Rock historians have described Richard Clapton as ‘one of the most important Australian songwriters of the 1970s’. And while it’s true, it probably underestimates the maturation and ever-changing direction of Clapton’s songwriting over generations, seeing him being inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame in 1999.
Clapton is modest about the accolades.
‘It’s obviously very gratifying when people describe me that way, and I would think that as far as the songwriting goes it’s probably because contrary to popular belief I kind of only just wanted to write songs that were going to mean something to people’s lives rather than getting into the pop culture.’
With Countdown back in the limelight with the new TV series Clapton reflects on his relationship with the iconic pop show.
‘I was railroaded into being on Countdown – it was Festival records, they wanted me to be on Countdown a lot – I don’t think the producers really wanted me on Countdown either!’
So with the last 18 months seeing the rock stories of the 1970s and 1980s making it to the small screen in biopic-type dramas, how does Clapton feel about the honesty of the storytelling. Is the spirit of the work lost in the sanitised reflections of middle-aged men no longer prepared to tell the truth about what ‘really happened’?
‘To be honest I kind of have a feeling of resignation about a lot of stuff like that. I knew I had been cut out of the INXS biopic, even before it went into the production – I just think oh well, I thought I was in their best friend!’
Clapton admits to being unimpressed with the shallow Australian pop scene and, being enamoured by artists like Byob Dylan, decided this was the type of musician he wanted to be.
‘I think in the 70s the music industry just viewed me as this enfant terrible! People couldn’t understand me. The serious songwriter genre didn’t have any impact in Australia for a long while; even early Jackson Browne was a slow starter. I was a very slow starter. I think I confused everybody. It was only recently I could tell the truth but I had Prussian Blue and great reaction only sold 2,000 copies so Festival pretty well said if I didn’t come up with a radio-friendly hit single I would be dropped from the label. I was living with this young guy who had been the A&R guy at Festival; he begged and pleaded me to compromise. I got drunk, went home, and the street I walked along was called The Avenue. I didn’t’ regret that; I got it to number one.’
Clapton’s star exploded.
‘It taught me what happens to a lot of young artists. You can have a hit single and 15 minutes of fame. You are in a stretch limo – and then a few months later you can’t get any work and any gigs! It would have been over except it did keep me with Festival Records for eight years and eight albums.’
A headstrong idealist, Clapton was never going to take the easy route in his career.
‘I took the road less travelled and then actually stormed out of the whole Australian music industry – and so I went back to Berlin and I was determined to wipe the slate clean in Europe. Then Festival reminded me I owed them one album. They had a great GM and said consider it, do this one album. I was on this Australia Council grant, which was rare, that enabled me to get back to Berlin; all my friends were from Berlin uni. We went to Denmark, got snowed in for six weeks in this amazing house; it still intrigues me I was in the northern antipodes writing about Bondi Beach!’ This was Goodbye Tiger – one of the most celebrated albums of his career.
‘I really lucked out on Lucky Country. It’s like a movie for your ears! Lucky Country actually has this dark underbelly and it wasn’t until a journalist friend of mine exposed this, some time this century… I thought it was hilarious that it was a finalist for the 2000 Olympics theme song in Sydney. Lucky Country was a song about my father, who was a well-to-do doctor and his political outlook. I had a bad falling out for my father. I had been estranged for years, and Beatlespeak was about people building up impossible walls and we still call it home sweet home, so in other words in Lucky Country I am saying: ‘I am alright Jack, fuck you…!’ Not really a fitting theme song for the Olympics!
Complexity is key for Clapton’s songwriting.
‘I like songs like like an onion and you peel it off. One of the joys of the singer/songwriter thing was hidden meanings. It’s a crass term, but it was the joy of listening to songs of substance and getting all the double meanings!’
Clapton’s most recent album Harlequin Nights was born from a divorce that went too long.
‘That was my catharsis album; this album House of Orange was done in Nashville. It’s anything but country; it’s pretty raw rock. This is my most overtly political album; there are songs that are really quite angry. We have had enough. There is a song called Stay With Me about banks and debt-collector lackeys; there is another song, Liberty Bell, which I am going to saddle up and join Bernie Sanders – it would be perfect for him! There is a lot of meat in this album: there are 12 songs. I would like to think connecting with people’s psyche where the sociopolitical is still important!’
Catch Richard Clapton and hear songs from his latest album and songs from his impressive career. Byron Bluesfest for five remarkable days over Easter – 24–28 March! Program and ticket information to bluesfest.com.au.