By Ian McFarlane.
VALE MICHAEL ALEXANDER ‘MICK’ FETTES (1951-18 November 2016)
We’ve seen another shift in Australia’s rock’n’roll old guard with the death of Mick Fettes on Friday 18 November. Mick was cherished as the front man with Madder Lake, one of Melbourne’s best-loved bands of the early 1970s. He now joins the likes of Billy Thorpe, Lobby Loyde, Bill Putt, Wendy Saddington, Ross Hannaford, Doc Neeson, Bon Scott… it’s intensely sad to say the list is growing.
Mick would probably have been the first to tell you that he wasn’t one of the country’s premier singers. It was for his stage craft, as much as anything, that he will be remembered. At the heart of the matter Madder Lake was one hell of a funky rock’n’roll band. They could get fans dancing from the outset and Mick contributed much to the overall sound and style with his gruff, raspy vocals and manic moon-face persona. He had the knack for inciting entire audiences to gyrate from side to side as they followed his demented Joe Cockeresque stage movements.
Madder Lake guitarist Brenden Mason explained it to me once, “Mick was a master of improvisation. He wasn’t a great singer, but he was incredibly expressive, very spontaneous. He was more like a musician than a singer. There were very few of his lyrics that you could get an intelligible thread as far as what he was singing about. Quite a lot of the time he was using the words for their sound and texture rather than the meaning. I guess that added a surreal quality to the songs; he did talk about some bizarre stuff. A lot of his lyrics were made up on the spot.”
The group’s best known song, of course, is ‘12-lb. Toothbrush’ with its nagging vocal hook… yes the “nah nah na-nunna nah nah” song. But what the hell did that even mean?
Mick tried to put it into perspective when I interviewed him a few years ago, “What did that mean? … I don’t know. It’s just the sound of it that makes it work. I listen to ‘12-lb. Toothbrush’ and think, ‘oh yeah, maybe it has some relevance’ but it’s all abstract. It’s word pictures; I think that’s what it comes down to. To this day I don’t think of lyrics as trying to tell a story so much as just being abstract observations. How to explain it? I can’t explain it, so why bother. In Madder Lake we weren’t trying to be a pop band, we weren’t trying to emulate other bands, we were just who we were. Years on, I still think we’re unique. I can’t elaborate any more than that.”
Following their 1970s heyday Madder Lake continued to regroup for gigs and recordings, never having officially split. I recall seeing some amazing performances from the band over the years – the Lobby Loyde Benefit Concert (August 2006), Queenscliff music festival in 2008 and a couple of the Masters of Rock gigs they shared with the likes of Spectrum and Blackfeather. More recently Mick had suffered from heart issues. Indeed he had a heart attack in March 2011 and had to retire from the band in September 2012 due to his continuing ill-health.
As with his fellow band members Brenden Mason and Kerry McKenna, Mick’s background in visual arts always stood him in good stead throughout his music career and working life. As he told me, “Whatever Madder Lake did, the fundamentals were that the artistic bent never disappeared. That was the driving force from day one.”