This is the true story of one of the most unique albums ever released in Australia. It’s a tale of how a former teen heartthrob teamed up with a studio engineer to create one of the most insulting, humorous and plain bizarre albums you could ever hope to hear, sold over 800,000 albums, saved a fledgling record company that also sold steak knives on the side – without ever, until now revealing their true identities.
But wait there’ more!
The Beatles are one of the most iconic, immediately recognisable bands in the world, renowned for their incredible song writing, pop smarts and melodic genius. Their legacy is unimpeachable. Yet it takes a very special mind to realise there’ something missing.
Born in Italy Gene Pierson was raised in Australia, achieving chart success in the late 60′ and early 70′ both here and in New Zealand (where he went to avoid the draft), with a string of singles, often covers of overseas acts. His epic 1970 tripped out psych rock take on the Four Tops Reach Out had him dubbed the psychedelic king at one stage – and with good reason. By the late 70′ however he had become a promoter and artist manager, where he was instrumental in booking bands like Sherbet and AC/DC, managing Johnny O’Keefe for a period and assisting INXS early in their career. In the early 80′ Pierson had moved into record production running his own label Laser Records, though he’ always had his fingers in many pies.
“I wasn’t a great fan of the Beatles,” Pierson reveals when I get him on the phone. Now based in tropical Queensland, he tells me that he’ sitting under a great big red Jacaranda and when we finish he’ going to go for a swim in a huge dam. His personality is infectious, reaching through the phone line; he’ as Aussie as they come, a fearless raconteur, a natural storyteller whose life has taken numerous twists and turns.
“I remember one night we might have been somewhere in Auckland, or somewhere far away in a distant land – a weird spooky town outside of Queenstown or something,” he offers. “We were in a cloud of smoke that night and I do remember dogs barking and wolves howling as we were up in the mountains. And we were actually playing the Beatles and I thought wow what great idea. And Beatle Barkers came. From there it was just a walk up,â€ he chuckles to himself. “When I woke up the next morning I could barely remember it, but I thought Beatle Barkers yeah.”
The result of Pierson’s pipe dream is a 1983 album released by Demtel, in which iconic Beatles classics like I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Can’ Buy Me Love have been stripped of John, Paul, George and Ringo and replaced with canines. The dogs do a great job of conveying the emotion and pathos of ‘We Can Work it Out’ and ‘All My Loving,’ though to be fair they’re ably assisted by cats, sheep, roosters, chickens and the rest of the farmyard. It’s the kind of music that can send you insane. It’s hard to know how to take it. Musically it’s quite adept, it’s clear that a lot of time and care has gone into the phrasing of the animals. It’s safe to say though that it upset a lot of Beatles fans.
At the time Pierson had a relationship with studio engineer and composer Roy Nicolson, where he would periodically bring around an aspiring singer he thought he could make into a star and Nicolson would cut a demo that they’d then take to a record company. Don’t laugh, one of these starlets was E-Street actress Melissa Tkautz and the resulting single (penned by Nicolson) Read My Lips went to number one. Largely retired now Nicolson still tinkers around in his studio periodically on projects that interest him. When we spoke he was slightly bemused by the interest, but ultimately quite happy to reflect upon his role in one of the strangest releases this country has ever seen. Between 1977 and 82 Nicolson was a synth programmer and player in some of the biggest UK studios, often collaborating with big name producers like Trevor Horn, Barry Blue and Andy Arthurs. It was here he learnt how to write pop songs, something he would continue when he returned to Australia, initially with Young Doctors star Deborah Gray in Arvo, though also co writing the one hit, I Eat Cannibals from one hit wonder band Toto Coelo which went to number 8 on the UK charts.
“At that stage I had one of the really early samplers, it was an Emulator 1,” he offers from his home in Sydney, “it was nowhere near as good as a Fairlight, but it was the cheap American copy, and you could sample, I think it was 10 seconds in total that it could have in samples at any one time. It was very very limited.”
The Fairlight came preloaded with some samples: a piano, strings, and strangely enough a dog. Nicolson believes that Pierson was aware of this and it may have subconsciously influenced his thinking.
When Pierson returned to Sydney he asked Nicolson if he could do a Beatles song sung by dogs. Nicolson, eager for a paying gig didn’ bat an eyelid. Sure he could.
“It was a funny idea,” Nicolson laughs, “I don’t think there were many comedy records at the time though and I didn’t think it was a particularly good idea, but we did quite a good job of it, in terms of getting the dogs personalities on the record. â€œ
â€œI think we did one track to see how it would go, and he said, do you want to do an album, and I said not really,” chuckles Nicolson. “He said you can do it for free and get a percentage of the album, or do it for a flat fee, I said I’ll take a flat fee. That may have been a mistake.”
Whilst Nicolson handled the vocals, Pierson procured the backing music. To this day Nicolson doesn’ know where they came from. “Don’t ask,” he laughs.
“There was a company in Germany that was providing backing tracks,” reveals Pierson, “you just paid a couple of hundred dollars or whatever it was in those days. I think the whole album in those days cost me $2,500 or $3,000 which in today’s equivalent is probably about $10,000 or something. It was no big deal. I think the cover art and the TV commercial cost more.”
