Tagged: Rocking Horse Records

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.

The stayer

There aren’t many retail stores that can lay claim to a small but distinguished place in a state’s political history. Such is the stature of Rocking Horse Records, which won instant infamy on 14 February, 1989: the morning when a phalanx of police descended on the store, in the heart of Brisbane’s CBD, and raided it for stocking allegedly obscene material.

It’s hard to explain, more than a quarter of a century later, in what universe such a thing could happen. Back then, though, Queensland was a universe unto itself: a state where the police force was officially unable to find any of Brisbane’s many illegal brothels and casinos, yet threw the book at a record shop for displaying a popular Guns n’ Roses album.

This was, remember, during the dying days of the National Party’s 32-year rule of Queensland. Incredibly, lyrics in rock records became an electoral issue: later that year Russell Cooper – in his brief tenure as premier, after Tony Fitzgerald handed down his epochal report into political and police corruption – flagged that “pornographic” music would be subject to the state’s censorship laws.

But the raid, and Cooper’s pledge, was a misreading of a fundamental shift in the state’s mainstream middle class, with the National Party suffering a humiliating defeat at the state election the following December. As for Guns n’ Roses, their parent label, Warner, was so delighted to see the band’s album bumped back into the charts by the controversy that it helped fund Rocking Horse’s legal expenses.

The store’s proprietor, Warwick Vere, can laugh about it all now. Rocking Horse is celebrating its 40th anniversary: a success story that’s spanned enormous social, physical and political changes in Brisbane and Queensland. In that time, the store has managed to see off the rise of downloading, the January 2011 floods and near-bankruptcy, not to mention the court case ensuing from the 1989 raid – which it won.

“We had to prove that community standards had changed,” he says. “The police thought they had a lay-down misère – they’d successfully prosecuted Rodney Rude for obscenity not long before that – but basically we had to prove that the word f*** was no longer a shocker.” (The defence submitted that the word had been used 17 times in the Academy Award-winning picture of that year, Rain Man.)

Rocking Horse first opened its doors in November 1975. The shop, then in Rowes Arcade on Adelaide Street, was so cramped that the cash register had to fit under a stairwell. Yet it quickly became a hub for the city’s music fans, surfing the crest of the punk wave to become an oasis of alternative culture in the heart of Australia’s most conservative capital city bulwark.

This was back when Brisbane effectively closed on the weekends. “The caretaker there would try to pull the shutters down at 11.30 on Saturday morning, when our tiny shop was full of people – so much so that people had to wait outside, in the arcade, for someone to leave so they could come in,” Vere remembers. “I had to come to an arrangement that we’d lock the doors, no later than 12 noon.

“After that, you could put a shotgun down Queen Street and the only person you might hit would be Rock & Roll George. You could see him tootling down [in his vintage 1952 FX Holden] and it would be one of the very few cars that would be doing the block on a Saturday afternoon. Brisbane basically emptied out, and [people] went to the north coast or the south coast – and why wouldn’t they.”

From there, as Brisbane stayed open later and expanded, so too did the shop: to slightly roomier premises on 158 Adelaide Street (the location of the 1989 raid), and eventually to its current location on 258 Albert Street, where it’s been since 2004. At its peak, the store boasted 24 staff, 18 of them full-time, many of them long-serving: grizzled veteran Tom Beaumont has been there 20 years.

It’s also been a reliable source of employment for several generations of Brisbane’s musical talent. In the early days, Jim Dickson and Bruce Anthon – who both played in late-70s power trio the Survivors – ran the shop’s day to day business; today, you can wander in and find Sean Caskey behind the counter (Caskey plays with rising indie-rock band the Last Dinosaurs).

For a certain kind of person, it’s the ultimate dead-end job. “It’s alternately frustrating and great,” says Beaumont, whose default state seems set to a kind of seen-it-all deadpan. “I think the best thing about it is the idea that it’s not just a dead-end job in the corner; it’s a dead-end job with a lot of other dead-beats, and interacting with them is…” – he pauses for effect – “…rewarding.”

“It’s very hard to say to somebody who’s starting work in a record shop that this is a career,” Vere says. “It’s not. It’s for the people who you couldn’t keep out of the store with a stick anyway. Luckily, most of them love the job. They’re all gluttons for punishment. But as far as careers go, there’s not a great ladder to climb – unless they knock the old bloke off.”

