Why I ain’t gonna work today

UNDER NORMAL circumstances, today I’d be doing what I normally do: travelling down the coast to cover an AFL match for The Age. It’s something I’ve been doing for 12 years, and consider a privileged part of my job. Not only is it fun, it keeps me on a contract for five months of the year (I won’t say six because in those 12 years the Brisbane Lions have seen September action once, and the Gold Coast Suns, in six full years in the competition, haven’t made the finals yet).

As many of you may be aware, Fairfax’s decision this week to cut another quarter of its workforce – well over 100 journalists, most of them from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – has resulted in unprotected strike action. So I won’t be going to work today. This means forgoing a week’s pay, which I can ill afford, and we are all risking our jobs, but so it must be. Fairfax’s proposed changes include auditing contracted freelancers such as myself. Exactly what that might mean for me I’m not sure yet. They also intend to further reduce contributor rates from a per word to per article rate, targeting the arts section in particular. Wages growth has been negative for a long time in journalism (unless, perhaps, you’re one of those superstar right-wing columnists – a pretty crowded field in itself these days, as everyone tries to get a piece of the outrage).

As I also write a fair bit about arts and music for both papers, these changes stand to very directly affect me and others like me. They might not quite stop me from writing, but it will absolutely impact my ability to continue to cobble together a living from what I love doing.

Fairfax Media seems to have made no real attempt to look for alternatives to these cuts. Concerns over the boss’s $2.5 million bonus, and the exorbitant salaries and bonuses of those around him (which would have saved dozens of jobs on their own), were dismissed as irrelevant. Domain, the profitable part of the enterprise which takes real estate advertising, was recently split from the business. Of course, journalism – the core of Fairfax Media – was once sustained by these revenues; now journalism itself is treated like a drain on the coffers.

It should go without saying that we need good journalism and good writing now more than ever before.

Please show your support. You can start by taking out a subscription – including to Fairfax, despite everything. We have to face up to the fact that if we want to read about something other than what happened on Masterchef, we’ve got to pay for it.

And if you want to add your voice, you can watch this video made by my colleagues, and write to Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood (he of the extra $2.5 million for further driving a once-great company into the ground).

Solidarity to all my fellows, friends, colleagues and comrades at Fairfax, both full-time and freelancers, today and into next week. Not covering the federal Budget will make things very interesting.

The Australian Bird Guide takes flight

IT STARTED nearly a decade ago. John Manger, a British expatriate and who had spent 20 years at Oxford University Press, had joined the publishing division in the CSIRO, becoming director in late 2005. He was also an avowed bird nerd who’d worked on many large ornithological titles. There were five Australian field guides already on the market but for Manger, that wasn’t enough. He decided to do something about it.

Manger contacted Jeff Davies, one of Australia’s pre-eminent bird illustrators – and it’s probably fair to say that at that point, the birding community held its breath. Davies was a notorious perfectionist, not known for doing anything by halves.

Next Monday, the community will finally exhale, with the publication of The Australian Bird Guide. “From the moment I started, people who knew what I’m like started saying, when are you going to finish?” Davies says in his studio in Heidelberg. “It actually annoyed me a little bit, but I’d always reply with a smile, and my answer was always, as long as it takes.”

Illustrator Jeff Davies. Pic: Simon Schluter for The Age

Not that Davies was working alone. Authors Danny Rogers and Peter Menkhorst were brought in, then Rohan Clarke; Davies recommended Peter Marsack and Kim Franklin as co-illustrators. It was a team fit for a gargantuan task: nearly 550 pages and 4700 illustrations of over 900 species recorded in Australia and its territories. They set themselves five years for the task. It ballooned to eight.

In the old days, birds were illustrated by referring to museum skins. Those days are long gone. Before any contracts were signed, Davies says, “there was a year where I just sat here with no income, collecting photographs, starting to design the book in my head”. He says he’s collected around half a million images. “That’s the reference collection. It’s a whole renaissance in birding and our understanding of birds.”

Clarke, who was brought on board for his photographic collection as much as his writing skills and status as one of the country’s top twitchers, agrees digital photography was the game-changer. “Being able to sit down with 20 images of the key plumage or position or posture [of a single species] just meant we were in an unparalleled position, really.”

And that, more than anything, justifies The Australian Bird Guide’s existence: the literature needed updating to reflect the explosion of knowledge that came with the explosion of imagery. All previous Australian field guides had their own strengths and weaknesses, and most serious birders will nominate a favourite, but this one is very much a reflection of the digital revolution that inspired it.

The obvious question that arises is why go to the trouble of commissioning illustrations at all. But photography still has limitations. Illustrations aid identification in that they can capture subtle differences between nearly identical species in ways that even multiple photographs can not.

And identification is the whole point, says Danny Rogers. “We thought we could do much better than other guides on the fundamentals of identifying birds. There’s lots now known about difficult birds – shorebirds, seabirds, and so on – that’s just not in the other guides; lots of interesting plumages were illustrated for the first time.”

