From very early on in his career, Paul Kelly (b. 1955) was recognised as one of the most significant singer/songwriters in the country. Inspired initially by the likes of Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Lou Reed and Robert Johnson, Kelly's narrative songwriting style was infused with wry observations, bittersweet emotions and enormous appeal. As well as issuing an enduring body of work with his own bands, Kelly has co-produced Archie Roach's acclaimed Charcoal Lane album, and had his songs covered by many artists including, among others, Jenny Morris (`Beggar on the Street of Love'), Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons (`Only the Lonely Hearted'), Renée Geyer (`Difficult Woman', `Foggy Highway'), Christine Anu (`Last Train') and Wendy Matthews (`Take Your Time') .
Kelly began his career writing poetry and learning guitar. He travelled around the country before settling in Melbourne in late 1976. In 1977 he joined R&B pub band the High Rise Bombers, which comprised Kelly (guitar, vocals), Martin Armiger (guitar, vocals; ex-Toads, Bleeding Hearts), Chris Dyson (guitar; ex-Cruisers), Keith Shadwick (sax; ex-Sun), Sally Ford (sax; ex-Flying Tackle), Lee `Fred' Cass (bass; ex-Lip Arthur, Superlemon) and John Lloyd (drums, ex-Relaxed Mechanics, Cruisers). Chris Langman (guitar, vocals; ex-Spare Change, Parachute) replaced Dyson in early 1978.
The band built up a cult following on the Carlton pub circuit, but the strain of maintaining such a large ensemble (which included three songwriters) proved too much. In August 1978, Armiger left to join The Sports and Ford joined The Kevins. The only recorded evidence of the band's existence were the tracks `She's Got It' and `Domestic Criminal', which appeared on Missing Links' Various Artists album The Melbourne Club in 1981.
Meanwhile, Kelly, Langman and Lloyd formed the first line-up of Paul Kelly and the Dots with Paul Gadsby (bass) and Chris Malhebe (guitar). Chris Worral (guitar; ex-Captain Matchbox, Pelaco Brothers, Bleeding Hearts, Stiletto) replaced Malhebe in February 1979. The Dots quickly became one of the most popular bands on the Melbourne scene. Lloyd left in June to join Flowers in Sydney, and Tony Thornton (drums; ex-Sidewinder, Front Page) took his place. Chris Dyson (guitar; ex-Cruisers, High Rise Bombers, Stiletto, Romantics) also took over from Langman.
Paul Kelly and the Dots' independent debut 7-inch EP (late 1979) combined one studio track, `Recognition', with three live cuts, `Lowdown', `Faster than Light (Our Love)' and `I See Red'. It was a good display of Kelly's earthy pop rock roots. In early 1980, the band signed to Mushroom Records and issued `Seeing is Believing'/`Angel in Me' (May). By that stage, the line-up comprised Kelly, Worral, Dyson, Thornton and newcomer Alan Brooker (bass; ex-Clean Cut). The delightful, ska-tinged `Billy Baxter'/`Hard Knocks' (November 1980) became the band's only national Top 40 charting single in March 1981. Further line-up changes had occurred in late 1980 when Tim Brosnan (guitar; ex-Millionaires, True Wheels, Romantics) and Mick Holmes (guitar; ex-Negatives, Eric Gradman: Man & Machine, Romantics) replaced Dyson and Worral. Dyson joined Beats Working. Meanwhile, it had taken three producers (Martin Armiger, Joe Camilleri and Trevor Lucas) and several months to complete The Dots' debut album Talk. The album appeared in March 1981 and yielded the single `Lowdown'/`Want You Back' (April).
In late 1981, Kelly and the Dots travelled to the Philippines to record their second album, Manilla. The album's release was delayed until August 1982 due to further line-up changes. Maurice Frawley (ex-Japanese Comix) replaced Holmes on guitar, and Huk Treloar (ex-Bleeding Hearts, Sneakers, Little Heroes) replaced Thornton on drums. Kelly also spent a period recovering from a broken jaw, which was the result of being mugged in Melbourne. Manilla included the singles `Clean this House'/`Touchy Babe' (April 1982) and `Alive and Well'/`Some Guys' (July 1982). In early 1982, Kelly also issued a joint single with Jo Kennedy, `Rocking Institution'/`Body and Soul' (both songs from the Starstruck soundtrack).
Alex Formosa replaced Treloar in mid-1982. By August 1983, Kelly had broken up The Dots to form the Paul Kelly Band with Frawley, Michael Armiger (bass; ex-10,000 Guitars) and Greg Martin (drums). By late 1984, the line-up included Armiger, Steve Connolly (guitar; ex-Cuban Heels, Rare Things, Zimmermen) and Michael Barclay (drums; ex-Japanese Comix, Little Murders, Runners, Zimmermen).
