For Queenslanders of a certain age, there is so much about the rise of Donald Trump that seems eerily familiar. For 19 years, his prehistoric ancestor ruled the swamps of Australia’s deep north – a hillbilly dictator who beat up protesters and confounded the media with complete gibberish while a dark web of corruption flourished behind him. Thankfully, Joh Bjelke-Petersen didn’t have the codes, or a Twitter account.
At the time, the sheer lunacy of Bjelke-Petersen seemed beyond the reach of satirists, despite there being numerous comedic imitators of Joh’s folksy, stammering idiosyncrasies. These days, it’s getting harder to convince people who weren’t there that certain things actually happened, such as police being sent to university campuses on pre-dawn raids to rip condom-vending machines from toilet walls in 1987.
When he was eventually rolled by his own party, Joh locked himself in his parliamentary annex for days, phoning Buckingham Palace seeking Her Majesty’s intervention. If that’s not enough, imagine the corpulent figure of Russ Hinze – the minister for everything – bent at the waist, peering through the keyhole with tears streaming down his cheeks, beseeching his master: “Joh! Maaaate! It’s over!”
For many of those who lived through it, though, Bjelke-Petersen’s iron-fisted rule was no laughing matter. Apologists for his regime occasionally wave away the vast and vicious corruption uncovered by the Fitzgerald Inquiry that ignominiously ended his career as a victimless crime. Those people need to read Matt Condon’s extraordinary Three Crooked Kings trilogy and count the bodies.
The truly nasty, brutish side of Joh’s regime is mostly sidestepped in Joh For PM (yes, that really happened too), a musical comedy by playwright Stephen Carleton and composer Paul Hodge. What’s striking about it, 30 years after his downfall, is how prescient it is, as though this utterly reactionary figure was some kind of seer. References and parallels to the present day are deliberate, frequent and often uncanny.
Southern journalists, for example, are described thus: “They come up here and write fake news. We need someone to build a wall between us and them!” There’s also his press secretary Allen Callaghan (a show-stealing turn by Kurt Phelan), who describes himself to his boss as “Henry Higgins to your Eliza Doolittle”. Callaghan teaches him to “feed the chooks”, telling him “It’s good TV to try to keep them confused.”
It’s as if the satire has somehow had time to catch up. Some of these songs seem to have written themselves – The White Shoe Shuffle, for example, which skewers the so-called white shoe brigade of Gold Coast developers, and which cleverly riffs on the jitterbug of Wham!’s contemporary hit Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Don’t You Worry About That, similarly, nods to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.
It’s campy, glorious fun, and if it has a weakness, it makes Joh, who’s well played by Colin Lane, look dumber than he was. As one song points out, much of his rise, from local member to minister to deputy to premier – thanks to his predecessor Jack Pizzey dropping dead of a heart attack – seemed accidental, if not divine intervention. But you don’t stay premier for 19 years without ruthlessness and rat cunning.
Joh had both in spades. Like Trump, it’s easy to make him look like a bumptious fool, but it’s perfectly possible to be a bumptious fool and a dangerous megalomaniac at the same time. To suggest that Joh was largely directed by those around him – his wife Flo (Barb Lowing, whose song Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy is a highlight); Callaghan; his pilot Beryl – is a mistake.
But Joh For PM also gets one thing right: his progeny are all around us. Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter (who described the aforementioned condom-vending machines as “despicable things that would do nothing to help prevent the spread of AIDS, but would encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon”), Jacqui Lambie, Clive Palmer, and even Kevin Rudd have all taken a lead from Joh’s dinosaur footprints.
The show was greeted with a standing ovation at The Powerhouse. Among them was Mike Ahern, who briefly replaced Bjelke-Petersen as National Party premier and whom Queenslanders can thank, along with the late police minister Bill Gunn, for having the political and moral courage to institute the Fitzgerald Inquiry that resulted in their party being cast into the wilderness for decades.
Famously, Ahern promised to implement Fitzgerald’s recommendations “lock, stock and barrel”. He didn’t survive long enough as premier to fulfil his pledge, and is an almost forgotten figure today. Described as a “sneaky Roman Catholic” by his devout Lutheran adversary – a line that had him visibly shaking with laughter – he had every right to feel vindicated, both by history and by this highly enjoyable play.
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.
The images went around the world. The snapshots of the Great Barrier Reef, from Cairns to Torres Strait, looked more like a pile of bones than coral. Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville, was surveying the reef by plane and helicopter. It was, he wrote on 26 March, “the saddest trip of my life”.
From 22 March, Hughes criss-crossed 520 individual reefs in four days, covering 3200 kilometres by air. Just four showed no evidence of bleaching. The further north Hughes travelled, over what were once the most pristine waters of the reef, unspoiled by the runoff that pollutes the south, the worse the bleaching became. Fringing reefs in Torres Strait, he said, were “completely white”.
The Australian Institute of Marine Science currently has 300 researchers swarming over the reef, complementing the aerial surveys. Reefs are scored on a scale of zero, which indicates no bleaching, to four, which means more than 60 per cent is bleached. Their observations have replicated Hughes’. In the meantime, Hughes has continued southwards, trying to find a limit to the unfolding tragedy beneath him.
Like most scientists, Hughes prefers to talk in numbers. “I wouldn’t talk about the Barrier Reef dying or the killing of the reef or whatever. I think that’s overstating it,” he says. “I’ll say what number of reefs we’ve surveyed, how many are severely bleached and how many are not severely bleached – but then often the language gets changed, depending on the style of reporting by particular outlets.”
To clarify, bleached coral is not dead coral. It’s just very unhealthy. Varying combinations of heat stress, bright sunlight and poor water quality cause coral to expel the algae, or zooxanthellae, on which it feeds, and which also gives it its brilliant colour. This exposes the limestone skeleton beneath. Different types of coral are more susceptible to bleaching than others.
Hughes is clear, though: this is really, really serious. “There’s a window of opportunity to survey the corals when they’re severely bleached, because after a few weeks they start to die, and then the skeletons get covered in seaweed and you can’t see them from the air anymore,” he says. “We timed our northern surveys to coincide with the peak whiteness of the reefs, before there was significant mortality.”
North of Cooktown, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is now reporting up to 50 per cent mortality rates. The full extent of the damage, Hughes says, will take months to unfold. “Different corals linger for longer before they die – and also, of course, some of them won’t die, they will recover. I’d expect most of the corals from Cairns southwards to recover.”
When Hughes returned from his first sojourn north, his phone rang off the hook. In the week before 7 April, according to the media monitoring company Meltwater, the story was reported more than 1000 times in 70 countries. Video footage given to ABC TV’s 7.30 and later used by the World Wildlife Fund has been viewed more than four million times. “It’s fair to say it’s getting more coverage outside Australia than inside,” Hughes says.
By any objective measure, the bleaching of the reef is a massive story. It’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world – the only Australian environmental feature to be granted such status. It’s home to about 215 species of birds, 30 types of whales or dolphins, half a dozen kinds of sea turtle, and 10 per cent of the entire world’s species of fish.
