Paul Kelly: His Life & Times – A Chat With Author Stuart Coupe

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Paul Kelly: His Life & Times – A Chat With Author Stuart Coupe

paul kelly, stuart coupe
Paul Kelly & Stuart Coupe. Photo by Susan Lynch.

Stuart Coupe has been writing and talking about rock’n’roll since the mid-to-late ‘70s. Starting around the same time as punk and caught up in the new wave, Stuart was already well versed in rock history so was able to provide a well-balanced perspective that favoured old and new equally. For over four decades now, he has been a prolific rock journalist, author and broadcaster who at different times has also run a record label, promoted tours, managed artists and done freelance publicity. Of everybody who has written about Australian music, he has the most experience within it and has seen it from the widest range of perspectives.

A Paul Kelly fan since 1977 when he saw Paul’s first band of note, the High Rise Bombers, which also featured soon-to-be Sports lead guitarist, the late Martin Armiger, Stuart ended up managing Paul in the mid-‘80s, when they were both living in Sydney. Stuart had just stopped managing the Hoodoo Gurus; Paul had just broken up the Dots and made his famous trip from St Kilda to Kings Cross. Coupe is ideally placed to write about Kelly, and his biography, Paul Kelly: His Life and Times, promises to be an essential read. Especially for those, like me, who are really keen for an in-depth look at the early days of Kelly’s career – his rock’n’roll years - when he first moved from Adelaide to Melbourne and fell in with a scene that had a massive influence on him as a performer and songwriter.    

Stuart, you have a long history with Paul. Even before you managed him & the Coloured Girls, I imagine you came across him in your Adelaide days, when you were writing for Roadrunner and he was in the High Rise Bombers, who I know played in Adelaide. What are your earliest impressions of him, personally and musically?

SC: I didn’t know Paul in Adelaide, even though I’d moved there to go to Uni while he was still around. We actually met when the High Rise Bombers came to Adelaide and I invited Paul, Fred Cass and Martin Armiger around for an interview. In all honesty, I wanted to meet Martin! During that interview, I don’t think Paul actually uttered a word, but I’d fallen for the songs that the Bombers played – both Martin’s and Paul’s. I saw a few Bombers shows – both in Adelaide and Melbourne and totally loved them as a band – Paul had this enigmatic Highway 61-era Bob Dylan meets Lou Reed aura around him, and the band oozed sloppy attitude and swagger.

Without wanting to provide spoilers, you’ve mentioned to me previously that you’ve come across recordings by a band that Paul had in Adelaide before he moved to Melbourne in 1977. Can you tell us a bit about that?

SC: I actually haven’t heard them, but there are recordings of the Debutantes, the band Paul was in before he moved to Melbourne. Apparently, there are 4 – 6 songs recorded by James Black in a room at the Kelly family residence. I do know that “Derailment” – a song that carried through to the High Rise Bombers – is one of them. A couple of Paul’s family have copies but no-one offered them to me – but I’m hoping that they will. They’re important historical artefacts that should not be lost.

As we’ve also discussed, that very early Dots material is fantastic. That almost ‘60s-ish guitar-pop thing that was tight and muscular and reminiscent of similar efforts from the same time by American contemporaries like Springsteen circa Darkness/The River and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. What do you think informed that?

SC: I think Paul left Adelaide loving Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Gram Parsons and Commander Cody – and then moved into the now legendary house in Hoddle Street in East Melbourne with the Spare Change guys and other assorted figures and there he listened to all of the above plus large doses of Big Star, Television, Velvet Underground, Love, Roxy Music – plus Springsteen and that very much flowed into what he was doing. This was a very musically literate and hip household that he stumbled into. (NOTE: Spare Change were a cult band on the Melbourne scene – also originally from Adelaide – who influenced quite a few locals musically, including Martin Armiger and Steve Cummings as well as Paul Kelly. Spare Change guitarist Chris Langman formed the Dots with Paul Kelly and together they wrote the classic “Leaps and Bounds”. Spare Change’s other guitarist Bob Kretchmer later joined Icehouse, and singer John Dowler later formed Young Modern and the Zimmermen and has a new album out now with his current band John Dowler’s Vanity Project.) 

Did the musicians in the early Dots have a big influence on the sound do you think? Was it a Melbourne thing? Was Paul as big a fan of ‘60s stuff as Springsteen and Petty obviously were?

SC: I think it was the people in that house, combined with those he played with. I think – as he does to this day – Paul was soaking up everything around him and he moved with a crowd who listened to a lot of music. I never heard him mention Tom Petty and he always seemed – at least to me – a bit dismissive or uninterested in Springsteen but from what others have said, I might have missed those signs. He was also big into The Clash and began listening to a lot of reggae – both of which fuel the feel of Manila in particular.

There’s a marked difference in Paul’s writing between the Dots stuff and what he started doing when he moved to Sydney (although at least a couple of Coloured Girls songs, including “Leaps & Bounds”, were first done by the Dots...). It got a bit more rootsy/folky, I think. Did that have anything to do with the relocation or the music he worked with or was it other factors?

SC: I was surprised to find out how early “Leaps & Bounds” and other songs that were on Post and Gossip had been written. “Leaps and Bounds” was actually recorded for the Manila album. I think maybe his writing changed a bit in Sydney because initially he didn’t have a band so he was back to doing solo/duo/trio shows. And in Sydney, he just kept listening and evolving. Still very much honing what he was all about.

Sydney’s scene at the time had a big ‘60s thing, but he seemed to actually move away from that, although he had more in common with Sydney than what was going on in Melbourne in the early ‘80s.

