I’m from Melbourne. I spent the first 15 years of my life there, in the outer eastern suburbs of Wantirna South and Ringwood North. I grew up on Australian Rules football and Countdown until punk entered my life 10 years too late. Then, in 1987, my parents relocated the family to Brisbane. Other than a few regrettable years in Sydney in the late 90s, I’ve been here ever since.
I still feel like a Victorian, though I’ve come to hate the cold. I still follow a Melbourne-based AFL team, despite having written on the side about the Brisbane Lions for 13 years. I even wrote a book about Brisbane, a sort of love letter to my adopted city and, especially, its music. The sound of the place captured me. To this day though, I feel like an outsider or interloper. Stranded, you might say, far from home.
But when I hear Streets Of Your Town by the Go-Betweens I feel differently. Never a hit at the time (the band’s co-founder Robert Forster has said they may as well have released a free jazz record, such was its commercial impact), the song, written by Grant McLennan, has become part of the city’s fabric. The Courier-Mail even used it for an ad campaign when it downsized from a broadsheet. They cut the line about the town being full of battered wives, of course.
That was the Go-Betweens, though. They called theirs the striped sunlight sound, and they captured it best on 16 Lovers Lane, their sixth album, 30 years old last month. Streets Of Your Town, the hit that wasn’t, is so lyrically visual it seems to sparkle in the late afternoon sun. At the heart of the song is aimlessness: “I ride your river under the bridge / And I take your boat out to the reach / ’Cos I love that engine roar / But I still don’t know what I’m here for.”
A lot of people in Brisbane ask themselves that question. Many leave, as I did, in their 20s, only to return. It’s like the city has a push/pull magnetic field around it.
For all the punk energy that roared out of the place in the 70s in the wake of the Saints, and for all its growth since, Brisbane has a stillness missing from Melbourne and Sydney. Partially it’s the heat and humidity of the increasingly endless summer. That builds tension. The Saints’ guitarist, Ed Kuepper, wrote of it in one of his best solo songs, Electrical Storm. You can get stuck here just watching the thunderheads build up, waiting for the place to blow.
In between, things drift. The Apartments’ Peter Milton Walsh, the finest Australian songwriter most Australians have never heard of, puts that push-pull effect of Brisbane best in No Hurry: “Smell the rain that’s coming, all the windows open wide,” he sings, “I’ll never get away / I can’t stay here forever … Someone slowed the whole world down, in the old town called the past.” It’s a great place for procrastinators.
I came of age around the same time Brisbane was awkwardly doing the same. Expo 88 was happening on the South Bank of the river. It looked a little quaint to my Melbourne eyes but, for many Queenslanders, it opened theirs to a bigger, brighter world. Directly opposite, the state and its government were in the dock as Tony Fitzgerald’s inquiry calmly tore Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s corrupt police state apart. Brisbane wasn’t called Pig City for nothing.
There was a surge of energy that pulsed through the city in the next decade as a new generation of artists emerged. I can listen to Screamfeeder’s Wrote You Off, a song from their second album Burn Out Your Name, and I’m 22 again, on the cusp of … Well, I didn’t have a clue what. I saw Regurgitator’s second or third gig and was stunned but not surprised to see Quan Yeomans on stage: I’d gone to school with him and he was always miles ahead of everyone else.
There was a separate scene that revolved around Custard, in a Spring Hill house owned by David McCormack’s parents. McCormack had another band called COW – Country or Western – with drummer Glenn Thompson; they ended up being Robert Forster’s backing band on his solo album Calling From A Country Phone. Like the early Go-Betweens, though, what McCormack really tapped into was the suburban viewpoint of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.
Brisbane still has a streak of that suburban sensibility a mile wide – listen to Jeremy Neale, for example, last year’s winner of the GW McLennan fellowship. Jeremy’s song In Stranger Times is a favourite of mine from the last decade, tapping into the pre-Beatles AM radio sound that Richman fetishised. You can hear it in the dream pop of Babaganouj and Hatchie, too.
Grant’s death in May 2006 sent a violent shudder of mortality through everyone involved with music here. We’d lost our first genuine elder prematurely, at 48. I’m 47 now. Life comes at you fast and we’ve all gotten older with the music, and the people who made it. Powderfinger’s These Days is probably a very nostalgic song for many. Who can’t relate to the feeling of things not turning out as we planned? Some of us never had plans to begin with.
What I love most about Brisbane is that it’s unafraid to be itself. There’s no confected competition or rivalry with Sydney or Melbourne to be had. The music made here was always too variable to be reduced to a “Brisbane sound” but the best of it is unafraid to be itself too, and that’s the stuff that travels and endures. Most of our best bands, like Blank Realm, SixFtHick and HITS all command much bigger audiences overseas. Our flaw is not to rate ourselves.
They also prove that making worthwhile art isn’t necessarily a consequence of reactionary politics. It seemed to me that Bjelke-Petersen’s biggest contribution to music in Queensland was encouraging a generation of artists to leave. But the survivors wear it like a badge of honour. Some never made it back here. For those who remained or, like me, came to visit and decided to stay, Brisbane is just home – stranded or not.
The ABC news radio announcer’s incredulous tone said it all. “An unknown band from Brisbane, by the name of the Saints, has earned rave reviews in England for a record it made itself,” he said. It was September 1976, and the words, complete with the plummy delivery, were loaded with cultural cringe – all the more so for the fact that the band hailed from the backwoods of Brisbane.