Any potential danger to the reef is economic and diplomatic as much as environmental. According to a Deloitte study commissioned by the Australian government in 2013, its value to the national economy is about $5.7 billion annually. It attracts two million international visitors each year. It employs close to 70,000 people on a full-time basis.
There have been some efforts to inform people about the devastation under way on the reef in the media. News Corp’s The Cairns Post – with a local readership whose livelihoods are directly threatened – has reported the issue, as has Fairfax’s Brisbane Times. But in Queensland’s only statewide newspaper you wouldn’t have read about Hughes’ findings or their ramifications. Since his surveys began, The Courier-Mail hasn’t interviewed him, nor sent one of its journalists into the field to verify either his or his colleagues’ observations.
“It basically shows they’re either in denial about the science,” says Ian Lowe, emeritus professor in the School of Science at Griffith University, “or they’re colluding in obscuring the science so the community don’t understand the threats being posed to the reef, both by climate change and by the associated acidification of the oceans, both of which put real pressure on corals.”
On 25 March, the day Hughes completed his survey of the northern section of the reef, the newspaper ran a short piece on page three, lambasting Greenpeace for sharing an image of bleached coral taken in American Samoa that was incorrectly labelled as being from the Barrier Reef.
Last week, on 7 April, The Courier-Mail ran on its front page a story titled “David Attenborough’s verdict: Still the most magical place on Earth”, accompanied by a picture of the famed naturalist and filmmaker standing atop some coral at low tide. Inside was a double-page spread headlined “It takes your breath away”, with the sub-head “Reports of reef’s death greatly exaggerated: Attenborough”.
Well, at least that was what the sub-editor said. The lead quote came not from Attenborough, but from federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, after he was granted a preview of the first part of Attenborough’s TV series on the reef that aired last Sunday. “The key point that I had from seeing the first of the three parts is that clearly, the world’s Great Barrier Reef is still the world’s Great Barrier Reef,” Hunt said.
Had Hunt seen the third part, or had the reader progressed to the end of the article, they would have noted Attenborough’s conclusion: “The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the ocean temperature and in its acidity – threaten its very existence. If they continue to rise at the present rate, the reefs will be gone within decades.”
TheCourier-Mail’s relationship with environment organisations has been frosty since the departure of long-serving reporter Brian Williams. Williams says these issues have always waxed and waned. “Not long before I left The Courier-Mail I was doing stories on the prospect of this bleaching occurring, and I actually spoke to some friends in the conservation movement and suggested that the debate would swing back again.”
For now, though, the newspaper is running heavily in support of Adani’s massive Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin, which had been given the go-ahead by the Queensland state government on 3 April. “In the real world you need jobs,” began an editorial on the same day, which lamented “hashtag activism” and defended the regulations it claimed would protect the reef.
“The science on the health of the reef is plain,” the paper said. “This great natural wonder loved by all Queenslanders faces a range of stresses – as it has during the entire past century – from agricultural runoff to the current coral bleaching.”
No mention was made of climate change. The science on that is plain, too: according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, bleaching is caused primarily by heat stress. The authority also notes that the reef has in fact been bleached only twice previously in the past century – and those events were in 1998 and 2002. This event is far worse. Hughes has said the reef is being “fried”. It’s perhaps more accurate to say it’s being boiled alive. Water temperatures are up to 35 degrees around Lizard Island, and about 2 degrees above normal summer averages generally.
Climate scientists say that in addition to 2015 being the hottest year since records began in 1880, water temperatures around Australia are at all-time highs. They point to more frequent El Niño events, and more intense cyclones. It’s not just the Barrier Reef that is suffering, either: corals are being bleached across the southern hemisphere, from the central and eastern Pacific across to the Caribbean.
Scientists usually fare poorly in the media for their struggle to speak in lay terms. Now, the government’s own experts are being dismissed as activists.
John Cook, a climate communication fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, says it’s a deliberate strategy. “It’s an attempt by people who oppose climate action to deliberately lump them together, and so when a scientist publishes empirical research about climate change, then they get labelled an activist.” Politicising science, he says, is a way of casting doubt on it.
“I remember having conversations with editors about how climate should be covered, and being told that it was a political story,” remembers Graham Readfearn, who launched his GreenBlog at The Courier-Mail in 2008, before resigning in 2010. “The politics are a distraction when the issue is quite literally staring you in the face, in the form of white coral.”
The newspaper’s website has since deleted all of Readfearn’s posts. Questions to The Courier-Mail’s editor, Lachlan Heywood, went unanswered.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a professor of marine science at the University of Queensland with a special interest in the communication of science issues, notes that the premiere of Attenborough’s series on Sunday night was watched by 10.6 million people in Britain alone. But in Queensland, there is an eerie silence. In politics and in the state’s most-read newspaper, no one wants to talk about what is happening in front of them.
South-east of Stanthorpe, in the granite belt that straddles the border of the apple-growing country of Queensland and New South Wales, there’s a small property, once part of a much larger orchard, with a classically rustic farmhouse and a huge insulated shed where the produce used to be stored.
The shed is now a musical Aladdin’s Cave. Rare gig posters from the 1980s and ’90s festoon the walls. There’s a drum kit set up for occasional gigs in a room that could comfortably fit 200; another in a smaller studio anteroom, and practically everything else inside – from butter knives to oil drums – is an instrument waiting to be played.
This is where Kev Carmody – most famous for his iconic song co-written with Paul Kelly, From Little Things Big Things Grow – recorded his first music in a decade. This is how he describes it: “It’s a good little bloody space. Crikey, better than those bloody sterile bloody huge bloody studios they have in bloody major cities!”
A conversation with Carmody is invariably long and liberally peppered with such vernacular. Born in 1946 to an Aboriginal mother and Irish father, he grew up droving on the Darling Downs, and remained illiterate until finding his way into university in 1978. He has since become one of the most revered songwriters in the country.
But the staggering depth of his catalogue has only just been revealed. The result of several years of off-and-on sessions at the apple shed, Recollections … Reflections (A Journey) isn’t an album; it’s an avalanche: 41 songs on four discs, with songs dating back to 1967 – none one of them previously recorded or released.
It was Kelly who spotted what had previously been hidden away, on one of his visits to the property: folders full of lyrics, dating back decades, that Carmody had finally transcribed after years of having the songs only in his head. “He spied ’em one day when I pulled ’em out looking for a song,” Carmody says.
“In his quiet way, he’d always mention when he’d come and stay – ‘What about the back catalogue Kev, have you done anything on that yet?’” He says he’s barely scratched the surface: “There’s bloody drawers full of them still at home!” Many more songs, according to co-producer Andy Wilmott, were rejected.
Carmody first picked up a guitar in the late 1960s, teaching himself to play with the aid of a book he found at a local dump. “They were just open-air supermarkets. I found a wet bloody book that said Teach Yourself Guitar, so I brought it thing back to the camp, dried her out over the flamin’ fire and started to work through it.”
