Tagged: the Cruel Sea

“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

The Great Australian Songbook II (40-31)

As promised from yesterday. I’ve tried to cover as many bases as possible in terms of decade and genre, avoiding multiple selections for the same artist.

Without further ado, here’s the list from 40 to 31.

40. COSMIC PSYCHOS – Lost Cause (1988)

It was Spinal Tap who pointed out the fine line between clever and stupid. In Australia, you won’t find three smarter beer-swilling yobs than The Cosmic Psychos. This isn’t a song about punching above your weight – it’s about being out of your weight division entirely. “Dr” Ross Knight, the band’s bass player, is a farmer from outside Bendigo who’s been known to cancel tours when his tractor breaks down. At the time he wrote this song, he was working part-time in the medical records department of a local hospital, where he fell under the spell of an attractive young lady who’s “only 19, not a has-been!” “I was about 25, 26 at that point, a bogan fucking pisshead,” Knight recalls. “I said to a mate of mine, ‘I wouldn’t mind taking her out,’ and he goes, ‘Nah – have a look at you! She’s a lost cause, mate!” The song was later covered by L7 and The Prodigy.

39. DO RE MI – Man Overboard (1985)

After the comic ribaldry of the Cosmic Psychos, it’s nice to follow Lost Cause with the best piece of feminist polemic set to pop music in Australia since Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman. Do Re Mi’s lean, agitated funk provided all the space required for Deborah Conway’s sharp-eyed, razor-tongued portrait of a relationship in terminal decay. Critic Toby Creswell reckoned Conway had a voice like a braying donkey. If that’s the case, it’s even more impressive that a song with no chorus and lyrics that referenced sexual boredom, penis envy and anal humour actually became a top five hit.

38. SEVERED HEADS – Dead Eyes Opened (1984; remixed 1995)

Australia is not well known for its electronic music output, but long before the Avalanches scored with Since I Left You in 2000 there was Tom Ellard’s brilliant Severed Heads. Exploring the space between the industrial terror of Suicide, the pop smarts of New Order and the minimalism of Kraftwerk, the creepy Dead Eyes Opened was both of its time and ahead of it, and proved it by being a hit twice: once upon its release in 1984, and then again with a remixed version in 1995.

37. DAVE GRANEY & THE CORAL SNAKES – You’re Just Too Hip, Baby (1993)

On one hand, Dave Graney is an eccentric from Mt Gambier, South Australia who’s read too many Raymond Chandler novels. His genius is in filtering his influences through his own uniquely idiosyncratic worldview, and you won’t find a better example than this minor hit from 1993 that set the former Moodist on his way to unlikely Australian King of Pop status a couple of years later. “You take a feather from every bird you see / You’ll never fly” is the perfect rejoinder to a jaded hipster, accented by Rod Hayward’s stinging guitar breaks.

36. MENTAL AS ANYTHING – The Nips Are Getting Bigger (1979)

One of the all-time great Australian drinking songs. It starts out just drinking beer, then it progresses to Jamaican rum, and things are all downhill from there for poor Martin Plaza: “Wiping out brain cells by the million, but I don’t care / It doesn’t worry me even though I ain’t got a lot to spare.” Reg Mombassa’s splashes (splatters?) of guitar are as colourful as his designs for Mambo, but it’s Plaza’s sad, funny and true portrait of everyday alcoholic waste that, once heard, never leaves you.

35. REGURGITATOR – ! (The Song Formerly Known As) (1997)

First, there’s a chuckle. Add a clipped white-funk guitar (which actually sounds more like Chic’s Nile Rodgers than Prince), then a belching bass keyboard fill, and voilà: instant party. Except it’s a party that Quan Yeomans doesn’t want to go to. He’d rather stay at home, dancing in ugly pants in the comfort of his suburban lounge room. Regurgitator are amazingly versatile – they can do hardcore, they can do pop, and their contribution to Australian hip-hop is massively undersold, but this wonderful paean to the socially awkward is their finest moment, and propelled its parent album, Unit, to triple-platinum status. Thank you, Mr DJ.

34. THE CRUEL SEA – This Is Not The Way Home (1991)

This is a driving song, best suited to very long, very straight, very red roads far beyond Woop Woop, with a bunch of mates and a case of beer for company: just leave the actual driving to whichever one of you is least inebriated. Snatches of conversations, casual observations, hints of violence and a chugging rhythm – Dan Rumour’s introductory snippet of guitar before the rhythm section kicks in is akin to a smooth change from third to fourth – and you’re away, with the throttling slide guitar in the chorus putting the whole thing into overdrive. Somehow, I’ve never been busted speeding to it.

33. DIVINYLS – Back To The Wall (1988)

Boys In Town, Pleasure And Pain, Science Fiction and the masturbatory epic I Touch Myself were all bigger hits, and it would be easier to choose any of them for popularity’s sake. But on this killer tune, Chrissy Amphlett nailed her tough but vulnerable rock-chick persona for all time. Swathed in co-conspirator/lover Mark McEntee’s echoing Rickenbacker and unobtrusive keyboards, this is dangerous, borderline stuff, all the more compelling for its restraint: the predicted eruption never arrives, but Amphlett’s threats hang in the air, leaving you cowering in a corner.

32. SCIENTISTS – Swampland (1982)

Years ago I was trying to write a book about Australian garage rock under this title, and I bumped into the song’s author, Kim Salmon, at a Mudhoney show earlier this week. He joked that at the rate I’m going, he’d have his memoirs out before my own effort. He’s calling his work-in-progress Nine Parts Water, One Part Sand: How I Invented Grunge, and while he’s at least partly joking, there are plenty (Mudhoney included) who don’t dispute his claim. The Scientists were doing the soft-loud thing long before the Pixies, and with equal style: imagine the Count Five, the Cramps and Creedence jamming in a garage, and you’re back on the Bayou.

31. LAUGHING CLOWNS – Eternally Yours (1984)

After the Saints, Ed Kuepper formed the all but unclassifiable (and, occasionally, all but unlistenable) Laughing Clowns. With three virtuoso players in their ranks, the Clowns were musician’s musicians, with Kuepper – one of this country’s greatest guitarists – backed by drummer Jeff Wegener and saxophonist Louise Elliott. Here, Elliott’s the star, building from an austere melody to a stupendous climax: prepare to have your breath taken away at 4.21, when she holds a long note for eight full seconds, before taking flight for an extraordinary finale. Rock music doesn’t get much more stirring than this.