Tagged: the Beatles

The Hummingbirds’ Simon Holmes, 1962-2017

The tragic news that Simon Holmes, founding singer and guitarist of Sydney band the Hummingbirds, passed away a week ago broke on Wednesday night, via the band’s Facebook page and a beautiful tribute by his friend, writer and fellow musician Tim Byron. Byron recalled that one of Holmes’ favourite sayings was “hurry up and wait”, a line Byron said he took from Brian Eno, but also was a key lyric in the chorus of Blondie’s hit Sunday Girl.

“Hurry up and wait” is a military phrase, meaning that a soldier has to hurry to arrive at a given destination only to then wait around for hours or days for something to happen. A lot of rock & roll is like that. An Australian band on tour in the 1980s could drive all day, flat out, to get to a venue in time for soundcheck before waiting the rest of the night to play.

The Hummingbirds’ career was true to their name and their sound; like a blur. They were here and they were gone, leaving just two albums and a clutch of glorious singles behind. They were flushed with early success, and in the years since spent a lot of time waiting to be rediscovered: a rare reformation show at Newtown Social Club a year ago with their contemporaries the Falling Joys quickly sold out.

The Hummingbirds were on the cusp of the so-called alternative music explosion, but Australian rock historian Ian McFarlane quotes the band’s stated aim was to be “the ultimate pop band”. From their first single Alimony, released by independent label Phantom in July 1987, they got pretty close. The Hummingbirds loved nothing more than harmony on top of melody on top of guitars.

They could be slightly ramshackle live, but the songs were great, even if early on they sometimes struggled to get from one end of them to the other. Still, they were a breath of fresh air, not least due to the presence of guitarist Alannah Russack and bass player Robyn St Clare, Holmes’ former partner and mother to his son Milo. The mixed-gender group stood out in a suffocatingly macho rock scene.

Their first album LoveBUZZ, released in late 1989, was named after a Nirvana single originally recorded by Shocking Blue (who were better known for their song Venus, which itself is better known for Bananarama’s version). Recorded by Mitch Easter, famous for his work with R.E.M., the album crossed over from the alternative charts to the mainstream thanks to the single Blush, which peaked at No. 19.

That might not sound like much now. But in Australia at the time it was a harbinger of what was to come, paving the way for Ratcat and, later, the Clouds and Falling Joys, all of them before Nirvana’s Nevermind rewrote the radio playbook for the rest of the 1990s. The Hummingbirds were hurried up into recording a follow-up album, va va voom, which bombed. A couple of EPs later, they broke up.

Before that, they supported INXS on a run of stadium gigs and toured Europe and North America, which in themselves added up to a lifetime’s worth of stories. Holmes wasn’t a music snob: Byron recounts his love of Yes, whose albums (along with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin’s) he once ruined by trailing them behind him on a bicycle after hearing the Sex Pistols, only to live to regret it later.

Holmes remained involved in music throughout his life, via production work with other 1990s acts including the Fauves and Custard, working at Sydney record store Half a Cow, playing in many other part-time bands, and via a weekly radio show on Sydney station 2SER, which he co-presented with son Milo.

Holmes was just 55 when he died, and there are simply no words for that. He is survived by his partner Justine and their daughter Maisie, as well as Robyn and Milo, and won’t be forgotten by anyone who loved, lived and breathed music as he played it.

First published in The Guardian, 21 July 2017

“I thought it put a stop to songs forever”

One for my French readers, on one of the great unsung Australian songwriters, Peter Milton Walsh, of the Apartments.

Peter Milton Walsh was on a roll. It was 1996, and the singer-songwriter behind the Apartments – who had emerged from the same post-Saints Brisbane scene that gave birth to the Go-Betweens and the Riptides – was onto his fourth album in four years. Drift, Fête Foraine and A Life Full Of Farewells had all met with acclaim, and if they hadn’t done a great deal to boost his reputation in his home country, they’d cemented it in Europe.

