THE WARNER BROTHERS
Although tucked away in a small corner of the southern hemisphere, Melbourne Australia has enjoyed a long tradition of bands performing American country, blues and folk music. It seems counter-intuitive that traditional American music would take a foothold so far away from its source, yet the underground pub scene in Melbourne has featured a healthy strain of country-rock bands, stretching back to the early 1960s.
Over the years, the local interpretation of traditional American music has evolved a distinctive style – with a uniquely Melbourne twist. In the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s Melbourne country musicians combined a reverence for the traditions of American music with an Australian swagger – and a particular Melbourne penchant for ironic humour and a knack for telling a good yarn.
In the mid 1980s when Dan Warner and James Stewart started playing as a guitar duo in the inner city pubs of Melbourne, much of their set consisted of the songs of the American artists that both young musicians had grown up listening to: Little Feat; Hank Williams; Commander Cody; Ry Cooder; Bob Dylan; Tom Waits. Dan and James’s set also featured the songs of local Australian bands, in turn, influenced by American music: The Dingoes, Richard Clapton and Cold Chisel.
In the ‘80s, The Beehive Hotel in Hawthorn was a well-known country music venue. Dan & James began playing a Friday night residency at The Beehive from the middle of 1986. The duo gigs went well. Dan & James’s country-tinged set started to bring a new generation of music-lovers interested in American music to the pub. The gigs were long, drawn-out and boozy. In 1987, the duo added a rhythm section, James Carden on drums and Malcolm McBeath on bass. As a joke, some members of the regular crowd at the Beehive began to call the nameless band, ‘The Warner Brothers’.
During the next five years, The Warner Brothers set about serving their musical apprenticeship in the pubs of Melbourne and in the country towns of Victoria and NSW. The band played a lot of gigs, hundreds of them: The Prince of Wales; The Riverside Inn, The Prince Patrick; The John Barleycorn; The Lord Newry; The Auburn; The Albion Inn; The Station; The Great Britain; The Corner; The Richmond Club; The Moonee Valley (The Warner Brothers were one of the first bands to play The Punters Club). The band also became a favourite of local biker clubs – The Warner Brothers played The Hells Angels’ music festival at Broadford on two occasions.
The Warner Brothers’ set at this time mainly consisted of the songs of rockabilly and country legends such as Sid King, Wanda Jackson, Commander Cody, Hank Williams; Billy Lee Riley. The band also continued to throw in some Dylan and Neil Young. Dan & James would have seen themselves following in the tradition of the Melbourne bands half a generation above them, many of whom The Warner Brothers had shared a bill with: The Paramount Trio, Boogie Two Shoes, The Crummy Cowboys, The Dancehall Racketeers.
Towards the end of the ‘80s, The Warner Brothers’ music morphed into their own interpretation of the Melbourne country sound, a permutation appropriate to their own generation. Contemporaries of The Warner Brothers at that time included Lisa Miller and Truckasaurus; Paul Cumming and The Dirty Hanks; and Maurice Frawley and The Working Class Ringoes.
In the late 80s, James and Dan started writing their first original songs and began adding them into the band’s set. Fortuitously at this time, in 1988, James’s brother won a prize on community radio station, 3PBS, which included a day’s recording session at Dave McLuney’s and Jim Nicolaides’s Atlantis Studios in Bentleigh. The band recorded four songs at this session: ‘Hey Mama’, ‘Clubbin’ Rag’, ‘Gave You All My Lovin’’ and ‘Free To Choose My Poison’. All four tracks would end up on The Warner Brothers’ debut album which would be recorded sporadically over the next four years.
Around this time, when the band played at the wedding of a relative of James’s, Dan met James’s cousin, Al MacInnes. That evening Al and Dan discovered that they had a common interest in several acoustic blues artists – Big Bill Broonzy and Taj Mahal, in particular. They decided to form a duo and play some gigs around The Warner Brothers’ commitments.
The early Dan & Al sets consisted of some blues (particularly Taj Mahal); some Bob Dylan and Neil Young standards and some songs of Stewart’s and Warner’s. The duo soon became known for its long-standing residencies in inner-city Melbourne: Tunnel Nightclub from 89-91; The Punters Club in Fitzroy for 8 years (most of the ‘90s); and the Corner Hotel in Richmond for 5 years – (the residency at the Corner ended in 2000 with the unveiling of a plaque that named the front bar venue ‘The Dan Warner Room’ – the plaque was eventually stolen).
