BLURT’S INDELIBLES (THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT. 11): Hoodoo Gurus

Back to bedrock with stoneage romeos the Hoodoo Gurus. Below, also watch the original video for ’80s mega-hit “I Want You Back,” which boasts the most awesome use of a green screen ever. Spoiler alert: despite the lyrics, that song was NOT about a girl songwriter Dave Faulkner was pining for.

BY FRED MILLS

Ed. note: For this installment of my “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: features on Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter HoursGreen On Red, Thomas Anderson, The Sidewinders, Rank And  File, and The Windbreakers) I flash back once again to the mid ’80s and then forward a few years – including to NOW, with a timely announcement of a Fall 2020 U.S. tour by the Wizards of Oz.

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News Item, December 14, 2019 – Hoodoo Gurus to Tour America (from HoodooGurus.net):

“We are finally coming back to tour the U.S. at the end of next year. About time, I hear you say. The whole tour is being presented by Little Steven’s Underground Garage, the hippest radio station in the world. Amongst many others, the Underground Garage features Count Zaremba’s Crypt, a spooktacular show presented by The Fleshtones’ own, Peter Zaremba, from midnight (ET) every Saturday.

“I know many people are going to be disappointed that their city (or country) will miss out on a Gurus gig this time – and that includes some of our favourite places to play (hello, Atlanta and New Orleans!). We will be coming back again asap with a new album and a much more extensive tour next time. This is just the first step in a much more active touring schedule for the band over the next few years, with visits to many other cities, countries and planets being in our long-term touring schedule. For reasons that are too boring to get into, we have to limit this particular U.S. tour to three weeks, and though we’ve squeezed as many gigs as we can into that time, we are barely scratching the surface. We’ll come back again soon, we promise.”

HOODOO GURUS U.S. TOUR OCT./NOV., 2020

OCTOBER
Fri. 23 Oct. SEATTLE, WA – Tractor Tavern.  Tickets here.
Sat. 24 PORTLAND, OR – Aladdin Theater.  Tickets here.
Sun. 25 SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Slim’s.  Tickets here.
Mon. 26 LOS ANGELES, CA – The Roxy.  Tickets here.
Wed. 28 SOLANA BEACH, CA (San Diego) – Belly Up Tavern.  Tickets here.
Thurs. 29 SALT LAKE CITY, UT – State Room.  Tickets here.
Fri. 30 ASPEN, CO – Belly Up Aspen.  Tickets here.
Sat. 31 DENVER, CO – Bluebird Theater.  Tickets here.

NOVEMBER
Mon. 2 Nov. MILWAUKEE, WI – Shank Hall.  Tickets here.
Tues. 3 CHICAGO, IL – City Winery (U.S. election night).  Tickets here.
Wed. 4 NASHVILLE, TN – Mercy Lounge.  Tickets here.
Fri. 6 NEW YORK CITY, NY – Webster Hall.  Tickets here.
Sat. 7 BOSTON, MA – The Sinclair.  Tickets here.
Sun. 8 PHILADELPHIA, PA – Philly Underground Arts.  Tickets here.
Mon. 9 NORFOLK, VA – The NorVa.  Tickets here.
Wed. 11 WASHINGTON, DC – The Hamilton.  Tickets here.
Thurs. 12 JACKSONVILLE, FL – Private show
Fri. 13 JACKSONVILLE, FL
Sat. 14 CARBORRO, NC – Cats Cradle.  Tickets here.

***

Now, while we’re almost a year away from the tour (you can bet I will find a way to catch it), never let it be said that I pass on a chance to sing the praises of one of my favorite bands. What follows is a retooled republishing of a tribute to the Gurus that I published at Blurt in 2010, which itself was an expanded take on a profile I had written for Harp magazine (BLURT’s predecessor) in 2007 as pare of my ongoing “Indelibles” series.

The occasion of my interview with founder and frontman Dave Faulkner was the overhaul of their extensive back catalog and a DVD career retrospective, Tunnel Vision; in addition, with an impending March trip to Austin for SXSW, expectations in their camp were high for a newly elevated American profile.

