Tagged: the Celibate Rifles

Damien Lovelock 1954-2019

Trying to sum up the truly Wonderful Life of Damien Lovelock, who died on Saturday morning aged 65, is no easy task. Where to begin? Lovelock was a rock & roll singer (for the Celibate Rifles, the Sydney band he fronted since 1980), solo artist, author, spoken-word performer, football broadcaster for the ABC, Sky and SBS (alongside the late Les Murray), yoga instructor, father to Luke and friend (to the Dalai Lama, among countless others).

Above all, he was a fabulous raconteur. Lovelock was a big man with a big voice and a hell of a lot of stories. Silence wasn’t in his vocabulary. Even in his yoga sessions, he peppered his students with anecdotes that had them trying to maintain poses in between contortions of laughter. This combination of physical mastery and people skills saw him hired as an instructor by, among others, the New South Wales State of Origin rugby league team.

But most of his stories were poured into the lyrics he wrote for the Celibate Rifles, whose name was a pun on the Sex Pistols. The band released nine excellent studio albums, along with a clutch of EPs (including their first effort, the tearaway garage punk of 1981’s But Jacques, The Fish?), compilations and live releases, and garnered a dedicated cult following around the world.

The Rifles emerged from Sydney’s northern beaches, and were a mainstay of the city’s post-Radio Birdman independent music boom in the 1980s. Lovelock was their point of difference: older than his bandmates, and from a musical family (his mother Joan Wilton, who died when he was 19, was a jazz singer; father Bill wrote and produced songs for a young Nina Simone), Lovelock’s words and presence gave the band’s all-out attack gravitas.

But the band also provided a necessary centre of gravity for Lovelock’s life, or one might say lives, for he’d already used up a few before he joined them. In between more standard punk fare of the time – songs of suburban alienation and disaffection with the modern world – early songs such as Back On The Corner broke the mould, rendering the tougher side of Lovelock’s early years in often startling lines:

He makes his connection and he glows with delight

As his demons he banishes into the night

On a thin beam of white light, he flies through the air

Wrings out his hopes, trying to drown his despair

Live, while his bandmates flailed furiously, Lovelock radiated deadpan cool, his movements minimal, a shake of his broad hips and the occasional pump of a fist usually enough to accentuate a song’s groove or get a point across. While other singers were hurling themselves around the stage like Iggy Pop, Lovelock commanded attention rather than demanded it. He never screamed, and the faster the Rifles played, the more time he seemed to have.

The band peaked as a touring act in 1988 with the album Blind Ear and its classic singles Johnny and O Salvation. They constantly blew bigger names away in clubs (my first experience with the Rifles was an O-Week gig at the University of Queensland, where they wiped the floor with the Buzzcocks) and played to large festival crowds, including the inaugural Big Day Out at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney in 1992, famously headlined by Nirvana.

Lovelock himself told me that was among the best shows his band ever played, but from there the Rifles slowly began to fade, even as they continued to produce excellent work. Their 2000 album A Mid-Stream Of Consciousness (which featured a jar of urine on the cover) briefly revived their fortunes and featured one of the band’s most loved and funniest songs, I Shoulda, in which Lovelock paid homage to his own life of happy accidents:

I shoulda read the instructions

I shoulda had me a plan

I shoulda made preparations

I shoulda act like a man

I shoulda triumphed regardless

I guess I shoulda began

But Lovelock was really only just getting started. His life seemed like an endless series of acts, where he would stumble on stage and star by force of his impossibly authentic personality. The shock of losing him to cancer at a comparatively young age comes from the fact that rather than succumbing to rock’s vices, Lovelock had been a health guru for decades. The only solace is that he packed so much into his 65 years that he shoulda been 200.

