If you were growing up in the Australian suburbs in the 1980s and early 1990s and had any interest at all in what later became known as alternative music, you have probably heard the Hard-Ons. Against considerable odds – starting with their name – the band once racked up an astonishing run of 17 consecutive No. 1 songs on the independent charts.
It’s tempting to say they’re back. But the priapic Hard-Ons never really went away. They did break up in 1994, but bassist Ray Ahn and guitarist Peter Black (known to all as Blackie), soldiered on as Nunchukka Superfly. They reunited with singing drummer Keish de Silva in 1997, but de Silva quickly became disenchanted and moved on again.
Still, the band carried on, with Murray Ruse on drums and the prolific Blackie singing. Actually, prolific doesn’t begin to describe Blackie: the influential guitarist recorded a song every single day in 2016, adding a cover of Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water on New Year’s Day 2017 for good measure.
It’s de Silva – whose honey-sweet vocals and energetic drumming style was a big part of the band’s appeal – who’s back, with the release of the band’s 12th studio album So I Could Have Them Destroyed today. It’s a welcome return, and the band’s mix of bubblegum pop, punk and metal is well intact, led by a wonderful single, Harder And Harder.
But it’s also not the same. Firstly, the band is now a four-piece, with Ahn and Blackie unwilling to part ways with Ruse. “We love Murray, we love his drumming and we like him a lot personally,” Ahn says. De Silva is now purely a frontman, a role he first explored on the band’s 30th anniversary tour in 2014.
Ahn says the new look suits the band. “What wouldn’t work would be a big muscle-bound guy with his shirt off, doing that stereotypical thing, pacing up and down the stage and screaming into the mic. I don’t think that would suit the Hard-Ons, because we’re way more melodic than that,” he says.
Which is pretty funny, because one of the Hard-Ons’ most successful singles was a collaboration with Henry Rollins, the archetypal muscle-bound punk screamer, on a cover of AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock. “Yeah, but he suited that for that one song,” parries Ahn, quite reasonably.
Despite their name, sound and image, the Hard-Ons, Ahn says, were never really punks. Growing up, Blackie loved classic rock, while de Silva was a James Brown fan. “You know how punks have got so many rules, what you can do and what you can’t do? It didn’t really fit three migrant kids,” Ahn says.
Straight out of Punchbowl, in Sydney’s west, the original trio is indeed one of Australia’s best multicultural success stories: Ahn is of Korean parentage, de Silva’s is Sri Lankan and Black’s Slavic. The three met in primary school in the 1970s, and have sold over a quarter of a million records worldwide.
The Hard-Ons learned to play to their strengths and work within their limitations. “We were friends before we became a band,” Ahn says. “When we started, none of us had to audition or prove ourselves. It was very natural – it was just the three of us, and any shortcomings or extra talents that we had, we formed the band around that.”
Blackie was always a shit-hot guitarist. In time, Ahn became a formidable bass player, but his main gift initially was drawing, and he has been responsible for the band’s distinctive artwork. De Silva, meanwhile, was multi-skilled: he could play piano and guitar, he could sing and write songs, and he was good at all of it.
Then he started playing drums. “I actually said to him, I didn’t know you could play the drums, and he said, ‘Neither did I’,” Ahn recalls. “You know how some people are just naturally talented? I think he just got bored of playing drums and singing, that’s why he quit. But he’d never been just the frontman before, so I think that held interest to him.”
Ahn acknowledges that if you were one of those fans who grew up with the band, your favourite Hard-Ons release might be their delightfully named 1986 mini-album Smell My Finger, or any of a dozen-strong singles: quicksilver pop-punk gems like Where Did She Come From or Girl In The Sweater.
“That’s good for them,” Ahn says. “But we have a duty to our band to constantly make the music that we like. I know some bands go out there and do the greatest hits set over and over again, especially a lot of punk bands. That’s good for them, too. But you can’t really pretend that it’s punk anymore, can you?”
