Rarely have a bands song titles told the story so well: consider Its a Long Way There, Reminiscing and Help is on its Way. Its been 28 years since Little River Band formed, and through all the public triumphs and personal clashes, the departures, reformations and legal battles, the current incarnation of Birtles-Shorrock-Goble as BSG is the most harmoniously flowing unit that ever sang, Hey everybody, yeah, dont you feel that theres something.
There is nothing new about bands whose personnel create the most mellifluous and successful music out of internal disharmony. Crosby, Stills, Nash and occasionally Young were notoriously at loggerheads throughout the peak of their career, and the members of the Eagles would have happily killed each other at the zenith of their fame.
For Little River Band, it might have seemed less likely tensions rode so high after all, werent they the most mellow of Melbournes musicians? But indeed animosity ran rife. Cool Change, one of Glenn Shorrocks most acclaimed compositions was, in his words, a cry for help during the bands heyday when he felt he was drowning in a sea of compromise.
Yet against all the odds, in spite of personality differences, geographical constraints and legal restrictions preventing them even using the band name that brought them worldwide fame, Beeb Birtles, Glenn Shorrock and Graeham Goble are together again in Melbourne, where it all began. They are reminiscing, a new recording deal has brought help their way, and the long way they have travelled has, in the best of happy endings, brought them to a new understanding and a revived musical intent.
Two years ago in Sydney Goble and Shorrock found themselves seated together at the APRA Music Awards. Shorrocks Cool Change was being honoured as one of the 30 Best Australian Songs from the past 75 years, and Gobles Reminiscing was the recipient of a Four Million Air award from the USA. Goble and Shorrock had not spoken for more than 10 years, but found being together again quite easy. Minds started ticking. A call was soon put in to Birtles a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, for more than a decade and in early 2002 the three sang together for the first time in 20 years.
More than anything I wanted to hear our voices together again and I wasnt disappointed when I heard that blend still as magic as ever! says Birtles, who of the three had been the least interested in a reformation in the preceding years. A couple of private performances to dust off the cobwebs at the Grand Prix Ball at Melbournes Crown Casino in February, 2002, and the 2002 APRA Music Awards in Sydney a few months later and the trio knew they had something powerful.
But then the sticking point they could not use the name Little River Band in their title. Stephen Housden, a guitarist who joined the band in 1981, had ended up with legal rights to the name due to clumsy paper work and general disinterest on the part of original band members as they each left the group in the 1990s.
Undeterred, they figured if it was okay for Crosby, Stills and Nash, then surely it could work for Birtles, Shorrock and Goble.
Tours including the DVD concert performances on July 18 and 19 at the Forum Theatre have been masterminded in the Balwyn home studio of Goble, whose walls are adorned with photographs from Little River Bands past. But this most Melbourne of bands had its foundations in Adelaide, a musical melting pot in the 1960s. Shorrock was an English immigrant who had success with the Twilights in Adelaide before they moved to Melbourne in the 1960s. Then he joined Brian Cadd and Don Mudie in the supergroup Axiom, who went to the UK seeking fame and fortune and there fell apart.
For a few years Shorrock wrote songs in a London attic flat. Birtles, a Dutch immigrant who landed in Adelaide as a child, played in pop group Zoot and then in Melbourne joined the harmony band Mississippi, which Graeham Goble, born and raised in Adelaide but transplanted to Melbourne, had founded.
Melbourne is still the music capital of Australia, says Goble. It always has been. Even though a lot of great bands came out of Adelaide, like the Twilights, for some reason Melbourne just produced more pop/rock bands than anywhere else. I think that it was because of the amount of work that was available here.
Boroondara always was Gobles creative home. When I came to Melbourne, Beeb and I flatted together for 18 months in Balwyn, in a flat above the bank on the corner of Bourke Road and Maud Street. It was also an emotional base for Birtles, who later married his American wife Donna at the Balwyn Baptist Church.
But like many Australian bands seeking international fame, Mississippi ended up in England where they met with Shorrock and talked of forming a new band together back in Melbourne.
Success was instant for Little River Band. The combination of Shorrocks recognisable voice with inimitable harmonies and consummately crafted pop songs meant immediate chart success in Australia and, soon after, major acceptance in the American market. From Curiosity (Killed the Cat), Emma and Its a Long Way There to Help is on its Way, Reminiscing and Night Owls, Little River Band had a fast flowing succession of hit singles and major album sales around the world until Shorrocks departure in 1981. A departure that, for those who knew what was going on behind the scenes, was inevitable.
