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Boxing clever

I am going to be Kara Kidman’s guest on Out of the Box, on Radio FBi Sydney, 12pm Thurs 25 June. Tune in: 94.5 on your FM dial or, if you’re not in Sydney, hear it streamed online via

The format for Out of the Box is that the listener chooses a playlist of about ten meaningful songs, plays them, talks about them.

I went through a bunch of different choices before landing on my final list – a list I still thought could have been improved upon as I headed out the door, armed with the discs, to head to the station. One thing that could have been included was ‘El Paso’ by Marty Robbins.

Robbins was a ‘singing cowboy’ who specialised in ‘outlaw ballads’ and I grew up listening to him because my mother had a K-Tel compilation tape of his greatest hits. ‘El Paso’ is my favourite: a cowboy fancies Salina, a Mexican girl who works in Rosa’s cantina ‘out in the west Texas town of El Paso’ (El Paso being Mexican for ‘The Pass’ – it is, as you’d expect, on the border of Texas and Mexico – and New Mexico, as it happens). In time, the protagonist realises he has a rival for Salina’s affections, a flash young man who is far more enticing. A gunbattle ensues, the protagonist shooting ‘the handsome young stranger’ dead. The protagonist rides out to ‘the badlands of New Mexico’ to evade rightful retribution for his crime But he misses Salina, so brazenly rides back. But there’s a posse waiting. You can guess how it ends.

Another song I wish I’d had room for was ‘You’re A Good Man Albert Brown’ by the Dukes of Stratosphear – a band I became aware of by stumbling upon the most gorgeous record cover ever, for their first album, 25 O’Clock. They were a psychedelic band. A mock psychedelic band, it turned out. They were in fact XTC trying to recreate the psychedelia of their youth. I still didn’t know this when, years later, they released their follow up album Psonic Psunspot. The lead single was ‘You’re A Good Man Albert Brown’, a song with the aftermath of World War I as its setting. Lord Kitchener was on the cover.

I didn’t know why psychedelia involved Victoriana – vintage army costumes like the ornate ones worn by the Beatles on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I do now: apparently amongst the images and sensations unlocked by the drug in the form of hallucinations are memories of youth – it encourages a retreat to childhood. And for many young musicians in the 60s, this entailed memories of Granny’s house: photos of uncle so-and-so who never managed to return from the Somme, and so forth. Well, that’s English psychedelia; in the US, it was often cowboys and indians or civil war regalia.

My copy of the ‘You’re A Good Man, Albert Brown’ was pressed on ‘psychedelic’-coloured vinyl. Instead of black, it was multicoloured. It looked like vomit, actually. I can’t remember when I discovered the Dukes weren’t a new band who liked sounding old, but a less-new band who liked sounding older. It didn’t really matter. They created that ‘vintage sound’ quite well. And they gave rise to my own cod-psychedelic band, Psychedelic Spew.

Anyway, neither of these made my list. Here’s what I went with:

1. ‘Favourite Pack Of Lies’ – Steve Kilbey, The Slow Crack

I was a late-comer to Sydney band The Church, but I fell in love pretty early with the solo work of their bassist Steve Kilbey, for two reasons – the album The Slow Crack with its elaborate psychedelic cover art, that I stumbled on while filing records away behind the counter at the record shop I worked at – and this song, ‘Favourite Pack Of Lies’, that stood out when I put the record on while working back one evening. I was hooked. Eventually I got into the band as well. In fact I worked briefly with Peter Koppes, the lead guitarist of The Church, about 15 years ago. He still invites me to gigs. Awesome local talent, still going strong!

2. ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ – George Harrison, Brainwashed

This really should have been the single from Harrison’s posthumous album. It should have been included on the recent compilation Let It Roll, and issued as a single. As it is, it’s an excellent, under-rated song that captures George and his love of ukalele. It also betrays a love of ‘granny music’, an accusation often leveled at Paul McCartney, by John Lennon.

