Tagged: Regurgitator

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

Custard: Come Back, All Is Forgiven

Back in 1999, paraphrasing the band’s biggest hit, girls like that didn’t go for guys like the ones in Custard. These days – on the band’s first album since that year’s Loverama – David McCormack laments: “We are the parents our parents warned us about”. Talk about truth in advertising! Once, Custard played dag rock; now they play dad rock. And why shouldn’t they? They are dads, after all.

A comeback record was always going to be a more difficult proposition for Custard than most. That’s because a key part of the band’s appeal was an innocence that often tripped over into a playful sense of anarchy. Their early recordings, especially, are full of the exuberance and abandon that marks one’s late teens and early 20s. And anyone who’s ever grown up knows how difficult that feeling is to recapture.

So, yes: Come Back, All Is Forgiven is the sound of a band that’s matured, at least a bit. Trying to reclaim that innocence wouldn’t have been very, well, sensible. Indeed, it would have made Custard sound silly. From a fan’s point of view, though, enjoying this record might depend on how much they’ve grown up, too – and whether or not they still want Custard to sound silly on their behalf.

To be fair, it’s not as if the band achieved said maturity during their long layoff. Their drummer, Glenn Thompson, reckons this is the album they might have made had they still been together in 2001. That’s probably right, but Custard were already a very different group by then than they were in 1991; some of the joie de vivre that was essential to their DNA had already been lost. They didn’t break up for nothing.

Thankfully, Custard haven’t lost their sense of humour – or irony. On the album’s key track, 1990s (the source of Come Back, All Is Forgiven’s title), McCormack wallows in nostalgia for an ex-girlfriend called Catherine as a metaphor for his band’s return: “OK, OK, I think it’s over.” As pre-emptive strikes go, this is up there with Regurgitator’s I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff.

More importantly, it’s a great tune, with a lilting melody, mid-paced tempo and a lovely, hazy coda that increases the listener’s sense of longing for something you can’t get back. The album’s opener, Orchids In Water, similarly features a lazy groove and an easy country-rock feel that recalls one of McCormack and Thompson’s little-known earlier bands, COW (an acronym for Country or Western).

On We Are The Parents (Our Parents Warned Us About), McCormack throws out this classic Custard line: “We can spell scientist correctly / And know all your local codes, exactly.” This acknowledgment is followed by rueful acceptance: “We must have made a deal with someone up above, or down.” All it needs is a reference to Enrique Iglesias for the circle back to Girls Like That to be complete.

Thompson gets two songwriting credits, for Warren Road and the much spikier (and more arresting) Contemporary Art, a kind of sequel to Music Is Crap, from the band’s 1997 album We Have The Technology – one of several novelty songs that, for many fans, helped define was Custard was all about. It’s also the most rock & roll song on the album, along with the hilarious 65-second thrash of If You Would Like To.

It would have been funnier if Thompson had called it Contemporary Art Is Crap. But that would have sounded desperate – and Custard are not desperate to be anything other than who they are now. Come Back, All Is Forgiven sounds exactly like what it is: four guys in their mid-40s, casually knocking out a bunch of songs most bands half their age would kill for. Just don’t expect to do the Wahooti Fandango to it.

First published in The Guardian, 6 November 2015

PJ Harvey’s bubble bursts

It’s tough to be critical of Polly Jean (PJ) Harvey. As an artist, her place in history is secure: hailed as the world’s best songwriter by Rolling Stone upon the release of her first album, Dry, in 1992, Harvey is the sole dual winner of the Mercury Music Prize (first for Stories Of The City, Stories Of The Sea, released in 2000, then for Let England Shake, released in 2011). And she’s not just a critic’s darling – she bears the royal seal of approval, having been awarded an MBE for her services to music in 2013.

So a new release by PJ Harvey is a certifiable event. And the usually reserved singer/songwriter is making sure that the follow-up to Let England Shake will be noticed: she’s recording it behind one-way glass at Somerset House in London, turning the studio into an “mutating, multi-dimensional sound sculpture”.

