BAD NEWS, BAD NEW...:
Six Close Shaves With The Headlines, Written & Recorded For Radio 2JJ, 1977

 
 

This collection of current affairs based snapshots and filmic narratives is the seventh release from James’s newly unearthed, previously unreleased archive, Lost Songs from the Rusting Shed of Disappeared Guitars.

 

 

When 2JJ invited James to write and record a series of new songs for a weekly news review program called Out Takes, the idea was that each week, for three months, he would deliver a personal, alternative response to the news....via satires, commentaries, comedies based on the headlines....aiming to entertain listeners by having fun with the absurdities, pomposities, half-truths and misdirection so common in public affairs. A bit like being a cartoonist, except with music and lyrics.

James wrote about a dozen Out Takes songs but only six recordings still exist: the tracks now on Bad News, Bad News:

  • You Can’t Walk Around In A Crowd
  • King of Rock’n’Roll (Dead & Gone)
  • Feeling Strange At The Stock Exchange
  • Leaning On Your Window, Looking Down
  • Marijuana Headline Rag
  • Dear Mr. Whitlam

Some are timely reminders of key events whose reverberations have shaped Australia since, some are like postcards from another time....but some are surprisingly current and alive in the world of the 21st Century, like short films triggered by events ‘then’ but which still speak to the daily dramas of life ‘now’.

You Can’t Walk Around In A Crowd, the album’s opening song, resonates with all these qualities:

"I still perform this one. I feel it speaks to any first world democracy in times of escalating cultural and political disharmony. I wrote it as a response to the Bjelke-Petersen Queensland government’s silly and vicious attempts to stop political protest marches in ‘77/’78. It’s a kind of lamentation in defense of democratic freedoms....but the additional headline about a bridegroom’s death by honeymoon car (the bride was at the wheel) plus a story on the self-immolation of a man on the dole (and those events juxtaposed against trivial ads for perfume and fashion on the same pages) seem to push it out beyond being ‘just a protest song’ into somewhere more elusive, open ended and maybe even eternal. I hope so anyway..."

"I count myself very lucky to have been invited to contribute to the radio show. It was such a great thing to be a part of. Marius Webb was Double J Station Coordinator at the time, and the presenter of Out Takes. We met when we both attended a street rally against demolition of heritage buildings in Victoria Street, Kings Cross. He later produced my first musical radio play and invited me to make these songs.

I was already writing a lot of lyrics responding to current events, trends, ideas, fashions...also to the absurdities of the world-views presented by tabloid print media, commercial TV, and, particularly, the crazy, lying world of TV advertising....so that extended pretty easily into a weekly close shave with the headlines....

Each week I’d stay up all night before the recording day, finish a song and, in the morning, head for the ABC Studios in William Street to record it. Sometimes solo and sometimes with my friends Jane Butler (piano) and Paul Dengate (electric guitar). We’d put down two or three takes, fortified by tea and biscuits from the trolley wheeled around by the ABC tea lady, pick the best version, smoke a cigarette....and I’d go back to doing gigs and looking at the newspaper headlines for another week.

King Of Rock’n’Roll (Dead & Gone) was the first Out Takes song. It’s a kind of rock’n’roll/blues ode to Elvis Presley after his death on August 16th 1977. The fans who grew up in the ‘50s listening to early Elvis were about 10, 20 years older than me and in the song I’m kind of addressing them, acknowledging their sorrow and loss....but added to their history was mine and my peers....we grew up in the ‘60s watching all those Elvis films....

The song is also meant as a celebration of those great songs Elvis was blessed to have available to him, and later, written for him, in the 1950s : Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Blue Suede Shoes, Heartbreak Hotel, That’s All Right....

And I was blessed to have Gypsy Dave Smith playing slide guitar on this recording - on his ancient Dobro – and adding the (very low) last word in the vocal as the song ends. Dave is a great blues artist, lives in England now....but in the 70’s we both lived in the singular musical, theatrical, alternative art household, 50 Pitt Street Redfern....where all these songs were written....

Marijuana Headline Rag came about because 1976 and ’77 were busy years in the chronicles of cannabis. It’s a response to some of the sillier things that were quoted or alleged in the media about the plant, and about the lives of stereotypical smokers. The song became popular beyond the radio show and I regularly performed it live for a couple of years after the Out Takes recording.

Things are different now of course. Marihuana is no longer the socially and politically divisive force it was then, and in Australia, the USA and Europe, dope for personal use is pretty much decriminalized....and today, with several states in the USA having legalized its cultivation and sale, many more arenas making medical use of cannabis legal and, here in Australia, medical use now being legal in some way in all states, we might wonder what the fuss was about....but in the ‘70s, US President Nixon’s famous ‘war on drugs’ had been running since 1971, partly because the use of heroin by US Military in Vietnam was reaching crisis proportions and partly because the recreational use of marijuana and LSD by American youth at home was challenging traditional values about what substances were OK to ‘abuse’. By 1975, 6, 7, Nixon’s law and order campaign was inspiring similar rhetoric in Australia.

After the end of the more liberated years of the Whitlam labor government, that rhetoric was being accelerated by Australian conservatives of all stripes. Radical, anti-Vietnam war, countercultural ideas were associated with grass and hash, so since the 1960s cannabis had become a rallying point, a flash point and a symbol of difference, regardless of its actual chemical affects: big or small, real or imagined, safe or not....and to complicate things further, by ’76 conservative governments in New South Wales and Queensland had conducted military style raids on hippy cannabis crops....plus, as historians now regularly point out, organized crime had stifled the old hippy pot supply lines and coerced some dealers into selling heroin, thereby contributing to not only a cannabis drought but also to greater heroin use among Australians wanting to get high.

