“I just feel that I’m getting better,” James Reyne says. “I’m a better singer and a better songwriter.”
It’s a simple statement, but also remarkable – considering that this is an artist who has sold more than two million albums and written some of the most memorable Australian songs of all time.
But as critic Ed Nimmervoll – who has followed James’ career since it started – remarked when he reviewed James’ 2012 album, Thirteen: “He’s a better singer today than ever, better songwriter, better lyricist. Every track on Thirteen tells you how important all three of those aspects of his craft are to him.”
James Reyne’s songs have provided the soundtrack to endless Australian summers, including “The Boys Light Up”, “Reckless”, “Beautiful People”, “Lakeside”, “Daughters Of The Northern Coast”, “Fall Of Rome”, “Hammerhead”, “Motor’s Too Fast” and “Slave”.
James has been a part of our lives since making an unforgettable debut on Countdown in 1979, with both arms in plaster (the result of being hit by a car, crossing Swanston Street in Melbourne).
“Lucky for the Australian music industry that James Reyne chose to strut through its door in 1979,” Wendy Milson and Helen Thomas wrote in their 1986 book Pay To Play. “His was exactly the profile … an injection of chutzpah to recharge a listless business burdened with hard-to-market punk acts.”
In her 1992 book Your Name’s On The Door, Tracee Hutchison noted that Australian Crawl “boldly explored an ‘Australian-ness’ that was unique at the time and which broke a lot of ground in the development of an Australian ‘sound’.”
As Ed St John declared in the liner notes for Australian Crawl’s farewell album, The Final Wave, “They had a distinctively Melbourne twang that recalled the sounds of many of that city’s great bands – Skyhooks, Jo Jo Zep and The Sports – whilst also stating a youthful, sexy confidence that was all their own.”
James was a member of Australian Crawl for seven years, releasing four studio albums in five frenetic years in the ’80s. He’s been a solo artist for the past 28 years, releasing eight studio albums, plus two acoustic collections, a covers album and two live albums.
Thirty years after it was released, Australian Crawl’s debut album, The Boys Light Up, was featured in The 100 Best Australian Albums. “Australian Crawl would never have gone much beyond their living rooms on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula,” the authors noted, “had it not been for singer/songwriter James Reyne … a keen observer of human nature and a man with a vitriolic wit.”
James’ distinctive diction has also attracted attention. Semantics producer Mark Opitz says: “No one else sings like James Reyne. He is unique, and you don’t want to lose that.” While Ed Nimmervoll says it’s a voice “as familiar to us as the taste of Vegemite, as essentially Australian”.
Australian Crawl sold more than one million albums in Australia, placing four albums in the Top 5, including 11 weeks at number one.
Only four local bands – Skyhooks, The Seekers, Savage Garden and Midnight Oil – have spent more time on top of the Australian albums chart.
James’ songs have been covered by Paul Kelly and John Farnham, and he’s had 19 Top 40 hits (seven with Australian Crawl, 12 solo) and 10 Top 10 albums.
Critic Craig Mathieson wrote about the enduring appeal of the chart-topping “Reckless” in his 2009 book Playlisted, calling it “as haunted and impervious an Australian classic as you will ever hear”.
But James has never been interested in accolades or awards. His most treasured musical possession is not a Countdown Award or a platinum album; it’s a photo with John Lee Hooker (the blues legend and James were both signed to the same US label in the ’90s).
Australian Crawl defiantly did things their own way. As the Rolling Stone editors explained in 1985’s The Big Australian Rock Book, “Australian Crawl has become a major fixture of the Australian music industry without ever really becoming a part of it.”
James Reyne continues to do things his own way.
“Regrets, you know I’ve had a few,” he confessed on Thirteeen, “but I don’t sweat ’em.”
“James is his own worst enemy,” younger brother David says, “and I’m proud of him for that. He’s unbelievably uncompromising, and all that matters to him is recording, writing and performing.”
“Any day above ground is a good day,” James observed on his third solo album. And every day, he is scavenging, foraging, searching, observing … confident that the next song he writes will be his best.
1957: James Reyne is born in Lagos, Nigeria (May 19).
1976: James forms the band Spiff Rouch with Simon Binks, Paul Williams, Robert Walker and brothers Bill and Guy McDonough.
1978: Spiff Rouch split, and James forms Australian Crawl with Simon Binks, Paul Williams, Brad Robinson, and brother David Reyne on drums. The band plays its first gig in October.
