it was a little too late.

Years roll by and I read an article about The Apartments and Walsh mentions a possible tour of Australia that will coincide with the local release of their 1995 record, A Life Full of Farewells. This tour never takes place. They did play a series of shows in France around that time and deservedly so - they're the only country whose music fans seem to understand. It makes that cliche of the French being romanticists seem more validated and less of a cliche.

So they play a show in Sydney - their first since forever and I am absolutely there.

I saw their soundcheck at Brisbane's Troubadour in June - from the moment all the levels were right, I was just blown away. I felt this great rush of adrenalin go through my body and when this happens, it's a yardstick to measure just how good a show I'm seeing is. This narcotic feeling rarely happens. When Ed Kuepper played 'Too Many Clues' at the Judith Wright a few weeks ago, it happened. And when Walsh started the opening chords to 'The Goodbye Train' on Thursday night it happened again.

Sitting on the mezzanine floor with my uncomfy chair and the speakers sitting just about level with me, it all sounded perfect. I love a good live mix and I am rarely treated to one, but such is showbiz.

I am not sure what makes their shows so amazing. I have seen them as many times as the band have performed publicly - be it in Brisbane or Melbourne and now Sydney. Admittedly, the set has featured the same songs and quite frankly, I couldn't give a fuck about it. The new arrangements to the bulk of the songs (particularly 'Thank You for Making Me Beg') provide a freshness. All the songs blend in - even if they were written in 1983 or 1993 - it's like the clocks never stopped.

I guess I am making up for lost time. When you know that there could be a time when one of your musical heroes could turn the taps on again, it's exciting. I don't mind waiting yet another ten years for a Scott Walker record to come out, because I know it'll be the record he wants to make and that it'll just make bands like Radiohead seem more and more idiotic and pointless.

I waited the best part of fifteen years to see the Apartments, so I am making the most of the situation and that's Walsh's brave decision to pick up the Telecaster and to play his songs again. I never thought it would happen. The more I would write letters to Peter, the more he would underline the fact that it was a vanished world.

And after seeing the various audiences who've presented themselves to the shows, there's one thing that's clear - I'm not the only person who enjoys the songs. It's some of my heroes, some of my friends and some of my enemies too.

But as for Sydney - it was a wonderful night - just being in the audience amongst the names I have seen all over the record sleeves I have in my collection was a little overwhelming. A drummer here, a producer over there, a photographer by the stairs, a guitarist keeping the bar from falling down, an artist cracking jokes outside the venue, a bassist that looked like a chicken, but who soared like an eagle.

A wonderful, unforgettable atmosphere which I was glad to occupy for one summer night in Sydney.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The music of Drenica, or an uncritical aesthetic study on the hill-country folk music vernacular of Western Kosovo part two: Turbo-Folk v Gangsta Folk

With the advent of Turbo-Folk music filtering through the Balkans in recent decades, true folk music of Drenica becomes more scarce as the years roll on. In case you're wondering, Turbo-Folk is when you put a dance beat over some traditional instruments to give it a more modern sheen. That's the most short-hand explanation of it, anyway.

If you've heard the original Borat theme from when it was on the Ali G show, then you'll know what I'm talking about. And yes, that's a Drenica-born and bred artist performing the theme song - not a Kazak.

I'm straying away from what I wanted to showcase, and that's what I call Gangsta-Folk. No eighties Mercedes Benzes with German plates doing drive-bys along rocky mountain ways, but plenty of gold teeth and gun-waving.

This video is from Vllezerit Qetaj (the Qetaj Brothers), who formed in the early sixties and are familiar faces on DVD and video collections of Kosovar folk groups. The best environment to hear Albanian music is much like this Youtube clip I happened to find. The title of the song is loosely-translated as Stop Serbia For I See Smoke says it all, and as will the guy you see at 1:29 letting a few bullets go out the window during the performance.

The players sit in a circle in the middle of a usually rectangular men's room. As you can see in the clip, there's a bit of goulash and caustic Russian tea doing the rounds so therefore I'd be safe in saying this was someone's wedding or a young boy's circumcision party.

The instrumentation is typical of a musical group of this area, with Cifelti (a two-stringed lute instrument tuned B-E), Sharki (its larger five stringed cousin), piano accordion and a def, a skinned tambourine.

This is the music of Drenica at its wildest and most unhinged.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The return of the Prince

In recent months, the vintage Sydney music label Prince Melon has been revitalized by its founder Ed Kuepper. The label started in late 1980 with the release of the Laughing Clowns single, Sometimes The Fire Dance. The label released a further few singles by the Laughing Clowns in Australia, while Rough Trade Deutschland and Red Flame handled the European market.