That record, (I’m) Stranded – dubbed “Single of this and every week” in a hyperventilating review in the UK’s Sounds magazine – turns 40 years old this month, and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed Brisbane forever, both from within, and in terms of its external perception. And it was true: outside of a small clique, the band was all but unknown in its hometown at the time of the song’s release.
The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster once wrote that punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia, for two reasons: we had Joh-Bjelke Petersen, “the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservative that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against”; and we had the Saints, the “musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart” that gave a city that usually chased music history its own place in it.
Australia didn’t even have its own national anthem in 1976. (I’m) Stranded was more like an anti-anthem, with its central theme of alienation. The singer, Chris Bailey, with the gritty sneer of a young Van Morrison, is marooned “far from home”. The literal meaning was actually more prosaic, the song’s music coming to guitarist Ed Kuepper on a midnight train home to the Brisbane’s far-flung suburbs.
Then there was the video, which begins with the unintended metaphor of drummer Ivor Hay kicking open a door. The band are playing in an abandoned building on inner-city Petrie Terrace, Bailey singing in front of a fireplace with the words “(I’m) Stranded” daubed above in red letters, which would form the backdrop for the cover of the Saints’ debut album of the same name, released in February 1977.
The cover is as much a harbinger of the Blank Generation as the first Ramones album. But there are no uniforms in sight, much less leather jackets. The band stares sullenly back at the camera, a large hole in the floorboards beneath their feet in front of them. In the ensuing years, countless bands and fans – including Brad Shepherd (then of the Fun Things, later the Hoodoo Gurus) and Mark Callaghan (the Riptides, later Gang Gajang) – had their own photographs taken in front of that fireplace until the building’s eventual redevelopment.
The Saints were seers. They’d formed in mid 1973, the same year as the release of the first New York Dolls album and Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, and while they hadn’t beaten the Ramones onto record (the New Yorkers had released their first album four months earlier), they were ahead of all the UK punks (the Damned’s New Rose was released a month later, in October 1976) and Sydney’s Radio Birdman.
But arguably more important than chronology and the Saints’ place in the bigger scheme of things was their determined independence. There were no venues to play in Brisbane, so the band hired out suburban halls. No local record company was interested in what they were doing, so they hired out a local studio, paid for the recording themselves, and put out the song on their own label, Fatal Records.
This fact was noted in Jonh (John) Ingham’s review in Sounds: “This Queensland combo had to record and release on their own label; for some reason Australian record companies think the band lack commercial potential. What a bunch of idiots.” EMI in London – partially in an attempt to claw back lost credibility after sacking the Sex Pistols – duly instructed its baffled representatives in Sydney to sign the band.
In the wake of the band’s inevitable decampment to England in early 1977, a local scene began to take root in Brisbane. There were archetypal punk bands like the Leftovers and Razar, whose song Task Force was the first in a long line of singles to take aim at the local police state. Then there were the more cerebral Riptides, the Apartments and the Go-Betweens, soon to leave for England themselves.
All had been inspired by the Saints’ willingness to “seize the sea of possibilities” spoken of by another seer, Patti Smith, a couple of years earlier. Brisbane now has a Go Between Bridge, as well as Bee Gees Way on Redcliffe Peninsula, where the Gibb brothers began their performing career. But (I’m) Stranded was a foundation stone in Brisbane’s cultural history for which the Saints deserve similar recognition.
The biggest problem one faces when writing a profile about Robert Forster is the knowledge that he could quite easily write it himself, and would probably prefer to. The lauded singer-songwriter – co-founder of Brisbane’s revered Go-Betweens; creator of six solo albums; former Pascall prize-winning music writer for The Monthly – likes telling stories. Sometimes he likes to make them up.
This does not mean the stories are not truthful; just that Forster likes to tell them in a particular way. Stories serve a purpose. They make the man, but also enlarge the myth. For a book accompanying the release of a lavish Go-Betweens box set earlier this year, Forster wrote a lengthy potted history of the group – all of it, disarmingly, in the second person. He became his own, not particularly harsh critic.
For his new album Songs To Play, he wrote and directed an eight-minute trailer for which he scripted not only the narrative, but the quotes of those appearing: friends, band members, even family. Yet he rejects the idea that he is some kind of control freak. He says it was about skewing expectations, and playing with the form: “That’s what Billy Wilder did, that’s what Orson Welles did.”
This sort of trick – he denies it’s a schtick – is Forster all over. “I’m not much up on social media and how you promote an album [but] that seemed the most interesting way of doing it to me,” he says, in a café near his home in Brisbane’s western suburbs. “It went back to [D.A. Pennebaker’s] Don’t Look Back … I enjoyed putting words into people’s mouths, that they’ve got to say straight-faced to a camera.”
Not everyone enjoyed reciting them. “I cringed,” admits sound engineer Jamie Trevaskis. “I want to hide under the table, because they’re not my words, and I feel awkward saying that stuff. He never said, ‘Jamie, I want to make an analogue album,’ and I never replied, ‘That’s what I do.’ That’s when I realised, the story is the most important thing for Robert. He was making a story for the album to sit on top of.”
Forster is an enigma. A student of Bob Dylan, he assiduously cultivates his image. Asked to describe himself, though, he does so “In very straight terms. Fifty-eight. Australian – which is important. A family man [he and German wife Karin Bäumler have two children; Louis, 17, and Loretta, 14], which is also very important. I cook things up at home – I’m talking about art – and take that out to the world. That’s it.”
Except it’s not. Like his plain-spoken, barely sung songs, there is always more going on than first appears.
Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Dave Graney wrote a tune that may or may not be about Forster, which he drily called Everything Was Legendary With Robert. “His riveting self-consciousness drew you in / The crowd gathered to see what he was looking at, talking about … It wasn’t him, or the times, it was just the angle he locked into / The attitude, the window that came between him and the world.”
Long-time friend Peter Fischmann, who actually does get to speak for himself in the trailer, says Forster “has a great understanding of the ridiculousness of life that goes over the head of some people. His irony confounds.” Forster, for his part, says it’s an extension of his earlier band. “There’s a playfulness there, which I like. The Go-Betweens, right from the start, were always based on a certain amount of theorising.”
Peter Milton Walsh, singer-songwriter behind the Apartments and very briefly an early member of the Go-Betweens, invokes the Monkees, a crucial early influence on the group. “He’s a daydream believer, a wonderful mix of innocence and calculation.” He describes an optimist: “Robert’s world is one where it is forever spring – it’s his principal season. The promise of it all; everything that’s on the way.”
“There’s a sense in his songs of big stuff going on between the lines,” says writer and editor Christian Ryan, who first tapped the previously untried Forster to write about music for The Monthly for its first issue in 2005. “His words are very spare – it’s almost in shorthand, so you’re listening [and] your mind is simultaneously operating on a separate high-wire level, thinking, what the hell is going on here.”
Forster resigned his commission at The Monthly in 2013. It was a brave call. “The one source of constant income I had, I threw away. I’d been there eight years. I’d written myself out, I thought, and I wasn’t getting around to the other things I was doing.” Apart from assembling the box set, he’s been working on a memoir. (“If you say rock musician and memoir, you know, eyes will roll,” he grimaces.)
Ryan had a hunch that the songwriter could transfer his poetry into prose, a rare skill. “Taut, exotic, precise, vivid yet never straining, in terms of the imagery. And no banality, ever,” he says – and that’s about the songs. He describes the thrill of receiving Forster’s first piece, on Antony and the Johnsons’ album I Am A Bird Now, as “like receiving a postcard from the moon”.
Fischmann alludes to another early influence, David Bowie – but not in the way you might expect. “Robert is like the man who fell to earth. The machinations of modern life confound him, but when it comes to matters of the human heart, he is a Zen master.” He cites the time when, after the Go-Betweens first broke up in 1990, he returned from Germany with Karin, and earnestly asked a friend how to buy a fridge.
Forster’s songwriting partner in the Go-Betweens, the late Grant McLennan, shared Forster’s disdain for the mundane. After his friend’s premature death in 2006, Forster wrote a eulogy in The Monthly noting that McLennan didn’t drive and owned no wallet, watch, credit card or computer. He did, however, maintain a subscription to the New York Review Of Books.
To call the Go-Betweens bookish would be an understatement: select items from McLennan’s library came as bonuses with early copies of the box set. On the inner sleeve of the band’s final album, Oceans Apart, McLennan is dressed in jeans, a fleece jacket and ski cap. Forster is immaculate in suit and spectacles, leaning against a tree trunk with a hefty hardback tucked under his arm for effect.
The pair were a contrast, but again, all was not as it seemed. Forster was flamboyant; a bevy of tics and mannerisms, and a wardrobe ranging from canary-yellow suits to dresses as the occasion demanded. McLennan was the quiet one, with the most sincere eyebrows in rock & roll. Off stage, though, McLennan was the hell-raiser with a turbulent personal life; Forster was settled; the “sensible rock”, as he called himself.
McLennan’s death finished the band for good, after a second coming that spanned three albums with a new line-up from the year 2000. In 2008, Forster released his fifth solo album, The Evangelist, which included unfinished songs by McLennan. The record hung heavy with grief. “A river ran and a train ran and a dream ran through everything that he did,” Forster sang on It Ain’t Easy, one of the jauntier tunes.
After The Evangelist’s release, Forster beat a deliberate retreat. The original aim was to not release another album for five years; it stretched to seven. “It was like Act Four,” he says. “If you take The Go-Betweens as Act One, the solo years as two and the band getting back together as three … I wanted Act Four to come with a certain amount of gravitas.”
The first step was to assemble a new band. Long-serving collaborators Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson had moved to Sydney, and Forster couldn’t afford to fly them north for rehearsals. He also wanted to open a new chapter. Along with Karin, who plays violin (son Louis also plays some guitar), he decided to work with Luke McDonald and Scott Bromiley, from Brisbane’s John Steel Singers.
Songs To Play is a very different album, the sound of a dedicated craftsman starting over, with tunes reminiscent of the Go-Betweens’ early years: small, suburban songs indebted to Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers. “I wanted to write something more upbeat. The feelings that I had were more life-affirming. There was just a looseness in the way that I felt that I can only describe as a bounce out of my last album.”
Perhaps the most telling track is called I Love Myself And I Always Have. “It’s one of the most serious songs on the album,” he says, straight-faced, knowing full well that audiences – particularly in Australia – could take lines like “I hold myself in high regard / And loving yourself shouldn’t be so hard” as a joke. It’s not. “I like throwing an idea out and then twisting it right in front of their faces.”
In a recent essay, “What’s the difference between a pop star and a rock star?”, Forster expands on one of his 10 rules of rock & roll: being a rock star is a 24-hour-a-day job. He recalls a chance encounter with the late Dragon singer, Marc Hunter, one morning in Kings Cross in the early 1980s: Forster was out for a walk; Hunter, clearly at the end of a long night on the tiles, still looked, in Forster’s words, “fucking incredible”.
