Boom Crash Opera: Crazy Times in Ordinary Heaven

Posted by in Culture, Music, Record Cover Design

UK and European cover art for Great Wall.

HEY-HEY, HEY HEY HEY!

1988, I was young(er) and Australia was having a birthday. To celebrate we (in the UK) sent our DJ Simon Bates to cover it. More importantly he played the new clutch of Aussie bands that were aiming for international super stardom after INXS.

There was Wa Wa Nee, Big Pig, Noiseworks (I had no inkling it was Jon Stevens singing) and before I knew it my next musical crush were on. ‘Hey Hey, hey hey hey!’ ‘WOW, what was that!!?’ My 17 year old self was sent into a dizzy fit of frenzied teenage hysteria! It was the beginning of a track called Great Wall and unknowingly my admittance into ordinary heaven.

Loosely speaking their sonic architecture lies somewhere in the crosshairs of ICEHOUSE (whom they had supported in 1986 and again in New Zealand in 1988), INXS, and Tears for Fears. Add a touch of Duran Duran (especially the synth leanings of Nick Rhodes) and a dash of XTC for extra effect.

According to the radio show, they’d been recording in London with Alex Sadkin (Duran Duran, Robbie Nevil, Arcadia etc) and sadly were the last band he would ever produce dying in a car crash not long after (hence the dedication on the album’s inner sleeve – see image below). So how in the UK would I get this album? To paraphrase the band ‘where there’s a will there’s a way.’

Though I had managed to procure DO RE MI, Noiseworks and Pseudo Echo records I could see no sign of Boom Crash Opera except for the 12″ of Great Wall in of all places Pontypool’s RPM Records helmed by Mark (later of Newport’s diverse music). There’s no band names though so I guess the camp looking blonde guy must be the keyboard player. WRONG! He’s Peter Farnan; one of the founders and more so a guitarist.

The breakthrough would come in Bristol one March day in 1989. Right at the end of a mega binge I had four bags of records; singles, poster packs, box sets, 10″s, 12″ you name it – stuff I didn’t really need – Roachford’s Kathleen for christ sakes! No offence Roachford but still. I had also unknowingly overlooked The Dolphin Brothers (Japan’s Jansen and Barberi) and Cock Robin, but had picked up the Partland Brothers!

First album and press release including Sadkin’s sad demise.

SWAG

At the end of a long day my fingers felt like sandpaper from the amount of vinyl flicking I’d sifted through. This shop, RIVAL, was one of the best and upstairs had a spate of vinyl from bands not even yours truly had heard of. Time to pack it in and head home, I picked up my four bags of swag and made what must have been two steps before putting them down and starting the flick again.

Like a true addict my sixth sense paid off, the vinyl was packed in tight and I had to tug this thing out but what was it, who would have an olive album cover? Holy crap! I stood static in disbelief. I had just fished out the first Boom Crash Opera album and sitting a couple behind it V Spy V Spy’s Xenophobia. Well that was enough excitement for one day. Both minto condition and together coming in just under £5 – unreal!

I picked up my bags again and this time got to the bus station. It would take another couple of hours to get home after which the first thing on the turntable that evening was BCO. ‘There’s a maniac behind the wheel’ growled Dale Ryder (I now knew who was in the band but still not who was who) so Duncan Norvelle’s Aussie twin was still the keyboard player as far as I was concerned.

I did get most of them right though, the frizzy haired guy he must be the singer (Ryder), oh there’s two of them (the other being drummer Peter Maslen aka Maz – more on him later). Eventually I learnt it was Greg O’Connor aka Spock (the one with the ‘tache on the album inner bag) who was the real keyboard player and also their chief designer. Speaking of design BCO covers come in two variations; moody and introspective (first album, Born) or Aussie garish (second album, acoustic album).

While I was getting into their debut, Australia was gearing up for its second helping, 1989’s mammoth These Here Are Crazy Times. It would take me 11 years to hear it courtesy of a guy from Melbourne, the only one traveling the Earls Court backpacker circuit with a BCO CD.

