The entire album is full of songs that sound like they should be as familiar to listeners as any by Queen, Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones.
My favorite record store happens to be run by an Australian expat, which means that there is an Australian/New Zealand music section. And it’s pretty great. Sure, there are the obligatory Men at Work albums, but look a little closer and you’ll find gems like Paul Kelly and maybe a Go-Betweens if you’re lucky. I’ve never been able to find The Ferrets, but I did pick up New Zealand band Dragon’s 1977 album Sunshine thanks to the irresistible Chinese dragon design on its cover. Don’t you love it when a spontaneous purchase introduces you to a band with 13 albums and 40 years of history to explore? The entire album is full of songs that sound like they should be as familiar to listeners as any by Queen, Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones. Well, except that they’re from Australia.
The band’s third album Sunshine appears to be Dragon’s first album since uprooting from Auckland to Sydney. But, for its sunny title, Sunshine is characterized by an overwhelming dichotomy. Its songs, most written by either keyboardist Paul Hewson or the duo of singer Marc Hunter and guitarist Robert Taylor, feature dark, world-weary lyrics but are delivered with downright giddy vocals. Whether it’s “Every day is just another day in the shadow world” on “Same Old Blues” or “You’ve got a lot of things/ Pills and things to make your day” on “MX,” the world Dragon describes never sounds appealing. Part of that may be the band trying to cultivate a rock ‘n’ roll bad boys vibe, but any cursory search of the band’s history will also tell you that several members died from drug overdoses in the late ’70s and early ’80s. In fact, the prevalence of death and falling-outs meant that the only constant member since the band’s inception has been bassist Todd Hunter. The angst certainly wasn’t all for show.
But the very sound of Sunshine counters any image of the band living in the fast lane of rock ‘n’ roll. Sunshine is outright poppy with a surprising number of songs with disco-indebted beats. “This Time” (renamed “In the Right Direction” for the international release) and “Get that Jive” blatantly play up the disco, undoubtedly helping Dragon climb the Australian charts in the heyday of Saturday Night Fever. The Bee Gees are certainly never far from mind when Hunter and company are laying down such breezy harmonies. “This Time” lists every member of the band as co-writers, and it certainly plays to all of their strengths. Hewson’s keyboard keeps a heady pace; Taylor’s guitar riffs add that element of rock; Kerry Jacobson offers up propulsive drums; and, all the while, Hunter does his best Jagger-meets-Mercury. The combination is irresistible.
Disco gives way to funk on tracks like “Blacktown Boogie” and “Same Old Blues.” “Boogie,” in particular, sticks out on the album. Hunter’s hedonistic vocal is accented by horns and a near-Caribbean jive funk, courtesy of Taylor’s syncopated guitar work and Todd Hunter’s driving bass. “Same Old Blues” relies even more so on Taylor’s dynamic guitar, although Hewson’s organ choice makes the song, with both instruments carrying out a borderline jazz conversation as the song goes on. The influences are widespread, but the songs forge a distinctive Dragon sound. To today’s ears, it’s like the best of ’70s rock distilled into an album you’ve never heard of before.
The key to Sunshine‘s appeal may be the prevalence of piano-driven pop, especially on the Hewson-penned tracks. Title track “Sunshine” sees the band slow things down and reel back Taylor’s guitar in favor of keys and harmonies. The piano itself plays with the rhythm by dropping a beat only to catch up with the next line, and a perpetual game of catch up is a decent metaphor for the album. In the context of Dragon’s musical output, this was the starting point of their fame. Sunshine simultaneously captures the band coming to terms with new-found success and the beginning of their subsequent, seemingly perpetual, downward spiral of losing members left and right. And that makes the downbeat chorus—“I’m in the sunshine/ I’m wasting time/ I’m in the spotlight/ I’m out of time”—all the more evocative. Sunshine and follow-ups Running Free (1977) and O Zambezi (1978) are Dragon’s crowning achievements, but while the band (in one form or another) stuck around long after their ’70s heyday, this is the Dragon people know and love. And rightly so.