Girls to the front
Sometime in the mid-1990s, at around four in the morning, Melbourne music teacher Stephanie Bourke’s phone rang. It was Courtney Love, the lead singer of Hole. One of the students at Bourke’s famed Rock & Roll High School, Brody Dalle – who would go on to fame with the Distillers – had come to Love’s attention.
“The first thing she said was, ‘How many girls have you got down there who sound exactly like me?’ I thought it was a prank call! But then she said, ‘I’m going to help you out, I’m going to send you some guitars!’” Love’s manager got in touch, and a few weeks later, seven Fenders arrived in the mail.
Bourke still has those guitars. She also has a vintage white bass originally owned by Kim Gordon and signed by the members of Sonic Youth, as seen in the video for probably that band’s best-known song, Kool Thing. These days, the guitar is being played by Sidonie Thomas, bass player of a Sydney trio called Bliss – a product of Bourke’s new school, the Kings Cross Conservatorium (KXC).
Rock & Roll High School, named after the Ramones song, was a Melbourne institution: running for over a decade, the school produced four compilations featuring 30 bands each. It was at least partially the inspiration for the film School Of Rock, following a conversation the actor Jack Black had with Bill Walsh one night at Melbourne’s Cherry Bar.
But for all the enthusiasm the school attracted from Americans (one YouTube clip of Dalle’s first band Sourpuss, playing at the Summersault festival in 1995, features a grinning Thurston Moore alongside all three members of the Beastie Boys side of stage), Bourke was frustrated by the lack of support in Melbourne, and in 2003 she moved to Sydney to start again with KXC.
Although co-ed, Rock & Roll High School was largely geared towards teenage girls. When Bourke started KXC, though, she was working with kids in primary school: Louella Gallop, for example, was in year four and “a particularly unmotivated piano student”, according to Bourke, who encouraged her to play drums – which she now does in Bliss.
Gallop is now 18 and is still at the Conservatorium. The generation of kids Bourke began with have grown up, and while plenty have come and gone, others like Gallop, Thomas and 21-year-old Charlie Young (who came to Bourke aged six, and now plays drums with Sincerely Sonny) have formed their own bands and are making records.
Young is in three bands all playing at a showcase with Bliss on Sunday at Paddington RSL: Sincerely Sonny, who are attracting commercial interest; Miss Klein; and a 1970s-themed outfit simply titled Glam Band. “We’re doing Barracuda by Heart, 20th Century Boy by T. Rex, Suzi Quatro’s Your Mother Won’t Like Me – it’s pretty fun,” she says.
Young says she’s learned more from Bourke than just how to play. “As I get older I’ve noticed how much of the philosophy that the music school has rubbed off on me. I have a political mindset, I have a feminist mindset. There’s a lot of equality in that music school. You don’t notice until you start gigging in the real world how different things are.”
Gallop, too, has been informed by Bourke’s approach. “A lot of my perspectives about the world have definitely been shaped by what I’ve been taught by her, listening and watching the way that she treats people and the way that she expects to be treated, and her values – which she’s very strong in showing and teaching young kids.”
But Bourke still finds herself having, and hearing, the same conversations about structural discrimination as she did more than 20 years ago. “You know when Camp Cope got up on the stage at the Falls festival, in 2018, and they said, ‘Where are the [women] bands?’ I felt like saying, I think I know why there are no bands, I felt like I had the answer.”
It was easier, she said, to be a female solo artist rather than a group. “I always find that interesting, that it’s easy to be feminist if you decide you’re going to do it alone. You know, Germaine Greer said men are afraid of women in groups. I used to think that was an extreme statement.”
Of course, there is Beyoncé, Rihanna, Adele, Sia. But for Bourke’s school, Taylor Swift was a game-changer simply because “she was up there carrying a guitar – I’m like, yay! You should have seen how many eight-year-olds I had wanting to learn guitar then! I was a Taylor Swift song machine back then, I must have taught every single Taylor Swift song.”
Rock & Roll High School took a more punk aesthetic, where the approach to learning to play and record was faster. With the students at KXC starting younger, the playing, if not necessarily the songwriting, is of a higher standard, and there are enough students to form bonds with like-minded kids – bonds that are often harder to find in adulthood.
One of her youngest groups are called the Rellies, four boys aged between 11 and 13 who have a single out on English punk label Damaged Goods. “They’ve just decided there’s no band except the Beatles, so we’re just ploughing through Beatles stuff. They come in, they’ve just practiced the shit out of it, and it’s the best thing for songwriting.
“I just like to support everybody, I want everyone to enjoy it, and to be the antithesis of the pressure that you get elsewhere, when there’s an exam and an assessment at the end of every task – that’s not why we do what we do. Music’s like eating chocolate, you don’t need a reason.”
First published in the Guardian, 5 March 2021