When the internet kicked off in the late nineties one of the first sites I looked up was Boom Crash Opera (alongside ICEHOUSE and Peter Kingsbery – both unofficial sites, and David Sylvian’s Trophies site). The BCO site was as visually striking as their record covers with rotating images and album covers. I could now see there were five, lots to catch up on. There was Fabulous Beast, Born and Gizmo Mantra as well as the (then) unheard second disc, the aforementioned Crazy Times.

This is the Best Onion Skin that ever happened to me!

CRAZY TIMES

There were traces of it; a run down of America’s modern rock Top 10 on the radio, ‘AT NUMBER 9 BOOM CRASH OPERA ONION SKIN’ Said the late rock DJ Tommy Vance in his trademark booming voice. I’ll bet they don’t play it I quietly thought to myself and lo and behold they didn’t.

Then in 1994 whilst watching TV came a soundcheck from the film Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead with The Best Thing playing in the background, why that had to be them, who else? But as mentioned it would take the rest of the nineties with just my sole olive covered debut album for company.

A nineties without a-ha and Scritti Politti and for the most part ICEHOUSE too who along with a-ha took sabbatical in 1993! Yes I know 95’s Berlin Tapes is kind of Icehouse but let’s not over complicate things.

Getting into the spirit of Crazy Times.

The breakthrough came in Earls Court in 2000. I remember playing it on a discman in a backpackers dormitory in the winter. I smiled to myself when Get Out of the House came on, yes, this was the band I fell in love with. Axe to Grind – wow, prog in three minutes flat. It was a pretty solid album but how would I hear the others? London’s Tower Records in Piccadilly had an Aussie section.

Great! But £22 for Fabulous Beast!? You’ve got to be kidding! £18 for Look Listen? Enough to need a bigger overdraft. So these also went unheard for many years. A tip with Crazy Times is to search out the Aussie edition with 12 tracks rather than some international versions which have 10 and omit Superheroes! How could they omit Superheroes!?

BORN AGAIN IN MELBOURNE

Melbourne, 2001 – a flying visit which saw me inadvertently meet Dale Ryder who scoffed when I suggested he and his band do a BCO track (the crashies then on their own sabbatical). I’ll never know if he did as my tram back to my residence awaited. It’s also where I learn of Born Again.

The guy in the record store explains the story and its ill fated demise. As I scanned the empty disc tray with the black ‘coming April 1995’ cardboard disc in place of where the CD would be I hear an ‘ahh now that never came out.’ I was already intrigued, lost albums always have that effect on me, what happened and why – more on this below.

The Born Ultimatum!

Fast forward to Oxford in 2008 and a correspondence with Maz resulted in at last hearing the rest. And I’ve gotta say, Born Again is probably their strongest recording! Brilliantly quirky, along with BORN way ahead of its time prior to Radiohead’s KID A/Amnesiac.

We don’t know what Roxy would have sounded like had Eno stayed and we’ll never know what BCO would have sounded like had Pleasance stayed but I’ll bet they wouldn’t have done BORN. In much the same way that Genesis wouldn’t have produced Abacab with Steve Hackett still on board, not the way it came out anyway.

’21 songs in 21 different styles’ they were innovative, possibly Australia’s most creative band and is Pete Farnan one of the Antipodees best songwriters? Easily as good as the much lauded Paul Kelly, lesser known than Steve Kilbey or Nick Cave. While many around the world were taken by the songs of Farriss and Hutchence, too few were aware of the brilliance of Farnan (with or without Richard Pleasance).

The band, very much the sum of their parts, were down to a quartet as O’Connor jumped ship to concentrate on a career in design, making Farnan a de facto keyboard player so I was right after all! New boy Ian Tilley faced the daunting task of replacing Pleasance.

Ryder was looking and sounding better than ever and culled from the northern reaches of uber state Queensland, Maz himself; an Aussie Pat Mastelotto utilising acoustic and electronic kits and holding down a steady flow of session work during BCO’s down time.

Some would say it’s a criminal world. As Robert Fripp said of his own intercepted collaboration with Daryl Hall. ‘There is only one thing worse than a record company that takes no interest in your work… a record company that takes an interest’and unfortunately BMG, the band’s new label in Australia, were doing just that.

