Some of Australia’s best-known rock stars agree to sing the Kelly story
“Any album featuring the voices of Dave Gleeson, Tex Perkins, Doc Neeson, Michael Spiby and Mark Gable – five of Australia’s leading frontmen – and Kasey Chambers deserves more than just a passing listen”
When I asked Melbourne musician Ashley Davies if he was tempted to write lyrics to his brilliant, 15-track, instrumental album on Ned Kelly, he shook his head and said: “I reckon you’d have to be a Bob Dylan or a Paul Kelly to cut it.”
Despite the emotive subject matter, another seemingly undaunted musician has attempted to write the Kelly story in song. And on the strength of a four-track demo CD that has been forwarded to Australia’s major music studios – I was privileged to be the first ‘outsider’ to hear the recording – he has achieved a great result.
Like Davies, Daryl J. Melbourne has focused on the key elements / events of the Kelly saga – from when Ned was 16 until his death nine years later – and tried to capture the emotions of the characters involved. And he has given it an intriguing treatment, by enlisting some of the biggest names in the Australian music industry to play sing the roles of the chief characters.
Ned’s voice will be portrayed by Screaming Jets frontman Dave Gleeson; the part of Joe Byrne will be played by The Cruel Sea’s lead singer Tex Perkins; Mark Gable, formerly of The Choir Boys, will play Tom Lloyd; Michael Spiby from The Badloves will possibly take on the role of Aaron Sherritt; pop-country star Kasey Chambers (voted best female artist at the recent ARIA awards) will perform as Ned and Dan’s sister Maggie; while Doc Neeson from The Angels, who claims to be related to Ned, will also be assigned a character.
In all there will be about 10 characters – the others will be Dan Kelly, Steve Hart, Aaron Sherritt, Ellen Kelly, Sergeant Steele and Judge Redmond Barry – on a 15-track CD that will span little over an hour.
Put simply, any album featuring the voices of Dave Gleeson, Tex Perkins, Doc Neeson, Michael Spiby and Mark Gable – five of Australia’s leading frontmen – and Kasey Chambers deserves more than just a passing listen.
For mine, Let The War Begin, which addresses the aftermath of the Fitzpatrick incident and the events at Stringybark Creek, is the pick of the four tracks I heard on the demo CD. Although Daryl J. Melbourne has never heard Ashley Davies’s interpretation of the gunfight, he has also produced a haunting, albeit more abbreviated, version of those events. Although the lyrics don’t actually describe the fight, an instrumental section with some accomplished flute playing that is reminiscent of Jethro Tull allows you to conjure the images in your mind.
If this is a taste of what is to follow on the remainder of the album, which Melbourne hopes to release in conjunction with Heath Ledger’s film, The Kelly Gang, it will be a compulsory acquisition for your Kelly library. Below is a song list for the album and a question-and-answer with its creator.
The Kelly Gang – Daryl J. Melbourne
01. Running Wild (Tom Lloyd)
02. Bad Blood (Joe Byrne)
03. Tell It To The Judge (Ned Kelly)
04. Let The War Begin (Ned & Dan Kelly)
05. Killing Time
06. Revenge Is Mine (Sergeant Steele)
07. You Haven’t Seen Nothing Yet (Joe)
08. A Long Hard Life (Ellen & Maggie Kelly)
09. Brothers In Arms (Ned, Dan, Joe & Steve)
10. Unforgiven (Aaron Sherritt)
11. The Last Supper (Joe)
12. One Last Time (Tom & Ned)
13. Going Home (Dan & Steve)
14. No Ordinary Man (Judge Redmond Barry & Ned)
15. This Woman’s Love
Did you write every lyric and every note on the album? I wrote all of the lyrics. The music is basically mine but when I sat down with my producer, Parris McLeod, I changed certain feels and lengthened things and put breaks in, which had an effect on the final result.
How long did the album take you to write? I wrote it all about six years ago. I grew up in Yackandandah (near Beechworth) – my dad’s family was born there. My cousin was a real Ned Kelly enthusiast and he was the one who put me onto it when we were kids because we were best mates. It wasn’t until about eight years ago that I thought ‘I’ve got to do something with this’, so I went camping with my cousin for a few weeks in that area. We camped at the Kelly Caves, Byrnes old property and where Sherritt had his hut. I wrote down some ideas and then I just began reading anything I could find. I’d put it down for a month or so and then I’d pick it up again. Then I got to the stage where I had 23 songs and I thought ‘That’ll do’. But I didn’t know what I was going to do with it.
What happened next? Six years ago, I went to live in Taiwan and a little while back I saw something on the Net about the new movie starring Heath Ledger. I decided that I had to get back to Australia, record some of the songs and approach some of the studios.