In effect, PJ Harvey is turning herself into an exhibit, and hopes the audience “will be able to experience the flow and energy of the recording process”. London-based art commissioning organisation Artangel has said in a statement: “The working process of a project has always been as important to us as its public presentation, and here both can be fully explored and revealed at the same time.”

But while Harvey is likely to be lauded for her bravery and originality, in England at least, Australian fans will hear an echo bouncing off the glass walls of the prosaically named “Recording In Process” studio. For this has been well and truly, and very publicly, done before: Brisbane mavericks Regurgitator pioneered the concept by recording their fifth album Mish Mash for their Band In A Bubble project in 2004. The entire spectacle was filmed and broadcast by Channel V.

There’s a certain irony in this situation, for as their name suggests, Regurgitator are self-styled cultural cannibals: their biggest hit ! (The Song Formerly Known As) was named for its self-conscious approximation of Prince’s classic ’80s period. The line between cannibalism, plagiarism and homage is treacherous, but in the case of choosing to record your album in a glass studio, the difference seems fairly clear-cut. Regurgitator was never approached, and the concept has not been optioned, by either Artangel or PJ Harvey’s management.

Was Harvey aware of Regurgitator’s earlier project? Was her management? Was Artangel? Was Melbourne-based Mick Harvey, formerly of the Bad Seeds and a long-time member of PJ Harvey’s band? If they were, were they hoping her Teflon-coated reputation would protect them, or were they banking on Regurgitator’s relative lack of overseas recognition? (Both Artangel and representatives for PJ Harvey were contacted for comment; neither had responded by deadline.)

The man behind the original bubble idea is Regurgitator’s manager, Paul Curtis, who devised the concept himself in 1999 and has been trying – unsuccessfully to date – to involve Australian art galleries in further “recording in process” productions. And in fairness, as he points out, there are some significant differences in approach between the two projects. Unlike Regurgitator, Harvey and her band aren’t living in their “bubble”, aren’t on camera, and are performing behind one-way glass: they can’t see or interact with their audience.

Also, visitors to Somerset House have limited viewing “windows” in which to watch the artist at work: the sold-out 45-minute public sessions are from 3pm and 6pm from Tuesday to Friday, and 1pm to 3pm on Saturdays. “The only interaction is the actual awareness that at various points there is an audience present,” Curtis says, “and thus a potentially more contrived engagement around those moments of ‘performance’, versus continual exposure.”

Certainly, for anyone familiar with the long breaks, technical delays and numbing repetition that characterise the average recording session, a paying audience will be hoping to catch the rare moments where the magic really happens. Harvey, too, will be aware of this. In this sense, Regurgitator’s project was actually a far more radical (and certainly braver) experiment. However, the resulting album Mish Mash was poorly received, possibly a backlash against what was widely viewed as a gimmicky production: ironically, the band were seen as over-exposed.

Curtis is now hoping that Harvey’s album may lead to a renewed interest in building on his original vision, both in Australia and overseas. “We had proposed a re-envisioned art gallery version of the concept under the title Composition in Glass,” he explains. “This idea was much more extreme in approach than Band In A Bubble or Recording In Progress and more about an interactive installation, pushing both the art world and music industry into dada-ist experimental levels.”

So far, an underwhelming response from galleries, combined with scheduling difficulties with the band – singer/guitarist Quan Yeomans lives in Hong Kong and has just become a father; bassist/singer Ben Ely has returned to Brisbane, while drummer Pete Kostic lives in Sydney – have prevented a fulfilment of Curtis’ vision.

“All I can say is the music industry is a shallow bed more often remade with cheap imitation rather than fresh sheets,” he says. “What we did 10 years ago came from a place of experimentation, play and outsider attitudes. I know there were detractors at the time, but maybe now someone who is perceived as a ‘credible artist’ puts it in a different perspective.”

First published in The Guardian, 8 January 2015

Too far gone: The return of the Hard-Ons

NB: This is a really old piece, from 1999. It was originally written for Rolling Stone (Australia) but never got published. I found it when I was going through some old papers at home – and thought I may as well give it one.

