The Plagiarism And Breakdowns Of Smudge's Debut Record

19 October 2014 | 10:34 am | Steve Bell

Influenced by an "American Indian": Barry Manilow

Band: Smudge
Album: Manilow
Label: Half A Cow/Domino/Shake
Released: 1994

After what seems like an eternity of inactivity, Sydney indie icons Smudge are returning to the rock’n’roll front line with a vengeance, using the 20-year anniversary of the release of their seminal debut long-player Manilow as a fulcrum for a sudden (and much overdue) burst of activity.

The band formed way back in 1990, purportedly at the instigation of friend and confidant Nic Dalton – who then ran nascent indie label Half A Cow and who’d later join The Lemonheads as bassist for a brief-but-fruitful tenure – with the aim of contributing a track to a forthcoming compilation CD. The trio – singer/guitarist and chief songwriter Tom Morgan, drummer Alison Galloway and bassist Paul ‘Duncs’ Duncan – recorded the track Tea, Toast & Turmoil, liked both the song and the band dynamic immensely, and thus Smudge was born. From little things, big things grow (as the great man says).

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By the time Manilow was set to drop a few years later, Smudge had become a pretty well-known concern already (both in Australia and beyond). Morgan had struck up a firm friendship with Evan Dando of burgeoning US indie powerhouse The Lemonheads on one of that band’s early Australian tours – at a time when The Lemonheads were sailing away from their punk roots towards more melodic waters – and this soon morphed into a fruitful creative relationship as well. This in turn manifested with Morgan scoring two co-writes on The Lemonheads’ 1992 breakthrough album It’s A Shame About Ray (the gorgeous title track and the snappy Bit Part), as well as Galloway proving the inspiration for Alison’s Starting To Happen from the same record.

But, far more importantly, Smudge had already by this time released a string of catchy, infectious EPs – Don’t Want To Be Grant McLennan (1991), Love, Lust & Lemonjuice (1992) and Superhero (1993) – so from the outset there was a lot more going on in the Smudge world than mere association or nepotism.

“Yeah, we did alright with the EPs and stuff, I guess,” Morgan reflects. “I think we already had three EPs plus a compilation for overseas, so [Manilow] was our first proper album. It was done pretty quickly, in about five days or something. Nic Dalton was producing – he was there every day. He played guitar on a couple of songs, plus helped us with some arrangements and stuff. It was such a long time ago.”

Some of the tracks like Superhero, Pulp and Divan had already been on earlier releases but were tackled again for the long-player, making it on some level a reflection of the band’s early years as well as a current statement.

“That was a last-minute decision really,” Morgan muses. “I think The Hummingirds had re-recorded Alimony and Get On Down and a couple of other songs on their debut record [1990’s LOVEbuzz], so while we were there we kinda thought, ‘Why not?’ I remember demoing a couple of other songs to put on the record, but we ended up going with those ones. I don’t remember why – sometimes I think we shouldn’t have done it, but it seemed like the right idea at the time.”

The Hummingbirds’ frontman Simon Holmes also plays guitar on a couple of tracks on Manilow – were the two bands close?

“We knew each other – we’d supported them a bunch of times and I’d been a fan for a while. Nic knew everybody back then, so it was pretty easy to get whoever,” Morgan chuckles. “It was a cool scene [in Sydney] at the time. After the mid- to late-‘80s there was a bit of a lull, then all of a sudden a heap of great bands came out. That happened everywhere though I think, in Australia at least. There was a strong sense of community, which wasn’t based on a sound at all but more around a bunch of young people playing music at the same pubs. There was a camaraderie just through that, I guess.”

Tellingly Dando himself scores two co-writing credits on Manilow (Down About It and Superhero). Everyone knows about Morgan/Dando co-writes dominating The Lemonheads’ albums and their penchant for covering Smudge songs (a trend which would continue unabated for the next few releases), but it was clearly a two-way street from early in the piece.

