Friday, 21 November 2014

Russell Morris: The Real Thing

All the hoo-hah surrounding the release of Molly Meldrum's autobiography has reminded me of what I consider to be his finest achievement. It's not his contribution via Countdown, or as a rock writer or as a band manager, but rather his work as a record producer.

In my view, Ian "Molly" Meldrum's career high point was his production work on the Russell Morris single "The Real Thing". It is also one of the high watermarks of Australian pop music production, considering the limited studio technology available in 1969.

Molly started in the music industry as the roadie for Brian Cadd's band The Groop. He learnt all he could about the production process by sitting on the band's recording sessions. He then moved onto being the manager of Russell Morris, around the time he left the band Somebody's Image. Molly had produced a few other records, notably Ronnie Burn's massive number 1 "Smiley" and the modest selling "Little Roland Lost" by Zoot.

Molly was looking for the perfect song launch Russell's solo career and he heard it when (former pop star and future Young Talent Time host) Johnny Young was jamming on the idea backstage of a music TV show . Johnny was saving it for Ronnie Burns, but Molly demanded he use it for Russell. Allegedly, he turned up to Johhny's house with a tape recorder and refused to leave until Johnny had recorded a demo of the song.

Molly enlisted his mates in The Groop to play on the record, however they were denied a label credit as they were signed to CBS and Russell's single was to be released on EMI. Molly holed up in Armstrong studios in Melbourne with house engineer John Sayers and set out applying his crazed vision for the song...

Johhny Young's original vision for the track was to be a modest chamber ballad, acoustic-based with strings, somewhat like "Yesterday" by The Beatles I imagine. What it became, to perpetuate the Beatles comparison, was more like "I Am The Walrus". How the originator and producer saw the end product were at polar opposites.

The song was a scathing indictment of the ideas being imposed on musicians at the time. "You have to do this, because it's real". On the companion CD to the ABC's Documentary series "A Long Way To The Top", Johnny says it refers to the marketing of the soft drink Coco-Cola, "You can't beat the real thing". "When you look into it, it's all bullshit" he says. Thsi is reflected in the lyric:

"...There's a meaning there, but the meaning there doesn't really mean a thing..."

Russell was also quoted in an interview with the Coodabeen Champions on ABC radio that "Molly is a maniac". His vision for the piece was to create something indicative of the social climate. He wanted to include flanging into the piece (no small feat in 1969), as he loved the sound of it on "Itchycoo Park" by The Small Faces. He ended up including air-raid sirens, sound effects of exploding bombs, a Winston Churchill impersonation (done by Molly) and the Hitler Youth Choir singing "Die Jugend Marschiert" (Youth on the March). Towards the end of the epic song, Russell's voice is backward-masked.

Groop guitarist Brian Cadd also had a guest speaking role on the record, reading the warranty conditions off the reel-to-reel tape box through a megaphone with a faux-German accent.

The entire piece of inspired lunacy lasted for 6 minutes and 20 seconds and cost over AU$10000 and 8 months to record. This was unheard of back then, when most albums were completed in under a week and for an average cost of $2000. When EMI executives came to Melbourne from Sydney to hear the finished product, Molly freaked out and ran out of the studio with the master tape and hid in the bushes of the park across the road from the studio. After seeking him out of the dark with a torch, he returned and played the tape for the EMI people who left without saying a word.

EMI reluctantly pressed the record, but in two formats: one with the first part of the song on side 1 and the noise collage on side two, and one copy with the entire piece on side 1 and "It's Only A Matter of Time" on side 2. Russell had to make many personal appearances at radio stations to persuade them to play the record, the longest Australian single ever made (despite radio stations playing The Beatles' 7-and-a-half minute "Hey Jude" the previous year). It became the highest selling Australian single of the year in 1969 and was in the charts for an unprecendented 23 weeks.

The follow-up single was an explicit sequel "Part 3: Into Paper Walls" which tops out at 7 full minutes, also produced by Molly, but, like most sequels isn't anywhere near as compelling as the original. "The Real Thing" has inspired covers by Midnight Oil and Kylie Minogue and the original has been included in the National Film and Sound Archives as a landmark in Australian music history.

Take a listen again below. Enjoy!

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