Following a period of re-evaluation, Kelly moved to Sydney, played solo dates and teamed up with Connolly and Barclay to record his debut solo album. Post (May 1985) was a stark, highly personalised collection of acoustic songs that showcased the extraordinary breadth of Kelly's songwriting skills. `From St Kilda to King's Cross'/ `Blues for Skip' was issued as a single (May). By that stage, Kelly had assembled The Coloured Girls with Connolly, Barclay and Armiger.
Initially the band was a loose aggregation, incorporating the likes of Spencer P. Jones (guitar; from The Johnnys), Billy Pommer Jnr (drums; also from The Johnnys), Peter 'Pedro' Bull (keyboards; ex-Flaming Hands, Grooveyard) and Noel Funicello (bass; from The Amazing Woolloomoolosers) – the original line-up that performed a one-off gig at the Hopetoun Hotel – plus Armiger, Rick Grossman (bass; from Divinyls), Chris Coyne (sax) and others. By the end of 1985, the line-up had consolidated with Connolly, Barclay, Bull and Jon Schofie (bass; ex-Grooveyard). The Coloured Girls were an essential part of Kelly's musical development, a band capable of great empathy, adaptability and above all adept at producing energetic, intelligent rock'n'roll. Connolly in particular contributed a great deal to Kelly's sound and style.
In September 1986, Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls issued the sprawling, 24-track double set Gossip, one of the genuine classics of Australian rock. The album produced the singles `Before too Long'/`White Train' (#15 in July 1986), `Darling It Hurts'/`Preaching to the Converted' (#16 in October), `Leaps and Bounds'/`Bradman' (January 1987) and `Look So Fine, Feel So Low'/`Somebody's Forgetting Somebody (Somebody's Letting Somebody Down)', `Pastures of Plenty' (April 1987). Gossip reached #7 on the national chart and attained gold status in Australia (over 35 000 copies sold). It was issued in the USA on A&M as a single album. In the USA, The Coloured Girls became known as The Messengers (in deference to racial sensitivities). The band toured the USA, initially as the support to Crowded House then as a headlining act.
The band's second album, Under the Sun, reached #17 on the Australian chart in December 1987, eventually attaining platinum status (70 000 copies sold). It was one of the best Australian albums for the year. Under the Sun yielded four singles, `To Her Door'/`Bicentennial' (#6 in December 1987), `Forty Miles to Saturday Night'/`Little Decisions' (February 1988), `Don't Stand So Close'/`Hard Times' (May 1988) and the double 7-inch set `Dumb Things'/`Deportees'; `Rock'n' Soul'/`Reckless' (#36 in February 1989). `Dumb Things' was included on the soundtrack to the Yahoo Serious feature film Young Einstein. Kelly also contributed a cover of Australian Crawl's `Reckless' to the Various Artists tribute album, Used and Recovered by (1990).
With the release of So Much Water So Close to Home (July 1989), the band also became known as Paul Kelly and the Messengers in Australia. So Much Water . . . featured some of Kelly's most passionate and world-weary songs. The album title appeared in the song `Everything's Turning to White', which was inspired by the Raymond Carver short story `So Much Water So Close to Home'. The album spawned the singles `Sweet Guy'/`Ghost Town' (June 1989) and `Careless'/`Special Treatment' (November), plus the four-track EP `Most Wanted Man in the World', `I Had Forgotten You'/`Beggar on the Street of Love' (live), `I Won't Be Your Dog Anymore' (live) (March 1990). Kelly also contributed `Special Treatment' to the Various Artists album Building Bridges on CBS (1989).
Kelly and the Messengers undertook another US tour where A&M had continued to issue the band's albums. The next Messengers album was the 18-track Comedy (November 1990). It featured the singles `Pouring Petrol on a Burning Man'/ `Other People's Houses' (October), `Don't Start Me Talking'/`From St Kilda to King's Cross' (January 1991), `Keep It to Yourself'/`Brand New Ways' (May) and `Wintercoat'/`Special Treatment' (September). One of the album's highlights was the seven-minute epic `From Little Things Big Things Grow' (co-written with Kev Carmody), a documentary narrative of one of the first Aboriginal land rights claims. Kelly had tackled similar topics before on tracks like `Maralinga (Rainy Land)' from Gossip and `Bicentennial' from Under the Sun.
Paul Kelly and the Messengers played their final gigs together during August 1991. The fifth and final Messengers album was Hidden Things (May 1992), a collection of rare recordings and B-sides made between 1986 and 1991. The album gave rise to the single `When I First Met Your Ma'/`Rally Round the Drum' (April). Also included were covers of `Reckless', Woody Guthrie's `Pastures of Plenty' and Joe Geia's `Yil Lull'. With the break-up of The Messengers, Kelly travelled to the USA in order to establish a base in Los Angeles. Guitarist Steve Connolly produced Kev Carmody's Eulogy (for a black person) as a follow-up to his co-credit with Kelly on Archie Roach's Charcoal Lane. Connolly later worked with Sherry Rich and the Grievous Angels before forming his own band. He died in 1995 from heart problems following surgery.
