hoodoo gurus

Showing 20 posts tagged hoodoo gurus

(Let’s All) Turn On

In a way, I’d always been waiting for them. Tutored by mid-70s AM radio, the “Red” and “Blue” albums, the Monkees, KISS, and New Wave power pop, I was primed for a band that could synthesize it all. In the fall of 1984, wasting time between classes in a thrift shop off the campus of University of Maryland, I’m perusing old-man shirts and cardigans when a song comes over WHFS, the great progressive radio station broadcasting from nearby Bethesda. There are maybe three of us in the place. The verses are catchy, the chord changes graphic, the singing urgent. I look up, start to pay attention. As the surprising, transcendent chorus leaps over our heads it’s as if a year’s worth of seasons move through us, our faces in light and shadow and light again. I want to keep my eyes open—to witness what, I don’t exactly know—but I can’t. The pop lift is too much. The song’s over in three minutes. Afterward I’m beaming, at no one in particular.

It turns out that Hoodoo Gurus had been around for several years before I first heard “I Want You Back,” their fourth single. Songwriter and guitarist Dave Faulkner formed the band in 1981 after he’d moved east across his native Australia, from Perth to Sydney, leaving behind his first band, punk outfit the Victims. Fellow Victim James Baker (drums) and the Scientists’ Roddy Radalj (guitar) joined Faulkner and Kimble Rendall, a third guitarist from Sydney, to form the Le Hoodoo Gurus, who released a one-off single, the wide-screen Polynesian romantic tragedy “Leilaniin 1982. Look mom, no bass!

The band swiftly dropped the article “Le,” and Rendall departed soon after, replaced by Clyde Bramley on bass. Band politics hastened Radalj’s exit from the group (“I Want You Back” concerns Radjal’s messy departure, disguised by Faulkner as a boy-girl breakup) and ex-Fun Things guitarist Brad Shepherd took his place. This lineup recorded three singles, “Tojo,” “My Girl,” and “I Want You Back,” and a full-length album, Stoneage Romeos, released in March 0f 1984, the year the hungry, keyed up Hoodoo Gurus first toured the United States and renewed my belief in the possibilities of rock and roll.

Stoneage Romeos is funny, quirky, and in its pop sprawl, nervy confidence, and stew of colorful influences, somewhat extraordinary—the cultural touchstones are mostly American, many of the B-movie, TV sitcom, trashy sort. The Gurus were pop formalists, in love with tradition, but they were as interested in what might happen in a song when sources come crashing together as what happens when those sources are seamlessly integrated. As a bourgeoning reader, making vague but urgent connections across centuries and continents, I was happy to see a rock and roll band confidently, and humorously, connect the dots. Hoodoo Gurus’ love of Day-Glo pop history—trashy monster movies and novelty songs, a mash-up of TV Guide, Top 40, and Vox and Paisley—is so passionate that the histories collide: there’s just so much to dig. 

The noisy list of dedications on Stoneage Romeos includes Larrabee, the ham-fisted secret agent from Get Smart, comic actor Larry Storch, Dallas Donnelly, an Australian professional rugby league footballer, Arnold Ziffel, the pig on Green Acres (“and his tailor”), as well as Arthur Kane, bass player for the New York Dolls. Faulkner recently told Fred Mills at Blurt, “In the case of the Hoodoo Gurus, in the early days, in songs there were a lot of jokey themes and titles. The ‘dumbness’ of rock—trying to bring that back. Not just dumbness, but the innocence and naiveté and the fun. You know, songs like ‘Splish Splash’ or whatever. Things that were kind of corny but still, in a way, kind of above the trappings of supposedly intelligent music—stuff that had an internal intelligence, which was a bit more rarified to me. I mean, ‘a wop bop a lu bop, a wop bam boom!’ and early rock ‘n’ roll just has this exuberance, and it didn’t have to necessarily make sense.” He adds: “That music is still just as exiting and direct today, whereas a lot in between has become sort of stale. That stuff still has an energy you just can’t deny.”

