In the annals of Australian music history, The Welcome Mat only succeeded in living up to their name, laid down at the gates of opportunity to watch in dismay as their more fated friends were to find out what lay behind door number one. As an underground phenomenon in Sydney, they were the kings of the quip and the masters of the hook-laden power pop song. They appeared destined to release the kind of major label debut album that make their mothers proud and defer the day job for another couple of years.
Questions of fame and fortune aside, If you wanted my opinion where it all went wrong for the Welcome Mat, I’d tell you it had something to do with “Hell Hoping”, the less-than-enticing two minute taster off their debut album Gram. It’s a fact that nothing can quickly end the life-span of an album than under-selling it with one of the least impressive songs (sorry, Mullens) on the record and here was the Welcome Mat literally daring us to give them the cold shoulder to go buy the new You Am I Ep instead. The release of two prior EPs, Fairy dust (1991) and Spare (1992) had accumulated a dedicated fanbase and received a groundswell of radio attention and acclaim. Though ‘acclaim’ in Australian terms means about 2000 copies sold and being able to sell out the Annandale before 9pm, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Everyone was expecting the boys to expand on the buzz and pop of those EPs with hip producers Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade, better known for their golden touch with The Lemonheads, Throwing Muses, Buffalo Tom and Radiohead. It seemed the perfect pairing – up and coming American producers meet up and coming Australian band on their home turf. The Hummingbirds did it with REM’s producer Scott Litt with the sweet smelling pop bouquet Lovebuzz and they had to fly to the States to do it. The Wellies had the home town advantage. Everyone (or perhaps it was just me) was expecting Gram to be their Bandwagonesque – that kind of perfect pop record that is faultless from start to finish. It was an expectation that I felt was entirely within reason.
For those who never had the pleasure, The Welcome Mat were a Sydney-based guitar-pop quartet formed in 1989. They comprised Cory Messenger on vocals/guitar, Wayne Connolly on vocals/guitar, Leo Mullins on vocals/bass and Peter Bennett on drums. Messenger and Connolly were originally the two main songwriters both having met and played together in John Kennedys Love Gone Wrong before going on to form The Welcome Mat. Their first single, Connolly’s “Last of The Great Letdowns” was a rough-hewn glimpse of what the Welcome Mat would become, but even then the key ingredient of the Messenger/Connolly duelling harmonies was clearly in effect. Second single “Cake”, written and sung by Messenger and a was better (cleaner) representation of the band’s sound, though the use of the wah-wah pedal and funky drumbeat dates it somewhat. The Welcome Mat on first glance were like a more fun Teenage Fanclub or a less drunk Replacements with, as their own label claimed, ‘Plenny’o’Hooks’.
I arrived on the Welcome Mat scene via their contribution to the Youngblood 3 compilation, which was both a crucial release for this writer and a prescient collection of acts that would later become mainstays of the Australian music scene. This compilation succeeded in showing the doubters (Anglophiles such as myself) what fertile music scenes there were in Sydney, Melbourne, and er, Brisbane. Having been a religious reader of the NME for the last few years and recently acquiring a girlfriend who owned a car, I felt it was time to take advantage and witness what was happening outside of the beachy confines of the Central Coast. Working backwards, I picked up their second single “Cake” and was blown away more by the track on the flipside, the swirling guitar fuzz of Connolly’s “Coming To The Worst” which was in direct opposition to the relative bright pop of “Cake”. “Last of the Great Letdowns” was also quite easy to find. If I recall correctly, Waterfront Records were practically giving them away…
It wasn’t until the Fairydust EP with the lead track “10,000 People With the Same Idea” that the pieces began to fall in place for the band and their live shows around the Sydney circuit began to swell with newfound fans. The video clip I have for “10,000 People” even has an MTV Australia ident on it, so it only goes to show how wide the hype was beginning to travel. The band also had the privilege of opening the first ever Big Day Out in Sydney, not that I would’ve seen, since I refused to pay $45 to see a bunch of bands I could watch on any other night for $5 and bought a Tank Girl t-shirt instead (yeah, shoot me now). Another EP Spare cemented their standing, with Leo Mullen‘s “Landspeed” showing that his songwriting was just as strong as his counterparts. Having submitted to a bidding war which was won by Regular, the band was given the opportunity to make that all-important debut album and break free from the annoying half-an-album EPs that were the trend with bands in the 90’s.