Forming in 1981, the Gurus had enjoyed a lengthy and successful career well into the late nineties until Faulkner decided to pull the plug (“I was all written out,” he confessed), only to resume operations in 2004. A new studio album subsequently appeared later that year, and during our conversation Faulkner noted that he’d been writing material for another one and predicted they’d have it out sometime later in 2007. Yet the record failed to materialize – twice, as a projected 2009 release date also came and went when the band reportedly grew unhappy with both the studio they’d worked in and the mixes
they’d gotten.

Luckily, their old friend and noted producer, Ed Stasium, stepped in and agreed to perform some of his mixing wizardry on the tapes. The resulting Purity of Essence, yielded a sparkling set of tunes bearing all the hallmarks of classic Gurus: sleek, hook-filled melodies; propulsive rhythms; heart on sleeve lyrics; terrific singing.

Having seen the Gurus at SXSW in 2007, I witnessed firsthand their enduring prowess as a live act. On 2010’s Purity, though, the band members – Faulkner, guitarist Brad Shepherd, drummer Mark Kingsmill, bassist Rick Grossman – genuinely sounded like they’d been granted a new lease on life. Whatever delays transpired in the making of it ultimately served to make everyone stronger. So, let’s revisit my conversation with Faulkner from 2007 as he recounted the band’s origins and trajectory…

***

Thanksgiving eve, 1984: Your future Harp correspondent is front and center at a packed Charlotte, NC, punk club, literally hanging on to the monitor of Hoodoo Gurus vocalist/guitarist Dave Faulkner. Amid an incessant, hypnotic tribal thud, searing psychedelic guitar riffs and football stadium-worthy chorus chants, Faulkner regales us with quirky lyric narratives about kamikaze pilots, zombie love and south-sea island sacrificial rites. No turkeys, though these Gurus: they rock like rabid wombats. And every last person in the venue is singing along and dancing so hard the room could pass for an MTV video shoot.

Afterwards, as punters clutching copies of the Australian group’s debut album Stoneage Romeos cluster around the band, a girl standing too close to Faulkner’s massive coif of teased-out hair almost sets him on fire when she lights a cigarette. Ah, the perils of the road….

“Oh god …” Dave Faulkner, speaking now from his home in Sydney, has vivid memories of the Gurus’ initial American trek. “We had so much Aqua-Net in our hair on that tour! It just got ridiculous. We were doing shows every night and couldn’t un-tease our hair and wash out all the goo, so it was just a succession of teasing upon teasing. By the time we got to Los Angeles, I think it was L.A. Times critic] Robert Hilburn, in a review, who said something like, ‘Dave Faulkner looks like a tumbleweed landed on his head.’ [laughs] And that’s how it did look! I got to the point at the end of the tour when I said, ‘What the hell am I going to do with it now?’ I thought I was going to have to shave it all off because it was like one huge dreadlock underneath, you know? It was kind of scary.

“But it really was a wonderful period. A lot was happening. People really were into us, and we had some great times even though we were living, er, low to the ground. We had this tour manager who didn’t think he was going to be paid so he stole all our gear in New York! We were playing with the Long Ryders the next night in Boston and had to use their gear.”

***

Within a year the Hoodoo Gurus’ star was in full ascent, the group a mainstay at college radio and on MTV. With the release of 1985’s Mars Needs Guitars the Gurus found themselves touring America once again, this time playing arenas as the Bangles’ opening act. And the band would continue to record and tour successfully for more than a decade, going on hiatus in January 1998 and then reuniting in 2004.

Before all that, however, there was just Faulkner and a long-simmering scheme to bring back “the dumbness of rock,” as he puts it now—the innocence, the naïveté, the joy of early rock ‘n’ roll.

Faulkner got his start in the late ‘70s playing in punk band The Victims (inevitably, he had a punk nickname: “Flick”) in his home town of Perth, located on the remote western edge of Australia. A ’79 pilgrimage to New York City, however, opened his eyes. He was already a fan of the bands dotting the lower Manhattan scene; through a mutual friend he hooked up with dB’s drummer Will Rigby, and the pair made the rounds of clubs, seeing everyone from the Fleshtones, Ramones, Talking Heads and Rigby’s own combo, to such recent Big Apple transplants as the B-52’s and the Cramps.

