For a band that started out as a purely instrumental outfit in 1988, it is of some note that The Cruel Sea went on to become one of Australia's most popular outfits. The catalyst was singer Tex Perkins, who initially joined on a part-time basis in 1989, to add his broad brushstroke lyrics to the band's swelling melodies. Later on, with Perkins on board as a full-time member, the band gained widespread acclaim.
The original Cruel Sea line-up grew out of Sydney independent band Sekret Sekret. Fronted by singer David Virgin (ex-Broken Toys, Ugly Mirrors), Sekret Sekret itself grew out of the late 1970s Sydney punk scene centred around the Grand Hotel. The band played a sprightly brand of punky power pop with psychedelic overtones. Sekret Sekret issued four independent singles, `Charity'/`Hope You Can' (June 1980), `New King Jack'/`Moose Beach' (December 1980), `Girl with a White Stick'/`Chimes' (June 1984) and `Just to Love You'/`Waterbirds' (October 1984), before breaking up in 1987. Under the name of David Verjin, frontman Virgin later issued an interesting folk/country album, Landlord Green (1991), which included guitar contributions from Danny Rumour.
The Cruel Sea took its name from a song by 1960s US surf instrumental band The Ventures (it was also the title of the novel by Nicholas Monsarrat). The original line-up was short-lived and Rumour and Elliot recruited Ken Gormly (bass; ex-Sekret Sekret) and James Cruickshank (keyboards, guitar; ex-Widdershins, Neil Murray and the Rainmakers). For a time, Rumour and his compatriots were content to explore their own instrumental surf sound (epic rather than twangy), but at the start of 1989, Perkins began joining the band on stage. It was not without irony that the band's atmospheric music evoked the feel of wide open spaces, yet they commanded a fanatical following on the Sydney inner-city pub circuit. The band signed to the Red Eye label and Perkins sang on the 12-inch EP `Down Below' (September 1989) and the band's debut album, Down Below (December). Due to his commitments to Beasts of Bourbon at that stage, however, he was precluded from becoming fully involved.
The singles `I Feel'/`Help Me' (September 1991), the CD EPs 4 x 4 (March 1992) and `This is Not the Way Home' (August 1992) plus the album This is Not the Way Home (December 1991) followed. This is Not the Way Home garnered critical acclaim and was an indication of things to come. The music ranged from funky Louisiana swamp blues to sweet soul, with Perkins' laconic vocals recalling the spirit of Captain Beefheart, Tony Joe White and John Lee Hooker in the process. With the release of This is Not the Way Home, The Cruel Sea embarked on a European tour supporting Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. With the suspension of Beasts of Bourbon activities in early 1993, Perkins was able to join The Cruel Sea as a full-time member. This new-found unity resulted in the classic album The Honeymoon is Over (May 1993), which yielded the singles `Black Stick' (December 1992), `The Honeymoon is Over' (July 1993), a cover of Tony Joe White's `Woman with Soul' (October) and `Seems Twice' (February 1994). `Black Stick' reached #25 on the national charts during May, and `The Honeymoon is Over' peaked at #41 in August.
The Honeymoon is Over made its debut at #4 on the mainstream charts, eventually reaching the coveted #1 spot (and selling over 140 000 copies in the process). On the album, Perkins dubbed himself the `Delivery Man'. The super funky `The Honeymoon is Over' went on to log a #9 placing on Triple J's 1993 Hottest 100 list (the highest placing for an Australian band that year). At the 1993 Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Awards ceremony, The Cruel Sea took out the honours for the Best Group, Best Album (The Honeymoon is Over), Best Single and Song of the Year (`The Honeymoon is Over'). The shine was taken off the evening somewhat when, at one of the post-awards parties, Perkins was involved in a fracas with a drunken guest who had attacked his girlfriend, photographer Krystina Higgins. To top the night off, two of the band's ARIA trophies were stolen.
The Cruel Sea ended 1994 with another tour throughout Europe supporting Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, followed by their own headlining jaunt across Europe and Canada. Four singles were lifted from the band's second #1 album, Three Legged Dog (November 1994), `Better Get a Lawyer' (#29 in January 1995), `Just a Man' (#39 in April), `Anybody but You' (#49 in July) and `Too Fast for You' (August). The band commenced 1995 by supporting The Rolling Stones on their massive Voodoo Lounge tour of Australia. Following the release of The Honeymoon is Over in Europe (on Polydor) and the USA (on A&M), the band then undertook its third overseas tour. The Cruel Sea completed another successful year with its second award for Best Group at the 1995 ARIA ceremony.
Rock'n'Roll Duds (November 1995) mopped up a batch of B-sides, demos and studio out-takes. The band toured constantly until early 1996, after which Perkins completed his solo album, Far be It from Me and reactivated Beasts of Bourbon. At the start of 1997, The Cruel Sea returned to its instrumental roots (sans Perkins) for a series of gigs, including an appearance at the Sydney leg of the Big Day Out tour. With the break-up of the Beasts later in the year, Perkins rejoined The Cruel Sea.
The Cruel Sea’s new CD single, ‘Hard Times’ (February 1998), matched the raucous swagger of previous band efforts like ‘The Honeymoon is Over’. It was a taster for the forthcoming album, Over Easy. Co-produced by Phil McKeller and Daniel Denholm, the album came out in July, peaking at #10 on the national chart. It produced two more singles, ‘Takin’ All Day’ (May) with its summery pop groove, and ‘You’ll Do’ (August). The band undertook the Takin’ All Day national tour throughout May, after which Tex Perkins embarked on a solo tour during July, backed by Charlie Owen (guitar; ex-New Christs, Beasts of Bourbon), Jim Elliot, Ken Gormly and Joel Silbersher (from Hoss). The Cruel Sea was back on tour again throughout August and September.
After spending most of 1998 on tour in support of Over Easy, The Cruel Sea was quiet for most of 1999. With the new compilation The Most (The Best of the Cruel Sea) out in September, the band was back on the road again throughout October and November. With 22 tracks and over 78 minutes of music, The Most was one of the best compilations of its type. It was released simultaneously with a batch of ‘Best Of’ sets, comprising The Clouds’ Favourites, Beasts of Bourbon’s Beyond Good and Evil, and Dave Graney ‘n’ the Coral Snakes’ The Baddest. The Most also included the new single, ‘It Won’t Last’ (September). The single logged the #52 placement on the 1999 Triple J Hottest 100 list.