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Richard Clapton on the best years of our lives

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Don’t do this: read Richard Clapton’s memoir while watching X Factor. The time warp may well make you nauseous. For all the talent –both the singing and the surrounding production values where  the dead hand of pony-tailed marketing suits sits upon it all like a Crown of Thorns on a coral.

The industry in Clapton’s era was less set to weekly packages slipped between ads for burgers and cars. The legendary musician’s career path was more haphazard than a hi-tech ratings bonanza running over a multi-week series.

But, there is a core similarity: the stresses between art and business have been there ever since Moses strapped on a Gibson. Richard Clapton is the latest to fashion a narrative out of the theatre of it all.

“I wouldn’t do The Voice or X Factor,” says the man who has always spoken for the flawed Hippy in all of us. But then, he probably would say that: he had to be dragged kicking and screaming on to The Voice of its day, Countdown (as in youth market music show) and had to suffer an on-air “please explain” opposite a stern Molly Meldrum.

Pop, he tells The Daily Review, was never his bag. But, there’s more behind his gimlet eye cast over today’s talent spotting extravaganza’s than mere squeamishness at the product. He is concerned about the artists who may be lost to the marketing maw that is Reality TV.

“What are the consequences? These performers don’t have the grounding.”

“It’s harder today because they can’t get the traction. I was allowed to develop a following. Slog it out. You could do it. Now it all seems so disposable. It’s all colourful and pretty on the way up, but…”

He does this a lot does Richard, trails off and switches beat.

His memoir, The Best Years of Our Lives is a little like that too. He writes vernacular very well. Lot’s of swearing and sexual exploits (mostly others, less his own). For Oz Rock fans, there’s plenty of behind the scenes dirt and goss on big names like Peter Garrett, Bon Scott and Michael Chugg and tall tales aplenty.

For all the stream of consciousness though, there is an arc. From early days in the late ’60s looking for a song from London to Berlin, to grungy pubs, nut-jamming jeans and hirsute heads of the 70’s and the global discovery of local talent in the 1980’s and to the more mellow career of a respected elder in the industry these days, Clapton shuffles through the highs and lows like he’s writing an extended lyric in another songbook, navigating the shoals between art and business.

And, being largely drugless (although mostly pissed) he’s about a reliable a witness as you’re probably going to find from a period of Australian music that is clouded by more toxic haze than Beijing at peak hour.

His book is more soap opera than Reality TV, starring a cast of Australia’s loudest and most popular talents stumbling on and off stage like a very dark and R-rated Countdown revival show.

But back to comparisons. Clapton bleeds for musical artists today seeking a gig. And he blames them as much as anyone else.

“It’s the other way around….The common motive is to use music to make money and become famous. What bothers me is….any authentic artist will get knocked around.”

Those headstrong days of a weekly roster at the Bondi Lifesavers which included Cold Chisel one night, Midnight Oil another, Clapton himself and, yes, Air Supply (go figure) on others are long gone. That great era for punters and artists has been, well, punted.

Like many successful artists back in the day, luck played a big part in Clapton’s rise. His first big hit, Girls on the Avenue, (1975) was initially released by his label, Festival, as a B-side. Fortunately, it was picked up on high rotation on radio via a mate and former Festival A&R man and shot to Number 1. Luck went the other too, as a lucrative offer and likely international exposure from Island records was effectively quashed by Festival in Australia who belatedly saw Clapton’s potential and set his release price too high.

The pressure brought to bear on Clapton, stuck in the tectonic grind of the commercial and the creative continents needed, he tells me, ruefully, “ a lot of rat cunning.” Living life, you might call it.

I asked Richard about what he felt his biggest legacy was and he said “The songs I wrote are really what I have aspired to be. I am always wanting to become a better song writer. I’ve still got a long way to go. But, and this is my fans saying this more than me, probably my biggest legacy is ‘Sittin’ out on the Palm Beach Road….’ “

And while he may not have been sure what he expected to find, it seems, despite feeling the rough edges of music’s commercial machine, Richard Clapton the artist has in fact found peace of mind.

[box]The Best Years of Our Lives is published by Allen and Unwin. [/box]

One response to “Richard Clapton on the best years of our lives

  1. I like your review, it doesn’t seem to make judgements, and I agree, as you say he writes vernacular very well. As I read I felt like I was having a conversation with him. This together with some great insights into the Aussie music industy makes this a must read for musicians and fans. I first heard Richard Clapton in Kombi as a 16 year old in a beach holiday on the NSW mid Nth Coast, then covered his songs in a band in the mid 90’s before we wrote enough originals. Since then I largely forgot about him until I was given the book as a present, now I can listen again with new ears.

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