3. ‘My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama’ - Frank Zappa and the Mothers – Weasels Ripped My Flesh

I became a Zappa fan(atic) after someone I worked with in a record shop (it was the late-’80s, we still sold records) told me if I ever see Zappa albums secondhand, I should buy them. They were hard to get. I’ve blogged about this before.

I had a hard time deciding what song to play. It’s a matter of balancing the humour, the ribaldry and the musical chops. This has the first and third without so much of the second quality.

4. ‘My Name Is Nobody’ – Ennio Morricone, Film Music

One of the really popular CD sets I used to sell when working in music retail was a collection of film themes by Ennio Morricone. One day I found a single-disc compilation that was kind of a ‘best of’; let’s face it, for the novice, all you really want is ‘The Good, The Bad And The Ugly’ and ‘The Mission’; anything else is a bonus. Fist Full Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More… either, or, or both, whatever.

So I used to bung this on, listen intently to the opening track – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly – and then let it fade into the background. Sure, I’d notice it again when ‘Chi Mai’ came on. In the UK, it was the theme to The Life and Times of David Lloyd George, which means nothing to me. In Australia, it was the musical accompaniment to one of those short interstitials that would fill time between shows in the afternoon on the ABC. Maybe it was a hot air balloon, or people ice skating? I don’t remember.

Then I discoverd the deliciously dark sitcom Nighty Nighty, written and starring Julia Davis. The theme music seemed so familiar, but just out of my reach. I thought it was maybe the instrumental break of a late-’60s pop song. And then I somehow remembered it was one of the Ennio Morricone themes that I didn’t recognise, most likely to a spaghetti western I’d never seen.

5. ‘Rhubarb Tart’ – John Cleese, – At Last the 1948 Show

At Last the 1948 Show is one of two immediate precursors to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It featured Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman, while Do Not Adjust Your Set featured Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and, eventually, Terry Gilliam. Both date from 1968. The following year the six began working together as Monty Python.

‘Rhubarb Tart’ is a foolish novelty song set to the tune of one of John Philip Sousa's marches. It prefigures a lot of Python interests, including the name-checking of philosophers, artists and Lionel Bart (writer of the musical Oliver!, among other things). Sousa made a career of composing marches, one of which was ‘The Liberty Bell’. Which went on to feature as the theme to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And the ‘Every Sperm Is Sacred’ sequence in The Meaning of Life is one of the best parodies of Oliver! ever perpetrated (think: ‘Consider Yourself’.)

6. ‘From Beginning To End’ – Psychedelic Spew

When I was in Year 8 my English teacher was a cool guy called Steve Green who wore the widest, psychedelic ties and, up until that year, a big handlebar moustache. He looked a bit like Dave Crosby, before Crosby became a walrus. That year, Mr Green set an assignment for students to work together and create a package – writing, artwork, video and recordings if possible – of a band. Some people chose real bands. Some mates and I came up with Psychedelic Spew. We were into the Beatles, and I was particularly into psychedelia (and Steve Green’s ties).

The first time I created this track, it was with a record (The Beatles Rock’n’Roll Volume 1; the song’s ‘Twist & Shout’ if you haven’t guessed) recording onto a blank cassette on a Sharp three-in-one hifi unit. For some reason the tape mechanism was so precise that when paused, there was no slippage at all. I must have pressed pause and then lifted it off just before the very end of the song. The end result sounded impressive. That tape has long since disappeared, and while this re-creation sounds as impressive, there’s no skill involved in manipulating and cross-fading digital files. The idea’s still funny.

7. ‘No Wucken Furries’ – Dom Romeo

One Christmas in the mid- to late-’80s my brother convinced me that we should convince our parents to invest in a four-track recorder for the ideal Christmas present. They did. I started work on my ‘heavy concept album’ to be entitled From the Sublime To The Ridiculous – And Back Again! Unfortunately I ran out of teen angst long before I completed the work. There may be a bunch of C60 and C90 tapes with the songs on them somewhere in the house still, but I doubt it. The only one I could lay my hands on was this, which was written and recorded to serve as the theme to a derivative, undergraduate, university sketch comedy show, some of which was actually video taped. The title was someone else’s suggestion.

