Gold Afternoon Fix arrived in record stores in the spring of 1990 with its trick photography cover art, its ambiguous title and in the wake of Starfish, its air of expectation. It was unleashed in various extravagant chocolate box presentation promo packages including CD/CDEP/Cassette in the USA and with chocolate gold coins and a free watch in Europe. Everything about it looked expensive but many things were missing from this most anticipated follow up to the band’s last hit album.
By the end of the sessions Richard Ploog had only played on four songs and the absurd idea that a drum machine would compensate for Richard’s absence had been accepted. Consequently it was the most disappointing record the band ever made in terms of sound. If only the production team had been as enterprising as the promotions department we may have achieved a lot more than we did – or maybe not? The critics were split into two camps – those who liked it and the unconvinced who knew something was up. Shockingly the fans of the band didn’t seem to notice that anything was wrong. Perhaps that is unfair because when I talk to people now I realise that a lot of the fans really did like it but unbeknown to them the problems were manifold. Richard had seemed to lose interest in the band, but it wasn’t just the music that was the issue. His relationship with Steve was fraught and he was on another life path, one where the world was good and every street had a vegan restaurant. It was some kind of spiritual awakening for Richard in the atmosphere and the pressure of L.A. At one stage he and his girlfriend, Mary (later to be the mother of his first child, Irie) out of pure goodness, decided that they would be better served catering for the band with fantastic healthy food. Richard seemed to have forgotten he was the band’s drummer and with little encouragement from the production team he seemed resigned to the fact that he was not needed.
It was the same team that we used on Starfish minus Greg Ladanyi, that is Shep Londsdale engineering, (a drummer himself) and Waddy Wachtel at the helm with his strict adherence to timing. Richard just did not have the discipline to carry on after the first few days’ sessions. Waddy had eroded his confidence with his ferocity towards tempo, steady backing tracks and simplicity, showing less concern for excitement and spontaneous improvisation. In truth, Richard could not be restrained in the studio or on stage and this was becoming an issue for the band. Everything Richard played was too fast. On Starfish he struggled with this but Ladanyi and Wachtel had managed to rein him in by simplifying the band as a whole and although he had been able to come into line with how the production team wanted to approach the drum takes, this time his confidence was gone. He had famously galloped his way through the last few years and as the band was growing in maturity and sophistication, songs that were meant to sit back were careering off at lightning speed leaving only a puff of smoke, rather like the Roadrunner cartoon. The band realised that what we were trying to achieve on this latest record just wasn’t working with Richard behind the kit. So Richard was sidelined. What happened next was perhaps the most stupid musical decision ever made on behalf of the church.
To overcome the problem of Richard playing the songs too fast, we were persuaded to use a drum machine. Waddy had acquired one of the latest gadgets of the day. It was called an Alessis HR-16 and he was ecstatic in the knowledge that he would get the songs played at the right tempo. He failed to recognise (neither did we) that without the feel of a real drummer the magic of the record would be compromised. The sound of these dead samples also weakened the sonic force of the band.
I cringe every time I hear ‘Grind’. The irony of it all was that we were in session musician heaven in L.A. We recorded most of Starfish at The Complex Studios and the best drummers in the world were brushing past you every day – Russ Kunkel, Jeff Porcaro, Don Henley, and although we were at a different famous studio (Ocean Way), there would have been no problem hiring someone for a week to get the backing tracks down. But Waddy decided no, we should program all the drums on the songs that Richard hadn’t delivered, sitting in his producer chair banging out patterns on the little pads with his fingers, everything in perfect time but with awful clumsy drum rolls that sounded sonically flat. How did we go along with this approach with all our knowledge and experience? How did this come about when we were always so uncompromising when it came to our music? What the hell happened?
After the success of Starfish the church were seemingly set up for life. What could possibly go wrong now? We had a lot of experience of making records, touring, business responsibilities and general knowledge about how to apply what was best for us across the board. We had American management, a major record deal, lots of credibility and most importantly, a major hit album and single under our belts. But after we lost Richard we were sucked into the big machine, where we lost ourselves in glamorous photo sessions and expensive videos with faceless directors and a cast of thousands. Hollywood infiltrated our ranks. Our road crew was so large that we didn’t know all their names. Everything started to go wrong for us and culminated in two members leaving, waning sales, heavy drug addiction and no record deal.