“Before Manilow we were writing together heaps,” Morgan tells. “We’d known each other for a while by then – he sang on the original version of Divan [from Love, Lust & Lemonjuice] – and we’d been writing songs ever since. We wrote Down About It and he decided to record that as well, and we wrote Superhero. It was pretty encouraging. He wasn’t the big star then that he was going to be in a couple of years’ time, he was just a songwriter with a band from America, but that was exciting enough. I’d never experienced anything like that before.

“It was good timing for us, because we were pretty lazy as a band so any promotion that Evan could give us as was welcome. We wouldn’t have organised all that press – we got a lot more press because of Evan than we did off our own bat, so it was worth it.”

There had also been a change in Smudge ranks by the time it became to record Manilow – Duncan had been replaced on bass by Adam Yee, consolidating the line-up that continues to this day.

“This is the first recording with Adam – Duncs played on the early EPs – and [super-brief album cut] Top Bunkin’ Duncan was our homage to him, a farewell,” Morgan explains. “The change was no hassle, Adam slotted in really easily. It’s funny because he’s still the ‘new guy’ to us, and he’s been in the band for 20 years.”

By this time the band had already well-and-truly settled on the template that would serve them so well down the track – short and sharp songs which get in there and out again, making their point without overstaying their welcome – which is how Manilow manages to cram 21 songs into just over 41 minutes.

“That was because we loved The Descendents and All and all of that stuff,” Morgan smiles. “Pretty much the same amount of effort is put into a short song, if it’s got a bridge, a verse and a chorus. When Nic and I were recording [side-project] Sneeze we realised that it takes just as long to record and mix short songs as it does long songs. Sometimes even longer because in those days you had to stop and rewind the tape every minute, rather than letting it go. I think I just felt that if you could do it in a short amount of time then it was exactly the same. I dunno, I often think it was because of loving TV show themes, or a lack of confidence and not wanting to sing for too long. I don’t know.”

Smudge were actually renowned for some fantastic TV show theme covers; the hidden tracks on Manilow are actually the theme from [‘80s TV show] Charles In Charge and a song Kelly pilfered from Cheers (plus they’d done a killer rendition of the [‘70s TV show] Laverne & Shirley theme Make All Our Dreams Come True on the Superhero EP).

“Those songs have got everything, and they’re over in 30 seconds or 45 seconds, but they’ve got heaps of lyrics and changes and a hook,” Morgan shrugs. “And a lot of TV shows from that era had quite complex themes.”

Smudge loved their covers too – You Am I’s Berlin Chair was an early fave, plus Superhero possessed a great version of John Waite’s ‘80s pop hit Missing You (among countless others).

“I don’t know how we ended up doing so many covers, but it worked out that way,” the singer offers. “Back in the days of four-tracks it was a novel thing to be able to record at home, and if you didn’t have songs of your own you’d just record a cover. Early on we wanted to just record Aussie stuff – we thought if we were going to do any covers we’d just do Australian bands – but that didn’t last too long, although we did a bunch.”

Manilow went on to become Half A Cow’s biggest selling release, and was put out in the UK by Domino as well as scoring releases in Canada and Japan.  It’s birthday has prompted both a vinyl reissue and a tour which will find them playing the album in its entirety (followed by some other material from their catalogue), so let’s have a look at a few of its key moments:

Manilow: Brief guitar-heavy opening gambit with distorted vocals and an odd, off-kilter melody. A somewhat strange intro, certainly not a commercial manouevre.

TM: “The album title came before the song. When we were recording we didn’t have a title for the record still, and I read an article in one of the magazines that was in the studio – GQ or Vanity Fair or something – about Barry Manilow, and at the time I just got swept up in it. I just thought, ‘Wow, he’s really cool – he knows he’s a dag and he doesn’t care’, and the more I looked at his name I just thought it was really good, like an American Indian name or something. So I said, ‘We’d better call the record Manilow’ – which was fortunate because we didn’t have a title – and then Ingrown was going to be the first song, but I thought it would be cool to have an opening or an overture for the record, so we just quickly recorded Manilow the song and named it that to fit in with the title.”