“I’d say the Cramps and the Fleshtones were the ones that really gave me the desire to do the Hoodoo Gurus,” says Faulkner. “Not that I knew it at the time, of course. But back in Australia a year later, I was seeing the legacy of Radio Birdman and all the so-called ‘Detroit bands.’ There was also this sort of homemade art-rock scene—I called them the suitcase synthesizer bands. But not much in between. And I just wanted to have something a bit more brash, more pop, I guess. In the case of the Hoodoo Gurus, in the early days, the songs had a lot of jokey themes and titles. But I mean, ‘a wop bop a lu bop, a wop bam boom!’ had this exuberance; it didn’t necessarily have to make sense, and it’s still just as exciting and direct today.”

Upon his return from the States, Faulkner briefly joined another punk group, the Manikins, then relocated to Sydney where, in his words, “It felt like a band was forming every week.” A chance meeting with guitarists Kimble Rendall and Rod Radalj at an end-of-1980 New Year’s Eve party led to the formation of Le Hoodoo Gurus, with former Victims drummer James Baker rounding out the roster.

The Gurus were initially conceived as a covers band, but Faulkner’s songwriting gifts quickly became evident. The band soon had a cache of catchy originals and notched a minor hit with their debut 45 “Leilani,” about a grief-stricken young man whose girlfriend gets tossed into an island volcano as a native offering to the gods, and set to an irresistible tribal thump one part Suzi Quatro’s “Can the Can” and several parts Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part 2).”

Turmoil then struck when first Rendall then Radalj quit, the former due to a budding career as a filmmaker, the latter out of frustration with Faulkner’s perceived dominance in the band as frontman and chief songwriter. By this point Faulkner was already convinced that a three-guitar Gurus was too limiting and gimmicky—earlier, they’d landed an actual spot opening for Gary Glitter when he toured Australia, and the consensus among Glitter Band members was that the Gurus needed to beef up their bottom end—so replacing Rendall and Radalj were bassist Clyde Bramley and guitarist Brad Shepherd, both alumni of Radio Birdman offshoot the Hitmen and of bubblegum tribute combo Super K. The band dropped the “Le” from the name and the classic Hoodoo Gurus lineup that would record Stoneage Romeos was in place.

Recorded under the watchful eye of veteran producer-engineer Alan Thorne, Stoneage Romeos, released in the spring of ’84, was an instant hit in its native Australia. And with good reason: Happily plundering trash culture, dropping in a trainspotter’s buffet of classic pop references, and powering along with an insistent—and danceable—turbine-like precision, the album has a seductive timelessness that, even two decades on, still connects with rock ‘n’ roll fans of all stripes. Nowadays, Faulkner’s reluctant to name it among his favorite of the Gurus albums: reminded how one journalist suggested that Romeos, draped in reverb and echo, “sounds like it was recorded in a cave” (in the context of the original review, a positive comment), he complains that the record “is, for me, very antique sounding—we always wanted to ‘make a din’ and some of the rough edges we had live got softened in the studio. What I am happy about it is that it still sounds fresh and lively. And good on the hi-fi.”

That it does: there’s the aforementioned glitter-glam slam of “Leilani”; Brit Invasion jangle, Flamin’ Groovies style, in “I Want You Back”; twisted Cramps psychobilly for “Dig It Up”; and vintage bubblegum pop in the “Hang On Sloopy”-like “My Girl.” It all bursts from the speakers, aglow with an analog warmth that not even contemporary digital reconfiguring can obscure.

