Tagged: Andrew Denton

(I want my) music on TV back

For two hours on Sunday night, it felt like a good proportion of Australia was gathered around a gigantic campfire. That campfire was burning on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, where Paul Kelly and his band were holding court – not just for the tens of thousands of people lucky enough to be there, but for hundreds of thousands more tuning in around the country, watching the ABC livestream and tweeting simultaneously.

Some say it’s rude to talk at gigs, but for me, watching from home, the excited chatter about what we were seeing added to the communal feel as #PaulKellyLive became the top-trending hashtag in the country. There was a collective awareness that we were witnessing a celebrated songwriter at the top of his game, and at a peak of popularity – at the age of 62, Kelly’s most recent album Life Is Fine was his first No. 1, a richly deserved success for a recording that’s up there with his best work.

Then someone said on Twitter: “We should have live music on the ABC every Sunday night.” Funny he should mention it: only two hours earlier, the ABC had screened its latest instalment of Classic Countdown, a restored best-of the vintage program which has also been a big hit for the national broadcaster. Cannily, it screened in Countdown’s original time slot of 6pm Sunday, adding to the nostalgia of a sizeable audience who grew up on the show between 1974 and 1987.

Of course, the music on Countdown wasn’t strictly live, and the warm glow of nostalgia helps us forget the reality: at the time, great Countdown moments (last night’s highlight was Divine performing You Think You’re A Man) could sometimes be a bit like finding diamonds in dog turds. Such moments, though, were miracles of Australian television that probably wouldn’t be allowed to happen today.

So it’s reasonable to ask why we don’t have a dedicated live music program, the endless parade of canned karaoke quests aside. If we did, perhaps we wouldn’t be wallowing in nostalgia for shows like Countdown and Recovery, at least not to the same degree. Australia has a rich history of music on television going back to TV Disc Jockey in 1957, which evolved into Australia’s version of the American program Bandstand.

In other words, Australia has had rock & roll on television pretty much as long as we’ve had both television (which launched in this country in 1956) and rock & roll.

After Bandstand, we had Six O’Clock Rock hosted by Johnny O’Keefe, The Go!! Show, GTK (Get To Know), and the Seven network’s Sounds, on to Rock Arena, SBS’s Rock Around the World (whose host Basia Bonkowski was the subject of a memorable tribute by Melbourne’s Painters & Dockers), Beatbox, The Noise, Studio 22 and Nomad – the show which introduced us to a trio of teenagers called Silverchair.

Variety shows gave priceless additional exposure to Australian artists. Even Hey Hey It’s Saturday had its moments: other than that time Iggy Pop greeted Molly Meldrum with “Hiya Dogface!” before terrorising innocent teenagers with a microphone stand, not even Countdown threw up anything to match TISM’s performance of Saturday Night Palsy, the like of which has not been seen before or since.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Even mimed performances on live television carried that tantalising possibility of a few minutes of anarchy. All it took was a performer, or group of performers, willing to break the format’s fourth wall and strip the carefully constructed reality of television away – at which point things perhaps got a bit too real for executive producers to handle.

Which brings me to the events of 2 November 1988.

On that evening, a Sydney noise-rock group called Lubricated Goat, led by one Stu Spasm, performed the lead track from their just-released album Paddock Of Love on Andrew Denton’s program Blah Blah Blah. The song was called In The Raw, and in the raw was exactly how the group played it – much to the horror of sensitive viewers who jammed the ABC switchboard, not to mention tabloid editors and talkback radio hosts.

Eleven years after punk, it was Australia’s version of “The filth and the fury” – that Daily Mirror headline that followed the Sex Pistols’ infamous appearance on Bill Grundy’s Today program in December 1976. Tim Bowden, the genial host of the ABC’s popular feedback program Backchat, responded to the moral panic by appearing shirtless behind his desk while reading outraged letters to Aunty aloud.

An ABC spokesperson told Guardian Australia the network hoped to build on the success of the AusMusic Month broadcasts: Paul Kelly last night and Crowded House last year. They said music programming, including live concerts, “is something we continue to be very committed to … the upcoming reorganisation of our content teams will provide more opportunities for our music and entertainment teams to work closely together”.

I hope they’re right. It has been far too long since live music was a regular part of our Sunday evenings, not to mention our Monday water-cooler discussions. Sure, it carries an element of risk – but as Paul Kelly showed, it has the potential for joy as well. And without the risks, we’d have none of those classic moments that we continue to celebrate today.

First published in The Guardian, 20 November 2017

Smart collaboration bears “ego fruit”

In a world where the natural environment is under siege, it takes a shift in mindset to find comfort in the despoiled surroundings of our urban cityscapes. David Bridie, leader of enduring Melbourne chamber-pop group My Friend the Chocolate Cake, points out that often the most spectacular sunsets occur in polluted cities.

He speaks of crossing the West Gate Bridge, glancing down at the petrochemical plants and docks below. “It could be this grim industrial landscape, but from a certain point of view it’s just absolutely beautiful,” he says. And so was born a homage to the late, great Australian realist painter, Jeffrey Smart (Silver City): “We search out sanctuary, we search for stillness / We grasp at anything that’s out of the way / Sometimes the only thing to make it all spark / Is see the world through the eyes of Jeffrey Smart.”

