Renowned Sydney rock/ska band Spy v Spy has released a new album, New Reasons – their first in almost three decades. Alec Smart speaks with founding member, drummer Cliff Grigg, on making music with a revised line-up, as original singer Craig Bloxom gives his blessing to their phoenix-like reincarnation.
Spy v Spy, renowned for their socially-aware lyrics and melodic tunes during their 1980s heyday, have released an album of new material that achieves an almost seamless transition from past to present, despite significant changes in the band’s line-up.
Since their foundation in 1981 among the squatters’ community of Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Glebe (at 72 Darling Street), Spy v Spy – known as The Spies to their fans – have experienced many ups and downs.
From peaks of chart-topping songs and an association with Oz-rockers Midnight Oil (manager Gary Morris oversaw the careers of both bands), to lows of equipment stolen and the sad and sudden passing of guitarist/songwriter Mike Weiley from cancer in September 2018, the band has endured break-ups and reformations.
Spying over the years
Inspired by reggae, rock and ska music, and featuring a signature sound of ‘sustained’ guitar notes, the band’s most creative line-up comprised the trio of Craig Bloxom on bass guitar and lead vocals, Cliff Grigg on percussion, and the late, sorely missed Michael Weiley on guitar and vocals.
After grinding to a halt in 2003, Mike Weiley maintained touring versions of Spy v Spy after a relaunch in August 2006 with bassist Neil Beaver (who continued until June 2018). Between September 2012 and June 2018, the band featured vocalist-guitarist Paul Greene, the former Olympic and Commonwealth Games 400m sprinter, who records occasionally with Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst in Hirst & Greene and The Ghostwriters.
Now based in Newcastle, where Grigg and Bloxom reside (coincidentally, their first music video, ‘One of a Kind’, was filmed at Newcastle’s Stockton Beach in 1984), the revised line-up features Grigg with vocalist Dean Reynolds, bassist Cameron Hallmen and guitarist Andrew Davis.
Davis plays the late Mike Weiley’s Fender Telecaster guitar, bequeathed to him by Weiley before his premature passing.
The new album, New Reasons, released on 26 September, 2021 (just days before the third anniversary of Weiley’s death), is a nod and a wink to the band’s 1986 debut album, Harry’s Reasons. The covers for both were designed by Grigg, a successful artist in his own right.
“The tunes were created in the same way I used write with Craig and Mike,” Grigg told the Sydney Sentinel, “jamming on riffs and rhythms, then crafting lyrical phrases and melody to match. I sat up into the early hours working on rhymes, then we tried them out at Billy Reid’s Mainswitch Room, our home studio and the last place I jammed with Mike.
“Deano wrote the lyrics for the title track and the verses of ‘Whose Plan?’, the first complete tune we had that already written on the road. The 10th song we had for the album, new single ‘Overland’, wasn’t totally finished but at the last moment Deano came up with a great Australian story of surfing trips up the coast.”
Spy v Spy have always been known for blending catchy melodies whilst lyrically dealing with controversial social issues, such as racism, destruction of heritage properties, homelessness, corrupt cops and rampant consumerism.
In their heyday, most bands wrote songs about personal relationships (i.e., love songs) and Midnight Oil was probably the only high-profile Australian band tackling important socio-political issues.
“I’ve always been a socially minded fellow and right from the start I wrote songs about personal situations instead of romance,” Craig Bloxom told the Sentinel. “The first song that I wrote totally by myself was ‘Do What You Say’ and it became our first single, so right from the get-go we had a social conscience.
“Both Mike and Cliff were similar in attitude and throughout our career we had journals and wrote poetry and jotted down lines for songs. Because I was the singer, when it came time to do song writing I would ask the guys to hand over their notebooks and we’d sit down and nut out a set of lyrics to suit the song.
“When we started supporting bands like Midnight Oil and Rose Tattoo, we became very excited by their social and political consciousness and it affected us deeply. I remember playing with Rose Tattoo at the Astra Hotel in Bondi and being so passionately moved by their performance that I went home and wrote most of ‘Injustice’ in one sitting. Just went home and thrashed it out.”
He continued: “You’ve got to understand that in the early days bands like the Oils & The Tatts were blistering with attitude and devastating live power. Their intensity was unbelievable and bands like that certainly influenced Spy v Spy to write more with a social conscience.”
Grigg reveals socially-aware and ‘difficult’ subjects continue to be tackled on the new album. Canvassing the album tracks, he explained: “‘Purple Chairs’ and title track ‘New Reasons’ are focused on climate change issues; ‘Better Now’ is about lockdown isolation; ‘Positive Nuisance’ addresses issues of suicide from depression and prejudice; ‘Whose Plan?’ is about corporate greed and plunder of sacred lands; ‘Mind Control’ refers to the internet taking over our lives and future.
“‘Good Over Evil’ was inspired by Julian Assange‘s imprisonment, a journalist on espionage charges for revealing war crimes; ‘Bigshot’ is about the endless arms race and a call for truth, peace and unity; ‘Overland’ was inspired by golden memories of surfing trips up the coast; ‘Mr Island’ is based on my cartoon character, from the comic book I created in lockdown [Mr Island Mystery] about a time traveller and master of illusion – he is the best spy in the world.”
When performed live, the new songs fit nicely among the historic material; an unfamiliar listener probably wouldn’t distinguish between the old and new, despite almost three decades elapsing since 1993’s Fossil, the last studio album released by the original Spy v Spy.
“I knew we could record live rhythm tracks and make the Spy sound with the organic energy the band had from the start,” Grigg said. “Making the old tunes rock live, we learnt the Spy formula and applied it to the new tunes.
“Playing all the old rock songs from the ’80s is always a physical shock, after years of playing reggae [in other bands]. It’s still strange how the music transforms this 61-year-old geezer into a 21-year-old old rock drummer!
“We first came together in tribute to Mike and his spirit has a definite presence in our music. His original trademark Telecaster Timemachine guitar has been mastered by Andrew, and was played on all the New Reasons tunes.”
Bloxom gives his endorsement to the revised Spy v Spy and the return of Cliff Grigg to carry the band’s legacy. “I’m really excited for the new Spys and totally support them,” he said. “I think it’s come at a perfect time in Cliff‘s life for him to carry the torch and keep the music alive.
“The new Spys have a cracking new album New Reasons and those guys worked really hard to keep true to the origins of Spys while venturing forward with a totally new identity. I think the album has a classic sound of Midnight Oil and Spy v Spy mashed up together and I really hope people will give it a fair hearing and take on board the band for what it is.
“There are bunch of big hearted Australian musicians moving forward with a heritage Australian sound but creating their own new music at the same time. I really wish them well and as much success as they can muster.”
Spy v Spy’s new album, New Reasons, was released on 26 September, 2021. For more on Spy v Spy, visit the following links:
Facebook – www.facebook.com/spyvspyofficial
Instagram – @spyvspyofficial
Web – www.spyvspy.com.au.