As classic rock bands season or mature, hell, I guess I should come right out and say it, “Get older,” members come and go, and thanks to the intensity of social media and the Internet, fans instantaneously and often loudly weigh in on the shakeups. Sometimes they are supportive, sometimes critical or disdainful. Others can be nasty, threatening, confrontational and full of blame.
Little River Band has weathered the storm of fickle fandom for almost 40 years, but with the 2013 release of the band ’s album, Cuts Like A Diamond, the firestorm of fervent ferocity raised its ugly head once again and continues as front man Wayne Nelson leads LRB on a cross-country promotional tour.
At the heart of the recent nastiness is the claim no original members are part of the LRB touring band. Rock boards are littered with “F* LRB” or “who are these guys?” or “what a rip off” and more. The backstory is this: Little River Band formed in Melbourne, Australia, in early 1975 and was named after a road sign the band members saw on their way to a concert near the Victorian township of Little River. Founding members Glenn Shorrock, Ric Formosa, Graeham Goble, Beeb Birtles, Roger McLachlan, and Derek Pellicci headed the group responsible for early hits like “Curiosity Killed The Cat” and “It’s A Long Way There.”
A year after they came together, the shakeups began. Lead guitarist Ric Formosa bowed out to pursue other interests and bassist Roger McLachlan was replaced by George McArdle. More changes were to follow, perhaps because of a grueling, almost non-stop U.S. touring schedule from the bands inception until midway into the next decade.
Pellicci departed as a result of a severe injury in a gas grill fire, was replaced and then returned. Keyboardist Mal Logan came and went. McArdle departed to follow a more spiritual path. Barry Sullivan came and went. And so on. The band was known for its shuffling of personnel as much as its hits.
Finally, in 1980, the muscle-armed rocker with a big smile and bigger talent, an American from Kansas City, Missouri, Wayne Nelson, joined the group, replacing bassist Sullivan. Nelson was all in from the get-go, providing vocals for the group’s Top 10 U.S. hit “Night Owls” and sharing lead vocals with Shorrock on the next hit single “Take It Easy On Me.” With that, it was clear the talented newbie was here to stay.
And stay he has, for 30-plus years, making him the veteran of the group, the longest surviving member, and, in fact, the primary keeper of the vision, as it were, the protector of what historically have been LRB’s signature stylistic components — strong vocals, lush musicality and a complete story in every song.
That’s why it’s such an outrage that the fans criticizing the band as a whole for its inauthenticity and Nelson personally are battling with the wrong man and the wrong band. Nelson has gone to great lengths to maintain the integrity of the signature LRB style. In such a competitive, ever changing, ever dollar-conscious music business, a musical artist like Wayne Nelson, one so committed to vision, should be applauded, not accused for doing anything other than keeping a musical group performing and delighting loyal fans from Sydney to Stockholm.
The smart, soulful, and insightful Nelson stole away from a pre-performance sound check to answer some questions and share his take on the what’s what when it comes to getting good songs out to the fans, the music biz in general, and what else is on his bucket list.
Let’s get down to the no-original-band-members controversy first.
Look, let’s be totally honest. There are people out there that think that I shouldn’t be doing this. And I’ve heard that opinion for years. As one person left I heard “you know it’s not the real band anymore” or “you should disband.” And the truth of the matter is this; it was kind of a unique situation. It’s not like they (the band) were together for a long time before they started changing personnel. It happened the first year that the band was around. Two years later it was the bass player situation. They made an album with three or four different bass players, none of whom were the first two guys that played with them. Then they went on the road with even a sixth guy or a seventh guy and that’s when we met. The other people were great players you could say that, but they were looking for someone who could sing. There were band politics, all types of the normal stuff going on.
You’ve been with LRB ever since. That’s one of the reasons I don’t understand why fans personally give you such a hard time.
