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The Sports

from RAM, 29 June 1979

Who are they anyway, this cult rockabilly band from the armpit of Melbourne who maintain a low personality profile even while ascending the international ladder of success in a manner that can only be described as "an inspired accident in motion".

Debris examined by: Jenny Hunter Brown

Flash:pop:the camera caught it. Sports were being "presented" with a gold record for Don't Throw Stones. Steve Cummings, quick jerks of tension in his cheeks, grimaced as the photographer calls him back for another shot, and another, and another...

"There are some things you don't like doing, but you do them because you get something in return. We haven't had to go all that low yet. I mean, we're pretty shallow sort of people; we haven't got much conscience about that kind of thing. The Pelaco Brothers taught me about that."

Steven freezes stiff as though for an unwelcome class portrait. Drummer Paul Hitchens, the power-pop roll behind Sports' new sound, stands still, angel-faced with wide eyes. Behind him the lanky bassist Rob Glover, whose resemblance to Prince Charles and The Windors in general would stand him in good stead Over There, poses obediently, grins a little into the len, handling the limelight perfunctorily, Andrew Pendlebury looks completely different without his guitar. He smiles on from an apparently happy dream (earlier, a journo incensed by Andrew's chronic case of bedroom eyes, had missiled a bread roll across the room "to try and wake him up"). Jimmy Niven throws his arms around whatever shoulders were available and clowns away. But Martin Armiger holds his framed disc up like a victorious fighter and shakes it, and the assembled media cheer.

Here were the winners of a fight. A continuing fight, a personal fight, a confused fight of localism struggling towards nationalism, then struggling for internationalism. Sports represented to that room, and to many others outside it, the victory of a special kind of art ("Carlton", we tagged it, but it was the striving for an intelligent and relevant originality, only partially attributable to locale) over other kinds less special. And secondly, the victory of that self-same art in being more than just Australian.

But woe betide that that be spoken out loud. Oh no, on the surface, this reception, long tables full of jaded media being treated to another free dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Sydney, was just another bunfight for just another local band who'd happened to get bored doing the rounds of Aussie venues and gone overseas, somehow managing to strike it lucky for a gold LP at the same time. And let's not lose our heads, 30,000 or so is no mother lode - although times are tough in the record biz, huh bud?

Certainly frontman Steve Cummings wouldn't admit to lofty ideals of achievements. "We had to go away. We would've been bashing our heads on the wall if we hadn't gone overseas.

"But when you get there you see a group on every corner. There are so many groups doing OK with lots of different things. Like, there's Ian Dury, who'd doing a Cockney sort of thing, but what you don't realise is there's lots of Ian Durys. Lots of people doing a similar thing to Lene Lovich, the Police... What I meant was, it's sort of daunting.

"Like I read that thing in RAM, Marc Hunter saying it would take you years and years to get anywhere in America. But we look at it short-term - if we can get a few free trips... After seeing it's so difficult, I don't think I would strive to be huge."

Strange band, these Sports. Very planned, very rigid in a pop way, they never seemed to communicate with an audience easily. Rather, their approach has been to write and arrange their songs as well as they possibly can, then rehearse and perform them in the same manner and wait until familiarity and admiration combines to produce audience response. And, sure enough, eventually the mountain did come to Mohammed. Witness last May a brimming Lifesaver and other venues in Sydney, in Melbourne a Bombay Rock wearing a "House Full" sign for only the third time since it opened.

And yet this band can still be as awkward, as withdrawn as they first came. On a bad night they might go through an entire set without a word to their audience, which, having started out noncommittal, recognise a cold shoulder and back off, creating a truly nasty rift between stage and dancefloor. Cummings can jujitsu through a number with eyes squeezed shut and on the closing bar turn, as though enraged, on the band, shouting at them to stay in time and in tune, until the next song is counted in and he spins to clutch the mike, blind to all again. And so it goes, number after number with the band staring gloomily at their instruments and Cummings lost in some vaccuum - turning his back on the crowd (or so it seems to them) at every available moment.

