Flowers in the wheelie bin

In 1977, John Lydon – née Rotten – launched a vitriolic attack on the monarchy that brutally summed up the status of England’s youth in the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee: “When there’s no future, how can there be sin? / We are the flowers in the dustbin / We’re the poison in your human machine / We’re the future, your future!”

God Save The Queen, as performed by the Sex Pistols, is one of the greatest protest songs of all time, but I’ve long pondered over these lyrics. Was Lydon inferring that Britain’s future had been literally thrown out with the garbage, as the nation celebrated? Or making a statement about how great art can be constructed from throwaway refuse – one of punk’s defining tenets?

Or was he saying that art itself is nurtured by the oppression of the state? “We’re the poison in your human machine” is a wonderfully subversive argument to this effect, and it’s a line with ongoing resonance to Queensland. It’s a common assumption, for example, that the 1970s punk explosion in Brisbane, spearheaded by the Saints (who, let’s not forget, pre-dated the Pistols by as much as two years) was a reaction to the excesses of life in Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Superficially, it’s easy to understand why. As I’ve written before, life under Sir Joh was nothing if not iron-fisted: “Public displays of dissent were often brutally suppressed; the rule of law was routinely bent to the will of those charged with its enforcement; minorities were treated as just another obstacle on the path to development. To top it all off, the electoral system was hopelessly rigged in favour of the incumbents. ‘Here,’ wrote Rod McLeod, ‘in a city practically under police curfew, you fucked and fought, got stoned, got married, or got out of town.'”

Thirty-five years later, in the year of (still our) Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Campbell Newman has passed his first 100 days in office as Premier of Queensland, and we’ve got a pretty good idea of his administration’s priorities. Many of his actions and statements have been highly symbolic: the axing of the state’s literary awards; abolishing state-sanctioned civil ceremonies for same-sex couples; his declaration that Queensland was in “the coal business” (in response to environmental concerns about increased shipping through the Great Barrier Reef) and, last but not least, sending in a 200-strong goon squad to rough up a few Aboriginal people in Musgrave Park because, well, they were there.

It’s been enough to prompt more than a few comparisons between Newman and Joh, whom the former politely name-checked in his maiden speech as premier. And in that time, I’ve heard a few suggest that maybe we’ll even see some kind of musical renaissance under Newman, now all those latte-sipping arty types suddenly have something to complain about again. Flowers in the wheelie bin, if you like.

Sorry, but it’s time to bust a few myths. I spent four years investigating the assumption that bad politics = great music, and as far as I can tell, mostly, the idea that conservative and/or repressive governance leads to creativity is vastly overstated.

Let’s take the punk example first. The truth is, it would have happened anyway, and the reason why is simple: Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey were rabid record collectors who were turned on to the sounds of the MC5, the Stooges and the New York Dolls before almost anyone else in this country, other than Michigan native Deniz Tek and Sydneysider Rob Younger. Those two would go on to form Radio Birdman at around the same time as the Saints, in 1973-74. Both the Saints and Birdman were also influenced by earlier Australian garage bands like the Easybeats, Master’s Apprentices and Missing Links (among dozens of others). And the bands that followed the Saints and Birdman – in Brisbane, that means groups like the Fun Things, Razar and the Riptides – were additionally inspired to pick up guitars by three principal events.

The first one was the release of the first Ramones album, a stroke of genius so deceptively simple that enthusiastic non-musicians everywhere fell for the idea that they could play this music, too. Notwithstanding the aforementioned groups, the vast majority of these hack thrashers forgot the necessary corollary: few do it well.

The second, which followed the Ramones, was the international punk boom of 1977, thanks mainly to the sight of the Pistols appearing in lounge rooms across the country, not only via Countdown, but a good old-fashioned moral panic, courtesy of Mike Willesee and A Current Affair. Sure, Bjelke-Petersen was a reactionary, but it’s not as if televisions and radios were banned.

Which brings me to the third principal event: the rise of public radio stations, following reforms made in the dying days of the Whitlam government. Brisbane’s 4ZZZ was the very first of them, followed later by 2JJ (later Triple J) in Sydney and 3RRR in Melbourne. All of these – far more than Countdown – played a critical role in getting this new music to a wider audience.

So, as I’ve also written before, it makes no sense to give a politician credit for the creation of a music scene. The qualifier to all this is that growing up in a climate of fear and loathing distorted the prism through which these people saw the world: those who experienced the brutality of the Joh years first-hand still wear it like a badge of honour. As Robert Forster put it, “Bjelke-Petersen represented the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservatism that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against.”

And so we had Pig City (the song), written by political activist Tony Kneipp, specifically for the 1983 state election. And Task Force, by Razar, was the ultimate up-yours to Brisbane’s pre-Fitzgerald Inquiry finest.