Plenty of grey hairs were sprouted and lost in the process, though, as the book began to give new meaning to the term “long awaited”. Davies is unapologetic. “Anyone who gets into art is a perfectionist,” Davies says. “Every painting they’re doing, they’re being a perfectionist about that painting. It’s the obsessive nature of it, and it’s not a derogatory term; that’s just what’s required.

“I think I pushed everyone out of their comfort zone. I feel for them, because I know everyone has other people to answer to, and it probably made a lot of people’s lives pretty difficult. But my side of the job was to deliver the best book that I could deliver, and I was never going to skimp on it, ever.” He completed the last two years of work back on no income, while raising a daughter at home with his wife Barbara.

Life came and went around the authors as they worked. “When I started this, I was working as a post-doc at Deakin Uni, and now I’ve got two kids that I didn’t have and I’m now a senior lecturer in ecology at Monash,” Clarke says. But, he adds, “we went into this with our eyes open. If it had taken 10 or 11 years, I still think it would have been time well spent. I think the team would have loved another month or two.”

Davies describes painting as “a very monastic experience. You have to be very comfortable with listening to your own head. You have to actually enjoy being on your own, and the silence and the thinking. A lot of people today have trouble with that.” (The irony that Davies can talk the leg off a table and is highly active on social media will not be lost on his friends.)

Devising each plate, however, was a painstaking team effort. Photographic images would be bounced between authors and artists before the first drafts were made, then bounced around again. Just as the text was drafted and re-drafted, plates went through multiple iterations until everyone was happy.

But it’s obsession, and Davies’ obsession in particular, that drove the project onward. And onward. Whatever anxiety was created in the process, the results speak for themselves. “We wanted to make an identification guide that’s satisfying not only to people who are starting out birding, but people who already birders and want to get better at it,” Rogers says.

Davies was born both to birding and to art; his father was also an illustrator. “It’s something I do on my own, and I did that from a very early age. I got a strong direction of where north was by the time I was six! I could just walk off in the bush and come back to where I started very quickly.”

With the guide done, he’s returning to larger paintings. He’s working on one now: a pair of scarlet robins on a 1.1 metre x 810 cm canvas. He started it eight years ago, before the field guide called. “Obsession just becomes an abnormality when it’s used in different situations to this,” he says. “When it’s used in the activity of doing something artistic, it’s actually the most important part of the whole process.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 28 April 2017

This piece ran with the following teaser in the front section of both papers:

IT’S A true story, based on love, obsession and sometimes madness. Thankfully, the authors (and their publishers) managed to avoid murdering each other along the way. But after nearly a decade in the making, The Australian Bird Guide finally hits bookstores on Monday.

To call The Australian Bird Guide long-awaited would be putting it mildly. There are a number of field guides to Australian birds in print, most of which are regularly revised and updated. But an entirely new tome is as rare as, well, a very rare bird indeed: this is the first publication of its kind in about 17 years.

Melbourne artist Jeff Davies was the first of three illustrators, in addition to three authors, to be approached by CSIRO’s publishing division nearly 10 years ago. Instantly, the questions started: “I had various people tap me on the shoulder saying, ‘when are you going to finish’ – and that was when I’d just started,” he said. Some privately wondered if the book might ever be finished.

For the first year, Davies said, he sat at home without income, accumulating a vast archive of avian imagery for reference: much of what’s new about this book is a byproduct in the explosion of new knowledge generated by digital photography. When the project ran over time – the authors were on a five-year contract – Davies spent another two years without income as the book was finished. It features more than 4700 colour illustrations, with many species illustrated for the first time.

Davies, who had previously worked on the mammoth multi-volume Handbook Of Australian And New Zealand Birds, has a well-earned reputation as a perfectionist and a stickler for detail. In the twitchier circles of Australia’s birding community, however, detail is everything. For them, the wait will be worth it.

Davies said he would have refused the assignment if he hadn’t had sufficient time, but also understood the significance of the opportunity, as well as the magnitude of the task. “I’m 60. I’m going to be dead in a couple of decades time, I’m not going to fuck around and waste time,” he said. “I throw everything in otherwise I don’t bother doing it at all. But I think people who knew me already knew that.”

Bad//Dreems: Gutful

I WISH I had a buck for everyone who’s ever asked me who sings political songs these days. With the reformation of Midnight Oil and, especially, the rise of Donald Trump, it’s a refrain that’s only gotten louder. Where oh where, these people moan, are the musicians addressing the temper of the times? The complainers are, of course, invariably white and stopped listening to new music in approximately 1988.

In fact, we are seeing exactly the kind of revival of protest music that the era should demand. Much of it is happening in hip-hop, and Kendrick Lamar is the current standard-bearer, but he’s hardly alone. In Australia, AB Original – the logical, local hip-hop extension of revered Indigenous folk singer Kev Carmody – deservedly won last year’s Australian Music Prize.

And while these are lean times for guitar-based rock music, you can find it in that shrinking genre too: in recent releases by the Peep Tempel, the Drones and looking back a bit further, the sorely missed Eddy Current Suppression Ring. It’s also much more subtly and subversively evident in the work of Courtney Barnett, whose songs are rarely as they appear on first listen.

