Friday, March 14, 2014

Melbourne song of the month: 'The Real Thing'/Russell Morris (March 1969)

It’s been honoured on a postage stamp, and covered by artists as diverse as Kylie Minogue (!), Midnight Oil and Ollie Olsen. It was in the soundtrack of the movie The Dish, and has featured in countless TV commercials: most recently, for the Subaru Forester (ugh). It’s “The Real Thing” by Russell Morris, and it was unleashed onto unsuspecting Australian listeners 45 years ago this month.
The stamp! Wish I had one of these...
The history behind this iconic track is fascinating. Written by Johnny Young, it was originally earmarked for pop singer Ronnie Burns, but legend has it that Molly Meldrum decided it was perfect for his then-protégé Morris, and cajoled Young into recording a rough demo of it for him.
Russell Morris. Photo: National Film and Sound Archive
In an interview on ABC Radio’s Into the Music program in December last year, Russell Morris explained how he first came to hear the song.

Planning to leave his band Somebody’s Image and launch a solo career, he went to see Johnny Young for advice on how to strike out on his own. Young was more patronising than helpful, but shortly afterwards the two men crossed paths again on a TV show where Russell was miming to one of his band’s hits. Seeing how wild the live studio audience went for the spunky teenage singer, Young was waiting for him when he returned to his dressing room, insisting that Morris listen to some of his songs.

Of the three songs he heard, Russell quite liked one, but asked if Young had anything else, as he didn't want to be lumped in with other pop stars of the day such as Johnny Farnham, Ronnie Burns and Normie Rowe. All Young could offer was a song he’d written ‘as a joke’…

“Ian had come in at that stage, Ian Meldrum, and Michael Barnett, who was managing me as well. And we heard it and all of us looked at each other and went, That’s the song and he [Young] went, What? You’re crazy! A solo artist couldn’t do this song. And we said, That’s the one we want. The way he played it is vastly different to what Ian Meldrum envisaged and achieved.”
Molly and Russell in more recent times. Photo:
In the same interview, Morris reveals that Young’s rendition was actually a bit too close for comfort to Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” so Molly’s reimagining of the track probably prevented some nasty legal wrangling.
“Ian changed it and said, Right, we’re going to do it like ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ meets ‘I Am the Walrus.’ John was banned from the studio for that reason.”

In the studio

Produced in Armstrong’s studio in South Melbourne over several months, the song involved a cast of thousands. Members of The Groop formed the main backing band; John Farrar (lead guitarist of The Strangers) did the arrangement; and a session singer called Maureen Elkner sang backing vox. Then there was that haunting acoustic guitar part, apparently one of the last pieces of the puzzle to be added…

Says Molly (in the same interview):

“I wanted acoustic because I was a Cat Stevens fan. The opening with the acoustic guitar is a guy who used to be in The Zoot … Roger Hicks, who was a great guitarist. So it’s his intro and the rest, with Hitler and the bombs, is my part.”
And let's face it, without Hitler and the bombs, "The Real Thing" wouldn't be "The Real Thing"! After a deceptively beautiful start showcasing Hicks’s sweet guitar and Morris’s even sweeter voice, the song gains ever-more layers and trippy effects to reach a manic, mind-bending finale featuring Molly imitating Winston Churchill, Brian Cadd of The Groop reading instructions from the side of a tape box, the Hitler Youth choir, Hitler himself, atomic bombs exploding, and enough phasing to bring on spontaneous hallucinations. According to Molly:
“Because of the Small Faces with ‘Itchycoo Park’, I loved phasing, and so … we [worked] out a way we could do the phasing … connecting two studios and putting lines across. I wanted it to be world-class [with] some … of the different effects that had influenced me. So you’ve got the Donovan thing, and the Cat Stevens, you’ve got part of the psychedelia of the Beatles with the Magical Mystery Tour…”

But before any record label executives could hear the final product, Molly started freaking out about how they’d respond (after all, it was 6 minutes 20 seconds long, almost unthinkable for a single), grabbed the tapes from the studio and fled into the night. Russell Morris and recording engineer John Sayers eventually tracked him down in Albert Park.

Turns out Molly’s fears weren’t groundless: when the EMI/Columbia honchos heard the song, they were somewhat less than impressed. Without the label’s support promoting it, Morris and Meldrum saw no alternative than to hand-deliver their psychedelic epic to radio stations themselves. Their efforts paid off.

Top of the pops! The Go-Set Top 40, 31 May 1969
Not only was “The Real Thing” a number one hit in Australia, but it made the top of the charts in Chicago and New York. In 2001, it was voted fourteenth in APRA’s Top 30 Australian songs.

All together now: There’s a meaning there but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing….

Related post:
What would you give Molly for his birthday?

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