Things of Stone and Wood (ToSaW) were a folk-rock foursome who formed in Melbourne in 1989, Greg Arnold (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Michael Allan (bass guitar/vocals), Justin Brady (violin/mandolin/harmonica) and Tony Floyd (percussion).Their musical influences were 1970’s rock, melodic power pop, roots and folk music and they shaped these influences into finely crafted acoustic arrangements in an era when grunge and fuzz tone guitars were dominant.
Happy Birthday Helen was written by Greg Arnold about his then-girlfriend (now wife) Helen Durham, the lyrics are biographical and depict specific times and experiences they shared “Let’s not forget the night/ Yeah, how we drove along the Yarra/ How we sang harmonies/ To Carole King
What had started out as a quick 21st birthday celebratory ode to his partner has become a staple in Australia’s national songbook, the song name checks the Yarra River, Albert Park Lake (Melb) and the “bridge that fell down” which was the natural formation arch known as London Bridge at Port Campbell on the Great Ocean Road (see below) in 1990, and not the West Gate Bridge which collapsed before it was completed in 1970.
At its heart the song is a sincere love song which still resonates “You are the tunes in my head/ The fire in my ribs/ You are the voice in my heart/ That whispers compassion/ Happy Birthday Helen.”
The song was lifted from the band’s debut album The Yearning which was produced by their manager, James Black (aka Greg Champion), a well-known Melbourne singer-songwriter and satirist who was a member of the Coodabeen Champions, a satirical ABC radio show which endearingly lampooned the nation’s obsession with AFL football.
The Yearning was a fine album, musically it was an inventive collection of acoustic songs that revealed the social conscience and political commitment of the band.
ToSaW along with Weddings Parties Anything, another contemporary Melbourne folk-rock band of the period, did much to define the musical landscape of Melbourne at the time and to inspire the next generation of acoustic folk-rock performers in Australia – John Butler Trio, The Waifs, Angus and Julia Stone and Boy and Bear. Happy Birthday Helen and the album from which it was lifted, The Yearning, both charted #8 nationally with Greg Arnold receiving the ARIA Award for Songwriter of the Year in 1993.