His first album, Pillars Of Society, was recorded to coincide with the Bicentenary of 1988, by which time he was 42. It was a radical release, hailed at the time by critic Bruce Elder as “the best album ever released by an Aboriginal musician and arguably the best protest album ever made in Australia”.
One song especially, Black Deaths In Custody, remains shamefully relevant: “Show us blacks the justice to be had here in this land / Show us blacks the justice for every black human being / Show us blacks the justice in this white democracy / When you can execute us without a trial, while we’re held in custody.”
Growing up Aboriginal in Queensland during the worst excesses of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years gave Carmody more reason to be angry than most. He knew there was little appetite for such sentiments. “That’s why I didn’t record for so long, because I knew bloody well that what I was doing, no way did it have any commercial value.
“I had one of the top record companies in Australia say ‘Oh, we really like the Pillars album; we’d love to put out an EP.’ We met around a big boardroom table. I said, well, which ones have you picked on it? And you knew straight away, they’d just depoliticise it, they took the bloody guts out of it.”
But while his records sold only to a rusted-on audience, his reputation among his peers – from Billy Bragg to Bono – began to soar. His collaboration with Kelly cemented his status; in 2007 a tribute album and concert featuring the Drones, Steve Kilbey and Missy Higgins elevated his standing further. A documentary, Songman, will premiere ahead of Carmody’s appearance at the upcoming Sydney Festival.
While others paid tribute, Carmody retreated after the release of his fifth album, Mirrors, in 2005. He spent his time helping to raise his grandchildren and conducting workshops for kids in the remote communities of New South Wales and Queensland. “They were a bit like me in some ways; fairly illiterate but the creativity was there.”
He says he was “jack of the music industry”, with no love for the touring life of a song-and-dance man. “Who wants to be travelling around in bloody Tarago cars and getting up in motels, late nights, singing karaoke to your own bloody songs every bloody night, turning up at festivals with the same old faces?”
Most of all, he resented the music business’s tendency to pigeonhole his creativity. Mostly, Recollections And Reflections is in the spare acoustic-blues vein of Pillars, but that’s just one side of Carmody’s oeuvre. “It’s just bizarre to be stuck in this one bloody box. It’s all to do with consumerism and marketing the product,” he says.
“[We] could have put together a whole country album, with Hometown and all these other ones, and then [we] could have put together another more folk-based one, and then we could have gone right through to electronics and electrified bloody Marshall amp-type stuff!” He says he would love to make a punk record. “Bloody oath!”
“But with this one we thought, no, let’s keep it acoustic and absolutely basic. The next thing we do I reckon will be a combination of John Cage experimental music, Beethoven and Charley Patton. Let’s see if we can get that happening. Something creative that pollinates it-bloody-self.”
There aren’t many retail stores that can lay claim to a small but distinguished place in a state’s political history. Such is the stature of Rocking Horse Records, which won instant infamy on 14 February, 1989: the morning when a phalanx of police descended on the store, in the heart of Brisbane’s CBD, and raided it for stocking allegedly obscene material.
It’s hard to explain, more than a quarter of a century later, in what universe such a thing could happen. Back then, though, Queensland was a universe unto itself: a state where the police force was officially unable to find any of Brisbane’s many illegal brothels and casinos, yet threw the book at a record shop for displaying a popular Guns n’ Roses album.
This was, remember, during the dying days of the National Party’s 32-year rule of Queensland. Incredibly, lyrics in rock records became an electoral issue: later that year Russell Cooper – in his brief tenure as premier, after Tony Fitzgerald handed down his epochal report into political and police corruption – flagged that “pornographic” music would be subject to the state’s censorship laws.
But the raid, and Cooper’s pledge, was a misreading of a fundamental shift in the state’s mainstream middle class, with the National Party suffering a humiliating defeat at the state election the following December. As for Guns n’ Roses, their parent label, Warner, was so delighted to see the band’s album bumped back into the charts by the controversy that it helped fund Rocking Horse’s legal expenses.
The store’s proprietor, Warwick Vere, can laugh about it all now. Rocking Horse is celebrating its 40th anniversary: a success story that’s spanned enormous social, physical and political changes in Brisbane and Queensland. In that time, the store has managed to see off the rise of downloading, the January 2011 floods and near-bankruptcy, not to mention the court case ensuing from the 1989 raid – which it won.
“We had to prove that community standards had changed,” he says. “The police thought they had a lay-down misère – they’d successfully prosecuted Rodney Rude for obscenity not long before that – but basically we had to prove that the word f*** was no longer a shocker.” (The defence submitted that the word had been used 17 times in the Academy Award-winning picture of that year, Rain Man.)
Rocking Horse first opened its doors in November 1975. The shop, then in Rowes Arcade on Adelaide Street, was so cramped that the cash register had to fit under a stairwell. Yet it quickly became a hub for the city’s music fans, surfing the crest of the punk wave to become an oasis of alternative culture in the heart of Australia’s most conservative capital city bulwark.
This was back when Brisbane effectively closed on the weekends. “The caretaker there would try to pull the shutters down at 11.30 on Saturday morning, when our tiny shop was full of people – so much so that people had to wait outside, in the arcade, for someone to leave so they could come in,” Vere remembers. “I had to come to an arrangement that we’d lock the doors, no later than 12 noon.
“After that, you could put a shotgun down Queen Street and the only person you might hit would be Rock & Roll George. You could see him tootling down [in his vintage 1952 FX Holden] and it would be one of the very few cars that would be doing the block on a Saturday afternoon. Brisbane basically emptied out, and [people] went to the north coast or the south coast – and why wouldn’t they.”
From there, as Brisbane stayed open later and expanded, so too did the shop: to slightly roomier premises on 158 Adelaide Street (the location of the 1989 raid), and eventually to its current location on 258 Albert Street, where it’s been since 2004. At its peak, the store boasted 24 staff, 18 of them full-time, many of them long-serving: grizzled veteran Tom Beaumont has been there 20 years.
It’s also been a reliable source of employment for several generations of Brisbane’s musical talent. In the early days, Jim Dickson and Bruce Anthon – who both played in late-70s power trio the Survivors – ran the shop’s day to day business; today, you can wander in and find Sean Caskey behind the counter (Caskey plays with rising indie-rock band the Last Dinosaurs).
For a certain kind of person, it’s the ultimate dead-end job. “It’s alternately frustrating and great,” says Beaumont, whose default state seems set to a kind of seen-it-all deadpan. “I think the best thing about it is the idea that it’s not just a dead-end job in the corner; it’s a dead-end job with a lot of other dead-beats, and interacting with them is…” – he pauses for effect – “…rewarding.”
“It’s very hard to say to somebody who’s starting work in a record shop that this is a career,” Vere says. “It’s not. It’s for the people who you couldn’t keep out of the store with a stick anyway. Luckily, most of them love the job. They’re all gluttons for punishment. But as far as careers go, there’s not a great ladder to climb – unless they knock the old bloke off.”
