Tagged: Prince

Beck and forth

BECK looks toasted. Under round vintage sunglasses and a broad-brimmed black hat, the cheeks of one of the most inventive, elusive artists of the last quarter-century are sunburnt. Los Angeles is on fire. The resulting chaos has resulted in him running an hour late to the Capitol Records tower, the circular icon that sits off Hollywood Boulevard like a 13-storey stack of records, rammed through a spindle that protrudes a further 27 metres above.

In the early 1970s, the artist born Bek David Campbell spent his first years only a few blocks from here. Downstairs, in the foyer, there’s a coffee-table history of the building, for which he wrote the foreword. “As a kid, whenever we were returning from some far-flung part of the city in the back of a gas guzzler on a hot smoggy day, I can remember the Capitol Records building always signified that we were almost home,” he writes. Now he’s back.

He’s still boyish at 49, sun-kissed blond hair curling out from under his hat, but looks slightly frail after four months straight of travel. His backside doesn’t quite fill out his black ankle-cut trousers. His handshake is gentle. He says it’s a miracle he woke up at all today, because “today was that day where I was like, OK, I could just sleep for a week,” after flying in from New Orleans. By his own estimation, he hasn’t had a break since 2012.

When Beck’s first single, Loser, appeared in 1993 on a start-up independent label called Bong Load (initially in a custom pressing of just 500 copies, before it took off), he found himself typecast as the epitome of slacker rock: a loose appellation for self-deprecating Generation X indolence celebrated in films like Clerks and Reality Bites. “Slacker my ass,” he snarled to Rolling Stone a year later. “I never had any slack.”

It’s closer to the truth to say Beck is more like a shark who can’t stop swimming. His new album Hyperspace is his 14th overall, including a handful of pre-major label recordings. In between, there’s been a dizzying array of collaborations, side-projects and productions: with David Bowie, Philip Glass, Marianne Faithfull, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lady Gaga and Flume, as well as close peers Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

There’s also God knows how much unreleased material – at least some of which was destroyed by a fire that swept through a Universal Studios lot in 2008, a story broken by the New York Times earlier this year. “They still won’t tell me what was lost,” he says. “It’s frustrating, because I’ve probably released 10 percent of what I’ve made … I have a feeling that my management is not telling me because they can’t bear to break the news.”

FOR Hyperspace, Beck teamed up with singer and hip-hop impresario Pharrell Williams. The album’s electronic textures are a continuation from its 2017 predecessor Colors, which was about as close as he has ever come to a straight-up pop record. But whereas Colors was as bright as its title suggested, Hyperspace is more subtle and existential: take away the synthetic textures, and it’s easy to imagine the songs played on an acoustic guitar.

That, he says, would have been the easiest thing in the world to do. At heart, Beck is a folkie, as early albums like One Foot In The Grave and later triumphs like Sea Change attest. But he was disinclined to repeat himself. “Doing something like Hyperspace is much more of a challenge, and I’m more on my toes and out of my element in having to think my way out of the box,” he says. “I feel a little guilty if something’s too easy.”

After Loser and the accompanying major-label debut album Mellow Gold, Odelay, released in 1996, proved Beck was no flash in the pan. Sturdy folk-blues songs were cut up, rearranged and overlaid with a magpie-eyed montage of samples, as the singer spilled out surrealist poetry like a postmodern Bob Dylan. Where It’s At, with its refrain “I’ve got two turntables and a microphone”, was a hit and won him his first Grammy.

It remains an album full of joy, wonder and invention, yet impossible to pin down. “I remember having a conversation with my dad when I was maybe 11 or 12, after getting an album and being disappointed, because all the songs sounded exactly the same. I remember saying, somebody should make an record where all the songs are completely different, and he said, no one would buy that record.”

It was a breath of fresh air in a dour indie-rock scene that still regarded him with suspicion. “I remember that the music scene was not very supportive. There was a lot of harshness among bands, among critics. There was a lot of judgement, it was a very cynical, and I think my music had a sense of fun, which didn’t really fit in with the angst of the time. So I did feel a little bit like an outsider, in a lot of ways.”

Odelay’s 1998 follow-up Mutations, with its bossa nova, Tropicalia and country inflections, was recorded live in the studio as Beck continued to fend off suggestions he was a novelty act. “It was to show, these are real musicians, real songwriting, it’s not tricks, it’s not smoke and mirrors”. At the time, he says, “even my label, the reaction from a lot of people around me was, this is experimenting, these aren’t real songs.”

