From around 1984, after the release of their perfectly titled debut single Out Of The Unknown, Died Pretty were the inner-city Sydney group to see. “They were a dangerous band,” Paul Kelly wrote in his memoir, How To Make Gravy. “Some nights they fell in a heap. Other nights they were incandescent.”
And a big part of Died Pretty’s magnetism was singer Ron S Peno, whose death was announced on his band’s Facebook page on Saturday morning after a long struggle with cancer. Tiny, gifted with immense presence and a keening voice, Peno had held Australian audiences spellbound for over four decades.
But he had some rotten luck along the way. Died Pretty’s fourth album Doughboy Hollow, released in 1991, was his band’s most successful and critically esteemed album. Released in mid-1991, its singles Sweetheart, D.C. and Godbless were crossing over to commercial radio. The album quickly sold out – only for their label to fail to re-press it, stalling its momentum.
Died Pretty subsequently moved to a major label, and their fifth album Trace followed in 1993. A new single, Harness Up, was making inroads on US radio. A tour was lined up, and the band played an industry showcase where an executive allegedly took exception to Peno’s suggestive stage moves. Their American prospects seemed to evaporate after that.
Born on the Central Coast of New South Wales, Peno’s performing career began in 1976 at ground zero for Sydney’s burgeoning punk scene, the Oxford Funhouse, where the house band was Radio Birdman. After a few months in a covers band, the Hellcats, Peno later drifted to Brisbane, founding the 31st with Mick Medew, later of the Screaming Tribesmen.
With Medew, he co-wrote Igloo and A Stand Alone, two outstanding examples of Australian garage rock later recorded by the Tribesmen. But Peno had already moved on, after becoming besotted with another Brisbane band, The End. It was with The End’s singer and guitarist Brett Myers that Peno would form Died Pretty, and his most enduring songwriting partnership.
Heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground and another pioneering New York group, Suicide, Died Pretty’s eight studio albums and numerous singles and EPs comprises one of the finest bodies of work by any Australian band; like their live shows, they would careen from chaos to moments of spectacular beauty.
Radio Birdman singer Rob Younger, who produced most of their records, recalled a moment where he was coaching Peno through Winterland – a single that merged the tribal rumble of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil with the chord progression of the Velvets’ What Goes On. Younger encouraged Peno to sing with more aggression, to “spit the words out”.
Peno responded by theatrically mock-spitting into the microphone to begin the next take. Younger, in the control room, looked at the engineer. “Oh, this is gonna be good,” he said. Peno followed it with the wildest performance of his career, concluding by dropping lines from his earlier song Igloo into the coda.
Died Pretty fell out of commercial and critical favour after Trace, with their last studio album Everydaydream released in 2000. Peno continued to work with other artists, including the Scientists’ Kim Salmon in a project called the Darling Downs, and with Cam Butler in a new group, the Superstitions.
But Died Pretty were not forgotten, and played occasional reformation tours, beginning with a celebration of Doughboy Hollow in 2008, with a performance from Melbourne venue The Forum released earlier this year as a live album. A planned October tour to support its release had to be cancelled after Peno’s cancer, which was initially diagnosed in 2019, returned and the band’s drummer, Chris Welsh, was also diagnosed with lung cancer.
It is fitting, in a way, that Died Pretty’s best-known song was a fond remembrance. In D.C., Ron farewelled a friend who gave us “happiness and hobnob days”. Likewise, anyone who saw Died Pretty in full flight will cherish their memories of Ron forever, as we all slowly dissolve into dark.
Peno is survived by his wife, Charity, and son, Zebadiah.
First published in the Guardian, 12 August 2023