Bob Spencer is best known for his guitar playing with bands such as The Angels, Finch and Rose Tattoo. But recently the musician has ventured forth into new realms, with his debut CD release, Saints and Murderers. The album features a body of work that showcases not only Bob’s musicianship and song writing talents but, for the first time in his long musical career, he has taken on the role of vocalist as well. Not something he had ever really planned on… nor wanted, as he explains in our recent interview. “Why the hell would I want to sing when I’ve been brought up listening to Steve Marriott and Frankie Miller and Broderick Smith?” he laughs. “It was awful! It became a necessity (for me) to do the singing if I wanted to have this done at all. That’s all it was about. Initially, Laura Davidson and I struck up a really great friendship and we were going to do something together. There was no way in the world I wanted to sing. Laura was going to sing. We were going to do some co-writes, and then things kind of went pear shaped in that I was diagnosed with cancer, I had a couple of health issues, Laura had some health issues, and following her health issues, she became pregnant and I had this thing that had been started. It was pretty nebulous at that stage, but the thing had been started and I thought ‘I have to run with this. I need to get this done and out of my system, otherwise I’ll never getting around to doing it and I’ll be 70, talking about my upcoming solo album’ so I decided to keep going but of course I needed to sing. There was no way in the world I was going to work with another singer. I didn’t want to engage with any other singers at all. I do know some very fine singers, but I just did not want to go down that road, so I thought ‘OK, I’m going to sing and now I just have to address how I’m going to get around that’. I went to see a singing teacher, a friend of mine, who is an opera singer and her first question to me was ‘Do you have any psychological impediments to singing?’ I said ‘Yeah, I do.’ And she said, ‘What’s the problem?’ and I said ‘I have this massive father issue. He forced me into singing at a talent quest when I was 9 when all I wanted to do was play guitar and ever since that day, I’ve been freaked out about opening my mouth. And she said ‘Well, I’m not going to teach you until you get that sorted out.’ And she said, ‘Here’s the name of a therapist and you need to go see her,’ so I went to see this therapist ostensibly to address my fear of singing but of course, it wasn’t really about my fear of singing; it was about my fear of a thousand things, about all my problems in my life; all the knots that I’d tied. It wasn’t really about singing so I spent months in therapy which was fantastic and then out of that came Bob singing on this CD, Saints and Murderers. Fear of singing was just a catalyst and a by-product of a whole lot of other things so there were these massive hurdles which I had to go through which all of us go through every day and which every day I still have to address these thing so I chose to have these things illuminated and to address them as best I could. I can’t say I’m comfortable singing but I’m more comfortable singing (than I used to be).”
His aim for this recording, Bob tells me, was to create a journey. “The sort of journey that I experienced through the bands that I love. You put on track one, side one and you spin the record over and you listen to side two and at the end of it you think to yourself ‘I want to hear that again’ and that’s what I wanted. I just wanted a journey so that at the end of the last note of the ‘Road Goes on Forever’, people would feel ‘I think I want to play that album again.’ That’s what I wanted; this flowing, meandering thread and in an ideal situation people would have a little smile at the end of ‘The Road Goes on Forever’ and that would encourage them to go back to the beginning and hear Laura Davidson’s voice, which is the first thing you hear, followed by Pam Moroney’s voice. I’ve had people say to me ‘Gee I wasn’t expecting to hear girls’ voices at the beginning of your album!’ but I knew, as soon as I started writing that song, ‘I Can’t Do That, My Wife Will Kill Me’, that’s exactly what I heard – Laura and Pam. I just knew that was going to be the way the song started. It harks back to the albums that I enjoyed as a young man – Free, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, The Who… it harks back to those times, lying on the floor in your room alone with a borrowed set of headphones because you couldn’t afford anything else. It’s a really old-fashioned thing; a bunch of songs on an album and a body of work rather than singles. In fact, it’s really ‘anti’ the way that you’re supposed to be successful. The current thinking is that when you record an album, you should only record one song at a time and do a video that goes along with each song, one at a time and that’s all and that’s great, you know. It may be the way I do my next project; I don’t know yet, so it goes against all the current thinking.”
Bob explains that there are stories behind every song and sometimes stories inside every line in a song.
“Maroubra is about a specific point in time; 3pm on a Thursday after sport, standing in the playground at school, Marist Brothers Pagewood. So that song is the memory of that one point in time; of enjoying the spring sky and the breeze and I was on my way to the surf. As you would expect growing up in that area, I surfed as much as possible and I just remember the way that afternoon looked and when the melody came into my head, immediately came the vision of that afternoon. They were just married, and the rest of the song just wrote itself and I had the initial melody and the rest of the song just fell off the end of my fingers. The chord changes are quite complex, but they all just appeared as one. Musically, it’s not your typical chord change. It goes through chords that are not in the key, but it does it seamlessly and the whole thing just came off in one go.”