Vere’s loyalty to his staff was tested in 2011, when the shop nearly closed after being hit by a succession of blows: long-term construction works for a busway; the January flood; the inexorable decline of CD sales. Even the sacking of public servants by former premier Campbell Newman had an impact: “Our shop was full of grey-haired people with lanyards at lunchtime, and they just vanished overnight.”
Inevitably, many of the store’s staff had to follow. “We were conscious of the fact that people had been there for an awfully long time, [and] that made it very hard to downsize,” Vere says. “We were bloated with staff, we didn’t take stock of the situation quickly enough, and we probably put it in the too-hard basket for a little bit too long.”
The store’s salvation lay in the format for which it first came into being: vinyl, which has seen a resurgence, thanks to new music fans who want something more to have and hold than a digital stream. “If we could have waved a magic wand and turned the CDs into vinyl we would have recovered a lot quicker,” Vere says. “It was definitely where the interest was, but it was like turning the bloody Queen Mary around.”
Beaumont says that initiatives like Record Store Day, which began in 2008, is only part of the reason behind vinyl’s resurgence. “It’s only one day [of the year]. My take on it is, there was a generation that didn’t buy anything; the new generation is buying something. They don’t buy CDs, because they’re dead – and you can’t impress someone with the amount of files you have.”
Since the dark days of 2011, several staff have been re-employed, though mostly on a part-time basis. On the day of my visit (truthfully, there aren’t many days that I don’t) the music is intermittently drowned out by the whine of saws and drills: the shop is preparing to consolidate its operations to the basement downstairs, which previously catered to dance and hip-hop fans – “Boogie Wonderland”, as it was once dubbed.
Vere will also be joining forces with former employee, Ric Trevaskes, who runs second-hand retailer Egg Records in West End. A lifelong music tragic, Trevaskes started at Rocking Horse as a 14-year-old, after being spotted dressed in a Devo outfit complete with the famous red “energy dome” on his head. “Once it’s in your blood, and you know it’s the best job you’re ever going to get, it’s hard to resist,” he says.
Now Trevaskes, who confesses he was “very nostalgic” for Rocking Horse, is bringing his vast collection of second-hand stock back under its roof. Vere says his former pupil “brings a whole new dimension to things. He runs record fairs; he has a little black book that you could kill for, and he has unending enthusiasm.” With Trevaskes back in the fold and the stolid Beaumont, the store is in good hands.
Not that Vere, who is well into his 60s, has any thoughts of handing over. “I wouldn’t mind an extra day of golf,” he admits. “But I still enjoy coming in here, and I’ve discovered that most of my friends who are retired are bored shitless, and looking for something to do. Besides, [federal MP for Longman] Wyatt Roy wants us all to work until we’re 70. So I’m a little way off that milestone yet.”
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), 31 October 2015
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 headline on the Climate Spectator website said it all. “Approval of Adani’s mega coal mine overturned – for a skink and a snake, not a fried planet,” it read. The federal court’s decision, it went on, came down to “protecting two animals you’ve probably never heard of”: the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake.
The trade minister, Andrew Robb, apparently suffering from reptile rage, described the skink as a “patsy”, implying that opposition to the mine was based on a hatred for coal more than concern for a lizard that is rarely seen even by herpetologists. (The best way to find one is to look for the little piles of poop outside their burrows.)
Not since former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett called the Orange-bellied Parrot a “trumped-up corella”, when its critically endangered status proved problematic to the planned relocation of a chemical plant, have we seen such disdain heaped upon a critter for getting in the way of development.
Kennett’s attitude to the parrot – which has a wild population of about 35 – summed up the general care factor towards any animal that’s smaller than a whale and not as cute as a koala. Species such as the Leadbeater’s Possum and Tasmanian Devil have benefitted from broad public recognition. The skink has attracted mostly derision.
But the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act isn’t just there to protect the fauna and flora that adorn our national and state emblems. The act protects the obscure as well as the iconic. Or, as Monty Python put it: “All things dull and ugly; all creatures short and squat.”
So someone has to write in defence of the skink and the snake, for they are equally entitled to the benefit of the law that was introduced by the Howard government in 1999 (in exchange for the passage of the GST). The EPBC recognises, very simply, that these animals have a inherent right to exist and deserve our protection.
Actually, the Yakka Skink is pretty cool, as far as skinks go. For most people in the cities they’re those tiny black lizards that like to make their homes in and around ours. But the Yakka Skink is a whopper, up to 40 centimetres long. Unfortunately, it lives in Queensland’s brigalow belt, which has been smashed by land clearing.
The causes by which our fauna and flora become endangered might be obvious – habitat destruction, introduced predators, environmental pollution, changes to fire regimes – but the processes are often silent, as even formerly abundant species begin vanishing before our eyes.
The Regent Honeyeater, for example, once roamed in flocks of hundreds. Now it’s down to just a few hundred individuals, total. Last month, Birdlife Australia reported that even some of our most familiar birds, such as the Willie Wagtail, Laughing Kookaburra and Magpie, were suffering significant declines.
Australia has one of the highest extinction rates in the world. We have already lost nearly 10 percent of our mammals – around 30 of approximately 380 species. Many, many more as well as hundreds of our birds, reptiles, insects, plants and even trees are in imminent danger of joining the choir invisible.
Most of them are species we will never know the names of, let alone have direct experience with. Many are poorly known, or even yet to be scientifically described. But that does not make them any less worthy. All of them play a unique role in their respective ecologies.
We are witnesses to probably the greatest mass extinction event since the age of the dinosaurs; with resources scarce, we are being asked to decide what we can and can’t afford to save. Cases like the Yakka Skink test the depth of our commitment to environmental protection.
As the magnitude of the swing against the Liberal National Party in the Queensland election became clear on Saturday night, one unlikely voice cut through the sea of claptrap and said what his former colleagues would not. While ex-premier Campbell Newman, his potential replacement, Tim Nicholls and federal MP Jane Prentice frothed about the need to re-frame their party’s message in more palatable terms to the electorate, another former state Liberal Party leader – the once ridiculed Bruce Flegg – was prepared to admit the truth: his party had monumentally stuffed up.
Flegg was once the member for Moggill, a suburb of semi-rural acreage on the banks of the Brisbane River that seems to be populated almost entirely by retired doctors and veterinarians. In other words, it couldn’t be more blue-ribbon Liberal territory if you stuck a giant silver spoon on top of the Brookfield Town Hall. Flegg himself is a former GP. Last October, he lost his 10-year hold on the seat to another medico, Dr Christian Rowan (a former Queensland president of the Australian Medical Association) in a pre-selection battle that turned nasty.
So it’s probably not surprising that Flegg wasn’t shy about unloading on his party on election night. Nevertheless, his words should have cut to the bone. His favourite, which he mentioned several times, was “hubris”, but Flegg didn’t dwell on the usual political tropes of arrogance and deafness to criticism. Instead, he zeroed in hard on the Newman government’s sacking, then subsequent stacking, of the cross-party Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee in 2013 as the decisive moment that turned the public against the LNP.