Vere’s loyalty to his staff was tested in 2011, when the shop nearly closed after being hit by a succession of blows: long-term construction works for a busway; the January flood; the inexorable decline of CD sales. Even the sacking of public servants by former premier Campbell Newman had an impact: “Our shop was full of grey-haired people with lanyards at lunchtime, and they just vanished overnight.”

Inevitably, many of the store’s staff had to follow. “We were conscious of the fact that people had been there for an awfully long time, [and] that made it very hard to downsize,” Vere says. “We were bloated with staff, we didn’t take stock of the situation quickly enough, and we probably put it in the too-hard basket for a little bit too long.”

The store’s salvation lay in the format for which it first came into being: vinyl, which has seen a resurgence, thanks to new music fans who want something more to have and hold than a digital stream. “If we could have waved a magic wand and turned the CDs into vinyl we would have recovered a lot quicker,” Vere says. “It was definitely where the interest was, but it was like turning the bloody Queen Mary around.”

Beaumont says that initiatives like Record Store Day, which began in 2008, is only part of the reason behind vinyl’s resurgence. “It’s only one day [of the year]. My take on it is, there was a generation that didn’t buy anything; the new generation is buying something. They don’t buy CDs, because they’re dead – and you can’t impress someone with the amount of files you have.”

Since the dark days of 2011, several staff have been re-employed, though mostly on a part-time basis. On the day of my visit (truthfully, there aren’t many days that I don’t) the music is intermittently drowned out by the whine of saws and drills: the shop is preparing to consolidate its operations to the basement downstairs, which previously catered to dance and hip-hop fans – “Boogie Wonderland”, as it was once dubbed.

Vere will also be joining forces with former employee, Ric Trevaskes, who runs second-hand retailer Egg Records in West End. A lifelong music tragic, Trevaskes started at Rocking Horse as a 14-year-old, after being spotted dressed in a Devo outfit complete with the famous red “energy dome” on his head. “Once it’s in your blood, and you know it’s the best job you’re ever going to get, it’s hard to resist,” he says.

Now Trevaskes, who confesses he was “very nostalgic” for Rocking Horse, is bringing his vast collection of second-hand stock back under its roof. Vere says his former pupil “brings a whole new dimension to things. He runs record fairs; he has a little black book that you could kill for, and he has unending enthusiasm.” With Trevaskes back in the fold and the stolid Beaumont, the store is in good hands.

Not that Vere, who is well into his 60s, has any thoughts of handing over. “I wouldn’t mind an extra day of golf,” he admits. “But I still enjoy coming in here, and I’ve discovered that most of my friends who are retired are bored shitless, and looking for something to do. Besides, [federal MP for Longman] Wyatt Roy wants us all to work until we’re 70. So I’m a little way off that milestone yet.”

First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), 31 October 2015

Tour de farce

Richard “Evil Dick” Hunt is doing a handstand. We’re in a plush dressing room at a venue called Le Cargo – it’s so cushy that it even has the band’s name on the door, an unheard-of event – and Hunt, by way of limbering up, is hoisting his small frame over a large, comfy, suspiciously new-smelling corner couch.

I watch warily as Hunt, who’s already flying on a combination of cough syrup, cognac (to protect his shredded voice) and beer, inverts himself aloft. This may not end well. Facing away from the wall, he gets himself balanced precariously on his head. Then, unsteadily, he begins to stretch out his little legs.

Le Cargo is a major performing arts complex in Caen, a couple of hours’ drive north-west of Paris. HITS – a full-tilt, five-piece rock & roll band from Brisbane, Australia – have taken all before them on their first European tour. It’s the second-last gig of a four-week adventure that’s seen the band play 20 shows in less than a month.

Every Friday night at Le Cargo, the local government subsidises free concerts for up-and-coming groups in a room that would comfortably fit 450 punters. Everything is arranged to make young bands look and feel like stars: there’s a high stage, drum riser, light show, and the sound is excellent.

Not to mention that dressing room. It’s got a wall-to-wall mirror at one end that adjoins a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over the Caen Canal, which runs out to the English Channel about a dozen kilometres upstream. At the other end of the room, opposite the mirror, is the corner couch.

All of this is, as you might have gathered, unimaginable luxury for a band that, on any given night in Brisbane, is lucky to attract more than 100 paying punters. On this tour, many of the gigs have been to 20 or 30 people, some in venues that would make tiny Fortitude Valley icon Ric’s look like Madison Square Garden by comparison.

