Tagged: R.E.M.

Waiting: The story of Van Duren

From the Velvet Underground onwards, the annals of popular music are stuffed with stories of artists who fell through the cracks during their careers – only to be granted belated entry into the pantheon decades later. Big Star are another famous example – an early-70s power-pop group from Memphis signed to Ardent (a subsidiary of legendary soul label Stax), whose three highly influential records were hampered by distribution problems.

It wasn’t until 10 years later, through groups like R.E.M. and the Replacements, that the Big Star name began to spread. It’s a mystery, therefore, that it’s taken more than another 30 years for Van Duren – another gifted Memphis power-popper who moved in the same circles as Big Star, and was managed by early Rolling Stones impresario Andrew Loog Oldham – to receive similar attention. Bizarrely, Duren doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

Waiting, named after one of Duren’s most affecting songs, is a documentary that makes a concerted attempt to rescue this one unlucky musician (there are millions of them) from the margins. It was conceived by two first-time film-makers from Sydney, Greg Carey and Wade Jackson. After being mutually smitten by a rare Australian pressing of Duren’s first album, Are You Serious? (1977), the pair resolved to track down the man himself and tell his story.

In fact, the film tells two stories. Duren’s is fascinating and sad, albeit familiar to anyone versed in the unjust world that is the record business. Duren moved with some of its best and brightest, and Are You Serious? brought him flattering comparisons to Paul McCartney. But a bum deal meant ownership of his work remained in the hands of his label, Big Sound, and a second album, Idiot Optimism, didn’t see the light of day until 1999.

There was also the label’s Scientology connections, which meant they attempted to convert all the acts on their roster. Duren, already in debt, just wanted to finish his record, which he correctly thought was his one shot at stardom. It flopped, and by the mid-80s, after another near-miss with another band, Good Question, his musical career was as good as over.

The second story is a buddy film about how the documentary was made, with Jackson and Carey the heroes of their own adventure. This is where Waiting falls down. Much is made of their amateur status, and that they came to the film being down on their own luck. There are fist-bumps and high-fives with each breakthrough in their investigations, and as the pair track their quarry we get to see minutiae like booking flights.

But Duren was hardly elusive. They found him on Facebook, and he was happy to help. It’s a puzzle, then, why interviews with him are audio files, until late in the film, when Jackson and Carey meet their hero on camera. Other interviews with Duren’s associates, which are professionally shot, are excellent and revealing. Hearing Duren speak from early on robs the film of suspense leading up to his big reveal. He wasn’t hiding.

The filmmakers’ tendency to get in the way of their subject is exemplified at the film’s climax. To use Duren’s songs, Jackson and Carey needed to license them, and permission wasn’t forthcoming. With the help of a pro-bono lawyer, they win back Duren’s ownership of his own music. Triumphantly, they return the masters and remaining stock of Are You Serious? to his home. Duren is clearly moved, but a clunky voiceover spoils the moment.

Duren is a fine subject for a documentary and the story is passionately told, but at moments like these, it’s ham-fisted in its delivery. If not for Carey and Jackson’s super-fan level of commitment, though, Australians wouldn’t have the chance to see him performing live on our shores for the first and perhaps only time this month. Duren, who has been waiting a long time for his due, can thank them for that.

First published in The Guardian, 7 April 2019

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

Out of the black

Martin Phillipps still has his leather jacket. It was bequeathed to him by his friend and band-mate Martyn Bull, who died of leukaemia in 1983, just as his group the Chills – arguably the pick of the many groups to emerge from the post-punk wellspring of Dunedin, New Zealand in the early 1980s, was taking flight.

A song about the jacket became one of the Chills’ greatest singles. “I love my leather jacket, and I wear it all the time,” Phillipps sang, although these days, he confesses, he can no longer fit into it (it was last seen in public in a glass case as part of a New Zealand art exhibition, simply called Black).

The jacket was “both protector and reminder of mortality”, and now, on the eve of the release of the first full Chills album in 19 years, Silver Bullets, Phillipps is facing up to his. He looks fine, but has just returned from a liver scan: he is in the fourth stage of Hepatitis C. “As yet there’s no sign of cancer or lesions,” he says.

