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Treasure in the attic

The golden age of singer–songwriters

Hans Poulsen on a natural high, 1971.
Hans Poulsen on a natural high, 1971.
Cover: December 2011 - January 2012December 2011 - January 2012Medium length read
 

As far as romantic professions go, it’s up there with lighthouse-keeping, lion-taming or jobbing as a private detective in Los Angeles in the 1940s. The hours are long and the chances of earning decent money low. The rewards are mostly received in private, although what you create is made to be shared. You will watch as people your age in other trades pass you by in their accumulation of worldly goods. In accepting this you will have to be your own biggest believer to carry on, because without your own faith and the love of what you do, you will fail. There will, however, come times – such as passing through customs, or at a dinner party, or on meeting a person who you think may be the love of your life – when being asked what it is you do, you will say with chin up and a shine in your eye, “I’m a singer–songwriter.”

The currency of the trade is songs. Things made of magic. Big puffs of inspiration often constructed in a half-hour to hour grab from an appealing combination of notes, chords and rhythm, heard and then pursued by the writer on a guitar or keyboard. It can be after months of sweat that, joyously, a song appears. The creative process is very different from the point-to-point labours of the playwright, painter or novelist. With songwriting, the temptation is to link it to the art of alchemy: base metals into gold, the explosive results of an experiment, all of which feeds back into the allure of the great endeavour and explains why certain famous (and not-so-famous) singer–songwriters can walk around with the secrets of the universe in their smile.

Songs are not only the lonely work of the songwriter. Songwriters can be found in bands, and songs can be written or ‘jammed’ by groups playing together in practice rooms. And it is often these songs, with the image and popularity of the rock group behind them, that gain the greatest exposure and attention. The music industry, especially when working with the large 16- to 40-year-old demographic, is primarily oriented to rock bands, with each group’s success the result of a contest over who has the best songs. Meanwhile the singer–songwriter plods on, playing to an ever smaller market niche, until the day of reckoning arrives when radio no longer automatically playlists you and you find yourself, perhaps not coincidentally, hitting 40. Miraculously the songs don’t stop. In fact, with the getting of wisdom and the boon that middle age (first divorce?) is to subject matter, a singer–songwriter can be writing some of the best songs of their lives at the very moment when their career is bottoming out.


The golden age of the singer–songwriter was a ten-year stretch from the mid ’60s to the mid ’70s. The best work of this period is amazing and has been a source of inspiration to generations since; prod any of today’s young troubadours to name their favourite albums and instantly they will wax perceptive over Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Neil Young’s Harvest, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. It was these artists and others a shade less mercurial, such as James Taylor, Don McLean, Cat Stevens, Carole King and Jackson Browne, who fired the first wave of young men and women to pour out their poetic perceptions on the acoustic guitar. And just as The Beatles had inspired thousands of young men across Australia to pick up electric guitars and sing tight harmonies, and as psychedelia then forced many of the same men to middle-part their hair and don Edwardian-style finery, a similar homegrown response grew up of hushed, strummed songs coming from a counterculture traumatised by the Vietnam War and political activism and ready for softer sounds as they headed out of town ‘to get it all together in the country’.

Australia had its own singer–songwriter movement to chronicle the mood and the changes. And from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s a raft of albums was released, often with major-label support, on ‘progressive’ labels such as Infinity, Sweet Peach and Ash. The songwriters promoted their records in folk clubs, at mud-caked rock and hippie festivals, and if they had a political song or two in their bag, which most had, they’d find themselves playing to university students seated on refectory floors around the nation. And from these albums there even came a few hits. Three come instantly to mind: ‘Rock & Roll (I Gave You the Best Years of My Life)’ by Kevin Johnson, ‘I Am Pegasus’ by Ross Ryan and ‘Winter in America’ by Doug Ashdown. There were other artists on the scene, too, less commercially successful perhaps, but who still surfed the coverage in mass-selling music publications such as Go-Set, or who snuck TV exposure on the ABC’s groovy music show GTK. These were serious singer–songwriters: Glenn Cardier, Mike McClellan, John J Francis and that smiling, 12-string-guitar-totin’ hippie who had a couple of hits as well, Hans Poulsen. All of them made albums, a few each in the gold rush of concerts, radio play and media acclaim.

And where are these records now? Where is their cultural presence – as evidenced by the difficulty of trying to buy or access many of them, but also at a deeper level, given they are products of a very vibrant time in this country’s cultural, political (‘It’s Time’) and musical history; where are they? The only conclusion you could come to is that outside of a few elderly record collectors hunting through vinyl bins at the edge-of-city record fairs, the great majority of the work of the first generation of Australian singer–songwriters has been forgotten.


