For more than 45 years Michael Gudinski, who died on Monday aged 68, was a dominant, domineering, polarising but above all passionate figure in Australia’s cultural landscape. He lived and breathed Australian music.
Everyone who met Gudinski had a story to tell about him, not all of which are printable. What is indisputable is that life in Australia changed in a profound way when Mushroom Records – the label he co-founded in 1972 – released Skyhooks’ first album Living In The 70’s (complete with its errant apostrophe) a couple of years later.
Living In The 70’s topped the charts for four months, selling 240,000 copies. Beyond the sales, the album changed perceptions of what Australian music could be. Many of the lyrics (by bass player and songwriter Greg Macainsh) were hyperlocal to Gudinski’s beloved Melbourne.
In many ways, the album was a reflection of Gudinski himself: brash, hyperactive, coarse (more than half its tracks were banned from airplay), unapologetic and funny. It helped that it was released just as the music television show Countdown first appeared in Australian lounge rooms, with the support of Ian “Molly” Meldrum propelling Skyhooks to stardom.
Over the next decade, Mushroom released dozens of albums that presented their own interrogations of Australian life, from the Models’ Local &/Or General (1981) to the Triffids (Born Sandy Devotional, 1986), Hunters & Collectors (Human Frailty, 1986), the Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane and the Church’s Starfish (both 1988).
Gudinski also threw his weight behind transformative Indigenous artists Archie Roach and Yothu Yindi, whose careers have left an immense cultural legacy. And when Jimmy Barnes was struggling in the wake of Cold Chisel’s breakup, it was Gudinski to whom he turned for help launching his solo career. It turned him into Barnsey: an even bigger star.
Other Mushroom alumni included Renée Geyer, the Sports, Sunnyboys, New Zealand expatriates Split Enz and Scottish band Garbage. But Gudinski’s biggest success story by far was Kylie Minogue, whom he signed to Mushroom as a teenager. Minogue quickly outgrew her suburban soap origins to become a global dance music icon, selling more than 70m records worldwide.
Michael Solomon Gudinski was born in Melbourne on 22 August 1952, to Russian-Jewish migrants Kuba and Nina. He promoted events in Melbourne, staging the Sunbury festival in 1972, before launching Mushroom. In 1979 he launched the juggernaut touring agency Frontier, which Billboard ranked the third-largest promoter in the world in 2018.
In 1993 Gudinski sold 49 percent of the Mushroom Records label to News Ltd (now News Corp) and the remaining 51 percent stake in 1998, while keeping the Mushroom Group name. Subsidiaries of the group include the Harbour Agency and Liberation Music, which includes Dan Sultan and Julia Jacklin on its roster, and heritage label Bloodlines, which houses Barnes and Roach.
Gudinski was most commonly described as “larger than life” or a “force of nature”. The Hunters & Collectors’ singer Mark Seymour wrote in his memoir Thirteen Tonne Theory how Gudinski jumped all over his desk while browbeating the band for their signatures. “The guy was a nut,” Seymour wrote. But they ended up calling him “God”.
Many recalled his loyalty to artists. In his second book, Working Class Man, Barnes wrote that artists were “nurtured and given time to find their feet”. Few benefited from Gudinski’s patience more than Paul Kelly, who had two failed albums with his band the Dots before establishing himself in 1985 with his debut under his own name, Post, the first of a run of several classics for the label.
International artists also remembered Gudinski with fondness and good humour. In a statement released on Tuesday, Bruce Springsteen wrote: “Michael always spoke with a deep, rumbling voice, and the words would spill out so fast that half the time I needed an interpreter … He was loud, always in motion, intentionally (and unintentionally) hilarious, and deeply soulful.” Springsteen said he had never met a better promoter, describing Gudinski as “first, last and always a music man”.
In his later years Gudinski could still be spotted in Melbourne clubs catching shows, scouting for the next big thing. His final gig was Midnight Oil at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney last Friday, with Frontier staging the band’s Makarrata Live tour.