As a wordsmith, Faulkner was, by his own admission, very specific with his imagery. On subsequent Gurus albums he’d deliberately move away from tackling quirky lyric topics, but for Romeos his imagination ran wild. For example “Tojo,” on the surface, concerns a girl named Tracy who blows in and out of a guy’s life and leaves him in ruins, but as Faulkner points out, “it’s really a series of very bad puns about a tropical depression,” e.g. Cyclone Tracy, which hit northern Australian city Darwin in 1975 on Christmas Eve. In the case of the heart-on-sleeve sentiments of “My Girl” (boy takes girl to school prom, girl slips outside to snog with a different boy), that song, too, has a double meaning: “It was a love song about love songs, a tribute to all the ‘60s boy-girl love songs, and I felt bad that some people would get quite sad about it —‘That poor guy!’—because it was just a joke!”

If there’s any one track on the record that sums up the Gurus aesthetic at the time, it’s album opener “(Let’s All) Turn On,” a boisterous, Fleshtones-worthy frat-party anthem whose lyrics namecheck all of Faulkner’s musical obsessions in just over three minutes. Sings/speed-raps Faulkner, “Shake Some Action, Psychotic Reaction, No Satisfaction, Sky Pilot, Sky Saxon/ That’s what I like, that’s what I like/ Blitzkrieg Bop to the Jailhouse Rock, Stop Stop Stop At The Hop, do the Bluejean Bop/ That’s what I like, that’s what I like!”

And that’s just the first verse.

“Ah-ha!” Even from half-way around the planet, I can tell Faulkner is grinning on the other end of the telephone line. “There was one review that actually criticized us for that, saying The Fleshtones’ ‘Hall of Fame’ was far cooler in its references. And it definitely is! But we weren’t trying to be the smartest guys on the block. We wrote that song over pizza and a flagon of wine.”

Unlike many of their Australian peers, the Gurus, who were signed to the Big Time label at home, secured a U.S. deal, with A&M, for their album, although a foreshadowing that the liaison wouldn’t last came when A&M insisted on redoing the Romeos cover art. The Australian LP sported a cartoonish nod to the 1966 caveman flick One Million Years B.C., all menacing dinosaurs and Day-Glo colors; in America, consumers got a stylized sleeve featuring arty renditions of the giant reptiles. “Bad coffeetable art, very anonymous and boring,” is Faulkner’s assessment. “On the U.S. tour fans are bringing up the Australian copies for us to sign—they were all getting them on import! Yet at the end of the tour, A&M says to us, ‘Oh well, we don’t really think the cover will affect sales it all.’ Like, when they’re right, they’re right, and when they’re wrong, they’re still right.”

Shortly before the ’84 American tour, drummer James Baker quit the band, replaced with Mark Kingsmill (another former member of the Hitmen), and, as previously noted, the band went down a storm in the U.S. The following year brought Mars Needs Guitars, released here by Big Time-America after a dispute with A&M resulted in the band being dropped by the label. Like its predecessor, the album became a college radio favorite on the strength of tracks such as rousing punk-powerpopper “Like Wow—Wipeout” and psychedelic ballad “Bittersweet,” and in 1986 plans were laid for the Gurus to do a co-headlining tour with another group of up-and-comers, The Bangles. However, just before the tour, the Bangles’ single “Manic Monday” started taking off, eventually reaching number two in the U.S. charts.

“We were like, ‘Well… I guess we won’t be co-headlining after all!’” Faulkner laughs good-naturedly. “So, it was more of a Bangles tour, doing larger and larger venues. But it was amazing—we ended up playing the Greek Theater in L.A. We had a great time, and both bands loved each other as artists, so it wasn’t hard, just fun.”

The Bangles connection extended to the third Gurus LP, 1987’s Blow Your Cool, which featured the four ladies singing on two songs (members of the Dream Syndicate also guested on the album, recorded in L.A.). Faulkner describes the making of the record as a “dark period” and calls its producer Mark Opitz (INXS, Divinyls) a “yuppie wanker, and arsehole” who pitted band members against one another in the studio. And while Blow Your Cool also did well, the strain of recording took its toll on bassist Bramley, who quit before 1989’s Magnum Cum Louder and was replaced by Rick Grossman.

The Faulkner-Shepherd-Kingsmill-Grossman lineup subsequently recorded the albums Kinky, Crank and Blue Cave, although not long after the release of the latter, Faulkner announced that the Gurus would tour through the end of 1997 then disband, a move he says was prompted by a sense that he was “all written out—I didn’t want to go in again and do a half-baked album, so hey, it’s been good, let’s stop it before we become embarrassing.”

