Friday Night Heroes - Leadfinger (Conquest of Noise)
Erm, Barman..? Five Rolling Rocks in your review for this which follows below? I beg to differ. Seven bottles.
The Barman made the rules up, and he’s scrupulous about playing by them. Reflects well on him. Me, I don’t have the time or inclination to give shit reviews to shit music; if “Friday Night Heroes” didn’t cut it, I wouldn’t review it. A 3 or 4 means the LP is either interesting and promising at the very least, 4 means its very good. Five bottles means that this a damn fine LP.
Today, Leadfinger merit a much greater score because first, these songs are songs which will last, and which will become like old friends, and therefore go higher in our esteem, and second, well, truth is I can’t stop playing the bloody thing. The other rather remarkable thing is that, in context with the rest of the band’s output, “Friday Night Heroes” stands out.
A bit of perspective. Had you asked me at the time they came out, when I first heard them, I would have said that Joy Division’s first album rated maybe a 6, their second definitely a 6. New Order’s first LP would have rated a 4 or so, and after that, I’ve yet to hear something, anything by New Order that I find remotely interesting. That’s not a Curtis factor, but partly a direction factor, but mostly … I find them rather dull. Joy Division’s first two LPs are justifiably classics. You may not like ‘em. I do.
OK, after the classic Alice Cooper LPs, how long was Alice able to maintain the brilliance? There were a couple of stinkers, weren’t there? Of course his live shows were still superb…speaking of live shows, I used to follow Adelaide outfit The Lizard Train around. Their live shows were always wonderful, every time, often for different reasons (like Chris delivering a heartfelt “Pale Blue Eyes” and forgetting the words, but pulling it off brilliantly). Their records were always damn good, but nothing like as good as their live sets. If you have a Lizard Train record, but never saw them, enjoy what you have. If you had the chance to see them and didn’t bother, well, what can I say? It would be terribly mean to gloat (points finger and shouts: "Ha ha ha ha ha!") so I won’t.
Take the B52s’ first LP. Needle hits plastic: instant 7 bottles. Their second LP, 4 bottles, if not 3 and a half. There just wasn’t a vibe to the second album. Quite a few of the B52s later ones are 4 or better, but often no-one was paying much attention until “Love Shack” and so on, and then, afterwards… well. Sometimes there needs to be a buzz about a band; it was almost a year after the album had been released in the USA for the host of Countdown to hold up that fantastic yellow cover on telly, despite its high rotation on dance-floors around Australia, as well as high volume sales on import.
Paul Weller I have never liked; I find his solo stuff rather … (stifles yawn) ordinary. The Jam had a bit of panache as well as excitement. They got better and better, too; their third LP, for example, would rate a 6 while their first, a 4 or so.
Don’t ask me to rate AC/DC’s albums, by the by. There is, you see, a world of difference between what a band does live and what their records are. Bands frequently put out LPs with about four decent songs on them (Nick Cave’s done this, how many times?) but their contract, of course, is for an album-length recording. Hands up all of you who have a copy of The Knack’s first album. Anything good on there apart from the single?
Right. Each LP has to be responded to as a single entity first.
So, live, Leadfinger now have an enviable repertoire, they can do a show where the crowd remain completely ignorant of them and have the joint excited, happy, listening, dancing inside the first song. Yeah, even Melbourne audiences, with their “cool” attitude, tend to lose it with Leadfinger. We want a live lp of Leadfinger, or even two.
Yet each Leadfinger studio album rates at least five bottles. Each has its own feel, its own unique stamp. It’s strange, you know, how an album can sometimes do this, create its own emotive world for us. Leadfinger have done this over and over. There’s no crap songs, no so-so songs, no filler.