There was an irony in this. Gudinski and Midnight Oil, the most self-consciously Australian band of all, did not always got along so well: “We had our ups and downs back in the day,” the group acknowledged on Twitter. But, they said, his “passionate advocacy for Australian music was never in doubt”.
Gudinski is survived by his wife Sue, son Matt (executive director of Mushroom Group since 2013), his singer-songwriter daughter Kate, grandchildren Nina-Rose and Lulu, and about 200 Mushroom Group employees.
Bernard Fanning, former singer of Powderfinger, is ruminating about decisions and consequences. The theme runs throughout his third, back-to-basics solo album Civil Dusk. Over the finger-picked guitar of Unpicking A Puzzle, he sings a song from the bottom of the bottle: “Where silences are gold and secrets will abound / The hostage in your conscience will have tape across his mouth.”
On the equally spare piano ballad Rush Of Blood, at the album’s centre, he is even more plain-spoken. “In a rush of blood I threw it all away, oh Lord what was I thinking of that day?” It would be easy to listen to lines like this and presume Civil Dusk is a confessional album. Put to him that it sounds like he’s got a lot going on, though, and he laughs.
“Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps saying!” he says. “[But] hardly any of it’s about my life. It’s just talking about stuff I’ve observed. Some of it’s invented, and of course parts of it are me as well.” He’s not concerned about people mistaking the album for autobiography. “Once it’s out there you can’t control any of that anyway. I’ve got songs that I’ve never released that are way more personal.”
Fanning’s reality is considerably calmer, even ordinary. He and his Spanish wife Andrea have moved back to Australia, settling in New South Wales’ northern rivers region to put their two children, aged four and six, through school. Life is going rather well for the 46-year-old. “It’s probably a symptom of my age and my circumstances,” he says. “Having kids helps you to contextualise problems.”
It’s just that the type of songwriting on Civil Dusk – first-person, emotionally direct and, in his words, “unencumbered by coolness” – is what Fanning happens to do best. If that puts him squarely in the confessional singer-songwriter camp of the early 1970s – Jackson Browne, James Taylor et al – then that’s just fine with him. “Oh, fuckin’ James Taylor for sure,” he says enthusiastically.
“I’m gladly unhindered by the credibility meter. I don’t care about name-checking the right singers or anything like that … I was just actually debating with Andrea yesterday whether to introduce the kids to ABBA or not. I want to, but she doesn’t; she’s not an ABBA fan. I’m not really sure about that. I don’t know how you can’t be an ABBA fan.”
When Powderfinger were beginning their ascent in Brisbane in the early 1990s, there was a strong thread of folk music in the city as much as there was rock & roll. Essentially a post-grunge band, Powderfinger eventually were able to broaden their appeal to both camps, in their home city and beyond. Fanning’s last solo album, Departures, did everything as differently as possible; Civil Dusk sees him playing to his strengths.
“[The songs] could have been played in 1995 or 1975 or 2045; that’s kind of the way I approached it,” he says. “It’s not like I’ve gone in for a huge innovation music-wise. I just wanted to present the best work that I could do, and I was really comfortable just sitting around playing my guitar again, and the piano.”
Civil Dusk is actually the first part of what is effectively a themed double album: part two, Brutal Dawn, will follow in early 2017. Fanning and producer Nick DiDia were determined to make a 10-song record, but Fanning had a surplus of material, and splitting it up made sense. “It would be incredibly rare for people to listen to 20 songs by one artist in a row now. But there’s a chance they’ll listen to 10.”
Mostly, Fanning is just enjoying the greater control that goes with steering his own ship. Powderfinger were a very democratic band. “It’s certainly easier to have one or two people making decisions than seven [the five members of the band plus manager Paul Piticco, who is still with Fanning, and DiDia]. “In Powderfinger everyone was throwing ideas in.”