IRight. So where does somebody draw the line for an ‘original?’ Do you go back and draw the line before me or before the guitar player that played for two years? So you would have lost two records from him. Then you would have lost three more records from the following line-ups, and so on. You look at the history of the band and all the great music that happened in every phase of it and so again I ask, where do you draw that line? How far back do you go? Is it just the singers that you are concerned about? After 38 years now and hearing the same thing over and over again — “it’s not the original band”— yes, you are absolutely right, it’s not the original band. And if what you want to do is hear the “original band,” it’s been recorded for you to listen to, to your heart’s content. I understand your opinion, but don’t downplay the contribution the rest of the years of the band have made to its history and its legacy in order to keep the whole thing going and promote those original people, promote what they did. It’s an ongoing entity that has brought a lot of great music to people’s ears and that’s the crux of it.
Is it worth the fight?
You know, for the small percentage of people that want us to go away and bring the original guys back (the guys who don’t get along and don’t want to come back) there are the larger percentage of people that come up to me every single night and tell me heartwarming stories about what the band has meant to them when they were in the military, or in good times, or bad times during their life. There are a lot of emotional connections between people and our music and the bottom line to that is they say thank you, thank you for keeping this going, and thank you for bringing this to our town so that we can experience the band live.
Re-listening to the LRB music and reading some of your other interviews, it’s seems to me you’re the man — the guy that actually maintains the integrity of the original LRB sound.
Having been there through so many of those lineup changes, for me it’s making sure that the band that comes to town is presenting the songs in an energetic way and paying total respect to the songs and their emotional value. And that’s the longevity part that I take to heart. It’s not just Little River Band for the sake of the name and not just throw it up there on the stage, and close enough is good enough. We have never thought that way. I try to bring to the table people who respect the history of the band and bring something special to the show (laughs). You probably have to stop me. I can get pretty long-winded with this.
When I think of the signature LRB style, I think amazing vocals, complex harmonies, soulful tunes filled with bluesy guitar and I think of great story, full-on song stories like no other band. Since the music business has changed so much since LRB formed back in 1975, what has that meant for LRB and its unique sound now?
Honestly, this is the first time in 25 years that we’ve had a shot at a label believing in and helping us step forward with another chapter as opposed to kind of spin the wheels in place, you know what I mean? Cause we made a record in 2000 and there was a song on it called “Where We Started From” and I thought it was one of the best stories that the band has told, certainly equal to other songs and other creations. There was another song called “This Place” that was a great lyric about what happens to the old town you grew up in when you go back and all the windows are boarded up. We created all this wonderful imagery that we tried to convey and then you still have some record label decision makers saying it doesn’t matter cause you’re still not those three original guys. So now to finally have a label step up and give us that shot, it feels good. And now that people are hearing our new songs and hearing what the band can do and saying that yes, these guys can play the older hits but I really like the new stuff, I really like what they are doing now, that is very gratifying. Not to be disrespectful but it kind of quiets the naysayers and I appreciate it, I really do.
A lot has changed in the world since the last album you did back in 2003; back-to-back wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the world economic crisis, protests for democracy and the Arab Spring. Have those global changes influenced LRB’s music?
It did for me. Part of the way that it played out was the way we chose songs. The label said they wanted new music and they wanted a specific zone – the eighties and adult oriented rock. And I said look, that could mean “Lonesome Losers,” “Night Owls,” or it could mean “Lady,” so it was almost impossible to define in words. They also wanted me to do the lead vocals, and so I said let me be the first filter and then after send you the songs that I believe we can do and make a good record out of, then you tell me the ones you like. So there were two sets of filters going, mine was an American filter influenced by living through 9/11, the economic collapse of 2008, and the two recent wars, and then the label guys, who are Italian and have that perspective. Certainly reflecting on things and that perspective played a part in me picking particular songs that were real, and if you will, not a fad. For instance there is a song at the end of Cuts Like A Diamond called “Love Is.” It’s a very simple, very clean, unadorned song that basically speaks to the fact that if there is anything worth waiting on, love is. I wanted it to be the end song and stood up for it. Another one I wrote and really stood up for is Who Speaks For Me, which addresses and speaks specifically about domestic violence and child abuse, something I personally feel is running out of control around the world. I’m not a prolific writer, but the song literally appeared to me and I saw it through the eyes of the kid that was involved. You know part of the lasting things about LRB songs is they are about life.
