The art of the Australian single 1975-80
When I returned to Adelaide in late 1977 after two and a half years away in the U.K., I brought home with me about twenty-five singles. I proceeded to do the rounds of my rather puzzled university friends to show them and play to them these artefacts from the sonic revolution I had just experienced. Most of them smiled politely and poured another cup of tea, but one old school friend from Whyalla said, ‘I know someone else who’s into this stuff. I’ll introduce you.’
That is how I first met Stuart Coupe, then a student at Flinders University and an enthusiastic contributor to the uni rag Empire Times. We hit it off and imbued by the do-it-yourself ethos of the times and encouraged by the worthies at the Adelaide go-to import record store, Modern Love Songs, decided to produce a punk fanzine. Street Fever evolved into Roadrunner and for the next five years it chronicled a golden age of Australian rock.
Of course the exotic seven-inch fruits of that British and American do-it-yourself ethos were gaudily displayed in the import record shops across the nation and were already exerting a strong influence on Australian bands.
While the three most influential early seven-inch Australian independent releases—the Saints I’m Stranded (Fatal Records, Brisbane, September 1976), Radio Birdman’s Burn My Eye E.P. (Trafalgar Records, Sydney, October 1976) and the Sports’ Fair Game E.P. (Zak Records, Melbourne, June 1977)—all set down strong musical markers, visually they were pretty minimalist. The original I’m Stranded had no picture sleeve and stark black lettering on a white label; Burn My Eye had a black and white live shot of Birdman at the Bondi Lifesaver with the title above and the band symbol below in red; while Fair Game had a black and white photo of the Sports in what appears to be the back room of a Melbourne milk bar, complete with pinball machines and pool table.
Roadrunner hung out its shingle at the start of 1978 and, slowly at first, the homegrown singles started lobbing into the post box. Our first singles editor was one of Stuart’s housemates, Mark Burford, later President of the Australian Union of Students and a senior advisor to Labor Education Ministers John Dawkins and Julia Gillard. Mid-year came an offering from Melbourne outfit News. I remember it came in a sleeve of heavy stock that had been soaked in black ink that came off on my fingers, with the name of the band and title stenciled in yellow. Dirty Lies was certainly dirty, but Mark quite liked it, calling it, ‘ … strong, energetic, loud, brash, arrogant and political, in fact everything good about the new wave.’
Lee Remick by the Go-Betweens and Sunset Strip by the Numbers on the Able Label demonstrated there was life in Brisbane after the Saints and both were classy packages.
As 1978 drew to a close, Lee Remick by the Go-Betweens and Sunset Strip by the Numbers on the Able Label demonstrated there was life in Brisbane after the Saints and both were classy packages. Lee Remick with its squeezed photos of Che Guevara and Ms Remick and front cover dedication to John Fogerty, Phil Ochs and ‘that striped sunshine sound’ complemented the quirky A side and especially the literary name-dropping in Karen, the sparse, unabashed Velvet Underground-pastiche on the flip. The out-of–focus photo of the Numbers on their cover was a nice accompaniment to the ramshackle fun of Sunset Strip.
Mental As Anything Plays At Your Party
Adelaide also got into the action with Young Modern’s one and only single, She’s Got The Money—no picture sleeve but with a snazzy mod-inspired check-pattern shirt and collar on their own Top Gear label—and Systems Go with Transatlantic Line/No More Xmas, Carol. The latter came in an oddly shaped picture sleeve with an antique map of the Atlantic and the disembodied heads of the band floating on top. While Young Modern’s singer John Dowler called it, ‘By far the best record to come out of Adelaide in years,’ when he was guest singles reviewer for Roadrunner’s February 1979 issue, the artwork really didn’t hint at the idiosyncratic Tom Waits-meets-Van Morrison vocals backed with jazzy sax, piano and flute within.
Dowler also gave the thumbs up to the U-Bombs’ pleasantly restrained Give Me A Medal, which had a dark picture sleeve with a deep-etched live photo of the band. The wailing sax and vocal echoes of Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator hinted at a prog background for these bombers from Belair in the Adelaide Hills.
