Tagged: the Ramones

Girls to the front

Sometime in the mid-1990s, at around four in the morning, Melbourne music teacher Stephanie Bourke’s phone rang. It was Courtney Love, the lead singer of Hole. One of the students at Bourke’s famed Rock & Roll High School, Brody Dalle – who would go on to fame with the Distillers – had come to Love’s attention.

“The first thing she said was, ‘How many girls have you got down there who sound exactly like me?’ I thought it was a prank call! But then she said, ‘I’m going to help you out, I’m going to send you some guitars!’” Love’s manager got in touch, and a few weeks later, seven Fenders arrived in the mail.

Bourke still has those guitars. She also has a vintage white bass originally owned by Kim Gordon and signed by the members of Sonic Youth, as seen in the video for probably that band’s best-known song, Kool Thing. These days, the guitar is being played by Sidonie Thomas, bass player of a Sydney trio called Bliss – a product of Bourke’s new school, the Kings Cross Conservatorium (KXC).

Rock & Roll High School, named after the Ramones song, was a Melbourne institution: running for over a decade, the school produced four compilations featuring 30 bands each. It was at least partially the inspiration for the film School Of Rock, following a conversation the actor Jack Black had with Bill Walsh one night at Melbourne’s Cherry Bar.

But for all the enthusiasm the school attracted from Americans (one YouTube clip of Dalle’s first band Sourpuss, playing at the Summersault festival in 1995, features a grinning Thurston Moore alongside all three members of the Beastie Boys side of stage), Bourke was frustrated by the lack of support in Melbourne, and in 2003 she moved to Sydney to start again with KXC.

Although co-ed, Rock & Roll High School was largely geared towards teenage girls. When Bourke started KXC, though, she was working with kids in primary school: Louella Gallop, for example, was in year four and “a particularly unmotivated piano student”, according to Bourke, who encouraged her to play drums – which she now does in Bliss.

Gallop is now 18 and is still at the Conservatorium. The generation of kids Bourke began with have grown up, and while plenty have come and gone, others like Gallop, Thomas and 21-year-old Charlie Young (who came to Bourke aged six, and now plays drums with Sincerely Sonny) have formed their own bands and are making records.

Young is in three bands all playing at a showcase with Bliss on Sunday at Paddington RSL: Sincerely Sonny, who are attracting commercial interest; Miss Klein; and a 1970s-themed outfit simply titled Glam Band. “We’re doing Barracuda by Heart, 20th Century Boy by T. Rex, Suzi Quatro’s Your Mother Won’t Like Me – it’s pretty fun,” she says.

Young says she’s learned more from Bourke than just how to play. “As I get older I’ve noticed how much of the philosophy that the music school has rubbed off on me. I have a political mindset, I have a feminist mindset. There’s a lot of equality in that music school. You don’t notice until you start gigging in the real world how different things are.”

Gallop, too, has been informed by Bourke’s approach. “A lot of my perspectives about the world have definitely been shaped by what I’ve been taught by her, listening and watching the way that she treats people and the way that she expects to be treated, and her values – which she’s very strong in showing and teaching young kids.”

But Bourke still finds herself having, and hearing, the same conversations about structural discrimination as she did more than 20 years ago. “You know when Camp Cope got up on the stage at the Falls festival, in 2018, and they said, ‘Where are the [women] bands?’ I felt like saying, I think I know why there are no bands, I felt like I had the answer.”

It was easier, she said, to be a female solo artist rather than a group. “I always find that interesting, that it’s easy to be feminist if you decide you’re going to do it alone. You know, Germaine Greer said men are afraid of women in groups. I used to think that was an extreme statement.”

Of course, there is Beyoncé, Rihanna, Adele, Sia. But for Bourke’s school, Taylor Swift was a game-changer simply because “she was up there carrying a guitar – I’m like, yay! You should have seen how many eight-year-olds I had wanting to learn guitar then! I was a Taylor Swift song machine back then, I must have taught every single Taylor Swift song.”

