Buffalo - 1976 and Mother's Choice

Buffalo-Mothers Choice LP.jpg

Here are my original liner notes for the 2006 CD reissue on Aztec of Buffalo's 1976 boogie rock master class album Mother's Choice.

Thanks to Dave Tice, Pete Wells (R.I.P.) and John Baxter.

Mother’s Choice

Ian McFarlane © 2006

In the past, I’ve often been critical of the last two Buffalo albums Mother’s Choice (Vertigo 6357 103) and Average Rock’n’Roller (Vertigo 6357 104), in as much as they lack the primal sound and arrogant disposition of the band’s early works. When you consider that the Buffalo legend that persists to this day is based solely on their first three albums, it’s a reasonable viewpoint; however, I’ve come to realise it’s also slightly wide of the mark.

As lead singer Dave Tice has explained it, they’re just different; they had a more commercial and considered sound and that was the whole idea. If we approach Mother’s Choice and Average Rock’n’Roller with that in mind, we come to realise they’re great albums in their own right and are ripe for reappraisal.

Since the end of 1974, with the sacking of original guitarist John Baxter, the members of Buffalo and their management had been working feverishly towards cracking the commercial market. Hit singles were the order of the day. In an Australian musical environment driven by the Countdown phenomenon, with commercially minded bands such as Sherbet, Skyhooks, AC/DC, Hush, Ted Mulry Gang, Dragon etc dominating TV screens and the radio waves, the Buffalo boys were keen to get in on the action.

Yet, despite their best efforts, the hit singles never eventuated for Buffalo. It seems that their early image as macho, progressive rock heavyweights still persisted; local radio stations were unwilling to play the band’s new singles (even though they’d moved on from their original psych-metal/proto-stoner rock sound) and the producers of Countdown doggedly refused to grant them a slot on the show. The members of Buffalo simply had to get on with the task at hand.

“Go, go, go Little Queenie...”

With the line-up of Tice, bass player Peter Wells, drummer Jimmy Economou and slide guitarist Norm Roue in place, the early months of 1975 found the band working in new guitarist Karl Taylor. The band’s sound changed immediately, with a more predominant boogie rock edge. New songs like their cover of the Chuck Berry classic ‘Little Queenie’ and ‘Lucky’ were perfect vehicles for Roue’s boisterous slide playing. He’d perfected his exceptional technique as a member of Band of Light, whose 1973 album Total Union was recently re-issued on Aztec (AVSCD012). Roue’s slide contributions to Total Union help to make it one of the greatest blues rock documents of the period. On a good night, Roue ranked alongside the La De Das’ Kevin Borich and Carson’s ‘Sleepy’ Greg Lawrie as the best slide player in the land.

As Tice recalls, “The change in the Buffalo sound was completely down to the change in line up. That whole organic approach where John came from, that worked for us at the time whereas Karl Taylor and Chris Turner, a bit later on, were formalised in their playing. They were both very formally educated players, much more traditional in their approach. The idea of getting into a rehearsal room with Karl or Chris and just jamming for a few hours, and saying ‘that was good, let’s take that and work with it’, all that was out the window. The later albums featured songs that one or the other brought into the studio as reasonably completed ideas or songs. Prior to that the songs were built out of whatever we had in our heads at the time. The dynamic had changed.”

“Norm Roue was different again, more like John in a way. Different style of playing obviously, in particular with his slide playing, but he was uncontrollable in his own way. He was such a fantastic slide player but unfortunately he couldn’t stick around for terribly long. Norm was very much a free spirit; things could happen while he played. Norm was one of the few guitar players I’ve been on stage with and I’ve got that ‘electric shock’ which you get when something touches you. It’s that feeling of ‘oh my god, what was that?’ Norm was one of those players, and John could do that to me too.”

The late Peter Wells put it this way: “After John left and we got Norm and Karl in, it was a different band. More like a blues, rock’n’roll kind of band. Norm’s slide guitar playing took the band in a different direction. He contributed quite significantly to the band, just in style and attitude. I don’t know if it was more successful or not, that line-up. We seemed to flounder around there for a couple of years, I’m not sure why. It’s hard to be objective about it all now after all these years. With Karl Taylor, sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t work. Karl’s style was very unique too, the way he played, but in the end there was a bit of conflict there as well.”

“Lucky at love, lucky at rolling dice...”

In between their national touring commitments throughout 1975, the first order of business for the band had been to get into the studio and record those all-important hit singles. ‘Little Queenie’ b/w ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ (Vertigo 6037 055) appeared in August, followed by ‘Lucky’ b/w ‘On My Way’ (Vertigo 6037 901) in November by which time they’d completed their fourth album. Roue’s ‘Lucky’ was a stomping slice of boogie rock hi-jinks with his killer slide to the fore. It was the band’s best shot at the commercial market but it failed to chart.