The label also released singles by Peter Milton Walsh's post Apartments group, Out Of Nowhere and Ollie Olsen's post Whirlywirld project, Hugo Klang. The label dissolved around the time of the Laughing Clowns split in late 1982 and when the band reconvened in early 1983, they joined the ranks of Sydney's Hot Records where further records by the Clowns were released, as well as Ed Kuepper's vast solo catalogue and that of the Aints. In Autumn of this year, Ed Kuepper has rekindled the label he started after his disenchantment with Missing Link, the label which saw the release of the self-titled debut of the Laughing Clowns.

Three Bootleg Series releases of have so far been issued this year, with limited CD pressings of 500 each. They're all available via Prince Melon's myspace page. Prince Melon looks to release a a final title this year, a recording by the Ascension Academy, a group which played a one-off show in March this year for the Institute of Modern Art's Brisbane Sound exhibition. 2009 will see a Prince Melon release of a new studio project by the man himself.

Ed Kuepper and the Brisbane Sound

This piece is an excerpt from an as yet unpublished interview which is due to appear in the forthcoming Brisbane Sound catalog by the Institute of Modern Art.

Ed Kuepper’s ties to the Brisbane Sound dates back to when he formed his first band, Kid Galahad and The Eternals towards his final years of high school in 1972. Shortly after, this band became The Saints – who are widely credited as one of the first punk bands of the 1970s, and the first to independently release a single.

The band’s sound was against the grain of what was going on in Brisbane’s musical wasteland at the time, which was primarily a cavalcade of cabaret-styled bands with one-word names, who couldn’t break away from emulating the million-selling heavy rock bands who filled the large halls and tennis centres of Brisbane in the early Seventies.

This strong-willed do-it-yourself aesthetic that gave made the band its own booking agent and record label encouraged many other Brisbane bands playing original music to do the same. While Brisbane was coming to terms with The Saints, they’d broken up due to creative differences by the time their third album, Prehistoric Sounds, was released in October 1978.

Upon Ed Kuepper’s return to Brisbane shortly after, he assembled the Laughing Clowns with fellow school mates Jeffrey Wegener and Bob Farrell and relocated to Sydney. After six months of rehearsal, the band with the addition of Ben Wallace-Crabbe and shortly after his cousin Dan, Laughing Clowns were ready to make their debut in mid-1979. The band’s sound connected Kuepper’s future vision of The Saints, and an ever-growing interest in the more avant garde style of jazz music; known as either Free-Jazz or the New Music.

The influence of Laughing Clowns on the Brisbane Sound can be heard in the rhythmic guitar playing of Robert Forster, to Out Of Nowhere’s epic and complex song-structures, and the likes of Lindy Morrison — whose drumming style in both Zero and the Go-Betweens became a huge influence upon Clare McKenna and Keryn Henry’s common disregard for the simple 4/4, ‘meat and potatoes’ approach in time-keeping.

Since the split of the Laughing Clowns in December 1984, Ed Kuepper has gone on to a successful solo career which has spawned countless albums and in more recent years, a reunion with fellow Clowns founder, Jeffrey Wegener.

This interview was conducted at Kuepper’s Brisbane home by Donat Tahiraj in November 2007.

DT: After being on the major label EMI during The Saints and then going from that to an independent like Missing Link for the Laughing Clowns self-titled EP, what was the impetus behind starting the Prince Melon label?

EK: It was most likely because our relationship with Missing Link wasn’t all that brilliant. I just wasn’t particularly happy with what that relationship was, and I thought it was highly unlikely that any major label would touch the Clowns with a bargepole. And seeing that I’d released a record myself before with the Fatal record of The Saints, I thought I’d try that again.

DT: Was it a conscious decision to use an illustration by Melbourne artist Robin Wallace-Crabbe on the cover of the self-titled Laughing Clowns record?

EK: It was definitely something band-motivated. He was the father of our piano player Dan Wallace-Crabbe. The illustration and the text type was then presented to Missing Link and it was changed without consultation. We didn’t see the finished cover until it came out. It had been ‘modernised’ by Philip Brophy. The original artwork didn’t have all those lines. I thought it was an attempt to make the band seem slightly more contemporary, fix us in a certain point in time. Whereas I always thought the Clowns were outside that whole thing. We certainly had no ties to that electronic, avant garde-ish pop sound at that time.

DT: So did you feel that the Clowns didn’t fit into any musical scene that existed among the eastern capital cities in the late 70s and early 80s?

EK: Not directly in a musical way, no. We were obviously friendly with a couple of bands like the Birthday Party and The Go-Betweens ... and to some extent Scattered Order. But musically I thought everything was fairly different at that time.

