The drama of the dysfunctional band has long been a staple of the rock documentary form. In a case of life imitating art imitating life, films from Some Kind Of Monster (which sat in on Metallica’s group therapy sessions) to End Of The Century (which chronicled the tragically bitter life and death of the Ramones) play like a reprise of the intra-band bickering so perfectly satirised in This Is Spinal Tap.
As the credits roll on Spinal Tap, Marty DiBergi, played by the director, Rob Reiner, asks bass player Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) whether playing rock & roll keeps you a child. I was reminded of this watching Descent Into The Maelstrom, the story of Radio Birdman, as this brilliant, influential and notoriously volatile band squabble over their history and their legacy.
For the uninitiated, a brief snapshot: formed in 1974, Sydney’s Radio Birdman were, alongside Brisbane’s Saints, Australia’s first and most lasting contribution to the punk movement. Like the Saints, they had a brief and extremely turbulent existence, breaking up in in the UK in 1978 while making just their second album. Their massive influence saw them reform for the first time in 1996, only to almost immediately break up again.
But, like Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, guitarist Deniz Tek and singer Rob Younger keep getting back together, because there will always be a baying audience somewhere for them to play to. Both are intense, serious men and aside from stalwart keyboard player Pip Hoyle, few have been able to stick with them. But that volatility was key to the original six-piece band’s combustible chemistry.
If you are already a Radio Birdman tragic – and tragics will be the first in line to see Descent Into The Maelstrom, directed by Jonathan Sequeira – you’re unlikely to find out anything new here. There’s no pre-1978 live footage you won’t have seen already, and the story is familiar. It’s held together over one hour and 50 minutes by interviews with the band and close associates; thankfully, no bigger stars are lined up to obediently sing their praises.
Don’t let this lack of new information put you off, though. What makes Descent Into The Maelstrom work is the brutal honesty of the band members as the wheels fall off their so-called “van of hate”, as the Kombi driving them around that ill-fated 1978 UK tour was dubbed. It wasn’t the usual combination of drugs and booze that did them in: it was poverty, depression and poisonous internal dynamics.
Visually, the lack of new footage is compensated for by hundreds of stills and delightful storyboard artwork by bass player Warwick Gilbert (of whom a gonzo reviewer once wrote “a Warwick is something you light if you want to start a war”). Given that Gilbert was the first to leave the band – twice! – his heavy involvement indicates that Birdman’s music remains bigger than the egos that made it.
Which brings us to the music itself. Deniz Tek was a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he brought his first-hand experience of the Stooges and MC5 to Australia in 1972 (there’s a photo of him as a teenager in aviator shades, right in front of the Five’s Rob Tyner). Radio Birdman were combative, confrontational, hated by the musical establishment, and changed the lives of thousands who saw them perform.
In their slipstream came hundreds of bands, dozens of whom became embedded in the Australian rock landscape: Midnight Oil, the Sunnyboys, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Lime Spiders, the Hard-Ons, Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, and on and on. Hoyle gets the last word, and it’s a killer: “I don’t think there’s an Australian sound to Radio Birdman. I think there’s a Radio Birdman sound to Australia.”
He’s right. And few of those bands, even on their best nights, could summon the heart-attack inducing excitement of Radio Birdman in full flight. (For proof, track down the double live album of the band at Paddington Town Hall in December 1977, their last performance in Australia before departing for England: it is, in this writer’s opinion, the best live recording released by an Australian band.)
As such, what started as a cult phenomenon has continued to attract generations of converts to the cause. Descent Into The Maelstrom won’t exactly be an eye-opener to the Birdman faithful but, along with the band’s reissued box set of recordings, it’s a documentary that will ensure their legacy remains: hewn in the living rock, as Nigel Tufnel once observed.
The ABC news radio announcer’s incredulous tone said it all. “An unknown band from Brisbane, by the name of the Saints, has earned rave reviews in England for a record it made itself,” he said. It was September 1976, and the words, complete with the plummy delivery, were loaded with cultural cringe – all the more so for the fact that the band hailed from the backwoods of Brisbane.
That record, (I’m) Stranded – dubbed “Single of this and every week” in a hyperventilating review in the UK’s Sounds magazine – turns 40 years old this month, and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed Brisbane forever, both from within, and in terms of its external perception. And it was true: outside of a small clique, the band was all but unknown in its hometown at the time of the song’s release.
The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster once wrote that punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia, for two reasons: we had Joh-Bjelke Petersen, “the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservative that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against”; and we had the Saints, the “musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart” that gave a city that usually chased music history its own place in it.
Australia didn’t even have its own national anthem in 1976. (I’m) Stranded was more like an anti-anthem, with its central theme of alienation. The singer, Chris Bailey, with the gritty sneer of a young Van Morrison, is marooned “far from home”. The literal meaning was actually more prosaic, the song’s music coming to guitarist Ed Kuepper on a midnight train home to the Brisbane’s far-flung suburbs.
Then there was the video, which begins with the unintended metaphor of drummer Ivor Hay kicking open a door. The band are playing in an abandoned building on inner-city Petrie Terrace, Bailey singing in front of a fireplace with the words “(I’m) Stranded” daubed above in red letters, which would form the backdrop for the cover of the Saints’ debut album of the same name, released in February 1977.
The cover is as much a harbinger of the Blank Generation as the first Ramones album. But there are no uniforms in sight, much less leather jackets. The band stares sullenly back at the camera, a large hole in the floorboards beneath their feet in front of them. In the ensuing years, countless bands and fans – including Brad Shepherd (then of the Fun Things, later the Hoodoo Gurus) and Mark Callaghan (the Riptides, later Gang Gajang) – had their own photographs taken in front of that fireplace until the building’s eventual redevelopment.
The Saints were seers. They’d formed in mid 1973, the same year as the release of the first New York Dolls album and Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, and while they hadn’t beaten the Ramones onto record (the New Yorkers had released their first album four months earlier), they were ahead of all the UK punks (the Damned’s New Rose was released a month later, in October 1976) and Sydney’s Radio Birdman.
But arguably more important than chronology and the Saints’ place in the bigger scheme of things was their determined independence. There were no venues to play in Brisbane, so the band hired out suburban halls. No local record company was interested in what they were doing, so they hired out a local studio, paid for the recording themselves, and put out the song on their own label, Fatal Records.
This fact was noted in Jonh (John) Ingham’s review in Sounds: “This Queensland combo had to record and release on their own label; for some reason Australian record companies think the band lack commercial potential. What a bunch of idiots.” EMI in London – partially in an attempt to claw back lost credibility after sacking the Sex Pistols – duly instructed its baffled representatives in Sydney to sign the band.
In the wake of the band’s inevitable decampment to England in early 1977, a local scene began to take root in Brisbane. There were archetypal punk bands like the Leftovers and Razar, whose song Task Force was the first in a long line of singles to take aim at the local police state. Then there were the more cerebral Riptides, the Apartments and the Go-Betweens, soon to leave for England themselves.
All had been inspired by the Saints’ willingness to “seize the sea of possibilities” spoken of by another seer, Patti Smith, a couple of years earlier. Brisbane now has a Go Between Bridge, as well as Bee Gees Way on Redcliffe Peninsula, where the Gibb brothers began their performing career. But (I’m) Stranded was a foundation stone in Brisbane’s cultural history for which the Saints deserve similar recognition.