Other, older musicians thought otherwise. Mutations included three tracks originally solicited by Johnny Cash four years earlier, when Beck was just 24. Intimidated, he got cold feet and kept the songs (Sing It Again, Dead Melodies and Canceled Check) to himself. “In retrospect, I don’t think they’re terrible, and they would have been better if he’d sung them,” he says. Cash ended up covering one of Beck’s earlier songs, Rowboat, anyway.

Now, Beck recognises he was onto something. “Even though I knew nothing and was just an inexperienced kid, the instincts of youth were strong, and what [I was doing] was maybe an ethos of a time to come … It was this giddy, beautiful moment of discovery, and I would go back maybe and just give that kid permission to just keep going with that, and see where that goes.”

That might suggest Beck self-consciously limited himself. But after Mutations came Midnite Vultures, a garish, playful album of sexed-up R&B, then Sea Change, usually regarded as his best work next to Odelay. Written quickly, it was a luscious, lugubrious piece of introspection following the breakup of a nine-year relationship. He’s been flitting somewhere between these two extremes ever since.

Slowly, the rest of the pop world caught up. “A lot of it can sound quite conventional compared to a lot of music now, it’s not outlandish,” he says. “But at the time it was completely outlandish. My thing was, OK, we can have a Jew’s harp, a fuzz guitar and a samba beat all together. And that’s the era we live in now – there’s no rules, there’s nobody minding the store. The more far-fetched the idea, the better.”

BECK was born into art. His father David Campbell is a celebrated Canadian composer and arranger; mother Bibbe Hansen (Beck later took her surname), was one of Andy Warhol’s Factory “superstars” in the 1960s. They separated when Beck was 10. Bibbe is Jewish, Campbell a Scientologist, as is Beck’s ex-wife, actor Marissa Ribisi, with whom he has two children, son Cosimo (aged 15) and daughter Tuesday (12).

This has led to persistent speculation and curiosity about Beck’s own beliefs. “I think there’s a misconception that I am a Scientologist. I’m not a Scientologist. I don’t have any connection or affiliation with it. My father has been a Scientologist for a long time, but I’ve pretty much just focused on my music and my work for most of my life, and tended to do my own thing … I think it’s just something people ran with.”

It hasn’t been an easy year for Beck: he filed for divorce from Ribisi in February, and it’s tempting to think that might account for Hyperspace’s more downbeat mood. (The album was named after the arcade game Asteroids, which itself was based on a scene from Star Wars: if your spaceship faced an unavoidable collision, you could escape by hitting the hyperspace button, and end up anywhere on screen.)

But it’s no Sea Change, and it would be a mistake to attribute the source of these songs to his current state of mind. The first song recorded with Pharrell Williams, The Everlasting Nothing, was written seven years ago; they’d been meaning to get back to it ever since, but were consumed by other projects. “It kind of had this elegiac, hymn-like quality but with 808 beats, and it just didn’t seem to fit with what was happening at the time.”

Another song, he says, was written about a friend who overdosed in a motel room two blocks away, over 20 years ago. “For some reason, it came out now. And something I went through two years ago, I might be able to articulate in a song 15 years from now … That’s just the mystery of craft. You are serving a master, in a way. Sometimes it doesn’t completely feel like it’s up to me.”

He says he views the songs on Hyperspace as “portraits of a different way of trying to just transcend our everyday. And maybe what I was thinking about with this record is how underneath all these choices and differences, we share a lot as just flawed humans trying to do the best we can to get through…” – he pauses and chuckles – “this thing called life, as Prince said.”

Now he’s back in LA, part of him may want to sleep for a week, but “I can actually go into the studio, and that’s very seductive to me. There’s such a finite amount of time, so I’m always 10 steps behind where I’m trying to get to. And we’re in a time, with streaming, where people want more content, so the artists that are really in the eye of the culture are constantly putting out music.

On the cusp of 50, he feels like he’s just getting started. “You hear a song on the radio, even something like [David Bowie and Queen’s song] Under Pressure – it’s such an elaborate and realised piece of work. As a songwriter you go, how did they fit all these things together so seamlessly and it’s so memorable and meaningful? There’s thousands of songs that good … I’m still extremely humbled by how much I have left to learn.”