Assorted solo projects ensued, then in 2002 a mysterious EP appeared by a band calling themselves the Persian Rugs—the Gurus in disguise, essentially pulling a Dukes Of Stratosphear and doing ‘60s-styled garage, pop and psychedelia. This was followed in ’03 by a Persian Rugs full-length, Turkish Delight, and with the old chemistry reestablished, by the following year the group had officially resumed operations under the Hoodoo Gurus banner, resulting in 2004’s Mach Schau.

“The Persian Rugs was me doing a complete ‘60s revival sort of thing,” explains Faulkner. “Also, in a funny way, it was my own sort of version of retaliating at all the critics who always harped on the Gurus’ ‘60s influences: ‘You want to hear what I do when I do ‘60s? Here it is!’ But I also had a whole lot of songs after the Gurus broke up, and though I rehearsed them with different musicians, they just couldn’t seem to get the flavor of what I was trying to do. It became obvious to me that there was only one band that could play these songs the way I wanted to hear them. So Mach Schau, far from us coming back and being ‘middle aged’ and writing for an older fan base, we just wanted to make a hard rocking record that out-did anything we’d ever done. We really blew a gasket on that one—it’s our Presence, like Led Zeppelin.”

***

Following the release of Mach Schau, in 2005 the Australian division of EMI Records reissued expanded/remastered editions of all the Hoodoo Gurus albums; also released was Tunnel Vision, a two-DVD set compiling every Gurus video, a wealth of never-before-seen live material and a smartly-done retrospective documentary, Be My Guru. The band subsequently struck a deal with New York label Virtual, which is distributed through Ryko, to restore their back catalog to print in the U.S.; the initial brace of releases, Stoneage Romeos and the Tunnel Vision DVD, hit stores in October. Still a significant draw in their home country (in 2005 the Gurus co-headlined the annual Big Day Out festival with Metallica and the Strokes), they hope to capitalize upon that American profile-boost by coming to the States in March for South By Southwest. And plans are in place to make a new Gurus album, but Faulkner says he needs more time to write new songs so they’ve postponed what would have been January recording sessions until May or June.

Absent from these shores since 1995, in spirit the Gurus never really went away. You can still catch the occasional video clip on VH1-Classic, and enlightened deejays at community and college radio stations are known to cue up a Gurus track from time to time as well. “I Want You Back” in particular hasn’t lost any of its jangly lustre—and the video for the song, which features the Gurus in all their teased-hair, Aqua-Netted glory performing while Claymation dinosaurs frolic around them, still exudes a quirky, primitive charm.

Noting that “I Want You Back” was the track that introduced the Gurus to America, I can’t resist asking Faulkner if the song, with its lyrics about a breakup and the messy aftermath (“It’s not that she’s gone away/ It’s the things I hear she has got to say/ About me—and about my friends…”), was about a particular girl who dumped him?

“No, and, ah, I don’t really want to go into it,” says Faulkner, adding, “but it’s definitely true.” He pauses for a moment, then emits a self-conscious chuckle, as if he feels foolish for coming across so cryptic. “Well… okay. I guess I can finally talk about that.

“Basically, when [co-founder] Rod Radalj left the Gurus he was very dismissive of us, trying to move on and kind of burn everything behind him: ‘Oh, it’s not worth staying in that band. They’re terrible!’ So, I basically turned that emotion around: ‘Here’s this guy who ditched us and he’s acting like the spurned lover!’ It was me saying, ‘You’ll regret it.’”

Yet with its jangly melody, soaring vocal harmonies and overall yearning vibe, “I Want You Back” has all the earmarks of classic guy-girl pop.

“Well, yeah, I just turned all that stuff into a relationship song.” Faulkner says. “I don’t know why people don’t realize that it’s an anger song. You’re right, they think it’s a longing song. But it’s not a song about ‘I wish you’d come back,’ but—‘You’ll wish you were back!’”

 

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