For two hours on Sunday night, it felt like a good proportion of Australia was gathered around a gigantic campfire. That campfire was burning on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, where Paul Kelly and his band were holding court – not just for the tens of thousands of people lucky enough to be there, but for hundreds of thousands more tuning in around the country, watching the ABC livestream and tweeting simultaneously.
Some say it’s rude to talk at gigs, but for me, watching from home, the excited chatter about what we were seeing added to the communal feel as #PaulKellyLive became the top-trending hashtag in the country. There was a collective awareness that we were witnessing a celebrated songwriter at the top of his game, and at a peak of popularity – at the age of 62, Kelly’s most recent album Life Is Fine was his first No. 1, a richly deserved success for a recording that’s up there with his best work.
Then someone said on Twitter: “We should have live music on the ABC every Sunday night.” Funny he should mention it: only two hours earlier, the ABC had screened its latest instalment of Classic Countdown, a restored best-of the vintage program which has also been a big hit for the national broadcaster. Cannily, it screened in Countdown’s original time slot of 6pm Sunday, adding to the nostalgia of a sizeable audience who grew up on the show between 1974 and 1987.
Of course, the music on Countdown wasn’t strictly live, and the warm glow of nostalgia helps us forget the reality: at the time, great Countdown moments (last night’s highlight was Divine performing You Think You’re A Man) could sometimes be a bit like finding diamonds in dog turds. Such moments, though, were miracles of Australian television that probably wouldn’t be allowed to happen today.
So it’s reasonable to ask why we don’t have a dedicated live music program, the endless parade of canned karaoke quests aside. If we did, perhaps we wouldn’t be wallowing in nostalgia for shows like Countdown and Recovery, at least not to the same degree. Australia has a rich history of music on television going back to TV Disc Jockey in 1957, which evolved into Australia’s version of the American program Bandstand.
In other words, Australia has had rock & roll on television pretty much as long as we’ve had both television (which launched in this country in 1956) and rock & roll.
After Bandstand, we had Six O’Clock Rock hosted by Johnny O’Keefe, The Go!! Show, GTK (Get To Know), and the Seven network’s Sounds, on to Rock Arena, SBS’s Rock Around the World (whose host Basia Bonkowski was the subject of a memorable tribute by Melbourne’s Painters & Dockers), Beatbox, The Noise, Studio 22 and Nomad – the show which introduced us to a trio of teenagers called Silverchair.
Variety shows gave priceless additional exposure to Australian artists. Even Hey Hey It’s Saturday had its moments: other than that time Iggy Pop greeted Molly Meldrum with “Hiya Dogface!” before terrorising innocent teenagers with a microphone stand, not even Countdown threw up anything to match TISM’s performance of Saturday Night Palsy, the like of which has not been seen before or since.
Perhaps that’s the problem. Even mimed performances on live television carried that tantalising possibility of a few minutes of anarchy. All it took was a performer, or group of performers, willing to break the format’s fourth wall and strip the carefully constructed reality of television away – at which point things perhaps got a bit too real for executive producers to handle.
Which brings me to the events of 2 November 1988.
On that evening, a Sydney noise-rock group called Lubricated Goat, led by one Stu Spasm, performed the lead track from their just-released album Paddock Of Love on Andrew Denton’s program Blah Blah Blah. The song was called In The Raw, and in the raw was exactly how the group played it – much to the horror of sensitive viewers who jammed the ABC switchboard, not to mention tabloid editors and talkback radio hosts.
Eleven years after punk, it was Australia’s version of “The filth and the fury” – that Daily Mirror headline that followed the Sex Pistols’ infamous appearance on Bill Grundy’s Today program in December 1976. Tim Bowden, the genial host of the ABC’s popular feedback program Backchat, responded to the moral panic by appearing shirtless behind his desk while reading outraged letters to Aunty aloud.
An ABC spokesperson told Guardian Australia the network hoped to build on the success of the AusMusic Month broadcasts: Paul Kelly last night and Crowded House last year. They said music programming, including live concerts, “is something we continue to be very committed to … the upcoming reorganisation of our content teams will provide more opportunities for our music and entertainment teams to work closely together”.
I hope they’re right. It has been far too long since live music was a regular part of our Sunday evenings, not to mention our Monday water-cooler discussions. Sure, it carries an element of risk – but as Paul Kelly showed, it has the potential for joy as well. And without the risks, we’d have none of those classic moments that we continue to celebrate today.
At the end of her opening keynote address to Brisbane music industry conference Bigsound, former Sonic Youth bass player Kim Gordon told a packed theatre of a calamitous acoustic show the band performed in 1991 for Neil Young’s The Bridge School, a non-profit education organisation for children with severe disabilities.
