Dropbears only existed in the periphery of my memory, our paths crossing when Australia was granted their own version of the English teen-oriented music magazine Smash Hits in 1984. In an effort to contribute local content, any fresh-faced act to graze the Top 40 was fair game, which at the time could’ve been anybody from INXS to Mental As Anything. This is where I recalled my first sighting of a Dropbear* and I’m pretty sure throughout 1985 when they charted with “Shall We Go” there were several more. What happened after that, well who knows?
According to their brief Wikipedia entry, the band was formed in Darlinghurst, Sydney in 1981 and consisted of Johnny Batchelor on guitar/vocals, Simon Rudlin on drums and Chris Toms on bass. “Fun Loving” was their debut single, released in 1981. Four more singles and one mini-album followed between 1981 and 1985, when them hitting the Australian charts with the sublime breezy pop of “Shall We Go”.
Five things I love about “Fun Loving”:
1. The way the song is pieced together, from the slow-building thin, scratchy guitar to the introduction of the first bass notes and that sharp snare hit. The song literally just creeps up on you, conspicuous by its lack of volume or intensity.
2. Johnny Batchelor’s softly sung lyrics is at odds with Chris Tom’s bouncing bassline, giving the song a tense/nervous feel. There are elements of a nascent post-punk sound that reminds me of Three Imaginary Boys-era Cure and Joy Division, without any excess British influence.
3. The clarity and sound quality between the instruments that instantly sets this song apart from their peers. This isn’t to say “Fun Loving” was made at 301 Studios with a fancy budget, but it’s without any 80’s artifacts that would’ve dated it. A young indie band could actually get away with pulling this song off today without sounding like they’d walked off the streets of Surry Hills when Malcolm Fraser was still in office.
4. The naïve lyrical charm and the way the simple melody in the chorus appears out of nowhere. The song is largely driven by Chris Tom’s bass, and when he reaches the chorus he plays a perfect Peter Hook-ish melodic bass figure, that puts the fun in “Fun Loving”.
5. The no frills “filmed in the backyard of a suburban squat” video clip. I get nostalgic when I see the graffiti-filled back streets of inner city Sydney when it still had a certain grimy-ness to it.
In the interest of filling in the gaps for future music historians I tracked down Johnny Batchelor and asked him about the history of the band and the origins of “Fun Loving”. Thanks for indulging us, Johnny. Next time I’m in town, I owe you a beer.
How did Dropbears get started?
Newly in Sydney, I had a band with Phil Hall, who later became Dropbear’s bass player, but when we had trouble with drummers (Kerry Jacobson, ex-Dragon kept falling off his stool) Phil left to join Sardine V. I noticed that a bass player lived downstairs; he made such a bloody racket everyday, so I invited him upstairs to join my new band. That was Chris Toms, aka Chris Cross, hardcore punk ex-Bedhogs, and we called the new band Dropbears, though god only knows why.
What were your influences and ideas behind forming the band? It’s strange, but I hear The Cure circa the first album in “Fun Loving”, is that far off the mark?
Sydney inner city in 1981 was a real post-punk melting pot of styles and tribes and bands, so much going on, while the suburbs were pretty much straight ahead Oz Rock. You could walk around town though and see all these different things like maybe X and Tactics and a punk and a ska band all in the same night. And the music crowd, whether they were punks or skins or mods or whatever, would be doing that. The scene wasn’t insular. I was into all kinds of stuff like, yeah, The Cure, Gang of Four, Talking Heads, The Ramones, lots more. The band didn’t really have “an idea” we just all new we had to be in a band. I had, I guess, an eclectic approach to song writing and Chris had a really unique bass style, so I guess we just did what we did.
Where did you record the single? The production is surprisingly sharp and clear, especially the balance between the instruments. How did you go about releasing it and what was the response like?
“Fun Loving” was recorded at Palm Studios which was a demo studio really but lots of indie bands did their first records there on the cheap. I did a custom pressing of five hundred copies to start with and walked around to all the Sydney music stores pleading with them to take a few. I took it in to JJJ and they loved it and put it on high rotation. Until then we were the band playing on the floor at the corner of the bar. After, we were headlining the Trade Union Club, which was quite cool.
When I think of the music scene in Sydney at the start of the ’80s I think of bands still doing that post-Birdman Detroit/garage rock thing, and in that context, “Fun Loving” really stands out on its own. What was the music scene like when you started? Where did you see Dropbears fitting in and who were the bands you felt shared a like mind?
“Fun Loving” was a bit unusual on the radio at that time; it started so quietly for one thing. As I said, there was heaps of different stuff going on in the inner city all the way from the post-Birdman fast and furious to wimpy pop like The Singles, who had probably stopped by then actually, then there was sort of power pop like Sunny Boys and baby electronica like Severed Heads. In that scene nothing seemed too out of the ordinary. We played a lot with Sunnyboys and Sardine V, two bands that couldn’t be more dissimilar but it all seemed to fit at the time.
What were you thinking about when you wrote “Fun Loving”? It has this sweet kind of youthful romanticism about it.
I guess it was about that state of naivety of youth where you meet someone and they have such an effect on you. It might be as simple as the way they stand or move their hands but you’re just so moved by them. Then it all happens again the next night. That’s it really: fun loving.
With the success of “Shall We Go” and the minor pop star status afforded to you in the teen music mags, what was it that lead to the demise of the band?
Gee, so many things contributed to our downfall. A big thing, probably, was that we managed ourselves, meaning that I was managing the band. And though I thought I was pretty clever, I wasn’t really equipped to deal with a multi-national record company, I didn’t really know how it all worked. Ironically, though, it was when we finally did get a manager, ’cause everyone said we were too big not to have one that we really came to strife. Everyone thought we were rich ’cause our pictures were everywhere but our new manager got us seriously in debt and the record company wouldn’t let us do an album, so we decided to quit. Funnily enough, we did a last tour to earn money to pay debts, ditched our manager and stripped it back to the three piece sound, and it was the most successful tour we ever did.
What are your thoughts on “Fun Loving”, a quarter of a century on, and what have you been up to in the intervening years?
That long ah? I still like that song. There is quite a bit in the back catalogue that I can’t stand to listen to but the singles don’t bother me too much. “Fun Loving” has a kind of nice frailty yet Chris’s bass line is so strong. After doing some solo projects I dropped right out of music for quite a while. I’ve got a new thing now though, a duo, drums and guitar, called Best Friend Ever. We’ll be playing around a bit, every now and then, and doing some recording soon, which will be up on MySpace probably in May. You should hear the drummer, he’s magic.
*In case you were wondering, a Dropbear is a fictional Australian marsupial that resembles a more vicious version of the koala. They inhabit treetops and drop onto their victims from above, hence the name. So, look out…