When future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau wrote his instantly infamous review of the man he saw as “rock & roll future” in 1974, the more personal, vulnerable elements of his enthusiasm were drowned out by his own hyperbole.
Landau caught The Boss at a time when he needed to be reminded of why he fell in love with music in the first place, and he quoted a line from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic: “I’ll tell you about the magic that will free your soul / But it’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock & roll.” He concluded that as long as the magic still existed, his mission was to tell a stranger about it.
No one would be so foolish as to predict rock & roll’s future more than 40 years later. But I found myself reminded of Landau’s review, on a couple of levels, while watching Cash Savage and the Last Drinks tear through their set last Friday to maybe a hundred or so disciples. Savage – barefoot, black jeans, black T-shirt, greasy black hair, black Telecaster, cowboy belt – may be the best rock star we’ve got right now.
The sparse crowd is initially reserved, hanging back several metres from the stage. Savage opens the set ambitiously, with the agonised slow dance of One Of Us. Within 45 seconds, the stage has been rushed. “We are alone / We are all alone,” she croons, and instantly, we’re not. She sings in the most gender-indeterminate voice the other side of Anohni: where Anohni is most often compared to Nina Simone, Savage’s deep growl and wild shriek is like a reincarnation of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, of the Gun Club.
This comparison is not new. Any similarities, however, are supposedly accidental. In one of those strange examples of convergent musical evolution, Savage claims not to have even heard the pioneering early 1980s punk-country-blues band until she became sick of being asked about their influence, and investigated them for herself. (“Then it was like, where has this band been all my life?” she tells me later with a grin.)
The Last Drinks include some obvious traditional elements – Kat Mear’s fiddle, Brett Marshall occasionally on banjo – and on beautiful ballads like My Friend, they’d tear up any folk/blues festival stage in the world. But theirs is no Antipodean alt-country try-on. By the second song, the murderous thump-and-grind of Let Go, Savage has dropped her guitar. She’s poised on the edge of the stage, death-staring the crowd, preachin’ the blues like Pierce and Robert Johnson before her.
This is the kind of classic pose only a true believer can pull off. Ann Powers once wrote of the young PJ Harvey (circa To Bring You My Love) that she was “bent on touching rock’s magical core”. Savage does this repeatedly, particularly as her set nears its climax with the closing one-two punch of Run With the Dogs and The Hypnotiser – careening songs that tear through the room and take everybody with them.
Savage’s presence and songwriting is matched by a wonderfully sympathetic band. Joe White, one of three guitarists on stage, is a standout with counter-melodic leads alternating with sheets of noise. Mear is possibly even better: she sometimes leads, but more often hers is the band’s locomotive breath; another rhythmic force propelling the songs over the tracks laid down by Chris Lichti’s bass and Rene Mancuso’s drums. And they can all sing, often in huge chain-gang choruses.
Just to be clear about this, no, Cash Savage isn’t rock & roll’s future. Who knows if there even is one? But whether she’s aware of it or not, she carries its spirit and history within her, and as long as there are performers with her conviction and commitment around, it lives on in the present. And after a month spent running from my own dogs, which had been barking and snapping at my heels, she reminded me of why I fell in love with it in the first place, too.
THERE’S ALOW but incredibly loud hum vibrating at Selina’s, the cavernous band room within the Coogee Bay Hotel. The chant is up: “Oooooooooiiiiiiiillllllllls!” Palms are raised and fingers splayed in anticipation. But the hum drowns out everything: a deafening, earth-shaking pulse. It’s not until Midnight Oil take the stage that the realisation dawns that it’s coming from Jim Moginie’s keyboards.
Peter Garrett has taken up a position on a speaker stack at stage left, and Moginie starts playing the opening notes of Outside World, the haunted opening track from Midnight Oil’s breakthrough album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Garrett misses his opening cue – not by much, but it’s a sign he’s nervous. There’s a slight fragility to his voice, the old bark softened somewhat.
If you can’t forgive Garrett for his sojourn in politics (and plenty haven’t), forgive him this. It’s no small thing to revive one of the biggest, most beloved and simultaneously most polarising bands Australia has ever produced. After a brief, unannounced warm-up at the Marrickville bowlo, this set, for longtime friends and fans, with ticket-holders drawn by ballot, has been feverishly anticipated.
Word is that ahead of Midnight Oil’s upcoming world tour, the band have been rehearsing and, in many cases, re-learning close to their entire catalogue – some 170 songs. It’s a Springsteen-like move, the intention being that at some time on tour, most if not all of them might randomly make an appearance.
On this night, they pull out 29 of them over the course of two and a half hours. I have personally seen Midnight Oil almost too often to count – the first occasion as a 14-year-old in 1985 – but I can’t remember them (or almost anyone else) playing a better or more committed show. From Only The Strong onwards, it’s a fire-breathing performance that leaves the crowd spent and exhilarated.
It’s also a show for the diehards. Six songs in, the band launch into almost the entirety of 1979’s Head Injuries: their second album and first great one, played in order, omitting only Naked Flame. Stand In Line, one of the band’s early showstoppers, is a call to arms in the face of apathy: “Goodbye to the let-it-happen stand.” Garrett says the song sums up why the band are still here.
Once the nerves settle, Garrett finds his voice quickly: he’s singing mostly within himself, better, with more control. Has he still got the moves? Yes, he has. As one of the most physical performers in rock history, it’s unfair to expect him to be the same force of nature as his early years, but he’s still a frontman of compelling charisma and energy.
Behind him, the band are loud and as tightly wound as a coiled spring. Guitarists Moginie and Martin Rotsey rarely duplicate each other’s parts: instead it’s more like watching a pair of crack tennis players, musical parts volleying back and forth, each taking turns to solo as required. Moginie shows off his collection; Rotsey sticks mostly to a battered white Stratocaster.
But the heart of the band is the drummer, Rob Hirst, who looks as fit as a thoroughbred and drives the show from the back. He takes his own obligatory solo turn in Power And The Passion, by which time we’re into the second half of the set and the hits are beginning to rain down – it’s bracketed by The Dead Heart and a ferocious Best Of Both Worlds. The audience sing all three back to the band word for word.
