Dave Graney & Clare Moore: still hip

In Terry Southern’s classic short story You’re Too Hip, Baby, a white hipster hangs around the jazz clubs in Paris in the 1950s, desperately trying to ingratiate himself with the Black musicians. They quickly see through the schmuck, blowing him off with the snappy comeback.

It’s an unlikely premise for a song. But in 1993, 30 years after Southern’s story was published in Esquire, Australian musician Dave Graney and his band, the Coral Snakes, came out with their own version. You’re Just Too Hip, Baby was slinky and sly, with Graney adding a withering putdown of his own: “You take a feather from every bird you see – you’ll never fly!”

The song catapulted Graney from the margins to the edge of the mainstream, despite being completely at odds with the prevailing trends of the time. “We were never after an indie sound,” Graney says. “I think we were quite influenced by our time in the UK, hearing lots of R&B music. We came back to Australia and it was mad for hard rock.”

You’re Just Too Hip, Baby led the album Night Of The Wolverine, which marks its 30th anniversary this month. As announced on Thursday morning, the Coral Snakes – guitarist Rod Hayward, keyboard player Robin Casinader and drummer, percussionist and Graney’s life partner, Clare Moore – are making a rare reunion for a celebratory run of shows.

Moore and Graney, who first met in Adelaide in 1978, are one of the enduring couples of Australian music. Over Zoom, Graney teases Moore that she only knew “these Christopher Pyne types” at the time; Graney, originally from Mt Gambier, says he and his mates were “like Joe Buck from Midnight Cowboy, these irresistible country bumpkins”. Moore snorts: “Yeah, right!”

In the early 80s, they formed the Moodists, who followed their post-punk contemporaries the Birthday Party, the Go-Betweens and the Triffids to London. When that band broke up, Graney and Moore continued with two bands, first the White Buffaloes, then the Coral Snakes, finally returning to Melbourne, defeated, after their working visas expired in 1992.

It was a low period. Graney’s songs, which referenced classic cinema, literature and the American Old West (he’d even twirled a moustache after the legendary Wild Bill Hickok) were eccentric, his dress sense even more so and his hair was thinning. But he and Moore didn’t quit. “We always had unfinished business with the world and with our own ambitions,” he says.

They had a few true believers. Tex Perkins, then riding his own wave with the Cruel Sea, had been a fan since the Moodists. “They were a good band and one of the weirdest looking bands – they were five people that didn’t look like they should be in the same room as each other, let alone the same band,” he says.

During the recording of Night Of The Wolverine, Perkins was asked to perform a spoken-word section of the three-part title track, The King Of Adelaide. Like the rest of the album, it was recorded quickly: “I did the first take just to warm up, but the consensus from the control room suggested I had nailed it and was done. I didn’t argue.”

Stephen Cummings was another collaborator, writing most of the music for one of the album’s highlights, Three Dead Passengers In A Stolen Second Hand Ford. “He really had an individual style that I liked,” Cummings says. Moore, who has also played with Cummings, recalls him reaching out when “there wasn’t really a lot else of that going around, especially from other musicians”.

Three Dead Passengers illustrated Graney’s new songwriting approach, mixing exotica with pure Australiana. The song was set “outside of Keith, near the border” and features a trio “last seen making to drag a Holden at the lights”. But the details were preposterous: one of the characters collected model guillotines.

Graney admits much of the album depicts a fantasy world, but one that comes from a recognisable place, driven by the urge to escape: “I was born in a town that hugged the side of a mountain for dear life,” he sings in That’s The Way It’s Gonna Be. “Everybody, my brothers and sisters, we flew as quick as we thought we could.”

“It was the same in Adelaide where I grew up,” Moore says. “It was just expected, especially if you were a musician, that you had to get out of there. You had to go to Melbourne or Sydney, and then when you got there, you had to go to London. You didn’t even talk about it, you just did it.”

The Coral Snakes were tight, but the music was subtle, with Moore mostly using brushes and often playing xylophone. When they took the album on the road – first supporting Hunters & Collectors, then the Cruel Sea, playing outside the inner city for the first time – they had to toughen their sound. Moore picked up sticks again.

“We were just screamed at by thousands of people, drunks in Traralgon,” Graney recalls. Moore remembers fights in the car park outside beer barns with a shudder. The band started leaning on new, harder-rocking songs from what became the next Coral Snakes album, You Wanna Be There But You Don’t Wanna Travel.

A couple of years later, Graney was an improbable winner of the ARIA award for best male artist, beating John Farnham, Paul Kelly and Perkins. He dressed for the occasion in a pink crushed velvet suit, shades and a pompadour wig. “King of Pop,” he said drily, before making clear that he wasn’t a solo artist by thanking Moore – who wore a tiara.

It wouldn’t have happened without Night Of The Wolverine, which didn’t even dent the charts but left the most enduring legacy. Graney and Moore are constantly recording and touring, both as a duo and with their ensemble the mistLY, but You’re Just Too Hip, Baby and Three Dead Passengers remain staples in their set.

“I appreciate people still being interested in our music and we’ve learned which songs have kind of lived on in people’s brains,” Graney says. “We’ve been able to continue being musicians through people around Australia knowing a couple of our songs – and we can build a show around that.”

First published in the Guardian, 13 April 2023

Scroll to Top