Prior to this, Walsh had spent much of the 1980s “like a scrap of paper, blown down the windy streets of the world”. He’d had a couple of real successes: the haunting, cello-soaked elegy Mr Somewhere, from the 1985 Rough Trade album The Evening Visits … And Stays For Years was later covered by 4AD’s shape-shifting ensemble This Mortal Coil. Another song, The Shyest Time, appeared in the John Hughes film Some Kind Of Wonderful, at the height of the Hughes’ fame. “Sometimes it seemed like I got one lucky break after another and I didn’t hold onto any of them,” he says. “Fugitives might have had more stability.”

Finally, though, life had settled, and it was good. Walsh was working a straight but rewarding job in Sydney, anchored by his wife and young son, Riley. Around that, he had constructed an alternative existence as a recording artist that was almost clandestine. Being recognised in Europe before Australia had its advantages. “If you offered me the choice of whether to be unknown here or unknown in Europe, I admit I would go for unknown here,” Walsh says. “Having that distance has enabled me to live very quietly – lead a double life, even a secret and quite fine one here.”

Songs were flowing. The new album would be different, as different as each had been from their immediate predecessors. Three short, piano-based snippets – Doll Hospital, Your Ambulance Rides and Place Of Bones – linked eight major pieces with rich, almost baroque arrangements. “I’d written not only the songs but some string, woodwind, brass and piano parts, and I just wanted to try something I never had before,” he says. “We all get restless. Sometimes we get tired of ourselves.”

To play these songs, Walsh needed a new band. He met Gene Maynard, the drummer, who “had such fantastic swing”. He then contacted the Cruel Sea’s Ken Gormley, “a great, instinctive player with a beautiful feel. I was very surprised when I asked and he said yes.”

The result was Walsh’s least known, but quite possibly best album Apart. A lush, moving piece of work, it was also the last record Walsh would make, until last year’s single Black Ribbons. There had been a 15-year silence. “I always had a hunch that what I did might appeal to a particular sensibility, that a world existed somewhere in which the songs would deeply connect.” Apart, perhaps, is a world unto itself. It’s a shame more people in this one haven’t heard it.

Which is not to say that the album is difficult or self-indulgent. It is merely singular. After the opening Doll Hospital – a slightly jarring 26 seconds of a few repeated piano notes – there’s barely a pause before the low, melancholy blast of horns that introduce No Hurry. It sounds like a foghorn blowing across a bay, and Walsh is being carried along, like one of the those scraps of paper. “The days are getting longer,” he croons, backed by loping groove from Gormley, “Night comes down so late.”

“I wanted to get some of that slow sensuality of summer into a song,” Walsh says in hindsight, and perhaps it’s a metaphor for Walsh’s old hometown of Brisbane: “I got no ambition, I’ll sleep by the lazy river / Someone slowed the whole world down, in the old town called the past.” The music matches the lyric, the semi-orchestral arrangement never cluttered, “drifting along just like smoke”.

Breakdown In Vera Cruz ascends from peak to peak, piano and percussion driving the verses, trumpet and strings holding up a majestic chorus. But underneath, the song is desperately sad, a story of a dissolute, but co-dependent coupling: “They talked a little bit / Then things just went all quiet again / What they have’s on the skids / He depends on her, she depends on gin.” A drawn-out coda ends with a shiver of cello and violin.

Something To Live For is about marriage, fatherhood, and letting go of the past. At the time, Walsh was writing the album three days a week, and spending the other two with Riley. Playing music isn’t that important in the greater scheme of things: “Travelling man, a travelling band, the lights go out one by one / A daddy does what he has to do, the circus moves on.” “Learning the meaning of gratitude,” Walsh explains, “Trying to be good.” It’s the most optimistic and uplifting song on Apart.

Things take a left turn with the appearance of Walsh’s long-time fan Dave Graney, doing his best Philip Marlowe impression as he narrates the tone poem Welcome To Walsh World. Gently brushed drums, more strings, and lyrics that would do Lou Reed at his most narcissistic early 1970s best proud: if there’s a parallel to be made here, conscious or otherwise, Apart might be likened to an Antipodean equivalent of Berlin, Reed’s bleak masterpiece of domestic melodrama.

