Tagged: Pig City

Songs of Brisbane

I’m from Melbourne. I spent the first 15 years of my life there, in the outer eastern suburbs of Wantirna South and Ringwood North. I grew up on Australian Rules football and Countdown until punk entered my life 10 years too late. Then, in 1987, my parents relocated the family to Brisbane. Other than a few regrettable years in Sydney in the late 90s, I’ve been here ever since.

I still feel like a Victorian, though I’ve come to hate the cold. I still follow a Melbourne-based AFL team, despite having written on the side about the Brisbane Lions for 13 years. I even wrote a book about Brisbane, a sort of love letter to my adopted city and, especially, its music. The sound of the place captured me. To this day though, I feel like an outsider or interloper. Stranded, you might say, far from home.

But when I hear Streets Of Your Town by the Go-Betweens I feel differently. Never a hit at the time (the band’s co-founder Robert Forster has said they may as well have released a free jazz record, such was its commercial impact), the song, written by Grant McLennan, has become part of the city’s fabric. The Courier-Mail even used it for an ad campaign when it downsized from a broadsheet. They cut the line about the town being full of battered wives, of course.

That was the Go-Betweens, though. They called theirs the striped sunlight sound, and they captured it best on 16 Lovers Lane, their sixth album, 30 years old last month. Streets Of Your Town, the hit that wasn’t, is so lyrically visual it seems to sparkle in the late afternoon sun. At the heart of the song is aimlessness: “I ride your river under the bridge / And I take your boat out to the reach / ’Cos I love that engine roar / But I still don’t know what I’m here for.

A lot of people in Brisbane ask themselves that question. Many leave, as I did, in their 20s, only to return. It’s like the city has a push/pull magnetic field around it.

For all the punk energy that roared out of the place in the 70s in the wake of the Saints, and for all its growth since, Brisbane has a stillness missing from Melbourne and Sydney. Partially it’s the heat and humidity of the increasingly endless summer. That builds tension. The Saints’ guitarist, Ed Kuepper, wrote of it in one of his best solo songs, Electrical Storm. You can get stuck here just watching the thunderheads build up, waiting for the place to blow.

In between, things drift. The Apartments’ Peter Milton Walsh, the finest Australian songwriter most Australians have never heard of, puts that push-pull effect of Brisbane best in No Hurry: “Smell the rain that’s coming, all the windows open wide,” he sings, “I’ll never get away / I can’t stay here forever … Someone slowed the whole world down, in the old town called the past.” It’s a great place for procrastinators.

I came of age around the same time Brisbane was awkwardly doing the same. Expo 88 was happening on the South Bank of the river. It looked a little quaint to my Melbourne eyes but, for many Queenslanders, it opened theirs to a bigger, brighter world. Directly opposite, the state and its government were in the dock as Tony Fitzgerald’s inquiry calmly tore Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s corrupt police state apart. Brisbane wasn’t called Pig City for nothing.

There was a surge of energy that pulsed through the city in the next decade as a new generation of artists emerged. I can listen to Screamfeeder’s Wrote You Off, a song from their second album Burn Out Your Name, and I’m 22 again, on the cusp of … Well, I didn’t have a clue what. I saw Regurgitator’s second or third gig and was stunned but not surprised to see Quan Yeomans on stage: I’d gone to school with him and he was always miles ahead of everyone else.

There was a separate scene that revolved around Custard, in a Spring Hill house owned by David McCormack’s parents. McCormack had another band called COW – Country or Western – with drummer Glenn Thompson; they ended up being Robert Forster’s backing band on his solo album Calling From A Country Phone. Like the early Go-Betweens, though, what McCormack really tapped into was the suburban viewpoint of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.

Brisbane still has a streak of that suburban sensibility a mile wide – listen to Jeremy Neale, for example, last year’s winner of the GW McLennan fellowship. Jeremy’s song In Stranger Times is a favourite of mine from the last decade, tapping into the pre-Beatles AM radio sound that Richman fetishised. You can hear it in the dream pop of Babaganouj and Hatchie, too.

Grant’s death in May 2006 sent a violent shudder of mortality through everyone involved with music here. We’d lost our first genuine elder prematurely, at 48. I’m 47 now. Life comes at you fast and we’ve all gotten older with the music, and the people who made it. Powderfinger’s These Days is probably a very nostalgic song for many. Who can’t relate to the feeling of things not turning out as we planned? Some of us never had plans to begin with.

What I love most about Brisbane is that it’s unafraid to be itself. There’s no confected competition or rivalry with Sydney or Melbourne to be had. The music made here was always too variable to be reduced to a “Brisbane sound” but the best of it is unafraid to be itself too, and that’s the stuff that travels and endures. Most of our best bands, like Blank Realm, SixFtHick and HITS all command much bigger audiences overseas. Our flaw is not to rate ourselves.

