Swannee Takes Flight Once More
“He drives publicans mad by giving clamouring audiences a third and fourth encore well after closing time. The old rebel gleam is in his eye as the band launch into some gritty Led Zeppelin cover after exhausting the rehearsed set.”
I wrote that about singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist John Swan for a feature in RAM (Rock Australia Magazine) back in November 1981.
By then he was already something of a veteran performer and in Adelaide he was considered musical royalty – and quite rightly – despite his only then finally having himself a hit record – his impassioned version of the Tim Hardin song, If I Were a Carpenter.
It would be another six years before, in July 1987, Swan finally topped the Australian charts with another cover, this time of the John Kongos song He’s Gonna Step On You Again, when he was fronting the Kevin Borich/Paul Christie “fun” supergroup The Party Boys. By then, Swan had been on the road, a professional musician, for a staggering 22 years! He could never be accused of being an “overnight sensation” – and that’s only half way through the John Dixon Swan story.
Like a lot of migrant families from the United Kingdom who opted for a better life in sunny Australia, soon after arriving in January 1962 from Glasgow the Swan family found themselves in the relatively new satellite city of Elizabeth, 24 kilometres north of Adelaide in South Australia.
Swan – Swanee to his friends – was already into the music, picking up on the popular early rock’n’roll of the day courtesy his mum and dad, who were Scottish juke-box jive champions, but it was drumming where his heart had initially settled. If you happened to pass Elizabeth West Primary School on a Friday morning as the children streamed out for assembly under the unremitting South Australian sun, they would be marching out to the solo snare drumming of a 12 year old John Swan, kitted out in his finest kilt. He’d joined the Elizabeth Royal Caledonian Society Pipe Band.
School wasn’t really John’s thing though. Sometime during his first year at Elizabeth Boys Technical High School, Swanee, all of 13, joined his first professional band, Happiness. Within a year, they’d relocated to Melbourne and were lucky enough to pick up a few gigs backing pop singer Lynne Randell. As he told South Australia’s first rock historians David Day and Tim Parker, “It was great fun. We toured around Victoria with her and the band broke up in Horsham – everybody just left.”
Back in Adelaide, as well as immersing himself in the thriving local scene, Swanee did a bit of boxing – he won the South Australian Amateur Boxing Championship in his class –when he was playing in heavy blues-rock bands like Hard Time Killing Floor, but by 17, he’d decided he should sign up, enlisting in the Army, but ultimately he wasn’t cut out for army life and was soon back on Civvie Street and, more importantly, back where he belonged, playing in bands, kicking off with one of the biggest kicking around Adelaide in 1973, The James Wright Band.
When that folded, after a brief stint with Salvation Airforce, Swanee was invited to join a band that singer Bon Scott had fronted called Fraternity. Both James Wright and Fraternity looked good on paper – both had had reasonable success, scoring local hits before he joined – but in the end, both fell apart and, after a short stint with the Jim Keays Band, Swanee decided it was time to step out from behind the drum kit.
“I just got sick of everybody getting’ the credit for all the work we were doin’,” he told me back in 1981. “It’s always the front guys that take all the credit and I was doing a lot of the singin’ in a lot of the bands that I was in.”
Moving to Sydney, while he was waiting for the right gig to come along, Swan took up kitchen duties as one of the city’s most infamous venues of the day, The Bondi Lifesaver. He then joined two young brothers, 14 year old guitarist Stuart and drummer Warwick Fraser in a band called Feather, with whom Swanee toured Australia opening for Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow. Feather finally gave him the chance to cut a single, Girl Trouble, which Swan cowrote with Stuart, released in May 1977, but the following year he quit to put together his own band – Swanee.
They did their first gig at a live-to-air Double J concert in October 1978, the lineup only confirmed the week before. From there it was straight into the six-gigs-a-week life of bands at that time, playing a mix of hard/heavy rock covers and Swan originals. Swan worked the band hard for six months before he was satisfied that it was ready to go into the studio. Signing with WEA Records, Swanee’s first single, Crazy Dreams, was released in September 1979. For all the band’s increasing popularity live, the record didn’t chart. Then the lineup fell apart. That would be a recurring problem for Swanee – the singer. Swanee – the band – was a difficult beast to keep together. So it proved to be a year between Swanee’s first and second singles. Ol’ Rosie, coproduced by Swan with Mark Moffatt, was released in September 1980, the song lifted off the debut Swanee album, Into The Night, released the following month.
Two more singles were lifted off the album – Matthew, a song Swan had written years before when he was in James Wright, and Linda – but it was a non-album song, If I Were A Carpenter, that finally got Swan and Swanee into the charts towards the end of 1981. “I just sing songs,” he told me at the time, “and if I think a song suits me it doesn’t matter what era or fashion has produced it, so long as it’s got some melody in it and I can give it something of myself, to make it real.”
