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The best of happy endings: the rediscovery of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild

Two generations after their record sank without a trace, Donnie and Joe Emerson’s music has finally found the teenagers it was written for.

The artwork for Donnie and Joe Emerson's “Dreamin’ Wild”

Last year, a book called Enjoy The Experience was published which highlighted the world of private pressings, albums which were often little more than vanity pressings, that flourished in the pre-CD era. Records were expensive things to record and produce back then – you had to be driven, you had to really believe in your vision to make it worth all the effort. Many private pressings were made with the highest hopes; one such was Donnie and Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild from 1979. Their parents, who believed totally in their sons’ musical ability, took out a second mortgage on the farm and invested $100,000 in building a recording studio and cutting the album. With sickening predictability, copies gathered dust, and the family had to sell most of their 1,600 acre farm in Fruitwood, Washington to cover their losses. Joe helped out with the family business, while Donnie briefly attempted a solo career in Los Angeles before returning home, bruised and beaten, his wild dreams now hidden away in a bedroom drawer.

Jump forward to 2008, when a record collector called Jack Fleischer discovered a copy of Dreamin’ Wild, with its distinctive cover featuring the brothers in home-made white jump suits, in a Spokane thrift store. He loved it, shared his love on the internet, and the album became an underground sensation. The highlights were long atmospheric pieces, seemingly recorded in a summer dust-storm; one track, “Baby”, was covered by Ariel Pink and the album was reissued in 2012 by Light In The Attic to much acclaim. Pitchfork described it as a “a godlike symphony to teenhood”, while the New York Times flew out to the Emerson family farm where both boys, mother and father were still located.

So what had happened after Dreamin’ Wild? The Emersons had just kept writing and recording and, more than three decades on, we have Still Dreamin’ Wild (with a rotten title, but lovely artwork), the pick of their Fruitwood recordings from 1979 to 1981, all previously unreleased. We now know they bought a drum machine and stepped gleefully into the American new wave era. Later, Donnie had a short stint in LA, trying to get an industry break, but otherwise the Emersons’ career – if you could call it that – seems to have added up to little more than selling their own cassettes and CDs door-to-door.

The lost-in-the-rain feel of the debut is replaced on Still Dreamin’ Wild by a clean streamlined synth backing. Anyone expecting more extended weird-outs like “Give Me The Chance” may be disappointed on first listen but this album is adorable, and somehow timely. The tremulous vocals are still there, always giving an impression of melancholy, no matter how upbeat the lyric, as is the circular, repetitive nature of their songwriting (try out “Since You Been With Me”). On the whole it’s far stronger melodically than Dreamin’ Wild, and suggests – which, hand on heart, I couldn’t say on the strength of the first album – that they were unlucky not to score a hit or two.

I’m assuming Rick Springfield and Hall & Oates were on heavy rotation on the radio in Fruitwood while these songs were coming together. I’m also reminded of the Searchers’ two late-bloom albums for Sire. On the whole, this is synth-driven powerpop, exemplified by the 1980-moderne “Stand By Love” (“with a click of the switch she’s on stand-by”). The production on the terrific “Don’t Fight” is reminiscent of Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks”, while the primitive rumble of “Big Money” sounds like the Emersons were maybe the only people who appreciated Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk first time around.

“One True Love” sounds like a Christopher Cross demo, sure enough, but melodically and sonically – in its airy, clipped way – it takes no great leap to imagine it playing today on 6Music, or even on Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 show. In the sleevenotes, Donnie Emerson describes the song as “the city as imagined from the farm”. It’s hard to imagine just how isolated the brothers were from the Burbank of Christopher Cross, or even how different theirs was to a regular suburban upbringing – Donnie had never even been on a bus at the time he wrote these songs. It was all one step removed, coming from a place where a kiss at a stop light, or even a simple bus ride, sounded impossibly romantic.

Like the strangest and most individual privately pressed albums, Still Dreamin’ Wild has an irrepressible self-confidence. In most cases this is due the artist having some unshakeable religious belief, or sheer mental blindness – few of the musicians could have written a Top 40 hit. In the case of the Emersons, though, they clearly had the ability, and knew it. Their naivety may be what gives their music its lightness of touch, but the same naivety meant few people outside of Washington State ever heard them until recently. Their rediscovery means they are now playing shows to appreciative crowds, mostly the teens and twenty-somethings that the songs were originally written for – only two generations later. It’s the best of happy endings.

Still Dreamin’ Wild is available from Light in the Attic on CD, LP, and limited edition blue vinyl LP with a bonus 7”

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.

Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.