And yet, on songs as simultaneously dense and hook-filled as Where It’s At, that’s exactly what Beck has consistently done. These days, it’s an encore song, part of the cultural fabric, and when he performs it, “musically, it’s like you’re in everybody’s living room at that point. Everyone’s relaxed because they’re like, this is home.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 22 November 2019

Things Beck lost in the fire

Beck has given details of his work that he fears may have been lost in a fire which ripped through a Universal Studios lot in 2008.

It is thought that the fire may have destroyed more than 120,000 master tapes recorded by some of the most famous artists of the past century, a story broken by the New York Times magazine earlier this year.

In an interview with this masthead, Beck said his management “still won’t tell me what was lost” after the fire. “I have a feeling that my management is not telling me because they can’t bear to break the news.”

The prolific artist, who says he has released about 10 percent of the music he has recorded, says “there’s a lot there” that could easily have been destroyed.

“Like an album like Sea Change, there are completely different versions of songs and then there’s probably another 10 to 20 songs that aren’t on the record that [were] in progress; things that I thought I would finish later. It wasn’t that they were bad songs, they just didn’t fit the mood of the album,” he said.

“In 2001, I went into Sunset Sound [in Los Angeles] and I recorded 25 Hank Williams songs for a double album, just solo. I wanted to celebrate that influence in my music and explore it, and I don’t have a copy of that; it’s on a master tape, so that’s probably gone.

“I went to Nashville on tour for two days and cut a country album that never got released. I have rock albums I did in the 1990s, before I did Odelay, I went and tried to make an indie-rock album, so there’s an album that sounds like a Pavement, Sebadoh kind of thing.

“There’s a [Jon Spencer] Blues Explosion album I did in ’95 where I cut about 10 songs with them in New York City that’s never been released. But I don’t know [whether it’s gone], nobody’s telling us anything. We didn’t hear about it until the last year.”

Beck also said that the fire exposed a broader systemic issue: the poor preservation of artists’ recordings generally.

“I have friends who work in archives and they see the tapes for legendary artists from the ’50s just lying there in a cardboard box, not being climate controlled and preserved correctly in an acid-free box,” he said.

“There’s a lot of neglect of masters. It’s a big problem. And guess what, I’ve been in a room where they’ve put on an original Frank Sinatra three-track from the ’50s and it sounds fucking phenomenal, whereas the vinyl version you have sounds tinny, old.

“It doesn’t have a fraction of the information that’s on those tapes. All this stuff should be remixed and remastered and re-released … There’s troves of great music in these archives, treasures that are not being tended to.

“You have artists like the Beatles who get that treatment, where they go and they restore the recordings and remix them, but it’s rare, and it should be happening more … It would be a rebirth for some of these artists who are maybe getting left behind.”

On November 28, Beck responded to this story with a post on Twitter: “I wanted to clarify some out of context quotes regarding the Universal archives fire. Since the time of that interview we have found that my losses in the fire were minimal.

“Another point I want to clarify: I have had a wonderful and very close relationship with my management for 25 years through to working on my current album.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November 2019; updated 3 December 2019

Regurgitator: The J-Files

Potty-mouthed. Wilfully contrary. Ironically self-aware. Genre-hopping. These are all some of the obvious things that come to mind when thinking about Regurgitator. Describing the music, though, is harder: after more than 20 years, the Brisbane band formed by Quan Yeomans, Ben Ely and Martin Lee in 1993 defy categorisation more than ever.

The thick layer of irony that surrounds Regurgitator can make them more of a head trip than a band to take to your heart. But that doesn’t mean they’re not serious: there’s a genuine moral centre to everything they do; it’s just more likely to be expressed with humour, rather than slogans – and you can almost always dance to it. It all makes Regurgitator one of the most original and subversive bands Australia has ever produced.

1: The Concept

Tu-Plang, the title of Regurgitator’s first album (which was recorded in Bangkok) is the Thai word for jukebox. And that’s exactly what Regurgitator are: a machine that absorbs popular music in all its dizzying permutations, then spews it back out. This technicolour approach means that, like American genre-hoppers Ween or New Zealand’s Flight Of The Conchords, Regurgitator are free to play whatever they want – as long as it’s delivered with a nod and a wink.

