Ever wondered what it’s like to write songs to fit within an established style? Is it a liberating or constraining pursuit? David Robinson sits down with PlanB and finds out…
The first incarnation of PlanB, the band, appeared on the Adelaide music scene way back in 1984. The group came into being after the splintering of soul exponents Del Webb Explosion, and very quickly established itself as a potent live act. Playing to appreciative audiences all over town, as well as in some of South Australia’s regional centres, PlanB quickly bedded down their sound as well as their act. They earned themselves support spots with such notaries as Sydney ska exponents Allnighters, The Models, Swanee, Eurogliders, Mondo Rock, Jon English, Invisible Mendez and Goanna. Interstate tours and independent single releases followed and in 1987, just as national success beckoned, the band split. How typical…
PlanB co-founder, mainstay and manager Peter “Sneaky Pete” Flierl takes up the story:
“There was certainly a generous degree of disappointment from a personal perspective, given the recent completion of both recording and filming our most commercially accessible number to that point. I think a few of the band members had simply tired of waiting for the band to make a wider impression and also, with a band that size, there are always musical differences. As in the case of so many bands, the timing of the split could certainly have been a lot better.”
In late 2008, after a generous hiatus spanning a couple of decades, Flierl started work on an ambitious project - putting the band back together. Attempting to locate and invite as many of the original members as possible, he made it clear to all that any new incarnation of the band would feature all of the musical hallmarks that were present in the original line-up. While restoring the original membership proved an impossible task, the freshness and soul of the 1980s PlanB has been revived and further developed.
For the last couple of years, the band has been touring South-East Asia, specifically Cambodia and Vietnam. It has proven to be both a successful and enjoyable experience, and more touring in the region is planned. China and Thailand both offer opportunities to further expand PlanB’s horizons.
And it’s not just been about live performance. The band’s first single of 2010, Southern Delta, was released via the band’s internet site. The catchy track opens with a brass riff that wouldn’t be out of place on the first Dexys Midnight Runners’ LP, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, and also features more soul-boy signature horn playing throughout.
Call Me, the second single, is a much more laid back, soulful track. A plaintive cry to an absent friend, borne out of the desperate isolation that accompanies lost love. It has a beautiful flow, despite a rather frantic musical interlude which allows the horn section to go a little bit mad for a few seconds.
The songs were written by Flierl, who has been the band’s primary writer to this point.
“I wrote both Call Me and Southern Delta a couple of years back while living in Canberra following my return to Australia after two and a bit years in Vietnam. The upcoming single, Falling in Love, and next year’s So Saigon, were both penned by me and have accompanying film clips - filmed in Phnom Penh and Saigon during the band's second tour to that region early this year.”
However, things are developing as far as songwriting responsibilities are concerned.
“Since the inception of PlanB, I’ve always been the main songwriter. The vast majority of the stuff on our recordings and live shows was mine. What is interesting since the reformation is that Brett (Monten, vocalist) has been increasingly contributing parts of songs, and helping me craft existing lyrics and song structure. He has written a fair swag of stuff outside PlanB and I don’t think it will be long before some of his songs make it to our catalogue; I’m excited about the direction this may take us”
So, an evolving collaborative element. Monten adds:
“Peter’s writing is definitely the backbone of the PlanB originals. One song we play live, Broken Nose, was originally written by 80s members Chris Goodall and Glenn Errington, though only the first verse and chorus have survived. It’s a great live song, so I actually rewrote the second and third verses for the 2010-11 tour - though it won't be on the album. One song that is on the album, Sandpaper Sally, I co-wrote with Peter.”
I am interested to see how Flierl feels about the particular creative tension that comes from writing songs to fit within a particular style. He responds:
“The PlanB of 2011 is a lot tighter and diverse that the original band of the 80s. While the live songs maintain a definite link to the Aussie pub band with the big brass sound, I think the new songs are showing a lot more variation and potential for mass appeal. Certainly the two new numbers are substantially different to the band's first two releases and I think you will find the same feature prevalent on the new album.”
I ask if he is confident that PlanB’s original songs will prove to be as popular with punters as the classic soul staples performed by the band at their gigs.
“I prefer to hear how the other guys feel about how they stack up against the classics. Personally I have a lot of confidence in the players in the current line-up. Brett is working wonders, stamping his own style on the songs I am writing. Our lead guitarist John 'Back Street Slider' Mulholland is providing some incredibly tasty slide work and inspired solos to the original material and the brass section under the guidance of Patrick Stapleton is tighter and hotter than ever. Going by audience reaction on both the last tours, originals are receiving a similar and often more enthusiastic response than some of the classics. It’s certainly sounding very promising judging by the feedback from the Asian and ex-pat audiences that we have been playing to.”
“The longer live shows where the band plays three sets usually consist of approx 60% originals, whereas if we are doing a set or two, the originals can form up to 90% plus of the band's presentation.”
Monten has his own, similar, view.
“In our longer shows where we bring in some soul classics covers like Knock on Wood, Land of 1000 Dances and In the Midnight Hour, the feel is definitely maintained going from cover to original. The original feel is certainly maintained with the songs that were performed by the band in the 80’s. They stood up so well when we listened to them that there was no need to try and change the sound. The songs that have emerged since the band reformed are definitely more pop, though that wasn’t intentional; it’s just what came out of the rehearsals and recordings.”
As far as the new CD goes, I ask Flierl about the split between originals and covers.
“The album has a working title of Too Late the Hero and contains only one cover, the Dexys’ song Plan B which was penned by Kevin Rowland & the band's trombone player, Big Jim Paterson. I had the pleasure of meeting Jim on a recent trip to the UK and the band is absolutely stoked to confirm that he has agreed to provide the trombone solo for Plan B.”
And there’s two more singles - Falling in Love has just been released and is gaining airplay on local Adelaide stations, and So Saigon will follow in early 2012.
The band hopes to complete its debut album in time for a mid-2012 release, and plans to support the release with more extensive touring. And, says Monten, there’s more…
“We’re also working on a mashup of Call Me with Adelaide hip hop act, Rock with Korshun. They heard the song and wrapped their own lyrics around it. I’ve got to say, it’s sensational. We’re having it mastered at the moment and are considering including it on the album and maybe even giving it to our Facebook fans for free, as a special thank-you for their support.”
I sounds to me like Flierl and Monten are confident that their songwriting efforts will only help to make PlanB a stronger prospect for wider acceptance, while retaining the elements of classic soul that have served the band well. It can be a difficult balancing act but, on the strength of the originals released thus far, it appears that the future is looking rosy.
© Copyright David Robinson, 2011
Not to be reproduced without the permission of the author