Hunt points his toes skyward. His feet are adorned in lovely black suede RM Williams boots, with classic rocker’s Cuban heels, which instantly shatter the print on the wall. Glass rains down, even as the print remains in place and Hunt heroically maintains the handstand.

The larger, heavier chunks of glass that don’t make it to the floor land on Hunt, falling around his magnificently unkempt mane of blond hair much like a circus knife-thrower outlines the head of his smiling female assistant. And still he holds the handstand, until finally the clatter of glass stops.

Everyone else in the room stands, mouths agape in horrified silence.

“Oh, shit,” someone says.

Hunt dismounts the couch, grins, and casually brushes away the pieces of glass still clinging to his hair and flannel shirt. He’s completely unscathed. The rest of us dissolve into laughter. Richie, not finished, weaves his way over to the sink under the long makeup mirror, and vomits copiously into it. Blaaargh!

[Footage from Le Cargo, thanks to Youtube user TCITR. This was arguably the best show of the tour. Mind the vomit at 16.50!]

Let’s get the disclosures out of the way. I became involved with HITS in 2009, when the band’s debut album, Living With You Is Killing Me, was released. I fell in love with it, with them, and subsequently co-financed the reissue of the CD on a limited vinyl pressing of 300 copies (now sold out).

It was due mainly to that commitment that I was asked to chauffeur the band through Europe. A double-life spent writing and driving maxi-taxis on nightshift was as good a grounding as any for moonlighting as the driver for Brisbane’s hardest-drinking rock band. (The tour wasn’t wickedly titled Euro Double-Vision for nothing.)

dblev

There are more than a few other judges, though, who will tell you that HITS – the name is ironically chosen, deliberately capitalised, and a knowing anagram – are the best rock & roll band in Australia. True, none of the judges are named Seal or Delta Goodrem or Keith Urban. But since when did The Voice have anything to do with rock & roll?

In this writer’s opinion, at least, they’re by far and away the most recklessly exciting group this city has produced since the Saints. No, they will never sell as many records as Powderfinger. But they have the charisma, the sound and most of all, the songs (real songs, with hooks and choruses and quite possibly the best set of riffs since AC/DC last had it up) to leave a lasting legacy.

HITS also have something that in this day and age shouldn’t be unique, but is: they’re a mixed-gender group with not one, but two female guitarists. Tamara Bell (who, just to add to the band’s volatile internal chemistry, has been in a relationship with Hunt for nearly a decade) plays with the demented fury of Angus Young trapped in Chrissy Amphlett’s body; Stacey Coleman pumps out the rhythm with a sneer to make Joan Jett blush.

Over them, and a thunderous rhythm section comprising bass player Andy Buchanan and New Zealand-born drummer Gregor Mulvey, Hunt pours out his frustrations and insecurities: stories of drinking, depression, drugs, going to rehab and failing: as he puts it in the title track of Living With You Is Killing Me, “I’m sorry baby, the 12 steps are too hard to climb.”

It’s the opposite of the usual model of female-fronted bands, or groups where women play stereotypically supportive roles (usually bass, following the examples of 1980s indie-rock icons Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth, and the Pixies’ Kim Deal). It gives HITS an immediate visual distinction.

The most striking thing about them, though, is the way they deliver their music on stage. The song titles tell the stories: Bitter And Twisted. Sometimes You Just Don’t Know Who Your Friends Are. Touch Of The Shorts. The End. But HITS aren’t in the least bit sorry for themselves. Far from depressing, they’re life-affirming.

Their shows are wild, joyous, hilarious, and sometimes, quite frankly, they’re terrible. But they’re never less than entertaining, not least because you can’t wipe the smiles off their faces. Even on a bad night, HITS are a glorious rock & roll band because, as one critic put it, “The compelling thing they have that most bands lack is personality. Dysfunctional rogue personality, just this side of out of control.” Really, they’re best summed up by another marvellously self-descriptive title: Loose Cannons.

EURO Double-Vision is actually a bit of a tour misnomer. After starting the adventure in Amsterdam (Whose damn fool idea was that?), 17 of the 20 shows are in France which, despite being better known for producing the late, great Serge Gainsbourg and shopping-mall staples Air, also harbours an perverse, enduring affection for Australian rock music.

