Between his work as a guitarist and songwriter with the Easybeats and as a producer (along with fellow Easybeat Harry Vanda) for AC/DC, there is a very strong case to be made that George Young was the original sonic architect of Australian rock & roll. Other than Vanda – and with no disrespect to anyone who came before them, or followed after – the legacy of Young, who died yesterday aged 70, arguably outstrips anyone’s.
Those are big claims to make, so let’s start at the beginning. Young was born in Glasgow in 1946, migrated with his parents and younger brothers Malcolm and Angus to Sydney in 1963, and met Vanda at Villawood migrant hostel (now shamefully a detention centre) the following year – an event Australian Musician magazine selected as the most significant event in this country’s rock music history, in 2007.
That’s another big call, but the Easybeats, Australia’s first and finest response to the British Invasion (and the Beatles in particular) all but justify it by themselves. Their second single She’s So Fine, released in May 1965, launched them to local stardom. Their fifth, Sorry – led by a propulsive, serrated Young riff that prefigured younger brother Malcolm’s rhythm work with AC/DC – took them to the top of the Australian charts.
That was in October 1966, by which point the Easybeats had relocated to England. Until then, Young had written music for singer Stevie Wright, who contributed lyrics. It was the year of Revolver and Blonde On Blonde, and there were murmurs that the wild, colonial Easybeats lacked polish by comparison. Young was subsequently teamed with the Dutch-born Vanda, who was still learning English. Their first recording was Friday On My Mind.
The Easybeats’ joyous paean to the end of the working week was a worldwide smash, covered in years to come by everyone from Blue Öyster Cult to Bruce Springsteen, as well as David Bowie, who recorded it for his album Pin Ups. In 2001, the Australian Performing Rights Association voted it the best Australian song of all time; it was added to the National Film and Sound Archives registry in 2007.
If that had been all, Young’s legacy would have been secure. But it was his ongoing work as a songwriter and producer for other artists that turned he and Vanda into giants. As house producers for Albert Productions, they started out by rescuing the doomed Wright’s career with the magnificent three-part opus Evie in late 1974. Around the same time, another Scottish immigrant, Bon Scott, joined AC/DC.
A few stories sum up George Young’s contribution to that band. First, as Clinton Walker has pointed out in his biography of Scott, Highway To Hell, Young insisted that AC/DC should never deviate from straight, hard rock & roll: following trends, he believed, had been the Easybeats’ undoing. He also identified the silence and space in Malcolm Young’s stop-start riffs as crucial to their early sound: “It’s the stops what rocks,” he said.
The most famous story is of smoke billowing from Angus Young’s amplifier as he laid down the climactic solo for Let There Be Rock. From the control booth, George gesticulated and screamed at the guitarist to keep going, with Angus just managing to finish before his Marshall melted. “There was no way we were going to stop a shit-hot performance for a technical reason like amps blowing up!” George said later.
The work Vanda and Young produced for AC/DC – Let There Be Rock, especially – had a tougher edge than the sound Robert “Mutt” Lange gave the band for their international breakthroughs Highway To Hell and Back In Black, recorded after Scott’s death. Vanda and Young were by then also working with the likes of the Angels and Rose Tattoo, who would go on to influence a new generation of hard rockers, notably Guns n’ Roses.
And yet again, there was still more to the story. For as much as Vanda and Young can be credited for birthing the sound of what we now know – sometimes somewhat derisively – as “Oz rock”, they were also writing and cutting huge pop, and even disco hits: Can’t Stop Myself From Loving You, performed by glam rocker William Shakespeare, followed by a string of songs including Love Is In The Air for John Paul Young (no relation).
Vanda and Young even formed their own studio project, Flash & The Pan, whose first single Hey St Peter, released in September 1976, prefigured new wave just as punk was breaking worldwide. The song’s B-side, Walking In The Rain, was covered in 1981 by Grace Jones on her iconic album Nightclubbing. The mesmerising synth-pop of Waiting For A Train, released in 1983, featured Wright on vocals and hit No. 7 in the UK.
The story of Australian rock & roll, from the Easybeats to the Saints to the Hard-Ons and beyond, is of migrant kids. We should all be forever grateful for the day George Young met Harry Vanda at Villawood. And if it sounds like too much of a stretch to say Young defined the sound of Australian rock, listen to that manic, choppy riff from Sorry again – then try to imagine it without him.
How to sum up the life and times of Ian “Molly” Meldrum? If you think four hours is an extraordinary chunk of airtime to devote to a television biopic on the cat in the hat, you probably didn’t grow up in the 1970s and ’80s. If you did, you almost certainly grew up on Countdown, the weekly music program that, over 13 years and 563 episodes, made Molly the unlikeliest of entertainment icons.
Molly, which premiered on Channel Seven last night in the first of a two-part mini-series, tells his story ingeniously and, perhaps, with a touch of sly irony: via a series of flashbacks, following Meldrum’s terrible accident at home in 2011, which left him with severe injuries. (At the time of the show’s airing, Meldrum is recovering after a second fall in Thailand).
