19 May 2010

"Listen to my heart go bumpity-bump..."

Mona by Craig McLachlan and, it would be criminal to forget, Check 1-2. The first example of a soap star getting far too high above their station.

I was a teenager in the late 1980s and therefore, like every other person my age, would watch Neighbours at 5.35pm each day. My dad would despair but, outnumbered my three other people, would grumble and whinge while buried beneath the Hull Daily Mail as the rest of the family took in our daily 22 minute fix from Ramsey Street.

We all remember McLachlan, of course. He had the body that teenage girls craved and teenage boys wished for, helpfully enhanced by the script demanding some denim dungarees and little else. His character was given an element of (Australian) wit and his basic plotline was of the bad boy done good, given that we knew of Henry Ramsey's existence for months prior to his entrance as he was in prison. For what, I can neither remember nor care.

Soon it was obvious that McLachlan possessed a bit more charisma - and acting talent - than most of the hams doing the rounds. His press interviews made it plain that he was also a musician and he was regularly writing songs and going to the studio.

This was a worry. After all, as amazing a talent as he may have been (and I'm not saying he was), there is always a disadvantage that comes from a decision to follow a high-profile but untesting acting career rather than try to make it off one's own bat as a musician. He was doomed from the start. Even if he had been Johnny Marr or Pete Townshend, he was still doomed.

As it turned out, he wasn't quite Johnny Marr or Pete Townshend, and I remember a televised celebration party for Neighbours (probably a fifth birthday or something) in which McLachlan was invited onstage to play guitar on something. He did. It was one of those crazed, improvised solos that start nowhere and end nowhere and it showed technical ability without a hint of real musicality. He was showing off.

Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan were the pathfinders, of course, for every half-baked soap opera thesp to believe they could carve out a musical career. This isn't a criticism of them, as they knew their audience and were happy being teen idols, knowing that they could use their fame to forge a more grown-up career later. My favourite quote about McLachlan's own pop career came from the unlikely Mancunian gob of MC Tunes (himself on the extremely crap wing of rappers that emerged in 1990) when, in reviewing one of McLachlan's singles, said: "Kylie's alright, Jason's alright, because they make crummy pop records for kids, but then along comes Craig saying 'Well, here are my records and they're crap'."

Articulacy wasn't his strongest suit (if you've ever read the lyrics for Tunes Splits The Atom you'll know this) but his point was clear - if you're going to have pretensions for proper musicianship after doing a soap, make sure you do it properly, or otherwise be the teen idol for a bit. McLachlan's material was incredibly weak when one considers he was a guitarist and not just some blonde fledgling who had put pound signs in Pete Waterman's eyes.

Mona was the debut single, released in the summer of 1990. It was a very old Bo Diddley tune with a chord sequence that even Status Quo would consider too samey. Needs must, and catchiness had to override artistic merit in order to get McLachlan and Check 1-2 (notice that he got extra billing; had it really been about the music then he'd have just melted into the band - a band named after the words traditionally used to test that a microphone is working) into the charts. It worked. It flew to No.2 in the UK at a time when McLachlan, back home, was already long gone from Neighbours and was now in Home & Away, playing a teacher. In the UK, however, he was still hapless Henry Ramsey, walking naked around Bronwen's garden and making audition tapes for radio stations (fool).

The Mary Whitehouse Experience were the first to point out what every music person of a certain vintage knew - that the song was essentially Not Fade Away with new lyrics. I don't know if they knew that Mona wasn't a McLachlan composition but my guess is that they realised their audience probably didn't know either and therefore could criticise McLachlan for aping someone else's song. For me, it just made me think of a skeleton advertising videotapes and from then onwards I couldn't take it seriously at all.

The lyrics are 50 years old and so there is a caveat right there about the relationship between men and women, perhaps, but I am quite taken aback by the idea of someone building a house next door to the object of their desire before they'd even asked them out. So it was, in fact, an early song about stalking. Paparazzi by Lady GaGa is behind the times after all.

McLachlan's next problem was the follow-up. It was called Amanda, and once again it was a positive song about bald lust for the eponymous character. Now fictional it may all be, and McLachlan only wrote the latter song, but surely someone in his entourage or at the record company thought that releasing consecutive singles about two different women was a bad idea? Amanda scraped into the Top 20 and was seriously featureless, then the third effort, called I Almost Felt Like Cryin', (which was the song MC Tunes was reviewing) missed the Top 40 altogether.

That wasn't quite it, as one more forgettable McLachlan song (without the band, or at least without crediting for them) found the Top 40 in 1992 before his period in Grease took over and he teamed up with Debbie Gibson, something that every boy of my generation would have rather enjoyed. A single from the musical was his last go at the UK charts, and the last time I saw him was in Bugs.

I stopped watching Neighbours and Home & Away on the same day in June 1993, the day I left home for the final time to start a working life that meant I'd never be home for 5.10pm. For all I know, McLachlan may have been back in one or the other for years.


Clair said...

I interviewed him once. He was GORGEOUS and very, very amusing.

Jon Peake said...

I remember seeing pictures of him before he joined Neighbours and thought I'd absolutely hate him. That hair! But once he arrived on our screens I thought he was great.

And I have to say Mona is one of the finest songs of 1990, if not the entire Nineties. It's SO summery.

And I hear, as Clair vouches, that he's one of the nicest men in showbiz.