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)
Richard “Evil Dick” Hunt is doing a handstand. We’re in a plush dressing room at a venue called Le Cargo – it’s so cushy that it even has the band’s name on the door, an unheard-of event – and Hunt, by way of limbering up, is hoisting his small frame over a large, comfy, suspiciously new-smelling corner couch.
I watch warily as Hunt, who’s already flying on a combination of cough syrup, cognac (to protect his shredded voice) and beer, inverts himself aloft. This may not end well. Facing away from the wall, he gets himself balanced precariously on his head. Then, unsteadily, he begins to stretch out his little legs.
Le Cargo is a major performing arts complex in Caen, a couple of hours’ drive north-west of Paris. HITS – a full-tilt, five-piece rock & roll band from Brisbane, Australia – have taken all before them on their first European tour. It’s the second-last gig of a four-week adventure that’s seen the band play 20 shows in less than a month.
Every Friday night at Le Cargo, the local government subsidises free concerts for up-and-coming groups in a room that would comfortably fit 450 punters. Everything is arranged to make young bands look and feel like stars: there’s a high stage, drum riser, light show, and the sound is excellent.
Not to mention that dressing room. It’s got a wall-to-wall mirror at one end that adjoins a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over the Caen Canal, which runs out to the English Channel about a dozen kilometres upstream. At the other end of the room, opposite the mirror, is the corner couch.
All of this is, as you might have gathered, unimaginable luxury for a band that, on any given night in Brisbane, is lucky to attract more than 100 paying punters. On this tour, many of the gigs have been to 20 or 30 people, some in venues that would make tiny Fortitude Valley icon Ric’s look like Madison Square Garden by comparison.
Hunt points his toes skyward. His feet are adorned in lovely black suede RM Williams boots, with classic rocker’s Cuban heels, which instantly shatter the print on the wall. Glass rains down, even as the print remains in place and Hunt heroically maintains the handstand.
The larger, heavier chunks of glass that don’t make it to the floor land on Hunt, falling around his magnificently unkempt mane of blond hair much like a circus knife-thrower outlines the head of his smiling female assistant. And still he holds the handstand, until finally the clatter of glass stops.
Everyone else in the room stands, mouths agape in horrified silence.
“Oh, shit,” someone says.
Hunt dismounts the couch, grins, and casually brushes away the pieces of glass still clinging to his hair and flannel shirt. He’s completely unscathed. The rest of us dissolve into laughter. Richie, not finished, weaves his way over to the sink under the long makeup mirror, and vomits copiously into it. Blaaargh!
[Footage from Le Cargo, thanks to Youtube user TCITR. This was arguably the best show of the tour. Mind the vomit at 16.50!]
Let’s get the disclosures out of the way. I became involved with HITS in 2009, when the band’s debut album, Living With You Is Killing Me, was released. I fell in love with it, with them, and subsequently co-financed the reissue of the CD on a limited vinyl pressing of 300 copies (now sold out).
It was due mainly to that commitment that I was asked to chauffeur the band through Europe. A double-life spent writing and driving maxi-taxis on nightshift was as good a grounding as any for moonlighting as the driver for Brisbane’s hardest-drinking rock band. (The tour wasn’t wickedly titled Euro Double-Vision for nothing.)
There are more than a few other judges, though, who will tell you that HITS – the name is ironically chosen, deliberately capitalised, and a knowing anagram – are the best rock & roll band in Australia. True, none of the judges are named Seal or Delta Goodrem or Keith Urban. But since when did The Voice have anything to do with rock & roll?
In this writer’s opinion, at least, they’re by far and away the most recklessly exciting group this city has produced since the Saints. No, they will never sell as many records as Powderfinger. But they have the charisma, the sound and most of all, the songs (real songs, with hooks and choruses and quite possibly the best set of riffs since AC/DC last had it up) to leave a lasting legacy.
HITS also have something that in this day and age shouldn’t be unique, but is: they’re a mixed-gender group with not one, but two female guitarists. Tamara Bell (who, just to add to the band’s volatile internal chemistry, has been in a relationship with Hunt for nearly a decade) plays with the demented fury of Angus Young trapped in Chrissy Amphlett’s body; Stacey Coleman pumps out the rhythm with a sneer to make Joan Jett blush.
Over them, and a thunderous rhythm section comprising bass player Andy Buchanan and New Zealand-born drummer Gregor Mulvey, Hunt pours out his frustrations and insecurities: stories of drinking, depression, drugs, going to rehab and failing: as he puts it in the title track of Living With You Is Killing Me, “I’m sorry baby, the 12 steps are too hard to climb.”
It’s the opposite of the usual model of female-fronted bands, or groups where women play stereotypically supportive roles (usually bass, following the examples of 1980s indie-rock icons Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth, and the Pixies’ Kim Deal). It gives HITS an immediate visual distinction.
The most striking thing about them, though, is the way they deliver their music on stage. The song titles tell the stories: Bitter And Twisted. Sometimes You Just Don’t Know Who Your Friends Are. Touch Of The Shorts. The End. But HITS aren’t in the least bit sorry for themselves. Far from depressing, they’re life-affirming.
