Listen to Vin narrate this story.

Melbourne, 1987

It was the lyric and the lilt that hooked me in. The metaphor about the airstrip, the plane and hope. And I’d never heard a song that referred to Casablanca, the movie. Not that I knew the movie very well. Which one was Claude Rains, I’d wonder as I listened again, and again to the song.

Here are the lyrics that have stayed with me all these years:

Claude Rains gave the order
To collect the usual suspects
As the camera came in close up on his face
He watched as the plane left the airstrip
Like hope leaves a dying man
But he hung onto the choice he’d made.

Later the song, by the New Zealand group The Front Lawn, draws a link between Casablanca and a nuclear war movie. I wasn’t convinced of the link but I still listened to the song again and again. There’s an arresting melancholy about it. And stories within stories.

The Front Lawn were Don McGlashan and Harry Sinclair, two New Zealanders who combined  gentle comedy and curious songs into a show that was more theatre than pop or rock and roll. I was drawn to them by the suburbia of their name.

Their 1989 album was simply called Songs From The Front Lawn. As if the green,  green  grass of homes  was the inspiration and the setting of their song-stories. I wouldn’t be surprised if they played a few gigs on front lawns. House concerts you’d call them these days.

I first saw them at The Anthill Theatre in Melbourne in October 1987. They were part of the Spoleto Fringe Festival. I liked them so much I saw them a second time during that short season.

I reviewed their show for Juke, (the pop/rock newspaper long gone):

Here, at last, is comedy that’s articulate, intelligent and imaginative. No swearing, no cursing, no dependency on bodily functions. Here is comedy that merely asks the audience to pay very careful attention: to think, to listen, to watch…to laugh.

The Front Lawn returned six months later for the Melbourne Comedy Festival, so I interviewed them for Juke. I still remember McGlashan’s story about spruiking for an audience on Stuart Island, south of New Zealand’s South Island.

“It’s a small community of about 500 and we had the job ahead of us to get people to come along to the show. So what we did was spend four days on the island talking people into coming. It ended up being great fun and when we did the show it was nice to know we’d already personally introduced ourselves to each member of the audience. All 60 of them.”

Five years later, having played New York, Edinburgh and elsewhere,  (and  added Jennifer Ward-Leland) they pulled up stumps. Harry Sinclair moved into script-writing.  Don McGlashan formed The Mutton Birds (and, much more recently, performed with Marlon Williams. He also appeared on RocKwiz a few years ago).

 

Melbourne 2019

For the past few weeks I’ve been treated to an accordion version of Claude Rains as I sit in the study, as I wash the dishes, as I do the crossword. My partner Julie has been learning the song.

The local music club, The Newport Fiddle and Folk Club, was running one of their theme nights, in which performers play songs based on a topic. This time around the theme was ‘Entry and Exit’ songs. Julie and her colleague, singer/guitarist Greg, opted for You’re So Vain for their ‘entry’ song, and Claude Rains as their ‘exit’ song.

Although I’d played the song on the record player regularly over the many years I, of course, had not heard Claude Rains performed since 1987. And, now, here was the song, emanating from the bellows of Julie’s accordion, a sweet melancholy floating through the house.

Julie and Greg played the song to about 100 people, 100 people – I’d safely guess – who had never heard of it, or The Front Lawn. But they knew Casablanca, and the actor Claude Rains. Greg, ever the improviser, couldn’t resist adding a twist. As Julie played out the end of the song Greg recited many of the well-known lines and quotes from the classic film.

But none of the Casablanca lines stay with me as much as

He watched as the plane left the airstrip
Like hope leaves a dying man

 

Vin is founding editor of Stereo Stories and director/MC of Stereo Stories In Concert.