Graeme Connors

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In April I was privileged to attend the 25th Anniversary of North concert at QPAC in Brisbane, and what a wondrous night it was. 1500 of us were treated to a superb show that resonated with spectacular songs, glorious music, rapturous applause and several standing ovations. Graeme Connors performed the entire North album in the original track order plus one song that didn’t make the cut in 1988, and returned after intermission to gift us with his 14 No1 hits. 

The last show I saw in QPAC was Lyle Lovett and I left that deliberately avoiding human contact to prolong the music still playing in my head, claiming it as the best concert I have seen -ever.

This was equally memorable – for the stature of the songs and their (seemingly timeless) relevance, their musicality and delivery, and the hottest band you’ll hear anywhere.

Graeme agrees, “Scott Hills, Chris Haigh, and Tim Wedde have been the core of my live band for over a decade with Gary Carruthers a regular guest – and the comfort at the heart of their musical interaction oozes off the stage. The addition of Glen Hannah brought a hint of tension to the mix – the sense of ‘I may be the new kid on the block but I’m standing toe to toe’ was palpable. Everyone in the band got their moment in the sun and the love and respect for the songs and each others’ musicianship was a beautiful thing.”

Graeme’s delighted grin, and frequent exclamation of ‘Man on Fire!” at the close of sizzling solos, clearly showed his joy in the moment – ditto the thundering applause!

This show is touring from July and I cannot recommend it highly enough – I am going again.

Late last year I was part of an industry panel asked to name our top ten all-time Australian country albums for a survey, the results of which were published in The Australian. After much deliberation I put North at the top of that list for numerous reasons, many of them possibly coloured by being a Queenslander, but not all.

North is definitive because it was so different at a time when we were all listening to the tsunami of US country – the Emmylou /Haggard/Jones latter-era and the onset of Vince Gill/Clint Black/ Trisha Yearwood/ Garth Brooks/Alan Jackson and a spate of exceptionally great songs.

The inclusion of place names and locations in other than novelty songs was almost exclusively the territory of the Bush Balladeers here, and then came this melodic soaring work with songs spanning the spectrum of Australian life from the ‘Sicilian Born’ Italian neighbour in a Sydney suburb to the ‘Metho Man’ homeless beachcomber in NQ.

Oddly, it contained very scant nod to the rural sector but the angst and soul in ‘Canefields’ stated categorically that Connors knew intimately how tenuous life on the land was, and how gutted farmers felt when pushed to the wall – and not just the dirt-scratching battler; that even the mighty could fall. It was enough, and ABC radio made sure rural listeners heard it.

Perhaps North’s real power of persuasion was in its’ portrayal of tropical life as a never-ending holiday – an escapist mantra to Manana, ‘no worries kinda life’ all day every day.

Simultaneously there was an enormous influx of Victorians sick of a sick economy and cold winters who decided Queensland, hitherto Cosmo’s hayseed cousin, was ripe to peel off its’ ‘banana-bender’ tag and become ‘Beautiful One Day – Perfect The Next’.

Connor’s cool eloquent language and inviting imagery was the seminal soundtrack.

‘Onomatopoeia’ is a big word for words that sound like their meaning and it seemed to me that there was an unusually strong relationship in the lyric content and atmospheric musical construction – how it framed and focused the story – of the songs on North – one that I was incapable of analysing or expressing, so I put the question to Graeme.

“Bob Butler helped me realise the tonal settings for the narrative form to build a musical atmosphere for each song. ‘Sicilian Born’ had that authentic Neapolitan piano accordion and mandolin, and the Hawaiian steel lick in the ‘North’ intro immediately conjures swaying palms and sunny beaches, ‘Cyclone Season’s ominous swirling wind sounds, while ‘Canefields’ captures the snap and crackle of flames and the flight of fire.

“There were three artists I was listening to at that time – John Prine, Jimmy Buffet and Randy Newman. All wrote about American matters with vastly different voices, and combined with my reading of Mark Twain and Ralph Emerson, I came to the conclusion that great literature is about writing from the perspective of location – to take your corner of the world, your story in your language, and make it universal – to basically have the courage to write about your our own back yard.

“As much as I respected John Williamson as being on the same path, he and I had very different perspectives – I also remember James Blundell being something of an inspiration. North was not initially perceived as a country work but over time it became the successor to JW’s Australian vision and James Blundell’s contemporary Australian ethos. Its’ niche was ‘Coastal Country.’

I asked Graeme why he believes the songs on North have proven so enduring, but in the process we got completely off-track and meandered back down the pot-holed road leading first south, before North.

I knew he caught the plane out of Mackay on completion of his last Grade 12 exam, to a gig opening for Kamahl in Toowoomba that same night- but how does that magic happen to a 17 year old kid in a north Qld cane town?

“That break came because my band had opened the show for Sherbet in my home town around September ’73 and Don Herring, a promoter from the Sunshine Coast, who was touring both Sherbet and Kamahl at the time had offered to help me get started in the music business.

