Very sad news, guitarist/singer/songwriter Martin Armiger, best known for his work with Melbourne’s Sports, passed away last week at his home in France. He was 70 years old.
Martin joined the Sports in 1979, following the release of the band's first album. He replaced the Sports co-founder Ed Bates in time for their first hit single, ‘Who Listens to The Radio?” in 1978, and was there until the group ended. He wrote some of their most-loved songs, including “Suspicious Minds” and “Strangers on A Train”, and took part, alongside singer Stephen Cummings and fellow-guitarist Andrew Pendlebury, in Sports reformations in 2015 and 2017.
Martin Armiger was born in England 10 June 1949 and came to Australia in 1965 with his family. He first came to attention in mid-70s Melbourne, as a member of Adelaide emigres The Toads. The band was an extension of Adelaide performance art ensemble Toads Nightly, which had featured actress Noni Hazlehurst on vocals. The Toads became involved in the burgeoning Carlton theatre/arts scene and featured another actress, Jane Clifton, on vocals. The Toads played in a gritty, bluesy style and their contemporaries on the Carlton scene included a fledgling Skyhooks, whose guitarist Red Symons was also involved in performances at La Mama and The Pram Factory.
In 1975 Armiger would record some tracks for Bert Deling’s infamous Carlton scene drug movie Pure Shit, including the hard-rocking “I Love My Car”, which featured Red Symons on rhythm guitar and backing vocals.
Armiger formed his next group the Bleeding Hearts in 1976, with singer/songwriter/violinist Eric Gradman. The group was briefly a next big thing: years later, Paul Kelly would write of seeing the band when he came to Melbourne in 1977, describing Armiger and Gradman as “Young lords -brainy, serious music architects...”
The Bleeding Hearts, who also featured future Divinyls/Hoodoo Gurus bass player Rick Grossman, took the street-wise underground thing to the next level with confronting songs like “The Emptiness of Love”, “Gaze of The Damned” and “Hit Single”. Subsequently recorded by the Sports, the latter featured Armiger’s most striking lines: “Ever since your accident/I can’t look you in the eye/It’s like one of you is watching me/And one of you is listening to a hit single”.
The Bleeding Hearts were sadly short-lived; they burned out in the face of punk and having one too many frontmen. Their posthumous album What Happened? was the first full-length release on the influential Missing Link Records label.
From the Bleeding Hearts, Armiger hooked up Paul Kelly who, as mentioned, had recently arrived in Melbourne from Adelaide. Their band together, the High Rise Bombers, also suffered from the too-many frontmen syndrome and also was short-lived. Armiger would go onto produce some of Paul Kelly & The Dots' first album Talk, which was released in 1981.
Around the time of the High Rise Bombers, Martin also contributed songs to the first and only album by his old friend Jane Clifton’s band Stiletto, which similarly featured contributions from another old friend from the Carlton scene, Monkey Grip author Helen Garner. Martin was also at the time heavily involved in nascent Melbourne radio station 3RMT, which would soon become the truly iconic Melbourne institution 3RRR. Martin wrote of his love of radio in the song “Radio Show”, most famously recorded by the Sports on their OKUK! EP, but first recorded as a demo with the High Rise Bombers.
From his band with Paul Kelly, Martin moved to the Sports in late 1978. He helped the group in its transition from a roots-rockabilly outfit to a wholly contemporary pop-rock band with new wave influences. He played a vital role on the band's second album Don’t Throw Stones. He was with the group in 1979 when they toured the UK with Graham Parker & the Rumour and briefly signed to Stiff Records, and then later when they signed to Arista and toured the US, where “Who Listens To The Radio?” became a minor hit. By now one of the most popular bands on the Australian scene, Sports followed up Don’t Throw Stones with the albums Suddenly and Sondra before splitting in late 1981.
Martin would not join another band. Instead, he dedicated himself to production, and, increasingly, to writing and producing music for film and television. He produced records by Do Re Mi, Stephen Cummings and others, and was heavily involved in the soundtracks of several ABC series including Sweet & Sour, Stringer, Come In Spinner and Seven Deadly Sins. He also scored numerous films, including the hugely successful Young Einstein. He won or was nominated for numerous AFI, ARIA, APRA and APRA-AGSC Screen Music Awards, and his filmography was impressively lengthy.
Armiger became Head of Screen Composition at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 2004, and he stayed there until recently retiring to France with his wife.
Let’s remember the blonde blur of energy that was Martin Armiger in his Sports days with some more classic footage.