Halfway through a cover of the New York Dolls’ Personality Crisis, with the band unable to hear themselves onstage, a frustrated Gordon swore into the microphone, smashed the waiting guitar, and walked off. Then she saw the kids in wheelchairs backstage looking horrified, and felt awful. Neil Young’s then-teenaged son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, rolled up to her.
“Everyone has a bad day sometimes,” he said.
Gordon repeatedly told the audience that her address was a poem or incantation, not an essay, and it was: a series of vignettes that interrogated the co-dependent relationship between the artist and the audience, based on a premise by critic Greil Marcus: that artists who submit to the whims of their fans by only giving them more of what they have already accepted are only able to confirm, not to create.
It was a portal into the approach of Sonic Youth who, after emerging from New York’s No Wave scene, slowly built their own bridges to pop through the 1980s. The classic video for Kool Thing saw them flirting with mainstream acceptance, while subverting it. It was a song that had them on the brink of stardom, but which they refused to build on as bands they encouraged and inspired, like Nirvana, rushed past them.
Gordon’s address began in the hippie dream of the ’60s, describing how the communal relationship between artists and audiences was punctured by race riots, the Rolling Stones’ disaster at Altamont, and the Manson murders. The concurrent emergence of a more challenging generation of performers including the Doors, the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges, she said, effectively deconstructed the idea of popular music as entertainment.
“[Iggy Pop] walking out onto the audience, breaking glass, smearing peanut butter on himself – was this a stage show? Was this rock music or real life? His estrangement of the audience’s expectations created something new. He gave people something they had never seen.”
She later spoke of an infamous Public Image, Ltd concert she attended at New York venue the Ritz in 1981. There, the band played behind a screen, onto which images were projected, obscuring the “stars” as shadowy figures. The audience rioted, throwing chairs at the screen and forcing the band to flee. “For whatever reason, PiL fucked with our heads,” she said. “We were there because of their audacity, but then couldn’t accept what they were offering: it was [either] too much, or too little.”
Her point was that that an audience’s need to be entertained was an artistic dead end. “What is a star? Suspended adulthood? A place beyond good and evil? Someone who you want to believe in? A daredevil? A risk-taker, going to the edge and not falling off – for you?” Was a performance, she added, “transcendence, or just a distraction from daily life, humdrum, pain, humdrum, boredom, humdrum, aloneness? A nice transition that doesn’t end? A day at the beach, a trip to the mountains? An unending kiss, leading to nowhere – or somewhere you never dreamed of?
“That’s what I want to feel when I go see someone play,” she said. “Something fall apart – until it becomes something else.”
Henry Rollins likes to talk. Actually, saying Rollins likes to talk is a bit like saying an anteater enjoys ants, or a boxer doesn’t mind getting into a punch-on. On top of countless books and a column in the LA Weekly, his spoken-word performances can run upwards of three hours. On average, he says, he writes about 1000 words a day, a habit he describes as “awful, it’s just ridiculous”.
So it seems odd that a man with as much to say as Rollins could ever run out of lyrics, but it happened. “It was trippy,” he says. “I woke up going, ‘Wow. Am I done? And I soberly assessed it and went ‘Damn. I’m done.’ And I stopped.” He phoned his manager to inform him and hasn’t written a song since. That was more than 10 years ago now.
Rollins, who is touring Australia again – it’s practically his second home – likes to keep moving. He spends most of the year on the road, which allows him to observe his first one from a distance. He says he’s still angry, though frankly he sounds pretty chipper and, at 55, he’s driven by his own encroaching mortality: “I know I’ve got more years behind me than ahead of me, and I seek not to squander.”
So he keeps saying yes to things. He’s been in more than 30 films, including last year’s Gutterdämmerung, in which he appeared alongside Grace Jones and his hero, Iggy Pop – ironically, the film was silent – and hosts a weekly radio show for KCRW in his hometown of Los Angeles. (Perhaps it’s helpful to note at this point that the young Henry Garfield was diagnosed with hyperactivity in fourth grade.)
But what does Rollins still have to be angry about? By his own admission, he’s a rich, white, heterosexual, educated American dude who has been spared what he calls the American beating. “I live in a really nice neighbourhood [in the Hollywood Hills] with ridiculously famous neighbours,” he says. “I call the cops and they show up in about 40 seconds and they call me ‘Mr Rollins’.”
It’s a far cry from the days when the LAPD routinely harassed Black Flag and their fans, often shutting down shows. More seriously, Rollins has seen the extreme violence of America close up too: in 1991 he bore witness to the still-unsolved murder of his best friend Joe Cole, who was shot dead in an attempted robbery.
Success has mostly insulated him from further trauma. On this tour, he’ll be talking (a lot) about the American election but doesn’t fear the result personally. “With my economic altitude, I don’t feel any of this. Donald Trump’s gonna suck if you’re brown, black, lower middle-class or poor … I’m just going to enjoy the tax breaks that rich guys get from guys like him and keep on grooving.”
