Tagged: David Bowie

Beck and forth

BECK looks toasted. Under round vintage sunglasses and a broad-brimmed black hat, the cheeks of one of the most inventive, elusive artists of the last quarter-century are sunburnt. Los Angeles is on fire. The resulting chaos has resulted in him running an hour late to the Capitol Records tower, the circular icon that sits off Hollywood Boulevard like a 13-storey stack of records, rammed through a spindle that protrudes a further 27 metres above.

In the early 1970s, the artist born Bek David Campbell spent his first years only a few blocks from here. Downstairs, in the foyer, there’s a coffee-table history of the building, for which he wrote the foreword. “As a kid, whenever we were returning from some far-flung part of the city in the back of a gas guzzler on a hot smoggy day, I can remember the Capitol Records building always signified that we were almost home,” he writes. Now he’s back.

He’s still boyish at 49, sun-kissed blond hair curling out from under his hat, but looks slightly frail after four months straight of travel. His backside doesn’t quite fill out his black ankle-cut trousers. His handshake is gentle. He says it’s a miracle he woke up at all today, because “today was that day where I was like, OK, I could just sleep for a week,” after flying in from New Orleans. By his own estimation, he hasn’t had a break since 2012.

When Beck’s first single, Loser, appeared in 1993 on a start-up independent label called Bong Load (initially in a custom pressing of just 500 copies, before it took off), he found himself typecast as the epitome of slacker rock: a loose appellation for self-deprecating Generation X indolence celebrated in films like Clerks and Reality Bites. “Slacker my ass,” he snarled to Rolling Stone a year later. “I never had any slack.”

It’s closer to the truth to say Beck is more like a shark who can’t stop swimming. His new album Hyperspace is his 14th overall, including a handful of pre-major label recordings. In between, there’s been a dizzying array of collaborations, side-projects and productions: with David Bowie, Philip Glass, Marianne Faithfull, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lady Gaga and Flume, as well as close peers Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

There’s also God knows how much unreleased material – at least some of which was destroyed by a fire that swept through a Universal Studios lot in 2008, a story broken by the New York Times earlier this year. “They still won’t tell me what was lost,” he says. “It’s frustrating, because I’ve probably released 10 percent of what I’ve made … I have a feeling that my management is not telling me because they can’t bear to break the news.”

FOR Hyperspace, Beck teamed up with singer and hip-hop impresario Pharrell Williams. The album’s electronic textures are a continuation from its 2017 predecessor Colors, which was about as close as he has ever come to a straight-up pop record. But whereas Colors was as bright as its title suggested, Hyperspace is more subtle and existential: take away the synthetic textures, and it’s easy to imagine the songs played on an acoustic guitar.

That, he says, would have been the easiest thing in the world to do. At heart, Beck is a folkie, as early albums like One Foot In The Grave and later triumphs like Sea Change attest. But he was disinclined to repeat himself. “Doing something like Hyperspace is much more of a challenge, and I’m more on my toes and out of my element in having to think my way out of the box,” he says. “I feel a little guilty if something’s too easy.”

After Loser and the accompanying major-label debut album Mellow Gold, Odelay, released in 1996, proved Beck was no flash in the pan. Sturdy folk-blues songs were cut up, rearranged and overlaid with a magpie-eyed montage of samples, as the singer spilled out surrealist poetry like a postmodern Bob Dylan. Where It’s At, with its refrain “I’ve got two turntables and a microphone”, was a hit and won him his first Grammy.

It remains an album full of joy, wonder and invention, yet impossible to pin down. “I remember having a conversation with my dad when I was maybe 11 or 12, after getting an album and being disappointed, because all the songs sounded exactly the same. I remember saying, somebody should make an record where all the songs are completely different, and he said, no one would buy that record.”