It allows for an unashamedly nostalgic, but also unexpectedly affecting look back at an era that was both more innocent and less straight-laced. As a gormless young suburban boy, I mostly took even Countdown’s most anarchic moments at face value. Even so, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just the infamous 100th episode when its host – not to mention its guest stars – turned up on set considerably the worse for wear.
With his craggy features, Samuel Johnson was born to play Molly. More impressive than the physical resemblance, though, is the genuine pathos with which Johnson invests in the character. Underneath Molly’s bumbling, stuttering exterior (his first word on air is “um”) lies an intuitive intelligence and the irrepressible enthusiasm that audiences came to adore him for.
He’s also fiercely – and physically – loyal, which gets him into trouble both with the law and his superiors at the ABC, especially buttoned-down executive Alan Wade, played with perfect rectitude by Benedict Hardie. He is ably protected by Countdown’s producers, Michael Shrimpton (Tom O’Sullivan) and Rob Weekes (TJ Power), whose main job seems to be to save our hero from himself.
The show touches delicately on his early family life: Meldrum is raised mostly by his grandmother, after his mother is hospitalised due to an unspecified mental illness. Then, of course, there is his sexuality, which became a talking point last month after Johnson told the ABC that a scene in which he kisses another man had been cut by Meldrum himself, who thought it was “gratuitous”. (“I wanted the kiss in, I wanted it to be in there, it wasn’t gratuitous at all,” Johnson said.)
As our first sexually fluid television star, Meldrum never really came out, because he never really had to – what you saw was what you got. Here, the subject is dealt with mostly via a series of nudges, winks and knowing looks, until a touching scene where Molly, who is engaged to Camille (Rebecca Breeds) takes his strung-out, heroin-addicted transgender housemate Caroline back to his backwoods Victorian home town of Quambatook, only for both to accuse each other of running away from themselves.
It’s these glimpses into the man behind the mononym that made the first episode of Molly so much more satisfying than Never Tear Us Apart, the INXS mini-series from 2014. We see his self-doubt – “If this falls apart, no one’s gonna give me another chance,” he confesses to Camille before Countdown’s debut – and more obscure details, like his lifelong obsession with Egyptology and the St Kilda football club.
In between all this is the music. Countdown’s influence on a generation of Australian music – both for better and worse – is incontestable, and Meldrum, for over a decade, was at the centre of it. (This extended to his role as a producer – both on Russell Morris’s epochal flower-power hit The Real Thing and Supernaut’s bisexual anthem I Like It Both Ways.)
The structure of Molly allows for Countdown’s most celebrated appearances and controversies to be gleefully recast: the initial appearance of Skyhooks, the endlessly replayed “interview” with a loaded Iggy Pop, and the later refusal of Midnight Oil to appear. Along with Cold Chisel’s trashing of the Countdown awards set in 1981, their withdrawal signalled the beginning of a waning in the show’s agenda-setting power.
But the best moment – indeed, as the man himself had it, the most important moment in the history of the program – was Meldrum’s catastrophic interview with a youthful Prince Charles, during which he repeatedly fluffed his lines, swore, put his hand on the Prince’s knee while calling him “lovey”, and asked after his mum (“You mean Her Majesty The Queen,” came the unctuous reply).
The wonder of this scene is, of course, amazement that it happened at all. But the 1970s were different days, when the ABC still played God Save The Queen before it ceased broadcasting at midnight – but also a time when AC/DC’s Bon Scott, wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform and pigtails, could smoke a durrie while attacking Angus Young with a rubber mallet during a live performance on the national broadcaster.
Whether inept or insouciant, Meldrum’s treatment of Charles said much about our history and our relationship with our colonial masters. But it also spoke of Molly’s almost comic inability to be anyone other than himself, and his determination to treat everybody – as his grandmother taught him – the same. Molly the mini-series is a funny, warm and wholeheartedly affectionate tribute.
The news that Stevie Wright – solo artist, singer for the Easybeats and, thanks to that band’s immortal single Friday On My Mind, arguably Australia’s first international pop star – has died at the age of 68 will not be a surprise to anyone familiar with his sad story. That does not make his loss any less devastating.
The tiny Wright, who was billed as Little Stevie in his early years, was Australia’s prototype rock & roll frontman. Some of his moves, not to mention his leering grin, were lovingly copped by AC/DC’s Bon Scott. They also found an echo in Chrissy Amphlett, whose band the Divinyls covered the Easybeats’ I’ll Make You Happy.
Wright, along with his bandmates, was part of the first wave of migrants to jump-start Australian rock and pop. Born in Leeds in 1947, his family emigrated to Australia when he was nine, settling in Villawood. There he met Dutch-born Harry Vanda and Scot George Young (older brother of AC/DC’s Malcolm and Angus), both of whom were staying at the local migrant hostel.
Wright wrote lyrics for many of the Easybeats’ early hits, including She’s So Fine, Wedding Ring and fan favourite Sorry – a number one hit in Australia in 1966, and as tough a record as anything released to that point by the early Kinks, Rolling Stones or the Small Faces.
