Tagged: Quan Yeomans

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

Regurgitator: The J-Files

Potty-mouthed. Wilfully contrary. Ironically self-aware. Genre-hopping. These are all some of the obvious things that come to mind when thinking about Regurgitator. Describing the music, though, is harder: after more than 20 years, the Brisbane band formed by Quan Yeomans, Ben Ely and Martin Lee in 1993 defy categorisation more than ever.

The thick layer of irony that surrounds Regurgitator can make them more of a head trip than a band to take to your heart. But that doesn’t mean they’re not serious: there’s a genuine moral centre to everything they do; it’s just more likely to be expressed with humour, rather than slogans – and you can almost always dance to it. It all makes Regurgitator one of the most original and subversive bands Australia has ever produced.

1: The Concept

Tu-Plang, the title of Regurgitator’s first album (which was recorded in Bangkok) is the Thai word for jukebox. And that’s exactly what Regurgitator are: a machine that absorbs popular music in all its dizzying permutations, then spews it back out. This technicolour approach means that, like American genre-hoppers Ween or New Zealand’s Flight Of The Conchords, Regurgitator are free to play whatever they want – as long as it’s delivered with a nod and a wink.

Quan Yeomans and Ben Ely have never been afraid to bite the hand of the corporate beast that once fed them. Mostly it’s playful mischief-making: the band’s first EP featured the famous Warner Brothers’ logo dominating the rear sleeve, before it was hastily withdrawn. Lyrically, I Sucked A Lot Of Cock To Get Where I Am says it all, but Yeomans has been vocal about everything from the first world’s exploitation of the third (G7 Dick Electro Boogie) to music industry awards nights (Music Is Sport).

He’s particularly strong on gender issues. The band’s biggest hit, Polyester Girl, might also be their most misunderstood: once described as a song about a sex doll, a closer reading shows its real target are the men who take trophy wives to service their own vanity. Ben Ely’s hooky pop-punk confections balance out the band, whether he’s writing about addiction to video games (Black Bugs) or the Queensland constabulary (Fat Cop, which was set perfectly to a crunching nu-metal riff).

2: The Old Stuff

For casual listeners, this will comprise the band’s first two EPs, Regurgitator and New, as well as the band’s first three albums, all of which were recorded with original drummer Martin Lee. Regurgitator were an instant success, both on the live circuit (where they quickly attracted frenzied crowds) and on radio, with early tracks Couldn’t Do It and Blubber Boy being afforded high rotation on Triple J.

That established a platform for the platinum sales of Tu-Plang (1996) spearheaded by two big singles, the monstrous funk-metal clatter of Kong Foo Sing, followed by I Sucked A Lot Of Cock To Get Where I Am, which opened the album. The album was something of a patchwork, with remixes of earlier singles padding things out, but it was strong enough to serve notice of a band to be reckoned with.

In typically provocative style, the band’s next album, Unit (1997) opened with a statement of intent: Ely’s brilliant I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff, its lyrics sung through a vocoder over a synth line. But if any old fans were put off by the change in direction, the album succeeded in winning over legions of new ones. Unit sold over 240,000 copies, spawning a string of hit singles.

The best of them was ! (The Song Formerly Known As), arguably Regurgitator’s greatest song – even as it acknowledged its debt to Prince. A song about living it up in your lounge room with your significant other, it’s set to a big, belching beat that was purpose-built for festival stages. Everyday Formula, Black Bugs, Modern Life and Polyester Girl kept the album on radio and video playlists for well over a year.

In the end, it was the band’s third album, …art (which featured the telling subtitle, “Actual Product May Not Match Expectations”) which proved to be the difficult one. The band was burnt out from touring, relationships had become strained, and the resulting album didn’t come close to matching Unit’s chart success. The best moment by far was Ely’s hilarious Surfin’ Bird-style rave-up, “I Wanna Be A Nudist”.

3: The New Stuff

While Regurgitator would never again scale the commercial heights of Unit – and by Yeomans’ own estimation, it’s unquestionably the most creatively interesting album of their career, too – the second half of the band’s career has thrown up its fair share of high points. In fact, the more one looks at the sheer breadth of Regurgitator’s output, the more impressive it becomes in its totality.

With a new, high-energy drummer Peter Kostic (on loan from Front End Loader), the band first made Eduardo And Rodriguez Wage War On T-Wrecks, which saw Ely and Yeomans move deeper into hip-hop territory, despite pop singles like Superstraight and Fat Cop. Hullabaloo was a truer indication of where the band was at. It was a change few seemed ready for at the time.