So, some of us have been waiting a while for this. Leadfinger are one of Australia’s best-kept secrets, right up there with (excluding those Australians who live overseas) Garry Gray, the C-Bombs, Perdition, Michael Plater, Dean Richards, Rossco Harvey, Eden, The Braves, Shifting Sands, Ash Wednesday, Fraudband, Anton Becker, Ed Kuepper, Dick Dale, Sun God Replica, Dave Graney, Sean Tilmouth, Chris Wiley, Sleezy Jesus, Tomway Army, Bob Short, Lachy Doley, Tom Redwood, Heath Cullen, Mick Harvey, Those Magnificent Screaming Bastards and the list just goes on, doesn’t it, once you get started, like trying to quantify the tip of an iceberg, you go down down down and discover the tip is not a tip but just one part of a fucking mountain …
The difference here is that of all of the above, Leadfinger are one of a handful of outfits most likely to gain huge appeal right across the board in pubs, dives and concert halls and beerbarns around the world (and, I venture to suggest, particularly in the USA). Why? Apart from the smartly-used, infectious twin guitars swirling and spiking around each other, Stewie and Michael Boyle coming together in concentrated slabs (the term “twin guitar assault” is hard-earned and deserved here), the songs are about real people like you and (unfortunately) me, told in a plain, unpretentious way, and you don’t quite realise what a cracking album “Friday Night Heroes” is until it’s time to get up, so you don’t, instead hitting repeat. And we go around again, and again.
By fuck, ‘Friday Night Heroes’ is a great record. Leadfinger have always raised the bar on their musical influences (developing way past them, in fact) and here we can see a fully rich, powerful band straining at the leash. It is seriously bizarre not to hear these men on the whatever mainstream radio stations the supermarkets and so on use (not to mention film soundtracks).
The lyrics to the first side of “Friday Night Heroes” deal with a relationship breakup, real or imagined; if real, like Richard Curtis, Stewart Cunningham can be grateful to the awful woman for giving him so much raw material for success. Whether the songs are about one or four people, or more, is irrelevant; there’s a clear narrative; crucially, Stewie’s view is not that of the usual squealing emotional dork denied a Paddlepop, but considered, thoughtful, regretful as much as outraged. The side ends with a portrayal of the woman he leaves, he’s sympathetic but he ain’t changing his mind.
Side Two is the consequent journey of self-discovery and reasserting identity, figuring out what’s important and what’s not. You may think this is wishy-washy, but … these are actually the major problems which really beset us: when we’re not running away from them by being busy and indulging in competitive games, we need to know who and what we are. Otherwise, you know, our work defines us. And how pathetic is that?
“Champagne and Diamonds” opens in a deceptive, gentle way before kickstarting into surging dynamic. It’s simple and it’s effective. When you first hear Stewie’s huge, distinctive voice (and the cowbell) you start thinking (as a friend did) “1986…” but Leadfinger’s sheer assurance and style soon shut that down. We’re in the here and now. “Champagne and Diamonds” roars and swaggers through about four different parts, and if you close your eyes just briefly, you can see them touring the States to wild acclaim. Someone get them to SXSW.
The Barman has noticed that sometimes I end up liking something which I wouldn’t ordinarily be expected to like. Leadfinger are one example of that. The style, overall, is reminiscent of US FM rawk bands, but it’s the quality, the sheer intelligence, credibility and unique nature of Leadfinger’s songs which sets them far, far above the pack.
Look, I’ll make it easy for you. The Chickenstones’ album “Johnny Streetlight”. I gave it four and a half bottles. And I’m a harsh critic; so they damn well deserve that score. And I’d like to see the Chickenstones. But, if I had the money, I wouldn’t go interstate just to see them. But, if I could, I’d happily travel the country to see an entire Leadfinger tour. Are you with me yet?
“Heart on my Sleeve” leaps up at you like one of those excited dogs some people have, all pop jangle and tough guitars. This is a great song, lots of cool complexity. The piano and Doug Hazell’s sax breaks are just inspired: not too much, not too little. You’ll dance and you’ll be singing along in no time. I’d like to see a film clip for this. Wonderful.
