THE 1980’s – Big Hair, Boomboxes, Synths and New Wave- Billy Field

Bad Habits (T Price/B Field) and You Weren’t In Love With Me (T Price/B Field) 1981 and True Love (T Price/B Field)  – Billy Field 1982

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Billy Field (William Bruce Field,1953) was born in Wagga Wagga (NSW) and grew up on Widgiewa, a large pastoral property in the Riverina, near the town of Urana, he attended the prestigious Sydney private school Cranbrook as a boarder. Below L-R – King Fox (Billy is second from the right), their one hit 45rpm, Martin Erdman.

In 1967 he joined a band at secondary school known as King Fox, as their bass player, and they landed a recording contract with Martin Erdman’s Du Monde Records, and took their first release, Unforgotten Dreams, a composition by Paul Radcliffe, and Dave King, to #17 on the national charts in 1969. The song was inventive, well-produced 1960’s psychedelia but Billy was the only member of the group who pursued a musical career into the future.

Upon matriculating from secondary school, Billy studied economics at Sydney University for several years, but a future career on the family’s property, or in business was ultimately jettisoned as young Billy quickly emerged as a talented multi-instrumentalist, with a love of blues and jazz, and a wunderkind’s potential to create his own original music.  

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After dropping out of university he assisted with the running of the family property for a time when his father became ill, but he was ultimately drawn back to music, and began to gig around Sydney pubs throughout the 1970’s as a piano man working the bars. In 1979 he established the Canteen Recording Studio in Woolloomooloo (Syd), which was subsequently renamed Paradise Studios, and quickly became the go-to house of hits for such legendary bands as Cold Chisel (East, Swingshift, Circus Animals), Icehouse (Primitive Man), INXS (Shaboo Shoobah), Air Supply (Lost In Love, The One That You Love), Midnight Oil (Species Deceases), Men At Work (Cargo), and others.

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In 1981 Billy released his debut solo album titled Bad Habits and optimistically lifted the title track off as a single release, after getting some encouragement from Warner Music International. The boyish-looking, bespectacled Billy delivered a husky-voiced rendition of what sounded like an old Bourbon Street jazz club piano standard, reminiscent of such jazzy George Gershwin swing tunes from the 1920’s as S’Wonderful and Strike Up the Band – but it wasn’t, as Fields and his co-collaborator Tom Price had just written and co-produced it at Paradise Studio.

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Billy with his business suits, bow ties, Buddy Holly glasses, pocket handkerchiefs, and sensible haircut looked more like a merchant banker than a piano bar tinkler, and his surprising sybaritic ode to sensuous lifestyles was a breezy, swinging, cheeky, retro oddity in an 80’s music scene awash with New Romantic synths, New Wave poseurs, and pub rock. The song was engagingly self-deprecatory, wryly amusing, and it’s hard not to recall the vocal styling of the late and great Louis Armstrong listening to Billy confess to his “bad habits”.  

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The song intros with a brassy attack of trombones, trumpets, and tinkling keyboards, then guitar riffs and muted percussion fill out the arrangement as Billy’s engaging vocals become a confessional “When I get the urge, I just got to splurge/ I’m a slave to all my desires/ Well I’m in a mess/ Because I can’t repress all of these/ Bad habits.”

Filmed in Billy’s Paradise recording studio, this song featured in the TV series Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities.

The jazz-inflected new standard, Bad Habits, with its charming instrumental break half way through, was Billy’s breakthrough solo hit, it climbed to #4 on the singles charts here and #1 In NZ, and his album of the same name, was a #1 hit here and #4 in NZ. The album contained ten original Field/Price songs which were collectively a tribute to the jazz/swing music of a bygone era, but one song stood out as a candidate to follow up Bad Habits, and that was the heartbreak piano ballad of You Weren’t In Love With Me, a song that Billy originally regarded as just a filler track on his debut album, because it didn’t seem to fit with the more up tempo swing tunes that he favored.

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A beautiful string arrangement evoked the solemnity and melancholy so apt for this song, and Billy’s impassioned vocals soared above the backing singers as he felt the alienation and angst of a lost love “Standing on the outside, I don’t know where I’m going to /But I do know-ow just one thing, and that is it’s over with you/ I’ve been very lonely, I did not think I could go on/ I was caught, in mem’ries-ies, and dreams I should have won.”

Heartbreak, sob -in-the throat husky emotion from William Bruce Field, it was Billy’s lighters-in-the -air moment.

A song of unrequited love which used a popular colloquialism to describe the futility of the relationship “Blind Freddie knew that, blind man could see/ that I was in love with you, but you weren’t in love with me”. It went all the way to #1 locally, #22 in NZ, and #67 in the UK  and was the 14th. biggest-selling record of the year locally. But in life Billy would find true love and marry Prue Bell in 1983 and they would have a son, he would also take his third single, True Love, into the top 20. Below Billy and Prue (2) and artwork for True Love.

It was more pop-oriented than his previous two hits but still featured strings, brass and keyboards, and was catchy and light-hearted, the music vid featured Billy in a white dinner jacket roaming the halls of a hotel, with a trombone player and violinist, and bumping into a girl who was the object of his affections.

The music vid was cheap, cheerful, but Billy played the role of his usual self-effacing, thwarted lover, to the hilt.

His third album Try Biology climbed to #21 in 1982, but the next studio album released in 1989 Say Yes, recorded with the string section of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, failed to chart, however Paradise Studio continued to produce hit albums for many local artists through the 80’s and 90’s including Mondo Rock, Richard Clapton, Mental As Anything, The Divinyls, Split Enz, James Morrison, Lee Kernahan, and Gina Jeffries.

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Billy relocated his Paradise Studio from King’s Cross to Gosford in 2001, just after he and his wife Prue were divorced, it seems that Billy did in fact have some bad habits, and since then he has focused on jazz and blues music, combining writing and production, interspersed with live performing. Billy enjoyed something of a revival in 2004 when Courtney Murphy, a contestant on Australian Idol performed You Weren’t In Love With Me to much acclaim from the judges and the audience, and reprised the performance on Spicks and Specks in 2005, which lead to the release of a compilation album, The Best of Billy Field: You Weren’t In Love With Me in 2005, which charted well. Below L-R Courtney Murphy on Idol, Billy in 2019, and relaxing.

Billy Field continues to play concerts and pub gigs with his Bad Habits Band, stomping out fun R&R, R&B and jazz standards along with those original top 40 hits, from the days when he dominated the local charts from 1981-83.

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