After that, his influence within the group waned, as Young began working with fellow guitarist Vanda. Friday On My Mind was the first fruit of a phenomenally successful partnership, for the Easybeats and as house writers and producers for Albert Productions in the 1970s.
Ultimately, this worked to Wright’s advantage after he was reunited with Vanda and Young as a solo artist. His full range as a singer – an inspired belter, capable of surprising tenderness – is best captured on his 11-minute single Evie (Parts 1, 2 & 3), which despite its prodigious length also went to number one in 1974.
But Wright, as the title of his first solo album Hard Road indicated, lost his way after his early fame. And although it contained some of his finest performances, the cover of that album was a giveaway, with a haunted-looking Wright photographed on a beach as though shipwrecked.
Addicted to heroin, he admitted himself to the notorious Chelmsford Private Hospital where he was administered deep sleep therapy, a combination of electroshock therapy and drug-induced coma which left him with severe after-effects. (The hospital’s practices, which were linked to 26 deaths, later became the subject of a Royal Commission.)
Wright performed only sporadically after that, headlining the Legends of Rock show at Byron Bay for his final show in 2009. With the Easybeats, he was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005; in 2001, Friday On My Mind was voted the best Australian song of all time by the Australasian Performing Rights Association.
It’s the song for which Wright will be best remembered. From its opening stanzas charting the working week, through to its hedonistic chorus celebrating the coming of the weekend, it’s the definitive Australian working-class anthem. Wright’s vocal is by turns impatient, cheeky – “even my old man looks good!” – and exuberant.
It is sad that Wright’s struggles have obscured his enormous influence on generations of Australian rock & roll, from AC/DC to the Saints to You Am I. Each of their vocalists, in turn, owe a drink to the diminutive frontman with the who-me grin, the little shimmy and the loveable larrikin vocals.
Years ago, a journalist asked the late Bon Scott whether he was the AC (alternate current) or DC (direct current) in his band. Scott’s response was as quick-witted and accurate as any of his best double entendres. “Neither,” he grinned. “I’m the lightning flash in the middle.”
Many thought Scott, who died in 1980 just as the band was reaching its peak, was irreplaceable. But AC/DC were unstoppable. Substituting their lightning flash for a forward slash named Brian Johnson, they ploughed on and made Back In Black. It was the biggest album of their career, vindicating the band’s resolve.
So it would be a foolish writer indeed who ever wrote off AC/DC. They remain unimpeachable as a live act, even if their recordings post-Back In Black have never matched the brilliance of their early years (for proof, their give-the-punters-what-they-want shows lean heavily on the roll-call of classics from their first six albums).
Be that as it may, I can’t bring myself to see them on their Rock Or Bust tour, which kicks off in Sydney this week. For without Malcolm Young, AC have, in effect, lost their DC – the man that made them a true rock & roll, as distinct from a mere rock band. (They’ve also lost drummer Phil Rudd, who brings more nuance and swing to the 4/4 meter than most, but it’s hard to argue with the reasons behind his exclusion.)
There is nothing consistent about my stance. I have seen the MC5, with Deniz Tek (brilliantly) filling in for Fred “Sonic” Smith on guitar and Evan Dando (lamentably) replacing Rob Tyner on vocals. I have also seen the New York Dolls, with David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain the sole surviving members. Both were enjoyable.
And AC/DC have kept it in the family: Angus and Malcolm’s nephew Stevie will hold down rhythm guitar on the tour (he also played on Rock Or Bust). He played in the band briefly in the late 1980s, when Malcolm was drying out. Live, when AC/DC are coming at you at 130 decibels, it’s unlikely anyone will notice any difference.
So is it plain irrational sentiment that stops me from countenancing the band without their indomitable rhythm guitarist? Yes, Angus is still there (indeed, he is the sole remaining original member). To most, he is the star of the band and always was, even when Scott stood alongside him. The perpetual schoolboy defines AC/DC’s image.
But it was Malcolm who defined AC/DC’s sound. The band is, first and foremost, a rhythm machine: Malcolm’s distinctive chop is inextricable to their identity. While Angus is a thrilling soloist (at least on those early records, where his breaks are mostly short, sharp and shocking), Malcolm was all accent, drive, and reinforcement.
Most of all, he knew when not to play, as this isolated track of Let There Be Rock demonstrates. Silence – those gaps punctuating the riffs – was as vital a component of the AC/DC sound as ear-splitting volume. As Angus and Malcolm’s older brother George, the band’s co-producer (and ex-Easybeat) once put it, “It’s the stops what rocks.”
Think of the long list of AC/DC riffs which made use of those stops: Highway To Hell. Whole Lotta Rosie. You Shook Me All Night Long. It’s A Long Way To The Top. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Jailbreak. These are the songs that have made them a juggernaut for over 30 years (their Black Ice tour grossed $441 million).