Around the middle of 2011 there was a scruff-up in the media concerning a topic that always grabs space and opinion: which are the best Australian albums? The appearance of three different lists over a short period sustained the discussion for longer than usual. Two of them came from the ABC’s youth music broadcaster, Triple J, which under the title ‘Hottest 100 Australian Albums of All Time’ (‘hottest’ being a brand associated with the station and designed to groove-ify the notion of ‘best’) collated and promoted the results. One poll was termed the ‘Industry 100’ and represented the choices of more than 175 “of the country’s top musicians and industry experts”. On this list was just one album released between 1968 and 1974, Skyhooks’ Living in the 70s (1974), which scraped in at number 100. From the station’s predominantly 15- to 30-year-old audience came ‘The Listeners’ Poll’; it too had one album from this period, also Living in the 70s, coming in a little higher at number 75.

Appearing just before the Triple J polls was a 256-page glossy hardback book, The 100 Best Australian Albums, compiled by three noted rock critics, John O’Donnell, Toby Creswell and Craig Mathieson. They included 11 albums from the 1968–74 era, the highest entry being (again) Skyhooks’ Living in the 70s, this time at number 9, and the lowest being the Morning of the Earth soundtrack (1972) at 100. Of their 11 albums only one was made by a solo artist and it, Wings of an Eagle by Russell Morris, is a compilation of songs written by Morris and other writers. Not one stand-alone singer–songwriter album from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s was to be found on any of the lists.

What to conclude?

Either the research of all concerned has been sloppy, or the albums in question are at best mediocre, at worst bad. If none has lodged in cultural memory, or in the thinking of the 175 or more industry experts, or in the findings of three experienced rock critics, then maybe the albums weren’t all that good in the first place. More Seals & Crofts than Cohen and Mitchell. Deserving of their obscurity. The songwriting probably leaned to the soft centre of things, with ballads dedicated to ‘ladies’, a few righteous shots at ‘the man’, some Lord of the Rings whimsy, a dragon or two, all wrapped up in those ‘smoke dreams’ that the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band used to sing about.

Admittedly their cause is not helped by the fact that not one of these singer–songwriters made a long-running, high-profile career for themselves. Australia has produced many great rock bands, but where is our Neil Young? There is no songwriting giant trailing a comet of albums, brilliant to bad, stretching back to the ’60s, spooking and inspiring the Australian music scene in the way Dylan or Paul Simon do on their home turf. One big career would have thrown light on the circumstances that forged it – a romanticising of an Adelaide folk scene, perhaps, or a singer–songwriter circle in late ’60s Kings Cross. And there would have been benefits for the lesser-known talents, who in the slipstream of the one big star would have their own careers better documented and more strongly imprinted in memory. It is ironic that many of the today’s best-known singer–songwriters – Paul Kelly, Nick Cave, Don Walker and Stephen Cummings – came from punk or the time of punk, the very movement that helped kill off the hippie singer–songwriter.

But what if there has been a miscalculation made in the valuation of these albums? I mean, when was the last time anyone went up in the attic and had a look around? What if the prime reason for their lack of recognition is lack of availability? And they are very hard to find. Many of the albums were born of shonky business dealings: a first vinyl pressing is done, it goes out of print, and years later it is not popular enough to justify a CD reissue. So it dies. Try finding a record shop, and when you do see what happens when you ask for Glenn Cardier’s Days of Wilderness or Graham Lowndes’ Survival’s a Song. No, if you want to do any kind of reconsideration, the records will have to be tracked down. It will involve making record-shop connections and being put in touch with serious collectors.

And at the end of the exercise, after choosing and listening to, say, 15 albums, there might not be a stack of great records uncovered, but perhaps there will be one lost masterpiece: the album that should be at number 10 on everyone’s list. That would justify the search. A couple of intriguing candidates have been circling through my mind for some time now. Remember G Wayne Thomas’ great, early ’70s hit single ‘Open Up Your Heart’, off the Morning of the Earth soundtrack? He made a solo album. What’s that like? And Terry Hannagan, a well-known jingle writer, made one album back in the early ’70s called Tired from the Trip. What’s that like? And of course there is The Age of Mouse, a long-rumoured classic from Doug Ashdown that was Australia’s first-ever double album.

It’s time to climb the stairs. I’m going up to search around and it will be a cold-eyed assessment, with no clichés about having to wear patchouli oil and patchwork jeans to dig the music. Songwriting standards will be adhered to; song quality shall be examined. And, oh, the irony is not lost on me that at this moment of investigation both the indie-rock scene and its roots-music counterpart have been choked for the past few years with bearded young men and wispy young women who look and sound so much like the very songwriters I will be listening to. Xavier Rudd resembles John J Francis. Bob Evans could be Hans Poulsen. And Angus and Julia Stone look like they’ve just stepped out of a Tamam Shud gig circa 1971. If there is a right time to step back into the early ’70s to find out what got lost, it is now.