The Gurus’ mélange of crazy crushes is heard best in “(Let’s All) Turn On,” the B-side of “Tojo” released in the summer of 1983, and the lead track on the Australian version of Stoneage Romeos. Among the first Gurus songs that Americans heard, the tune is at once a “What We Like!” litany, a call to arms, a sonic manifesto, and a bubbling brew of sources across the decades. Name-checked: the Flamin’ Groovies, Count Five, the Rolling Stones, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Sky Saxon, the Ramones, early Elvis, Danny and the Juniors, Gene Vincent, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, the Isley Brothers, the Beatles, T. Rex, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, the Velvet Underground, Suzi Qautro, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Jackie DeShannon, the Kinks, Little Richard, the Archies, Music Machine, the Drifters, and the Royal Teens and the Nair TV commercial—and a cheeky nod to Le Hoodoo Gurus themselves. All in three minutes, needle time packed with hooks, jokes, and layered harmonies. I never heard a “Thank You” note so fun that you could dance to it:

Joe Bonomo

Did you know that “Tojo,” Hoodoo Gurus’ second single in 1983, was an answer song to “Santa Never Made It Into Darwin,” a #1 hit in Australia in 1975 by Bill & Boyd? The earnest C&W-styled ballad was issued as a charity single to help raise funds for the northern Australian town of Darwin that was decimated by the tropical cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve 1974. A decade later, Faulkner’s punning response invoked World War II history, the title referencing the Japanese General Hideki Tōjō who led surges against Australia but couldn’t make land because of Darwin’s valiant opposition. “Tojo” is great example of Faulkner’s off-the-wall lyrical interests working their way through an urgent pop song.

Joe Bonomo

Track

My Girl

Artist

Hoodoo Gurus

Album

Stoneage Romeos (1984)

Hoodoo Gurus - My Girl

The pop-obsessed, teased-hair Hoodoo Gurus supported Stoneage Romeos with a tour in the U.S. in late 1984 (when I was lucky to catch an eardrum-bursting show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.) and rematerialized in the spring of 1985 with their follow-up, Mars Needs Guitars!, on which Mark Kingsmill replaced James Baker on drums.

The Gurus’ third single “My Girl” only hinted at the lead cut and first single from Mars Needs Guitars!Bittersweet” is a tremendous romantic lament couched in renewed strength, a cry both wounded and strong. As good as “My Girl” is, it’s a pastiche, a genre-exercise, a tribute to Boy Girl Pop. The mid-tempo “Bittersweet,” with its reflective opening, tense build-up to a full-band entry in the second verse, and aching, addictive chorus, is something else altogether, a product of source material, sure—the Flamin’ Groovies are often suggested as chief influence—but so personal and truthful in its writing and playing that the result is fresh and, to my ears, alive to this day. Wrecked and weepy as I was at the time by self-consciousness and girlfriend troubles, “Bittersweet” sang to and through me in a way that mere contrivances never can. The wise Peter Tork once observed: “Pop music is aspirin and the blues are vitamins.”

OK, a pop song can take a headache away, and blues will fortify us against future pain, but Faulkner does both here, and on later, more mature songs that move beyond kitsch. When he convincingly sings in the final verse, “We’ve grown and times change / When we meet now it feels so strange / I hold you like a sword / You won’t cut me like you did before / It’s always bittersweet,” we hear both relief from and a tonic against aching. Slot “Bittersweet” among the confounding shoulda-been-a-hit singles in the Alternative 1980s, where parallel-universe college and independent radio stations cared less about units-moved than about great songwriting. “Bittersweet” scored many folks’ troubled love lives in the mid-1980s.

In some ways, Mars Needs Guitars! feels like a slightly less zany rewrite of Stoneage Romeos, but by that I don’t mean that the album lacks inspiration—it’s a continued honing of pop influences and promises. In retrospect, Faulkner calls Mars Needs Guitars! “a turning point” for his writing, telling Roberto Calabro, “I started being more personal in my lyrics, not just writing colorful stories.” “Death Defying,” “In the Wild,” and “Like Wow—Wipeout” are prime songs from a writer feeling his way through his sources, balancing rock and roll with ballads, humor with sentiment, style with earnestness. Here’s “Poison Pen,” a song, Faulkner reports wryly, “about the fallout from a relationship that had turned bitter (with no ‘sweet’) attached)”:

Mars Needs Guitars! is dedicated to Jonathan Harris of Lost In Space infamy, and among the bright and less-bright pop culture luminaries winkingly thanked on the back of the album are The Way Outs (the mock Beatles/garage band featured on The Flintstones in a 1965 episode), Beef Jerky, Eve Arden, “Ames, Iowa,” Phyllis Diller, “Itself,” Tex Avery, Hank Kimball, Cheryl Ladd, C.Y. O’Connor (an Australian civic engineer [!] who’ll be name-chcked on the next album, too), Don Knotts, Lucile Ball, Cyril Jordan of the Flamin’ Groovies, Chuck Barris, and Tina Louise.