During the early part of the year, three of the band members – Wells, Roue and Economou – had found time to goof off with their own sideline band, the New York Jets. Playing gigs around the Sydney pub circuit, they appeared under pseudonyms: Wells was Spik Gypsy Harris, Roue was Earl Churchill and Economou was Chuck Pyramidus. To add to the sense of reckless fun, they swapped instruments with Roue on drums, Wells playing guitar and Economou taking bass and lead vocals!

By the end of the year, however, Roue’s behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic, his fragile personality obviously unsuited to the rigours of a life spent on the road. Apparently, he suffered a breakdown of sorts while Buffalo was on tour in New Zealand in late 1975; he simply walked away from the band, never to return to the live arena. Rhythm guitarist and songwriter Colin Stead joined as 1976 dawned. As a songwriter, it was hoped that Stead would help ease the band into the more desired commercial direction. His musical background could not be further removed from that of the other members, having been part of Sydney band Lloyd’s World whose 1968 single on Festival, ‘Brass Bird’ is justly celebrated as a pop-psych masterpiece.

With the new Buffalo album finally released in March 1976, things began to look brighter for the band. They were, however, still capable of arousing controversy. Take the album’s title for example. The band originally wanted to call it either Songs For the Frustrated Housewife or Thieves, Punks, Rip-offs and Liars (a political concept) but cautious executives at Phonogram – mindful of all the fuss created over the covers to Volcanic Rock and Only Want You For Your Body – rejected the titles as being “too sexual” and “too confrontational” respectively. Lucky at Love, Lucky at Rolling Dice (a line taken from ‘Lucky’) was then suggested until they settled on the safer option of Mother’s Choice.

Interestingly enough, the album was also issued on cassette at the time (Vertigo 7127 503), with a revamped front cover that utilised only the large pink rose with yellow butterfly – from the wallpaper background on the LP cover – as the primary image. The old lady in the rocking chair had been dispensed with completely! Then even more strangely, the last track on each side (as they appeared on the vinyl pressing) was swapped around, so ‘Be Alright’ was track 4, with ‘Little Queenie’ moved to track 8.

The album kicks off strongly enough with ‘Long Time Gone’ and ‘Honey Babe’, with ‘Little Queenie’ and ‘Lucky’ keeping up the pace. We’ve included the non-album single B-sides here as bonus tracks, a cover of the Bobby Troup ripper ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ and the Tice/Taylor-penned ‘On My Way’ which help round out the whole album. ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ b/w ‘Essukay’ (Vertigo 6037 902) slipped out as a single during April but went by completely unnoticed. Overall, the stripped-down rock’n’roll sound on display is certainly accessible and energetic, with the band coming on like some of those London pub-rock bands, such as Dr Feelgood and Ducks Deluxe, simultaneously hitting their straps over in the UK. Buffalo music circa 1975/76 had that same retro feel while sounding entirely contemporary.

Because Roue had already left the band, he was nowhere to be seen in the band photo on the inner gatefold sleeve. Likewise, he was only credited on the album with “Special thanks to NORM ROUE: Slide guitar on all tracks except ‘Taste It Don’t Waste It’ and ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’”. Just as the album came out, the band suffered a further guitar-player mishap with Taylor leaving, intent on getting his solo career underway. He had his debut album, Taylor Maid (Polydor 2907 023) and single ‘You Won’t Come Around’ b/w ‘Prove You Wrong’ (Polydor 2079 086), out by the end of the year prior to which he’d formed a touring outfit called Karl Taylor & Huntress.

In the meantime, Buffalo had recruited Chris Turner (ex-Younger Brothers, Drain) as their newest lead guitarist. The London-born Turner had a wealth of experience under his belt, having started his career back in England during the mid-60s, as a contemporary of the likes of David Bowie, Peter Frampton, Steve Marriott and John Mayall. He was a very accomplished player and helped guide the band through its final year together. With his arrival, Buffalo began playing the likes of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Star Star’ and ‘Sweet Virginia’, alongside the usual Chuck Berry numbers, in their live shows. He and Stead never really gelled as a guitar team, with Stead leaving by mid year (although he did contribute the likes of the ultra-commercial ‘Rollin’’ to the final Buffalo album Average Rock’n’Roller).

Faithful Fans

Through all the ups and downs, the band’s fan base remained as faithful as ever. This is particularly evident in a wonderful fan letter published in the pages of RAM (Rock Australian Magazine), Issue #29, 9 April 1976.

No Bull in Buffalo
“Buffalo, on any night, are the most powerful raw rock band in Australia! They are the most ripped-off band in Australia! Consider where AD/DC, Hush and a host of lesser known punko rock bands got their shit from. The guitarist from Hush is playing now what John Baxter (not Dave Baxter a recent album review on Mother’s Choice would have you believe) was playing back in 1972 in Buffalo’s Dead Forever period.