Rock & Roll High School took a more punk aesthetic, where the approach to learning to play and record was faster. With the students at KXC starting younger, the playing, if not necessarily the songwriting, is of a higher standard, and there are enough students to form bonds with like-minded kids – bonds that are often harder to find in adulthood.

One of her youngest groups are called the Rellies, four boys aged between 11 and 13 who have a single out on English punk label Damaged Goods. “They’ve just decided there’s no band except the Beatles, so we’re just ploughing through Beatles stuff. They come in, they’ve just practiced the shit out of it, and it’s the best thing for songwriting.

“I just like to support everybody, I want everyone to enjoy it, and to be the antithesis of the pressure that you get elsewhere, when there’s an exam and an assessment at the end of every task – that’s not why we do what we do. Music’s like eating chocolate, you don’t need a reason.”

First published in the Guardian, 5 March 2021

Something To Believe In: A Playlist

I was driving alongside the Brisbane River not far from home, with a Ramones anthology playing at full volume, when it hit me. I was trying to piece myself back together after a difficult couple of years. My mother had been transferred into care with advanced Alzheimer’s disease and my marriage had broken up. Something To Believe In was the song that did it – an almost-forgotten single from the Ramones’ troubled mid-’80s era. It was about losing your grip on yourself, on life, then rediscovering your sense of purpose. I knew I wasn’t going to be the same person but, then again, I didn’t want to be.

It was March 2018. I’d written a few pieces that began to sketch out a story of a life on the margins of music but from the perspective of a fan, a wannabe, rather than a player. Over the next two months, a music memoir poured out: the first 30,000 words in three weeks. It was finished by Mother’s Day. Something To Believe In was the obvious title, music being that something that had kept me sane, kept me going and, at times, kept me alive.

What follows is a playlist of 10 songs – most sublime, at least one ridiculous – that signposted that journey.

1. The Ramones – Something To Believe In (1986)

For whatever reason, the title track of Something To Believe In isn’t on Spotify, so you’ll have to go to YouTube for it. It’s a Dee Dee Ramone song; he wrote most of the band’s really dark stuff. This is one of his saddest but it’s also uplifting. Joey’s vocal will put a lump in your throat. In the first half, he wishes he was someone else. After Johnny’s solo – one of very few solos by the guitarist – there’s a bridge where he grabs life by the throat: he decides he’s going to accept himself instead.

2. The Velvet Underground – Rock & Roll (1970)

3. Iggy & The Stooges – Raw Power (original mix, 1973)

To me, this is the greatest song about the power and the glory of rock & roll ever written. The chorus – “Don’t you try, don’t you try to tell me what to do” – is what it’s all about. So is this lyric: “Raw power’s got a healing hand / Raw power can destroy a man.” Who knows how Iggy is one of the last true originals left standing but you only have to count the bodies to know he’s right, and his next stop after recording this album was a psych ward. It’s a classic now but, at the time, Raw Power was so far ahead of the curve no one even knew there was one up ahead. David Bowie’s mix buried the rhythm section but it’s still punk as almighty fuck.

4. Do Re Mi – Man Overboard (1985)

This came out when I was 14 years old. At that time I knew nothing about women, let alone feminism, and I didn’t really understand this song but connected with it anyway. I was a tiny kid and got bullied a fair bit in the playground, and I think I just related to Deborah Conway’s rage and hurt more than anything. It’s a post-punk song and a lot of punk spoke to people who had been marginalised in some way. These days I identify more with the object of Conway’s disdain in ways I’d rather not – I know I’m addicted to attention and, as a music writer, I’ve been wallowing in a swamp of trivia for most of my adult life.

5. Patti Smith – Free Money (1975)

Lenny Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith group and compiler of the great ’60s anthology Nuggets, once said garage music reminded people of why they wanted to rock & roll in the first place, which was pure desire. And we always want what we can’t have. Another key concept of rock & roll is transcendence, the conceit that it can take us outside ourselves and so set us free. Smith embodied both in this song about escaping the prison of poverty. What really gets it over is the intensity of her performance. She sounds as though she’s clawing out of your speakers. It starts slow, with just Smith and Richard Sohl on piano, then the band shifts through the gears until they’re at maximum horsepower.

