That’s the way it’s gonna be, little darlin’: An oral history of Daryl Braithwaite’s ‘The Horses’

It’s not so much a song, but a national institution. It takes less than a second of that lush, shimmering intro to invoke a multitude of emotions. Joy. Euphoria. Pride. Nostalgia. Togetherness. ‘The Horses’ is absorbed by the consciousness at an early age, an osmosis effect for those who grow up in Australia. Its endurance is remarkable, sustaining a timelessness not diminished by ubiquity. There’s a certain power within the song that feeds off any sense of novelty.

We all know Daryl Braithwaite’s version. It appears on his 1990 LP Rise, his second solo full-length release since fronting the successful ’70s rock outfit Sherbet. What was once a slice of trivia is now becoming common knowledge: ‘The Horses’ isn’t a Braithwaite original, it’s a cover.

The song was first recorded by American singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, who shares a writing credit on the track with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker. The concept of ownership, the evolution of song – it all adds a depth of colour to the history of ‘The Horses’.

This oral history combines the perspective of two main players behind ‘The Horses’. Rickie Lee Jones and Daryl Braithwaite were interviewed separately, their responses interspersed here (with a brief cameo from a rising Australian duo). Other key personnel were unable to be reached for comment: backing singer Margaret Urlich, model Gillian Mather (who stood in and mimed Margaret’s vocal for the film clip), and Simon Hussey, producer of Daryl’s version of the song – as well as other minor characters in the history of the song, Hawthorn Hawks champ Brent Guerra (who pioneered the club’s tradition of singing the song after hard-fought wins) and Kenny Loggins (who recorded his own version of the song in the mid-’90s).

This is the story of ‘The Horses’.

The beginning

‘The Horses’ first appeared on Rickie Lee Jones’s 1989 album Flying Cowboys – her first release since 1984’s The Magazine. In the year before the album’s release, Rickie gave birth to her daughter Charlotte. Flying Cowboys featured production from Steely Dan’s Walter Becker.

Meanwhile in Australia, Daryl Braithwaite was enjoying his first major solo success with 1988 album Edge, featuring the hits ‘One Summer’ (which Daryl wrote) and ‘As The Days Go By’ (written by Canadian singer Ian Thomas). With Edge riding high, it was time to continue momentum with a follow up album.

Rickie Lee Jones: It was written for my daughter, Charlotte, in 1988.  Recorded for Flying Cowboys, which was released in 1989. Charlotte is also a songwriter, as it turns out.

Daryl Braithwaite: We’d been finishing off the Rise album, and we were into the late stages of that. I came home and pulled out the Flying Cowboys CD and played it. The first song I played was ‘The Horses’. I don’t know what it was – obviously I loved the song right from the first listen.

Rickie Lee Jones: As far as sharing the writing credit with Walter Becker, of Steely Dan, he suggested the key change for the chorus when he was producing my record.  A good suggestion.

Daryl Braithwaite: I rang Simon Hussey, who was producing Rise, and said, “Simon, you’ve gotta listen to this. I’ll bring it in tomorrow and I reckon we could do a version in the vein of ‘As The Days Go By’ from the first album, Edge. Anyway, I brought it in and they had a listen to it – Simon, and I think somebody from Sony – I think they thought it was alright, or maybe just going along with how much I liked it.

Rickie Lee Jones: Rondor Music, my publisher in Australia, asked to license the song for Daryl Braithwaite, whose version was very similar to the Flying Cowboy version, albeit an Australian male singing.

Daryl Braithwaite: Right from when it started I told people I didn’t write it, it was Rickie Lee Jones. But I still get people on Facebook going “Daryl, you should give Rickie Lee Jones credit” and I just think: fuck!

Way up in the sky

‘The Horses’ hit number one in Australia in May 1991. It ruled supreme in a time where cassingles were still popular, its film clip embodying Australiana with its sun-drenched beach setting – images of Daz’s mugging to the camera alternating with Gillian Mather’s mime.

Daryl Braithwaite: I never envisioned it would be anything more than an album track. As it turns out, the version we did ended up being a single, and it made number one.

Rickie Lee Jones: He is the only person to have a hit with one of my songs – besides me, I mean. So that’s something.

“It’s still perplexing, and probably will be till the day I die, as to what is it about the song that motivates people to sing it.”

Daryl Braithwaite: I think when we recorded it, and Margaret Urlich did her singing – I was actually in Beijing, China, doing a gig – and I could hear her down the phone doing the backing on it. I don’t think I ever looked at it and thought ‘this will be a huge hit’. I knew it was a great song, without any doubt.

Rickie Lee Jones: I am somewhat aware, though not entirely, of the impact of the song down under. I think I heard it originally went high on the charts, I don’t remember. A comedic group referred to it in a popular songs recipe thingie on Youtube.

Daryl Braithwaite: I’m still flabbergasted with it. As a song, how it’s written, lyrically – the whole thing. As to why it has that effect on people, I guess we’ll never know.

Rickie Lee Jones: I don’t know of anyone else recording ‘The Horses’.  I didn’t make any money on it for about ten years, as I had no publisher there.

