The tragic news that Simon Holmes, founding singer and guitarist of Sydney band the Hummingbirds, passed away a week ago broke on Wednesday night, via the band’s Facebook page and a beautiful tribute by his friend, writer and fellow musician Tim Byron. Byron recalled that one of Holmes’ favourite sayings was “hurry up and wait”, a line Byron said he took from Brian Eno, but also was a key lyric in the chorus of Blondie’s hit Sunday Girl.
“Hurry up and wait” is a military phrase, meaning that a soldier has to hurry to arrive at a given destination only to then wait around for hours or days for something to happen. A lot of rock & roll is like that. An Australian band on tour in the 1980s could drive all day, flat out, to get to a venue in time for soundcheck before waiting the rest of the night to play.
The Hummingbirds’ career was true to their name and their sound; like a blur. They were here and they were gone, leaving just two albums and a clutch of glorious singles behind. They were flushed with early success, and in the years since spent a lot of time waiting to be rediscovered: a rare reformation show at Newtown Social Club a year ago with their contemporaries the Falling Joys quickly sold out.
The Hummingbirds were on the cusp of the so-called alternative music explosion, but Australian rock historian Ian McFarlane quotes the band’s stated aim was to be “the ultimate pop band”. From their first single Alimony, released by independent label Phantom in July 1987, they got pretty close. The Hummingbirds loved nothing more than harmony on top of melody on top of guitars.
They could be slightly ramshackle live, but the songs were great, even if early on they sometimes struggled to get from one end of them to the other. Still, they were a breath of fresh air, not least due to the presence of guitarist Alannah Russack and bass player Robyn St Clare, Holmes’ former partner and mother to his son Milo. The mixed-gender group stood out in a suffocatingly macho rock scene.
Their first album LoveBUZZ, released in late 1989, was named after a Nirvana single originally recorded by Shocking Blue (who were better known for their song Venus, which itself is better known for Bananarama’s version). Recorded by Mitch Easter, famous for his work with R.E.M., the album crossed over from the alternative charts to the mainstream thanks to the single Blush, which peaked at No. 19.
That might not sound like much now. But in Australia at the time it was a harbinger of what was to come, paving the way for Ratcat and, later, the Clouds and Falling Joys, all of them before Nirvana’s Nevermind rewrote the radio playbook for the rest of the 1990s. The Hummingbirds were hurried up into recording a follow-up album, va va voom, which bombed. A couple of EPs later, they broke up.
Before that, they supported INXS on a run of stadium gigs and toured Europe and North America, which in themselves added up to a lifetime’s worth of stories. Holmes wasn’t a music snob: Byron recounts his love of Yes, whose albums (along with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin’s) he once ruined by trailing them behind him on a bicycle after hearing the Sex Pistols, only to live to regret it later.
Holmes remained involved in music throughout his life, via production work with other 1990s acts including the Fauves and Custard, working at Sydney record store Half a Cow, playing in many other part-time bands, and via a weekly radio show on Sydney station 2SER, which he co-presented with son Milo.
Holmes was just 55 when he died, and there are simply no words for that. He is survived by his partner Justine and their daughter Maisie, as well as Robyn and Milo, and won’t be forgotten by anyone who loved, lived and breathed music as he played it.
Back in 1999, paraphrasing the band’s biggest hit, girls like that didn’t go for guys like the ones in Custard. These days – on the band’s first album since that year’s Loverama – David McCormack laments: “We are the parents our parents warned us about”. Talk about truth in advertising! Once, Custard played dag rock; now they play dad rock. And why shouldn’t they? They are dads, after all.
A comeback record was always going to be a more difficult proposition for Custard than most. That’s because a key part of the band’s appeal was an innocence that often tripped over into a playful sense of anarchy. Their early recordings, especially, are full of the exuberance and abandon that marks one’s late teens and early 20s. And anyone who’s ever grown up knows how difficult that feeling is to recapture.
So, yes: Come Back, All Is Forgiven is the sound of a band that’s matured, at least a bit. Trying to reclaim that innocence wouldn’t have been very, well, sensible. Indeed, it would have made Custard sound silly. From a fan’s point of view, though, enjoying this record might depend on how much they’ve grown up, too – and whether or not they still want Custard to sound silly on their behalf.