Other observers have mentioned a host of other obvious factors: the sale of public assets; the sacking of 12,000 public servants (right before members of parliament awarded themselves a whopping pay rise); the disembowelling of environmental protections that, among other things, reduced the Great Barrier Reef to a shipping lane for the state’s coal interests; and the uncomfortably cosy relationship with those same interests that saw laws guarding against political donations diluted. Even a confected war with bikies didn’t work in the way a good old-fashioned law and order campaign once did.
But Flegg’s post-election comments spoke to exactly how far the LNP overstepped its mandate. Let’s be clear: as much as Annastacia Palaszczuk can take credit for digging the ALP out of the grave (after previously not having enough MPs to fill a maxi taxi, they’re going to need a bigger bus), Labor has not “won” this election. Rather, it’s the LNP and its agenda that’s been comprehensively repudiated. And while everyone is hyperventilating about what it all means for the federal coalition and Tony Abbott, it’s worth thinking for a moment about what it says about Queensland.
In my view, the LNP’s most colossal misjudgement was that the Queensland electorate – particularly those in the urban enclaves of greater Brisbane which hold so many of the state’s seats – somehow still pined for the days when Joh Bjelke-Petersen ruled the state with jack boots and an iron fist. (Actually, perhaps the first thing the party executive should do is sack whoever advised the LNP to get the word “strong” into every utterance, from every pulpit and press release, as often as possible.)
Large segments of the LNP still haven’t accepted history’s verdict on the Joh years. The gavel came down hard with Tony Fitzgerald QC’s report in 1989, which banished the conservatives from office for a generation, barring a Bob Borbidge blip in the mid-1990s. Newman, the former Brisbane Lord Mayor, was recruited as a putative premier from outside the parliament to put an acceptably urbane face on the newly merged Liberal and National Parties. Once elected, though – with a monumental majority that saw the ALP reduced to a rump – it took about five minutes for the “Here we Joh again” comparisons to start flying.
That Newman frittered away his political capital fast enough to lose the lot, including his own seat of Ashgrove, within a single term tells you a little about him, a little more about the times we live in, and a lot about Queensland. If it proves anything, it’s that the state learned the lessons of the Bjelke-Petersen era better, perhaps, than even many of the natives may have thought. Fitzgerald, surely, will be wearing a quietly satisfied smile.
You could see the portents of this result in the by-elections of Redcliffe and Stafford, held in February and July respectively last year. Both were fought substantially on issues of integrity and accountability. Redcliffe had long been a rolling disaster for the LNP, with first-term MP Scott Driscoll forced to resign from the party, then the parliament, due to financial irregularities that saw him fined $90,000. Both he and his wife are now facing serious charges including fraud and perjury. The seat fell to Labor’s Yvette D’Ath with a 17.2 percent swing.
The Stafford by-election, brought on by the resignation of Dr Chris Davis, was even more telling. Davis (another former Queensland AMA president) was a fierce internal critic of the government’s neutering of the Crime and Misconduct Commission and, especially, the relaxing of laws governing political donations. “The passage of recent government legislation affecting critical aspects of our democracy goes contrary to my value system and that of the majority of my electorate,” Davis said. He was right: the swing against the LNP in Stafford was even more savage than in Redcliffe, 18.6 percent.
In that context, the massive state-wide swing against the LNP on Saturday is perhaps less of an upset than it appeared. Of course, no one (not even the bookies) openly dared to back the ALP from such a parlous position. But really, it wasn’t about them. The LNP, convinced of its electoral invincibility and drunk on its own ideological Kool-Aid, had turned itself into the political equivalent of a suicide squad. Therein, at least, lies a lesson for Abbott and his federal colleagues.
We don’t know yet – and might not know for days or more – whether or not Labor has enough seats to govern in its own right or to form a potential minority government, a scenario a spooked LNP called a recipe for chaos ahead of the election. It should, in fact, be the best thing to happen to Queensland in years. With no upper house, politics in the Deep North has long been characterised by governments with huge majorities trampling over impotent oppositions and democratic safeguards alike. Hopefully, this close result will signal a return to moderation, transparency, and close-checking accountability. As for Bruce Flegg, he was on the money.
It’s valued at around $60 billion. It operates, at last count, in 45 countries and over 200 cities worldwide. It’s gone to war with powerful taxi cartels, and the governments who protect them. Named tech company of the year by USA Today in 2013, it has just been given an “F” rating by the century-old Better Business Bureau, the American non-profit consumer protection organisation. Its CEO, a 38-year-old enfant terrible called Travis Kalanick, has wondered aloud whether he should have called it “Boober” – a reference to the pulling power, he claims, it gives him with the opposite sex.
Uber – the ride-sharing application which connects commuters with drivers of private vehicles for hire – is everywhere. After launching in San Francisco in 2010, its ascent has been vertiginous. Its runaway success is the product of a perfect technological storm: the ubiquity of smartphones, GPS technology, and peer-rated social media. It’s also undercut and exposed traditional taxi industries with mostly lower prices for passengers, and seemingly generous deals for its drivers.
Uber arrived in Brisbane in April this year, after roll-outs in Sydney and Melbourne beginning in late 2012. Its establishment in Australia has mirrored its trajectory overseas: it has been embraced by the public, in the face of howls of rage from the taxi lobby, which has leaned heavily on governments to crush the new kid on the block, citing concerns over safety, insurance, privacy, and the legality of allowing private cars to operate as taxi services.
The Queensland government issued a cease-and-desist order against Uber on 21 May. Since then, 62 drivers have been levied with fines totalling more than $170,000 – for driving without the correct authorisation, and for providing a taxi service without the required licence – and Uber is paying them. “The drivers on the Uber platform are our most important partners, I want to stress that,” says Queensland manager Mike Abbott. “I can assure you we are supporting our drivers 100 percent.”
It’s typical of a company that relies on a crash-through approach, rather than compromise, for its success. While Uber claims to be working constructively with the government to find a solution, for now it’s perfectly content to exist in the black economy: untaxed, unregulated and seemingly unstoppable.
IF you’ve never caught an Uber car, here’s how it works. First, you download the app to your phone. You enter your personal information, including your credit card details and phone number, and set your pickup location. You then request a vehicle. At the bottom of your phone’s screen, it will tell you who’s on the way – the driver’s name, photo ID and phone number, the car’s registration number and model, an approximation of how long you have to wait, and the likely fare.
If there’s a delay, you’ll get a call direct from the driver. That, argues the Taxi Council of Queensland CEO Benjamin Wash, should be a cause for both privacy and safety concerns. But riders have the driver’s details, too. Like eBay and Airbnb, both buyer and seller rate each other after the deal is done. It’s a closed, seamless, cashless model – meaning, for the driver, there’s no obvious motive for robbery, or worse.
My first driver is Connie (who prefers not to give her full, or indeed real name). She’s taking me to my 25-year school reunion at the Caxton Hotel, an event Uber has got behind with a slick promotion to attendees. For my first ride, I get $10 off the fare. (I later get another $10 credit for recommending the service to a friend.)
