This seven track album is the fifth release from James’s newly unearthed, previously unreleased archive, Lost Songs from the Rusting Shed of Disappeared Guitars.
Recorded in Studio 221 for an on-air concert in 1976, for a program series 2JJ was making about radical music artists, the Roll Your Own Band was the core of James’s musical/cabaret/comedy/spoken-word/poetry collective, The Roll Your Own Ragtime Cabaret
"There were a lot of ideas, lyrical, political, philosophical, theatrical, personal and conceptual, driving the Cabaret, all competing for space. But now, in 2018, the first thing I’d say/do is respectfully invite you to consider finding time to listen to the actual music, the playing, just once....the interweaving notes of Peter Coutanche (slide guitar), Jane Butler (piano) and Robert Howard (double bass), the instinctive, organic, textural, raga-like sound poems they created, are something quite special.
"Although I wrote and sang the songs, played rhythm guitar and a little harmonica, to be honest, I didn’t hear the unique mystery of that collective sound then, didn’t know it was that good when it was happening....but no wonder people came to see the show. The song, Melbourne, I Suppose You Think You’ve Won is a good example of what I’m trying to describe here.
"And track 2, I Smoke Money is a pretty good starting point for another window into that style....and also into the surreal, absurd, magic realist comedy I was aiming for lyrically....the narrator laments that all his friends are smoking too much dope, leaving him with only his parrot for company.... the parrot then recommends smoking money as the best escape....because of course, in a consumer society, money is the greatest drug of all...and it’s legal....so all together now with the Roll Your Own Ragtime Cabaret:
I smoke money, la da da da da da
It’s the only green thing I inhale
I smoke money, la da da da da da
I like it and I do not end in jail
"Later on in the song, now set in Brisbane, the police come round, dig holes in the back yard, but find no dope and are told that all that is smoked in this house is money....and so-on....then we meet Skid-Row Frank, learn that the poor get busted, the rich get stoned....and in the end nothing, not French cigarettes, not brand X, not Mullumbimby rat-shit hash, not even rolling your own, can ever compare to the sheer smoking pleasure of putting on your slippers and lighting up your cash....
"Anyway, by the spring of ’75, in Sydney, I was one of six, seven, eight people sharing a huge three story terrace house at 50 Pitt St. Redfern....musicians, actors, writers, political activists....all kinds of people lived there, passed through, came by to play music, share ideas....and I’d gotten really interested in satirical cabaret, particularly the bitter/sweet, ironic, funny/sad, sometimes nihilistic, politically engaged cabaret of 1920’s and 30’s Berlin. Further inspiration came from the Liverpool Poets and from the stand up comedy of Lenny Bruce....and the shows we made grew partly out of that house and those ideas.
" I’d also grown up influenced by the countercultural, anti-war, anti-establishment and bohemian ideas of the ‘60s and early ‘70’s and then got fascinated by avant-garde art, dada, surrealism, the theatre of the absurd and, particularly, situationism....much of which aimed to mock, satirise, and generally make dark comedy of conservative politics, the status quo and bourgeois, TV driven, consumer culture....a lot of big words there, I know....but luckily there was a more down to earth end of that mix because we’d also fallen in love with early 20th Century jazz and blues based cabaret and jug band music....and a lot of those songs were comedy songs....and I guess that’s all a long way of saying my friends and I wanted to have fun by making fun of the world we’d grown up in but didn’t want to join....
"The Roll Your Own Ragtime Cabaret really began in late ’75 with a series of shows at the Limerick Castle wine bar in inner Sydney Surry Hills....we gave them all sorts of names....one was The Living Bra, Dead Soldier, Broken Down Road Show....can’t recall the rest....but that’s where we established the mix of original songs, skits, satires, comedy and spoken word performance that was later developed in the Cabaret. The Cabaret itself started in the autumn of ‘76 at the Roxy coffee house in Taylor Square in Darlinghurst and played there most weekends until about October of that year....by which time we’d burnt ourselves out....
"But those instinctive, organic, textural, raga-like sound poems the other three musicians wove around my songs is something I’ve never quite experienced the like of since....maybe it was because we were close, living together, making music without a plan, just 1,2,3,4, all start at the same time and play ‘til the song is over....maybe it was the unusual mix of virtuoso and DIY instrumental skills that came together in that group....who knows.... now, I just feel honoured to have been part of it and am grateful there’s a record of it.
"Another very special aspect of the shows was the long list of guest artists who were able to join us. All kinds of artists from mid ‘70s Sydney passed through the Cabaret: poets, poetic songwriters, novelists, great musicians, actors, writers....and so-on....including the acclaimed poet, Vicki Viidikas, the much loved singer/songwriter John Ewbank; mime virtuoso, Jean-Paul Bell; blues genius Gypsy Dave Smith; gifted singer, Alex Smith (brother of Dave and later, vocalist with the band, Moving Pictures); folk music legend, Graham Dodsworth; avant-garde electric singer-songwriter, Paul Dengate; and the now internationally acclaimed guitarist, Tommy Emmanuel, who had just arrived in Sydney from northern NSW.
"The Roll Your Own Ragtime Cabaret poster you can see in the album cover artwork is the original poster we used in ’76 and was drawn by the artist, Steve Smith. I’ve always thought that three songs from our repertoire felt most like that poster looks...one is I Smoke Money....the others are Leaning on Your Window, Looking Down and a cover we did of a song from the 1930s called ‘Ragtime Life’. We never recorded Ragtime Life, but I’m sure you could find a version somewhere if you’d like to hear it.
Comedies, Absurdities & Satirical Imaginings 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, YouTube Music, Tidal, Groove Music (Microsoft)