June 2014 marks 33⅓ years since Mondo Rock's breakthrough album, Chemistry. Jenny Valentish spoke to frontman Ross Wilson about the triumphs and tragedies surrounding the band
Ross, in an oversimplified way, is it fair to say you went from edgy hippy with Daddy Cool, to slick pop rocker with Mondo Rock?
Yes… but we’d also grown up. Before Daddy Cool, I went from being an enthusiastic, but struggling musician – paying my dues and learning to write better songs in a pretty experimental band, gradually getting more work until I was able to quit my day job as a clerk with the Commonwealth Government. Then I went over to England for about nine months and got pretty inspired. When I came back, that’s when I formed Daddy Cool.
Daddy Cool was the point in which everything I’d learned came into play. I went from writing rock operas where every song had about 50 ideas, to really concise songs. I learned how the professional rock biz worked and it established me well enough to become a producer. I produced Skyhooks’ first three albums, which were massive successes. So through that I gained a lot more experience, but also credibility within the industry, so people were suddenly willing to help me, you know?
Then I decided I wanted to get back on stage and that’s when Mondo Rock came about. By now the focus of the songs was more mature. Daddy Cool was like Rock’n’Roll High School, learning to sing four-part harmonies and play simple songs, and have a good time. I was celebrating my childhood memories of growing up with pop music and rock. Mondo Rock was about going to Rock’n’Roll University. It was much more sophisticated.
Chemistry, the second Mondo Rock album (now remastered as a double deluxe CD), is very different to your debut, Primal Park.
I reshuffled the whole band, got entirely new members. It was really early days for synthesisers and yet we put those at the front, you know? And in our own way we experimented quite a bit, so we were trying to push forward and be mature.
Given your success as a producer, I picture you honing the craft by really studying what else was going on.
No not really. I mainly employ really talented people that do all that stuff. In those days when I was producing Skyhooks, I spotted them before anyone else did so I got involved as their mentor and oversaw pre-production and arrangements and all of that kind of stuff. So it’s about using your ears… and my position on that had been validated. I read a book about Rick Rubin, who I think is one of the greatest producers today, and he’s like that. He goes, “I just listen to stuff”. And the other thing he does, because he’s got the luxury of doing this now, he’ll record an Adele record or a ZZ Top record or whatever, and then he has three guys doing different mixes in different places, so he’ll get three viewpoints. He’ll go, “Okay, that’s the one I like; now can you just do this to it?” As a producer you’re sort of like a film director – you’re marshalling talents and getting the best out of them. It’s all about fine-tuning.
Invariably, once you’ve got this great track you want to make the most of, your brain goes into working out what to do with it. For instance, ‘Come Said the Boy’ – a song that came after the Chemistry album – we worked on that maybe four times as long as ay other song on the album. And it’s still being played today.
But did you look at what was a contemporary success and think, right, this plus this equals success in America?
You get influenced by the scene you’re in. Like, you’re out playing pubs all the time, and concerts and multi-bills… so you find out what makes the public move, which has always been a priority of mine – getting bums shaking. If I’m not moving to it, I’m not happy. We were trying to be a dance band with a bit of intelligence and good lyrics. We were into the new technology that was coming out at the time, but I was also listening to heaps of funk and R&B – and you can hear that in things like the song ‘Chemistry’… even more so in the albums that came later.
Was the ambition to leave those pubs behind and have a massive hit Stateside?
We never did have that hit, and in hindsight I do blame certain management people for that. We had a couple of chances and, you know, guys went over and didn’t make a very good impression. Later we got messages back going, “Oh, you shouldn’t have sent that guy – you should have gone yourselves.” [Laughs.]
But we would go over, and we did actually get some American releases – and this is a really sad story [laughs]. We made a great album, called Boom Baby Boom  – a great album that had a terrible cover and a really good producer; American guy, very knowledgeable, who put in a lot of work and time and effort. The label, which was Columbia, which is now Sony, said, “Yeah, this is good – we like this,” after three albums they’d pretty much neglected. They released a single from it – ‘Primitive Love Rites’ – and they started promoting it.
America’s an amazing place. You’ve got 52 states and you’ve got to have your team working in every state. You might get a top ten in five states that won’t mean anything on the national scale. So they brought ‘Primitive Love Rites’ out and they’re promoting it. It was in the charts for about six weeks and it kept moving up and getting more airplay. Then there was an episode of 20/20 – which is like our 60 Minutes – and they had one of their perennial stories about payola. In this case it was about “independent promoters” that were giving DJs drugs and women and whatever they wanted to play records.
The focus of it was Columbia records. So the following week – as our song had got up to about number 70 – every single Columbia release fell off the charts. Even Bruce Springsteen! Nobody wanted to touch Columbia and be accused of using – which they all did – those independent promoters.
That was the end of Mondo Rock in America. For a while in the ’80s KROQ in LA used to import Australian stuff. They were really big and they had a lot to do with breaking Midnight Oil over there, and they used to play Mondo Rock, so we had fans buying our imports in California and all of that… But that was our chart entry and our big chance and that’s what happened [laughs]. That hasn’t really been reported on before.
I’ve seen you mentioned in quite a few memoirs. Are you going to redress the balance?
The thing is, if you want to make it interesting you’ve got to put in all the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. I mean, that’s a good story I just told you, but the other stuff I don’t really want to report because I’ve got teenage kids. They’d go, “But Dad, you say we can’t do that.” [Laughs.]
You could do what Mark Opitz did with Sophisto-Punk and mainly talk about everybody else’s sex and drugs?
