Tagged: Nirvana

The Hummingbirds’ Simon Holmes, 1962-2017

The tragic news that Simon Holmes, founding singer and guitarist of Sydney band the Hummingbirds, passed away a week ago broke on Wednesday night, via the band’s Facebook page and a beautiful tribute by his friend, writer and fellow musician Tim Byron. Byron recalled that one of Holmes’ favourite sayings was “hurry up and wait”, a line Byron said he took from Brian Eno, but also was a key lyric in the chorus of Blondie’s hit Sunday Girl.

“Hurry up and wait” is a military phrase, meaning that a soldier has to hurry to arrive at a given destination only to then wait around for hours or days for something to happen. A lot of rock & roll is like that. An Australian band on tour in the 1980s could drive all day, flat out, to get to a venue in time for soundcheck before waiting the rest of the night to play.

The Hummingbirds’ career was true to their name and their sound; like a blur. They were here and they were gone, leaving just two albums and a clutch of glorious singles behind. They were flushed with early success, and in the years since spent a lot of time waiting to be rediscovered: a rare reformation show at Newtown Social Club a year ago with their contemporaries the Falling Joys quickly sold out.

The Hummingbirds were on the cusp of the so-called alternative music explosion, but Australian rock historian Ian McFarlane quotes the band’s stated aim was to be “the ultimate pop band”. From their first single Alimony, released by independent label Phantom in July 1987, they got pretty close. The Hummingbirds loved nothing more than harmony on top of melody on top of guitars.

They could be slightly ramshackle live, but the songs were great, even if early on they sometimes struggled to get from one end of them to the other. Still, they were a breath of fresh air, not least due to the presence of guitarist Alannah Russack and bass player Robyn St Clare, Holmes’ former partner and mother to his son Milo. The mixed-gender group stood out in a suffocatingly macho rock scene.

Their first album LoveBUZZ, released in late 1989, was named after a Nirvana single originally recorded by Shocking Blue (who were better known for their song Venus, which itself is better known for Bananarama’s version). Recorded by Mitch Easter, famous for his work with R.E.M., the album crossed over from the alternative charts to the mainstream thanks to the single Blush, which peaked at No. 19.

That might not sound like much now. But in Australia at the time it was a harbinger of what was to come, paving the way for Ratcat and, later, the Clouds and Falling Joys, all of them before Nirvana’s Nevermind rewrote the radio playbook for the rest of the 1990s. The Hummingbirds were hurried up into recording a follow-up album, va va voom, which bombed. A couple of EPs later, they broke up.

Before that, they supported INXS on a run of stadium gigs and toured Europe and North America, which in themselves added up to a lifetime’s worth of stories. Holmes wasn’t a music snob: Byron recounts his love of Yes, whose albums (along with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin’s) he once ruined by trailing them behind him on a bicycle after hearing the Sex Pistols, only to live to regret it later.

Holmes remained involved in music throughout his life, via production work with other 1990s acts including the Fauves and Custard, working at Sydney record store Half a Cow, playing in many other part-time bands, and via a weekly radio show on Sydney station 2SER, which he co-presented with son Milo.

Holmes was just 55 when he died, and there are simply no words for that. He is survived by his partner Justine and their daughter Maisie, as well as Robyn and Milo, and won’t be forgotten by anyone who loved, lived and breathed music as he played it.

First published in The Guardian, 21 July 2017

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.

Oh well, whatever, etc

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s second album Nevermind. A rash of earnest think pieces have already appeared in yesterday’s papers – isn’t this a bit like celebrating your birthday by opening your presents at midnight? – but since this record was such a game-changer in the musical-industrial complex and a life-changer for thousands of individuals besides, it would be churlish of me not to add to them. I was one of those thousands, after all.

I listened to the album for the first time in many moons a couple of weeks ago. I’ll probably listen to it again later; I certainly don’t need to put it on now for inspiration. I think I know every note of the damn thing backwards; such was Nevermind‘s power at the time of its release that it quickly became embedded. These days, there aren’t too many real reasons to pull it out, simply because it’s always there within you. Smells Like Teen Spirit, once so transcendent, can even sound a little shopworn for being overplayed. But if you catch it on a classic rock station and it gets you at the right angle, at the right moment, it still creams the competition with muscle to spare.