If Hillary Clinton wins, he says, “Trump fans are going to be very dangerous losers. And, if he wins, liberals will be very whiny and hilarious losers. There’ll be lines out of Starbucks, people wanting quadruple lattes; there’ll be more hand-wringing, more poetry – that’s a liberal on a bad day. The angry Tea Party person on a bad day, you lock and load, and go find a Muslim or brown-skinned person.”
But Rollins doesn’t see it as his job to reach out across the aisle. When he speaks, he knows it’s to his flock. “I call it preaching to the perverted. I saw Dinosaur Jr seven times last year [and] I didn’t go there to throw things and go ‘boo’; I went to rock out.” His opponents, he says, “might be waiting for me outside with a sidearm but they’re not coming in”.
I ask him if he’s scared for his country. “No. America gets what America deserves. America’s a tough place full of tough people and I’m an example of a tough American. If you can’t take a punch in the teeth, you should move to Canada.”
How to sum up the life and times of Ian “Molly” Meldrum? If you think four hours is an extraordinary chunk of airtime to devote to a television biopic on the cat in the hat, you probably didn’t grow up in the 1970s and ’80s. If you did, you almost certainly grew up on Countdown, the weekly music program that, over 13 years and 563 episodes, made Molly the unlikeliest of entertainment icons.
Molly, which premiered on Channel Seven last night in the first of a two-part mini-series, tells his story ingeniously and, perhaps, with a touch of sly irony: via a series of flashbacks, following Meldrum’s terrible accident at home in 2011, which left him with severe injuries. (At the time of the show’s airing, Meldrum is recovering after a second fall in Thailand).
It allows for an unashamedly nostalgic, but also unexpectedly affecting look back at an era that was both more innocent and less straight-laced. As a gormless young suburban boy, I mostly took even Countdown’s most anarchic moments at face value. Even so, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just the infamous 100th episode when its host – not to mention its guest stars – turned up on set considerably the worse for wear.
With his craggy features, Samuel Johnson was born to play Molly. More impressive than the physical resemblance, though, is the genuine pathos with which Johnson invests in the character. Underneath Molly’s bumbling, stuttering exterior (his first word on air is “um”) lies an intuitive intelligence and the irrepressible enthusiasm that audiences came to adore him for.
He’s also fiercely – and physically – loyal, which gets him into trouble both with the law and his superiors at the ABC, especially buttoned-down executive Alan Wade, played with perfect rectitude by Benedict Hardie. He is ably protected by Countdown’s producers, Michael Shrimpton (Tom O’Sullivan) and Rob Weekes (TJ Power), whose main job seems to be to save our hero from himself.
The show touches delicately on his early family life: Meldrum is raised mostly by his grandmother, after his mother is hospitalised due to an unspecified mental illness. Then, of course, there is his sexuality, which became a talking point last month after Johnson told the ABC that a scene in which he kisses another man had been cut by Meldrum himself, who thought it was “gratuitous”. (“I wanted the kiss in, I wanted it to be in there, it wasn’t gratuitous at all,” Johnson said.)
As our first sexually fluid television star, Meldrum never really came out, because he never really had to – what you saw was what you got. Here, the subject is dealt with mostly via a series of nudges, winks and knowing looks, until a touching scene where Molly, who is engaged to Camille (Rebecca Breeds) takes his strung-out, heroin-addicted transgender housemate Caroline back to his backwoods Victorian home town of Quambatook, only for both to accuse each other of running away from themselves.
It’s these glimpses into the man behind the mononym that made the first episode of Molly so much more satisfying than Never Tear Us Apart, the INXS mini-series from 2014. We see his self-doubt – “If this falls apart, no one’s gonna give me another chance,” he confesses to Camille before Countdown’s debut – and more obscure details, like his lifelong obsession with Egyptology and the St Kilda football club.
In between all this is the music. Countdown’s influence on a generation of Australian music – both for better and worse – is incontestable, and Meldrum, for over a decade, was at the centre of it. (This extended to his role as a producer – both on Russell Morris’s epochal flower-power hit The Real Thing and Supernaut’s bisexual anthem I Like It Both Ways.)
The structure of Molly allows for Countdown’s most celebrated appearances and controversies to be gleefully recast: the initial appearance of Skyhooks, the endlessly replayed “interview” with a loaded Iggy Pop, and the later refusal of Midnight Oil to appear. Along with Cold Chisel’s trashing of the Countdown awards set in 1981, their withdrawal signalled the beginning of a waning in the show’s agenda-setting power.