Sadly, in a sense, much of the material is more relevant than ever. Shakers And Movers is a gorgeous song about caring for country; Blue Sky Mine, with its sarcastic crescendo “Nothing’s as precious as a hole in the ground”, could have been written yesterday, with Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in mind. Garrett drops to his knees, praying for sense and reason.
Just off the beach at Coogee is Wedding Cake Island, so it’s no surprise when the band pull out the surf instrumental named after the offshore rock formation for the first encore. The surging power pop of Dreamworld is preceded by a reminder from Garrett: “If you want to hang on to it, you’ve got to fight for it, folks. Go angry into that good night, with love.”
US Forces is saved for last, and again, it’s hard to miss the lyrics’ currency: “Now market movements call the shots / Business deals in parking lots / Waiting for the meat of tomorrow.” One can’t help but wonder what reception Midnight Oil will receive when they reach US airports later this year. Provided they get past the welcoming committee, audiences are in for one heck of a treat.
Taylor Swift is single again, and I for one am glad. Not for her heartbreak (as a fellow human, naturally, I’m sorry for her pain), and certainly not because she’s “back on the market” since, needless to say, I’m not in it. No, I’m glad selfishly, because if it produces a song half as good as I Knew You Were Trouble, the world will be a better place, for she will ease the pain of anyone who’s ever been through the same.
Which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of us. Romantic heartbreak is the lingua franca of the pop song. In the opening soliloquy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Rob (played in Stephen Frears’ film by John Cusack) poses a universal question, as the 13th Floor Elevators’ garage classic You’re Gonna Miss Me blasts through his headphones:
“What came first – the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence is going to take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
And then Laura – who is about to shoot to number one with a bullet on Rob’s desert island, all-time top five most memorable breakups, in chronological order – walks into the room and pulls the plug, literally, on the music and, metaphorically, on their relationship.
The tabloids are already coming after Swift. Grazia listed 13 times ex-boyfriends have apparently inspired her music, saying she had “infamously” mined her personal life for lyrical inspiration. Like every other songwriter in history. Actually, maybe we should be glad for Swift’s critics, because she’s already kissed them off in fine style with Shake It Off. Can we have another one of those, too?
Did anyone complain when Otis Redding practically tore out his (and everyone else’s) heart singing I’ve Been Loving You Too Long? How about the Clash’s Mick Jones, who wrote Train In Vain after his breakup with the Slits’ Viv Albertine, while the band was recording London Calling? Do we even need to talk about Joy Division’s all but sanctified Love Will Tear Us Apart?
No one complained when Bob Dylan got an entire album out of the collapse of his marriage to his first wife, Sara Lownds. That album was Blood On The Tracks. It has been the measuring stick for every breakup album by a serious male singer-songwriter since, from Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call (which features at least two paeans to PJ Harvey) to Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker to Beck’s Sea Change.
Adams, of course, later covered Swift’s 1989 in its entirety. Stripping Swift’s songs back to basics, focusing attention on the brilliance of their construction, threw up an interesting set of questions around pop, authenticity and Swift’s superstar status – especially around what a female pop singer has to do in order to be taken seriously by a mostly male critical establishment.
Or, in this case, not do. For the more cloth-eared members of that establishment, unable to look past Swift’s glossy image or admit that rock music is often equally as factory-assembled, it took Adams’ emo take to legitimise Swift’s talent. (Adams, by the way, isn’t the first male artist to try his hand at this sort of thing: see Richard Thompson’s version of Britney Spears’s Oops! I Did It Again.
Can anyone recall an album by a female artist being compared to Blood On The Tracks? I can’t. Certainly not in pop music. Not even, in the rock arena, PJ Harvey, whose Is This Desire? was dedicated, in turn, back to Nick Cave. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is frequently described, in a very feminised way, as a soap opera, due to the somewhat complicated nature of the relationships within the mixed-gender group.
Pop music is dominated by women, from Madonna to Rihanna to Sia to Beyoncé, and along with boy bands and almost anyone playing dance music, their music is routinely dismissed as lightweight. But if grown men can confess to being moved to tears when Springsteen and Dylan turn their attention to matters of the heart, then why not, say, Swift’s Wildest Dreams?
I hope Swift finds true love soon. Really, I do. But in the meantime, I hope she goes on too many dates and can’t make ’em stay. Let her go on making the bad guys good for a weekend a while longer. Actually, now I think of it, I hope she gets back together with Calvin Harris, just so she can break up with him again and write another version of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.
Just like her male peers, like all of us, Swift gets down and out about the liars and dirty cheats of the world. The only difference is she’s doing it to a sick beat. As for the haters, well, we all know what they say about them.
Josh Ritter – American songwriter, novelist, near-neuroscientist – likes to run. “It’s the perfect exercise for me,” he says. For one thing, it’s portable: all you need is a pair of sneakers and you can run anywhere; especially to get away from the confines of a tour bus. There’s also a little bit of pain involved, which he doesn’t mind: he’s run three marathons. That was until the time running almost killed him a few years ago.
One morning, after a slightly over-exuberant workout, he woke up sore. Soon he was having trouble getting dressed; a few days later, he noticed his muscles beginning to swell, literally like the Incredible Hulk. His alarmed partner Haley [Tanner, a novelist] rushed him to hospital – “notwithstanding I was looking pretty damn good,” Ritter wrote, tongue in cheek, in a blog post from 2012.
It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a close-run thing: Ritter’s kidneys couldn’t cope with what was, in effect, a meltdown of muscle fibre into his bloodstream. He spent days in hospital on a saline drip, paying the price for his driven nature. “Running keeps me alert and excited and kind of hungry,” he says, “[But] I think I realised I had a bit of a problem. I really paid the price.”
Ritter, 38, doesn’t do things by halves. His albums and songs, though not excessively long, are epic in scope. So are his ambitions. For his eighth album, Sermon On The Rocks, he wrote: “I wanted to make something grand. I wanted it to swing hard. I wanted to peek through death’s keyhole. I wanted my monster to run. I wanted to sing songs that I had written in stretches of frenzy.” (There’s more, but you get the idea.)
