In a career spanning more than 45 years, it’s somehow ironic yet entirely fitting that singer-song writer RUSSELL MORRIS has recently enjoyed the biggest selling album of his life.
By Ian McFarlane
The critically acclaimed (and, it should be noted, independently recorded and released) Sharkmouth has been a real smash, reaching the national Top Ten and making him one of the most celebrated elder statesmen of Aussie music.
Interestingly, while Morris has been through the record company mill over the course of his career he hasn’t been courted by a major label in many a year. In fact, when he approached the majors nearly four years ago with the idea of releasing a uniquely Australian album of songs about the nefarious and colourful characters of the 1920s and 1930s they all rejected it.
Morris has always garnered respect and recognition within the industry (he was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2008); it’s just that no one believed journeymen artists like him – who actually know how to write and perform songs – could sell records anymore. Things were entirely different back in the early 1970s when Morris was one of the country’s major record sellers. Under the direction of wildcard producer Ian “Molly” Meldrum, the ‘The Real Thing’ / ‘Part Three into Paper Walls’ suite remains an audaciously magnificent psychedelic artifact of the highest order.
He was still being feted as a pop star, however, having to record pop confection such as ‘It’s Only a Matter of Time’ and ‘Rachel’. The hard-rocking 1970 single ‘Mr. America’ was his first real stab at song writing (he’d co-written the ‘Paper Walls’ segment with ‘The Real Thing’ song writer Johnny Young) and it gave him a taste of where he really wanted to be – a respected singer/ song writer in his own right. He broke away from his manager Meldrum, and with the assistance of producer Howard Gable spent many months perfecting his craft with the Bloodstone album.
Essentially, Bloodstone featured singer-song writer rock mixed with folk and US West Coast country-rock influences and with Morris having written every track. The soaring, seductive ‘Sweet, Sweet Love’ was the big hit from the album (national #7 in July 1971) while the album itself went as high as national #12 that September.
It featured an all-star cast of session players from the upper echelons of the then current Aussie rock fraternity: guitarists Phil Manning, Brian Holloway, Billy Green, Rick Springfield and Charlie Gould; bassists Barry Sullivan, Duncan McGuire and Bob Arrowsmith; drummers Barry Harvey, Mark Kennedy, John Creech and Ron Sandilands; piano players Warren Morgan, Brian Cadd and Peter Jones; organ player Bruce Rowlands; harmonica player Matt Taylor; steel guitarist Dave Kelly; and backing vocalists Springfield, Creech, Cadd, Beeb Birtles and Marcie Jones.
The front cover presented a design by artist Geoff Pendelbury, one of those impressionistic art pieces that were fashionable back in the day but seem to be too esoteric and oblique to have any real significance or impact now. In a way it reminds me of the cover art that adorned Moody Blues albums circa the early 1970s, when it was de rigueur in the world of rock to be “mature”, “artistic”, “profound” although, fortunately, Morris steered well clear of the Moodies’ penchant for the dramatically orchestrated baroque pop-rock of those progressive-psych era masterworks.
Bloodstone is somewhat more down-home and modest without losing sight of certain lofty intentions. Song titles such as ‘Saints and Sinners’, ‘Our Hero is Dead’, ‘Heaven Shines’, ‘The Cell’ and ‘Ride Your Chariot’ bear the brush of an earnest and serious young artist finding his way in an already established world of adult contemporary pop-rock. At least Morris was willing to take up the challenge and his efforts did result in one of the best local albums of the year.
There are some basic themes running throughout the album with the original Side One of the vinyl being the uptempo side while Side Two was the big ballad side. Opening track ‘Oh Helley’ is the most folk-rockish number, an ode to a deceased lover which sets out Morris’ approach from the outset. The next three songs are variations on the same genre – country-rock with bluesy harp (‘Jail Jonah’s Daughter’), country-rock with honky-tonk piano (‘Saints and Sinners’) and country-rock with pedal steel guitar (‘Our Hero is Dead’). The side ends with the catchy pop-rock of ‘Heaven Shines’ with more honky-tonk piano in the coda.
The first three songs on the second side, ‘The Cell’, ‘Gambler’s Lament’ and ‘Goodbye’, are all emotive piano-led ballads. Basically songs about the search for redemption from past sins, they do tend to get somewhat maudlin and this is where the singer’s tremulous voice can also get a tad annoying. The religious overtones continue with the country-gospel tunes ‘Ride Your Chariot’ and ‘Lay in the Graveyard’ but fortunately they pick up the pace and there’s more variety in the instrumentation (guitar, Hammond organ).
‘Ride Your Chariot’ and ‘Lay in the Graveyard’ are probably the most interesting tracks here, alongside the final song, ‘Sweet, Sweet Love’, which is just a great pop ballad with a terrific arrangement. It starts out in a gentle, minor key way and then about half way through the pay off comes when Morris changes key, ups the tempo and the whole thing just takes off – as good a pop song as any in 1971.
It was clear even at this point that Morris had his sights set overseas. Following a couple more hit singles during 1972, ‘Live with Friends’ and the brilliant ‘Wings of an Eagle’, Morris headed off into the sunset, recording two overlooked albums in the US before returning to Australia in 1978 to pick up his career. He hasn’t stopped touring or recording and 2013 sees him at the top of his game.
RUSSELL MORRIS – Bloodstone (EMI HMV OCSD 7679) 1971
1. Oh Helley (All Songs Composed By Russell Morris)
2. Jail Jonah’s Daughter
3. Saints And Sinners
4. Our Hero Is Dead
5. Heaven Shines
6. The Cell
7. The Gambler’s Lament
9. Ride Your Chariot
10. Lay In The Graveyard
11. Sweet, Sweet Love
Produced By Howard Gable