If you were growing up in the Australian suburbs in the 1980s and early 1990s and had any interest at all in what later became known as alternative music, you have probably heard the Hard-Ons. Against considerable odds – starting with their name – the band once racked up an astonishing run of 17 consecutive No. 1 songs on the independent charts.
It’s tempting to say they’re back. But the priapic Hard-Ons never really went away. They did break up in 1994, but bassist Ray Ahn and guitarist Peter Black (known to all as Blackie), soldiered on as Nunchukka Superfly. They reunited with singing drummer Keish de Silva in 1997, but de Silva quickly became disenchanted and moved on again.
Still, the band carried on, with Murray Ruse on drums and the prolific Blackie singing. Actually, prolific doesn’t begin to describe Blackie: the influential guitarist recorded a song every single day in 2016, adding a cover of Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water on New Year’s Day 2017 for good measure.
It’s de Silva – whose honey-sweet vocals and energetic drumming style was a big part of the band’s appeal – who’s back, with the release of the band’s 12th studio album So I Could Have Them Destroyed today. It’s a welcome return, and the band’s mix of bubblegum pop, punk and metal is well intact, led by a wonderful single, Harder And Harder.
But it’s also not the same. Firstly, the band is now a four-piece, with Ahn and Blackie unwilling to part ways with Ruse. “We love Murray, we love his drumming and we like him a lot personally,” Ahn says. De Silva is now purely a frontman, a role he first explored on the band’s 30th anniversary tour in 2014.
Ahn says the new look suits the band. “What wouldn’t work would be a big muscle-bound guy with his shirt off, doing that stereotypical thing, pacing up and down the stage and screaming into the mic. I don’t think that would suit the Hard-Ons, because we’re way more melodic than that,” he says.
Which is pretty funny, because one of the Hard-Ons’ most successful singles was a collaboration with Henry Rollins, the archetypal muscle-bound punk screamer, on a cover of AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock. “Yeah, but he suited that for that one song,” parries Ahn, quite reasonably.
Despite their name, sound and image, the Hard-Ons, Ahn says, were never really punks. Growing up, Blackie loved classic rock, while de Silva was a James Brown fan. “You know how punks have got so many rules, what you can do and what you can’t do? It didn’t really fit three migrant kids,” Ahn says.
Straight out of Punchbowl, in Sydney’s west, the original trio is indeed one of Australia’s best multicultural success stories: Ahn is of Korean parentage, de Silva’s is Sri Lankan and Black’s Slavic. The three met in primary school in the 1970s, and have sold over a quarter of a million records worldwide.
The Hard-Ons learned to play to their strengths and work within their limitations. “We were friends before we became a band,” Ahn says. “When we started, none of us had to audition or prove ourselves. It was very natural – it was just the three of us, and any shortcomings or extra talents that we had, we formed the band around that.”
Blackie was always a shit-hot guitarist. In time, Ahn became a formidable bass player, but his main gift initially was drawing, and he has been responsible for the band’s distinctive artwork. De Silva, meanwhile, was multi-skilled: he could play piano and guitar, he could sing and write songs, and he was good at all of it.
Then he started playing drums. “I actually said to him, I didn’t know you could play the drums, and he said, ‘Neither did I’,” Ahn recalls. “You know how some people are just naturally talented? I think he just got bored of playing drums and singing, that’s why he quit. But he’d never been just the frontman before, so I think that held interest to him.”
Ahn acknowledges that if you were one of those fans who grew up with the band, your favourite Hard-Ons release might be their delightfully named 1986 mini-album Smell My Finger, or any of a dozen-strong singles: quicksilver pop-punk gems like Where Did She Come From or Girl In The Sweater.
“That’s good for them,” Ahn says. “But we have a duty to our band to constantly make the music that we like. I know some bands go out there and do the greatest hits set over and over again, especially a lot of punk bands. That’s good for them, too. But you can’t really pretend that it’s punk anymore, can you?”
First published in The Age (Shortlist), 10 October 2019
It’s Good Friday in Brisbane and most of the city is dead quiet, with pubs and clubs not opening until midnight due to Easter trading laws. In the inner suburb of West End, however, something very noisy is stirring.
On a makeshift stage in a large room, a three-piece band called Hexmere is playing a raucous, raw brand of grindcore punk to a small crowd. There’s another gig planned for the following night, with many more people expected.
These all-ages shows are being sporadically staged by the Outer Space art collective, which won the Brisbane city council’s tender to operate this 300-capacity venue for two years, rent-free. The space needs work. But it represents an experiment, a gamble and a new hope for the city’s youth culture.
The fact that the city council chose to make the space available is important. Despite a rich history, live music in Brisbane, as in so many other cities around the world, struggles to survive against the pressures of gentrification, regulation and competition.
