Tagged: Gareth Liddiard

Spencer P Jones: Hellraiser among Australian rock greats

Spencer P Jones wasn’t a household name of Australian rock music. But he worked with many who were (Tex Perkins, in their band the Beasts of Bourbon, as well as Paul Kelly and Renée Geyer) and was held in high esteem by many beyond these shores, notably Neil Young.

His work as a guitarist and songwriter also influenced many, including the Drones, who covered one of his songs and whose principal members, Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin, recorded an album with him under the name the Nothing Butts in 2012.

The news of his passing from liver cancer on Tuesday, aged 61, was no surprise. He’d been forced into retirement from the stage (a place you otherwise couldn’t keep him from) a few years ago, and was advised of his terminal condition in June.

His rare appearances had been limited to guest spots, one of his last being for the Beasts of Bourbon’s bass player Brian Hooper in April. Hooper came out of hospital to perform, took the stage in a wheelchair and wearing an oxygen mask, and died days later, aged 55.

If this paints a familiarly grim picture of the rock musician’s fate, it might be worth mentioning that Jones’s first album with the Johnnys, recorded in 1986, was called Highlights Of A Dangerous Life. The highlights from Spencer’s could easily fill a book.

But unlike most rock stars, Jones didn’t look away from the consequences of his choices. One of his later songs, sadly never released, was called The Monkey Has Gone. A sad lament punctuated by clashing guitar chords in the chorus, it was about cleaning up, and owning it:

The monkey has gone
Time to move along
Get on with my life
Say sorry to my wife
But that’s a different song
Thankfully, the monkey has gone

Born in Te Awamutu, New Zealand in 1956, Jones arrived in Sydney in 1976. In his first week there, he saw Broderick Smith’s country rock band the Dingoes, Radio Birdman at French’s Tavern in Darlinghurst and a much-bootlegged show by AC/DC at the Haymarket.

Those three gigs and their respective influences – country, punk and hard rock – all informed his later work. The Johnnys, Jones’s first band of note, were dubbed “cowpunk”, and they played the image to the hilt, wearing Stetsons, chaps and Cuban heels.

They also kept bar fridges on stage, painted as black as their amplifiers, which they’d open between each number to take beers from – a gimmick that helped prevent their riders from being pilfered.

The beer poured in rivers from the bar taps, too, but other stunts made them a publican’s nightmare. At the end of shows, the band would cut the twine holding the hay bales on stage, scattering straw throughout the venue. (This back in the days when everyone smoked at gigs.)

The Beasts of Bourbon, a supergroup featuring Perkins and the Scientists’ Kim Salmon, were an even more lethal proposition. Their first album, The Axeman’s Jazz, was recorded in a single eight-hour session, fuelled by three cases of beer and, well, who knows what else.

By the band’s fourth album, The Low Road – led by a song called Chase The Dragon – the band’s hard edge and habits were becoming obvious. They were ferocious live, Jones lurking in the shadows, puffing smoke from under the hat that obscured his receding hairline.

As a guitar player, he was highly rated, coming in 17th in a poll of Australian musicians that was topped by Cold Chisel’s Ian Moss. His Stratocaster chugged and wailed, always a bit behind the beat, and he held the history of rock & roll in his right hand.

At that stage, Jones wasn’t a prolific writer. The two Johnnys albums were padded with covers, and he contributed a minority of songs to the Beasts of Bourbon. But the quality control was high, and after his first solo album, Rumour Of Death in 1994, he blossomed.

For much of the 1990s, Jones played in Paul Kelly’s band. Jones once told me that Kelly taught him that songs didn’t just fall out of the sky: “You’ve got to do the work,” he said. After leaving the band, Jones hit a purple patch, recording a string of terrific albums through the 2000s.

Looking through his body of work – with the Johnnys, Beasts of Bourbon, Hell to Pay (formed with another hellraiser, Ian Rilen) and his solo records, what stands out above all is the consistency. You’d be hard pressed to identify a bad song on any of them.

It’s easy to imagine Bleeding Heart, a single recorded with the Johnnys with a little help from Kelly, as being a big hit in the latter’s hands. In time, we may view Jones as a songwriter of Kelly’s equal, but Jones’s snarling delivery and reputation undoubtedly scared many off.

There’s another story to be told here, about the Australian music industry’s cowardice and ageism. Had Jones been based in Austin, Texas and started a little earlier, he might have been venerated and celebrated for both his songs and transgressions, in the way of other outlaw country artists such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

But that’s a different song. Paraphrasing one of his best, The Day Marty Robbins Died, he’s with Mother Maybelle Carter and Hank Williams now, in that Grand Ole Opry in the sky.