First published in The Guardian, 4 August 2019

The Aints: Hit me like a deathray, baby

In the space of less than two years between late 1990 and mid 1992, Ed Kuepper released no fewer than six albums. Three – Today Wonder, Honey Steel’s Gold and Black Ticket Day – were released under his own name, and were predominantly acoustic. The other three were electrical storms of white light, white heat and white noise recorded with a band Kuepper called the Aints, a smirking pun on his first band, the Saints.

The Aints saw Kuepper reclaiming the songs and the energy of that band, feeding into an extended feud between the guitarist and singer Chris Bailey, who has continued to play under the Saints’ name since the original group split. According to the press release ahead of this tour, the Aints “sought to bring justice to the sound and attitude of the original Brisbane-based band”, which at least implies that an injustice was being done elsewhere.

Last year, Bailey took his version of the band on a 40th anniversary tour of the release of the single (I’m) Stranded. Now the Aints are doing the same, with the Saints’ first album of the same name released in 1977. And the first show of this tour is in Brisbane – at the Tivoli, no less, the city’s best-sounding room. Saved from demolition and development last year, the art-deco building is celebrating its centenary in partnership with the Brisbane Festival.

With that back story, and weight of history, this show is one of the most anticipated slots on the festival calendar. Kuepper’s timing couldn’t be better: a park in his old suburban stomping grounds of Oxley is being named in his honour; the Saints are receiving similar, long-belated civic recognition. Considering the band was formed in an era of repressive state conservatism, there’s an irony at seeing the occasional politician in the crowd.

Flanked by former Sunnyboy Peter Oxley on bass and the Celibate Rifles’ Paul Larsen on drums, along with a horn section and long-term collaborator Alister Spence on keyboards, Kuepper’s band is built for purpose. He ambles on stage, cordially welcomes the crowd, and tears into This Perfect Day, its riff a hot-rod variation on the Stones’ Paint It, Black. There’s only one key ingredient missing: maximum volume.

It’s followed by The Prisoner, a brooding masterpiece from the Saints’ third album Prehistoric Sounds, but still, things are a little muted. It’s not until the fifth song, The Chameleon, that we feel the band’s full sonic punch as the brass is brought into play. Swing For The Crime is next, and that’s when the entire room lifts, Larsen pounding the song’s tumbling rhythm, the horns blowing the magnificent Stax-style soul break.

Then Kuepper deals a trio of wild cards. The first two are songs which he says were written but never recorded, or played live, by the original band. The first is called SOS ’75 and is as brutal as anything recorded on the band’s debut; the second, Demolition Girl Part 2, was slated for the same album but dropped (it’s also about half the speed of Part 1). The third, Red Aces, was recorded by the Aints on their third and final album Autocannibalism.

In a sense, it’s the highlight of the night to hear these songs, breaking up the predictability of the set list. It also would have been a pleasure to hear more from Ascension and Autocannibalism, the Aints’ excellent pair of studio albums, which featured non-Saints material. But that’s not what this night’s about, and certainly not what the crowd is here for. For the rest of the set, it’s one stone classic after another.

It peaks with Nights In Venice – this time, the riff a molten, sped-up take on Led Zeppelin’s Communication Breakdown – and Messin’ With The Kid. They’re the two lengthiest cuts from (I’m) Stranded, and two of the first songs the band wrote, dating back to 1973–74, when Kuepper and Bailey were teenagers. Messin’ With The Kid especially is still towering, and the addition of brass gives it even more swing and heft.

On Nights In Venice, Kuepper forgets a number of lyrics, as he does on the inevitable closing one-two of Stranded and Know Your Product. Perhaps it’s nerves, or how rarely he performs these songs, but it’s doubtful too many people care, since everyone else in the room knows them backwards. Kuepper, clearly amused and enjoying himself, gets the crowd to sing the opening riff of Know Your Product before leading the band through the song.

They encore with Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High, a Saints staple from their earliest days. At the song’s centre, Kuepper takes one of his greatest solos, breaking down and rebuilding the pop standard. This wasn’t a perfect night – there were ragged moments, and the sound quality was variable. But when it all clicked, to quote a line from Nights In Venice, the Aints “hit me like a deathray, baby, from above”.