It is sad beyond words that Malcolm Young, who is suffering from dementia, is no longer able to remember the riffs that made his band immortal. It is frankly unbelievable – and heroic beyond measure – that on his last tour with the band, before every show, he had to teach himself each song again before taking the stage.
No one else who cares will ever forget those songs. And there is no right or wrong way for AC/DC, or their fans, to honour the legacy of their fallen comrades. As Rock Or Bust suggests, it’s not AC/DC’s way to admit defeat, ever. The show will go on, maybe for the last time, to pay tribute to the man that made them what they are.
But while I don’t begrudge them for an second, neither do I want to see AC/DC reduced to a tribute to themselves. For those about to rock, I salute you. But on the night they come to my town, I’ll stay home, crank Let There Be Rock up to 11, and have a drink to Malcolm – the greatest rhythm guitarist of them all.
The biggest problem one faces when writing a profile about Robert Forster is the knowledge that he could quite easily write it himself, and would probably prefer to. The lauded singer-songwriter – co-founder of Brisbane’s revered Go-Betweens; creator of six solo albums; former Pascall prize-winning music writer for The Monthly – likes telling stories. Sometimes he likes to make them up.
This does not mean the stories are not truthful; just that Forster likes to tell them in a particular way. Stories serve a purpose. They make the man, but also enlarge the myth. For a book accompanying the release of a lavish Go-Betweens box set earlier this year, Forster wrote a lengthy potted history of the group – all of it, disarmingly, in the second person. He became his own, not particularly harsh critic.
For his new album Songs To Play, he wrote and directed an eight-minute trailer for which he scripted not only the narrative, but the quotes of those appearing: friends, band members, even family. Yet he rejects the idea that he is some kind of control freak. He says it was about skewing expectations, and playing with the form: “That’s what Billy Wilder did, that’s what Orson Welles did.”
This sort of trick – he denies it’s a schtick – is Forster all over. “I’m not much up on social media and how you promote an album [but] that seemed the most interesting way of doing it to me,” he says, in a café near his home in Brisbane’s western suburbs. “It went back to [D.A. Pennebaker’s] Don’t Look Back … I enjoyed putting words into people’s mouths, that they’ve got to say straight-faced to a camera.”
Not everyone enjoyed reciting them. “I cringed,” admits sound engineer Jamie Trevaskis. “I want to hide under the table, because they’re not my words, and I feel awkward saying that stuff. He never said, ‘Jamie, I want to make an analogue album,’ and I never replied, ‘That’s what I do.’ That’s when I realised, the story is the most important thing for Robert. He was making a story for the album to sit on top of.”
Forster is an enigma. A student of Bob Dylan, he assiduously cultivates his image. Asked to describe himself, though, he does so “In very straight terms. Fifty-eight. Australian – which is important. A family man [he and German wife Karin Bäumler have two children; Louis, 17, and Loretta, 14], which is also very important. I cook things up at home – I’m talking about art – and take that out to the world. That’s it.”
Except it’s not. Like his plain-spoken, barely sung songs, there is always more going on than first appears.
Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Dave Graney wrote a tune that may or may not be about Forster, which he drily called Everything Was Legendary With Robert. “His riveting self-consciousness drew you in / The crowd gathered to see what he was looking at, talking about … It wasn’t him, or the times, it was just the angle he locked into / The attitude, the window that came between him and the world.”
Long-time friend Peter Fischmann, who actually does get to speak for himself in the trailer, says Forster “has a great understanding of the ridiculousness of life that goes over the head of some people. His irony confounds.” Forster, for his part, says it’s an extension of his earlier band. “There’s a playfulness there, which I like. The Go-Betweens, right from the start, were always based on a certain amount of theorising.”
Peter Milton Walsh, singer-songwriter behind the Apartments and very briefly an early member of the Go-Betweens, invokes the Monkees, a crucial early influence on the group. “He’s a daydream believer, a wonderful mix of innocence and calculation.” He describes an optimist: “Robert’s world is one where it is forever spring – it’s his principal season. The promise of it all; everything that’s on the way.”
“There’s a sense in his songs of big stuff going on between the lines,” says writer and editor Christian Ryan, who first tapped the previously untried Forster to write about music for The Monthly for its first issue in 2005. “His words are very spare – it’s almost in shorthand, so you’re listening [and] your mind is simultaneously operating on a separate high-wire level, thinking, what the hell is going on here.”
Forster resigned his commission at The Monthly in 2013. It was a brave call. “The one source of constant income I had, I threw away. I’d been there eight years. I’d written myself out, I thought, and I wasn’t getting around to the other things I was doing.” Apart from assembling the box set, he’s been working on a memoir. (“If you say rock musician and memoir, you know, eyes will roll,” he grimaces.)
Ryan had a hunch that the songwriter could transfer his poetry into prose, a rare skill. “Taut, exotic, precise, vivid yet never straining, in terms of the imagery. And no banality, ever,” he says – and that’s about the songs. He describes the thrill of receiving Forster’s first piece, on Antony and the Johnsons’ album I Am A Bird Now, as “like receiving a postcard from the moon”.