It’s not just AC/DC, either. In terms of rock iconography, what we see everywhere – T-shirts, patches, badges, tour posters, you name it – is the distinctive logo of Sydney legends Radio Birdman who, along with the Saints, kicked off the punk movement in Australia back in the mid-1970s. (Rob Younger, Birdman’s ex-singer, is slated to produce HITS’ next album.)

The French connection to the Australian underground goes back in the 1980s. Bands inspired by or directly descended from the Saints/Birdman legacy – Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, Younger’s other band the New Christs – toured through Europe on the back of having their records picked up and distributed locally by a former Le Havre-based independent record label, Closer.

In more recent years, Brisbane bands like 6ftHick, the Vegas Kings and their respective offshoots, Gentle Ben and his Sensitive Side and Texas Tea, have all mounted successful tours here, supported by new labels like Beast (based in Rennes) and Turborock (Caen). And in many cases – in an exciting but sad echo of older musical exports like the Go-Betweens – they’re finding bigger, more enthusiastic audiences overseas than at home.

THE north-western peninsula of Brittany (Bretagne) is the centre for all this rock action. Just off the main streets of Rennes, Beast Records owner Seb Blanchais owns a shop at the bottom of the crooked timber framework of a 17th-century tenement block. It’s got an Australian record section fatter than anything I’ve seen in any comparable shop at home, stuffed full of rare and limited pressings.

On the outskirts of town, he runs a club called Mondo Bizarro, named after a late-period Ramones album. “The right place to rock!” it insists, on a poster advertising upcoming gigs stuck outside on its white stucco wall.

“I’m glad we’re not in the wrong place,” Bell says.

I look at the poster. They take all types here – from thrash to funk, folk to punk and all shades of heavy metal in between. Coming up soon, for example, is Cauchemar (“Quebec: Heavy Doom”) with special guests Children of Doom (“Lille: Doom Metal”). Really, the venue’s just an old house – the entrance hall’s been converted into a bar and there’s a stage mounted at one end of the lounge room – but it’s got buckets of atmosphere.

Upstairs, Bell warms up her voice. “Nothing suck-seeds like success,” she belts, quoting a line from one of the band’s songs, with added emphasis.

“It’s still there,” she says, reassured.

The small dressing room soon fills with enough smoke to gas us all. I wonder if Bell’s voice will still be there by the end of the night. Hunt, for his part, is already sure he has nodules on his vocal cords, which after seven years in HITS (and 13 more in other bands, including the notorious Strutter, whose sole album gloried in the title Motherfuckers From The Bowels Of Hell) is not surprising. He has two basic modes: scream, and scream harder, “Until your whole body is telling you it can’t do it any more.”

Coleman – who has a day job at home selling advertising for long-standing independent radio station 4ZZZ – returns from downstairs, where she’s been trying without success to get the attention of the sound guy. Every time she makes eye contact with him, he scuttles away. “I think he’s under the impression I’m a groupie,” she says. “I like it when they think that. Then they see me on stage…”

“Blaaaargh!”

We all look around. I’m getting used to that sound. But it’s not Hunt this time. It’s one of the kids from the support band, Barbed Wire, who’s just spewed out the window. Not all of it’s made it to the pavement below, though: instead, he’s puked mostly onto Mulvey’s only towel, hanging over the sill to dry.

I decide to go outside.

BEN Salter – solo artist, leader of fellow Brisbane band the Gin Club and ace ex-Queen Street Mall Beatle-busker – has joined us on tour for a few days. He’s over here on a six-month songwriting grant, living out of a small suitcase, building a new fan base in Europe. Have guitar; will travel. He and Buchanan are quietly propping up the bar.

“You look like you’ve got The Fear, Staffo,” Salter says, noting my grey visage.

It sounds scary, but I’m not quite sure what he means. “It’s just generalised anxiety; existential dread,” he explains cheerfully. “Everyone on tour gets it at some point. It’s the drinking that does it.”

Gregor appears. He’d slipped off somewhere to find a kip – might have been a park bench, but then again, it might have been somebody’s front yard. He’s not quite sure.

“See, the fear just bounces off The Maori,” Salter says (an affectionate nickname, saluting the cherubic and very caucasian Mulvey’s Kiwi heritage). “It just ricochets, like ping-pong balls off a Centurion tank.”

Wait until he goes upstairs and sees his towel, I think.