Born and its sibeling were and are in essence (no pun intended) a nineties White Album fusing elements of late sixties psychedelia (Hit the Beach), seventies balladry (Bomb For You) and eighties new wave (Beating Addiction). 

Aussie artists’ are undaunted by their craft, constantly pushing the creative envelope. Icehouse did similar with Big Wheel and BCO followed in its multi-media wake. In some ways Born feels more like a follow up to their first album than Crazy Times.

Gimme those Born singles!

GIMME THE SINGLES

The glam rock stomp of Gimme, embellished with an electronic sheen became their last major hit in Australia but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything else to pick from, the rousing rock of She Gets There (yeah, her walls are totally bare), and Dissemble (one of Farnan’s personal faves).

Nonetheless it wasn’t enough for BMG and Born Again was duly scrapped. That said, from an A&R perspective and personally speaking I could probably whittle down the 21 songs into a stronger more viable single album. Farnan says it’s the song cycle that ended their career, but I’d say it was more likely its predecessor.

Coming four years after Crazy Times and the half hearted attempt of the Dreams on Fire EP, Fabulous Beast is everything I thought it would be – a boring flat rock album, a band stripped of its creativity, innovation and momentum. Recorded amidst the LA riots of 1992, it marked the end of their first chapter. The sad departure of Pleasance who quit due to a much documented tinnitus.

It was also the last time they worked with big name producers; Keith Forsey (ICEHOUSE, Simple Minds) and Don Gehman (John Mellencamp, Cock Robin). Neither could extract the magic that Sadkin or Pete Smith had. There were glimmers, opening My Revelation was a good start. You Wouldn’t Want to Know, the best thing Billy Ray Cyrus never did and I Am Nature a bonafide beauty. The singles were a little on the lack lustre side, even the artwork was below par.

Mantra of Colours.

GIZMO – IT AIN’T TRANCE

And so 1997’s Gizmo Mantra became their last outing, fusing the melodic rock they are known for with some electronic flourishes explored on the Born recordings (On). Wake Up Fine could be an XTC song, melodic jingly jangly rock with psychedelic phasing during its final minute. Don’t Forget to Breathe is Farnan at his quirky best ‘it’s been many years since I was born, I can’t count the pairs of shoes that I have worn,’ 

Welcome to Tomorrow a 1960s Chili Peppers. ‘Satellite crashes into my backyard, That’s what you get wishing on a star’and ‘open my door am I seeing things, oh well better outside than in’ These lyrics could almost be borrowed from idiosyncratic US comic Steven Wright ‘Got a TV that’s always on, never turn it off even when I’m gone.’ And finally to ON ‘you’ve got the power, to make me happy, six times an hour’– you’ve got to laugh.

WHAT’S IN A NAME: THE ORIGINS OF THE OPERA

The band had actually begun slap bang in the middle of the eighties, founded by Farnan and Pleasance who had been circling each other for years. Farnan’s Serious Young Insects lay somewhere between The Jam and XTC. New Zealand’s Dance Exponents, later the Exponents, employed a similar schtick on their 1982 single Airway Spies but that’s another story.

Suffice to say the extremely fastidious Farnan was easily able to tap into the zeitgeist, well aware of what was happening in post-punk (early Scritti Politti and Split Enz for example) and employ that energy in his own workings.

It was an era which also saw Pleasance gigging within the new wave mechanics of Government Drums, BANG and briefly colliding with Farnan in SYI before their eventual split. The pair next cohabited Sing Sing Sing which would eventually morph into BCO.

Now in the digital age we can be privy to a long lost treasure trove of info including not only the cheat sheet of how the band got their name but where; Richard Pleasance’s kitchen at 409 Canning St in Melbourne’s Carlton district in 1985. And thus BCO was itself born. One of their first TV appearances was on ROCK ARENA, kind of an Aussie version of the German show ‘Rockpalast’ whose videos are doing the rounds on You Tube.

Stop and smell the roses, Rich goes it alone (well, with Maz in tow).

SOLO SHENANIGANS

Boom Crash Opera are not just unusual in their musicality and lyrical depth of field but also in that there is no solo album by singer, Dale Ryder (something else they share in common with Duran Duran). Instead solo forays have been fired by founders Farnan and Pleasance into the great southern land’s creative atmosphere. Let’s have a quick look at these.