By the time he returned to the studio to record his second album, Swan had decided to opt for the best session musicians available to join him – Swanee, the band, would cover the live side of things. Recorded and produced by Roxy Music keyboards player David Skinner, This Time It’s Different spawned two hit singles – Temporary Heartache in April and Lady What’s Your Name in July 1982 – which reached #18 and #13 respectively.
October 1983 saw the release of Ready For Action! Live In The Snow, recorded at Lake Jindabyne with that year’s lineup of Swanee, which included guitarist Dennis Wilson, a Swan original, Motor Down, released as the single, though it was his monumental rendition of the Small Faces hit, Tin Soldier, which graced the B-side, that picked up all the airplay, though not enough to make it a hit. Swan and WEA parted ways and his next single, a cover of Bryan Adams’ I’m Ready, was released in August 1984 by RCA Records, which label released the next Swanee album, Bushido, in April 1985. Two singles – Turn Away and You Ought To Know By Now – were lifted off the album.
Swan moved to Mushroom Records for his next couple of singles – Say You’ll Do Something and (I’m In Love With An) Angel – released in October 1985 and July 1986 as John Swan, before, in 1987, he accepted an invitation to replace Angry Anderson fronting that year’s version of The Party Boys just in time to join them for the recording of their first actual studio album – their previous albums had been live sets. The self-titled album, released in September, spawned the #1 hit single, He’s Gonna Step On You Again, while the album reached #18. A second single, a cover of Hold Your Head Up, reached #21 in the charts.
Resuming his solo career, Swan’s next single was a version of Little Richard’s Lucille, which he recorded for the soundtrack of feature film The Delinquents, starring Kylie Minogue, released by Mushroom in March 1990. Another single, Blood Is Thicker Than Water, cowritten by Swan, followed in June. The road continued to beckon and the gigs continued to keep him busy so it was another six years, 1997, before Swan got back into the studio, recording and independently releasing an album titled Heart And Soul, which he this time produced himself and on which he revisited If I Were A Carpenter as well as Lady What’s Your Name.
By now, however, Swanee’s body was beginning to suffer the effects of too many years on the road and its accompanying unhealthy lifestyle and in 2000 he decided to quit the business to get healthy – and sober. The decision saved his life.
A call from expat Australian guitarist and producer Mark Moffatt, now based in Nashville, in 2005 saw Swanee collaborate on what became the John Swan album, Have A Little Faith, released in 2007 on Liberation Records. As well as revisiting If I Were A Carpenter, He’s Gonna Step On You and Hold Your Head Up, Swan got to record three of his own songs – the title cut, Trouble and Killing Floor – as well as his take on Rick Springfield’s Speak To The Sky, Gerry Rafferty’s Stuck In The Middle With You and Spectrum’s I’ll Be Gone. Swan was backed on the album by some of Nashville’s most esteemed veteran session players.
During his years regaining his health, Swanee was supported not only by his family, naturally, but also by a lot of very good people within the world of charities and once he was well enough, it was only natural for him to feel he should give back. So over these years, he became more and more involved in using his talents and goodwill to help raise funds and consciousness to the good causes from whom he’d received so much support. It wasn’t a one-way street. His experiences informed a whole new album’s worth of songs, which he recorded and released in 2014 as One Day At A Time.
“I go to a lot of palliative care places,” he explains of the song that finishes the album, Here’s To You, “and sit and talk to people and play for them. It’s a great privilege. I got to know a great guy named Todd, who taught me a lot about life. Todd’s death hit me hard. I sang this song at his funeral.”
Swan’s charitable work was recognised in 2017 with his appointment of an Order of Australia medal. Two years before, he’d been announced South Australia’s Senior of Australian of the Year.
Though the heady years of constant touring are long gone – well, they are for all but a very few Australian artists and acts – but Swanee is still performing, and, as his brother Jimmy – you may have heard of him – Jimmy Barnes, recently posted on Facebook, “My big brother Swanee is releasing a Greatest Hits record. He’s had more number 1s than I ever had and was a major influence in my music life. So proud of you John.”
A new 20-song compilation CD titled, simply, Greatest Hits is released by Melodic Rock Records.
By Michael George Smith, former Associate and Contributing editor at The Drum Media and The Music, freelance music journalist for RAM, Juke, On The Street, JAMM, Sonics and way more, freelance book reviewer for Overland, Island and Quadrant, author of What’s Been Did (And What’s Been Hid): A Narrative History of Australian Pop and Rock, three volumes completed to date, Volume I covering the artists and acts that emerged between 1955 and 1963, Volume II those between 1964 and 1969, and Volume III those between 1970 and 1976. Bass player with Mushroom signing Scandal 1976-78, and legendary instrumental surf guitar band The Atlantics 2006-12.