Songs of Brisbane

I’m from Melbourne. I spent the first 15 years of my life there, in the outer eastern suburbs of Wantirna South and Ringwood North. I grew up on Australian Rules football and Countdown until punk entered my life 10 years too late. Then, in 1987, my parents relocated the family to Brisbane. Other than a few regrettable years in Sydney in the late 90s, I’ve been here ever since.

I still feel like a Victorian, though I’ve come to hate the cold. I still follow a Melbourne-based AFL team, despite having written on the side about the Brisbane Lions for 13 years. I even wrote a book about Brisbane, a sort of love letter to my adopted city and, especially, its music. The sound of the place captured me. To this day though, I feel like an outsider or interloper. Stranded, you might say, far from home.

But when I hear Streets Of Your Town by the Go-Betweens I feel differently. Never a hit at the time (the band’s co-founder Robert Forster has said they may as well have released a free jazz record, such was its commercial impact), the song, written by Grant McLennan, has become part of the city’s fabric. The Courier-Mail even used it for an ad campaign when it downsized from a broadsheet. They cut the line about the town being full of battered wives, of course.

That was the Go-Betweens, though. They called theirs the striped sunlight sound, and they captured it best on 16 Lovers Lane, their sixth album, 30 years old last month. Streets Of Your Town, the hit that wasn’t, is so lyrically visual it seems to sparkle in the late afternoon sun. At the heart of the song is aimlessness: “I ride your river under the bridge / And I take your boat out to the reach / ’Cos I love that engine roar / But I still don’t know what I’m here for.

A lot of people in Brisbane ask themselves that question. Many leave, as I did, in their 20s, only to return. It’s like the city has a push/pull magnetic field around it.

For all the punk energy that roared out of the place in the 70s in the wake of the Saints, and for all its growth since, Brisbane has a stillness missing from Melbourne and Sydney. Partially it’s the heat and humidity of the increasingly endless summer. That builds tension. The Saints’ guitarist, Ed Kuepper, wrote of it in one of his best solo songs, Electrical Storm. You can get stuck here just watching the thunderheads build up, waiting for the place to blow.

In between, things drift. The Apartments’ Peter Milton Walsh, the finest Australian songwriter most Australians have never heard of, puts that push-pull effect of Brisbane best in No Hurry: “Smell the rain that’s coming, all the windows open wide,” he sings, “I’ll never get away / I can’t stay here forever … Someone slowed the whole world down, in the old town called the past.” It’s a great place for procrastinators.

I came of age around the same time Brisbane was awkwardly doing the same. Expo 88 was happening on the South Bank of the river. It looked a little quaint to my Melbourne eyes but, for many Queenslanders, it opened theirs to a bigger, brighter world. Directly opposite, the state and its government were in the dock as Tony Fitzgerald’s inquiry calmly tore Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s corrupt police state apart. Brisbane wasn’t called Pig City for nothing.

There was a surge of energy that pulsed through the city in the next decade as a new generation of artists emerged. I can listen to Screamfeeder’s Wrote You Off, a song from their second album Burn Out Your Name, and I’m 22 again, on the cusp of … Well, I didn’t have a clue what. I saw Regurgitator’s second or third gig and was stunned but not surprised to see Quan Yeomans on stage: I’d gone to school with him and he was always miles ahead of everyone else.

There was a separate scene that revolved around Custard, in a Spring Hill house owned by David McCormack’s parents. McCormack had another band called COW – Country or Western – with drummer Glenn Thompson; they ended up being Robert Forster’s backing band on his solo album Calling From A Country Phone. Like the early Go-Betweens, though, what McCormack really tapped into was the suburban viewpoint of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.

Brisbane still has a streak of that suburban sensibility a mile wide – listen to Jeremy Neale, for example, last year’s winner of the GW McLennan fellowship. Jeremy’s song In Stranger Times is a favourite of mine from the last decade, tapping into the pre-Beatles AM radio sound that Richman fetishised. You can hear it in the dream pop of Babaganouj and Hatchie, too.

Grant’s death in May 2006 sent a violent shudder of mortality through everyone involved with music here. We’d lost our first genuine elder prematurely, at 48. I’m 47 now. Life comes at you fast and we’ve all gotten older with the music, and the people who made it. Powderfinger’s These Days is probably a very nostalgic song for many. Who can’t relate to the feeling of things not turning out as we planned? Some of us never had plans to begin with.

What I love most about Brisbane is that it’s unafraid to be itself. There’s no confected competition or rivalry with Sydney or Melbourne to be had. The music made here was always too variable to be reduced to a “Brisbane sound” but the best of it is unafraid to be itself too, and that’s the stuff that travels and endures. Most of our best bands, like Blank Realm, SixFtHick and HITS all command much bigger audiences overseas. Our flaw is not to rate ourselves.

They also prove that making worthwhile art isn’t necessarily a consequence of reactionary politics. It seemed to me that Bjelke-Petersen’s biggest contribution to music in Queensland was encouraging a generation of artists to leave. But the survivors wear it like a badge of honour. Some never made it back here. For those who remained or, like me, came to visit and decided to stay, Brisbane is just home – stranded or not.

First published in The Guardian, 4 September 2018

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