Their shows are wild, joyous, hilarious, and sometimes, quite frankly, they’re terrible. But they’re never less than entertaining, not least because you can’t wipe the smiles off their faces. Even on a bad night, HITS are a glorious rock & roll band because, as one critic put it, “The compelling thing they have that most bands lack is personality. Dysfunctional rogue personality, just this side of out of control.” Really, they’re best summed up by another marvellously self-descriptive title: Loose Cannons.
EURO Double-Vision is actually a bit of a tour misnomer. After starting the adventure in Amsterdam (Whose damn fool idea was that?), 17 of the 20 shows are in France which, despite being better known for producing the late, great Serge Gainsbourg and shopping-mall staples Air, also harbours an perverse, enduring affection for Australian rock music.
It’s not just AC/DC, either. In terms of rock iconography, what we see everywhere – T-shirts, patches, badges, tour posters, you name it – is the distinctive logo of Sydney legends Radio Birdman who, along with the Saints, kicked off the punk movement in Australia back in the mid-1970s. (Rob Younger, Birdman’s ex-singer, is slated to produce HITS’ next album.)
The French connection to the Australian underground goes back in the 1980s. Bands inspired by or directly descended from the Saints/Birdman legacy – Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, Younger’s other band the New Christs – toured through Europe on the back of having their records picked up and distributed locally by a former Le Havre-based independent record label, Closer.
In more recent years, Brisbane bands like 6ftHick, the Vegas Kings and their respective offshoots, Gentle Ben and his Sensitive Side and Texas Tea, have all mounted successful tours here, supported by new labels like Beast (based in Rennes) and Turborock (Caen). And in many cases – in an exciting but sad echo of older musical exports like the Go-Betweens – they’re finding bigger, more enthusiastic audiences overseas than at home.
THE north-western peninsula of Brittany (Bretagne) is the centre for all this rock action. Just off the main streets of Rennes, Beast Records owner Seb Blanchais owns a shop at the bottom of the crooked timber framework of a 17th-century tenement block. It’s got an Australian record section fatter than anything I’ve seen in any comparable shop at home, stuffed full of rare and limited pressings.
On the outskirts of town, he runs a club called Mondo Bizarro, named after a late-period Ramones album. “The right place to rock!” it insists, on a poster advertising upcoming gigs stuck outside on its white stucco wall.
“I’m glad we’re not in the wrong place,” Bell says.
I look at the poster. They take all types here – from thrash to funk, folk to punk and all shades of heavy metal in between. Coming up soon, for example, is Cauchemar (“Quebec: Heavy Doom”) with special guests Children of Doom (“Lille: Doom Metal”). Really, the venue’s just an old house – the entrance hall’s been converted into a bar and there’s a stage mounted at one end of the lounge room – but it’s got buckets of atmosphere.
Upstairs, Bell warms up her voice. “Nothing suck-seeds like success,” she belts, quoting a line from one of the band’s songs, with added emphasis.
“It’s still there,” she says, reassured.
The small dressing room soon fills with enough smoke to gas us all. I wonder if Bell’s voice will still be there by the end of the night. Hunt, for his part, is already sure he has nodules on his vocal cords, which after seven years in HITS (and 13 more in other bands, including the notorious Strutter, whose sole album gloried in the title Motherfuckers From The Bowels Of Hell) is not surprising. He has two basic modes: scream, and scream harder, “Until your whole body is telling you it can’t do it any more.”
Coleman – who has a day job at home selling advertising for long-standing independent radio station 4ZZZ – returns from downstairs, where she’s been trying without success to get the attention of the sound guy. Every time she makes eye contact with him, he scuttles away. “I think he’s under the impression I’m a groupie,” she says. “I like it when they think that. Then they see me on stage…”
We all look around. I’m getting used to that sound. But it’s not Hunt this time. It’s one of the kids from the support band, Barbed Wire, who’s just spewed out the window. Not all of it’s made it to the pavement below, though: instead, he’s puked mostly onto Mulvey’s only towel, hanging over the sill to dry.
I decide to go outside.
BEN Salter – solo artist, leader of fellow Brisbane band the Gin Club and ace ex-Queen Street Mall Beatle-busker – has joined us on tour for a few days. He’s over here on a six-month songwriting grant, living out of a small suitcase, building a new fan base in Europe. Have guitar; will travel. He and Buchanan are quietly propping up the bar.
“You look like you’ve got The Fear, Staffo,” Salter says, noting my grey visage.
It sounds scary, but I’m not quite sure what he means. “It’s just generalised anxiety; existential dread,” he explains cheerfully. “Everyone on tour gets it at some point. It’s the drinking that does it.”
Gregor appears. He’d slipped off somewhere to find a kip – might have been a park bench, but then again, it might have been somebody’s front yard. He’s not quite sure.
