The grandeur of Little River Band’s finest recording
It needs to be said, unequivocally, that Little River Band’s album Sleeper Catcher is one of the most beautiful, exquisite, perfect rock albums ever recorded.
I say “one of” because of course there are many, and my tastes are particular, and don’t encompass a lot of the music that my friends and colleagues swear allegiance to. But as I recently wrote in “What was I thinking?” about the shameful, unforgiveable culling of my music collection, and have had cause to look down the list of what vinyl I had owned, and what I still do, and what I have in my huge digital library, I understand that there are some albums that really should only be heard in their original formats, and Sleeper Catcher is one of those. You need to play it on vinyl, as it was released to the world in 1978.
For one thing, the CD version is a badly re-sequenced version that was probably tailored to the US market. It confounded me when I got it and once I mastered the logistics of iTunes I had to create a playlist of the tracks in the order I wanted them so I could listen to the album properly in my car. But fortunately I kept the vinyl, and I popped it onto my turntable on Thanksgiving, while I was getting ready for lunch, and I turned the volume all the way up, and I was floored. Floored. I don’t know how many years it was since I’d listened to the vinyl, or, in the days of cassettes, my tape of the vinyl, but it was a long time, and so I had almost forgotten that when the album opens with “Fall From Paradise” there is an orchestral prelude to the song that is every bit as sumptuous as it is grandiose, and the song really should never, ever be heard without it.
Which means I can never listen to my digital version of the album again, and I need to seek out a digital version of the original recording so I can listen to it as it’s meant to be listened to when I am in the car and on the beach.
The beach. This is a really essential point. It warrants a visual tangent before I go back to talking about Sleeper Catcher specifically. It was the new year of 1984, and I was with my parents at a holiday house on the NSW Central Coast, which they rented with their best friend Martin and his kids. The cricket was on, the Australia vs Pakistan New Year Test in which Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh announced they were retiring. I was into cricket in those days and it was absolutely thrilling viewing. But the sun outside, the incredible rugged beaches, were a-calling, so I said I was going to drive up the coast a bit to explore and Martin’s son, Michael, five years younger than me, said he wanted to come too.
I drove up to Budgewoi, a beach I remembered from a romantic weekend a couple of years earlier. Long and empty and gorgeously wild, that was the beach I wanted to lie on. We set up on the sand but I was restless. I told Michael I was going for a walk. So I plugged in my headphones to my bright yellow water-resistant Sony Walkman cassette player, clipped the Walkman on to the side of my bum bag (that’s a fanny pack for some of you), in which was a collection of specially chosen cassettes, in turn clipped the bum bag over my rolled down one-piece bathing suit (topless beach-going being the norm in those times), and got up saying, “I’ll be back soon” as I hit play and the strains of “It’s A Long Way There”, the first track on the first, self-titled, Little River Band album, filled my ears.
I didn’t return for three and a half hours. It was one of the most monumental beach walks I have ever taken. Actually, I will go all out and say it is the most incredible walk on the beach in my entire life to date. I’ve tried to replicate it a few times, but there is nothing like the first time. The first time you play the first five Little River Band albums sequentially on a Sony Walkman as you walk along an empty rugged beach as the surf crashes in and the warm ocean comes in to bathe your feet, sometimes up to your thighs, occasionally splashing on the water-resistant Walkman. You start with “It’s A Long Way There” and you finish with “Mistress Of Mine” and it’s an exquisite, breathtaking, astonishing musical journey. You sing along – I harmonise, and the harmonising on Little River Band songs is everything – and you sing out to the waves and it’s beyond exhilarating. I was 21, I was alone on a long empty beach, half naked, walking and skipping and dancing and singing to music by one of my favourite bands. Could life really be any better?
Young Michael was waiting for me, somewhat anxiously, when I returned; he’d been wondering whether I was ever coming back. I just shrugged and said, well, I walked to the end of the beach and back, and it was exactly the time I needed to listen to the first five Little River Band albums, exactly the right time. However many kilometres that was, it was perfect.
I did the same walk with the same five Little River Band albums played sequentially on Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas in 1988 and again in 1992 on Tallow Beach in Byron Bay, just before I moved there, and those experiences were almost as fabulous as the Budgewoi walk, albeit a little contrived in trying to recreate the first time. It was that first time that was the revelation to me. It wasn’t a revelation about how great the music is – I had known that for years – but about how you can experience music in a particular setting at a particular time and take that with you always, and bring it back even if you’re playing Sleeper Catcher on your USB turntable in your Santa Monica apartment during a global pandemic when anything that takes you out of the scary place you’re in is a blessing, especially something that takes you back to 1978.