Glenn never wanted to rehearse, says Goble. He said, We do too much talking in this band. He just wanted to count it in and play. And wed get one bar and then I would stop, and I would say, Okay, this is not happening. My analytical nature drove him completely mental. If things werent happening, the next rehearsal Id be there saying, Right, lets run this chorus, lets do this, lets do that, this didnt happen, that could be better. Glenn had never run into anything like that.
Shorrock disliked singing some of the Goble/Birtles songs with religious overtones, such as Fall From Paradise and Lighter Day, while Goble was frustrated by what he considered to be Shorrocks
inattention to detail when singing songs like Reminiscing or Lady. Goble says much of the discord was over his songwriting success. There were problems with Little River Band because of my prolificness
there was a lot of friction around that.
Getting songs recorded was often a battle. Shorrock says he fought for Cool Change while Goble recounts the problems he had getting Reminiscing recorded. But Shorrock says he wasnt driven as a songwriter to have all the hits. Its not my driving force. I dont wake up in the morning and start working on songs. Graeham does. Im not motivated that way, never have been. I felt the others were attached to their songs more than I was to mine.
They lobbied hard. Graeham especially lobbied really hard. I come from a different thing if you dont like it, you dont like it. Im not going to brow beat you; Im not going to make you like it. And thats why I resent some of the songs Ive had to sing of Graehams and Beebs. Cause I was browbeaten into it. And the trade off was, Well if you dont do that, were not going to do one of yours. Very political.
Birtles is more equitable in reflection. I never felt pressured to write hit songs because Ive always written from my heart. In the early days quite a few of my songs were picked to be the singles and as we started to become more popular in the States, Glenns and Graehams songs were chosen to be the singles. We always left the choosing of the singles to the record label. As long as I had a few songs on each album, there were no complaints. We were selling millions of albums anyway, so people were still hearing my songs.
After Shorrock handed lead vocals to John Farnham, he released a solo album, hosted radio and television programs, and mounted hit cabaret shows (One For the Money and Two For The Show) before he rejoined a reformed Little River Band in 1988. Birtles quit performing altogether.
I realised I was well and truly burned out from being on the road, travelling the world for eight years straight. It was the right decision at the time for me because my daughters were young and I got to spend their formative years at home with them. Birtles concentrated on songwriting and formed his own publishing company, Songskill. In the early 1990s he moved with his family to Nashville where they still live.
Goble, meanwhile, had hung on with the 1980s incarnation of Little River Band. If you look at David Hirschfelder on keyboards and Stephen Housden on guitar, we had Stephen Prestwich on drums, and then the vocal ability with Farnham, its hard to imagine a more talented band. Nevertheless, success eluded them and by 1985 the river had run dry. Farnham went on to solo success and for a few years Little River Band was but a memory. The 1988 revival brought Shorrock and Goble back together but didnt include Birtles. With a relaunch at World Expo in Brisbane and a tour joined by the Eagles Glenn Frey, Little River Band released a new album. But timing and personal relationships were still askew.
It was certainly clear we werent going to regain the glory we had before, says Shorrock. I didnt feel the songs were as good as what we used to do. Im as much to blame for that as anybody else, but I kind of stopped writing. Well, I didnt stop writing, but I didnt accelerate or try to do better. Graehams always trying to do better but I think he struggled through those years as well. Ive heard such good things hes written, theyre very Graeham; you can hear so much influence of LRB or vice versa. So much LRB material has Graehams influence. This new batch hes working on now is just classic LRB material.
Water under the bridge
So how did three vastly different personalities based in different cities (Shorrock has lived in Sydney since the late 1970s) put the past behind them and find a reason to push on in the 21st century? Personal grievances had become less significance or could be viewed in a new light. Back then I didnt appreciate where Glenn was coming from and he in the early stages didnt appreciate where I was coming from, so we couldnt meet on any sort of level. There was just nowhere for us to meet, says Goble.
Coming back together now I realise theres a whole lot of other things I would have liked to have done, but the reality is that the biggest success was with Glenn and Beeb. And so then I thought, if Im going to come back into this, I need to appreciate what Glenn brought to the music, and so rather than wanting anything different I started to appreciate where he comes from, probably for the first time. I probably saw him as an artist for the first time at this reunion. Glenns not a person of many words he never acknowledged my work to me, he never said, I like some of your songs or whatever
I assumed he didnt think too much of what I was offering. And through other people, this time around surprisingly for the first time, I heard his reality was different, he did consider a lot of my work really good. So I then felt more of a comfortable environment to be in. Now I dont feel shaky around Glenn any more, I just say it the way it is because at the end of the day I know now he does appreciate me as an artist.