It’s not terribly reassuring. Phillipps knows he may not have a lot of time, but after years of waste, filled with depression and a prolonged period of drug use that was the source of his illness, he’s determined to make the best of it. “I don’t think it’s worth spending too much time dwelling on it. I’d rather just be productive.”

Around the turn of the 1990s, The Chills were the band most likely, and arguably the most deserving. Introducing themselves with the song Kaleidoscope World, from the landmark Dunedin Double EP – the first release by the influential Flying Nun label – their second album, Submarine Bells, had them on the cusp of stardom.

That record opened with Heavenly Pop Hit, which was almost everything its title suggested, other than being an actual bona fide smash. Lighter than air, it was filled with the same whimsy as Kaleidoscope World before it, while the album retained the darker undercurrents of another early single, the deeply unsettling Pink Frost.

The band’s label, Phillipps remembers, envisioned them as the next R.E.M. Then grunge happened, and Britpop, and techno, and acid house. The Chills, beset by near-continuous line-up changes, faded from view. “They’d realised that I had nothing like Michael Stipe’s charisma, and that we were all a bit weird.”

The band’s fourth album, Sunburnt, was released under the name Martin Phillipps and the Chills in 1996, after the rest of the band were disallowed entry into the UK to record it. It was gorgeous. It bombed. This time Phillipps, who’d faithfully climbed back on the horse after each and every setback, didn’t get up.

“There came a point where I just fell off, and something drastically changed,” he says. “That was when the drugs – which had kind of been around a little bit, but more as a stimulus to get going – really got their claws in, and the whole depression thing.” He cites Harry Potter: “It’s like having a Dementor suck the life out of you.”

But Phillipps refuses to buy into the so-called Curse of the Chills. “Actually I think I’ve had a pretty good run, really,” he says. “Here I am, at 52, having made music the main thing of my life as a career since 1978 or ’79 … Any band of any duration is going to have worse stories than we’ve had. Although we’ve had some unusual ones.”

Since Sunburnt, the band has mostly lain fallow, even as Phillipps managed to assemble the longest-serving line-up in its history. Last year’s single Molten Gold, which also featured a new recording of Pink Frost, was the first new music since an EP, Stand By, from 2004.

Songs had kept coming to Phillipps, even as his physical and mental well-being faltered. All the while, the worldwide cult surrounding the Chills, which extended to fellow Dunedin contemporaries The Clean and Chris Knox (who himself suffered a debilitating stroke in 2009) grew.

Having accepted that just as people had inevitably moved on from the band – “People just get sick of you,” he reasons – Phillipps also suspected that, eventually, their music would be rediscovered. It just took a little longer than he thought to become an elder statesman. “I’m a legacy artist now,” he quips.

Silver Bullets, released by London label Fire, is the sound of a band that may as well never have been away. The songs – sometimes driven by intricate guitar lines; at others floating on a bed of keyboards – are there. So are the environmental and political concerns that never stoop to condescension or preaching.

There’s also the obsession with marine life. Behind Phillipps, amid stacks of records and awards, a copy of Submarine Bells stands out, its single image of a jellyfish on the sleeve. The cover of Silver Bullets, though, features barracudas. What once bobbed and drifted has been replaced by something more direct, sinuous, and menacing.

[1992 album] “Soft Bomb was about pacifist impact, about having to do something, but non-violently,” Phillipps explains. “Silver Bullets is not advocating violence, but it is saying that is the way things are heading. Silver bullets represent a violent solution against dark forces.”

Offers are flooding in, but it’s not easy to take advantage of them from the bottom of the world. Phillipps estimates a tour of the US will cost the band $100,000. “All five of us are now paying mortgages, everyone’s got jobs, two of us have families. It’s not like we’re in our teens or 20s and can crash on people’s couches.”

Then again, there might not be much time left. “I feel a lot of pressure,” he says. “Not just for myself, but for the band that’s stuck with me. There’s this growing awareness of just how many more Chills fans there are than I suspected, and how seriously they’ve taken the music, and that they want me around for a long time making more.

“It’s no longer just my decision. To some extent a lot of damage has been done, and I don’t know what the prognosis is. [But] the more I’m feeling happy and making music, that kind of energy has got to be a good healing kind of energy to have, rather than sitting around moping about what might be.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 7 November 2015