The music industry’s inextricable links to alcohol and bars has left a dearth of venues accessible to under-18s, raising concerns about how the complex ecosystem that sustains a vibrant local music scene – comprising everything from record shops to independent labels to public radio – will reproduce itself without engaging audiences from a young age.
Live from Outer Space is an attempt to buck that trend in Brisbane. Coordinator Alex Campbell watches Hexmere as sound technician Hannah buzzes around the room, checking noise levels and sonic balance. Campbell says she has encouraged women and non-binary people to get involved in the male-dominated space of sound engineering especially.
In the crowd tonight are the three members of the Goon Sax, back home in Brisbane after seven months in Berlin. Their 19-year-old frontman, Louis Forster, is the son of the Go-Betweens’ Robert – less than half a mile from the venue, the Go Between Bridge spans the Brisbane river. But surfing the city’s next wave hasn’t been easy, even for a band with such pedigree.
While the Goon Sax’s members were under 18, the venues they played required them to be accompanied by a parent and to leave immediately after their set, while their friends were unable to attend.
“It’s cool something like this has opened up,” says Forster. “I know my sister’s psyched about it – she’s 16 and she’s coming tomorrow night. I was pretty frustrated by it when I was a kid growing up. I remember going to soundchecks and standing outside venues and listening, stuff like that.”
“There were all these shows, and you could never go to them,” says Riley Jones, the band’s drummer. “You could go to the [radio station] Triple Zed car park shows sometimes, and that was a nice treat, but it was very frustrating.”
“There’s all these young kids who don’t have any places to go,” says Louis Whelan, who is director of Outer Space’s all-ages live-music programme and also plays in his own band, the Mouldy Lovers. “Most events are really alcohol-focused. Playing somewhere where people are just going to get wasted, it’s not the same thing as playing where people want to see music.
“If there’s a whole new generation of people who are much more engaged with the arts and music, then when they get out and they have disposable incomes, they’re going to go to galleries, to venues, to buy local bands’ music and start their own labels. I think there’s a lot of value in it.”
It’s not just kids who are struggling to find places to play. In Sydney – once a live-music Mecca to rival London or New York – bands now struggle to play at all, with venues under pressure from soaring real estate prices, noise complaints, punitive regulations and a cosy relationship between government and developers. The city’s longest-serving live venue, The Basement – which, over 45 years, has hosted artists from Dizzy Gillespie to Prince – closed last week, though its owners are hopeful of finding other premises.
The situation has become so difficult that the state of New South Wales is now holding a parliamentary inquiry. Dave Faulkner, singer and songwriter of enduring Australian garage band the Hoodoo Gurus, told the inquiry that live music was treated like the sex industry, “as something to be shunned. We employ so many people, we generate incredible amounts of money throughout the economy – and yet we’re treated so badly.”
Faced with similar issues, music scenes around the world have been forced underground, into house parties or often illegal warehouse gigs, accessible only to those in the know. “It starts to get a bit worrying when kids are in those scenes,” says Emily Collins, managing director of the government-funded advocacy body MusicNSW.
“We’d much rather them be in venues where we can make sure it’s safe and they can learn to love music in a safe and supporting environment. At warehouse parties there are no security guards, there’s no regulation, no one monitoring alcohol consumption. And they’re more focused on over-18 activities anyway – not that anyone is checking ID.”
All-ages shows have a twofold benefit, says Collins: they foster a self-sustaining community of audiences and performers that in turn helps nurture a creative city. The sticking point, particularly in Australia, is breaking the nexus between music and alcohol.
Venues, already under severe financial duress, are reluctant to put on events where no money is coming over the bar and the regulatory environment is forbidding. “There are multiple bodies that need to be satisfied, so there is considerable complexity, high costs and red tape in running a compliant venue,” says Julian Knowles, chair of MusicNSW and a professor of music at Macquarie University.
“There is no agent of change law in New South Wales that puts the responsibility on developers to soundproof new developments near music venues. If new residents make noise complaints, the venue is held accountable and must meet acoustic treatment costs, so it’s very risky for venue operators. At best, it erodes business confidence and at worst it can shut down venues entirely.”
The introduction of controversial lockout laws in 2014, imposing curfews on venues in a bid to curb alcohol-related violence more associated with nightclubs than live music events, have been relaxed to some degree, but otherwise only worsened the operating environment.
Against this backdrop, MusicNSW offers funding to promoters and venues to stage all-ages shows, but Collins says applications are few. “People say it’s too hard as a venue – $15,000 won’t cut it.”
Often bands are paid literally out of beer takings. “They’re basically saying: the more heavy drinkers attend your gig, the better you’ll get paid,” says Ray Ahn, bass player of another longstanding punk band, the Hard-Ons. “With that kind of a working model, it’s harder to organise all-ages shows. Where’s the money going to come from?”