“See, the fear just bounces off The Maori,” Salter says (an affectionate nickname, saluting the cherubic and very caucasian Mulvey’s Kiwi heritage). “It just ricochets, like ping-pong balls off a Centurion tank.”
Wait until he goes upstairs and sees his towel, I think.
Salter’s dad was a Vietnam veteran. Once, marching with him in an ANZAC Day parade, he tried to explain to some of his dad’s fellow diggers that he was a musician. He watched as they screwed up their faces, trying to understand his choice of vocation; the different ways you can measure success.
“Why don’t you go on Australian Idol?” one eventually offered, trying genuinely to be helpful.
Salter tried to explain, politely, how such a move would fly in the face of everything he was about. Buchanan nods. “It’s like wanting to be a Formula One driver and someone telling you that you should settle for driving taxis,” he says.
Some things can’t be explained. Most of the creative people I know – writers, musicians, visual artists – do what they do not just because they love it but because, more crucially, they have to; something inside of them is fighting to be released. And sometimes you need to feel the love of a new audience, to know that what you’re doing connects with people other than your friends in your own little corner of the world.
The show’s a blinder. HITS pull out a new song, Lost In The Somme, for the first time on tour. It’s a tribute to Hunt’s great-grandfather, who lost his life in one of the Great War’s worst catastrophes. The song is in two parts: a pure punk, machine-gun riff to open (the military pun is deliberate), a couple of verses, a chorus, then a pause, and Richie crumples to the floor as if shot.
The music slows to a grind, based on just a couple of chords. Now it’s the sound of battle, as though the band is wading through muck. Hunt is still on the floor, moaning. This continues for a couple of tortured minutes. Then the beat kicks in once more, double-time. Hunt’s back on his feet:
Yeah, that’s no way to go, no way to go Lost in the mud and snow, the mud and snow
Throughout the show, there’s a woman down the front, repeatedly grabbing at Hunt’s crotch. After the performance she propositions him boldly while a non-stop Ramones medley plays in the background.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I love my girlfriend very much.”
“I could just be your mistress,” she replies earnestly. But she’s out of luck.
WHEN he’s at home, Hunt does odd jobs at a bar in West End and builds sets for the Arts Theatre on Petrie Terrace. For years, he was a regular behind the counter of local institution Rocking Horse Records. He’s in his early 40s – no spring chicken in this game – but he’s nobody’s fool, either. He’s studied rock’s history and mythology intently, and he knows what works and what doesn’t.
“I spend so much time watching actors – how they deliver lines; how you can express so much with your body language and your hands,” he says. “It’s an important point of difference in our band. So many singers have their microphone stand [he mimics being glued to one]. I’m like, no mic stand!” (This changes by the end of the tour, by which time he’s using a stand with aplomb as an extra prop.)
He also knows when to get out of the way. “Usually when Tam’s playing a solo I try to stand over near her amp,” he says. “That’s something I picked up from Bon Scott. You don’t want to grandstand at those times. You want people to listen to the solo. They should, because it’s fucking great.”
There’s more to Bell than meets the eye, too. If HITS is mostly Hunt’s creative vision, Bell, 31, is the band’s heartbeat and moral centre. The classic Catholic schoolgirl who went off the rails in her youth, she’s made a successful return to mature-age study, and is completing her Honours in Justice after blitzing her undergraduate degree.
Earlier in the tour, after a vigorous debate about corruption in the Catholic Church with Buchanan – a UQ graduate with majors in classics and French who runs an education bookstore – she made a declaration. “We’re artists. We like to make rock & roll,” she declares. “But I’m not a dumb-arse rock & roller. None of us are. And I won’t pretend to be.”
THE last show of the tour is in Le Havre, in the basement of an Irish pub where the pipes are so superheated it feels more like Brisbane during a heatwave. We’re all exhausted and sick. A song by the Ramones, I Wanna Be Sedated, has become a recurring theme: “Get me to the airport, put me on a plane / Hurry, hurry, hurry / Before I go insane / I can’t control my fingers / I can’t control my brain.”
“Bonsoir, motherfuckers,” Hunt yells.
It’s a young crowd – kids in their teens and early 20s, mostly – and they go completely mental: one picks Hunt up during the first song and nearly succeeds in putting his head through the low ceiling, while Bell and Coleman are fending off stage invaders with their stilettos.
Getting pummelled in the mosh, I finally stagger from the front across the stage to the safety of the wings. It’s nearing the end of the second-last song of the tour, Peter And Paul. Richie suddenly approaches me at side of stage. There’s an evil grin on his face. He’s holding out the microphone to me.
You know what to do.
Rock & roll has always attracted misfits; people who don’t feel they have a place to go. If you never ran with the crowd at school – or the crowd never let you in – you may have found solace in the voices of Iggy. Or Morrissey. Or Patti.
“Outside of society,” Smith sang, “That’s where I wanna be.” You wouldn’t resign yourself to your status as an outcast: you would celebrate it. It’s a different kind of validation. HITS like to say they’re a celebration of resignation. Their songs are full of loneliness and pain and defeat and struggle. But what makes them special is their delivery, which is so joyful and inclusive.
