DID AUSTRALIA HAVE OTHER MUSIC LIKE THIS?

This article is a response to a question posed to me by the wonderful giant Lavor, quarter of the indispensible cultural Budapest icon that is RNR666, from whose site you are probably reading this right now. While on tour and resting in the house of Dj Kanada Kaosz with Lavor, he asked me, very sensibly:

Unlike other „zeitgeisty“ scenes of the same period, Australia’s dark, mutant jazz-punk sound is much harder to explain in an equation as others styles of the same time :

Deep Anti-Communistic Sentiment + Deeper Love of Synthesizers
= Yugoslavian New Wave!

Pretentious Avant Garde + Immigrant Street Culture + Heroin Punk
= New York No Wave!

Mutant Koalas + Shit Beer
= Australian Dark Jazzy Punk???

…and while I wasn’t old enough to be active in the scene during the innocent and inarticulate Australian 80s, I did write a weekly column in my university paper for 2 years about the history of punk and garage in Australia, which was an extension of my final high school english project, where I was already becoming pen pals with legends of our 80s scene. I feverishly collected vinyl and fanzines from that time and was luckily coming of age in 2001, when a lot of attention was thrown towards the 70s and 80s legends of Australia’s underground rock scene for another chance at some tour money and adulation that might have eluded them the first time round. The 90s were a renaissance for Australian indie music and pushed out these mutant musicians in favour of younger grunge and alternative kids (like Fuckin’ Silverchair…), leading many of the 80s generation to either get regular jobs to support their families, or evolve into genuine pop stars such as Dave Graney, Nick Cave or Tex Perkins.

SO the short answer, for you Lavor, is FUCK YEAH! Australia’s ’78 to ’88 period is dense with amazing bands, both independent and major labels putting out kickass material all over the place. Bands gazed across the pond at what was going on in America, the UK, New Zealand and Germany and jammed it through our own interpretational meat grinder. No matter if it was 60s punk revivalists, Detroit rock or Kraut imitation bands, the Australian versions were dirtier, screamier, and stripped back to the bones. This had a lot to do with a form of music we had previously mastered: neanderthalic, psychedelic biker bluesrock, left over from the 70s „Sharpies“ movement, which acted as a brand of proto-punk.

I’ve got a few theories for this development, Lavor, that I think Hungarian and Eastern European musicians might relate to: with so few „cool“ bands actually touring to Australia in that time, musicians had to take the few key transmissions from the rest of the world and make up the rest from what they knew. A great example of this theory is the names checked by Nick Cave and Roland S. Howard about who inspired them for The Birthday Parties’ sound. While you see some totems of outsider music at that time – Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart – they cite books, poets and films such as Flannery O’Conner, Rimbaud, Johnny Cash, Night of the Hunter, Lee Hazelwood and Morticia Adams. That combo isn’t a menu from insider hipster academia, but rather a cyanide-laced pop-culture milkshake.

The distance between towns and cities meant that the nature of Australian music had always included lots of room for peerless mutation, and pockets of scenes popped up depending on exceptional pressures and strange circumstances throughout the country.

A clear example of this is the formation of the buzzsawing Saints in Queensland (The first ever punk band to chart in the UK). They formed during the corrupt police-state regime of Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen;  who created a political climate described in Out of the Unknown: Brisbane Bands 1976-1988 as, “intolerant of anything different, …. animosity for anyone who leaves the cultural straight and narrow of beer, beach and burgers.” Many of their early gigs were shut down by police for no other reason than it was a group of kids together around guitars and amps. This gave their music a pre-Sex Pistols pissed of razor’s edge snarl. (also noted that they had the first ever UK charting punk song in history)

Likewise, Ann Arbour guitar player, future physician and military pilot Deniz Tek immigrated to Australia in 1972 ready to spark the Detroit sound authentically into a mileu of Sydney bands, most recognisably the powerhouse of Radio Birdman and later supergroup New Race with Ron Asheton and Dennis Thompson from The Stooges and MC5.

However, that doesn’t answer the meat of your question, Lavor – how did this mutant, punk-jazz-noir violence style appear in Australia?

Firstly, the jazz: the spread out nature of venues and population, as I have mentioned, meant that many punk bands had to play wherever they could find, which was often in Jazz venues, where a live music culture had already been established. Conversely, jazz musicians who were interested in more experimental forms, had to turn to punk as there was NO scene for free jazz in Australia, it was actively disavowed by jazz conservatorium leaders at the time, with gigs going to those playing „cool jazz“ or trad vibes. This marriage of highly qualified musicians playing with those who were in the punk world explains another side genre of Australian post punk, the „Little Band Scene“, which we will highlight later. Otherwise, in general, I think Australian musicians of this time, in forming their palate of sounds, heard the squawks of Coltrane, Coleman, Sun Ra, even John Zorn and thought, well, that sounds against the system and we want a piece of it.

As for the darkness, it gets personal. Other Australian art forms from the same time expose good examples of the colonial fear and violence embedded in Australia, that it was trying to gloss over during the financial boon of the 1980s, when we reached out to the rest of the world as a tourist destination. Peter Wier’s „Picnic at Hanging Rock“ is a haunting tale of the colonial stigma of modern Australia, and its failure to understand and accept the old rulers of the country, let alone the injustices against Aboriginal people that continue till this day:

Similarly, David Williamson’s „The Removalist“, among with many of his other works through the decades, exposes the machismo, abuse and patriachy in the culture of Australia, which was overlooked as „Larrikinism“. The violence and power in the bands presented in this article draw their horror from the reality of an Australian culture that includes attempted genocide, colonial penal systems, abuse. These parts of Australian history are the very essence of ghosts, who are also an essential part of Australian history and the sound of the bleakness in these songs.

That’s enough backstory. I am now gonna present a few bands that really nail this sound you have asked about, Lavor, with some of the cool live videos that luckily exist online. Enough vegetables, here’s the payoff !

VENOM P STINGER

A cult band that is outshadowed by two of its members being in the far more popular (and amazing) Dirty 3, this band is the ultimate sound in mutant Aussie jazz punk. Drummer Jim White is a total journeyman in a million amazing projects, check him out in Xylouris White recently!

THE MOODISTS

A project bound at the core by husband and wife team Dave Graney and Clare Moore, of whom both would have very successful later careers, The Moodists also shared many members of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds and Mick Turner from the above mentioned Venom P Stinger. All that and they aren’t even the most incestuous band on this list! The Moodists took all the swampiness of The Cramps mixed with a smarmy velvet joker in the form of frontman Graney.

ESSENDON AIRPORT

An arty ironic disco post punk band associated with the Roland Barthes inspired performance group

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that is also VERY recommended to check out. Better than anything I can write in one paragraph, I offer you the liner notes to a recording:  “songs which combine many of the most facile and insipid kinds of music in a redeemingly dignified manner… creating new trivia out of old. All this takes place along with a kind of pedantic fetishism for small-repetition games – the music travels in circles, spirals and solid blocks of sameness and difference.”

GRONG GRONG

Utter chaos band, who had barely played when they were signed personally by Jello Biafra, before the lead singer went into a 9 month drug induced coma, only to reform some 19 years later. Just watch the docu:

The whole „Little Band“ scene.

A whole arty punk scene had gathered around Melbourne called the „Little Band“ scene. It was kind of like an anti-intellectual version of the Berlin „Echtzeitmusik“ scene perhaps, glamourised by the film DOGS IN SPACE. Again, thats a whole other article so here is a last clip, do your own research, and thanks Lavor!


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