The second half of the album opens with Friday Rich/Saturday Poor. It was an old tune for Walsh, having been demoed in 1990. After Apart’s release in France, Lanvin, which was launching a new perfume, came close to using this song in an advertising campaign throughout Europe – I imagine it was the seductive introductory flourish of violin that they were after. Walsh demurs: “I liked to tell myself it was because of the prospect of decadence within the lyrics.” Lanvin instead ended up going with a track by Finley Quaye. “I’m sure the perfume sank without a trace; that wouldn’t have happened with Friday Rich,” the author deadpans.

World Of Liars is a big, slow ballad in an album that seems full of them, but it’s the sparest – no strings or brass this time, just the core of Walsh on piano, accompanied by Gormley and Maynard, with some deft hand percussion. Cheerleader underscores a more unexpected influence: the Bristol sounds of Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky, who is name-checked in No Hurry. It’s a showcase for Gormley in particular, whose descending bassline provides the hook of a song that relies on atmosphere more than structure.

All this is leading up to Apart’s final statement. Everything Is Given To Be Taken Away opens in a similar manner to No Hurry, and reprises some of its lyrical themes of wasted potential: “There’s a rose that blossoms in the barrel / For each lost little girl”. It begins with just piano chords and the soft sound of Walsh’s voice, before Gormley and Maynard enter, drawing the song out. Strings rush in like the climactic moment in the Beatles A Day In The Life, until finally the song explodes into a chorus of ba-ba-ba’s that’s at once childlike and exquisitely wistful.

And then, it all became horribly prophetic. On the final day of mixing, Walsh took a phone call from his GP. “Riley’s blood tests had come back,” Walsh remembers. ‘You have to take him to the Westmead Hospital right now,’ she said. ‘Right now?’ I asked. ‘Straight away – I’ve rung, and told the specialist you’re coming.’

“What got to me was the songwriter’s fear; firstly that the songs are omens, finally that the songs have come true.” Riley used to sing along to those ba-ba-ba’s; the three instrumentals, with their haunted titles, had also been floating around for some time, long before there was an inkling of anything being wrong. “The fact that I wrote such a song, and that I wrote it before things came to an end – before we lost Riley – that stopped me, and I thought it put a stop to songs forever,” he says. “I didn’t know if I could find my way back to who I was before he died, but really, I didn’t think I should, either.”

It would be over a decade later before the Apartments would re-emerge: firstly with a discreet run of shows in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, followed by a gig in Paris a couple of years later. With no advertising or press support, the night was a sellout, as was another rooftop set in Paris last year, at the invitation of a French magazine. “A journalist who came along, some girl who said she’d never heard of me until she found World Of Liars on Youtube, and she said, ‘How do you explain this?’ … I had to tell her I don’t do explanations and I never question this, because it might imperil it. I am happy to do what I do in the glow of this benevolent mystery.

“I remember the record company warning me when I refused to tour to promote Apart, no one knows where you’ve gone or why … People will forget you. You have to top up the goodwill; release something new, to remind them. I just remember thinking, you know, I couldn’t care less. If they need to be reminded, they never got me in the first place.”

First published in Mess & Noise, 20 August 2012

Death to shuffle!

It’s funny how, 10 years since the advent of the iPod was supposed to mark the death of the album as a conceptual art form, great albums keep magically appearing. They appear about as regularly as articles proclaiming (yet again) the death of the album.

Cue Diana Elliott in yesterday’s Age. Given this isn’t exactly the first time this argument has been promulgated in the last decade, I presume Diana has crawled through a wormhole from 1965, back when pop charts were ruled by singles.

Remember singles? These marvellous seven-inch creations only had room for one song per side – you could squeeze maybe a couple more in to make an EP, but at the expense of sound quality and all-important volume. Ray Davies, the Kinks’ master songwriter, still speaks fondly of them as his favourite musical medium.

Back then, albums mostly were little more than filler padding out a couple of sure-fire hits. Then the Beatles and Bob Dylan came along and expanded the minds of a generation, at the same time spoiling the party for those unfortunate Baby Boomers suffering from what wasn’t then called Attention Deficit Disorder.

