May 2015

Vox

The perfect name

By Robert Forster
Did a ’70s soft-rock group predict the future of music?

On my 57th birthday in June last year, I had a revelation that on appearance had nothing to do with age or celebration. It could be regarded as frivolous, not a weighty thought, but it certainly hit with the force of one.

By the way, the best depiction of the creative thought process I have seen is Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock. Sure, it’s a script, but Cumberbatch, as he quickly relays the clues from a crime scene through his mind, his face registering the flashes of insight and connection to arrive surprised and delighted at an unexpected conclusion, based on evidence absorbed or dismissed by all, captures not only the aim of the artist but also the tickling of his or her mind. Not that my process and circumstances were so dramatic. Still, it stopped me, as my brain registered on my birthday that wonderful ping denoting an incoming idea. My revelation? Air Supply is the perfect name for a pop group.

This was new: the gift of age, the turning wheel of taste and perception. I remembered the group from the mid ’70s – two guys, one with blond hair and a guitar, the other sporting an afro and a high voice, breaking through with their first hit ‘Love and Other Bruises’ (one of the great kitsch song titles) – and had thought their name adequate, if a little odd. Forty years later it’s genius. Think on it, and all that could have gone wrong: they both have “Russell” in their names – the blond one is songwriter Graham Russell, the lead singer is Russell Hitchcock – and they constitute a soft-rock act wanting to be pop stars in Sydney in 1975. So, what were the obvious choices? “Obvious”, because this is pop music. The Russells? The Russell Brothers? Hitchcock and Russell? Who are their contemporaries? The Ted Mulry Gang. Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons. The Little River Band. What do they come up with? Air Supply. A conceptual jump worthy of Duchamp, or the brightest advertising person in the world, like whoever came up with “Coca-Cola” or “Microsoft”. What does their moniker even mean? Is it a term relating to the installation of air-conditioning, perhaps? Is it medical? The question then is, who had the mind to take this fantastically abstract, light moderne phrase and attach it to two musicians fresh out of the 1975 Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar?

The answer to this riddle has always been consistently told. “Graham said he had a dream … and in the dream was a billboard surrounded in lights with the name Air Supply, and that was all that was on,” recounted Russell Hitchcock in a recent interview, and this rings true. It is a name that could only come from a dream. The conscious mind turned off, allowing unexplained associations – a de- or re-wired state that could place “pop group” and “air supply” in close enough proximity to connect. A billboard surrounded in lights also fits: it’s a classic show-business frame. And yet that doesn’t quite explain to me, providing the required click of acceptance, how a jobbing musician in the mid ’70s, the man who wrote ‘Love and Other Bruises’, could come up with such a brilliant name for his band.

It now sits beautifully. Two words, abstract meaning. The best single of last year, ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’, was by Future Islands. The groovy bands over the last few years have been Cloud Nothings, Flying Lotus, Hundred Waters and London Grammar. In the late ’90s the hippest band in the world with hit singles was Air. Try this: walk into the offices of a record company and announce you’ve discovered the future of pop – two scraggy-haired guys in fluorescent clothing (both with Lars in their names), living in a cave in Iceland with synthesisers hooked up to solar panels – and they’re called Air Supply. The staff will turn en masse and chirp, “Perfect.”

The greatest legacy of Air Supply could be their name, proving that average bands can have good names, just as great bands can have crap names – Radiohead being the only piece of evidence needed there. Exposure, though, to the group’s early hits ‘Lost in Love’ and ‘All Out of Love’, pleasant, McCartney-esque balladry, reveals that some soft pop of the ’70s and the early ’80s (listen also to Seals and Crofts’ ‘Diamond Girl’) is appealing. Folks, the Air Supply revival is on.

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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