Ed Clayton-Jones' tales of survival
Jackdaw - Edward Clayton-Jones (self released)
I've been looking forward to hearing “Jackdaw” for a while, but I must confess I didn't expect it to be this damn good. The last thing I said to Ed was, “Well, look, you know me. If I don't like it or I think it's bad, I'll tell you I can't review it. I'd rather have the friendship.” He understood.
Bad reviews, pfft, they're mostly just juveniles showing off how clever they are, and I've got better things to do with my time. Also, I'm not clever. Years ago, the New Musical Express and Melody Maker used to hire such clever types and, while they could sometimes be amusing, they would often miss brilliance in preference to their own self-swagger (for example, XTC copped endless daft reviews which completely missed how fucking sharp, funny and evocative they were). So to “Jackdaw”.
“Young Offenders” starts us off with a headlong dance groove ... you'll notice the Bowie-esque (if not Ultravox!) influence before the itchy, scratchy hearthan early punk vibe kicks in with an amphetamine pulse, then you'll realise ... this is the way to reinvent yourself.
“Do you want to make an issue/ Or a suicide pact/ Want to lay some veins in these Motown tracks,” Ed concludes... Not at all what you'd expect from “just” a guitarist. Certainly it's a prominent instrument here, but it's not the major one on the LP. In fact, keys and beats are more to the fore; also, the LP has the sound and vibe of a band working dark cocktail bars with the mortality of the early ‘30s. Ed's beats, synth sounds, violin and piano brings a much greater dimension to what were already damned powerful songs. Makes me wonder if the songs were composed on the guitar.
ECJ: “Young Offenders” was inspired by the first friend of mine who died of a heroin overdose. She was my girlfriend's sister. Ironically, a film would be made about her ("Dogs in Space") which I had a part in. Being in the film was the catalyst to my leaving The Wreckery, Melbourne and the hell my life had become!
“New Skin” has a superb series of rhythmic lines, and Ed's voice is so evocative, swarming around like smoke and water. There's an emotive theme running through here, of vulnerability, damage, imagined resolution; “These lines never end/ This end never begins / I think I need a new skin/ It doesn’t make any difference”There's a strong sense that Ed's poring over his past and re-evaluating things through several prisms; modern, everything old is new again, the inability to learn because a barrage of sensation gets in the way... “Are you worried / You look ashamed/ Are you strapped/ Are you a part of the game”.
ECJ: I first wrote a version of 'New Skin' when I was doing The Good Men Down. It got rewritten from the ground up, the music is all new, the first verse comes from the original song. It's about the indignity of waiting in line for entry to night-clubs. Something I've never had to do of course! Like a lot of my songs loneliness looms large in this one.
Except, of course, as Ed full-well knows, the last thing you'd be thinking of on hearing “New Skin” is waiting in a line to get into a shitty club.
Truthfully, two songs in and I'm hooked. Can't wait for the rest. One thing I need to mention though, and it's a bit obvious.
“Set Me Free” continues a theme of fear of isolation, loneliness, dread of dissociation, with a stone groove. There's a loaded simplicity to these songs, not just how they've been constructed, but the way the themes come out so clearly, relating stories we can all relate to. Ed's guitar positively glows with understated yearning here; “I am locked in limbo / Waiting for a sign/ Set me free/ or say that you are mine”.
ECJ: I love dance music. I love playing bass, I had this cool bass feel and I built the song around it. The lyric is a straight forward Boy's ultimatum to Girl: “If you don't love me then set me free!' (he doesn't want to be set free of course). You gotta be careful because she's probably gonna cut you loose for being a smart ass.”
“Chevy Nova” is a gravelly rockesque lizard in a shiny car in the desert. There's a clip up on Ed's Facebook page. It's bloody good.
ECJ: I was just going nuts throwing ideas around and “Chevy” burst out of that. I like mixing orchestral strings with dirty electric guitars - Chevy Novas are insane muscle cars - a good setting for a song - "Watching Sisters Go" comes from a Fabulous Marquises song title but it was "Sister" singular...
And from here on, I'll let Ed do the work. If you haven't figured out by now that “Jackdaw” rates your attention, why are you still reading?
“Her Best Work”
ECJ: I have known plenty of girls who should have killed their partners but sadly didn't. I wanted her to win.
“She Used a Gun”
ECJ: A collision of hard rock and electronica. "When I kissed her we'd bury the sun, when she killed me she used a gun" - I just loved the lines. Some-times I'm just freewheeling on an idea and running lines that support the central premise. I love making songs that are really evocative and open to interpretation to an extent. We have to be able to make our own little movie in our head as to how this scenario looks.