Not that he’s uncomfortable with his band’s legacy. “If you put my voice over a dirty guitar, then there’s a possibility that it’s going to sound like Powderfinger, but it would have been played and executed completely differently by them. I’m happy to embrace what we did in Powderfinger. I don’t adore all of it. But I think, on balance, we ended up at least 51 percent good, you know?”
Widely regarded as one of the finest Australian albums ever made, the Triffids’ second album Born Sandy Devotional turns 30 this month. Most famous for its beloved single Wide Open Road, the album uses the empty desolation of the Australian landscape, and particularly the band’s native Western Australia as a metaphor for loss and loneliness. To gauge its enduring influence, The Guardian asked 10 Australian musicians – both peers of the Triffids, and those that have grown up in the band’s shadow – to discuss one song each from Born Sandy Devotional’s 10 tracks.
Ben Salter (solo artist) on The Seabirds
“David McComb’s tempestuous holler kicks in immediately: ‘No foreign pair of dark sunglasses will ever shield you from the light that pierces your eyelids, the screaming of the gulls…’ That thousand-yard stare sensibility, that Australian feeling which permeates the entire album is firmly established. There’s a devastating electric guitar refrain which finally flattens out to one plaintive, repeated note, and the song ends with McComb’s anguished cry: ‘So where were you / Where were you / Where were you?’”
Robert McComb (guitar/violin, the Triffids, older brother of David McComb) on Estuary Bed
“Sometimes I feel like it’s my life, growing up in Perth. Which is why [David McComb] got some credit as an Australian songwriter, because he used those images – the hot sand, the salt on the skin, the sun on the sidewalk, burning their feet. It’s just my childhood, as it was his.” (From The Great Australian Albums documentary series)
Lindy Morrison (former drummer, the Go-Betweens) on Chicken Killer
“From the first snare beat at the end of the first line – ‘I knelt, I aimed, I missed, I ran’ – Martyn P Casey and Alsy Macdonald set a cracking, rolling rhythm that carries this wild tune to the finish line. Nick Mainsbridge was the engineer on the album, and I swear you hear his touch – ‘Just let them go,’ he would have thought. And David is as big and blustery and confident as ever as he sings for his lost love, with gorgeous imagery. It’s a shocking, sad, violent song of love and revenge.”
Sarah Spencer (keyboard player, Blank Realm) on Tarrilup Bridge
“Is this a live song? No, that’s spooky-as-hell canned applause at the start. So weird. Then a xylophone that mirrors the strange and beautiful elocution of Jill Birt’s vocals. Is she singing from beyond the grave? Yes, she drove off the bridge: “They say I’m going to be a big star. They’re making a movie about my life. And you’re going to play the starring part.” It’s the most gothic song on a goth album. Perhaps it’s a love song, or a dedication, to those driven over the edge.”
Steve Kilbey (the Church; solo artist) on Lonely Stretch
“You could not find a more Australian song than Lonely Stretch. Have you ever been lost at night in the bush? It all looks the same. The imagination starts to play its tricks. Ghosts of your former darlings seem to appear and your headlights pierce the night to reveal … Nothing! A monstrous epic of a song, Martyn Casey’s engine-like bass propelling it all along. Dave McComb, if you’re out there listening somewhere, I declare this to be the most vivid, crucial, exciting Aussie song of all time. Oh man, one that I really wish I could have written myself. An absolute masterpiece.”
Mia Dyson (solo artist; Dyson/Stringer/Cloher) on Wide Open Road
“I heard Wide Open Road as a kid, totally free and dancing around the living room. Years later my dear friend Jen Cloher re-introduced me to it and I fell in love all over again. It’s timeless, even though the production is very much of its time. It gives me the feeling that anything is possible and there’s a strength and defiance that I can carry with me as I navigate the endless forks in the road I encounter in my own life.”
