James Reyne releases his first album in eight years this Friday, July 10th, which is exactly forty years after the release of Australian Crawl’s debut album, The Boys Light Up. (Note there was an ep released about four years ago).
I didn’t want to do this. When the question came, did I want to interview James Reyne? My first thought was, 'why?' He’s no longer on my radar. I’ll get someone else to do it.
There was no-one. So, I dutifully knuckled down and played a few songs, and played a few songs, and played a few more songs and was ecstatic there was no-one else. Because James Reyne’s new album, Toon Town Lullaby, is a wee beaut. A revelation. Not, I’m sure, to his many fans who have followed him and remain current. But to me, who was a big fan of Australian Crawl, it has been indeed a very pleasant surprise. And I discovered he was born in Lagos, Nigeria. Trivial pursuits, anyone?
Let me assure you from the outset that pursuing Toon Town Lullaby is neither trivial nor diversionary. Let’s chat to James and find out a little bit more:
So, next week is the 40th anniversary of The Boys Light Up. And you are releasing your first album for 8 years. Let me ask you for a point of clarification as I ask my question. Is Toon Town Lullaby the first track on the album?
So where is Toon Town?
Toon Town is fictional but based loosely on Nashville, where James went to do some writing, which is what a lot of people do these days, not just country singers. Music Row is where all the big record companies hang out and it has a mixed reputation among musicians, kind of a cartoon town, or Toon Town. (Note, this is not the Nashville which I love for AmericanaFest). Anyway, he’s writing a song about the late Blaze Foley, a virtually unknown singer/songwriter from Austin Texas who wrote the song If I Could Only Fly, and was murdered by a guy called Carey January who was later acquitted. Toon Town brought all these notions together along with a Top Gun (pilots) saying “I’m gonna kick some tyres, light some fires and punch a hole in the sky”. Not unlike Blaze.
But I need to get back on track, because the way the album came down for me…
The first thing I hear is “that was then, and this is now” and I’m immediately motivated to revisit the Australian Crawl records, which of course I did. Is the first line a deliberate reference to albums past, or something else?
Well, sadly, no, it’s a reference to the six years or so when James commuted to and from Los Angeles to make a couple of albums.
The song is called A little ol’ Town South of Bakersfield. Bakersfield is in the ugly part of California, and is where Merle Haggard came from, so what is the little town to the south?
Silly me, that’s LA of course, it’s how the people from Bakersfield refer to the big monster down south. But Bakersfield is indeed where Merle Haggard came from, and he made the Blaze Foley song a hit, and so there’s another reference to Blaze learning to fly hidden in the song, which, by the way is a ripper of a big Aussie country rocker.
But I still want to go back to Australian Crawl, because I played all my records again the moment I heard this song. Stuff I hadn’t played for up to 17 years.
So, 1980, the glorious days of Aussie rock. What a time. The Oils were already out, Cold Chisel, but then there was this huge outpouring of happy, cheerful, bouncy music from Mondo Rock, Men At Work, Inxs, New Zealand’s Split Enz had their breakthrough album out in 80, Mi-sex were making a mark, (and don’t forget Dragon, and Mental As Anything, and Hoodoo Gurus and…..) and there was you and your mates making a name for yourself as Australian Crawl. Was it a deliberate choice to say it so unequivocally, like, make no mistake, we’re from Australia?
No, wrong again Roger, they were Australian Crawl because that was the swimming stroke, plus, they didn’t want to be a “The something” band. And Australia is alphabetically superior to Mondo or Men. Top of the list. Well, that figures.
What was it like for you back then? I mean, I was around, and Aussie Rock was a refreshing contrast to the doom and gloom of post punk in the UK, or the synth rock of Ultravox, Or Bowie’s 1980 statement Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. Looking back, what was it that motivated this outburst of happy music?
You see, the thing is, maybe I (Roger) am the only one who calls that period in Australasian music “Aussie Rock” To the guys who were doing it, it was “pub rock” because there were heaps of pubs, large pubs, catering to live bands, and the competition was fierce, and the punters wanted something to play to their mood, which might have been described as chemically induced shickardness. It has never occurred to me that when I was travelling around Europe and Africa in the 80s, I was inventing and promoting a genre which didn’t exist consciously in the minds of its proponents. Oh dear. Such is life, as Ned Kelly did say. But oh, what a time!
So who was the tallest man you’ve ever known? Tell us about him. How tall was he?
The Tallest Man I Ever Knew is a gorgeous song on the album, a country rock ballad, with a Simon & Garfunkel “lai lai lai”, and it’s about James’ best childhood friend and band colleague who was so tall they used to have him on and ask if they spoke French way up there. That was Brad Robinson, 6 foot 6, and Australian Crawl guitarist, who sadly passed away in his late thirties. I tell him about my favourite tallest man, Skyscraper Stan, who he has heard of, but not heard. Well, James, you just have to bloody listen to Stan, he’s also very tall.
Is Indisposed about you? Being hit by a car?
Indisposed is the opening track of side 2 of The Boys Light Up (Records take sides) and for the first time I am right, it’s a song about James being hit by a car and having both arms broken. Just as well he wasn’t the lead guitarist. But it was written by Brad, who was the lead guitarist, and his father, who was a judge, and I didn’t know that, so I’m secretly pleased I asked that question at this time. I can get off my Australian Crawl pilgrimage now. But check this out, from 1980:
Toon Town Lullaby, it’s been 8 years since you last released a full album. When do you decide you are ready, when is it time?