I charge into the crowd to sing the last two choruses. I’m totally unprepared, and now it’s me who’s barely got any voice left; I’m not doing much more than hollering, really, but it doesn’t matter. The song finishes. I dive off the stage, and I haven’t done that since I was 20. A dozen hands hold me aloft.
I hear Hunt laughing his head off behind me. “Don’t drop him! Don’t drop him! We need him to drive us, just for one more day … Please don’t hurt him!”
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), 18 August 2012
“Welcome to the big, fat south of France,” says Andy.
Actually, we’re not fully in the south yet. We’re in Lyon, which is more in the central east, really. But it’s sunny, it’s very warm, and after a day and a half’s driving, the cold and wet of Brittany feels another world away. The road had taken us away from the major highway, through winding hills and small Terracotta-topped villages. Then we’d spent a good hour poking our way through the city’s outskirts to its mad, pulsating centre.
There’s less than half a million people here, but it feels like more. Maybe that’s because I’m still driving the Big Black Car. The streets in the city are narrow, the roads are chaotic, and parking is slightly … desperate. We want to check out Dangerhouse, a famous record emporium near the city centre, but it’s impossible to find a space for the van anywhere, so in the end we just head for the venue. It feels hot and crowded and stressful.
Actually, it’s not that bad, just a bit of a taster for what’s to come in the real south – in Marseilles. And the stress falls away pretty quickly once we’re on the boat. Which just adds to the surreal change of scene, really. It’s an Australian-themed boat called Ayer’s Rock – “The Boat That Rocks”.
It’s a big brown barge, moored permanently on the banks of the Rhône River, and it’s monstrously kitsch – the logo is a map of Australia embossed with the flag and the proclamation “The Authentic Australian Bar.” Which is to say it’s about as authentic as your average Irish pub; or any Australian-themed bar in Europe really. There’s a stuffed kangaroo with a joey in her pouch downstairs; a mounted crocodile on the rear deck. The Bondi Bar serves Coopers and Fosters and Boags. You get the idea.
Still, it could be a whole lot worse. It’s mid-afternoon and, too tired to think about sightseeing and with not much else to do otherwise, we’re hanging out on the rear deck, admiring the view up and down the river and drinking.
Mallards and swans drift by. Couples sunbathe and make out along the river’s wide embankment. One canoodling pair look like they’re intent on going the whole nine yards. When she climbs on top to straddle him, I think of suggesting, loudly, that they might consider getting a room. That would be very Australian, and probably very offensive, so I don’t.
The bartender offers some snacks. “Food?” says Rich. “That doesn’t have beer in it.” He and Tamara have caught the same lurgy I’d picked up a couple of days earlier, in Lannion, despite all of us having flu shots. Tamara is resting on a couch at the stern of the boat, clearly feeling like Johnny Thunders warmed up. Richard, for his part, is just warming up.
“I’m a cheap drunk,” he says. He’s already tipsy, thanks to the combination of over-the-counter cold meds, cough syrup and cognac (to protect his flagging voice) already in his system. Now he’s adding beer to the mix. And this is before the mohitos begin.
“You’re not as cheap as me,” I say. (This would, under normal circumstances, be true.)
“Well, you start off cheap,” Rich says genially. “When you get more experienced, it gets more expensive. Look at Coleman.” Stacey, who most agree can drink the rest of us under the table put together, has just joined us.
“I come from a long line of alcoholics, so I can drink til the cows come home,” Richie goes on.
“Me too. I’m gonna live forever,” Stackers says.
“You’ve got good genes?” I ask.
“Yep. Drinker’s genes. My great-grandmum lived to be 105 and she drank, like, every day.”
I start getting the feeling it’s going to be one of those nights.
A BIT later, still pre-gig, I have one of those occasional conversations with Richard that I’ve come to cherish. We’re halfway through the tour and, sitting in the late afternoon sun and on the Rhône, we’re in a peaceful, reflective mood, despite the fact that we’re talking to each other through a head full of premium-grade snot.
“We couldn’t have done this without you, Andrew,” he says suddenly, with feeling. I’m startled, proud and moved all at once.
“Well, I’m proud to be part of this,” I say back. “I always knew the band was this good. I always knew you could find an audience over here and that you could cut it. To actually be here to see you do it is a beautiful thing.”
“I don’t know if I would have been ready to do it before,” Rich says, looking straight at me. “I’m not sure I would have coped … You’re a stabilising influence on us.”
I’m blessed with a deep, almost primal feeling of acceptance, of belonging. Rock & roll has always attracted misfits, people that don’t feel like they have a place to go. If you never ran with the crowd at school – or the crowd never let you in – you might have found solace as a teenager in the voices of Iggy, of Morrissey, of Patti.
Outside of society, she sang. You wouldn’t resign yourself to your status as an outcast; you would celebrate it. That’s where I wanna be. HITS say they’re a celebration of resignation. Their songs are full of loneliness and pain and defeat and struggle. But part of what makes the band special is the delivery of those songs, which is so joyful and so inclusive.