The national anthem 

There has been a snowball effect through generations, growing stronger by the year. Those who grew up with the song soundtracking their childhood possess a tremendous newfound appreciation for it as they enter adulthood. There have been tongue-in-cheek-but-kinda-serious calls for it to be our new national anthem. ‘The Horses’ goes off in pretty much any context where there are more than two Australians present. It’s been the de facto theme song for Hawthorn Football Club’s illustrious run over the years, with Daryl himself joining a post-premiership function to belt it out last year. Client Liaison brought Daryl out to sing the track at New Year’s festival Beyond The Valley (after an attempt to do the same at Splendour last year).

Harvey Miller (Client Liaison): For me, it’s a song of my childhood. I could always picture that line, “Way up in the sky”. It’s something that my family would play on road trips, and I would hear in pubs when we stayed there while travelling Australia. There’s something very nostalgic about it.

Daryl Braithwaite: I think it’s one of those songs that has just become stronger over the decades. At least my perception of it through the audience, and through myself. There’s not a night – unless my throat is really buggered – that I don’t enjoy it. If my throat is buggered and we have to do it, I look at the people and thank god that they’re there and singing it. They probably look at me and go “ooh, what’s happened to him?” And what’s happened is I’ve probably lost my throat. It only happens rarely. It’s just a joy. It’s a beautiful song, and I’m surprised it’s gone the length that it has. It’s still perplexing, and probably will be till the day I die, as to what is it about the song that motivates people to sing it. They all probably have different reasons.

Rickie Lee Jones: I was in Australia a few years ago to perform and happened to turn on the TV during a horse race in which the entire stadium started singing ‘The Horses’, with Daryl Braithwaite. That was unexpected and pretty awesome. Dang cool. What a coincidence. I mean, I turn on TV and people are singing one of my songs, huh? When I am there on tour I must precede my performance of the song with the fact that I wrote it. Other than Australia, most people recognise the song for my performance. But in Australia, it seems to be anthemic.

Daryl Braithwaite: It’s not an anthem in the national sense, but I get the feeling when people sing it at the outdoor festivals with so much passion, that it’s hard to deny the fact it’s been embraced by people so firmly. They more than like it, they love it. For whatever reasons. We all love to sing together. The band and I step back sometimes at these outdoor gigs and are amazed at the reaction. That’s what I tried to relay, and I think I did alright, to Rickie Lee Jones.

Harvey Miller: It was just a long shot. We were kicking around the idea as a pipe dream, thinking “We should get Daryl out”. There was a bit of complication with Splendour, we couldn’t get Daryl from Melbourne in time. But we had it in our back pocket.

Daryl Braithwaite: Client Liaison had contacted me about six months before Beyond The Valley to do Splendour in the Grass with them. I was chuffed, I searched through everything to find who Client Liaison were and rang my nieces Heidi and Elke and they said they were really cool, so I thought “alright”. We missed out on Splendour in the Grass, but then there was the opportunity to do Beyond The Valley. I gotta say, I felt nervous. I was going into uncharted waters. I didn’t know if that audience would like it. They did such a good version of it, without bastardising it. Monte sent me through their version, they hadn’t tried to make it much different than the original. It worked, it was a real pleasure to be involved with that.

Monte Morgan: It was a pretty special moment. I don’t think I’ve heard a crowd scream that loud before. They sang the whole song, it was just this roar. It’s a national anthem, y’know.

Harvey Miller: He appeared cool, calm and collected. The main thing was that we hit the right mark and took off with the song at the right point after a loop jam at the start, that was the main concern. It was smooth sailing from there. His intonations and the way he alternates on the choruses was so impressive to see, because we’re so used to hearing the recorded version. Just seeing what he could do with his voice – he was hitting some killer notes.

Monte Morgan: He kind of held it back at rehearsal, as well. To see him cut loose was amazing. He said to us afterwards, “I really like the way you rearranged the song, taking out the drums from the pre-chorus. I’m gonna get my band to look at that.”

The legacy lives on

It feels silly to intellectualise why ‘The Horses’ is so enduring. It could just come down to the simple fact that it’s a bloody good song. But it does mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Maybe it’s not such a sense of the song belonging to Rickie Lee Jones, or Daryl Braithwaite. It belongs to us.

Daryl Braithwaite: A friend of mine, two or three decades ago, before Edge came out, I was asking him for help. He’s a painter, a great Australian artist. I said I was perplexed when it came to my next album, which would have been Edge – which I ended up only writing a couple of things on it. He knew me not that well, but known me for a few years. He just said, “You’re an interpreter of songs. There are people like that, there are people that just sing. You interpret songs.” With ‘The Horses’, I only have ownership through association, I reckon.

Rickie Lee Jones:  He sent me a thank you note last year,about the song, what it meant to him…  I could tell he kind of felt like the song was his, in a way. That’s what you want. You want people to make a nest out of the song. it’s their home then. I just brought the twigs and the mud. People decide what to do with it.

Daryl Braithwaite: From what people know of that song for 25 years, I was the one that put it out. But in essence, it still belongs to Rickie, and Walter Becker. Her version is lovely. Then you have to give credit to Simon Hussey, who then took that version and turned it into more accessible pop, maybe. There’s no doubt: I love it. I will fight for it, I will stick up for it. I know at the end of the day it’s not mine.

Rickie Lee Jones: One thing’s for sure, ‘The Horses’ has remained the anthem of my daughter’s life. It is for her that the song was written. I sing it for her. But I am so grateful Daryl sings it for whoever he sang it for. It resonated.

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