Then came Mish Mash (2004), the result of the band’s Band In A Bubble project for Channel V, recorded in a Perspex box in Federation Square, Melbourne. Ironically, the project left the band open to charges of being over-exposed. Probably the most contentious album of Regurgitator’s career, it’s also arguably the most far-sighted, and the most ripe for rediscovery and retrospective appreciation.

Love And Paranoia (2007) saw the addition of keyboard player Seja Vogel and is a brief (31 minute) blast that saw them return to the 1980s for inspiration, but the band was at a low ebb. Superhappyfuntimefriends, though, combined the band’s best set of songs since Unit with a renewed surge of public interest. It’s the band’s paean to the social media generation, and it’s scabrous, funny and true.

The band’s most recent album, Dirty Pop Fantasy (2013) takes everything to its logical extreme, cramming an ambitious 19 songs onto a single disc. Shake it down, though, for a handful of diamonds – Ely’s sharp Made To Break; Yeomans’ post-punk epic Mountains and We Love You, which declares: “We know what you want, but we’re not gonna give it to you, because that would be easy.”

4: The Legacy

Regurgitator’s reputation will stand forever on Unit, widely and deservedly regarded as one of the best Australian albums ever made – a clutch of sticky singles, production that still manages to sound both retro and ahead of the curve, and lyrics that gleefully run the gamut from straight-up nonsense to barbed social commentary that mostly went over the heads of radio shock jocks and fans alike.

But eight albums and two EPs have proved the band to be stayers. Instead of fading away when the going got tough, the band have adapted to suit themselves: they’ve slowed down on the touring, but continued to make vibrant, endlessly creative records with a high level of quality control. In doing so, they’ve set a number of examples for other bands to follow.

First: do what you want. Not what you think the punters want. Second: don’t assume every step up on the ladder is also a step forward. You don’t have to break America just because you’ve conquered Australia and that’s the obvious thing to do next; nervous breakdowns and bankruptcy lie that way. Third: make records at your own pace. Fourth: Keep making them, for persistence reaps sustainable rewards.

Above all, as Yeomans puts it on “All Fake Everything”: “Be yourself / Be yourself / Be your motherfuckin’ self!”

First published by Double J, 19 November 2015

The Great Australian Songbook II (40-31)

As promised from yesterday. I’ve tried to cover as many bases as possible in terms of decade and genre, avoiding multiple selections for the same artist.

Without further ado, here’s the list from 40 to 31.

40. COSMIC PSYCHOS – Lost Cause (1988)

It was Spinal Tap who pointed out the fine line between clever and stupid. In Australia, you won’t find three smarter beer-swilling yobs than The Cosmic Psychos. This isn’t a song about punching above your weight – it’s about being out of your weight division entirely. “Dr” Ross Knight, the band’s bass player, is a farmer from outside Bendigo who’s been known to cancel tours when his tractor breaks down. At the time he wrote this song, he was working part-time in the medical records department of a local hospital, where he fell under the spell of an attractive young lady who’s “only 19, not a has-been!” “I was about 25, 26 at that point, a bogan fucking pisshead,” Knight recalls. “I said to a mate of mine, ‘I wouldn’t mind taking her out,’ and he goes, ‘Nah – have a look at you! She’s a lost cause, mate!” The song was later covered by L7 and The Prodigy.

39. DO RE MI – Man Overboard (1985)

After the comic ribaldry of the Cosmic Psychos, it’s nice to follow Lost Cause with the best piece of feminist polemic set to pop music in Australia since Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman. Do Re Mi’s lean, agitated funk provided all the space required for Deborah Conway’s sharp-eyed, razor-tongued portrait of a relationship in terminal decay. Critic Toby Creswell reckoned Conway had a voice like a braying donkey. If that’s the case, it’s even more impressive that a song with no chorus and lyrics that referenced sexual boredom, penis envy and anal humour actually became a top five hit.

38. SEVERED HEADS – Dead Eyes Opened (1984; remixed 1995)

Australia is not well known for its electronic music output, but long before the Avalanches scored with Since I Left You in 2000 there was Tom Ellard’s brilliant Severed Heads. Exploring the space between the industrial terror of Suicide, the pop smarts of New Order and the minimalism of Kraftwerk, the creepy Dead Eyes Opened was both of its time and ahead of it, and proved it by being a hit twice: once upon its release in 1984, and then again with a remixed version in 1995.

