Helen Carter, left, and Deborah Conway, of Do Re Mi enjoying the 1980s
For the first time in 30 years, Do Re Mi, who mixed pop and politics with social dynamism when Australia still was a bloke’s world, are back on stage. And, talk about fragile male ego overboard, this time they’re coming at us in an all-female lineup.
In the age of Trump and #metoo, social conscience razor ads and fearless women, could it be the times are made for them?
Prior to speaking with Do Re Mi’s bassplayer, Helen Carter – who is, along with Deborah Conway, the remaining original members of the 1980s convention-busting group in their new incarnation - I took a look at some of their TV interviews from the time.
Two things stood out: how poised, articulate and confident Carter and Conway were; how flustered and uncertain the (almost exclusively) male hosts and interviewers were. It was as if the men just didn’t know how to conduct a conversation with a musician who was not a bloke. As if they couldn’t just ask the same sort of questions in case one of the women said, gasp, pubic hairs, like they sang in Man Overboard.
Carter chuckles and drawls a slow “y…e…s”, at the memory.
“We were confident,” she says. “Not overly confident, but we knew what we were talking about in terms of how we designed the band and the music and how we wanted to present ourselves. We weren’t intimidated.”
And they weren’t: talking sex and politics, design and philosophy, our odd attitudes to fame and “being an alien in the country of my birth”. And, yes, the parroting of penis envy, the way “the crack in the wall is spinning in a post-war whirlpool “, adultery, and those pubic hairs.
Let’s face it, you didn’t get that range talking with John Paul Young, or Fess from The Radiators. Not for nothing was Conway in particular an iconic figure for a generation of young women also taking cues from Chrissy Amphlett or Chrissie Hynde about being the point, not the add-on. And no small number of young men took lessons from the exposure too.
It wasn’t just being women though. Have a listen to songs such as Idiot Grin and No Fury, from their debut, Domestic Harmony, or Disneyland from its follow-up, The Happiest Place In Town.
In retrospect, Do Re Mi – which included the equally forthright and intelligent drummer and vocalist Dorland Bray, and guitarist Stephen Phillips - were also an oddity for the media and radio because of their interest in rhythms and grooves, having emerged from the underground/independent scene which mixed spiky post-punk with agile minimalist funk.
While the likes of The Au Pairs, Gang Of Four, Wire and The Slits in the UK had been pushing rhythm beyond the staid, Carter, a bassplayer who always nailed a groove, in particular was a pioneer in the Australian mainstream which was still expecting its local acts to adhere to a “proper rock ‘n’ roll” form.
What’s more, there she was playing funky lines without anyone ever having to worry we were going to get some slap bass!
“I wish I could slap,” she laughs. “But it wasn’t just being different in Australia: we were little more poppy than, say, The Au Pairs. But unless it was an interview with [specialist musician magazines] Guitar or Sonics, nobody asked me about playing.
“But now I’m seeing stuff coming back on Facebook people saying ’you were my favourite bassplayer’ and I’ve even been invited onto the Precision Players Royal society of the whatever on Facebook, and I’m the only woman on it.”
That’s never been the case in her band of course, and in fact indirectly, the Do Re Mi reformation/reunion/reclamation is down to a gathering of women.
A year ago, when Conway - whose varied, successful and latterly wholly independent solo career has kept her prominent while Carter’s music gave way to extensive work in the non-profit sector, including Greenpeace - was to perform at the new Australian Women In Music Awards.
She mentioned to Carter she intended to sing the still provocative Man Overboard (“I've heard about your fragile ego/Your shield, your sword/What am I expected to do, shout man overboard?”) and Carter offered to join her. When they then were joined by Phillips, it was as close to Do Re Mi as anyone had seen in three decades.
A bit later The Sunnyboys asked if Do Re Mi might want to play on the By The C festival bill, which was a bit of a shock as Do Re Mi “didn’t actually exist as such”. When Phillips decided not to continue and the New Zealand-based Bray stayed on that side of the Tasman, the path to an all-female version of the band opened up.
Deborah Conway and Helen Carter in 2019
The new members – who are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, alongside the 50-something originals - are not newcomers. Julia Day has worked with Carter for 30 years, is “fucking incredible”, got Bray’s tick of approval (and was a teenage fan of Do Re Mi). Keyboardist Clio Renner has toured with Conway (and the Rockwiz band, among others). And experienced guitarist Bridie O’Brien isn’t just “magical” in Carter’s eyes, but has the backing of Phillips, who conveniently shares a house and a life with Carter and been offering some tips on his unique playing style and sounds.
“Stephen came down while we were rehearsing last week and he was looking at her going ‘fuck, she is awesome’. She is able to play things he was only able to do as overdubs on records.”
The sound was right and, with #metoo in the news, it seemed not just topical for this band to reappear but appropriate. Says Carter, “it got me thinking not a lot has changed since 1982”, not least because 36 years later there was a need for a #metoo.
It’s all coming back to Conway and Carter, in more ways than one. Like those odd interviews and querulous looks. But there’s an upbeat side as well: kicking into the hooks and the feeling of being that kind of band.
What’s hard to remember maybe, for those who were there, and maybe harder to understand, for those who came later, is that the simultaneously beneficial and tricky aspect of Do Re Mi then was they may have come from the underground but they were not afraid – actually, they embraced – the notion of being a pop act as well.
Across two albums, and songs such as King Of Moomba and After The Volcano they walked that line with a definite leaning to being more than an inner city niche concern.
“It was funny though because we were in the same management stable as Angels and Cold Chisel. I’m glad that [managers and agents] Dirty Pool picked us up but from that Virgin tried to transform us into Manhattan Transfer in the way we looked,” Carter says ruefully.
“[The Happiest Place In Town] was more rock/pop, more songs that had verse/chorus/verse/chorus, whereas the first album’s arrangements are even doing my head in now.”
What else has struck her about the songs from that first album as she’s been reacquainting herself with them in the past year?
“Listening chronologically, the development from that first EP - the one we self-produced and recorded very, very badly - you can hear some of the politics and stuff was there from the beginning,” says Carter. “It had an eclectic bunch of sounds and was very percussive, but with that funk edge.
“The sound now in the rehearsal studio, It’s really tough. And great. Without that awful 80s production, it’s got balls.”
Of course, that’s what the world needs: Do Re Mi with an all-female lineup, and balls.
“Thank you, I believe that’s true,” says Carter guffawing. “Ok, let’s say guts.”
Do Re Mi play The Triffid, Brisbane, January 31; Corner Hotel, Melbourne, February 8; Marrickville Bowling Club, March 1.
Do Re Mi play By The C (with Icehouse, The Church, Sunnyboys. and Mental as Anything): Camp Shortland, Newcastle East, January 19; Stuart Park, North Wollongong, January 20; Queen Elizabeth Park, Coolangatta, February 2; Leura Park Estate, Curlewis, February 9; Glenelg Beach, Adelaide, February 10.