Music entrepreneur Paul Cashmere, CEO of website Noise11.com, knew Bridie. He also knew Stephen Rogers, Smart’s archivist, and put the two in touch. Rogers was a fan of Bridie’s solo album Act Of Free Choice, though he thought “like everybody else” that My Friend the Chocolate Cake was “the world’s worst band name”.

But he loved the song – “You have to love the line, ‘shipping containers on the Cahill Expressway’” he says – and offered the group free access to Smart’s images, which are extensively used in Silver City’s accompanying video. “I don’t think they could believe we’d let them do that, but they treated them with absolute reverence.”

Towards the end of Smart’s life, Rogers convinced the artist to spend $45,000 digitising film transparencies of his work, against the wishes of some of his friends who thought it a waste of money. With the video, it paid off. “That stuff we did 20 years ago was used, and I could provide an image in five minutes.”

The song is the lead single from My Friend the Chocolate Cake’s seventh studio album, The Revival Meeting, their first since 2011’s Fiasco. Despite the long time lag – Bridie fits the group around multiple other solo projects, soundtrack work and his not-for-profit label Wantok Musik – it’s up there with the group’s best early work.

“We weren’t sure we were going to do another record, and then we were,” Bridie confesses. “Then we sort of effortlessly moved into that mode … I wasn’t sure whether we had it in us to do a really strong record. I didn’t want to be a band that just put out a record so that we could go on tour again.”

Part of the band’s initial reticence, but also drive to carry on, was provided by the passing of Andrew Carswell, whose mandolin and tin whistle playing was a crucial part of the band’s sound. Before his death, Carswell had recorded some parts with Bridie for another project, but they ended up on three of the album’s songs.

Carswell’s passing was tragic, and shouldn’t have ended the way it did. Like Bridie, he had Hepatitis C, practically an epidemic among Australian musicians of a certain age. But where Bridie is now thankfully clear of the illness, for Carswell it caused terminal complications.

Bridie explains Carswell’s own act of free choice. “He wouldn’t mind me talking about it in this way, because Andrew was going down really fast at the end; it was really awful,” Bridie says. “He was in a lot of pain and there was no future in it at all, and so he took himself up to the hills and did himself in.

“It wasn’t a problematic issue for him, it was just totally common sense. He loved living and he had a great life, and so it was actually a really beautiful death in its own way, but unnecessarily messy.” Carswell’s widow has since become active in Andrew Denton’s Dying With Dignity campaign for legal euthanasia.

Bridie says the lyrics of The Revival Meeting reflect a band that’s “at an older stage of our career and life”. He and cellist Helen Mountfort formed the band at the turn of the 1990s, when their other celebrated band Not Drowning, Waving was still a going concern.

Not Drowning, Waving was a pioneering group, championed by Peter Gabriel, and unfortunately saddled with the “world music” tag, primarily thanks to their album Tabaran, recorded with George Telek and other musicians from Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, a connection which Bridie maintains to this day via Wantok Musik.

But, he says, it took half a truck just to get Not Drowning, Waving’s gear to rehearsals, and the idea of My Friend the Chocolate Cake was that everyone could get to practice taking their instrument on a tram (except for Bridie, who played piano, meaning early rehearsals were usually at his parents’ place).

It’s not an easy time to be a middle-aged artist in an industry obsessed with youth and in a shrinking media landscape. Chocolate Cake are fortunate to have an audience that’s loyal to the point of being rusted on: friends bring other friends; parents take their children; this writer, in a very un-rock & roll move, once took his mum.

Rogers draws a parallel between the work of Bridie, his band and “Mr Smart”, as he still calls his former employer and, seemingly, everyone else. “A little bit like Mr Bridie, Mr Smart was very true to his craft, even when the particular sort of art he was making didn’t sell,” he says.

“He was a realist, and in the 1960s everybody wanted abstraction – he just couldn’t bring himself to do abstraction. He could do it, he just didn’t like it, and so he stuck to his guns, and worked away at perfecting it. A little bit like Mr Bridie, I think he’s always done what he wanted to do or what mattered to him.

“Longevity, I think, is to be admired. Working at your craft, making your music or your art as well as you can and getting better each time – that’s got an awful lot to be said for it, rather than the shock of the new and the search for the avant-garde.”

Smart was a classical buff – a lover of Wagner especially, with over 2500 CDs in his library, 300 of which he kept in his studio to soundtrack his painting. Rogers isn’t sure whether he would have liked My Friend the Chocolate Cake’s music, but is certain he would have enjoyed the tribute, which he would have called “ego fruit”.

“That was his phrase!” Rogers says. “When somebody would send him a nice fan letter or he’d get a nice reference somewhere, he’d send you a copy and say “look at this ego fruit!”

And Bridie and Smart, he says, have something else in common. “Mr Smart’s art is very hard, in terms of the avant-garde world; it’s very hard to pigeonhole. He sort of stood to one side of your mainstream art market. He was a realist working in a classical tradition and stayed true to his craft.

“David’s a little bit the same … [My Friend the Chocolate Cake] has that bittersweet melancholy with a slight twist of humour, which was often what Mr Smart’s art was about. Often, as Mr Bridie points out, celebrating what’s around us. You know, we live in the cities; we don’t live in the billabongs.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 21 July 2017

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