Did he get there? “I think I got it on this one. Everything was there; the wildness … The songs were high adventure; how I felt was big romance, and I wanted the whole thing to have that. Sometimes the most pristine playing is not the stuff that gives you chills, so I wanted that messiness. My goals were really high, but I felt that they were achievable if I opened the door and let all the crazy out.”
Ritter is a songwriter in the grand American folk tradition: a student of Dylan and Springsteen and Leonard Cohen, as well as contemporaries like Nick Cave. He writes “rock & roll with a lot of words”, tumbling over with metaphors. “I like a good rich set of symbols, those are really important to me,” he says. “Somehow a good story is either about God or love or death, and the best ones kind of have all of that.”
He was born in Moscow, Idaho, a small college town of less than 20,000 people in desert country. He says he grew up “way out of town, on the edge of a mountain”, where he had to learn to entertain himself. He got lost, both in the surrounding countryside and in books about dragons, as well as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. “I had a pretty rich fantasy life when I was that age.”
His was no backwoods upbringing, though. Ritter’s parents were neuroscientists who taught at Washington State University, across the border. “I grew up thinking that being a scientist was the best thing in the world. It was such a beautiful and noble quest to throw yourself up against things that are unknown, and slowly and methodically pull on the thread of that tapestry until it all comes apart.”
Ritter initially wanted to follow them, moving to Oberlin, Ohio to study neuroscience himself, until the songs he was writing began to pull him away. In some respects, he realised, his job was the same: songs are like a riddle to be solved. He ended up completing a self-styled major, “American history through narrative folk music”, and made his first, self-titled album at a recording studio on campus in 1997.
Later, he moved to Scotland for six months. “There was so much music that came to the States from Scotland and Ireland and England, and I wanted to get closer to the American music that I loved.” Tellingly, one of his early musical loves was the Pogues. “Their records are like a wolfhound ripping a rabbit, they’re ferocious. Even the slow songs – Fairytale In New York is just brutal.”
He soon found himself a solid audience in Ireland, going from playing to 20 people at open-mic nights to halls of 600 after being spotted by Glen Hansard, of Irish band the Frames (as well as the Commitments). “Their verbal technology is 10 years ahead of us. They have the best jokes, and they have the best words for things, and they’re the harshest [critics], they’re going to keep you real.”
Since then, Ritter has released a further seven albums, and while his sales are relatively modest, his prolific output, devoted fan base and heavy touring have seen him build a sustainable and growing career. He’s also had good success licensing his songs, both to commercial chains such as Starbucks, and to advertising and TV shows.
He considers himself a songwriter ahead of a storyteller, but nonetheless he is compelled by narrative. “I really do move towards stories. I feel like I need their little twists, for a lot of songs. When I hear a song like [Leonard Cohen’s] Famous Blue Raincoat or Where The Wild Roses Grow [Nick Cave], it makes me antsy and jealous.”
Often, his songs are tinged with fantasy elements, a throwback to his early life, where he made up stories to keep himself amused: The Curse (from his 2010 album, So Runs The World Away), is the story of a mummy who falls in love with an archaeologist. Another song from the same album, Another New World, sees an Arctic expeditioner chop up his own ship for firewood to keep warm.
Eventually, inevitably, one of his songs couldn’t be contained. It spilled into a novel, Bright’s Passage, the story of a Great War veteran who hears voices. Reviewing the novel in the New York Times, Stephen King – an avowed fan of Ritter’s music – asks himself whether he would have recommended publishing the book, were its author unknown. He concludes: “It’s a question I’m glad I never had to answer.”
To be fair, King also praises Ritter’s gift, saying that at its best, the novel recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime, and urges a follow-up (which Ritter is working on). But he knows that there is a greater power in compressing his big ideas into smaller spaces, and Sermon On The Rocks sees him paring his songcraft back into simpler, more digestible shapes. “Make it portable,” he says – that word again. “Any saying or epigram, those things that we remember are the smallest, most concise things.”
Writing Bright’s Passage renewed Ritter’s belief in his craft, which he clearly took into the making of Sermon On The Rocks. “I didn’t need permission to be a writer, I was writing all the time, but for some reason that was something that I took out of it, that I wasn’t expecting, and it made me feel really good about writing songs. … Also, I became better at killing off characters.”
Ritter has also become the father of a daughter, Beatrix. It’s forced him to change his work habits for the better, writing in shorter bursts. “It used to be I could moon around for about 12 hours and feel like I hadn’t got anything done. Now at the end of the day I’ve written something and I can put a pin in it, even if it’s just a few lines.”
He’s also started running again – but not in the way that he used to, a reflection of a more relaxed approach to his work. “The marathon isn’t interesting any more,” he says. “There’s no magnum opus for me. If I have a time in my writing when I feel like, this is it – that I will do no better or nothing will come of this, I guess that means I’ve achieved my goal, my marathon.
“But I don’t want that. I want every day to be different, and I want every day to have the potential of doing something great. Haley said the other day, it’s easy to give yourself the goal of running a marathon, but it’s harder to make yourself run four miles every day. So that’s my new goal. I don’t need to run any more marathons.”
First published inSpectrum (The Age/The Sydney Morning Herald), 24 October 2015
It’s getting to the stage where there practically isn’t a heartland rocker left whose songs haven’t been egregiously misused for conservative political ends. In America, it’s Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Now, in Australia, it’s Jimmy Barnes, who has been forced to distance himself from anti-immigration groups Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front, after Cold Chisel’s classic Khe Sanh was used in rallies over the weekend.
Don’t they know Barnes’ wife was born in Thailand? Did they never listen to Don Walker’s superb lyrics, which would have made it plain that Khe Sanh – about a burned-out Vietnam veteran – was not exactly a call to arms for an ethnically pure Australia?
Of course not, but let’s face it, we aren’t exactly dealing with Mensa candidates here.
“The aussie spirit is what you stood for in so many” (sic), bemoaned the Australian Defence League in reply to Barnes. “You have just showed the world and every Australian that grew up loving your music that you are nothing but a political correct fold at your knees idiot.” (sic, sic, sic.)
In America, the Republican Party has made a pastime of co-opting the songs of its heartland rockers. Only a few weeks ago, Donald Trump tried to get away with using Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World. Trump’s no Mensa candidate either, but as he likes to remind everybody on a regular basis, he’s really, really rich.
