Game-Changing Women of Australian Music- Kate Ceberano Pt. 1

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Trust Me (R Goodge/I Cox/K Ceberano/B Hogarth/C Newman/S Charlesworth) and Lead the Way (I’m Talking) 1985 and Do You Wanna Be (R Goodge/I Cox) and Holy Word  (R Goodge/I Cox) –  I’m Talking 1986

Kate Ceberano (Katherine Yvette Ceberano 1966) above, was born to a Filipino/American father Tino and Australian mother Cherie , above centre, and raised in North Balwyn (Melb), she attended the Greythorn Primary and Secondary schools and despite her poor academic results she was encouraged by her teachers Mrs Bond and music instructor Mrs Bradley, to pursue a career in music. Her father (autoharp) and grandfather (piano) were musical and the family gathered on weekends to sing, her older brother Phil would learn guitar and also pursue a career in entertainment, often beside his younger sister Kate. Below – Teenage Kate.

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She briefly attended Swinburne Technical College after leaving high school at the age of 15 but soon abandoned further studies and joined the pub covers band Expozay, performing Divinyls, Pat Benatar, and Motels songs, when they debuted at the Mount Erica Hotel (Prahran). At fifteen Kate left home and rented a flat in Hawthorn, she was dividing her time between Expozay, a jazz group called Hoagy Cats and a soul band Grand Wazoo, she had hooked up with Stephen Hope, the pianist with the Hoagy Cats, and she combined doing gigs at pubs, restaurants, and such Melbourne clubs as Inflation, and Metropole, along with some waitressing to eke out an existence. She was only 16, but very precocious, slightly feral and willful, headstrong as well, but vulnerable, she left Hope and would soon join her first truly professional band. Below – I’m Talking.

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I’m Talking were a hybrid funk-pop-rock outfit founded by Robert Goodge (guitar), Ian Cox (sax), and Barbara Hogarth (bass), who specialised in instrumental  arrangements, and were originally known as Essendon Airport, when they issued the EP Sonic Investigations in1984. The band would become  pioneers of dance music in Australia and one of the first groups to use synthesisers and electronic drum kits in live performances, this genre was risky in an era that was dominated by four-on-the-floor sweaty, driving, pub rock, but with the addition of Stephen Charlesworth (keyboards) and Cameron Newman (drums), the sound became more fully rounded. But it was the presence of three women, bassist Hogarth, and the addition of two gifted female singers of colour, the exotic-looking Kate Ceberano, and the equally entrancing Zan Abeyratne (London-born Sri Lankan 1961), that would be the band’s point of difference, which ensured that the punters misgivings about drum machines, synths, and click track synchronization, would quickly disappear once Kate, Zan, and Barbara hit the stage, their name was inspired by one of their favourite groups, Talking Heads. Below – Kate and Zan (2), Robert Goodge.

Originally Kate was the only singer, she was very young and inexperienced, Robert Goodge wanted to align her with a second singer within the band, and Kate nominated Zan when Goodge asked her to make a recommendation, thinking the newbie would be a backing vocalist, not a co-lead. Goodge was a fan of Nile Rodgers and his band Chic, who had two co -lead singers, and he wanted to recreate the funky, disco-meets-rock-meets jazz fusion sound of Rodgers band. Ceberano was very upset when she found out that Zan was to be her competition within the group, the two women would never enjoy a close and mutually-supportive working relationship, and this would ultimately cause the band to implode.

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Most of the musicians in I’m Talking were university graduates and ten years older than Kate, Goodge was aware of the angst that Kate felt about Zan’s presence, but he was a classic non-confrontationist, who regarded the band as a collective of equals, who would naturally sublimate their individual aspirations for the good of the band. He displayed an academic’s indifference to the dysfunctional human dynamic right in front of him, he was certainly a creative and gifted guitarist and songwriter, but his laissez-faire leadership style would be a source of ongoing concern for the young, and increasingly insecure Kate.

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In 1984 the band signed with Regular Records and went in to AAV Studios (Melb) to record Trust Me, their debut single with producer Ross Cockle (LRB, Split Enz, Australian Crawl, Kevin Borich), which was accorded joint-writing credits for the whole band; it was a synth-pop dancefloor banger that exuded class and sophistication, and it won praise locally. Kate Ceberano delivered one of her most luminous and hypnotic vocal performances – ‘Trust me with your love tonight/ Everything is in my hands tonight’, the song resonated with a funkiness and immediacy that was catchy, sexy, and infectious. The music vid, shot in Richmond (Melb) was similarly classy and briefly featured actor Noah Taylor allegedly sharing a joint, the song hit #10, and charted for 16 weeks.

Straight out of the gate with this one – funk, fun, soul, sax, and sassy Kate, she was 19.