Add to this the murder, apparently at the behest of mafia dope growers, of anti-drug campaigner, Don Mackay, in Griffith in 1977, and the resulting media and legal attention on the whole idea of marihuana, and it’s easy to see why the media outlets, from mainstream newspapers and commercial TV to the underground press, were alive with marijuana related stories.

The tabloid media were often full of unhelpful, sometimes ludicrous, sensationalist stuff and, for a while there, it really did seem, as the song says, "....like nearly every day, you pick up the paper and what does it say?....man goes mad, shoots fourteen, marijuana joint found on the scene"....which was not a true headline or story of course, just something I made up to suggest the tone of the headlines I was satirizing....and I built the rest of the lyric around other similar exaggerated, imagined events:

If you go to Brisbane town
Keep the blinds on your car rolled down
They’re not happy breathalyzing beer
Got a machine, stick it in your ear
Wire it up to your head
Tell if you’re stoned or straight or dead
Wire it up to your feet
Tell if you’re dancing down the street...

...and so on

Feeling Strange At the Stock Exchange is partly a satire on the comfortable disconnection from reality made possible by great wealth, partly a satire on the amorality of greed. And as the stock market, share-dealing, currency trading worlds don’t always foster restraint among money lovers, what self respecting young, anti-corporation, anti-consumerist songwriter could resist a few scornful lines about Wall Street and the mega-rich? You don’t have to look far in those places to find plenty of get-rich-at-any-cost behavior: ‘lets stand near money until it sticks to us.....let’s trade money that isn’t there ....and maybe create panic and recession because we don’t feel ‘confident’ in the market’...and so-on....

1977 was no different to any other year...plenty of headlines about how the trading was going....and somehow I ended up writing this brief history of the 20th Century: the 1929 crash, World War Two arms profiteering, the insights offered by the 1967 Yippie invasion of the New York Stock Exchange....all set to a kind of jazz/ragtime chord pattern ...and honestly, the worlds of avarice all seem much the same today....but - and I suppose even as the author I can still say this - the song is pretty funny!....sarcastic sure, but funny in a dark sort of way.

I’d completely forgotten I’d written it, but I do still like it. And after reading the stern, moral sounding paragraphs above, you may be relieved to hear the narrator is just as flawed as everyone else and ends up deciding the best thing is to simply take the main chance, join in and get rich too...

Still relevant? Sure. The recent US subprime mortgage crisis sums it up really....get rich quick schemes, mortgage fraud...built on shifting, crumbling sand and cruel exploitation of the poor.....and the Trump Whitehouse undoing any remaining safeguards against such schemes. I’m not even feeling a need to write new verses.

And of course, these territories are no longer just the playgrounds of the rich and the money oriented. Now, like it or not, many of us are connected to the stock market anyway, because our superannuation funds are big players there. So I guess vigilance is really the word now if you’re at all concerned about what your money might be doing out there in the world....

Leaning on Your Window, Looking Down is actually a song I wrote a few years before Out Takes. The first recorded version is with the Roll Your Own Ragtime Cabaret Band and is on my album, Comedies, Absurdities and Satirical Imaginings....but we recorded this new arrangement for Out Takes because it seemed to fit so well with the general sense of being overwhelmed by headlines, bad news, and the world outside/inside one’s head. It’s really a dark comedy about the desire and the need for escape....through drink, through drugs, through indiscriminate sex, through shopping, through anger and violence, through hallucinating yourself into an impossible Hollywood dream...etcetera....

Jane Butler played piano, Paul Dengate played bass, I sang and did the finger snapping....and here are verse one and a selection of lines from choruses:

When you see that daily paper
And you just can’t turn a page
And it makes you feel like ringing up the zoo
To rent yourself a cage
It makes you feel so angry
When you look at all that jive
‘Cause the rats are winning the rat-race
And the odds are nine-to-five

So you smoke cigarettes ‘til your lungs are rotten
Drink whisky and wine ‘til your brains are cotton
Get stoned every day ‘til you can’t think straight
Miss everything ‘cause you got up late
Get a new car with four on the floor
Lay a few punches on someone’s jaw
Blow all your money on the poker machine
Wish you were Raquel Welch or Steve McQueen...

Dear Mr. Whitlam....
When my lost (and now found again) compilation tape of the surviving Out Takes songs suddenly burst into Dear Mr. Whitlam, which I’d also forgotten I’d written, I rediscovered a younger me offering cynical advice to the embattled former Prime Minister who, in 1977, his last year as ALP leader, narrowly survived a leadership challenge, lost the election in December, resigned as leader.

My ironic solution? Simple....become a celebrity.... make it your life’s work to get noticed....get with (and be seen with) anyone famous for being famous....make some records, get married to Jaquie Kennedy Onassis, make a movie with Sophia Loren, hang out with the Queen, play polo with Prince Charles....re-brand, rebuild, reinvent, re-emerge....and become Governor General....

I do feel this strategy was a little ahead of its time in 1977.....but now that politics has finally caught up, let’s consider how similar advice might sound today. How about: "become a celebrity, rearrange the skyline of an iconic international city, run a mindless beauty pageant and stand next to women in swim suits, own a football team, for ten minutes, get your photo taken everywhere with everyone, pretend to write a book, become a celebrity twice, get on TV, become a celebrity some more....become President of the USA....

I reckon it could work....what do you think? Anyway, I offer these strategies free to anyone who’d like to try them....

Bad News, Bad News... is available from James's Store
The complete work is available digitally as one single 18 minute track from Apple Music, Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Deezer, Pandora, You Tube Music, Tidal, Groove Music (Microsoft)