Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Melbourne song of the month: “Witch Girl”/The Mystrys (June 1966)

Australia’s one-hit wonder tradition is not what you’d call illustrious. Think about it: “Nice Legs, Shame About the Face” by Dave & the Derros … “Bop Girl” by Pat Wilson … “I’m an Individual” by Mark Jacko Jackson … Countless singles by former soap stars. But there is one exception to this rule: the magical and mind-bending “Witch Girl” by The Mystrys. 

This is one one-hit wonder that makes you wonder what might have been.

Sure, it bears all the hallmarks of a novelty record — bursts of spacey keyboard, eerie female backing vocals, burbling cauldron effects, Hammer-Horror lyrics — but “Witch Girl,” transcends these details with some fine musicianship and an atmospheric production Joe Meek would’ve been proud of.
Mysterious, masked and mind-blowing: The Mystrys. Photo:
After a crazy intro that conjures up images of dank basement torture chambers, the song hits a cracking stride, propelled along by rollicking drums, chugging guitar and impassioned vocals, until it ends suddenly around the two-minute mark. 

Those of you paying attention might’ve noticed that the lead break is a bit anti-climactic compared to the song’s otherwise lavish, multifaceted sound —  this was an unfortunate case of songwriter Bob King Crawford's ambitions out-stripping the technical possibilities of the day. Even in South Melbourne’s state-of-the-art Armstrong Studios, with renowned recording engineer Roger Savage at the controls, Crawford's vision was simply too far out… 

Interviewed for The Mystrys' chapter in Wild About You! lead guitarist Ziggy Zapata recalls:
"I was extremely fast on guitar even in those days and I was going to go crazy [in the solo] and do 98 notes to the bar, but Bob said, 'Keep the guitar really simple because we're going to add some special effects [over it] afterwards.' ...a lot of the effects I expected didn't happen because they had a few studio glitches. So the guitar solo's not very inspiring at all."

“Witch Girl” was supposed to be the first of many Mystrys singles penned by Bob King Crawford, a well-known local music industry identity of the time. Apparently he had a whole suite of songs ready for the group to record, all similarly weird and whacky in theme — but all now lost in the mists of time. If “Witch Girl” is anything to go by, we’ve missed out big time.

The Mystrys: truth is stranger than fiction

So why were The Mystrys so short-lived? That certainly wasn't the intention of their manager Michael Kopp, a dodgy impresario type who conceived the band as an Australian rival to The Beatles and The Stones, destined for superstardom. Like one of those cartoon characters with dollar bills flashing in his eyes, Kopp was itching to cash in on the booming pop music scene.

After catching singing bass-player Charlie Bayliss performing in St Kilda with his group The Untouchables, Kopp approached him with his big idea; Bayliss then recruited the rest of the band, including the aforementioned Zapata, who was also in The Untouchables.
A promo shot of The Mystrys striking fear into the hearts of songwriter Bob King Crawford, manager Michael Kopp and financial backer Buff Parry. Taken from
As the photos in this post attest, The Mystrys weren’t like other bands. Preceding Los Straitjackets and The Mummies by decades, they disguised their identities by wearing creepy green velvet hoods over their heads, adopting outlandish alien names and claiming to be from another galaxy. LOVE IT!!!

If that weren’t enough, Kopp also dreamed up the notion of a fifth, invisible member. Yep, he’s the one you can’t see in any of the photos.

While Zapata considers the whole gimmick to be “really stupid”, he found the hoods to be particularly irritating. He writes on his website:
“Apart from being extremely uncomfortable, these hoods totally negated any chance of rock fans being attracted by the looks of the band members, which was the most important factor for anybody wishing to achieve pop stardom.”
A shame, really, as they weren’t bad-looking boys (OK, so they weren't heart-stopping spunks either):
Kevin, Ziggy and Charlie,with some of the girls from The Kontacts, the band they toured with.
Check out Zapata’s website for a far more in-depth — and often hilarious! —history of the band than I’m able to give here.

A premature end

Released first as a preview copy for media through Michael Kopp’s Orbit label, and then more widely on Leedon, “Witch Girl” was a hit, just like Kopp planned. But before The Mystrys could capitalise on the single's success, Kopp vanished off the face of the earth. Turns out he had a nasty habit of writing bouncy cheques, and since he’d paid for most of the band’s expenses by cheque, things eventually got too hot for him.

The Mystrys, on tour in Adelaide at the time, decided it was time to pull the plug. As Zapata explains sadly, “There did not seem to be much of a future for a band that was a complete mystery to its targeted fan base.”  

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