Back in 2000, Petty’s song I Won’t Back Down was used by George W Bush. Bush was the one to back down after the inevitable cease-and-desist, but not before his lawyers claimed that merely playing the song didn’t actually amount to any kind of endorsement – either by Petty of Bush, or vice versa.
Petty is a serial victim of this sort of thing: in 2011, Michele Bachmann used American Girl, which lasted one whole day on the hustings. Springsteen’s Born In The USA, about another Vietnam veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, is surely the most misunderstood and misappropriated song of all time.
One suspects that the Republican Party is fully aware that it will never be granted the necessary permissions by liberals like Springsteen and Petty, and simply doesn’t care. Once a candidate has been introduced to a rabid flag-waving crowd to the strains of an American anthem, the point has been made, as much as it’s been missed.
As the LA Weekly puts it, the problem with being a conservative and co-opting rock and roll is being really, really square at heart, as well as having terrible taste in music. If only the late Johnny Ramone, an infamous punk conservative, had written some songs! Too bad that all da bruddas’ best tunes, including the brilliant Reagan-baiting Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, were written by Joey and Dee Dee.
The reason the likes of Springsteen, Petty, Young and Barnes find themselves vulnerable to being hijacked by right-wingers is because these heartland rockers all play no-frills music with big choruses that amplify the concerns of small-town, blue-collar citizens. All while wearing denim.
And it’s exactly those voters, far more than the music, that conservatives are really interested in co-opting. In the USA, it was the so-called Reagan Democrats. In Australia, it was former prime minister John Howard’s Battlers, those all-important aspirational voters of the largely white working class, who live on the fringes of our capital cities and in our regional centres.
These are the working-class men and women who feel they’ve been left behind: their jobs downsized, done better by robots or simply shipped offshore; veterans left to suffer after returning home; and facing an uncertain future after a lifetime of hard labour. As Jimmy Barnes sings in Khe Sahn: “I’ve travelled round the world from year to year. And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear.”
The trick has been to convince these voters that what they really should be angry about are the trendy concerns of an inner-city elite – and anyone who could be a convenient scapegoat for their problems. Hence the unending culture war that – like all phoney wars – works best when it instils fear and loathing.
In Australia, Muslims and asylum seekers are only the easiest targets for that loathing. They’re also the best friends of a conservative movement that relies on an ageing and afraid white base. And the songs? Against their composers’ best intentions, suddenly they whisper: we’re just like you. We’re on your side. And we won’t back down.
The video begins, appropriately enough, with the sight of a door being kicked open – then a hurricane of noise rushes through. Until very recently in Brisbane, it was still possible to visit the decrepit building on Petrie Terrace and stand in front of the fireplace on top of which the words “(I’m) Stranded” were once daubed in red letters, where the Saints shot the primitive but charged clip for their debut single.
It’s not quite where Australian punk rock was born – that, arguably, happened a little further down the road, in the Saints’ rehearsal room on the corner of Milton Road, not far from the Castlemaine XXXX brewery. Club 76, they called it. But the Saints had been going for a few years by then – since mid 1973, by guitarist Ed Kuepper’s reckoning.
Being first can be an overrated virtue, but in the Saints’ case, it needs to be stated over and over again. (I’m) Stranded, which appeared on the band’s own Fatal label in September 1976 (the same month the 100 Club in London held a festival featuring a colourful assortment of new bands including the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned) was the first independently produced rock single in Australia.
In doing so, it beat all of the English punk bands, as well as Sydney’s Radio Birdman, onto plastic. The one band they didn’t beat was the Ramones, a fact Kuepper was crushed by: when he first heard the debut album by the New York pinheads a few months earlier, he knew everyone would see the Saints – a bunch of teenagers from provincial Queensland, fronted by singer Chris Bailey – as the copyists.
At that point, the state was still under the tyrannical thumb of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s regime, and in no small way, (I’m) Stranded helped kick off a social revolution, at least in Brisbane. At the time, though, the Saints had little choice but to leave. Copies of the single soon landed in England, where it was ecstatically received. Sounds magazine dubbed it “Single of This and Every Week”.
It must have sounded like an emergency telegram from a lost land. Such is Stranded’s urgency, there’s no time for a guitar solo (the B-side, which actually was called No Time, did have a solo – of one whole note). True to its lyric, much of the song was written on a midnight train, and whether intended or not, the central idea of being marooned came to stand for something bigger.
It’s one of punk’s many ironies that the London offices of EMI, desperate to claw back lost credibility after sacking the Pistols in the wake of their infamous expletive-flecked confrontation with Bill Grundy, instructed their baffled representatives in Sydney to sign the Saints post-haste in the wake of Stranded. The band immediately recorded their debut album, also titled (I’m) Stranded, over a weekend.
That album was later described later by England’s Dreaming author Jon Savage as “up there in punk Valhalla with Ramones and Raw Power”. But the Saints never fitted the punk straightjacket. When they arrived in England in May 1977, they were aghast to find EMI were designing a “Saints suit” for them: lime-green shirts and spiky hair all round.
Bailey’s tousled mop remained in place, and the band went on to make two more brilliant albums, Eternally Yours and Prehistoric Sounds, before imploding. Both records featured extensive use of a brass section – a move that won them few friends in a scene that regarded Never Mind The Bollocks as a blueprint rather than a full stop, but which dramatically expanded the band’s sound.
Having kicked the door open, the Saints soon found themselves back out on the footpath. Kuepper returned to Australia and formed the radical post-punk band the Laughing Clowns, while Bailey stayed in Europe, kept the name and pursued a much more traditional path towards heartland rock and mainstream success: Bruce Springsteen recently covered Just Like Fire Would on his album High Hopes.
But (I’m) Stranded has remained a touchstone – perhaps a millstone – the perpetually sparring Kuepper and Bailey would always be identified with.
Late in the last week of January 1974, following a flood Brisbane would not see the like of again for close to another 40 years, a 17-year-old Ed Kuepper was on watch in the tough south-western Brisbane suburb of Oxley. There had been looting as the filthy water finally began to recede, and a caravan, from which residents could take turns keeping lookout, had been set up across the road from his parents’ house.
