Game-Changing Women of Australian Music – Deborah Conway – Pt. 1

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Man Overboard (Do Re Mi) – Do Re Mi 1985

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Deborah Conway (1959) was born in Melbourne to Jewish parents and attended Lauriston Girls’ School and Melbourne University, (Above L-R mother Liz, sister Shellie, father Carl, Deborah) and by the early 1980’s she was juggling modeling assignments – her naked derriere and breasts featured in a Bluegrass Jeans advertisement- with university studies, and fronting pub rock band the Benders, who performed original songs and Devo and Blondie covers around the Melbourne pub/club circuit. She provided vocals for Tracey Mann, the star of the ABC series Sweet and Sour, and was lead vocal on the title track which was a hit song (#13 in “84) when attributed to the fictional studio-only group The Takeaways.  Below L-R Conway in a Bluegrass Jeans advertisement, The Takeaways ( Arky Michael, Sandra Lillington, David Reyne, Tracy Mann, Robin Copp, and manager Ric Herbert), Debra Conway with the Benders.  

In 1981 Deborah and her Benders bandmate Dorland Bray relocated to Sydney and formed Do Re Mi who became one of Australia’s most successful and respected post-punk outfits, producing stringent, funky, politically-motivated rock. The two men – Dorland Bray (drums) and Stephen Philip (guitar) and two women – Deborah Conway (vocals, guitar) and Helen Carter (bass) who comprised the group were equal partners in every way – composing and performing.Below L-R Philip, Carter, Conway, and Bray.

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Man Overboard arrived like a subversive hand grenade amid a sea of post-punk dressed-for-success wannabes, it was an anti-love song told from a woman’s perspective, with brutal honesty, and a no-holds-barred attitude to sexual and gender politics, which was very much the forte of this enigmatic quartet. This was no song of compliance, devotion, or powerlessness, as typified by Madonna or Olivia Newton-John at the time, Do Re Mi were aggressive, provocative and not to be ignored.

Bass player Helen Carter was only sixteen years-old when she became Bon Scott’s girlfriend, in the days when he was living at the Squire Inn on Bondi Junction (Syd), so she would have been familiar with the casual carnality and at times brutal indifference of male rock stars to females, that would have informed some of the lyrics of this song. Below – Helen Carter and Bon Scott at the Bondi Lifesaver in 1976.

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In 2019 Helen recalled the inspiration for the song “It was just about challenging all of the cultural expectations of what a relationship is, but done in such a poetic and observational way… having the intensity and passion to play something and say something and be something that was … original, and not have to play the game.”

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Deborah Conway was a haughty, beautiful, rebellious, sexually liberated young Jewish woman who has recently described that period she experienced in the early 1980’s “We were all on top of it (contraception) and before the nastiness of AIDS came along, it meant that women of my generation were all free to be as sexually expressive as we felt we needed to be with very little consequence. It was freeing, it was fantastic, it was fun.” (Stellar, Herald Sun, Nov 18th 2018). She dated Paul Hester (Crowded House) until 1985 and Paul Kelly briefly thereafter, and would commence co-habiting with her future husband Willy Zygier in 1991.

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 Signed to Virgin Records in 1985 Do Re MI went to London to record their debut album Domestic Harmony with producer Gavin McKillop, who coaxed an impressive vocal performance from Conway. Man Overboard was a masterful record, with a spirited persona and lyrical depth, essentially semi-spoken word lyrics by Conway were delivered with all the angst, defiance, and assertiveness, that would become the band’s identifiable sound. The opening spoken word lyrics by Conway were intriguing ” I try not to stand too close to myself/I try not to listen to the things I say/They say there’s no such thing as self-abuse/But you wonder how I can be trusted/If I’m finely-tuned and well-adjusted.”

Musically it was edgy, abrasive, and unpredictable, it had first appeared on an indie EP and was not released as a single until several years later, surprisingly the confronting original lyrics had remained intact. Conway’s assertive/perfunctory vocals, Bray’s bongo rhythm, Roger Freeman’s trombones, Helen Carter’s heavy four-note bass line, Stephen Philip’s sparse guitar hook and a synth overlay from Steve Hogarth all miraculously merged and blended in a heady mix that was unique, their record label Virgin didn’t like it, but the band refused to budge.   

Like few other songs of that time, a classic of the 80’s.

Never- before- heard lyrics included pubic hair, penis envy, premature ejaculation, razor rash, anal humor, the missionary position – and the complete absence of a chorus – set this song and Do Re Mi apart from their contemporaries. Man Overboard featured Deborah Conway at her angsty, assertive, compelling best and it hit #5 in June of ’85, the album Domestic Harmony too was a hit climbing to #6 nationally, but by the time the sleekly-produced Happiest Place in Town album was completed in 1988, Virgin were encouraging Conway to go solo, and the band ultimately fell apart.

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Conway and Bray subsequently fell out bitterly over writing credits for the band’s songs, including Man Overboard in which Bray contributed the killer line “Your pubic hairs are on my pillow…”. Bray also claimed a lack of recognition for the lyrics and vocal melodies which he contributed to the band’s album Domestic Harmony, and recently expressed surprise when he was asked to join Conway on a re-formed Do-Re-Mi to tour in 2019, an offer he angrily rejected- seems he chose to remain the man overboard.

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