The best comment it’s had is, ‘it’s so bad, it’s almost good’. I know things aren’t quite in tune, but it was recorded with real instruments, in real time, long before your basic computer came with all the instrument pre-sampled and ready to go, indeed, before every computer was a recording studio. In fact, before most people could afford very much more than a Commodore 64 or Vic 20. 

Actually, the best compliment came from a mate who said it sounded a bit Flaming Lips-ish. I’ll take the compliment.

8. ‘Broad Lic Nic’ – The Doug Anthony Allstars, DAAS Icon

The Dougs are probably my first real contemporary, local comedy love. They were regulars on The Big Gig, a weekly cabaret comedy show directed by Ted Robinson. They were funny, there were musical, the three-part harmonies  – often singing offensive lyrics – were brilliant. For a while, I’d see every Sydney show I could get to. I interviewed them a few times towards the end; I should find those and put them on my blog!

Choosing a song shouldn’t have proved so difficult but I was torn: the popular funny favourite, ‘KRSNA’? The gorgeous, tortured ballad, ‘Bottle’? ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’? In the end I went with the drinking song. I’m fairly certain there’s a Scotish phrase – though I don’t know its original context; it may be the poetry of Robert Burns! – that goes ‘it’s a broad licked moonlit nicked tonicket’. Translated to English, it is in fact ‘it’s a broad, light, moonlit night tonight’ with all the consonants pronounced. So this song is, ‘Broad Light Night’. Possibly inspired by time spent at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

9. ‘Gummy Bear vs Dracula’ – Joe Romeo

As a kid, my big brother was a bit of a dag – he grew up loving classical music and understanding it and knowing how to compose, arrange and orchestrate it. But he never was allowed to pursue it totally – my father’s plans for him were to become a doctor. So now he’s a country doctor with a home studio and when not serving as doctor, psychologist, confessor and everything else a country doctor has to do, he mostly writes and records songs of praise. But he’s started dabbling in electronica. The retro simplicity of this track reminds me of Giorgio Moroder’s stuff in the early ’80s, like the soundtrack to Electric Dreams, with a touch of the classic synthesizer tones of Jean Michel Jarre.

10. ‘Suicide Bomber’ – Tripod, Songs From Self Saucing

I’m always a bit surprised that Tripod can still divide an audience. There are those who think, ‘well, the music’s sound, why do they have to go and ruin it by trying to be funny?’ and likewise the people that would like them better if they were real comedians, and didn’t resort to songs. I say, rubbish. If you know anything about music and comedy, you’d see these guys are brilliant exponents of both. Early on, they had to politely tolerate constant comparisons – warranted or not – to the Doug Anthony Allstars. A shallow comparison to make, but not helped when Ted Robinson revived The Big Gig as The Sideshow and Tripod became the musical trio in residence. But if you are not moved by their music and amused by their comedy, only bring up the issue if you want me to yell at you.

Irrespective of all of that, Tripod’s Self Saucing proved that they had moved on to the next step. It is almost objectively clear that the music and the humour was the most effective and clever it had ever been, taking on a wide bunch of topics including the expected geeky take on popular culture, and, in this instance, modern politics. Great stuff.

11. ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ – David Bowie, Aladdin Sane

There aren’t many Bowie songs I dislike, but among the several that I love, this one stands out for his faultless falsetto, Mike Garson’s excellent piano, and the flamenco guitar. (I should know who the guitarist is, but I don’t.) A gorgeous song from a faultless – in my humble opinion – album. Bowie himself quite likes the song, too – he chose it for a compilation he recently put together called I Select Bowie.

12. ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ – Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Alone In Iz World

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was a Hawaiian lad with an awesome voice. Unfortunately also an awesome girth. I don’t know much more about him other than he died of a respiratory illness related to his obesity. This is one track that you cannot play in a shop or on air without at least one person wanting to know more.

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