THE GREAT BRITAIN
In 1990-91, The Warner Brothers and ‘Dan & Al’ took up residencies at Nick Wheelhouse’s GB Hotel in Richmond – Dan & Al on Tuesday nights and The Warner Brothers on Sundays, after Checkerboard Lounge’s set. Nick Wheelhouse was one of the first publicans in Melbourne to run different genres of music on different nights of the week. The GB became an important musical hub for young musicians playing gigs in the early ‘90s in Melbourne. Regular acts in the early days at the GB included Kim Salmon (Mondays); Dan & Al (Tuesdays); Hoss (Thursdays); Christbait; and Checkerboard Lounge (Sunday arvos).
The Dan & Al Tuesday night residency took on a life of its own. By that time, Dan & Al had been playing together for several years and had developed a distinctive duo playing style. Dan seemed to be able to call up the lyrics to any song and, also, began playing a unique rhythm style that sounded extremely full for an acoustic guitar. Al was the perfect complement to Dan’s solidity. No-one played an acoustic guitar like Al MacInnes – from meandering, frolicking melodies to searing frenzied buzz saw trigger-happiness.
Dan & Al released an independent album in 1999, ‘Isle of Hop’, that contained mostly live recordings of their popular songs – in particular, ‘Bernie’ and ‘The Fang’ (a cover of the Jimmy Drake ‘Nervous Norvus’ song from the ‘50s). Al, an animator as well as a musician, enlisted the services of 20 animator colleagues from Melbourne and directed a narrative music video for ‘The Fang’.
At the beginning of 2000, after a couple of thousand gigs together, Dan & Al decided to take a break.
With so many acts playing each weeknight at the Great Britain, it’s unsurprising that many bands began to cross-pollinate. By the end of 1990, James Carden had left The Warner Brothers to be replaced on drums by Carl Pannuzzo from Checkerboard Lounge. The Warner Brothers followed Jim Nicolaides and Dave McCluney to their new Atlantis Studios premises in South Melbourne to complete the album they had begun in 1988. Several of the band’s signature songs were recorded in these sessions: ‘Stuck In Melbourne’; ‘Brunswick St Girl’; ‘Talking In Your Sleep’; ‘Four Leaf Clover’, ‘Continental’ and ‘Him & Joanne’ (all James Stewart compositions). Some guest musicians also sat in on some songs, notably Al MacInnes on mandolin and banjo; and Paul Jonas on violin. As well as drums, Carl Pannuzzo played piano and sang BVs.
The Warner Brothers’ debut album, ‘Talking In Your Sleep’, was launched in the Gershwin Room at The Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda in mid 1992. The support band on the night was Maurice Frawley and The Working Class Ringoes.
Ironically, the release of Talking In Your Sleep brought with it some troubled months for the band. Almost directly after the launch, Carl Pannuzzo left The Warner Brothers to re-focus on Checkerboard Lounge. Also, soon after the release of Talking In Your Sleep, the lead track ‘Stuck In Melbourne’ gained national airplay on JJJ. This would usually be happy news for an independent band that had just released its first album, but the national airplay brought the band to the attention of the record label of the same name. And the label wasn’t happy.
But before they could deal with legal proceedings concerning their name, The Warner Brothers needed a new drummer. The band’s regular sound engineer, Charlie MacNeil, had heard that Ian Kitney, a drummer from his hometown Wagga Wagga, had just moved to Melbourne. After a quick audition, Ian was signed on as the newest Warner Brother – and drummer number 3. (It is a little known fact that, as an initiation, any new member of the band was forced to sit down with the rest of the members and watch the 70s Western spoof movie, Evil Roy Slade. There are hidden references to the film in the liner notes of several of the band’s releases).
As soon as Ian joined the band, The Warner Brothers left on a national tour supporting Michelle Shocked. By the end of 1992, as the band’s profile widened, legal pressures intensified on the band concerning the usage of the name. For the moment, The Warner Brothers decided to hold out.
MY PRIVATE TRAIN
Paul Hester from Crowded House had been a fan of The Warner Brothers from the beginning. He had helped the band find an agent (Gerard at Premier Artists) and Paul’s partner, Mardi, had taken the photos of the band for the artwork of ‘Talking in Your Sleep’. Paul suggested Tim Finn’s Periscope Studio for the recording of the band’s second album, as well as the studio’s young resident engineer, Paul Kosky, as producer.