Well, it’s hard to say. Nobody listens to him anymore, well not in terms of a serious effort in listening to a body of work (Poor James), so there’s never (I interpret) any commercial pressure to release anything. Just a sense of, he has these songs, he has a producer (Dorian West) with a home studio, he doesn’t need anyone else, apart from a drummer, so it’s a nice easy relaxed process of doing a record without pressure, and get the songs out.
It’s at this point when I erupt, and tell him my true feelings about the record, which I’ll save until later, sorry, you have to read on (unless you listen, then you’ll figure it out sooner).
I’m impressed by the quality of your voice. Many of your contemporaries, or maybe those who came from a decade earlier, have struggled to maintain range and tone as they get older. You seem to be getting better, and I think you have said that in another forum
Singing is now a craft, and like any craft you get better the more you do it. And it wasn’t singing way back then, more like controlled and uncontrolled shouting. So yes, he knows he is a better singer, and he looks after his best instrument, and that’s what we hear on the new album, a finely tuned and crafted voice. Could be the Elton John of Australia, the old (meaning young) Elton John, it sounds that good.
How does it feel, being one of the senior, if not elder statesmen of Aussie Rock? It’s probably you and Barnes and Mark Seymour, right?
He goes all modest on me, and yes, there are probably a few others I have missed, like Paul Kelly, but although he doesn’t mind being referred to as such, it’s not something he promotes, even sub consciously.
I’m having fun discovering some of the new, young, well in some cases not so young, bands coming out of Australia, where it’s clear they are influenced, at least in part, to the Aussie Rock bands of the 80s. Bands like Ocean Alley, Rolling Blackouts, I just discovered Wing Defence. Are you mentoring? Are you listening? Who else is catching your attention?
He’s heard of these bands but resolves to try and listen. It’s true, everyone is influenced by what has gone before, whether they’ve discovered the old stuff themselves or simply listened to their parents or, as in James’ case, older sibling’s tastes in music. And it’s gratifying to be cited as an influence. What’s even more gratifying is to hear his own audience changing to reflect his solo stuff, not just Australian Crawl.
One thing I also notice is that they are mostly all writing together as a unit. In Australian Crawl, I notice you all brought your own songs, at least that’s what the credits imply.
Oh, but that was then, and this is now. Hard to remember. Everybody brought their own stuff, and in those days, there was the perception that the songwriters made all the money, which would make a songwriter out of anyone, no matter if they were any good or not. Today of course, it’s not the same. So perhaps there’s not as much competition for writing credits
You are Trying to Write a Love Song and have your Last Great Love Affair. I see you got married just recently. Is life good? What makes life good?
Life is pretty good, he thanks me. But The Last Great Love Affair is more to do with the birth of his daughter, and that feeling of unconditional love which arrives with any newborn, but for a man, especially with a daughter. So, although his new wife probably thinks it’s about her, it’s not. (I hope she doesn’t read this).
This allows me to go back to Africa, because I have a daughter who was born in Senegal, and James was born in Lagos, Nigeria, which can be a pretty grim place. He doesn’t have much of a memory of life in Lagos, because his parents left when he was just three. So it’s just a name on his birth certificate, nothing more. I could tell him some stories…
In an earlier publicity release, it mentions references to Warren Zevon, Jimmy Buffet and Blaze Foley. Where do I go to pick those out?
James is a big fan of Warren Zevon, and somewhere in the album he’s stolen a line of Warren’s, “desperados under the eaves” so I’ll look out for that and keep it a secret. And there’s another line in A Little ol’ town South Of Bakersfield which refers to Jimmy Buffet. We’ve already dealt with the reference to Blaze Foley.
Ok, when do we get to see the new songs live?
Well, that’s the big question. Victoria has taken some big steps backwards in the past two weeks, with some suburbs back in complete lockdown, and the reality is probably putting touring back until next year. But he’ll be here as soon as he can, he loves New Zealand, and it’s not yet clear whether he will be touring on his own, or with Mark Seymour (Hunters and Collectors) as previously planned.
Back to the album. I’ve talked about a few of the tracks already, opening with Toon Town Lullaby and the Bakersfield song. But it’s three tracks in when the penny starts to drop. Low Hanging Fruit takes me back to the Australian Crawl ballads but then forward to Elton’s Sleeping With The Past. Then Burning Books seals the deal. I am listening to Australia’s Elton John. Then later on there’s Trying To Write A Love Song, and The Last Great Love Affair. Calamity Jane and This Time are classic Australian rock ballads, as is The Tallest Man I Ever Knew. And ten songs in, it’s not James Reyne, it’s the Wrong Guy which finishes the album. Not the one I started to listen to, or at least anticipated.
In fact, listening to this album is like rediscovering Elton John after Tumbleweed Connection. After a long time. I’m so happy it’s never too late.
My apologies James, I’ve been ignoring you. Never again. King James, long may you Reyne.
Toon Town Lullaby is out this Friday, July 10th. Don’t miss out!
And check out some more Australian Crawl