Perhaps it was the distant (ominous?) rumblings of success, which ejected Sports from the safety of supports spots and the reign of their own private kingdoms of sweat like Melbourne's late Kingston Hotel (R.I.P.) that provoked the latter phase of withdrawal in Sports. Garish discos in the round of bigger, outer suburban pubs where they suddenly found themselves headlining late last year were hardly their forte. They spluttered at the Village Green; the middle spot at the Bombay Rock they handled well. But success breeds success, and as the band slowly worked from clique popularity into the domain of A.M. radio listeners, its confidence slowly gathered. Sports were aimed, both musically and from the promo-pushing offices of Mushroom Records, towards a wider and more youthful market, and as they achieved it, so they adapted to it. The process was slow. Meanwhile, their cult following which had allowed their survival while, ironically, they grew beyond it, was making disgruntled noises (as cult followings are wont to do). Tertiary students from Melbourne's R.M.I.T. and similar institutions resisted the New Wave surge of Martin Armiger's newer compositions, grumpily waiting out Terror Hits on the dancefloor edge until the band swung into their old bebop fingersnapping style with Trouble With The Girls or Cruisin' In A Citroen.

New Year's Eve at Melbourne's Bananas Club, a pleasantly seedy dive on St Kilda Esplanade, Sports played like a bunch of bored Salvos and the half-full venue responded in kind.

"I don't reckon they're any good since Martin joined," bemoaned one young amazon in bobby sox. "They used to be great, but I don't get off on any of those new songs."

Still, if the surprisingly large Melbourne underground following of rockabilly (which keeps a steady stream of one-offs from the like of Steve Cummings' old band the Pelaco Brothers, the Relaxed Mechanics, the Fabulous Nudes (all disbanded) et al flowing out of Keith Glass' Missing Link Records in Collins Street) sometimes turned up their noses at Sports' new direction, there were compensations.

A rival underground, followers of the more star-oriented New Wave/Pop/Rock, had kept appreciative eyes on Armiger's work with the Bleeding Hearts and High Rise Bombers, and they affixed themselves to the post-Armiger Sports in droves.

And so the argument raged on: were Sports better or worse since the addition of Martin Armiger, his style and his songs? The old Sports (with guitarist Ed Bates) were looser, swinginger, closer to their roots. The new Sports were flashier, louder and more original.

In the end the debate became meaningless as a tide of younger, more TV-oriented fans rose slowly above the squabbling underground factions and Sports quietly drifted into the mainstream: rockabilly roots, New Wave influence and their own growing originality inextricably meshing into one.

Shortly before their departure for England and the Rumour tour, Sports played a fitting last stand in a small but packed room at the Prospect Hill Hotel in Kew. A combination of the fright underlying their imminent departure, desperation caused by a particularly virulent form of flu (bad enough to force the cancellation of gigs earlier that week) and inspiration coming from the claustrophobic conditions (always a plus for Sports) set the band to let fly. They rocked that house till it jumped like a Baygoned Bondi kitchen. Ponytails and ducktails jived between pogoing punks and surfies doing it every which way and somehow it was all just Sports Music - a big crazy party.

"I sort of felt," confides Cummings, "like we'd performed some sort of con-trick in Australia. One person told another, and they told somebody else... I never thought we had the right thing, that we were the right combo to make it in Australia."

And on the raft of that suspicion and with an EP of Peter Solley-produced tracks under one arm, Sports arrived in London.

Stiff promoted them on the dinkum Aussie ticket, stuffing them down reviewers throats like a Four'n'Twenties pie, washed down with Fosters Lager.

The initial reaction to the Who Listens To The Radio EP was two trashes and one thumbs-up from the big three music rags. Sounds perhaps personified a typical English reaction with their "Four tracker from the Australian Rubinoos. Some nice touches, but it's as meaningless and as passe as you'd expect. Full marks to Stiff for trying hard, though. Everyone in the office has 48 copies of the thing. Haven't caught anyone actually listening to it yet."

But as well-captured in (Pom) Nigel Burnham's Sports Battle The Cultural Cringe (RAMI ish 110), the tide began to turn. Stiff's Australian overemphasis on the band became so overdone that the press began to smell a joke, and this, combined with live performances on the Parker tour good enough to rock reviewers' prejudices, saw Sports' English press begin to rosy up.