One of the reasons for being in a band is you’re actually not outside of society, not entirely. Instead you join a secret society of fellow outcasts that validate you. If no one cared what you thought in school, then singing in a band might give you a flock to preach to.
I never felt part of a gang. My half-hearted attempts at forming bands of my own always fell flat. I’ve spent a lifetime lurking on music’s fringes, wanting desperately to be part of it and never quite making the transition.
Being a stabilising influence doesn’t sound very rock & roll. But somehow I’ve found a place in this setup as the straight man in a comedy act. Well, that works for me. As Jonathan Richman once said, I’m proud to say I’m straight.
WHETHER it’s complacency (it was all going so well); relief (no one was sure whether it would or not) or just the usual combination of booze mixed with cough syrup, the show is a debacle. Well, not a complete debacle, but certainly the worst since Amsterdam, and the polar opposite of Lorient. There, the audience came to HITS. On Ayer’s Rock, Richie takes HITS to the audience – but the audience is backing away.
Because unlike, say, La Louvière, this plainly isn’t a show; isn’t a cartoon. It’s real life, and real life is scary. There’s a sad, awkward silence after one song. Richie, hopelessly intoxicated by now, suddenly catches the mood of the crowd.
“Why is everybody staring at me?” he asks, almost a little plaintively. I’m guessing it’s the first time anyone on a stage, certainly a rock & roll singer, has ever thought to ask that question.
“Because you’re so drunk!” someone replies, in perfect English, and possibly just a hint of an Australian accent. It’s a moment full of pathos, humour, and simple, sad truth. Richie asks the bar for beers. I get them, feeling slightly queasy. HITS – 1; Responsible Service of Alcohol – 0.
There are still a few punters dancing and we manage to sell a fair bit of merch afterwards – mainly to the owner of Dangerhouse, who’s made it along and is still impressed enough to buy our very last copies of Living With You Is Killing Me on vinyl, as well as a bunch of CDs. But only someone who’s never seen the band play before would be fooled that it’s a good show.
While I’m selling the gear, Richie is already passed out, his shirt wrapped around his head. Later, Tamara holds his raggedy mane of blond hair behind his head, like a girl, as he rejects the entire evening from his body. As if the whole thing never happened.
Like Brest, Lorient was smashed to pieces during World War II. It’s a seaport on the south coast of Brittany in north-west France, and a former German U-Boat base. All the allies’ bombs combined couldn’t penetrate the three giant reinforced concrete structures that sheltered the boats, so they reverted to plan B, destroying the city in order to cut supply lines to the base.
On Rue Florian Laport, which runs down to the docks, you’d be forgiven for thinking some parts of Lorient had never actually been rebuilt. If you’re a dirty, filthy rock & roll band and you wanted to grime up your image by picturing yourself in a setting of authentic urban decay, here you will find an overload of photo opportunities: abandoned buildings, huge slag-heaps of dirt and smashed windows abound.
They have great graffiti here, though. The band photos didn’t materialise, but I did get this shot of Stackers in one of those bombed-out buildings:
Appropriately, it’s on this street, amid all this detritus, that you’ll find the dirtiest, filthiest and best rock & roll club in France, if not all Europe. Le Galion was once a sailor’s bar and, from all accounts, a violent place; if you look hard enough you’ll probably still find the odd tooth that’s been knocked out of some poor seafarer’s head. About six years ago it was taken over by owner Jean-Baptiste, a swarthy fellow with a taste for music as tough as the surroundings.
The place was apparently christened with a performance by Brisbane’s 6FtHick, which would have set the tone of the place from the outset. The love was reciprocal, too: large parts of a documentary about the band, Notes From The Underground, were filmed here, and my understanding is that the band’s 2008 album On The Rocks was at least partially inspired by their shows at the venue.
There’s a painting of a crocodile over the bar and another of the docks over the stage, augmented by images of a female rock goddess and a demon drummer. Perfect. Capacity is roughly 250. It’s obvious it’s going to be a big night.
Fred, who does sound at the venue, tries to explain Le Galion’s history. “It’s a great town. Simple people, kind people,” he says. “We are near the fishing port – the industrial part of town. We are far from home. That’s why we can make such big sounds. It’s cool. Twenty years ago it was really dangerous; a jungle. Bad guys, drunk people. Now it’s, how would you say, arty? Something changed here about five years ago – when Le Galion started putting on shows.”
Hopefully, this tilt towards the arts won’t infect the docks of Lorient with the virus of urban gentrification that invariably end up being the death of places like Le Galion.
WHEN HITS are in enemy territory – like, say, La Louvière, where they found themselves on a bill surrounded mostly by Ameripunk bands – they like to take the show to the audience. Stacey and Richard especially have spent almost as much time on the dance floor as on stage on this tour. At La Louvière, Richard pulled out every trick in the book, hurling himself at the mike stand, singing while collapsed in a heap on the floor, planting kisses on the ladies.