The third indie release on Dowler’s watch was an E.P. from a bunch of Sydney art students. Mental As Anything Plays At Your Party on the fledgling Regular Records label was a classy package with a nicely composed black and white Phillip Morris pic of the band on the light blue, yellow and white sleeve with nice lettering above and below. Dowler almost drooled … ‘It’s a real pleasure and a privilege to hear a small record label producing a record that, well it’s really well produced, the sound is incredible and it’s really well arranged.’ Of course, the most well known track on the E.P., The Nips Are Getting Bigger, is now a bona fide Australian classic.
Voigt/465: Secret West/State
The art was really getting into its stride by the time of Roadrunner’s May 1979 issue. After following John Dowler with another couple of celebrity reviewers (Joe Camilleri and Tim Finn), I had taken over the singles duties myself. Sydney’s Voigt/465 served up a mysterious abstracted monochrome image of a rear view mirror on the cover of their Secret West/State single. In the grooves there was a whiff of New York lofts, a happening, an experimental sound collage with some chopped guitar a la Gang of Four for seasoning. Of Melbourne’s →↑→ (tsk tsk tsk) Venetian Rendezvous I said, ‘Ah minimalism, minimalism … this E.P. sounds better on 45 rpm rather than the recommended 33 rpm. Why? Cos it drags on interminably at 33. Nice cover though.’ And so it was, with vertical candy-coloured stripes over what looks like a monochrome 30s film-still of a couple about to kiss. I got the distinct impression that →↑→ (tsk tsk tsk) and their ilk were artists dabbling in music. Nothing inherently wrong with that but in their case I felt the artwork overwhelmed the music—and it didn’t rock my boat.
In June 1979, Bruce Milne started a semi-regular column about independent singles in Roadrunner, so the ones I reviewed in the 45s section dropped away for a while. In that same issue I did mention a couple from over the Nullarbor, the Scientists’ Frantic Romantic, (cough) ‘sub-Saints punk rock,’ but with a nice graphical cover and the Manikins’ Premonition, in a rather run-of-the-mill cover featuring four headshots of the band but musically ‘exhibiting the same pop sensibility that has made the (Flamin’) Groovies a legend in their own lifetime.’
Terminal Twist E.P.
Adelaide’s Terminal Twist were almost the house band at Roadrunner in 1979 and I was rather embarrassingly enthusiastic about their four track self-titled E.P. in that June issue. The tracks, with the exception of Chris Coleman’s Wave Bye Bye haven’t really stood the test of time and the cover, a monochrome full-length posed shot of local identity Vonni Rollan, in a black leather catsuit and shades was, well, just a bit odd.
Whirleywirld’s self-titled E.P. , reviewed in July 1979, had a superb full colour cover, with a nicely composed photo of a girl in a stylish white polo neck, red jacket and white shades, a jet flying overhead and the band’s name in elegant script. The music? ‘Skeletal and automatic (minimal?)’ I wrote. In the same issue both Bruce Milne and I mentioned the Leftovers’ Cigarettes and Alcohol. Recorded in 1978, but delayed in release, this Brisbane outfit made a fast punky noise and legend has it, the picture sleeves for the record were left in a taxi. Very punk, but already sounding a little dated.
The Local Label from Sydney’s western suburbs released its first batch of 45s in mid-79 and Stuart Coupe interviewed label head Arch Brown in Roadrunner’s September issue. Stuart and I both liked Mopsie Beans’ E.P. One Out, variously describing her as a cross between Ivor Cutler, Dory Previn, Nico and Robert Wyatt. ‘Eerie and captivating,’ I opined, however the cover, with just a monochrome headshot of Mopsie was pretty pedestrian. We also liked the Worms’ I Dig The Rain, although I did say the sound was so thin, ‘you had to run around the room to hear it properly.’ The cover however—a childish line drawing of a man, an umbrella and a cloud on a plain white background— was really pretty terrible..