A place to start, a bridge from the known to the unknown, is the soundtrack to the successful 1971 surf film Morning of the Earth. Surf soundtracks were a prized opportunity for bands to get into studios and record, and their contribution to silently shot footage was usually a floaty kind of progressive rock. Morning of the Earth broke the mould in a number of ways, one of which was the crafted weave of footage and locations with more song-oriented material. The album has never been out of print, it is a classic deserving of a place higher than number 100, and it works now as it did then as an introduction to a number of obscure singer–songwriters.

Terry Hannagan has one song on the soundtrack. ‘I’ll Be Alright’ is a beautiful, rolling ballad, sung in an acerbic tone that plays both to the defiance in the lyric, ‘You can tell them I’m living in the country / Or that I’ve given up the fight’, and the gentle finger-at-authority stance of the film in general. On the strength of the song and his vocal performance, it is a shame that Hannagan didn’t get to make an album after Morning of the Earth, as the solo album he made the year before, Tired from the Trip (1971), is a disappointment. It is a loose try-out of styles from a songwriter who was probably impressive in the clubs, but a little at sea in the recording studio cutting a debut album.

With three stellar songs on the soundtrack, including the film’s mammoth signature tune (opening lines: ‘The voices of the universe / And the elements of space’), G Wayne Thomas’ debut album must have come with high expectations. But even more so than Hannagan’s Tired from the Trip, Open Up Your Heart (1973) is a letdown. The title track is resurrected from the soundtrack, and around it is a very thin collection of ‘love’ songs, written in the hope of further top-40 hits. Some of the production touches from the film can be heard: the swooping strings that come in on second verses and the high electric-guitar lines soaring in late choruses, but the songwriting, and the heart that once went into it, has vanished. Morning of the Earth didn’t open the floodgates to a rush of quality albums; instead the vision of the film forced the singer–songwriters to focus and deliver. It is the high-water mark.

Bruce Woodley was in The Seekers and he wrote songs for them. In London he met a pre-fame Paul Simon and together they composed ‘Cloudy’, which ended up on Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme LP, and ‘Red Rubber Ball’, which became a worldwide hit for The Cyrkle in 1968. These are strong singer–songwriter credentials, and two and a half years after The Seekers’ break-up Woodley went into the studio to cut his debut solo album. It’s called Just Good Friends and it’s something of a tease. The cover is great: Woodley in green velvet flares, a billowing kaftan-like top and sporting a moustache and beard. And with the tight and spare ‘Friends’ as an opener, a speck of treasure has been found and anticipation is high. But the album and the artist sadly can’t escape the pull of commercial folk and its production predilections for strings, female singers and big choruses.

Another melodic songwriter Woodley worked with was Hans Poulsen, co-writing his biggest single, ‘Boom Sha La La Lo’. This and another radio song, the great ‘There’s a Light Across the Valley’, are on a jumbled debut album called Natural High (1971). Far, far better is Poulsen’s second album, Lost and Found (1972); it has no hit singles, which may have impacted on his career at the time, but instead is a surprisingly focused and mature song cycle evoking the thrills and spills of rural hippie life. Recorded in Melbourne with the cream of the scene’s roots musicians, Lost and Found comes two years before the more celebrated eponymous debut album by The Dingoes, and more than two decades before the quality bluegrass-influenced albums of Paul Kelly.

Going deeper, with no hits and little to no commercial impact, are Glenn Cardier and Graham Lowndes. Cardier is one of the few songwriters from the period still active, self-releasing three fine albums of quirky roots and blues since 2002. On his website the reclusive singer–songwriter doesn’t list the three albums he made in the ’70s, the first of which was Days of Wilderness (1972). It is an interesting album – early songs from a serious young man. Love, usually prime subject matter, is barely mentioned, an emotion it would seem too frivolous to contemplate amid the existential questions being explored on numbers such as ‘The Juggler’ and ‘I Am the Day’. There is surprisingly little folk influence: the finger-picked Spanish guitar evokes Leonard Cohen, while the string and keyboard arrangements push the album to a poetic pop not a million miles away from late ’60s Bee Gees. Lowndes has not aged so well. His debut, Survival’s a Song (1973), was released on Albert Productions, so it sits beside early recordings from John Paul Young and Ted Mulry. Not that the album feels compromised: Lowndes, left to his own devices – a bluesy voice and a lot of self-righteousness in the songwriting – manages to sink the record himself. A self-financed follow-up, Mouthmusic, is slicker, but not better.