6. Kate Bush – The Big Sky (1985)

This is similar to Free Money in that what makes it leap out is Bush’s wild performance. Hounds Of Love, the album that it’s from, is really special to me; it seems to keep reappearing at key times. This song is about moving on – the idea is that we’re all just specks in the cosmos. It’s all big tribal drumming and stacked vocals, arranged for maximum impact. It gets louder the longer it goes as more elements are added to the mix but at the centre of it is Bush’s voice. From about the three-minute mark she completely loses it – she sounds as though she’s talking in tongues, then from 3.45 she unleashes a series of heart-stopping shrieks. She was possessed.

7. Liz Phair – Johnny Sunshine (1993)

A lot of these songs are about the self-mythologising of rock & roll, something the Rolling Stones were pretty adept at. Liz Phair was in love with that ideal too – and the Stones – but understandably she had a problem with a lot of the lyrics. So she decided to write a song-by-song feminist response to the Stones’ Exile On Main St. That was her first album, Exile In Guyville, and it upended all those old cliches. I write about Divorce Song in the book (because, well, divorce) but Johnny Sunshine is closer to the theme I’m getting at here. It’s Phair’s response to All Down The Line, where the protagonist takes off with a “sanctified girl”. In Johnny Sunshine, Phair replies from the perspective of the woman he’s left behind. Living in an adolescent fantasy world usually means that someone, somewhere is getting hurt.

8. Jen Cloher – Hold My Hand (2013)

My mother is in the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease; she has been bedridden and unable to communicate for more than 18 months now. But the years before that were harder for her emotionally, and for her family and friends, as her illness stripped her identity from her, piece by incremental piece. She got it young, too, when she was in her mid-50s (she’s 71 now). When Jen’s song appeared, it reduced me to ash. Her mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s too and the song describes a circular conversation between her parents: her dad explains to her mum how they met but she forgets instantly, so she asks him again. I had lots of conversations with my mum like that. The message of the song is that “love is more than a reward or balm we use to soothe”. It’s an ongoing test of patience and loyalty.

9. Neil Finn – Chameleon Days (2017)

In early September 2017 I was in Auckland for a music conference when I should have been in hospital. I was in a hotel room and had enough tablets on hand, plus booze, to kill a horse. I was in a really serious, unstable condition. But I had one thing left to do: I had to review Neil Finn’s album. It sounds absurd but it was important to me to finish this one task. I listened to Chameleon Days about a dozen times in a row and it stayed my hand. It’s a very gentle song about fate, change and radical acceptance. The next day I was up at Roundhead Studios where Neil had livestreamed cutting the song.

10. Kiss – God Gave Rock & Roll To You II (1991)

It’s worth finishing with something big and dumb and silly, and they don’t get bigger, dumber or sillier than Kiss. Originally this song was a hit for Argent in 1973. Kiss covered it in 1991, long after the face paint had come off. I love it, partly because it’s so ridiculous, but also because it posits rock & roll as a primal life force in and of itself. Paul Stanley’s rave at the end is hilarious: “I know life sometimes can get tough! And I know life sometimes can be a drag. But people! We have been given a gift. We have been given a road. And that road’s name is … rock & roll!” He was a true believer.

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First published in The Guardian, 28 June 2019

Regurgitator’s Pogogo Show gets down with the kids

Most rock bands work very hard at being serious. Credibility and being cool is everything – but if you’re a rock-star parent, those things count for nothing when it’s time to go home. Then you might sing silly songs to your kids in between chores, or when you’re dropping them off at school, before it’s time to put on the mask again and going back on tour.