Last week, a couple of friends began frantically tweeting each other about the merits of a new album by Melbourne’s Witch Hats. It was streaming on a local music website for a day, so I tuned in, and was impressed enough to tweet back if it was available on – wait for it – vinyl.

Yes, vinyl. The medium that’s making a comeback for those that, you know, actually care about music and how it was created, and don’t like to see it defiled in cheap-jack formats that throw out half the product before it hits the ears. Put it down to me crawling out of a wormhole marked April 1971, when I was born.

The Rolling Stones put out Sticky Fingers that very month. Now that’s an album. A few great rockers (Brown Sugar, about the merits of interracial cunnilingus, being the best known); Wild Horses is perhaps the band’s most stunning ballad; and Marianne Faithfull’s tortured ode to addiction, Sister Morphine.

I could go through the rest of the track list, but there’s no need. A great album is like a good sexual encounter; it’s all about pacing – ebb and flow, climax and resolution. It’s a cheap shot, but what sort of sex is the iPod generation having? Elliott’s article makes me wonder if they can keep their minds on the job.

For those having trouble with diminishing attention spans, the Ramones should have provided the perfect antidote. Albums of between 12 and 14 songs in less than half an hour! Hey, if you don’t like Beat On The Brat (in which case I don’t trust you) at least you know Judy Is A Punk is just around the corner.

Actually, one of the real drawbacks of the CD age (and a good reason for the cursed format’s slow slide into oblivion) is how many musicians abused the fact that it provided them with 78 minutes to play with, instead of the standard LP length of between 35 and 45.

Suddenly albums that would once have qualified as doubles began to proliferate. It got worse when a few artists began issuing double CDs, the worst offenders being the Smashing Pumpkins, who gave us Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, aka Billy Corgan’s infinite ode to his own genius.

It’s true that double albums, let alone double CDs, do amplify the problems Elliott alludes to. That’s why there are very few good ones. I am one of the unbelievers, for example, that would quite happily junk half of the Beatles’ opus, the so-called White Album. I never want to hear The Adventures Of Rocky Raccoon again.

But if you can’t sit still long enough to listen to Revolver from beginning to end, maybe it’s you who needs to slow down. Not everything in life is an instant hit. Some things take a little longer to give up their secrets, and that is part of the reward.

I was at a friend’s party last weekend, and he’d lovingly assembled a song list on iTunes to impress and entertain his musically voracious friends. Like Rob from High Fidelity, whom Elliott also references, he understood the lost art of the mix tape, the importance of a perfect sequence that also underpins an album.

At one point, he began vehemently decrying the very notion of “Shuffle”. “How can you shuffle the soundtrack to your life?” he spluttered in indignation. It might work if the music fades into the background, like aural wallpaper. But if you’re actually listening, it doesn’t make any sense.

First published in The Age, 17 November 2011

Oh well, whatever, etc

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s second album Nevermind. A rash of earnest think pieces have already appeared in yesterday’s papers – isn’t this a bit like celebrating your birthday by opening your presents at midnight? – but since this record was such a game-changer in the musical-industrial complex and a life-changer for thousands of individuals besides, it would be churlish of me not to add to them. I was one of those thousands, after all.

I listened to the album for the first time in many moons a couple of weeks ago. I’ll probably listen to it again later; I certainly don’t need to put it on now for inspiration. I think I know every note of the damn thing backwards; such was Nevermind‘s power at the time of its release that it quickly became embedded. These days, there aren’t too many real reasons to pull it out, simply because it’s always there within you. Smells Like Teen Spirit, once so transcendent, can even sound a little shopworn for being overplayed. But if you catch it on a classic rock station and it gets you at the right angle, at the right moment, it still creams the competition with muscle to spare.

I can’t tell you where I was when I first heard Teen Spirit; in fact I can’t recall hearing it for the first time at all. It just suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Actually, I’d just arrived in Melbourne after a seven-week jaunt around some fairly remote parts of the country, so I certainly wasn’t even aware of any music press hubbub. And I hadn’t heard Bleach, the band’s first album. If I had, it wouldn’t have prepared me in any way for the avalanche about to be unleashed.

