The Cannanes – A Love Affair With Nature

Chances are you haven’t listened to The Cannanes in a long long time, if you were ever in the habit. Chances are, then, you are sick of modern music. Sick of yet more poseurs from New York or London who have found themselves on more covers than have sold records, no matter how good they may actually be. Sick of the hype, sick of the photos, sick of the fact that it is starting to seem more like a catwalk than a few people making music together. You hear me brothers and sisters, when I testify? You hear me calling you?

Chances are, you haven’t a clue who The Cannanes are.

See: I was lucky. Back in the eighties I knew a guy who sent my brother and I shoeboxes full of tapes, back when blank CDRs were a sparkle in the eye of the consumer. On one such tape – probably at the end of a dBs, Let’s Active, or Robyn Hitchcock album – there were a few tracks by someone called The Cannanes. Just, you know, to complete a C90.

Hundreds of tapes came our way, so why was this one so special? Shitty day at school? Existential malaise? Footy team lost for the fifth straight week in a row? No idea, but I still can visualise rewinding time and again to hear Take Me To The Hotel Johanna (And Let’s Trash The Joint).

I had no idea the band lived in the same city as I, nor of their worldwide infamy (and respective local invisibility). All I knew was the mournful violin from satellite member Susan Grigg, the way the guy, Stephen O’Neill couldn’t really sing, the gutter poetry (not that it was in any way debauched, it just weren’t no Baudelaire or Verlaine, but I loved it more than anything I studied in 3-Unit Literature for my HSC. All I knew was that I had to hear more and a copy was soon secured.

Taken from The Cannanes’ second album (if we are not including the initial tapes), that track alone is responsible for everything that has since found its way into my ridiculous music collection. In the same way others have spoken of seeing the light during Beatlemania, or Dylan going electric, or an allnighter on K being pummeled by the most savage drumandbass imaginable, or even the 101 club in 76/77, The Cannanes saved me from a lifetime of seeking approval off others. What I knew in my gut to be right, well, fuck it, It Was Right.

There will always be another great hype from Nowheresville USA or UK, but there will never be another Cannanes.

Stephen O’Neill (aka Hairy) remains the only member of the band to have seen service in all forms of the band (and haven’t there been a few!). The line up seems to change yearly – based upon who is in town, or more precisely, who hasn’t moved to the country – and on their second piece of vinyl, member Randall Lee had left to form international ‘what happened to’ superstars Nice. (He later fronted Ashtray Boy; a superb indie rock combo who had line ups for USA, Australia, and New Zealand.)

The remaining core of Stephen, Fran Gibson and Dave Nichols strung together A Love Affair With Nature (no doubt) having no idea of the resonance it would leave with fans for years to come. It is often cited as the most beloved of all their albums, and was certainly recorded by The Classic Lineup. When David finally went his own way later in the decade – after a couple of thwarted attempts earlier – it really shook the way the band were perceived. His irreverence, humour and sense of artfulness were/are unique and it has naturally taken Stephen and Fran some time to regain their footing. But – to then.

Following an initial frenzy of promising overseas press, the band patiently sculpted two slabs of 12” vinyl while Sydney slept on oblivious. At time, aggressively so (after wearing thongs to a photo shoot for long forgotten music rag RAM). Their first single, self-released of course, was reviewed in NME by a typically understated Everett True. Never one to write without exclamation marks he declared it to be single of the year.

The main difference between The African Man’s Tomato (the debut) and A Love Affair With Nature was the departure of Randall Lee, Newtown’s answer to Lee Hazelwood. With him gone, the emphasis shifted to the bands’ two ‘non’ singers (I use that term under advise from counsel, the honorable Jonathan Richman), and thus an increased reliance on Fran.

The debut featured a huge range of styles – all keeping with the broad range of pop, of course – from punkish revenge on Ode To Tim to the countryesque We Drank Bitter and back again to the pure pop delight of ‘I Wish I Were You’ (those perfect sentiments of ”… then I could love you the way you do”). A Love Affair With Nature managed to capture the band in a more concise way. Compared to the bits and pieces feel of the former, it sounded almost like a Best Of set list.

The second and third tracks on side b (the vinyl album being released just prior to the marketing of CDs en masse; later re-released with a bonus 13 tracks of singles and odds and sods by USA label Ajax Records) sum up the mood of the album. David Nichols delivers sublime vocals on Paper Bag, all resignation and twilight thoughts about “a bad time of my life”. He is only able to relive it through “some sorta seeping sentiment”. The guitar just chugs away as the mood builds – Nichols always was an expert story teller, regardless of his ability to sometimes drive you crazy with his attitude. After the denouement of the guitar (anti)solo the mood deepens even further. You know those days; when you just think about what a screw up you are, and why the fuck you still bother. A black cloud over your insignificant life. I can use a word like denouement when discussing The Cannanes because I know that they know what it means; similarly, they would never use it in public for fear of sounding like a wanker.

So, then, to 52 Linthorpe St, an address in Newtown and “a tribute to a brave Rob Snarski and a party that wasn’t much fun for Ben”. Just to lighten the mood and return us to the physicality of everyday life – familiar postcodes, cask wine, twentysomethings.

“There’s a lesson here,
a lesson I can tell.
If you stay up and drink all night,
on the following day you won’t feel well.”

The kinda lyrics you wanna quote because you know they’re true to everyone’s life, but when you write them down they seem to turn into… well, just words. Nothing special. In fact, alcohol seems to permeate quite a few songs on the album. The opening lines of I Woke Up usher us into a world where someone is lying on the couch, with the TV on, and “I’d had a few beers, seven bottles, maybe more”. Random scenes in your average inner west life.

But that’s always been The Cannanes for me. Equal parts foolish idealists (romantics of the share house crowd) and reactionary shit stirrers. They never belonged to a clique or club, though they deserved their fair share of imitators. They may never get the kudos they so richly deserve – I am a firm believer that history tends to right the wrongs of the present day, so who knows – and if they do we may have to wait until my two year old daughter is old enough to influence the mainstream. But rest assured: in the scheme of things, A Love Affair With Nature is my Never Mind The Bollocks, my That’s Alright Mama, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and my Nevermind. And this is my brief tribute.