Quan Yeomans and Ben Ely have never been afraid to bite the hand of the corporate beast that once fed them. Mostly it’s playful mischief-making: the band’s first EP featured the famous Warner Brothers’ logo dominating the rear sleeve, before it was hastily withdrawn. Lyrically, I Sucked A Lot Of Cock To Get Where I Am says it all, but Yeomans has been vocal about everything from the first world’s exploitation of the third (G7 Dick Electro Boogie) to music industry awards nights (Music Is Sport).

He’s particularly strong on gender issues. The band’s biggest hit, Polyester Girl, might also be their most misunderstood: once described as a song about a sex doll, a closer reading shows its real target are the men who take trophy wives to service their own vanity. Ben Ely’s hooky pop-punk confections balance out the band, whether he’s writing about addiction to video games (Black Bugs) or the Queensland constabulary (Fat Cop, which was set perfectly to a crunching nu-metal riff).

2: The Old Stuff

For casual listeners, this will comprise the band’s first two EPs, Regurgitator and New, as well as the band’s first three albums, all of which were recorded with original drummer Martin Lee. Regurgitator were an instant success, both on the live circuit (where they quickly attracted frenzied crowds) and on radio, with early tracks Couldn’t Do It and Blubber Boy being afforded high rotation on Triple J.

That established a platform for the platinum sales of Tu-Plang (1996) spearheaded by two big singles, the monstrous funk-metal clatter of Kong Foo Sing, followed by I Sucked A Lot Of Cock To Get Where I Am, which opened the album. The album was something of a patchwork, with remixes of earlier singles padding things out, but it was strong enough to serve notice of a band to be reckoned with.

In typically provocative style, the band’s next album, Unit (1997) opened with a statement of intent: Ely’s brilliant I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff, its lyrics sung through a vocoder over a synth line. But if any old fans were put off by the change in direction, the album succeeded in winning over legions of new ones. Unit sold over 240,000 copies, spawning a string of hit singles.

The best of them was ! (The Song Formerly Known As), arguably Regurgitator’s greatest song – even as it acknowledged its debt to Prince. A song about living it up in your lounge room with your significant other, it’s set to a big, belching beat that was purpose-built for festival stages. Everyday Formula, Black Bugs, Modern Life and Polyester Girl kept the album on radio and video playlists for well over a year.

In the end, it was the band’s third album, …art (which featured the telling subtitle, “Actual Product May Not Match Expectations”) which proved to be the difficult one. The band was burnt out from touring, relationships had become strained, and the resulting album didn’t come close to matching Unit’s chart success. The best moment by far was Ely’s hilarious Surfin’ Bird-style rave-up, “I Wanna Be A Nudist”.

3: The New Stuff

While Regurgitator would never again scale the commercial heights of Unit – and by Yeomans’ own estimation, it’s unquestionably the most creatively interesting album of their career, too – the second half of the band’s career has thrown up its fair share of high points. In fact, the more one looks at the sheer breadth of Regurgitator’s output, the more impressive it becomes in its totality.

With a new, high-energy drummer Peter Kostic (on loan from Front End Loader), the band first made Eduardo And Rodriguez Wage War On T-Wrecks, which saw Ely and Yeomans move deeper into hip-hop territory, despite pop singles like Superstraight and Fat Cop. Hullabaloo was a truer indication of where the band was at. It was a change few seemed ready for at the time.

Then came Mish Mash (2004), the result of the band’s Band In A Bubble project for Channel V, recorded in a Perspex box in Federation Square, Melbourne. Ironically, the project left the band open to charges of being over-exposed. Probably the most contentious album of Regurgitator’s career, it’s also arguably the most far-sighted, and the most ripe for rediscovery and retrospective appreciation.

Love And Paranoia (2007) saw the addition of keyboard player Seja Vogel and is a brief (31 minute) blast that saw them return to the 1980s for inspiration, but the band was at a low ebb. Superhappyfuntimefriends, though, combined the band’s best set of songs since Unit with a renewed surge of public interest. It’s the band’s paean to the social media generation, and it’s scabrous, funny and true.

The band’s most recent album, Dirty Pop Fantasy (2013) takes everything to its logical extreme, cramming an ambitious 19 songs onto a single disc. Shake it down, though, for a handful of diamonds – Ely’s sharp Made To Break; Yeomans’ post-punk epic Mountains and We Love You, which declares: “We know what you want, but we’re not gonna give it to you, because that would be easy.”