Hoodoo Gurus are thanking them all for entree into a trashy world where the divisions between high and low culture don’t exist—or, if they do, they’re blasted away anyway by high-watt amps and joie de vivre grins.

All that’s missing at this party are the gold records on the wall…

Joe Bonomo

Winners never quit waiting for that hit

Hoodoo Gurus have always been popular in their native Australia. Ten of their albums have been certified gold or platinum, and numerous singles have landed high on the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) charts, including “What’s My Scene” in 1987, which peaked at number 3.

The United States has proven a much tougher ground to blaze for the Gurus, a frustration that over the decades has led to some exasperated statements-in-song from Dave Faulkner. College and alternative radio, of course, have always been hospitable: the band’s first four albums reached number one on college radio charts. (I played them often on WMUC 88.1FM at the University of Maryland, though the station’s 10-watt broadcast “range” didn’t help to broaden the band’s base much beyond the dormitories).

In terms of sound, the Gurus were a bit left field with their blend of fist-in-the-air anthemic rock—steeply ironic—, hooky pop, and sincere ballads, and their tongue-in-cheek humor, much of it obscure, didn’t play well for commerical radio, let alone high-rotation MTV. As a group of guys they weren’t conventioanlly photogenic, though Brad Shepherd sported David Cassidy-esque good looks (enough to help him to land a Bangle). The last time I remember seeing them on MTV was around 1989 on 120 Minutes, where cult bands went to live and die.

Blow Your Cool, released in 1987, attempted to redress the band’s failures at conquering radio beyond Oz. As a concerted stab at a commercial sound the album, though loaded with strong songs, is unsurprisingly the most dated-sounding in their catalogue. Buffed by the band and Mark Opitz, a former head of A&R at Warner Brothers who’d engineered early AC/DC albums and knob-twiddled for Australian acts INXS and the Divinyls, the surface sheen on Blow Your Cool is of its profligate era, smooth and glide-worthy. Released in March, the first single “What’s My Scene” is what most casual fans of Hoodoo Gurus recognize as the band’s signature song:

A clever pun on dramatic scenes (what’s my role?) and cultural scenes (who am I?)—a joke made goofily explicit in the video—the song blends Faulkner’s thoughtfulness (“am I crazy to believe in ideals?”) with the band’s dynamic performance, a pretty irresistible mix of cunning and rocking. “Whenever I’m asked to name a favourite of my songs I usually choose [“What’s My Scene?”],” Faulkner said a decade after the song’s release, “not because I think it’s ‘the best’ but because it best captures everything I try to do when writing any song. I wouldn’t change a note or a syllable of this one, and I’m especially proud that it has two different choruses when one is usually enough.” Pride was rewarded in the song’s chart success in Australia though limited, again, in the U.S. to college and alternative radio.

What followed was a little bit of happy circumstance, a little bit of calculation. The follow-up single “Good Times” featured the Bangles on sweet backing vocals. The Gurus had become friendly with the chart-busting Los Angeles girl group while the two bands shared bills during the previous year; it was then only a rumor that Brad Shepherd had hooked up with Bangles bassist Michael Steele, and this all-star Rock Romance was fun for us to gossip about, and to envy, but it didn’t betray the slightness of “Good Times,” a simple, three-chord bounce that sounded to my ear as a self-conscious attempt to write A Hit; it works when it works (the single landed in the Top 40 hit in Australia, didn’t dent the chart on these shores).

More troubling than the lightness of the single was the sound of the album: studio polish that rendered the band’s songs sterile relative to the garage-pop crunchiness of Stoneage Romeos. Kingsmill’s snare drum sounds as if it was recorded in a sound booth on Discovery One on the way to Jupiter (Sound good? It isn’t) and Faulkner’s audio perfected vocals are laden with enormous simulated echo, sibilants bouncing infinitely off of the walls of the studio. The hygienic sound does no favors to a bunch of great songs, some of which, including the stirring opening track “Out That Door,” and the tremendous, moving ballad “I Was The One,” are among Faulkner’s strongest:

The sources, the influences, the quirky sense of humor are all present on Blow Your Cool!—especially on the stomping “Where Nowhere Is” (The answer? “Y-O-U”) and the mock heroic “On My Street,” a  roll-call of fantasy neighbors from Cecil B. De Mille to C. Y. O’Connor (there he is again) to Liberace and Gypsy Rose Lee—but the production values time- and date-stamp the album, and make for difficult, distanced listening now. The best ways to appreciate the songs are via the goofy, lo-fi videos, leavened as they are with camaraderie and humor, happily smearing a bit of the studio gloss in the process.