There is nothing subtle about Bad//Dreems. For their second album, Gutful, they’ve once again called upon the services of 1980s Oz rock titan Mark Opitz to produce, and it’s a straight-up-and-down rock record with a lot less jangle and a lot more crunch. Pub rock? Guitarist Alex Cameron says the description was “not particularly welcomed but not something we shied away from either”.

Whatever you call it, two things are undeniable: the songs are catchy, and they’re memorable, with big choruses that stick in your head whether you might want them to or not. On a few songs – the opening Johnny Irony, Gutful and especially Nice Guy, a song about male rage, the influence of Eddy Current is palpable – except that band’s best work was recorded for maybe less than $1000.

Gutful, on the other hand, sounds big and meaty. Mob Rule, the first single, instantly recalls the Living End minus the rockabilly influence: a tub-thumping drum intro leading into a shouted chorus purpose-built to be shouted back at the band from the mosh pit. Lyrically, the song speaks of populism and nativism: “I see flags on the sand / I see blood on your hands.”

Then there’s the title track (and what a marvellously “Oz” title it is too): “Had a gutful of your speed and coke / Had a gutful of your racist jokes / Had a gutful of Australia Day / Had a gutful of the USA / Had a gutful of Donald Trump / Had a gutful of your baby bump.” No one can accuse Bad//Dreems of not getting to the point.

But this is not entirely an issues album: there are spoonfuls of sugar helping the medicine go down. By My Side and Make You Love Me take on more classical pop themes and win. 1000 Miles Away harks back to the power-pop of the Hoodoo Gurus, who had a hit with a song of the same name and whose 1987 album Blow Your Cool was also produced by Opitz (reportedly an unhappy experience for all involved).

It’s a solid album, and at 38 minutes it flies by. It showcases the band’s knack for classic rock anthems. But several bands have deliberately been name-checked in this review, and there’s a nagging sense that Bad//Dreems haven’t fully outgrown their reference points. Put them in a beer barn, though, and they might yet be the band most likely to blow up the pokies.

First published in The Guardian, 21 April 2017

Screamfeeder: Pop Guilt

TWELVE YEARS since Screamfeeder’s sixth album Take You Apart, this long underrated Brisbane band have slowly reintroduced themselves to audiences through a series of reissues of their first five records, followed by three new singles. Those earlier albums have stood up well, and Pop Guilt keeps them excellent company. Singer/guitarist Tim Steward has kept himself busy with his other outfit We All Want To, and some of that band’s charm has rubbed off here: he’s in fine voice on the fizzy rush of Got A Feeling and the chugging drone of Falling. Bass player Kellie Lloyd has a more prominent role than before, taking the lead on five of the album’s 12 tracks, including the first two singles Alone In A Crowd and All Over It Again, and the addictive Shelter. The band’s reference points are worn loud and proud – the twists and turns of Alone In A Crowd have an unmistakable Pixies crunch; Sonic Souvenirs recalls early Sebadoh, and the shadows of Swervedriver and Hüsker Dü hover throughout. But Screamfeeder are peers of those bands, not pale imitators. I Might Have Some Regrets is the only weak link; otherwise, there’s no guilt here, only pleasure.

First published in The Age/Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 2017

Midnight Oil: Selina’s, 13 April 2017

THERE’S A LOW but incredibly loud hum vibrating at Selina’s, the cavernous band room within the Coogee Bay Hotel. The chant is up: “Oooooooooiiiiiiiillllllllls!” Palms are raised and fingers splayed in anticipation. But the hum drowns out everything: a deafening, earth-shaking pulse. It’s not until Midnight Oil take the stage that the realisation dawns that it’s coming from Jim Moginie’s keyboards.

Peter Garrett has taken up a position on a speaker stack at stage left, and Moginie starts playing the opening notes of Outside World, the haunted opening track from Midnight Oil’s breakthrough album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Garrett misses his opening cue – not by much, but it’s a sign he’s nervous. There’s a slight fragility to his voice, the old bark softened somewhat.

If you can’t forgive Garrett for his sojourn in politics (and plenty haven’t), forgive him this. It’s no small thing to revive one of the biggest, most beloved and simultaneously most polarising bands Australia has ever produced. After a brief, unannounced warm-up at the Marrickville bowlo, this set, for longtime friends and fans, with ticket-holders drawn by ballot, has been feverishly anticipated.

Word is that ahead of Midnight Oil’s upcoming world tour, the band have been rehearsing and, in many cases, re-learning close to their entire catalogue – some 170 songs. It’s a Springsteen-like move, the intention being that at some time on tour, most if not all of them might randomly make an appearance.

On this night, they pull out 29 of them over the course of two and a half hours. I have personally seen Midnight Oil almost too often to count – the first occasion as a 14-year-old in 1985 – but I can’t remember them (or almost anyone else) playing a better or more committed show. From Only The Strong onwards, it’s a fire-breathing performance that leaves the crowd spent and exhilarated.