Forster, by his own admission, isn’t a rock star anymore, even though – like Dave Graney – the dividing line between the private and public persona can be paper-thin. “You’ve got to be careful because, you know, Hunter died from it. [Michael] Hutchence died from it. Bon Scott. Chrissy Amphlett died, but under other circumstances. So it’s dangerous. People die young.” He doesn’t mention McLennan.
“One of the things I like best about Robert, actually, is that I don’t think he really wants you to know the artist,” Ryan says. “It’s kind of an old-school thing which has gone out of rock music, in the age where everybody’s tweeting and making their personal lives very transparent. Robert still sees value in mystery. He doesn’t go out of his way to tell you about his love life.”
In the trailer, another of Forster’s friends is asked to describe him. “He’s difficult,” she replies, after a studied pause. In person, though, Forster is unfailingly courteous; even affable. But, he says, “somehow I enjoyed being on the other side of the camera, having written the lines for someone to say that I’m difficult, while I watch it. I don’t know what that makes me.”
First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 11 September 2015
Robert Forster, co-founder of the Go-Betweens, writes that in the small, but febrile post-Saints Brisbane music scene of the late 1970s, everyone knew each other. That should be no surprise: really, they still do. But even back in those days, he says, he and the late Grant McLennan knew of Peter Milton Walsh before they had met him; he was a man with “whispers and claims on his trail”.
Walsh is the near-myth behind the Apartments, the group he named after one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films. It speaks of him. He wore impeccable suits and shades under a big mop of blond hair in Brisbane’s sweltering heat. He had a taste for the arcane and the exotic. His music is of another time: of post-punk, certainly, but also of Burt Bacharach and Jacques Brel; Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg.
He is a star in France, yet all but unknown here. He lives quietly in Sydney, rarely performs, and has just made his first album – his fifth overall – in 18 years. The man himself is no mystery; just not one to make a noise about himself. He deadpans he has been “hard at work developing my sitting still and keeping quiet talents, which to me are a little bit neglected in this world”.
Walsh had a very brief stint in the Go-Betweens in 1979, but he already had the Apartments, and he quickly returned to them. (The Go-Betweens honoured him with two songs: That Way, from Before Hollywood, and an early B-side, Don’t Let Him Come Back, with the lines: “Who’s that dressed in black / Who’s that in his apartment / With his crazy walk / Don’t let him come back!”)
In the years since, following the release of the Apartments’ debut album The Evening Visits … And Stays For Years on the prestigious Rough Trade label in 1985, he has slowly built a reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. One song from that album, Mr Somewhere, was covered by British ensemble This Mortal Coil (keeping company with tunes written by Tim Buckley, Big Star, Syd Barrett and Gene Clark). A later single, The Shyest Time, featured in the John Hughes film Some Kind Of Wonderful.
In the 1990s, Australian soul legend Renée Geyer tackled another of his songs, Knowing You Were Loved, on the recommendation of another fan, Dave Graney. That song had come from Walsh’s second album, Drift – a record which reputedly sold some 25,000 copies in France, but less than 200 in his home country. It amounts to, one critic wrote, “one of the great crimes of neglect in Australian music”.
Graney, who first met Walsh in the early 1980s while the latter was serving a brief stint as bass player in Ed Kuepper’s band the Laughing Clowns, describes Walsh as “a great songwriter, very individual. He has dark and shifting tones, with a pop default, but epic peaks and falls. Great to talk with – always talk laced with references to arcane literature and music. Always carried a dramatic back story about him, impossibly authentic. You can’t make that shit up.”
But the back story to The Apartments’ new album No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal – released after a crowd-funding campaign on a tiny French label, Microcultures – is so traumatic that, by Walsh’s own estimation, it is a miracle that it exists at all. It begins a full 18 years ago, in 1997, on the last day of mixing his fourth album, Apart, when the family GP rang.
It was about Walsh’s son, Riley, whose blood tests had come back. The doctor told Walsh to take him to the Sydney’s Westmead hospital immediately where, he was told, a specialist would be waiting for them. Riley had been diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder that meant his body wasn’t producing white blood cells to fight off infections. The Walsh family spent the next two years “on a death watch, basically – the cold that another child gets and beats back, is the cold that will kill yours”.
Riley lost the fight he was never going to win in 1999, aged just three years and eight months.
Walsh was eviscerated. A pall descended: to borrow a line from the song Twenty One – a lament for all the birthday parties that would never be held for his son – he’s been “stuck in the same quicksand since 1999”.
Not that Walsh has been inactive. He continued to write songs for himself, and for Riley – just never with the intention of recording or releasing them. One of the first to arrive was Swap Places, where he recounts: “Walking round the hospital, Friday afternoon / Other children going home / Wondering if the day will come when that might be you, if you’ll ever come home?” It ends with a chant: “Where’s the God in all of this?”
He quotes lines from a poem, Old Marx, by Polish writer Adam Zagajewski: “He still had faith in his fantastic vision / But in moments of doubt / He worried that he’d given the world only / A new vision of despair.”
“That poem absolutely haunted me for ages,” he says. “And I just thought, OK, I’m not going to do anything with these songs.” He didn’t share them with anybody – not even his wife, Kate, with whom he has two other children.
But that, Walsh says, amounted to “another kind of death”. For years, silence had seemed like the only way to suitably honour his son’s passing, but the more songs that came, the more they weighed. “I [couldn’t] go on if I didn’t do them,” he says. “It was like a necessity because here he lives, in these songs – do I just throw them away, so that’s another thing that’s forgotten?”