It was a breath of fresh air in a dour indie-rock scene that still regarded him with suspicion. “I remember that the music scene was not very supportive. There was a lot of harshness among bands, among critics. There was a lot of judgement, it was a very cynical, and I think my music had a sense of fun, which didn’t really fit in with the angst of the time. So I did feel a little bit like an outsider, in a lot of ways.”

Odelay’s 1998 follow-up Mutations, with its bossa nova, Tropicalia and country inflections, was recorded live in the studio as Beck continued to fend off suggestions he was a novelty act. “It was to show, these are real musicians, real songwriting, it’s not tricks, it’s not smoke and mirrors”. At the time, he says, “even my label, the reaction from a lot of people around me was, this is experimenting, these aren’t real songs.”

Other, older musicians thought otherwise. Mutations included three tracks originally solicited by Johnny Cash four years earlier, when Beck was just 24. Intimidated, he got cold feet and kept the songs (Sing It Again, Dead Melodies and Canceled Check) to himself. “In retrospect, I don’t think they’re terrible, and they would have been better if he’d sung them,” he says. Cash ended up covering one of Beck’s earlier songs, Rowboat, anyway.

Now, Beck recognises he was onto something. “Even though I knew nothing and was just an inexperienced kid, the instincts of youth were strong, and what [I was doing] was maybe an ethos of a time to come … It was this giddy, beautiful moment of discovery, and I would go back maybe and just give that kid permission to just keep going with that, and see where that goes.”

That might suggest Beck self-consciously limited himself. But after Mutations came Midnite Vultures, a garish, playful album of sexed-up R&B, then Sea Change, usually regarded as his best work next to Odelay. Written quickly, it was a luscious, lugubrious piece of introspection following the breakup of a nine-year relationship. He’s been flitting somewhere between these two extremes ever since.

Slowly, the rest of the pop world caught up. “A lot of it can sound quite conventional compared to a lot of music now, it’s not outlandish,” he says. “But at the time it was completely outlandish. My thing was, OK, we can have a Jew’s harp, a fuzz guitar and a samba beat all together. And that’s the era we live in now – there’s no rules, there’s nobody minding the store. The more far-fetched the idea, the better.”

BECK was born into art. His father David Campbell is a celebrated Canadian composer and arranger; mother Bibbe Hansen (Beck later took her surname), was one of Andy Warhol’s Factory “superstars” in the 1960s. They separated when Beck was 10. Bibbe is Jewish, Campbell a Scientologist, as is Beck’s ex-wife, actor Marissa Ribisi, with whom he has two children, son Cosimo (aged 15) and daughter Tuesday (12).

This has led to persistent speculation and curiosity about Beck’s own beliefs. “I think there’s a misconception that I am a Scientologist. I’m not a Scientologist. I don’t have any connection or affiliation with it. My father has been a Scientologist for a long time, but I’ve pretty much just focused on my music and my work for most of my life, and tended to do my own thing … I think it’s just something people ran with.”

It hasn’t been an easy year for Beck: he filed for divorce from Ribisi in February, and it’s tempting to think that might account for Hyperspace’s more downbeat mood. (The album was named after the arcade game Asteroids, which itself was based on a scene from Star Wars: if your spaceship faced an unavoidable collision, you could escape by hitting the hyperspace button, and end up anywhere on screen.)

But it’s no Sea Change, and it would be a mistake to attribute the source of these songs to his current state of mind. The first song recorded with Pharrell Williams, The Everlasting Nothing, was written seven years ago; they’d been meaning to get back to it ever since, but were consumed by other projects. “It kind of had this elegiac, hymn-like quality but with 808 beats, and it just didn’t seem to fit with what was happening at the time.”

Another song, he says, was written about a friend who overdosed in a motel room two blocks away, over 20 years ago. “For some reason, it came out now. And something I went through two years ago, I might be able to articulate in a song 15 years from now … That’s just the mystery of craft. You are serving a master, in a way. Sometimes it doesn’t completely feel like it’s up to me.”