Kuepper – who had formed his first band, the Saints, just a few months earlier with school mates Chris Bailey and Ivor Hay – was a little tipsy. The local alderman, Gordon “Bluey” Thomson, had just visited, bringing beer. He was also carrying a revolver, which he gave to Kuepper. “Don’t drink too much, but look after the gun!” he told him.
Later, as the adults continued drinking, the young Kuepper walked down his street, “gun-slinging”, cockily twirling the loaded weapon as if he were a character in a western. Suddenly, a car turned into the street. Kuepper hailed it down, directing his torch into the driver’s eyes. It wasn’t until the vehicle was alongside him that he realised it was the police.
The driver looked the skinny teenager up and down. Kuepper sheepishly lowered first the torch, then the gun.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” the cop said, before driving off.
THE apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. In a Poinciana-lined street off Oxley Road, Ed Kuepper lives quietly with his partner of close to 40 years, Judi, and their adult children Karl and Friedrich (whose names should tell you something). It’s just a few kilometres from the old suburban home where his now elderly parents still live, despite suffering through the heartbreak of another great flood in early 2011.
He and Judi had made a point of checking flood levels before purchasing their home. “Even though they said it would never happen again, I wasn’t prepared to get something that went under in ’74, so this was way above it. For this house to be affected, the city would be gone anyway. And yet if you went that way” – he gestures back towards the main road – “the shopping centre at Graceville Avenue went under, and you wouldn’t guess that we were so much higher.”
It’s quiet here. Only the Kueppers’ dog Oscar, who gives me a rousing if suspicious greeting, breaks the silence in the torpor of a warm Easter afternoon. Judi, whose beautiful watercolours line the walls of the home, and whose art has graced her husband’s album sleeves since the days of Ed’s post-Saints band the Laughing Clowns, brings hot-cross buns with jam home-made from a backyard mango tree.
It’s all a far cry from the days where Kuepper’s paint-peeling guitar playing was sufficiently obnoxious to result in a brick being hurled through the plate-glass window of the building on the corner of Milton Road and Petrie Terrace, where the Saints once rehearsed. The window was boarded up, the words “Club ’76” daubed on the slats, and for a short time the house became a venue – until police from headquarters across the road shut it down.
Speak to many in the Australian music industry and Kuepper will be quite casually described as a legend. Robert Forster, whose band the Go-Betweens was among the first and most enduring of the first wave of Brisbane groups directly inspired by the Saints, described him (in The Monthly) as “one of the very few Australian guitar geniuses”, comparing him to both Neil Young and Kurt Cobain; “sonic adventurers who can take sheets of electric noise and get songs out of them”.
As a Saint, he’s a member of the ARIA Hall of Fame, but his musical career spans 40 years, from the sometimes abrasive Laughing Clowns, through an immensely rich and varied solo career. More recently – and briefly – he was a member of Nick Cave’s band, the Bad Seeds. You could practically go broke collecting the sheer volume of music the man has produced, although probably not as broke as he’s sometimes been while making it.
But who is Edmund Kuepper? It’s likely you’d know several of his songs – (I’m) Stranded, the Saints’ first single, has been a Rage staple for 20 years; The Way I Made You Feel was a minor hit from his 1991 album Honey Steel’s Gold, which cracked the Australian top 40 during a golden period for the songwriter. But, while he continues to sell out shows, he’s far from hit machine. (An unkind reviewer once compared his music to some kind of strange and mouldy cheese: an acquired taste.)
His public persona, to many, is akin to how Churchill described Russia: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. In fact, as Forster also pointed out, he is “intense and inward, of German extraction”: born in Bremen in 1956, before his parents emigrated to Brisbane at the age of four. (Saints singer Chris Bailey, born in Kenya to Irish Catholic parents, settled nearby a few years later: so often, the history of Australian rock & roll has been made by migrant kids.)
Peter Milton Walsh, singer-songwriter for one of Brisbane’s great lost treasures, the Apartments, talks rapturously about Kuepper’s music. (Of the Laughing Clowns, of which he was once briefly a member, he says: “They were playing poker when everyone else was playing bingo.”) But he demurs when pushed on the man himself. Eventually he offers this: “Rock & roll is filled with people that are very happy to talk about themselves. That’s not really what’s on offer from Ed.”
Others are more forthcoming, though all talk about Kuepper’s singular devotion to his craft. “He’s a very warm person when you get to know him; he’s quite soft and he’s got a great sense of humour,” says Julian Knowles, professor of music and media at Macquarie University in Sydney. Another music academic, QUT’s John Willsteed, describes him as “a quiet, funny, shy guy”.
Everyone attests to his incredible work ethic. Willsteed, who also plays in Brisbane band Halfway, refers to his “Teutonic” side. “He’s very forthright with his opinions, and he knows what he wants when it comes to work.” Knowles: “Once he gets into the groove and he starts working, there’s this incredible focus. He works in popular music, but he has the mindset and approach of an artist.”
The Church’s Steve Kilbey, who once engaged in a memorable online stoush with Kuepper, has called him as “wry and lofty”, and that much seems fair; he’s sardonic, ironic and, by his own admission, can be a bit above it all. He is certainly reserved, but not unfriendly. Get past the imposing size and death-grip handshake, and there’s a twinkle in the eye and a faint smirk lurking behind the pirate’s goatee.
Judi recalls her first impressions after interviewing him for a student magazine in 1979. “I thought he was a lovely, gentle, intelligent person – very intellectual. He’s very open and interested in all kinds of different ideas. He’s very aware of public events. He seemed to be a font of wisdom; he had an incredible knowledge of what was going on; not just in music, but in film and art, and I guess that’s nourished our relationship – just a passion for, and commitment to the arts. And he’s really generous. He really wants to share and connect with people.”
KUEPPER spent most of 2013 on the road, performing a successful run of “Solo and By Request” shows, trying his hand at almost any song from his career that his audience challenged (and sometimes taunted) him to play – a daunting prospect, given his immense repertoire, but he pulled it off. “There were probably only two or three occasions when I declined to have a go at something.”