What now? My aim is to get the album released in conjunction with the movie -– not as a soundtrack, just at the same time. Hopefully, I’ll be able to use their promo photos like the poster that’s out already with Heath and the Gang. I also have to get a budget to record the other 11 songs and finish the four I’ve got on the demo. It took us three weeks in the studio in Sydney and two weeks in Taiwan just to do the demo– that’s five weeks to do only four songs, and they’re still not quite finished. If I don’t get a budget for the rest of the project, I’ll try to sign with another company like the ABC because this type of thing suits their image. That’s another option.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. It could be absolute mayhem. I might have to get everybody in the studio and start recording straight away. But I’ve got a little bit of time on my side because the movie doesn’t look like it will be released until about April. I called the album The Kelly Gang six or seven years ago and it’s a coincidence that they’ve had to change the name of the movie from Ned Kelly to The Kelly Gang. Now they’re going to say, “You’re stealing our name”, but I’ll say “No, I’m not; I’ve got it documented from many years ago”. So hopefully I’ll cause a stir if nothing else. But we will be finishing it and releasing it no matter what.
Writing the album must have been quite an emotional journey for you. It was. It took a lot of work and it was very emotionally draining for me. I remember actually crying while I was writing one of the songs. It got to me that much. I can’t remember which song it was. I tried to write factual stuff and not offer too much of an opinion, so that people can make up their own mind about Ned.
And you’ve gone for a really modern musical angle on Ned too – there’s rock, blues, funk, country… Yeah, I tried to stay away from the Australiana thing – you know, the ‘here we are in New South Wales shearing sheep as big as whales’ thing. But I didn’t want to be too commercialised or Americanised either. I just thought I’d get Australia’s leading rock singers and go for it. The feels or moods in the songs vary a lot. There’s some quite modern rhythms and a couple of country sounding songs. Hopefully, there’s a bit there for everybody.
So you had 23 songs to start with and you’ve narrowed that back to 15. Obviously you had plenty of material to work with. I did, but it was really hard to narrow it down and try to tell the whole story. But I didn’t want it to drag on for three hours and be too overbearing. At the moment, with the 15 songs, it’s only an hour and a bit in length. The songs gloss over the bank hold-ups; there’s a song that mentions them but there’s nothing specific at all. I tried to concentrate on the emotional side of the story. When I was sitting up at the Kelly Caves for two nights up in the hills, I tried to imagine being chased and being on the run and what you’d feel, what you’d do. It was the middle of winter but we didn’t light a fire because I wanted to go through that because they weren’t able to do that either.
I tried to capture what they were going through and what each person would be thinking. The fifth song, Killing Time, was written while I was up there. They were wondering what they’re going to do; where they’re going to go and the lyrics to that are quite strong. For the last song, I went to a couple of prisons, went into cells, locked the door behind me and tried to get a feel about how Ned was feeling the night before he was to be executed. I tried to stay factual and have as little of my own personal views in there as possible. I got so much out of Ian Jones’s books.
Are there any surprises on the album, either lyrically or musically? Lyrically no. The only thing that might be is in the Dan Kelly and Steve Hart song at the end, which is, called Going Home, one line leans towards them committing suicide. The line is ‘We have the means to end it all now’. When I first wrote it, the lyrics were leaning towards that they took something (poison), but then I changed it so that it could also mean that they shot themselves or that they might have decided against suicide. I left it up to people’s imaginations.
I haven’t added any of my own revelations to the story; it’s basically what has been told by Ian Jones and the other writers. But musically, there are a few ups and downs. I tend to think a little bit left-of-centre when it comes to music. When I first wrote it, I envisioned an acoustic type of sound, but my ideas have changed since then. That might be an option in the future though. I could sit a couple of people down with acoustic guitars, a violin, double-bass, a snare drum and a couple of other instruments in that vein. It would be an interesting way to do it.
Are you worried how people might react to the album? I guess there will be people that take it the wrong way because you can’t please everyone’s musical tastes. I’m sure some people will say “That ain’t Australian, it’s rock n’ roll”. By doing it as a rock album, I can take the story to a new generation of people. If I had stuck within a country realm, it would have gone to the same people and I would have been preaching to the converted, so to speak. Already I’ve got kids in my family, my brother’s sons, going “Wow, you’ve got these people singing”, and they’re getting right into it. That gives me an idea of where it could go.
Without blowing my own trumpet, I knew that when I was writing the album that it was right. So long as I stayed with factual lyrics and could put decent tunes and stories together, I couldn’t go wrong. I sit down and read the lyrics and say, “Man, that’s so right; that’s how it happened”. That’s one thing I’m really proud of.
