Australian Crawl held court around Australia’s pub rock scene for just seven years, but the sound of the band and the themes of their songs are the story of numerous Australian summers.
As a solo artist, James Reyne has released over a dozen albums, continued to tour Australia and internationally with audiences of up to 200,000 people.
ABC Newcastle’s Carol Duncan caught up with James Reyne ahead of his Anthology tour.
“I’m enjoying it more now than I ever have. I’ve developed an attitude over the many years that I’ve been doing this that it’s amusing. You can’t let most of it worry you. Certainly most of the people of my generation who were in it for the wrong reasons or the shifty ones have been weeded out. There are still a couple floating around and you run into them occasionally and think, ‘How is this person still here?’
Knowing my attempt to get James to name names will be rebuffed, I ask anyway.
He laughs, “No, I’m not going to name any names because they’re usually quite litigious people anyway.”
“I just think it’s quite amusing. It’s like a crash-course in human nature. You see a lot of extremes of human personality in quite a short time, and up close!”
“I’ve made some fantastic friends and there are some wonderful, wonderful people who work in this industry and most people are genuine with depth and credibility.”
James Reyne, particularly given the success and image of Australian Crawl, is perhaps seen by many as the quintessential sun-kissed Australian, yet like so many of his generation of peers he wasn’t actually born here.
“The ten-pound Pom thing, and Adelaide – the ten-pound Pom into Adelaide. It astounds me. A little city like that, the amount of music that came out of there either British or Scottish-based. We owe Adelaide. But yes, I was born in Nigeria,”
“My father was an Englishman in the Royal Marines, he was ADC to the Queen, but he left. He didn’t want to be a career soldier. He got a job with BP and he was posted to Nigeria. My (Australian) mother and he were not long married and they went to Nigeria when he was posted there. He’d be out in the field and she’d be sitting in a house in Lagos and my brother and I were both born there.”
“I was tiny, three or four, when we came to Australia. I have a really vague memory of one little thing in Nigeria, but I don’t really have any other memories of it.”
James Reyne is heading toward 40 years in the Australian music industry with a career that has taken him to stages around the world with massive audiences, but names Creedence Clearwater Revival as one of the first bands he remembers hearing on the radio.
“There were probably things I heard before that but I remember hearing Creedence and thinking, ‘Wow! What is that? I want to do that!’ I’d have been 10 or 11 and it was probably Proud Mary or Born on the Bayou or something like that. I’ve been a total fan of John Fogerty ever since. I love all the Creedence stuff and some of his solo stuff. Like everybody, it was my formative years, I just love all that and that led me into other things and I was just hooked,”
“There was a great show on the ABC called ‘Room to Move’ and it was hosted by a guy called Chris Winter. I think it was a Sunday or Monday night, quite late; we used to listen to it on the radio under the bedclothes. A few years ago I did a show with Tracee Hutchison on ABC 2 and Chris was our producer, I remember going, ‘Chris Winter WOW!'”
“He was brilliant, and I was hooked. His whole approach, his on-air style, his whisper – it was brilliant. So I fell in love with that, it was the first sort of album show. Then I started to get into albums with my friends at school. We’d collect albums and we had a little folk club – we got quite serious about
“I remember really loving records from Creedence, Little Feat, Ry Cooder, Jerry Jeff Walker but I think Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks ‘Last Train to Hicksville’ – as a whole album there’s not a dud moment on it. So if anyone can find it, get it. It’s brilliant. The whole history of Dan Hicks and his influence – he was in a band with a guy called Robert Hunter who essentially invented the San Francisco scene. This is before The Grateful Dead and so on. I was really in to the sociology of it – the background of who influenced who,”
“I used to pore over the album covers and sleeves and read all the liner notes. I don’t know that there’s much you can put on liner notes now that would be as interesting as they were then. That was your only access because there was no Google or anything. Your only access to any information about the band is what was in the liner notes.”
By the time James Reyne was just 20 years old, his band with a group of art college mates had been renamed Australian Crawl and taken off on the pub circuit, and although James admits that although they had no idea what they were doing, they were having fun.
“I was never thinking, ‘This will be my career’ or ‘this will be my job’ or ‘this will be something I’ll do for another 30 or so years and keep doing’,”
“We weren’t very good. The first band was terrible! But you’ve got to do your apprenticeship and you start learning. But I wasn’t aware of it, we were just doing it.”
James Reyne has always appeared to be a complex person; well-spoken, intelligent, thoughtful, possibly a bit feisty. What about the 20-year old James Reyne?
“I was at the Victorian College of the Arts Drama School and it was about then that we all had to make a decision, are we going to do our tertiary courses or are we going to do this band thing? I guess it wasn’t so much ‘serious’ but we figured, ‘I guess you’ve got to make a decision and if you’re going to do it you have to dedicate yourself to it’.”
“But the 20-year old was, I dunno, pretty happy-go-lucky. He had a big mouth.”
Was he confident?
“I guess relatively confident, but if I saw what I thought was a ‘real’ band or anybody from a real band somewhere down the street, (I thought) they were a cut above me. I never thought I’d be breathing that rarefied air. I just thought ‘those guys must have an extra gene’.”
“Joe Camilleri. I’d see The Falcons all the time, I’d see The Sports, I’d see The Pelaco Brothers and Joe and Steve Cummings were in The Pelaco Brothers.”
