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Spy v Spy unveils New Reasons to evolve

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The Australian rock scene was certainly spoiled for choice in the late 80s and early 90s.

Think INXS, AC/DC, Midnight Oil, Hoodoo Gurus, The Angels, The Church, Men At Work, Australian Crawl, Cold Chisel, Divinyls, Icehouse, Noiseworks, Models, Sunnyboys, Mental As Anything, The Screaming Jets, The Choirboys, Rose Tattoo and many others, who dominated the pub scene for more than a decade.

But, one of the most under-rated was a powerful trio with strong links to the Hunter, Spy v Spy.

Craig Bloxom, Michael Weiley and Cliff Grigg.

Vocalist Craig Bloxom, guitar whiz Michael Weiley and drummer extraordinaire Cliff Grigg cemented themselves as the nation’s “working-class heroes”, telling socially conscious stories – ranging from racism to homelessness and contemporary drug culture to the ecosystem – that spoke for everyone.

They not only forged a reputation as a brilliant “live” act, they also enjoyed commercial success, too, thanks to a plethora of hits such as Don’t Tear It Down, Sallie-Anne, Injustice, Something, Credit Cards, Hardtimes, Forget About the Working Week and Oceania.

Now, the Spys – albeit with a new-look line-up – are ready to rise from the ashes with their first offering in almost 30 years, New Reasons, featuring the single Overland.

“There’s no way I thought I’d be releasing an album in this day and age, definitely not,” said Grigg when I met him face-to-face recently at the Wickham Park Hotel.

“However, it was just something I had to do, otherwise I couldn’t see a purpose for myself.

“I didn’t want to do a Spys’ show, performing Don’t Tear It Down and other hits.

“Yes, I love those tracks – and you have to play them.

“But, for me, as a musician, I need to evolve as well.

“I put on a new shirt every day, I can’t wear the same one – it’s the same with music.

“So, I’m proud of the finished product.

“I’ll be honest, it could have been so much better – we recorded it in two sessions over three days.

“However, there’s a certain good energy we achieved.”

Michael Weiley, Craig Bloxom and Cliff Grigg.

It’s a far cry from the Spys’ beginnings.

Bloxom, who was born in Los Angeles, moved to Australia in 1965.

He then met Weiley at Nelson Bay High School in 1976.

The guitarist, having just emigrated from England, was paired with Bloxom by the principal based on their common musical interests and plans on making a career in music.

The duo eventually ventured to Sydney, where they were introduced to Grigg, who happened to live in a squat in the suburb of Glebe.

And, as they say, the rest is history.

“To this day, I still believe that was our first big break… the fact we all lived together,” Grigg said.

“I asked the boys to move into the squats with me, so we didn’t have to pay rent.

“Craig and Michael were living in North Sydney and I told them they were mad paying out all that money.

“I’d done the same thing the previous year.

“But, then I got lucky, someone showed me the way [squatting] – and I was in this big house, with four levels, with one underground (the basement).

“It was the ultimate coup.

“We could play at midnight and not disturb the neighbourhood.

“It was perfect… and that was the starting point.

“I think it made us a tight unit.

“So, that strength became the thing that wrote all the music in the end.

“Because we didn’t have jobs and we didn’t have family, we focused on issues that affected so many people.”

One example is environmental anthem Trash The Planet, which came out in 1989, with its opening verse:

Look the rivers out there are burning fast

Season changing, here at last

But no one’s learning, can’t they see

Trash our planet is what will be

“That song could be as relevant today,” Grigg said.

“It also boasted a reggae [rock] touch, a style which heavily influenced me.

Cliff Grigg kicks back at the Wickham Park Hotel. Photo: Rod Thompson

“So, I guess we played a future sound back then.

“Even though it’s ancient, Trash The Planet is built on our heartbeat, our breath and our mind; the three parts, which made our rhythm.

“We actually developed our own style by allowing each other to do their own thing – and not telling each other too much to go this way or that way.

“Craig would come to the party with something… and Michael and I would just add to it.

“I believe that – and living in the squats – solidified the band.