DT: Did you see Peter Milton Walsh’s group, Out of Nowhere, as being allies to the Clowns, seeing that aside from Laughing Clowns and Hugo Klang, they too were a part of the Prince Melon label?

EK: Allies might be too strong a word. I liked them, I thought they were doing something musically that I didn’t have a problem with on the Prince Melon label. It wasn’t a master plan to have a have a hit record or anything like that. Prince Melon was set up and really operated as a non-profit label for the clowns . Both bands approached me ,not vice versa.
DT: What type of role did the Prince Melon label play for Out of Nowhere ?

EK: By that stage i was essentially the label, so i booked the session which i also attended in some kind of executive producer capacity.
I did think both of the songs were too long to fit on a 7 inch single so I suggested they should distill them down to their melodic essence. They decided not to do this however. Overall i remember the session being a bit strained,with a lot of tension between Milt and the studio engineer. Afterwards I had the records manufactured and gave copies to some media people that i thought would be interested, and sold as many as possible to independent stores. I also got them some support spots for the Clowns in Sydney.

DT: What was your impression of the Brisbane music scene of the early Eighties when the Clowns first played in

EK: I didn’t have much of an impression because I wasn’t up here all that much. It kind of seemed very small and very underground.

DT: Did you notice a shift from when the Saints left Brisbane in early 1977 to when you returned after the break-up of the Saints in 1978?

EK: The main thing that had changed was there did seem to be a scene, albeit fairly small. There wasn’t a scene when the Saints left. But there was a small scene based around The Go-Betweens and Zero. I don’t have a profound knowledge of how much of an impact that scene made on the culture of the town at the time. I got the impression that everyone still basically had to leave to achieve anything, and if you didn’t, you’d get ground down eventually.

DT: With the release of the Laughing Clowns self-titled mini-album in early 1980, the band did a seldom-seen video for the opening track, Holy Joe. What sparked your interest in making a video for this song?

EK: Ken West organised most of the putting together of that film. There were a few people involved who’d had ties with the film school in Sydney. As for the set, Ken may have painted that, but I’m not entirely sure. George Craglietto and Jeff Perrin – who were sort of involved with doing lights for the Clowns — also had a strong involvement. German expressionistic films of the early 20th century were kind of an influence on the way we were presenting the band at the time. As far as the costumes go, the band wore what they felt like wearing.

DT: Did you as a songwriter make any conscious decision to write hit singles during the Clowns days?

EK: I don't know about hit singles ,but the type of song that was released on 45 was definately shorter. I think anything we released as a single wasn’t designed to be totally obscure. There was some attempt made at having a pop structure in a melody or lyric.

DT: Obviously from the very start of the Clowns conception, there was a conscious decision as to what the band wore, like the suit and tie, and how they placed themselves on stage was noticeably different to anything else going on in the Australian music scene at the time. Placing the band in a straight line is but one example seen in one of Graham Aisthorpe’s photos of one of the group’s early shows in Sydney.

EK: It was very much contrived in the sense that it was well thought-out. There was always this intent to move into a darker theatrical presentation than a flashy, rock presentation. I think Ken and George’s lights, . were an important part of the way the band was presented. The way things were set up on stage – putting the drums up front, or as you said – putting the band in a straight line with everything else. That was all experimenting with things. We were constantly playing around with how things could be presented in a physical sense.

DT: A lot of Laughing Clowns listeners are either more interested in the Mr Uddich-Schmuddich Goes To Town era of the band where the sound owed a lot to the more to free-jazz or the more song-based material that was introduced with Law Of Nature. What are your impressions of the various line-ups and sounds which the band had during its five year existence?

EK: Every time there was a major shift in the line-ups – I guess there were three different forms which had line-up shifts. I’d say the first line-up which included the band going from a four-piece to a six-piece and back to a three piece at one stage. Then the five piece, which did the Mr Uddich-Schmuddich and Everything That Flies sort of stuff. And then the four-piece with the Law Of Nature sort of stuff, with either Peter Walsh as a bass player or with Paul Smith who replaced Peter after he left. Each of those three line-ups had their own sort of audience and not all of them made the transition. As to which one was more successful? That depends how you interpret these things. The second line-up was the most overt in terms of expressing a jazz influence, which I tr
ied to stop. Where I thought the band was most successful was in terms of the band’s performance with songs like ‘Everything That Flies’ – that was powerful. It was the most successful realization of what I was after. Live, sometimes the more sort of exploratory stuff would work, other times it became too much of a formula in itself. I guess after that, I wanted to move back to a more structured form of performance, hence the Law Of Nature and Ghosts Of An Ideal Wife period. Law Of Nature was almost something in some ways that wouldn’t have been out of place if it came out directly after Prehistoric Sounds. I think there’s quite a close sonic link between those records.