The music industry and the audiences are so different today. Back when Little River Band first formed and you were first a part of it, the Internet wasn’t around and audiences instantaneous reactions to a song, a concert, or your music wasn’t as broad reaching as it is today. Someone can tweet or record you on their phones, how does it feel to you? How does it feel to you the way fans are sort of blurring the lines, when they feel that no boundaries exist between you?
Back in the day with a label and press, touring and new product, what you saw was the written word. Product was put in people’s hands quickly and the magazines, newspapers, Billboard, that is where your ‘instant” feedback came from. And on release dates the band manager would come in and lay several magazines and papers out and go over them, look for the comments and the reviews, and honestly sometimes people were pretty brutal. At that point you do the same thing that we do now regardless of where it comes from. You have to look at what you do and be honest that you did it because you felt it and not because you were trying to gain anything or scam someone. We believed in what we did. We believed it what we did when we did it and how we did it. You’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some. That’s the same thing that’s going on now.
But now you can jump in on things, you can write back to someone. There’s this great ‘war’ going on now between Richard Marks and this journalist in Chicago. The journalist, quite honestly, has overstepped his bounds and is talking about Richard’s family. And that’s when, as they say in Australia, you “get off your bike,” you stand up and say “we’re going to have this out right now.” Richard’s been writing to the guy and they’re doing it that way. The only time I will jump in and say something is when someone tells a flat out lie and misrepresents who we are and what we did for their own benefit and with no knowledge or facts. Other than that, it’s water off a duck’s back. I sing ‘em the way I see ‘em and go about my career. There are some people out there taking some real cheap shots at us and we don’t engage them, we just laugh about it. But if someone comes right out and lies, I try if I can to correct that, and sometimes fans, or others in the industry that know the truth step up and correct it for us. They’ll jump in as an objective viewpoint to keep the record straight.
But what it really comes down to is that it’s no different than any other time. Some people are always going to be mean and ugly. What I love is the backlash against the people that are mean and ugly. And this medium isn’t going to stop here it’s not going to stop at the Internet. Pretty soon people are going to have chips and just think about someone across the way and the thought will be projected to them and when it’s like that we are all really going to have to find a way to be rationale and kind human beings. The Internet is only the tip of the iceberg and I don’t know where it’s going to go.
And to add a paragraph, my son and his wife just had a baby three days ago. There was a touch and go moment there, the baby came early, but he’s doing great. And his brother is six years old. I was actually thinking by the time the new baby is six and his brother is 12, what’s the world going to be like then? Because if you think about it, I’m standing here talking to you on an iPhone and I remember when a mobile phone was in a briefcase and weighed about fifty pounds and nobody really had one then. People thought oh that’s never going to catch on. I feel the world’s going to change exponentially in the next six years, its going to come back more and more to people having a core of values and that’s the only way we are going to be able to survive the dramatic changes I think.
One last question, cause I know you have to get out there and treat the fans to some great music tonight, and not to be too doom and gloom, but after four decades in the business, musically, what’s left to do on your bucket list?
One very important thing and that is a solo record, where I take things a step further. I want to do a project where I follow my own nose. And making this last LRB record has cemented that. When we toured New Zealand all the other guys went sightseeing, but I closed the doors and said, I’ve got to write, I want to write as much as I can and I wrote. It doesn’t matter if it becomes a hit or whatever because I need to do it for myself. I need to put down just me. There’s a guy I admire incredibly, David Grey. Some of this things have been so quirky, it’ll be just like this cheesy little machine playing in the background so he can get an idea down and then he goes what the heck, I might as well just put it out, I can go make a full-blown record or I can put it out this way. And he does. He gets a whole lot of ideas done very simply and very raw, but the songs and the lyrics are incredible. We (LRB) have been on stage with heroes. I’ve worked with heroes. And I’ve seen heroes become assholes in my day. But the only thing I haven’t done, is make my own musical statement. I think it’s important. I think it’s time.
Little River Band is touring the U.S. in November and December, promoting Cuts Like A Diamond. After the holidays, the tour picks up again in early 2014.