Pleasance went first with 1991’s Galleon, based on the breakup of his then relationship. Both acidic and warm in its content beginning with Don’t Cry ‘..do you remember telling me if we break up I think we can still be friends, and I agreed with you at the time, but alas I think I’ve changed a lot since then’ and Jesus (which has an air of Roger Waters about it).

Though the subject matter is sombre (Why Can’t You Love Me?) it has contrasting moments of exuberance such as the albums third track and single Sarah (I Miss You). The video features Pleasance on a bicycle and a nice shiny Dakota towards the end. Neither the singles or album were hits despite its craftsmanship, beautifully engineered by Doug Roberts.

Galleon is also noteworthy for BCO admirers in that Maz guests on several tracks. It is also very rare and like Born Again remains missing in action, in need of a reissue and promo campaign – Pleasance is looking to iTunes for this. In addition, a double vinyl 180 gram BORN/BORN AGAIN is a nice thought isn’t it? *it has since been added on Spotify.

Mr Moonskin and his coat of many colours.

After a guest spot on Suzanne Vega’s 99.9F album in 1992, Pleasance followed up with 1995’s Colourblind; a 14 track affair and the polar opposite of Galleon focussing on his new relationship and consequent marriage, hence single Love is All which nods to ICEHOUSE (Goodbye Valentine) in its usage of the sitar. Other than that it’s a mid-paced rocker in the vein of Sheryl Crow.

Interesting that while his former bandmates were rocking out in a cyber imbued future world, Pleasance was further exploring themes closer to home and the heart. The orchestral intro which underpins I Love You Love Me casts a scene as dramatic as Galleon but this quickly falls away to what can best be described as Aussie camper van music! Perhaps symbolising the change in his life between Galleon’s end of the affair vibe and the new beginning evident on Colourblind.

Exploding into action and switching key midway through. ‘Ive been writing down my thoughts, whatever they may be, when I get home we’ll read them out yeah I love you love me.’ At last a song about joy! Equally gorgeous is Mr. Moonskin featuring an exquisite solo.

Darker undercurrents still play their part with Depression, Cold Change and Goodnight, the latter two pay homage to a lost friend possibly taken by the sea? ‘Deep are the waves, deep is the pain.’Again Maz guests on drums – one of a trio of sticksmen. I’d go as far as to say Pleasance was the last of the ‘Aussie sounding’ artists before the globalised sounds of Noiseworks and Savage Garden took over.

Following his second album Pleasance immersed himself in family, production and soundtrack work including Australia’s TV series SeaChange, Kenny, Wentworth and most recently Brothers’ Nest. There is also a disc with Wendy Morrison as Felt (1996) both Colourblind and Felt are housed in cover art by O’Connor.

Pleasantville is a familal collaboration with wife Michelle for an album Hill of Beans. Lead single, Driving On was joined by a monochromatic video. Wentworth’s teaser track is in the same ball park as  Paul and Lauren Savoy’s bitter-sweet SAVOY project for those interested in matrimonial musical teams operating in the noir-esque realm of alternative rock.

In 2021 Pleasance launched Crooked River – an instrumental album save for There’s So Many Islands which includes his grandmother’s voice exhumed from a found cassette. The closest parable would be John Mellencamp’s Grandma’s Theme from his Scarecrow album back in ’85. Very much a family affair his wife did the cover, his daughter the photos and his sons play many instruments – talk about an oven ready ensemble!

Maybe this is normal, it’s looking funny to me.

PESKY SHENANIGANS

Farnan took his time working in Melbourne’s theatre industry but eventually released Maybe This is Normal, a lo-fi indie sounding record in 2009. Just looking at the names list picture it’s interesting to see Think Tank among them, which would pre-date Blur by some considerable years.

Normal is similar in style to Galleon in that lyrics not melody are at the forefront, and it’s the song structured pieces that are the strongest particularly on Sparrow, Insect, Foetus. I am the Sparrow, I’m looking for food again, I’m frightened of strangers, go away I’ll come back and then, I’m eager to take it, I’m wary of taking risks, a risk could be fatal or harmless like a kiss.’ 