SC: Yes – but Sydney also had The Johnnys, The Beasts Of Bourbon and a whole lot of rootsy stuff. Sydney in the early 80s was eclectic and vibrant – sort of like 70s Melbourne was. The pendulum had swung to Sydney and while there was a big ‘60s thing, there was a lot of other stuff going on.

You started managing Paul not long after the Sydney move I take it? What was he like to manage, and what did see were his plans and aspirations at the time? And when did it end?

SC: Yes, Paul hadn’t been in Sydney for long before he called me up and asked if I’d be his manager. It was both hard work and exhilarating. I was very lucky to be around for the creation of those four cornerstone albums in the 1980s. Paul was focused and determined – which was somewhat remarkable given he had no real band – and no record deal at the time! But he just went about making connections, meeting people, writing songs and, what can I say – PostGossipUnder The Sun and So Much Water So Close To Home! Paul wanted everything – but he always wanted it on his own terms. And if he’d made up his mind about something it was pointless trying to change his mind. We stopped working together as I was managing with my then-partner Yanni Stumbles. She and I split up, and I took a back seat and she continued on until he found a new manager. So we parted on good terms and didn’t have any sort of falling out or blow up.

Were you still on board for the early American tours? How were they, and how was Paul received over there? Were you managing the Hoodoo Gurus at the same time? And they were also making headway in the US?

SC: No, I went from one to the other – but both were signed to deals via A & M in Los Angeles, which helped! I’d come back from the first American tour with the Gurus, then we’d done the New Sensations tour with Lou Reed, and I parted ways with them – and a few weeks later Paul called. I was there for all the American activity – the recording, the touring with Crowded House etc. At that time, Paul was doing well and hovering on the cusp of it tilting towards big sales and profile. Some people at the label really got him – but some others weren’t quite sure. Paul and the band did everything asked of them, and Gossip did about 100,000 copies which was more than acceptable.

Looking back, it feels like Paul’s popularity tapered off again after those first few Mushroom albums. It may have just been a lack of hit singles. He was still playing quite small venues, like the Continental in Melbourne. By now, the Coloured Girls/Messengers no longer existed, and he even moved to Los Angeles for a while. Was he more consciously a solo artist at this time, and was America his ambition?

SC: I think that was a period of reassessment. He wanted to build his profile in America and saw moving there as a step in that direction. But he’d parted ways with A&M and was with a smaller label. Plus he was exploring other stylistic things post Messengers – including making albums like the Professor Ratbaggy album which was one of the albums I played most whilst writing the book. I’m not sure if he was consciously a solo artist – more just working out what to do next.

At what point exactly did he move back to Melbourne and what impact did that have on his music?

SC: Early 90s. I’m not sure it changed much. He was backwards and forwards to America and the UK and Europe. I think it was a period of reinvention and reflection. Parting with The Messengers was a big call – but it freed him up to explore other things – he just had to work out what they were.

The first compilation, Songs From The South, seemed to take him up to the next level. It was like in the ‘70s when a best of or a live album which served as a de facto best-of would often be the making of an artist. Instead of going in for the kill however, he started trying different things, like bluegrass with Uncle Bill and the funk thing with Professor Ratbaggy. What’s your read on this period? 

SC: Songs From The South was huge – 650,000 + copies. I think it surprised absolutely everyone. But I think all those explorations then that you mention are part of the reason he’s still around and relevant. He could have just gone out and played the hits and done so endlessly, but instead he elected to explore all sorts of different things – and in the process established himself even more as a creative artist. If he’d done the obvious and just toured the hits, I’m not sure he’d be where he is today.

Since that period, Paul has been more prolific – and his output more varied - than most Australian artists. What is his relationship with music these days do you think?

SC: I think he’s as passionate about music as he’s ever been – and he now has the ability to explore whatever he feels like. I mean the number of recent and forthcoming projects is staggering – including an album of interpretations of Australian songs – largely from the 80s I think – that he loves, plus a collaboration with Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin from the Drones. He can do whatever he feels inclined to do!

You’ve written the book with Paul’s blessing, and he’s spoken on the record at length it would seem. How would you describe the experience of writing the book, and what do you think it says about Paul? How does it compare with Paul’s own memoir and the documentary by Ian Darling?

SC: I loved writing the book. I wanted to give voice to all the people who have been around Paul and to that extent, I did over 100 interviews for this. And didn’t use one word of a secondary source. I think my book sits comfortably alongside both the things you mention – and despite a few cross over bits, mine tells another aspect of the story. If you had Paul’s book, the doco and this – well, you have what you need!

Paul "didn’t enjoy" Darling’s film. Will he enjoy your book?

SC: I think he’ll respect the amount of work that’s gone into it – but he will find sections of it – particularly a lot of the High Rise Bombers/Dots stuff – tough to read. But that’s OK – at one point he commented to me that he didn’t expect to love it all because if he did, then I wouldn’t have done my job. That’s a pretty cool attitude to have. Paul was extremely open with me and giving of his time, so I hope he feels like that was time and effort well spent.

Lastly - What are your favourite PK songs?  

SC: Oh dear – this changes all the time, but I love “Cherry”, “Recognition”, “The Lowdown”, “Forbidden Street” from the early days. All of Post, in fact all of the records I was around for. As I’ve said, I’ve grown to really love the Ratbaggy album, and I dig Wanted Man. The Bradman song of course. I dig “Pouring Petrol...”, “Other People’s House” is a song I love, I don’t tire of “... Gravy”. I could go on! And the moment we finish I’ll think of others. “Firewood And Candles” is killer!

Paul Kelly: His Life and Times by Stuart Coupe is out July 28 via Hachette.

Signed copies can be ordered from Stuart directly – drop him a line at

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