First published in The Guardian, 28 September 2017

Descent into the Maelstrom

The drama of the dysfunctional band has long been a staple of the rock documentary form. In a case of life imitating art imitating life, films from Some Kind Of Monster (which sat in on Metallica’s group therapy sessions) to End Of The Century (which chronicled the tragically bitter life and death of the Ramones) play like a reprise of the intra-band bickering so perfectly satirised in This Is Spinal Tap.

As the credits roll on Spinal Tap, Marty DiBergi, played by the director, Rob Reiner, asks bass player Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) whether playing rock & roll keeps you a child. I was reminded of this watching Descent Into The Maelstrom, the story of Radio Birdman, as this brilliant, influential and notoriously volatile band squabble over their history and their legacy.

For the uninitiated, a brief snapshot: formed in 1974, Sydney’s Radio Birdman were, alongside Brisbane’s Saints, Australia’s first and most lasting contribution to the punk movement. Like the Saints, they had a brief and extremely turbulent existence, breaking up in in the UK in 1978 while making just their second album. Their massive influence saw them reform for the first time in 1996, only to almost immediately break up again.

But, like Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, guitarist Deniz Tek and singer Rob Younger keep getting back together, because there will always be a baying audience somewhere for them to play to. Both are intense, serious men and aside from stalwart keyboard player Pip Hoyle, few have been able to stick with them. But that volatility was key to the original six-piece band’s combustible chemistry.

If you are already a Radio Birdman tragic – and tragics will be the first in line to see Descent Into The Maelstrom, directed by Jonathan Sequeira – you’re unlikely to find out anything new here. There’s no pre-1978 live footage you won’t have seen already, and the story is familiar. It’s held together over one hour and 50 minutes by interviews with the band and close associates; thankfully, no bigger stars are lined up to obediently sing their praises.

Don’t let this lack of new information put you off, though. What makes Descent Into The Maelstrom work is the brutal honesty of the band members as the wheels fall off their so-called “van of hate”, as the Kombi driving them around that ill-fated 1978 UK tour was dubbed. It wasn’t the usual combination of drugs and booze that did them in: it was poverty, depression and poisonous internal dynamics.

Visually, the lack of new footage is compensated for by hundreds of stills and delightful storyboard artwork by bass player Warwick Gilbert (of whom a gonzo reviewer once wrote “a Warwick is something you light if you want to start a war”). Given that Gilbert was the first to leave the band – twice! – his heavy involvement indicates that Birdman’s music remains bigger than the egos that made it.

Which brings us to the music itself. Deniz Tek was a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he brought his first-hand experience of the Stooges and MC5 to Australia in 1972 (there’s a photo of him as a teenager in aviator shades, right in front of the Five’s Rob Tyner). Radio Birdman were combative, confrontational, hated by the musical establishment, and changed the lives of thousands who saw them perform.

In their slipstream came hundreds of bands, dozens of whom became embedded in the Australian rock landscape: Midnight Oil, the Sunnyboys, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Lime Spiders, the Hard-Ons, Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, and on and on. Hoyle gets the last word, and it’s a killer: “I don’t think there’s an Australian sound to Radio Birdman. I think there’s a Radio Birdman sound to Australia.”

He’s right. And few of those bands, even on their best nights, could summon the heart-attack inducing excitement of Radio Birdman in full flight. (For proof, track down the double live album of the band at Paddington Town Hall in December 1977, their last performance in Australia before departing for England: it is, in this writer’s opinion, the best live recording released by an Australian band.)

As such, what started as a cult phenomenon has continued to attract generations of converts to the cause. Descent Into The Maelstrom won’t exactly be an eye-opener to the Birdman faithful but, along with the band’s reissued box set of recordings, it’s a documentary that will ensure their legacy remains: hewn in the living rock, as Nigel Tufnel once observed.

First published in The Guardian, 10 June 2017