Russell Morris On Psychedelia, Stevie Wonder and Byron Traffic
‘The Real Thing’ embodied Australia’s psychedelic era. But how Russell Morris’ 1969 debut, a six-minute-long musical collage became a number one single at first glance seem like anyone’s guess. Costing $10,000 to produce - enough to fund two to three entire albums at the time - the song’s astronomical cost is legendary. Yet Morris contends he cut ‘The Real Thing’ in relatively few takes, it was producer Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum who ran up the studio bill which had their financial backers all but beating down the door.
When Meldrum and Morris did hand over the final product, they were met with scepticism and outright hostility. Nothing approaching the single’s length had ever been released on commercial radio. There was little hope ‘The Real Thing’ could succeed. But the pair knew something the others didn’t. Keenly aware of Donovan, Status Quo and the Beatles’ own left of centre successes, they had a hunch the Australian public was hungry for something the same, a psychedelic moment of their very own.
And deliver it they did. Today it can be said without aggrandisation, exaggeration or hyperbole that ‘The Real Thing’ is one of the most recognisable of all Australian songs. Morris’ career, of course, continued from there. He followed up with a consecutive hit single ‘Part Three into Paper Walls’ and over the next decade delivered several more.
More recently, after what Morris would describe as a brief slump in his recording career, he returned to form in 2012 with Sharkmouth. The of this blues based concept album lead in turn to Morris recording of a string of critically celebrated and ARIA charting albums. The most recent of which is Black And Blue Heart which he recorded with Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning.
At present Morris reclines in his new home on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. He’s readying himself for a conversation. A call will arrive and soon he will recount memories from the 1960s, stories from his time in Laurel Canyon, and provide an explanation as to just why it was that his debut single cost so darn much.
Lennox Groove: You’ve said before that the making of ‘The Real Thing’ had a ‘Strawberry Fields’ type approach. Can you tell me a little bit about the impact of the Beatles turning on and psychedelia in general upon you as a young Australian artist?
Russell Morris: It was quite significant. There were a number of acts which I really liked and Ian [“Molly”] Meldrum liked as well. We liked The Faces ‘Itchycoo Park’ for instance, we really liked some of the stuff that the Beatles had done, psychedelia and there was [Status Quo’s] ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ and Donovan doing ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’. Really what we tried to do with ‘The Real Thing’ was combine ‘I Am The Walrus’ with ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ and try and get that sort of spooky approach with the phasing to make it sound sort of psychedelic.
LG: With psychedelic music, there seemed to be a lot of different artists doing a lot of very odd things and getting into the charts. I guess what I’m saying is that during this period in the 1960s there didn’t seem to be a set formula for success. Yet you and Molly seemed confident that ‘The Real Thing’ would succeed…
RM: What had happened was that I had recorded two songs and I’d said to Ian at the time, “I just don’t think these are what I want to do. These songs John Farnham could record, Ronnie Burns could record. All the other singers of the day who were singing and enjoyed success, they could all record them, couldn’t they?” And he said, “Yes, yes.” And I said, “I don’t want a song that they could record. We need to do something that they wouldn’t record!” See that was our point of difference and that’s where we went from there.
When [‘The Real Thing’] was done the record company hated it. They thought it was the biggest load of rubbish that they’d ever heard, and they didn’t want to release it. So it took a fight to get it out there and once it got out there the public loved it. So it was good you know? We believed in it and we thought it was what we wanted to achieve.
Whether it was a hit or not was beyond our control, which it always is with a record. You can record something you think is just absolutely sensational and it gets received with a collective yawn. You just don’t understand why the public acts why the way they do sometimes or why radio stations decide not to play something. They take it upon themselves to go, “Oh no, that’s not for our market. We won’t play it.” You’re always in the lap of the gods.
LG: ‘The Real Thing’ is that the song cost $10,000 to record, which was the cost of two or three entire albums at the time. Is that true?
RM: It was very expensive, that’s why the record company were angry! But it wasn’t so much the recording of it. The band put the track down in probably five takes. (To people out there that’s five run-throughs.) I did the vocal probably in an afternoon. It would have taken maybe three hours to do the vocal. We got some backing singers in and then we just did a couple of overdubs – I really think it would have taken about three days of recording to do the track.
Then! The song was only supposed to be three-and-a-half minutes long, but the band started jamming at the end and Ian said, “Just let that go we’ll fade that.” [Later] he rang me up and said, “Listen I’ve got a great idea. Let’s make it six-and-a-half minutes long.” I said, “You’re crazy. It’s not going to work. What are you going to put in the last three minutes!?” he said, “Sound effects!” And I said, “Ian this is ridiculous!” He said, “Trust me.” And that’s what took the time. He took so long mixing it and remixing it and adding sound effects. That took weeks and weeks. He was in the studio forever doing it.
Strangely enough, I heard [‘The Real Thing’] the other day. I had to do an interview for Virgin Airlines because they were putting a compilation of my songs on [their inflight entertainment system]. I listen to it and I thought, “Ian Meldrum was one of the best producers this country has ever heard.” Listen to [‘The Real Thing’] again and listen to ‘Hush’ which he also produced, the bass is so preeminent. It is unbelievably preeminent. And I hadn’t realised it so when I listened to it, I thought, “Wow, the bass is strong in both those songs.” Ian was very driven by bass. He was very good, and he was also good at getting good vocal sounds.
LG: During the ‘60s you were over In London for a spell and hung out at least once at a place called the Speakeasy, a kind of legendary bar where all of these famous musicians would come and hang out at after their concerts. Can you tell me little bit about that?
RM: While you were over there, you’d get to see people in the street or see them in the Speakeasy, people who were really well known. But strangely enough, I had more close encounters when I went to America. That was unbelievable. Like, I accidentally, with three other friends bluffed our way through into this party in Laurel Canyon in this big mansion. There was security on the gates at the time, but because we [sounded] English-speaking they thought we were English. Our names weren’t on the list, but I said, “Hold on. Our names have got to be on the list!” And the security guard was being hassled by another guy trying to get in so he just thought, “Oh these guys wouldn’t have the gumption.” So they let me go in. And we all went in and it happened to be Stevie Wonder’s birthday party! We crashed it! It was unbelievable.
These were the close encounters. I remember one time going one night to the Hyatt and Stevie Wonder was playing in the bar, just for fun. Things like that, I met Jimmy Webb in my hotel room, he came to a party and was hanging out there. Linda Ronstadt came with Lowell George to a session I was doing. I sang on a session for Cher and Greg Allman. So I met a lot of people over there- the people form Little Feat too. I met more people in America than I did in England.
LG: Let’s skip forward half a century. You’ve been pretty active this year. In April you played a big set at Bluesfest and just a little bit before that you put out a new record called Black And Blue Heart. Can you tell me about your experiences more recently?
RM: Well it was fun. In 2013 I thought I was really dead in the water. Not career-wise, I was still working a fair bit. But just sort of playing the old stuff. But you also hanker and you yearn, you want to be current. You’d like to be on the charts but most of my peers, the people who I’ve worked with, really don’t make the charts. It’s very rare.
And I did an album of blues-Australiana [called] Sharkmouth and that become a Top 10 album. The follow up to that [Van Diemen’s Land] was a Top 10 album and then the next album [Red Dirt – Red Heart] won an ARIA (as well as the first one). So my career virtually turned around.
[But] I felt, “Well I can’t keep doing the same thing. I can’t dancing the same dance.” People would get bored with me. I love most types of music so I thought, “I’ll just take a little turn to the left a bit. I’ll do something a little different.” And I’d always been a Powderfinger fan so I got in touch with Bernard Fanning and Nick DiDia - who has produced Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against The Machine and Pearl Jam - and I said, “Would you be interested?”
And they said, “Let us hear the songs.” And I said, “Well, I don’t want you doing it if you don’t like the songs because you’ve got to really love it. Otherwise It’s just not fair to me.” And so they heard the stuff and agreed. They said, “Let’s do it. We’re really, really excited about this let’s do this album.”
So I was excited to work with them and we put that down. That was funny, compared to ‘The Real Thing’? We did an album in less time than it took to do ‘The Real Thing’. [Laughs] Much less time!
LG: It seemed like you this a kind of all-star session band working behind you in the studio. Was it Bernard that pulled them together?
RM: Well I said to Bernard, I said, “What do we do? Do we use my band?” And he said, “From what you’ve told us, you want a really spontaneous album that is almost like it’s live.” And then he said, “We think we’ve got the right guys to do this. Let’s give it a go, if you don’t like it the first day, we’ll have to pull the plug on that.”
I said, “I don’t want the guys to have the songs for very long. Because if they do they’ll overthink them and overplay them.” Particularly guitar players! They’ll listen to a song and then work out the part, then they’ll refine it. And they’ll refine it again. It’s almost like they squeeze all the life out of it.
So I just said, “Let’s do it really spontaneously.” And we did. The band put 14 tracks down in a week. That was with vocals as well!
LG: What’s Bernard like in the studio?
RM: Funnily enough, when I started to write this album – because I ended up in Queensland and I started writing when I got here - I probably wrote 35 songs really, really quickly. I just kept churning them out and then sending them down to [my record label] Mushroom. Bill Page, who I was working with, would go “Yes, that one!” and “No, not those two. They’re no good.” We ended up picking 14 songs and when we went into the studio the players would be playing and Dan Kelly would be going, “Uh, what’s the second chord in the chorus?” And I’d go, “Uhhhhhhh…” Because I hadn’t played them because I’d put them down as demos! Then Bernard would go, “Oh it’s in E minor and then it goes to the 4th and 5th.” He knew the songs better than I did!
He was really all over it. He has great ideas for harmonies. He would work on that direction and Nick would tend to work with the drums, the bass and the keyboards. But they’re both very good guitar players. And Bernard played acoustic on one of the tracks - two of the tracks! He was wonderful to work with and he hears things very quickly. If he doesn’t think it’s working, he hears it very quickly. So does Nick.
To give you an indication, we were doing the keyboards, Bernard wasn’t there I was doing it with Nick and we had the wonderful Ian Perez doing the keyboards and they’d made the parts for one of the songs and I was about to jump out of my skin and say, “That is one of the most incredible things I’ve heard! That is fantastic!” [But] I thought, “No. I’ll be diplomatic here I’ll just wait.”
And Nick goes, “Ian, you’re just overdoing it a bit here.” He said, “Can you just pull back on the verses?! And when it comes to the chorus just play that figure there, nothing else.” I thought, “Aw, gee. I thought that other track was mighty!” Then they did the other part and it all feel into place. Then I thought, “I think I’ll shut my mouth.”
[Laughs] So They were excellent to work with. They were very good. I think that now I’ve done it a few of my compatriots are lining up to go and work with them.
LG: Given that you’re playing this gig at Kingscliff Hotel, I was just wondering if any interesting connections or any interesting stories about this part of the coast that you could share?
RM: The only interesting connection is that I went down there looking for a place to live. I was going to live at Kingscliff, but I ended up moving further up the coast, up north. But I’ve always loved that part of Australia. And Byron’s just too busy to live there now. In summer trying to drive into Byron is horrifying. It’s too expensive! Brunswick heads I like very much, that was something I looked at as well. But I love that part of the coast and I often go down to Kingscliff and go to the Greek restaurant there for lunch.
LG: Any closing thoughts?
RM: No not really. I just think that people who come and see us will enjoy it because I put a lot of pride on live shows because I don’t really want people to pay money and go see [a heritage act,] all you do is become is self-indulgent. I tend to make sure that I try and play the right songs the people want to hear and try to play as many new songs as I can without boring people to death. And the new songs we do off this album are absolutely fabulous. The band are really engaged in it as well. I just try to do what I can and I think people will enjoy it.
WORDS BY: RILEY FITZGERALD