Posts Tagged ‘Down In The Lucky Country’’

Words and music.

Iconic Australian songwriter Richard Clapton has celebrated 40 years of writing and making music with the simultaneous release of his autobiography together with a three CD (plus DVD) set.

Iconic is a lazy word, overused in the relentless sales pitch that is post-war popular music but in Clapton’s case, it is entirely apt. His music has been as much a part of (and a reflection of) Australian life as Lou Reed’s or The Beach Boys have been to the American landscape or Ray Davies to the British. And it is this intertwining of his words and music with our births, deaths and marriages that un-lazys the word ‘iconic’ in his case.


The 50-track CD set ­– Best Years 1974-2014: The 40th Anniversary Collection – shows the consistency of his vision from the beginning. The tugging yearn of ‘Blue Bay Blues’ (from 1975’s Girls on The Avenue LP) has much in common with ‘Vapour Trails’ from 2012’s Harlequin Nights – an emotional directness, an almost country-perfect meld of words and melody, a crisp and  beautifully realised production.

What raises these songs – in fact, what raises all fifty of these songs and beyond into Clapton’s back-catalogue ­– is their deep humanity. No lyric cannot be understood and felt – whether poetic or everyday (the lines “Sitting out on the Palm Beach Road/I’m so drunk and the car won’t go” somehow mean so much) – no melody fails to serve the words, no chord fails to serve the song. Nor does any production trick rankle or obscure the deep effect on the heart of these tunes. Which is triply remarkable since Clapton’s recordings have always taken production values from each of his four decades – to these ears, the best values: yes, his music even survived the synthetic, gated textures of the 80s.

Clapton’s voice of course is a big part of this. Always a little wounded-sounding, mellow or raw, its limits – like Dylan, like George Harrison – are its strengths. His is the voice of us, singing tunes that any of us can sing. (Check Jimmy Barnes’ grating howl on the live DVD reading of ‘I Am An Island’ to see how easily that spell can be broken).

Another big part of Clapton’s songs is the feeling of place, always vivid and undilutedly Australian. Songs such as the triple crown of “Goodbye Tiger”, “Deep Water” and “Down in The Lucky Country” from 1977’s Goodbye Tiger seem to breathe with a salt-breeze off the Pacific, and conjure brown-skinned girls, beach promenades, beer and humid Bondi nights. Remarkable that all three were written in a creative blue streak in a farmhouse in the freezing north of Denmark, Clapton snowed-in in more than one sense, self-exiled from Australia.

richard_clapton_best_years_1974-2014_0814It seems he took an ever glowing ember of Australia (or maybe a handful of warm Pacific sand), in his heart with him wherever he went. And went he did, and went and went – his autobiography, The Best Years of Our Lives, charts his pin-balling travels from Australia to Britain, from Germany (and all over Europe) to the US and back again. A geographical manifestation of Clapton’s truly restless creative spirit – one of many parallels to Neil Young, who also rocks like fury, yet writes clear-water ballads, and never ever stands still ­– his travels were as much driven by disaffection with Australia, his homeland, as they were by beckoning global fame.

Toby Cresswell in his liner notes to the CD set refers to his early impression of Richard Clapton as “a man on a mission of becoming”. The book maps this trajectory in great detail. Yes, there are the salacious titillations of parties, glamour, INXS, drug fun and boozy swashbuckling. Yet, there is the impression of Clapton as an artist always just a little on the outer, looking in on it all – not judging or voyeuristically but with affectionate observation, loading his palette and his brush with the hues and tints of beloved, fast-paced Life.

The book also gives the impression of a man to whom the music was all. There is nothing of his childhood or early teenage (beyond pale mention of boarding school and a distanced family), nor of his more recent divorce and its associated pain (which ironically, fuelled Harlequin Night’s sweetest moments). The book starts when music starts for Clapton and you gather this is when life started for him too.the-best-years-of-our-lives

The partying also stops when there is work to be done. Clapton as ‘headmaster’ while producing the second INXS album, 1981’s Underneath The Colours. Clapton working through the night to get things just right. The exceptional musicians he used on his albums ­– such as Kirk Lorange and Cold Chisel’s (often uncredited) Ian Moss – shows the value he put on the final work. Throughout his life we see Clapton bail out when the music seems to take second place to the satyricon.

Words and music. Please read the book, and listen to the music – take it all and enjoy it all. But leave the DVD till last.