In the nascent Sydney punk scene of 1976, the Oxford Funhouse on Taylor Square was ground zero. The venue had been established by Radio Birdman who, along with Brisbane’s the Saints, can lay claim to the title of Australia’s first punk band.
Peter Garrett, who was leading an embryonic band not yet named Midnight Oil at the time, checked them out early and came away a changed man, marvelling at how the hipsters in the crowd kept their sunglasses on amid the mayhem. “The sound was laser-bright and ferocious, and frontman Rob Younger was riveting, stalking the tiny stage with a leonine fury,” he wrote in his memoir, Big Blue Sky, released late last year.
If you want an idea of where Garrett got the unique dance step that captivated audiences for over 20 years, watch Younger in action. Garrett wasn’t informed by his movements so much as the idea of performance as an altered form of consciousness. “I like to get myself into a state where I’m not aware of what I do at all, yet somehow I get it all out,” Younger said at the time. “I don’t know, I try not to think about it.”
Garrett similarly deflects questions about his dancing, as if talking about it might cause him to freeze. “You’re suspending rational thought, as you should when you go into that zone,” he says. “When you start to move and feel the energy around you, if you think about it for one second you become a clichéd plastic statue. Which we’ll try to avoid for a little bit longer.”
Garrett – as he proclaimed on Tall Trees, the first song and single from his first solo album, A Version Of Now – is back, and he remains a man of formidable energy. If his 63 years have slowed him somewhat, he won’t be merely treading the boards on an upcoming promotional tour, either. Later in the year Midnight Oil will reconvene, with the band planning to spend much of 2017 on the road. Again.
There are two public sides to Garrett: the whirling dervish on stage, and the highly organised figure who, years before he left Midnight Oil to join the Labor party, served his first term as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation between 1989 and 1993, at the height of the band’s success. He then served a further two years on the international board of Greenpeace.
“They’re both the same person,” Garrett says, lounging in a community café in Redfern, where he’s just done an interview for Koori Radio. As distinctive as ever, he doesn’t escape without shy requests for selfies and signatures. “You might discover different sides of the same person when you go on holidays with them, or sitting around a campfire, or if you have a big night in a karaoke bar.”
Garrett is used to being reduced to a caricature. So was his band. “[Midnight Oil was] misunderstood in terms of being seen as specifically constructed to deliver a political philosophy,” he says. “Misunderstood in being seen as very blokey and pub-ish, which we weren’t at all, certainly not as people. Misunderstood overseas, because no one knew where the hell Australia was, or what we were writing about.”
That didn’t stop Beds Are Burning – a pointed call to white Australia to return the land to its original inhabitants – from becoming the band’s biggest hit in America. Still, there was always more to Midnight Oil than slogans. “I thought there was some abstraction in what we were doing,” Garrett says, before conceding: “Probably not a lot of humour, it’s fair to say. Not my strong suit. Humour ain’t Oils!”
A Version Of Now isn’t played for laughs, either, but it’s often unexpectedly tender and sweet. There are love songs to Doris, his wife of 30 years, which are as direct as anything he’s ever written. Their three daughters, Emily, May and Grace, sing harmonies; May even plays drums on one track.
And while it features the Oils’ guitarist Martin Rotsey, it sounds like a genuinely personal solo project. There was no thought of bringing the songs to rest of the group, he says: “They came so quickly, and then I knuckled down and tried to knock them into shape and get people to play them as quickly as I could. They sounded like Peter Garrett songs.”
What it does share with his old band is some of the rawness that marked their early records. The approach was basic: “We’re in a room, we’ve learned the chords – or maybe we haven’t quite learned them – and we’re going to grab the moment.” The album was produced by Burke Reid, who has worked with the Drones and Courtney Barnett. Garrett was inspired by the unvarnished sound of both.
“The Courtney record [Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Think] was like being on a skateboard, rolling down a hill – ‘This is what I am, this is what I sound like, this is what I talk about’,” he says. “It had a spirit of music that I love that is timeless in some ways, because it was so gritty, real and without pretension.”
People often ask who dares to talk about big issues in popular music these days and it hasn’t escaped Garrett that the Drones and Barnett are among them. “There’s plenty of it out there [and] I was interested in what they had to say, but I also liked the sound.” The music, he insists, always comes first. “If it doesn’t have that internal combustion, you’ve got nothing.”
None of which means that Garrett has nothing to say. I’d Do It Again, the album’s second song, should stay a thousand journalists’ questions: “I didn’t jump, I wasn’t pushed / I went on my own, I’ve got to do what I could / I got my hands dirty and had a go”. Garrett’s rejection of the purity of activism for the messy compromises of high office remains unapologetic.
But those words “I’m back” also suggest he’s nothing if not happy to be making music again. “And who wouldn’t be, really? It’s not that I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, but they’re very different kinds of vocations and there’s not a lot of blend. I guess my starting point is that I think we can have a go at more than one kind of thing, and many people do.”
He concedes he “sometimes” felt like an outsider in politics, and in the Labor party too, partially because he wasn’t part of any faction. But neither was he a career politician. “The fact of the matter is, and most politicians would recognise it, that to some extent the lives that they’ve lived prior to entering the parliament are quite narrow.”
The result, he says, is an entrenching of the political classes, in which he includes advisers, lobbyists and various apparatchiks and insiders, including the press gallery. “The ultimate result of that confection is that it’s very difficult to break out from stasis or antipathy and the never-ending striving for short-term political advantage.”
Political progress is an illusory thing. Sometimes we go backwards; at others, around in circles. After the 2010 election, he remembers, suddenly “there was a row of younger, seriously hardline right-wing climate sceptics sitting on the other side of the parliament. It makes you pause for a second to think, and it also makes you demand of someone like the current prime minister [Malcolm Turnbull] that they do live up to their convictions.”
But the intractability of issues such as refugee policy, for example – which Garrett admits was “deeply, deeply challenging” – often meant personal convictions came a distant last in the same political machinery he has just described. Part of our disenchantment, he says, is driven by a skewed view of what politics can realistically deliver. And when it doesn’t, “there’s no shortage of people howling it down”.
No one, at least, could accuse Garrett of not having experienced life before entering politics. Two high points he names from Midnight Oil’s career were playing the first multi-racial concert in South Africa in 1994, following the election of Nelson Mandela as president, to roughly 80,000 people in Ellis Park, Johannesburg; and playing Beds Are Burning at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, with the band wearing “Sorry” suits.
That – like the band playing on a flatbed truck outside the Exxon building in Manhattan in 1990, in a guerrilla-style protest after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill the previous year – was essentially a prank but it was also extremely effective political theatre. And very punk. “It was agitprop,” Garrett says. At such times, “we felt we were part of something bigger that was at play”.
Whether the band will enter the studio again remains to be seen. “I think [the band members] obviously are still creative, [we’d] like to be creative. You’ve got to do it for the right reasons.” He notes the band’s contemporaries Cold Chisel have had a second life, “and they’ve made a fair fist of it. It’s been good, the stuff that they’ve done, I’ve enjoyed it.