But – and this is the point most people seem to overlook – these songs are emblematic of Brisbane at the time, not its music, which was far too diverse to be reduced to a set of agitprop slogans. The conditions for making music in Brisbane at the time were absolutely oppressive, and far from being an inspiration, it forced thousands of creative people to flee. The best example was Brisbane’s other truly great cultural export to emerge from the late 1970s, the Go-Betweens, who as far as I can tell never wrote a protest song in their lives.

Here were two slightly effeminate young men (Forster and the late Grant McLennan) who aspired to art, wrote poetry and occasionally wore dresses. At the height of punk’s most atavistic aggression, they played acoustic guitars to jerky rhythms, backed by a tall woman with short hair who played the drums. They didn’t write political songs – they didn’t have to. They were making a political statement just by being who they were, and that, in a nutshell, is exactly why they had to leave. Thus one of the best songs ever about growing up in Queensland was written in London:

Neither does the bad politics argument hold water when we look at the next big boom for Queensland music, the early 1990s. Bjelke-Petersen was long gone by then, so we can hardly attribute the success of Powderfinger, Regurgitator, Custard and the rest to him. More likely, that especially fertile period came down to an complex amalgam of factors: generational change, the reshaping of the music business in the wake of Nirvana’s album Nevermind; the nationalisation of the Triple J network, and the fact that Brisbane was becoming quite a nice place to live, with plenty of places to go out and play, without the attendant paranoia, post-Fitzgerald, of police harassment or worse.

Musically speaking, Brisbane currently is in the best shape I’ve seen since that golden age. Yes, there have been setbacks like the closure of Rave magazine, the venue situation is tenuous (it was ever thus) and making a living is harder than ever. But it’s never been easier to make, produce and distribute music than it is now, and the breadth and depth of quality here is astonishing. I can’t go out without tripping over someone new and exciting. That’s the subject of a whole new post.

Frankly, I can’t imagine it getting much better than it already is under Can-Do Campbell. Hopefully, it won’t actually become more difficult, due to the vagaries of licensing laws, poor town planning or the de-funding of programs that actually do help enable local musicians to get their music to a wider audience. That really would be throwing the flowers in the dustbin.

3 comments

  1. Andrew Stafford

    Paul McMillen, father of Andrew, has sent me this very kind note, which he couldn’t post himself for lack of a google account:

    “Andrew, your great words cause the hairs on my body to rise in response to the memory of those dark days. It pains me to even mention the name of that most forgettable person who was ever to hold public office in our wonderful state. I, like many more who wanted to be free of that tyrant wear our ‘badges of honour’ with long-lived pride. Our youth was suppressed by the series of corrupt governments of those regressive times; bulldozing, demolishing our individual rights. As a senior school student and later a university student, I experienced the contrived lawlessness that our now proud Police Service was directed to deliver to those who craved freedom from that delusional sod. We eventually had our day – but justice was not served! Those draconian days should never be allowed to be forgotten nor return.
    I feel comfort in the more recent years since then, when Brisbane and Queensland have made huge leaps into the present and projected future to take our place in the real world. I am so pleased that both my sons have seen a better world where Queensland and our capital Brisbane has become a place of culture in its own right. Both of our sons are openly involved in the social, music and literary fabric of Queensland and the wider digital world. In recalling ‘the first 100 days’ of the new government, the lust of the power they have achieved has begun to show the stench of a return to the ‘good old days.’ We deserve better than that. More power to your pen and to all our media.”

    – Paul McMillen

    Thanks Paul.

  2. jodi adams

    Ditto from JJ, you got it, baby! And I definitely agree that musicians are in a better situation than they have ever been to be able to create, promote and hopefully sell enough of their own music via the Internet to make a living off it…

    But will be interesting to see the effect on (as you said are always threatened) music venues in Brisbane when you become a “world city”, with the recent announcement of the giant politico lovefest on the way showing the direction Brisbane’s fickle finger of fate* is pointing.

    And trust it from someone who is (reluctantly) living in one, a “world city” is NOT somewhere you want to be. Every time the citizens of one rightly complain about overcrowding, a ridiculously escalating price of living and Bandaid planning, they are told this is the price of living in such an exalted situation and that they should lie back and enjoy it!

    Perhaps we will just go back to the old (hippie/punk) gig days of having to find warehouse space (unfortunately most of it now occupied by yuppies) or booking scout or church halls for “parties” when no other venues were available.

    This is already happening in Sydney, with venues setting up in shopfronts, factory space etc again, and it’s actually very stimulating and fun to hear music without the sound of poker machines or bar noise in the background. Makes one feel young and cutting edge again!!!

    (*reference to a classic Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In comedy sketch)