First published in The Guardian, 23 August 2018

“Open bags full of herb”: Mullum Music Festival

Glenn Wright had sworn not to get involved with musicians again. He’d spent close to 20 years booking Sydney’s Harbourside Brasserie, before relocating his family just outside the town of Mullumbimby, an hour shy of the Queensland border. “I live on a farm, grow avocados and breed ducks,” he says determinedly. “I’m happier with that than trying to make a fortune out of promoting.”

He soon found he couldn’t help himself. Mullumbimby, he noticed, had many venues to play music, but they were underutilised, and while northern New South Wales already boasted the Byron Bay festivals Bluesfest and Splendour in the Grass, there was room for something more boutique. “I had a lot of contacts and artist connections – and I was short of cash,” he confesses.

The result is the Mullum music festival, now in its ninth year. The festival stretches across four days and half a dozen halls, including the RSL, bowls club and high school, spanning either end of the town’s main street. It’s an easy stroll – maybe 20 minutes – but if you’re in a hurry, you can catch the double-decker “Magic Bus”, which trawls up and down the strip in obvious homage to Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

“In smaller venues you can have more intimate contact with the audiences,” says Wright. “There’s no VIP areas; there’s no backstage. The artists stay in the town, they get restaurant vouchers and mingle with everyone. I try to program artists that know each other, or there’s some similarities, so they end up collaborating. We develop relationships.”

The Mullum vibe is comfortably relaxed. Ticket sales across the festival’s four days are tightly capped, so while the town is bustling – especially on the Saturday – there’s no need for pushing or shoving. And while there’s a diversity of musical styles on offer, it’s mostly acoustic, roots, folk, world music and alt-country. There’s not a lot of rock & roll.

Wright says he quickly realised the festival had no room for growth. “I try to make sure that it’s always comfortable and go for the longer-term goals rather than how many people can I fit in the venue.”

Around the music, there’s yoga and forums on sustainability and renewable energy. A major theme at this year’s event is reducing plastic waste; there’s even a weaving workshop to “jazz up” your water bottle carry cover through recycled materials including packing tape and festival armbands to “bring style, ease and self-responsibility to your carry wears”.

Of course, there are other ways to jazz things up. “I see we’re coming into jazz territory,” notes a visitor wryly on the Saturday night. He’s not talking about the music. Melbourne songwriter Henry Wagons, who headlines on both the Friday and Saturday nights, is impressed. “I’ve just walked past a sea of dreadlocks with open bags full of herb,” he says with a grin. “This town is gonna get fucked up.”

Wagons is a born entertainer who will do anything it takes to win over a crowd, including jumping into the lap of a septuagenarian audience member, but others can’t help but be a little more cynical. “So whaddaya farm up here? Healing?” asks the Drones’ Gareth Liddiard, before pausing to shush a particularly vocal local. “Hey, pipe down, I’m trying to create some atmosphere here.”

Similarly, Melbourne singer Olympia – who provides a welcome splash of glam-pop colour in a pink, shoulder-padded pantsuit – seems disconcerted by the local freestyle. “You guys are gonna have to dance in time to this, your bad rhythm is depressing me,” she tells the kids in the school hall. “I’m gonna have to get the metronome out.”

Other acts are treated with more appropriate levels of respect. Indigenous singer-songwriter Yirrmal, a young Yolgnu man from north-east Arnhem Land and son of a Yothu Yindi dancer, has an enormous voice and appeals to the older crowd. Another Indigenous performer, Tash Sultana, can play seemingly anything and attracts a much younger but equally devoted audience to her high-energy show.

But the emphasis is on fun rather than earnestness, typified by Dustyesky, the punning result of Wright bemoaning his inability to afford a Russian folk choir. “I suggested to him in a drunken moment, why don’t we start our own?” says his friend Andrew Swain, who assembled a cast of local doctors, nut farmers, chefs, builders and Wright himself – none of whom speak a word of Russian – to learn the songs.

Dustyesky, coached in the lyrics by a Russian friend of Swain’s, are now a Mullum staple. “It’s just for fun, but we do get a lot of people coming to the gigs, and you can always pick the Russians because they’re the ones crying in the audience,” Swain says. “Because they know all the songs! They come up to us afterwards and say things like ‘These are the songs from my childhood.’ It’s unbelievable.”