A little movement called ‘grunge’ was creeping up on us and our psychedelic mood pop vision had only managed to captivate the mainstream and the hipsters for one album with one hit song (our record sales halved on each of our three subsequent Arista releases). Of course, the chart success of Starfish and ‘Under the Milky Way’ had enhanced our profile immensely. Massive MTV air play (when they still played music videos) had guaranteed enough exposure to generate interest and sales and a major US theatre tour allowed us to reach a large record buying American audience. But we didn’t even look right. With Richard gone we did photo sessions as a three piece and we looked more like Wet Wet Wet than an underground, interesting art rock group. So really GAFFE (as we fondly refer to it) was the beginning of a commercial downward spiral for the band that we never really got over. We lost our way and not just commercially. We had failed to take control creatively and we were unable to escape the manipulation of high-powered record companies and record producers. It’s true that ‘Metropolis’ was a minor radio hit in certain places and we did acquire the services of New York legend Jay Dee Daugherty (drummer with the Patti Smith Group) who toured with us in support of the album. Later he became a temporary replacement (till Tim Powles finally joined in the mid nineties), co-writing and playing on our next record Priest=Aura. But that’s another story.
The songs on Gold Afternoon Fix were mainly written at a small 8 track studio called Fat Boy in Rozelle, a suburb close to the centre of Sydney. Some of the songs were written in Steve’s house just around the corner. But by going to a small recording studio instead of a rehearsal room to create this new material, all the contenders for the album were recorded at some reasonable quality instead of being remembered with a cassette player sitting in the middle of the room and the haphazard results that scenario can give you. This is why the re-issue of Gold Afternoon Fix has so many extra tracks. Once we had a decent amount of songs we sent a cassette off to Waddy Wachtel in L.A. A note on this: although it had been decided, given the success of Starfish, that we should use the same production crew minus Greg Ladanyi due to the strained relationship we had with him, when I look back we probably would have been better off including him as I cannot imagine that he would have allowed us to make this record without a real drummer.
We arrived in LA facing three months of living in Hollywood knowing we would have to deal with all the temptations, distractions and pleasures that the city had to offer. For the Starfish sessions we had lived in apartments on a drab corner of Culver City on Sepulveda Boulevard – not a single groovy coffee shop in sight. So it was a welcome change of scenery for this album as we changed our location to Fuller St, a stone’s throw from the iconic Chinese Theatre and the stars on Hollywood Boulevard embedded along the ‘sidewalk’ on that famous strip. We each had our own apartment that looked out onto the courtyard below often full of frolicking girls and wannabe rock stars, hanging in the spa or the swimming pool, boozing and partying till all hours. One of the bands staying there were called The Swinging Thing and every time I got into the lift (er, that’s elevator dude!) a member of that band would say in the broadest Southern Californian beach, stoner surfer accent “Whassup?” It’s one of those questions that doesn’t demand a response and I never quite knew how to reply. “Hello” seemed inappropriate. The atmosphere of the place was so Rock and Roll you imagined that everyone in the complex had cocaine for breakfast. As it happened, the drugs in the church were slowly turning from the standard marijuana quota to different mood enhancers. Disappointingly this would lead to other forms of drug experimentation down the line and would damage the band rather than give it inspiration. Certain drugs encourage music creation but when taken to excess the stage is set for a slow demise into lethargy, apathy and dependence. So look out!
We seemed to get off to a bad start on Gold Afternoon Fix on every level. The first track was ‘Pharaoh’ and was misspelled on the album sleeve as ‘Pharoah’. This was an error hard to forgive for such a well-read band. We had taken our eye off the ball. As the band got bigger so did the costs. Consequently our wages stayed the same. On the Gold Afternoon Fix US tour we had a 17 man road crew, articulated trucks, luxury tour buses – we were turning into Emerson, Lake And Palmer! A giant gong loomed on the horizon! Somewhere in there, there was a good album but so many issues added to it falling below par. This was the last thing we needed. We joke how we “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory”. We lost focus and by the time we got it back the whole music business had changed into a different and even more slippery beast.