He had spent a good chunk of the previous year performing as a Bad Seed, filling in for Cave’s long-term musical arranger Mick Harvey. The prospect of what Kuepper might bring to the Bad Seeds’ musical palette tantalised fans of both, but Cave’s last album, Push The Sky Away, featured almost no guitar at all, and Kuepper’s services were not required. There seems little prospect that his tenure in the band will be ongoing.
Kuepper describes working with the Bad Seeds as “very structured”, and it’s here that you get a sense of his constant musical wanderlust. “It was verging on the choreographed in some ways. I kind of decided to do something that was about as removed from that as possible, and that was basically just go out and push it as far we could actually go with it. And by “we” I mean myself and the audience.”
One of the songs that Kuepper was reluctant to play was (I’m) Stranded, the track that launched his career. “I thought there was something really powerful captured in that original recording, and it’s not that easy to capture it again,” he says. “And I couldn’t work out how the fuck I was actually going to just sit there with an acoustic guitar and play the song.” In the end, with the audience calling for it every night, he bit the bullet, and made it work.
The Saints have reformed twice in recent years – first a celebrated one-off show at the University of Queensland in 2007, then a national run for the travelling festival All Tomorrow’s Parties in early 2010. The latter ended in disaster, culminating in a show at Riverstage which Kuepper describes as “incredibly embarrassing, the worst show I’ve ever done in my life”. (The band had been booked to perform the album (I’m) Stranded in its entirety; incredibly, they didn’t even play the title song in front of a bewildered home crowd.)
Still, the experience didn’t prevent Kuepper from reuniting with Bailey, with whom he has had a famously tempestuous relationship, for a run of shows together as a duo the following year. I ask Kuepper if we’re likely to see him on stage with the Saints again. “Probably not.” What sort of relationship does he have with Bailey now? “Not much of one, really.”
There’s a bit of back and forth on this point, and Kuepper obliges, if only out of politeness, but it’s clear the subject of his old sparring partner still makes him uncomfortable. I ask if he’s heard Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Just Like Fire Would, Bailey’s biggest hit recorded under the Saints name, long after Kuepper had left the band. (The song appears on Springsteen’s most recent album High Hopes.)
“I haven’t. The funny thing is, when the song first came out [in 1986], I actually thought it was … Not Springsteen, but John Cougar Mellencamp. When I realised it was Bailey I thought, oh fuck, he’s going to change his name to Chris Bailey Mellencamp! It was kind of ironic that Springsteen’s attention was drawn to the Saints via (I’m) Stranded, but he actually covered the one song that actually sounds like it was ripped off him.”
If this sounds like sour grapes, consider, first, that Kuepper has toiled in relative obscurity for decades, and there have been times when he’s seriously considered chucking it in. “Sometimes, you know, when you’re running at a loss month after month – and I mean no income at all – lots of stuff goes askew. So it’s constantly a battle of how do you make things work.”
And, second: around the time of the Saints’ performances at All Tomorrow’s Parties, Kuepper’s manager got in touch with the band’s old label, with the idea of presenting the group with a Gold Record for (I’m) Stranded – presuming that, in the 38 years since its release, it would have easily sold the required 35,000 copies within Australia to qualify. He was astonished to be told that the label had not kept records prior to 1998. The necessary paperwork for an acknowledged classic – for which Kuepper has received very little money over the years – was conveniently missing.
It’s one of the oldest divides in rock & roll: Bailey – so desperate to prove he could make it on his own after the break-up of the original Saints in late 1978 – has the commercial success and, following Springsteen’s endorsement, the money in the bank. Kuepper has the status, the undying respect of his peers and the lion’s share of critical plaudits. Probably, both would like at least a little of what the other has got.
KUEPPER’S newest album is both a return to his roots, and a continuation of his recent solo performances: that is, it’s just him and his guitar. The Return Of The Mail-Order Bridegroom features mainly acoustic re-workings of some of his best-known songs, as well as a couple of covers. (It follows 1995’s I Was A Mail-Order Bridegroom, a similarly-themed album which kicked off a personal cottage industry of mostly live recordings, sold directly to fans through his own label, Prince Melon.)
Opening the album is a song called Brisbane (Security City), originally recorded in 1978 for the Saints’ third album, Prehistoric Sounds. The song painted a vivid portrait of Queensland as a police state during the Bjelke-Petersen years, and captured the oppression of both the heat – “Thirteen hot nights in a row,” goes the opening line – and the political climate. Apathy sits uncomfortably next to paranoia: “With mangoes ripe, who needs to grow?”
Thirty-six years after it was written, the song is more pointed than ever. Kuepper has been vocal about Queensland’s swing back to conservatism. “Part of it I think is that a large portion of the voting public is too young to remember the stench from the previous National government, you know,” he muses. “I just don’t think people remember. Anyone under 40 probably never voted back in the ’80s.”
Kuepper has had, at various times, an ambivalent relationship with his home town; something that he has often addressed in song: Electrical Storm acknowledges that, by staying in Brisbane, he is letting the world pass him by; but he finds himself mesmerised by the lightning and thunder. And on Security City, he confesses: “I don’t want to let down my own hopes for this town.” The family resettled here in the early 1990s.
“There were a lot of really good things about growing up here; I enjoyed a lot of it,” he says. “And I think you always want the place you grow up in to be a good place, to fulfil something worthwhile. Plus, after the Fitzgerald Inquiry, Brisbane in particular went through a bit of a golden age, I think. There just seemed to be this air of celebration for many years; it had a good vibe about it. It had changed.
“The ’80s was the worst time. There was always this sort of weird hostility around the place. The cops – they had power that they shouldn’t have had. I’m all for supporting the local police force and letting them do the job that they’re supposed to do, but once they become a political tool, then that becomes something else.”
And that’s when Kuepper remembers the story of Bluey Thompson, and the unimpressed reaction of the policeman who confronted him – a foolish teenager packing heat, that day after the floods in 1974. Don’t do anything stupid.
“See, I thought that was actually quite a reasonable response, under the circumstances,” he admits, chuckling.
