The Real Thing (J Young) – Russell Morris 1969
The Real Thing was Australia’s first psychedelic pop epic, but its origins were more prosaic. The song was originally a simple acoustic ballad penned by Johnny Young for Ronnie Burns, with more than a passing resemblance to Status Quo’s Pictures of Matchstick Men, and he envisaged strings and a Strawberry Fields Forever ambience. But Ian Meldrum insisted that former Somebody’s Image front-man Russell Morris, who Meldrum was managing at the time, should record it, and Meldrum had very different ideas about how the song was to be recorded. Below- L-R – Russell Morris, Johnny Young, Ian “Molly” Meldrum
Radio stations had relaxed their requirement for standard three-minute records and were already playing such epics as Barry Ryan’s Eloise, Richard Harris’s McArthur Park and The Beatles Hey Jude. The Real Thing would ultimately emerge as a Wagnerian tour de force, over six minutes long, replete with Spector-style overdubbing of the basic track, layered vocals and instruments and choral inserts, as a megalomaniacal Ian Meldrum produced a mad, magnificent, melodramatic, pop masterpiece, a musical monument to 1969’s Summer of Love. Below L-R – Danny Robinson, Ronnie Charles, Brian Cadd.
The cream of Melbourne’s musicians were gathered for the recording sessions at Bill Armstrong’s studios in South Melbourne, The Groop (Brian Cadd (keyboards), Richard Wright (drums), Don Mudie (bass), Ronnie Charles (lead singer Groop), indulged in a lengthy jam session early in the recording process which inspired Meldrum and engineer Sayers to envisage a grander and more extensive interpretation of the original Johnny Young composition. Other luminaries came on board, Danny Robinson (lead singer Wild Cherries), and John Farrar (lead singer the Strangers), provided vocal support as well as backing singers the Chiffons (Maureen Elkner, Sue Brady and Judy Condon), Roger Hicks (Zoot) played the acoustic guitar introduction and Billy Green contributed special electric guitar and sitar sequences, which were overdubbed into the final mix. Below L-R – Roger Hicks, Billy Green, John Farrar.
Ian Meldrum as producer assumed the persona of Phil Spector, John Sayers came on board as recording engineer and John Farrar (Strangers) as arranger, the record would be compiled over many separate recording sessions which was unique at a time, when records were invariably made live in the studio at one session. Participating musicians had no idea how their contribution would ultimately sound or be sequenced in the finished product, the composer Johnny Young was excluded from the recording sessions fearing that he would object to the avant-garde treatment his song was receiving.
The first verse has an almost pastoral feel – Morris’s gentle vocal, backed by Mudie’s stately bass, some fluid acoustic guitar riffs by Roger Hicks channelling his idol Jose Feliciano, and the chord progression that ensued which owed a debt to Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, a very mellow slice of 60’s psychedelia. Into the second verse, the groove unfolds, drums were added, Green’s sitar is sinuously weaved into the song, as Cadd delivered intriguing mod Hammond organ cadences. The overall sound was tight and heightened the trippy Haight Ashbury/Carnaby Street meets Collins Street vibe, and added to the seismic impact of the chorus to follow “ooh mama mow mow…” which was a nod to the Beatles I Am the Walrus. This chorus was supposed to be a temporary filler until a Hendrix-style guitar insert could be recorded, but Meldrum had the smarts to leave the hook-laden filler in the final mix.
Lyrically the song often dipped into such nonsensical LSD-coded lines as “There’s a meaning there, but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing”, and despite the record running for over six minutes and consuming a lot of studio time to complete this pocket masterpiece, we really don’t find out who or what the real thing was, we were just blindsided by the special effects and went with the “cosmic vibe” of the thing, so overwhelming was the total impact of the record.
The spacey, raga-flavoured middle eight opened out with an ethereal choral backing, and various Eastern embellishments including sitar, while the third verse was more musically expansive and profound, Cadd switched to a grand piano, and its signal was heavily compressed and equalised to remove the “bottom-end”, and when fed thru an echo chamber, created the tinny yet dramatic sound so popular at the time, on The Beatles’ Lady Madonna and Hey Bulldog.