Doug Ashdown’s The Age of Mouse was first drawn to my attention by The Church’s lead singer and songwriter, Steve Kilbey. It was at a backyard Sydney barbecue in the early ’90s that Kilbey, in full flight, three inches from my face, remonstrated in astonished disbelief: “You don’t know The Age of Mouse!” It was as if I’d missed the career of Elvis Presley. Twenty years on, the record sits before me. The sound, as I am becoming increasingly accustomed to with early ’70s music, is grand – brass, strings, choirs – and on top of this cacophonous pop (à la Richard Harris’ ‘MacArthur Park’) sits an even larger lyrical agenda. The record is a concept album of little coherence plotted around God and religion in the modern age. This is the time of Jesus Christ Superstar, the revival of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet and, in the case of The Age of Mouse, a musical debt to the first two albums by The Band. When Robbie Robertson wrote ‘I pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling about half past dead’ on ‘The Weight’, lightbulbs sparked in the heads of a generation of singer–songwriters: witness the career of Brian Cadd. Even Richard Clapton, on his debut album Prussian Blue (1973), wrote ‘And Mary Magdalene is just inside/ And she’s trying to cool her feet off in the bathtub’.

No survey of early to mid ’70s Australian singer–songwriters would be complete without considering the work of two of its best-known proponents, Ross Ryan and Kevin Johnson. Ryan, more than most of the other songwriters, is interested in relationships, and with his confident high voice it is not difficult to see why he was commercially successful. A Poem You Can Keep (1973) is his major-label debut and it is a strong collection of 11 songs. The production, by Peter Dawkins, is restrained in comparison to the work of other producers of the time, who either didn’t get the idea of letting songs stand alone or just couldn’t resist throwing on more keyboards, drum rolls and flutes to fill any gaps. With the breakthrough of his smash hit ‘I Am Pegasus’ in 1974, Ryan’s songwriting by his third album, After the Applause (1975), had lost some of its innocence and gained more self-pity, the melodically capable songs by now dwelling on one subject a little too long: the plight of ruined women. But A Poem is a beguiling beginning and one of the best debut Australian albums of the decade.

 

I can still remember when I bought my first guitar

I remember how good it felt as I put it proudly in my car

And as my family listened fifty times to my two-song repertoire

I told my mum her only son was going to be a star

 

Here it is. The lament of the singer–songwriter. Kevin Johnson’s ‘Rock & Roll (I Gave You the Best Years of My Life)’ was a startling song to hear on the radio in 1974, and if any song by its own strength could lift an album into top-100 contention, it is this one. There is a wild combination of things at work on the track: Johnson’s dry, almost mumbled vocal delivery, a great tune and a lyric that, in its chronicling of the struggling singer–songwriter and his fate of playing catch-up to overseas musical trends and being ‘always just one step behind’, reflects the central dilemma of the Australian ’60s music scene. The curse of distance. The rest of the album, unfortunately, doesn’t come close to the title track. Whereas ‘Rock & Roll’ has elegance and bone-dry wit – ‘Bought all The Beatles records, sounded just like Paul’ – the other songs point to Johnson’s time as a freelance songwriter in Nashville, with their cosy musings on childhood, regret and the passing of time.


So a Hans Poulsen and a Ross Ryan album deserve consideration and most definitely a CD or digital re-release. And as I listened to the records, there also came a realisation that went beyond the question of top-100 lists. It’s to do with the idea of Australian rock being ‘always just one step behind’. Only in the mid ’70s did two things happen that gave rise to what are still the bulk of the best Australian rock albums, especially those from the ’80s – and they are bizarrely unrelated. They are the formation of the Little River Band and the arrival of punk rock.

The Little River Band in 1975 gathered up the hungry ’60s survivors: Glenn Shorrock from The Twilights and Axiom, Beeb Birtles from Zoot, singer–songwriter Graham Goble and, very importantly, the ex–Masters Apprentices’ bass player Glenn Wheatley as their manager. They decided to do the business side of things properly and back that up with well-recorded albums filled with commercial rock aimed at the American market. This model helped bequeath the big-sounding successful albums of INXS, Midnight Oil, Icehouse and Men at Work. As for punk, it was the first musical movement where Australia didn’t lag behind: The Saints had drawn the pre-punk dots together in Brisbane and dropped their amazing debut single, ‘(I’m) Stranded’, not after the parade had passed, but in 1976 when punk was growing. This inspired bands that had less industry support but a similar confidence that they too could make world-class albums – groups from the underground such as Radio Birdman, The Birthday Party, The Go-Betweens and The Triffids.

And before all of this was the first round of singer–songwriters and their albums, with the industry leaning on them to write hits, the producers not always sympathetic, and the songwriters often putting their first batch of songs to tape. The results sometime sound a little embarrassing, but there is always plenty of passion and the themes are straight out of an old university textbook – Sex and Society. Today’s singer–songwriters, by contrast, are more self-conscious and cool. That’s what startles when looking back: hearing the anger and despair and righteousness; a time when singer–songwriters were wrestling with history and convinced their songs were part of a dialogue with the changing times; then the times changed and their albums disappeared in the smoke. They’re in the attic, any time you want to go up and have a look.

About the author Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

 
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