Tamara Bell (guitarist, HITS) on Life Of Crime
“This aches, musically and lyrically, with those first young dalliances with lust – of desire’s convincing reassurance that giving in to it will reward a future brighter than any punishment. ‘I believe you will lead me to a life of crime’ is the utterance of the consentingly doomed. The lyric ‘My chest burning, rising, falling’ just stabs me – they speak of involuntary propulsion, addiction, and a lover’s regretful, inexorable abandonment of their better selves to whatever prize desire will yield, at whatever cost.”
David Bridie (Not Drowning, Waving; My Friend The Chocolate Cake) on Personal Things
“It’s not my favourite track off the record, but it has that Jacques Brel/Bertolt Brecht vibe that the Triffids occasionally tapped into, which I like – a slightly theatrical German cabaret feel. It’s got the cheesiest organ sound I’ve ever heard in my life, but the drums really kick it along. It’s like a waltz. I like the line ‘Some secrets of love you take to your bed, and others you take to your grave.’ The album works as a whole; there’s all these characters and short stories that made up the whole collection.”
Gareth Liddiard (the Drones, solo artist) on Stolen Property
“I sang this song for the Triffids gig [at the Perth International Arts Festival on 15 February]. It’s quite similar to what we would do because it runs on about three chords and then gets really abstract at the end. There’s a shift halfway through that always sends chills down my spine, where Dave sings, ‘Maybe lost possessions, maybe stolen property.’ It’s Dave losing someone, but regaining himself – like he’s had to steal himself off someone. He’s not lashing out aggressively, but he’s taking a stand – he’s sort of telling this person off, saying, ‘You know what – you’re fucked!’”
“Evil” Graeme Lee (keyboards, pedal steel, the Triffids) on Tender Is The Night (The Long Fidelity)
“I love the final part of that song, where he says, ‘Where you are, it will just be getting light.’ Which is an amazing way, in so few words, to say you’re not here, and I miss you.” (From The Great Australian Albums documentary series)
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
Danny Fields – so-called “company freak” of Elektra Records in the late 1960s; the man who discovered the MC5 and then the Stooges; later the first manager of the Ramones – once rapturously described Television as the band with “the most perfect skin in the world.” They literally got under mine: on the inside of my right forearm, I have a tattoo of the design adorning the back of their debut album, Marquee Moon. On the original midnight-blue sleeve, the moon is dazzling; radiating white light. On my pale skin, it’s necessarily polarised. I’m occasionally asked if it’s a black hole.
Television – singer/guitarist Tom Verlaine, guitarist Richard Lloyd, bass player Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca – was the first group to play CBGBs, the legendary New York dive that was also the crucible for Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads during its first, glorious era, between 1974 and 1978. Lean, short-haired and dressed in plain clothes, held together at times with safety pins, they were in the vanguard of punk, a movement they otherwise bore little relation to.
If anything, they were the anti-Ramones. Nick Kent, in a famously hyperbolic NME review, cocked them cold when he said to call them punk was akin to calling Dostoyevsky a short-story writer. Released in March of 1977, Marquee Moon anticipated post-punk six months before the Sex Pistols made the form instantly obsolete with Never Mind The Bollocks. To this day, it sounds as urgent and thin and wiry as the band (once) was, filled with ecstatic, extended guitar solos at a time when brevity was the sine qua non of rock & roll.
They made art-rock cool again, and it’s impossible to imagine hundreds of bands, from fellow New Yorkers Sonic Youth and the Strokes, to Australian acts like the Church and Eddy Current Suppression Ring, without them. Now, they’re here in Australia for the first time, firstly to play All Tomorrow’s Parties spin-off Release The Bats in Melbourne (where they perform Marquee Moon in its entirety), and tonight at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney, which promises most of that album – we get seven of the eight tracks – plus a little more besides.
The only absentee is Lloyd, who quit the band in 2007 following a health scare. He’s been replaced by session musician Jimmy Rip, who has played alongside Verlaine in the latter’s solo ventures for years. But the words “No Lloyd, no Television” have been heard, and it’s not mere preciousness. The defining feature of the band was the interplay between Verlaine and Lloyd, whose tough, snappy counterpoints served to earth Verlaine’s explorations – without them, Television would be all crackle and pop. (Mind you, they took turns: this is the kind of band that listed who was responsible for what solo on each of their three studio albums.)
