Punk may have thrown the door open for women to step on to the stage, but in the ‘80s in Australia, rock’n’roll was still a very male dominated domain.
Not that this fazed Do Re Mi singer Deborah Conway one bit.
“Certainly, I personally have never felt at a disadvantage being a female in this industry. Growing up, I easily had as many female singer songwriters to admire as male ones,” she told Anil Prasad in 1997.
She cites artists like Joni Mitchell, Chrissy Hynde, Suzi Qutro, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin amongst many others who’ve educated, emboldened and inspired her cool, edgy confidence.
It wasn’t like we suddenly had limos, or cocaine. We barely got a bloody Chinese meal out of it!Deborah Conway
Do Re Mi formed in Sydney in 1981 and didn’t take much time to get noticed. Their first two EPs did well, they regularly played to sold out crowds, signed to a label and were given an advance to go record their debut album in London.
But it wasn’t as though they were swimming in the spoils of success.
“It wasn’t like we suddenly had limos, or cocaine,” Conway told ABC RN in 2009. “We barely got a bloody Chinese meal out of it!”
The reason for their instant appeal as a band was obvious. But Conway tells Double J that the band wasn’t unique in having a female fronted, gender balanced group.
“We were egocentric enough to think we were doing something interesting and very different,” she says. “And we were challenging a very male hegemony in Australia in the field of rock’n’roll.
“We were far more than being about gender, we were feeling good about the kind of music we were making, which classically has an ‘80s stripe to it.”
The four members’ personalities and musical touches are heard equally in the Do Re Mi sound.
Helen Carter’s strutting bass grooves (‘Theme from Jungle Jim’, ‘Idiot Grin’), Stephen Phillip’s proggy psychedelic guitar lines and flourishes (‘After The Volcano’, ‘Warnings Moving Clockwise’) and Dorland Bray’s instinctive percussion and drums (check the end of ‘1000 Mouths’ for a joyous throwdown!) ensured this Sydney four-piece stood out amongst their peers.
“It was a very spiky sound,” Conway says. “We really didn’t sound like many other people.”
There was no shortage of spikiness in the album’s lyrics too, most evident in the band’s major hit ‘Man Overboard’.
It takes a special kind of steely control and self-belief to sing, ‘You talk about penis envy, Your friends applaud, What am I expected to do? Shout Man Overboard!’
The whole song is catharsis of the highest order but actually came about because of a mistake.
‘Man Overboard’ originally existed in a punkier form on their Waiting Room EP, released on a relatively new format, a 12” ep which was supposed to be played at 45rpm. The DJs at the radio stations often got it wrong.
“So they’d often play a punk version of Man Overboard at the wrong speed, and the song was extremely slowed down,” Conway told RN.
It gave the band the idea to record the song at a much slower, broodier speed for their debut Domestic Harmony. That’s the version best known today. The band was pleased with the results but didn’t think it would go far.
“It was the last song that we would have imagined the record company would pick as the single,” Conway says.
In contrast to the album’s title, Domestic Harmony’s songs traverse the minutiae of relationship upheaval to broader global concerns and listening to it today. It is very much a document and a product of the times. But those times were important, uneasy, and often turbulent for many of us. Against that backdrop, this record was grounding and laid out a space to think, to vent and to dance.
Through Deborah Conway’s tough, cheeky spunk and the bold melodies of this Do Re Mi album, one could find a sorely needed feeling of certainty and assuredness, qualities that emanate from it still 31 years on.