THE LONG RUN
DEBBIE KRUGER meet some true survivors of the Australian music scene.
When Kevin Johnson wrote about traipsing around the streets of San Francisco and Londons Soho looking for that lucky break in the music industry, he had never set foot outside of Australia.
Mike McClellan wrote about the life of a singing-dancing showman taking his music to the people in country towns around Australia before he himself had started touring.
And yet Rock and Roll I gave you the best years of my life and Song and Dance Man, hits in the early '70s, were powerfully evocative songs that have stood the test of time, been covered by numerous artists internationally, and were the platforms for careers that have spanned three decades.
For Doug Ashdown, Winter in America was more autobiographical, based on the experience of living and writing songs in Nashville, pining for the Sydney summer. With perhaps the most fragrant opening lines of any Australian composition The harbours misty in the morning, love, oh how I miss December / The frangipani opens up to kiss the salty air Ashdowns lament to leave love enough alone has become one of the great Australian standards.
For Johnson, Ashdown and McClellan (the tri, now in their late 50s, ar calling themselves JAM for a weries of group concerts) being best known for one song has, they all agree, been a blessing even if it means much of their repertoires are unfamiliar to audiences.
And their coming together isnt signalling a return to some long-forgotten genre. If the current hype surrounding artists such as Ryan Adams, David Gray, even Dido (whose praises Ashdown sings loudly) and local heroes Kasey Chambers and Alex Lloyd, has people talking about a singer-songwriter renaissance, these three Australian veterans can only shrug their shoulders.
Its never gone away, Johnson says of the genre, but it certainly struggled for a long time and itll never come back in exactly the same way. Its somewhat cyclical, but never exactly the same.
All three were influenced by rock and roll acts in the 50s, Bob Dylan and the Beatles in the 60s, and then, most obviously, pensive and melancholic songwriters such as Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. The American influence was at its peak in Australian music in the early 70s, when other artists such as Brian Cadd, Russell Morris and Ross Ryan created hits that could have come straight from the US. But things changed when pubs replaced folk clubs as the prevalent live venues.
Its not so much that singer songwriters disappeared, McClellan says, but the environment in which they performed changed dramatically. When the clubs disappeared a lot of writers who might have started trying to do their own stuff solo went into bands, because they werent getting heard in any other way.
Johnson says: I love Midnight Oil songs. They are singer songwriters, too.
Johnson had been writing and recording for some years before his first hit, Bonnie Please Dont Go, in 1971. A dud US recording contract then kept him silent for two years. Rock and Roll (I gave you the best years of my life) reflected his frustration at his own stagnation, and at the futile attempts of Australian artists trying to break in America or England with styles that had already been and gone. When I said I was always one step behind, thats what I felt Australia was doing [musically] at that time.
McClellan started writing Song and Dance Man as a teacher in rural NSW, inspired by the Slim Dusty Show as it moved from town to town, and later adding some personal reflections on the chances one takes in life. He credits its simplicity of melody, sophistication of lyric and catchy chorus for making it his signature tune.
Ashdown metamorphosed from a folkie in the 60s to a rock-jazz fusion musician with Sleeping Dogs in the 70s. His 1970 double album, The Age of Mouse, recorded with co-writer Jimmy Stewart, was successful enough to take them over to Nashville for three years. The mournful Winter in America was an anomaly.
Winter in America has been a really wonderful thing for me, says Ashdown, but people are quite surprised when Ill pick up an electric guitar and rip into a blues solo.
McClellan says: I think the strength of the three principal songs that were all best known for, songs that thank god have developed a sort of classic status, is that they are songs whose appeal has not been as ephemeral as a pop song that just comes and goes and disappears. They were songs of some substance.