“There’s no reason why not. We’re not bound temporally; we’re only bound by how fearful, how brave, how imaginative, how hard we’re prepared to work, and I think if we continue to bring the love of music and making music together then maybe we’ll see something come out the other end. Whatever it is you do, if it’s still moving you, then try to do as much of it as possible, before it’s too late.”
But, always, it’s the live shows that will come first. Midnight Oil became effective users of the studio as an instrument – particularly on their 1982 breakthrough album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. But the studio is a bit like the parliament: sounds are negotiated, compromised and brokered. It’s on stage, in front of an audience, where Midnight Oil made its reputation.
Garrett’s upcoming solo tour will give him the chance to splay his hands and wave those long arms around again, in those inimitable jerky movements that somehow work with the jagged angles of the music. But really, it’s a prelude to the main act next year, when the Midnight Oil juggernaut rolls back into action. It’s also a test. Can they do it again, or will they be, in Garrett’s words, clichéd plastic statues?
“It’s not like we can go out every night, [whether] it’s a club show or a theatre show, and just switch it,” he says. “We’ve got to suck the music out of the marrow of our bones and spit it back out over people, with all the sense of no tomorrow that we can muster up.”
The video begins, appropriately enough, with the sight of a door being kicked open – then a hurricane of noise rushes through. Until very recently in Brisbane, it was still possible to visit the decrepit building on Petrie Terrace and stand in front of the fireplace on top of which the words “(I’m) Stranded” were once daubed in red letters, where the Saints shot the primitive but charged clip for their debut single.
It’s not quite where Australian punk rock was born – that, arguably, happened a little further down the road, in the Saints’ rehearsal room on the corner of Milton Road, not far from the Castlemaine XXXX brewery. Club 76, they called it. But the Saints had been going for a few years by then – since mid 1973, by guitarist Ed Kuepper’s reckoning.
Being first can be an overrated virtue, but in the Saints’ case, it needs to be stated over and over again. (I’m) Stranded, which appeared on the band’s own Fatal label in September 1976 (the same month the 100 Club in London held a festival featuring a colourful assortment of new bands including the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned) was the first independently produced rock single in Australia.
In doing so, it beat all of the English punk bands, as well as Sydney’s Radio Birdman, onto plastic. The one band they didn’t beat was the Ramones, a fact Kuepper was crushed by: when he first heard the debut album by the New York pinheads a few months earlier, he knew everyone would see the Saints – a bunch of teenagers from provincial Queensland, fronted by singer Chris Bailey – as the copyists.
At that point, the state was still under the tyrannical thumb of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s regime, and in no small way, (I’m) Stranded helped kick off a social revolution, at least in Brisbane. At the time, though, the Saints had little choice but to leave. Copies of the single soon landed in England, where it was ecstatically received. Sounds magazine dubbed it “Single of This and Every Week”.
It must have sounded like an emergency telegram from a lost land. Such is Stranded’s urgency, there’s no time for a guitar solo (the B-side, which actually was called No Time, did have a solo – of one whole note). True to its lyric, much of the song was written on a midnight train, and whether intended or not, the central idea of being marooned came to stand for something bigger.
It’s one of punk’s many ironies that the London offices of EMI, desperate to claw back lost credibility after sacking the Pistols in the wake of their infamous expletive-flecked confrontation with Bill Grundy, instructed their baffled representatives in Sydney to sign the Saints post-haste in the wake of Stranded. The band immediately recorded their debut album, also titled (I’m) Stranded, over a weekend.
That album was later described later by England’s Dreaming author Jon Savage as “up there in punk Valhalla with Ramones and Raw Power”. But the Saints never fitted the punk straightjacket. When they arrived in England in May 1977, they were aghast to find EMI were designing a “Saints suit” for them: lime-green shirts and spiky hair all round.
Bailey’s tousled mop remained in place, and the band went on to make two more brilliant albums, Eternally Yours and Prehistoric Sounds, before imploding. Both records featured extensive use of a brass section – a move that won them few friends in a scene that regarded Never Mind The Bollocks as a blueprint rather than a full stop, but which dramatically expanded the band’s sound.
Having kicked the door open, the Saints soon found themselves back out on the footpath. Kuepper returned to Australia and formed the radical post-punk band the Laughing Clowns, while Bailey stayed in Europe, kept the name and pursued a much more traditional path towards heartland rock and mainstream success: Bruce Springsteen recently covered Just Like Fire Would on his album High Hopes.
But (I’m) Stranded has remained a touchstone – perhaps a millstone – the perpetually sparring Kuepper and Bailey would always be identified with.
The recent re-emergence of the Sunnyboys on stages around the country has been a genuine feel-good story. Between roughly 1980 and 1984, the band – singer and guitarist Jeremy Oxley, his brother Peter on bass, Bil Bilson on drums and second guitarist Richard Burgmann – were a flaming meteor across the Australian music landscape, adored by fans and critics alike. And then, like a meteor, they just fizzled out: the band’s momentum cruelled by changing fashions and Jeremy’s descent into a long battle with schizophrenia.
It’s a story well told in a recent documentary, The Sunnyboy, that has brought new attention to this great Australian band’s legacy. An earlier compilation, This Is Real, and the band’s tentative return to live performance via the Hoodoo Gurus-curated Dig It Up festival has cleared the path for a serious re-evaluation of their small but vital catalogue of recordings, and it starts here, with the classic self-titled debut from 1981 spread over two discs and stacked with more bonus material than any fan could dream of.
The Sunnyboys’ brilliance lay in a combination of sensitivity and toughness that distinguished them from both their predecessors (after raw beginnings in northern New South Wales, they emerged fully-formed from the late ’70s Sydney punk scene left behind by Radio Birdman) and those that followed, such as the Gurus. Lines like “I fall back into your arms / My body rests like a charm around your neck” (from I’m Shakin’) won them legions of female fans – something their more macho contemporaries could only dream of.
But listening to Sunnyboys, you’d be forgiven for wondering if these young lads ever dared to make the first move. It’s hard knowing what to say when you’re a teenager, especially to someone you’re attracted to. Jeremy’s social phobia is obvious from the first song, I Can’t Talk To You, a magnificent surge of energy powered by Bil Bilson’s drums (actually, the song is pretty much one long drum roll). Happy Man spells it out again: “I’ve got a hangup / I can’t communicate,” he confesses.
Elsewhere lies only confusion: “Watching the news I don’t learn anything / It all seems so far away,” he cries on My Only Friend, a sort of distant precursor to God’s epochal 1988 single My Pal. It would certainly be a mistake to suggest Trouble In My Brain is some kind of premonition about Jeremy’s later mental health struggles: as he points out, everyone around him is going insane. The only thing that matters in such a crazy world is being able to connect.
But how to do that, when “the conversation’s terror” and “death is coming to the phone”? This is pure teenage angst. Anyone who has ever been an adolescent can relate to this stuff. And it’s all delivered in one of the plainest, most honest voices you will ever hear, completely free of pretension or false accent, yet richly melodic: Birdman might have edged the Sunnyboys for energy, but would never get close to a tune to rival Alone With You.
Saying hello, of course, is hard enough; learning how to say goodbye is even worse. Let You Go captures the trauma of farewelling a lover, knowing in your heart it’s the right thing to do, only to then experience the visceral hurt of seeing them hook up again just a little too soon: “It still don’t seem right to watch you go and love somebody else.” There’s nothing especially musical about the solo that follows; it’s just a scream of agony.