He says he views the songs on Hyperspace as “portraits of a different way of trying to just transcend our everyday. And maybe what I was thinking about with this record is how underneath all these choices and differences, we share a lot as just flawed humans trying to do the best we can to get through…” – he pauses and chuckles – “this thing called life, as Prince said.”

Now he’s back in LA, part of him may want to sleep for a week, but “I can actually go into the studio, and that’s very seductive to me. There’s such a finite amount of time, so I’m always 10 steps behind where I’m trying to get to. And we’re in a time, with streaming, where people want more content, so the artists that are really in the eye of the culture are constantly putting out music.

On the cusp of 50, he feels like he’s just getting started. “You hear a song on the radio, even something like [David Bowie and Queen’s song] Under Pressure – it’s such an elaborate and realised piece of work. As a songwriter you go, how did they fit all these things together so seamlessly and it’s so memorable and meaningful? There’s thousands of songs that good … I’m still extremely humbled by how much I have left to learn.”

And yet, on songs as simultaneously dense and hook-filled as Where It’s At, that’s exactly what Beck has consistently done. These days, it’s an encore song, part of the cultural fabric, and when he performs it, “musically, it’s like you’re in everybody’s living room at that point. Everyone’s relaxed because they’re like, this is home.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 22 November 2019

Things Beck lost in the fire

Beck has given details of his work that he fears may have been lost in a fire which ripped through a Universal Studios lot in 2008.

It is thought that the fire may have destroyed more than 120,000 master tapes recorded by some of the most famous artists of the past century, a story broken by the New York Times magazine earlier this year.

In an interview with this masthead, Beck said his management “still won’t tell me what was lost” after the fire. “I have a feeling that my management is not telling me because they can’t bear to break the news.”

The prolific artist, who says he has released about 10 percent of the music he has recorded, says “there’s a lot there” that could easily have been destroyed.

“Like an album like Sea Change, there are completely different versions of songs and then there’s probably another 10 to 20 songs that aren’t on the record that [were] in progress; things that I thought I would finish later. It wasn’t that they were bad songs, they just didn’t fit the mood of the album,” he said.

“In 2001, I went into Sunset Sound [in Los Angeles] and I recorded 25 Hank Williams songs for a double album, just solo. I wanted to celebrate that influence in my music and explore it, and I don’t have a copy of that; it’s on a master tape, so that’s probably gone.

“I went to Nashville on tour for two days and cut a country album that never got released. I have rock albums I did in the 1990s, before I did Odelay, I went and tried to make an indie-rock album, so there’s an album that sounds like a Pavement, Sebadoh kind of thing.

“There’s a [Jon Spencer] Blues Explosion album I did in ’95 where I cut about 10 songs with them in New York City that’s never been released. But I don’t know [whether it’s gone], nobody’s telling us anything. We didn’t hear about it until the last year.”

Beck also said that the fire exposed a broader systemic issue: the poor preservation of artists’ recordings generally.

“I have friends who work in archives and they see the tapes for legendary artists from the ’50s just lying there in a cardboard box, not being climate controlled and preserved correctly in an acid-free box,” he said.

“There’s a lot of neglect of masters. It’s a big problem. And guess what, I’ve been in a room where they’ve put on an original Frank Sinatra three-track from the ’50s and it sounds fucking phenomenal, whereas the vinyl version you have sounds tinny, old.

“It doesn’t have a fraction of the information that’s on those tapes. All this stuff should be remixed and remastered and re-released … There’s troves of great music in these archives, treasures that are not being tended to.

“You have artists like the Beatles who get that treatment, where they go and they restore the recordings and remix them, but it’s rare, and it should be happening more … It would be a rebirth for some of these artists who are maybe getting left behind.”

On November 28, Beck responded to this story with a post on Twitter: “I wanted to clarify some out of context quotes regarding the Universal archives fire. Since the time of that interview we have found that my losses in the fire were minimal.

