Sydney’s Crow always seemed destined for bigger things. But, as frontman Peter Fenton tells PATRICK EMERY, he doesn’t lose any sleep at night pondering what might have been. Photography by ALEX WISSER.
The history of rock’n’roll is littered with bands deserving of greater popular and commercial appreciation. For every independent band lucky enough to cross the line from drunken Tuesday night cult interest to mainstream media darling, there’s a hundred bands of greater artistic quality with an output known only to a disparate community of underground music nerds and a handful of respected critics.
Crow fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of critical and popular appreciation. Formed in Sydney in the late 1980s, Crow defied standard rock’n’roll convention, playing songs that wandered between light and dark, lay across jagged riffs and celebrated the shadows of inner-urban existence. Fronted by the tall, lanky and charismatic Peter Fenton and complemented by fellow songwriter Peter Archer on guitar, Crow always seemed destined for something bigger. By 1999, Crow’s time had come to an end and Fenton had moved on to pursue an acting career. It seemed Crow would be condemned to Greil Marcus’ “dustbin of history”.
In 2007, however, Crow unexpectedly reformed. Not content with a “cash and grab” reformation, the original Crow line-up has not only returned to the stage, but has put down tracks for their first record in 10 years.
Fenton and his brother John (later to become the drummer in the first Crow line-up) grew up in Canberra, before moving (separately) to Sydney in the early 1980s. “I remember sneaking into clubs at an early age,” Fenton recalls of his adolescence in Canberra. “I remember Canberra being full of various sub-cultures: punk, the awful ’80s skinheads, mods and yobbos, who have now become known as bogans.”
Around 1984, Fenton (at that time playing the occasional show on his own) jumped in a car and made his way to Sydney. “It’s often said that Crow formed in Canberra, but that’s not true. I came up to Sydney to play some shows, and I never returned.” In addition to the odd live show, Fenton was helping out with lighting duties for various local bands and basking in the vibrancy of the Sydney scene at that time. “It was a great time for Australian music. I’d go down to my local hotel to see The Triffids, who were just a band of gypsies from Perth at that time.”
Fenton met Archer through a mutual acquaintance and – after the addition of bass player Jim Woff – the seeds of Crow were planted. While Sydney was attracting the cream of Australian music at the time – members of bands such as The Scientists, Le Hoodoo Gurus and Died Pretty had all made their way to Sydney from other parts of the country – Fenton says there was no difficulty in settling in. “I guess by the time that we started a lot of the bands had moved overseas,” he says. “Sydney had a hole that were able to jump into. We settled in very quickly. Pubs being pubs, you couldn’t get another show if people didn’t like you, and if they didn’t drink a lot of beer. We were blessed and cursed to have a crowd of serious drinkers,” he jokes.
Critical to Crow’s early dynamic – described by Bob Blunt as “a shambolic affair” – was the interaction between Fenton and his brother John on drums. John Fenton had volunteered to fill the drum seat after a cursory mention from his older brother. Twenty years later and Fenton isn’t convinced his brother had any genuine claim to the position. “I think I saw John at a family funeral and I told him we were having trouble finding a drummer. He said he could play drums, but I’m not sure at the time he’d played drums before.”
Although the strength of the Crow output in the Fenton-Archer years remains obvious, there was never any Jagger-Richards or Lennon-McCartney partnership between Archer and Fenton. “I can count on one hand the amount of songs that have parts of mine and parts of [Archer’s]”, Fenton says. “It was very much a case of hitting the rehearsal studio and saying, ‘I’ve got this new song’, and doing it that way.”
“Pubs being pubs, you couldn’t get another show if people didn’t like you, and if they didn’t drink a lot of beer. We were blessed and cursed to have a crowd of serious drinkers.”
For Fenton, Crow was purely about getting together and playing music. It was an attitude that was their best – and worst – attribute. “We were just trying to do the music we liked,” Fenton says. “We were guided by the songs we had. Maybe there was a maverick element to what we did. I suppose I’ve always been drawn to music with a ‘feel’ to it. When I was watching the Holy Soul recently in Sydney, I realised that half of our set was a circus crossed with a sea shanty feel to it.”
Despite, or maybe because of, the occasional on-stage volatility and typical inebriated rock’n’roll behaviour, it didn’t take long for Crow to develop a solid local following. Fenton formed an association with fellow Canberra expat and current Modular boss Steve “Pav” Pavlovic, thereby setting in motion a series of events that would see Crow head to America to record its first album. “Pav was booking the Lansdowne at the time. Then he started bringing out bands like the Flying Nun bands from New Zealand, Mudhoney and the next thing we’re sharing a stage with Nirvana.”