The band would take two more singles into the top 40 in 1985, Lead the Way, credited to most of the band, again produced by Ross Cockle, which was another great fusion of Latin, pop, jazz and funk, the choreography between the two singers was smooth and elegant, and some use of rotoscoping techniques was effective, but Zan was mostly edited out of the vid, it charted #25.

Prince meets Chic in fusion Latin dance-pop, killer bass lines, hot sax, and funky guitar riffs.

They quickly followed up with a soulful cover of the Rose Royce hit, Love Don’t Live Here Anymore, for a #21 charter and their third hit in ’85. Kate and Zane were also in demand as session singers and featured performers in music videos, they appeared in two music vids for the Models in 84-85, God Bless America and the big hit Out of Sight, Out of Mind.  

London records were keen to record an album with the band and offered Scritti Politti’s drummer Fred Maher (Lou Reed, Madonna) and ABC’s engineer Martyn Webster to work on the album, Maher was a techno-convert and favored the use of sequencers and drum machines, which ultimately put him on a collision course with Robert Goodge. Whilst recording in NYC Maher brought the Scritti keyboardist David Gamson in to do programming and rearranging on Goodge’s song Lead the Way, Goodge had conniptions and rather than resolve the matter as the creative leader of the band, he locked himself in his hotel room at the Algonquin for two weeks. Below – Album artwork (2) and producer Fred Maher.

The band had exhausted their budget to record in NYC and took what they had back to Melbourne to finalise vocals, mix, and release their debut album that would become Bear Witness. The lead single was Do You Wanna Be, a jazzy, funky, catchy, slice of Latin freestyle, with drum machines, synths, bass, sax, and the luminous vocal harmonies of Kate and Zan. The music vid was filmed in and around the Melbourne CBD and the The Venue at Earl’s Court, St. Kilda (Melb)  it charted #8 locally and #30 in NZ.

Latin freestyle in St. Kilda and Middle Park Beach.

At this time friction inside the band was mounting, Kate suspected that Zan and Fred Maher were having an affair and that the next single Holy Word had been written especially for her “As soon as I heard it , I knew it was going to be big. I didn’t think she deserved it. As far as I was concerned, she had come between the rest of us and been rewarded with a hit single.” (I’m Talking- Kate Ceberano – My Life, My Words, My Music – 2014). Lyrically the song used religious imagery as a metaphor for sacred love, like all good gospel-inspired songs should, “Treat me like I’m holy/ Treat me like a gift from God above/ Dwell upon me only and don’t look back/ My gift to you is love!”, and musically it was impressive, had it been recorded by Prince or Madonna at the time, it would have been an international hit.

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Kate absented herself from the recording session and Zan did a fine job on lead vocals, dressed in a sparkly outfit she moved confidently in the music vid which was shot inside Chasers in Melbourne; a young Magda Szubanski briefly appears at 2.19m, and Kate appeared as a support singer although her voice did not feature on the recording. Spinning boomboxes and Ian Cox’s sax flourishes were other notable features, it charted #9 and the band would soon be heading for London to spearhead a push into the UK.

Business as usual here- immaculate bass lines, funky keys, pneumatic sax and guitar, and the wonderful Zan on lead vocals.

Their record company had booked the band to support Five Star on a national UK tour, who were a Jackson Five-style family troupe with a strong teenybopper following, the band soon realized that the next five weeks on the road would be miserable and unproductive, and it was. The band returned to Australia except for Kate and Zan who became signed to PWL, the publishing arm of Scott Aitken and Waterman, who wanted to make Kate and Zan over as the next Mel and Kim. But as they were by then bitter rivals, being forced to lip-synch their past hits in second-rate clubs by London Records, the whole thing soon fizzled out, and both women returned home.

Before winding up I’m Talking, the band were booked to perform as part of the 1986 Australian Made Tour, on the same bill as INXS, Jimmy Barnes, Mental as Anything, the Saints, the Models, and the Divinyls, and performed well. Their debut album Bear Witness, released in 1986 was both a critical and commercial success, the cover design revealed the art school influences within the group and the work of post-modernist artist Juan Davila stood out. The hits included Trust Me, Do You Wanna Be and Holy Word  which had already made an impact, and other Goodge/Cox compositions How Can It Be and Lead the Way, were also impressive, the album climbed to #14 and the band promptly split up. Below Kate and Zan more recently.

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In 2018 Robert Goodge reached out to Kate Ceberano after over thirty years of silence and suggested that the band re-issue Bear Witness with additional material, Kate and Zan (above) had apparently reconciled, and Babara Hogarth, Stephen Charlesworth, along with Goodge were keen to participate, and they returned to the studio to re-create their debut album. In 2019 the group returned to performing as support act on Bryan Ferry’s Australian Tour, a live album Dyin’ To Be Dancing was released in the same year, and the band has continued to collaborate and release re-mix versions of their past hits. Below L-R – Robert Goodge, Stephen Charlesworth, Barbara Hogarth, Zan Abeyratne, Kate Ceberano.  

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