POP GOES THE 1970’s – BLACKFEATHER

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Seasons of Change (J Robinson/N Johns) 1971 and Boppin’ the Blues (C Perkins) – Blackfeather 1972

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Sydney’s Blackfeather were founded in 1970 by lead singer Neale Johns, a blues singer who was edging towards progressive rock, and in what can only be described as a revolving door of transient players, had briefly settled on a lineup that is pictured above and includes from L-R Alex Kash (drums). Neal Johns (lead vocals), Robert Fortescue (bass), and John Robinson, (lead guitar). Johns and Robinson would contribute most of the songs to their debut album At the Mountains of Madness in 1971, a definitive collection of bluesy psych rock songs with the standout tracks being the thunderous Zep-style Long-Legged Lady, the Cream/Clapton-inspired On This Day That I Die, and the ethereal, majestic and seductive prog-rock of Seasons of Change.

Seasons… was an intriguing and compelling piece inspired by the progressive/art rock sounds favored by such British bands of the day as King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and Emerson Lake and Palmer. The prog rock movement was in full swing at this time and Blackfeather’s album had been preceded by some epic albums of the genre, including King Crimson (The Court of the Crimson King ’68 and Lizard and Into The Wake of Poseidon in ’70), Soft Machine (Third in ’70), Emerson, Lake and Palmer (eponymous album in ’70) and Witches Brew by Miles Davis which while not actually progressive rock had set new directions for prog rockers with its extraordinary fusion of jazz, rock and other-worldly sounds. These musical influences were discernible in the haunting song that dominated the group’s debut album – Seasons of Change.

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Written by the band’s resident guitar supremo John Robinson and lead vocalist Neale Johns, it was lifted from the band’s album At the Mountain of Madness, produced by Richard Batchens and John Robinson, and was a top 20 hit in May 1971. During the At the Mountains of Madness recording sessions, John Robinson invited members of the group Fraternity, John Bissett and Bon Scott, to contribute to the album, in return Neale and Robinson gave Fraternity the song Seasons of Change to record as a single, with Bon Scott on lead vocals. Fraternity relocated to Adelaide and released the song in March 1971 but it never rose above #51 on the national charts. Robinson had a verbal agreement with their label Festival/ Infinity’s David Sinclair, that the label would not release the original Blackfeather version to compete with Fraternity, but Infinity decided that the Blackfeather version was superior to Fraternity’s and released it anyway in May 1971.

Local Prog Rockers included Ariel, Spectrum, and Bakery but Blackfeather had the prog rock hits here in the 70’s.

Seasons of Change evoked an ethereal almost hymnal quality, blending classical influences with romantic pop, a musical merging of antiquity and modernity, as the arrangement skillfully blended flute/recorder (played by Bon Scott), piano, acoustic and electric guitar and percussion in support of lyrics that were beguiling and mystical “People dancing in the streets/ In the town a small boy cries/ Eyes of love turn to nerves of stone/ Blind the sun, not for me/ A season goes so quickly/ You don’t know where you are

Neale Johns delivered powerful and poignant lead vocals with dramatic flourishes, with solid rhythm section support from Bob Fortescue (bass) and Al Kash (drums), the song would chart a creditable #11 nationally and occupy the charts for 22 weeks, but the band would soon segue to boogie-rock to claim their only #1 hit with Boppin’ the Blues a year later, after significant changes to their lineup. 

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By 1971 the everchanging Blackfeather now comprised Neale Johns (lead vocals), Gil Matthews (drums), Warren Ward (bass), Paul Wylde (keyboards), and Billy Taylor (lead guitar), and the prog rockers from 1971, had moved on from their haunting, ethereal 1971 hit Seasons of Change, and were now boogieing and bopping their way to pub rock credibility. Along the way they had largely replaced guitars with piano, as Paul Wylde’s frantic keyboards dominated the song, and the lyrics were no longer spectral and mysterious, but rollicking and joyful.

The song was based on a simple 12-bar beat driven along by the pounding boogie-woogie piano of Wylde, the driving vocals of Neale Johns and the chugging guitar of Billy Taylor, who all combined to produce a memorable slice of boogie rock and a #1 hit for Blackfeather “hot and cold shivers up and down my spine/ The blues lose that hold on your mind…”

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When the band recorded Boppin’ the Blues, they credited it to early rocker Carl Perkins and no doubt he did write a song with the same title in 1956, however the Blackfeather song, is both lyrically and melodically, quite different, and an original composition in its own right, so why Perkins was credited on this record is curious, did he also get a share of the royalties for Blackfeather’s biggest hit? The band performed at the second Sunbury Pop Festival in 1973, and the accompanying album strangely misspelt the title of their only #1 hit as Bobbin’ The Blues.

But many felt that the song just meandered to the outro, repeating the chorus many times, perhaps one more verse would have made it perfect, never the less it was the sixth biggest-selling record of the year, and a real earworm of a tune, so maybe Blackfeather got it right.

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However, to take the narrative in the lyrics one step further, and release the unresolved sexual tension in the previous verses, and with apologies to Carl Perkins and particularly Blackfeather, 4TR humbly offers a third verse for further consideration:

“Me and my baby headed for the bay/We kept a ‘boppin’ all along the way/ I floored the gas and she snuggled up close/My hopes were high, she was really the most/ We hit the beach and she gave me some clues/ My head was spinnin’ I was dazed and confused, then we were, bop, bop, bopping the blues…”

By 1976 the ever-changing Blackfeather had segued to a more pop-oriented outfit with Neale Johns (vocals), Ray Vanderby (keyboards), Leo Brossman (bass), Warwick Fraser (drums), and Stuart Fraser (guitar), who had changed their name to simply Feather. They played support on Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow Tour of Australia in 1977 and released the single Girl Trouble in that same year. Thereafter Neale Johns departed for the UK to further his career and at different times Jimmy Barnes (very briefly) and his brother John Swan were lead singers for Feather, who continued to be a revolving door of musicians, who embraced ever-changing musical genres.

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