“Another point I want to clarify: I have had a wonderful and very close relationship with my management for 25 years through to working on my current album.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November 2019; updated 3 December 2019

Aldous Harding Live @ The Metro

“Shut up,” hisses a patron to the bartenders talking at the back of the Metro. This is no time for idle chatter. Aldous Harding is close-picking her way through The World Is Looking For You, one of only two selections from her breakthrough album from 2017, Party – five minutes of spidery folk that Harding performs alone, seated, with just an acoustic guitar.

In a mid-sized venue, most artists would get away with something like this towards the end of their set. Not the beginning. But Harding’s set is more like a high-wire act. She walks slowly onstage, without fanfare, seats herself, and just waits, as though psyching her audience out. The entire room is full and still. Not a soul lingers at the bar. Not a phone is raised.

When it’s over, there’s an exhalation, then an ovation. Harding rises as her four-piece band arrives. She’s wearing a loose-fitting, burnt-orange trouser suit and black porkpie hat. Another close-picked triad of notes opens Designer, the title track of her brilliant third album, before the song opens up to reveal a surprising palette of instrumental colour, including a flugelhorn.

And then she breaks the spell. She walks off stage to speak to the sound engineer, then back. “Hi,” she says. “So, having a bit of a ’mare up here … How’s that? It doesn’t sound like anything to me.” Suddenly, the audience is unsettled. Harding’s New Zealand brogue is reassurance, at least, that she hasn’t dropped in from some distant planet.

But it’s the sheer otherness of Harding that captivates the audience, which spans sexualities, colour and at least three generations. There is something about what she is doing that is not just fresh but new. Nothing about her songs is obvious – trying to unpack the metaphors in her lyrics is like wrestling with a Rubik’s cube – yet the language seems oddly universal.

Still, she’s wobbling, up there on the wire. “I apologise, I like to provide a drama-free service,” she says. Zoo Eyes hangs in the air with its impenetrable central question: “What am I doing in Dubai?” But Harding composes herself, then floors everyone with Treasure, a song that sucks all the air from the room.

She thanks everyone for “standing by while I’m trying to claw my way back to some kind of normality”, and the band sidles into The Barrel, Designer’s lead single. It’s as strange a song as has ever been written but its groove is full of latent energy, its melody insinuating and insistent. The crowd is moving now, and the song’s brief spike of electric guitar brings cheers.

Harding apologises afterwards, and says she’s not feeling herself. By this, I take her to mean that her issues with the onstage sound, whatever they are, are making her self-conscious, and therefore unable to fully inhabit the songs as she’d wish. But, as she gurns and grimaces and rolls her eyes, she is still riveting.

Harding has at times reminded us that her theatricality – including the multitude of voices in which she delivers her songs – is a persona, a show. Those voices, whether on the husky, Nico-like drone of Damn or her falsetto on Gerry Rafferty’s Right Down The Line, are rich in nuance and controlled to perfection.

But as alien as she appears (at times, in both her androgyny and otherworldliness, she’s reminiscent of Hunky Dory-era Bowie), watching Harding perform is to be touched by something that’s deeply human. What’s moving is her vulnerability, her willingness to take risks and to fail. Her bravery is underlined by her ending the night with a new song, Old Peel.

Blend is the only other song from Party, and Harding dances, her movements as lithe and elegant and perfectly timed as the music. Her band stands and takes in yet another ovation before Harding returns, solo again, to play Heaven Is Empty. It’s a death rattle of a song, Harding’s voice suspended in mid-air over a couple of wide-spaced chords.

And outside the room, at the empty bar, a staff member can be heard firing up a vacuum cleaner.