It’s also a show for the diehards. Six songs in, the band launch into almost the entirety of 1979’s Head Injuries: their second album and first great one, played in order, omitting only Naked Flame. Stand In Line, one of the band’s early showstoppers, is a call to arms in the face of apathy: “Goodbye to the let-it-happen stand.” Garrett says the song sums up why the band are still here.

Once the nerves settle, Garrett finds his voice quickly: he’s singing mostly within himself, better, with more control. Has he still got the moves? Yes, he has. As one of the most physical performers in rock history, it’s unfair to expect him to be the same force of nature as his early years, but he’s still a frontman of compelling charisma and energy.

Behind him, the band are loud and as tightly wound as a coiled spring. Guitarists Moginie and Martin Rotsey rarely duplicate each other’s parts: instead it’s more like watching a pair of crack tennis players, musical parts volleying back and forth, each taking turns to solo as required. Moginie shows off his collection; Rotsey sticks mostly to a battered white Stratocaster.

But the heart of the band is the drummer, Rob Hirst, who looks as fit as a thoroughbred and drives the show from the back. He takes his own obligatory solo turn in Power And The Passion, by which time we’re into the second half of the set and the hits are beginning to rain down – it’s bracketed by The Dead Heart and a ferocious Best Of Both Worlds. The audience sing all three back to the band word for word.

Sadly, in a sense, much of the material is more relevant than ever. Shakers And Movers is a gorgeous song about caring for country; Blue Sky Mine, with its sarcastic crescendo “Nothing’s as precious as a hole in the ground”, could have been written yesterday, with Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in mind. Garrett drops to his knees, praying for sense and reason.

Just off the beach at Coogee is Wedding Cake Island, so it’s no surprise when the band pull out the surf instrumental named after the offshore rock formation for the first encore. The surging power pop of Dreamworld is preceded by a reminder from Garrett: “If you want to hang on to it, you’ve got to fight for it, folks. Go angry into that good night, with love.”

US Forces is saved for last, and again, it’s hard to miss the lyrics’ currency: “Now market movements call the shots / Business deals in parking lots / Waiting for the meat of tomorrow.” One can’t help but wonder what reception Midnight Oil will receive when they reach US airports later this year. Provided they get past the welcoming committee, audiences are in for one heck of a treat.

First published in The Guardian, 14 April 2017

Midnight Oil: back on the borderline

IT’S OFFICIAL. Midnight Oil is back on the boards – or the borderline, if you like. The band flagged its intention to reform in May last year and has been teasing about an imminent return on its website all week. A world tour will kick off with a pub gig in Sydney in April before heading to Brazil, the US, Canada, Europe and New Zealand. After a run of Australian shows in October and November that will take in every state and territory, the group will finish at the Domain in Sydney on Armistice Day, 11 November.

Midnight Oil also announced they will reissue their entire catalogue in three box sets due out on 5 May: vinyl and CD collections of studio albums and EPs, plus the so-called “Overflow Tank”, a voluminous collection of mostly rare and previously unreleased material spread across four CDs and eight DVDs, presented in a miniature replica water tank. (Drummer Rob Hirst famously included a corrugated iron water tank as part of his onstage kit.)

The biggest news by far was the band’s intention to move beyond being a “catalogue act”, as Rob Hirst put it, and to record new material. Hirst said the band had been rehearsing and relearning its entire catalogue dating back to its self-titled debut album from 1978, but promised the group had new songs on the boil: “After all, there’s a lot to sing about these days, isn’t there?”

Indeed there is. As the guitarist, Jim Moginie, pointed out, people have short memories; many of the issues the band sang about on some of Australia’s best-known anthems are more relevant and urgent than ever.

It’s easy to say that the times suit a Midnight Oil comeback. In 1990 the band played a traffic-stopping gig outside the headquarters of oil company Exxon in Manhattan, after the grounding of the Exxon Valdez tanker that spilled 10m gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska. Today the former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, who served the company for 40 years, is the US secretary of state.

Asked whether the band might soft-pedal on making political statements when it reaches the US, the singer, Peter Garrett – who left the group in 2002 for a 10-year career in parliament, where he was a cabinet minister in the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments – was apoplectic. “Maaaaate!” he spluttered. “Come on, what kind of question is that? Seriously, we’re going to try not to get deported, [but] the effect of Trump’s America will be to bring [people] out – whether it’s through music, whether it’s unions, whether it’s academics, whether it’s farmers, whoever – it will bring those people out.

“Healthy democracies sometimes need to react against craziness and ugliness and selfishness and stupidity and grotesquery, and you’ve got that in ample abundance in President Trump. He’s not a figure that’s engendering a great deal of respect from his own people. You can be sure they’re going to respond, and there’s no way that we won’t say what we think about it either.”

Still, for a group that built its reputation on political activism as much as its songs, today’s much-anticipated media conference was mostly about the music, which Hirst insisted was the real driving force that drew the band back together. “It’s almost as if the band has waited for this moment, but I can assure you that’s not true. It’s just pure happenstance,” he said.