4: The Legacy

Regurgitator’s reputation will stand forever on Unit, widely and deservedly regarded as one of the best Australian albums ever made – a clutch of sticky singles, production that still manages to sound both retro and ahead of the curve, and lyrics that gleefully run the gamut from straight-up nonsense to barbed social commentary that mostly went over the heads of radio shock jocks and fans alike.

But eight albums and two EPs have proved the band to be stayers. Instead of fading away when the going got tough, the band have adapted to suit themselves: they’ve slowed down on the touring, but continued to make vibrant, endlessly creative records with a high level of quality control. In doing so, they’ve set a number of examples for other bands to follow.

First: do what you want. Not what you think the punters want. Second: don’t assume every step up on the ladder is also a step forward. You don’t have to break America just because you’ve conquered Australia and that’s the obvious thing to do next; nervous breakdowns and bankruptcy lie that way. Third: make records at your own pace. Fourth: Keep making them, for persistence reaps sustainable rewards.

Above all, as Yeomans puts it on “All Fake Everything”: “Be yourself / Be yourself / Be your motherfuckin’ self!”

First published by Double J, 19 November 2015

PJ Harvey’s bubble bursts

It’s tough to be critical of Polly Jean (PJ) Harvey. As an artist, her place in history is secure: hailed as the world’s best songwriter by Rolling Stone upon the release of her first album, Dry, in 1992, Harvey is the sole dual winner of the Mercury Music Prize (first for Stories Of The City, Stories Of The Sea, released in 2000, then for Let England Shake, released in 2011). And she’s not just a critic’s darling – she bears the royal seal of approval, having been awarded an MBE for her services to music in 2013.

So a new release by PJ Harvey is a certifiable event. And the usually reserved singer/songwriter is making sure that the follow-up to Let England Shake will be noticed: she’s recording it behind one-way glass at Somerset House in London, turning the studio into an “mutating, multi-dimensional sound sculpture”.

In effect, PJ Harvey is turning herself into an exhibit, and hopes the audience “will be able to experience the flow and energy of the recording process”. London-based art commissioning organisation Artangel has said in a statement: “The working process of a project has always been as important to us as its public presentation, and here both can be fully explored and revealed at the same time.”

But while Harvey is likely to be lauded for her bravery and originality, in England at least, Australian fans will hear an echo bouncing off the glass walls of the prosaically named “Recording In Process” studio. For this has been well and truly, and very publicly, done before: Brisbane mavericks Regurgitator pioneered the concept by recording their fifth album Mish Mash for their Band In A Bubble project in 2004. The entire spectacle was filmed and broadcast by Channel V.

There’s a certain irony in this situation, for as their name suggests, Regurgitator are self-styled cultural cannibals: their biggest hit ! (The Song Formerly Known As) was named for its self-conscious approximation of Prince’s classic ’80s period. The line between cannibalism, plagiarism and homage is treacherous, but in the case of choosing to record your album in a glass studio, the difference seems fairly clear-cut. Regurgitator was never approached, and the concept has not been optioned, by either Artangel or PJ Harvey’s management.

Was Harvey aware of Regurgitator’s earlier project? Was her management? Was Artangel? Was Melbourne-based Mick Harvey, formerly of the Bad Seeds and a long-time member of PJ Harvey’s band? If they were, were they hoping her Teflon-coated reputation would protect them, or were they banking on Regurgitator’s relative lack of overseas recognition? (Both Artangel and representatives for PJ Harvey were contacted for comment; neither had responded by deadline.)

The man behind the original bubble idea is Regurgitator’s manager, Paul Curtis, who devised the concept himself in 1999 and has been trying – unsuccessfully to date – to involve Australian art galleries in further “recording in process” productions. And in fairness, as he points out, there are some significant differences in approach between the two projects. Unlike Regurgitator, Harvey and her band aren’t living in their “bubble”, aren’t on camera, and are performing behind one-way glass: they can’t see or interact with their audience.

Also, visitors to Somerset House have limited viewing “windows” in which to watch the artist at work: the sold-out 45-minute public sessions are from 3pm and 6pm from Tuesday to Friday, and 1pm to 3pm on Saturdays. “The only interaction is the actual awareness that at various points there is an audience present,” Curtis says, “and thus a potentially more contrived engagement around those moments of ‘performance’, versus continual exposure.”