First published in The Guardian, 27 August 2019

Something To Believe In: A Playlist

I was driving alongside the Brisbane River not far from home, with a Ramones anthology playing at full volume, when it hit me. I was trying to piece myself back together after a difficult couple of years. My mother had been transferred into care with advanced Alzheimer’s disease and my marriage had broken up. Something To Believe In was the song that did it – an almost-forgotten single from the Ramones’ troubled mid-’80s era. It was about losing your grip on yourself, on life, then rediscovering your sense of purpose. I knew I wasn’t going to be the same person but, then again, I didn’t want to be.

It was March 2018. I’d written a few pieces that began to sketch out a story of a life on the margins of music but from the perspective of a fan, a wannabe, rather than a player. Over the next two months, a music memoir poured out: the first 30,000 words in three weeks. It was finished by Mother’s Day. Something To Believe In was the obvious title, music being that something that had kept me sane, kept me going and, at times, kept me alive.

What follows is a playlist of 10 songs – most sublime, at least one ridiculous – that signposted that journey.

1. The Ramones – Something To Believe In (1986)

For whatever reason, the title track of Something To Believe In isn’t on Spotify, so you’ll have to go to YouTube for it. It’s a Dee Dee Ramone song; he wrote most of the band’s really dark stuff. This is one of his saddest but it’s also uplifting. Joey’s vocal will put a lump in your throat. In the first half, he wishes he was someone else. After Johnny’s solo – one of very few solos by the guitarist – there’s a bridge where he grabs life by the throat: he decides he’s going to accept himself instead.

2. The Velvet Underground – Rock & Roll (1970)

3. Iggy & The Stooges – Raw Power (original mix, 1973)

To me, this is the greatest song about the power and the glory of rock & roll ever written. The chorus – “Don’t you try, don’t you try to tell me what to do” – is what it’s all about. So is this lyric: “Raw power’s got a healing hand / Raw power can destroy a man.” Who knows how Iggy is one of the last true originals left standing but you only have to count the bodies to know he’s right, and his next stop after recording this album was a psych ward. It’s a classic now but, at the time, Raw Power was so far ahead of the curve no one even knew there was one up ahead. David Bowie’s mix buried the rhythm section but it’s still punk as almighty fuck.

4. Do Re Mi – Man Overboard (1985)

This came out when I was 14 years old. At that time I knew nothing about women, let alone feminism, and I didn’t really understand this song but connected with it anyway. I was a tiny kid and got bullied a fair bit in the playground, and I think I just related to Deborah Conway’s rage and hurt more than anything. It’s a post-punk song and a lot of punk spoke to people who had been marginalised in some way. These days I identify more with the object of Conway’s disdain in ways I’d rather not – I know I’m addicted to attention and, as a music writer, I’ve been wallowing in a swamp of trivia for most of my adult life.

5. Patti Smith – Free Money (1975)

Lenny Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith group and compiler of the great ’60s anthology Nuggets, once said garage music reminded people of why they wanted to rock & roll in the first place, which was pure desire. And we always want what we can’t have. Another key concept of rock & roll is transcendence, the conceit that it can take us outside ourselves and so set us free. Smith embodied both in this song about escaping the prison of poverty. What really gets it over is the intensity of her performance. She sounds as though she’s clawing out of your speakers. It starts slow, with just Smith and Richard Sohl on piano, then the band shifts through the gears until they’re at maximum horsepower.

6. Kate Bush – The Big Sky (1985)

This is similar to Free Money in that what makes it leap out is Bush’s wild performance. Hounds Of Love, the album that it’s from, is really special to me; it seems to keep reappearing at key times. This song is about moving on – the idea is that we’re all just specks in the cosmos. It’s all big tribal drumming and stacked vocals, arranged for maximum impact. It gets louder the longer it goes as more elements are added to the mix but at the centre of it is Bush’s voice. From about the three-minute mark she completely loses it – she sounds as though she’s talking in tongues, then from 3.45 she unleashes a series of heart-stopping shrieks. She was possessed.