In 1988, bassist Clyde Bramley, weary from touring, left Hoodoo Gurus, replaced by Rick Grossman whose addition solidified a lineup that remained consistent. Faulkner observed recently: “We’d had a lot of success with Blow Your Cool!. But we ourselves were very unhappy with the record. It was this commercial hit, but it sounded kind of unlike us to ourselves, we thought a little perverted.” He adds, “We sort of misled ourselves, got a little bit up ourselves, through the sudden rise of success, and touring everywhere, and maybe got a little ‘Eighties.’ We got lost in the machine a bit.”

Sensing the need to scale back, the Gurus self-produced their next album, 1989’s Magnum Cum Louder, to good effect. The songs are buoyant this time around, the modest production and the organic, cohesive band groove resulting in a more low-key and friendly vibe, a Blow You Cool! after-hours party. The opening track and lead single “Come Anytime” is prime Gurus, a wryly sly song about fucking, chock full of melodic hooks and grins and generosity of spirit that helped propel the song to #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart:

“Come Anytime” failed to give the band much tracking with radio or MTV, and “Axegrinder,” a group-penned rock/rap send-up, was an ill-chosen follow-up; to this day Faulkner’s convinced the the release sank the band’s chances at sustained commercial success. A longtime favorite of the band’s, the strutting “Axegrinder” kicked off shows  on the Magnum Cum Louder tour (my own ears were pinned back at a show at George Washington University in 1989):

The charmed, wide-eyed “Another World,” storming beauty-culture satire of “Glamourpuss,” self-interrogative but rocking “I Don’t Know Anything,” and  pop confection “All The Way” are other standout tracks on this genial, well-played, good-mood album, bright acoustic guitars and old-school organ warming nearly every track. And, hey, the wacky “Semi Annual Hall of Fame” is back, too, having been slapped on the wrist and taken a back seat to decorum on Blow Your Cool!’s jacket. There are dedications this time around to, among others, Don Rickles, William Shatner, the Amazin’ Mets, Leslie Nielson, Bernie Kopell, Sonny and Cher, Richard Dawson, Benny Hill, Rod Serling, and KISS. And Spinal Tap’s Bobbie Fleckman.

Especially interesting in retrospect is a tune buried near the end of Magnum Cum Louder. “Where’s That Hit?” is—to this American’s ears—at once an affectionate salute to baseball’s stories and myths and a lament for commercial success in the United States. A narrative song, “Where’s That Hit?” dramatizes a rookie’s at-bat in the bottom of the ninth, two out, bases juiced. I’ll excerpt:

Time to start swinging

“Don’t think too hard, son, you’ll be great.”

Just up from the minors

A kid with potential, they said.

You’ve dreamed of this moment,

One game you’ll never forget.

Winners never quit waiting for that hit

Now you’re in the big league,

A man with a price on his head.

Here you are at Shea, your heart’s in your throat

Will you make the grade? Will you miss the boat?

Hero of the day—Hero, or the goat?

Winners never quit waiting for that hit.

A knock-kneed kid at the plate, or a stand-in for Mets fan Dave Faulkner? Casey at the bat, or Faulkner at his Fender? Pressure’s on, but baseball isn’t ruled by a tyrannical clock. 

Winners never quit—but where’s that hit?

Joe Bonomo

Want to watch the Gurus banging around on the long Americana road and hanging out with the Bangles in late 1980s glory? That seemed to be the purpose of the “Good Times” video.

Joe Bonomo

MTV, go down on me

Write pop songs. Play them boisterously. Repeat.

Magnum Cum Louder reached number 13 on the Australian charts in 1989, ultimately going platinum; though it topped the college charts in the U.S., the album didn’t crack 100 on Billboard. Undaunted, Hoodoo Gurus toured extensively to promote the album in ‘89 and 1990, revisiting the U.S. and Europe, and playing Japan for the first time, wowing their sizable cult base with fun, spirited, ferociously loud shows. (I’ve seen many, many rock and roll shows in my lifetime, few as deafening as the Gurus’.)

In the 1980s few bands released albums that sounded like Hoodoo Gurus albums; the band’s hooks, humor, power, and balladry, performed in front of gaudy, tongue-in-cheek psychedlia, spanning decades in inspirations and style, made a unique and accessible, if oddball, noise. After the band negotiated a two-year exit from their record label, they returned in 1991 with their most ambitious and mature album to date. Faulkner even cut his long mane of hair.

