It was the mid-1980’s, and the recently-divorced Paul Kelly was living in a flat in the harborside suburb of Elizabeth Bay (Syd), and after a stint up north playing a residency at a Townsville hotel called Sugar Shack, he put together a new band, The Coloured Girls, a name inspired by a lyric in the Lou Reed song Walk On The Wild Side. He began writing songs that would further define his career, and in 1986 the stunning double album Gossip was released, with the hit singles Before Too Long, Darling It Hurts, and Leaps And Bounds, and he would follow up in 1987 with his fifth studio album Under The Sun.
The first single taken off this album was To Her Door, which chronicled a bittersweet phase in the lives of Joe and Rita, a married couple who become estranged, and make a brutal yet touching attempt at reconciliation, and then there was the fourth single taken off the album, Dumb Things, obviously an overlooked gem at the time, but a song that has acquired a patina of admiration, respect and affection some thirty years later.
Kelly was a consummate storyteller and he often paraphrased expressions and adages from everyday life to convey his message, as he does here with references to Greek mythology – Icarus with waxen wings flying too close to the sun – and common/colloquial expressions such as “lost my shirt”,” “pawned my rings” “threw my hat into the ring” all in an ironic and disarmingly self-deprecatory way, as he charts an unsteady course through life “Well I thought that I just had to sing / I’ve done all the dumb things.”
Kelly opined on his creative processes in revelatory liner notes to The Great Australian Songbook “There’s always a moment, somewhere in the writing of a song, that feels like a rush. Maybe it’s the melody coming out of nowhere as you reach for a chord. Maybe it’s hearing someone behind you in a bar say “I’ve done all the dumb things” … then you borrow a biro from the barmaid.” Kelly’s time in Queensland may have also been a tangible influence on Dumb Things, as he was listening to a lot of the Go-Betweens at the time, and he liked the way that Robert Forster (above) sang at the top of his range, so giving an edge to his voice, a sound that Kelly emulated on Dumb Things.
The influence of the Clash’s London Calling with its fusion of ska, punk, rockabilly and reggae can be heard in the song, as well as Elvis Presley’s interpretation of the Garcia and Saunders-penned Mystery Train. Dumb Things is a train song – “Saw the knives out, turned my back/ Heard the train coming, stayed out on the track/ In the middle, in the middle, in the middle of a dream/ I lost my shirt, I pawned my rings/ I’ve done all the dumb things.”
There is a shuffle feel throughout the song which accentuates the rhythm and motion of a train, a smooth bass line juxtaposes with the rougher texture of drums and guitar, echoing the energy and motion of the wheels and the mechanism of a locomotive. Harmonica and saxophone highlights include the riveting blast of harmonica from Chris Wilson at the intro which mimics the howl of a steam train, Chris Coyne’s saxophone copies the guitars leading into the glorious chorus and maintains the song’s propulsive momentum. Saxophone, harmonica, and keyboards combine again at the outro to maintain the ambience, and all the while Kelly’s broad Australian-accented delivery, interspersed with the occasional howl, imparts a beautiful texture to the song. Kelly has a strange voice, he doesn’t like it very much, neither did Michael Gudinski (Mushroom Records) at first, because of a perceived limited vocal range, but there is a sense of pathos, humor, and worldliness in it, much like his lyrics, and there aren’t too many covers of his songs that actually do justice to the feelings he conveys in his own work.
The song was ultimately recorded at a faster tempo than in its original form as Kelly intended, as fate would determine otherwise in the form of moviemaker Yahoo Serious (Greg Gomez Pead). Kelly’s partner Kaarin Fairfax (below with YS) had landed a role in the Yahoo Serious film Young Einstein, and while developing demoes for the album Under The Sun, Kelly offered the demo songs to Yahoo for possible use in the movie’s soundtrack, the demos were rough cuts that Kelly intended to review and re-record.
Yahoo immediately incorporated the demo of Dumb Things onto the movie soundtrack after increasing the tempo to better fit the screenplay, and didn’t want any further refinements or changes. Kelly insisted that the demo had to be re-recorded as not only did he not intend to record the song at the faster tempo, but the original demo sounds were spilling/bleeding into each other, vocals into the drums, and this was in an era when the sound engineers were obsessed about achieving complete sound separation on the final mix.
Upon hearing the soundtrack version Kelly agreed to record the song at the faster tempo, the commercial success of Young Einstein – it was the highest-grossing Australian film in 1989 – provided Kelly with great exposure and radio airtime, Dumb Things charted at #30 locally and the album Under The Sun climbed to #19, the promo video featured Kelly and the band as a sideshow attraction at a carnival, quirky, droll, and engaging.