First published in The Age (Shortlist), 10 October 2019
It’s Good Friday in Brisbane and most of the city is dead quiet, with pubs and clubs not opening until midnight due to Easter trading laws. In the inner suburb of West End, however, something very noisy is stirring.
On a makeshift stage in a large room, a three-piece band called Hexmere is playing a raucous, raw brand of grindcore punk to a small crowd. There’s another gig planned for the following night, with many more people expected.
These all-ages shows are being sporadically staged by the Outer Space art collective, which won the Brisbane city council’s tender to operate this 300-capacity venue for two years, rent-free. The space needs work. But it represents an experiment, a gamble and a new hope for the city’s youth culture.
The fact that the city council chose to make the space available is important. Despite a rich history, live music in Brisbane, as in so many other cities around the world, struggles to survive against the pressures of gentrification, regulation and competition.
The music industry’s inextricable links to alcohol and bars has left a dearth of venues accessible to under-18s, raising concerns about how the complex ecosystem that sustains a vibrant local music scene – comprising everything from record shops to independent labels to public radio – will reproduce itself without engaging audiences from a young age.
Live from Outer Space is an attempt to buck that trend in Brisbane. Coordinator Alex Campbell watches Hexmere as sound technician Hannah buzzes around the room, checking noise levels and sonic balance. Campbell says she has encouraged women and non-binary people to get involved in the male-dominated space of sound engineering especially.
In the crowd tonight are the three members of the Goon Sax, back home in Brisbane after seven months in Berlin. Their 19-year-old frontman, Louis Forster, is the son of the Go-Betweens’ Robert – less than half a mile from the venue, the Go Between Bridge spans the Brisbane river. But surfing the city’s next wave hasn’t been easy, even for a band with such pedigree.
While the Goon Sax’s members were under 18, the venues they played required them to be accompanied by a parent and to leave immediately after their set, while their friends were unable to attend.
“It’s cool something like this has opened up,” says Forster. “I know my sister’s psyched about it – she’s 16 and she’s coming tomorrow night. I was pretty frustrated by it when I was a kid growing up. I remember going to soundchecks and standing outside venues and listening, stuff like that.”
“There were all these shows, and you could never go to them,” says Riley Jones, the band’s drummer. “You could go to the [radio station] Triple Zed car park shows sometimes, and that was a nice treat, but it was very frustrating.”
“There’s all these young kids who don’t have any places to go,” says Louis Whelan, who is director of Outer Space’s all-ages live-music programme and also plays in his own band, the Mouldy Lovers. “Most events are really alcohol-focused. Playing somewhere where people are just going to get wasted, it’s not the same thing as playing where people want to see music.
“If there’s a whole new generation of people who are much more engaged with the arts and music, then when they get out and they have disposable incomes, they’re going to go to galleries, to venues, to buy local bands’ music and start their own labels. I think there’s a lot of value in it.”
It’s not just kids who are struggling to find places to play. In Sydney – once a live-music Mecca to rival London or New York – bands now struggle to play at all, with venues under pressure from soaring real estate prices, noise complaints, punitive regulations and a cosy relationship between government and developers. The city’s longest-serving live venue, The Basement – which, over 45 years, has hosted artists from Dizzy Gillespie to Prince – closed last week, though its owners are hopeful of finding other premises.
The situation has become so difficult that the state of New South Wales is now holding a parliamentary inquiry. Dave Faulkner, singer and songwriter of enduring Australian garage band the Hoodoo Gurus, told the inquiry that live music was treated like the sex industry, “as something to be shunned. We employ so many people, we generate incredible amounts of money throughout the economy – and yet we’re treated so badly.”
Faced with similar issues, music scenes around the world have been forced underground, into house parties or often illegal warehouse gigs, accessible only to those in the know. “It starts to get a bit worrying when kids are in those scenes,” says Emily Collins, managing director of the government-funded advocacy body MusicNSW.
“We’d much rather them be in venues where we can make sure it’s safe and they can learn to love music in a safe and supporting environment. At warehouse parties there are no security guards, there’s no regulation, no one monitoring alcohol consumption. And they’re more focused on over-18 activities anyway – not that anyone is checking ID.”