It’s the eloquence of this music, its ability to match the mood of the lyrics, that still stuns. My Only Friend follows I Can’t Talk To You and immediately catches the listener off guard as its sharp strumming switches abruptly from major to minor chords, giving Oxley’s observations exquisite poignancy. “Doesn’t matter if I’m right, doesn’t matter if I’m wrong / Because I’ve got you,” he sings.
And what is there left to say about Alone With You, one of the very best singles of its era? As good as anything by the Kinks or the Only Ones, its indelible chorus should be tattooed on the brain every Australian of a certain age. And just hen you think this magical four-minute song can’t get any better – having already found room for not just one but two solos, with not a note wasted – Jeremy uncorks a third, pealing effort to take the song out.
The rest of disc one – the Complete Albert Sessions, from the studio where the album was made – is filled with a swag of extra tracks, most of which became beloved B-sides that would have been best-of material in the hands of any lesser band. If that was all, you would need this reissue, simply because this remaster lays waste to any previous CD version (although we should start petitioning for a vinyl release). But, for all that, it’s the second disc, New Kicks, that is the real revelation.
Certain Sunnyboys members have long maintained, while praising the work done by their producer, Lobby Loyde, that Sunnyboys didn’t really capture the power of the band’s sound on stage. This Is Real featured live material that went a long way to validating that caveat. New Kicks, a recently unearthed complete demo session for the album recorded in a single day, confirms it beyond all doubt. It is simply the sound of a red-hot band playing live – sans audience – in a great-sounding room.
Some of the takes here – notably My Only Friend, Let You Go and I’m Shakin’ – are better, and certainly more exciting to these ears than the more polished finished versions. The fact that these are arguably three of the best four songs on an album that’s extremely difficult to pick highlights from makes the discovery of these tapes all the more important. There are 17 tracks overall, recorded with such pristine clarity and ferocious commitment that New Kicks could easily have made a classic first album in its own right.
If you never much cared for the whistling on I’m Shakin’ – one of the original album’s most thrilling songs – here it’s absent, leaving the incredible interplay between the guitars of Oxley and Richard Burgmann laid bare. This pairing was a lead/rhythm combination to rival anyone, anywhere. Burgmann’s tough, gutsy counterpoints deserve special commendation for complementing Oxley’s wiry, mile-a-minute leads perfectly.
There are demos of many of the same B-sides featured on the first disc, as well as a few songs that ended up on the Sunnyboys’ next two, less successful albums, and a couple more previously unheard tracks. As fine as New Kicks, Thrill and I Don’t Want You are, the reason why they were rejected is clear: these are all fast songs, reflective of the band’s earlier origins, and unsuited to the final album’s moodier, more melancholic feel. Taken out of this context, they are still pretty much as good as rock & roll gets.
Suffice to say that whether you’ve loved this album for years, or are lucky enough to be hearing it for the first time, this reissue is an essential purchase. Long after you’ve outgrown adolescence – when all that youthful ebullience slowly gives way to a world of higher responsibilities, and you still don’t feel like you’re learning anything by watching the news – this album will be your friend. Maybe, at the times you most need it, your only friend.
Richard “Evil Dick” Hunt is doing a handstand. We’re in a plush dressing room at a venue called Le Cargo – it’s so cushy that it even has the band’s name on the door, an unheard-of event – and Hunt, by way of limbering up, is hoisting his small frame over a large, comfy, suspiciously new-smelling corner couch.
I watch warily as Hunt, who’s already flying on a combination of cough syrup, cognac (to protect his shredded voice) and beer, inverts himself aloft. This may not end well. Facing away from the wall, he gets himself balanced precariously on his head. Then, unsteadily, he begins to stretch out his little legs.
Le Cargo is a major performing arts complex in Caen, a couple of hours’ drive north-west of Paris. HITS – a full-tilt, five-piece rock & roll band from Brisbane, Australia – have taken all before them on their first European tour. It’s the second-last gig of a four-week adventure that’s seen the band play 20 shows in less than a month.
Every Friday night at Le Cargo, the local government subsidises free concerts for up-and-coming groups in a room that would comfortably fit 450 punters. Everything is arranged to make young bands look and feel like stars: there’s a high stage, drum riser, light show, and the sound is excellent.
Not to mention that dressing room. It’s got a wall-to-wall mirror at one end that adjoins a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over the Caen Canal, which runs out to the English Channel about a dozen kilometres upstream. At the other end of the room, opposite the mirror, is the corner couch.
All of this is, as you might have gathered, unimaginable luxury for a band that, on any given night in Brisbane, is lucky to attract more than 100 paying punters. On this tour, many of the gigs have been to 20 or 30 people, some in venues that would make tiny Fortitude Valley icon Ric’s look like Madison Square Garden by comparison.
Hunt points his toes skyward. His feet are adorned in lovely black suede RM Williams boots, with classic rocker’s Cuban heels, which instantly shatter the print on the wall. Glass rains down, even as the print remains in place and Hunt heroically maintains the handstand.
The larger, heavier chunks of glass that don’t make it to the floor land on Hunt, falling around his magnificently unkempt mane of blond hair much like a circus knife-thrower outlines the head of his smiling female assistant. And still he holds the handstand, until finally the clatter of glass stops.
Everyone else in the room stands, mouths agape in horrified silence.
“Oh, shit,” someone says.
Hunt dismounts the couch, grins, and casually brushes away the pieces of glass still clinging to his hair and flannel shirt. He’s completely unscathed. The rest of us dissolve into laughter. Richie, not finished, weaves his way over to the sink under the long makeup mirror, and vomits copiously into it. Blaaargh!
[Footage from Le Cargo, thanks to Youtube user TCITR. This was arguably the best show of the tour. Mind the vomit at 16.50!]
Let’s get the disclosures out of the way. I became involved with HITS in 2009, when the band’s debut album, Living With You Is Killing Me, was released. I fell in love with it, with them, and subsequently co-financed the reissue of the CD on a limited vinyl pressing of 300 copies (now sold out).
It was due mainly to that commitment that I was asked to chauffeur the band through Europe. A double-life spent writing and driving maxi-taxis on nightshift was as good a grounding as any for moonlighting as the driver for Brisbane’s hardest-drinking rock band. (The tour wasn’t wickedly titled Euro Double-Vision for nothing.)
There are more than a few other judges, though, who will tell you that HITS – the name is ironically chosen, deliberately capitalised, and a knowing anagram – are the best rock & roll band in Australia. True, none of the judges are named Seal or Delta Goodrem or Keith Urban. But since when did The Voice have anything to do with rock & roll?
In this writer’s opinion, at least, they’re by far and away the most recklessly exciting group this city has produced since the Saints. No, they will never sell as many records as Powderfinger. But they have the charisma, the sound and most of all, the songs (real songs, with hooks and choruses and quite possibly the best set of riffs since AC/DC last had it up) to leave a lasting legacy.
HITS also have something that in this day and age shouldn’t be unique, but is: they’re a mixed-gender group with not one, but two female guitarists. Tamara Bell (who, just to add to the band’s volatile internal chemistry, has been in a relationship with Hunt for nearly a decade) plays with the demented fury of Angus Young trapped in Chrissy Amphlett’s body; Stacey Coleman pumps out the rhythm with a sneer to make Joan Jett blush.
