‘I hadn’t slept for 10 days’ – the Lemonheads on making It’s a Shame About Ray

‘The song made things happen – but it’s weird to be proud of something you did 30 years ago on drugs’

Evan Dando, singer, songwriter

The first time we toured in Australia I liked it so much that I asked my agent to get me back there as soon as possible. I went back on a solo tour, opening for Fugazi. It was a great time. On that trip I met Tom Morgan, who was the singer in a band called Smudge. We went through all the music we liked, such as Lou Reed and the Stooges. We just hit it off right away.

Over there at the time there was a whole culture of all these kids who were on the dole and just taking drugs and writing and playing rock’n’roll. I was swooning in envy, and the next time I was in Sydney I hooked up with Tom again. I hadn’t slept for 10 days but I was young and OK. It caught up with me later.

We came across a newspaper story about a kid called Ray who kept getting kicked out of every school he went to. In the article a priest was quoted saying “It’s a shame about Ray”, which became the title of the first song we wrote together. I already had the chord progression and the rest happened quickly, like the best songs often do. We worked up the lyrics in 20 or 30 minutes.

I was trying to create the kind of music I liked to listen to – a bit Byrds, a bit psychedelic. Lyrically the track is very cryptic. It keeps you guessing, but to me the line “in the stone above the dust, his name is still engraved” suggests that Ray has died. It’s a song that can mean lots of stuff or nothing, but it was fun to sing.

When I got back to Los Angeles I decided I wanted to look after things myself, so I fired my management. I wanted to pick the band up, practice for an hour a day for a month and then make an album, which is exactly what we did. The song It’s a Shame About Ray was recorded very quickly, with Juliana Hatfield on bass and David Ryan playing drums. It was the era of: “Phew, we’ve got another one finished.”

Winona Ryder was a Lemonheads fan and she made a tape of our songs for Johnny Depp. He liked the stuff and said to us: “Come and live in my house.” We didn’t exactly go and live in his house, but we made the video there, with Johnny in it. It was our first song to chart in the UK. Back then I was under a lot of pressure to deliver hits, but I still like the song. We never got the drum beat together or worked on the arrangement but sometimes the least thought out songs are the best.

Tom Morgan, songwriter

Smudge had just released our first single when we supported Evan at Sydney’s Annandale Hotel. I’d met him briefly before on a Lemonheads tour, but then on his acoustic tour we both got up and did a few of his songs with [subsequent Lemonheads bassist] Nic Dalton on drums. Evan stayed in Sydney for a while and we just started hanging out.

Being up for 10 days sounds like the sort of thing they do to torture someone. Evan may have been up for that long but it was two days for me. We’d been at my girlfriend Nicole’s house taking speed, playing music and walking around. The Sunday papers had just come out so they were in a bundle on a street corner: we grabbed one and took it back to the house. We laughed at the last line of the article: “It’s a shame about Ray.”

We ended up back at my sister’s house, really early in the morning. Evan wrote Rockin’ Stroll and Confetti, then we started writing together. The opening line came from something I’d said earlier – “I’ve never been too good with names” – then when we got to the chorus he said: “I know … ‘It’s a shame about Ray!’ The line fitted perfectly. After we’d finished that and Bit Part, he went back to the US and six months later Nic and Evan were playing It’s a Shame About Ray on the David Letterman show.

It’s weird to be proud of something you did 30 years ago on drugs, but I’m glad the song made things happen for Evan and I’m glad I could help him with Bit Part and a bunch of other songs. I’m very happy that after 30 years we’re still great friends.

  • The 30th anniversary deluxe edition of the album It’s a Shame About Ray is out now on Fire Records


Interviews by Dave Simpson

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