Perhaps also missing is the near-mythological status that accompanies Lloyd as one of the great junkie hellraisers of the New York scene; another contrast to the ascetic Verlaine. Lloyd was the man who wore the infamous “Please Kill Me” T-shirt that ex-band member Richard Hell, who designed it, was too afraid to wear. A photograph of Lloyd, taken at Beth Israel hospital, depicts the guitarist in a white smock, contemptuously lighting a cigarette in front of a “No Smoking” sign, staring at the camera with pinned eyes while hooked up to a drip.
Cannily, their set is front-loaded with songs on which Lloyd took the original solos, giving Rip an early chance to win over the audience. After an almost perfunctory run-through of Venus, the pinging introductory notes of Elevation really kick things off. But the mix is uneven, and Verlaine’s voice – never a strong point – is puny. On record, he’s commanding, even when he squawks like a chicken. On stage, he’s barely trying. It’s a shame, for the former Tom Miller (he renamed himself after the French symbolist poet) is a fine lyricist, albeit one prone to speaking in riddles: as he sings in Prove It: “It’s too, too, too to put a finger on”.
Still, a Television show is all about the guitars. The third song, 1880 Or So, is the only number from the band’s third, self-titled comeback album from 1992, and it’s a real highlight, its dreamy fluency punctuated by a jarring solo from Rip that builds upon the recorded version. Note-for-note renditions is not what this sold-out, solidly middle-aged crowd expects or wants: this is, as the recent Rhino reissue of Marquee Moon puts it, “jazz for the punk-rock set”, and they’re ready to go as far as the band are willing to take them.
Nothing exemplifies Television’s wanderlust so much as their first single, Little Johnny Jewel, its near-eight minutes originally split across both sides of a seven-inch single (a decision that prompted Lloyd to briefly quit the band on its release in 1975, despairing of their commercial prospects). Heralded by Smith’s descending bass riff, it sparks immediate whoops of glee, and is the first selection of the night to stretch beyond 10 minutes. This is the Verlaine show now, producing the piercing guitar sound one-time girlfriend Patti Smith compared to “a thousand bluebirds screaming”.
It’s followed by the taut See No Evil, the first song from Marquee Moon. And it’s on these shorter, more neurotic songs that you realise how loose Television are on stage – a long way from the mathematically precise group that laid down the album’s epic title track in one majestic take, which Ficca thought was a rehearsal. These songs had been performed and rewritten countless times before being recorded; the definitive articles are on the album. Television have not been a full-time concern since 1979; to expect them to re-make the masterpiece live is absurd.
Two entirely new songs, however, give notice that this version of Television is not all about the re-runs. Both tracks, neither introduced by name, are plangent, elastic, near-wordless meditations, anchored by the pulse of Smith’s bass, and a long way from the fiery guitar duels of the band’s early days. Adventure, the band’s much underrated second album (which, sadly, we don’t hear anything from) was a more mellow affair, while the third sounded like a collection of spy themes. The new material is calmer still, the group sounding more like a jazz quartet than a rock band than ever.
But they’re not what people are here for. It’s amusing to see the crowd take a rare opportunity to sing along to a chorus (Prove It); even funnier to see them attempting to dance to Marquee Moon itself, the show’s 15-minute centrepiece, and the one everyone is waiting for: predictably, they get lost as soon as Verlaine takes off for another hyper-extended solo. It’s a trip where he alone knows the destination, but not necessarily how he’s getting there: Kent claimed Verlaine could solo without ever losing the point; here, at times, he does.