Are You Still Smoking? Takes the perspective of a cigarette ‘I’ve killed before and I’ll kill again.’ The quirky I’m Gonna Die would be ok on a film soundtrack like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and sex is never far from an Aussie’s mind here bearing fruit on the comical Shouldn’t We Be Having More Sex? ‘free and easy, fucking intense!’ If we’re enlisting an acronym here, then LOL would be the one.

Pesky Bones guests many of Australia’s established and upcoming talent including Paul Kelly, Sean Kelly, Do Re Mi’s Deborah Conway (whom Pleasance had produced in the early nineties) and Maz backing up Farnan for the first time.

My Radiance featuring Ali Barter has spiky electronics behind which sit a seventies flavoured song, not dissimilar to Gizmo Mantra and with an ‘ooh-wooh-ooh-ooh’ vocal refrain which sounds like it has been lifted straight out of Gorecki’s third.

Words Are Failing Me continues in the vein of Normal, acoustic whimsy with additional electronics, Farnan fronts this one himself and his vocal is almost a rap. The title is somewhat ironic as it’s a very wordy work! If anything, words never fail him and have remained a constant source of inspiration as far back as Serious Young Insects Trouble Understanding Words (coincidentally  produced by Peter McIan of Men at Work and Mr Mister fame). Conway steps up for By Design a torch song, which would sit very well on a David Lynch soundtrack.

The aptly named Whole Shebang.

RATTLE AND HUM: ROUNDING UP THE BEST THINGS

Sometime in the late noughties the band resumed touring though recording has remained sporadic, like Icehouse, taking baby steps not to damage their legacy. New songs have appeared on compilations. Somewhat confusingly there are a couple of different collections called The Best Things, the first of these came soon after Gizmo Mantra and featured two tracks from Born Again (the rights of which the band have since acquired from BMG).

An acoustic record Dancing in the Storm (2009) produced by Pleasance proceeded Rattle it Out (2013) – a box set of their first three albums all bolstered by b-sides as well as a fourth disc of lost songs. No less than a song smorgasbord for fans. In 2017, the band released another compilation (the) Whole Shebang.

The acoustic record is itself unique for the fact the band are for the very first time a sextet, featuring both Tilley and Pleasance. Shifting their own material a sonic 180 degree right angle. Hands Up in the Air becomes a wild west saloon bar standard with mandolin and hand claps, the organ running through the chorus of Get Out of the House recalls Billy Preston.

There’s still room for the odd surprise as the title Ordinary Heaven suggests, like John Lennon’s Number 9 Dream there is something magical in the verses. The chorus of ‘we can get there’ is very much in keeping with the singalong atmosphere of an Aussie pub gathering. They can indeed get there.

Most astonishing of all is Talk About It. Its original incarnation on ‘Crazy Times’ is approaching Chili Peppers musical terrain. Here its remorseful piano trickle conjures up an empty room at night with a ghostly ambience that sonically caresses the listener.

Especially Pleasance’s treatment of Ryder’s background vocal and Ryder’s own delivery in the long ‘around’ in the ‘don’t talk around me’line, his words literally wrapping themselves round the listener. A testament to all involved that a rock band could pull off this kind of arrangement.

The crashies have endured a shifting line up over the years becoming a four piece in the early nineties following the departure of Pleasance. His long term replacement Ian Tilley quietly left the fold during this past decade. In recent years O’Connor also fled the nest for family commitments and finally long term vocalist Dale Ryder called it quits Tony Hadley style and performed with his own band until recently – see footnote below.

WELCOME TO TOMORROW, THE SOUND OF 1987 NOW

30 years since Crazy Times and the height of their success, the band continue to perform around Australia with newbies John Favaro (bass) and Andrew de Silva replacing Ryder. *During the writing of this blog, news broke that ‘boomerang’ Ryder has returned to front the band once more so stay tuned for more shows with the original singer! It’s all amicable by the way with everyone in good spirits. 

Going back to the first album, I seldom play the frenzy inducing song I first heard from it, Great Wall, now preferring the acoustic version. The ‘hey hey hey’s’ are intact and backed by a country swagger. There is still much to discover about BCO, the lost songs remain just that. Flying a Kite in the Rain? Great title, still unheard. Above all I’m grateful for that radio show that introduced some of the Aussie bands of the latter eighties.

