Invercargill rock star of the 80s Murray Burns has had his name added to the Southland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Chris Chilton revisits the golden age of Mi-Sex.
Music trivia quiz: A starter for 10.
Name the only two Invercargill-born performers who have received Australian multi-platinum records.
Suzanne Prentice is one. That's a gimme. The other is . . . Murray Burns, of the band Mi-Sex.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, Mi-Sex were supreme in Australasia, blazing a trail for the new wave of rock bands with edgy, left- of-centre pop-rock songs written by guitarist Kevin Stanton and the lad from Invercargill, keyboards ace Murray Burns.
Burns, who has enjoyed a highly successful career as a composer of music for Australian televisio, and as record producer, will return to Invercargill next month to be inducted into the Southland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He's "feeling really, really good" and looking forward to playing in his home town again.
The day before he's inducted into the Hall of Fame he'll also get his name immortalised in bronze at Artists Corner, outside the Civic Theatre.
"I'm just blown away by the whole thing," he says from his home in Byron Bay, northern New South Wales. "My parents are beside themselves and so am I."
Much to Burns' surprise, and against all expectations, he's found himself gigging with his old band again recently.
After the tragic death of lead singer Steve Gilpin following a car crash in January 1992, Mi-Sex thought they'd never play again, Burns says.
Now they have tours lined up in November and January, and "we desperately want to come and play in New Zealand".
"It's a big one for the public to accept you're going out without Steve Gilpin. Dragon seem to have done it very well [without the late Marc Hunter] but [his replacement] Mark Williams is quite a well-known singer in his own right."
The idea of a Mi-Sex reunion came about during a chance conversation last year between Mi- Sex bass player Don Martin and Noiseworks bass player Steve Balbi.
Balbi's "a great singer in his own right and he's very popular as a solo artist in Australia", Burns says.
Balbi told Martin: "If you guys ever want to go and play again I'd love to come and sing for you."
Suddenly, the remaining band members had the opportunity to get together and perform whenever they felt like it. It got them thinking. They tried it. "It's really, really good fun," Burns says.
Mi-Sex, like so many 80s bands, are enjoying a second wave of popularity, with their audience "crossing over the five-zero mark and going 'Hang on, this is what we love doing - we loved going out and seeing bands in 1980, why shouldn't we do it now?'
"It was an amazing time in music," he says. "Live music was just what people did. "We arrived in Australia at a time when there were venues everywhere and that's what kids did - they went to see rock and roll bands play. Those people, well, everyone wants to hold on to their youth, don't they?"
When Mi-Sex arrived in Australia in late 1978, bands were "still wearing white flares", Burns says. "They were great but they hadn't jumped into the edgy sound of the 80s.
"I think we paved the way for a certain style of music, the likes of INXS and Icehouse . . . We got a great following very quickly."
Peter Dawkins, a Kiwi producer working for CBS Records, "jumped on us straight away and we're like, 'Hey, wait a minute, we've only been here a few months and we're in the studio making a record and we're signing a deal with CBS Records'. I was 22 and I'm going: What is going on?"
It was a dream come true that happened so fast "we didn't have time to catch our breaths".
A year and a half later they were playing in New York.
It wasn't just the stylised new- wave image and airtight musicianship that made the industry take notice of Mi-Sex, though. They had catchy, melodic songs, and Burns played a key role in the band's songwriting.
The hit that tipped them over the edge into the big league in 1979 was the then futuristic-sounding Computer Games, with its catchy sequenced keyboard intro and Gilpin's intense robotic vocal delivery.
It went to No 1 in Australia, No 2 in Canada, No 5 in New Zealand and charted in the United States, Europe and Argentina.
"It was unusual, one of those not-repeated songs . . . We got labelled with that song quite strongly," Burns says.
"The record company were quite keen for us to continue in that vein . . . but we were fairly nervous about it. It wasn't really indicative of what we were like.
"We all said to each other when we recorded it that this is going to be a big hit for us, but it's going to give us problems as well."
Computer Games was the band's prescient observation of how they saw computer use dominating society, years before the home computer revolution arrived. It was such an unusual sounding song for 1979 that when the band toured it in the United States and Canada in the early 1980s, audiences would scream for it to be played again and again.
"As much as I might say I thought it was going to label us, we wouldn't change history for a second. It was an amazing time for us and it was definitely spearheaded by that song."
Burns says that by their fourth and final album, Where Do They Go? in 1983, they were making the kind of music that showed what they were really about, including what he regards as the best song Mi-Sex ever recorded (and which he co-wrote), Blue Day.