We hadn’t been happy with the approach on Starfish either but to take away the drummer really was unacceptable, although we made little noise about it at the time and after the success of the last album Waddy was convinced he was on the right track. One explanation for us going along with this is that we were always open to the use of drum machines in the church IF they were used in the right way. All of Steve’s early demos were written with a Roland drum machine (which I still own). We had all liked John Foxx’s first album Metamatic and that was ALL drum-machines, but it sounded futuristic and atmospheric. ‘Under The Milky Way’ also had synthetic drums but it managed to capture an atmosphere despite the use of a synclavier. So to be fair to Waddy we were impressed by the authenticity of the sounds and the flexibility of this groundbreaking new gadget and the drum machine scenario was in fact accepted by all of us. However, to us a drum machine was something built into a cheap organ or an aid to writing songs, not something to replace a drummer. In the early days of the band Steve used his drum machine, with its cheesy sounds, to get a rhythm going to help him write songs but we never dreamed of using a drum machine as a basic component in the sound of the band. This Alessis HR-16 with its angled modern design and easy functions was a revolution and with consummate ease you could program a whole song and possibly trick a robot into thinking it was real. The point here is that Waddy was trying to replace a drummer with a drum machine, not using the machine as an odd entity in its own right. These songs were written for a real drummer to play and feel and be performed by a four-piece band. When Richard dropped out of the band (like in the three-piece photo), a crucial element was gone and with it went the magic. An intangible force was missing and once he had left, the album veered off course.
At least Richard played drums on ‘Pharaoh’, the opening track on Side One. The first thing you hear on ‘Pharaoh’ is ‘The Wing’. Strange, eerie metallic sounds appear. It should have been amazing! It was supposed to be an uncomfortable, intriguing and inexplicable cacophony but somehow it wasn’t quite eerie enough. Marilyn Donadt commanded this instrument of her own invention. It was constructed out of a large suspended sheet of metal that she banged and manipulated to create these metallic, percussive soundscapes. But instead of sounding sci-fi it sounded like a Chicago Sunday market stall buckling in the wind. Everything was too clean, the snare drum sounds replaced, perhaps by a sample? The tom toms were real but a synthetic atmosphere pervades the track. The vocal is too loud (as if this was a commercial piece anyway) and all the mystery that a song like this should be able to conjure up was absent. It was supposed to be like a clarion call from a parallel universe, a procession through the great shadows cast by the pyramids or a momentous landing from deep space, the immortal queen’s arrival heralded from the distance, approaching, coming into sight, striking fear or awe into her awaiting subjects. Well that was the idea – unrealised even though Richard was there to give the track the thump of real drums. It was certainly an original opener. Lyrically it predicted our demise:
Hi to all the people that are selling me
Here’s one straight from the factory
They’ve sewn my eyes up in their sockets
I dip my hand into their pockets.
Is there anybody there?
I could swear I’m not alone
Show your faces if you dare
Slaving platinum to bone
One big man with a good connection
Takes the whole damn ship in the wrong direction
I don’t mind him misinterpreting me
I hate it when he gets us lost out to sea
Late at night when I’m lying in bed
I’ve got to say a prayer for my daily bread
And early in the morning when I’m still asleep
You sit upon your throne making grown men weep, with boredom
Writing about his surroundings was becoming a staple of Steve’s lyrics. This trend began with ‘Disenchanted’ on Heyday and continued with ‘NSEW’ on Starfish. He seemed disillusioned with his lot. ‘Pharaoh’ was a message directed towards the music industry itself. He seemed confused, pulled in different directions between dark moody music and pop. There was also the added pressure of being the lead singer and delivering as a front man. Then there was the record company and the management pressure to succeed, to sell records. His head was in the clouds but his feet were stuck under the record company desk. Tethered, unable to break free to live out his stoner, sci-fi fantasy where elaborate and impossible worlds were inhabited by strange men and women and fantastic beasts that somehow spoke a language that we could all understand; a fantasy world that we could believe in. He seemed hindered, unable to choose his subject. Which world should he be writing about – the world of reality or that of the imagination? The words seemed to jump back and forth between dimensions. Drugs were a trampoline that threw you one minute into a twin mooned green-skied sunset and the next into a lawyer’s office on Wilshire Boulevard. This duality could confuse the listener. Other bands had managed to be half weird and half commercial, The Cure for example, but we couldn’t quite get the weird OR the commercial right. We had the songs, the imagination and the musical ability but no one seemed to quite know how to tap it, bottle it and sell it to the masses. Consequently we were doomed to be a cult band forever. A band you either loved or didn’t know. We were on the periphery of commercialism but equally too oblique to seduce the casual listener. Not fitting in either world is both a blessing and a curse and from the beginning we were an indie band on a major label, a rock band with pop hits, a pop band with long instrumental passages. Good looking and intensely serious.