Shorrock is more succinct: Thats all water under the bridge. Or river under the bridge.
Primary between the three was the musical impulse. Goble says: When we got together finally in Melbourne we spent about two days talking because so many personal things had happened. And the great thrill of course was as soon as we sang together, the whole phrasing and blend was just there automatically. It wasnt like we had to try and work to find anything, it was just all there.
Agrees Birtles, It felt like we picked up from where we left off 20 years ago. It was a feeling of elation when I heard our voices together again after all those years.
Goble picked a backing group of Melbourne session musicians to reproduce the original Little River Band sound. For Australian audiences, its a trip back to the late 1970s when LRB was arguably our best live band. In America, the question will be how easilyaudiences differentiate them from the Little River Band touring the US without original members.
Shrewd management and promotion will, they hope, place them on the circuit of heritage rock acts regularly playing around America. We could go back and do tours with Heart, Steve Miller or Boz Scaggs, like we used to do. All those people are back out there and those packages are perfect, Shorrock says optimistically.
Their recently inked deal with Universal Music in Australia includes the live DVD they are recording at the Forum this month and a trip to Los Angeles with a showcase performance for US record executives. Goble says the plan is to secure American management and gear up for a tour in the US summer of 2004.
For all its success, LRB was termed Little River Bland by critics who deplored anything that sounded American in Australian music. The three musical veterans are dismissive of any backlash.
Yes, it was mainstream, says Goble. Some people call mainstream bland. It just depends what you like. I do love people who sing and play well in tune and it seems for some people if you dont sing and play out of tune and out of time youre not hip. Thats garbage.
Birtles is unapologetic. Australian fans of the band are right there with us and would love to see us do this thing all over again as Birtles Shorrock Goble. As far as critics are concerned, let them say what they will. Were ranked in the top five harmony bands in the world and thats the reason our fans come to see and hear us.
None deny financial security is a motivation. Shorrock says America is the key to financial success. Goble wants security for his large family: Even though weve done very well, its an expensive life to live. With children and all the rest of it. So a little bit more money wouldnt hurt. Goble is also keen to promote his solo work. I see this as a help in exposing my other work
this way Im going to be in New York, Im going to be in London, and my solo career can run in parallel with this. As BSG we have an immediate world audience and we can go anywhere.
THEY WROTE THE SONGS
Beeb Birtles on Curiosity (Killed The Cat)
I wrote Curiosity (Killed The Cat) in London in 1974 when I was in the band Mississippi. Graeham Gobles wife had been given a kitten, which I would see running around the house we shared, and the idea for Curiosity (Killed The Cat) came to me. The lyrics in the song pertain more to me being the crazy cat and my girlfriend at the time being the one to keep me on an even keel. Its a song about hope and hanging on to your dreams no matter what!
Other songs by Birtles: Every Day of My Life, Witchery and Happy Anniversary.
Glenn Shorrock on Cool Change
Ive always been a sailor in my psyche, in my own imagination, even before I got on a boat. I was reflecting on my love of the white sand blue water philosophy, lifestyle. Ive always loved that. I just translated it into a metaphor for a release from the pressures of LRB. I wrote it about 1977-1978 and it got recorded in 1979 on First Under the Wire. By that stage I had three or four years under my belt of hard work and touring and politicking and compromising and all the other things. I was a bit older
than everybody else and Id had the group experience several times before.
Other songs by Shorrock: Emma, Statue of Liberty and Help Is On Its Way.
Graeham Goble on Reminiscing
The songs inspiration was the romantic Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and 1940s some guy walking hand-in-hand with his girl, past white picket fences. A lot of musicians love Reminiscing because of the chords
they say its a brilliantly written song. People like John Lennon and Frank Sinatra have gone on record as saying it was among their favourite songs. Theres a book by May Pang with a whole page where John Lennon and May made love to Reminiscing. Sinatra said it was the best song written in the 1970s.
Other songs by Goble: Its A Long Way There, Lady and Night Owls.
Debbie Kruger is a music industry PR consultant and writer currently working on a book about Australian songwriters.