“Don’s connections led to my signing with Festival Records in early 1974. In fact my father had to sign the contract as I was underage. My first single ‘The Song Just Kept on Playing’ was written by Alex Harvey who wrote ‘Delta Dawn’ and the B Side featured a song of of mine called ‘I’m Called Myself’. It charted pretty well in Qld primarily due the efforts of Keith Cronau from Festival Brisbane ensuring that I visited every radio station and performed on every television show available. He was a great Record and PR man.

“In mid 1974, thanks to Alan Healy, the Managing Director of the Rupert Murdoch owned Festival Records, I toured with Kris Kristofferson and at the end of the run he very generously produced 4 tracks for what would eventually see the light of day as And When Morning Comes, my debut album. That recording featured Billy Swan, Sam McGee, Donnie Fritts, Rita Coolidge, Mike Utley, Terry Paul and Sammy Creason– talk about an all star outfit!

“That event actually made the cover for the last-ever issue of Go-Set magazine with Kris – you could see from the smile on my face I couldn’t believe my luck.

“National touring continued through ’74 and ’75 with Del Shannon, Irish tenor Patrick O’Hagen, American comedian Bill Cosby, Irish comedian Dave Allen, and then in ’76 Marcia Hines and Jon English, and ’77 Peter Allen among others – what an apprenticeship!!

“Festival Records were incredibly supportive but in many ways I was still very much the boy from the country, overly shy and feeling like I hadn’t really earned my success, and I sort of self-destructed. I was determined to be Graeme Connors the singer-songwriter, but frankly my songs were not good enough – obviously I thought they were then, but in retrospect they were pale immitations of other peoples’ work and not intrinsically mine – necessary experiments but juvenile efforts.

“As an example of where my head was at…in late 1974 John Sayers was assigned to me as producer and he desperately wanted me to record a song that I took away reluctantly, promising him I’d give it a fair listen, but with the caution that I was committed to my own songs. Bottom line, he said he’d take himself off the project if I refused to cut this track. I listened to it, but couldn’t see myself singing it and turned it down. Do you know what the song was? ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ six months before Glen Campbell had the hit with it.

“After touring with Peter Allen, Marcia and John, and later Lisa Minnelli and Melissa Manchester, I realised the only way forward was to develop Graeme Connors as a separate identity rather than the guy who opened the show for all these great artists. This signalled one of the toughest times of my career in and around Sydney Clubs, Pubs and Wine Bars. I went out solo, singing my songs and trying to build my own following.

“I remember Pat Drummond’s ‘School Daze’ show was huge in Sydney then and he used to pack venues out – he’d have them hanging from the rafters and queued out in the street. I went to see him a few times to try and work out how he was doing that!

“Meanwhile, Lyn was at home with three boys under six years of age and I started to lose faith in ever making the grade – and when the RBT legislation killed the Sydney Club scene almost overnight I was soon searching for a new direction.

“As fortune would have it the professional manager at Rondor Music, Peter Hall, moved on and I thought ‘I can do that. There is nothing I am more passionate about than songs.’ So I rang the Managing Director Bob Aird and asked if he would consider me for the role. He interviewed me and thankfully gave me the job. It was a great move for me and I had some early success when I pitched ‘You’re the Voice’ to Farnham’s team.

“While all this was happening, our boys were growing and I, like all fathers, would get home from work just in time to put them to bed with story time. I made up all these whacky characters that had death-defying, serial adventures. They were tropical super-heroes – there was Willie Kanak who was a Soloman Islander, an immense mountain of a man, and Lenny Lagon and the mystery volcanic lagoon; where he would swim through underground tunnels and surface in another lagoon, which of course was really a portal to another world.

“Every far-fetched tale had an obvious common thread – they were all tropical – and the kids loved them. Somewhere deep down, I knew change was in the wind, and I felt a real drive to take the family back to Queensland.

“When you feel like the dream has passed you by, there is great solace in the familiarity of home and friends who knew the old you.

“I then began writing songs that captured images from my childhood in the tropics – ‘Mango Shade’ was the first, then ‘Let The Cane Fields Burn’, ‘Cyclone Season’, ‘The Metho Man’… before I knew it I had an album’s worth of songs and decided to go back into the studio with the musician friends I’d made from my time in Sydney, Bob Butler, John Kane, Mike Kerin, Hanuman Das, Doug Gallacher and Kirk L’Orange to make a final record before heading back home. To be honest I was treating this recording as a personal document for my family – sort of like, ‘this is what I once did’…

“One of the sweetest surprises to come my way was in 1990 with a call from Di Manson at ABC telling me that John Denver had recorded ‘A Little Further North’. The story as I heard it, goes that John was honeymooning in the Whitsundays with his new Australian bride Cassandra Delany. They were at Whitehaven Beach, very much in love and having an idyllic time when ‘A Little Further North’ came on the radio on the boat. In his blissful state he connected deeply with the song and made the decision there and then to record it for his next album Stonehaven Sunrise”

Unless we serialise this story with ‘To Be Continued’ there we must stop – however the story of North definitely continues and a quarter of a century on it lives afresh for a whole new generation. It wowed me then and the new remix wows everyone I’ve played it to now. But don’t take my word for it, go to the show and judge for yourself.