“Mature” might be too august a word to describe an album titled Kinky that includes an ironic wah-wah-guitar paean to Woodstock-era Free Love, a song titled “Too Much Fun” (“fun ain’t a four-letter word”), and a tune wherein the singer hopes for progress in head transplants. But the opener, “Head in the Sand,” is a different beast. Played in an unconventional time-signature (5/4), this careening, withering critique of self-denial is relentlessly charging, rock & roll-as-intervention. (The song was nervy enough to get under my skin, restlessly drunk as I was roughly Thursday to Sunday each week during the early ‘90s.) Another in a long line of socially-aware Dave Faulkner songs—he co-wrote it with bassist Rick Grossman—“Head in the Sand” reminds us that Hoodoo Gurus care about more than Polynesia kitsch, Day-Glo dinosaurs, and B-movie trash.

Following the bawdy, sitar-kissed fun of “Miss Freelove ‘69”, which rose to number 3 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, the Gurus released “1,000 Miles Away,” a far different song alerting listeners to the broader field of experience and wisdom which Faulkner was  now thoughtfully mining. A sprawling, mid-tempo ballad about personal loss and distance, both literal and figurative, “1,000 Miles Away” convinced me that Faulkner is one of the great songwriters of his era. Beginning with a reflective voice exhausted and lonely in an anonymous airport lounge, the song moves through longing, promises, and regrets in four and a half minutes, by its wide-angle finish garlanded with layered vocals and propelled by a full-on band performance that catches just the right mix of intimacy and big-sky ambitions that the lyrics address. With its grand scale, “1,000 Miles Away” sounds as if Faulkner was consciously crafting one for the charts, but the song’s no less lived-in or worldly wry for its commercial aspirations:

Three years passed before the Gurus’ next album, during which Grunge and Hip Hop radically reshaped the radio and video landscape. Commercially-speaking, the Gurus were as far from American relevance as possible. Kinky performed well in Australia, ammasing gold sales and reaching number eight on the album charts (it peaked at number two on U.S. college charts). Where would the Gurus fit in the mid-1990s? I was alone with their albums now, having moved from the East coast to the Midwest, 1,000 miles away from my buddies with whom I’d shared each new Guru album, weighing and charting their songs against our lives. My ways in to the two albums that followed Kinky—1994’s Crank and 1996’s In Blue Cave—were sometimes deeply personal, even as I shared the songs with fewer people.

Crank was produced by studio veteran Ed Stasium (Ramones, Living Colour), and his ears shape the sound, which is both dry and walloping, capturing the band’s live clamor well. Though Faulkner’s voice is somewhat buried amidst the thumping, he comes through with another clutch of strong songs. The album opener, “The Right Time,” was the lead single, the band’s twentieth overall, and to my ears among their least interesting, despite energetic playing and a stirring chorus. Fun, biker-gang movie video notwithstanding:

“Nobody” is a pretty, stately ballad, though the gentleness of the melody is nearly rendered irrelevant in the echo of Kingsmill’s snare whacks, mixed jarringly loud throughout the album, and “Gospel Train” and “Hypocrite Blues” are pointed, Faulkner-aimed daggers at two of the songwriter’s favorite subjects, religious hypocrisy and blind following, respectively. Brad Shepherd’s “You Open My Eyes,” the follow-up single to “The Right Time,” is, in its ascending melody and utter guilelessness, giddily exultant:

One of the best songs on Crank is another of Faulkner’s clever satires. “Less Than a Feeling” is a jab at faceless corporate radio: “I search your dial for a smile like it’s going out of style,” Faulkner laments. “Is there anyone there?” Neither dim weather reporters nor champagne-swilling, Hollywood-besotted Rock Stars are spared Faulkner’s skewering, the kicker arriving in a brilliant move at the song’s close: as the rhetorical Is there anyone there? plea is sung a last, hopeless time, the arrangement morphs into the well-known close of Boston’s classic “More Than a Feeling.” Faulkner’s bitingly sarcastic title rings true in a surprising, graphic, and very funny way; the closing minute of the song a kindred spirit to bombastic, guitar-layered, mid-1970s Arena and FM Classic Rock. Australian fans liked the lampoon well enough to send the single to number 26 on the ARIA charts. It’s fun to hear  joke and butt-of-joke back to back:

Joe Bonomo