Over them, and a thunderous rhythm section comprising bass player Andy Buchanan and New Zealand-born drummer Gregor Mulvey, Hunt pours out his frustrations and insecurities: stories of drinking, depression, drugs, going to rehab and failing: as he puts it in the title track of Living With You Is Killing Me, “I’m sorry baby, the 12 steps are too hard to climb.”
It’s the opposite of the usual model of female-fronted bands, or groups where women play stereotypically supportive roles (usually bass, following the examples of 1980s indie-rock icons Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth, and the Pixies’ Kim Deal). It gives HITS an immediate visual distinction.
The most striking thing about them, though, is the way they deliver their music on stage. The song titles tell the stories: Bitter And Twisted. Sometimes You Just Don’t Know Who Your Friends Are. Touch Of The Shorts. The End. But HITS aren’t in the least bit sorry for themselves. Far from depressing, they’re life-affirming.
Their shows are wild, joyous, hilarious, and sometimes, quite frankly, they’re terrible. But they’re never less than entertaining, not least because you can’t wipe the smiles off their faces. Even on a bad night, HITS are a glorious rock & roll band because, as one critic put it, “The compelling thing they have that most bands lack is personality. Dysfunctional rogue personality, just this side of out of control.” Really, they’re best summed up by another marvellously self-descriptive title: Loose Cannons.
EURO Double-Vision is actually a bit of a tour misnomer. After starting the adventure in Amsterdam (Whose damn fool idea was that?), 17 of the 20 shows are in France which, despite being better known for producing the late, great Serge Gainsbourg and shopping-mall staples Air, also harbours an perverse, enduring affection for Australian rock music.
It’s not just AC/DC, either. In terms of rock iconography, what we see everywhere – T-shirts, patches, badges, tour posters, you name it – is the distinctive logo of Sydney legends Radio Birdman who, along with the Saints, kicked off the punk movement in Australia back in the mid-1970s. (Rob Younger, Birdman’s ex-singer, is slated to produce HITS’ next album.)
The French connection to the Australian underground goes back in the 1980s. Bands inspired by or directly descended from the Saints/Birdman legacy – Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, Younger’s other band the New Christs – toured through Europe on the back of having their records picked up and distributed locally by a former Le Havre-based independent record label, Closer.
In more recent years, Brisbane bands like 6ftHick, the Vegas Kings and their respective offshoots, Gentle Ben and his Sensitive Side and Texas Tea, have all mounted successful tours here, supported by new labels like Beast (based in Rennes) and Turborock (Caen). And in many cases – in an exciting but sad echo of older musical exports like the Go-Betweens – they’re finding bigger, more enthusiastic audiences overseas than at home.
THE north-western peninsula of Brittany (Bretagne) is the centre for all this rock action. Just off the main streets of Rennes, Beast Records owner Seb Blanchais owns a shop at the bottom of the crooked timber framework of a 17th-century tenement block. It’s got an Australian record section fatter than anything I’ve seen in any comparable shop at home, stuffed full of rare and limited pressings.
On the outskirts of town, he runs a club called Mondo Bizarro, named after a late-period Ramones album. “The right place to rock!” it insists, on a poster advertising upcoming gigs stuck outside on its white stucco wall.
“I’m glad we’re not in the wrong place,” Bell says.
I look at the poster. They take all types here – from thrash to funk, folk to punk and all shades of heavy metal in between. Coming up soon, for example, is Cauchemar (“Quebec: Heavy Doom”) with special guests Children of Doom (“Lille: Doom Metal”). Really, the venue’s just an old house – the entrance hall’s been converted into a bar and there’s a stage mounted at one end of the lounge room – but it’s got buckets of atmosphere.
Upstairs, Bell warms up her voice. “Nothing suck-seeds like success,” she belts, quoting a line from one of the band’s songs, with added emphasis.
“It’s still there,” she says, reassured.
The small dressing room soon fills with enough smoke to gas us all. I wonder if Bell’s voice will still be there by the end of the night. Hunt, for his part, is already sure he has nodules on his vocal cords, which after seven years in HITS (and 13 more in other bands, including the notorious Strutter, whose sole album gloried in the title Motherfuckers From The Bowels Of Hell) is not surprising. He has two basic modes: scream, and scream harder, “Until your whole body is telling you it can’t do it any more.”
Coleman – who has a day job at home selling advertising for long-standing independent radio station 4ZZZ – returns from downstairs, where she’s been trying without success to get the attention of the sound guy. Every time she makes eye contact with him, he scuttles away. “I think he’s under the impression I’m a groupie,” she says. “I like it when they think that. Then they see me on stage…”
We all look around. I’m getting used to that sound. But it’s not Hunt this time. It’s one of the kids from the support band, Barbed Wire, who’s just spewed out the window. Not all of it’s made it to the pavement below, though: instead, he’s puked mostly onto Mulvey’s only towel, hanging over the sill to dry.
I decide to go outside.
BEN Salter – solo artist, leader of fellow Brisbane band the Gin Club and ace ex-Queen Street Mall Beatle-busker – has joined us on tour for a few days. He’s over here on a six-month songwriting grant, living out of a small suitcase, building a new fan base in Europe. Have guitar; will travel. He and Buchanan are quietly propping up the bar.
“You look like you’ve got The Fear, Staffo,” Salter says, noting my grey visage.
It sounds scary, but I’m not quite sure what he means. “It’s just generalised anxiety; existential dread,” he explains cheerfully. “Everyone on tour gets it at some point. It’s the drinking that does it.”
Gregor appears. He’d slipped off somewhere to find a kip – might have been a park bench, but then again, it might have been somebody’s front yard. He’s not quite sure.
“See, the fear just bounces off The Maori,” Salter says (an affectionate nickname, saluting the cherubic and very caucasian Mulvey’s Kiwi heritage). “It just ricochets, like ping-pong balls off a Centurion tank.”
Wait until he goes upstairs and sees his towel, I think.
Salter’s dad was a Vietnam veteran. Once, marching with him in an ANZAC Day parade, he tried to explain to some of his dad’s fellow diggers that he was a musician. He watched as they screwed up their faces, trying to understand his choice of vocation; the different ways you can measure success.
“Why don’t you go on Australian Idol?” one eventually offered, trying genuinely to be helpful.
Salter tried to explain, politely, how such a move would fly in the face of everything he was about. Buchanan nods. “It’s like wanting to be a Formula One driver and someone telling you that you should settle for driving taxis,” he says.
Some things can’t be explained. Most of the creative people I know – writers, musicians, visual artists – do what they do not just because they love it but because, more crucially, they have to; something inside of them is fighting to be released. And sometimes you need to feel the love of a new audience, to know that what you’re doing connects with people other than your friends in your own little corner of the world.
The show’s a blinder. HITS pull out a new song, Lost In The Somme, for the first time on tour. It’s a tribute to Hunt’s great-grandfather, who lost his life in one of the Great War’s worst catastrophes. The song is in two parts: a pure punk, machine-gun riff to open (the military pun is deliberate), a couple of verses, a chorus, then a pause, and Richie crumples to the floor as if shot.