In 1978 Little River Band was at the very top echelon of Australian bands, and hugely successful in America as well. They were indisputably the best live music act in Australia then. I’d become a busy concert-goer in my teenage years, and I knew that the sound quality and recreation of their recordings on stage as well as their high energy and ability to rock beyond what their sophisticated sleek melodies and harmonies might have suggested, set Little River Band apart from the other bands I was seeing. In November 1977 at the massive Rockarena concert with Fleetwood Mac and Santana, Little River Band had dominated the bill and, in my recollection, the accolades. In February 1978 they headlined Rock at the Opera, better known as “Summer Magic”, a 2SM free concert on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. It was the first free 2SM concert on those hallowed steps, with Skyhooks, Stars and Finch also on the bill, a beautiful balmy Sydney late summer night, and quite extraordinary. John Hartman from the Doobie Brothers had flown out to join them on drums – the two drummer thing was very Doobie Brothers and very powerful – and it was probably the first time an Australian group was playing in Australia as an international band. I remember that being the overriding impression the event left me with.
Little River Band already had three great albums out – the 1975 eponymous album, the second, more subdued album After Hours, and then the commercial juggernaut, Diamantina Cocktail, with its quirky Australian title and its distinctly American producer, John Boylan. So the anticipation for the fourth album was huge, and when Sleeper Catcher was released in May 1978, with another quirky Australian title (a Sleeper Catcher retrieves bets left behind by a tardy gambler in the game Two-Up) and Boylan behind the controls again, it was hailed as the brilliant master work it was. The band didn’t spend much time basking in the glory at home; they were off to the States to tour and share stages with Boz Scaggs, Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, Heart and others, as you do. When they returned after the US summer, they toured Australia with their Home Run tour, and played in Sydney on October 12th at the elegant Regent Theatre in a show that is probably the most perfect theatre-sized rock concert I ever experienced in Australia.
I remember that day and evening like it was yesterday. It was a hot Thursday in Sydney and I didn’t go to school, I think I told Mum I was feeling a bit off, or wanted to study at home. But my groovy neighbours, adult siblings Eddie and Rosie and Maurice, were heading up to Newport Beach for the day and my mother, bless her, must have gotten into a discussion with them in the driveway, because next thing I knew she was poking her head in my bedroom asking me if I wanted to join them. So my mother waved us off and we headed up to Newport Beach, returning home in time for me to shower and change and get the train into the city for the Little River Band concert. I was 16 and I had bought a single ticket, already a seasoned solo concert-goer. I was glowing from the beach and glowing from the excitement in my second row seat, and a few songs in I moved up to an empty front row seat. I snapped photos on my 110mm camera and knew, and still know, unequivocally, that this was one of the best concerts I would ever experience. And yes, I would rate it up there with the best concerts I’ve seen by the Eagles or any other band, ever.
I saw them many times in their various line-ups. In 1979 they released their fifth album, the final in that beach walk playlist, the brilliant First Under The Wire, with my favourite Graeham Goble song finishing it off, “Mistress Of Mine”, and they spent more time overseas. When I was living in London in 1980 I took my cousin Cyndy and her husband Michael and two other couples – all much older than me – to the Finsbury Park Rainbow to see Little River Band, and they all became instant fans. These were Brits raised on the Beatles and the Hollies, and they rated Little River Band right up there and still do. Little River Band’s next album, Time Exposure, was in fact recorded with Beatles producer George Martin, but by then the tensions that cause disharmony in so many bands known for harmony couldn’t be smoothed over. By 1982 I was seeing the band fronted by John Farnham, who’d replaced lead singer Glenn Shorrock, and on they went. By 1988 when Shorrock returned and they headlined the big concert at Brisbane’s World Expo with Glenn Frey as their special guest – and I was there – my professional life was affording me the opportunity to meet the band. It was Shorrock, in fact, who first introduced me to Frey, when they toured Australia together later that year. It was the first time I met an Eagle, and the only time I’ve been lost for words on meeting a musician I admire. “Glenn, this is Debbie Kruger,” Shorrock said. “Debbie, meet Glenn Frey.”
We shook hands. “Well,” Frey said in his Detroit drawl, “Now that we’ve been introduced, what would you like to say?”
“I don’t know,” I replied like an overwhelmed teenage fan (I was 26). “I’m just so glad to meet you!”
That was just another tangent, because the Little River Band part of my music life has tentacles spread in all kinds of meaningful directions.
By 2002, when I was heading communications at APRA and the original founding members of Little River Band were launching themselves as Birtles Shorrock Goble, unable, as they had discovered, to use the name of the band they’d started, I was doing the PR for the awards night that featured their first big performance, and great friendships sprang from that. The BSG era, the disappointments over legal wrangling that prevented them taking their magnificent show to international stages, that’s not a story I need to tell here. Both Glenn Shorrock and Beeb Birtles have written memoirs, and I interviewed Glenn and Graeham for Songwriters Speak. If I have regrets in my interviewing life, one is that my book couldn’t encompass an extra chapter on Little River Band songwriting so I could include Beeb as well, but some years later we did a lengthy, fabulous interview in Nashville, where Beeb has lived for many years, for the Australian National Film & Sound Archive’s Oral History Program.
