From New Wave to Adult Pop
by David Nichols
In their five incarnations between 1976 and 1993, Australian group the Reels demonstrated everything that is good about pop music, both musically and politically. They were laconic, honest, pragmatic, technologically advanced, challenging and inventive. They had three top 40 hits in their country of origin and at least one major commercially successful album (on the K-Tel label, no less) – it was also, like most of their other work, an artistic success. The Reels' biggest hits were covers (their last hit was a slowed-down “Bad Moon Rising”) but they placed a high premium on unusual and experimental arrangements which played with the material both structurally and in terms of instrumentation and rhythm. Their best, and most enduring, records were originals; they received an unlikely accolade for their 1981 song “Quasimodo's Dream,” which was not a hit in either of the versions they released it as a single. But in 2001, the song was voted one of the ten best Australian songs of all time by industry representatives. It has been covered by a host of artists, most recently Gotye.
The Reels formed in Dubbo, 240 miles west of Sydney, in 1976, under the name Native Sons. Once they had all finished high school, they relocated to Sydney at the end of 1977 'to survive'. A recording of a live concert, when they were known as The Brucelanders shows them to be playing overly complex, slightly jazz-rock, but dedicated to melody. By the time, they had undergone their final name change, and released their first, self-titled album. They were definitely the class of 1979. Craig Hooper, guitarist and keyboard player, remembers:We all had a propensity to want to be terminally unique. The kiss of death to any musical idea during rehearsal or in the studio was for anyone to say 'Hey, that sounds a bit like...' Whatever it was it would be instantly dropped, whether or not it even vaguely sounded like what the person said! …It used to annoy the crap out of us to be compared to, say, XTC or Devo – they were our contemporaries, not our influences.
The first album was a minor hit, but the group did not enter the charts seriously until the five men had been joined by a non-Dubbo member, Karen Ansell, on keyboards. Singer Dave Mason told journalist Elly McDonald in 1980 that the Reels had been 'a little boys club until we got Karen.' The five-song 12” EP Five Great Gift Ideas from the Reels featured four covers, including Jim Reeves's 1960 country hit “According to My Heart.”
Ansell recalls the songwriting sessions for the next LP were 'wild':We taped a lot of stuff and we jammed for hours. Some stuff must have sounded like primal scream therapy but there were moments we could all hear and we got interested in repeating those moments. We pulled sections that worked out of the whole mess and started to focus in. Dave would turn up with lyrical snatches of things that would trigger some soundscape in me, John and Paul would work up a feel and we'd explore. We kind of shook the whole thing apart and let it settle. It was risky. At the same time Dave and I were working up the visuals. He wanted to get away from the phallic microphone and guitar thing... then we experimented with the head-set mics.Head sets – not unlike those used by exercise instructors – were to be a feature of the group thereafter, in an attempt to get away from what Mason referred to witheringly as 'cock mikes' and the trappings of rock 'n' roll. Ansell, however, did not last far beyond Quasimodo's Dream (dropping an 'l' from her name, she became a CG specialist in Hollywood – recent work includes Peter Jackson's Hobbit films).
The Reels were always in stasis, if not crisis, and ready for renewal. In early 1982, most of the group having quit, Mason, Hooper and second drummer Stefan Fidock envisaged merging with another mid-range 'new wave' pop group, Models, to form The Act: it was announced in the press, then axed by management. Instead The Reels entered into a controversial arrangement with the K-Tel label to record Beautiful, an album of easy listening music. Fidock claims the notion for the album came from his practice, as a boy, of listening to 45's at 33 to 'get the chords':If you do that, you can hear how strong the melody is and what the chord progression is. So we just moved from that through to 'what about if we just approach all the music in a similar vein, where we're going to slow the tempos, put a lot of space between the chords and try and make it as beautiful as we can'... not in a sentimental or sickly way...The album was largely cover versions, alongside two original instrumentals and one entirely new song. Fidock says Mason presented a new composition a year to the band: 'You'd say 'Dave, you've got to write a song,' and he'd… literally get up, walk over and come up with something.' Mason would come to believe that audiences preferred the group to play covers; their penchant for 'classics' and their arrangement with K-Tel was, Fidock recalls, a problem for many. Yet their version of the Bacharach-David standard “This Guy's in Love” was a top ten hit.
Hooper sums up Beautiful as 'an exercise... I was trying to see whether we could record successfully as a three-piece, with the musical weight on my shoulders. We were experimenting with a lot of things like the Fairlight, without making a definitive statement.'The minimalistic space and odd melancholy of 'This Guy's in Love' was something I worked very hard on, and I still think the anti-climax of the chorus is one of the best things we ever did. I wanted it to feel like you've just driven off a cliff into thin air.The three-piece Reels toured with computers, reel-to-reel tape players, electronic drums and back-projected films and slides; their rendition of “This Guy's In Love” would notoriously end (the 'if not I'll just die' part) with images of mummified corpses.
Traumatised by the music industry, overwork and lack of income, the group began to turn on each other. Mason and Fidock hatched a scheme to lure Mick Harvey out of the Birthday Party and into the Reels, replacing Hooper. Instead, they were sent to London to work on new material:Our manager rented a house for us, and it was hugely expensive. We sent out our material to Mute and a number of record companies and none of them were particularly interested... [Mute] had Depeche Mode and that sort of stuff, and they couldn't understand what the Reels was about – 'what is this weird shit?' Too Australian, for a start... then the manager said, look, we've spent a lot of money, you've got to go back to Australia and earn, and pay off debts, so faced with the prospect of going on tour with only three of us in the band, with a tape machine, the band just bit the dust.Nothing ever really ends; the group reconvened with something close to the original line-up when INXS asked them on tour, and a trickle of records came forth until the early '90's, including a disappointing covers album, Neighbors. Mason starred alongside Nick Cave in the 1988 film Ghosts of the Civil Dead, in which he plays the transvestite Lilly (Cave was one of the film's screenwriters) but for much of the 1990's, he was crippled by depression.
Perhaps somewhat in the manner of The Fall, Mason and his compatriots in the Reels have not fared so well creatively outside the powerhouse of the band; as much as it was a cruel mistress, it also brought out the best in most of them. A kind of version of The Reels exists to this day, and both Mason and the group are remembered fondly – not least for a monster of a classic pop song, “Quasimodo's Dream.”
A few minor record releases notwithstanding (The Reels was issued in Spain, Canada and Germany as well as Australia) the Reels were a phenomenon exclusively in their own country. Though they strove to incorporate as much cutting-edge technology as they could into their sound and their shows, they were not in the mold of the disaffected 'electro' bands of the '80's – Numan, OMD, etc – because their work was at turns satirical, poignant and strident. Early lives spent soaking up mainstream local and international culture in what could only be described as a regional backwater was grist to their mill at every moment, and their dedication to original sounds over original songs was a quirky extra. They left behind a treasure trove, one that the Australian music industry is still struggling to process.
A much longer version of this piece will appear in David Nichols' forthcoming book Dig! Australian Popular Music 1960-1985 (Verse Chorus Press).
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