A reprise of the middle-eight followed which led the listener into the domain of vocal trickery, where dual vocals were alternatively whisperingly-quiet and then louder, and legend has it that a guide vocal track laid down by Molly Meldrum for Russell Morris to follow was retained and ultimately mixed into the second verse.
The extensive use of phasing in a local recording was also a revelation, phasing is a recording technique in which the original sound signal is fed back upon itself with a miniscule delay, creating a swooshing, “out-of-phase” modulation of the original signal, making it sound to the listener like his or her head is immersed in a virtual reality soundscape. Phasing created a lush, swirling wash of sound, suggestive of the disorientating sensory effects people have reported while under the influence of LSD or similar hallucinogens. This artificial double tracking technique had previously been used on such records as Telstar (Tornados) and The Big Hurt (Toni Fisher) and featured prominently in the album exotica of the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band, The White Album and Yellow Submarine) and the Small Faces single Itchycoo Park, consequently, along with reverse tape effects, phasing became one of the hot studio tricks of the psychedelic era.
The discovery of tape-based phasing was credited to George Chkiantz, house engineer at London’s famed Olympic Studios; and it’s also sometimes called “flanging” because the effect was (in the 1960’s/70’s) obtained by playing two synchronised tape recordings of the same sound source. A delay in the playback of one tape could be produced by simply pressing a finger onto the outer edge (the ‘flange’) of the tape reel; the length of the delay — and thus the ‘depth’ of the phasing — could be manipulated by how much one reel was slowed down compared to the other. The term survives in the Flanger guitar effect unit, which produces the same effect electronically. Below – George Chkiantz
Another production hallmark Meldrum employed was the massed choir effect. The vocal call-and-response arrangement that is introduced early in the recording (“I am the real – REAL!”, etc) reaches a climax in the song’s closing stages. Throughout this bewitching assortment of sounds is the solid, driving underpinning of the Groop’s thumping rhythm section, with insistent squalling guitar riffs and heavily processed vocal and percussive effects. A particularly notable and innovative feature of the production was the way the second section was punctuated by deliberate edits and ‘dropouts’ of various instruments — a technique which anticipated the studio explorations of dub music in the 70s.
During the outro the song pivoted into a wild spiral of climatic sound, which conjured both dystopian images and trippy wistfulness- a rousing recitation of part of Winston Churchill’s famous “This was their finest hour” speech, followed provocatively by a children’s’ choir recording by Hitler Youth of Die Jugend Marschiet (Youth On The March). Other dystopian effects included the oratory over the end of the track which was simply the manufacturer’s users’ liability terms on a BASF audio tape box being read in an Orwellian “Big Brother” voice by Brian Cadd, followed by maniacal laughter, and the apocalyptic nuclear explosion which brought the whole production to a thudding halt with the brief but controversial coda “Seig Heil”
Throughout the song Morris delivered confident, almost subdued tenor vocals which were a perfect foil to Meldrum’s witch’s brew of swirling, spinning, convolving psychedelia. The song cost $10,000 to produce, approx. the cost of producing a whole album at the time, the outro to the song has been described as limp and underwhelming, but Meldrum and company were only working with 8 track recorders at the time and were under extreme pressure by EMI to deliver a completed record. Despite all the obstacles, Meldrum, Morris, and their team, still produced a record that was hypnotic, inventive, and totally transfixing. Below Far Right – Howard Gable
EMI’s head A&R/producer Howard Gable seriously doubted the commercial prospects of the record and initially refused to release it, Gable favored another Johnny Young composition, The Girl That I Love. Ian Meldrum fought Gable tenaciously, he even removed all the master copies of the recording from the studio and took them home, until Gable agreed to release the record, and Meldrum ultimately prevailed. Local DJs Stan Rofe in Melbourne, and Ward Austin in Sydney, championed the song locally, Morris at the age of twenty-one instantly became a pop idol, young girls invaded his mother’s home in Richmond, and he received saturation coverage on national radio and television.