Connie’s car is a white Honda Jazz that only just fits Uber’s criteria that vehicles must be less than 10 years old, but it’s clean, well-maintained and, even better, she has a selection of lollypops on offer. Connie herself is keeping busy after a long career navigating the financial uncertainties of the arts: “I have periods of time where I don’t have employment at all, or I’ve got very reduced employment, so I’ve got to fill in the gaps.”
Uber relies substantially on drivers like Connie, part-timers supplementing their income. Its relentless Facebook campaigns especially target those willing to work on weekends. But they are not tied to any schedule. While taxi drivers can work up to 14 hours before being logged out in the interests of fatigue management, Uber drivers work as it suits them. “I can work 12 hours straight; I can work half an hour; I don’t have to work at all; I can do whatever I want,” she says.
Women are rare in the city’s cab fleets, but Connie says she’s never felt unsafe. “We’re all connected through the app. I’m not picking up randoms on the street. We’re not exchanging any money, I’ve got their name and their phone number. If there’s any problems, everything’s traceable. When you get into a cab, you don’t know who the guy is. Who ever takes down the number of the cab they’re in?
“It kind of feels like everyone’s part of something really new and exciting and everyone’s up for it. It’s like a secret club in a way.”
WASH prefers to describe Uber, its partners and riders as “cult followers”. The company’s only innovation, he says, is in marketing. “Self-promotion is no recommendation,” he says. “We believe there’s a lot of hype and spin around what Uber is doing, and no one’s actually questioning any of their assertions.”
Wash is unimpressed by Uber’s cashless model, outwardly the most seductive part of its appeal to both drivers and riders worried about safety: “Personally I’d question whether or not they’re breaching privacy regulations by giving out passenger details to the driver, given that [Uber] drivers aren’t put under the same level of scrutiny as taxi drivers.”
Even for the Facebook generation, Uber’s ability to collect and potentially misuse personal information should be of concern. It’s not just the driver who knows where you live and has your number: your movements are tracked and logged, too. Uber’s global vice president Emil Michael made headlines in November when he suggested Uber could dish dirt on journalists critical of the company, after Sarah Lacy, founder of Pandodaily, accused the company of sexism and misogyny (Lacy, in a piece called “The Trickle-Down of Asshole Culture”, had decried a French advertisement, since deleted, which offered a deal whereby riders would be paired with “hot chick” drivers – model hired by Uber for a curious maximum of 20-minute rides.)
There is so much claim- and counter-claim surrounding Uber that, at times, it’s hard to sift the spin from the substance. The taxi industry claims Uber drivers, and their passengers, are uninsured in the event of an accident. Uber counters that its drivers are required to have comprehensive insurance, and are additionally covered by a $5 million commercial choice policy. “We’re doing hundreds of millions of trips now; we can’t afford to let down riders or drivers anywhere,” says Mike Abbott.
Like taxi drivers, Uber partners require a Driver’s Authorisation, subject to a full medical clearance, criminal background and traffic history check, but the TCQ claims they are not subject to the same ongoing monitoring as cabbies. Taxis are also inspected and their roadworthiness certified on a six-month basis; no such requirement exists for anyone using a private vehicle for profit. And there’s no obligation for Uber drivers to service vulnerable members of the community – for example, anyone with an assistance animal.
But the taxi industry, despite cameras and emergency systems and GPS tracking, has issues of its own. Google “taxi sexual assault” and you’ll get a long list of results from all Australian states, including Queensland. In Victoria, the Institute of Forensic Medicine documented 25 cases between 2011 and 2013. In many cases, drivers had tampered with or removed cameras to destroy or obscure evidence, and because victims were typically intoxicated, they were unable to record details of either the cab or the driver. Many more assaults have likely gone reported.
Such incidents may represent a tiny proportion of overall fares, but in the eyes of the public, perception is reality. A quick straw poll of female friends reveals that many refuse to take cabs, with several reporting incidents that had left them feeling scared and preyed upon. Some have already enthusiastically adopted Uber, which they see as both safer and more transparent than the alternative.
BLOW away all the smoke about safety, insurance and inspections and what you’re left with is an industry fighting tooth and claw to preserve its stranglehold on the market. Allan Fels, the former head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission who conducted an inquiry into the Victorian taxi industry in 2011—2012, describes the entry of Uber and other competitors into the marketplace as “revolutionary”. He spares no sympathy for the establishment: “The revolution is even greater than otherwise because the taxi industry for years has failed to progress and innovate due to its self-protectionist attitude.”
The nub of the issue is the value of taxi licences, which change hands for up to half a million dollars a pop. To recoup that investment, taxi fares are necessarily high (if you’re paying by debit or credit card, add Cabcharge’s 10 percent cut, absent from an Uber ride). Whereas licence owners are mostly investors, the majority of drivers lease cabs from their owners under a bailment agreement: they are regarded as self-employed, receive no benefits such as sick leave, and work excruciating hours for a relative pittance.
The Queensland situation, Fels says, is no different to Victoria’s. “The Taxi Council of Queensland and comparable other institutions in Australia and around the world have vigorously opposed competition, and the number one mechanism has been having a restriction on the number of licences,” he says. “The taxi industry has fought tenaciously to stop opening the industry up to real competition. Most other small businesses are not protected in this fashion, and it reflects the political power of the taxi lobby.”
Wash vigorously denies this. “The only way you can improve the industry is through competitive forces,” he says. What he claims his industry is fighting for is for Uber to be subjected to the same standards that cost licence holders tens of thousands of dollars per year. As for the cost of licences, he says: “No more than the cost of purchasing any other small business. I think it’s easy for people to isolate taxis and say it’s inappropriate for a cab to be worth half a million dollars. I can’t buy a newsagency for less than half a million dollars. They’re both small businesses, and the market determines what an acceptable price is.”
Why would a staunchly conservative, free-market loving government oppose a tech start-up that creates jobs and delivers cheaper services to consumers? Initially, the Queensland government gave the green light to Uber, with premier Campbell Newman saying his was a “deregulation-minded government” and that “we don’t believe in more red tape and regulation unless it’s absolutely necessary.” (He did add, however, that he would prefer his daughters caught a “ridgy-didge” cab).
It didn’t take long for the industry to get in the government’s ear. A statement from the Transport Minister, Scott Emerson, echoes many of the same concerns expressed by Wash. “The government’s position has always been consistent and, while we support innovation, we will always uphold regulations that are designed to keep passengers safe,” it said. “Regulation of passenger service vehicles including taxis is undertaken to protect passenger safety and we will continue to crack down on anyone who is breaking these laws.” Pushed on the issue of the cost of licences, Emerson said the government was conducting a review of the Victorian inquiry to determine whether the same issues were relevant to the Queensland industry.
Ken Parry, who drives for Uber around an established limousine business, tells me a story about picking up a staffer from the Premier’s office. Parry, mindful that he was operating against the cease-and-desist order, asked if he was the victim of an entrapment operation. The staffer laughed. “Oh no, we want you to exist,” he said. “How does that work?” Parry replied. “Transport’s killing us and you’re hiring me; is there some internal battle going on?” “No,” the staffer replied. “Just the taxi industry leaning on transport. The minister’s got to be seen to be doing something.”