Catch up lesson over, let’s continue.
Listening to Gram, it seems unfair to rest the blame entirely on “Hell Hoping’s” shoulders, but when searching through the track-listing for possible singles, you realise it’s a record largely weighted with mid-paced alternative rock songs coupled with the odd ballad (Messenger‘s “Death Bag” perhaps being the oddest). If you were to play the singles game “All Or Nothing” would‘ve been first cab off the rank, being the obvious choice with the same energy of Spare‘s “Landspeed”. Despite “Hell Hoping” making the lower reaches of the Australian charts, it failed to galvanise the support behind the band and the follow-up single “Play Me” failed to do as the title instructed. Of the tracks on Gram, “Play Me” is the one that stands tallest with Messenger’s ability to coax out a melodic tune and pair it with a clever lyric. Were this London and not Sydney it would have got single of the week in the NME hands down.
“Play Me” plays to the bands strength and Messenger’s buoyant cynicism. The ambiguous title is open to interpretation, the most literal, a failing relationship, being (I would later find out), the least correct, as Messenger would later explain via email “the idea came from a joke I included in the liner notes for one of our earlier singles. Imagine I’m singing it to a radio DJ and all will be revealed. The less-than-subtle double meaning was perhaps one of the reasons it was seen as an inappropriate first single”. With an opening lyric like “you should hear yourself/I’d like to but in but you don’t give me a choice/won’t listen to no-one else/so in love with the sound of your own voice” it should‘ve been obvious. Of course, you could apply the same meaning to being in a band with three songwriters too, but that might be asking for trouble. The video clip takes the metaphor to its ultimate conclusion, with the band miming the song on a bowling green while friends and fans take aim around them.
I try to recall when the jokes became sour or the songs lost their sparkle. In my mind, Gram wasn’t the album I was expecting, but through fresh ears I can‘t recall what my problem could‘ve been. I remember travelling out to Kogarah Mall on a Thursday night to see them do an instore for the release of “Play Me”, and it seemed to the dozen or so in attendance like one of those Spinal Tap/the record company made us do it moments. Gram hadn’t sold what the record company expected and neither party were happy about it, especially the four guys cracking wise and trying to sound upbeat in some suburban shopping mall. It did seem in my eyes that the competent school of rock, where lyrics and hooks and sounding like an intelligent pop band was falling quickly on the out. Bands like the Clouds, the Falling Joys, Ratcat, The Hummingbirds etc, bands who had been staples of the music scene in Sydney were all suddenly finding it hard going.
I can’t remember the last time I saw the Welcome Mat live. It would’ve probably been shortly after the release of Gram, but after that they became the support band for overseas acts and medium-sized Australian bands that I didn’t see eye-to-eye with or care for. A four track Ep entitled Headset was released a year later which was my final throw of the dice on the Welcome Mat front. The collective consciousness on the Australian music scene appeared to want something new and those heady days when the record stores and their various labels (Waterfront/Half-a-Cow/Red Eye) ruled the roosts was over. A final album, the appropriately titled Lap of Honour was released in 1996 and it was all over a year later. Having been to many a band’s leaving do over the years for some reason I failed to attend theirs. I’ve got this vague feeling I was double-booked. I wonder who I sold them out for…
Nevertheless, by fate and good fortune, Webcuts managed to get hold of both Cory Messenger and Wayne Connolly who were more than happy to don rose-coloured glasses and hold our hands as they guided us down Welcome Mat memory lane, pausing to occasionally admire the view and point out the veritable potholes along the way. From what you can see below, it was a very long walk, but worth every second.