In 2007, he began to dip his toes back in the water: first a few very low-key gigs in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane; then, a couple of years later, he played a sold-out show in a Parisian club, L’Européen. There he was introduced to a young French singer, Natasha Penot, who had covered his song Sunset Hotel. A duet was organised, and his first music since Riley’s death – a song called Black Ribbons, recorded by Sydney producer Wayne Connolly – was released as a seven-inch single by Melbourne label Chapter Music in 2011.
Connolly had first met Walsh in 2004, when they met to discuss the idea of recording. “Peter told me at that meeting that the subject matter of the songs was related to the loss of Riley and that he wasn’t sure if he could ever actually record them. He wrote to me soon after to say that it was unlikely that he ever would,” Connolly says.
But then, seven years later, came Black Ribbons; the following year, Connolly joined Walsh on another tour of France. During the first gig, Walsh unexpectedly threw Twenty One – which no one else inside or outside the band had then heard – into the set. “It’s impossible to describe what I felt, but I had never stood on a stage with tears streaming down my face before,” Connolly says.
Finally, late in 2013, the pair entered the studio. Sometimes, songwriters talk of writing and performing songs as reliving a kind of trauma; few, surely, have lived through anything approaching Walsh’s. “The songs were very hard to play, very hard to record.”
“At some point we had a discussion about his doubts, and it was evident how close to the surface the pain of [Riley’s loss] was,” Connolly says. “But, as it is for so many involved in music, it’s possible to find joy in a beautifully played hi-hat or piano or a nice bass line. Peter loves to be immersed in sound – as long as there’s a generous amount of reverb! – and I got the sense that he began to appreciate it as a therapeutic/cathartic process.”
In September, Walsh will return to France, where he’ll be confronted with a new challenge: playing the songs in front of an expectant audience. In the meantime, there are press duties, which he is understandably keeping to a minimum. It is, he says, “like a mountain I haven’t yet climbed, so I’ll just have to see what it’s like. But that’s part of the deal I made when I made the album. Songs are like windows, sometimes they’re trapdoors, and memories come cartwheeling out. You just have to deal with them.”
Late in the last week of January 1974, following a flood Brisbane would not see the like of again for close to another 40 years, a 17-year-old Ed Kuepper was on watch in the tough south-western Brisbane suburb of Oxley. There had been looting as the filthy water finally began to recede, and a caravan, from which residents could take turns keeping lookout, had been set up across the road from his parents’ house.
Kuepper – who had formed his first band, the Saints, just a few months earlier with school mates Chris Bailey and Ivor Hay – was a little tipsy. The local alderman, Gordon “Bluey” Thomson, had just visited, bringing beer. He was also carrying a revolver, which he gave to Kuepper. “Don’t drink too much, but look after the gun!” he told him.
Later, as the adults continued drinking, the young Kuepper walked down his street, “gun-slinging”, cockily twirling the loaded weapon as if he were a character in a western. Suddenly, a car turned into the street. Kuepper hailed it down, directing his torch into the driver’s eyes. It wasn’t until the vehicle was alongside him that he realised it was the police.
The driver looked the skinny teenager up and down. Kuepper sheepishly lowered first the torch, then the gun.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” the cop said, before driving off.
THE apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. In a Poinciana-lined street off Oxley Road, Ed Kuepper lives quietly with his partner of close to 40 years, Judi, and their adult children Karl and Friedrich (whose names should tell you something). It’s just a few kilometres from the old suburban home where his now elderly parents still live, despite suffering through the heartbreak of another great flood in early 2011.
He and Judi had made a point of checking flood levels before purchasing their home. “Even though they said it would never happen again, I wasn’t prepared to get something that went under in ’74, so this was way above it. For this house to be affected, the city would be gone anyway. And yet if you went that way” – he gestures back towards the main road – “the shopping centre at Graceville Avenue went under, and you wouldn’t guess that we were so much higher.”
It’s quiet here. Only the Kueppers’ dog Oscar, who gives me a rousing if suspicious greeting, breaks the silence in the torpor of a warm Easter afternoon. Judi, whose beautiful watercolours line the walls of the home, and whose art has graced her husband’s album sleeves since the days of Ed’s post-Saints band the Laughing Clowns, brings hot-cross buns with jam home-made from a backyard mango tree.
It’s all a far cry from the days where Kuepper’s paint-peeling guitar playing was sufficiently obnoxious to result in a brick being hurled through the plate-glass window of the building on the corner of Milton Road and Petrie Terrace, where the Saints once rehearsed. The window was boarded up, the words “Club ’76” daubed on the slats, and for a short time the house became a venue – until police from headquarters across the road shut it down.
Speak to many in the Australian music industry and Kuepper will be quite casually described as a legend. Robert Forster, whose band the Go-Betweens was among the first and most enduring of the first wave of Brisbane groups directly inspired by the Saints, described him (in The Monthly) as “one of the very few Australian guitar geniuses”, comparing him to both Neil Young and Kurt Cobain; “sonic adventurers who can take sheets of electric noise and get songs out of them”.
As a Saint, he’s a member of the ARIA Hall of Fame, but his musical career spans 40 years, from the sometimes abrasive Laughing Clowns, through an immensely rich and varied solo career. More recently – and briefly – he was a member of Nick Cave’s band, the Bad Seeds. You could practically go broke collecting the sheer volume of music the man has produced, although probably not as broke as he’s sometimes been while making it.
But who is Edmund Kuepper? It’s likely you’d know several of his songs – (I’m) Stranded, the Saints’ first single, has been a Rage staple for 20 years; The Way I Made You Feel was a minor hit from his 1991 album Honey Steel’s Gold, which cracked the Australian top 40 during a golden period for the songwriter. But, while he continues to sell out shows, he’s far from hit machine. (An unkind reviewer once compared his music to some kind of strange and mouldy cheese: an acquired taste.)