I can’t tell you where I was when I first heard Teen Spirit; in fact I can’t recall hearing it for the first time at all. It just suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Actually, I’d just arrived in Melbourne after a seven-week jaunt around some fairly remote parts of the country, so I certainly wasn’t even aware of any music press hubbub. And I hadn’t heard Bleach, the band’s first album. If I had, it wouldn’t have prepared me in any way for the avalanche about to be unleashed.

So I know I didn’t hear it at least until I got back to Brisbane a couple of weeks later, in October. It might have been on Triple J, but also might have been on Triple Zed. Can’t say. But I soon became aware of the groundswell. That couple of months, leading up to the beginning of 1992, was among the most exciting of my life. I was 20, and probably everyone who’s 20 and waiting for their life to start probably still gets nostalgic about what it was like to be that age and feel like anything’s possible. Teen Spirit seemed to make everything possible again.

Musically, the 1980s was nowhere near as bad as the reputation if you had a clue. There was terrific music everywhere, even on the Top 40 charts, at least in the earlier part of the decade – Prince, Springsteen, early Madonna, Michael Jackson at his thrilling peak – hey, it was thrilling, and still is, at least if you have an open mind and love pop music more than you love being cool. By late in the decade, though, it’s true that things were on the slide. The real action was in the American underground. Dinosaur Jr’s Freak Scene was a great, great single; Mudhoney’s Touch Me I’m Sick, too.

The biggest buzz was for the Pixies, the band Kurt Cobain claimed to be ripping off with all those soft/loud dynamics. Well … Maybe. Lots of other bands, including Australian bands like the Scientists, had done that already. These days, I listen to the Pixies and I still can’t believe they didn’t get there first. Here Comes Your Man – how was that not number one in every country in the western world? It’s bizarre, really.

But maybe that just made the breakthrough of Teen Spirit – so much more aggressive and potent – all the sweeter. To this day I’ve never heard such excitement surrounding a single like it. And strangely enough, when I first brought Nevermind home on the back of it in December ’91, after the album was belatedly released locally, I was a little underwhelmed. It was so clean, to start with. What was with all those pop hooks? It actually took a few listens for the penny to drop that that was the whole point.

I still think the best description of the album came from Cobain himself: Black Sabbath getting molested by Black Flag and the Beatles. Can’t remember if it was in that order, but whatever – sure as hell no one else had ever found a way to put those three things together, if they ever even thought of such an unlikely combination. I doubt anyone had. People got very excited about Radiohead’s OK Computer six years later – Nick Kent even wrote a review reminiscent of his exaltation of Television’s Marquee Moon 20 years earlier – but no fucking way was the impact on popular culture even comparable to the nuclear assault of Nevermind.

Not in my view, anyway. And of course it wasn’t all good; record companies signed up every guitar band that moved for a while, no matter how horrible, and plenty of toy wind-up Nirvanas came out of the woodwork. Most disappeared from whence they came. Many great bands who might have deserved similar success instead got left behind; that was sad. Independent record stores and labels were hammered as the mainstream co-opted their market; that was sad, too. Saddest of all, the album’s success also seemed to psychologically destroy poor Kurt Cobain himself. That’s another post, so I’ll leave it.

But surely what mattered about this album, and what still matters, is its inclusiveness. Purists will tell you Bleach is the truest Nirvana album; those who value their indie credentials say In Utero‘s the masterpiece. Look, they’re both good, but really, seriously, come on. Great music belongs to everyone. I began writing about music because I wanted to share it with people, and I still do. Nevermind was a key part of that.

I saw the band in January of ’92, at Festival Hall in Brisbane. They were supporting Violent Femmes, the result of the tour being booked before the band went large. Nirvana liked and admired the Femmes and wanted to honour their commitment to opening for them. Me? I didn’t even stick around for them, which I’m sad about now, because I still haven’t seen them. But Nirvana at that moment just made everything else seem irrelevant.

Not that it was the greatest show, mind you. The sound mix was muddy, Cobain was sick, the band played for just 40 minutes. At some point I left the mosh and went back towards the mixing desk. That was better. They played Come As You Are and suddenly it all seemed to snap into focus. Such a haunting, beautiful song, but then that whiplash solo tore the roof off. That was the band – brutal and beautiful at once. Black Sabbath, Black Flag, and the Beatles.

They finished with On A Plain, still my favourite Nirvana song. I’m not sure why, but I don’t think I need to explain it anyway. I’m sure you have your favourites, your own reasons and your own stories. This was mine.