Saturday, January 15, 2011

Man Bites Dog (1987-1994)

In the early stages of Steel City Sound I contacted Rob Laurie - former bassist of Man Bites Dog - and invited him to provide me with a sketch of the band's history: who, what, where, when, and why. Most people I approach with this invitation readily accept it and Rob was no different. Of course, just like most people I approach, I then had to nag Rob until he finally gave in and provided me with the much needed detail. However, Rob went above and beyond and provided me with such a detailed 'sketch', that little could be done to improve upon it.

Thus, I now present to you the history of Man Bites Dog, as told by Rob Laurie, with minimal editing.
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Man Bites Dog
"The phrase 'Man bites dog' describes a phenomenon in journalism in which an unusual, infrequent event is more likely to be reported as news than an ordinary, everyday occurrence (such as 'Dog bites man')." - Wikipedia

It's also a card game, a revolting Belgian schlock movie and at least two other bands exist with that name.

The first band I was in was the briefly existing garage/punk/RnB band The Fluffs which featured Dave Curley, Gordon Johns, Ed and Tom Dion and Michael Wilson. The Fluffs infamously drove to Melbourne with The Unheard in a modified Dion's bus (though similarities to the Partridge Family end abruptly there). I played drums until I/they bled.

I then found myself, as it were, in a performance-art group called Swamp Art with Bill O'Donovan, Don Francis and Michael Wilson. Swamp Art devised these weird little shows/events and performed at the Uni, The Plant Room Cafe, Trade Union Club and also in Canberra as a support act for Man Bites Dog. "Thrash Jazz and Atomic Theatre" was how the show was advertised.

Man Bites Dog featured Greg Campbell (guitar/vocals), Chris Flanagan (drums), Belinda Deane (bass) and a brass section consisting of Stephen Fitzpatrick (trombone/keys/vocals), and Mark Holder-Keeping (saxophone/vocals). Initially the band also included Francine Feld (trumpet) and Rob Maxwell-Jones (baritone saxophone).

Mark Holder-Keeping & Steve Fitzpatrick
By the time of the Canberra gig Col Flanagan (deceased), Chris' brother, had assumed the position of bassist but only as a temporary fill-in after Belinda Deane (deceased) had left to join The Sus-Stains (and later The Unheard).

I can't remember how it was presumed I could do the job because up to then I had never played the bass guitar and didn't own any gear. I was however a big fan of the music and having grown up on a diet of weird British prog n' pop, easily managed to dance to their odd time signatures and sing a long to the tunes.

Rob Laurie & Chris Flanagan
Anyway, I accepted a dilapidated Framus hollow body, short-necked bass and a faltering bass amp with a Wasp 4 x 12 cabinet was supplied. I set out to learn the bass patterns by rote for a couple of dozen mostly original songs and a few bent covers. My first gig with Man Bites Dog took place by the duck pond at UoW in 1987.

Local gigs were mostly at The Oxford, the North Gong, the Uni-Bar, The Iron-Workers Club, and the Coniston Hotel before it got done over. There were free gigs around town for Wollongong Out-of-Workers and a picketline at the building site of Warrawong Hoyts.

"Thrash Jazz" was a quite succinct description. It was always a problem to describe what the band sounded like to potential bookers looking for another Cold Chisel-a-like.

Arguably what gave the band its unique sound, also made it very hard to categorise and therefore promote. There weren't too many bands around with a brass section for a start.

The songs were choppy and often extremely fast. The tunes were memorable often laced with interesting (we thought), rhythmic ideas. The often dark, wry lyrics referred to the local area: the steelworks, local TV personalities, the Mercury, pubs, shopping centres, catholic education, dropping trips, death, mattresses and surf culture. Plus the usual stuff of angst ridden young men.


Greg Campbell @ The Oxford
The music of Man Bites Dog was twisted and angular but there was also lounge-jazz, cheesey-pop, New Orleans hymns, funk, punk, disco, ska, latin and feedback wigouts thrown in. We developed stylistic chops and sought to show them all off, usually within the one song.

In retrospect it's probable that we came across as tasteless bloody minded smart-arses. We all wore gaudy op-shop shirts, bad pants and had a less than punctual attitude to virtually any situation including rehearsals and gigs. Our local audience however vigorously danced. There were moments of delicacy but bombast in 5/8 was more fun.

Early local gigs utilized an experimental home-built PA system that looked real nice; green baize covered cubes, heavy as fuck. Dubbed 'The Hindenberg' (sorry Tim!) it wasn't a massive success as a PA. It broke down often but at least never exploded. Oh the humanity!

We started getting gigs in Sydney; we played with bands from the then just foaled Troy Horse stable, such as Beathaven. The usual B-level circuit; The Journo's Club, Evil Star, Coogee Bay Hotel (how they hated us there!) The Lansdowne with Peguins on Safari, and of course The Sando, Pismo Bar at the Petersham Hotel... or was it the Compressed Redneck in Leichardt? There were great gigs and some absolute stinkers. Either way there was always the drive back to Wollongong in the back of the van. Clunk-clunk-clunk-Kogarah….

We recorded four tracks for an EP at Rob Spegonia's studio in Corrimal with money that Fitz got selling a car that he somehow managed to win. Two tracks were also recorded live by Tim Vandenberg in the Masonic Hall in Smith St.

The lead song 'Life' was played a bit on Triple J and we felt the slightly warm fuzzies of potential progress. But as there was no label interested in releasing or promoting it, no management to get us on tours. 'Life', a song alluding to terminal ennui with its neat 7/8 European oompah folk-dance mid-section, was destined for neither Hitsville or even Cultsville. It died in the proverbial arse.