His public persona, to many, is akin to how Churchill described Russia: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. In fact, as Forster also pointed out, he is “intense and inward, of German extraction”: born in Bremen in 1956, before his parents emigrated to Brisbane at the age of four. (Saints singer Chris Bailey, born in Kenya to Irish Catholic parents, settled nearby a few years later: so often, the history of Australian rock & roll has been made by migrant kids.)
Peter Milton Walsh, singer-songwriter for one of Brisbane’s great lost treasures, the Apartments, talks rapturously about Kuepper’s music. (Of the Laughing Clowns, of which he was once briefly a member, he says: “They were playing poker when everyone else was playing bingo.”) But he demurs when pushed on the man himself. Eventually he offers this: “Rock & roll is filled with people that are very happy to talk about themselves. That’s not really what’s on offer from Ed.”
Others are more forthcoming, though all talk about Kuepper’s singular devotion to his craft. “He’s a very warm person when you get to know him; he’s quite soft and he’s got a great sense of humour,” says Julian Knowles, professor of music and media at Macquarie University in Sydney. Another music academic, QUT’s John Willsteed, describes him as “a quiet, funny, shy guy”.
Everyone attests to his incredible work ethic. Willsteed, who also plays in Brisbane band Halfway, refers to his “Teutonic” side. “He’s very forthright with his opinions, and he knows what he wants when it comes to work.” Knowles: “Once he gets into the groove and he starts working, there’s this incredible focus. He works in popular music, but he has the mindset and approach of an artist.”
The Church’s Steve Kilbey, who once engaged in a memorable online stoush with Kuepper, has called him as “wry and lofty”, and that much seems fair; he’s sardonic, ironic and, by his own admission, can be a bit above it all. He is certainly reserved, but not unfriendly. Get past the imposing size and death-grip handshake, and there’s a twinkle in the eye and a faint smirk lurking behind the pirate’s goatee.
Judi recalls her first impressions after interviewing him for a student magazine in 1979. “I thought he was a lovely, gentle, intelligent person – very intellectual. He’s very open and interested in all kinds of different ideas. He’s very aware of public events. He seemed to be a font of wisdom; he had an incredible knowledge of what was going on; not just in music, but in film and art, and I guess that’s nourished our relationship – just a passion for, and commitment to the arts. And he’s really generous. He really wants to share and connect with people.”
KUEPPER spent most of 2013 on the road, performing a successful run of “Solo and By Request” shows, trying his hand at almost any song from his career that his audience challenged (and sometimes taunted) him to play – a daunting prospect, given his immense repertoire, but he pulled it off. “There were probably only two or three occasions when I declined to have a go at something.”
He had spent a good chunk of the previous year performing as a Bad Seed, filling in for Cave’s long-term musical arranger Mick Harvey. The prospect of what Kuepper might bring to the Bad Seeds’ musical palette tantalised fans of both, but Cave’s last album, Push The Sky Away, featured almost no guitar at all, and Kuepper’s services were not required. There seems little prospect that his tenure in the band will be ongoing.
Kuepper describes working with the Bad Seeds as “very structured”, and it’s here that you get a sense of his constant musical wanderlust. “It was verging on the choreographed in some ways. I kind of decided to do something that was about as removed from that as possible, and that was basically just go out and push it as far we could actually go with it. And by “we” I mean myself and the audience.”
One of the songs that Kuepper was reluctant to play was (I’m) Stranded, the track that launched his career. “I thought there was something really powerful captured in that original recording, and it’s not that easy to capture it again,” he says. “And I couldn’t work out how the fuck I was actually going to just sit there with an acoustic guitar and play the song.” In the end, with the audience calling for it every night, he bit the bullet, and made it work.
The Saints have reformed twice in recent years – first a celebrated one-off show at the University of Queensland in 2007, then a national run for the travelling festival All Tomorrow’s Parties in early 2010. The latter ended in disaster, culminating in a show at Riverstage which Kuepper describes as “incredibly embarrassing, the worst show I’ve ever done in my life”. (The band had been booked to perform the album (I’m) Stranded in its entirety; incredibly, they didn’t even play the title song in front of a bewildered home crowd.)
Still, the experience didn’t prevent Kuepper from reuniting with Bailey, with whom he has had a famously tempestuous relationship, for a run of shows together as a duo the following year. I ask Kuepper if we’re likely to see him on stage with the Saints again. “Probably not.” What sort of relationship does he have with Bailey now? “Not much of one, really.”
There’s a bit of back and forth on this point, and Kuepper obliges, if only out of politeness, but it’s clear the subject of his old sparring partner still makes him uncomfortable. I ask if he’s heard Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Just Like Fire Would, Bailey’s biggest hit recorded under the Saints name, long after Kuepper had left the band. (The song appears on Springsteen’s most recent album High Hopes.)
“I haven’t. The funny thing is, when the song first came out [in 1986], I actually thought it was … Not Springsteen, but John Cougar Mellencamp. When I realised it was Bailey I thought, oh fuck, he’s going to change his name to Chris Bailey Mellencamp! It was kind of ironic that Springsteen’s attention was drawn to the Saints via (I’m) Stranded, but he actually covered the one song that actually sounds like it was ripped off him.”
If this sounds like sour grapes, consider, first, that Kuepper has toiled in relative obscurity for decades, and there have been times when he’s seriously considered chucking it in. “Sometimes, you know, when you’re running at a loss month after month – and I mean no income at all – lots of stuff goes askew. So it’s constantly a battle of how do you make things work.”