All-ages shows have a twofold benefit, says Collins: they foster a self-sustaining community of audiences and performers that in turn helps nurture a creative city. The sticking point, particularly in Australia, is breaking the nexus between music and alcohol.
Venues, already under severe financial duress, are reluctant to put on events where no money is coming over the bar and the regulatory environment is forbidding. “There are multiple bodies that need to be satisfied, so there is considerable complexity, high costs and red tape in running a compliant venue,” says Julian Knowles, chair of MusicNSW and a professor of music at Macquarie University.
“There is no agent of change law in New South Wales that puts the responsibility on developers to soundproof new developments near music venues. If new residents make noise complaints, the venue is held accountable and must meet acoustic treatment costs, so it’s very risky for venue operators. At best, it erodes business confidence and at worst it can shut down venues entirely.”
The introduction of controversial lockout laws in 2014, imposing curfews on venues in a bid to curb alcohol-related violence more associated with nightclubs than live music events, have been relaxed to some degree, but otherwise only worsened the operating environment.
Against this backdrop, MusicNSW offers funding to promoters and venues to stage all-ages shows, but Collins says applications are few. “People say it’s too hard as a venue – $15,000 won’t cut it.”
Often bands are paid literally out of beer takings. “They’re basically saying: the more heavy drinkers attend your gig, the better you’ll get paid,” says Ray Ahn, bass player of another longstanding punk band, the Hard-Ons. “With that kind of a working model, it’s harder to organise all-ages shows. Where’s the money going to come from?”
The parliamentary inquiry underlines what a cautionary tale Sydney has become. Dave Faulkner said the city’s culture was dying. “When people come to Sydney they don’t just come to see the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, they also go to have a night out and to see music – it’s what I do when I go to London or New York. But Sydney has been doing everything it can to destroy those places of entertainment and turn them into apartment buildings.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, hundreds of pubs and clubs throughout the city and suburbs kept artists busy, with major Australian bands such as Midnight Oil honing their live skills by playing upwards of 200 shows a year.
From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Ahn says, the Hard-Ons would often play an all-ages show in the afternoon and another for over-18s in the evening. Now, they might have played one all-ages show in Australia in the last 10 years. When the band tour Europe or Japan, though, it’s a different story.
“A lot of the shows we do in Europe are in purpose-built halls that have the bar on the outside,” Ahn says. “Inside, there is no bar – it’s like a flat-ceilinged room with a massive PA and volunteers running around everywhere. So where are they getting the money from? They’re getting it from the city council.”
The environment in Germany was more easygoing, says Louis Forster, even when he was younger. “I spent a lot of time there growing up, and I could always get into venues – it was never a problem. Parents would bring their kids to shows, which was really fantastic.”
In Australia, Melbourne actively promotes itself as the live-music capital, and with good reason. A Deloitte study in 2011 valued the sector’s economic contribution at over half a billion dollars, with small venues providing the bulk of revenue and employment. Though many venues have closed in recent years, the value of investing in the live-music sector at grassroots level has long been recognised.
The Push, a not-for-profit youth music organisation, has been operating in Victoria since 1986, providing a launch platform for countless bands. As well as all-ages shows, it puts on mentoring programmes and skills workshops.
Shaad D’Souza, a music journalist who used to coordinate all-ages events for the organisation, notes that it is a cultural investment as well as a financial one. “Lots of kids, when they grow up they’ll only really go to big festivals or big arena shows because that’s all they’ve had access to,” he says.
“Whereas if you’re investing in all-ages shows, they develop a relationship with venues, they develop a relationship with artists, and then they know: ‘I want to support my local scene.’ They want to go to smaller venues; they don’t just want to go to arena shows or festivals.”
At the end of the night, Alex Campbell’s band, Bad Bangers, will launch their EP. The band are in their 20s now. “But that’s kind of why we started this – because there weren’t many all-ages spaces when we were younger.”