But this story, as I wind my way back to the point, is about Sleeper Catcher, one of my two favourite Australian albums of all time (the other being Sherbet’s Life… is for Living, not nearly as exquisite sonically, but enthralling in so many other ways), and why it’s essential to listen to it not in the rubbishy digital version with the completely incorrect track sequencing, but in its original vinyl version, starting with “Fall From Paradise” and its grand orchestral prelude (arranged and conducted by Ric Formosa, the band’s earlier lead guitarist who left after After Hours). Biblical in inspiration, epic in execution, dazzling to a teenage girl playing it for the first time on her mono record player in suburban Sydney, it is still an unmistakably mellifluous and unashamedly lavish album opening.
I’m telling the truth to you brother, telling it true to you sister, go tell the truth to the others… all over the land.
From there the album artfully weaves its way through the different writing styles of its three songwriters and their preoccupations. Graeham Goble’s “Lady”, still a classic hits staple here in the US, was contrasted by the third track, about another lady, “Red Headed Wildflower”, the hardest rocking song on the album. In 1978 when I heard the song, and heard Beeb talk about it in interviews – he’d written the music to go with journalist Ed Nimmervol’s lyrics about one of Ed’s dearest friends who’d died tragically, young, a victim of her circumstances and the times – I didn’t really engage with the subject matter. A few months ago, doing research for a new book, the song came up and its full meaning hit me forcefully, and there was a day in my car when I played it probably ten times over and over, startled by it. It was that song that really led me back to Sleeper Catcher and when I finally listened to it on vinyl again a couple weeks ago, I was struck again. Especially by the segue from “Red Headed Wildflower” to Beeb’s greatest ever composition, “Light Of Day”. If I could only put two Little River Band songs on a mixed tape to live with on a desert island, they’d be “Mistress of Mine” and “Light Of Day”.
Hey boys, come out and dig the dance, come on and take a chance, believe in the light of day.
I find myself singing that line a lot at the moment. It’s a song so melodically and harmonically sublime it can bring tears to my eyes. It has a long instrumental coda to allow time for contemplation, and after eight minutes of such finery, even at 16-years old I knew that it was perfectly placed at the end of side 1 to give the listener time to catch breath while flipping over the vinyl.
Side 2 of Sleeper Catcher features a few of Glenn Shorrock’s philosophical musical musings. “So Many Paths” is a great rollicking opening, leading into Graeham’s best known composition, “Reminiscing”, which has more than five million airplays in the US, maybe six million. It’s the song that keeps on keeping on. It’s also a song that’s never boring, and even more lovely when heard in the context of the album and the placement it was given, the gentle harking back to simpler, softer times, leading into Glenn’s wistful yearning for his own simpler way in “Sanity’s Side”, the precursor to his most famous ballad, “Cool Change”, the following year. “Shut Down Turn Off”, another Shorrock inclusion, and the album’s first single, followed that; Glenn was always seeking a place to shut down and turn off, find sanity, during his years in Little River Band. And then the album ends with “One For The Road”, to let you know that whatever their internal tensions might be, the band keeps on a-rollin’.
We all keep it on goin’, have another on me, one for the road.
Because “Shut Down Turn Off” and “Reminiscing” were the big singles from the album, the digital version opens with those two songs and the eloquence and storyline of the original sequencing is lost. It’s ludicrous and criminal and I’m done with the criminal acts on my music. Especially music so purely exquisite that should never be tampered with, and never let go of. I was very thankful, on Thanksgiving, that I had kept my original vinyl copy of Sleeper Catcher, and kept it so pristine.
The pedigree of Little River Band, a super group founded by members of previous iconic Australian bands including the Twilights, Axiom, Zoot and Mississippi, is one of the greatest stories of Australian music history. That comprises too many other stories that I don’t need to tell here as they’ve been told in many places. A few links are below.
As I finish this, I go back to thinking about the vinyl I let go of and realise that the double Backstage Pass vinyl went to the dealer and I just don’t know why I did that. The other Little River Band vinyl that went, from Time Exposure on, I had on CD and fortunately I retained my entire LRB CD collection. But Backstage Pass is missing, and that’s the other place I can hear the orchestral prelude to “Fall From Paradise”, live with the Adelaide Symphony… so back to eBay I go. Dang. (My Minute By Minute vinyl arrived last week and now I can pretend I never didn’t have it.)
And as a final note, and anyone that’s read this and knows about the real Little River Band hopefully does not need to be told this, but I need to say it: don’t go looking for the band as it calls itself that today. And when live shows ever start up again here in the US, don’t even think about going to see that band. The real Little River Band no longer exists, other than in the recordings and the memories. A lot of that is lovingly brought together at ShorrockBirtlesGoble.com.
Some other links: