Category: music

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

Kirk Brandon: spear carrier

For a brief moment in the early 1980s, Kirk Brandon’s band Theatre of Hate was considered one of the UK’s most likely to succeed. They were certainly original. Somewhere between the foppishness of the New Romantics and the anthemic, tribal rhythms of Adam & the Ants, they rocked twice as hard, with rockabilly guitars, rolling thunder drums, a squalling saxophone, and Brandon’s war-whooping vocals.

They had the look, too: big cockatoo quiffs and Gretsch guitars, played by Brandon and Billy Duffy. They toured with the Clash, whose Mick Jones produced their sole studio album Westworld, the title based on their sole top 40 hit, Do You Believe In The Westworld, which scored them a slot on Top Of The Pops.

“I just think it was so far left of what was going on,” says Brandon, who is in Australia for his first tour here. “In the early ’80s, people were doing that kind of post-punk. They’d had enough of three chords and the truth and wanted something a bit more inventive, something different. Theatre of Hate was just a one-off.”

The band quickly split, Duffy going on to enormous success with the Cult, Brandon to the long-serving Spear of Destiny, who had another 10 UK singles chart entries without hitting the same commercial heights, remaining a cult act in the more usual sense of the term. Brandon is unfussed. “I’m not a jealous kind of guy about that sort of thing. We had some big albums ourselves.”

Still, he has been through the mill at various times. He was declared bankrupt in 1994; shortly afterwards he took Boy George to court – and lost – over George’s claims in his memoir they had a brief affair (Do You Really Want To Hurt Me, according to George, was written about Brandon; Brandon himself simply says “I’ve got no idea.”) He has also had two rounds of major heart surgery.

Despite it all, he reckons he’s had a charmed life. “My girlfriend says I’m made of iron – titanium, actually, darling!” he says, referring to a titanium valve in his heart.

“To come through all the things over the years, all the way from my first silly little punk rock band the Pack, who were a complete bunch of loonies, I can’t even begin to tell you how lucky I feel about it all.

“I think, how the hell did you do that? And the other thing is I think, why do people turn up to see me play? I’m just a crazy bloke, a madman, and these people are coming to see a mad guy! For a bloke that should be dead – I really should be a dead man walking – I’m actually still walking.”

Brandon is referring to another of his occasional projects, Dead Men Walking, a British supergroup with a rotating cast of members and, I suggest, a name that’s seriously tempting fate. “I’ve been waiting for someone to pick up on that,” he says, roaring with laughter. “No one has yet!”

The personnel who have passed through that band – Jones, Duffy, Captain Sensible of the Damned, Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats, even the Living End’s Chris Cheney, who replaced Brandon for a time – is a fair indication in itself of the esteem in which Brandon is held in British rock circles, and why people still come to see him play.

On this tour, his sound is stripped right back, accompanied only by a cellist, Sam Sansbury, playing classic songs alongside material from a new album, Kinshi. It’s a far more challenging format for Brandon, making him work a lot harder without the aid of volume.

“You can always sit back a bit playing in a band, when there’s a great big racket going on and crazy people shouting and a drummer kicking the shit out of the kit behind you,” he says. “With this, there’s nowhere to hide, every second counts, so your nose is up against the grindstone a little bit.

“When I first started playing with Sam a couple of years ago, people would say well, that’s not exactly rock ‘n’ roll, is it? And I used to say well, it’s rock & roll; it’s just a slightly experimental thing against my songs. There’s still a lot of heart in it.”

First published in The Age, 6 January 2017

The faith healer

Chris Martin is up for it. Half an hour after soundcheck and a few hours before showtime at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, the Coldplay singer, flanked by guitarist Jonny Buckland, strides into the interview room in the underbelly of the arena. Big smile, big handshake, golden hair, a white badge on his chest. “LOVE”, it says in blue letters.

There’s a heart in the middle of the “O”, and the “V” is rendered as a whale’s tail, or maybe it’s a dove’s wings. It’s a sweltering late afternoon, and Coldplay have just gone through their paces on the outdoor stage, but on a day where most locals are complaining about the heat, Martin merely looks sun-kissed in a way few Londoners are. I wonder if he ever sweats.

Later, he addresses an ecstatic 50,000-strong crowd: “This is gonna be the best night of our lives, and we’re gonna give it all we’ve got, and all we ask in return is for you to do the same,” he shouts. “This is show number 70 on the tour, and as far as we’re concerned the first 69 were rehearsals for Brisbane, Australia!” (Which, presumably, makes Brisbane a rehearsal for Melbourne, which in turn is a rehearsal for Sydney, etc.)

What’s disarming is how easy it is to believe him.

Twenty years into Coldplay’s career – the band formed in 1996 at University College London – and things have never been better, as far as he and Buckland are concerned. Their seventh album, A Head Full Of Dreams, released a year ago, sees their enormous popularity undimmed, with worldwide sales around the 2 million mark and guest appearances from Beyoncé, Noel Gallagher and Martin’s former wife Gwyneth Paltrow, among others.

There’s no jadedness, no cynicism, no pining for the lost innocence that marks any young band’s early years. This is it; this is the golden age. “You’ve got to live in the moment!” Martin insists. (Exclamations become necessary when quoting him.)

A cursory glance at any tabloid headline will tell you that, no matter how extraordinary his life is, Martin has ordinary problems like the rest of us: his divorce from Paltrow, with whom he has two young children, was finalised this year. But while Coldplay albums work like a balm to their legions of fans – soothing, mellifluous, never, ever rocking – their leader has the energy of a faith healer.

Which is exactly why it works. After two decades, perhaps now more than ever, Coldplay, as earnest as ever, offer of reassurance in troubled times. “I think playing big, big shows connects you to an idea of music in its old-fashioned sense of being something that is supposed to just be of service, you know what I mean?” Martin says.

Coldplay – Martin, Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion – emerged from the ashes of Britpop. Like their early Scottish contemporaries Travis, a band from whom they took early inspiration, they took the keening voice and sensitive lyrics of an American, Jeff Buckley, and paired them with the communal spirit of their forebears, Oasis.

But they rejected the excess and manic extroversion of the Gallagher brothers, dialling the music down into something more hymnal. “I see our stadium shows as a way to bring people together for a few hours and sing,” Martin says. “I think we’re all made alive by that feeling of singing with thousands of people at the same time, it’s what makes people feel connected to everyone.”

Later, concert-goers are handed LED wristbands, which glow yellow when the band play the breakthrough hit from their first album, Parachutes. “It’s not really about the band, it’s about everyone at the same time,” Martin says. “Since we got our wristbands that’s been easier and more enjoyable – you can see everyone literally light up! We just feel like we’re the house band, facilitating this big singalong.”

This is Coldplay’s brilliance, creating the illusion of intimacy in a stadium setting. It wins them few critical plaudits, but it’s harder than it looks, especially when the size of your fan base limits you to playing arenas. “A song arrives and you just follow it,” Martin says. “And of course we sometimes sit down and have discussions, can we do this song, can we do that song, and occasionally it doesn’t fit with the remit.”

What’s the remit? “Well sometimes you might get sent a reggae song that’s amazing, but if we did it as Coldplay, it would not serve the song and it would not serve us either, it would just look stupid.” (For proof, see YouTube footage of Martin dancing alongside Beyoncé and Bruno Mars at this year’s Super Bowl.) It’s not, he says, a matter of trying to give fans what they want, “but what we think might make people feel something. We never want to be wilfully obtuse.”

The word “sent” is important here. “When the song Yellow came through, something in my body was like – oh, there’s something different about this,” he says. “Occasionally you get a song where you think, oh, this is here for a reason, it’s not just crafted, it’s arrived. But that initial thing comes from a place you don’t really understand.

“It’s like if you’re running a hot springs and taking credit for the hot springs. You can’t. My point is music kind of gets sent through, from wherever it comes from, and sometimes you know when something is really going to connect.” So do the songs belong to you, or the fans? “That’s my point. They never belong to any of us. Only the shitty ones belong to us!”

Cynics will offer their own rejoinders to Martin’s cheerful self-deprecation. A quick straw-poll of friends – what would you like to ask Chris Martin? – presents the following: “Is it still all yellow? And have you seen a doctor about that?”; another suggests the terse, more existential “Why are you?” Among them, a meek voice: “I don’t mind Coldplay. I know that’s not cool, but they have some lovely songs.”

“Often the things people criticise us for are the same things other people like,” Martin says. “Everything in life is how you look at it, isn’t it? It’s about trying to see the value and beauty of everybody, and the joy of togetherness, but at the same time the accepting of differences of opinion. So I take it, if people are still able to say Coldplay are shit, well, there can’t be too big a problem going on in their lives.”

Buckland, who offers thoughtful rejoinders in between cracking up at his band mate’s woolly philosophising, doesn’t sweat the small stuff, either. “I think we just feel incredibly lucky for everything we’ve had. I mean, honestly, we’d be arseholes for wanting this to be even better.”

“You can’t go around the world playing stadiums and complain that something’s awful. It just doesn’t work,” Martin says. “You can’t say, it’s great we sold this many [records], and all these people seemed to have a nice time, but we didn’t make the end-of-year poll on that thing.

“It’s OK, we’re OK. And we stand for what we stand for and we’re true to ourselves and so we’re not pretending anything, that’s the key thing. It’s not like someone’s going to discover something about us that we’re trying to hide.”

Since their early days, Coldplay have been frequently compared to U2, and more and more – in their longevity; their staggering success (80 million records and counting: surely, as someone once said of Elvis, all those fans can’t be wrong); their unflagging belief in the ability of music to solve the world’s ills and their frequent forays into activism, it appears true.

I ask Martin and Buckland about the mood in post-Brexit Britain. (The band had vocally endorsed a vote to remain within the European Union.) “It’s very hard to not sound like a knob when you say that really, borders and all that stuff shouldn’t need to exist, should they, in an ideal world,” Martin says. “If you’re an alien and you landed on earth and you come from somewhere else in the galaxy and you saw the fractiousness of everything, I think you’d be surprised.”

Come again?

“We imagine when we land on another planet that all the aliens there get along just great, do you see what I mean?” he expands, Buckland hooting with mirth beside him. “No one ever thinks about, like, the election on planet Cybertron, you know what I mean – ‘Oh, these guys hate those people and these people want to leave that bit…’ So I personally am all for…”

He doesn’t finish that bit, but rolls on. “And we in our job get to go around the world, seeing how people respond the same way to certain music. I don’t know. My personal feeling is that this is the storm before the calm.”

You really are an incurable optimist, aren’t you?

“Yeah, I really am. Otherwise I’d just go and jump off a bridge. But even then I’d have a parachute and make it great fun!”

And with the interview done – thinking, perhaps, I’m in need of some love – he plucks the badge off his shirt, and presses it into my palm.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 December 2016