Regurgitator have never worked hard at being serious, and have recorded an entire album of the songs they sang to their kids. The result is Regurgitator’s Pogogo Show: The Really Really Really Really Boring Album, with Ben Ely’s 14-year-old daughter Dee Dee doing backing vocals and telling stories in between songs.

The result is anything but boring, and sounds, well, like a Regurgitator album. For kids. That is, without the swearing, but with lots of farting.

The classic Brisbane three-piece (Quan Yeomans, Ben Ely and Peter Kostic) are spread out these days, with Yeomans in Melbourne and Kostic in Sydney. But all have children, and so too do most of the band’s Generation X fans, who’d come to the gigs on a night off (or on a date night). The Pogogo Show could catch on – especially since it’s already branching out into live shows.

But, as Ely says in the backyard of his Brisbane home, this was no calculated Cockroaches-to-Wiggles type transformation. As much as it is a reflection of parenthood, it’s also an extension of his near 30-year friendship with Yeomans.

“You know that mate who you’re kind of a bit sillier with than other people?” he says. “Quan and I have this very juvenile relationship. When we get together we try and make each other laugh, and a lot of those Regurgitator songs come from that place. Making a record, we’d always find ourselves pulling back from being complete idiots, but doing a kid’s album, this is the project where it really feels true to our nature. We can just jump off that idiot cliff.”

Dee Dee – who was, naturally, named after the late Ramones bass player – took it more seriously. “We kind of wrote it together,” she says. “A lot of it was from childhood. And it was interesting, but it also taught me to be confident in being able to express myself through multiple mediums, and producing a record was just an easy way of getting some of these ideas out there.”

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. Mr Butt, for example, was one of those songs that came from a school run years ago. “We were driving and we saw a cyclist and his pants were not where they should be,” Dee Dee says. “You could see a lot of crack, and Dad just started tapping on the steering wheel as he usually does and pointing…”

“And I said, pull your pants up Mr Butt!” Ely finishes. “And then we invented this character called Mr Butt, whose pants keep falling down.”

Later, Ely made a papier-mache Mr Butt for the children’s shows. “I thought it would take a couple of hours, and it took about a week. But creatively it’s fun. I guess what’s always appealed to us about being in a band is it’s not just guys in a room playing music; there’s so many other components.”

The album was recorded with children’s guitars and drums, tracked in a single afternoon in a Melbourne studio, and mixed the next day. Immediacy was everything. “Kids don’t think about things, they just act,” Ely says, possibly referring to himself. “They don’t think, ‘I’m going to draw a fire truck’, they just draw a fire truck. There’s not very many premeditated ideas.”

“And with a target audience of kids you can make it a bit more creative,” Dee Dee says. “You can also have fun with it, you don’t have to stick to a certain persona or visual effect.”

What about bringing The Pogogo Show to the small screen? Dee Dee is way ahead of Dad here. “I think with modern technology you’ll want to move it to multiple platforms to really take off, because not everyone’s going to be on ABC,” she tells him. “If you want to put it on YouTube, all that stuff, widen your horizons – like, I can help you!”

After all, why wouldn’t they want to take songs like Farting Is A Part Of Life to suburban homes around Australia? As Dee Dee says to Ben, “It’s not like you’ve got a reputation to uphold or anything.”

“There’s no reputation to lose,” he agrees.

First published in The Guardian, 2 February 2019

Memories not enough to save Melbourne’s Festival Hall

Like millions of others, I have fond memories of live entertainment at Festival Hall. Sure, the room was lacking in atmosphere, bonhomie, charm and sound quality – almost anything, actually, that makes a great music venue – but that doesn’t stop me treasuring the experiences of seeing the Ramones in their late-career dotage and Nirvana at their absolute apex, despite Kurt Cobain being obviously ill.

So it was a sad day in Brisbane when, in 2003, the building was demolished to make way for the construction of an apartment block. We’d been through it all before too many times, most notoriously when the beloved Cloudland Ballroom was knocked down in the dead of night in 1982 by the Deen Brothers, the premier/hillbilly dictator Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s demolition firm of choice. Their slogan was “All we leave behind are the memories”.