Fischmann alludes to another early influence, David Bowie – but not in the way you might expect. “Robert is like the man who fell to earth. The machinations of modern life confound him, but when it comes to matters of the human heart, he is a Zen master.” He cites the time when, after the Go-Betweens first broke up in 1990, he returned from Germany with Karin, and earnestly asked a friend how to buy a fridge.
Forster’s songwriting partner in the Go-Betweens, the late Grant McLennan, shared Forster’s disdain for the mundane. After his friend’s premature death in 2006, Forster wrote a eulogy in The Monthly noting that McLennan didn’t drive and owned no wallet, watch, credit card or computer. He did, however, maintain a subscription to the New York Review Of Books.
To call the Go-Betweens bookish would be an understatement: select items from McLennan’s library came as bonuses with early copies of the box set. On the inner sleeve of the band’s final album, Oceans Apart, McLennan is dressed in jeans, a fleece jacket and ski cap. Forster is immaculate in suit and spectacles, leaning against a tree trunk with a hefty hardback tucked under his arm for effect.
The pair were a contrast, but again, all was not as it seemed. Forster was flamboyant; a bevy of tics and mannerisms, and a wardrobe ranging from canary-yellow suits to dresses as the occasion demanded. McLennan was the quiet one, with the most sincere eyebrows in rock & roll. Off stage, though, McLennan was the hell-raiser with a turbulent personal life; Forster was settled; the “sensible rock”, as he called himself.
McLennan’s death finished the band for good, after a second coming that spanned three albums with a new line-up from the year 2000. In 2008, Forster released his fifth solo album, The Evangelist, which included unfinished songs by McLennan. The record hung heavy with grief. “A river ran and a train ran and a dream ran through everything that he did,” Forster sang on It Ain’t Easy, one of the jauntier tunes.
After The Evangelist’s release, Forster beat a deliberate retreat. The original aim was to not release another album for five years; it stretched to seven. “It was like Act Four,” he says. “If you take The Go-Betweens as Act One, the solo years as two and the band getting back together as three … I wanted Act Four to come with a certain amount of gravitas.”
The first step was to assemble a new band. Long-serving collaborators Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson had moved to Sydney, and Forster couldn’t afford to fly them north for rehearsals. He also wanted to open a new chapter. Along with Karin, who plays violin (son Louis also plays some guitar), he decided to work with Luke McDonald and Scott Bromiley, from Brisbane’s John Steel Singers.
Songs To Play is a very different album, the sound of a dedicated craftsman starting over, with tunes reminiscent of the Go-Betweens’ early years: small, suburban songs indebted to Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers. “I wanted to write something more upbeat. The feelings that I had were more life-affirming. There was just a looseness in the way that I felt that I can only describe as a bounce out of my last album.”
Perhaps the most telling track is called I Love Myself And I Always Have. “It’s one of the most serious songs on the album,” he says, straight-faced, knowing full well that audiences – particularly in Australia – could take lines like “I hold myself in high regard / And loving yourself shouldn’t be so hard” as a joke. It’s not. “I like throwing an idea out and then twisting it right in front of their faces.”
In a recent essay, “What’s the difference between a pop star and a rock star?”, Forster expands on one of his 10 rules of rock & roll: being a rock star is a 24-hour-a-day job. He recalls a chance encounter with the late Dragon singer, Marc Hunter, one morning in Kings Cross in the early 1980s: Forster was out for a walk; Hunter, clearly at the end of a long night on the tiles, still looked, in Forster’s words, “fucking incredible”.
Forster, by his own admission, isn’t a rock star anymore, even though – like Dave Graney – the dividing line between the private and public persona can be paper-thin. “You’ve got to be careful because, you know, Hunter died from it. [Michael] Hutchence died from it. Bon Scott. Chrissy Amphlett died, but under other circumstances. So it’s dangerous. People die young.” He doesn’t mention McLennan.
“One of the things I like best about Robert, actually, is that I don’t think he really wants you to know the artist,” Ryan says. “It’s kind of an old-school thing which has gone out of rock music, in the age where everybody’s tweeting and making their personal lives very transparent. Robert still sees value in mystery. He doesn’t go out of his way to tell you about his love life.”
In the trailer, another of Forster’s friends is asked to describe him. “He’s difficult,” she replies, after a studied pause. In person, though, Forster is unfailingly courteous; even affable. But, he says, “somehow I enjoyed being on the other side of the camera, having written the lines for someone to say that I’m difficult, while I watch it. I don’t know what that makes me.”
First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 11 September 2015
Richard “Evil Dick” Hunt is doing a handstand. We’re in a plush dressing room at a venue called Le Cargo – it’s so cushy that it even has the band’s name on the door, an unheard-of event – and Hunt, by way of limbering up, is hoisting his small frame over a large, comfy, suspiciously new-smelling corner couch.
I watch warily as Hunt, who’s already flying on a combination of cough syrup, cognac (to protect his shredded voice) and beer, inverts himself aloft. This may not end well. Facing away from the wall, he gets himself balanced precariously on his head. Then, unsteadily, he begins to stretch out his little legs.