To be fair, it’s not as if the band achieved said maturity during their long layoff. Their drummer, Glenn Thompson, reckons this is the album they might have made had they still been together in 2001. That’s probably right, but Custard were already a very different group by then than they were in 1991; some of the joie de vivre that was essential to their DNA had already been lost. They didn’t break up for nothing.
Thankfully, Custard haven’t lost their sense of humour – or irony. On the album’s key track, 1990s (the source of Come Back, All Is Forgiven’s title), McCormack wallows in nostalgia for an ex-girlfriend called Catherine as a metaphor for his band’s return: “OK, OK, I think it’s over.” As pre-emptive strikes go, this is up there with Regurgitator’s I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff.
More importantly, it’s a great tune, with a lilting melody, mid-paced tempo and a lovely, hazy coda that increases the listener’s sense of longing for something you can’t get back. The album’s opener, Orchids In Water, similarly features a lazy groove and an easy country-rock feel that recalls one of McCormack and Thompson’s little-known earlier bands, COW (an acronym for Country or Western).
On We Are The Parents (Our Parents Warned Us About), McCormack throws out this classic Custard line: “We can spell scientist correctly / And know all your local codes, exactly.” This acknowledgment is followed by rueful acceptance: “We must have made a deal with someone up above, or down.” All it needs is a reference to Enrique Iglesias for the circle back to Girls Like That to be complete.
Thompson gets two songwriting credits, for Warren Road and the much spikier (and more arresting) Contemporary Art, a kind of sequel to Music Is Crap, from the band’s 1997 album We Have The Technology – one of several novelty songs that, for many fans, helped define was Custard was all about. It’s also the most rock & roll song on the album, along with the hilarious 65-second thrash of If You Would Like To.
It would have been funnier if Thompson had called it Contemporary Art Is Crap. But that would have sounded desperate – and Custard are not desperate to be anything other than who they are now. Come Back, All Is Forgiven sounds exactly like what it is: four guys in their mid-40s, casually knocking out a bunch of songs most bands half their age would kill for. Just don’t expect to do the Wahooti Fandango to it.
In 1977, John Lydon – née Rotten – launched a vitriolic attack on the monarchy that brutally summed up the status of England’s youth in the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee: “When there’s no future, how can there be sin? / We are the flowers in the dustbin / We’re the poison in your human machine / We’re the future, your future!”
God Save The Queen, as performed by the Sex Pistols, is one of the greatest protest songs of all time, but I’ve long pondered over these lyrics. Was Lydon inferring that Britain’s future had been literally thrown out with the garbage, as the nation celebrated? Or making a statement about how great art can be constructed from throwaway refuse – one of punk’s defining tenets?
Or was he saying that art itself is nurtured by the oppression of the state? “We’re the poison in your human machine” is a wonderfully subversive argument to this effect, and it’s a line with ongoing resonance to Queensland. It’s a common assumption, for example, that the 1970s punk explosion in Brisbane, spearheaded by the Saints (who, let’s not forget, pre-dated the Pistols by as much as two years) was a reaction to the excesses of life in Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
Superficially, it’s easy to understand why. As I’ve written before, life under Sir Joh was nothing if not iron-fisted: “Public displays of dissent were often brutally suppressed; the rule of law was routinely bent to the will of those charged with its enforcement; minorities were treated as just another obstacle on the path to development. To top it all off, the electoral system was hopelessly rigged in favour of the incumbents. ‘Here,’ wrote Rod McLeod, ‘in a city practically under police curfew, you fucked and fought, got stoned, got married, or got out of town.'”
It’s been enough to prompt more than a few comparisons between Newman and Joh, whom the former politely name-checked in his maiden speech as premier. And in that time, I’ve heard a few suggest that maybe we’ll even see some kind of musical renaissance under Newman, now all those latte-sipping arty types suddenly have something to complain about again. Flowers in the wheelie bin, if you like.
Sorry, but it’s time to bust a few myths. I spent four years investigating the assumption that bad politics = great music, and as far as I can tell, mostly, the idea that conservative and/or repressive governance leads to creativity is vastly overstated.