Garrett asked: “How do you account for the fact that we played together for as long as we did? It’s not the Brady Bunch. It’s a bunch of people that love their music but are very different in some ways, and people have gone off and done other things.

“And yet I think there’s this residual sense that what we’ve been able to do up until now, we can still do, and we all feel it, and we’re not agonising and angsting over it. We just know that when we get in a room together, it’s a hallelujah moment, and we want a few more of those, and we want to share that with other people.”

Asked whether he had been practising his dance moves, Garrett was blunt. “Mate, let’s be really clear about that – that’s one thing I don’t need to rehearse,” he said. “Midnight Oil’s not a calculated exercise in producing something that has an effect. It’s much more an internal kind of spontaneous combustion that always happens, and it’ll still happen. I’ll go for the odd frolic, I’m sure.”

First published in The Guardian, 17 February 2017

Disclosure: I provided liner notes for Midnight Oil’s Overflow Tank box set, mentioned above

Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine: Get Yer Dag On!

DAMIAN COWELL was the guy in TISM. We know because he told us so (in a song called I Was The Guy In TISM, recorded with the DC3). Anonymity can be a tough mask to shed. Think of Kiss without the war paint, or the Residents without the eyeballs: what lies beneath can only be a disappointment. Years ago, a friend of mine ripped off Ron Hitler-Barassi’s balaclava in a mosh pit. Stupidly, I asked him who it was. “Some guy,” he replied. Who did I expect?

But amid the constant clamour for TISM to reform (how many original members would it take? Who would know? Would anyone care?) Cowell, the artist formerly known as Humphrey B Flaubert, has been quietly building a catalogue that’s not far short of his old band. And if people aren’t as interested in listening to an advertising copywriter in his mid 50s as they are in TISM, maybe they’ll listen to him alongside a supergroup featuring the cream of Australian satire. Hence the Disco Machine.

The first Disco Machine album boasted cameos from Shaun Micallef, Tony Martin, Kathy Lette, John Safran and the Bedroom Philosopher, along with a bunch of other celebrities and fellow musicians: Lee Lin Chin, Julia Zemiro, Tim Rogers and Kate Miller-Heidke. That, if nothing else, speaks of some serious pulling power and the esteem Cowell is held not just in Australia’s musical community, but especially in comedy circles.

TISM were the rarest of joke bands (their first gig was poetically called The Get Fucked Concert) in that the joke has remained as obnoxious, funny and true as it ever was – and the music was frequently as good, if often let down by the production. They cut to the quick of Australian society and manners, pricking the left’s self-righteousness and the right’s mendacity in equal measure. Sometimes they even played it (almost) straight: The Philip Ruddock Blues is as good a protest song as anything written by Midnight Oil, though they’d probably cringe at the comparison.

Get Your Dag On! is the second Disco Machine album, and Micallef and Martin are again present, alongside another stellar roll-call of guests: Celia Pacquola, Judith Lucy and many more. There’s an irony in there being a slightly identikit anonymity about many of these pounding dance-floor grooves, but that doesn’t matter, because (a) irony is central to everything Cowell does, and (b) Cowell can sing: his melodies and phrasing make many of these songs instantly memorable.

And then there are the lyrics.

It is honestly difficult not to quote some of these songs in their entirety. My favourite is 365 Lemmys, featuring Henry Wagons, which points out how everyone’s favourite rock & roll outlaw made fundamentally conservative music by never deviating from a proven formula: “Lemmy turned it up to 10 / Lemmy did it all again / And again and again and again and again / Lemmy was totally Zen.” In a similar vein, Can’t Stop The Music* (*conditions apply) observes that the most common revolutions in rock now are in the modes of distribution and consumption.

Come On Waleed features Henry Rollins (who just gets the title line) and Melbourne songwriter Liz Stringer. It rattles off a list of fallen heroes, both artistic and sporting: “No means yes, I learned that from Lance Armstrong / And Pistorius left us no leg to stand on.” The chorus then begs the beloved polymath columnist/academic/musician/co-host of The Project, Waleed Aly, not to follow them down the celebrity S-bend: “Don’t go changing on me!”

Another inspired duet is between Micallef and Regurgitator’s Quan Yeomans on When You’re Incredibly Good Looking, which imagines a beautiful person’s secret fear that they might not have got where they were on the basis of merit alone: “Thank God I’m ugly!” goes the chorus. Myf Warhurst guests on two songs: I Smell M.A.N., with Machine Gun Fellatio’s Pinky Beecroft, and My Baby Is Interested In Geopolitics But I Just Wanna Dance (with Tony Martin). The delight of these tracks is just how well she sings them.

Best of all is Barry Gibb Came Fourth In A Barry Gibb Lookalike Contest. Pairing Cowell with a purring Adalita, it shamelessly borrows its hook from Prince’s Controversy, and starts with an oblique reference to his own dilemma: “The truth is horrid / Never quite as good as fiction / That’s why we run away from it / How else do you explain religion?” Later comes this middle-eight: “Young girl with passionate views says journalism is the calling for me / Then finds out that her job at the news is to keep the public stupid and angry.”