Le Cargo is a major performing arts complex in Caen, a couple of hours’ drive north-west of Paris. HITS – a full-tilt, five-piece rock & roll band from Brisbane, Australia – have taken all before them on their first European tour. It’s the second-last gig of a four-week adventure that’s seen the band play 20 shows in less than a month.
Every Friday night at Le Cargo, the local government subsidises free concerts for up-and-coming groups in a room that would comfortably fit 450 punters. Everything is arranged to make young bands look and feel like stars: there’s a high stage, drum riser, light show, and the sound is excellent.
Not to mention that dressing room. It’s got a wall-to-wall mirror at one end that adjoins a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over the Caen Canal, which runs out to the English Channel about a dozen kilometres upstream. At the other end of the room, opposite the mirror, is the corner couch.
All of this is, as you might have gathered, unimaginable luxury for a band that, on any given night in Brisbane, is lucky to attract more than 100 paying punters. On this tour, many of the gigs have been to 20 or 30 people, some in venues that would make tiny Fortitude Valley icon Ric’s look like Madison Square Garden by comparison.
Hunt points his toes skyward. His feet are adorned in lovely black suede RM Williams boots, with classic rocker’s Cuban heels, which instantly shatter the print on the wall. Glass rains down, even as the print remains in place and Hunt heroically maintains the handstand.
The larger, heavier chunks of glass that don’t make it to the floor land on Hunt, falling around his magnificently unkempt mane of blond hair much like a circus knife-thrower outlines the head of his smiling female assistant. And still he holds the handstand, until finally the clatter of glass stops.
Everyone else in the room stands, mouths agape in horrified silence.
“Oh, shit,” someone says.
Hunt dismounts the couch, grins, and casually brushes away the pieces of glass still clinging to his hair and flannel shirt. He’s completely unscathed. The rest of us dissolve into laughter. Richie, not finished, weaves his way over to the sink under the long makeup mirror, and vomits copiously into it. Blaaargh!
[Footage from Le Cargo, thanks to Youtube user TCITR. This was arguably the best show of the tour. Mind the vomit at 16.50!]
Let’s get the disclosures out of the way. I became involved with HITS in 2009, when the band’s debut album, Living With You Is Killing Me, was released. I fell in love with it, with them, and subsequently co-financed the reissue of the CD on a limited vinyl pressing of 300 copies (now sold out).
It was due mainly to that commitment that I was asked to chauffeur the band through Europe. A double-life spent writing and driving maxi-taxis on nightshift was as good a grounding as any for moonlighting as the driver for Brisbane’s hardest-drinking rock band. (The tour wasn’t wickedly titled Euro Double-Vision for nothing.)
There are more than a few other judges, though, who will tell you that HITS – the name is ironically chosen, deliberately capitalised, and a knowing anagram – are the best rock & roll band in Australia. True, none of the judges are named Seal or Delta Goodrem or Keith Urban. But since when did The Voice have anything to do with rock & roll?
In this writer’s opinion, at least, they’re by far and away the most recklessly exciting group this city has produced since the Saints. No, they will never sell as many records as Powderfinger. But they have the charisma, the sound and most of all, the songs (real songs, with hooks and choruses and quite possibly the best set of riffs since AC/DC last had it up) to leave a lasting legacy.
HITS also have something that in this day and age shouldn’t be unique, but is: they’re a mixed-gender group with not one, but two female guitarists. Tamara Bell (who, just to add to the band’s volatile internal chemistry, has been in a relationship with Hunt for nearly a decade) plays with the demented fury of Angus Young trapped in Chrissy Amphlett’s body; Stacey Coleman pumps out the rhythm with a sneer to make Joan Jett blush.
Over them, and a thunderous rhythm section comprising bass player Andy Buchanan and New Zealand-born drummer Gregor Mulvey, Hunt pours out his frustrations and insecurities: stories of drinking, depression, drugs, going to rehab and failing: as he puts it in the title track of Living With You Is Killing Me, “I’m sorry baby, the 12 steps are too hard to climb.”
It’s the opposite of the usual model of female-fronted bands, or groups where women play stereotypically supportive roles (usually bass, following the examples of 1980s indie-rock icons Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth, and the Pixies’ Kim Deal). It gives HITS an immediate visual distinction.
The most striking thing about them, though, is the way they deliver their music on stage. The song titles tell the stories: Bitter And Twisted. Sometimes You Just Don’t Know Who Your Friends Are. Touch Of The Shorts. The End. But HITS aren’t in the least bit sorry for themselves. Far from depressing, they’re life-affirming.
Their shows are wild, joyous, hilarious, and sometimes, quite frankly, they’re terrible. But they’re never less than entertaining, not least because you can’t wipe the smiles off their faces. Even on a bad night, HITS are a glorious rock & roll band because, as one critic put it, “The compelling thing they have that most bands lack is personality. Dysfunctional rogue personality, just this side of out of control.” Really, they’re best summed up by another marvellously self-descriptive title: Loose Cannons.