1979: David Reyne leaves Australian Crawl and is replaced by Bill McDonough.
Australian Crawl release their debut single, “Beautiful People”.
1980: Australian Crawl release their debut album, The Boys Light Up. Produced by David Briggs, the album stays in the charts for two years, peaks at number four, and goes four times platinum. The album features three singles: “Beautiful People”, “The Boys Light Up” and “Downhearted”.
Guitarist and singer Guy McDonough joins Australian Crawl.
1981: James wins Most Popular Male Performer at the Countdown Rock Awards.
Australian Crawl’s second album, Sirocco – named after Errol Flynn’s yacht – is the band’s first number one album, spending six weeks on top. Produced by Peter Dawkins, three singles are released: “Things Don’t Seem”, “Errol” and “Oh No Not You Again”.
1982: Australian Crawl win Most Popular Group at the Countdown Rock Awards, while James wins Most Popular Male Performer for the second year running. He gets Phillip Adams, from Amnesty International, to accept the award. “And this year,” Phillip says, “James is insisting that Amnesty work to get Molly Meldrum released from a rock show.”
Australian Crawl’s third studio album, Sons of Beaches, becomes the band’s second number one album, spending five weeks on top. Produced by Mike Chapman, the album features three singles: “Shut Down”, “Daughters Of The Northern Coast” and “Runaway Girls”.
1983: The Party Boys, featuring James Reyne on vocals, release a live album, Live At Several 21st’s, which reaches number nine.
James stars as the tennis-playing playboy Greg Marsden in the TV mini-series Return To Eden.
Australian Crawl release the Semantics EP featuring “Reckless”. Produced by Mark Opitz, the EP goes to number one. The band also re-records six songs for the international release of the Semantics album – “The Boys Light Up”, “Errol”, “Indisposed”, “Lakeside”, “Things Don’t Seem” and “Unpublished Critics”.
Australian Crawl release their first live album, Phalanx, featuring cover artwork by Michael Leunig and a cover of “Louie Louie”. The album reaches number four.
Australian Crawl tour the UK with Duran Duran, where Geffen Records release Phalanx as Australian Crawl: Live.
1984: Australian Crawl sponsor the Bells Beach Surf Classic. It’s the Rip Curl/Australian Crawl Bells Beach Surf Classic.
Australian Crawl win Most Popular Group at the Countdown Rock Awards.
James wins a Logie for Most Popular New Talent at the TV Week Logie Awards.
The first Australian Crawl best-of, Crawl File, is released.
Australian Crawl guitarist Guy McDonough dies of viral pneumonia, and the band cancels a planned US tour.
1985: James and Brad Robinson help organise the EAT Concert, at Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl, which raises money for East Africa (January 27).
James and Electric Pandas singer Lin Buckfield release a duet, a cover of Garland Jeffreys’ “R.O.C.K”.
Australian Crawl release their final studio album, Between A Rock And A Hard Place, on the band’s own label, Freestyle Records. Produced by Adam Kidron, the album features the singles “Two Can Play”, “If This Is Love”, “Trouble Spot Rock” and “Two Hearts”, and peaks at number 12.
1986: Australian Crawl play their final Melbourne show, at the Myer Music Bowl on January 27. A live album, The Final Wave, is released in October. The band’s final show is at the Perth Entertainment Centre on February 1.
1987: James premieres his debut solo single, “Fall Of Rome”, on the final Countdown.
James’ self-titled debut album is released. Produced by Davitt Sigerson, the album hits number four and features the Top 10 hits “Fall Of Rome” and “Hammerhead”, as well as the Top 40 hits “Rip It Up” and “Heaven On A Stick”. A third Top 10 single, “Motor’s Too Fast” is later added to the album.
1988: James tours Australia with Tina Turner. Capitol Records releases James Reyne in the US and Europe.
1989: James releases his second solo album, Hard Reyne (June). Produced by Simon Hussey, the album peaks at number seven and features “House of Cards”, “One More River”, “Trouble In Paradise” and “Harvest Moon”.
Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls cover “Reckless” for the “Dumb Things” EP.
1991: James releases his third solo album, Electric Digger Dandy, his first for Virgin Records. Produced by Simon Hussey, the album peaks at number three, and features the Top 10 hit “Slave”, as well as “Any Day Above Ground”, “Some People”, a new version of “Reckless” and a cover of John Hiatt’s “Stood Up”.