The Worms: I Dig The Rain/ Let’s Call It Quits
Two Way Garden were an inner-city fave in Melbourne, but they didn’t last. Their posthumous E.P. Overnight on Bruce Milne’s Au-Go-Go label, had an arresting cover, muted grey with great original typography writ large and subtle graphical elements, but I found the four tracks, produced by Eric Gradman, ‘wordy and flat’. Gradman’s own band, Man and Machine, were the great contenders of the period, but while the 12 inch single Crime of Passion on Missing Link looked the goods, with a pink cut-out title sleeve and light green custom label, again I found the music production underwhelming.
I had no such qualms with Peter Lillee’s Hanging Round the House (also on Missing Link). ‘It’s a little gem of a single,’ I gushed, ‘right from the fifties Home Decorator illustrations to the ripped-off Eddie Cochran riffs and Jerry Lee Lewis vocal twists. It just oozes fun and warmth and charm and the self-deprecating, wry humour that is so typical of Melbournians …’
Roadrunner production manager Clive Dorman had a go at savaging the singles in the October 1979 issue and amongst the vitriol he did have a kind word to say about Clint Small’s Crack in the Wall (Au-Go-Go)—‘Brilliantly kitch (sic) 3D cover with stallions.’ He wasn’t so complimentary about the music. No such kind words were forthcoming for the Lipstick Killers’ Hindu Gods of Love (Lost In Space Records), although it have a stylish, but slightly confusing, oriental-tinged cover and a quite palatable 60s Nuggets-style sound.
November saw me back at the controls, digging the Numbers E.P. (Local Label) as ‘loud, frenetic and exuberant’, but the cover—large black type on yellow card—was pretty uninspired. I thought the Thought Criminals E.P. Food for Thoughtcrimes (Doublethink) was wonderful. Musically reminiscent of the Buzzcocks, but ‘lyrically exceptional’, it had an interesting graphic on the front cover and song and band details and photos on the back, all printed black on blue stock. ‘If you’re going to buy an indie single this month,’ I fulminated, ‘buy this one. It reveals the reason people why people (in bands) put up their money to get their music across.’
Tactics: Standing By The Window/ Buried Country/ Watch My Hands
And for the final issue of the 70s, Aussie independent 45s on the chopping block included offerings from Tactics, Little Murders and Nasty Nigel. All had decent picture sleeves: Tactics’ Long Weekend E.P. (Folding Chair) with a monochrome pic of a girl lost in a forest; Little Murders’ Things Will Be Different (Au-Go-Go) with a close-up graphic of a cat about to chomp into a mouse; and Nasty Nigel’s Jonestown Suicide (Criminal Records) with a stark drawing of a glass of cyanide-flavoured lemonade. Of the three, I liked Little Murders the best, calling it ‘a short, snappy piece of melodic powerpop that just brims with enthusiasm.’ Tactics I thought came across as ‘trying to sound like the Gang of Four but only making it to the Gang of Two,’ while I suggested Jonestown … ‘would make a great present for someone you didn’t like.’ Hmmm.
I had to deal with the Christmas rush of indie singles in the first Roadrunner of 1980. XL Capris were first cab off the rank with My City of Sydney, their raw, gutsy version of the Tommy Leonetti song that Channel 7 in the Harbour City used to play to end transmission each night. It came in a plain white cut out sleeve with the band’s name stamped on it (as well as ink stamps of some cute little kangaroos). The Credits from Brisbane sent in a self-produced single, It’s You. The cover featured an Yves Montand card from 1970 French flick L’Aveu—its significance to the song, which had a Pretty Things-style riff, repeated throughout, remains unclear to this day. Canberra’s Young Docteurs created a very literal cover for their maxi-single Bronze Portrait, with pills and needles displayed on a white background. The music was graced with flowery lyrics and I advised readers not to try to dance to it (unless they were very drunk).
I christened the Kevins’ And So We Meet (Missing Link) as the ‘first indie disco single’. Disco on Missing Link? I was shocked—as I’m sure my readers were too! The cover featured a young lady getting down and boogying her groove thing (and flashing her knickers into the bargain). ‘My, indie singles are getting varied’, I observed by way of introducing the offering from Adelaide’s Street Corner Jack. Wrong With You, is ‘NOT poppy, punky or reggae-flavoured … (it is) well played, very distinctive and quite enjoyable’. At the time I thought it sounded a bit like Mike Rudd’s Spectrum, but on listening again now, I actually hear some similarities with Supertramp. No pic sleeve, but the band’s cute logo adorned the label.