EURO Double-Vision is actually a bit of a tour misnomer. After starting the adventure in Amsterdam (Whose damn fool idea was that?), 17 of the 20 shows are in France which, despite being better known for producing the late, great Serge Gainsbourg and shopping-mall staples Air, also harbours an perverse, enduring affection for Australian rock music.
It’s not just AC/DC, either. In terms of rock iconography, what we see everywhere – T-shirts, patches, badges, tour posters, you name it – is the distinctive logo of Sydney legends Radio Birdman who, along with the Saints, kicked off the punk movement in Australia back in the mid-1970s. (Rob Younger, Birdman’s ex-singer, is slated to produce HITS’ next album.)
The French connection to the Australian underground goes back in the 1980s. Bands inspired by or directly descended from the Saints/Birdman legacy – Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, Younger’s other band the New Christs – toured through Europe on the back of having their records picked up and distributed locally by a former Le Havre-based independent record label, Closer.
In more recent years, Brisbane bands like 6ftHick, the Vegas Kings and their respective offshoots, Gentle Ben and his Sensitive Side and Texas Tea, have all mounted successful tours here, supported by new labels like Beast (based in Rennes) and Turborock (Caen). And in many cases – in an exciting but sad echo of older musical exports like the Go-Betweens – they’re finding bigger, more enthusiastic audiences overseas than at home.
THE north-western peninsula of Brittany (Bretagne) is the centre for all this rock action. Just off the main streets of Rennes, Beast Records owner Seb Blanchais owns a shop at the bottom of the crooked timber framework of a 17th-century tenement block. It’s got an Australian record section fatter than anything I’ve seen in any comparable shop at home, stuffed full of rare and limited pressings.
On the outskirts of town, he runs a club called Mondo Bizarro, named after a late-period Ramones album. “The right place to rock!” it insists, on a poster advertising upcoming gigs stuck outside on its white stucco wall.
“I’m glad we’re not in the wrong place,” Bell says.
I look at the poster. They take all types here – from thrash to funk, folk to punk and all shades of heavy metal in between. Coming up soon, for example, is Cauchemar (“Quebec: Heavy Doom”) with special guests Children of Doom (“Lille: Doom Metal”). Really, the venue’s just an old house – the entrance hall’s been converted into a bar and there’s a stage mounted at one end of the lounge room – but it’s got buckets of atmosphere.
Upstairs, Bell warms up her voice. “Nothing suck-seeds like success,” she belts, quoting a line from one of the band’s songs, with added emphasis.
“It’s still there,” she says, reassured.
The small dressing room soon fills with enough smoke to gas us all. I wonder if Bell’s voice will still be there by the end of the night. Hunt, for his part, is already sure he has nodules on his vocal cords, which after seven years in HITS (and 13 more in other bands, including the notorious Strutter, whose sole album gloried in the title Motherfuckers From The Bowels Of Hell) is not surprising. He has two basic modes: scream, and scream harder, “Until your whole body is telling you it can’t do it any more.”
Coleman – who has a day job at home selling advertising for long-standing independent radio station 4ZZZ – returns from downstairs, where she’s been trying without success to get the attention of the sound guy. Every time she makes eye contact with him, he scuttles away. “I think he’s under the impression I’m a groupie,” she says. “I like it when they think that. Then they see me on stage…”
We all look around. I’m getting used to that sound. But it’s not Hunt this time. It’s one of the kids from the support band, Barbed Wire, who’s just spewed out the window. Not all of it’s made it to the pavement below, though: instead, he’s puked mostly onto Mulvey’s only towel, hanging over the sill to dry.
I decide to go outside.
BEN Salter – solo artist, leader of fellow Brisbane band the Gin Club and ace ex-Queen Street Mall Beatle-busker – has joined us on tour for a few days. He’s over here on a six-month songwriting grant, living out of a small suitcase, building a new fan base in Europe. Have guitar; will travel. He and Buchanan are quietly propping up the bar.
“You look like you’ve got The Fear, Staffo,” Salter says, noting my grey visage.
It sounds scary, but I’m not quite sure what he means. “It’s just generalised anxiety; existential dread,” he explains cheerfully. “Everyone on tour gets it at some point. It’s the drinking that does it.”
Gregor appears. He’d slipped off somewhere to find a kip – might have been a park bench, but then again, it might have been somebody’s front yard. He’s not quite sure.
“See, the fear just bounces off The Maori,” Salter says (an affectionate nickname, saluting the cherubic and very caucasian Mulvey’s Kiwi heritage). “It just ricochets, like ping-pong balls off a Centurion tank.”
Wait until he goes upstairs and sees his towel, I think.
Salter’s dad was a Vietnam veteran. Once, marching with him in an ANZAC Day parade, he tried to explain to some of his dad’s fellow diggers that he was a musician. He watched as they screwed up their faces, trying to understand his choice of vocation; the different ways you can measure success.
“Why don’t you go on Australian Idol?” one eventually offered, trying genuinely to be helpful.