‘My Private Train’ is the album of a band in transition. As a result, the tracks are decidedly hit-and-miss. A definite miss is the first attempt at recording Dan’s new song, Bernie (about his neighbour who had been a soldier in WWII). A couple of highlights include James’s songs, ‘Leave Me’ and ‘Take Me In’ (which featured Dror Erez on accordion). The best-known song from the album is the single, ‘Head Over Heels’.
During the recording of ‘My Private Train’, the legal pressure from Warner Brothers (the label) escalated to the point where the band decided to change its name before the release of the second album. That way, the band could relaunch its name first, and then the album later with some clear air. Around that time, an old musician friend of the band, Paul Cumming from The Dirty Hanks, had written a song called ‘Overnight Jones’ (about the guy who turns up to your party, no-one knows him, he drinks all the beer, smokes all the cigarettes, sleeps on your couch and sits down to breakfast the next morning). The Warner Brothers needed a name overnight…and Jones seemed an innocuous enough name after all the legal trouble they had had with ‘Warner’.
The EP, ‘Not Brothers Anymore’ was released in 1993. It featured two songs from the new album: ‘Head Over Heels’ (the lead track) and ‘She Lies’. The rest of the tracks were live recordings from the GB: ‘Brunswick St Girl’, ‘Leave Me’, ‘Stuck In Melbourne’ and ‘Continental’ (featuring Mick Thomas on vocals).
Once again, ‘Head Over Heels’ was picked up by JJJ for national airplay. Largely off the back of the success of ‘Head Over Heels’ and a well-attended national tour with Weddings, Parties, Anything and Tiddas, Overnight Jones was signed to Polygram Records in 1994.
Although the band had already released ‘My Private Train’ independently, Polygram (now Mercury) decided to re-package and re-release the album. The intention of the label was to cross the band over from the country-rock scene to the mainstream. The band played several tours and supports, including a national tour with Sheryl Crow. The record label’s attempt to cross the band over to commercial radio was mildly successful: the album garnered airplay on commercial stations in Brisbane and Perth, but not in Melbourne and Sydney.
ICE BAIT GAS
By late 1996, the relationship between the record label and the band had soured. In a last ditch attempt to save the deal, the label agreed to fund a three-song EP, to be produced by Joe Camilleri at his recently completed Woodstock Studios. Joe brought in engineer, Mick Letho and Pedal Steel player Ed Bates (the original guitarist of The Sports), who would become the fifth member of Overnight Jones once the session was complete. Although the recording went well, the feature song being James’s popular live song ‘Red Hat’, the label was unimpressed. Soon after, the band and Id/Mercury parted ways. The band completed several more songs independently with Camilleri at Woodstock – the result was Overnight Jones’ third, and final, 1997 album, ‘Ice Bait Gas’.
‘Ice Bait Gas’ captures the essence of Overnight Jones. ‘Big As The Moon’, ’15 Bucks A Week’ (featuring James Black on piano) and ‘Blind’ are probably the best examples of Dan Warner singing songs written by James Stewart. The songs that James sings lead vocals on the album, ‘Felicity’ and ‘Henty Stomp’ are among the finest recordings released by The Warner Brothers/Overnight Jones.
When ‘Ice Bait Gas’ failed to get significant airplay, the band found itself in serious financial straits. The relationships in the band also started to fray. Dan was writing more songs that weren’t making it onto albums, James was keen to sing more of his own songs. Overnight Jones recorded one final EP, Slik Degrease, in 1998, but soon after, and after 13 years together, the band broke up.
Just before the final gigs, an entire new album ‘Reunion’ was demoed by the band. Among those demos were the well-known Overnight Jones live songs, ‘Sticks and Stones’ and ‘ Postcard’.
THE LARGEST LIVING THINGS
In early 1999, following a performance on The Mick Molloy Show, Dan joined The Largest Living Things, the new band of former Crowded House drummer, Paul Hester. In The LLT Dan was employed as a guitarist/singer alongside American guitar player, Kevin Garant. Dan co-wrote several songs for the band, several of which were demoed, with Dan on lead vocals, at Paul’s studio for a proposed debut album.
After a short stint in the band, Dan & Kev Garant formed a duo and relocated for two years to New York. Before departing for the States, Dan and Kev released an album of demos, ‘The Magic Rider’. The album included acoustic versions of some Largest Living Things songs; early versions of ‘Helicopter Pilot’ and ‘Little Pieces’; and a memorable cover of the Pete Lawler song, ‘Ship In The Harbour’. Between 2000 and 2002, Dan & Kev played all over the US, mainly focussing on the NE States. The duo played some memorable shows whilst based in NY, including several at Roscoe Ambel’s Lakeside Lounge and, also, Bob Dylan’s 60th Birthday Bash at The Wetlands.
