Τετάρτη, 20 Φεβρουαρίου 2013

The Bruce Wellie Band



Bruce Wellie is one of the unsung heroes of Australian rock music. Born in the Gorbals area of Glasgow in 1953, Bruce emigrated with his mum, dad and three older siblings to Adelaide in 1960. After a few brushes with the law during his early teenage years, Bruce followed his dad Jimmy into the welding business, and on leaving school took a job as an iron smelter with South Australian Railways.  A chance meeting with singer Bon Scott in 1970 inspired him to take up rock music, and it wasn’t long before he’d quit his job as a smelter. He was quick to master the musical instruments that came his way – guitar, bass, drums, flute, harpsichord, violin, piano, penny whistle – and while cutting his teeth as a multi-instrumentalist he worked as a drum roadie to keep the wolf from the door. Bruce’s first appearance on film is a split second glimpse of him lurking behind the amps, watching his mate Bon singing “Seasons of Change” (a big hit for Fraternity in 1971). Bon, of course, went on to fame and fortune with AC/DC, while Bruce had to keep working as a roadie to earn his daily bread. Nevertheless, by the mid seventies he was raking in the dollars as a top-notch session musician. 

Musical History –  ”The man with the golden tonsils.”

It was around this time that Bruce began to play keyboards with The Blind Deacons, the Hobart pop-rock band that had a hit with “She’s a Tasmanian She-Devil”. One night, when the Deacon’s vocalist Dave “Legs” Anderhoots got too loaded to perform, Bruce took his place in the spotlight and, as much to his own surprise as others’, found that he was a natural born singer. Soon he was fronting his own group, The Sunset River Band, a more serious project which took its influences from American Blues and indigenous Australian music. Bruce was breaking new ground with this approach, especially in his vocal style. Fascinated by the multiple harmonic resonances of the didgeridoo, he applied the same circular breathing technique to his singing that didge players used with their instruments. By this method he was able to achieve a continuous vocal sound, the so-called “Wellie long-breath”. This can be heard on “Swagman Blues”, a stomper of a song that became a regional hit for the Sunsets, leading critics to dub Wellie as “the man with the golden tonsils.” Jay Goldfarb, the influential music critic for The Adelaide Advertiser, even went as far as to say that if Robert Plant had been born at Ayers Rock, instead of in West Bromwich, he would have sounded something like Bruce. Goldfarb also recognised Wellie’s revolutionary synthesis of Blues, African and indigenous Australian music. A key element in this was his fusion of the local aboriginal Kun-borrk style with the modal tunings of American Delta Blues. 

Wellie –  the early years – Warfare in the suburbs.

The social mileu in which Bruce grew up can be seen in such classic Australian movies as Turkey Shoot, The Loved Ones, Wake in Fright, and Razorback. In other words, Bruce came up the hard way, and many of the Sunsets’ early gigs resembled riots rather than musical performances. Bruce soon became an adept in the art of bottle-dodging, a necessary prerequisite for any Australian musician in the early 1970s. It was at one of these shows that a member of the audience heaved a lamb’s carcass onto the stage, presumably as a sign of his disapproval. Bruce, in a moment of inspiration, picked up the dead animal and draped it around his shoulders, an act that whipped the audience into a state of frenzy. Since this legendary concert, a sheepskin jacket has become an obligatory part of Bruce’s stage-gear, something like a talisman, some would say a fetish. 

Breakout The journey begins (1974-1975)  

During the course of 1974, The Sunset River Band (Bruce Wellie – vocals; Beeb McArdle – guitar; Graham Gobble – keyboards; Mal Hirschfelder – bass; Tony Herring – drums) began to break out of Southern Australia and reach a wider audience. With the famous Strongarm Management Agency batting on their behalf, high profile concerts followed on the east coast, one of which was supporting Bruce’s old friend Bon Scott in his new band AC/DC. Things were looking good for the lads, and as more gigs followed they criss-crossed the country in Strongarm’s private Lear Jet. It was a magical time for all concerned, and when their second album, “Old Enough To Bleed” (the title oddly reminiscent of The Stooges’ song “Open Up And Bleed”), charted internationally in the latter part of 1975 a US tour was organised. This included an appearance on the newly launched variety show, Saturday Night Live.