That’s not going to happen here at Le Galion. The place is packed to the gills and, for the first time on tour, the audience takes the show to HITS. In other words, they go completely bonkers. It seems a large proportion of them know the band’s material: we actually don’t sell as much as merch as I expected, probably because the band are preaching to the choir. There’s a real mosh pit, slam dancing and an almost scary level of energy.
So the band stay on stage, except for a small round podium planted just in front. It allows Rich and Tamara to put on their Bon and Angus routine to full effect: mostly, Rich stands on the podium, until it’s Tam’s turn to take a solo. Then he stands over near her amp. “That is something I picked up from them [AC/DC],” he admits. “You don’t want to grandstand at those times. You want people to hear the solo, because it’s fucking great.”
After the nerves of the previous night, it feels like deliverance, a magnificent show. They look like stars and they’re treated accordingly. But it’s also the first time after a gig where I’ve seen Richard ready to retire straight away. As it is, we’re up until 5am. “I was fucked,” he says afterwards. “Nothing left. I usually feel that way after a show in Australia, in summer, in a heatwave.
“And it was weird. There were a lot of idiots in the crowd. You have to keep your eye on them … If I was using a mike stand, then I’d just [mimes whacking an imaginary idiot]. But then you think, I can’t worry about them.”
In particular, both Tamara and Stacey are subject to a disproportionate amount of leering. One punk in the sort of spiky jacket that screams of a man who has never let go of 1977 stands dead in front of Stackers for the whole set, barely moving, just staring at her. He probably thinks he’s giving her the eye, but it’s crudely menacing. A few others try to lick Tamara’s guitar – or maybe it’s her strumming hand – when she steps forward.
Later, outside, they have to be rescued from the locals by Andy and Gregor. Marriage proposals were the least of it. “I like a bit of seduction, but these guys were touching my legs, telling me how they wanted to go down on me, like, right now,” Stacey says later, shuddering. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Truthfully, as one of two single members of the band – Andy being the other, and both have at times been, in Stacey’s words, as toey as Roman sandals – I’d expected Stackers to go off and make her own fun at some point. It’s not going to happen. “I’m loyal to my band,” she says. “If I woke up, in a stranger’s place, I wouldn’t feel good about that. And if I did meet someone I like, I’d rather get in contact later and establish something that way.”
Later, though, she exchanges details with Fred, the sound guy “with such a beautiful smile”.
THERE’S a gig in a beautiful town called Lannion the next night – the day Nicolas Sarkozy is defeated. Richie dedicates a rare performance of The End to him. Then we’ve got a day off. We drive seven hours to Clermont-Ferrand before making for Lyon, in the south. The final, brutal stage of the tour is approaching. There are 11 shows to go. In a row.
“I can’t comprehend 11 in a row,” Richie says over a subdued dinner near the Formula One hotel on the outskirts of town. “It makes me feel a bit ill.”
“We’re just gonna have to put ourselves to bed early,” Tamara says hopefully. “It’s not gonna be 11 parties in a row … We’ve had such an awesome time. I suspect the awesome times are about to diminish.”
Brest is a naval port on the north-west coast of France which was largely rebuilt after being blown to bits by the British in World War II. It’s cold and wet. Apparently it rains about 200 days a year here. I’m tempted to use that for an explanation for the depressed-looking nature of the place, but that would have a lot more to do with prevailing economic conditions.
It’s two days before the general election, and times are tough. The population is waiting for Sarkozy like Australians once famously waited for Paul Keating: with baseball bats. “Under Sarkozy, one million out of work,” one sad-looking fellow tells me, baulking at the prices on our merchandise. “When your tour over, we will have new president.”
The band’s just played another crazed show in a beautiful room under a hotel called La Vauban. Pity there weren’t many more than 30 or 40 there to see it, in a room that you could comfortably fit 300 into, thanks to a band competition across town that sucked away most of the town’s eligible punters for the night.
Most of the audience were fellow musicians: the guys from Head On, fronted by Beast Records’ inimitable Seb, and Ultra Bullitt, whose singer/bass player extraordinaire Erwen La Roux has put on tonight’s show. He’s printed 5000 flyers, 500 posters, and lost money, but he doesn’t care. “Je ne regrette rien,” he says.
Ben Salter – who’s been in our van since Paris – opened, mostly thanks to the generosity of everyone else who slotted him in to play at the last minute, after Andy B’s promise that “his voice will bring them in off the street”.
“Yeah, to complain,” quips Ben.
Of course, Ben has the sort of voice that will stop a room, and that once routinely stopped passing traffic during his busking days on the Queen Street Mall at home in Brisbane. There’s barely a paying punter in the room but everyone else watches, transfixed. He does a set of his own songs – mostly from his last solo release The Cat – before finishing with covers of the Stooges’ Gimme Danger and the Velvet Underground’s I’m Set Free, adding a diehard rock & roller’s edge to his own songs.
It feels like a very good audition for his overseas sojourn, which he’s doing out of a small suitcase. Have guitar; will travel. Ben’s dad is a Vietnam veteran, and once, marching in an Anzac Day parade with him, he found himself explaining to some his dad’s fellow diggers that he was a musician. He saw them screwing up their faces, trying to understand his choice of vocation; to comprehend the different ways you can measure success.