“The punk rock bands that are big nationally are a watered-down commercialised version of what Buffalo has been, during the years, at different times. Buffalo has produced some of the best rock guitarists that have come out of Australia – ie John Baxter, Norm Roue, Karl Taylor and of course the ultimate heavy metal kid, Peter Wells on electric bass. Their new guitarist, Chris Turner, would rank with anyone in the world for pure rock and roll.

“But, unfortunately, Buffalo will never be big nationally – unless of course they break up or Dave Tice becomes a big solo artist, or Peter or Jim OD or something – and then there will be a situation like what happened with the Velvet Underground or MC5 in the States, where years after the event people will realise what was there. Buffalo have, I think, reflected the times at which they were recorded. For me, at least, Dead Forever was almost a hippy/dope album. Some day, people will pick up on songs like Bean Stew like they did with Lou Reed’s Heroin years after the original release of the record. Volcanic Rock was another album that probably is the only true Mandrax/downer album ever produced in Australia. Only Want You For Your Body was the ultimate punk rock statement, supremely cynical with songs like Kings Cross Ladies and Skirt Lifter. How about that for pre-Dingoes, Ayres Rock etc. nationalism! Mother’s Choice is the ultimate ‘75 Sydney neurotic album!

“Anyhow, Buffalo are the original punk rock band in Australia – the first and the best. Who else could blow a joint on national TV and get away with it? They did in fact (contrary to the report in the RAM Dirt Column) show shots on TV, in one of the two songs they did on the Phonogram Gold Fever Show, of the dreaded weed being smoked. Peter Wells looked so stoned no wonder they gave him a chair. Besides just getting away with it, Buffalo looked like they were doing it as a natural part of playing a song – like not just for a pose or something. Long live the only true Outlaw Rock Band in Australia – Buffalo!!”

A Buffalo Fan from beautiful downtown Darlinghurst (as they say on 2JJ)

In the same issue of RAM, journalist Felicity Surtees pinpointed the band’s current dilemma, with all the members (bar Economou) disowning the Mother’s Choice album. Tice summed it up with “We wanna do another album real soon and forget the other four”.

Surtees goes on to write: “It all boils down to the fact that Buffalo would like to Make it Big. It means that the new Buffalo are trying to be more ‘commercial’ in the sense that their music will appeal to a broader cross-section of the market (whoops sorry audience that’s meant to be) and it also means that the approach will be ‘more professional’. As well as arriving on time for gigs, ‘more professional’ includes things like making better use of the studio and co-ordinating the release of a record with the stage act. Previously, Buffalo procedure with their material was to write the song, then after playing it on stage for twelve months, record it on that year’s album. ‘But now,’ explains Chris, ‘we’ll be using the studio to create and enhance the music and then taking it to the stage…’.”

“Taste it... don’t waste it”

1976 was shaping up to be a make-or-break year for Buffalo. They still managed to tour nationally, playing the regular teenage dance circuit, a few open air concerts and the occasional pub gig. They even scored the national tour support slot to UK visitors Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow during November. By way of concluding this part of the Buffalo story, Tice states, “The first three albums sound cohesive but that was completely down to the chemistry of the band at the time. I’m aware as anybody that the fourth and fifth albums had lost that. Those later albums aren’t bad; they’re just different, that’s all. The sound and the songs had changed. They had a more commercial flavour, which was the whole point. What I said before about the change in guitar players is no reflection on their relative merits or abilities. With the later albums when you listen to them you realise there’s a whole different approach going on. Chris and Karl have been at various times as good as any other guitar players in the country. In some ways there’s no real way to compare them, is what I’m saying.”

I’ll leave the last words here to Peter Wells: “Even though we didn’t get played on radio, it wasn’t that bad for us. We used to work all the time, we got plenty of gigs. You didn’t really need a lot of airplay to get plenty of gigs, y’know what I mean? We battled on. But the Mother’s Choice album was pretty good, it was just a different style, more rock’n’roll. We toured more with that album; we went down to Melbourne more often. The first couple of albums sounded more Sydney-oriented to me. After Mother’s Choice we had more of a national flavour. Just with travelling around a lot more, our sound changed.”

To be continued…

Mother’s Choice originally released as Vertigo 6357 103 (March 1976)

1. LONG TIME GONE (Dave Tice/Karl Taylor)
2. HONEY BABE (Dave Tice/Karl Taylor)
3. TASTE IT DON’T WASTE IT (Dave Tice/Karl Taylor)
4. LITTLE QUEENIE (Chuck Berry)
5. LUCKY (Norm Roue)
6. ESSUKAY (Buffalo)
8. BE ALRIGHT (Dave Tice/Karl Taylor)

PETER WELLS: Electric bass
JIMMY ECONOMOU: Drums & voice
Special thanks to NORM ROUE: Slide guitar on all tracks except ‘Taste It Don’t Waste It’ and ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’
Also to MARK SIMMONDS who played Sax on ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’