They went into recess after that album with no intention of breaking up, but Gilpin's death robbed them of the opportunity to tour again until Balbi's conversation with Don Martin reopened the door 20 years later.
After Mi-Sex, Burns started writing television music with fellow Mi-Sex member Colin Bayley. They formed a company, Twilight Music Productions, and started turning out quality soundtracks for Aussie TV and film.
Burns loved the creativity and discipline of his new artform, and forged a brilliant career. Twilight turned out more than 1000 hours of music, initially primarily creating the soundtrack for the long- running hit TV show Beyond 2000.
His work pioneered the Australian soundtrack industry. Beyond 2000 was unique in Australia because it was the first primetime info-documentary series to be shot on Betacam with original music composed and recorded for each story, a practice that soon became the norm.
Burns reckons they turned out something like 1500 episodes of Australian television, well over 1000 hours of award-winning, mood-setting music produced to terrifyingly short deadlines.
Beyond 2000 won Burns and Bayley an Australasian Academy of Broadcasting Arts and Sciences award for best music score in 1988.
After 10 to 15 years in TV music, Burns moved to Byron Bay, where he has a studio in the Studios 301 complex. He has now gone back to his roots, focusing mainly on producing songwriters and other bands and artists, taking on just "two or three" feature documentaries every year now.
He worked on the Olivia Newton-John album Gaia and recently spent six weeks in London at the historic Abbey Road Studios where George Martin worked with the Beatles. He was there to produce an album for English- Australian singer Lyndsey Ollard, an experience that was "quite magical".
"Great studio. It's completely untouched since the Beatles recorded there. There's a beautiful old musky odour in that studio. The timber and the fabrics on the wall are exactly what they were when the Beatles recorded there.
"The control room has been changed many times but the actual live room is identical. We were using the same pianos and the same organs that the Beatles used and [Procul Harem's] Whiter Shade of Pale was recorded on."
Burns is very hands-on in the studio, in every aspect of the recording.
"I tend to like working with artists where I can get involved with the writing of the songs as well, as opposed to just pushing buttons. I like to be really involved with the creation of whatever recording I'm doing."
Burns has always seen that as one of his strengths, dating back to the Mi-Sex days where he not only contributed melodies but worked on the song's arrangements as well.
It's a product of his youth in Invercargill, listening to both commercial pop on the radio and hard- edged rock acts like Cream, Led Zeppelin and Santana.
"I always had a hankering for songs that had good commercial arrangements."
Burns distinctly remembers when he was about 10, hearing a cover version of the John Mayall song Sitting In The Rain by Kiwi rockers the Underdogs.
"It had this sound I'd never heard before. It had this distorted guitar in it, playing the melody. I remember listening to it so clearly and being intrigued by the sound of the electric guitar."
The next step in his musical initiation was going to see live bands on Saturday afternoons in the basement of the Waverley church. "That transformed my world."
He got "completely hooked" watching the drummers set up and thought: "I can do this."
Burns had already learned the piano as a child. But after watching Invercargill drummers smacking skins he took up the drums and, at high school, the bass guitar.
"I learned to play a little bit of everything," he says. "I never was a star on any of the instruments but I had a really great cross fusion look at every instrument and I was taken in by the whole thing.
"To this day I've got a drum kit set up in my studio so if I need some drums or bass guitar or whatever I'll do it."
When Burns is inducted in the Southland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on October 5 he'll be joined on stage by a reformed lineup of his 1970s Invercargill band Edge, which included fellow 2013 inductee Tony Ross and another Hall of Famer Maaki Goodwillie in its lineup.
Burns is looking forward to the reunion. Back in the 1970s he was the youngster in the band, only about 17 when he first played with them, initially on bass before moving on to a Fender Rhodes electric piano as the lineup changed.
"They had beautiful harmonies, they were a fantastic band. It was a great apprenticeship for me playing with guys who were a bit older and who had good standards of playing."
HALL OF FAME
Five Southland musicians were inducted into the Southland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month. They were:
Murray Burns (Edge, Mi-Sex)
Peter Chilton (Prediction, Air Strike, Kamsha)
Peter Miller (The Six Farthings, Midnight Cruise, Tranzition)
Tony Ross (Abraham, Edge, Vision)
Keith Walker (South City Swingers, Pickwick, Bill McLachlan Trio, Southern Dixie)
- © Fairfax NZ News
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