“Why don’t you go on Australian Idol?” one eventually offered, genuinely trying to be helpful.
Ben tried in vain to explain, politely, how such a move would fly in the face of everything he was about as an artist. Andy nods. “It’s like wanting to be a Formula One driver and someone telling you that you should settle for driving taxis.”
Some things can’t be rationally explained. Most of the creative people I know – writers, musicians, visual artists – do what they do because they love it and because, more crucially, they have to; something inside them is fighting to be released. And sometimes you need to feel the love of a new audience to know what you’re doing connects with people other than your friends in your own little corner of the world.
Ben’s made some fine albums, but I have a feeling this trip will be the real making of him.
THE cold, the rain and the constant balm of alcohol are catching up with me. I haven’t been able to wash any clothes – it feels like it’d be easier to find crack than a Laundromat – and all I want in the world are dry shoes and socks.
Ben had already noted my decline the previous day. “You look like you’ve got The Fear, Staffo,” he’d said. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but I was starting to sail close to the edge, even if I didn’t understand quite what he meant at the time. “It’s just generalised anxiety, existential dread,” he explained cheerfully when I asked him later. “Everyone on tour gets it at some point. It’s the drinking that does it.”
Gregor appeared at that point, having slipped off on his own to find a kip, eventually settling for a park bench, or it might have been someone’s front yard. Ben quickly makes an exception.
“See, The Fear just bounces off the Maori,” Ben says. “It just ricochets, like ping-pong balls off a Centurion tank.”
I try to deal with The Fear by having an alcohol-free day, something that usually wouldn’t be a problem for someone who can happily not drink for a couple of weeks, but isn’t so easy when you spend all day surrounded by pissheads and the grog, including beautiful French wine, is free.
“Are we making it harder for you by drinking?” Stacey asks, as she catches me gazing longingly at her glass of red before grabbing another bottle of water. Richie, at this point, is clutching a cigarette in one set of fingers, a joint in the other and clasping a beer in between.
“No,” I say desperately. “I’m making it harder for myself by continuing to drink and I need a night off. It’s just the hanging around in bars that kills me.”
My old friend Simon McKenzie – who gave me my start in music writing nearly 20 years ago when he was editing Brisbane’s free street weekly Time Off – has also joined us from Oslo, where he now edits an oil and gas industry bible. He remembers a journalist who, around the mid-1990s, had asked Charlie Watts how it felt to have been in the Rolling Stones for 30 years.
Watts’ reply was as laconic as his approach to playing drums. “It doesn’t feel like 30 years,” he replied. “More like five years of actually being in a band. The other 25 years was spent waiting. Just fucking around.”
AFTER all that fucking around, the show is a blinder. HITS are leaping from peak to peak, scaling heights I didn’t know they were capable of. The band throw every shape in the book – Richie hurling himself bodily at the mike stand, Iggy Pop style, before tossing it away – and that’s before the gig even begins.
Later he’s climbing up the lighting scaffolding at the side of the stage while Stackers kneels before her amplifier as if it were an altar during Bitter And Twisted, drawing wails of anguish from its electronic entrails. She repeats the trick during Lost In The Somme, which finally came out the night before in Rennes. It worked, big time, and now it’s here to stay.
The band can’t refuse encores by now and the show stopper, again, is Shadowplay, the Joy Division classic that draws cries of recognition from the audience from its opening rumble of bass.
But it’s just a warm-up for the next night, in Lorient. Afterwards, Richie is unusually subdued. “Tomorrow night is probably the most important night of the tour,” he says, adding meaningfully, “So if you could just bear that in mind as you could go through your day…”
“No,” Stacey replies nervously. “I don’t want to bear that in mind at all.”
La Méchanique Ondulatoire feels a bit like a railway tunnel: a curved brick room under a funky little bar, tucked away in the narrowest of side streets off Rue de la Roquette, in the Bastille. And the light at the end of the tunnel, ready to crush anyone stupid enough to get in the way, is HITS. It’s their fifth show in six days – a lot, for a band that’s never done more than three on the trot – and the band is cooking.
It’s a Wednesday night, but we’re in Paris, and so relieved and astounded just to be here that it might as well be New Year’s Eve as far as we’re concerned. Upon pulling up at the venue, we’re met by fellow Brisbane emigre Ben Salter, who’s over here for at least the next five months, living off a songwriter’s grant and building a new fan base in Europe. He greets us like lost friends, which I guess we are. All of our eyes feel like saucers.
We’d left La Louvière in Belgium in the morning, crossed the French border to the east and made something like a five-hour drive to Caen, the extraordinarily beautiful capital of Lower Normandy, much of it built in the 11th century during the reign of William the Conquerer (also known as William the Bastard, due to his lineage as the illegitimate son of the unmarried son of Robert the Magnificent and Herleva. Names were more stylish among the nobility in medieval times.)
