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Counting the Beat (The Swingers) – The Swingers 1981

The Swingers were a NZ new wave trio comprising former Split Enz guitarist Phil Judd, Wayne Stevens (aka “Bones Hillman”) and Mark Hough (aka “Buster Stiggs”), and Counting the Beat originated as a sound check piece at the Hillsborough Hotel in Christchurch (NZ) in 1979. The band made a rudimentary tape of the jam session and Phil Judd wrote the lyrics several months later. When the band relocated to Sydney in 1980 they were Phil Judd (guitar,vocals), Mark Hough (drums) and Wayne Stevens (bass/vocals) and the following year they recorded the song in Melbourne with David Tickle who had produced the True Colours album for the Enz in 1980.(Below L-R – Phil Judd, Wayne Stevens, and Mark Hough)

The Swingers

At this time the record became a pawn in a dispute between Mushroom Records and Split Enz over outstanding moneys owed to Mushroom from the Enz album, the song remained in limbo for a further six months until the suits sorted out the financials.

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The Swingers had scored a decent hit in NZ with One Good Reason but when Counting the Beat was released it ticked all the boxes for commercial success – catchy riffs, infectious bass-heavy beat, snappy lyrics (by Judd), and a freshness which belied the commonplace structure of the harmonies. Judd’s plaintive vocals and lead guitar over the tense rhythm section of Hough and Stevens, produced crisp distinctive chords, in a song where the musical influences of Split Enz and English band Madness were discernible, unsurprisingly David Tickle had produced both these bands before (David Tickle below). Collectively the record reflected a quirkiness and ambiguity, which is characteristic of Kiwis, the scratch effect on the opening guitar riffs, and even the “la da dee-dee” improvisation worked, and fueled the alchemy that produced a classic hit record.  

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Kylie Minogue was a fan of Countdown and often attended the taping of the shows at the ABC’s Ripponlea (Melb) Studios, a thirteen year-old Kylie was there the day that the Swingers performed Counting the Beat and just failed to catch one of Mark Hough’s drumsticks that were thrown to the audience, she was inspired to pursue a career as a singer that day, over the next 30 years Kylie would prove that she knew how to “count the beat”, as she blitzed the international pop scene, and became Mushroom Records most successful  act. 

The Swingers however were to become the archetypal one-hit wonders in Australia, Counting the Beat hit #1, stayed on the charts for twenty-three weeks and was the biggest-selling record of 1981 beating out songs by the Rolling Stones, Men At Work, Roxy Music, John Lennon and Phil Collins in the process. It also took out the APRA Silver Scroll Award for NZ Song of the Year in 1981.

The song has featured in many television advertisements including K-Mart and Lemon and Paeroa (NZ soft drink), the opening images of the promo video with swinging metronomic guitars, and disembodied fingers on fretboards was clever and quirky. Judd in suit, bow tie, sunglasses (which quickly fly away), and 1950’s haircut, was a convincing front man. The band imbued the song with an infectious foot-tapping, head-swinging ambience, and Judd’s woozy, slow-motion walk through a moonlit doorway was memorable, there were even cut-out numbers that actually did “count the beat”, which also resonated. Ray Argall directed the shoot in Melbourne and the infectious dance finale featured a crowd of revelers on a drinking party bus who were not actors and did not know until the bus stopped that they would become part of the video shoot and had to dance around to ensure their fifteen minutes of fame, it was cheap, cheerful, and very effective.

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Mark Hough quit after the record was released and was replaced by Ian Gilroy, the follow-up single It Ain’t What You Dance (It’s the Way You Dance It) staggered to #43 and the debut album Practical Jokers, proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy when it stalled at #70, the Swingers were the classic one-hit wonder band, here in Australia, but what a hit!

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