It seems sadly unlikely that TISM are about to get back together anytime soon. But while Get Your Dag On! might not reach the heights of Great Truckin’ Songs Of The Renaissance (what could?), it stands tall alongside much of what came after. Cowell is an ad man you can trust.

First published in The Guardian, 16 February 2017

10 of the best: Flying Nun Records

ONE of the world’s great independent labels, Flying Nun Records was founded in 1981 by Christchurch-based Roger Shepherd. But the locus of the emerging New Zealand punk and post-punk scene and many of its key players were further south, in Dunedin: all bar one of the following bands, Christchurch’s JPS Experience, hail from the university town in the region of Otago. At its peak, the label was home to dozens of bands and 10 of the best is exactly that (with apologies to Bailter Space, Alastair Galbraith and Peter Gutteridge, all storied figures in the New Zealand pop history). Shepherd walked away from the label in 1999, selling it to Warner; in 2010, Crowded House’s Neil Finn, who owns a quarter-share, helped him buy it back again. Large chunks of the label’s catalogue are being reissued by Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks, with the Clean, the Chills and the Bats – who release their seventh album, The Deep Set, today – remaining active to this day.

The Clean Anything Could Happen

Formed in 1978 in Dunedin, the Clean’s first single Tally Ho!, released a few years later, put the fledgling Flying Nun Records label on the map, reaching the top 20 with its nagging keyboard riff. (Disclaimer: it probably wouldn’t have taken a huge number of sales to reach the New Zealand top 20.) From there the band, formed by brothers David and Hamish Kilgour and future Bats leader Robert Scott, carved a reputation as probably the most influential band on the label with a sound heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground. But their best song, Anything Could Happen, would do Bob Dylan proud with its folk-rock chord changes and dry, deadpan lyrics.

The Verlaines Death And The Maiden

Another key figure in Flying Nun’s early history, Dr Graham Downes – he heads the department of music at the University of Otago – would bring classical influences to the Flying Nun sound on their 1987 album Bird-Dog. You wouldn’t have seen that coming on their first single four years earlier, which had Downes ecstatically chanting the name of the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, from whom they took their name (not, as is sometimes thought, Television’s Tom Verlaine). Features the immortal lines “You shouldn’t talk to me / Find better company / There’s better things to know / You’ll only end up like Rimbaud.”

The Chills Pink Frost

It was Martin Phillipps that played that nagging riff in Tally Ho!, but he already had the Chills who, over well over a dozen line-up changes, became the greatest singles band New Zealand produced after Split Enz, achieving enduring success with a sound that was alternately pitch dark and lighter than air. Released in 1984, Pink Frost combined both in the same song, shifting abruptly from a spry opening guitar hook to a haunting, bass-driven pulse, as Phillipps tells a deeply unsettling story of loss and survivor’s guilt.

Look Blue Go Purple Cactus Cat

It’s tiresome to point to Look Blue Go Purple’s gender – something that followed the five-piece wherever they went, much to their justified irritation. But the fact remains there weren’t too many women on Flying Nun, and the band’s three EPs are a critical and often unsung part of its legacy. Cactus Cat is from the second of them, released in 1986. This joyously nonsensical paean to Denise Roughan’s moggy rides along on a couple of chords, punctuated by two backwards guitar solos played by former Chill Terry Moore.

The Bats Made Up In Blue

After four years in the Clean, bass player Robert Scott realised he needed a new vehicle for his own prolific songwriting. With the Bats, he has explored endless variations on an instantly identifiable sound. They nailed that sound on this ebullient 1986 single: bright, mid-tempo guitar pop, with the stinging lead work of Kaye Woodward and Paul Kean’s rumbling bass over the top giving a harder edge to Scott’s nasal, wistful vocals.

Jean-Paul Sartre Experience Inside And Out

There were more critical bands in Flying Nun discography than the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, but I can’t ignore the hypnotic opening cut from this often overlooked band’s excellent second album The Size Of Food, from 1990. Incredibly, soon after a lawsuit was served by the estate of Jean-Paul Sartre, forcing them to change their name to the JPS Experience and, while it almost certainly had nothing to do with it, they were never quite the same again.

Straitjacket Fits Down In Splendour

By the turn of the 1990s, the Chills and the Straitjacket Fits looked like the bands most likely to cross over to major success, with American record deals and more polished – dare one say cleaner-sounding – studio recordings. It didn’t hurt that the Straitjacket Fits were the best-looking band on the label, either. Written by Andrew Brough, the breathtaking Down In Splendour, from the band’s second and best album Melt, shows off the band’s exquisite vocal harmonies and twin-guitar interplay without losing any of the tension that would ultimately destroy the group.