(The chorus of ) Freud by the Sharks (from Brisbane) … screamed, ‘Freud, Freud/Paranoid/Girls and boys are just your toys’ as the keyboards pumped out the riff from Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King.
Freud by the Sharks (from Brisbane), a song about the wicked ways of psychologists, I found ‘delightful’. With a standard EMI Custom label, and no pic sleeve, the song’s chorus screamed, ‘Freud, Freud/Paranoid/Girls and boys are just your toys’ as the keyboards pumped out the riff from Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King. ‘Imagine the Stranglers with a sense of humour … ‘ I suggested.
The Traitors were a one-off Carlton supergroup put together by writer David Langsam to record three of his songs so he could understand ‘what it’s like from the inside’. Noiseless Workers (Afterwork/Missing Link) was a ‘musically classy offering’ that came in a nice light blue picture sleeve with a yellow line graphic of a man holding his head in his hands. It featured some stunning bass work from Rick Grossman (ex-Man and Machine/Parachute/Bleeding Hearts) and an excellent guitar solo from Randy Bullpin (ex-Bleeding Hearts/Mondo Rock).
To avoid confusion with Sydney’s Numbers, Brisbane’s Numbers changed their name to the Riptides and knocked the ball out of the park with their rip snorting powerpop classic Tomorrow’s Tears (Flat). Featuring a classy cover of cascading hearts, there was ‘a hint of the surf in the guitar licks, a great double shuffling drum beat and even a touch of rinky-tink piano.’ The Riptides are an Australian pop band, I pronounced while reviewing it in the March 1980 Roadrunner, ‘Thank God the breed didn’t die with Young Modern.’
Brisbane’s Numbers changed their name to the Riptides and knocked the ball out of the park with their rip snorting powerpop classic Tomorrow’s Tears (Flat).
I also really liked the Moving Parts E.P. (Muzart). With a black cover featuring three different sized cogs, this Sydney band sounded like a young Talking Heads on Chevy, ‘ … (they) have that same dynamism through spacing the various elements of their music. Production is excellent too.’
On the eve of their departure for the U.K., the Boys Next Door pressed up a single that was only available at their final Crystal Ballroom gig. Riddle House/Happy Birthday (Missing Link) came in a white cover drenched in hand-written lyrics that added a ‘decidedly absurdist humour’ to the ‘complex, sectional and sometimes disturbing music.’
After the somewhat sub-par Frantic Romantic, the Scientists bounced back with a self-titled E.P. (White Rider) that just ‘brims with energy … the band display a concise awareness of melody, but these songs have melodies that rage rather than cajole.’ The E.P. came with a front cover shot of the band casually posing on a Perth pavement.
The reconstituted Saints nailed their colours to the mast with four strong Bailey songs on the E.P. Paralytic Tonight, Dublin Tomorrow (Lost). ‘It’s not derivative, it’s not trendy, it’s not even fast … It’s magnificent.’
In a black and white sleeve with a evocative, high contrast photo of singer Chris Bailey onstage (and branded with the band’s nifty new logo), the reconstituted Saints—starting again from the bottom rung of the recording rigging—nailed their colours to the mast with four strong Bailey songs on the E.P. Paralytic Tonight, Dublin Tomorrow (Lost). ‘It’s not derivative, it’s not trendy, it’s not even fast,’ I wrote in May 1980. ‘It’s magnificent.’
The same issue included the Crackajacks’ Long Blond Hair (Au-Go-Go), which WAS certainly derivative (it was a cover of a Johnny Powers song) but in a beautiful way. In a black sleeve with the band’s logo in red, this was a superb example of Melbourne ockerbilly (it even made Countdown!). Also on Au-Go-Go—which was obviously cranking them out at the time—came the second solo single from Little Murders’ guitarist Clint Small, On the Fourth Floor, in a sleeve with a colourful graphic of a corridor view. A ‘city tale of love and loneliness set to a modern beat. Marvellous,’ I wrote.