The music slows to a grind, based on just a couple of chords. Now it’s the sound of battle, as though the band is wading through muck. Hunt is still on the floor, moaning. This continues for a couple of tortured minutes. Then the beat kicks in once more, double-time. Hunt’s back on his feet:
Yeah, that’s no way to go, no way to go Lost in the mud and snow, the mud and snow
Throughout the show, there’s a woman down the front, repeatedly grabbing at Hunt’s crotch. After the performance she propositions him boldly while a non-stop Ramones medley plays in the background.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I love my girlfriend very much.”
“I could just be your mistress,” she replies earnestly. But she’s out of luck.
WHEN he’s at home, Hunt does odd jobs at a bar in West End and builds sets for the Arts Theatre on Petrie Terrace. For years, he was a regular behind the counter of local institution Rocking Horse Records. He’s in his early 40s – no spring chicken in this game – but he’s nobody’s fool, either. He’s studied rock’s history and mythology intently, and he knows what works and what doesn’t.
“I spend so much time watching actors – how they deliver lines; how you can express so much with your body language and your hands,” he says. “It’s an important point of difference in our band. So many singers have their microphone stand [he mimics being glued to one]. I’m like, no mic stand!” (This changes by the end of the tour, by which time he’s using a stand with aplomb as an extra prop.)
He also knows when to get out of the way. “Usually when Tam’s playing a solo I try to stand over near her amp,” he says. “That’s something I picked up from Bon Scott. You don’t want to grandstand at those times. You want people to listen to the solo. They should, because it’s fucking great.”
There’s more to Bell than meets the eye, too. If HITS is mostly Hunt’s creative vision, Bell, 31, is the band’s heartbeat and moral centre. The classic Catholic schoolgirl who went off the rails in her youth, she’s made a successful return to mature-age study, and is completing her Honours in Justice after blitzing her undergraduate degree.
Earlier in the tour, after a vigorous debate about corruption in the Catholic Church with Buchanan – a UQ graduate with majors in classics and French who runs an education bookstore – she made a declaration. “We’re artists. We like to make rock & roll,” she declares. “But I’m not a dumb-arse rock & roller. None of us are. And I won’t pretend to be.”
THE last show of the tour is in Le Havre, in the basement of an Irish pub where the pipes are so superheated it feels more like Brisbane during a heatwave. We’re all exhausted and sick. A song by the Ramones, I Wanna Be Sedated, has become a recurring theme: “Get me to the airport, put me on a plane / Hurry, hurry, hurry / Before I go insane / I can’t control my fingers / I can’t control my brain.”
“Bonsoir, motherfuckers,” Hunt yells.
It’s a young crowd – kids in their teens and early 20s, mostly – and they go completely mental: one picks Hunt up during the first song and nearly succeeds in putting his head through the low ceiling, while Bell and Coleman are fending off stage invaders with their stilettos.
Getting pummelled in the mosh, I finally stagger from the front across the stage to the safety of the wings. It’s nearing the end of the second-last song of the tour, Peter And Paul. Richie suddenly approaches me at side of stage. There’s an evil grin on his face. He’s holding out the microphone to me.
You know what to do.
Rock & roll has always attracted misfits; people who don’t feel they have a place to go. If you never ran with the crowd at school – or the crowd never let you in – you may have found solace in the voices of Iggy. Or Morrissey. Or Patti.
“Outside of society,” Smith sang, “That’s where I wanna be.” You wouldn’t resign yourself to your status as an outcast: you would celebrate it. It’s a different kind of validation. HITS like to say they’re a celebration of resignation. Their songs are full of loneliness and pain and defeat and struggle. But what makes them special is their delivery, which is so joyful and inclusive.
I charge into the crowd to sing the last two choruses. I’m totally unprepared, and now it’s me who’s barely got any voice left; I’m not doing much more than hollering, really, but it doesn’t matter. The song finishes. I dive off the stage, and I haven’t done that since I was 20. A dozen hands hold me aloft.
I hear Hunt laughing his head off behind me. “Don’t drop him! Don’t drop him! We need him to drive us, just for one more day … Please don’t hurt him!”
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), 18 August 2012
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.'”
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.
If you’ve ever listened to any Stooges or Radio Birdman records, you’ll be familiar with the idea of the O-Mind. The concept came from a lyric in the Stooges’ Down In The Street: “floatin’ around on a real O-Mind”. In the literal sense, it meant the whacked-out bliss of a drug stupor. But musically, it meant something else: a state of transcendence where all earthly concerns fall away and you’re left focused on the only thing that matters, which is Right Now, the moment you’re in.
I’ve never seen it referred to as a kind of orgasm, but the effect is similar.
For the Stooges, the O-Mind was the musical holy grail. They were bent, as American critic Ann Powers once memorably put it, on touching rock’s molten core, and they did it again and again – on Down On The Street, on I Wanna Be Your Dog … Hell, the entire first two Stooges albums constitute a trip into the deepest recesses of the O-Mind. For the Stooges, pharmaceutical and personal psychosis was the inevitable result.
I saw the Real O-Mind last Thursday night. The band was New York City’s Endless Boogie, playing to a crowd of about 50 people at the Jubilee Hotel.
I generally hate jam bands. I prefer brevity: the Ramones are my favourite band ever, hands down. And if ever there was truth in advertising, Endless Boogie are well named – the infinity symbol adorns all their recordings. Despite that, there’s an economy and simplicity about what they do: find a riff; lock the groove; then drive the whole thing over a cliff. There’s touches of psychedelia, to be sure, but it’s not remotely progressive. Nothing is complicated for the sake of it.
Besides, their primary singer-guitarist, who’d been propping up an impressive merch stand up until that point, doesn’t look like Cousin Itt so much as a caveman. As soon as I spot him propping up an impressive merch stand, I know this is gonna be great.
He’s got long, long hair that hangs in his eyes, a row of stumps for teeth and he’s wearing the clothes he’s probably worn for a month. Calling him a singer is a stretch, since he doesn’t so much sing as gargle and howl and grunt, but you realise singing’s hardly the point once they launch into their first song and not a syllable’s been crooned after about eight minutes.
After about 12 minutes, there’s a power failure. The band, unfazed, continues – or rather, the drummer does. He doesn’t miss a beat. To play this music you need to be above all accurate, and this guy is a human metronome. There’s a bit of fiddling from the house engineer and we’re cooking again. The band plough on – and on. The song must clock in at over 20 minutes.
But length doesn’t matter in the way I might expect it to. Firstly, because it’s all about groove, it’s actually easy to dance to. And secondly, the longer some of these songs go, the better they seem. The guitar playing is clean and sharp and always tasteful. The music hits fantastic peaks, sustains them, backs away, then builds again. It’s mesmerising.
“Floating around on a real O-Mind” indeed.
It’s no exaggeration to say this changes the way I listen to music. I’m not sure if Endless Boogie are necessarily fantastically original – in fact, I’m sure they’re not. It makes me wonder about all those Hawkwind and Grand Funk Railroad records I’ve ignored all my life. Drawing on my more familiar reference points, it’s like Asheton-era Stooges crossed with Krautrock influences like Can or, more particularly, Neu!