Salter’s dad was a Vietnam veteran. Once, marching with him in an ANZAC Day parade, he tried to explain to some of his dad’s fellow diggers that he was a musician. He watched as they screwed up their faces, trying to understand his choice of vocation; the different ways you can measure success.

“Why don’t you go on Australian Idol?” one eventually offered, trying genuinely to be helpful.

Salter tried to explain, politely, how such a move would fly in the face of everything he was about. Buchanan nods. “It’s like wanting to be a Formula One driver and someone telling you that you should settle for driving taxis,” he says.

Some things can’t be explained. Most of the creative people I know – writers, musicians, visual artists – do what they do not just because they love it but because, more crucially, they have to; something inside of them is fighting to be released. And sometimes you need to feel the love of a new audience, to know that what you’re doing connects with people other than your friends in your own little corner of the world.

The show’s a blinder. HITS pull out a new song, Lost In The Somme, for the first time on tour. It’s a tribute to Hunt’s great-grandfather, who lost his life in one of the Great War’s worst catastrophes. The song is in two parts: a pure punk, machine-gun riff to open (the military pun is deliberate), a couple of verses, a chorus, then a pause, and Richie crumples to the floor as if shot.

The music slows to a grind, based on just a couple of chords. Now it’s the sound of battle, as though the band is wading through muck. Hunt is still on the floor, moaning. This continues for a couple of tortured minutes. Then the beat kicks in once more, double-time. Hunt’s back on his feet:

Yeah, that’s no way to go, no way to go
Lost in the mud and snow, the mud and snow

Throughout the show, there’s a woman down the front, repeatedly grabbing at Hunt’s crotch. After the performance she propositions him boldly while a non-stop Ramones medley plays in the background.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I love my girlfriend very much.”

“I could just be your mistress,” she replies earnestly. But she’s out of luck.

WHEN he’s at home, Hunt does odd jobs at a bar in West End and builds sets for the Arts Theatre on Petrie Terrace. For years, he was a regular behind the counter of local institution Rocking Horse Records. He’s in his early 40s – no spring chicken in this game – but he’s nobody’s fool, either. He’s studied rock’s history and mythology intently, and he knows what works and what doesn’t.

“I spend so much time watching actors – how they deliver lines; how you can express so much with your body language and your hands,” he says. “It’s an important point of difference in our band. So many singers have their microphone stand [he mimics being glued to one]. I’m like, no mic stand!” (This changes by the end of the tour, by which time he’s using a stand with aplomb as an extra prop.)

He also knows when to get out of the way. “Usually when Tam’s playing a solo I try to stand over near her amp,” he says. “That’s something I picked up from Bon Scott. You don’t want to grandstand at those times. You want people to listen to the solo. They should, because it’s fucking great.”

There’s more to Bell than meets the eye, too. If HITS is mostly Hunt’s creative vision, Bell, 31, is the band’s heartbeat and moral centre. The classic Catholic schoolgirl who went off the rails in her youth, she’s made a successful return to mature-age study, and is completing her Honours in Justice after blitzing her undergraduate degree.

Earlier in the tour, after a vigorous debate about corruption in the Catholic Church with Buchanan – a UQ graduate with majors in classics and French who runs an education bookstore – she made a declaration. “We’re artists. We like to make rock & roll,” she declares. “But I’m not a dumb-arse rock & roller. None of us are. And I won’t pretend to be.”

THE last show of the tour is in Le Havre, in the basement of an Irish pub where the pipes are so superheated it feels more like Brisbane during a heatwave. We’re all exhausted and sick. A song by the Ramones, I Wanna Be Sedated, has become a recurring theme: “Get me to the airport, put me on a plane / Hurry, hurry, hurry / Before I go insane / I can’t control my fingers / I can’t control my brain.”

“Bonsoir, motherfuckers,” Hunt yells.

It’s a young crowd – kids in their teens and early 20s, mostly – and they go completely mental: one picks Hunt up during the first song and nearly succeeds in putting his head through the low ceiling, while Bell and Coleman are fending off stage invaders with their stilettos.

Getting pummelled in the mosh, I finally stagger from the front across the stage to the safety of the wings. It’s nearing the end of the second-last song of the tour, Peter And Paul. Richie suddenly approaches me at side of stage. There’s an evil grin on his face. He’s holding out the microphone to me.

You know what to do.