They also prove that making worthwhile art isn’t necessarily a consequence of reactionary politics. It seemed to me that Bjelke-Petersen’s biggest contribution to music in Queensland was encouraging a generation of artists to leave. But the survivors wear it like a badge of honour. Some never made it back here. For those who remained or, like me, came to visit and decided to stay, Brisbane is just home – stranded or not.

First published in The Guardian, 4 September 2018

The day I got owned by Grant McLennan

It was the 10th anniversary of Grant McLennan’s passing yesterday. It wasn’t until late afternoon that I actually remembered; there’d been some stuff going down in my own world that I’d been absorbed within. But then I also remembered that days before, I’d put a lay-by on a rare copy of G Is For Go-Betweens, the long since out-of-print box set released a couple of years ago by Domino, that had turned up in Rocking Horse Records.

The box was expensive at the time (which put me off) and of course it was even more so now, but I’d regretted missing out after it quickly disappeared. So I traded some old stuff to make the initial deposit and – being inclined towards the sentimental and the symbolic – I decided to head into town and pick it up, rather than waiting a few more days to actually get paid. Sometimes you just have to do these things.

So I took it home and spent the night in a funk, listening to the early singles and the first three albums, Send Me A Lullaby (ripe for rediscovery, though the band was still gelling), Before Hollywood (on which they perfected the Striped Sunlight Sound to which they’d aspired) and Spring Hill Fair (sort of a step sideways, before their next great leap forward, to the masterful Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express).

By the end of the marathon I’d stopped gazing at my own navel for long enough to reflect on Grant and the impact he’d had on me. I never got to know him very well; ours was a semi-professional acquaintance more than a friendship, though we’d known each other 10 years. Grant was always respectful of critics, though sometimes irascible if they didn’t give his albums enough stars. Robert Forster, of course, became a critic himself.

Anyway, I remembered the day I bumped into him in Egg Records, in West End. We were chatting and he pulled out a CD of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, by PJ Harvey, and told me how much he loved it. I demurred slightly. I had been a huge fan of her visceral early records, but was less enamoured, shall we say, of the post-therapy, painfully self-aware Polly writing songs like Good Fortune.

I remember saying something along the lines of, I didn’t think her songwriting was at quite the same level as it had been. Grant raised an eyebrow. “Really?” he said. Here I was, talking to one of the finest songwriters on the planet, archly dismissing the work of another of the world’s best, and I’d never written a damn song in my life.

At that instant, I could see him looking right through me. But his eyes were twinkling; he didn’t call me out because he didn’t need to – he just shuffled and grinned that lopsided grin of his. “Really?” It was terribly humbling, and I found myself laughing at the absurdity of my position. Grant was a very funny man. Those who can, do; those who can’t talk shit, and I was talking complete shit.

We ended up having lunch, and he told me that a copy of Pig City had gone around the Go-Betweens’ van on the band’s last tour. Of course they’d all had their various takes on it, but they’d all enjoyed it, and that was humbling, too. I think I can say Grant himself wasn’t always known for his humility (which is to say he knew how fucking good he was), but he sure taught me a lot about it that day.

He was gone three weeks later. I miss him like we all do, but it’s a reminder that you never know when you’re going to lose people, and always be grateful for what they give you.

Brisbane will go on without you, Bridie

It was Tex Perkins who put it best – and most bluntly. “Brisbane you have to leave,” the singer known to his mum as Greg told the Australian edition of Rolling Stone. “You come out of your mother, you go to school, and then you think, oh shit – what am I doing here?” That was 20 years ago.

Young people have been leaving Brisbane for as long as they’ve been coming out of their mothers, to use Tex’s ever so delicate vernacular. It was almost compulsory during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years – a musician friend of mine remembers the police telling him, point blank, that people like him weren’t welcome in Queensland.

That sort of harassment goes back a long way. Matt Condon’s book Three Crooked Kings, which describes how corruption was allowed to take root in pre-Fitzgerald Queensland, remembers how police commissioner Frank Bischof used to hand out starched and collared shirts and ties to the local bodgies and widgies in the 1950s.

Now, apparently, the writers, musicians and (gasp) hospitality workers are all leaving again, according to the recently decamped Bridie Jabour. I can’t blame her: after all, I too left Brisbane for Sydney when I was 25. I used to walk to work from Paddington to William Street thinking I’d made it. That was my first mistake.

It wasn’t until I accepted a $30,000 salary to be a staff writer on a well-regarded national publication, commuting a couple of hours a day from Bondi to the North Shore for the privilege, that my tempestuous love affair with the Emerald City turned toxic. I’d had her, she’d had me, and I returned to Brisbane, my tail between my legs.

