Australia in the early 1980s was a time when radio stations were getting FM licences, music programmers were playing tracks outside of the standard top 40 fare and the local post-punk music scene was thriving. It was in 1981 that Deborah Conway, Helen Carter, Dorland Bray and Stephen Philip formed the band Do-Re-Mi in Sydney. After signing a record deal with Richard Branson’s Virgin Records and recording their ground-breaking first full length album ‘Domestic Harmony’ featuring the controversial single ‘Man Overboard’ was hitting the airwaves.
I remember listening to EON FM in the car as a mid teen driving around Melbourne with my parents and hearing ‘Man Overboard’, doing a mental double take upon hearing Conway sing with confident defiance about penis envy and pubic hair in this hypnotic and rhythmic stream of consciousness. It didn’t seem to have a chorus but it sure had me hooked in eagerly anticipating what the next line was going to be. I didn’t quite understand it on that first listen but I distinctly remember thinking to myself that I really needed to hear that song again. The single charted and reached the top 5 in Australia despite its unconventional form and subject matter, and the band followed this up in 1988 with their second album “The Happiest Place In Town”. Although the band recorded a third album for Virgin in 1988, they disbanded before it was ever released as Conway took a detour to embark on a solo career.
Skip ahead 30 years to late 2018; Conway, Carter and Philip performed for the first time since the indefinite break as Do-Re-Mi for the inaugural Australian Women In Music Awards in Brisbane. They had so much fun that Conway and Carter decided to keep going with it and have now found themselves with a new line–up and a new musical chapter as they perform as one of the major drawcards on the bill at the By The C festival touring nationally this summer. I spoke to founding member and bass player Helen Carter about the shows and how in 30 years, metaphorically speaking, the song remains the same.
What’s your scene at the moment Helen?
“Right now as we speak I’m standing up at my veggie patch watering trying to save what’s left of our summer veggies. That’s my immediate scene, I guess the wider scene is playing with Do-Re-Mi and doing all those songs, that’s just been great. We’ve done 2 out of 8 and having a ball actually.”
Having recruited Sydney based guitarist Bridie O’Brien and drummer Julia Day, with whom Helen has played with before, along with Melbourne based Keyboard player Clio Renner, Do-Re-Mi mark II sees a shift in the gender balance on stage. This reincarnation of the band is connected to the past by the songs but their future approach to the material is keeping things fresh rather than going back and doing the same thing as before.
“We know each other so it actually sounds like a band rather than a bunch of people backing up Helen and Deb” remarks Carter.
“It’s really interesting looking at the feedback in that people pretty much universally have said that the songs are relevant still. That’s very flattering but it’s also quite disturbing I think because a lot of the stuff we were writing about was politics and gender politics and the doomsday clock and all sorts of bad shit happening. While that’s still relevant now, that’s lovely and if they sound fresh that’s great but it is a bit sobering to think that not enough has changed. When we wrote a lot of those songs Ronald Reagan was President of the United States an there was something not quite right with him either!”
Songs often bring back a sense memory. When you started playing these songs again was it like that for you, like no time had passed?
“There was a sense of incredible connection to that time of my life and I was actually quite happy. I think those songs are under my skin. I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to play them because some of them are a bit whacky out there bass lines – thank you very much younger me! It took me back but not in a sad way and not in a retrospective way either. It was, wow I’ve got an opportunity to play these, I’m playing them, it feels good!”
With a 30 year hiatus playing these shows again are giving the band an opportunity to connect with a new audience given that a lot of people would be hearing these songs for the first time. Also appearing on the bill for this tour are Icehouse, The Church, Mental As Anything and The Sunnyboys, the latter being the link to Do-Re-Me being part of the line-up having been invited to join the tour by Sunnyboys bass player and friend Peter Oxley. This time around, with a fresh outlook, line-up and the benefit of life experience, there is a new freedom to their on stage personas.
“What I have noticed with the current line-up is that we are incredibly animated players. We don’t have a lot of stuff cluttering the stage so Deb and I and Bridie are in the front line. We can walk around, we can run around, we can jump in the air and do all sorts of things and it’s actually quite animated and I haven’t noticed that much with the other bands. I guess for us this is a very exciting one-off that the energy’s just spilling out of us. I’m quite grateful for that too because it just means that I’m giving it everything I’ve got and it’s so much good fun. At Newcastle last Saturday on the first show, I don’t know where it came from but I was actually able to jump in the air. Not as high as Pete Townshend but high enough for me to go ‘Fuck I can still jump in the air!’ It’s like going back to one’s 20s and just doing it again having fun. The maturity helps because you just don’t take everything, especially yourself, too seriously.”