I’ve got plenty to hide/ Many times in life I’ve lied/ I feel ashamed of the mistakes I’ve made/ … Life is not so black and white/ Nor is it wrong or right/ To wear your heart on your sleeve
I’ll just add that Adam Screen’s bass, and Dillon Hicks’ drums, are absolutely perfect for Leadfinger. It’s hard than you think, you know, to be creative and back someone else’s big vision, over and over. Bands split for the stupidest reasons. Leadfinger are one hell of a firm, solid, interconnected animal. They feel so damn natural it’s quite … extraordinary.
“Mean Streak” opens with one of those terribly simple, but awfully clever guitar lines from Stewie, so we’re following Stewie’s lyrics from the word go, and the ‘rest of the band’ are so good at what they do that we’re constantly torn between just what to listen to. So we’ll have to hear it again.
Something don’t seem right/ But I bury it deep inside/ In the end I’m not always right/ But I keep it to myself
The rolling piano which flows through “Bite my Tongue” is also bloody good. When Stewie’s voice comes in, it rather makes you wonder what an entire album of Stewie with piano would be like. But then the band sweep in and foolish thoughts like that disappear. The idea that men are a dominant species, forever bullying everyone lesser than them is one which personifies a lot of tough-guy rock; “Bite My Tongue” is a lot more realistic. Men often have to bite our tongues, and put up with a lot of shit from people who, quite simply, take us for granted. And, it’s damned difficult to find a way to express what needs to be said, especially if whatever you say is going to be dismissed because ‘it’s just him’… you know?
The opening for “Raining in the Dark” isn’t credited, but it’s damned strong (and I'm told it's the last bit of dialogue from “Withnail and I”). So the last song on Side One is slower, more moody, with a huge, gorgeous, pain-filled twelve-string. Stewie’s voice is fabulous, and the band give him enough space to create a magic I cannot readily express here. I’m gonna cry.
Our love it has died and now/ She must cry on her own/ It’s raining in the dark
So far, “Friday Night Heroes” is just fabulous. I know I can play this at home, with or without headphones (no, you can’t do that with every band), and in the car. Mind you, when Raining in the Dark comes around I’ll have to pull over and dig out a hanky.
“Older and Wiser” kicks off with big drums and bass (and cowbell) and, while we’re in familiar territory, there’s a firm intensity here. We’re paying attention as we dance. ‘You can be what they want you to be/ or you can do whatever you please’… ‘you can sit at home and pretend you’re dead…’ great stuff.
By god Stewie is a damn fine singer. You really need a fine band to do him justice; Leadfinger make “The Man I Used to Be” seem so easy, and it’s a fine, groovy song with a lesson-bitter-learned edge to it
The man I used to be/ is gone forever he is/ the man I used to be… you can’t change the world for free/ but you can change your destiny
“Friday Night Heroes” is the title track, and it’s not what you think. At first you’ll think it a well-paced, building, swinging song, you and I and Leadfinger are all nailed as ‘small town superstars’ on a Friday night, because the working week is a working week, after all.
I always loathed Jimmy Barnes’ “Working Class Man” because it just seemed so bloody bogus. I still feel sick whenever it comes on. “Friday Night Heroes” is probably the closest to the (admittedly, mostly male) Australian way of life than anything I’ve yet encountered. There’s big, big emotion here; the band have set up a marvellous structure for Stewie’s words to soar through.
We’ll talk about the good old days/ and remember friends who passed away/ the ghosts of the past/ are invited to join us on stage
Which of course recalls Shakespeare, and his opening of Henry V: ‘All the world’s a stage, and we’re but players in it’; there’s a much broader scope to Leadfinger. They ain’t just a rock’n’roll band, they’re something greater.
Now, according to Robert Forster, the second Rule of Rock and Roll, is “The second-last song on every album is the weakest.” Now, we can all throw LPs at Robert Forster which decry that statement - and rightly, because he said “every album”. And he’s wrong again, pop kittens.
“Appreciate” is just gorgeous. In one sense it recalls Creedence’s “Looking Out my Back Door” but it’s less John Denverish. There’s definitely a streak of mean and dark to Leadfinger, and these lyrics (no, go discover them yourself), so clearly set against what I suppose is a mandolin and cheery whistling, just heightens the effect. This could or should be another single; either way “Appreciate” is borderline sublime.
