Tagged: Iggy Pop

The Triumph And Tragedy Of The Chills

The independent scene that emerged from Dunedin, New Zealand, in the early 1980s had all the strange qualities musical trainspotters around the world associate with isolation. Hamish Kilgour from the Clean describes the city as a cauldron, with the low-hanging sky its lid. It’s a creative pressure cooker from which artists must escape.

In the decades since, the bands that steamed from the top of that cauldron have gone global. Next to the Clean, the biggest name is Martin Phillipps, the legendary leader – of 21 different lineups – of the Chills. They were the definitive Dunedin band, with a strange, light, airy, eerie, breezy magic that both matched the city’s geography and transcended it.

But they were cursed. The subtitle of The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy of Martin Phillipps – a new documentary by Julia Parnell and Rob Curry – tells you that this is, first and foremost, a portrait of the artist. A consummate songwriter, Phillipps appears as both a driven man and a lost boy, emotionally cut off from those drawn into his orbit to help him realise his vision.

The film opens in the interior of Phillipps’ home. Over the haunted opening notes of Pink Frost (“That’s fine art, according to me,” we hear Iggy Pop say, on a radio show), Phillipps pulls out his keyboard – then breaks into Heavenly Pop Hit, which wasn’t so much his biggest hit as his nearest miss.

Spliced amid scenes of festival crowds, ecstatic gigs and the video clip of the song, Phillipps climbs into a decrepit car and drives himself to hospital to receive the results of his liver function tests. Phillipps has hepatitis C. He is told, with medical precision, that he has a 31 percent chance of dying within 12 months.

Then he is given a guarantee: “If you do keep drinking, Martin, you will die,” the physician says.

There is so much about the Chills’ story that is, on the face of it, cliched. After a number of acclaimed singles and EPs, Phillipps, whose best songs are touched with a sense of wonder, signs his band to a multi-album deal with a US label, Slash. When the hits fail to materialise, he sinks into a fog of heroin addiction, alcoholism, depression and withdrawal.

But Parnell and Curry treat their subject with unusual sensitivity, helped by Phillipps’ extraordinary candour. He allows them access to every step of his treatment process, as well as to his archives (he is an obsessive collector). Around him, other band members, each of them individually numbered, step forward to speak.

What they have to say is just as unfiltered. The former drummer Caroline Easther (Chill No. 12) says Phillipps made her feel anxious. The bassist Justin Harwood (Chill No. 14) comments that he didn’t know if he was needed or expendable. He came to the latter conclusion after Phillipps told him he planned to write the bass parts on the band’s next album himself.

Another bass player, Terry Moore (No. 6), who played in two stints with the band, wonders if he’s going to be next. The drummer Jimmy Stephenson (No. 15) has been left traumatised. In tears, he pulls out a gold record of the band’s biggest album, Submarine Bells, the glass cracked after falling off his wall in an earthquake: to him it’s symbol of both “great success and shattered dreams”.

In between, we watch Phillipps going through piles of junk as he reassesses his life, sorting the detritus from the essentials. Preparing for an art exhibition – while spray-painting a mummified cat – he muses that “it’s much more fun working as a team on anything. But I’m not going to sacrifice the quality for just a bit of team spirit.” Phillipps remained Chill No. 1.

Over it all, Dunedin hovers. “The black cloud rolled in and it was there for a good long stay,” says Chill No. 26, Phil Kusabs. He’s speaking of Phillipps but he may as well be talking about the city, for its combination of suburban blandness and gothic grandeur. We see trees bent out of shape by the elements and the forest in which Pink Frost was shot behind the town.

It’s beautifully filmed, suffusing the documentary with an atmosphere to match the Chills’ glorious music, and we get to hear much of that, too. But it’s never allowed to get in the way of the story – there’s no recounting of the band’s discography and, other than Neil Finn and the aforementioned Iggy Pop, no higher luminaries are called on to affirm the band’s standing.

Phillipps’ story resonates because despite his self-involvement, it’s bigger than he is. It’s about artistic integrity, self-realisation, self-acceptance and a reflection on mortality. Towards the end of this sad, lovely film, the emotional rush is equivalent to the Dunedin surf washing on to the cold beaches – it finishes far more optimistically than it promises to.

As a fan, I wanted to punch the air. And of course, it will be fans of the Chills who queue up first to see this documentary. If you’ve not yet had the distinctive pleasure of hearing his band, the triumph and tragedy of Phillipps’ story will make you one for life.

First published in The Guardian, 14 June 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in The Guardian, 16 April 2019

(I want my) music on TV back

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.

First published in The Guardian, 20 November 2017

Kim Gordon at Bigsound: “This is not an essay”

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.

The band, which relied on the fiery interplay between guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, had never played acoustically and was performing for a mainstream audience. Fearing disaster, Gordon brought a guitar ready-made to destroy: “I had a feeling things were doomed to fail.”

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.”

First published in The Guardian, 7 September 2016

 

Henry Rollins: “I seek not to squander”

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.

He has no interest in playing the old songs either; not those by the Rollins Band or Black Flag, the pioneering West Coast hardcore punk/metal band he fronted in the early 1980s. “It must be nice to be able to go out and play Satisfaction and Brown Sugar and all of that every night and have girls lift their T-shirts up and have everyone roar with approval but that’s not how I’m going to live my life,” he says.

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.”

First published in The Guardian, 6 September 2016

Molly: the mini-series

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.

molly

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.

First published in The Guardian, 8 February 2016