“King Without a Throne is a song Joe would have loved to hear Karen Carpenter sing. That not being possible, he gives one of the vocal performances of his life on a late-career classic.”
You get to a point in life where you go to more funerals than weddings. That’s inevitable. You pay your respects, say your goodbyes, you get on with living.
In Joe Camilleri’s case, you do what you have been doing for most of your life. Write the best songs you can, pour everything you know into making a record, send it out to the world.
His latest, Saint Georges Road, is his 50th album, stretching back to Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons in the ’70s and through band incarnations including Bakelite Radio, The Revelators and 18 albums now with The Black Sorrows, the little band formed “just for fun” that is still thriving almost 40 years on.
A half-century of albums is a milestone few achieve, and no-one gets there unless there is talent and tenacity in equal measure. But how many artists release a record that’s as good as this when they’re 73?
The album opens with What Stephanie Knows, the kind of sultry soul song that might have been found on an early Boz Scaggs album. On the gospel-fired Another Blue Day Camilleri rips it up like one of his R&B heroes, Solomon Burke (that’s Joe’s old Falcons bandmate Wilbur Wilde on sax). Chiquita gets back to the Louisiana zydeco spirit of the early Black Sorrows, and Livin’ Like Kings has the radio-ready sound of some of the band’s best-loved songs.
But Camilleri is sure that one of the reasons that the band has survived for all these years is that he and his songwriting partner Nick Smith have never wasted time looking over their shoulder at past glories.
Joe has worn many hats over the years: band leader, producer, sax player, the singer out front, songwriter, and on Saint Georges Road he shares some of the load by working with his old friend Peter Solley, the English record producer who was at the helm for Jo Jo Zep’s breakthrough 1979 album Screaming Targets.
In recent years there has been a lot of loss to process for Camilleri and Smith, with the passing of Joe’s brother Tony and music contemporaries like Chris Wilson, Martin Armiger, Greedy Smith and Michael Gudinski.
The songwriting duo address that on the title track, farewelling a life at a funeral and then wondering, what do I do with the rest of mine? The answer, of course, is to do the things that make you happy, and the result is an album that’s mostly about celebration, not existential anxiety.
Holy Man has a funky, New Orleans edge, Revolutionary Blues is sweaty, old-timey rock’n’roll, Only Got Yourself to Blame is the kind of tough, bluesy tune that Jo Jo Zep might have blazed through in their pub rock years.
And the album closes with King Without a Throne, a song that’s as fine as anything Camilleri and Smith have ever written. It’s a song Joe would have loved to have heard Karen Carpenter sing. That not being possible, he gives one of the vocal performances of his life on a late-career classic.
Here’s a typical Camilleri story. There was so much to choose from when recording was completed, the song almost didn’t make the record!
Joe Camilleri talks about Saint Georges Road
What led to this reunion with your producer from the Jo Jo Zep days, Peter Solley?
He’s a great musician so that transition to production is a natural thing if you are interested in the nuts and bolts of making records. I would be happy producing but I thought it would be nice to have someone who would say to the musicians, “I want you to try this, look at it this way”. That’s harder to do when you know the musicians. He was able to tell me exactly what he thought of the material too. Some of the songs he loved, some others he didn’t rate until we recorded them. In the studio he was able to extract the best performance for each of the songs.
That much hasn’t changed about making records. You really don’t know how something will work until that group of people are together on that day in that studio.
Another Blue Day was one of those. I just had half a lyric, not even that, and a few ideas. But when we recorded the song it became a completely different animal, and it was all about the people who were playing on it. Recording music is still such a strange thing with these beautiful moments that you aren’t expecting. Peter knew when that magic was happening.
You have always found ways to refresh your music, like the covers records you have made with the Revelators and Bakelite Radio, or styles like reggae and zydeco.
If you are a fan, you always find things that interest you. I discovered Solomon Burke again and the beautiful records he did towards the end of his life, when it sounded like he found himself again. I loved that record he did, Don’t Give Up on Me. You pick up on the feeling and it’s exciting. All of a sudden it feels like you are back in the game, a place you haven’t been before.
The Black Sorrows started out just for the fun of making music, not as a commercial proposition. And look where that has landed you.
It is a wonder to me. I have been pretty much an independent person, apart from a few records with Sony, where Nick and I were writing the right kind of songs with the right kind of band that was unusual compared to everything else at the time. Nick and I aren’t chasing down this dream that needs to be fed. I never signed up to make money, I signed up for the music. We have had peaks and valleys which you can’t think about too much. Actually I never think about them. I wake up and say, what am I going to do today? I can practise the saxophone. Ok, did that. What gives me joy outside of family and children? It’s making shit up. I’m not trying to recreate Chained to the Wheel.