The Best Years of Our Lives was recorded (for a live album) and filmed before a small invited audience at an Artarmon sound stage on 16 April 1989. It was a relatively drug-free event. Hardly a recipe for rock’n’roll fireworks. It was a retrospective of Clapton’s work over the years and featured a rotating band of musicians from his various past projects, such as Venetta Fields, Jimmy Barnes, INXS’s Jon Farris and Garry Gary Beers and the unknown Ben Butler (who bloody well shines on lead guitar). Despite the strong material, it could have been a self-conscious damp squib.

It is a triumph – the songs seems to galvanise the players, and Clapton’s obvious delight pushes the band into some white-hot areas. It is really what live music is all about ­– and Richard Clapton, that denizen of the all-night studio, shows his live chops in all their tooth and fang glory. (I saw him a couple of years back at Byron Bay Bluesfest and he thrilled the shit out of me there, too).

The DVD finishes with the song ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’, performed only by Clapton with spare piano backing. This song of universal hope and love of this gift that is life is hugely affecting in its full band setting. But done in simple duo like this, by its songwriter many years on, it takes on a sweet nostalgia that every one of us will always be able to relate to, and cherish.

As Clapton sings, we keep waiting for the band to come in – heralded by a thunderous drum fill – to take it up to the anthemic place which awaits these words, this melody. But it never does. Bruce Springsteen would have taken it up there, but Richard Clapton leaves it down here, amongst us.

After all, it is where the song – where all his songs – live.



Every year for the past five, iconic Australian songwriter Richard Clapton has held a show at Sydney’s State Theatre previewing new material and playing his Greatest Hits. Every year Clapton at the State sells out within days, largely because Clapton and his songs have been so much a part of his fans’ lives, stretching back to the mid-70s.

Songs such as ‘Deep Water’, ‘Down In The Lucky Country’ and ‘Capricorn Dancer’ were – like all meaningful pop music – very much part of the wild colonial soundtrack of Australian life back then, and they still resonate today.

This year’s State Theatre concert was significantly different in that this year Richard Clapton has a shiny new album to play to us. In fact, the August 18 show was the opener of a national tour, August through November, to promote ‘Harlequin Nights’, his first album since 2004 and containing, in Clapton’s own estimation “some of the best songs I have put my mind to for many years”.

Clapton seemed almost apologetic to the full house for playing a selection of songs from ‘Harlequin Nights’ in the show’s first half. He mock-sardonically promised us a second half of “the songs you love” – the Hits. He needn’t have worried. ‘Harlequin Nights’ is an easy album to love – very much a Richard Clapton album in every way: wise and wry by turns, drily observational and giddily poetic and – yes – essentially Australian in its accents and its pictures.

A gentle maracas shake from drummer Mick Skelton and the band dove into the warms waters of show opener (and ‘Harlequin Nights’ opener) ‘Sunny Side Up’, a bright note of optimism from a man known more for his dry take on life’s chafing realities.

Then it was the beautiful and wide-screen ‘Vapour Trails’ – this has to be one of the songs of Clapton’s career, if not Australian rock. Like the best of Neil Young, ‘Vapour Trails’ makes a vaulting magnificence from a few simple elements, swelling to a heart-filling high. It is truly magic. It made my wife cry.

The two rockers from ‘Harlequin Nights’, ‘Skanky Town’ (“This song could be about Sydney or it could be about Tokyo”) and ‘Dancing With The Vampires’ (“So many things driving me insane/Till I feel like Charlie Sheen”) saw the band really loosen up and shake out the jams. (I could have sworn I saw a vampire dancing during ‘Dancing With The Vampires’ but it could have just been a trick of the gothic shadows of the ornate old State).

After an intermission Clapton returned with his Greatest Hits. From the more secure vantage point of the Hits part of the show, he admitted nerves and ‘trials and tribulations’ during the ‘Harlequin Nights’ songs. They sounded fine to me – kicked along by one of the better bands in the country: Clapton himself said of the band “it’s like taking the Ferrari for a run”.

And to hear that band – slick when they had to be, grinding raw when they had to be – power Clapton’s hits from the 70s and 80s was a thrill. From the Byron Bay lullaby ‘Blue Bay Blues’ through ‘Deep Water’, ‘Down In The Lucky Country’ and ‘Capricorn Dancer’ to the streamlined rocker ‘I Am An Island’ they were all there.

Nostalgia shows are one thing – RSL clubs host these sorry waxen spectacles every week – but this was very very different: Clapton’s powerful and smart songs, beautifully shaped for speed or for drifting or for dreaming, played with heart and fire by this five piece, was immediate and often hair-raising.

