Friday, November 16, 2007

Prehistoric Sounds - In Search of an Australian Rock 'n' Roll



I’ve started writing this story a hundred different ways and every time I think I might be getting somewhere I end up stumbling across some kind of weird desert where the horizon is endless. Like talk of the Great Inland Sea in the nineteenth century, the quest to uncover an Australian rock ‘n’ roll sound might just be a delusion of heat and hope. But I swear it’s there. I really do.

Ed Kuepper seems to agree, though the guitarist behind The Saints, Laughing Clowns and a string of landmark solo recordings has a typically laconic view. “I don’t sing about BBQs or iconic Australian activities but that doesn’t make what I do any less Australian. The Saints and the Laughing Clowns were original Australian bands and I challenge anyone to say otherwise. I’m not like Paul Kelly or Midnight Oil, or The Triffids, who are a great example of an Australian band,” he says. “But the environment you are in always affects what you do.”

Kuepper makes the caveat that “a musical identity [for a country] develops over time. And while it is true to say that most Australian modern music has its roots in something outside of here, you can say that of British modern music as well. A lot of things overseas also sound like a lot of other things too,” he adds drolly.

“I can pull everything apart and go back to the ‘50s. J.OK was Australian. He might have been singing songs that originated in America, but there was a very Australian tonality about it. Then in the ‘60s you had big groups like The Easybeats and The Loved Ones who were basing what they did on overseas music. Is that a bad thing? It never struck me when I was young that they were a second rate copy of anything because they were distinctly Australian to me, and they were great.”

Kuepper does observe, however, that, “in the ‘80s a lot of new bands springing up here were inspired by other Australian bands [at the time] who sounded unique to themselves. Possibly in the ‘90s with grunge and what followed that wasn’t so much the case.”

“The desire for a strong and recognizable musical culture lies at the root of this kind of question [about an Australian sound],” Kuepper finally says. “But there’s a major lack of support for Australian artists, who are always trying to get some kind of foothold, always struggling. There’s also not much sense of history. There’s certainly no sense of Australian musical heritage if you turn on Australian radio. The Laughing Clowns never got a mention in Long Way To The Top. If the historians don’t get it right how do you expect young people to know?”

J Walker of Machine Translations appreciates this perspective in very immediate terms. “Music has always been connected to fashion and trends, and it’s like there are these waves of global sound going round and round. But I think there’s way too much attention given to the latest coolest thing from the USA or England and a rash of bands who copy that. Especially when there are ten other bands doing great things and falling between the cracks here just because rock is cool or it’s time for the ‘New Folk’. Obviously a lot of great things come from overseas, but it’s more a question of why do we have to follow it.”

He suspects the heart of an Australian sound might lay in subtler affirmations. “I reckon there’s a way that Australian people strum a guitar that’s quite Australian. And it goes with our sense of space. When you’re a touring band here and you’re on the road and you have that sense of vastness. I can hear it in Nick Cave, and The Church. Even The Sunnyboys, who were doing the guitar pop thing, but driven. It’s hard to put my finger on it. A fangin’ strumming thing,” Walker says. “Just strumming really hard.”

It’s suggestive of the pulse of the landscape itself, a deeply implicit quality almost impossible to pull from the music and isolate. Walker believes this emerges too in “a certain alienation, actually. We all love the bush but a lot of us are scared of it still.” The parallel continues in “the alienation of the city from the suburbs,” he says. Not easy things to celebrate or popularise nationally, let alone internationally.

Submerged somewhere within this critique is the growing backlash against the so-called ‘New Rock’ boom and international success stories like The Vines and Jet. There’s currently a feeling that style over-rules content in their music – that they could have come from anywhere – and that too many bands are slavishly following suit.

Richard Kingsmill, Triple J’s Music Director, argues against that view. “Whenever a band becomes big people place way too much significance on that act’s influence. There have been terrific success stories this year like John Butler and even Missy Higgins, who have done important things for Australian music. Some acts reflect a directly Australian perspective, others have a world perspective: it’s all in a broad spectrum. Jet play simple rock ‘n’ roll, yes, but then why didn’t an American band do it and have their success? I think the isolation here is still a big factor in Australian music, and it gives us more space to say what are we going to do? Just like AC/DC, Jet could only have come from here. And in the meanwhile, if you do go back to the 1980s and distinctly Australian acts like Not Drowning, Waving, The Triffids and The Go Betweens, I can still see a line from them existing through to now in the subject matter, the tone of voice, lyrics and production values of a lot of Australian acts.”

It’s nonetheless interesting that when searching to name a definitive Australian recording, Kingsmill does go “back to Born Sandy Devotional by The Triffids. At the time they recorded it the band had made inroads into the UK in the few years before, and they could have gone more Velvets in their sound to support that. But they didn’t. Every time I hear Born Sandy Devotional I see W.A. It’s so vivid. It’s a summer record. You feel the heat. And yet it was written over in London, so go figure. Maybe it had that pining thing for home.”

Former Custard frontman and solo performer Dave McCormack touches a similar nerve when he says “it gets back to songs like Cattle and Cane and Spring Rain by The Go Betweens for me. Somehow on paper The Go Betweens shouldn’t sound so Australian, but they do. Grant [McLennan] and Robert [Forster] always painted themselves as these New York type intellectual, Velvet Underground fans. Real fish-out-of-water people in Brisbane. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Lee Remick where they sang, “I come Brisbane and I’m quite plain.’ I thought that was brilliant. For someone to even mention Brisbane in a song was magic for me.”

McCormack talks about the pleasure he would later find in “referencing local bits and pieces, suburbs like Redbank and Logan which no one outside of Brisbane would have known. Now I live in Sydney and that comes out in songs like The Inner West. Obviously You Am I have that too – Tim’s [Rogers] lyrics have an Australian slant to them. I love that one ‘under the Glebe Point Bridge’ (Purple Sneakers),” he sings, “and the way Hi Fi Way and Hourly Daily have that Sydney suburbs thing about them. I love all those artists who have come through and said this is who I am, this is where I am from.”

Tim Freedman of The Whitlams picks up on this theme by stating that, “In the beginning I embraced local themes because I was resisting the impulse to feel Australia was somehow provincial. Just because our music is indebted to British, Irish and American forms, there’s no reason for our lyrics delivery to follow.”

Freedman credits Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil, John Sherman of Redgum and Paul Kelly for showing the way in both their lyrics and their singing style as well. “I became interested in trying to be part of a tradition which furnishes our suburbs with our own myths and our own social history,” Freedman says. “By doing that you’re connecting people with the streets. When I walk around Surry Hills I always think of Hurtle Duffield in [Patrick White’s] The Vivisector being delivered to a new house. Novelists in Australia have been so good at it. Songwriters have just been a bit slow to take up the fight.”

- Mark Mordue

* This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 28th 2004.
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