It was a city in the middle of a metamorphosis. And at this point I should point out that I wasn’t originally a Brisbane native: I’d moved up from Melbourne with my parents as a teenager in 1987, the year of Joh for PM; The Moonlight State (as exposed by Four Corners) and the Fitzgerald Inquiry that tore the whole rotten system down.

It’s fair to say that moving from Melbourne to Pig City back then was more like being beamed down onto another planet. At the time, the local wallopers were busy ripping condom vending machines from the walls of university campuses on Bjelke-Petersen’s orders.

The premier had an ally in Bob Katter, then the state minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Condoms, Katter thundered, were despicable things that would do nothing to prevent the spread of AIDS but would encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon. Yes. He really said that.

I had been humbled by my Sydney experience and needed a reason to be back in Brisbane, so I decided to write a book about my adopted home town and its music scene – the same one depleted years earlier by harassment at the hands of Joh’s shock troopers; the same one that had, incredibly, given us the Saints and the Go-Betweens.

By the time of my return in 2000, Powderfinger was the biggest band in the country; Regurgitator (whose singer I’d been to school with) were local legends and Savage Garden – remember them? – had just sold 20 million records in America. From the Saints to Savage Garden: it sort of had a ring to it. How on earth did that happen?

It sure wasn’t by leaving for Sydney: if Bridie wants to find a local scene there, she’s going to have to dig way underground, into the city’s warehouses and house parties, especially now the Annandale Hotel has closed its doors. Once, Sydney was one of the world’s great music cities – in the decade between 1977 to 1987. Not any more.

Sure, others including writers, hospitality workers and maybe even a few tradies, as well as professionals, have moved – to Melbourne. But more have returned, or simply decided to stay, seeing not a responsibility to “take out the trash”, but the opportunities afforded by a growing city.

As a journalist who’s been there, I sympathise with Jabour’s need to leave a medium-sized town in search of new career challenges. But she seems stuck in the “slatternly, ugly” view of Brisbane so poetically described by David Malouf in Johnno. That was in 1975, and he was talking about Brisbane in the decades-past tense even then.

It’s simply not true to say that all the young artists are leaving anyway, as Jabour claims, citing as evidence an ABC story that, in fact, reports the exact opposite. Even if it was, the assumption that only people in their 20s can contribute to a city’s creative life is especially grating.

The truth is that lots of people have used Brisbane as a “professional stepping stone” before Bridie, and plenty more will in the future. The ones who choose to stay, or return, have taken the time to explore the river, and its mangrove-lined creeks and tributaries. They’re teeming with life – if only you have an idea where to look.

Flowers in the wheelie bin

In 1977, John Lydon – née Rotten – launched a vitriolic attack on the monarchy that brutally summed up the status of England’s youth in the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee: “When there’s no future, how can there be sin? / We are the flowers in the dustbin / We’re the poison in your human machine / We’re the future, your future!”

God Save The Queen, as performed by the Sex Pistols, is one of the greatest protest songs of all time, but I’ve long pondered over these lyrics. Was Lydon inferring that Britain’s future had been literally thrown out with the garbage, as the nation celebrated? Or making a statement about how great art can be constructed from throwaway refuse – one of punk’s defining tenets?

Or was he saying that art itself is nurtured by the oppression of the state? “We’re the poison in your human machine” is a wonderfully subversive argument to this effect, and it’s a line with ongoing resonance to Queensland. It’s a common assumption, for example, that the 1970s punk explosion in Brisbane, spearheaded by the Saints (who, let’s not forget, pre-dated the Pistols by as much as two years) was a reaction to the excesses of life in Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Superficially, it’s easy to understand why. As I’ve written before, life under Sir Joh was nothing if not iron-fisted: “Public displays of dissent were often brutally suppressed; the rule of law was routinely bent to the will of those charged with its enforcement; minorities were treated as just another obstacle on the path to development. To top it all off, the electoral system was hopelessly rigged in favour of the incumbents. ‘Here,’ wrote Rod McLeod, ‘in a city practically under police curfew, you fucked and fought, got stoned, got married, or got out of town.'”

Thirty-five years later, in the year of (still our) Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Campbell Newman has passed his first 100 days in office as Premier of Queensland, and we’ve got a pretty good idea of his administration’s priorities. Many of his actions and statements have been highly symbolic: the axing of the state’s literary awards; abolishing state-sanctioned civil ceremonies for same-sex couples; his declaration that Queensland was in “the coal business” (in response to environmental concerns about increased shipping through the Great Barrier Reef) and, last but not least, sending in a 200-strong goon squad to rough up a few Aboriginal people in Musgrave Park because, well, they were there.

