Though he may be best known for era-defining psychedelic rock songs like The Real Thing, Mr. America and Wings of an Eagle, Russell Morris has returned to his earliest musical style – the blues. On his new record Sharkmouth, Morris evokes a traditional and minimal blues sound to tell the stories of some of the colourful characters in Australia’s history. On The Ballad of Les Darcy Morris, a long-time boxing fan, tells the story of Maitland’s heroic champion.
Some of your comtemporaries, like Joe Camilleri, were encouraging you to release some blues music. Did you find the style easy to slip into?
Well that’s how I started, so it was like going back. I did [blues] and motown stuff, strangely enough – that’s how I started out. I hadn’t done it for a long, long time. I did it sometimes – if I got up [on stage] and jammed with a band I’d always pick a blues song. In my own show I always had a couple of blues songs, so it wasn’t as if it was something unfamiliar to me. It was just people who had spent their whole lives doing blues that said to me, “Why don’t you do [a blues album]?” I said, “I will eventually, I just need the right vehicle.”
Does writing blues music require you to be in a different headspace compared to other styles?
Nah, not really. The difference with this album was that most of the songs were factual and most of the time when you write it can be ambiguous and abstract. But these songs were about factual situations so I had to make sure they captured the mood and the facts. You have to be careful to walk a poetic line, because if you’re too factual it becomes unpoetic. It’s a fine line to walk. But I really enjoyed doing it and it was something I hadn’t done.
Most songwriters pen the music first and then the lyrics. Was that process reversed for you this time?
Yes, it tended to be reversed. I would find the lyrics and I would put them down in a rough form, because if you put them down to precisely they can become constricting. So I put down the facts on a page – all the things I wanted to cover – and then I would start writing.
Have you always been drawn to telling other people’s stories in your lyrics as opposed to singing about your own life?
No, the other stories are made up in my head. Normally I would start making up melodies and words would assert themselves in there after a while. I’d go, “Oh yeah, that [song] could be about going to the beach in summer...” Then you head off in that direction. But I never sat down with a specific story in mind. I was always throwing colours at a canvas and eventually seeing a face in it.
Is the blues the most effective style to convey the stories of these characters on Sharkmouth?
Yes, because when I decided to do it I was portraying history from 1916 to 1939 and blues was around at that time. It’s an appropriate music – it fits it very, very well. For instance, you couldn’t tell it using sequencers and programmed stuff because it’s out of context. I used very few instruments because I wanted it to have breathing space. I wanted it to have that sparse sound, so it would almost sound like it was from that time.
Because the sound is more sparse, I suppose there is more focus on your lyrics and you have to be accurate.
I don’t tell [the stories] incredibly accurately. For instance, in the story of the 1927 war on the Victorian docks, I included Pat Shannon’s name. Pat wasn’t there – he was in the ‘60s, but I just wanted to include his name. That’s poetic licence, I guess. Squizzy [Taylor] was pretty accurate, as was Les Darcy and Phar Lap. But I didn’t want to have an album of completely accurate songs, because it might be too dry. Some songs have broad brushstrokes and that created that mood and feeling.
You’ve written a song about Les Darcy – have you always been a fan of the legend?
Always. I’ve been a boxing fan all my life. A couple of my friends were world champions. Les Darcy was amazing, dying at 21 being world middleweight and heavyweight champion, and never getting a fight in America. To hold that position in the American [Boxing] Hall of Fame is just astounding. I was pretty excited to include him [on the album]. He is a bit of a hero up there [in Maitland] and so he should be. Unfortunately for him he was a conscientious objector, I think mainly due to him being Irish and he didn’t want to fight for the English in the war. He got white feathers sent to him and all that bulldust. He was not a coward, he was a very brave man. He just didn’t believe in fighting for England.
How did you write The Ballad of Les Darcy?
I wrote the lyrics first. I looked at all the facts. There were a couple of things I could have included. One of the reasons he never got a fight in America was because of a guy called John Wren. In Melbourne, John Wren was a gangster and he was associated with Squizzy Taylor. But John Wren was very powerful and close friends with Archbishop Mannix and objected to the fact that [Darcy] wouldn’t fight [in the war]. Ring was in the boxing game and he sent word to this thugs in America, who controlled the fights, and said make sure [Darcy] never gets a fight. That’s the rumour I’ve heard, but I didn’t include that in the song.
Sharkmouth is out now through Fanfare Records.
The opening lyrics from The Ballad of Les Darcy by Russell Morris:
"If ever a boxer stood over the rest,
Les Darcy surely was the best.
From Maitland to Memphis, well they all knew his fame.
In the ghosts of a stadium, the shadows cheer his name...”