The parliamentary inquiry underlines what a cautionary tale Sydney has become. Dave Faulkner said the city’s culture was dying. “When people come to Sydney they don’t just come to see the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, they also go to have a night out and to see music – it’s what I do when I go to London or New York. But Sydney has been doing everything it can to destroy those places of entertainment and turn them into apartment buildings.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, hundreds of pubs and clubs throughout the city and suburbs kept artists busy, with major Australian bands such as Midnight Oil honing their live skills by playing upwards of 200 shows a year.
From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Ahn says, the Hard-Ons would often play an all-ages show in the afternoon and another for over-18s in the evening. Now, they might have played one all-ages show in Australia in the last 10 years. When the band tour Europe or Japan, though, it’s a different story.
“A lot of the shows we do in Europe are in purpose-built halls that have the bar on the outside,” Ahn says. “Inside, there is no bar – it’s like a flat-ceilinged room with a massive PA and volunteers running around everywhere. So where are they getting the money from? They’re getting it from the city council.”
The environment in Germany was more easygoing, says Louis Forster, even when he was younger. “I spent a lot of time there growing up, and I could always get into venues – it was never a problem. Parents would bring their kids to shows, which was really fantastic.”
In Australia, Melbourne actively promotes itself as the live-music capital, and with good reason. A Deloitte study in 2011 valued the sector’s economic contribution at over half a billion dollars, with small venues providing the bulk of revenue and employment. Though many venues have closed in recent years, the value of investing in the live-music sector at grassroots level has long been recognised.
The Push, a not-for-profit youth music organisation, has been operating in Victoria since 1986, providing a launch platform for countless bands. As well as all-ages shows, it puts on mentoring programmes and skills workshops.
Shaad D’Souza, a music journalist who used to coordinate all-ages events for the organisation, notes that it is a cultural investment as well as a financial one. “Lots of kids, when they grow up they’ll only really go to big festivals or big arena shows because that’s all they’ve had access to,” he says.
“Whereas if you’re investing in all-ages shows, they develop a relationship with venues, they develop a relationship with artists, and then they know: ‘I want to support my local scene.’ They want to go to smaller venues; they don’t just want to go to arena shows or festivals.”
At the end of the night, Alex Campbell’s band, Bad Bangers, will launch their EP. The band are in their 20s now. “But that’s kind of why we started this – because there weren’t many all-ages spaces when we were younger.”
Between his work as a guitarist and songwriter with the Easybeats and as a producer (along with fellow Easybeat Harry Vanda) for AC/DC, there is a very strong case to be made that George Young was the original sonic architect of Australian rock & roll. Other than Vanda – and with no disrespect to anyone who came before them, or followed after – the legacy of Young, who died yesterday aged 70, arguably outstrips anyone’s.
Those are big claims to make, so let’s start at the beginning. Young was born in Glasgow in 1946, migrated with his parents and younger brothers Malcolm and Angus to Sydney in 1963, and met Vanda at Villawood migrant hostel (now shamefully a detention centre) the following year – an event Australian Musician magazine selected as the most significant event in this country’s rock music history, in 2007.
That’s another big call, but the Easybeats, Australia’s first and finest response to the British Invasion (and the Beatles in particular) all but justify it by themselves. Their second single She’s So Fine, released in May 1965, launched them to local stardom. Their fifth, Sorry – led by a propulsive, serrated Young riff that prefigured younger brother Malcolm’s rhythm work with AC/DC – took them to the top of the Australian charts.
That was in October 1966, by which point the Easybeats had relocated to England. Until then, Young had written music for singer Stevie Wright, who contributed lyrics. It was the year of Revolver and Blonde On Blonde, and there were murmurs that the wild, colonial Easybeats lacked polish by comparison. Young was subsequently teamed with the Dutch-born Vanda, who was still learning English. Their first recording was Friday On My Mind.
The Easybeats’ joyous paean to the end of the working week was a worldwide smash, covered in years to come by everyone from Blue Öyster Cult to Bruce Springsteen, as well as David Bowie, who recorded it for his album Pin Ups. In 2001, the Australian Performing Rights Association voted it the best Australian song of all time; it was added to the National Film and Sound Archives registry in 2007.
If that had been all, Young’s legacy would have been secure. But it was his ongoing work as a songwriter and producer for other artists that turned he and Vanda into giants. As house producers for Albert Productions, they started out by rescuing the doomed Wright’s career with the magnificent three-part opus Evie in late 1974. Around the same time, another Scottish immigrant, Bon Scott, joined AC/DC.
A few stories sum up George Young’s contribution to that band. First, as Clinton Walker has pointed out in his biography of Scott, Highway To Hell, Young insisted that AC/DC should never deviate from straight, hard rock & roll: following trends, he believed, had been the Easybeats’ undoing. He also identified the silence and space in Malcolm Young’s stop-start riffs as crucial to their early sound: “It’s the stops what rocks,” he said.