And, second: around the time of the Saints’ performances at All Tomorrow’s Parties, Kuepper’s manager got in touch with the band’s old label, with the idea of presenting the group with a Gold Record for (I’m) Stranded – presuming that, in the 38 years since its release, it would have easily sold the required 35,000 copies within Australia to qualify. He was astonished to be told that the label had not kept records prior to 1998. The necessary paperwork for an acknowledged classic – for which Kuepper has received very little money over the years – was conveniently missing.
It’s one of the oldest divides in rock & roll: Bailey – so desperate to prove he could make it on his own after the break-up of the original Saints in late 1978 – has the commercial success and, following Springsteen’s endorsement, the money in the bank. Kuepper has the status, the undying respect of his peers and the lion’s share of critical plaudits. Probably, both would like at least a little of what the other has got.
KUEPPER’S newest album is both a return to his roots, and a continuation of his recent solo performances: that is, it’s just him and his guitar. The Return Of The Mail-Order Bridegroom features mainly acoustic re-workings of some of his best-known songs, as well as a couple of covers. (It follows 1995’s I Was A Mail-Order Bridegroom, a similarly-themed album which kicked off a personal cottage industry of mostly live recordings, sold directly to fans through his own label, Prince Melon.)
Opening the album is a song called Brisbane (Security City), originally recorded in 1978 for the Saints’ third album, Prehistoric Sounds. The song painted a vivid portrait of Queensland as a police state during the Bjelke-Petersen years, and captured the oppression of both the heat – “Thirteen hot nights in a row,” goes the opening line – and the political climate. Apathy sits uncomfortably next to paranoia: “With mangoes ripe, who needs to grow?”
Thirty-six years after it was written, the song is more pointed than ever. Kuepper has been vocal about Queensland’s swing back to conservatism. “Part of it I think is that a large portion of the voting public is too young to remember the stench from the previous National government, you know,” he muses. “I just don’t think people remember. Anyone under 40 probably never voted back in the ’80s.”
Kuepper has had, at various times, an ambivalent relationship with his home town; something that he has often addressed in song: Electrical Storm acknowledges that, by staying in Brisbane, he is letting the world pass him by; but he finds himself mesmerised by the lightning and thunder. And on Security City, he confesses: “I don’t want to let down my own hopes for this town.” The family resettled here in the early 1990s.
“There were a lot of really good things about growing up here; I enjoyed a lot of it,” he says. “And I think you always want the place you grow up in to be a good place, to fulfil something worthwhile. Plus, after the Fitzgerald Inquiry, Brisbane in particular went through a bit of a golden age, I think. There just seemed to be this air of celebration for many years; it had a good vibe about it. It had changed.
“The ’80s was the worst time. There was always this sort of weird hostility around the place. The cops – they had power that they shouldn’t have had. I’m all for supporting the local police force and letting them do the job that they’re supposed to do, but once they become a political tool, then that becomes something else.”
And that’s when Kuepper remembers the story of Bluey Thompson, and the unimpressed reaction of the policeman who confronted him – a foolish teenager packing heat, that day after the floods in 1974. Don’t do anything stupid.
“See, I thought that was actually quite a reasonable response, under the circumstances,” he admits, chuckling.
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), July 26 2014
One for my French readers, on one of the great unsung Australian songwriters, Peter Milton Walsh, of the Apartments.
Peter Milton Walsh was on a roll. It was 1996, and the singer-songwriter behind the Apartments – who had emerged from the same post-Saints Brisbane scene that gave birth to the Go-Betweens and the Riptides – was onto his fourth album in four years. Drift, Fête Foraine and A Life Full Of Farewells had all met with acclaim, and if they hadn’t done a great deal to boost his reputation in his home country, they’d cemented it in Europe.
Prior to this, Walsh had spent much of the 1980s “like a scrap of paper, blown down the windy streets of the world”. He’d had a couple of real successes: the haunting, cello-soaked elegy Mr Somewhere, from the 1985 Rough Trade album The Evening Visits … And Stays For Years was later covered by 4AD’s shape-shifting ensemble This Mortal Coil. Another song, The Shyest Time, appeared in the John Hughes film Some Kind Of Wonderful, at the height of the Hughes’ fame. “Sometimes it seemed like I got one lucky break after another and I didn’t hold onto any of them,” he says. “Fugitives might have had more stability.”
Finally, though, life had settled, and it was good. Walsh was working a straight but rewarding job in Sydney, anchored by his wife and young son, Riley. Around that, he had constructed an alternative existence as a recording artist that was almost clandestine. Being recognised in Europe before Australia had its advantages. “If you offered me the choice of whether to be unknown here or unknown in Europe, I admit I would go for unknown here,” Walsh says. “Having that distance has enabled me to live very quietly – lead a double life, even a secret and quite fine one here.”
Songs were flowing. The new album would be different, as different as each had been from their immediate predecessors. Three short, piano-based snippets – Doll Hospital, Your Ambulance Rides and Place Of Bones – linked eight major pieces with rich, almost baroque arrangements. “I’d written not only the songs but some string, woodwind, brass and piano parts, and I just wanted to try something I never had before,” he says. “We all get restless. Sometimes we get tired of ourselves.”
To play these songs, Walsh needed a new band. He met Gene Maynard, the drummer, who “had such fantastic swing”. He then contacted the Cruel Sea’s Ken Gormley, “a great, instinctive player with a beautiful feel. I was very surprised when I asked and he said yes.”