Let’s take the punk example first. The truth is, it would have happened anyway, and the reason why is simple: Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey were rabid record collectors who were turned on to the sounds of the MC5, the Stooges and the New York Dolls before almost anyone else in this country, other than Michigan native Deniz Tek and Sydneysider Rob Younger. Those two would go on to form Radio Birdman at around the same time as the Saints, in 1973-74. Both the Saints and Birdman were also influenced by earlier Australian garage bands like the Easybeats, Master’s Apprentices and Missing Links (among dozens of others). And the bands that followed the Saints and Birdman – in Brisbane, that means groups like the Fun Things, Razar and the Riptides – were additionally inspired to pick up guitars by three principal events.
The first one was the release of the first Ramones album, a stroke of genius so deceptively simple that enthusiastic non-musicians everywhere fell for the idea that they could play this music, too. Notwithstanding the aforementioned groups, the vast majority of these hack thrashers forgot the necessary corollary: few do it well.
The second, which followed the Ramones, was the international punk boom of 1977, thanks mainly to the sight of the Pistols appearing in lounge rooms across the country, not only via Countdown, but a good old-fashioned moral panic, courtesy of Mike Willesee and A Current Affair. Sure, Bjelke-Petersen was a reactionary, but it’s not as if televisions and radios were banned.
Which brings me to the third principal event: the rise of public radio stations, following reforms made in the dying days of the Whitlam government. Brisbane’s 4ZZZ was the very first of them, followed later by 2JJ (later Triple J) in Sydney and 3RRR in Melbourne. All of these – far more than Countdown – played a critical role in getting this new music to a wider audience.
So, as I’ve also written before, it makes no sense to give a politician credit for the creation of a music scene. The qualifier to all this is that growing up in a climate of fear and loathing distorted the prism through which these people saw the world: those who experienced the brutality of the Joh years first-hand still wear it like a badge of honour. As Robert Forster put it, “Bjelke-Petersen represented the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservatism that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against.”
And so we had Pig City (the song), written by political activist Tony Kneipp, specifically for the 1983 state election. And Task Force, by Razar, was the ultimate up-yours to Brisbane’s pre-Fitzgerald Inquiry finest.
But – and this is the point most people seem to overlook – these songs are emblematic of Brisbane at the time, not its music, which was far too diverse to be reduced to a set of agitprop slogans. The conditions for making music in Brisbane at the time were absolutely oppressive, and far from being an inspiration, it forced thousands of creative people to flee. The best example was Brisbane’s other truly great cultural export to emerge from the late 1970s, the Go-Betweens, who as far as I can tell never wrote a protest song in their lives.
Here were two slightly effeminate young men (Forster and the late Grant McLennan) who aspired to art, wrote poetry and occasionally wore dresses. At the height of punk’s most atavistic aggression, they played acoustic guitars to jerky rhythms, backed by a tall woman with short hair who played the drums. They didn’t write political songs – they didn’t have to. They were making a political statement just by being who they were, and that, in a nutshell, is exactly why they had to leave. Thus one of the best songs ever about growing up in Queensland was written in London:
Neither does the bad politics argument hold water when we look at the next big boom for Queensland music, the early 1990s. Bjelke-Petersen was long gone by then, so we can hardly attribute the success of Powderfinger, Regurgitator, Custard and the rest to him. More likely, that especially fertile period came down to an complex amalgam of factors: generational change, the reshaping of the music business in the wake of Nirvana’s album Nevermind; the nationalisation of the Triple J network, and the fact that Brisbane was becoming quite a nice place to live, with plenty of places to go out and play, without the attendant paranoia, post-Fitzgerald, of police harassment or worse.
Musically speaking, Brisbane currently is in the best shape I’ve seen since that golden age. Yes, there have been setbacks like the closure of Rave magazine, the venue situation is tenuous (it was ever thus) and making a living is harder than ever. But it’s never been easier to make, produce and distribute music than it is now, and the breadth and depth of quality here is astonishing. I can’t go out without tripping over someone new and exciting. That’s the subject of a whole new post.
Frankly, I can’t imagine it getting much better than it already is under Can-Do Campbell. Hopefully, it won’t actually become more difficult, due to the vagaries of licensing laws, poor town planning or the de-funding of programs that actually do help enable local musicians to get their music to a wider audience. That really would be throwing the flowers in the dustbin.