37. DAVE GRANEY & THE CORAL SNAKES – You’re Just Too Hip, Baby (1993)

On one hand, Dave Graney is an eccentric from Mt Gambier, South Australia who’s read too many Raymond Chandler novels. His genius is in filtering his influences through his own uniquely idiosyncratic worldview, and you won’t find a better example than this minor hit from 1993 that set the former Moodist on his way to unlikely Australian King of Pop status a couple of years later. “You take a feather from every bird you see / You’ll never fly” is the perfect rejoinder to a jaded hipster, accented by Rod Hayward’s stinging guitar breaks.

36. MENTAL AS ANYTHING – The Nips Are Getting Bigger (1979)

One of the all-time great Australian drinking songs. It starts out just drinking beer, then it progresses to Jamaican rum, and things are all downhill from there for poor Martin Plaza: “Wiping out brain cells by the million, but I don’t care / It doesn’t worry me even though I ain’t got a lot to spare.” Reg Mombassa’s splashes (splatters?) of guitar are as colourful as his designs for Mambo, but it’s Plaza’s sad, funny and true portrait of everyday alcoholic waste that, once heard, never leaves you.

35. REGURGITATOR – ! (The Song Formerly Known As) (1997)

First, there’s a chuckle. Add a clipped white-funk guitar (which actually sounds more like Chic’s Nile Rodgers than Prince), then a belching bass keyboard fill, and voilà: instant party. Except it’s a party that Quan Yeomans doesn’t want to go to. He’d rather stay at home, dancing in ugly pants in the comfort of his suburban lounge room. Regurgitator are amazingly versatile – they can do hardcore, they can do pop, and their contribution to Australian hip-hop is massively undersold, but this wonderful paean to the socially awkward is their finest moment, and propelled its parent album, Unit, to triple-platinum status. Thank you, Mr DJ.

34. THE CRUEL SEA – This Is Not The Way Home (1991)

This is a driving song, best suited to very long, very straight, very red roads far beyond Woop Woop, with a bunch of mates and a case of beer for company: just leave the actual driving to whichever one of you is least inebriated. Snatches of conversations, casual observations, hints of violence and a chugging rhythm – Dan Rumour’s introductory snippet of guitar before the rhythm section kicks in is akin to a smooth change from third to fourth – and you’re away, with the throttling slide guitar in the chorus putting the whole thing into overdrive. Somehow, I’ve never been busted speeding to it.

33. DIVINYLS – Back To The Wall (1988)

Boys In Town, Pleasure And Pain, Science Fiction and the masturbatory epic I Touch Myself were all bigger hits, and it would be easier to choose any of them for popularity’s sake. But on this killer tune, Chrissy Amphlett nailed her tough but vulnerable rock-chick persona for all time. Swathed in co-conspirator/lover Mark McEntee’s echoing Rickenbacker and unobtrusive keyboards, this is dangerous, borderline stuff, all the more compelling for its restraint: the predicted eruption never arrives, but Amphlett’s threats hang in the air, leaving you cowering in a corner.

32. SCIENTISTS – Swampland (1982)

Years ago I was trying to write a book about Australian garage rock under this title, and I bumped into the song’s author, Kim Salmon, at a Mudhoney show earlier this week. He joked that at the rate I’m going, he’d have his memoirs out before my own effort. He’s calling his work-in-progress Nine Parts Water, One Part Sand: How I Invented Grunge, and while he’s at least partly joking, there are plenty (Mudhoney included) who don’t dispute his claim. The Scientists were doing the soft-loud thing long before the Pixies, and with equal style: imagine the Count Five, the Cramps and Creedence jamming in a garage, and you’re back on the Bayou.

31. LAUGHING CLOWNS – Eternally Yours (1984)

After the Saints, Ed Kuepper formed the all but unclassifiable (and, occasionally, all but unlistenable) Laughing Clowns. With three virtuoso players in their ranks, the Clowns were musician’s musicians, with Kuepper – one of this country’s greatest guitarists – backed by drummer Jeff Wegener and saxophonist Louise Elliott. Here, Elliott’s the star, building from an austere melody to a stupendous climax: prepare to have your breath taken away at 4.21, when she holds a long note for eight full seconds, before taking flight for an extraordinary finale. Rock music doesn’t get much more stirring than this.