Certainly, for anyone familiar with the long breaks, technical delays and numbing repetition that characterise the average recording session, a paying audience will be hoping to catch the rare moments where the magic really happens. Harvey, too, will be aware of this. In this sense, Regurgitator’s project was actually a far more radical (and certainly braver) experiment. However, the resulting album Mish Mash was poorly received, possibly a backlash against what was widely viewed as a gimmicky production: ironically, the band were seen as over-exposed.

Curtis is now hoping that Harvey’s album may lead to a renewed interest in building on his original vision, both in Australia and overseas. “We had proposed a re-envisioned art gallery version of the concept under the title Composition in Glass,” he explains. “This idea was much more extreme in approach than Band In A Bubble or Recording In Progress and more about an interactive installation, pushing both the art world and music industry into dada-ist experimental levels.”

So far, an underwhelming response from galleries, combined with scheduling difficulties with the band – singer/guitarist Quan Yeomans lives in Hong Kong and has just become a father; bassist/singer Ben Ely has returned to Brisbane, while drummer Pete Kostic lives in Sydney – have prevented a fulfilment of Curtis’ vision.

“All I can say is the music industry is a shallow bed more often remade with cheap imitation rather than fresh sheets,” he says. “What we did 10 years ago came from a place of experimentation, play and outsider attitudes. I know there were detractors at the time, but maybe now someone who is perceived as a ‘credible artist’ puts it in a different perspective.”

First published in The Guardian, 8 January 2015

The Great Australian Songbook II (40-31)

As promised from yesterday. I’ve tried to cover as many bases as possible in terms of decade and genre, avoiding multiple selections for the same artist.

Without further ado, here’s the list from 40 to 31.

40. COSMIC PSYCHOS – Lost Cause (1988)

It was Spinal Tap who pointed out the fine line between clever and stupid. In Australia, you won’t find three smarter beer-swilling yobs than The Cosmic Psychos. This isn’t a song about punching above your weight – it’s about being out of your weight division entirely. “Dr” Ross Knight, the band’s bass player, is a farmer from outside Bendigo who’s been known to cancel tours when his tractor breaks down. At the time he wrote this song, he was working part-time in the medical records department of a local hospital, where he fell under the spell of an attractive young lady who’s “only 19, not a has-been!” “I was about 25, 26 at that point, a bogan fucking pisshead,” Knight recalls. “I said to a mate of mine, ‘I wouldn’t mind taking her out,’ and he goes, ‘Nah – have a look at you! She’s a lost cause, mate!” The song was later covered by L7 and The Prodigy.

39. DO RE MI – Man Overboard (1985)

After the comic ribaldry of the Cosmic Psychos, it’s nice to follow Lost Cause with the best piece of feminist polemic set to pop music in Australia since Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman. Do Re Mi’s lean, agitated funk provided all the space required for Deborah Conway’s sharp-eyed, razor-tongued portrait of a relationship in terminal decay. Critic Toby Creswell reckoned Conway had a voice like a braying donkey. If that’s the case, it’s even more impressive that a song with no chorus and lyrics that referenced sexual boredom, penis envy and anal humour actually became a top five hit.

38. SEVERED HEADS – Dead Eyes Opened (1984; remixed 1995)

Australia is not well known for its electronic music output, but long before the Avalanches scored with Since I Left You in 2000 there was Tom Ellard’s brilliant Severed Heads. Exploring the space between the industrial terror of Suicide, the pop smarts of New Order and the minimalism of Kraftwerk, the creepy Dead Eyes Opened was both of its time and ahead of it, and proved it by being a hit twice: once upon its release in 1984, and then again with a remixed version in 1995.

37. DAVE GRANEY & THE CORAL SNAKES – You’re Just Too Hip, Baby (1993)

On one hand, Dave Graney is an eccentric from Mt Gambier, South Australia who’s read too many Raymond Chandler novels. His genius is in filtering his influences through his own uniquely idiosyncratic worldview, and you won’t find a better example than this minor hit from 1993 that set the former Moodist on his way to unlikely Australian King of Pop status a couple of years later. “You take a feather from every bird you see / You’ll never fly” is the perfect rejoinder to a jaded hipster, accented by Rod Hayward’s stinging guitar breaks.

36. MENTAL AS ANYTHING – The Nips Are Getting Bigger (1979)

One of the all-time great Australian drinking songs. It starts out just drinking beer, then it progresses to Jamaican rum, and things are all downhill from there for poor Martin Plaza: “Wiping out brain cells by the million, but I don’t care / It doesn’t worry me even though I ain’t got a lot to spare.” Reg Mombassa’s splashes (splatters?) of guitar are as colourful as his designs for Mambo, but it’s Plaza’s sad, funny and true portrait of everyday alcoholic waste that, once heard, never leaves you.