But the best moment – indeed, as the man himself had it, the most important moment in the history of the program – was Meldrum’s catastrophic interview with a youthful Prince Charles, during which he repeatedly fluffed his lines, swore, put his hand on the Prince’s knee while calling him “lovey”, and asked after his mum (“You mean Her Majesty The Queen,” came the unctuous reply).
The wonder of this scene is, of course, amazement that it happened at all. But the 1970s were different days, when the ABC still played God Save The Queen before it ceased broadcasting at midnight – but also a time when AC/DC’s Bon Scott, wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform and pigtails, could smoke a durrie while attacking Angus Young with a rubber mallet during a live performance on the national broadcaster.
Whether inept or insouciant, Meldrum’s treatment of Charles said much about our history and our relationship with our colonial masters. But it also spoke of Molly’s almost comic inability to be anyone other than himself, and his determination to treat everybody – as his grandmother taught him – the same. Molly the mini-series is a funny, warm and wholeheartedly affectionate tribute.
Sable Starr was punk’s Lolita. She was barely a teenager when she began attending shows in the early 1970s, quickly making her reputation as one of the leading groupies on Sunset Boulevarde. “Every rock star who came to Los Angeles wanted to meet her,” model Bebe Buell remembers. That was rather too polite: pleasantries weren’t all that were exchanged between Starr and Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Robert Plant, Marc Bolan, David Bowie and scores of others. Iggy Pop confesses baldly in the opening line of his song Look Away: “I slept with Sable when she was 13.”
Starr’s best friend at the time was Lori Maddox, another veteran of Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, the notorious Sunset Strip club where strict ID checks at the door ensured the girls were under 18. After losing her virginity at 13 – to, legend has it, David and then-wife Angie Bowie – Maddox was a precocious 14-year-old when Jimmy Page left his LA girlfriend Pamela Des Barres, author of the classic self-proclaimed groupie memoir I’m With The Band, to be with her.
Page dated Maddox for about a year before leaving her in turn for Buell, who was at the time dating Todd Rundgren (as well as Iggy Pop). A devastated Maddox later knocked on the door to Page’s LA hotel room. Buell answered it, and although she kept the chain on, it didn’t stop an enraged Maddox from trying to drag the older woman out by her hair. Page laughed sadistically from the bedroom as his two girlfriends fought over him.
Led Zeppelin’s brutish manners were later laid bare in curdling detail by Stephen Davis, whose book Hammer Of The Gods set the bar at an all-time low for the rock-stars-behaving-badly genre. That was until the appearance of Mötley Crüe’s stupendously vulgar The Dirt which, as one critic put it, made I’m With The Band read like a nun’s diary. Each page contains an unforgettable anecdote, not one fit to be reprinted here. (Well, perhaps just the first line: “Her name was Bullwinkle. We called her that because she had a face like a moose.”)
The mystique surrounding both bands was only enhanced by the publications of these two bestsellers. In the case of Mötley Crüe especially, The Dirt has done more to rejuvenate their fortunes than any of their unremittingly awful albums ever could. Their exploits are regarded with awe more often than revulsion. When you’re a male rock star, conquests come naturally with territory, no matter how gross the underlying misogyny.
Not everyone got away with it, of course. Chuck Berry, without whom we may never have had rock & roll at all, served 18 months in prison after transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines. The reputation of another originator, Jerry Lee Lewis, never recovered after his third marriage – to his 13-year-old first cousin – was revealed. But the imprisonment of Berry and the blacklisting of Lewis happened in the early 1960s, when the surrounding opprobrium had as much to do with the moral panic attached to rock & roll itself than any concerns about paedophilia.
I’d wager that some of our heroes are watching the gruesome revelations surrounding the life of Jimmy Savile with considerable discomfort. Many of them played for him and his attendant, adoring teenage crowds on Top Of The Pops. A man knighted for his charity work and widely loved for his carefully cultivated persona as a benign English eccentric has now been revealed as one of the country’s worst sexual predators. And, like Iggy Pop, those surrounding Savile found it easiest to look away.
Savile, though, wasn’t on stage – unlike the stars he introduced to the world, many of whom were probably indulging in behaviour no less reprehensible. While it’s true that the early 1970s was a sexually freer, more liberal time, and that Pamela Des Barres was never anyone’s victim, our fascination with the bad boys of rock remains undimmed. We love them as rogues; for living the untamed life that most of us never will. We view them through Savile’s famous rose-tinted spectacles.
Sable Starr died three years ago, aged 51. She’d grown up to live the straight life, raising two children, but she remains publicly defined by her past as one of rock’s super groupies. Johnny Thunders is remembered as the legendary New York Dolls guitarist, not the jealous boyfriend who mercilessly beat her up when she was not even 16. As for Iggy Pop, he tenderly recalls that he last saw Starr “in a back street with her looks half gone / She was selling something that I was on / Look away, look away.”
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.