First published in The Guardian, 21 November 2016

“An absolute masterpiece”: the Triffids’ Born Sandy Devotional

Widely regarded as one of the finest Australian albums ever made, the Triffids’ second album Born Sandy Devotional turns 30 this month. Most famous for its beloved single Wide Open Road, the album uses the empty desolation of the Australian landscape, and particularly the band’s native Western Australia as a metaphor for loss and loneliness. To gauge its enduring influence, The Guardian asked 10 Australian musicians – both peers of the Triffids, and those that have grown up in the band’s shadow – to discuss one song each from Born Sandy Devotional’s 10 tracks.

Ben Salter (solo artist) on The Seabirds

“David McComb’s tempestuous holler kicks in immediately: ‘No foreign pair of dark sunglasses will ever shield you from the light that pierces your eyelids, the screaming of the gulls…’ That thousand-yard stare sensibility, that Australian feeling which permeates the entire album is firmly established. There’s a devastating electric guitar refrain which finally flattens out to one plaintive, repeated note, and the song ends with McComb’s anguished cry: ‘So where were you / Where were you / Where were you?’”

Robert McComb (guitar/violin, the Triffids, older brother of David McComb) on Estuary Bed

“Sometimes I feel like it’s my life, growing up in Perth. Which is why [David McComb] got some credit as an Australian songwriter, because he used those images – the hot sand, the salt on the skin, the sun on the sidewalk, burning their feet. It’s just my childhood, as it was his.” (From The Great Australian Albums documentary series)

Lindy Morrison (former drummer, the Go-Betweens) on Chicken Killer

“From the first snare beat at the end of the first line – ‘I knelt, I aimed, I missed, I ran’ – Martyn P Casey and Alsy Macdonald set a cracking, rolling rhythm that carries this wild tune to the finish line. Nick Mainsbridge was the engineer on the album, and I swear you hear his touch – ‘Just let them go,’ he would have thought. And David is as big and blustery and confident as ever as he sings for his lost love, with gorgeous imagery. It’s a shocking, sad, violent song of love and revenge.”

Sarah Spencer (keyboard player, Blank Realm) on Tarrilup Bridge

“Is this a live song? No, that’s spooky-as-hell canned applause at the start. So weird. Then a xylophone that mirrors the strange and beautiful elocution of Jill Birt’s vocals. Is she singing from beyond the grave? Yes, she drove off the bridge: “They say I’m going to be a big star. They’re making a movie about my life. And you’re going to play the starring part.” It’s the most gothic song on a goth album. Perhaps it’s a love song, or a dedication, to those driven over the edge.”

Steve Kilbey (the Church; solo artist) on Lonely Stretch

“You could not find a more Australian song than Lonely Stretch. Have you ever been lost at night in the bush? It all looks the same. The imagination starts to play its tricks. Ghosts of your former darlings seem to appear and your headlights pierce the night to reveal … Nothing! A monstrous epic of a song, Martyn Casey’s engine-like bass propelling it all along. Dave McComb, if you’re out there listening somewhere, I declare this to be the most vivid, crucial, exciting Aussie song of all time. Oh man, one that I really wish I could have written myself. An absolute masterpiece.”

Mia Dyson (solo artist; Dyson/Stringer/Cloher) on Wide Open Road

“I heard Wide Open Road as a kid, totally free and dancing around the living room. Years later my dear friend Jen Cloher re-introduced me to it and I fell in love all over again. It’s timeless, even though the production is very much of its time. It gives me the feeling that anything is possible and there’s a strength and defiance that I can carry with me as I navigate the endless forks in the road I encounter in my own life.”

Tamara Bell (guitarist, HITS) on Life Of Crime

“This aches, musically and lyrically, with those first young dalliances with lust – of desire’s convincing reassurance that giving in to it will reward a future brighter than any punishment. ‘I believe you will lead me to a life of crime’ is the utterance of the consentingly doomed. The lyric ‘My chest burning, rising, falling’ just stabs me – they speak of involuntary propulsion, addiction, and a lover’s regretful, inexorable abandonment of their better selves to whatever prize desire will yield, at whatever cost.”

David Bridie (Not Drowning, Waving; My Friend The Chocolate Cake) on Personal Things

“It’s not my favourite track off the record, but it has that Jacques Brel/Bertolt Brecht vibe that the Triffids occasionally tapped into, which I like – a slightly theatrical German cabaret feel. It’s got the cheesiest organ sound I’ve ever heard in my life, but the drums really kick it along. It’s like a waltz. I like the line ‘Some secrets of love you take to your bed, and others you take to your grave.’ The album works as a whole; there’s all these characters and short stories that made up the whole collection.”