35. REGURGITATOR – ! (The Song Formerly Known As) (1997)

First, there’s a chuckle. Add a clipped white-funk guitar (which actually sounds more like Chic’s Nile Rodgers than Prince), then a belching bass keyboard fill, and voilà: instant party. Except it’s a party that Quan Yeomans doesn’t want to go to. He’d rather stay at home, dancing in ugly pants in the comfort of his suburban lounge room. Regurgitator are amazingly versatile – they can do hardcore, they can do pop, and their contribution to Australian hip-hop is massively undersold, but this wonderful paean to the socially awkward is their finest moment, and propelled its parent album, Unit, to triple-platinum status. Thank you, Mr DJ.

34. THE CRUEL SEA – This Is Not The Way Home (1991)

This is a driving song, best suited to very long, very straight, very red roads far beyond Woop Woop, with a bunch of mates and a case of beer for company: just leave the actual driving to whichever one of you is least inebriated. Snatches of conversations, casual observations, hints of violence and a chugging rhythm – Dan Rumour’s introductory snippet of guitar before the rhythm section kicks in is akin to a smooth change from third to fourth – and you’re away, with the throttling slide guitar in the chorus putting the whole thing into overdrive. Somehow, I’ve never been busted speeding to it.

33. DIVINYLS – Back To The Wall (1988)

Boys In Town, Pleasure And Pain, Science Fiction and the masturbatory epic I Touch Myself were all bigger hits, and it would be easier to choose any of them for popularity’s sake. But on this killer tune, Chrissy Amphlett nailed her tough but vulnerable rock-chick persona for all time. Swathed in co-conspirator/lover Mark McEntee’s echoing Rickenbacker and unobtrusive keyboards, this is dangerous, borderline stuff, all the more compelling for its restraint: the predicted eruption never arrives, but Amphlett’s threats hang in the air, leaving you cowering in a corner.

32. SCIENTISTS – Swampland (1982)

Years ago I was trying to write a book about Australian garage rock under this title, and I bumped into the song’s author, Kim Salmon, at a Mudhoney show earlier this week. He joked that at the rate I’m going, he’d have his memoirs out before my own effort. He’s calling his work-in-progress Nine Parts Water, One Part Sand: How I Invented Grunge, and while he’s at least partly joking, there are plenty (Mudhoney included) who don’t dispute his claim. The Scientists were doing the soft-loud thing long before the Pixies, and with equal style: imagine the Count Five, the Cramps and Creedence jamming in a garage, and you’re back on the Bayou.

31. LAUGHING CLOWNS – Eternally Yours (1984)

After the Saints, Ed Kuepper formed the all but unclassifiable (and, occasionally, all but unlistenable) Laughing Clowns. With three virtuoso players in their ranks, the Clowns were musician’s musicians, with Kuepper – one of this country’s greatest guitarists – backed by drummer Jeff Wegener and saxophonist Louise Elliott. Here, Elliott’s the star, building from an austere melody to a stupendous climax: prepare to have your breath taken away at 4.21, when she holds a long note for eight full seconds, before taking flight for an extraordinary finale. Rock music doesn’t get much more stirring than this.

Oh well, whatever, etc

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s second album Nevermind. A rash of earnest think pieces have already appeared in yesterday’s papers – isn’t this a bit like celebrating your birthday by opening your presents at midnight? – but since this record was such a game-changer in the musical-industrial complex and a life-changer for thousands of individuals besides, it would be churlish of me not to add to them. I was one of those thousands, after all.

I listened to the album for the first time in many moons a couple of weeks ago. I’ll probably listen to it again later; I certainly don’t need to put it on now for inspiration. I think I know every note of the damn thing backwards; such was Nevermind‘s power at the time of its release that it quickly became embedded. These days, there aren’t too many real reasons to pull it out, simply because it’s always there within you. Smells Like Teen Spirit, once so transcendent, can even sound a little shopworn for being overplayed. But if you catch it on a classic rock station and it gets you at the right angle, at the right moment, it still creams the competition with muscle to spare.