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), July 26 2014
10. PAUL KELLY/KEV CARMODY – From Little Things Big Things Grow (1991, 1993)
The ultimate compromise choice on this list. Both Kelly and Carmody should feature individually in any compilation of great Australian songs, but which ones? In the end, I’ve gone for this co-write, initially recorded by Kelly for his 1991 album Comedy, then by Carmody (featuring Kelly) in 1993 for Bloodlines, with a single released the same year. It’s the story of the birth of the land rights movement in Australia, a campfire folk tune that a young Bob Dylan would have been proud of, and at least the equal of anything in either songwriter’s canon. Despite its 11 verses, it’s a story that tells itself; a masterclass in protest songwriting that wears its moral lightly.
9. FLAME TREES – Cold Chisel (1984)
Khe Sanh may be their signature tune, but this for me is the better one; a piece of heartland rock to rival anything by Bruce Springsteen: a small town, you and your mates, a boozy night of nostalgia, and a girl you can’t forget. Don Walker peels off line after line of unforgettable imagery here, and that middle-eight – “Do you remember, nothing stopped us on the field in our day” – never fails to stop me in my tracks. All credit, though, to Jimmy Barnes, who brings those words to life with the best white soul vocal this side of John Fogerty. After that, Barnes’ entire career has seemed like one long scream, as though he took the line “Ah! But who needs that sentimental bullshit anyway?” to heart. What a crying shame.
8. MIDNIGHT OIL – Power And The Passion (1982)
“People, wasting away, in paradise.” With that arresting opening line, Midnight’s Oil’s acerbic broadside to the I’m alright, Jack complacency of suburban Australia – along with US Forces, both from the band’s Armageddon-themed breakthrough 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – firmly established their political bona fides, while catapulting them into the top 10 for the first time. To do it, they deconstructed their earlier surf-rock sound with the aid of producer Nick Launay, creating a new template that was complex, attacking and immensely powerful. Rob Hirst’s solo ensured he topped “best drummer” rock magazine polls for a decade to come, and a final blast of brass pushes this most ambitious of songs over the edge.
7. CROWDED HOUSE – Don’t Dream It’s Over (1986)
Aside from being an enormous hit both locally and in the US (where it reached number two), I’m not sure that Don’t Dream It’s Over can lay claim to any wider significance. It’s just a superlative pop song. Neil Finn’s bright, chiming guitar riff sets the pace and tone, and there’s the lovely Hammond organ break that many have compared to Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale. But really, this is all about the chorus, purpose-built for couples around the world as they do their best to outlast the kitchen-sink trials of everyday life: “Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over / Hey now, hey now, when the world comes in / They come, they come, to build a wall between us / You know that they won’t win.” Even non-smokers like me needed a lighter to fire up for that one.
6. THE SAINTS – (I’m) Stranded (1976)
The first independently produced rock single in Australia, the Saints’ mighty debut not only beat fellow punk precursors Radio Birdman onto plastic, but also British counterparts the Damned and the Sex Pistols. In doing so, they inspired hundreds, if not thousands of others around the world, while kicking off a social revolution in their native Brisbane – which they quickly left. Dubbed “Single of This and Every Week” by British magazine Sounds after exported copies began arriving in Old Blighty, Stranded arrived like an emergency telegram from a lost land: such is its urgency, there’s no time for a guitar solo. (The B-side, which actually was called No Time, did have a solo – of one whole note.)
5. THE SEEKERS – The Carnival Is Over (1965)
For a long time, I was no fan of the Seekers. Simpering folk tunes like Georgie Girl did nothing for me. Then, in early 2009, I attended RocKwiz’s salute to the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, and Judith Durham closed the show with this old Russian folk tune (no surprise there; aside from Seekers gigs, the song has become synonymous with bringing the curtain down on major events in Australia). The purity of Durham’s voice, her power and control, cut through the still night air. I think I was among the first on my feet for the inevitable but deserved ovation. It’s been covered by everyone from Nick Cave to Boney M.
4. THE EASYBEATS – Sorry (1966)
In compiling this list, I’ve tried to strike a balance between genres, eras, cultural impact and unapologetic, if occasionally boneheaded personal favouritism. It’s purely the latter that leads me to choose this song over Friday On My Mind. That’s a masterpiece of pop sophistication, but this is raw R&B, as tough as anything cut by the early Rolling Stones, and thus I simply prefer it. Marking the dawn of Easyfever, it confirmed rock & roll was here to stay in Australia: George Young’s choppy rhythm guitar prefigures his younger brothers’ work in AC/DC, while Stevie Wright’s exuberant vocals – particularly his “I-I-I-e-I-I-I-I” outro – are completely infectious.
3. THE WARUMPI BAND – My Island Home (1987)
It’s funny that a song occasionally touted as an alternative national anthem is not about Australia at all, at least not per se. The Warumpi Band were formed in Papunya, in the deserts west of Alice Springs, and this achingly homesick song was written by the band’s white guitarist, Neil Murray, for their proud Yolngu singer: “home” in this case is actually the late George Burrawanga’s birthplace of Elcho Island, in north-east Arnhem Land. Burrawanga’s high, spiritual voice is perfect for the tune’s stately, hymn-like build; if your pulse doesn’t quicken with the tempo at 2.51, best check you’ve still got one. Belatedly made famous by Christine Anu’s hit version in 1995, but really, you can’t beat the original.
2. THE TRIFFIDS – Wide Open Road (1986)
As lonely, desolate and beautiful a song as any ever written, Wide Open Road is also based on the simplest of cyclical chord progressions (G-C-G-Em-Am). The song soars on Jill Birt’s sparse keyboards – note, again, the long, droning note that introduces the track, producing a vast, panoramic vista – with Alsy McDonald’s unusual kick-drum rhythm keeping the whole thing from floating away. Atop it all is the late, great David McComb’s commanding baritone: never forced, committed only to the story at hand, he matches naturalistic imagery with powerfully erotic longing. This is songwriting as a roadmap to the soul.
1. AC/DC – It’s A Long Way To The Top (1975)
It was hard not to put Wide Open Road here, but for me, It’s A Long Way To The Top is the one that still says it all. It exemplifies fundamental truths, not only about rock & roll, but AC/DC: the heart of the band is neither Angus Young nor Bon Scott (who liked to refer to himself as “the lightning flash in the middle”), but Malcolm Young. AC/DC are a rhythm machine: without Malcolm’s distinctive chop, the band is nothing; without the riff, rock & roll ceases to exist. Bon Scott’s high, wild vocal is joyous; his lyrics as economical as the music. This isn’t about the rock & roll lifestyle: it’s a metaphor for life itself, and it’s as real as it ever was – bagpipes and all.