It’s been enough to prompt more than a few comparisons between Newman and Joh, whom the former politely name-checked in his maiden speech as premier. And in that time, I’ve heard a few suggest that maybe we’ll even see some kind of musical renaissance under Newman, now all those latte-sipping arty types suddenly have something to complain about again. Flowers in the wheelie bin, if you like.

Sorry, but it’s time to bust a few myths. I spent four years investigating the assumption that bad politics = great music, and as far as I can tell, mostly, the idea that conservative and/or repressive governance leads to creativity is vastly overstated.

Let’s take the punk example first. The truth is, it would have happened anyway, and the reason why is simple: Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey were rabid record collectors who were turned on to the sounds of the MC5, the Stooges and the New York Dolls before almost anyone else in this country, other than Michigan native Deniz Tek and Sydneysider Rob Younger. Those two would go on to form Radio Birdman at around the same time as the Saints, in 1973-74. Both the Saints and Birdman were also influenced by earlier Australian garage bands like the Easybeats, Master’s Apprentices and Missing Links (among dozens of others). And the bands that followed the Saints and Birdman – in Brisbane, that means groups like the Fun Things, Razar and the Riptides – were additionally inspired to pick up guitars by three principal events.

The first one was the release of the first Ramones album, a stroke of genius so deceptively simple that enthusiastic non-musicians everywhere fell for the idea that they could play this music, too. Notwithstanding the aforementioned groups, the vast majority of these hack thrashers forgot the necessary corollary: few do it well.

The second, which followed the Ramones, was the international punk boom of 1977, thanks mainly to the sight of the Pistols appearing in lounge rooms across the country, not only via Countdown, but a good old-fashioned moral panic, courtesy of Mike Willesee and A Current Affair. Sure, Bjelke-Petersen was a reactionary, but it’s not as if televisions and radios were banned.

Which brings me to the third principal event: the rise of public radio stations, following reforms made in the dying days of the Whitlam government. Brisbane’s 4ZZZ was the very first of them, followed later by 2JJ (later Triple J) in Sydney and 3RRR in Melbourne. All of these – far more than Countdown – played a critical role in getting this new music to a wider audience.

So, as I’ve also written before, it makes no sense to give a politician credit for the creation of a music scene. The qualifier to all this is that growing up in a climate of fear and loathing distorted the prism through which these people saw the world: those who experienced the brutality of the Joh years first-hand still wear it like a badge of honour. As Robert Forster put it, “Bjelke-Petersen represented the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservatism that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against.”

And so we had Pig City (the song), written by political activist Tony Kneipp, specifically for the 1983 state election. And Task Force, by Razar, was the ultimate up-yours to Brisbane’s pre-Fitzgerald Inquiry finest.

But – and this is the point most people seem to overlook – these songs are emblematic of Brisbane at the time, not its music, which was far too diverse to be reduced to a set of agitprop slogans. The conditions for making music in Brisbane at the time were absolutely oppressive, and far from being an inspiration, it forced thousands of creative people to flee. The best example was Brisbane’s other truly great cultural export to emerge from the late 1970s, the Go-Betweens, who as far as I can tell never wrote a protest song in their lives.

Here were two slightly effeminate young men (Forster and the late Grant McLennan) who aspired to art, wrote poetry and occasionally wore dresses. At the height of punk’s most atavistic aggression, they played acoustic guitars to jerky rhythms, backed by a tall woman with short hair who played the drums. They didn’t write political songs – they didn’t have to. They were making a political statement just by being who they were, and that, in a nutshell, is exactly why they had to leave. Thus one of the best songs ever about growing up in Queensland was written in London:

Neither does the bad politics argument hold water when we look at the next big boom for Queensland music, the early 1990s. Bjelke-Petersen was long gone by then, so we can hardly attribute the success of Powderfinger, Regurgitator, Custard and the rest to him. More likely, that especially fertile period came down to an complex amalgam of factors: generational change, the reshaping of the music business in the wake of Nirvana’s album Nevermind; the nationalisation of the Triple J network, and the fact that Brisbane was becoming quite a nice place to live, with plenty of places to go out and play, without the attendant paranoia, post-Fitzgerald, of police harassment or worse.

Musically speaking, Brisbane currently is in the best shape I’ve seen since that golden age. Yes, there have been setbacks like the closure of Rave magazine, the venue situation is tenuous (it was ever thus) and making a living is harder than ever. But it’s never been easier to make, produce and distribute music than it is now, and the breadth and depth of quality here is astonishing. I can’t go out without tripping over someone new and exciting. That’s the subject of a whole new post.

Frankly, I can’t imagine it getting much better than it already is under Can-Do Campbell. Hopefully, it won’t actually become more difficult, due to the vagaries of licensing laws, poor town planning or the de-funding of programs that actually do help enable local musicians to get their music to a wider audience. That really would be throwing the flowers in the dustbin.