I can’t tell you where I was when I first heard Teen Spirit; in fact I can’t recall hearing it for the first time at all. It just suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Actually, I’d just arrived in Melbourne after a seven-week jaunt around some fairly remote parts of the country, so I certainly wasn’t even aware of any music press hubbub. And I hadn’t heard Bleach, the band’s first album. If I had, it wouldn’t have prepared me in any way for the avalanche about to be unleashed.

So I know I didn’t hear it at least until I got back to Brisbane a couple of weeks later, in October. It might have been on Triple J, but also might have been on Triple Zed. Can’t say. But I soon became aware of the groundswell. That couple of months, leading up to the beginning of 1992, was among the most exciting of my life. I was 20, and probably everyone who’s 20 and waiting for their life to start probably still gets nostalgic about what it was like to be that age and feel like anything’s possible. Teen Spirit seemed to make everything possible again.

Musically, the 1980s was nowhere near as bad as the reputation if you had a clue. There was terrific music everywhere, even on the Top 40 charts, at least in the earlier part of the decade – Prince, Springsteen, early Madonna, Michael Jackson at his thrilling peak – hey, it was thrilling, and still is, at least if you have an open mind and love pop music more than you love being cool. By late in the decade, though, it’s true that things were on the slide. The real action was in the American underground. Dinosaur Jr’s Freak Scene was a great, great single; Mudhoney’s Touch Me I’m Sick, too.

The biggest buzz was for the Pixies, the band Kurt Cobain claimed to be ripping off with all those soft/loud dynamics. Well … Maybe. Lots of other bands, including Australian bands like the Scientists, had done that already. These days, I listen to the Pixies and I still can’t believe they didn’t get there first. Here Comes Your Man – how was that not number one in every country in the western world? It’s bizarre, really.

But maybe that just made the breakthrough of Teen Spirit – so much more aggressive and potent – all the sweeter. To this day I’ve never heard such excitement surrounding a single like it. And strangely enough, when I first brought Nevermind home on the back of it in December ’91, after the album was belatedly released locally, I was a little underwhelmed. It was so clean, to start with. What was with all those pop hooks? It actually took a few listens for the penny to drop that that was the whole point.

I still think the best description of the album came from Cobain himself: Black Sabbath getting molested by Black Flag and the Beatles. Can’t remember if it was in that order, but whatever – sure as hell no one else had ever found a way to put those three things together, if they ever even thought of such an unlikely combination. I doubt anyone had. People got very excited about Radiohead’s OK Computer six years later – Nick Kent even wrote a review reminiscent of his exaltation of Television’s Marquee Moon 20 years earlier – but no fucking way was the impact on popular culture even comparable to the nuclear assault of Nevermind.

Not in my view, anyway. And of course it wasn’t all good; record companies signed up every guitar band that moved for a while, no matter how horrible, and plenty of toy wind-up Nirvanas came out of the woodwork. Most disappeared from whence they came. Many great bands who might have deserved similar success instead got left behind; that was sad. Independent record stores and labels were hammered as the mainstream co-opted their market; that was sad, too. Saddest of all, the album’s success also seemed to psychologically destroy poor Kurt Cobain himself. That’s another post, so I’ll leave it.

But surely what mattered about this album, and what still matters, is its inclusiveness. Purists will tell you Bleach is the truest Nirvana album; those who value their indie credentials say In Utero‘s the masterpiece. Look, they’re both good, but really, seriously, come on. Great music belongs to everyone. I began writing about music because I wanted to share it with people, and I still do. Nevermind was a key part of that.

I saw the band in January of ’92, at Festival Hall in Brisbane. They were supporting Violent Femmes, the result of the tour being booked before the band went large. Nirvana liked and admired the Femmes and wanted to honour their commitment to opening for them. Me? I didn’t even stick around for them, which I’m sad about now, because I still haven’t seen them. But Nirvana at that moment just made everything else seem irrelevant.

Not that it was the greatest show, mind you. The sound mix was muddy, Cobain was sick, the band played for just 40 minutes. At some point I left the mosh and went back towards the mixing desk. That was better. They played Come As You Are and suddenly it all seemed to snap into focus. Such a haunting, beautiful song, but then that whiplash solo tore the roof off. That was the band – brutal and beautiful at once. Black Sabbath, Black Flag, and the Beatles.

They finished with On A Plain, still my favourite Nirvana song. I’m not sure why, but I don’t think I need to explain it anyway. I’m sure you have your favourites, your own reasons and your own stories. This was mine.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWrW0j6uOIU