Yeah… yeah, that’s pretty good actually. I like his book. There are things in there I knew a lot about, but also things I hadn’t heard of before.
Compared to your peers at the time, it sounded like you had the best-constructed songs and the most expensive equipment. Would you spend longer in the studio with Mondo Rock than you had with Daddy Cool?
Yeah, when Daddy Cool burst onto the scene there weren’t big budgets for recording, so we recorded our album in two-and-a-half days. We were a great band; great live. We were just a really great combination of four guys who made a huger sound than what you would imagine. We could all sing and we had harmonies and all that. Mondo Rock was terrific live too, and you’ll hear that on the double CD. But by the time Mondo Rock was going we had bigger budgets and the Australian industry was making a lot more money so they would invest more. Those days… it’s just dwindled again now [laughs]. We spent a quarter of a million dollars on that album that got released in the States. It was record company money, but it was all recoupable. But the great thing about Mondo Rock is, we had deals that after a certain time, that the masters reverted to us. Now we own all our masters again.
That’s pretty rare isn’t it?
Yeah and we’ve remastered Chemistry. I was hoping for a bit of a backwash from INXS because I was told yesterday that they’ve sold 350,000 albums this year because of the TV drama [laughs]. Their ‘best of’ has been number one for about 15 weeks. I’m going, “Jeez, I wish people would go to iTunes and think, ‘What else can I get besides INXS?’” Write that up. Tell them that they can get our greatest hits, too.
You had constant line-up changes and disbandings with Mondo Rock. Was it originally supposed to be a solo vehicle?
Well it was my vehicle, yeah. I was in charge, you know? Less so these days – we’ve got four key members, which is guitarist Eric McCusker, who wrote a lot of the great songs; myself and James Black on keyboards – he’s worked with RocKwiz and the Black Sorrows; and Paul Christie on bass, who’s a brilliant bass player. The drummer on tour is Gil Matthews, who played in the band that I had leading up to the Chemistry album. So it’s all classic members in the band. These days it’s more democratic. I used to be totalitarian, pushing everyone around [laughs]. And that’s what I do now with my regular touring band, Ross Wilson and the Peaceniks – where I play a bit of Mondo Rock and Daddy Cool and a whole lot of new stuff as well. I’m the total boss there, and my word is the last word. But with Mondo Rock we all have a say, which is harder in a way because it’s hard to get everyone to agree [laughs]. It takes longer.
I think the common wisdom is you do need a dictator in every band.
Yeah, well you know, I’ve got strong opinions. We used to write so many songs in Mondo Rock – I’d be writing songs, Eric would be writing songs – and so we had a lot of rehearsals. It would be brutal: “Nah, don’t like that song. What else you got?” “No, that part’s terrible. Oh no, that’s no good.” There was an amazing amount of attrition on the songs, and a lot of them. Some of the things we uncovered for the live album; Eric heard a song and said, “What’s that?” “‘Slice of Life’.” “Who wrote that?” “You did.”
We shared stages with Cold Chisel and INXS and a bunch of others, and while I thought Michael Hutchence was terrific; the first and only real male rock star that we’ve had internationally, they never improvised. With INXS, as opposed to us, everything was worked out note for note. We would jam all the time and we’d change the arrangements from the albums.
You had quite an international sound, because if you think of what was going on in Melbourne at the time, there was quite a posh, art school scene going on that was very niche.
Well, we were a bit older than a bunch of the other people around. When Chemistry came out it was about 10 years later than Daddy Cool. We’d go on Countdown and there’d be all these 20-, 21-year-old guys whereas I was 34 [laughs]. Fortunately I still looked reasonably young, but that was old. So we were bringing a more mature attitude.
Did you get any snarky comments from the other Countdown bands?
Yeah! Countdown was “the” show. It was so powerful; it was on at 6.30 on Sunday nights, and people would sit down with the whole family and watch it while eating their dinner. If you played your new song on it, they’d position it so it would come out the week before. If it didn’t make the charts by the end of the week, you went, “Oh well, let’s do another one.” That’s how powerful it was.
Now, you’d have to go in there really early in the morning on Saturday. You’d have been out gigging somewhere, but you run through rehearsals and then they bring the audience in. Of course, the audience is all 15-, 16-years-old teenyboppers, wanting whoever was hot. They’d look at us and go, “Who are these guys?” But then we startd to have hits and they were a bit more friendly.
Talking of Countdown, you once wrote a song for the St Kilda Saints. Both Countdown's Molly Meldrum and Mushroom's Michael Gudinski are huge Saints supporters… is there some weird kind of rock industry overlord club going on here?
Yeah, there could be. The song is ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’, right – an old song – and I said they should update it with a big, funky gospel version. But they never followed through so I never actually got to do anything. But yeah, there is some kind of weird thing. I think it’s because music quite often loves the underdog and St Kilda certainly is the underdog because they’ve only ever won one premiership.
Do you have a fondest memory of Mondo Rock?
I was kind of peaking both on the Mondo Rock level and as an indie producer around the time of ‘Come Said the Boy’. Just before that, I’d recorded a track with my first wife, Pat Wilson, called ‘Bop Girl’, which I wrote, produced, was married to the artist, owned the publishing… it was perfect [laughs]. I’d written it with my son in mind – he was about 13 at the time – thinking about what kind of music he would like. I made this real pop-dance amalgam with my wife singing it and it was this huge hit. Massive. We brought out ‘Come Said the Boy’ about a month and a half later and that was a massive hit. So all that summer my chickens were coming to roost.