Tom Morgan is a modest yet talented Australian whose songwriting had a mostly hidden yet sizeable effect on mid-nineties guitar pop. History does not record how he initially hooked up with Evan Dando of The Lemonheads, or maybe it does and I just can’t find the details. Whatever, I’m going to say they were both wandering through the Aussie Outback in a chemically- enhanced stupor after a gig, back during Dando’s first tour of the Antipodes. As luck would have it, both men happened to be carrying acoustic guitars and soon they were sitting cross- legged, playing modest three-chord ditties and realising each had found an artistic soulmate. This friendship was cemented when a psychotic bunyip that happened to be passing attacked Dando and was eventually fought off by Morgan who throttled the errant creature before drowning it in a nearby billabong. Ok, that may not be exactly the way it played out, but what is certain is that the two men were a songwriting team around the time of ‘Come On Feel The Lemonheads’, and that Tom had a hand in some of Evan’s most widely-known hits. Yet Morgan never replicated Dando’s success, probably due to his lack of careerist drive, matinee idol good looks or tabloid fodder run-ins with models and rock star widows. Because that’s basically how Dando built up his fanbase over the past two decades. That, and some quite nice songs. But for consistency and quality, only a couple of Lemonheads records hold up against ‘Manilow’, the debut record by Morgan’s three-piece Smudge, released in 1994 on the fledgling Domino label. The group came out of Sydney in ‘91 and their early 7 inch ‘Don’t Want To Be Grant McLennan’, an ode to that mindset Morgan didn’t share with the erstwhile Go-Between, was quickly made John Peel’s record of the week. By the mid-nineties Morgan’s all-over-the-place songwriting was ready to support a long-player and Smudge subsequently threw the kitchen sink at Manilow’s tracklisting, cramming in ten slices of Smudge’s trademark “laid-back roll through bright, strummed, fast, lo-fi, slacker pop”. These included ‘Superhero’ and the more famous ‘Down About It’, both co-written with Dando (left), and the proper songs were augmented by another dozen snippets, half-arsed ideas and fuck-abouts that probably seemed like a
That said, the plea for a girl to flee her abusive boyfriend set to a rising melody that comprises ‘Funny
You Should Mention That’ is categorically the finest, most catchy 24-second song I’ve ever heard.
Unfortunately ‘Mr. Coffee Man’ is not the finest 4-second song I’ve ever heard. Nor is ‘Top Bunkin’ Duncan’
the best 3-second song I’ve ever heard. Still, it’s difficult to pull off that kind of brevity unless you’re
Napalm Death which, I think I can state with some authority, none of us are.
Morgan’s idiosyncratic approach to songcraft is reflected elsewhere on ‘Manilow’, not least in that king of ersatz soul for frustrated housewives namechecked in the title. Once into the album his subject matter includes a talking bear called Dave (‘Dave The Talking
Bear’), falling in love with a girl who is similarly aesthetically challenged (‘Ugly Just Like Me’) and ‘Scary Cassettes’. This last track became a key text for future generations trying to understand the alternative scene of the mid-nineties, concerning as it does a guy for whom prospective life partners will always have to share him with a debilitating Lou Barlow addiction and the countless tapes of Sebadoh, Sentridoh, Folk Implosion etc Lou (left) churned out following his initial, acrimonious departure from Dinosaur Jr. Much of ‘Manilow’ is obviously cut from the same melodic cloth as The Lemonheads sound Tom helped develop; straightforward, invigorating earworms, commencing with the early one-two-three of ‘Ingrown’, ‘Impractical Joke’ and ‘Superhero’, an invigorating rush of thoroughly enjoyable pop sequencing. In fact, aside from the previously mentioned dicking about, the only quibble I have with ‘Manilow’ is that one of Morgan’s finest, most hilariously contagious songs - ‘The Outdoor Type’ - isn’t on it (“I can’t go away with you on a rock climbing weekend / What if something’s on TV and its never shown again?”)
Yet the inclusion of ‘Divan’ just about makes up for this. Another of my desert island tracks, and a song guaranteed to stimulate both the cochlea and the hairs on the back of your neck, it’s a mystery how Smudge wring such pathos from the tale of offering a pal (or perhaps potential lover) the opportunity to “crash out on my divan”. After all, its not as if Morgan's lyrics are particularly profound (“Its not much like a lounger” he sings, “Its more like a sofa bed”) Maybe ‘Divan’ just encapsulates all that’s romantically transient about being twenty-something and responsibility-free. Or maybe it’s just a terrific tune. Either way, this track by itself is sufficient reason to purchase the record, although the sitcom-related hidden bonuses are a welcome surprise. You get covers of the theme to ‘Charles In Charge’ and the song Woody sings to his girlfriend in Cheers (once played by Lisa Kudrow, fact fans). Altogether now: “Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly, Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly….”
Smudge never attained more than a cult following, most likely because of their self-effacing nature and
somewhat lackadaisical approach to building on early success. You can see the lack of ambition in their logo
(‘Smudge Suck’) which adorns t-shirts, flyers, and ultimately their MySpace page, along with an album
inlay depicting a keyboard sat on a toilet and Morgan’s unwillingness to milk his celebrity connections.
A few more singles and albums came from Smudge in the nineties, records so obscure they didn’t even get a proper release in the UK, and after gigging regularly for years the three-piece would return to the stage only rarely after 1998.
Fast-forward a decade and Smudge have reformed to play Brisbane’s inaugural ‘Sounds of Spring’ festival while, in May of this year, they undertake their first tour of the UK this century, playing Colchester, Manchester and, on the 24th May 2010, the legendary Windmill in Brixton. So, for those of us fanboys and girls who never saw Smudge the first time around, now’s our chance. I’ll be there, trying not to whoop. Manilow was re-released worldwide as a 12th anniversary edition with a bonus disc a couple of years ago and is due to be reissued in the UK later this year. The original version is available from Domino records.