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 (both pictured above), 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 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 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 (below) a well-known Melbourne singer/songwriter/keyboardist/guitarist (Mondo Rock, the Russell Morris Band, the Revelators, Rockwiz Orchestra) .The song fairly rollicks along with a joyous bonhomie and celebratory ambience, as acoustic guitars, harmonica, tambourine and drums merge in a good-time vibe that was captured in a video clip of the band performing the song around Melbourne streets and in the Prince Patrick Hotel in Collingwood (Melb).The D Generation performed a send-up of the song on their Late Show in 1993, in a segment entitled We’ve Just Run Out Of Melbourne Cliches.
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 and charted #8 while occupying the charts for 31 weeks.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 (above) and Boy and Bear.Happy Birthday Helen climbed to #8 nationally and charted for 22 weeks, Greg Arnold received the ARIA Award for Songwriter of the Year in 1993 for this song. Their follow up album Junk Theatre climbed to #11 and charted for 7 weeks but by 2001 ToSAW had disbanded, Arnold became a music lecturer with the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE reforming the band briefly in 2006, and since 2014 Greg and Helen have resided in Europe.