“My Own Road” is gloriously twinned with “Appreciate”; and again, this soaring, swelling swagger carries us over the finish line, stricken with thoughts of the imminence and sudden (yet somehow ordinary) aspect of death. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a bunch of lyrics on one single lp which so perfectly capture the everyday nature of sorrow and death, yet at the same time glorify life itself.
There’s no filler on “Friday Night Heroes”, not a single wasted note, everything fits like the sparkles in a well-cut diamond. ‘Friday Night Heroes’ is one of my few favourite lps of 2016, and it’ll be playing to admirers and cut-throats and dancers and musicians long after we’re all damned dust.
Oh, and PS. Forster’s 10th rule, “The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression”, is also complete bullshit.
Don’t just sit there like a Gump on a park bench. Get online and get “Friday Night Heroes” - and their back catalogue if you don’t already have it. - Robert Brokenmouth
A consummate, soulful rock and roll album from the Australian music scene’s ultimate fringe dwellers and you won’t hear a better record this year. Bunglng it on much? Not at all when it’s explained.
Leadfinger are four everyday blokes. They have day jobs, some have kids and mortgages. Music is their hobby. They convene at weekends and (yes) on Friday nights. Sometimes they take time to go touring. On their days off, they get out of each others’ faces. Put them together on a stage or in a studio and something clicks. “Friday Night Heroes” is the fruit of years of playing, both as a unit and with other people.
Without doubt, Leadfinger is Stewart Cunningham’s vehicle. He writes almost all the songs and calls the shots. Stew has done the hard yards, playing in all sorts of bands (Brother Brick, Asteroid B612, and The Proton Energy Pills to name three.) He’s smart enough to know that as much as most bands are a dictatorship, nothing gets done unless the members are happy to work as a team. Leadfinger (the band) isn’t a one person and the others contribute a lot.
“Friday Night Heroes” isn’t A Big Rock Record full of production tricks and histrionics. It’s forthright but not bombastic - which is not to say the playing isn’t spectacular. It is but in often subtle ways. The rhythm section of Dillon Hicks and Reggie Screen is rock solid but not flashy. The guitars lock around each other and rub riffs against chording. This is the sound of a band completely comfortable with each other and their songs.
Speaking of songs, “Bite My Tongue” is surely one of Cunningham’s greatest, a pre-revenge tale of biding your time spiced by emotive, weaving guitars from Stew and Michael Boyle. “The Man I Used To Be” is just as good, with a more strident feel than the version I heard live. “Older & Wiser” briefly alludes to Lou’s “Sweet Jane” before making its own way and works a treat.
“Champagne & Diamonds” is a superbly bold but measured opener with its allusions to danger and fun.
Emotion runs deep in Cunningham’s writing (his mother passed during the recording of the album) but ultimately his songs are stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things - which is why they will strike a chord with most.
Pushed for a comparison, I reckon Leadfinger sounds a lot like the mid-period, post-Kuepper Saints in their more sober moments (like “A Little Madness To Be Free”) although with much less gloss. Added touches like piano and sax have been applied. Leah Flanagan’s backing vocals are a great touch.
“Friday Night Heroes” is a warm record and its not just in the recording, undertaken at inner-western Sydney studio Linear with Wade Keirghan. Taking to Michael Boyle recently, he reckoned it was the first time the band was happy with an LP as a whole. Hearing it from start to finish, there is a sense that this is a fully realised record.
It’s also an album of contrasts that work with each other and that’s never more evident in the closing songs. “Appreciate” is a mandolin-tinged and reflective snapshot of a man happy with his lot, a sleeping dog and a laughing four-year-old at his feet. “My Own Road” switches up to a raucous salute to the “heart and soul” of rock and roll, dressed by surging guitars and Doug Hazell’s sharp sax. Two more disparate songs you couldn’t track in succession but they so obviously come from the same band.
That "Friday Night Heroes" is a no risk purchase is a no-brainer. And that's not a heroic statement. - The Barman