Live at The Journo's Club

Our most famous support slot was for Dinosaur Jnr. There were also supports for Painters and Dockers, Headless Chickens at the Kardoma Café in the Cross, Nick Barker (& the Complete Bastards), a gig in Parramatta where we were given The Wombat Switch i.e. our sound totally sucked, theirs was miraculously perfect. Meh!

We employed a regular mixer Paul Raymond (deceased) who helped iron our sound out a little but for most gigs we were at the mercy of someone else's PA and mixing person who usually had to be paid, oh, and the lighting guy and the guy on the door and the poster run, and…rah rah!

For a little while we found a kind of mentor with Michael Levis at Troy Horse. He set up some fun gigs at the Journo's Club and recorded half a dozen tracks that never got released. One of our songs was used in a short animated film (A Rat in the Building) and a documentary about Sydney taxi drivers. But the Sydney push ran out of steam and we retired to occasional local gigs back in the Gong and eventually moved apart and it all stopped.

One of the final ignominies was having finally weaseled our way in to a prestigious Sydney recording studio to record a track for a compilation of Sydney bands, only to be informed that not only was the song not funky enough to be included on the CD but that it was "the worst fuckin' song" producer Simon Polinski "had ever fuckin' heard". We thought it was a cracker. Sadly we didn't even get a copy of the tape.
Rehearsals at the Masonic Hall

The final 18 months of the band included sax player Melinda Wishart to beef the horns up. The last public gig was with The Surprise Arm in the Hogan's Bar, City Pacific in Dec 1st 1994.

And yet… many of our local gigs were truly events. The Oxford and The Plant Room simply heaved sweatily to our Thrash-Jazz juggernaut of sound. We loved the music; the rest was what had to be put up with in order to play the music. We gave it a good go.

This is not an unusual story of a band, Man Bites Dog was an unusual band though and one that could only have come from a place called Wollongong.

Mention should also be made to poster and backdrop designer, Bill O'Donovan who produced some unique visuals for us. Typically there is little video documentary evidence, a clutch of photos, and bunch of cassettes of rehearsals, live gigs and studio recordings and the Life EP.

If you were there and liked Man Bites Dog's music consider yourself duly thanked.

Rob Laurie, January 2011

Resources:
Wikipedia

Discography:
1989: Life EP (download)

Steel City Sound Exclusives:
Live at The Oxford, 26/09/88 (download)
Life demo cassette (download)
Troy Horse Sessions, 1990 (download)
Live at The North Gong 01/01/93 (download)
'Love Theme from Take a Seat' & 'The Intruder' (download)

12 comments:

  1. Hey Rob, great little history of one of the Gong's best ever acts.

    The last time I saw the band was at The Plant Room. I thought it was the final gig but there you go. I do have a cassette copy of an Ironworkers gig that kicked the proverbial.. I can't remember how or where I got it but could seek to make a copy for the digital world.

    Your version of 'Everyone's A Winner' made me feel it was cool to like Hot Chocolate. A couple of night ago, I met a young woman here in Fremantle whose mother used to be Errol Brown's girlfriend... for a week!

    Incidentally, there was a band over here called Prawns With Horns which was almost contemporaneous, with similar influences and set-up...

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  2. Hi Dave,
    Thanks for the nice comment.
    That Plant Room gig was actually the last one (Brett Seaman's wake!)
    Errol Brown's girlfriend's daughter?! Whoaah!
    Oddly I still find myself playing that same song in another band, though NOTHING like the MBD version.
    Cheers
    Rob

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  3. stephen fitzpatrickJanuary 15, 2011 at 8:57 PM

    man, rob, it reads so well when you write it like that. and david weber is the first commenter! what an honour all round! (and yes david, i reckon it'd be terrific if you got a copy to rob of the recording of which you speak...) sf

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  4. good write up Rob - but I'm pretty sure them Fluffs were actually called The Mojo Hands were they not?

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  5. Indeed you are correct, Steve.
    The name Mojo Hands certainly out-cooled The Fluffs when it came down to what went on the posters, we were also The Yellow Peril for one brief, dire moment.
    Rob

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    Replies
    1. you will always be a fluff to me Rob, and hopefully me to you....great piece, hope you are well, Dave C

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  6. gosh rob what a blast from the past
    Dad would love to see this :D
    Yu guys were awesome and there are still people listening to yure music
    Yu guys made some beautiful music.. How about a reunion for my 21st in july hehe :D
    love to yu all
    Sophie Campbell
    P.s. believe it or not Greg has 3 grandsons

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    1. Sophie Campbell! I knew you when you just a lump in your Mum's tum. Seriously, if you can put me intouch with your Pa I'd be very obliged. We miss him SO much! email me r.laurie at yahoo dot com. YAY!

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  7. I used to love coming to the North Gong and The Oxford to watch Man Bited Dog. I thought you guys were the coolest dudes going, I dragged all my girlfriends from school to see you, what fun!

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  8. Jaysus Sophie, you sayGreg's got 3 grandsons?! I sure been away a long time.... Did he evr finish that boat?

    Jon "Tickle Monster" Knowles

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  9. I went to uni from the mid 80s to 1990.
    Often we would sit in my mates back yard and MBD would be in the next door garage and rehearsing.
    It was great to see the band perform around the gong. Uni to the Oxford. Uni was so much fun. I did another degree At Griffith from 2007, there was no band culture nor party atmosphere, ok I am an old bastard now, but that period has gone and I always talk to students about how amazing Uni was. MBD added to the party atmosphere and will always be remembered.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Anony Mouse, thank you for you kind reminiscence of MBD.
      cheers, Rob

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