Category: music

Sweet Lorde

I’M told I can call her Ella: Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor is quite a mouthful. The single-syllable name by which she is better known, though, is a nod to old-fashioned aristocracy, with a silent “e” on the end to add a feminine touch. Lorde – the 20-year-old New Zealander whose hands the late David Bowie once took in his as he told her that her music sounded like listening to tomorrow – is not one for airs and graces, except for her impeccable manners.

The only problem has been pinning her down for an interview that’s been scheduled and rescheduled multiple times. On the eve of the release of her second album Melodrama, Lorde, her harried publicist tells me, is being pulled in a thousand different directions. Now, though, she’s relaxed, almost effusive. “It’s truly time for this record to come out,” she says. “I don’t feel like it’s being prised from my hands or anything. I’m just excited for people to get a feel for it and live inside it.”

Yet in February, in the days before the release of the album’s first single Green Light, she had found herself so racked with anxiety she struggled to get out of bed. “I wasn’t sure if everyone was just going to turn on me and be like, this is terrible, we hate it – go back, take it back!” There had been times, she confesses, when had wondered whether she might start baking cakes for a living, or just hone her skills in the garden at home.

Second albums are notoriously difficult; all the more so when they follow successful debuts. Green Light was the first new material from Lorde in nearly four years, after her first album Pure Heroine made her a global superstar at 16. Royals, released as a single from the preceding EP The Love Club, topped the US charts for nine weeks, winning her Song of the Year award at the Grammys; the album sold 1.5 million copies worldwide from its release in September 2013 to the end of that year.

Lorde doesn’t play an instrument, and needs collaborators to help bring her music to life. On the first album, she was paired with New Zealand songwriter and producer Joel Little, and while she started work with him on a follow-up, co-writing Green Light, the creative partnership soon began to run dry. “I don’t want to be as good a writer as I was last time,” she says. “I want to have improved, and to improve across the board takes time, takes practice, it takes messing it up a bunch of times.”

She was subsequently introduced to Jack Antonoff, who had worked with Taylor Swift on her album 1989, and it was with him that Lorde found a new musical direction and energy. He also cracked the whip as Lorde battled a serious case of writer’s block: a memorable text exchange which the singer posted on Twitter features Antonoff telling her to write “beautiful soul crushing lyrics all day. nothing else … happiness is for tourist write you little fucker” [sic].

Lorde has described Pure Heroine as a portrait of the artist in her mid-teens, and she’s equally unabashed about characterising Melodrama, with its self-aware title, as a document of her life on the cusp of her third decade. She aspires to make records like Kanye West and Bowie, artists whom she says “are wonderful at building these universes to live inside, there are whole different species that populate it, and the geography is totally unlike anything in the real world. It’s so vivid and so involved.”

On Green Light, the signature elements from Royals are there – wide open spaces, with Lorde’s voice all but carrying the melody by itself – but, like the singer’s life, it accelerates into something that’s far more extroverted, and rather less innocent. The singer growls about ordering different drinks from the same bar with a lover; she knows “about what you did, and I want to scream the truth”. She says the song tapped into what she calls the “night-time energy” she had been feeding on.

Night-time energy? She laughs: “It’s a nice way of saying just staying out really late and being quite naughty.”

MAKING comparisons between Lorde and the young Kate Bush is both easy and lazy. Both were teenage prodigies (Bush wrote The Man With The Child In His Eyes, from her debut album The Kick Inside, when she was just 13; Wuthering Heights, from the same album, came a few years later), they bear a superficial resemblance to each other at the same age, and both have been the subject of tributes and parodies: “The most Wuthering Heights day ever”, in which thousands of fans around the globe dance in flowing red dresses in homage to Bush’s first worldwide smash, is now an annual event; in a sure sign that Lorde had officially made it, Royals was turned into Foil by career musical satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic in 2014.

But perhaps there are deeper parallels to be made. Asked for a song that never fails to move her, Lorde nominates Bush’s 1985 hit Running Up That Hill. The song, like much of Lorde’s music, is deceptively simple, relying on a tribal beat and heavily stacked vocals for impact. “It’s very minimal, but it sounds huge, cavernous,” she says. She speaks of its “modernity”, saying that if she heard the song drifting across a festival ground, she would be drawn to whatever new artist might be singing it.

That huge sound hints at something Lorde also aspired to in the making of Melodrama: maximum volume. “Jack [Antonoff] said to me once, ‘My favourite music is just all the stuff that you would want to play really, really loud,’” she says. The point is not to blast the listener into submission as much as it is to draw them into a song’s vortex. “You wouldn’t hear Running Up That Hill in the background and be content with it down low. It grabs you and it holds you for five minutes.”

She is an earnest student of pop, with a hunger for new sounds and classics alike. Right now, she’s enthralled by Paul Simon, for entirely different reasons to Kate Bush: Simon makes quiet music. Listening to him taught Lorde a new lesson: “He’s always existing between about a 4 and a 7 [out of 10] in terms of how much energy he’s expending. The lyrics are almost spoken – there’s such a delicacy to how he sings. He’s able to impart such joy or pain without ever really breaking a sweat.”

