Little River Band At 40: Wayne Nelson On Keeping a Band Together and Working With George Martin
In the first part of our interview with Little River Band frontman and bassist Wayne Nelson, we talked about the band's planned performance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, which was originally scheduled for Jan. 12. The appearance was cancelled after the group was unable to obtain sync rights for "Reminiscing," the fan favorite that they were planning to play.
Former vocalist Glenn Shorrock voiced his displeasure with the Fallon booking, giving a heated interview the week that the booking was announced. He said the group, which features no original members, is "grinding our good name into dust."
Prior to Shorrock's comments, we spoke with Nelson reflecting on his own personal history with Little River Band, including the magical experience of working with legendary Beatles producer George Martin, and also shared some background on Cuts Like A Diamond, LRB's most recent original release. With Little River Band marking its 40th year as a performing entity, he also spoke about the challenges that are involved with keeping a group going.
I talk to various bands and artists and one of the things that a lot of these guys have the hardest time doing is justifying the time that it takes to make a new album based on what they get back in return. How hard was it for you?
I’m not going to blow smoke here and try to sound like the Pope, okay? In my gut, we’re musicians because we’re supposed to be making music, not just repeating music. I think in order for us to keep our creativity at its maximum, it means being creative and it means making new music, number one. That spills over into the presentation of the hits. I’m going on 4,000 performances of those songs. Lots of people burn out, because I think they close the valve on their creativity. What we do is keep the valve open, doing new music and then that filters back down into the hits. We’ve added solo sections; we’ve added intros and outros. We stop and let the crowd sing with us – all kinds of [different] icing on the cake. The cake is the same, but we keep putting new icing on things to keep things fresh.
I don’t think those things happen if we don’t open ourselves up to continue to write and continue to listen to songs that we feel good about, and make records. So it’s a cliche, but I’m going to say that it was a labor of love. It was exciting to be in the studio doing music that we were turned on by. We put the word out to songwriters as well, for other interesting songs and other interesting takes. So we’ve got some outside writers on this CD. We listened to over 200 songs and I was the filter for it. Being the lead singer, it’s gotta be something that I can believe in and believe in the message and physically, it fits my voice. It was an exciting time. Yes, we spent more than we made, but the intangible profit was that we got a spark.
I can send you some summaries of the feedback we got from it. Did we make a hit on the radio? No. [But fans said things like] “This is a solid step forward for Little River Band and its history, as opposed to just a rehash of stuff we’ve heard before. This was a grownup Little River Band album.” That’s very gratifying. The band has been my career for a long time. I tour, manage it, as well as perform, so it’s 24/7 around here to keep up with all of that stuff. It was very gratifying to set all of that aside and go back and be a musician – bass player, singer, arranger, producer, etc. It was the whole package.
If you’re only going to look at the bottom line, that’s a valid sore spot. Bands of our vintage don’t necessarily make back the money that they put into a project, but like I say, there was more profit than that.
As the guy who has been part of this band for more than 35 years, can you talk about the challenges of keeping a band like this going?
There’s been a lot of people that have toured with us, as far as history is concerned. There actually have only been 13 people who were signed onto the band charter. There were the founding members and then replacements along the way and then it made no sense to sign people onto the charter, because it was more red tape than it was worth. People came and went in order to keep a band on the road.
I was part of some of those changes but, when it came to me, the things that were of utmost importance were a vocal blend – because that’s what we’re about – and a respect for the history of the band, the songs, etc. Then you look for the right players that have that spark like I was talking about, that bring something new to the band. Hiring robots doesn’t mean a thing to me. I’ve always looked for people who could sing and play and were creative and brought something new to what we did.
Slowly but surely, we’ve come around to this lineup now, who have very similar musical pasts and all have the technique available to try new ideas and give them a good shot – whatever style they’re in. Eventually, you just stay at it until suddenly you’ve got this great matchup of people again and away you go. You hope they stay as long as they can. One of our guys has a day job, and kind of came out of retirement when he found out we were looking for a drummer. This guy sings his ass off, so now we’ve got five people singing again with a singing drummer. It’s that great chemistry of people who get along on the bus, and get along on the stage and like to do new stuff, and kind of never rest on the show from the night before. That’s been the biggest challenge.
The other financial challenge is that we hate to fly, we love to use our own gear, and we love to make a show and take a crew with us so that we know what is going out front is of the same caliber that we’re feeling and hearing onstage – as opposed to a lot of bands from our era who don’t travel with a crew. They just show up and whoever is sitting out front, that’s what you get that night. That’s a gamble when you’ve got five people singing, and you’ve got guitar harmonies as well. The blend is very crucial. We still use a tour bus and a trailer. We drag our own equipment around the country, and we go where the shows are. Those two things have probably been the biggest challenge of all: Making sure that we’ve got the right people, and then getting to and from the shows in a way that we can do the show that we want to do.