MIKE Abbott acknowledges Uber is operating in a grey area, where technology and consumers have rushed ahead of the law. “We want ride-sharing to be regulated,” he says. “We are all for having sensible regulations that promote safety. We have been in discussions with the government and the Department of Transport since the launch. Those conversations are ongoing and we’re positive about where they’re going.”
“There is ambiguity, to say the least, about whether [Uber] is operating lawfully or not, but I believe that its arrival is putting very strong pressure on politicians to end many of the anti-competitive restrictions in the taxi industry,” says Allan Fels. “Uber has demonstrated to the public what it can offer, and politicians will find it very hard to block their service.”
I go for another ride with Connie. This time I’m not paying, but observing. Her first customer’s name is Sheldon (though he prefers “Shadz”). He’s a lithe, tattooed young hipster with earlobes stretched by oversized wooden plugs. If Uber is a cult, he is a fully paid-up, card-carrying member. “This is actually my second Uber trip today; I caught one from my house to here before,” he says excitedly.
“The dude on the way here used to be an Olympic weightlifter. That alone was pretty mind-blowing to me. With the Uber drivers, they all have other jobs. They’re like superheroes! You know, the superhero takes off his mask and goes back to his office job. Then he puts on his superhero mask and becomes an Uber driver. That’s how I see it.”
“I think we’ve all grown up with this impression that transport is what it is,” says Abbott. “But it doesn’t have to be. I think it can be a whole lot better.”
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), December 6 2014
Late in the last week of January 1974, following a flood Brisbane would not see the like of again for close to another 40 years, a 17-year-old Ed Kuepper was on watch in the tough south-western Brisbane suburb of Oxley. There had been looting as the filthy water finally began to recede, and a caravan, from which residents could take turns keeping lookout, had been set up across the road from his parents’ house.
Kuepper – who had formed his first band, the Saints, just a few months earlier with school mates Chris Bailey and Ivor Hay – was a little tipsy. The local alderman, Gordon “Bluey” Thomson, had just visited, bringing beer. He was also carrying a revolver, which he gave to Kuepper. “Don’t drink too much, but look after the gun!” he told him.
Later, as the adults continued drinking, the young Kuepper walked down his street, “gun-slinging”, cockily twirling the loaded weapon as if he were a character in a western. Suddenly, a car turned into the street. Kuepper hailed it down, directing his torch into the driver’s eyes. It wasn’t until the vehicle was alongside him that he realised it was the police.
The driver looked the skinny teenager up and down. Kuepper sheepishly lowered first the torch, then the gun.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” the cop said, before driving off.
THE apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. In a Poinciana-lined street off Oxley Road, Ed Kuepper lives quietly with his partner of close to 40 years, Judi, and their adult children Karl and Friedrich (whose names should tell you something). It’s just a few kilometres from the old suburban home where his now elderly parents still live, despite suffering through the heartbreak of another great flood in early 2011.
He and Judi had made a point of checking flood levels before purchasing their home. “Even though they said it would never happen again, I wasn’t prepared to get something that went under in ’74, so this was way above it. For this house to be affected, the city would be gone anyway. And yet if you went that way” – he gestures back towards the main road – “the shopping centre at Graceville Avenue went under, and you wouldn’t guess that we were so much higher.”
It’s quiet here. Only the Kueppers’ dog Oscar, who gives me a rousing if suspicious greeting, breaks the silence in the torpor of a warm Easter afternoon. Judi, whose beautiful watercolours line the walls of the home, and whose art has graced her husband’s album sleeves since the days of Ed’s post-Saints band the Laughing Clowns, brings hot-cross buns with jam home-made from a backyard mango tree.
It’s all a far cry from the days where Kuepper’s paint-peeling guitar playing was sufficiently obnoxious to result in a brick being hurled through the plate-glass window of the building on the corner of Milton Road and Petrie Terrace, where the Saints once rehearsed. The window was boarded up, the words “Club ’76” daubed on the slats, and for a short time the house became a venue – until police from headquarters across the road shut it down.
Speak to many in the Australian music industry and Kuepper will be quite casually described as a legend. Robert Forster, whose band the Go-Betweens was among the first and most enduring of the first wave of Brisbane groups directly inspired by the Saints, described him (in The Monthly) as “one of the very few Australian guitar geniuses”, comparing him to both Neil Young and Kurt Cobain; “sonic adventurers who can take sheets of electric noise and get songs out of them”.
As a Saint, he’s a member of the ARIA Hall of Fame, but his musical career spans 40 years, from the sometimes abrasive Laughing Clowns, through an immensely rich and varied solo career. More recently – and briefly – he was a member of Nick Cave’s band, the Bad Seeds. You could practically go broke collecting the sheer volume of music the man has produced, although probably not as broke as he’s sometimes been while making it.
But who is Edmund Kuepper? It’s likely you’d know several of his songs – (I’m) Stranded, the Saints’ first single, has been a Rage staple for 20 years; The Way I Made You Feel was a minor hit from his 1991 album Honey Steel’s Gold, which cracked the Australian top 40 during a golden period for the songwriter. But, while he continues to sell out shows, he’s far from hit machine. (An unkind reviewer once compared his music to some kind of strange and mouldy cheese: an acquired taste.)
His public persona, to many, is akin to how Churchill described Russia: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. In fact, as Forster also pointed out, he is “intense and inward, of German extraction”: born in Bremen in 1956, before his parents emigrated to Brisbane at the age of four. (Saints singer Chris Bailey, born in Kenya to Irish Catholic parents, settled nearby a few years later: so often, the history of Australian rock & roll has been made by migrant kids.)
Peter Milton Walsh, singer-songwriter for one of Brisbane’s great lost treasures, the Apartments, talks rapturously about Kuepper’s music. (Of the Laughing Clowns, of which he was once briefly a member, he says: “They were playing poker when everyone else was playing bingo.”) But he demurs when pushed on the man himself. Eventually he offers this: “Rock & roll is filled with people that are very happy to talk about themselves. That’s not really what’s on offer from Ed.”
Others are more forthcoming, though all talk about Kuepper’s singular devotion to his craft. “He’s a very warm person when you get to know him; he’s quite soft and he’s got a great sense of humour,” says Julian Knowles, professor of music and media at Macquarie University in Sydney. Another music academic, QUT’s John Willsteed, describes him as “a quiet, funny, shy guy”.
Everyone attests to his incredible work ethic. Willsteed, who also plays in Brisbane band Halfway, refers to his “Teutonic” side. “He’s very forthright with his opinions, and he knows what he wants when it comes to work.” Knowles: “Once he gets into the groove and he starts working, there’s this incredible focus. He works in popular music, but he has the mindset and approach of an artist.”