Like most adults three times her age, though, she is convinced her own formative years were a golden era for music. “Futuresex Lovesounds by Justin Timberlake had just come out, the first Lady Gaga record was out, Tik Tok by Ke$ha was the biggest song in the world.” Lorde perceived what few saw below pop’s shiny surface. “I think I really understood how to infer with it. It was like, oh – there’s a lot they’re not saying, but I can hear it, and I can sort of interpret it, and that’s the special stuff.”

Pure Heroine appeared at a time when many pundits were proclaiming the album dead as an artistic format in an age of downloads. Around her childhood home, though, Lorde grew up on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. “It really taught me what an album was, and drew me to that medium. A lot of my peers don’t really place a lot of value in that, but I do. That’s such a great example of building a universe to live inside.”

WHO KNOWS what Lorde is like when stays out late and gets a bit naughty, but the answer is probably like most 20-year-olds. In conversation, she’s sweet and often startlingly wise. She speaks of dealing with sudden fame “probably like being a parent, you go in blind and do the best that you can”. She remains grounded by the same things that keep most of us tethered to the planet: family, friends, and home, which remains Auckland, though she spends much of her time in New York.

Pop stars don’t have to be swept away by the current of charts and tabloids. Lorde simply gets on with her life, living as anonymously as she can without being a hermit. She mentions Frank Ocean, the R&B singer “who’s totally not a public figure at all and hasn’t played a show for this record [last year’s Blonde] and has done, like, one interview.” Her audience, she says, are more likely to be interested in what drum sounds she’s into than what she had for breakfast.

A recent New York Times article noted that when she did become aware of being noticed, she would defuse attention by raising her finger to her lips with a soft “shh” and a small, conspiratorial smile. “I still feel like so much of my personal life is mine. At the end of the day people don’t really know what I do every day, apart from when I’m going around working. I think there is an element of, ‘oh, she goes to New Zealand and we don’t really know what happens’, and I do find that really precious.”

The same Times profile, though, related a story of Lorde being kicked out of a Greenwich Village recording studio she had been commuting to after it was booked by U2. She is part of Taylor Swift’s squadron of girlfriends, along with Antonoff’s partner Lena Dunham, creator of Girls. The most surreal moments, she says, are the awards nights: “You know, the Grammys or Brits or Golden Globes, and everyone is so stupidly famous – like, ‘oh, that person was on TV when I was growing up’.”

Does she ever feel like she doesn’t belong in their company? “I don’t feel imposter syndrome because no one is under any impression I belong,” she deflects. “It’s like, ‘Who let her in here?’ Or, ‘She’s very lucky to get to be around us.’ I feel ridiculous being there, for sure, but I do feel like myself.” Like Ella.

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 16 June 2017

Descent into the Maelstrom

The drama of the dysfunctional band has long been a staple of the rock documentary form. In a case of life imitating art imitating life, films from Some Kind Of Monster (which sat in on Metallica’s group therapy sessions) to End Of The Century (which chronicled the tragically bitter life and death of the Ramones) play like a reprise of the intra-band bickering so perfectly satirised in This Is Spinal Tap.

As the credits roll on Spinal Tap, Marty DiBergi, played by the director, Rob Reiner, asks bass player Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) whether playing rock & roll keeps you a child. I was reminded of this watching Descent Into The Maelstrom, the story of Radio Birdman, as this brilliant, influential and notoriously volatile band squabble over their history and their legacy.

For the uninitiated, a brief snapshot: formed in 1974, Sydney’s Radio Birdman were, alongside Brisbane’s Saints, Australia’s first and most lasting contribution to the punk movement. Like the Saints, they had a brief and extremely turbulent existence, breaking up in in the UK in 1978 while making just their second album. Their massive influence saw them reform for the first time in 1996, only to almost immediately break up again.

But, like Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, guitarist Deniz Tek and singer Rob Younger keep getting back together, because there will always be a baying audience somewhere for them to play to. Both are intense, serious men and aside from stalwart keyboard player Pip Hoyle, few have been able to stick with them. But that volatility was key to the original six-piece band’s combustible chemistry.

If you are already a Radio Birdman tragic – and tragics will be the first in line to see Descent Into The Maelstrom, directed by Jonathan Sequeira – you’re unlikely to find out anything new here. There’s no pre-1978 live footage you won’t have seen already, and the story is familiar. It’s held together over one hour and 50 minutes by interviews with the band and close associates; thankfully, no bigger stars are lined up to obediently sing their praises.

Don’t let this lack of new information put you off, though. What makes Descent Into The Maelstrom work is the brutal honesty of the band members as the wheels fall off their so-called “van of hate”, as the Kombi driving them around that ill-fated 1978 UK tour was dubbed. It wasn’t the usual combination of drugs and booze that did them in: it was poverty, depression and poisonous internal dynamics.