Ingrown: As mentioned, originally meant to be album opener but relegated to first drop. Upbeat and catchy with a strong chorus and memorable hooks.

TM: “It was pretty quick to write. Back in those days I used to have a bunch of lyrics and just write off the top of my head, so that was pretty quick. We had that song for a while before we recorded it.”

Was it common for songs to come fully-formed, or at least really quickly?

TM: “Yeah, back in those days definitely. I wish I could get back to that again – it’s a hard slog now to try and get a song out of me – but in those days it was really easy.”

Impractical Joke: A more laidback number, which meanders along at a cruisy tempo with a liberal smattering of hooks thrown out along the two-minute journey.

TM: “Same thing, that was really quick. I remember when I write the lyrics that I was really happy with them, it felt like I was writing something different to what I’d written before. It sounded grown-up to me. In those days [the music and lyrics] all happen at the same time. The song would be written as I’d be playing guitar, so it was all at once. It happens a lot from what I’ve read, and it seems that often the best songs are written that way – you’re not really analysing what you’re doing, so it can match up really well.”

Superhero: An epic in the Smudge canon, in that it clocks in at over four-minutes. The sentiment is fairly inscrutable (the chorus proclaiming, “Watch my back, I’ll watch your brother/Watching him as you dug under”). A great track nonetheless.

TM: “I wrote that with Evan, but don’t remember too much. I know I wanted to try and write a longer song, so it’s got a few breakdowns in it… I don’t remember it too much, and I don’t really know what it means that song. Lyrically it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Evan was mainly helping with lyrics back then, fleshing stuff out. He taught me a method writing lyrics, which is if you’ve got one verse study the first verse to write the second verse if nothing’s coming. Just look at what you’re saying in the first verse and build on that – if it’s not the context of what you’re talking about then at least the syllables or the phrasing – try to get similar phrasing.”

Divan: One of the band’s sweetest songs, basically an invitation to a friend to stay over for the night whenever so inclined (“crash out on my divan”). Obviously struck a chord with a lot of musos, because as well as being covered by The Lemonheads (as b-side from 1992 single of Simon & Garfunkel cover Mrs Robinson) it’s also been attempted by countless others.

TM: “Yeah, a lot of people recorded that. Once again I don’t remember why we recorded it again for Manilow – I feel like the EP version might be better, the one before it. That was written without a guitar – just one night on the street. I think we were going to the Cross, and we were in the back of a cab and passed this restaurant called Divan, like a Turkish pizza restaurant, and then I wrote the first verse and by the end of the night I had the whole song.”

Down About It: Another Dando co-write which had also already been on a Lemonheads release (1993’s Come On Feel The Lemonheads). Vaguely melancholy, with a nice yearning touch.

TM: “That was written when we were touring with The Lemonheads in Australia – we wrote that in Perth. Originally it was called Her Guitar, and the chord progression is descending so that’s where we got the title Down About It, because it was going down.”

Ugly Just Like Me: One of Smudge’s most fun tracks, rife with self-deprecating lyrics (“I really, really like her ‘cos she’s ugly just like me”) and couched in strummed guitars, all clocking in at barely over a minute.

TM: “That was one of the first songs I wrote ever. It was probably just as Smudge was starting. Don’t know why it wasn’t recorded earlier, I think we were conscious of the length of the songs and that we had to make the record longer – that’s why there was so many songs on [Manilow], and that was one of the songs that we worked on [to pad out the length].”

Desmond: A vaguely menacing intro leads into an upbeat, lo-fi ditty sung by Galloway, seemingly throwing down the gauntlet to a current or former flame.

TM: “That was more Nic and Al who wrote that. I loved it when Al sang songs, it felt like I didn’t have to be a frontman or anything and that we were ‘a band’. That’s one of the things I liked about Sebadoh as well, they way that they split up the songwriting and singing. I think that’s a real strength. It’s like two bands in one, and apparently it was because J [Mascis ]was such a control freak [when they were in Dinosaur Jr together] that when Lou started his own band he didn’t want to become J so he made sure that Jason [Lowenstein – Sebadoh guitarist] sung as well.”