DT: Given the fact that the majority of the artwork in way of posters and album sleeves are designed by your wife Judi Dransfield-Kuepper or yourself personally, just how significant is having a strong visual aspect tie in with what you’ve done musically since the Clowns started?

EK: It’s not something that I go into great pains to extrapolate upon, but there’s always been a connection. I’ve always had an interest in melding sound and images outside of the standard promo clip. The unfortunate thing is that I have done little of it. On the other hand too, having made that claim, I’ve never had that great a need to do that a lot live. In the Nineties and through the Nineties, the promotional clip sort of became almost more important than the song. And to some extent that had a strange effect on me. It made me move away from it entirely. That sort of pushed me away from developing that side of what I really like to be doing. If the video clip hadn’t of become such a prime way in which music was presented, then quite possibly I would’ve made a greater effort to make that connection.

DT: In recent years, you’ve started to think away from promotional clips and playing live to large-scale video projections, such as with the MFLL shows. Has this shift away from promotional video clip making allowed you to freely use more imagery in both live performance or otherwise?

EK: Because of the notion of the promotional clip has gone now – it doesn’t seem to mean anything and it all seems quite liberating. It’s opened that area again. All of the technologies that have made people more accessible to things has made drawing attention to people a lot harder. When the Saints did their first single independently, at the time it was a talking point, but now when everyone’s doing home recording, it’s like who isn’t? But I’m very pleased with these technological advancements, I think it’s great.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The music of Drenica, or an uncritical aesthetic study on the hill-country folk music vernacular of Western Kosovo part one

The Albanian music which has been fed through to the west via a small and steady circulation of 'world music' compact discs and records over the years have often misrepresented the cannon of this particular brand of eastern European music.

As far as music from the Albanian music of Kosovo is concerned, little information en Anglais can be found on the music of Drenica, a small rural area of in the center-west of Europe's newest nation. Worse still, the information available from Albanian language sites offers precious little information.

Drenica is a place where most (if not all) conflicts between Albanians and Serbians tend to come from. It's hilly, harsh and its music is a reflection of countless years of Serbian oppression through story-telling. It's almost exclusively male-orientated amongst its players and listeners alike and a style that's exclusive to this region in terms of song-structure and instrumentation.

For many years leading up of Yugoslavia's disintergration in the early 1990s, the state-run RTP - Radio Television Prishtina issued cassettes of Kosovo-Albanian music (the most popular format amongst Albanians for as long as I can remember), as did the Jugoton label - both during the time Kosovo was a province within the former Yugoslavia. The music released on these labels didn't profile Drenicak music for the most part.

The music that was released on RTP and Jugoton tended to have a commerical and near-pop slant, creating very little opportunity for veteran folk artist Rizah Bllaca (see photo) to put down a 33 minute rendering of Bajram Begu e Hasan Prishtina.

With the dissolve of Serbian control over Kosovo, independent labels have since released a healthy amount of CDs and DVDs of Albanian music not heard outside of flea market bootlegs. One must understand first and foremost that this style of folk music coming out of Drenica was banned by the Yugoslav authorities at the time due to its strongly anti-authoritarian sentiment in its songs. Performances were limited to impromptu shows in people's houses and thus predating the post-punk craze by a few good years.

The focus in the lyrics are more often than not a oral account of Kosovo's history which pays homage to its freedom fighters from the post-Ottoman years to former US president Bill Clinton.

A featured clip here is a home recording of Rizah Bllaca performing Vajtimi e Avdies (Mourning of Avdi) with a Sharki, a five string instrument which is rarely performed as a solo instrument.

First starts for the lost arts.

What becomes immediately known these days is this overwhelming abundance of bands, music and such. Two questions spring to mind: where did they all come from, and has it always been this way? The internet has certainly allowed the hopelessly obscure to circulate among the famous and the infamous. I'm only starting to wonder why Mark E. Smith's "too many bands, too many musicians" quote sounds stronger than ever. Maybe I'm just too old (and old fashioned?) to venture out into this so-called amazing array of new bands.

My solution is in trying to avoid these new trends and new sensations - focusing more on yesterday's wine than today's whine. Working in a record shop doesn't help this at all, but nevertheless I'll trudge on and create a focus (in this blog) on some of the more overlooked talents. There will most likely be a strong emphasis on Australian and New Zealand post punk and I'll do my best not to overlap with other blogs I've seen in my travels. It might not be such a simple task, but what the hey.

This of course will spin out of control and veer away from any previous plots, so I'm just going to write about things that interest me, as that's what blogs are generally about.