It’s a Thursday night at the University of New South Wales Roundhouse, and the new, improved and reformed Hard-Ons are rampaging through Suck & Swallow. As the song descends into a maelstrom of noise, Peter Black is making like Nigel, Spinal Tap’s spandex-clad guitar hero. After a final squeal of feedback, there’s a pause. “As you get older,” Blackie tells us, “you become even more of a wanker.”

The Hard-Ons began their meteoric rise (OK, OK – that’s the first and last bad pun of this story) in 1982, as teenagers growing up in Sydney’s western suburbs. Blackie, bassist Ray Ahn and singer/drummer Keish de Silva went on to become one of Australia’s greatest ever singles bands, and probably punk’s unlikeliest success story.

Between 1985 and 1993, the Hard-Ons topped the Australian independent charts with an incredible 17 consecutive releases and made significant inroads overseas with a succession of high-energy, ultra-melodic gems. Career sales figures are conservatively estimated at around the 250,000 mark, although Blackie will tell you that “a quarter of a million sounds better”.

But in 1994, crushed by the underwhelming response to the band’s blistering fourth album Too Far Gone – which took the band away from its pop-punk roots and into the realm of pure white noise – the Hard-Ons called it quits. At the same time, the Offspring and Green Day jumped the train the Hard-Ons abandoned and rode off into a multi-platinum sunset.

“By Too Far Gone we’d taken up listening to anything but pop-punk,” remembers Ray. “I remember when we did the Smell My Finger mini-album [in 1986], our favourite band at the time was the Descendents. But by the time Too Far Gone came around, we were all listening to different stuff.”

Blackie and Ray formed Nunchukka Superfly, while Keish left for Australia Post. The Hard-Ons, they said, were spiritually dead. Four years on, there’s a 40-date tour of Europe planned, a high-voltage new single Small Talk and a band-picked, remastered best-of set to complement the 1994 singles/rarities compilation A Decade Of Rock.

It’s to be hoped that the Hard-Ons will come back to a more supportive climate than the one they grew up so publicly in. For years, their name – coined by Keish when they were just 14 – made them Australia’s equivalent of the Butthole Surfers. “It turned a lot of people off,” admits Blackie. “It gave us a childish sort of image which was hard to shake.”

“Remember Girl Monstar?” Ray says. “They were supporting us one night in north Queensland, and outside the venue they had this sign, ‘Band plus Girl Monstar.’ We were the band. They wouldn’t print the name.”

Deliberately obnoxious lyrics added further ammunition to the band’s many domestic critics, who failed to appreciate that songs with titles like Suck & Swallow ultimately couldn’t be taken any more seriously than I Farted or Kill Your Mum. “If you get offended by that, then you get offended by Tom And Jerry,” Ray says.

These days, industry ageism and nostalgia for the band’s early material are the more dangerous adversaries. Ray again: “There’s no way we could play back then as well as we do now. You get people saying that our best record was our first one and that we can’t possibly top it. Well, I beg to differ.”

Blackie says that the band’s rough treatment at home is the only thing that left a bitter taste in his mouth. Otherwise, what’s not to love about being a Hard-On? “We were very lucky that we decided to take ourselves overseas, because whenever it got shitty here, we’d just say, ‘Time for another European tour! Hey, let’s throw in Japan as well this time!’”

Besides, he says proudly, the Hard-Ons have done plenty for Australian music, leaving their imprint on a generation of bands from southern California to Sweden, and at home from Spiderbait to Regurgitator to Ben Lee’s first band, Noise Addict.

“Ben Lee used to send us his demo tapes,” says Ray. “That’s pretty cool, because he goes out with Claire Danes. Fuck the money, why can’t we get Claire Danes? But as far as I can see, we didn’t miss any boat. Because when we were out there, there was no boat leaving the port.”