The barking however proved a little more difficult with Nicolson not just having to locate and at times even record the samples for each animal, but he was struggling with some unforseen pitch issues.
“Any kind of held note didn’t work and I wanted to get a good dog howling but dogs don’t tend to hold the note when they howl. They’re up and down and it doesn’t work musically. So we got in a session dog. Actually there was some little movie about a singing dog, I went along to try and get a recording of that dog, but it didn’t work out. But then we found this guy who did a really amazing impersonation of a dog. So we got him in to do a session, just for the long held notes. It’s a little bit Milli Vanilli. Those long howling notes are not actually a real dog – but all the others are.”
“I can’t remember his name,” Nicolson continues, “but we set him up in front of the mic and the first time he barked I jumped because I thought there was a dog in the studio. He sounded more like a dog than a dog.”
Nicolson laboured on an 8-track tape machine for about two weeks, with two tracks for the backing track, leaving him 6 tracks for dogs, chickens or sheep.
“It was pretty funny, because I was performing it on the keyboard and you know you have to channel a dog a bit to do it. I think I got somewhere in between what an actual dog might do and then putting it closer to the music. But I didn’t put it too close or it would have sounded mechanical. It is a bit out of time or out of pitch and a bit all over the place and sometimes they get a bit carried away and sing a few notes too many like a real dog might, because they don’t have good concentration.”
Yet for Nicolson and Pierson dogs weren’t enough, what about Beatle Squawkers, Beatle Meowers, or Beatle Baaers?
“We both felt the dogs became a bit monotonous after a while,” offers Nicolson, “and because I only had a limited number of samples it started to become a bit samey. So we decided to throw in the whole farmyard, for variety really. If you’ve just got Paul singing the whole album it’s just not the same is it?”
At the time Pierson had been putting together compilations for cut rate record companies like Telmak, Ktel and Demtel, auspicious recordings like the 20 Greatest Moments in Australian Sport, 20 Greatest Rock and Roll songs or 20 Tear Jerker’. “We were doing these kinds of crazy things and the guy from Demtel, David Hammer he was a little crazy and said “why don’t you come up with something really really crazy?’ And I was like “what?’ And he said “anything, I just want to break the monotony.’ It was just the same crap you know.”
Beatle Barkers broke the monotony. If wikipedia is to be believed they broke it over 800,000 times.
“Gene sold it to a record company and it was marketed by Demtel- they sold steak knives,” Nicolson laughs.”They were actually going bust, and I think they did inevitably go bust, but this record saved them for another couple of years I think.”
Yet both Nicolson and Pierson refused to put their names to it, for fear of it tarnishing their other projects or even themselves. As a result the album was credited to the mysterious Woofers and Tweeters Ensemble.
“It’s disgraceful, it’s blasphemy,” Pierson laughs, “you’ve got the Beatles the best songwriters in the world and you’ve got dogs, cows and sheep singing songs. So we remained very anonymous. We got this crazy cover with half Beatle heads and dogs or whatever and had this crazy advertisement done. Then a couple of weeks later I’m driving along in Sydney and on JJ (it was in those days) comes this crazy song. And people were raving about it everywhere I’d go. Well some weren’t raving, some were actually giving it heaps.”
Yet that’s not the end of it. With sales of 860,000 units in Australia alone on the back of TV advertising and scant radio play, both Nicolson and Pierson kept their true identity as the woofers and tweeters ensemble hidden until recently when pirates forced their hand and copies of their album started appearing overseas renamed as Beatles Live From the Pound.
“We kept out of it for a long long time,” begins Pierson, “up until about five years ago, when suddenly we realised that we missed out on all these royalties. We hadn’ officially released it anywhere else in the world; it was only released really on Demtel. All of a sudden a Google search revealed that Passport records have it out, every man and his dog can sample it from anywhere.”
“We proceeded to get some lawyers in LA who were pretty good at tracking down these Internet pirates. I believe its been pirated a million times in all forms, which is sad in a way because it means that the writers of the songs, whoever owns the Beatles stuff, Michael Jackson or whoever should be getting income for these songs. And we should be getting something for being so crazy or being so fucking stupid.”
Pierson and Nicolson moved on, with Nicolson continuing his production and writing in his studio in Redfern, and Pierson releasing comedy records beginning with Australia Laughs featuring future comedy icons Vince Sorrenti and Rodney Rude. In the 90′ he established the Indigenous label which released Aboriginal music, before merging it with the Lifestyle Music Group a decade later, which specialises in new age, spa, light jazz, lounge and ambient music. Yet no matter where they go, they’ll never outrun the legacy of the Beatle Barkers.
“It was all done in cheek as a bit of a fun thing,” reflects Pierson. “It was never meant to be serious. We smoked a bit of pot in those days and it sounded really funny. When you heard that in the 80’s and you heard that you laughed yourself stupid. It’s still funny, I occasionally play round the house and the dog comes close to the house and starts howling, the cat runs away the kids go ‘eew’ and the wife walks out on me. All that happens. It’s quite disgraceful.”
“It was all done in great fun and it became bigger than we imagined it,” he continues. “We tried to keep away from it, but it keeps drawing us in here and there. The years have rolled by, it has matured, it’s standing on its own, people can laugh or they can cry.”