Scary Cassettes: A heartfelt paean to Lou Reed which also name-checks Lou Barlow and Sebadoh – hard to see how this could be anything but great, but a catchy number to boot.

TM: “I really don’t know… I just really love Lou Reed. There’s a bit of plagiarism there at the very beginning (the track opens with a stanza from Satellites Of Love – ‘I’ve been told that you’ve been bold, with Harry, Mark and John’ – before countering, ‘Well that’s my second favourite line, from my fifth favourite song’ before joyously proclaiming, ‘Hope you like Lou!’) and I had to justify the plagiarism I guess. I dunno.”

It’s an album full of highlights, and accordingly received a great response and led into an intense period of activity for Smudge – the rest of 1994 saw them touring the States and the UK (including a Peel Session and a slot on Reading Festival), and doing the rounds of Australia alongside bands like The Lemonheads (surprise), Sebadoh and Superchunk.

“It was pretty much a whirlwind, it all happened at once,” Morgan reminisces. “It’s just one of those things – when you’re young you can’t sorta see what’s happening. You don’t have the life experience to go, ‘Oh right, there’s a lot happening right now’. It just happens, and it’s not until you’re older that you look back and go, ‘Oh shit, a lot of stuff was happening in that time’. It was great.”

Looking back now on Manilow after all these years, what’s Morgan’s perception of the record today?

“I think it’s pretty good,” he posits. “I don’t want to be too over-critical of it because we were young when we made it, but if I had to critique it I’d say that the tempo is pretty similar in each song – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, just pointing it out – and maybe it could be two or three songs shorter. I think there’s a bit of fat there we could have cut. But I think it’s pretty good. I mean it is what it is as a record, it’s got its own sound.”

One of the other birthday presents that Manilow is receiving is its very own tribute album, whereby a host of likeminded Aussie (and OS) artists including Lou Barlow, Courtney Barnett, Seja, Two Am I (Tim and Davey from You Am I), Undead Apes and more each tackle a track.

“It’s really cool,” Morgan smiles. “Rather than just a tribute album it’s a Manilow tribute as well – the whole album covered track-by-track. I think they’re all good, but the Youth Group version of Desmond is pretty great. They were a few years after us, but a cool band.”

And they’re also getting their own alcoholic beverage – Sydney brewer Young Henrys has concocted a new cider called Dave The Talking Pear (in homage to Manilow album track Dave The Talking Bear).

“It’s pretty random. We had no input, it’s their thing – I don’t know anything about brewing cider,” Morgan laughs. “I haven’t tried it yet but looking forward to it. It’s strange when we started the band I never thought we’d have our own cider – it was all just t-shirts back then. But we did lots of shirts! It’s a post-modern paradise.”

Looking forwards, Morgan has obviously been busy preparing this ongoing party for Manilow, but has he found the time to write much of late?

“Not really,” he admits. “I might be hooking up with Evan soon to help him out with some songs for his next record. I’ll probably go over to LA to do it, just for a few days, but it’s not confirmed yet – we’ll see. There’s nothing else in the pipeline – we’ll probably get around to doing another Smudge record, but we’ve been saying that for a while now.”

‘Til then – happy birthday Manilow!!

Manilow Tracklist

1. Manilow
2. Ingrown
3. Impractical Joke
4. Superhero
5. Funny You Should Mention That
6. Bodyshirt
7. Down About It
8. Little Help
9. Desmond
10. Scary Cassettes
11. Mr Coffee Man
12. Pulp
13. Dave The Talking Bear
14. Ugly, Just Like Me
15. Divan
16. Not Here For A Haircut
17. Don't Understand
18. Hell On Hot Bread
19. Top Bunkin' Duncan
20. Charles In Charge (unlisted)
21. Kelly (unlisted)