Burnham's conclusion: "As an addendum to the list of successful Australian emigrants, The Sports were welcome indeed. They justified the poundstretcher, achieved an aesthetic impact, and seized notices from the Most Fickle Rock Press In The World. They came to terms with and conquered the perception of 'the cultural cringe'."

Nevertheless, as a performer with about as high an estimation (publicly, at least) of his own worth as Woody Allen, Steven Cummings was staring out of the window of his London livingroom thinking things like: "How are they going to make money out of us? I sort of like these guys at Stiff... Wouldn't it be terrible if we were the ones to send them bankrupt? Something will happen. They'll send us home soon."

it was like he felt some tragic mistake had been made, that somehow some paperwork had been messed up and Sports had been sent over to London instead of Dragon or the Angels or someone, and that as soon as the mistake was detected, the responsible filing clerk would be fired and the whole band would be deported forthwith.

"Ah shit," gasps Martin Armiger, swinging the wheel of the sedan hire-car to career abruptly into centre lane.

"Missed the turn-off." He scans the verging lanes of traffic north-bound from the city on the expressway as road signs fly by in the stream of kicks-bound Sydney Tuesday evening traffic.

"Oh... Oh no, it's OK," he adds, more to himself than anybody. He takes his foot off the accelerator, plants it again and swings into yet another lane, causing Steve Cummings, slouched in the back, to brace his white sneakers against the back of Armiger's seat. He peers with some concern into the rear vision mirror.

"Are you wearing your contact lenses, Martin?"

Armiger, features indistinct beneath a Phillip Marlowe black Continental trilby, makes a non-committal noise. The edge of uneasiness in his fellow travellers increases noticeably. To Armiger, cars are a currency not due a great deal of reverence. He has lost some, crashed some, actually lived in one for a while. They came and went.

He tosses this one into the driveway of a grand old house in Woollahra which towers against the cold black sky, cuts the engine and jumps out. A bright square of front door announces the party has started. Inside, a goodly part of Sydney's arts and music intelligentsia await the modestly triumphant homecoming of Sports. In their absence, hearts had grown fonder. It seems Sports have beaten the catch which stumbles so many outwardbound hometown heroes - go overseas and make little headway while building up debts and losing support at home.

Instead, their record sales snowballed (up from a modest say 10,000 on first album Reckless), partly through energetic campaigning on their behalf by Mushroom, they'd done well O.S. and now they were drawing like a bloody poultice - all cause for a good rort.

At the party: Regular Records bands Mental As Anything and Paul Kelly and the Dots, Sports, playwright Steve Spears (with his play The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin currently "the toast of New York"), writer/Regular Records boss Martin Fabinyi, Melbourne cult hero and songwriter Peter Lillie (ex-Pelaco Bros, among others) and a host of assorted journos, musos, filmies and friends. Big dark livingroom with a roaring fire, kitchen draining of booze all too fast, congestions in hallways and stairways. The diningroom's stereo blasting straight through from the '60s to the last '70s with a gaping hole on the cusp. Dancers cavort as a very congenial Andrew Pendlebury watches on, smiling ear to ear as though blessing the scene, drink in hand. Renaissance face with a strand of black velvet hair over one eye.

He chats randomly about music and friends, mentioning hopes that Jo Jo Zep's new album will prove to be a market-buster for them. The LP, like Sports' last, on Mushroom and produced by Stiff house producer Peter Solley, has just been completed. Andrew wants it to sound good: "Jo Jo are about the only band I know in Melbourne."

Martin Armiger stands at the hub of a wheel of people in a central corridor, drinking white wine and moving one white hand as he talks. England? Yes, he is talking about England. Some of his friends, guitarist Chris Worral of the Dots included, thought he mightn't make it back.

"Yeah..." says Martin, pushing back the trilby to rough his blond curls. "Well, I suppose it's because I enjoy it so much when I'm there."