Before Kelly left for the USA, he took his first acting role in the stage play Funerals and Circuses for the Adelaide Fringe Festival, and recorded the solo, double live album Live, May 1992 (October 1992). He also contributed several songs to the soundtrack of the 1993 ABC-TV drama series Seven Deadly Sins. In the USA, Kelly toured as a solo artist, signed to the Vanguard label and worked on Renée Geyer's album Difficult Woman in Los Angeles. Back in Australia in late 1993, he produced Vika and Linda Bull's debut album Vika and Linda, recorded a new album, Wanted Man, and issued his book Paul Kelly Lyrics (Angus & Robertson). He also recorded the soundtrack to Alkinos Tsilimidos' feature film Everynight . . . Everynight (1994).
Kelly's third solo album, Wanted Man (July 1994), mixed a wide range of styles, from country and reggae to R&B and pop. It included the CD singles `Song from the Sixteenth Floor' (January 1994), `Love Never Runs on Time' (May) and `God's Hotel' (September). His 1995 album, Deeper Water (August), yielded the singles `Summer Rain' (February), `Give in to My Love' (August) and `Deeper Water' (November). Kelly also issued a second live album in October 1995, Live at the Continental and the Esplanade.
Kelly's 1996 band included Shane O'Mara (guitar; from Rebecca's Empire), Bruce Haymes (keyboards; ex-Bachelors from Prague), Stephen Hadley (bass; ex-Black Sorrows) and Peter Luscombe (drums; ex-Black Sorrows), with Spencer P. Jones (Beasts of Bourbon) joining as an auxiliary member. That line-up issued the CD EP `How to Make Gravy' at the end of the year. In May 1997, Kelly issued a new CD single, `Tease Me'/`It Started with a Kiss', followed by the 20 track `Best of' album Songs from the South: Paul Kelly's Greatest Hits which was the perfect anthology of his work. The album made its debut at #2 on the national chart in June, and went on to sell double platinum (over 140 000 copies). Kelly was named Best Male Artist at the 1997 Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) awards ceremony, as well as being inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame.
Paul Kelly issued his seventh solo album, Words and Music, in May 1998. It peaked at #17 on the national chart that month. The album spawned three singles, ‘Nothing on My Mind’ (May), ‘Saturday Night Sunday Morning’ (June) and ‘I’ll Be Your Lover’ (August). Kelly issued his second book, Don’t Start Me Talking Lyrics 1984 – 1999, through Allen & Unwin Publishers (July 1999).
After 19 years with Mushroom, Kelly signed a new deal with EMI. To open his EMI account, Kelly issued two divergent albums, simultaneously, during October 1999: Smoke (as Uncle Bill with Paul Kelly) and the self-titled release by Professor Ratbaggy. Both were departures from the Kelly norm, but having them issued together the singer correctly reasoned that the contrast would help tell the story of his work over the previous year.
Smoke was certainly a transitional album, with Kelly teaming up with Melbourne-based bluegrass combo Uncle Bill (UK-born Gerry Hale on guitar, dobro, mandolin, fiddle and vocals, Adam Gare on fiddle, mandolin and vocals, Peter Somerville on banjo and vocals and Stuart Speed on double bass). The album featured a mix of old and new Kelly songs treated in classic bluegrass fashion. Kelly had previously recorded with Uncle Bill on a track (‘Thanks a Lot’) for the 1997 compilation, Where Joy Kills Sorrow, on the W.Minc label, and in 1998 for the Not So Dusty (Slim Dusty) tribute album. The combination worked and the new album garnered positive reviews. Smoke peaked at #36 on the national chart in October.
In contrast, Professor Ratbaggy was rooted in New Orleans/Memphis funk, R&B and dub reggae (with reference points being The Meters, War, Booker T. & the MGs etc). The Professor Ratbaggy line-up comprised three of Kelly’s regular band members: Peter Luscombe, Stephen Hadley and Bruce Haymes. The album produced two singles, ‘White Trash’ (September) and ‘Coma’ (November). With critical acclaim all round for the albums, Kelly embarked on a series of tours with Uncle Bill and Professor Ratbaggy.
Kelly’s extracurricular activities for 1999 included co-producing (with Renée Geyer) the new Vika and Linda Bull album, Two Wings, and co-producing (with Joe Camilleri) the new Renée Geyer album, Sweet Life. Kelly ended a successful 1999 with a slot on the New Year’s Eve Rock the Millennium concert at Sydney’s Darling Harbour in front of 25 000 people. The songs, ‘To Her Door’ and ‘Before Too Long’, appeared on the Various Artists album, Rock the Millennium 99: A Live Celebration of Australian Music (April 2000).