Grateful after all these years to have been admitted into the otherworldly beauty of Ordinary Heaven, the melodic menace of Gap That Opened, the moody stratosphere of Best Thing, the majestic power of Her Charity, Pleasance’s skilful technical abilities and Farnan’s witty observations.

In 2021 the band unveiled an archive site – almost everything which is well worth a visit. Their 15 minutes of fame may have long since expired, yet the ripples continue to reverberate creating a legacy vital to the Australian musical landscape. You might call it a soundtrack, and with the returning Ryder, could times be any crazier?

PLAYLIST AND CREDITS

Thanks for reading here, should you be interested in my work; principally writing, photography, and teaching, check out the MEDIA page, and/or the UNIVERSITY page for my teaching ethos. 

Meanwhile, stay tuned with things here at Kulture Kiosk via THE ATLAS or on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world. Blog originally posted June 2019.

PLAYLIST
Gap That Opened (from Boom Crash Opera) – Boom Crash Opera
Cross The Border (from Measure for Measure) – Icehouse
Her Charity (from Boom Crash Opera) – Boom Crash Opera
Caught Between Two Towns (from Boom Crash Opera) – Boom Crash Opera
Too Hot to Think (from Boom Crash Opera) – Boom Crash Opera
Pale Shelter (from The Hurting) – Tears For Fears
Onion Skin (from These Here Are Crazy Times) – Boom Crash Opera
Get Out of the House (from These Here Are Crazy Times) – Boom Crash Opera
Axe to Grind (from These Here Are Crazy Times) – Boom Crash Opera
Superheroes (from These Here Are Crazy Times) – Boom Crash Opera
Don’t Cry (from Galleon) – Richard Pleasance
Jesus (from Galleon) – Richard Pleasance
Sarah (I Miss You)(from Galleon) – Richard Pleasance
My Revelation (from Fabulous Beast) – Boom Crash Opera
I Am Nature (from Fabulous Beast) – Boom Crash Opera
Essence (from Born) – Boom Crash Opera
She Gets There (from Born) – Boom Crash Opera
Radio (from Born Again) – Boom Crash Opera
Baby, You’re So Strange (from Measure for Measure) – Icehouse
Gimme (from Born) – Boom Crash Opera
Beating Addiction (from Born Again) – Boom Crash Opera
A Question of Time (from Black Celebration) – Depeche Mode
Bomb For You (from Born Again) – Boom Crash Opera
Shiver (from Born Again) – Boom Crash Opera
I Love You Love Me (from Colourblind) – Richard Pleasance
Goodbye Valentine (from Big Wheel) – Icehouse
Love is All (from Colourblind) – Richard Pleasance
Mr Moonskin (from Colourblind) – Richard Pleasance
Cold Change (from Colourblind) – Richard Pleasance
Wake Up Fine (from Gizmo Mantra) – Boom Crash Opera
Don’t Forget to Breathe (from Gizmo Mantra) – Boom Crash Opera
Welcome to Tomorrow (from Gizmo Mantra) – Boom Crash Opera
On (from Gizmo Mantra) – Boom Crash Opera
Are You Still Smoking? (from Maybe This is Normal) – Peter Farnan
The Sparrow, The Insect, The Foetus (from Maybe This is Normal) – Peter Farnan
Words Are Failing Me (from Pesky Bones) – Pesky Bones ft. Peter Farnan
By Design (from Pesky Bones) – Pesky Bones ft. Deborah Conway
Great Wall (from Dancing in the Storm) – Boom Crash Opera
Talk About It (from Dancing in the Storm) – Boom Crash Opera
Ordinary Heaven (from Dancing in the Storm) – Boom Crash Opera

Photo Credits: most from discogs.com and the band’s official Facebook page. Wentworth from richardpleasance.com
PS – there’s a cute shot of Richard with Suzanne Vega in 2018 which I tried to include here but it didn’t really fit, so go check it out on Richard’s site. I had to omit the Fab Beast artwork for the same reason as only the album cover is any good, and on its own it was just too big so sorry to fans of that record but yeah, it’s not my fave.