7. Liz Phair – Johnny Sunshine (1993)

A lot of these songs are about the self-mythologising of rock & roll, something the Rolling Stones were pretty adept at. Liz Phair was in love with that ideal too – and the Stones – but understandably she had a problem with a lot of the lyrics. So she decided to write a song-by-song feminist response to the Stones’ Exile On Main St. That was her first album, Exile In Guyville, and it upended all those old cliches. I write about Divorce Song in the book (because, well, divorce) but Johnny Sunshine is closer to the theme I’m getting at here. It’s Phair’s response to All Down The Line, where the protagonist takes off with a “sanctified girl”. In Johnny Sunshine, Phair replies from the perspective of the woman he’s left behind. Living in an adolescent fantasy world usually means that someone, somewhere is getting hurt.

8. Jen Cloher – Hold My Hand (2013)

My mother is in the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease; she has been bedridden and unable to communicate for more than 18 months now. But the years before that were harder for her emotionally, and for her family and friends, as her illness stripped her identity from her, piece by incremental piece. She got it young, too, when she was in her mid-50s (she’s 71 now). When Jen’s song appeared, it reduced me to ash. Her mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s too and the song describes a circular conversation between her parents: her dad explains to her mum how they met but she forgets instantly, so she asks him again. I had lots of conversations with my mum like that. The message of the song is that “love is more than a reward or balm we use to soothe”. It’s an ongoing test of patience and loyalty.

9. Neil Finn – Chameleon Days (2017)

In early September 2017 I was in Auckland for a music conference when I should have been in hospital. I was in a hotel room and had enough tablets on hand, plus booze, to kill a horse. I was in a really serious, unstable condition. But I had one thing left to do: I had to review Neil Finn’s album. It sounds absurd but it was important to me to finish this one task. I listened to Chameleon Days about a dozen times in a row and it stayed my hand. It’s a very gentle song about fate, change and radical acceptance. The next day I was up at Roundhead Studios where Neil had livestreamed cutting the song.

10. Kiss – God Gave Rock & Roll To You II (1991)

It’s worth finishing with something big and dumb and silly, and they don’t get bigger, dumber or sillier than Kiss. Originally this song was a hit for Argent in 1973. Kiss covered it in 1991, long after the face paint had come off. I love it, partly because it’s so ridiculous, but also because it posits rock & roll as a primal life force in and of itself. Paul Stanley’s rave at the end is hilarious: “I know life sometimes can get tough! And I know life sometimes can be a drag. But people! We have been given a gift. We have been given a road. And that road’s name is … rock & roll!” He was a true believer.

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First published in The Guardian, 28 June 2019

Iggy Pop: World’s forgotten boy just wants to be loved

“Hey! Turn the lights on, I want to see everybody,” shouts Iggy Pop. And he grins that huge, irrepressible grin. Here he is, on the lip of the Concert Hall stage of a sold-out Sydney Opera House, with thousands of ecstatic fans cheering back at him. And he can’t get enough: he extends his hands, accepting everyone’s love and joy, touching that famously bare, Florida-tanned and now ever so slightly pot-bellied torso, as if to smear it upon himself.

“You’ve made me very happy,” he says, in all sincerity. But he’s no happier than anyone else in the room, after 21 of the greatest songs of all time that were never hits. Well, Lust For Life almost was, after its immortal tom-tom rhythm jump-started the film of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting. But that was in 1996, 19 years after its original release. Nothing else, other than Candy (not played this evening) ever came close.

I’ve started this review at the end of the show for the sake of some context. How could Lust For Life not have been a major hit in 1977, the year punk broke? The answer is that the death of Elvis Presley meant that Iggy’s label at the time, RCA, poured its resources into reissuing the King’s catalogue at the expense of promoting what should have been the biggest success of the World’s Forgotten Boy’s career, just when he thought his Chinese rug was at hand.