On international release the US Cashbox magazine raved about the song “Heavy side from the Australian best-seller lists, has a mind-boggling electronic blast and repetitive lyrics that become an almost hypnotic spell-caster. Compelling at first listen, it’s impossible to ignore and will likely explode across AM/FM airways. Monster potential.” It climbed to #1 in New York, Chicago, and Houston in the US despite having been split across two sides of a 45-rpm record there, a misguided strategy, which ultimately limited its chances for airplay Stateside.
The original promo clip for the song was a dystopian view of global conflict, Nazi rallies and iconography, civil unrest, tyrants, politicians, the Vietnam War, Morris was resplendent in Nehru jacket and hippie beads, de rigeur for the times. A nuclear mushroom cloud rose ominously towards the end of the clip as the blast was reflected in the face of an innocent young child, the imagery was heavy-handed and comprised mostly stock footage, but this was twelve years before the launch of MTV and the real advent of music videos.
Young and Meldrum reclaimed ownership of the expression “the real thing” from Coca Cola with the song, it knocked Peter Sarstedt’s Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) off the top of the national charts and stayed there for two weeks through March-April, and occupied the charts for 23 weeks, to become the biggest-selling local record of the year, and in 2001 The Real Thing was voted one of the top 30 best Australian songs of the modern era by APRA. The song that finally emerged from the recording of The Real Thing bore little similarity to the humble tune originally envisaged by Johnny Young, the pooling of the creative talents of Meldrum, Morris, Cadd, Hicks, Farrar, and others were worthy of recognition in the final accreditation of the song, but this was another era, when a fledgling music industry generously supported such projects on a shared communal basis, with little concern for participating in copyright or royalty-sharing arrangements.
The B-side to The Real Thing was a little-known Hans Poulsen composition entitled It’s Only a Matter of Time, which was apparently the standard response that Ian Meldrum gave Howard Gable when he complained about the cost overruns and seemingly endless recording hours that were consumed in producing Meldrum’s magnum opus. Morris did not like the B-side and regarded it disdainfully as a minor pop song, and rarely if ever performed it.
Morris would quickly follow-up with two more Johnny Young songs, Part Three Into Paper Walls which was a sequel to the block buster hit The Real Thing, backed with the tender romantic ballad, The Girl That I Love, to make a double-A-side smash hit that would again top the charts, for three weeks, and occupy them for 21 weeks, the golden era for Russell Morris had begun.
Welcome to 4TR for 2023, new blogs re-commence today with our first guest star for the year – Russell Morris- we explore his early hits 1967-81 in Part 1, and his late-career best-selling albums 2012 – 2019 in Part 2, your continued feedback and support of 4 The Record is much appreciated.
Hi bushboy, your feedback is appreciated, more Russell Morris songs coming up in the next few weeks, best regards Graeme Davy 4TR.
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Do you take requests?
Hi again bushboy, my blog is primarily focused on Australian performers, so if you have any in mind, I would do my best to respond, just let me know, cheers and regards, Graeme Davy 4TR.
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I am an Aussie who grew up with 60’s and 70’s music and love the acts and songs from those days. Easy ones to research would be the Masters Apprentices, Valentines, Fraternity, La De Das but some more difficult like MPD Ltd or Passenger.
Groups that were supports acts for overseas groups, Piranha or Hot Cottage
The list is endless thanks Graeme
Hi Brian, I can help you out re most of those you requested- the following are the dates of the blogs – MPD Ltd (9/12/21), Masters Apprentices (16/6/20), Valentines (3/7/19), you may also be interested in Max Merritt and the Meteors (12/7/22), and Chain (8/2/22), I know about Piranha, Fraternity, and La De DAs and will cover them in future blogs, your feedback is always appreciated, best regards Graeme Davy 4TR.
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Thanks Graeme 🙂