Straitjacket Fits APS

The Straitjacket Fits are privileged with two entries on account of them being blessed with two very different songwriters. The prettiness of Down In Splendour was the jewel in a crown of thorns: the Fits’ spikier side was dominated by brooding leader Shayne Carter. This live recording of APS (also from Melt) demonstrates their explosive power on stage; at its conclusion Carter checks: “are everyone’s strings intact?” But in barely the next breath, he cattily introduces Down In Splendour “for all you grandmas out there”; soon after Brough was unceremoniously ejected from the band, announced with a gleeful press release: “No more slow songs!” Unfortunately, it destroyed the band’s delicate balance; their final album Blow was a disappointment.

3Ds Beautiful Things

The 3Ds – Dominic Stones, Denise Roughan and David Saunders – emerged late in the 1980s, quickly added another D, David Mitchell for good measure and, like the Straitjacket Fits, based their considerable attack on a twin-guitar sound. But where the Fits exuded menace, the 3Ds were as bright, playful and often unhinged as their lurid cover artwork. Beautiful Things (from 1993’s The Venus Trail and sung by Roughan, previously of Look Blue Go Purple) caught them at a rare tranquil moment, with a gliding chord progression and beatific lyrics: “Don’t you see, beautiful things can be / Waiting outside your door, for all to see.” A famous story about the band goes that during a support slot on U2’s ZooTV tour, an associated nicked a bottle of wine from U2’s dressing room, leading the promoter to inform the band they would not be paid. Bono intervened, gave them another bottle of wine and told the promoter they would be paid double.

Chris Knox Not Given Lightly

Talisman, spiritual heartbeat and conscience of New Zealand punk, Chris Knox all but started the movement in Dunedin with his bands the Enemy, then Toy Love. He later maintained a prolific career as one-half of the Tall Dwarfs, as a soloist, and as a newspaper columnist and cartoonist. His best-known tune, released in 1989, was a plain-spoken love song to “John and Liesha’s mother”, and featured just a percussion loop and fuzz guitar. Tragically Knox was cut down by a severe stroke in 2009 that has left him unable to say more than a few words; a tribute album to raise funds for his ongoing rehabilitation featured Yo La Tengo, the late Jay Reatard, Bonnie Prince Billy and Bill Callahan, as well as many of the bands mentioned above.

Originally published in The Guardian28 January 2017

Bruce Springsteen: Perth Arena, 22 January 2017

ON page 209 of his autobiography, Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen describes the effect of growing up as a child of Vietnam-era America, and of the Kennedy, King and Malcolm X assassinations. “Dread – the sense that things might not work out, that the moral high ground had been swept out from underneath us, that the dream we had of ourselves had somehow been tainted and the future would forever be uninsured – was in the air,” he writes.

With that dread in the air again, clearly The Boss feels it his duty – the artist’s duty – to respond. On Sunday night, in Perth for the first leg of his third Australian tour in four years, Springsteen laid his cards on the table early. “Our hearts and minds are with the hundreds of thousands of women and men that marched yesterday who rallied against hate, and division, and in support of tolerance [and] inclusion,” he said. “On E Street, we stand with you. We are the new American resistance.”

If such sentiments sound absurd coming from the now 67-year-old Springsteen, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are many in his home country right now who would damn him as nothing less than an American traitor. Springsteen isn’t usually quite so politically direct: he knows full well that many of his fans back home voted for Donald Trump. They are the same economically downtrodden folk he has written so sympathetically about for more than 40 years.

Such a rallying cry might have led fans to expect an onslaught of the E Street Band’s fieriest material. That’s not quite what happened, at least for the first half of their typically immense three-and-a-half hour, 30-song set. Opening with the 10-minute New York City Serenade – after which the above sermon was delivered – the show’s first half saw Springsteen dive deeply into his first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.

These albums, recorded when Springsteen was one of many being touted as the next Bob Dylan and before the E Street Band fully coalesced, are filled with long songs and long jams, and that’s mostly what the audience got: Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street, Growing Up, Spirit In The Night and Lost In The Flood in a row; shortly afterwards came Kitty’s Back In Town, Incident On 57th Street and the perennial Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). Before them came Lonesome Day, from The Rising, and the title track of Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

It’s something of a downbeat beginning, giving the band lots of time and space to find their mojo – and that meant the audience took a little while to find theirs, too. While the early material was probably cherished by hardcore fans, it slowed the momentum. Saxophonist Jake Clemons (nephew of the late, great Clarence), pianist Roy Bittan and Springsteen himself took solo turns all over the place, at length, and often all piling into one song. Even Nils Lofgren, usually the most tasteful of guitarists, shredded Because The Night to a bloody pulp.

In the end, though, there’s no stopping the juggernaut. The longer the set goes, the more the hysteria builds as The Boss works the room like a secular Billy Graham. Rock & roll church is in. The Ties That Bind – the opening cut of The River and delivered halfway through the set – follows Rosalita and kicks off a roll call of shorter, sharper classics: Darlington County and Working On The Highway, both from Born In The USA; The Promised Land; a thunderous She’s The One; Badlands.

The first encore is a gem: a solo Springsteen taking a request for the relatively obscure Blood Brothers, for an audience member’s fallen sibling. From there it’s predictable, but still devastatingly good: Born To Run, Dancing In The Dark, 10th Avenue Freeze Out. Dancing In The Dark sees Springsteen pick out a girl who can’t be more than 12 and who actually breakdances in front of him; like an indulgent grandfather, he hands her a guitar to “play” as the song draws to its conclusion.