ECJ: The lyric came long before the music. I wasn't sure if the central character was Richard III, Jesus, Satan, Nick Cave's "Junkyard King", me or all of the above. The feel reminds me of stuff I wrote for Plays with Marionettes for some reason, the Vegas nite-club schtick.
“I Don't Know What to Do”
ECJ:'The scenario is straight forward I guess - nightclub chanteuse turns mass murderer whilst I bear witness - happens all the time! Really the idea is like a novella, a glimpse into a scene, I want to take people somewhere out of the day to day, to darker places. The reason we love crime fiction, we're fascinated by our own mortality and love to get close to the edge of death without having to jump. I've come a bit too close, having survived a scrape with cancer but I don't want to write songs about radiation therapy, hideous as it was.
ECJ: A really old song that never got recorded but I always loved the cinematic quality of the music. Who doesn't love a good storm? If you've ever been near a river in flood, it's powerful stuff. Add to this a child lost and we have some real drama brewing. John Lee Hooker's recounting of the great flood of the Mississippi in “Tupelo” really got the ball rolling for this kind of scene. Nick Cave's refit of the song really brought it home. We're very vulnerable despite the arrogance we feel from the great civilisations we've built. Water rules this planet, too much or too little is the difference between life and death.
“Wasted". A combed-back, melancholic rap song ... “I'm going to get into a hell of a fight' ... 'You've gotta work it/ you've gotta own it”... so understatedly powerful.
ECJ: I didn't set out for this to be a rap-style song despite having a great deal of respect for the genre. It's funny, the song is meant to be funny. Having lived through addiction and its folly it's okay to go back and revisit the highs and lows of those days. "Stand up at an AA meeting/ got up and gave the speaker a beating" - I've certainly wanted to!
“Jackdaw” is a slow, creepy waltz. “Look over here/ What the hell have I done/ You've been asking for it/ asking for it/ now it's begun” ... I'm running out of words here. Ed?
ECJ: 'I wish I could tell you more about “Jackdaw” but I'm still trying to figure it out myself. I wanted to have a vocal sub-plot which was like radio cross-chat and pitch it against a heartfelt vocal, a confession of sorts, a tormented person. The jackdaw is the smallest of the Corvus family (like Ravens and Crows). They're highly intelligent birds and have been kept as pets and trained to steal things for their masters. I had a relationship with someone who had some of these attributes, at least high intelligence and a penchant for theft, she's part of the puzzle of “Jackdaw”. There's a lot of soul searching and penance in the piece.
“Lost Dreams” starts as if it's the beginning of a new LP. The lyric is about self-knowledge and acceptance. “We’re all mining for lost Dreams / All you ever wanted /All you ever need /It’s right here before you”.
ECJ: This is a letter to myself I guess - are you a nihilist or a realist? I love the landscape this song conjures up, it's bleak for sure but not without its charm. It's an appropriate closer for this record.
Not for the first time here, nor the last, I disagree completely. I find the spartan, cruising landscape here to be positively uplifting, not bleak. Sorrow, regret, pain... they all serve to remind us of our other options, that we are alive and have the ability to choose.
Alright, so call me peculiar.
What interests me about this “Jackdaw” LP is that (like Eric Mingus' new LP 'The Devil's Weight' on Ouch! Records) the name on the cover is the sole musician. There's so much complexity in these songs, there may as well be six months' bloody band rehearsal in this ... I mean, resonant isn't the word. Yet it's filled with simplicity. The fills are carefully placed, and damned emotive. I keep thinking about soundtracks and how much like short films some of these songs are.
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RB: Hugo Race has written about his Melbourne Punk awakening. What was yours like? What was your imperative, and - how did it change over the years?
ECJ: Anyone who was a teenager in the late '70’s was going to be grazed by the punk movement that, for us, was spearheaded by The Sex Pistols and the British Punks in general. I was already a big fan of glam, I loved Slade and T. Rex but Bowie was the centre of that universe for the most part. I think as soon as I saw “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen” I was a quick convert.
My family unit was in disarray, alcoholic, absentee parents, isolation, teenage angst and rebellion. Punk was the panacea for me. I started playing guitar at age 12, I loved playing but I was frustrated that I couldn’t play like Jimmy Page, and I couldn’t see how I ever could. Punk empowered those of us who didn’t want to learn a million scales to just PLAY. There were no rules, it was a brakeless Billy Cart running downhill, you just had to hang on. Three chords, straight to hell!
RB: You mentioned here that your family unit was in disarray ... I've noticed that that seems to be a common denominator for a lot of folks in the underground - what was that underground to you? Was it true of most inhabitants at that time - that the family unit had betrayed the kids - or is that far too trite? I know others who pre-date, and post-date, punk who basically went out to find their own homes ... and for some the damage was irreparable.