At the Opera House, Iggy pulls out this eternal opener or showstopper (it’s not really an in-between sort of song) fourth in the set, right after The Passenger. Most of the remainder is drawn from the deep well drilled by the Stooges, whose three pre-punk albums between 1969 and 1973 sold bugger all, except to those who had their minds so blown that they formed their own bands, who duly passed the torch to the next generation, et cetera. And so, here we are.

There are so many layers of improbability about this – Iggy Pop at the Opera House – that it almost defies belief. The first, of course, is that Iggy is still alive, having outlived not only his closest peers and mentors, David Bowie and Lou Reed, but all but one core member of the two original Stooges line-ups (James Williamson). Not to mention countless less fortunate musicians who shuffled off this mortal coil after sustaining seemingly far less damage.

This Sunday, the man born James Osterberg celebrates his 72nd birthday. He looks as healthy as a horse, an obvious limp from a bad hip notwithstanding, meaning that supple physique of his can’t move quite like it used to. Iggy’s voice, however, is in unbelievably good shape, whether he’s deploying his rich baritone on the sleazy dancefloor crawl of Nightclubbing or summoning the terminally bored teenage whine of No Fun.

That song sees Iggy invite dozens of fans on stage with him, in scenes reminiscent of a similar crowd invasion at a Royal Headache gig in 2015. This time, though, no cops are called to break up the party. And here, some scepticism is understandable. Has the man who wrote Gimme Danger lost his edge, now his songs have reached a level of mass acceptance that allows him to perform at a venue such as this?

One promotional poster for this gig features a famous image of the youthful Iggy Stooge photoshopped standing atop the sails of the Opera House. The Opera House is intimate enough that, had he chosen, Iggy could have stepped straight off the stage and had the crowd hold him aloft by his ankles, in a recreation of the iconic scene from the Cincinatti pop festival in 1970 (before he started smearing himself with peanut butter).

Really, as he sings on a cover of Bowie’s Jean Genie, he just “loves to be loved”. So much so that it’s easy to forget how deeply shunned Iggy Pop once was, decades before he became an object of adulation. Now, he can open with I Wanna Be Your Dog and close the set with Real Cool Time – two songs that defined the fine line between stupid and clever long before Spinal Tap – and, well, it’s like hypnotising chickens.

For the encore, Real Wild Child is a clear nod to his Australian audience (both for its debt to Johnny O’Keefe, and the Generation Xers who have grown up with it as the theme from Rage), followed by a much bigger surprise, as Iggy’s band bulldozes their way through Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand. Everyone is beaming, none more so than the superhuman on stage. It’s totally life affirming. Call it hip-replacement rock if you want: he’s Iggy Pop, and you’re not.

First published in The Guardian, 16 April 2019

Response to Queensland Theatre’s Twelfth Night

“If music be the food of love, play on!”I remember the first time I heard those words. It wasn’t in high school or university, but in a song from 1987 called Eat The Rich, a song written by the British heavy metal band Motörhead specifically for the film of the same name.

The song was full of double entendres and cheap innuendo. “They say music is the food of love / Let’s see if you’re hungry enough!” were the opening lines, gargled by the late Lemmy Kilmister, whose lyrics deftly trod Spinal Tap’s famous fine line between clever and stupid.

I’m not sure how I have managed to almost entirely avoid Shakespeare, despite a life devoted to words and music. The sum total of my experience was a reading (not a performance) of Hamlet, in year 11. It is, frankly, an embarrassing gap for a writer.

When Queensland Theatre invited me to respond to their production of Twelfth Night, I was intimidated, and my instinctive response was ‘no’. Then I realised I was being offered a challenge and a belated opportunity to engage with something beautiful.

The other selling point was musical: Tim Finn, whose early work as a member of Split Enz had been forever imprinted on my brain, would supply the food of love for the play, composing music for Shakespeare’s old verses as well as a suite of original new songs.

These songs draw mainly on two musical forms: English folk and, in the play’s second half, stomping glam rock – particularly its most androgynous purveyors, David Bowie and Roxy Music, both clear influences on the work of Split Enz.

