Tagged: Deborah Conway

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 and the Stooges – Raw Power (original mix, 1973)

To me, this is the greatest song about the power and the glory of rock’n’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.

 Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14;Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

First published in The Guardian, 28 June 2019

The Great Australian Songbook II (40-31)

As promised from yesterday. I’ve tried to cover as many bases as possible in terms of decade and genre, avoiding multiple selections for the same artist.

Without further ado, here’s the list from 40 to 31.

40. COSMIC PSYCHOS – Lost Cause (1988)

It was Spinal Tap who pointed out the fine line between clever and stupid. In Australia, you won’t find three smarter beer-swilling yobs than The Cosmic Psychos. This isn’t a song about punching above your weight – it’s about being out of your weight division entirely. “Dr” Ross Knight, the band’s bass player, is a farmer from outside Bendigo who’s been known to cancel tours when his tractor breaks down. At the time he wrote this song, he was working part-time in the medical records department of a local hospital, where he fell under the spell of an attractive young lady who’s “only 19, not a has-been!” “I was about 25, 26 at that point, a bogan fucking pisshead,” Knight recalls. “I said to a mate of mine, ‘I wouldn’t mind taking her out,’ and he goes, ‘Nah – have a look at you! She’s a lost cause, mate!” The song was later covered by L7 and The Prodigy.

39. DO RE MI – Man Overboard (1985)

After the comic ribaldry of the Cosmic Psychos, it’s nice to follow Lost Cause with the best piece of feminist polemic set to pop music in Australia since Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman. Do Re Mi’s lean, agitated funk provided all the space required for Deborah Conway’s sharp-eyed, razor-tongued portrait of a relationship in terminal decay. Critic Toby Creswell reckoned Conway had a voice like a braying donkey. If that’s the case, it’s even more impressive that a song with no chorus and lyrics that referenced sexual boredom, penis envy and anal humour actually became a top five hit.

38. SEVERED HEADS – Dead Eyes Opened (1984; remixed 1995)

Australia is not well known for its electronic music output, but long before the Avalanches scored with Since I Left You in 2000 there was Tom Ellard’s brilliant Severed Heads. Exploring the space between the industrial terror of Suicide, the pop smarts of New Order and the minimalism of Kraftwerk, the creepy Dead Eyes Opened was both of its time and ahead of it, and proved it by being a hit twice: once upon its release in 1984, and then again with a remixed version in 1995.

37. DAVE GRANEY & THE CORAL SNAKES – You’re Just Too Hip, Baby (1993)

On one hand, Dave Graney is an eccentric from Mt Gambier, South Australia who’s read too many Raymond Chandler novels. His genius is in filtering his influences through his own uniquely idiosyncratic worldview, and you won’t find a better example than this minor hit from 1993 that set the former Moodist on his way to unlikely Australian King of Pop status a couple of years later. “You take a feather from every bird you see / You’ll never fly” is the perfect rejoinder to a jaded hipster, accented by Rod Hayward’s stinging guitar breaks.

36. MENTAL AS ANYTHING – The Nips Are Getting Bigger (1979)

One of the all-time great Australian drinking songs. It starts out just drinking beer, then it progresses to Jamaican rum, and things are all downhill from there for poor Martin Plaza: “Wiping out brain cells by the million, but I don’t care / It doesn’t worry me even though I ain’t got a lot to spare.” Reg Mombassa’s splashes (splatters?) of guitar are as colourful as his designs for Mambo, but it’s Plaza’s sad, funny and true portrait of everyday alcoholic waste that, once heard, never leaves you.

35. REGURGITATOR – ! (The Song Formerly Known As) (1997)

First, there’s a chuckle. Add a clipped white-funk guitar (which actually sounds more like Chic’s Nile Rodgers than Prince), then a belching bass keyboard fill, and voilà: instant party. Except it’s a party that Quan Yeomans doesn’t want to go to. He’d rather stay at home, dancing in ugly pants in the comfort of his suburban lounge room. Regurgitator are amazingly versatile – they can do hardcore, they can do pop, and their contribution to Australian hip-hop is massively undersold, but this wonderful paean to the socially awkward is their finest moment, and propelled its parent album, Unit, to triple-platinum status. Thank you, Mr DJ.

34. THE CRUEL SEA – This Is Not The Way Home (1991)

This is a driving song, best suited to very long, very straight, very red roads far beyond Woop Woop, with a bunch of mates and a case of beer for company: just leave the actual driving to whichever one of you is least inebriated. Snatches of conversations, casual observations, hints of violence and a chugging rhythm – Dan Rumour’s introductory snippet of guitar before the rhythm section kicks in is akin to a smooth change from third to fourth – and you’re away, with the throttling slide guitar in the chorus putting the whole thing into overdrive. Somehow, I’ve never been busted speeding to it.

33. DIVINYLS – Back To The Wall (1988)

Boys In Town, Pleasure And Pain, Science Fiction and the masturbatory epic I Touch Myself were all bigger hits, and it would be easier to choose any of them for popularity’s sake. But on this killer tune, Chrissy Amphlett nailed her tough but vulnerable rock-chick persona for all time. Swathed in co-conspirator/lover Mark McEntee’s echoing Rickenbacker and unobtrusive keyboards, this is dangerous, borderline stuff, all the more compelling for its restraint: the predicted eruption never arrives, but Amphlett’s threats hang in the air, leaving you cowering in a corner.

32. SCIENTISTS – Swampland (1982)

Years ago I was trying to write a book about Australian garage rock under this title, and I bumped into the song’s author, Kim Salmon, at a Mudhoney show earlier this week. He joked that at the rate I’m going, he’d have his memoirs out before my own effort. He’s calling his work-in-progress Nine Parts Water, One Part Sand: How I Invented Grunge, and while he’s at least partly joking, there are plenty (Mudhoney included) who don’t dispute his claim. The Scientists were doing the soft-loud thing long before the Pixies, and with equal style: imagine the Count Five, the Cramps and Creedence jamming in a garage, and you’re back on the Bayou.

31. LAUGHING CLOWNS – Eternally Yours (1984)

After the Saints, Ed Kuepper formed the all but unclassifiable (and, occasionally, all but unlistenable) Laughing Clowns. With three virtuoso players in their ranks, the Clowns were musician’s musicians, with Kuepper – one of this country’s greatest guitarists – backed by drummer Jeff Wegener and saxophonist Louise Elliott. Here, Elliott’s the star, building from an austere melody to a stupendous climax: prepare to have your breath taken away at 4.21, when she holds a long note for eight full seconds, before taking flight for an extraordinary finale. Rock music doesn’t get much more stirring than this.