He saw the Who, very much worth talking about, and on a handful of days off travelled to Paris to visit Australian novelist Helen Garner, an old friend, and read some very good short stories she was writing which depressed him for days. Other cronies turned up from time to time: saxophonist/writer Keith Shadwick, who played with Armiger in the Bleeding Hearts, went on the road with the Sports/Rumour tour bus, reporting back at length on the day-to-day tedium for Australian rock rag Roadrunner. At times the whole event bored and depressed Armiger beyond control and he'd lie up the back of the bus reading detective novels and sulking, wondering why he wasn't spending his time directing movies or writing short stories. But an eventfully pleasant day followed by a red hot gig and he was back on the bus with the Sports again. At least for now, he looks very much happy in the service.

Meanwhile, propped against the front doorway (a position offering little warmth, but a great view of comers and goers and ready access to an emergency exit in case of fire etcetera), Steven Cummings. The reviews of his work - his singing, his position as Sports frontman, his songwriting - have no doubt served to prop up any deep-seated moments of paranoia or insecurity.

In the weeks preceding Sports departure for the UK, Cummings was stricken with an influenza attack so severe as to suggest a certain amount of panic/cold feet was involved, and indeed he doesn't refute the suggestion. Since both the English trip and the band's return have proved successful, Steven's whole being seems to have breathed a sigh of relief and he's warmed to humanity in general. The normal charm he extends to the press (he has been dubbed "the nicest man in show business" - although I can't shake loose a suspicion that beneath the heart of gold lies a will of steel) is accentuated even further. That night, he would chat to anyone. Normally tense, a network of high pressure mannerisms which he exploits to their limit in his stage style, he seemed almost at ease.

So, in the final analysis: where did Sports go right? Like many other bands, they sometimes play admirably and sometimes they don't. As musicians, they have their betters, but that's missing the point. Sports have a style, both separately and, more importantly, together, and they exploit that style to its boundaries as hard as they can. The songwriters of the band (Cummings, Pendlebury and Armiger) write excellent songs in the modern genre: short, powerful and melodic, carefully wired together with hooks and punchlines that leave your ears well aware of hearing them. They have both immediate impact and durable playability and are thus suitable for both singles and album markets. Their lyrics are beautifully self-contained, clever without becoming obtuse, and both guitarists in the band pack a high class solo into a variety of songs. Keyboardist Jimmy Niven solos well too, and keeps the band from sounding lean. Sports' rhythm section is a good one, and Steve Cummings has one of those voices.

Since their return, Sports seem much happier with their lot. A tangle of bad debts ("the financial situation just got out of our league") have been dissolved, overall confidence boosted and band togetherness, a shaky subject at times, appears to have increased a thousandfold.

"Well," confides Steven not at all drily, "after being stuck with each other, we've got more of our own sound. And we all know each other's faults. Now we're going to do what Sports is going to do, forget about competing with other groups. We're doing OK. We hate competing. We've come to grips with what we are... We're going to try harder. I think we're playing a lot better now. We're more relaxed."

Very few musical successes are undeserved in Australia. The Sports earnt theirs through hard work, good judgement and talent. In the future, we can expect an EP of previously unreleased material (Radio Show and Daddy's Little Thief, both by Armiger, and Little Girl, an Armiger/Cummings effort plus a re-recorded Wedding Ring, which, according to Steve, "sounds really good - say more like if Vanda and Young were to do it now.").

This material is part of a batch of songs Sports put down in England, using a mobile recording studio, two practise rooms - one of which was located beneath a railway station - and Pink Floyd's studios, the latter been used to mix the cuts.

Their new producer, a gymbooted American called Liam Sternberg who writes a lot of Lene Lovich material, has brought out what Cummings describes as "the other side of the coin for Sports. He's not 'a producer' like Peter Solley was. It's sounding a bit more like we do live, except better. It's rougher, more boyish... A bit more masculine. No, don't say that - we can't have people thinking we're not effeminate."

So, on with the hard slog ("we sort of fall asleep when we stop playing"), then five or six weeks off, then back into the same venues again.

"In theory, touch wood, we go to England again around the middle to the end of September. Then, touch wood again, we take a quick trip to America. We won't be away as long this time. Then back again. Well, that's the theory. I mean, you never really know you're going till you get on the plane, do you?"

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