For Melbourne, the potential loss of its Festival Hall for another proposed block of flats has nothing to do with acoustic or architectural aesthetics – unlike, for example, the historic Palace Theatre. Like Brisbane’s version, Festival Hall was designed for sporting spectacles, mainly boxing. It was the simultaneous arrival of television and rock & roll that resulted in the room throwing open its doors to live music, most famously the Beatles in 1964, as also happened in Brisbane.

It’s about memories, the loss of a rare mid-sized venue that can hold between 4500 and 5500 punters, and the blow to the self-image of Australia’s self-proclaimed live music capital. The local industry first flexed its muscle in January 2010 after the (mercifully temporary) closure of the punk venue The Tote in Collingwood – an event that prompted a rally of more than 10,000 people to march through the city against punitive liquor-licensing regulations.

It made Melbourne quite literally evaluate what it was in danger of losing. A Deloitte study, commissioned by Arts Victoria the following year, found that live music was worth $500m to the state’s economy, with attendances of more than 5 million a year employing more than 17,000 people. According to the state’s peak advocacy body Music Victoria, the city has more live music venues per capita than anywhere in the world.

So the music sector’s muscle is built on solid economic foundations. That’s to say nothing of its priceless cultural contribution. Try, for a moment, to imagine the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, London, New York, Sydney (particularly during the 1980s) and smaller centres such as Brisbane and Dunedin in New Zealand without reference to the artists who helped to define their history and legacies.

The subsequent passing of the agent of change principle by the Victorian government in 2014 imposed obligations on developers to protect existing live music venues from noise complaints by residents. This means that the onus is on developers to provide noise attenuation measures should their plans fall within 50 metres of an existing venue, unless it is the venue which plans to expand, in which case the onus is reversed.

But that hasn’t insulated Melbourne’s music scene from the cold, hard commercial realities of real estate. Since the 2010 groundswell, Melbourne has lost not only the Palace Theatre but the Ding Dong Lounge in the city (which held its last drinks only 10 days ago), the Caravan in Bentleigh and a number of St Kilda venues, including the Palace, the Greyhound Hotel and the Esplanade, although the latter is scheduled to reopen in October.

In a statement, Music Victoria’s CEO Patrick Donovan urged the developer and local and state governments to retain and protect the “iconic” Festival Hall. “The developer’s proposal comes at a time when all eyes are on Melbourne and Victoria as a world leader in live music,” he said. “Melbourne has been recognised as a global music city, hosting the international Music Cities Convention in April.”

But Festival Hall’s owners have made a commercial calculation that there is more money to be made from selling the site than in continuing to compete with similar more modern venues, including Margaret Court Arena (which is slightly bigger, with a capacity of 7500 people). And as much as the City of Melbourne and the state government have done to work with the music sector, there’s no agent of change principle or heritage listing at stake here.

And that’s why the pleas of Music Victoria will probably fall on deaf ears. At the end of the day, the city is not in the business of protecting memories. At the entrance to what is now Festival Towers in Brisbane, there’s a rather sad collection of photographs from gigs gone by that few other than the building’s residents will ever see. The application for the Melbourne development speaks blandly of “harness[ing] the emotional aspects of this venue”.

Which will mean absolutely nothing to anyone who ever passed through its doors to see the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Kanye West and homegrown acts including AC/DC and Courtney Barnett.

Back in Brisbane, Hutchinson Builders’ Scott Hutchinson – a music tragic who also built the Triffid in partnership with former Powderfinger bassist John Collins and the band’s manager, Paul Piticco – is now starting work on a 3500-capacity venue to “replace” Festival Hall in inner-city Fortitude Valley.

Perhaps Music Victoria might consider sounding out the state government or a similarly philanthropically minded developer, should any exist, about a long-term investment in a purpose-built mid-sized music venue – one with better acoustics and atmosphere than Festival Hall could ever offer.

First published in The Guardian, 24 January 2018

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