‘Metropolis’ is a case in point – a classic church contradiction unwittingly conspiring to confuse the public on both sides of the fence. Trite and deep, catchy and clumsy with awful programmed drums, a Rickenbacker lead motif (also too loud) that is reminiscent of a pop-ish ‘Born To Run’, raises the question: “Are they a rock band or are they a pop band?” We made a billion dollar video that was like a scene from Star Wars. It featured Venusians, Martians (no, just extras from LA) and an elephant. Thankfully, Steve didn’t include a whale in the lyrics but there was definitely an elephant in the room. ‘Metropolis’ was a small radio hit more due to its perceived accessibility than its quality as a song. It’s verse melody runs into a surprisingly catchy chorus. Thematically the song is a sci-fi circus in space, a trapeze act between the planets or across futuristic city skyscrapers and a place where zoos are inhabited by bizarre and fantastic animals. There’s jangling and feeding back Rickenbackers galore, Peter supporting on mandolin – perfect bent pop. On the surface this looked like exactly what we should be doing but if you listened closely you could hear our drummer was gone, replaced by a clumsy machine; the production was all wrong; we had an awful image problem with those uncomfortable three-piece photos; an impending drug problem and a record that just wasn’t good enough. And no one was talking about it…
‘Terra Nova Cain’, a song Steve and I wrote, had some of the sci-fi android lover and drug imagery that exemplified the church’s raison d’etre. You’d think that a song with this rhythm, tempo, pace and subject matter would suit the drum machine – but no. It was stiff and seemed to lumber its way to the chorus where the fake toms stood out like a Klingon on a bicycle. It was like a multi-million dollar movie with no effects department. We were stalled at the gates of boundless possibilities. All the amazing music we had inside us and here we were lost; directionless, a contemporary production guinea pig.
Then came ‘City’, an unrealized B-side jam turned into a song that somehow made the album, probably because it was light and up-tempo – just what we didn’t want to be.
The saccharin ‘Monday Morning’ followed with my annoying incessant single note guitar motif that may have been more appropriate played on a piano. It’s also absolutely in the wrong place in the running order. Once again there is some nice mandolin by Peter but the song itself seems to be twice as long as it should be and when it abruptly ends it has outstayed its welcome. Unfortunately this was one of the four that Richard played on, his drumming would have been better served on many of the other tracks.
Next came ‘Russian Autumn Heart’ (sung by me). It was in the wrong place coming after ‘Monday Morning’ on the CD. Bad sequencing can destroy the balance of an album and to go from a lilting track to this manic rocker was just too much. “Manchurian mink” in the lyrics is a nice phrase but it’s like a song from the past, something that may have fitted more comfortably on an earlier album. Exploding guitar solos and fast paced, I found myself singing another up-tempo song, probably due to the success of ‘Spark’ on Starfish and also the fact that Steve had the tragic and romantic space metaphor songs covered. I actually felt much more comfortable singing less aggressive songs like ‘Field Of Mars’. Thankfully Richard’s drums helped this one avoid embarrassment. However, it was clear that the record was all off kilter when songs like ‘Russian Autumn Heart’ featured real drums while other up-tempo songs used machines.
‘Essence’ was supposed to be classic church but somehow it just didn’t take off. In fact nothing on this album got off the ground or through the wardrobe, into the land of magic. Listen to Peter’s beautiful ringing arpeggios on this song, my riffing and slashing chords, the feedback and Steve’s moody bass and then there’s the drums – a massive hole in the sound picture. It sounds like World War II in the Battle of Britain but when the camera pulls back you see it’s not real – the Spitfires are cardboard, the Messerschmitts are plastic and the Germans are all from California.
‘You’re Still Beautiful’ was a song that Peter intensely disliked and was loosely based on a famous Melbourne luminary junkie (in the lyric “The Palace” refers to a venue in that city). The drums again are sonically lacking, better suited to Spandau Ballet, never capturing the intensity of the lyric.
‘Disappointment’ is my favourite track on the album. Ironically it is the track that was intended to have a drum machine, incorporated for its inherent faux South American percussion. It has an intrinsic moodiness, unlikely chord changes and has Steve playing a snaky fretless bass. I play a one-take guitar solo on Waddy’s old Gibson Hummingbird. It features rich arpeggios from Peter, a poignant lyric and is altogether wonderful – a fascinating hybrid of folk rock and cocktail lounge music. That’s a rare1960 Rickenbacker, set on the bass pick-up playing those guitar notes at the end. I bought the guitar out of a garage in L.A. for $700.
Peter’s ‘Transient’ with its multi-layered vocals at the start is another linear song that seems to suffer from a lack of dynamics. It’s the whole story on this record. The band is all about mood and dynamics and these essential ingredients seem to have been cast to the wind. When we look back at the period, it was like everyone was bamboozled by the technology and although we spent the 1980’s avoiding the obvious sonic crimes that bands like the Thompson Twins may have committed, in the end it caught us up, grabbed us by the tail and slowly dragged us towards the reverb pit of no return. In the end we escaped but we certainly fell asleep on our watch.