They encore with Friction and an off-key rendition of the Count Five’s Psychotic Reaction, a reminder that Television are as indebted to the post-British Invasion garage bands of the ’60s as much as they are to anything more supposedly sophisticated. But instead of a frenzy, it ends in a slow, bittersweet sigh, a whisper: just as Television’s career first seemed to finish, with a 1979 show at New York’s Bottom Line which everyone, except the audience, knew was the end.
While Television are touring, Hell – squeezed out early by a clash of egos with Verlaine, taking one of punk’s great early anthems, Blank Generation, with him – is touting his autobiography. In its epilogue, the band’s original bass player and genuine punk icon recalls a recent encounter with Verlaine: “His teeth looked brown and broken in the night light, even worse than mine (he still smokes), and his face was porous and expanded and his hair coarse grey. I turned away and walked on, shocked.” Even tattoos fade.
For many Australians under the age of 40, the first time they would have heard the voice of Jimmy Little would have been in 1999, the result of a chance meeting a few years earlier. Brendan Gallagher, of the sorely underrated Australian band Karma County, had accidentally caught Little singing in a Sydney bar. “I was instantly drawn to the front of the stage by one of the most beautiful voices I’d ever heard,” he wrote in the liner notes to Messenger. “I sat transfixed as Jimmy worked his way through a set of songs with such grace and style that I forgot to go to the bar and buy a drink; very unusual behaviour on my part.”
Gallagher introduced himself to Little after the show and struck up a friendship, and Messenger was the collaboration that resulted. It’s an album of classic Australian songs by the likes of the Go-Betweens, the Church, Paul Kelly, Ed Kuepper and the Reels – many of them radically rearranged by Gallagher, and most of which Little himself had never heard before Gallagher introduced him to them. The album was a critical and commercial success, receiving extensive airplay, and introducing a new generation of Australians to a voice that had first came to national prominence in 1963, via his hit version of the country gospel standard Royal Telephone.
Central’s never busy, always on the line You may hear from heaven almost any time ‘Tis a royal service, free for one and all When you get in trouble, give this royal line a call
That voice! It was high and flutey, but as rich and mellow as caramel. Most of all, Little had exquisite timing. He had a touch of Elvis about him in that he sang his ballads with seemingly endless patience – if a song was slow, Little was slower. He sang like he had all the time in the world. He was a gifted storyteller who, once he had you in the palm of his hand, was happy to keep you in suspense. He made it all sound and look so bloody easy, and he was a master when it came to interpreting other people’s songs. Have a listen to how effortlessly he gets inside the narrative of the Go-Betweens’ Cattle And Cane:
That’s where I first heard and saw Jimmy Little, too. Cattle And Cane was (and remains) one of my favourite songs, and I was impressed with how Little not only recounted Grant McLennan’s childhood vignettes as though they were his own, but also the sincerity and ease with which he recounted the final verse that, on the Go-Betweens’ version, was originally performed by Robert Forster.
Little’s storied history prior to Messenger would have been incredible enough without this late-career revival. Australia’s first (and for a long time only) Aboriginal pop star, he made nearly three dozen albums, and also lent his talents to acting, landing a role in Wim Wenders’ Until The End Of The World in 1991. He was an indigenous ambassador for literacy and numeracy, and after a successful kidney transplant in 2004 he established the Jimmy Little Foundation, set up to assist other indigenous Australians, who suffer from End Stage Renal Disease at around nine times the rate of non-indigenous Australians. 2004 was an eventful year for Jimmy; he was made a companion of the Order of Australia that same year, and also named as a National Living Treasure. (The latter award makes the catty part of me wonder if Jimmy had been disturbed by the company he’d found himself keeping lately.)
In the end, though, it’s his singing for which Jimmy Little will be remembered. He was a gentle man – “Don’t mistake kindness and niceness for weakness,” he once said – and that gentility shone through his recordings, which are not easy listening so much as they are the humblest of peace offerings to the world. Jimmy’s gone now, but to listen to one of his albums – as I’m doing with Messenger – will always be like picking up the phone and hearing that voice from heaven at the other end.