AND HERE’S 10 MORE THAT COULD’VE/SHOULD’VE MADE IT …
The Loved Ones – The Loved One (1965)
Not Drowning, Waving – Sing Sing (1987; 1991)
You Am I – Purple Sneakers (1995)
The Master’s Apprentices – Turn Up Your Radio (1970)
Lime Spiders – Slave Girl (1984)
Ed Kuepper – The Way I Made You Feel (1991)
X – I Don’t Wanna Go Out (1980)
Died Pretty – DC (1991)
The Stems – At First Sight (1987)
The Passengers – It’s Just That I Miss You (1979).
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s second album Nevermind. A rash of earnest think pieces have already appeared in yesterday’s papers – isn’t this a bit like celebrating your birthday by opening your presents at midnight? – but since this record was such a game-changer in the musical-industrial complex and a life-changer for thousands of individuals besides, it would be churlish of me not to add to them. I was one of those thousands, after all.
I listened to the album for the first time in many moons a couple of weeks ago. I’ll probably listen to it again later; I certainly don’t need to put it on now for inspiration. I think I know every note of the damn thing backwards; such was Nevermind‘s power at the time of its release that it quickly became embedded. These days, there aren’t too many real reasons to pull it out, simply because it’s always there within you. Smells Like Teen Spirit, once so transcendent, can even sound a little shopworn for being overplayed. But if you catch it on a classic rock station and it gets you at the right angle, at the right moment, it still creams the competition with muscle to spare.
I can’t tell you where I was when I first heard Teen Spirit; in fact I can’t recall hearing it for the first time at all. It just suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Actually, I’d just arrived in Melbourne after a seven-week jaunt around some fairly remote parts of the country, so I certainly wasn’t even aware of any music press hubbub. And I hadn’t heard Bleach, the band’s first album. If I had, it wouldn’t have prepared me in any way for the avalanche about to be unleashed.
So I know I didn’t hear it at least until I got back to Brisbane a couple of weeks later, in October. It might have been on Triple J, but also might have been on Triple Zed. Can’t say. But I soon became aware of the groundswell. That couple of months, leading up to the beginning of 1992, was among the most exciting of my life. I was 20, and probably everyone who’s 20 and waiting for their life to start probably still gets nostalgic about what it was like to be that age and feel like anything’s possible. Teen Spirit seemed to make everything possible again.
Musically, the 1980s was nowhere near as bad as the reputation if you had a clue. There was terrific music everywhere, even on the Top 40 charts, at least in the earlier part of the decade – Prince, Springsteen, early Madonna, Michael Jackson at his thrilling peak – hey, it was thrilling, and still is, at least if you have an open mind and love pop music more than you love being cool. By late in the decade, though, it’s true that things were on the slide. The real action was in the American underground. Dinosaur Jr’s Freak Scene was a great, great single; Mudhoney’s Touch Me I’m Sick, too.
The biggest buzz was for the Pixies, the band Kurt Cobain claimed to be ripping off with all those soft/loud dynamics. Well … Maybe. Lots of other bands, including Australian bands like the Scientists, had done that already. These days, I listen to the Pixies and I still can’t believe they didn’t get there first. Here Comes Your Man – how was that not number one in every country in the western world? It’s bizarre, really.
But maybe that just made the breakthrough of Teen Spirit – so much more aggressive and potent – all the sweeter. To this day I’ve never heard such excitement surrounding a single like it. And strangely enough, when I first brought Nevermind home on the back of it in December ’91, after the album was belatedly released locally, I was a little underwhelmed. It was so clean, to start with. What was with all those pop hooks? It actually took a few listens for the penny to drop that that was the whole point.
I still think the best description of the album came from Cobain himself: Black Sabbath getting molested by Black Flag and the Beatles. Can’t remember if it was in that order, but whatever – sure as hell no one else had ever found a way to put those three things together, if they ever even thought of such an unlikely combination. I doubt anyone had. People got very excited about Radiohead’s OK Computer six years later – Nick Kent even wrote a review reminiscent of his exaltation of Television’s Marquee Moon 20 years earlier – but no fucking way was the impact on popular culture even comparable to the nuclear assault of Nevermind.
Not in my view, anyway. And of course it wasn’t all good; record companies signed up every guitar band that moved for a while, no matter how horrible, and plenty of toy wind-up Nirvanas came out of the woodwork. Most disappeared from whence they came. Many great bands who might have deserved similar success instead got left behind; that was sad. Independent record stores and labels were hammered as the mainstream co-opted their market; that was sad, too. Saddest of all, the album’s success also seemed to psychologically destroy poor Kurt Cobain himself. That’s another post, so I’ll leave it.
But surely what mattered about this album, and what still matters, is its inclusiveness. Purists will tell you Bleach is the truest Nirvana album; those who value their indie credentials say In Utero‘s the masterpiece. Look, they’re both good, but really, seriously, come on. Great music belongs to everyone. I began writing about music because I wanted to share it with people, and I still do. Nevermind was a key part of that.
I saw the band in January of ’92, at Festival Hall in Brisbane. They were supporting Violent Femmes, the result of the tour being booked before the band went large. Nirvana liked and admired the Femmes and wanted to honour their commitment to opening for them. Me? I didn’t even stick around for them, which I’m sad about now, because I still haven’t seen them. But Nirvana at that moment just made everything else seem irrelevant.
Not that it was the greatest show, mind you. The sound mix was muddy, Cobain was sick, the band played for just 40 minutes. At some point I left the mosh and went back towards the mixing desk. That was better. They played Come As You Are and suddenly it all seemed to snap into focus. Such a haunting, beautiful song, but then that whiplash solo tore the roof off. That was the band – brutal and beautiful at once. Black Sabbath, Black Flag, and the Beatles.
They finished with On A Plain, still my favourite Nirvana song. I’m not sure why, but I don’t think I need to explain it anyway. I’m sure you have your favourites, your own reasons and your own stories. This was mine.