The result was Walsh’s least known, but quite possibly best album Apart. A lush, moving piece of work, it was also the last record Walsh would make, until last year’s single Black Ribbons. There had been a 15-year silence. “I always had a hunch that what I did might appeal to a particular sensibility, that a world existed somewhere in which the songs would deeply connect.” Apart, perhaps, is a world unto itself. It’s a shame more people in this one haven’t heard it.
Which is not to say that the album is difficult or self-indulgent. It is merely singular. After the opening Doll Hospital – a slightly jarring 26 seconds of a few repeated piano notes – there’s barely a pause before the low, melancholy blast of horns that introduce No Hurry. It sounds like a foghorn blowing across a bay, and Walsh is being carried along, like one of the those scraps of paper. “The days are getting longer,” he croons, backed by loping groove from Gormley, “Night comes down so late.”
“I wanted to get some of that slow sensuality of summer into a song,” Walsh says in hindsight, and perhaps it’s a metaphor for Walsh’s old hometown of Brisbane: “I got no ambition, I’ll sleep by the lazy river / Someone slowed the whole world down, in the old town called the past.” The music matches the lyric, the semi-orchestral arrangement never cluttered, “drifting along just like smoke”.
Breakdown In Vera Cruz ascends from peak to peak, piano and percussion driving the verses, trumpet and strings holding up a majestic chorus. But underneath, the song is desperately sad, a story of a dissolute, but co-dependent coupling: “They talked a little bit / Then things just went all quiet again / What they have’s on the skids / He depends on her, she depends on gin.” A drawn-out coda ends with a shiver of cello and violin.
Something To Live For is about marriage, fatherhood, and letting go of the past. At the time, Walsh was writing the album three days a week, and spending the other two with Riley. Playing music isn’t that important in the greater scheme of things: “Travelling man, a travelling band, the lights go out one by one / A daddy does what he has to do, the circus moves on.” “Learning the meaning of gratitude,” Walsh explains, “Trying to be good.” It’s the most optimistic and uplifting song on Apart.
Things take a left turn with the appearance of Walsh’s long-time fan Dave Graney, doing his best Philip Marlowe impression as he narrates the tone poem Welcome To Walsh World. Gently brushed drums, more strings, and lyrics that would do Lou Reed at his most narcissistic early 1970s best proud: if there’s a parallel to be made here, conscious or otherwise, Apart might be likened to an Antipodean equivalent of Berlin, Reed’s bleak masterpiece of domestic melodrama.
The second half of the album opens with Friday Rich/Saturday Poor. It was an old tune for Walsh, having been demoed in 1990. After Apart’s release in France, Lanvin, which was launching a new perfume, came close to using this song in an advertising campaign throughout Europe – I imagine it was the seductive introductory flourish of violin that they were after. Walsh demurs: “I liked to tell myself it was because of the prospect of decadence within the lyrics.” Lanvin instead ended up going with a track by Finley Quaye. “I’m sure the perfume sank without a trace; that wouldn’t have happened with Friday Rich,” the author deadpans.
World Of Liars is a big, slow ballad in an album that seems full of them, but it’s the sparest – no strings or brass this time, just the core of Walsh on piano, accompanied by Gormley and Maynard, with some deft hand percussion. Cheerleader underscores a more unexpected influence: the Bristol sounds of Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky, who is name-checked in No Hurry. It’s a showcase for Gormley in particular, whose descending bassline provides the hook of a song that relies on atmosphere more than structure.
All this is leading up to Apart’s final statement. Everything Is Given To Be Taken Away opens in a similar manner to No Hurry, and reprises some of its lyrical themes of wasted potential: “There’s a rose that blossoms in the barrel / For each lost little girl”. It begins with just piano chords and the soft sound of Walsh’s voice, before Gormley and Maynard enter, drawing the song out. Strings rush in like the climactic moment in the Beatles A Day In The Life, until finally the song explodes into a chorus of ba-ba-ba’s that’s at once childlike and exquisitely wistful.
And then, it all became horribly prophetic. On the final day of mixing, Walsh took a phone call from his GP. “Riley’s blood tests had come back,” Walsh remembers. ‘You have to take him to the Westmead Hospital right now,’ she said. ‘Right now?’ I asked. ‘Straight away – I’ve rung, and told the specialist you’re coming.’
“What got to me was the songwriter’s fear; firstly that the songs are omens, finally that the songs have come true.” Riley used to sing along to those ba-ba-ba’s; the three instrumentals, with their haunted titles, had also been floating around for some time, long before there was an inkling of anything being wrong. “The fact that I wrote such a song, and that I wrote it before things came to an end – before we lost Riley – that stopped me, and I thought it put a stop to songs forever,” he says. “I didn’t know if I could find my way back to who I was before he died, but really, I didn’t think I should, either.”
It would be over a decade later before the Apartments would re-emerge: firstly with a discreet run of shows in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, followed by a gig in Paris a couple of years later. With no advertising or press support, the night was a sellout, as was another rooftop set in Paris last year, at the invitation of a French magazine. “A journalist who came along, some girl who said she’d never heard of me until she found World Of Liars on Youtube, and she said, ‘How do you explain this?’ … I had to tell her I don’t do explanations and I never question this, because it might imperil it. I am happy to do what I do in the glow of this benevolent mystery.
“I remember the record company warning me when I refused to tour to promote Apart, no one knows where you’ve gone or why … People will forget you. You have to top up the goodwill; release something new, to remind them. I just remember thinking, you know, I couldn’t care less. If they need to be reminded, they never got me in the first place.”