Gareth Liddiard (the Drones, solo artist) on Stolen Property

“I sang this song for the Triffids gig [at the Perth International Arts Festival on 15 February]. It’s quite similar to what we would do because it runs on about three chords and then gets really abstract at the end. There’s a shift halfway through that always sends chills down my spine, where Dave sings, ‘Maybe lost possessions, maybe stolen property.’ It’s Dave losing someone, but regaining himself – like he’s had to steal himself off someone. He’s not lashing out aggressively, but he’s taking a stand – he’s sort of telling this person off, saying, ‘You know what – you’re fucked!’”

“Evil” Graeme Lee (keyboards, pedal steel, the Triffids) on Tender Is The Night (The Long Fidelity)

“I love the final part of that song, where he says, ‘Where you are, it will just be getting light.’ Which is an amazing way, in so few words, to say you’re not here, and I miss you.” (From The Great Australian Albums documentary series)

First published in The Guardian, 31 March 2016

The Drones: Feelin Kinda Free

When right-wing columnist/performance artist Andrew Bolt heard the Drones’ single Taman Shud, he wrote that the band was “stamping on the ashes of the West’s musical traditions”. Supposedly offended by the thought that singer Gareth Liddiard didn’t give a toss about anything he said, he added: “critics like these make me feel like I’m offending exactly the right kind of people”.

Naturally, the Drones were delighted. First, they would no doubt feel exactly the same way about offending Bolt and his tabloid constituency. Second, the group has taken a serious left turn with their seventh album, Feelin Kinda Free. “We said ‘fuck it’ and went spaz,” Liddiard told The Guardian last October. He couldn’t have dreamed of a better critical endorsement than Bolt’s “stamping on the ashes” line.

“It’s a pretty weird record and you can dance to it,” Liddiard said of the album. “It’s time to have a groovy Drones record. We’re sick of being a bunch of drags.” With respect, Bolt’s description was pithier, more accurate and more complimentary. Taman Shud was one of the most compelling singles of last year, but good luck to anyone who hit the dance floor to its skittish rhythms.

Boredom, the sixth track on Feelin Kinda Free, is in a similar vein. If the Drones once came on like the mutant, brawling blues-punk offspring of the Birthday Party and the Beasts of Bourbon, this sounds more like the mostly forgotten Australian post-punk of Pel Mel and Sardine v. Frankly, it’s a lot more interesting and original, stamping all over the Drones’ own musical traditions.

“The best songs are like bad dreams,” mutters Liddiard in Private Execution. It’s a fabulous opening line – and what follows is a succession of nightmares. Always fascinated by Australian history, the Drones were once the musical equivalent of a McCubbin painting; pioneers trapped in foreign landscapes. Here they take a step into the avant-garde world of the Angry Penguins, Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan.

The Angry Penguins movement was an interrogation, and rejection, of an earlier kind of Australian nationalism represented by the bush balladeers. Feelin Kinda Free is as decisive a repudiation, both of the Drones’ past and of the mythic, monocultural Australian vision of John Howard, Tony Abbott and, yes, Andrew Bolt: “I don’t give a fuck if you can’t stop the boats,” Liddiard sneers in Taman Shud.

The dominant themes here are immigration and its attendant cousin, paranoia. And Then They Came For Me finds Liddiard “feeling like I’ve overstayed”. On the album’s final track, Shut Down SETI, he imagines Fortress Australia overrun by aliens: “Do we need an overlord that finds us underwhelming? You don’t defend your house and home by jumping down a rabbit hole.”

Taman Shud and Boredom aside, Feelin Kinda Free slithers by like a serpent in search of its next meal. The feel is unhurried, but menacing. While the songs still stretch out like elastic, there are only eight of them, so at 41 minutes, the album doesn’t outstay its welcome. The emphasis is mostly on bass and percussion: guitars are heavily treated; frequently, you’d be forgiven for thinking there are no guitars at all.

The closest thing to anything from the Drones’ past is the agonised To Think I Was In Love With You, which sits squarely in the album’s centre without dragging it down. Otherwise, Feelin Kinda Free sounds like the work of a less dour and far more subversive band. Despite the subject matter and often funereal pace, it’s anything but a drag.

First published in The Guardian, 18 March 2016