In 1993, being able to stay up late with my older brother and sister was a much-loved treat, especially because I got to watch ABC’s The Late Show. A lot of the jokes went over my head, but the segment I most enjoyed was the pop song parodies that were usually of a song I knew well from Ugly Phil’s Hot 30 countdown.
One particularly memorable parody was made of folk rock band Things Of Stone And Wood’s song ‘Happy Birthday Helen’. The band was enjoying success at the time with its debut album The Yearning reaching number eight on the ARIA charts and the aforementioned song a radio and live gig favourite.
The Late Show’s clip amended the title and lyrics of ‘Happy Birthday Helen’ to revolve around the band’s geographical reference in the opening verse – “Let’s not forget last night / Yeah, how we drove along the Yarra / How we sang harmonies / To Carole King” – and the video, which featured iconic Melbourne vistas like trams and the St Kilda foreshore. The parody version changed the song’s title to ‘We’ve Just Run Out Of Melbourne Cliches’.
“We got warned by Frente’s manager that we were next after they got a bit of a serve,” explains Things Of Stone And Wood singer Greg Arnold, chatting to the BRAG ahead of his band’s long-awaited return to Sydney for a gig at The Vanguard.
“I was so scared of what was going to happen [on The Late Show], particularly because it is such a personal song. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it, so the lads watched it and I called them after and they said, ‘It wasn’t that bad.’ So I watched it and thought it was pretty funny.”
Arnold’s deep personal connection to the song is that it was written for his then girlfriend and now wife, Helen Durham.
“Originally ‘Happy Birthday Helen’was a gift for Helen’s birthday and there was no real intention of the band playing the song,” he says. “I just showed it to Mikey [Allen] one day and he quite wisely said, ‘We should do that song.’
“What was so perplexing to me as a songwriter is that it was such a personal song to me but it seemed to hit a chord with so many people.”
25 years since Things Of Stone And Wood’s inception, the band has made another wise decision: that the time is right for an anniversary tour. It will feature the original lineup of Arnold, Allen (bass guitar and backing vocals), Justin Brady (violin, mandolin and harmonica) and Tony Floyd (drums and percussion).
“We played at Port Fairy Folk Festival and after the show we just felt the time was right – the feeling in the band when we were onstage seemed to be reflected in the audience. We really haven’t promoted the shows – they seem to have just hit a chord.”
Fans can expect a satisfactory dose of the old hits in the setlist, adds Arnold. “We’re mostly revisiting The Yearning, Junk Theatre and the EPs that came out around that time [Happy Birthday Helen, The Hopeful]. It was a real purple patch for the band of material and playing a lot live, so it’s a wonderful thing to go back to that time.”