Adelaide’s Innocents threw their hat in the ring with the self-penned Identikit Girl (Distressing Records). With no pic sleeve and a plain label, the band let their music do the talking and it wasn’t bad—despite a rather weak production, they delivered a ‘catchy pop song with excellent harmony, good melody and pretty decent playing too.’
The final single for the month was Mean Mistress (White Rider) from Perth band the Rockets. In a silver cardstock sleeve overlaid with black that left the stylish art-deco style type and graphic exposed in silver, I found this ‘raw and urgent’, with echoes of early Boys Next Door, ‘good harmonies, powerhouse chording, solid bass and drums and a pretty exciting lead solo’. Band members Rod Radalj (guitar) and Boris Sudjovic (bass) went onto cult fame as members of Le Hoodoo Gurus and the Scientists (in their ‘swamp-rock’ phase) respectively.
The Dagoes Sell Soul E.P.
Onto June and the flood showed no signs of abating! Four months after ‘breaking up’, Adelaide’s record store mafia, also known as the Dagoes, released their debut single. We Sell Soul (Greasy Pop), in an Italian flag sleeve, was a bit of a revelation. While as a live proposition, the Dagoes had always struggled to translate their musical aims into a palatable noise, the three tracks on this vinyl pizza, with the excellent vocals of Dick Dago a standout, were no joke.
Also from the Athens of the south came the Hounds. Little Darling had a rather mundane pic sleeve of a brick wall with the band’s name set at an angle and despite some murky production was ‘quite catchy, spritely paced, (with) choppy guitar’—a commendable debut.
For various long-forgotten reasons, Roadrunner’s singles coverage was interrupted for a couple of issues in the winter of 1980 and on resumption in September, Adrian Miller (still playing at the time of writing with Adelaide’s rock’n’soul institution, Plan B) was wielding the scalpel. The Boys Next Door had made their moved to England and their first offering under their new name, the Birthday Party, was Mr Clarinet/Happy Birthday (Missing Link—also released on 4AD in the U.K.). With a fantastic graphic sleeve—a stylised skeleton head playing a clarinet with the band’s new moniker coming out the end in a speech bubble—it reminded Adrian somewhat of Andy Partridge from XTC. ‘Thankfully someone is putting mass appeal second to creativity,’ he observed.
The Birthday Party’s first offering under their new name was Mr Clarinet/Happy Birthday (which came in) a fantastic graphic sleeve—a stylised skeleton head playing a clarinet with the band’s new moniker coming out the end in a speech bubble …
Next up was a triptych from Au-Au-Go, the Marching Girls with True Love; High School by Little Murders and Is There Somebody Out There? by Z-Cars. The Marching Girls offering, in a pic sleeve with a matrix of 15 arty, band-related photos, was a re-recording of their New Zealand original. Adrian thought it ‘a gem—a classic example of what the New Wave was supposed to be all about.’ (The band re-recorded it again in 1987 for the soundtrack of the Richard Lowenstein film Dogs In Space). For much the same reasons, Adrian also liked High School, which came in a pic sleeve of a close-up photo of a school tie and blazer, but didn’t go for Z-Cars.
Meanwhile in Sydney, import record store Phantom Records made the decision to start making records as well as retailing them. Two of the label’s first three offerings got an appraisal from Mr Miller, who was particularly taken by some cover art. ‘I Belong to Nobody by the Flaming Hands is attractively packaged in basic black with a photo of the band on the back and a dramatic facial pose by the vocalist Julie Mostyn on the front. The reason I mention this is because thumbing through new singles one day, I picked this record out, never having heard of the band, as definite must to listen (The power of positive packaging?).’
I Belong to Nobody by the Flaming Hands is attractively packaged in basic black with a photo of the band on the back and a dramatic facial pose by the vocalist Julie Mostyn on the front …
On the music, “I was not disappointed. A medium paced ballad—comparisons with the Pretenders are uncalled for but it does give you some idea.’ On the other Phantom platter, Cool In The Tube by the Surfside 6 (which included sometime Roadrunner scribes Toby Creswell and Richard McGregor) Adrian was less impressed: ‘… has very little appeal at 3 a.m. on a freezing cold morning. At least it reminds us that summer is just round the corner.’