Stephen Housden owns the Little River Band name and then there’s you. You guys are really the two guys that have been associated with the group for the longest period. Having been through all of that, with all of the changes that you’ve been through as a group and as a musician and player, it seems like it would be daunting when you realize that you’re going to carry things forward as Little River Band, but there’s none of the guys here with us that started this thing.
The two things that contribute to us keeping going – Stephen and I joined a year apart. I came in 1980 and Stephen came in 1981. There was still a substantial amount of energy to continue Little River Band’s success. My first outing added three hit songs to it, and then the next two CDs added a couple of more things to it. So it built from there. The people that left – and part of this can be attributed to a very simple fact: Little River was assembled. They didn’t grow up together, and they didn’t come from the same musical source, if you will.
They were all members of successful Australian bands and management, who was from another successful band, saw the potential. What about these singers coming together to do this and with that kind of vocals, we go after the American radio market? It worked and it was great. Again, with all due respect, they sang great and they wrote great songs and they had a great blend. They had a sound. But again, they came from different personality, political, musical backgrounds – all different ranges of stuff. When I joined the band, there were four factions. There were four writers and each writer thought, “We should be going in my direction.”
Sometimes, there were alliances between two, but it was typical band politics [that come with] success. Each one of them had a hit, a major contribution to the history of the band, so now they had their own opinions and they all felt, “This is the way that we need to go.” That basically started tearing things apart. One by one, those people left [in] ‘81, ‘82, ‘83 and ‘84. You would think, okay, it’s got to be very daunting, now I’m standing here and now there’s only one guy left from that past and what the hell? What’s going on?
But here’s what happened: When the guitar player left, we replaced him with a great guitar player that had something to add. When the singer left, we replaced him with a singer who was just a monumental singer. When the next guitar player left, we replaced him with a keyboard player who was a monumental keyboard player. The drummer? We replaced him with another world-class drummer. So all of a sudden, this change within the energy of the people that still wanted to pursue Little River Band, the band in our mind and quite frankly in a lot of people’s minds that came to see the band, the band kept getting stronger.
There was still songwriting going on and there was still good music being put forward and now it’s being put forward by other people in the band because there’s an opening for it. The politics kind of dissipated. There was more room for a different kind of expression, which creates more energy. That band, even that founding member that was still left with us, put in print, he said, “That was my favorite lineup ever of Little River Band.” Now, daunting? Yes. Record sales, dipping and going away. Capitol Records – not happy. The curve of the band was downward. The spirit of the band was never ever down. The spirit of the band was always up.
Until finally one of those guys said, “I can’t do this anymore; I’ve got to stop.” Then things kind of went quiet for a minute and then some founding members came back because Irving Azoff said, “I’ll sign the band if the founding members come back.” So there was a brief resuscitation of the band [for a reunion that ultimately produced two new studio albums, Monsoon in 1988 and Get Lucky in 1990]. Even then, [there was] good music, good producers, good opportunities like movie scores, etc. There was always a carrot and there was always a great spirit within the band, [and a feeling that] we’ve got a great history and we’ve got a great band. We can still do this. That’s what kept it going.
The daunting part was being overshadowed completely by the spirit [saying], “Let’s keep going.” Then all of a sudden, the window got very small and there wasn’t much spirit. It started to dissipate, I will admit. For me personally, what happened in ‘92 just took me off the grid, because I lost a child in a car accident and at that point, it was time to stop and take care of family and myself, to be honest. So that’s where things slowed down for a while. From that time and then forward, nobody wanted to do new music. Like you said, it’s daunting and nobody wants to take the time and put in the money and put in the rehearsal. We’ll just keep playing the same 11 songs over and over again, every night the same, with no creativity and I went, “I don’t want to be a part of it.”
In ‘99, we’ve got different people in the band that are writing and want to do it again. It’s a good positive spirit. There’s the band with the history and there’s some people who have some good new songs and they said, “Do you want to come back and play, sing and produce?” So I was back in and now 15 years on, we’ve done eight new projects in that 15 years, and I couldn’t be prouder of it. Every one has built up to this culmination of a great lineup, a great new CD and you know, we got through the valley and we’re climbing up the side of the mountain again and we’re having a great time doing it.
You joined the group at an interesting time and got to make an album, 1981’s Time Exposure, with George Martin. That had to be a pretty cool thing to get to work with George.