Visually, the lack of new footage is compensated for by hundreds of stills and delightful storyboard artwork by bass player Warwick Gilbert (of whom a gonzo reviewer once wrote “a Warwick is something you light if you want to start a war”). Given that Gilbert was the first to leave the band – twice! – his heavy involvement indicates that Birdman’s music remains bigger than the egos that made it.

Which brings us to the music itself. Deniz Tek was a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he brought his first-hand experience of the Stooges and MC5 to Australia in 1972 (there’s a photo of him as a teenager in aviator shades, right in front of the Five’s Rob Tyner). Radio Birdman were combative, confrontational, hated by the musical establishment, and changed the lives of thousands who saw them perform.

In their slipstream came hundreds of bands, dozens of whom became embedded in the Australian rock landscape: Midnight Oil, the Sunnyboys, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Lime Spiders, the Hard-Ons, Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, and on and on. Hoyle gets the last word, and it’s a killer: “I don’t think there’s an Australian sound to Radio Birdman. I think there’s a Radio Birdman sound to Australia.”

He’s right. And few of those bands, even on their best nights, could summon the heart-attack inducing excitement of Radio Birdman in full flight. (For proof, track down the double live album of the band at Paddington Town Hall in December 1977, their last performance in Australia before departing for England: it is, in this writer’s opinion, the best live recording released by an Australian band.)

As such, what started as a cult phenomenon has continued to attract generations of converts to the cause. Descent Into The Maelstrom won’t exactly be an eye-opener to the Birdman faithful but, along with the band’s reissued box set of recordings, it’s a documentary that will ensure their legacy remains: hewn in the living rock, as Nigel Tufnel once observed.

First published in The Guardian, 10 June 2017

Cash Savage and the Last Drinks: The Zoo, 19 May 2017

When future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau wrote his instantly infamous review of the man he saw as “rock & roll future” in 1974, the more personal, vulnerable elements of his enthusiasm were drowned out by his own hyperbole.

Landau caught The Boss at a time when he needed to be reminded of why he fell in love with music in the first place, and he quoted a line from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic: “I’ll tell you about the magic that will free your soul / But it’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock & roll.” He concluded that as long as the magic still existed, his mission was to tell a stranger about it.

No one would be so foolish as to predict rock & roll’s future more than 40 years later. But I found myself reminded of Landau’s review, on a couple of levels, while watching Cash Savage and the Last Drinks tear through their set last Friday to maybe a hundred or so disciples. Savage – barefoot, black jeans, black T-shirt, greasy black hair, black Telecaster, cowboy belt – may be the best rock star we’ve got right now.

The sparse crowd is initially reserved, hanging back several metres from the stage. Savage opens the set ambitiously, with the agonised slow dance of One Of Us. Within 45 seconds, the stage has been rushed. “We are alone / We are all alone,” she croons, and instantly, we’re not. She sings in the most gender-indeterminate voice the other side of Anohni: where Anohni is most often compared to Nina Simone, Savage’s deep growl and wild shriek is like a reincarnation of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, of the Gun Club.

This comparison is not new. Any similarities, however, are supposedly accidental. In one of those strange examples of convergent musical evolution, Savage claims not to have even heard the pioneering early 1980s punk-country-blues band until she became sick of being asked about their influence, and investigated them for herself. (“Then it was like, where has this band been all my life?” she tells me later with a grin.)

The Last Drinks include some obvious traditional elements – Kat Mear’s fiddle, Brett Marshall occasionally on banjo – and on beautiful ballads like My Friend, they’d tear up any folk/blues festival stage in the world. But theirs is no Antipodean alt-country try-on. By the second song, the murderous thump-and-grind of Let Go, Savage has dropped her guitar. She’s poised on the edge of the stage, death-staring the crowd, preachin’ the blues like Pierce and Robert Johnson before her.

This is the kind of classic pose only a true believer can pull off. Ann Powers once wrote of the young PJ Harvey (circa To Bring You My Love) that she was “bent on touching rock’s magical core”. Savage does this repeatedly, particularly as her set nears its climax with the closing one-two punch of Run With the Dogs and The Hypnotiser – careening songs that tear through the room and take everybody with them.

Savage’s presence and songwriting is matched by a wonderfully sympathetic band. Joe White, one of three guitarists on stage, is a standout with counter-melodic leads alternating with sheets of noise. Mear is possibly even better: she sometimes leads, but more often hers is the band’s locomotive breath; another rhythmic force propelling the songs over the tracks laid down by Chris Lichti’s bass and Rene Mancuso’s drums. And they can all sing, often in huge chain-gang choruses.

Just to be clear about this, no, Cash Savage isn’t rock & roll’s future. Who knows if there even is one? But whether she’s aware of it or not, she carries its spirit and history within her, and as long as there are performers with her conviction and commitment around, it lives on in the present. And after a month spent running from my own dogs, which had been barking and snapping at my heels, she reminded me of why I fell in love with it in the first place, too.

First published in The Guardian, 22 May 2017

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.