It’s often great to recall the first time you experienced a band, and recall what you fell in love with in the first place. I had two first-time experiences with Weddings Parties Anything.
Back in March 1986, I went to the sweatbox in Melbourne known as Festival Hall to see Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. The hall was full of geeetar freaks watching Stevie’s fingers for any sign of technique they could steal. Also on the bill was The Fabulous Thunderbirds, featuring Stevie’s hero and brother, Jimmie Vaughan. Starting out the night was a local band, Weddings Parties Anything. I’d never heard of them, and judging from the muted reaction of the blues boffins in the audience, neither had they. There have probably been odder, more in appropriate bands linked on a bill, but they certainly didn’t belong here. I thought the music was okay, but nothing to take me away from the blues nirvana I was to experience that night. That was my first first-time.
The second first-time came about three years later. I’d read in the street press about this new album The Big Don’t Argue by Weddings Parties Anything (or Weddoes to the faithful). The reviews were reverential so I used that as an excuse to buy a copy. I took the CD home, put it in the player, and pressed play. This was my second first-time.
That night, I had two epiphanies.
The album opened with a version of a traditional folk song, “Streets of Forbes” about bushranger Ben Hall. This is a famous folk ballad, and not something you tamper with, but if it’s at all possible the Weddoes treated with reverence while kicking it in the nuts. They played it like a demented version of the Pogues (whom they’re often compared with). Never mind having heard the song many times before, they played with passion which had me enthralled. The production was vibrant. When lead singer Michael Thomas got to the final line about the police hauling in the dead body of Ben Hall, “And they led him through the streets of Forbes, to show the prize they had”, he gave one of rock’s great screams - in a folk ballad, yet. This was epiphany number one.
WPA had been together for about five years before The Big Don’t Argue was released, and had two other albums under their belts, “Scorn of the Women” and “Roaring Days”. Like other songwriters with a folk bent, Mick Thomas liked to tell a story. Sure he could write a love song, but it had to be enveloped in a story.
He could tell tales of rejected conscripts during WW2, unfairly accused of cowardice. He could describe the heartbreaking duality of a nurses’ strike in Victoria against unjust working conditions (“Oh sisters of Mercy why can’t they see / That a daughter of charity you’ll never be"). It could be something as simple as describing the feelings while going on a walk on a beautiful Sydney spring day with only enough change in your pocket for a cold beer ("Ticket In Tatts"). Yes, Mick had a way with a tale.
On the night I first heard The Big Don’t Argue, one of his tales gave me my second Weddoes epiphany.
Song number five tells the story of six escaped convicts from Macquarie Harbour, who have to resort to cannibalism to stay alive, until the only one left is the narrator – and he’s not even sick bastard carrying the axe! I’m sure the expression Bigger Than Ben-Hur was invented for "A Tale They Won't Believe". There is a pattern to the song where the listener knows one convict is going to get knocked-off in each verse. Yet, I found myself listening to this song like there was still some story revelation to be had. That’s the success of a great songwriter with a story to tell – make a predicted outcome still exciting. The tale, the way with a lyric, the viciousness of the music (the guitars are played like weapons – calling a guitar an axe, actually makes sense here). After I played this song for the first time, I felt out of breath. What did I do? I played it four more times before moving onto track six.
I’ve only mentioned two songs here, both about a violent chapter in Australian history. This album also featured songs to have you crying into your beer, like the “Ballad of Peggy and Col”. You would also find yourself laughing at the misadventures of the luckless protagonist in “Knockbacks In Halifax”. Both of these songs cover ordinary situations, but both are written from the perspective of a songwriter with a knack for observation and the gift of vivid description.
All the WPA albums were great. Mick leaving his heart on his sleeve could sometimes work against him. The self-righteousness of songs like “Telephone In Her Car” or “For Your Ears Only”, both from WPA’s Difficult Loves album could make one cringe. The Big Don’t Argue, however, was a career highlight, or to use a description keeping within the band’s love of Australian Rules football, a best on ground. If you haven’t heard it, forget about getting a good book out tonight, just listen to The Big Don’t Argue tell you a bunch of tales.