Sunday 8 April 2012

Spare Change/Young Modern/Parachute - The Big Beat

Band forms; songs are written; band members part company; songs migrate to new band, usually - but not always - via the songwriter. It can be an interesting test of a song's mettle, not to mention the songwriter's. Will a drive to out-do former bandmates take things to a new level? Will lightning refuse to strike twice? Will it be the same, but different? Will it be different, but the same? Will the situation turn grown men into giant titty-babies? This week we turn our attention to an interesting dead-end of Australian powerpop, a hand-me-down by the name of The Big Beat which had remarkable longevity, bouncing between Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney in the latter half of the '70s. Before going on, we note that much of the detail below comes from Dave Laing's excellent liner notes for the reissued Young Modern LP (buy it here), and his accompanying interview with John Dowler at the I-94 Bar. We've referred readers to the latter at least once before for context on Melbourne pub rock; consider this another nudge if you didn't take the hint the first time around.

Spare Change allegedly formed, at least in concept, among Adelaide ex-pats in Amsterdam. Back in Adelaide, the band coalesced in 1973 as a pre-punk powerpop unit, as much in thrall to the MC5 and the Flamin' Groovies as the art rock of Sparks, songs by all of which featured in the band's early repertoire. The initial line-up included John Dowler (vocals), Chris Langman (guitar), Bob Kretschmer (guitar), Tony Murray (keyboards), and John Wilkenson (drums). Wilkenson was soon replaced by Graeme Perry, and this would remain the definitive Spare Change line-up. After a solid couple of years playing Adelaide pubs, Spare Change relocated to Melbourne in early 1975, becoming a fixture of the Carlton scene. There, the band recorded The Big Beat, penned by Murray, which was issued as a single at the tail end of 1976 (b/w Classified Ad, Champagne CHS 601). Aided and abetted by Henry Vyhnal, the band continued recording until March 1977 with the intention of an LP release, but broke up before that eventuated. The posthumous Lonely Suits LP (Cleopatra CLP 202) was eventually released in late 1979, and included both sides of the earlier 45.

In its first incarnation, The Big Beat presents as infectious, melody-laden pre-punk powerpop, but compared with Spare Change's influences it sure does sound like it has a stick up its arse. Dave Laing described the overall effect as "pretentious and stilted"; we hear a catchy and relatively simple song cluttered by compositional tricks, highlighted by the series of brazen truck driver's gear changes which bookend each chorus. Purists may say that semitone modulation around the chorus isn't a true gearstick workout, but they probably haven't heard The Big Beat's gears crunch as its key pivots from A to B-flat and back again. Add to the equation some very literal drumming which only picks up when the chorus kicks in ("The Big Beat comes on loud and strong..."), and someone is guilty of over-thinking things a touch. Usually that someone is us, but here the evidence points closer to home.

Spare Change - The Big Beat [Download]

After Spare Change called it quits, Dowler returned to Adelaide determined to pursue "a more straight forward guitar-based pop style" indebted to Big Star and the Flamin' Groovies. In November 1977, Young Modern - featuring Dowler (vocals), Mark Kohler (drums), Andrew Richards (bass), Michael Jones (guitar), and Vic Yates (guitar) - debuted as support for Radio Birdman at Adelaide's Unley Town Hall. In May 1978, among newly-penned originals, the band demoed an updated version of The Big Beat - an unusual case where the vector between bands is not the songwriter. Like Spare Change before them, Young Modern moved to Melbourne and recorded their first single (She's Got The Money/Automatic, Top Gear MA-7216, 1978), before relocating again to Sydney where the band folded in June 1979. Again, echoing Spare Change's discography, the posthumous Play Faster LP (Local LOCAL 5, 1980) was cobbled together from Young Modern's lone single and the '78 demos.

The second time around, The Big Beat benefits from a more direct approach. "Ultimately, Young Modern played like punk never happened", says Laing in the Play Faster reissue liners, but comparing the pre- and-post '77 arrangements is instructive. Gone are the unwieldy key changes, and in comes more propulsive 4/4 drumming; punk it's not, but it's hard not to hear punk's influence, if only by osmosis of the prevailing mood. In addition, the less polished recording and performance are likely to make it the preferred take for listeners with a punkier ear.

Young Modern - The Big Beat [Download]

The final chapter is one about which we know relatively little. After Dowler's return to Adelaide in 1977, it appears that the remaining members of Spare Change recruited Carlton stalwart Rick Grossman (bass, ex-Bleeding Hearts), and continued under the name Parachute. True to form, Parachute recorded two songs in 1978, neither of which saw the light of day until compiled on Missing Link's Round and Round the Melbourne Club LP (ING 003), a 1981 compendium of otherwise unreleased Carlton bands. Both songs were old Spare Change numbers, The Big Beat of course being one of them. As another updated take, it's interesting to note the similarities between Parachute's and Young Modern's versions; no key changes, and a new-found rhythmic directness. After years of gravitating towards Young Modern's reworking, we've recently come around to this version as a perfect compromise, retaining melodic elements from the original but played with renewed verve (though still noticeably rooted in the Carlton milieu). It also has the speediest tempo of all the three, and most importantly, is the only one to weigh in at the three minute mark. "We can really only imagine what Tony Murray's The Big Beat...would sound like with the full-blooded recording [it] deserve[s]", says Mr Laing. Well, imagine no more.

Parachute - The Big Beat [Download]


iODyne said...

Helena*Glass said on Fcbook "The Melbourne Club ignored MissingLink using an image of them (the classy thing to do), and Jeremy Feibiger's Cleopatra label is mentioned here too ...
Wallaby Beat: Spare Change/Young Modern/Parachute - The Big Beat
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Anonymous said...

Hey Mama? Jive the night away? Beat Boppin Boogie? Such unpunk lyrics, but I always liked Young Modern. The Parachute version is great.

Anonymous said...

Bebop and boogie.

I was reading Stuart Coupe's liner notes to the Play Faster album and his comment that the band turned to alcohol in despair over the lack of audience reaction. I don't know anything about that, but I remember Young Modern playing Miller's Fairfield Hotel to a good sized, but quiet crowd, and John Dowler prowling the stage taking long swigs from a bottle of Brown Muskat. At least they had an audience: Flowers and Hitmen are two bands I recall playing there to an audience of about half a dozen people.

Anonymous said...

Parachute came back to Adelaide for the New Years Eve 78 show at the Maryatville. They had picked up a guitarist Bob Kretchmer, who went on to play with two of John Dowlers Melbourne bands Talk Show and Glory Boys before hooking up with Iva Davies.

Anonymous said...

Graeme said
Whatever happened to Tony Murray? Last I head circa 1991 he was working in the Victorian Public Service

Luis Miguel Sousa de Jesus said...

Hi, please tell me the songwriting credits for this excellent album (Lonely Suits). Thanks, Luis Miguel S. Jesus