I met them in 1979 and joined in ‘80 and we toured and started to rehearse for new material. Then in late ‘80, we did another tour of America, a college tour, and we put the word out that we were looking for a producer. We had some producers come to the shows ... including George Martin. He came over to America to one of our shows. That was [incredible] for my first year in the band, the third tour, we’ve got George Martin and Tom Dowd, a couple of great producers, vying for the next Little River Band – again, the spirit was up and everybody was gung-ho. There was a lot of politics and a lot of in-house fighting, but yet, great tension and expectations of the next album.
So in early ‘81, we went to Montserrat and recorded with George Martin. I sang lead on two songs ["The Night Owls" and "Take It Easy On Me" -- a song which had two recorded versions, one featuring Nelson on lead vocals and one that featured lead vocalist Glenn Shorrock], and George Martin and Capitol Records picked them as the first two singles. I’d never sung lead in the studio before. I sang in high school bands and cover bands, but I’d never sung a lead vocal in the studio and it’s all just rolling. It was so exciting. We were over there for six weeks for him. One of the coolest things he said, because we’re all Beatles fans, he said, “Look, I’ve got to draw lines – because otherwise we’d sit around and talk for two weeks and never get anything done. We can talk about the Beatles at dinner; ask me any question you want and we’ll talk about it at dinner. When the dinner bell rings, it’s on, and when we’re done with dessert, it’s off and we go back to work.”
That’s the way it was for six weeks. He was incredible and he put up with an incredible amount of tension, because that process was when the seams started to rip apart. The lead singer didn’t like the fact that somebody else was singing two lead vocals and what am I doing here? That kind of thing. The lead guitar player put George through the wringer with his issues, and he was let go as soon as we were done with the album. The lead singer didn’t last much longer. But my experience there was over the moon. I got along great with George and we did life-altering work as far as I’m concerned. I had a great time with him and he wrote me a letter at the end and said, “It was a pleasure to work with you; hope we do it again,” personalized to me. It was an awesome experience. I can’t say enough about it.
It’s interesting to hear that before you even made an album with the band, you were already kind of aware of the fighting and issues that were present. It was probably a gamble of sorts that you decided to stick around and see it through, because it seemed like something that might be worthwhile.
Well, it was a gamble. I transplanted my family twice to go to Australia and it wasn’t like there weren’t things happening in America. I was a member of Jim Messina’s band for that year and a half or two years before and that’s why I met Little River Band. That band [with Messina] was also a great band, and we were working on our own material. Things were bubbling at that point and the daunting part was moving to another country, and doing it with very little personal support from the band members.
The band members had toured the world and they were ensconced in their own cocoons -- they had done well enough that they were established, they had their homes, their families, their circles and whatever. I showed up with my family just before Thanksgiving at the end of 1980, and nobody met me at the airport. They didn’t even arrange for a driver to come. The most ironic thing is that there was one guy in the band who didn’t want somebody other than an Australian to be in the band. It wasn’t personal ... it wasn’t about playing or whatever, he wanted to keep the band purely Australian. He found out that nobody was coming to get us, he drove his car out there and picked us up. He’s the guy that didn’t want me to be there, and he came and got me.
It was Thanksgiving of 1980, because we toured and I lived in the U.S. until it became obvious that “this is working out. I’ve got to go down, too.” I’m kind of a stickler for dates, because as you experience, there is so much misinformation out there and so many timelines that are preposterous and concepts that are preposterous. I was there through that whole thing and the internet and whoever is feeding this information to these people who zealously think that we’ve stolen the name of the band, they’re wrong and the information is wrong. So I’m a stickler for timeline. I don’t mean to be too anal, but it was late 1980 when we transplanted to Australia because it was working. [Before that], I went there by myself [because] up front, who knew whether they were going to accept it or fire me or whatever? It all worked out. But like I say, at that point, you’ve got these four factions and the four factions are kind of like, “Oh, he’s the new guy! Let’s talk to the new guy!” So there was just kind of this subtle, “Well, maybe we should be going this way, new guy!” and then the next one would be in my ear, “Oh, you can’t trust him. We should be doing this.”
It was a little disconcerting but the spirit and the upward trend of joining a very successful international recording act that was going to tour the world, that’s pretty exciting stuff for a street musician from Chicago, playing six sets a night in the snow. I was quite seduced by all of the possibilities. Then you add in that we’re at the point where we’re touring with the Eagles and Heart, we’re doing shows with Fleetwood Mac and Bob Marley and Foreigner – all of our heroes when we were growing up, all of these great bands making great music.
It was again, a great, great time in my life and I’ve got to say, if I want to cap it off with one thing, the huge disappointment to me was that it was so exciting and the potential was so high at that point and I watched those guys literally just disassemble what was a great band. That’s why the concept that it was stolen from them is so untrue it defies logic.
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