After releasing a couple of singles on Phantom Records, Crow sold its publishing rights to Polydor, and Pavlovic engineered a deal with former Big Black guitarist Steve Albini to produce Crow’s first album. My Kind of Pain (featuring the classic ‘Railhead’), was released on Nic Dalton’s Half a Cow label, but not until after the band decided to iron out what it believed were imperfections in the original mix. “Through Pav we’d found ourselves recording with Steve Albini in Chicago,” Fenton recalls. “Albini had a fairly laissez faire approach to recording. He had this ideology that if you couldn’t bang out a record in three to four days for a few hundred dollars, then the rest was trickery and deceit.”
Albini’s unique approach wasn’t well received by the entire band. “Albini was just there to capture it,” Fenton says. “I found him a very entertaining individual, very witty and smart. But others in the band found him quite abrasive.” Early logistical problems, including the producer’s choice of accommodation for the band and his initial unavailability caused issues within Crow. “We found ourselves under pressure to finish it,” Fenton says. “In the end we spent five days recording and two days mixing it. When we got back we realised that we had to re-mix it, so we got [local producer] Tim Whitten to do the mixing again.”
With Crow already beset by the occasional internal tension, the trip to the United States led to John Fenton’s departure from the band. “John denies it, but I remember him saying, ‘I wish I’d never come over here,’” Fenton says. “That became the template for the band – make another record, then lose a drummer.” John Fenton was replaced initially by Tina Stephens on drums, who left subsequently to be replaced by Andy Marks. Crow released one more record, Helicon Days, on Half a Cow, before signing to rooArt. “Half a Cow was merging with a multinational and we went to a meeting and didn’t like some of the people,” Fenton says. “By that stage we’d struck up a friendship with Todd Wagstaff, who was working at [rooArt sub-branch] Ra!. Initially we went there and did Li-lo-ing. That record took 18 months, and was very fraught.”
Crow had forged a relationship with Jeff Buckley during his Australian tour, which led to Crow returning to the US to play some more shows. “We came back from the US and Ra! had sold its roster to BMG. We were lucky that we met really passionate people in there. With Play With Love we had a huge budget by our standards. We only had to ask for things to get them.”
By this time Archer had decided to move to Melbourne and left the band. Crow now comprised Fenton, Woff and former Underground Lovers drummer Richard Andrew. In 1998, Crow found itself tagged by Juice magazine as “the best band in Australia since the Birthday Party”. Even now Fenton is amused by the tribute. “It’s kind of strange,” he jokes. “Both then and now we seem baffled as to how serious we’re seen. The Birthday Party were monsters in terms of their contribution to rock’n’roll, and they also had this theatre to their performance. We seemed like a completely different group.”
It was around this time that Richard Andrew’s decision to start up his own label, Pharmacy Records, provided the catalyst for Crow’s break-up. “It was becoming increasingly difficult for Richard to drop everything and join us for a tour. So when he left, there was a moment when Jim and I thought, ‘Let’s fold it.’ It just seemed like we’d had a good whack at it and that was it time to finish up.”
Fenton went on to start an acting career, including a lead role in the film version of Andrew McGahan’s novel Praise and a subsequent part in ABC drama series Love Is a Four Letter Word. In 2007 Fenton was approached to participate in a concept show in Melbourne titled Longplayer in which bands were asked to revive classic albums. Despite never actually taking to the stage, the opportunity acted as a catalyst for Crow’s reformation. “My brother was back in the fold, and while having Christmas drinks we talked about it. Peter Archer was into it, as was Jim. The concept show never came off, but we started rehearsing anyway.”
Crow played a show with Hoss at the Cad Factory and the band was back in action. “We started playing songs again from the early period,” Fenton says. “It was very exciting – I had a few songs, Peter Archer had a few songs, and we started swapping cassettes.”
Fenton says Crow has a “gentleman’s agreement” with a medium-sized label for the release of a new record. In addition, the band is negotiating with Half a Cow for the re-release of Crow’s early albums. “We’ve had talks with Nic Dalton about re-releasing the early records. There’s just some contractual issues we need to work through. But I do think that’ll happen,” he says.
Twenty years after forming and 10 years after breaking up, Fenton isn’t worried about what might have been. “We had some moments of great adversity, which we pushed through. I suppose we could have toured a lot more and played regional centres. I think we definitely should’ve gone to Europe and the UK. But there’s not thing that I wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘Oh my god. We should’ve done that,’” he says. They have, however, learned some collective lessons along the way. “We’ve learned not to get boozed up at rehearsals,” Fenton jokes.
Crow will perform at the Northcote Social Club in Melbourne on July 25. Supports by The Beautiful Few.