Do you think there are any potential singles on the album? For sure. The first track possibly, the fourth one possibly – Let The War Begin – lengthened and made more commercial in its production. Some of the others, which you haven’t heard yet are very commercial. When I wrote a couple of them, I think I was going through a Hootie & The Blowfish phase. They suit the songs though. I wasn’t aiming for radio airplay; I wasn’t aiming at that market. Some songs will be short and some will be radio-friendly, but that’s not what I was going for. I was just trying to tell the story: factually, musically and interestingly.
What’s your favourite song on the album? A song called You Haven’t Seen Nothing Yet. It’s a song by Joe Byrne and it basically says that if you think that the police murders and the bank robberies were big, you haven’t seen nothing yet. It talks about the lead-up to their final shootout. I like that song, it’s pretty cool. It was written around the line in the Jerilderie Letter that says that the Gang are going to shock the world…But all of the songs are my favourites in different ways.
A standout for me on the demo was the flute during the Stringybark Creek gunfight. It only lasted for about 20 seconds but it has a lot of impact. A friend of mine from Taiwan, a girl by the name of Wu Pu Yu, played the flute. She’s classically trained and she’s absolutely brilliant on the flute and the piano. We recorded her part in Taiwan and mixed it in Sydney.
How did you go about casting the various singers? I didn’t want great voices. Even with Mark Gable, I was a bit worried about him singing the first song because he’s got a pretty amazing voice – he goes from normal range up to falsetto unbelievably quickly and can sound like a girl. I didn’t want that too much but after listening to it a few times I thought it was good. The rest of the singers have good voices but they’re character-driven and their personalities suit the roles.
Because I’m in the industry, I’d known them a little bit. I remember the first time I sat down with Dave (Gleeson) years ago, he was so enthusiastic about it. He’s a republican and very political. Then I hadn’t spoken to him for a couple of years and when I called him and said “I’m going to do this now”, he said “Finally!” There was no problem with getting any of them involved. If anything, they were over-enthusiastic to do it. People just love the story. It’s interesting that people feel that way, particularly musicians. Mark Gable had strong opinions, both for Ned and against Ned, but he still wanted to do it so much.
What feedback have they given you about the music and lyrics? I gave each of them a copy of Ian Jones’s book (Ned Kelly: A Short Life) and said “You don’t have to read the whole thing, just some of it”. I think Dave had already read it anyway. I’ll do that with every performer on it to get them into the vibe of it. I even did it with the musicians and said “Read the book; understand at least a little bit of what your involved with here”. The agents of the singers in Sydney have been calling me and saying “We want to hear it; we here it’s great”. I’ve had people calling me and saying “We’ve got to put this on the stage”. I don’t know about that, but it certainly has the potential to be a rock opera.
How did you come to the conclusion that Dave Gleeson would make a good Ned? He’s got a strong personality. He’s a hell of a nice guy and he’d do anything for you, but you just can’t get on top of him. If you start to push him around a bit, he’s very strong in his personality. I made that link with Ned straight away. I just thought, “He’s my man”. I needed a good, honest Australian voice with personality. I didn’t want a great voice like (John) Farnham because it just wouldn’t have suited the part. In the Jerilderie Letter, Ned starts to rant and rave a bit and Dave’s a bit like that too – his eyes start to bulge and his veins start popping out. From when we first spoke about it in his apartment in Kings Cross (in Sydney), when The Screaming Jets had Better at No.1 in the charts, I knew he had to play the part. He was very idealistic for that role.
I believe Doc Neeson actually approached you to be involved. We got Doc in to do Dan Kelly’s voice on the demo simply because he was at the studio a the time and said he’d be happy to do it. But I’m not sure whether Doc’s voice suits the character. Initially when we did it, I thought ‘Oh well, they’re brothers; it’s understandable if they sound similar’. But I’ve always been character-driven about this thing and when I think about Dan Kelly, I think about a younger man, not as strong or forceful as Ned. But Doc said he wanted to do it.
Will you still give Doc Neeson a part on the album? Well, it’s quite an interesting story actually. We’d finished the recording and I had sung Dan Kelly’s part. We were in Sydney and I got a phone call saying that Doc was doing a show and they needed a keyboard player, which was (album producer) Parris, and a slide guitarist, which I do. We agreed to it, so we jumped in the car and drove down.
I just got talking to Doc and he said “I’m related to the Kellys”. I said “What?” He said “I was born in Ireland and my great-great grandfather was born in Tipperary and he was related to Ned’s father, John Kelly”. Isn’t that an amazing coincidence? I told him about the project and he said “I want to do something; you’ve gotta let me do something”. That’s when I decided to take myself out and let him do Dan Kelly. It was a last-minute inclusion. But I can see him in another part. Sergeant Steele maybe.