“Saints and Murderers … the title is my way of saying that’s what we all are. We are all capable of evil and we are all capable of good. I’m very suspicious of anyone who says, ‘I don’t have any evil inside of me.’ My first thought is well, you haven’t looked very deeply. Inside all of us is the capability of extreme good and extreme evil and that’s also a way of saying we are all the same. We are all in this together, and we are all alike. You come to that realisation when you spend a lot of time looking inside yourself as I have done through meditation and many other people have as well and you recognise that inside you are these things. So that is what the title means. I’m nothing if not cryptic! The song I didn’t quite get right. I think I could have expressed myself a little bit better. Lyrically there are all these sorts of images in the song. I don’t know how to express this really. Lyrically it’s a smattering of images.”
“‘My Wife Will Kill Me’ I think it’s self-evident and it’s based on truths. It’s largely based on my mates who bitch about their wives. See, I’m not in a relationship where I feel the need to bitch because I’m fine but a lot of my mates bitch to me about what’s going on and they’re not allowed to do this and they have to get a hall pass to do this and I don’t know if I can go for a surf next week because… and I find this hilarious so it was really easy to write lyrics. In fact, the lyrics came in a few minutes. I had far too many lyrics for that song. I had to filter them all; it was so easy writing that song. And I wanted it to be hopefully it would be something that would be amusing to men and women. I didn’t want this to be an exclusive kind of bloke thing. I wanted women to hopefully hear it and also smirk because it’s quite frivolous. But there are a couple of serious lines hidden in there. There’s a line that says, ‘I’m a good little soldier’ and that is about blokes who put their life and dreams on hold and in fact they never fulfil what they really wanted to do. I’ll just be a good little soldier and say yes darling and I’ll never do what I really want to do and before they know it, they’re dead.”
“‘As White as Jesus’. That started being about my father and about how I felt that nothing I did was ever good enough for my father. No matter what I did, it was just never good enough. It was never quite right. There was always going to be a better way to it than he suggested so I was born this way, but I could never be as white as Jesus. Of course, we all know that Jesus, if he existed, wasn’t white but that’s got nothing to do with it. Jesus was black if he existed. It’s just about not being good enough. So that’s how the song started. No matter what I did, I could never really be good enough for my dad who seemed to want to live his life vicariously through me, through my success although he never acknowledged any success that I had; it started off like that. However, in the course of writing the lyrics, I had a lot more contact with friends who’d been abused through the Catholic church and Marist Brothers so the song lyrically started to pick up bits of their experiences and then I chewed on them and they started coming out in the lyrics so there are lots of references to the Catholic church in particular and priesthood and all that sort of stuff so now it’s this melding of my experience with my father and the experiences of friends that have been abused. It’s not a song specifically about abuse but it incorporates that in the lyrics. It’s an angry song.”
“There’s a story behind ‘What Do You Think About That?’ It’s that everything that I speak about harms no one and yet there are people up in arms about it and who have no right to stick their nose in your business. So that’s what that’s about. ‘I’m going to marry my boyfriend, adopt a kid, I’m going to wrap a rainbow right around my house’; all these things are things that should be my choice and they’re nobody else’s business and they hurt no one and yet people are up in arms about it. It’s fairly obvious I’m talking about people who are anti-gay, anti-abortion and anti-women’s rights and anti-education. Those things make me quite furious. I know the song sounds kind of happy but underneath it all is: are we really letting the far right get away with this shit? And I like the fact that I sang a gay line and I’m not gay. ‘I’m going to marry my boyfriend, adopt a kid’. I was thinking about my gay friends and what shit they’ve had to persevere with their entire lives with the religious right getting involved with stuff they have no right to be involved with. That stuff makes me furious with what I call righteous anger. We have no right to get involved in other people’s lives to that extent. It’s just absolutely wrong.”
While he has had a positive response to the album, Bob notes that he has had a few comments such as ‘this is not quite what I expected’. “Because,” he says, “those people had assumed that what I did in The Angels is Bob but that’s just Bob with another hat. I’d like to point out that I wrote very, very few lyrics with The Angels. They were mostly written by Rick Brewster, so I don’t want to claim any kudos for things that I didn’t do. But the music, yeah, that is mine. With The Angels for example, I spent most of the time at home doing demos and working on songs behind the scenes and a large proportion of the music that I presented to the band was accepted by the band and that then appeared on recordings, so a punter, if I can use that term, would look at an Angels’ catalogue and then look at what I’ve just done and go ‘Oh well these two sort of align but they kind of don’t align.’ And that’s fine.”
Bob points out that his musical tastes are quite broad and not just limited to the rock that he is most known for. “The songs I chose for Saints and Murderers, I chose those because I thought that they would work as a body of work together.” Looking forward, he adds, “What I would like to record in the future is far broader than what I’ve just done.”
You can purchase your copy of Saints and Murderers from: www.bobspencer.com.au
by Sharyn Hamey
Copyright © Sharyn Hamey 2018. All rights reserved
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