The Church’s Steve Kilbey, who once engaged in a memorable online stoush with Kuepper, has called him as “wry and lofty”, and that much seems fair; he’s sardonic, ironic and, by his own admission, can be a bit above it all. He is certainly reserved, but not unfriendly. Get past the imposing size and death-grip handshake, and there’s a twinkle in the eye and a faint smirk lurking behind the pirate’s goatee.
Judi recalls her first impressions after interviewing him for a student magazine in 1979. “I thought he was a lovely, gentle, intelligent person – very intellectual. He’s very open and interested in all kinds of different ideas. He’s very aware of public events. He seemed to be a font of wisdom; he had an incredible knowledge of what was going on; not just in music, but in film and art, and I guess that’s nourished our relationship – just a passion for, and commitment to the arts. And he’s really generous. He really wants to share and connect with people.”
KUEPPER spent most of 2013 on the road, performing a successful run of “Solo and By Request” shows, trying his hand at almost any song from his career that his audience challenged (and sometimes taunted) him to play – a daunting prospect, given his immense repertoire, but he pulled it off. “There were probably only two or three occasions when I declined to have a go at something.”
He had spent a good chunk of the previous year performing as a Bad Seed, filling in for Cave’s long-term musical arranger Mick Harvey. The prospect of what Kuepper might bring to the Bad Seeds’ musical palette tantalised fans of both, but Cave’s last album, Push The Sky Away, featured almost no guitar at all, and Kuepper’s services were not required. There seems little prospect that his tenure in the band will be ongoing.
Kuepper describes working with the Bad Seeds as “very structured”, and it’s here that you get a sense of his constant musical wanderlust. “It was verging on the choreographed in some ways. I kind of decided to do something that was about as removed from that as possible, and that was basically just go out and push it as far we could actually go with it. And by “we” I mean myself and the audience.”
One of the songs that Kuepper was reluctant to play was (I’m) Stranded, the track that launched his career. “I thought there was something really powerful captured in that original recording, and it’s not that easy to capture it again,” he says. “And I couldn’t work out how the fuck I was actually going to just sit there with an acoustic guitar and play the song.” In the end, with the audience calling for it every night, he bit the bullet, and made it work.
The Saints have reformed twice in recent years – first a celebrated one-off show at the University of Queensland in 2007, then a national run for the travelling festival All Tomorrow’s Parties in early 2010. The latter ended in disaster, culminating in a show at Riverstage which Kuepper describes as “incredibly embarrassing, the worst show I’ve ever done in my life”. (The band had been booked to perform the album (I’m) Stranded in its entirety; incredibly, they didn’t even play the title song in front of a bewildered home crowd.)
Still, the experience didn’t prevent Kuepper from reuniting with Bailey, with whom he has had a famously tempestuous relationship, for a run of shows together as a duo the following year. I ask Kuepper if we’re likely to see him on stage with the Saints again. “Probably not.” What sort of relationship does he have with Bailey now? “Not much of one, really.”
There’s a bit of back and forth on this point, and Kuepper obliges, if only out of politeness, but it’s clear the subject of his old sparring partner still makes him uncomfortable. I ask if he’s heard Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Just Like Fire Would, Bailey’s biggest hit recorded under the Saints name, long after Kuepper had left the band. (The song appears on Springsteen’s most recent album High Hopes.)
“I haven’t. The funny thing is, when the song first came out [in 1986], I actually thought it was … Not Springsteen, but John Cougar Mellencamp. When I realised it was Bailey I thought, oh fuck, he’s going to change his name to Chris Bailey Mellencamp! It was kind of ironic that Springsteen’s attention was drawn to the Saints via (I’m) Stranded, but he actually covered the one song that actually sounds like it was ripped off him.”
If this sounds like sour grapes, consider, first, that Kuepper has toiled in relative obscurity for decades, and there have been times when he’s seriously considered chucking it in. “Sometimes, you know, when you’re running at a loss month after month – and I mean no income at all – lots of stuff goes askew. So it’s constantly a battle of how do you make things work.”
And, second: around the time of the Saints’ performances at All Tomorrow’s Parties, Kuepper’s manager got in touch with the band’s old label, with the idea of presenting the group with a Gold Record for (I’m) Stranded – presuming that, in the 38 years since its release, it would have easily sold the required 35,000 copies within Australia to qualify. He was astonished to be told that the label had not kept records prior to 1998. The necessary paperwork for an acknowledged classic – for which Kuepper has received very little money over the years – was conveniently missing.
It’s one of the oldest divides in rock & roll: Bailey – so desperate to prove he could make it on his own after the break-up of the original Saints in late 1978 – has the commercial success and, following Springsteen’s endorsement, the money in the bank. Kuepper has the status, the undying respect of his peers and the lion’s share of critical plaudits. Probably, both would like at least a little of what the other has got.
KUEPPER’S newest album is both a return to his roots, and a continuation of his recent solo performances: that is, it’s just him and his guitar. The Return Of The Mail-Order Bridegroom features mainly acoustic re-workings of some of his best-known songs, as well as a couple of covers. (It follows 1995’s I Was A Mail-Order Bridegroom, a similarly-themed album which kicked off a personal cottage industry of mostly live recordings, sold directly to fans through his own label, Prince Melon.)
Opening the album is a song called Brisbane (Security City), originally recorded in 1978 for the Saints’ third album, Prehistoric Sounds. The song painted a vivid portrait of Queensland as a police state during the Bjelke-Petersen years, and captured the oppression of both the heat – “Thirteen hot nights in a row,” goes the opening line – and the political climate. Apathy sits uncomfortably next to paranoia: “With mangoes ripe, who needs to grow?”
Thirty-six years after it was written, the song is more pointed than ever. Kuepper has been vocal about Queensland’s swing back to conservatism. “Part of it I think is that a large portion of the voting public is too young to remember the stench from the previous National government, you know,” he muses. “I just don’t think people remember. Anyone under 40 probably never voted back in the ’80s.”
Kuepper has had, at various times, an ambivalent relationship with his home town; something that he has often addressed in song: Electrical Storm acknowledges that, by staying in Brisbane, he is letting the world pass him by; but he finds himself mesmerised by the lightning and thunder. And on Security City, he confesses: “I don’t want to let down my own hopes for this town.” The family resettled here in the early 1990s.
“There were a lot of really good things about growing up here; I enjoyed a lot of it,” he says. “And I think you always want the place you grow up in to be a good place, to fulfil something worthwhile. Plus, after the Fitzgerald Inquiry, Brisbane in particular went through a bit of a golden age, I think. There just seemed to be this air of celebration for many years; it had a good vibe about it. It had changed.
“The ’80s was the worst time. There was always this sort of weird hostility around the place. The cops – they had power that they shouldn’t have had. I’m all for supporting the local police force and letting them do the job that they’re supposed to do, but once they become a political tool, then that becomes something else.”
And that’s when Kuepper remembers the story of Bluey Thompson, and the unimpressed reaction of the policeman who confronted him – a foolish teenager packing heat, that day after the floods in 1974. Don’t do anything stupid.
“See, I thought that was actually quite a reasonable response, under the circumstances,” he admits, chuckling.
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), July 26 2014