“Where we grew up on the Mornington Peninsula, in summertime they used to have bands come down and play in the boat clubs down there. Every club had a boat house that they’d put a stage in and bands would play in there,”
“In my last year of school I used to go to a place called Reefer Cabaret in Melbourne at a place called the Ormond Hall and I remember I loved Arial, I loved Spectrum, Chain – I loved all those great 70s Australian bands. I remember going to the Myer Music Bowl when Thorpey (Billy Thorpe) had 200,000 people there. I was a fan of all that stuff. I remember seeing Skyhooks before Shirley (Strachan) joined. I was aware of Shirley, I didn’t know him, but I was aware of him because there was a surf band that played around where we grew up called Frame and Shirley was the singer of that band. He was such a personality, everybody was aware of him.”
“It was certainly a very unique time and a very formative time for Australian music, for Australian rock and roll and pop music. This is pre-Countdown and any of that stuff and there were so many great bands around; The Dingoes, Carson – I was a huge fan of Broderick Smith. What an incredible presence on stage, incredible singer and harmonica player. He was in a band called Carson, sort of boogie/blues band, and then they went and formed The Dingoes,”
“I used to see as many Dingoes shows as I could. There’s a pub in Prahran called the Station Hotel, I used to go to the Station Hotel quite a lot and they’d have Saturday afternoon sessions where The Dingoes would often play. That would just devolve into fantastic mayhem.”
I’ve interviewed James Reyne a few times over the last 20-plus years and I’ve never quite felt convinced that he’s entirely at peace with his back catalogue of wonderful work. I have often wondered if he perhaps underestimates the importance of his music to his fans. Is this why it’s taken so long to get Anthology together?
“Well, it’s actually got very little to do with me! A record company merger meant that the new label realised that the Australian Crawl back catalogue wasn’t available digitally, and although they can kind of do whatever they want because they own the masters, they asked if I wanted to do it and bring it up to date. I paid for my more recent solo records so I made a list of about 50 or 60 songs, cut it back down to about 40. And good on them. They’ve put the solo stuff on there, the ones that people would know, but it’s a good cross-section of all of it right up to the most recent stuff. Why did it take so long? I never thought of it! It’s just the story so far, I’ll keep making records.”
But has he been dissatisfied with the big machine of the music industry?
“I’m not so naive as to think that’s just the nature of how it works. You’re there as long as they need you and then you’re not and that’s fine and that’s the way it works. No, it’s not dissatisfaction, a lot of my amusement or ammunition I can get for song writing is just human beings. So aspirational but so easily impressed. People get so easily impressed with all sorts of things, not just the entertainment industry,”
“But I think we’re all aware now with the media generally people are drip-fed what they’re supposed to be hearing and seem to lap it up. And adopt these opinions! They read a crappy headline and that becomes their opinion and they know all about it! Well, no, you don’t. You haven’t studied the situation in the Middle East. You don’t know.”
“In terms of the entertainment industry I find a lot of fodder in the way people are so easily impressed and so aspirational about all this silliness.”
In a time when independence is increasingly a healthy option for artists and creatives of all sorts, does James Reyne feel there is a disconnect between the work of an artist and what a corporate entity only sees as ‘product’?
“I think the role of the big, big record companies is getting less and changing. Certainly changing, they’re less significant in the scheme of things. They’re still there and still part of it but I think the disconnect between art and commerce is always going to be there.”
And yet independence is creating a healthy relationship between the artist and the audience, particularly via crowd funding – Kate Miller-Heidke being a good case in point. Kate says that crowd funding O’ Vertigo cuts out the middle man and brings her back into a relationship with the people who love her music.
“That’s right. I think the response was so good she raised more than she needed, which shows how loyal her fan base is. I didn’t understand it when it first started happening, but I do now. I think it’s a very viable development.”
“The last four solo records I’ve made I’ve paid for myself and then licensed them to a distribution company – it gets quite expensive and you’re never really going to make your money back.”
“I still love writing, I write more now than I ever have and I think I write better because it’s a craft and I’ve been doing it longer, I apply myself more to it now than I ever have.”
“I’d like to think I’m a songwriter who is always learning, trying to get better and trying to improve the craft. I’m quite self-critical. I’ve also written a few other things but I won’t talk about them because I’ve learnt that you jinx them until these things get up and running!”
James Reyne’s career has also included varying degrees of success as an actor – harking back to his tertiary studies at the Victoria College of Arts Drama School. Is there more he wants to do other than music?
“Oh plenty! I’ve got about five things bubbling along at the moment. A few times people have said, ‘James, you’ve got to write the book’. I’m not going to write the book! The world doesn’t need another rock autobiography and I think unless you can write the real book and name names,” James laughs, “you’re going to get the pasteurised version of something of nothing ….” Who wants to hear that stuff? It’s boring. It’s been done. That’s not to say anything bad about anyone who has written a rock biography, because some of them I know and they’re lovely people. Mark Seymour wrote a great one. I loved Mark’s (book). He’s a friend and a good writer.”
On a roll, the tongue remains firmly in cheek.
“I always wanted to do ‘Australian Crawl The Musical’ and you either do it as a really bad kids’ play and get kids to play it with terrible home-made props or you do the most stonkingly gay thing you’ve ever seen with a chorus of boys in tight board shorts! We could do that!”
I suspect I’d be happy to see either version and after interview number whatever over a couple of decades, James Reyne actually sounds more genuinely comfortable in his own skin than he ever has.