Who will play Aaron Sherritt? I want to use Michael Spiby from The Badloves. I spoke to Michael years ago when we were doing a few shows together and I gave him all the lyrics and the story and told him “I’m gonna be doing this some day and I want you to do something on it”. He said “Sure”. I haven’t spoken to him since but I know that if I rang him he would do it.
What about the pompous Judge Redmond Barry? I’ve got to find someone for him. I don’t even know what kind of voice to go for – whether I should get a pompous English voice because that part is half-singing, half-talking… I’m very good friends with Kasey Chambers, so I’ll get her for one of the female roles.
I haven’t thought of who I will get for Steve Hart. There’s two songs that Steve’s involved in: there’s Dan and Steve contemplating dying in the burning hotel near the end and that’s really short. I didn’t build him up to be a strong character because I don’t think he was. I don’t imagine his voice being overly powerful.
Will you put together a music video? Hopefully there’ll be heaps of things like that going on. But it depends on who buys it and who takes it on. I’ve got to put together a band of musicians and there will probably be a five or six-week lockaway in the studio – it’s quite a lengthy and expensive process. I’ve written a short story that will be in a little booklet to accompany the CD. I don’t know how many words it is, but all I’ve done is borrow from what other people have written and what has become the recognised history.
At one stage, I was going to have some spoken words at the start of the album which describe the Gang’s ideas for forming a republic. It was just a brief thing that I wrote and I thought, ‘Who can I get to do this?’ So I got onto Gough Whitlam. I was in Taiwan at the time – it was about four years ago – and Gough said he’d love to do it but that he couldn’t at the time. Since then, I’ve changed my ideas.
Will you be singing on the album yourself? I might, but I don’t think I’ve got a great character voice. But you’re never in favour of your own voice. When Mark Gable heard me singing one of the songs for him as a demo, he said “You should sing that; that suits your voice”. But I don’t know.
What’s your music background? I’ve been a session muso for most of my life; just playing on CDs with people like Brian Cadd and people from the country music scene like Lee Kernaghan, Slim (Dusty) and Kasey Chambers when she was younger. My dad, Keith Melbourne, has been involved in country music all his life; he’s a promoter, radio station manager and all us kids were bombarded with country music.
I’ve played in a few bands, but the only band of any note was a rock-country band in Sydney called The Far Gone Beauties. We used to do covers, say of AC/DC, but with banjo in it. It was all flat-out. We were hard and heavy, but we’d always put banjo in it. We became favourites of Doug Mulray and we did all the TV shows for about six years. I lived in Spain for a year when I had a contract to play music. I’ve done bits and pieces here and there and I’ve been playing and arranging music in Taiwan for the past six years.
InterNED featured regular instalments relating to people still involved in the Kelly story. Here you will read about experts, historians, authors, descendants, and others with interesting tales to tell about their connection with Ned. Compiled by Ben Collins, InterNED gave you an insight into the lives of people who were helping to keep the legend alive.
Ben Collins was the co-author of Jason McCartney: After Bali – the highest-selling non-fiction book by an Australian author in 2003 – which tells of Jason McCarthy’s recovery from horrific burns suffered in the Bali terrorist bombings and his quest to play one last game of AFL football. In 2004, Collins wrote The Book of Success – a series of interviews with Australian leaders in business, sport, politics, science and entertainment. In 2006, he wrote The Champions: Conversations with Great players & Coaches of Australian Football, which included in-depth interviews with the likes of Ron Barassi and Bob Skilton.
Collins started as a cadet journalist with The Courier in Ballarat in 1997 and worked with Fairfax Community Newspapers before becoming one of the original reporters with the Herald & Weekly Times’ free commuter publication, MX, in 2001. He is a full-time writer for The Slattery Media Group, which produces all AFL publications including the AFL Record. The Red Fox is his fourth book and his first biography.
A Byrne family who lived nearby – Ben likes to think they could be related to gang member Joe Byrne – introduced him to the Old Melbourne Gaol and Ned when he was five. One of Ben’s aunties is also a close friend of a woman who married into the Bartsch family, who are direct descendants of Aaron Sherritt’s sister, Julia.
Through this connection, Ben was shown around the Sherritt family property at Sheepstation Creek in the Woolshed Valley near Beechworth – a property that features prominently in Ian Jones’ book, The Friendship That Destroyed Ned Kelly: Joe Byrne & Aaron Sherritt. Ben and Ironoutlaw webmaster Brad Webb designed and edited the catalogue Ned: The Exhibition, written by Ian Jones.