Salter tried to explain, politely, how such a move would fly in the face of everything he was about. Buchanan nods. “It’s like wanting to be a Formula One driver and someone telling you that you should settle for driving taxis,” he says.
Some things can’t be explained. Most of the creative people I know – writers, musicians, visual artists – do what they do not just because they love it but because, more crucially, they have to; something inside of them is fighting to be released. And sometimes you need to feel the love of a new audience, to know that what you’re doing connects with people other than your friends in your own little corner of the world.
The show’s a blinder. HITS pull out a new song, Lost In The Somme, for the first time on tour. It’s a tribute to Hunt’s great-grandfather, who lost his life in one of the Great War’s worst catastrophes. The song is in two parts: a pure punk, machine-gun riff to open (the military pun is deliberate), a couple of verses, a chorus, then a pause, and Richie crumples to the floor as if shot.
The music slows to a grind, based on just a couple of chords. Now it’s the sound of battle, as though the band is wading through muck. Hunt is still on the floor, moaning. This continues for a couple of tortured minutes. Then the beat kicks in once more, double-time. Hunt’s back on his feet:
Yeah, that’s no way to go, no way to go Lost in the mud and snow, the mud and snow
Throughout the show, there’s a woman down the front, repeatedly grabbing at Hunt’s crotch. After the performance she propositions him boldly while a non-stop Ramones medley plays in the background.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I love my girlfriend very much.”
“I could just be your mistress,” she replies earnestly. But she’s out of luck.
WHEN he’s at home, Hunt does odd jobs at a bar in West End and builds sets for the Arts Theatre on Petrie Terrace. For years, he was a regular behind the counter of local institution Rocking Horse Records. He’s in his early 40s – no spring chicken in this game – but he’s nobody’s fool, either. He’s studied rock’s history and mythology intently, and he knows what works and what doesn’t.
“I spend so much time watching actors – how they deliver lines; how you can express so much with your body language and your hands,” he says. “It’s an important point of difference in our band. So many singers have their microphone stand [he mimics being glued to one]. I’m like, no mic stand!” (This changes by the end of the tour, by which time he’s using a stand with aplomb as an extra prop.)
He also knows when to get out of the way. “Usually when Tam’s playing a solo I try to stand over near her amp,” he says. “That’s something I picked up from Bon Scott. You don’t want to grandstand at those times. You want people to listen to the solo. They should, because it’s fucking great.”
There’s more to Bell than meets the eye, too. If HITS is mostly Hunt’s creative vision, Bell, 31, is the band’s heartbeat and moral centre. The classic Catholic schoolgirl who went off the rails in her youth, she’s made a successful return to mature-age study, and is completing her Honours in Justice after blitzing her undergraduate degree.
Earlier in the tour, after a vigorous debate about corruption in the Catholic Church with Buchanan – a UQ graduate with majors in classics and French who runs an education bookstore – she made a declaration. “We’re artists. We like to make rock & roll,” she declares. “But I’m not a dumb-arse rock & roller. None of us are. And I won’t pretend to be.”
THE last show of the tour is in Le Havre, in the basement of an Irish pub where the pipes are so superheated it feels more like Brisbane during a heatwave. We’re all exhausted and sick. A song by the Ramones, I Wanna Be Sedated, has become a recurring theme: “Get me to the airport, put me on a plane / Hurry, hurry, hurry / Before I go insane / I can’t control my fingers / I can’t control my brain.”
“Bonsoir, motherfuckers,” Hunt yells.
It’s a young crowd – kids in their teens and early 20s, mostly – and they go completely mental: one picks Hunt up during the first song and nearly succeeds in putting his head through the low ceiling, while Bell and Coleman are fending off stage invaders with their stilettos.
Getting pummelled in the mosh, I finally stagger from the front across the stage to the safety of the wings. It’s nearing the end of the second-last song of the tour, Peter And Paul. Richie suddenly approaches me at side of stage. There’s an evil grin on his face. He’s holding out the microphone to me.
You know what to do.
Rock & roll has always attracted misfits; people who don’t feel they have a place to go. If you never ran with the crowd at school – or the crowd never let you in – you may have found solace in the voices of Iggy. Or Morrissey. Or Patti.
“Outside of society,” Smith sang, “That’s where I wanna be.” You wouldn’t resign yourself to your status as an outcast: you would celebrate it. It’s a different kind of validation. HITS like to say they’re a celebration of resignation. Their songs are full of loneliness and pain and defeat and struggle. But what makes them special is their delivery, which is so joyful and inclusive.
I charge into the crowd to sing the last two choruses. I’m totally unprepared, and now it’s me who’s barely got any voice left; I’m not doing much more than hollering, really, but it doesn’t matter. The song finishes. I dive off the stage, and I haven’t done that since I was 20. A dozen hands hold me aloft.
I hear Hunt laughing his head off behind me. “Don’t drop him! Don’t drop him! We need him to drive us, just for one more day … Please don’t hurt him!”
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), 18 August 2012