February 1976 – Tragedy strikes 

It was while returning to Adelaide from their latest Australian tour, just before leaving for the States, that tragedy struck The Sunset River Band. As the band were flying over Hanging Rock in Victoria – the Bermuda triangle of the southern hemisphere – the plane’s navigation system went haywire and it crashed in flames, killing all four musicians, as well as their travelling companions. Luckily , Bruce wasn’t on the flight that day, having already left for the States to do interviews promoting the upcoming tour. A support slot with international superstars Aerosmith had been arranged, the buy-on reputedly costing Strongarm boss Artie Fichenheimer half a million dollars and an ounce of uncut Bolivian cocaine. Rumour has it that when he learned of the crash at his hotel in New York, Bruce broke down and wept, retiring to his bed with only his sheepskin jacket to comfort him. 

1976 – 1979: The lost years 

Having lost his band, not to mention his shot at world stardom, Wellie went into a tailspin of self-destructive behaviour that almost resulted in his own death.  Instead of returning to Australia, he prolonged his stay in New York, hanging out with members of The New York Dolls, Wayne County and The Backstreet Boys, Blondie and other regulars at the legendary Max’s Kansas City club.  It wasn’t long before he began to have problems with drugs and alcohol, missing appointments with potential record producers, preferring to spend his time instead with sympathetic groupies and dealers.  Finally, Fichenheimer lost patience with his protégé, and Bruce was dropped from the Strongarm roster. While his old mate Bon Scott was going from strength to strength with AC/DC, Bruce was forced to live off the diminishing royalties from the two SRB albums, and by 1979 he’d hit the skids and was no longer taken seriously by the record industry. He did a couple of novelty records for disreputable labels, for which, incidentally, he never got paid. The first of these was called “Smells Like A Sheep” (in a similar vein to Rolf Harris’s classic “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”), and the second was called “Cum As You Baa”. Neither of these records charted and the shops rapidly consigned them to the bargain bins. However, unknown to Bruce, both of them became collectors’ items, not only in Australia but in Britain and America too. The youthful Curt Cobain, for example, possessed both Wellie discs, and for those in the know the connection is obvious. It is also a historical fact that the working title for Nevermind was Sheep... 

Tragedy strikes again 

So toxic was Wellie’s condition in the late seventies that the arrival of punk rock passed him by largely unnoticed. While the record industry reeled under the combined assault of The Sex Pistols and The Clash, Bruce was living hand-to-mouth in a succession of skid row hotels and groupie crash pads. Even so,  his name was not absent from the lips of the cognoscenti. He’d become something of a cult figure, famous as much for his self-destructive lifestyle as for his music. In a notorious 1978 interview on a New York cable TV station Sid Vicious – in the company of Nancy Spungeon, Stiv Bators and Cynthia B-Girl – was asked why he liked Bruce Wellie’s music so much, when the rest of the “old wave” were the subject of his unremitting contempt. His characteristically blunt answer was: “Because we like it!” Jeff Lynne of ELO, though, far from admiring Bruce’s hedonistic lifestyle, expressed his worry and concern over the fallen idol’s condition, and pleaded: “Don’t bring me down – Brooooce”.  When “Don’t Bring Me Down” was released in July 1979, the record became an instant worldwide hit. Unfortunately, Lynne’s concern proved to be all too prophetic. While Bruce was “partying” at the Chelsea Hotel one hot August night in 1979, the combination of Qaaludes, alcohol and platform boots nearly did him in. Stumbling outside to get some fresh air, he misjudged the distance to the safety railing and fell three floors to the sidewalk below. Lucky not to be dead or paralysed, his fractured skull was repaired with a steel plate and he spent the next six months in a coma. 



1980 – 2000 – The quiet years 

After he emerged from the coma, Bruce decided to return to Australia to recuperate and reflect upon his life so far. Ever the humorous optimist, when asked about how it felt to be walking around with a steel plate in his head he quipped: “No worries, mate – I always did like heavy metal. Now I’ve got a lump of it in me ‘ead!”  But as far as music was concerned, little was heard of Wellie in these years. In 1990, Nick Chives, a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald, managed to track him down for an article in the Herald’s human interest series “Whatever Happened To...” Bruce was working on his uncle’s sheep farm at the time, and the interview found him more interested in the rearing of these gentle animals than in his personal  history as an almost famous rock star. However, by the late 1990s Wellie’s thoughts were again turning towards music. He was discovering the great Australian bands of the late 70s and early 80s, bands that he had missed for one reason or another, such as The Scientists, The Cosmic Psychos, Grong Grong and Lubricated Goat. 