ECJ: My family came to Australia from England in 1964. My father was a doctor and he'd signed on to start a new practice in the outer Melbourne suburbs. It was pretty rough, particularly on my mother who found it hard to cope. My old-fashioned father wouldn't have her returning to work as a nurse which was her passion, so she eventually found solace in the bottle when my brother and I started school.
Their marriage was doomed from the outset - she was a Catholic from Northern Ireland and he was a very conservative old-school English gent, Protestant through and through. So after long drawn out hostilities they finally divorced when I was 15.
The life in our outpost home was pretty miserable. Any chance of doing well at school was derailed by instability and dread. Suicide attempts, violence, alcohol and that dour atmosphere that broken or breaking homes take on - I can't speak of my peer's family backgrounds - broken homes weren't the norm. I think a lot of people had to stay together for the children's sake.
There were guys whose Dads had died leaving mum to raise them; Nick Cave's mum Dawn was fantastic, and always warm and mumsy to the people Nick would very occasionally bring to his mum's house. By the time we were playing the pubs we were living in share houses in the city or inner suburbs. There was nothing too remarkable about the gang that made these formidable bands. It was all to do with the incendiary response of having like-minded people working together on a common cause.
The Melbourne scene on the St Kilda side of the Yarra river was populated by middle class kids who'd been to private schools, not entirely but there was bit of the bourgeoisie about it. Art was everything, literature, painting and underground music from the UK - the Pop Group were everything.
I got into the Melbourne punk scene via a side entrance. I answered a Bass Player wanted ad in Juke (rock rag). I borrowed a friend's bass and got the job with Ron Rude’s group. Ron was a Lou Reed-fixated eccentric who lived in Belgrave in the way-outer suburbs of Melbourne. Not a great group but Ron knew everybody and we were brought into the fold of The Boys Next Door who for some reason had us support them.
I was quickly poached from Ron’s band by Mr Pierre Voltaire, Pierre was Melbourne punk royalty been from the ill fated Suicide Record stable. Pierre really knew everyone. Pierre hastily put together The Fabulous Marquises with Chris Walsh, who was also Suicide records royalty coming from The Negatives, Des Hefner from NZ’s Scavengers and The Marching Girls, myself and my school friend James McNabb, James and I had played in little groups through school and I dragged him with me through the Ron Rude experience, so James and I came as a set for the Marquises transition.
Because of what Punk rock had achieved in altering the psyche of local youth, we were recording and making records without any help from record companies and I felt like I was doing pretty well by age 19 when we went on tour supporting the now overseas-seasoned and frankly amazing Birthday Party. It was at these shows that I got a real charge at the power that punk and everything that came after it had. Those early Birthday Party shows were everything I’m sure that audiences in the US felt when they were confronted by The Stooges. It was breathtaking. The sense that from this performance anything could and probably would happen.
RB: I use the term “creative imperative to describe the creator who cannot stop, irrespective of success. Wodehouse was one, hugely successful. I know many others, some who have been financially unsuccessful, but who prefer to just do what they do. What was your imperative; how did it change over the years?
ECJ: The Imperative... When I was in primary school I was already focused on being a rock musician. That imperative was locked in with no outside influence beyond the radio and the very limited TV shows that showed film clips. I knew I wanted to write songs very early in the piece, even before I knew that songwriters made the money!
I suppose there was always the idea that I could be a rock star, have an amazing life, private jets etc.
RB: You know, the one thing which doesn't get talked about often enough in reference to the punk/new wave is the impact Bowie had - can you explain why he was so essential, and so important?
ECJ: David Bowie was a beacon to me and my friends as we grew up through the '70's. I loved “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs”. I still do. I really think “Low” was the album that saved him from being destroyed by Punk, its austerity and otherworldliness put Bowie into a class of his own,
When Bowie teamed up with Iggy Pop in Berlin for “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life” he further cemented his place as a leader, not a follower. I think we all respected that. These albums I still listen to with great admiration. There's this bizarre simple complexity that is written into these albums. When I listen to what people were doing individually, particularly Ricky Gardiner's guitar work on Iggy's Berlin albums and Carlos Alomar's guitar on “Low”; they demonstrate an unbelievably cool “less is more” approach to guitar and arrangement in general.
Like a lot of people I wrote off DB after “Scary Monsters”, by his own admission he made some awful records. “Let's Dance” was hugely successful and I think he really needed to have financial stability or to be insanely rich, but it was a bitter pill. Playing to the peanut gallery came at a high cost creatively and it took him a long time to find himself again. He did recover and made some amazing records; “Outside”, “Earthling”, “Heathen”, “Reality”, “Next Day” and his parting note “Blackstar” all had something unique and exciting.