I was back in the chair in time for the November 1980 issue and kicked off with the first indie single from Adelaide for a while and it was a corker. Atomic Fiction by Nuvo Bloc came in a pic sleeve with an alien head in the style of H.R. Giger and the band name in Computerfont. In the grooves, vocalist Vonni Rollan ‘intones a post-psychedelic narrative, weird high-pitched synthesizer darts in and around, there’s a sax solo with an almost Egyptian flavour—the whole piece has a stunning arrangement … and the production is superb’.
From the sublime, to the ridiculous. Phil Latterley and His Singing Dog, Molly gave us Howl on Australia (Axle). ‘A real bent one this,’ I declared. ‘Me? I find it about as funny as a bowl of PAL. Then again, I’ve always considered dogs should be seen & not heard’.
The Ears featured quite a striking high contrast head shot on their independently pressed Leap for Lunch. Inside it had a ‘a jaunty guitar line (and) slightly humorous lyrics sung by a trembling voice. Nicely rounded sound and shows promise’. Moving Parts imparted a ring of confidence with their second release, the bright and breezy Living China Doll (Alternative), which had a black and white trompe l’oeil illustration of a snail making tracks on the cover.
The Saints: Always/ In The Mirror
And so to the end of 1980 and the last Roadrunner of the year, with the assassinated John Lennon mooching in a Hamburg doorway on the cover. In the Forty Fives column, I was still in the chair and praising the Saints for a worthy follow up to the ‘superior excellence’ of the Paralytic Tonight … E.P. In a minimal light brown glossy sleeve with just the band logo in darker brown, Always (Larrikin), featured ‘(Chris) Bailey, loud and clear, a soulful saxophone and a band that rocks without having to break the speed limit. It’s also incredibly catchy.’
Missing Link issued the International Exiles’ Let’s Be Sophisticated in a red sleeve with I.E. in large white letters—a bit unimaginative, but the reverse of the sleeve had a nice pic of the band hanging out on a pier. ‘A fashion song with little lyrical depth but sounds great after a few listens,’ I opined.
Sekret Sekret’s New King Jack … ‘tapped that same ethereal whimsy that made the Bee Gees so wonderful in 1966 and 1967 …
And the final two singles I reviewed were from a new Sydney-based label, Basilisk Records. The Singles’ Someone That I Knew came in a great Roy Lichtenstein-style pop art cover and featured, ‘Rapier-thin guitar, muted propulsive rhythm and catchy chorus—another mutant pop 80s pop single from Sydney.’ And even better was Sekret Sekret’s New King Jack. In a sleeve with a floral bordered picture collage of the band and gothic lettering, I gushed that the band, ‘tapped that same ethereal whimsy that made the Bee Gees so wonderful in 1966 and 1967. This is an intriguing and wonderful single. New psychedelia anyone?’
Back in the May 1980 Roadrunner, I had mounted the soapbox on the subject of the single. In retrospect, it’s not a bad summary of the state of play in Australia approaching the end of the 1975-80 period.
‘With the single resuming its rightful place in the U.K. (singles have outsold albums there since 1977) and the Australian independent single movement absolutely BOOMING—lead by the redoubtable and prolific Missing Link conglomerate in Melbourne and Doublethink (and later, Phantom) in Sydney—this really is a golden age for singles.
‘… more often than not, a band has maybe two or three GREAT songs, i.e. two, or maybe three, singles and when they are let loose to do an album, the majority of tracks don’t cut it.
‘What I’m basically trying to say is that the single is the ultimate pop form. One song (because most B-sides are still filler) that whoever is responsible for existence considers the best that that particular artist has to offer at that point in time.
‘And that’s why I feel the independent single is worth the push it gets in Roadrunner. An independent single is one paid for (in most cases) by the band members themselves. It’s not a sampler for anything (except perhaps the major record companies. It stands on its own.’
* * *
Commissioned by Murray Bennett for Product 45: Australian Punk / Post Punk Record Covers. The book, to be published in December 2015, looks at the art of the 7’’ record sleeves of Australian bands from 1975-80. The book can be purchased here.