Melbourne band Mr Floppy cover “Reckless” as “Breakfast”.
1992: James is part of a studio project with Daryl Braithwaite, Simon Hussey and Jef Scott. The project takes its name from one of the Electric Digger Dandy tracks, “Company of Strangers”. The Company of Strangers album features three Top 40 hits: “Motor City (I Get Lost)”, “Sweet Love” and “Daddy’s Gonna Make You A Star”, as well as a cover of The Beatles’ “Baby You’re A Rich Man”.
James and James Blundell’s cover of The Dingoes’ “Way Out West” reaches number two.
Paul Kelly’s cover of “Reckless” is included on the Paul Kelly & The Messengers album Hidden Things.
The first solo best-of, The Best of James Reyne, reaches number 16.
1993: James plays Tina Turner’s manager, Roger Davies, in the movie What’s Love Got To Do With It.
1994: James signs to rooArt and releases his fourth solo album, The Whiff of Bedlam. Produced by Stewart Levine, the album hits number 20 and features “Red Light Avenue”, “Day In The Sun” and “It’s Only Natural”.
1996: James releases his first solo live album, Live In Rio.
Australian Crawl are inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. Founding member and James’ best friend, Brad Robinson, is too unwell to attend. He dies of cancer two weeks later.
James stars in David Atkins’ production of Little Shop of Horrors.
1998: A second Australian Crawl best-of, More Wharf, is released. The album is dedicated to Brad Robinson.
James appears in the TV series State Coroner, playing Liam Pearce in 12 episodes.
1999: James releases his fifth solo studio album, Design For Living, featuring “Not Waving, Drowning”.
James is part of John Farnham’s “I Can’t Believe He’s 50 Tour”. Their duet, “Don’t You Know It’s Magic”, appears on Farnham’s Live At The Regent Theatre album.
2000: Raven Records releases a compilation album, Reckless: 1979-1995, gathering songs from Australian Crawl and James’ solo career.
2002: The Definitive Collection is released, including Australian Crawl and solo material.
2003: James appears as himself in the TV movie The Postcard Bandit, and composes the movie’s music with Scott Kingman.
2004: Liberation Music releases James’ sixth solo studio album, Speedboats For Breakfast. Produced with Scott Kingman, the album includes the singles “Bug” and “The Rainbow’s Dead End”, and a cover of Olivia Newton-John’s “Have You Never Been Mellow”.
Mick Thomas covers Australian Crawl’s “Man Crazy” for his Liberation Blue album, Anythings, Sure Things, Other Things.
2005: Smash ’n’ Grab have a Top 40 hit with “She Don’t Like That”, a dance remix of “Reckless”.
James releases the Liberation Blue album … And The Horse You Rode In On, featuring acoustic re-workings of some of his hits, plus covers of “How To Make Gravy” and “To Live’s To Fly”.
John Farnham covers “Reckless” and “Downhearted” for his album I Remember When I Was Young, The Great Australian Songbook.
2006: James co-hosts Dig, a music show on ABC2.
James collaborates with illustrator Wendy Straw on the children’s book Mr Froggy Went A-Courtin’. It is followed soon after by a second book, Save The Bones For Henry Jones.
James is part of the Countdown Spectacular tour.
James appears on RocKwiz, doing a duet with Mia Dyson (a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”).
2007: James releases Every Man A King, produced by Scott Kingman, and featuring the singles “Light In The Tunnel” and “Little Man You’ve Had A Busy Day”.
James releases a second Liberation Blue album, Ghost Ships.
James and Wendy Straw release a third children’s book, The Little Engine That Could.
James releases the live CD/DVD, One Night In Melbourne.
2010: James releases TCB, an album of Elvis covers, produced by Charles Fisher. It debuts at number 32.
2012: James releases his 13th solo album, Thirteen. Produced with Scott Kingman, the album features the singles “English Girls”, “Capsize”, “Whatcha Gonna Do About It?” and “Good Clean Fun”.
James appears on RocKwiz, doing a duet with Amaya Laucirica (a cover of Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Woody Guthrie song “California Stars”),
2013: James joins the MAX music channel to present a range of programs.
James does the “Time Of My Life” tour with Daryl Braithwaite, Ross Wilson and Joe Camilleri.
2014: Australian Crawl catalogue released Digtally for the very first time.
James receives an Order of Australia recognising his charitable work.