Friday, 30 March 2007

Early Whitlams: Undeniably brilliant

It's been way too long since my last post. Sorry, I've been pretty flat out at work and haven't had a lot of spare time. I'll try and post more regularly but I'm not promising anything.

Some of you may have heard of the Whitlams, an Australian piano-based pop/rock band led by Tim Freedman. They were relatively unknown until 1997, when their breakthrough album Eternal nightcap was released. I got into them after hearing a few tracks like You sound Louis Burdett and Buy now pay later in a friend's car. I was immediately impressed with the catchiness of their music; Louis Burdett was (and still is) a gem of a song, a great jazzy toe-tapper that sounds so familiar you swear you've known it your whole life. Buy now pay later was (and still is) a thing of beauty with a heartfelt Tim Freedman vocal and deeply sad lyrics. It seemed like they had all the bases covered, and they were Aussie! So the patriot in me went out and bought that album, and it is still one of the great albums of all time (even if it doesn't get as many spins as it used to).

Since Eternal nightcap, the Whitlams have faded into complete insignificance. The Whitlams is no longer a cohesive unit, but merely a moniker for Tim Freedman and whoever happens to be in the band at the time. They have released 3 post-Nightcap albums - Love this city (1999), Torch the moon (2002) and Little cloud (2006). While each album has had some decent moments, they have lost so much of the spark that made them so good to start with that they truly don't deserve to trade under the Whitlams name. Some of my friends have even given them the name the Shitlams, just as a hint of where they're at nowadays.

Prior to Nightcap, the Whitlams represented the musical trio of Tim Freedman, Stevie Plunder and Andy Lewis (with a few mates joining them now and then). Stevie Plunder (real name Anthony Hayes) was found dead on Australia Day 1996 at the bottom of Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains, shortly after the release of their second album Undeniably the Whitlams. It was suspected to be a suicide. He was still a core member of the Whitlams at the time of his death, and after a period of mourning Tim Freedman decided to continue on with the band without him. Many of the lyrics of Eternal nightcap had themes of death, suicide and depression -- indicating the state of mind of Tim during the recording of the album. The brilliant Charlie song trilogy on the album was supposedly about Stevie.

Andy Lewis had left the band in 1995. In 2000, he committed suicide while apparently battling a gambling addiction. Tim wrote the song The curse stops here (originally a B-side of Blow up the pokies and later included on Little cloud) about the deaths of Stevie and Andy, indicating that he's the only surviving member of the original Whitlams lineup.

Now to the point of this post. I need to draw your attention to the musical brilliance of the original Whitlams lineup. If you have only heard their post-Nightcap music, you are truly missing out on one of the great Australian bands of the early 90's. Early Whitlams had passion and soul, which is everything the Shitlams are missing with their overpolished commercial schmaltz. On those first two albums, they sounded like they were having fun. They could make you laugh one second, but were also never afraid to get deep lyrically.

Stevie sung about half of the songs on the early Whitlams recordings, and while his vocals lacked the sheen of Tim's, he made up for that with his honesty. You believed what he sung - he was a heavy drinker, a larrikin and a real character. And those are the kind of things he sung about! Just give a listen to Happy days (from their first album Introducing the Whitlams). If this is the first early Whitlams song you've heard, you wouldn't even think in a million years that it is the same band. Also listen to I'm different, a Tim-lead cover of the Randy Newman song (also from their first album). Sure, there are differences between these two songs vocally, but they also share something in common that is missing from so much of today's overproduced music. Fun. Passion. Honesty. Soul.

In my opinion, the Whitlams peaked on their second album Undeniably the Whitlams. Introducing was a great taster of their sound, but at only 27 minutes it merely whet the appetite. And while that first album was pretty solid, it did sometimes approach novelty music territory to be truly taken seriously. They kept all the musical elements of their sound on Undeniably, but Stevie injected a lot of lyrical depth into his songs which elevated it considerably above its predecessor. Following my own tracks is damn spooky in hindsight, knowing that Stevie would be found dead within less than a year. Listen to the lyrics and you'll see what I mean. It's still my favourite Whitlams song, because it has the perfect mix of melody and deep, meaningful lyrics.

But early Whitlams was more than just the individual achievements of Stevie and Tim. It was also about the chemistry between the two of them, and no song illustrates this better than I get high from Undeniably. It starts with a [in hindsight once again] spooky answering machine message left by Stevie to Tim after a big night out, before the piano kicks off a toe-tapping gem of a song where Stevie and Tim trade vocals like they are going out of fashion. Not a lot different in sound to some of the more upbeat songs from Eternal nightcap, except that it's got Stevie in there and that elevates it into the realm of brilliance.

If you have only heard later period Whitlams, do yourself a favour (thanks Molly) and give early Whitlams a go. They may not have the semi-high profile of later period Whitlams but they are oh-so-much-better, and their first two albums are hidden gems which deserve to be discovered and cherished by more people.