NB: This is a really old piece, from 1999. It was originally written for Rolling Stone (Australia) but never got published. I found it when I was going through some old papers at home – and thought I may as well give it one.
It’s a Thursday night at the University of New South Wales Roundhouse, and the new, improved and reformed Hard-Ons are rampaging through Suck & Swallow. As the song descends into a maelstrom of noise, Peter Black is making like Nigel, Spinal Tap’s spandex-clad guitar hero. After a final squeal of feedback, there’s a pause. “As you get older,” Blackie tells us, “you become even more of a wanker.”
The Hard-Ons began their meteoric rise (OK, OK – that’s the first and last bad pun of this story) in 1982, as teenagers growing up in Sydney’s western suburbs. Blackie, bassist Ray Ahn and singer/drummer Keish de Silva went on to become one of Australia’s greatest ever singles bands, and probably punk’s unlikeliest success story.
Between 1985 and 1993, the Hard-Ons topped the Australian independent charts with an incredible 17 consecutive releases and made significant inroads overseas with a succession of high-energy, ultra-melodic gems. Career sales figures are conservatively estimated at around the 250,000 mark, although Blackie will tell you that “a quarter of a million sounds better”.
But in 1994, crushed by the underwhelming response to the band’s blistering fourth album Too Far Gone – which took the band away from its pop-punk roots and into the realm of pure white noise – the Hard-Ons called it quits. At the same time, the Offspring and Green Day jumped the train the Hard-Ons abandoned and rode off into a multi-platinum sunset.
“By Too Far Gone we’d taken up listening to anything but pop-punk,” remembers Ray. “I remember when we did the Smell My Finger mini-album [in 1986], our favourite band at the time was the Descendents. But by the time Too Far Gone came around, we were all listening to different stuff.”
Blackie and Ray formed Nunchukka Superfly, while Keish left for Australia Post. The Hard-Ons, they said, were spiritually dead. Four years on, there’s a 40-date tour of Europe planned, a high-voltage new single Small Talk and a band-picked, remastered best-of set to complement the 1994 singles/rarities compilation A Decade Of Rock.
It’s to be hoped that the Hard-Ons will come back to a more supportive climate than the one they grew up so publicly in. For years, their name – coined by Keish when they were just 14 – made them Australia’s equivalent of the Butthole Surfers. “It turned a lot of people off,” admits Blackie. “It gave us a childish sort of image which was hard to shake.”
“Remember Girl Monstar?” Ray says. “They were supporting us one night in north Queensland, and outside the venue they had this sign, ‘Band plus Girl Monstar.’ We were the band. They wouldn’t print the name.”
Deliberately obnoxious lyrics added further ammunition to the band’s many domestic critics, who failed to appreciate that songs with titles like Suck & Swallow ultimately couldn’t be taken any more seriously than I Farted or Kill Your Mum. “If you get offended by that, then you get offended by Tom And Jerry,” Ray says.
These days, industry ageism and nostalgia for the band’s early material are the more dangerous adversaries. Ray again: “There’s no way we could play back then as well as we do now. You get people saying that our best record was our first one and that we can’t possibly top it. Well, I beg to differ.”
Blackie says that the band’s rough treatment at home is the only thing that left a bitter taste in his mouth. Otherwise, what’s not to love about being a Hard-On? “We were very lucky that we decided to take ourselves overseas, because whenever it got shitty here, we’d just say, ‘Time for another European tour! Hey, let’s throw in Japan as well this time!’”
Besides, he says proudly, the Hard-Ons have done plenty for Australian music, leaving their imprint on a generation of bands from southern California to Sweden, and at home from Spiderbait to Regurgitator to Ben Lee’s first band, Noise Addict.
“Ben Lee used to send us his demo tapes,” says Ray. “That’s pretty cool, because he goes out with Claire Danes. Fuck the money, why can’t we get Claire Danes? But as far as I can see, we didn’t miss any boat. Because when we were out there, there was no boat leaving the port.”