I’m pretty sure ‘Laughing’ is the song Steve dislikes the most. Another lightweight jam that sounds like it may be worthy at first but it ends up sounding like an outtake from The Psychedelic Furs’ Mirror Moves. Steve was all at sea with his words on this one. Ideas can sometimes take wrong turns. An instrumental backing track can have tons of potential but it’s only when the vocal goes on the track that you know whether or not you have a great song. This is one of the problems of writing songs in the way we do. Sometimes songs fall at the last hurdle. A song like ‘Destination’, a band and fan favourite, succeeded at every stage of its composition whereas ‘Laughing’, possibly on shaky ground from its birth, never managed to rise to the occasion.
‘Fading Away’ should have been great. It had a potentially captivating feel, the mood and the melody, a great chorus, some soaring guitar from Peter and me playing those three descending chords. Sonically unrealized again, there is magic in there somewhere but its hands are tied and it’s gagged and covered in polythene, kidnapped by the studio itself. The studio is a space ship and it’s the producer’s responsibility to navigate the stars and arrive at the right planet. But the question is – were the band ever sure of the destination on this record?
‘Grind’ is of course the worst of all, totally and completely destroyed by the awful drum machine. The clumsy moron giant is back in the room thudding away with his club, bereft of feeling. A church classic ruined by a frustrating mixture of bad planet alignment that included the wrong drugs, the wrong city, mostly the wrong songs and the wrong direction. Behind it all loomed the spectre of the success of the album before it (there are thin pickings among the B – sides too). In my opinion, Gold Afternoon Fix (including the extra CD) sounds like demos for an album that we never made, not a proper album that we released. Of these demos, Grind and three or four others were songs we could have recorded for that other album. Another writing session for the missing other five tracks and we may have made a great record.
The album was released and sold thirty times more than a church album of the modern day ever would. Of course the whole scale of record sales has changed dramatically but it still proves some disturbing points – popularity breeds popularity and success can make you lose sight of where you are. Steve was never happy with the words and losing Richard took the guts out of the record and the band. The guitars are actually pretty good but Steve had the indignation of playing all the bass lines along to the drum machine without even hearing the guitar parts. He was set up in a small booth with two speakers while Waddy breathed down his neck scrutinizing every note, so as to be perfectly in time – a terrible way to capture any kind of feel for a song as a whole.
During the Gold Afternoon Fix US tour I got a phone call from the management telling me that Julianne Regan from All About Eve wanted to get in touch. That phone call led me to spending the next 10 years as the guitarist in All About Eve as well as the church but miraculously it was the church that survived into the next century, despite the odds against it.
Thanks so much for posting these Marty. I have all the 2010 releases except Gold Afternoon Fix and Priest = Aura which I’ve been trying to get my hands on for years. They were never for sale at Second Motion for some reason. If you happen to find a copy of each down the back of a sofa I’ll happily buy them from you. In the meantime I’m going to make a large pot of tea and enjoy the stories. Thanks again Marty.
What a great overview and heart breaking tale about the frustrations and challenges of that album. And to think that Rick Rubin was just an hours drive away up in malibu. Forgive me for asking but why not just stage a coup and refuse to do anything unless Waddy the rat Wachtel was fired for abuse from the project and being such wretched prick? Hindsight is a cruel mistress, but it’s hard to see how cool this could have been and just have it turn out the way it did. And to think I had blamed poor richard ploog for those clonky drums on some of those songs, literally every song on there where I wondered “geez, what happened” turns out to have all been that stupid drum machine. I know sometimes groups go back and redo stuff and re-release things…. do you think you guys could ever go back and maybe have ploog or I guess even tim put some real drum tracks on it to make it more fluid and live? I’d definitely buy it to rehear those songs done the way you guys like them. It might even be fun to have Richard and Tim collaborate on it, but I don’t know how all that is now. To this day I still wish you guys would do, or would have done at least one album with Rick Ruben because he has such a great track record of making really nice albums with bands that are of similar vibes and sentiments, and perfectly at home with trippy and psychedelic and rock in his giant beard and studio out in Malibu looking out over the beautiful ocean. It’s hard not to think that would come out just really great and capture so much of all your collective greatness. Anyway, this was an awesome overview of the whole thing and helped piece together things that I always wondered about. Thank you for a great blog article and I hope you are doing awesome. Cheers. 🙂 JVS