Thirty years to the day the stars aligned for Steve Williams to play harmonica on a John Farnham tune that would change his life forever. A remarkable set of circumstances, links in a chain reaction, would take him from Melbourne’s Pub music scene into the heady heights of the concert arena. To celebrate the anniversary and record this journey, Harmonica Riff Raff had a one on one chin wag with the harp man himself.
SD: Steve let’s travel back in the time machine to the year 1990 – what were you up to and how were you headhunted to blow harp on Chain Reaction?
SW: I’d been playing with a few different bands at The Grain Store in King Street from the late eighties and Peter Hoyland, who was one of the owners, asked me to do a session for a band he was managing called Southern Sons. This was in early 1990. I did heaps of sessions in the eighties and nineties for people like Mike Brady and Peter Sullivan almost always at Armstrongs in South Melbourne. The session for Southern Sons was in studio two (the big one) at Armstrongs and was produced by a guy called Ross Fraser, who I didn’t know. At the end of the session (the song was called Living This Way, ‘Ab’ harp) he said that he was John Farnham’s producer and there MIGHT be a track on John’s next album which MIGHT need harmonica. Well that seemed pretty vague and I forgot all about it. A few months later out of nowhere Ross phoned and booked me for the track.
SD: How did you feel going into the studio and had you worked out your harp lines before you walked in?
SW: I was pretty nervous going into studio two. I didn’t know much about Farnham’s music other than that it wasn’t blues or country which were my harmonica worlds and it wasn’t R.n.B or funk like my saxophone world. In the studio there was only John, who I didn’t know and Ross whom I’d met once, but luckily the engineer was Mike Brady’s brother Doug whom I’d done sessions with for years. Ross barely spoke (I think he read the paper for most of the session just looking up occasionally to grunt), but John was incredibly enthusiastic, bouncing all over the place and laughing at everything I said. I had never heard the demo track (I had only been told about it) so I hadn’t had the opportunity to work out any harp lines. The track ‘Chain Reaction’ was a simple countryish tune written by Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics and his wife. The demo which John had received was Dave Stewart playing guitar, singing the song and playing first position Bob Dylanish harmonica in a rack, sitting at his kitchen table in London and recorded on a cheap Sanyo cassette player. Consequently this influenced what John wanted to hear. The track was already completed and consisted of just John singing with no backing vocals, Ross on rhythm guitar and a drum machine. All the ‘flavour’ was down to me .
SD: What condiments did you use?
SW: The song is in ‘A’. I played cross harp using a Hohner Special 20 in ‘D’. I had an amp and mic with me but they wanted a clean sound. I did what I would normally do which is play all over the track (not the vocals of course!) and throw in every lick I know (thank you Charlie McCoy!) and let the producer edit it. As John had heard the demo he knew what he wanted and where he wanted me to play. So after one take (where I suppose John was deciding if I was the right guy) we just worked on the bits where he wanted stuff. And he wanted it kept simple. After about half an hour we had it and John was jumping up and down. Ross, who may have smiled at one point said “Fantastic. Send me an invoice for $300.” And I figured that was that.
SD: We know that it wasn’t and that your acting expertise would be required. How was this utilised?
SW: I went back to playing with The Nazz at the Grain Store and my own band, The Flat Tops and doing random sessions. Then a couple of months later Ross phoned and said that they’d decided that ‘Chain Reaction’ would be the name of the album and the first single, so could I come to the video shoot for that? Bizarrely the video was shot at the Grain Store! It was just Angus Burchall miming the drum machine, John miming Ross’ guitar and me miming as well (myself at least!). The video had a story line involving one of the Daddo brothers coming into the club with a bevy of beautiful women. I’d never done a video or any acting and on one of the takes I got a close up and I was told to make a sort of ‘Phwoar!!’ facial expression because of the girls. Fortunately that bit didn’t make it onto the official video. So anyway I got another $300 for the video and I figured that was that again.
SD: There was an appearance on Hey Hey It’s Saturday and a live radio broadcast how did they pan out?
SW: Yeah, a few weeks later I was asked to mime the track on Hey Hey It’s Saturday for another $300. I thought this little solo’s turning into a goldmine! In those days because of Union stipulations you couldn’t just mime the existing track. You had to rerecord the song and then mime that! So that version has a lot more harp in the intro. At Hey Hey (which I’d done before with The Rock Doctors and Broderick Smith) we were upstairs in a fancy conference room with booze and tons of food. I barely knew anyone and just sat quietly waiting for the performance. When that was done we went back to the conference room but I didn’t feel very comfortable so I made my farewells. Just as I got to the door John yelled out, “Has anyone one told Steve about the city square? We’ll give you a ring.” And a week later they did.
SD: ….the radio broadcast?
At that stage Glen Wheatley owned the FM station 3MMM and he’d organised for the album to be launched in the City Square with the show broadcast live on his radio station. There was a one day rehearsal for the eight songs we had to do but I didn’t know any of the material and there were no solos so I just played a little bit of sax here and there and ran ‘Chain Reaction’ a few times. There were forty thousand people in the city square and I spent a significant amount of time in the port-a-loos with the nervous wees. The show was being introduced by the politician Jim Kennan and only seconds before we were about to go on (‘Chain Reaction’ was the first song) Farnham turned to me and said, “Hey Stevie you go out first and just blow and we’ll wander out on stage…I’ll come out last”…I said, “What?.Hang on…”. He said “Aah they’ll love it. Out you go”. At that very moment Jim Kennan was yelling, “Here he is everybody: Johnny Farnham!” There was a gigantic roar as I strode out blowing. You’ve never heard a roar die away so quickly! My mum taped the show and you can almost here the crowd wondering, “Who the f…is this” and you can hear my nerves too…I sound like a chipmunk on speed!