“It made it easier for us to concentrate all that energy just being us.

“I’ll admit, it came unstuck at one point, I had to move out.

“However, I think it’s what made us different from a lot of other bands.”

Another opportune moment was a chance meeting with Gary Morris, the man behind Midnight Oil.

“At first, we became a support act – and secured a booking agent, which saw us back The Angels, Models and many others,” Grigg said.

“Then we nabbed a gig at the Mosman Hotel, we enjoyed a connection to that venue.

“That’s where we met Gary, who asked us to see him at his office one Monday.

“And, he became our manager as well.

“We were Midnight Oils’ ugly cousin, something like that,” he added with a laugh.

“But, it was a great era.

“Everything was ‘live’, it was just people and their instruments.

“Sadly, it isn’t like that now.

“Songs are layered, rearranged and artists come and go.

“It was a whole different world back then to be a mainstream act.

“These days, the internet is the rock star, not the band.

“It’s the thing everyone has to have, yet we don’t need it.

“It is a weird time we live in.

“However, music is magic – we need it for our mental health.

“And, when the lockdown occurred, a lot of people were calling out for it.”

Cliff Grigg with the new-look Spy v Spy, featuring Andrew Davis, Dean Reynolds and Cameron Hallmen.

So, New Reasons is not only Spy v Spy’s COVID album, it’s Grigg’s way to honour Weiley, who lost his battle with cancer at age 59 in 2018.

The late “axeman” had been yearning to recreate the band’s magic and reunite with his songwriting partner and drummer.

They enlisted the services of Dean Reynolds to take the stage as lead singer along with Cameron Hallmen on bass.

Tragically, Weiley died after only two gigs.

His wishes were for Grigg to enlist Andrew Davis (guitar) and carry on under the banner of Spy v Spy.

“I designed a T-shirt that had the old black and white Spy coat and hat hanging up,” he said.

“And, it was Michael’s (hat).

“But, there was a window, it was in the shed – and that was the Honey Island, which was the last record I made with him.

“When the lockdown happened, it gave me time to focus on everything again.

“I spoke with Michael’s manager, who fought with me not to do it.

“He told me: ‘No one wants a Spys’ album. Look at Rose Tattoo, they made one, they can’t sell it’ or something like that.

“I replied: ‘Man, if I don’t do this, the band’s going to break up, don’t you get it?’

“Because that’s where I was at.

“I’m always at the creative end of things.

“If I’m not growing, then I’m having a problem.

“So, that’s where it all started.

“I had one song that we’d already crafted together.

“However, I asked the guys ‘what have we got?’, ‘have you got a riff?’, things like that.

“Let’s put it down and build on it.

“So, I tried to do it like I did with Craig and Michael.

“I had the tracks but they didn’t understand the reggae element – I put that in afterwards.

“And, it worked out pretty well.

“It’s a different flavour at the end – that’s what Spys’ albums always had.

“We had pop, reggae and rock all mixed in together.”

Grigg said full credit went to Marcus Wright, as well.

“He’s the best manager,” he told the Newcastle Weekly.

“Marcus has done some great work to maintain the vibe and ensure the CD came to fruition.

“In fact, he’s been a godsend.

“We wouldn’t be still going if it wasn’t for him.

“Now, we’re touring with Noiseworks, it’s a blast to play with them.

“But, you keep going because music is special – and it has to happen for the right reasons.

“It’s so important in my family, too.

“We’re actually in a reggae band, Dubwise Up, too, where my son is the guitarist, my wife’s on keyboards, my daughter is the singer, her boyfriend is the DJ/rapper, my stepson’s the bassist and his little boy is percussion.

“And, that’s brilliant.

“It’s funny, Newcastle is our home now – I’ve lived here since 2010, I’m at Garden Suburb, while Craig’s at Charlestown.

“He’s been so supportive of what we’re doing.

“Craig, Michael and I actually filmed the video for One of a Kind outside the famous Sygna shipwreck, near Stockton, in 1984.

“The music scene’s always been great here.

“And, even though I don’t know what the year ahead holds, I hope things open up a bit more in 2023.”

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