There’s also more obvious classic-rock influences like Crazy Horse, and early ’70s Australian shit like Lobby Loyde’s Coloured Balls. (That connection’s underscored by the fact that Steven Malkmus, an avowed fan of the Balls, is also a fan of and friends with Endless Boogie, and has joined them on stage more than once.)
Now I’m at home, writing this blog and listening to Focus Level, their first album. It’s a double, of course, and stretches to the full 79 minutes – the maximum length a CD can handle. The reviews I’ve read haven’t been all that kind, so maybe it helps that I’ve seen them live, and am not reacting to it the way a time-poor critic needing to write a dozen McNugget-sized reviews might.
10. PAUL KELLY/KEV CARMODY – From Little Things Big Things Grow (1991, 1993)
The ultimate compromise choice on this list. Both Kelly and Carmody should feature individually in any compilation of great Australian songs, but which ones? In the end, I’ve gone for this co-write, initially recorded by Kelly for his 1991 album Comedy, then by Carmody (featuring Kelly) in 1993 for Bloodlines, with a single released the same year. It’s the story of the birth of the land rights movement in Australia, a campfire folk tune that a young Bob Dylan would have been proud of, and at least the equal of anything in either songwriter’s canon. Despite its 11 verses, it’s a story that tells itself; a masterclass in protest songwriting that wears its moral lightly.
9. FLAME TREES – Cold Chisel (1984)
Khe Sanh may be their signature tune, but this for me is the better one; a piece of heartland rock to rival anything by Bruce Springsteen: a small town, you and your mates, a boozy night of nostalgia, and a girl you can’t forget. Don Walker peels off line after line of unforgettable imagery here, and that middle-eight – “Do you remember, nothing stopped us on the field in our day” – never fails to stop me in my tracks. All credit, though, to Jimmy Barnes, who brings those words to life with the best white soul vocal this side of John Fogerty. After that, Barnes’ entire career has seemed like one long scream, as though he took the line “Ah! But who needs that sentimental bullshit anyway?” to heart. What a crying shame.
8. MIDNIGHT OIL – Power And The Passion (1982)
“People, wasting away, in paradise.” With that arresting opening line, Midnight’s Oil’s acerbic broadside to the I’m alright, Jack complacency of suburban Australia – along with US Forces, both from the band’s Armageddon-themed breakthrough 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – firmly established their political bona fides, while catapulting them into the top 10 for the first time. To do it, they deconstructed their earlier surf-rock sound with the aid of producer Nick Launay, creating a new template that was complex, attacking and immensely powerful. Rob Hirst’s solo ensured he topped “best drummer” rock magazine polls for a decade to come, and a final blast of brass pushes this most ambitious of songs over the edge.
7. CROWDED HOUSE – Don’t Dream It’s Over (1986)
Aside from being an enormous hit both locally and in the US (where it reached number two), I’m not sure that Don’t Dream It’s Over can lay claim to any wider significance. It’s just a superlative pop song. Neil Finn’s bright, chiming guitar riff sets the pace and tone, and there’s the lovely Hammond organ break that many have compared to Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale. But really, this is all about the chorus, purpose-built for couples around the world as they do their best to outlast the kitchen-sink trials of everyday life: “Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over / Hey now, hey now, when the world comes in / They come, they come, to build a wall between us / You know that they won’t win.” Even non-smokers like me needed a lighter to fire up for that one.
6. THE SAINTS – (I’m) Stranded (1976)
The first independently produced rock single in Australia, the Saints’ mighty debut not only beat fellow punk precursors Radio Birdman onto plastic, but also British counterparts the Damned and the Sex Pistols. In doing so, they inspired hundreds, if not thousands of others around the world, while kicking off a social revolution in their native Brisbane – which they quickly left. Dubbed “Single of This and Every Week” by British magazine Sounds after exported copies began arriving in Old Blighty, Stranded arrived like an emergency telegram from a lost land: such is its urgency, there’s no time for a guitar solo. (The B-side, which actually was called No Time, did have a solo – of one whole note.)
5. THE SEEKERS – The Carnival Is Over (1965)
For a long time, I was no fan of the Seekers. Simpering folk tunes like Georgie Girl did nothing for me. Then, in early 2009, I attended RocKwiz’s salute to the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, and Judith Durham closed the show with this old Russian folk tune (no surprise there; aside from Seekers gigs, the song has become synonymous with bringing the curtain down on major events in Australia). The purity of Durham’s voice, her power and control, cut through the still night air. I think I was among the first on my feet for the inevitable but deserved ovation. It’s been covered by everyone from Nick Cave to Boney M.
4. THE EASYBEATS – Sorry (1966)
In compiling this list, I’ve tried to strike a balance between genres, eras, cultural impact and unapologetic, if occasionally boneheaded personal favouritism. It’s purely the latter that leads me to choose this song over Friday On My Mind. That’s a masterpiece of pop sophistication, but this is raw R&B, as tough as anything cut by the early Rolling Stones, and thus I simply prefer it. Marking the dawn of Easyfever, it confirmed rock & roll was here to stay in Australia: George Young’s choppy rhythm guitar prefigures his younger brothers’ work in AC/DC, while Stevie Wright’s exuberant vocals – particularly his “I-I-I-e-I-I-I-I” outro – are completely infectious.
3. THE WARUMPI BAND – My Island Home (1987)
It’s funny that a song occasionally touted as an alternative national anthem is not about Australia at all, at least not per se. The Warumpi Band were formed in Papunya, in the deserts west of Alice Springs, and this achingly homesick song was written by the band’s white guitarist, Neil Murray, for their proud Yolngu singer: “home” in this case is actually the late George Burrawanga’s birthplace of Elcho Island, in north-east Arnhem Land. Burrawanga’s high, spiritual voice is perfect for the tune’s stately, hymn-like build; if your pulse doesn’t quicken with the tempo at 2.51, best check you’ve still got one. Belatedly made famous by Christine Anu’s hit version in 1995, but really, you can’t beat the original.
2. THE TRIFFIDS – Wide Open Road (1986)
As lonely, desolate and beautiful a song as any ever written, Wide Open Road is also based on the simplest of cyclical chord progressions (G-C-G-Em-Am). The song soars on Jill Birt’s sparse keyboards – note, again, the long, droning note that introduces the track, producing a vast, panoramic vista – with Alsy McDonald’s unusual kick-drum rhythm keeping the whole thing from floating away. Atop it all is the late, great David McComb’s commanding baritone: never forced, committed only to the story at hand, he matches naturalistic imagery with powerfully erotic longing. This is songwriting as a roadmap to the soul.
1. AC/DC – It’s A Long Way To The Top (1975)
It was hard not to put Wide Open Road here, but for me, It’s A Long Way To The Top is the one that still says it all. It exemplifies fundamental truths, not only about rock & roll, but AC/DC: the heart of the band is neither Angus Young nor Bon Scott (who liked to refer to himself as “the lightning flash in the middle”), but Malcolm Young. AC/DC are a rhythm machine: without Malcolm’s distinctive chop, the band is nothing; without the riff, rock & roll ceases to exist. Bon Scott’s high, wild vocal is joyous; his lyrics as economical as the music. This isn’t about the rock & roll lifestyle: it’s a metaphor for life itself, and it’s as real as it ever was – bagpipes and all.