2002 – Tragedy strikes yet again 

While Bruce was catching up on his country’s musical legacy, Jimmy Wellie, his dad, had become something of a celebrity himself. After reading about the 11 ton Mundrabilla Meteor, which had crashed into the area now known as Western Australia over a million years ago, Jimmy had become a committed meteorite hunter, combing the surrounding countryside for undiscovered fragments of extra-terrestrial rock. Now retired from South Australian Railways, he had lots of time on his hands to pursue his new hobby, and would drive out to the Nullarbor Plain whenever the mood took him. He’d already made a couple of important finds, and had even been mentioned in National Geographic magazine as a meteorite hunter of some note. He was just starting to enjoy his new-found fame, when tragedy struck the Wellie family yet again: as Jimmy was walking from his car to a likely-looking outcrop of Nullarbor rock, he was struck in the head by a piece of incoming meteorite and killed instantly.

Rebirth 

The accidental death of his father had a profound effect on Bruce’s way of thinking. If such a random event as a falling meteorite could have such awful consequences, what similar event might be lying in wait for him? Or wasn’t it, perhaps, an act of God, a sign that it was time for Bruce to go back out into the world and do good deeds? With such thoughts in mind, he decided that the best way to accomplish this would be to take up music again – not to gain fame and fortune this time around, but to bring the music of his native land to the attention of the world. As he said when interviewed about his decision: “There’s a lot more to Oz rock than Nick Cave and Kylie bloody Minogue, and the world needs to know about it!” 

False start 

Armed with a set of songs that reflected his favourite Australian music of the 70s and 80s, Bruce travelled east and hit the streets of Melbourne in search of kindred souls. Unfortunately, he arrived during one of the biggest heroin epidemics to hit the city in years, and most of the musicians he sought out were either dead, strung-out or in de-tox. After several false starts, he did succeed in getting a band together, an outfit called Überhogg, which played one gig at the Prince of Wales pub in St. Kilda to a lukewarm audience response. However, the other members were so drug-damaged and unreliable that plans for a national tour had to be abandoned.

2008 – Departure for Europe 

It was in 2008 that Bruce decided to take a trip to Europe, a part of the world he hadn’t visited since leaving Glasgow as a boy. Now 55, he wanted to visit his birthplace, after which he planned to “do Europe”, just like generations of Australian backpackers had done before him. One of his primary destinations was the city of Prague, famous for its Astronomical Clock and for the research carried out there in the early seventeenth century by Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. After the untimely death of his father due to unseen cosmic forces, Bruce had developed a strong interest in both astronomy and astrology, and he wanted to visit the home of so many arcane experiments and discoveries. And it was while walking through the dark, cobbled streets of this ancient capital that Bruce made a startling discovery of his own: the high-pitched voices of the beautiful young Czech girls he encountered, talking excitedly and breathlessly in their native tongue, resembled nothing so much as the soft bleating of the lambs he had cared for on his uncle’s sheep farm.

Popularity regained 

Once Bruce had discovered the lamb-like nature of the Czech female, it was impossible for him to leave. He fell in love with a beautiful blond fashion designer, and the happy couple were married in November 2009. It was also around this time that Bruce first ran into the musicians who would soon come together to form The Bruce Wellie Band: bassist Ra Bob, from the Prague band Dead Souls – an American recording engineer and producer who has worked since the early 1980s with the likes of Steve Albini (Big Black, Shellac, engineer for Pixies, Nirvana etc), Mike Johnson (Snakepit, Dinosuaer Jr, Marl Lanegan Band, and Dave Pajo (Slint, Cake, Tortoise, Zwan); the deceptively reserved English guitarist Gez Donnelly, already famous for his sessions with the BBC’s “John Peel  Show”, as well as work with Blue Valentines and Trunk Show; and Czech drummer David Uher, a renowned session musician who has bashed the skins with such bands as Tichá Dohoda, The Rolling Stones Revival Band, Marií Rottrová and Jarek Nohavica. Following Bruce’s surprise appearance with Dead Souls at their Halloween gig in 2011, this was the line-up that appeared for the band’s debut concert at Club 007 in January 2012. Such was the success of this low-key gig that a European tour is now being arranged, a series of concerts that will enable Bruce to fulfil his self-appointed mission: to bring the immortal music of the Australian underground to the attention of an ignorant world. The fact that fashion-wise he’s stuck in a time warp of pre-coma, mid 1970s NYC glam-rock is neither here nor there. 

The Bruce Wellie Band are: 

Bruce Wellie (AUS): vocals
Gez Donnelly (UK): guitar
Ra Bob (USA): bass
David Uher (CZ): drums 

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