Brisbane will go on without you, Bridie

It was Tex Perkins who put it best – and most bluntly. “Brisbane you have to leave,” the singer known to his mum as Greg told the Australian edition of Rolling Stone. “You come out of your mother, you go to school, and then you think, oh shit – what am I doing here?” That was 20 years ago.

Young people have been leaving Brisbane for as long as they’ve been coming out of their mothers, to use Tex’s ever so delicate vernacular. It was almost compulsory during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years – a musician friend of mine remembers the police telling him, point blank, that people like him weren’t welcome in Queensland.

That sort of harassment goes back a long way. Matt Condon’s book Three Crooked Kings, which describes how corruption was allowed to take root in pre-Fitzgerald Queensland, remembers how police commissioner Frank Bischof used to hand out starched and collared shirts and ties to the local bodgies and widgies in the 1950s.

Now, apparently, the writers, musicians and (gasp) hospitality workers are all leaving again, according to the recently decamped Bridie Jabour. I can’t blame her: after all, I too left Brisbane for Sydney when I was 25. I used to walk to work from Paddington to William Street thinking I’d made it. That was my first mistake.

It wasn’t until I accepted a $30,000 salary to be a staff writer on a well-regarded national publication, commuting a couple of hours a day from Bondi to the North Shore for the privilege, that my tempestuous love affair with the Emerald City turned toxic. I’d had her, she’d had me, and I returned to Brisbane, my tail between my legs.

It was a city in the middle of a metamorphosis. And at this point I should point out that I wasn’t originally a Brisbane native: I’d moved up from Melbourne with my parents as a teenager in 1987, the year of Joh for PM; The Moonlight State (as exposed by Four Corners) and the Fitzgerald Inquiry that tore the whole rotten system down.

It’s fair to say that moving from Melbourne to Pig City back then was more like being beamed down onto another planet. At the time, the local wallopers were busy ripping condom vending machines from the walls of university campuses on Bjelke-Petersen’s orders.

The premier had an ally in Bob Katter, then the state minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Condoms, Katter thundered, were despicable things that would do nothing to prevent the spread of AIDS but would encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon. Yes. He really said that.

I had been humbled by my Sydney experience and needed a reason to be back in Brisbane, so I decided to write a book about my adopted home town and its music scene – the same one depleted years earlier by harassment at the hands of Joh’s shock troopers; the same one that had, incredibly, given us the Saints and the Go-Betweens.

By the time of my return in 2000, Powderfinger was the biggest band in the country; Regurgitator (whose singer I’d been to school with) were local legends and Savage Garden – remember them? – had just sold 20 million records in America. From the Saints to Savage Garden: it sort of had a ring to it. How on earth did that happen?

It sure wasn’t by leaving for Sydney: if Bridie wants to find a local scene there, she’s going to have to dig way underground, into the city’s warehouses and house parties, especially now the Annandale Hotel has closed its doors. Once, Sydney was one of the world’s great music cities – in the decade between 1977 to 1987. Not any more.

Sure, others including writers, hospitality workers and maybe even a few tradies, as well as professionals, have moved – to Melbourne. But more have returned, or simply decided to stay, seeing not a responsibility to “take out the trash”, but the opportunities afforded by a growing city.

As a journalist who’s been there, I sympathise with Jabour’s need to leave a medium-sized town in search of new career challenges. But she seems stuck in the “slatternly, ugly” view of Brisbane so poetically described by David Malouf in Johnno. That was in 1975, and he was talking about Brisbane in the decades-past tense even then.

It’s simply not true to say that all the young artists are leaving anyway, as Jabour claims, citing as evidence an ABC story that, in fact, reports the exact opposite. Even if it was, the assumption that only people in their 20s can contribute to a city’s creative life is especially grating.

The truth is that lots of people have used Brisbane as a “professional stepping stone” before Bridie, and plenty more will in the future. The ones who choose to stay, or return, have taken the time to explore the river, and its mangrove-lined creeks and tributaries. They’re teeming with life – if only you have an idea where to look.

Flowers in the wheelie bin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.