Young guitarist Danny Spencer, Richard Clapton’s collaborator on much of ‘Harlequin Nights’, worked like a Trojan on his side of the stage, obviously in a place of joy. Harmony vocalist Natasha Stuart (one of Sydney’s finest) provided bright sparkle to Clapton’s big choruses throughout.

One of the most affecting pieces of the night was the first encore ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives’, with just Clapton and Stuart singing over the top of feathery keys “Don’t waste time/These are the best years of our lives”. It seemed to affect Clapton as much as it did us all; he walked over and clung to Stuart in a hug.

That hug showed the humanity and the vulnerability of one of our most important songwriters and musical thinkers. That humanity was always what grabbed you in a Richard Clapton song – even in those pieces where he is all steely-eyed cynicism, it is always there. And the new album ‘Harlequin Nights’ shows, 35 years after ‘Girls On The Avenue’ and ‘Goodbye Tiger’, Richard Clapton is still a voice for his age.

Richard Clapton’s tour details are at his website

Photos by Ant Ritz –

Published August 2012 on


Watching iconic Australian singer-songwriter Richard Clapton at this year’s Byron Bay Bluesfest I was reminded of the deep Australian-ness of his music. A golden, salt-sprayed, surf-haze imbues his best songs, such as ‘Down In The Lucky Country’, ‘Capricorn Dancer’ and ‘Deep Water’ (with its bitterly nostalgic couplet “Sitting out on the Palm Beach Road/I’m so drunk and the car won’t go” – which was sung along to by every throat in that Bluesfest crowd).

‘Iconic’ is such a lazy word to use in music writing but Clapton’s body of work is truly that, in that it stands for a particular feeling and a particular place – perfectly exemplified by 1977’s Goodbye Tiger album. Much the same as Bruce Springsteen writing of his USA and Ray Davies or Jarvis Cocker of their UK, Clapton’s songs are about life here, down in the Lucky Country. What elevates them is their wry, resigned stance, quite different from Springsteen’s heroics or Davies’ sentimentality – a stance very Australian in its own laconic way.

At the 2012 Bluesfest, Clapton and his (lean and mean) band showcased several new songs, announcing that they were to be part of a new album. One song that stood out to me at the time was ‘Vapour Trails’, now one of eleven on that album, his first in over eight years. Called Harlequin Nights, it will be released August 4.

‘Vapour Trails’ has a widescreen breadth that is typical of Clapton’s self-production on Harlequin Nights – lush, rich and cinematic. I had visions of horizon-to-horizon aching blue Australian skies, wind through dead boughs, sand, brown rivers, blue waters… Every song has been given all the colour and drama it needs, yet it never muddies or cloys.

The album was created at a bad time for Clapton: his marriage broke down during its gestation. The timely (and possibly therapeutic) partnering with guitarist and songwriter Danny Spencer has resulted in what he describes as “some of the best songs I have put my mind to for many years”. But despite all the pain and changes it is still very much a Richard Clapton album – in preparing this review I listened to Harlequin Nights back to back with Goodbye Tiger and the creative line is seamless, yet the new one has a different atmosphere.

“Harlequin Nights is in some ways a bookend to Goodbye Tiger,” says Clapton. “Goodbye Tiger was a collection of songs written by a young man in his twenties… this new album is a collection of songs written 35 years later about the world we live in today. There is a noticeable seismic shift between the two albums…”

First single ‘Dancing with The Vampires’ is a soul rocker that contains the typically wry humour of a man who keeps his eye on the madness in the world – “So many things driving me insane/Till I feel like Charlie Sheen” and “I’ve been acting like Polanski/And its bringing me undone…”.

There is ‘Sunny Side Up’s yearning for some peace (“I’ve got to lay my baggage down/Cross on over to the sunny side”), the cold drag of age in ‘Over The Borderline’ and some Dylan-oblique fun (“he came all the way from Ghost Town/Dressed up in his self doubt”).

But, 35 years after Goodbye Tiger they are still indelibly Richard Clapton songs and it is so good to hear that voice and those salty observations again, and those true and timeless melodies that come from a deep deep place.

Harlequin Nights is out August 4 2012.

Richard Clapton will be touring Harlequin Nights nationally August thru November, starting at Sydney’s State Theatre.

Richard Clapton’s website and tour details are here.


Published August 2012 on