A LIKENESS OF YOU
Dan returned to Australia in 2002 with the intention of recording the songs that he had written while living overseas. In his years playing with The Warner Brothers, Overnight Jones and with Al MacInnes, Dan had met, and had played with, several accomplished local musicians. His intention on ‘A Likeness of You’ was to invite his favourite Melbourne musicians as to join him on the recording.
His record label, Croxton Records, suggested Audrey Studio’s Craig Pilkington (of Killjoys fame) as producer. The list of musicians that Dan and Craig assembled for the record included: Ian Kitney on drums; Barry Stockley on double bass; Mick Thomas on electric bass; Dave Moll and Dave Evans (The Band Who Knew Too Much) on piano; Charlie Owen, James Black and Al MacInnes on guitars; Jen Anderson on violin; Chris Altmann (The Vandas) on pedal steel; and Michael Barclay (The Messengers) on backing vocals.
‘A Likeness of You’ was written as a concept album – a portrait drawn by an unreliable memory. Dan had wanted the song order of the album to follow the progression of the portrait that he had written into the work. The record label argued, reasonably, that the first track on the record should be the song with the most impact. A compromise was reached and the album was released in 2005.
Dan’s original tracklisting for ‘A Likeness of You’ is now available on his bandcamp page.
THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE
Between recording sessions for ‘A Likeness of You’, Dan toured with Jen Anderson and Dave Evans (‘The Larrikins’) as a singer/instrumentalist playing live Jen’s soundtrack for the Australian silent film, The Sentimental Bloke. Directed by Raymond Longford in Sydney in 1919, The Sentimental Bloke is one of the world’s oldest extant feature-films. In 2005 the film played in Venice and London. In 2006, the film toured to the US (including the Telluride Film Festival), Canada and Japan. The Larrikins also played the inaugural Chungmuro Film Festival in South Korea.
Jen Anderson’s score, and The Larrikins’ recording of it, is now the official soundtrack on the AFC release of The Sentimental Bloke.
As many of his old songs were scattered across out-of-print Warner Brothers, Overnight Jones and various live albums, Dan decided to re-record his best-known songs in a single project for a compilation CD. Many of Dan’s songs had never been produced with his intended arrangements and instrumentation, so ‘Night Parrots’ became the project where Dan could set all that right. There were also songs such as ‘Anthem’, the song that he had co-written with Sally Dastey for Tiddas, that Dan had never recorded. (‘Anthem’ is now on permanent display at the Australian Museum of Democracy in Canberra.)
As all the songs assembled for ‘Night Parrots’ were from different eras in Dan’s writing career, it was going be a challenge for a producer to give a logical unity to the collection of songs.
Marcel Borrack had been a fellow artist on Croxton Records. When the label sent Dan out on a three-way tour with Marcel and Sarah Carroll (the Neapolitan Croxton Tour), close musical ties were formed between the trio. Dan selected Marcel as producer of Night Parrots and the album was recorded as his home studios in Hawthorn, East Kew and Mernda.
Ian Kitney again played drums on the project. Dan sang and played acoustic. Marcel pretty much played all the other instruments. Sarah Carroll sang some BVs.
Night Parrots was released in 2008 and contains definitive recordings of some of Dan’s best-known early songs: ‘Is That What They’re Saying’, ‘Bernie’, ‘Almost Autumn Days’ and ‘James Arthur Jones’.
Since the late 90s, Dan has presented a segment during Jonnie von Goes’s Sunday afternoon RRR FM show, The JVG Radio Method. Each week, Jon chooses a theme word for the show and in his segment, WARNER CORNER, Dan performs a live song according to the theme. In the early years Dan performed the segment solo but now, most weeks, Dan is joined by Ed Bates on lap steel, Dave Evans on accordion, Nathan Farrelly on bass and Jane Hendry on violin.
In 2001, a compilation of songs from the first few years of the ‘Warner Corner’ segment was released by RRR. The album is still available from the station. Several of Dan’s Warner Corner segments have been posted on his website.
The JVG Radio Method has enjoyed continued notoriety at RRR. Each year during Radiothon, Jon stages four hours of completely live local music. Also, on the first Sunday in December each year, Dan and Jon convene the fundraiser, ‘RRR BBQ Day’ at Ceres in Brunswick.