In 1977 Kelly served notice on his Adelaide band The Debutantes (Paul above outside his share house in Adelaide) and hitchhiked to Melbourne, where he moved into a rambling two-storey share house at 1109 Hoddle Street, East Melbourne. His Adelaide connection there was the band Small Change, and it was with their guitarist Chris Langman that Paul would bond, over a shared admiration for Bob Dylan, and a mutual passion to write great songs. Martin Armiger’s (below) band the Bleeding Hearts would also rehearse in the front room at Hoddle Street, Armiger hit it off with Kelly, and he would become a founding member of Paul Kelly’s High-Rise Bombers, named after the residents of Housing Commission towers in Carlton who threw water bombs and debris onto passersby below.
The Bombers lasted about nine months, released no records, and managed to develop a reputation as drug users, Kelly went on to form The Dots in August 1978 and in a shifting line up of players, it would be Kelly (vocals, guitar), Chris Langman (guitar/vocals), Chris Worall (drums), Alan Brooker (bass),and John Lloyd (drums), who would record their debut single Recognition in 1979, which stiffed.
By 1980 Paul Kelly and the Dots were signed to Mushroom Records, and in October they released Billy Baxter, a ska-influenced song which eulogized one Billy Baxter, a vocalist, disc jockey (3RRR), and founding member of the Coodabeen Champions Footy Show, an AFL/VFL legend on Melbourne radio. (the Coodabeens below with Billy Baxter in front). Paul Kelly said of Baxter at the time “Billy is a very entertaining person. I used quite a bit of him in the song, but it was never meant to be accurately biographical of Billy.”
“I want to be like Billy Baxter/ and lose my limitations/ I want to be like Billy Baxter/ and do imitations…” Lyrically it was pretty banal as it enumerated the attributes of Billy Baxter including – losing his limitations, doing imitations, having a thousand faces, a lover, a gambler, a lesson for all the crew, a hungry heart, got love to burn, loves with abandon, but never loses control, walks right through a disaster unperturbed, and plays pantomimes. Thematically and musically the song owed a debt to the Kinks song David Watts (1967), a homoerotic Ray Davies composition about gay concert promoter David Watts who had a bromance with Ray’s brother Dave Davies. (the long-feuding Davies brothers below, Dave at rear and Ray up front)
Joe Camilleri would produce the song and also play saxophone on the recording, as well as produce the band’s debut album Talk. About the recording Kelly recalled “I’d done my back badly and couldn’t stand or sit for any length of time, so I had to do my vocals lying on the floor… If I could gather up every copy of that first record and bury them all in a big hole, I would. But that’s no fault of Joe’s”, the band debuted the song on Countdown, and took it to #38 in December 1980.
In 1981 a revamped lineup of Paul Kelly and the Dots made the ill-fated decision to record their next album on the cheap in the Philippines, the recording facility turned out to be a sub-standard jingle studio, but they managed to relocate to the Cinema-Audio Studios in Manila, which was comparable to Australian studios, except that it was not in working order. There were delays as the studio was being re-engineered and as martial law was in force, drugs were hard to get, so large amounts of hydrocodone, found in the strong over-the-counter cough medicines available, were consumed. Michael Holmes (guitarist) and Tony Thornton (drummer) were both admitted to hospital after overdosing, the band were also distracted by the many girlie bar haunts in close proximity to the Tower Hotel, where they were staying. The band intended to cut the album, which was named Manila, in four weeks, it took eight weeks, and was finally mixed at Richmond Recorders (Melb), but sank without a trace. Kelly subsequently acquired the rights to his first two albums with the Dots, Talk and Manila, and has removed them from general circulation. Kelly didn’t release other albums during this period but several songs finished up on movie soundtracks, Rocking Institution on Gillian Armstrong’s Starstruck (1982) and Love Is The Law on Cameron Allan’s Midnite Spares (1983), which Paul would also record as a duet with Neil Finn on their live album Going Your Way in 2013.
In 1981 Paul would be the victim of an unprovoked attack and nurse a broken jaw for three months, after that he contracted hepatitis C and was hospitalized for a further three months, 1981 was Paul Kelly’s annus horribilis. In 1983 the Dots would disband, the following year Paul and his wife Hilary would separate, and both would relocate from Melbourne to Sydney.