Yes, it’s hammy, especially when Steve Van Zandt offers his leader a cape, like a retiring boxer, as the band pound their way through Johnny O’Keefe’s Shout. Springsteen says; “I don’t think I’ve got any more,” and half-descends the stairs leading offstage, but he keeps peeking up, then – of course! – he’s back up for one last chorus. Springsteen, his band and their fans are the sort of true believers in their music’s transcendent power who will brook no cynicism.

Cynicism, at any rate, is not going to serve anyone in the coming years. The E Street Band are about total commitment. They are an ideal, and an appeal to our better selves. After 42 years, they still dare you not to be caught up in their own fervour, and it would be a stony heart that failed to leave such a show exhausted, elated, invigorated and inspired. They’re also famous for varying their set lists, and perhaps the most accurate thing to say about this – their first show in six months – is that they’re just getting started. The east coast awaits.

Originally published by The Guardian, 23 January 2017

NB. I copped a lot of stick from readers for this review, mainly for two reasons relating to the second-last paragraph. Shout was originally recorded by the Isley Brothers: my defence was it is probably more famous in Australia for JOK’s version, one of the country’s foundation rock & roll singles. The cape routine was, of course, a James Brown reference, which I somehow failed to mention. Oh, and for not awarding Bruce a fifth star. Oh well.

In the video above, that’s me asking the second question about art’s responsibility to the times in which we live.

The Bats: same as it ever was

Robert Scott has just knocked off work, “down at the local kids’ school” in Port Chalmers just outside of Dunedin, the university town near the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island that, from the late 1970s, was the birthplace of punk across the Tasman. Now, he says, he’s home to do some interviews: a reflection of the permanent double life of a musician in his home country.

Scott was, and remains, one-third of the Clean, probably the most influential of all the bands to be released on the famed Flying Nun label. He is also the leader of the Bats, who have just released their seventh album, The Deep Set, in a career spanning over 30 years. Both bands have proven extremely influential, especially in American college rock circles, and still record and tour internationally.

But unless you’re a Finn brother, making a living off music in the Shaky Isles remains a near impossibility (another New Zealand band, the 3Ds, once turned down an offer to tour with Nirvana on the grounds that it would have cost them their day jobs).

The result for Scott is an ordinary, domestic life punctuated by bursts of artistic activity. “It’s a wee bit strange, because when you tell people you’ve got a day job, they can’t quite believe it – they figure I should be relaxing and living off royalties,” Scott says. “But unless you have a really big seller, it doesn’t actually generate enough money to live off … You’d need to be touring a heck of a lot, and I’ve still got an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old to still help look after as well, so I need to be around for them.”

The Bats and the Clean occupy separate niches. In reductive terms, one could say the Clean took the drone-rock of the Velvet Underground’s Foggy Notion as a starting point and turned it into an entire career. The Bats are a gentler proposition: jangling, often pastoral, closer to the folk-pop of Byrds.

But there isn’t a band on earth now that sounds remotely like the Bats, and Scott has cheerfully admitted that much of their music sounds more or less the same. “For a band that’s got, not a formula, but maybe a sound and way of approaching songs, they’ll do variations on the theme and it can still sound good,” he says.

“But then, having said that, I think that a lot of my favourite bands and a lot of their songs sound the same too, whether it’s the Velvets or Can or Kraftwerk … If we tried to do a reggae or a ska record, it would sound terrible.”

The trick, he says, is keeping the songwriting on par within the confines of the very familiar Bats house style. “Even though obviously it is us and sounds like us, I’d hate to think I’d put out a record that sounded like Bats by numbers, or that it was harping back to previous songs.”

There have been long breaks between recordings: it’s been six years since the band’s last album Free All The Monsters, and there was a full decade between 1995’s Couchmaster and 2005’s At The National Grid, during which time various band members started families.

But those breaks, imposed in part by the necessity to earn a living, perhaps help account for the remarkable longevity of both of Scott’s bands. The Clean were formed in 1978; the Bats in 1982: nearly 80 years of making music between them. “They’ll be giving us an award soon, I’m sure.”

Scott says it’s something that he’s taken for granted, at least until it’s pointed out to him. “Everything’s relative. It’s only when other people comment on the longevity that you realise it is quite a point of difference, if you think of other bands that have shone brightly for 10 years or five years and then stopped for whatever reason.”

Minds and bodies permitting, Scott sees no reason why both bands shouldn’t continue indefinitely. “If one enjoys it, if one is coming up with relevant stuff, that’s not demeaning the band’s name by putting out rubbish that doesn’t stand up to the other stuff you’ve done, then I can’t see any reason why to stop.

“I don’t really think about it that deeply, but I respect and admire I guess musicians who can keep producing good stuff, whatever their age, whether it’s 60, 70, 80, whatever.”

First published in The Age, 12 January 2017