Rock & roll has always attracted misfits; people who don’t feel they have a place to go. If you never ran with the crowd at school – or the crowd never let you in – you may have found solace in the voices of Iggy. Or Morrissey. Or Patti.

Outside of society,” Smith sang, “That’s where I wanna be.” You wouldn’t resign yourself to your status as an outcast: you would celebrate it. It’s a different kind of validation. HITS like to say they’re a celebration of resignation. Their songs are full of loneliness and pain and defeat and struggle. But what makes them special is their delivery, which is so joyful and inclusive.

Image 2-05-2016 at 5.14 PM
Photo by Antonia Enos

I charge into the crowd to sing the last two choruses. I’m totally unprepared, and now it’s me who’s barely got any voice left; I’m not doing much more than hollering, really, but it doesn’t matter. The song finishes. I dive off the stage, and I haven’t done that since I was 20. A dozen hands hold me aloft.

I hear Hunt laughing his head off behind me. “Don’t drop him! Don’t drop him! We need him to drive us, just for one more day … Please don’t hurt him!”

First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), 18 August 2012

Bean-counters at the gates of Queensland

And here I was thinking that Queensland wasn’t about to return to the Dark Ages. That nice, “comparatively urbane” Campbell Newman wouldn’t do anything really dumb in his first fortnight, like, say, axe the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. Would he?

Oh, wait. He would. He has.

“…The Queensland government has decided not to proceed with the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 2012 which will save Queensland taxpayers $244,475, not including the cost of resourcing the awards.

“The government would like to acknowledge all the sponsors, judges, stakeholders, entrants and winners for their valued contribution to the program to date.”

Well, that’s nice. Clearly though, their contributions are no longer valued – or perhaps more to the point, their contributions are nowhere near as politically valuable as a holy budget surplus. I can only guess, given the speed with which the axe has fallen, that literary prizes fall under the umbrella of the “waste and mismanagement” Newman railed against while in opposition.

On one hand, it’s smart politics. Newman will guess that not too many people in the arts sector will have voted for him, and probably never will. This won’t be news for more than five minutes outside of the minority of Queenslanders that actually, you know, read books.

As for the even tinier proportion who spend years writing them, well, at least we’ve got something to write about again. Now the barbarians bean-counters have stormed the gates and are busily looting and pillaging our quaint little hamlet (i.e. rummaging around the back of the couch in search of any spare 5c pieces that might help put the budget back in surplus), get ready for dark warnings about the return of the spectre of Bjelke-Petersen.

Perhaps Newman can contract the Deen Brothers (“All we leave behind are memories”) to knock down GoMA at 4am. That has the makings of a good play, actually – too bad it’ll probably have to be made in Sydney or Melbourne. How about prosecuting the local indie record store for stocking obscene titles? Hey, it didn’t work when Joh’s finest sent their shock troopers into Rocking Horse in 1988, but like Bob Roberts said, The Times Are Changin’ Back! 2012: the Reactionary Revolution starts here!

Seriously, though, now that Queensland is officially the only state without a government-embossed book award – for heaven’s sake, even the Northern Territory, with a population not much more than a 10th the size of Brisbane alone, has a Chief Minister’s literary prize – Newman might like to pause for a moment to consider the wider ramifications for Queensland’s cultural reputation.

It’s taken a long time even to begin to convince the rest of the country that we of the Deep North aren’t (to use John Birmingham’s favourite phrase) a state of slack-jawed provincials whose idea of refinement is playing the banjo with our toes. Might I suggest there are better ways of pinching a few pennies than effectively saying that the state places no value on reading, or writing, or introspection. Or even the very idea that political and cultural life is a dialogue that can play out in longer and more meaningful form than the 24-hour news cycle.

It’ll be interesting to see where the axe falls next. The Brisbane Writer’s Festival? The Queensland Music Festival? And, is this a harbinger of what arts policy under an Abbott government might look like?

Perhaps I’d better add, by way of a disclaimer, that the Brisbane City Council, under Campbell Newman, put a not insubstantial amount of money into Queensland Music Festival’s staging of Pig City as an event in 2007, for which the near-as-dammit original lineup of the Saints were persuaded to reform. But this is just a dumb, retrograde, mean move that in the long term will cost far more than it saves. Here we are, Queensland: Stranded all over again.

Oh yeah, and did I mention this is supposed to be the National Year of Reading?

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