The most famous story is of smoke billowing from Angus Young’s amplifier as he laid down the climactic solo for Let There Be Rock. From the control booth, George gesticulated and screamed at the guitarist to keep going, with Angus just managing to finish before his Marshall melted. “There was no way we were going to stop a shit-hot performance for a technical reason like amps blowing up!” George said later.
The work Vanda and Young produced for AC/DC – Let There Be Rock, especially – had a tougher edge than the sound Robert “Mutt” Lange gave the band for their international breakthroughs Highway To Hell and Back In Black, recorded after Scott’s death. Vanda and Young were by then also working with the likes of the Angels and Rose Tattoo, who would go on to influence a new generation of hard rockers, notably Guns n’ Roses.
And yet again, there was still more to the story. For as much as Vanda and Young can be credited for birthing the sound of what we now know – sometimes somewhat derisively – as “Oz rock”, they were also writing and cutting huge pop, and even disco hits: Can’t Stop Myself From Loving You, performed by glam rocker William Shakespeare, followed by a string of songs including Love Is In The Air for John Paul Young (no relation).
Vanda and Young even formed their own studio project, Flash & The Pan, whose first single Hey St Peter, released in September 1976, prefigured new wave just as punk was breaking worldwide. The song’s B-side, Walking In The Rain, was covered in 1981 by Grace Jones on her iconic album Nightclubbing. The mesmerising synth-pop of Waiting For A Train, released in 1983, featured Wright on vocals and hit No. 7 in the UK.
The story of Australian rock & roll, from the Easybeats to the Saints to the Hard-Ons and beyond, is of migrant kids. We should all be forever grateful for the day George Young met Harry Vanda at Villawood. And if it sounds like too much of a stretch to say Young defined the sound of Australian rock, listen to that manic, choppy riff from Sorry again – then try to imagine it without him.
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.
You can understand Richie Ramone not wanting to walk under ladders, much less wanting to open that door, and absolutely not wanting to go down to the basement. “I thought there was a curse,” he admits. “I was really careful walking down the street, you know, because everybody went that young.”
Born Richie Reinhardt, the Ramones’ third drummer is one of three surviving members of the quintessential New York punk band. All four original “brothers” (Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy) are now long gone, as well as artistic director Arturo Vega, who designed the group’s iconic logo.
But, while he may not be an original, Reinhardt – who is touring Australia as part of the 10th anniversary of the Cherry Rock Festival in May – is still more a Ramone than you or I will ever be. He stayed with the band for five years and 500 shows during the mid-’80s, playing drums on three albums.
The first of them, perhaps prophetically, was Too Tough To Die, easily the best record from the Ramones’ troubled middle period. Joey himself once said Richie’s arrival saved the famously volatile band.
“When you get somebody new, everybody is on their best behaviour and it’s a shot of new blood, and that’s what they needed at the time,” Reinhardt says. “The record or two before that, they were getting kind of soft, and they stripped it right down.
“They got Tommy Erdelyi, the original Ramones drummer, back to produce with Ed Stasium, and it was just getting down to basics again, that record. It all just worked.”
He also wrote some fine material for the band, his best-known tune being Somebody Put Something In My Drink. Fans can expect to hear a mixture of Ramones songs and Reinhardt originals, with the drummer alternately behind the kit and out in front of the audience.
There haven’t been that many singing punk-rock drummers – Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart and Keish de Silva, from the Hard-Ons, are among the few. “Because punk is fast music, so it’s extremely hard to do … You have to focus on your breathing, you know – when you’re singing and playing drums, you don’t want to sound out of breath.”
He says he still has an emotional attachment to those songs, but then hits on something vital about the band when he admits: “It’s not the Ramones, you know, nothing’s going to sound like the Ramones.” It exposes one of the great contradictions of punk: while anyone can do it, few do it well.
“Those songs aren’t as simple as you think. Everybody goes, ‘Oh, it’s just three chords’, but there’s still a lot more put into those songs that meets the eye. The songwriting was fantastic, the lyrical content – Dee Dee was a genius; he was a poet.
“From the outside you’d look and go ‘Oh, this is so simple’, but when you hear bands trying to play those songs, they don’t know the little nuances that go with it. I kind of know some of the tricks, so when we play some of these songs they’re really cool.”
There’s more to Reinhardt than meets the eye (or ear), too. He’s remained active in music, releasing his first solo album, Entitled, in 2012, with another nearly complete. He’s even dabbled in the classical arena, arranging 10 songs from West Side Story for a symphony in 2007.
“That was a big deal,” he says. “There’s nothing like playing drums with a 90-piece orchestra behind you. It was really invigorating. But right now, I’ve got the rock thing going again, and it takes up all my time.”
First published in Shortlist (The Age), 7 April 2016