We’d been packed into a seven-seater Peugeot that was far too small for a travelling band. Andy B, my navigator for our journey, was buried with my overweight pack on his lap and Gregor’s snare drum on top of that, with his own backpack wedged between his legs. Tamara’s prized Mosrite was perched on the three fold-out trays that opened out from the back of the front seats. Stackers, as the smallest member of the band, was packed away in the back seat so tightly that she had to lever herself over the middle seats occupied by Tamara, Richie and Gregor.
Somehow they’d put up with this absurd state of affairs for the previous three days without getting deep vein thrombosis. Being the driver, I had the best seat in the house. Then again, I couldn’t see the side mirror on my right hand side or anything else through the main rear view, and here I was driving on the other side of the road in Europe for the first time. This was not a situation without peril. At one point, after taking a wrong turnoff, I took a turn to get us back onto the highway – and looked the wrong way. We were nearly cleaned up by an oncoming truck. Our suddenly even smellier van proceeded on, and I learned an important lesson.
I was fatigued, to be truthful. We’d driven from Lille to Venlo in the Netherlands for an afternoon show at the Queensday Festival two days before, then proceeded south to La Louvière through a thunderstorm for the following night’s show – a unhinged affair with an Ameripunk/Celtic edge to most of the acts. The headliners, Crazy Arm, were like Fugazi (their last song was a cover of Waiting Room) crossed with Dropkick Murphys. Everything about them, right down to their merch desk, was professional and tight and mistake-free. They watched HITS’ set with their jaws hanging open, and might or might not have liked it; I’m not really sure.
There’s a lot more to tell about La Louvière, which I’ll have to leave for now, except to say there’s an old legend of a mother wolf nursing a child here, and the town was originally called Menaulu, which translates roughly as “Wolf’s Lair”. It seemed appropriate, given a stylised big bad wolf now appears on the band’s T-shirts. The band’s moved from dogs to wolves. The Gods of Rock seem to be smiling on us.
We also crossed the Somme River, where Richie lost his great-grandfather in the infamous World War One battle, a meat-grinder with nearly 60,000 British casualties on the first day. It’s the subject of one of HITS’ greatest, albeit unreleased songs, but as yet they haven’t played it on tour. Richie seems uncertain how it will go down here.
We finally made it in one piece to Caen. It was here that we dropped the remarkably unscratched Peugeot (“Everything is perfect,” said the young lady at Europcar, to my amazement) and met Stephane Lamaziere, from Turborock records. He arrived in a big black car, the beast that would be our chariot for the rest of our odyssey.
And truly, it is enormous. A nine-seater monster with an extra cabin at the back for gear and luggage. A real tour bus. But not so good for driving through the alleyways of Paris, especially when you don’t have a GPS.
Again, it was Stackers who got us out of trouble – at least, it was her iPhone that got us to our destination, at the cost of a mofo of a global roaming bill. Mind you, it didn’t save us from nearly taking our 2.85 metre tall vehicle through a tunnel with a clearance of 2.7 metres. That brought to mind memories of Scott “Rock Action” Asheton, who nearly scalped the Stooges when he drove their bus under a low-clearance bridge.
That was close, let me tell you. Half the band was screaming at me to proceed; I was screaming back that it wasn’t going to happen if they valued their melons, and somehow I managed to scrape into a narrow gap in traffic at the last minute that got me out of a lane that would have trapped us on our meeting with oblivion. Yikes.
By then we’d already been stuck in Parisian traffic for an hour, which is sort of like Sydney on steroids. Oohs and aahs at the Eiffel Tower and the Pont Alexandre III bridge along the Champs-Elysees. (“No fucking way,” said Richie quietly as we passed that one.) Finally we made it to the Bastille, to La Mécanique, and faced the final challenge: parking our monster truck. Thankfully Eric Pouille, from French band The Holy Curse, was also waiting outside the venue and came to our rescue. Two parking tickets on the vehicle the next day was a small price to pay.
A triumph. I’m exhausted. I suck down one of Richie’s Marlboros, and I’ve barely had a cigarette in my life. My throat feels like broken glass.
There’s about 40 people in the venue and they’re primed. We’re among friends here. Dimi Dero Inc., who toured with HITS through Australia in 2010, are all here. The band play Sometimes, which the Holy Curse cover in their live sets, and Eric and Vinz get up on stage to sing the band’s most anthemic song. The audience is singing along. It feels like the band’s really arrived, and not just in Paris. Richie has a look on his face I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. It’s exultant, ecstatic. He’s finally where he belongs.
Later, when I’m selling merch upstairs, someone tips a beer keg onto my left foot. I howl in pain. Ice is summonsed. “It was all flashing through my mind right then,” Richie said later. “Like, OK, we’ve got to take Andrew to hospital. He’s gonna have a cast on his foot. Who’s gonna drive?” But it’s OK. I’ve got a nice purple bruise coming up across the side of my instep and the bridge of my big toe. But it still wiggles, I can still dance, still hit the clutch, and the Big Black Car rolls on.