Back in that time when record companies ruled over the artists and lauded over what a band or artist did, said wore and particularly for female artists, what you weighed, it could be very stressful and inhibiting. Now those types of restrictions are gone and Carter is finding a new freedom in being able to play for herself, her band mates and the audience in front of them rather than try to impress the powers that be.
“Oh yeah. You’ve hit it right on the head. I can feel very free. I don’t have anybody around me telling me what to do, what to wear, it’s just for the sheer pleasure of it. It just means everything is more relaxed and I think it comes through in the performances too.”
How have things changed since those ‘80s touring days?
“Not a lot’s changed really. Things are still black, boxes, black boxes, trucks, blokes in black. The thing that’s probably changed for me is I’m really surprised at how nice people have been to me and how complementary they’ve been. I’m not being falsely modest but I just had no idea or maybe I was oblivious to it but not a lot of people talked to me about my playing back then. It was all about ‘What’s it like to be a woman in rock?’, ‘What’s it like to be a woman in a band?’ etc, etc. It was different, they didn’t talk to me about music.”
There was recently a list circulating on line listing the top 100 female bass players which we both found curious given the fact that other than numbers, there is no gender defining skill that separates a male bass player and a female bass player. Of course Carol Kaye makes every list because she’s put herself out there and has always been at the top of her game – the go to bass player on so many influential recordings. This led us into a discussion about gender bias in music and working as a woman in a very male dominated industry, and in particular bass playing, especially in the studio environment.
“So far I think I’ve only seen one woman on this International Precision Bass Players website and they’ve got 6000 members. They might be out there but they’re not front and centre” adds Carter.
“I remember recording a song called ‘Friends Like You’. It’s not a complex bass line but it’s one that requires a hell of a lot of concentration. I had the engineer and the producer – I was sitting down trying to play this thing and the engineer and the producer were both leaning over me. The producer was lifting up my fingers as he was trying to play this particular thing and that’s probably the one time that I felt a bit overshadowed I suppose. It just felt weird. Would they have done that to someone else? I don’t know. Luckily I like the song, how it turned out. I love it, we’re doing it live. It actually sounds better now than it did back then mainly because of the production. Even though obviously people spent a lot of money on production in the ‘80s but it was just too toppy. Now hearing it live you’re getting all that beautiful resonance at the bottom end that just wasn’t there in those recordings. It’s exciting!”
Are you playing the same bass that you used with Do-Re-Mi 30 years ago?
“Yes I am! It’s my ’72 Fender Precision but I’ve taken the scratch plate off and I bought a neon pink scratch plate that I bought from the States. I put that on it and took my tortoise shell one off which horrified those people on the Precision Bass Appreciation Society web group. I posted a picture of it with it’s tortoise shell one on it like it used to be and then I posted a picture of it with its beautiful new dress on and this guy went oh ‘EPIC FAIL!’ and it was so funny! A couple of weeks later I posted a photo of me on stage playing it and the same guy said ‘Oh right, ok now that I see it sorry about the epic fail comment’. I’ve bastardised it anyway, I’ve got different machine heads, I’ve got different pickups and I’ve got a different bridge but it just plays so beautifully and I love it!”
What does the future hold for Do-Re-Mi beyond this tour? Are you writing any new material together?
“We did record a whole album’s worth of songs back in ’88 but at this point we’re just doing these shows. Deb’s got a fairly busy year with her own career so we’re doing this and then we’ll see what happens at the end of the year. If we’re still enjoying it by the end of the year we might do something with those old songs or write some more, I don’t know. It’s open but certainly Bridie, Julia and I will be playing together, not as Do-Re-Mi but we’ll be playing together and being rock chicks! None of us want to lose that momentum that we’ve got and that connection that we’ve got because the 3 of us have worked really hard over the last few months getting into a stinky rehearsal studio and just working 6 hours a day, playing 6 hours a day trying to get ourselves to the point where we feel we can do the songs justice. It does something to you when you’re in a dark room with people!”
Friday 8th February 2019 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
Friday 1st March 2019 – Marrickville Bowling Club, Sydney NSW
Tickets for all shows are on-sale now from feelpresents.com
Saturday 2nd February 2019 – Queen Elizabeth Park, Coolangatta QLD
Saturday 9th February 2019 – Leura Park Estate, Curlewis VIC
Sunday 10th February 2019 – Glenelg Beach, Adelaide SA