That androgynous element is important, for Twelfth Night is especially resonant today. It’s a romantic farce, full of suggestion and double entendre, and its comedy rests on multiple mistaken identities and cross-dressing, as well as delicious wordplay.

Beneath the laughter lies deep melancholy. The shipwreck that separates twins Viola and Sebastian, and the loss of Olivia’s father and brother, creates a sense of mourning: Viola (as Cesario) warns Orsino that Olivia is “so abandoned to her sorrow” that she fears she will not be admitted into her court. Orsino is insistent, telling Cesario to “be clamorous and leap all civil bounds, rather than make unprofited return.”

In one of Tim’s songs written to complement the original text, he compares their love to an abandoned building: “No one lives there anymore”. Yet Orsino, Viola and Olivia are all stricken with unrequited longing for those whose hearts are set on others. In Viola’s words, they love “with adoration, fertile tears, with groans that thunder.”

The heart wants what it wants, and “love is love” are words we have heard many times in these last 12 months. As we have grappled with the concept that gender and sexuality might not be fixed identities, but exist somewhere on a spectrum, so Twelfth Night was ripe for reinterpretation.

On this theme, Tim makes one of his finest contributions, Keeping Up – a song sung by Feste, Olivia’s resident court jester, after he may, or may not have identified the male Cesario as the female Viola:

Once upon a time it was clear

Who I was and how I got here

Now I’m not so sure anymore

The new normal

Seems a bit queer

The song acknowledges the temporary social seasickness caused by rapidly changing social mores. I found myself wondering if some of our most conservative commentators have ever asked themselves Feste’s question: “Am I confused, or simply annoyed?”

Feste himself is not quite the fool he appears: he understands that ch-ch-changes could end up leaving men like him behind. Mostly, though, he is too busy enjoying himself to be annoyed by anything – unlike Malvolio, Olivia’s insufferably pompous steward.

Here lies this production’s most provocative twist: Malvolio is re-cast as Malvolia. Her pursuit of Olivia gives Twelfth Night another layer, not just of same-sex attraction but also tension and, ultimately, betrayal: “she hath been notoriously abused,” Olivia says.

Her star turn, singing Lady Ho Ho, is the play’s most outrageous moment. Quivering with pent-up desire in her yellow cross-gartered stockings, her over-the-top attempt to seduce Olivia is doomed by Olivia’s disinterest as well as by Maria’s cruel device.

Tracy Grant Lord’s set design depicts the fictitious land of Illyria as an island under a celestial night sky, revolving through different exterior and interior landscapes that are like chambers in the hearts of the island’s occupants.

Australia is an island, too: “Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, we’ve boundless plains to share” – or so our anthem says. Our debates can be petty and mean-spirited. As a people, though, I don’t believe we are, at least not when given the chance to be our best selves.

Australia’s LGBTIQ community made clear they felt deeply betrayed by last year’s postal survey on marriage equality.

Having long been victims of notorious abuse themselves, they were subjected to a national vote that struck at their core as human beings. They saw it as another cruel device to prevent them from loving who they pleased as equals under the law.

Yet, presented with no alternative, Australians rallied behind them, resulting in marriage equality being signed into law before Christmas of 2017. It was a significant moment in our polity which showed the public to be far ahead of party-political games.

In the process, leaders and heroes emerged on our national stage. Some, you might say, were born great; some achieved greatness; while others duly had greatness thrust upon them.

Twelfth Night is a joyous play. Everyone is searching and longing for love and companionship. Even Malvolia, after vowing vengeance “on the whole pack of you”, is entreated to a peace. And music, being the food of love, ultimately binds them all together.

So, let’s see if you’re hungry enough. Play on!

Responding artist’s note to Queensland Theatre’s Twelfth Night, 2 May 2018

George Young: the original architect of Oz Rock

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.

First published in The Guardian, 24 October 2017