I didn't listen to his later work with intent until my son Finn discovered Bowie on his own and his viewpoint was completely different to mine, he didn't listen to the “classic” albums of my youth, he started at “Blackstar” and worked back. We'd listen to these records as I'd drive him to school. I'm so glad he showed me all these records, after Bowie's death I had all these albums I'd never heard to wade through and it was a joy. Bowie's cover of The Pixies' “Cactus'” and Jonathan Richman's “Pablo Picasso” are great moments, Bowie was always aware of what was going on musically in the world around him.
At the end of the day he was a man with a plan, to be the biggest best rock star he could be and he achieved that with style but he also had a deep love of music, he was an innovator, he played electric guitar really well - see “Diamond Dogs” - and he eventually got past singing like Anthony Newly!
RB: and the imperative changed, didn't it?
ECJ: Well, yes. Once the reality of being a working musician set in, the imperative shifted. The imperative is simply to be creative, my song-writing is my art, my vehicle of self-expression. Whether that is a saleable commodity or not becomes less important as one gets older. Unfortunately it seems to be a common problem that having the artistic gene precludes the ability to be a savvy business person. It’s not impossible of course, just uncommon.
I write songs because that is what I love to do. Of course I would like to reach as many people as possible but it’s not the driving force at all.
Being a writer or an artist in any capacity is more often than not a life-saving gift. It's an opportunity to take yourself away from the constraints of the day to day - to explore other lives, to be and say whatever you want, to report from within and without.
The Imperative is as always just that. Imperative! And now after 40-plus years as a musician and songwriter I'm only just feeling empowered by my skill-set and ability. I've been a perennial wing man and comfortable to be that. I think I made noise at wanting to be in the thick of the writing with the Marionettes and The Wreckery, but I didn't push too hard because ultimately it would cause the Rowland S. Howard effect and the band would collapse - ultimately the band folded but for other reasons. I had a bad tendency to hide my light and then kick myself later.
I think that was probably due to my relationship with my father who was hyper-critical and was always calling my brother and I stupid. He was very disappointed in us because we were both in the arts - my brother is a photographer who worked for The Age' After I left The Wreckery I moved to Sydney.
I thought I'd be gone six months but it's turned into 30 years and I lost all the contacts I had in the business. If I was going to play music I had to make my own groups and I started Clayton-Jones Town in 1990, the first of my groups. The Good Men Down, The Swordsmen and Chordblood were all groups; I missed the familial nature of being in bands and hung onto the idea that I'd find a group of people who would want to collaborate on making my songs better but it never really took off.
I did have a great working relationship with my old Melburnian friend Donald Baldie in Good Men Down but Don left to work as a video editor overseas. I got cancer in my throat in 2013 and had a pretty challenging time getting my health and confidence back to play live. I made two records as Chordblood, an EP and an Album but I was very disappointed with the results because I was still too ill to stay in the studio and get the songs done the way I wanted them. I did feel quite defeated by the time I released “Mission 2” in 2017 and for all intents and purposes I just went wheels up and disappeared.
I don't remember what got me started recording songs on my phone while I was walking around my neighbourhood, but I did and slowly but surely I started using Garageband as my primary writing tool. I started challenging myself to record cover versions and I started sending them to my friends who were very encouraging, particularly my friend Henry Hugo who kept pushing me to do more. I even sent the songs to Mick Harvey and I figured if Mick gave it a green light I should push to finish an album and release it.
I asked Donald Baldie to do the mastering of the recordings which was extremely fortunate because DB is very thorough and meticulous. He encouraged me to upgrade to Logic Pro X and he did all the sonic fine-tuning on the record - ultimately he co-produced 'Jackdaw- from the ground up and did a spectacular job. We ended up running through mastering six times till we were both happy.
In the midst of all this the pandemic raged around us and I stayed happily ensconced in my little studio at home, I know that COVID-19 was a catalyst for getting me working alone, I had SUCH drama trying to get people to rehearse and learning new material just seemed impossible. I love playing live and certainly hope to bring 'Jackdaw' to a live audience but for now I'm pushing forward, still writing and recording. At 60 I've still got a lot to say.
RB: How do you think other people view your work?
ECJ: Robert, what other people think of me is none of my business! Honestly I don't and can't think beyond doing things that I find entertaining and interesting, if you're thinking about what people think then you're not being true to yourself, you have to have an 'I don't give a fuck' attitude. It's for the audience to decide how my work fits into their lives.
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I know the style might not grab you immediately (though I was hooked through the jaw right away by Ed's kinda John Carpenter via forgotten motels on the highway) but ... as always when I say '"this is a damn good record"... give it a listen. If you're not convinced by (say) the fourth song... damned if I can help you. In fact, 'Jackdaw' is so damn gripping that you forget how much texture is here. Hey, in10 years people will be calling for a stripped edition of “Jackdaw” ...it's one of my favourite records this year.