Stephen Charlesworth keyboards, Kate Ceberano vocals, Zan Abeyratne vocals, Barbara Hogarth bass, Cameron Newman drums, Ian Cox sax and lyrics, Robert Goodge guitar (also Warren McLean drums, Kevin Wiltshire keyboards).
Disco was certainly a dirty word by 1979, especially in Australia where the Stayin’ Alive era had never really been totally embraced. But while this antipathy towards all things funky ruled, a kind of renaissance in the funk/dance genre had quietly begun. The production of American music of incredible quality including Chic, Grace Jones, Rick James, Patrice Rushen, Shannon, Deodato, Chaka Khan and Rufus and labels like SalSoul and Prelude was in full swing. It was the golden age of the 12” mix where a multitude of new ways to extend and warp musical form was being played out. It was not just a time when great band music was being made but a time which also saw the rise of the disco producer/auteur, people like Bobby O, Frank Farian, Cerrone and Giorgio Moroder. And as the seventies made way for the eighties, new technology like drum machines, synthesisers and samplers which were being exploited by these producers became cheaper and more widely available, leading to an explosion in both the types of dance music produced and the number and variety of musicians able to pursue it. Dance music styles were no longer governed by access to large studios and expensive orchestral arrangements (as great as that was). Now even someone with access to a dinky drum machine and a synth could rock the boat baby.
If the Australian public, mainstream radio and bands of the time didn’t notice, the inner city underground bands did, just as overseas post-punk bands like Scritti Politti, A Certain Ratio and Cabaret Voltaire were doing around the same time. The attraction was both the provocative nature of the style due to its unloved, outsider status and the sheer excitement and musical pleasures the style afforded.
Hearing this new music in Melbourne presented a challenge and small clubs like the Hardware Club, Therapy and others, where the playlists consisted of illegally imported records sourced from stores like Central Station and community radio shows like Andrew Maine and Paul Jackson’s Friday night Blame it on Disco on 3RRR, were some of the few outlets where the music could be heard.
Pel Mel, Rockmelons, Asphyxiation, Bang and Washington Wives were among the Australian bands experimenting in the style. Essendon Airport had also been one, beginning in the late 70s with minimalism and repetition, with one foot in the art scene, associated with the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre and events like the 1982 Popism exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, and the other in grungy St Kilda venues like The Ballroom. When the band broke up in 1983, Ian Cox, Barbara Hogarth and Robert Goodge decided to pursue the dance/funk trajectory as a fertile area that held more interest than the fringes of the art scene and recruited like minds in Stephen Charlesworth and Cameron Newman telling them they were forming a disco band and comparing notes on favourite artists.
Even though I’m Talking’s musical inspirations came from club music, we were never strictly just a dance band, due to our shared love of pop music. We were also a mix of the band approach to music making, as well as the studio tech style of recording. Our music fluctuated between these two strands because we were fans of both styles. If a song demanded drum machine or sequenced synthesiser arpeggios we did it, often side by side with more ensemble playing.
We weren’t really thinking we could be a chart act at the time, but with the two strands of dance and pop in our music and the power and charm of our two vocalists, Kate Ceberano and Zan, we found ourselves gaining success just as a wave of dance music hit the early 80s charts with artists like Madonna, Miami Sound Machine, Rocksteady Crew, Deniece Williams and Break Machine.
During 1985, after releasing three successful singles, and having an increasingly popular high-profile lead singer, Regular Records was eager for us to record an album, and label boss Martin Fabinyi decided to finance it himself with the hope of licensing it to an overseas company down the track. We had already been courted by overseas interests. Wham’s management, on George Michael’s recommendation, had expressed interest, except their concept was to kick out most of the band. Surely, they reasoned, a three-piece like the Thompson Twins was more marketable. It became apparent that the size of our ensemble, and anything except the most pop aspects of the band, were anathema to the circling sharks of the international music industry.
Which is why we felt a sense of relief when Fred Maher and David Gamson from the slightly left of centre pop band Scritti Politti contacted us whilst on a promotional tour of Australia and offered to produce our album. We even signed with their manager Rob Waugh due to his willingness to work with bands which seemed to exercise some control over their destiny – Gang of Four, ABC and the Human League.
As it turned out, only Fred Maher was able to work with us and he supervised roughly half the album, the remaining tracks we completed with our engineer Martyn Webster, who was fresh from working with the band ABC. Martin Fabinyi let us make the album we wanted to, with no outside interference, albeit of course with Fred and Martyn as our chosen collaborators and guides.
I’m Talking existed from 1984-1987. It was, for the most part, a lot of fun and seemed to end a little quickly. I think it’s fair to say we felt there was a lot of unfinished musical dialogue to be had between us. I guess we never thought how unwieldy a seven-piece group which had plenty of pop appeal, but also aspired to a genre style, could be when we formed, and the difficulties it might present to the thought processes of record labels, managers and each other. Everybody seemed to have their own idea of exactly what we were. As journalist Craig Mathieson put it, “Their strength came from their diversity, although that probably contributed to their comparatively brief lifespan of a little more than 4 years.”
This re-release of Bear Witness, our only official album, with added associated tracks, along with soon to follow packages of extra songs and live recordings, makes available in the digital format, and in quite a few instances any format, for the first time, I’m Talking songs which have been obscured by a history of shifting record labels and shifting music delivery forms. It also allows the band to tell its own story and provide a peek under the bonnet of what we think was a slightly unusual Australian act.