So I know I didn’t hear it at least until I got back to Brisbane a couple of weeks later, in October. It might have been on Triple J, but also might have been on Triple Zed. Can’t say. But I soon became aware of the groundswell. That couple of months, leading up to the beginning of 1992, was among the most exciting of my life. I was 20, and probably everyone who’s 20 and waiting for their life to start probably still gets nostalgic about what it was like to be that age and feel like anything’s possible. Teen Spirit seemed to make everything possible again.

Musically, the 1980s was nowhere near as bad as the reputation if you had a clue. There was terrific music everywhere, even on the Top 40 charts, at least in the earlier part of the decade – Prince, Springsteen, early Madonna, Michael Jackson at his thrilling peak – hey, it was thrilling, and still is, at least if you have an open mind and love pop music more than you love being cool. By late in the decade, though, it’s true that things were on the slide. The real action was in the American underground. Dinosaur Jr’s Freak Scene was a great, great single; Mudhoney’s Touch Me I’m Sick, too.

The biggest buzz was for the Pixies, the band Kurt Cobain claimed to be ripping off with all those soft/loud dynamics. Well … Maybe. Lots of other bands, including Australian bands like the Scientists, had done that already. These days, I listen to the Pixies and I still can’t believe they didn’t get there first. Here Comes Your Man – how was that not number one in every country in the western world? It’s bizarre, really.

But maybe that just made the breakthrough of Teen Spirit – so much more aggressive and potent – all the sweeter. To this day I’ve never heard such excitement surrounding a single like it. And strangely enough, when I first brought Nevermind home on the back of it in December ’91, after the album was belatedly released locally, I was a little underwhelmed. It was so clean, to start with. What was with all those pop hooks? It actually took a few listens for the penny to drop that that was the whole point.

I still think the best description of the album came from Cobain himself: Black Sabbath getting molested by Black Flag and the Beatles. Can’t remember if it was in that order, but whatever – sure as hell no one else had ever found a way to put those three things together, if they ever even thought of such an unlikely combination. I doubt anyone had. People got very excited about Radiohead’s OK Computer six years later – Nick Kent even wrote a review reminiscent of his exaltation of Television’s Marquee Moon 20 years earlier – but no fucking way was the impact on popular culture even comparable to the nuclear assault of Nevermind.

Not in my view, anyway. And of course it wasn’t all good; record companies signed up every guitar band that moved for a while, no matter how horrible, and plenty of toy wind-up Nirvanas came out of the woodwork. Most disappeared from whence they came. Many great bands who might have deserved similar success instead got left behind; that was sad. Independent record stores and labels were hammered as the mainstream co-opted their market; that was sad, too. Saddest of all, the album’s success also seemed to psychologically destroy poor Kurt Cobain himself. That’s another post, so I’ll leave it.

But surely what mattered about this album, and what still matters, is its inclusiveness. Purists will tell you Bleach is the truest Nirvana album; those who value their indie credentials say In Utero‘s the masterpiece. Look, they’re both good, but really, seriously, come on. Great music belongs to everyone. I began writing about music because I wanted to share it with people, and I still do. Nevermind was a key part of that.

I saw the band in January of ’92, at Festival Hall in Brisbane. They were supporting Violent Femmes, the result of the tour being booked before the band went large. Nirvana liked and admired the Femmes and wanted to honour their commitment to opening for them. Me? I didn’t even stick around for them, which I’m sad about now, because I still haven’t seen them. But Nirvana at that moment just made everything else seem irrelevant.

Not that it was the greatest show, mind you. The sound mix was muddy, Cobain was sick, the band played for just 40 minutes. At some point I left the mosh and went back towards the mixing desk. That was better. They played Come As You Are and suddenly it all seemed to snap into focus. Such a haunting, beautiful song, but then that whiplash solo tore the roof off. That was the band – brutal and beautiful at once. Black Sabbath, Black Flag, and the Beatles.

They finished with On A Plain, still my favourite Nirvana song. I’m not sure why, but I don’t think I need to explain it anyway. I’m sure you have your favourites, your own reasons and your own stories. This was mine.