SD: So now you’re a fully fledged band member and part of the touring party. What was your role playing live and is it true you played a chromatic on tour?
SW: After that I was invited to join the coming tour. At the first rehearsal I was mucking around on someone’s guitar in the lunch break. I still didn’t really know anyone and they’d all disappeared. Musical Director David Hirschfelder wandered back into the deserted rehearsal room and said, “I didn’t know you played guitar. I can use that.” So he gave me some acoustic guitar parts and a couple of lead lines on a twenty six string Coral Sitar on ‘In Days To Come’ and ‘I Can Do Anything’. On that first tour I played tenor and soprano sax, guitar, sitar, diatonic and chromatic harp, and tom tom in a drum feature with Angus Burchall and Davd Hirschfelder.
I used a 64 Chromonica on the ballad ‘Burn For You’ playing the cello part. ‘Chain Reaction’ became the encore and I would go out and blow for a bit by myself like I’d done at the city square. I still kept the solo simple and similar every night, but in the blow at the start I could do what I liked. It developed into a dramatic moment. The room was in darkness then a spotlight would shine on me standing amongst the crowd at the rear of the room. I would walk through the whole room from the back (which I’d have to run to as we came off stage) towards the front through the crowd, blowing (and panting) all the way. Tennis Centres are big places! I had a roadie with me to clear a path and after I had developed a bit of a following he had to stop old women grabbing my buttocks! On subsequent tours ‘Chain Reaction’ went back into the body of the set, but I would still open the song by myself. For a long time I would play for a bit then count the band in for a furiously fast version of ‘Southern Comfort’ from the Area Code 615 band, which was the first tune I’d heard Charlie McCoy play on.
SD: Really this was just the beginning as a world tour followed. How was the tune received overseas?
SW: At the end of 1990 I received a Gold Record for the Chain Reaction single (it was an actual 45 rpm record), the first such award I’d received. I still occasionally opened the show with the harp solo and ‘Chain Reaction’. I did that in Germany at the Nurburgring race track with an audience of a hundred thousand. At a football stadium in Munich where we were supporting ZZ Top. There were ninety thousand of what seemed like very restless drug crazed bikies all dressed in their ZZ Top shirts. We made the mistake of opening the set with the sweet and gentle song ‘Two Strong Hearts’, which has imagery of bees and honey. Well, a guttural roar of ‘ZZ,ZZ,ZZ’ emerged from the bikies who then began throwing full water bottles onto the stage. Farnham walked over to me and said “Play some harmonica for Christ’s sake.” So I just wandered around by myself playing flat out blues for five minutes before we launched into ‘Chain Reaction’. At the end of which the audience went nuts! The power of the little old blues harp! At a concert hall in Holland the power went out and as the only acoustic instrument I jumped off the stage and walked through the crowd playing by myself till the power fired back up. At that show was a representative of the Hering harmonica company, who contacted me and organised a sponsorship deal. The power!!
SD: What other tunes did you play harp on Steve?
SW: In the twenty four years I played with John I was mostly a saxophone player. I only played harp on a few tunes: ‘Chain Reaction’ (D harp), ‘The Last Time’ (D harp), ‘Talk of the Town’ (C harp, only live), ‘Hearts on Fire’ (Bb and F harps, only live), ‘Burn for You’ (C Chromatic, only live), ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ (D harp, only live) and a few others. I also played harp on some of John’s contributions to the Myer Christmas albums: Chromatic on ‘The Christmas Song’ (Chestnuts Roasting) and diatonic harp (C harp) on ‘The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot’, which I think is the best solo I’ve ever played. And it was just one take, all together in a rehearsal room, no overdubs. We had a couple of listens to Nat King Cole’s original version which had a whistling intro and solo, so John said you better play those bits. And during the solo John launched into a very rude rant about why the ‘little bastard had missed out on any presents, the turd….’ with much swearing and I just had to soldier on, with everyone laughing their heads off… Doug Brady had a hell of a time trying to edit John and the laughing out of the solo because of all the live mics.
SD: Any final thoughts on the impact of the song with the title that said it all (one link in a chain reaction)?
SW: My experience with Chain Reaction shows how one little phone call can change your life as a musician. I spent twenty four years with John, toured the world, made a lot of money and received a number of platinum discs, and along the way I got to play with Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Olivia Newton – John and just about every major Australian star. It was a blast and all because at the age of ten I wanted to know how John Lennon was making that sound on ‘Love Me Do’.
Chain Reaction (the single) would peak at number three on the ARIA charts and was certified gold in Australia. At the 1991 Logie Awards, the accompanying video clip won Most Popular Music Video. The album was the fourteenth studio album by Australian singer John Farnham released in Australia on 24 September 1990. It was the highest selling album in Australia that year, debuting at number one on the ARIA charts and went platinum seven times. The album was promoted with a national tour, ‘The Chain Reaction Tour’ and with a televised performance at the National Tennis Centre in Melbourne. A video cassette shortly followed and was re-released digitally on 13 November 2005.EssDawg