AND HERE’S 10 MORE THAT COULD’VE/SHOULD’VE MADE IT …
The Loved Ones – The Loved One (1965)
Not Drowning, Waving – Sing Sing (1987; 1991)
You Am I – Purple Sneakers (1995)
The Master’s Apprentices – Turn Up Your Radio (1970)
Lime Spiders – Slave Girl (1984)
Ed Kuepper – The Way I Made You Feel (1991)
X – I Don’t Wanna Go Out (1980)
Died Pretty – DC (1991)
The Stems – At First Sight (1987)
The Passengers – It’s Just That I Miss You (1979).
Now it starts to get hard! This is where I start to become ultra-conscious of who and what’s getting left out. The songs get harder to put in any kind of order. And I haven’t made it any easier for myself – I found I’d written Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat down twice in my initial list of 40 (hmm – should that make it higher?), meaning I now have to find an entirely new song that’s magically going to vault straight into my top 20! Choices, choices…
20. BILLY THORPE & THE AZTECS – Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy (1972)
This wasn’t the song, by the way. I always had this one in here. (I won’t cheapen which one it actually is by revealing it.) But, in short: what a wonderful chord progression this is, and what a great lyric, that anyone who’s ever got shitfaced in a bar with their friends should be able to relate to. Don’t we all, deep down, feel a little crazy as we try to navigate our way through a world we never asked to be born into? To be honest, I struggle to understand the fuss about much of Thorpie’s catalogue, but props to him for this brilliant common touch.
19. HOODOO GURUS – Like Wow Wipeout! (1985)
This one is all about the beat, hammered home by a human metronome called Mark Kingsmill (Richard’s older brother). Two chords and a chorus that rhymes “walk” and “talk” do the rest. But that beat! It’s a stomp made for football stadiums, and though the Hoodoo Gurus didn’t quite reach that level of success, it’s true that for a while, cricket fans would hold up placards reading “Like Wow Wipeout!”, usually after a six was struck in a one-day game. As a humbled Dave Faulkner noted, the real stars in Australia are our sports heroes anyway.
18. HUNTERS & COLLECTORS – Throw Your Arms Around Me (1984; re-recorded 1986)
A lot of folks would have this higher, and I can understand why. Crowded House recognised its potential by making it a staple of their live shows for years, but had too much respect for the song to even attempt recording it. (Of course, the Crowdies may have been biased; their bass player Nick Seymour was the brother of the song’s author Mark.) Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper have also covered it. So why wasn’t this now beloved tune a hit? It’s true that both the 1984 single and 1986 album recordings, by radio standards of the day, are rough and ready, and that probably cruelled Throw Your Arms Around Me’s chances at the time. But that surely says more about the tin ears of the fools that made such dumb decisions. Really, how could anyone not like this song?
17. SUNNYBOYS – Alone With You (1981)
Like Throw Your Arms Around Me, this song touches with its directness. But whereas the former track is a timeless soul ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place if recorded by Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett in the 1960s, the Sunnyboys were fans of the Kinks, the Remains and Radio Birdman, and the urgency of Alone With You is a reflection of that. Jeremy Oxley was a prodigy until tragically cut down by illness: his lyrics are straight to the point, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and his voice is effortlessly warm and natural. And just when you think this magical song can’t get any better – having already somehow found room for not one but two solos, with not a note wasted – he uncorks a third, pealing effort to take the song out. Wow.
16. RUSSELL MORRIS – The Real Thing (1969)
If you were under the misapprehension that Johnny Young was just that prat from Young Talent Time and that Molly Meldrum’s contribution to Australian music began and ended with Countdown, you need to hear this amazing song. Written by Young, produced by Meldrum, and sung/spoken in tongues by Russell Morris with unusual fervour, is this a hippy anthem or proto-punk madness? I’m not sure, but Little Richard would be proud of this inspired nonsense: “Come and see the real thing, come and see the real thing. Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow, oo-mow-ma-mow-mow.” Confused? Don’t worry, Morris can explain: “There’s meaning there, but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing.” (And get well, Molly.)
15. THE CHURCH – Under The Milky Way (1988)
Like the Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, or the Stranglers’ Golden Brown, or Johnny Thunders’ more direct Chinese Rocks, this could be an ode to heroin, which singer/bassist/writer Steve Kilbey has admitted to having a passionate relationship with. Or maybe that’s just a thought implanted by this song’s opaque, narcotic haze. It drifts blissfully by in a wash of 12-string acoustic splendour, with Kilbey murmuring gently in your ear like a slightly more stoned Lou Reed, with not even an e-bow solo destroying the effect (that’s the one that makes Peter Koppes’ guitar sound like bagpipes). After that unexpectedly noisy interlude, you’re back in a stoned stupor, Kilbey’s whispering again, and a more conventional but even more psychedelic guitar solo – with just a hint of wah-wah this time – drops you gently back to earth.
14. ARCHIE ROACH – Took The Children Away (1990)
“This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.” And with that declaration, Archie Roach tells you his story, and the story of his people, with such quiet, understated hurt that the challenge for the listener is to get to the end of the song without weeping. It succeeds for two reasons: Roach’s words forced white people to imagine – as Paul Keating noted we failed to do, in his famous Redfern Speech two years later – these things being done to us. But songs don’t work as essays or speeches, even when they’re this well written. The real power comes from Roach’s beautiful singing: full of humility, grace, and unspeakable pain, it never forces itself on the listener. But it compelled a nation to listen and – eventually – say sorry.
13. THE REELS – Quasimodo’s Dream (1981)
A mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a riddle, Quasimodo’s Dream – which writer Dave Mason has disparaged as “just complete rubbish when you listen to it” – doesn’t seem to add up to anything. That hasn’t kept other singers and songwriters including Jimmy Little (who gave it several new dimensions) and Kate Ceberano (who missed the mark with an upbeat dance pop/big band approach) from going back to it, trying to tease something fresh from its haunting, otherworldly beauty. The key to its effectiveness is the tender conviction which Mason invests in those spooked, baffling lyrics, making this slow, sparse song sound clammy and claustrophobic. Whatever you end up making of it, once heard, it never leaves you.
12. THE GO-BETWEENS – Cattle And Cane (1983)
Written on a battered acoustic guitar belonging to Nick Cave while the Go-Betweens were squatting with the Birthday Party in dank London, Cattle And Cane is nonetheless the ultimate expression of their “striped sunlight sound”. Its acoustic/electric texture and tension – thanks largely to Lindy Morrison’s quirky, shifting time signatures – created, as bass player Robert Vickers noted, a song that was “complex but also memorable, which is an almost impossible thing in music”. Every part works, even the perfectly weighted bass solo that underpins the guitar break, with the late, great Grant McLennan’s gorgeous, heartfelt vignettes of growing up in north Queensland front and centre. Has a singer ever had more sincere eyebrows than this man?
11. THE BEE GEES – Spicks And Specks (1966)
What do you say about this? Younger generations have the introductory piano theme tattooed on their brains, thanks to the ABC’s long-running and much loved music trivia show; older Australians will never have forgotten it. The military march of the drums and punchy arrangement, topped off by a trumpet finale, never swamps the best harmony pop/boy band Australia ever produced. It’s too bad that their lack of success in Australia at the time forced the Brothers Gibb to return to their native England in late 1966 – while still at sea, they found out Spicks And Specks had become their first number one hit.