Words: James Frostick
Album art: Carolyn Hawkins
Continuing its recent trend of bringing sounds from bygone decades into the present, esteemed label Chapter Music is today announcing the forthcoming release of Turn My Dial – The M Squared Recordings and more, 1981-84 – a reissue of tracks from Meanjin/Brisbane-born teenage-pop prodigies Tangled Shoelaces. Charting the group’s recorded work over a three-year period, this compilation showcases not only the group’s undeniable knack for song-craft, but also eerily prognosticates sounds that would come to shape Australia’s music scene in the ensuing decades.
I’ll be honest, I was very late to the Tangled Shoelaces bandwagon. Granted, the group disbanded before I was born but, as a Meanjin/Brisbane-based music writer, being unfamiliar with the band’s work seems like an egregious oversight. Thankfully, Chapter Music is committed to redressing my (and maybe your) ignorance on seminal artists. The label regularly shines a light on curious musical artefacts from pre-Internet antiquity (the 70s and 80s), giving them new life in a digital age via thoughtful restorative efforts. In 2019 Chapter Music reissued David Chesworth’s 1981 punk-funk opus Layer On Layer, following it up last year with The Job – a reissue of disco-punk legends Use No Hooks – and Australian women’s music compilation Brazen Hussies. These are just recent examples. The label’s twin focus on nurturing the sounds of now and highlighting music from the past is what helps make Chapter Music a singularly vital repository for the Australian scene. If you need more evidential proof of Guy Blackman and Ben O’Connor’s unassailable taste, look no further than their latest archival effort – Turn My Dial – The M Squared Recordings and more, 1981-84 a compendium of work from Tangled Shoelaces.
For those similarly unfamiliar with the work of siblings Stephen, Lucy and Martin Mackerras and Leigh Nelson, here is the CliffNotes rundown. Tangled Shoelaces formed in Capalaba in 1980 when all of the members were in their early-to-mid teens. They wrote and performed all of their own songs, showcasing a canny ingenuity when it came to making psych-laced new-wave bops. Early influence was drawn from the likes of the B-52’s, Eno and Byrne, and Television Personalities, but the teen four-piece channelled these inspirations into remarkably vivid territory – a style of sun-speckled pop that boasts a youthfully ramshackle charm and sage sincerity in equal measure. Between 1982 and 1984 the group recorded several session’s worth of material at the studio of legendary Gadigal/Sydney post-punk label M Squared. Most of it has since gone unheard aside from what featured on the group’s self-titled EP (the band also released a cassette called In the Lane of the Lollypop Men, recorded separately), meaning Turn My Dial is a veritable treasure trove and the largest statement from the group to exist.
Chapter Music has sourced the M Squared sessions (as well as recordings from a 1981 performance at Capalaba State Primary School and another session at an unknown studio) for Turn My Dial’s 16-track collection, which kicks off with ridiculously catchy lead single ‘The Biggest Movie Ever Made’. Effervescent in spirit and eccentric in approach, the track boasts all of the hallmarks of Tangled Shoelaces’ charmingly DIY nature. The combination of the robust honks of sax, glossy keys and upbeat strum make for a mixture that’s both of its time and also way ahead of it, and if I tilt my head a bit I can catch echoes of these sounds in the off-beat pop of Parsnip, the lush psych-infused experimentalism of Blank Realm (another Meanjin-based sibling powerhouse) and the down-to-earth humbleness of Thibault. It’s very likely that ‘The Biggest Movie Ever Made’ becomes one of my favourite songs of the year, even though it was crafted decades ago. Better late than never, I say.
Here is some insight into the track from Tangled Shoelaces member Stephen Mackerras:
I’ve always loved the Shakespeare quote ‘the world is a stage and we are but its players’. Decades ago, when I was about 12, I decided to write a song with a similar but updated theme ‘life is like a movie – we all have our own scene … if you know what I mean’! I remember playing the song to my sister Lucy and brother Martin and our drummer Leigh and…they liked it!
Lucy composed a beautiful piano part and we recorded it at M Squared studios in about 1984. I remember being very pleased with the outcome so we all decided it should be the opening track on our 7” EP. I still remember the chords (for all the guitarists out there – E F#m A B7). That’s what is magical about songs – they transcend time and have their own life and along the way give people a little joy which they can whistle into the cosmos.
‘The Biggest Movie Ever Made’ below comes with a clip shot by Stephen Mackerras in a warehouse studio in 1984. Like the M Squared sessions, this video has been excavated from the ABC archives for the release, making it the first time the visuals will be seen in 37 years. It’s a remarkably fitting accompaniment, which you can watch below:
Turn My Dial – The M Squared Recordings and more will be released on vinyl and digitally via Chapter Music on April 23. The physical release will be pressed on pink and blue cloudy swirl vinyl, and will also come with a download card including six digital bonus tracks. You can pre-order a copy here.