Thursday, 12 March 2009

Big black boxes, cheap hotels and an ordinary job

By Spencer (Rock Laureate of Slammatown)

Part I

There are certain clichés that go along with being an indie rock star. Drugs, groupies, money, big shiny cars...

The truth of the matter is that only the very few get to live such lifestyles, while the rest of this strange breed of person have to be contented with being a rock star at the weekend while working a day job the rest of the week. Even on these special rock star days, the indie rock star has to deal with an array of disgruntled promoters, hung over sound technicians, irritable owners and managers of the seedy corner pubs in which the indie rock star is going to do his or her 'art'. Even the seemingly simple taste of getting one's friends 'on the door list' becomes a tiresome task for the indie rock star – they all expect to get their 'cut' of the door and ticket sales - the door list becomes a monument to lost profits (a read of Stuart Coupe's book 'The Promoters' tells more of their story). However there is definitely a positive side to getting into such a ridiculous game such as this. Andy Moore, drum maestro from Melbourne based bands Kamikaze Trio and Digger And The Pussycats, said "I wouldn't trade playing in a band for the world, but it's not all private jets and sex with groupies. Touring usually means endless hours stuffed into a van full of equipment, constant sleep depravation, losing money and generally pushing your body to the upper limits of self-abuse. It’s great."

The struggle for an aspiring indie rock star to create original art and then get that art accepted by venue bookers is immense. The major problem is that of the unknown - hiring a covers band (one that only plays other people's material - generally the certified 'hits') or DJ (one that plays the original recordings of other people's 'hits') for the night is more likely to draw the 'common people' crowd, where an original band or artist is going to be unpredictable – they might bring friends and a regular following but might also perform something that is different or weird and who wants that while sinking a few beers?

In time, the indie rock star's weird factor can turn into an indie rock star's 'Thing'. Suddenly the unknown becomes known, and the indie rock star is allowed to do their Thing in more public places (as long as they keep to their Thing and don't change that Thing). The small crowd they drew at the start are the people who 'saw them back in the day' and an indie rock star becomes a successful indie rock star. They may then have the opportunity to haul their belongings up and down the Hume Highway or fly between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, with the occasional trip to Adelaide, and if particularly keen, Perth. The more remote and rural areas are generally left to former indie rock stars that have hit the big time and are now keen to 'get back to their roots'. Others just move to European countries.


So who are some of these Indie Rock Stars? Find out in Part II




Part II

The institution known as Nick Cave, a Melbourne raised private school lad, made his appearance as one of The Boys Next Door, attracted attention in The Birthday Party and then made a solo career as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. The common threads that run through Cave's work are the usage of traditions of American blues and
folk musics that are altered through a blending with large doses of the more extreme work of Captain Beefheart, Leonard Cohen and Elvis Presley. What comes out the other side is a dark yet humorous style that ranges from the monstrous demented and twisted experiments of The Birthday Party to the quiet beauty of songs such as "Sad Waters" and "Into My Arms".


Ed Kuepper began his journey as the guitarist and songwriter of The Saints. He was there from 1974 until 1978 for their 'classic period' that gave the world the "(I'm) Stranded" single and album plus many other early Australian punk rock classics. From 1979 to 1984 he was the head of the messed up jazz rock thing that was The Laughing Clowns. From 1985 to now he has existed as a solo artist.

The Saints first single "(I'm) Stranded" was released on their own record label because no other Australian label would release it, something many an Indie
musician would be familiar with. Much of Kuepper's later solo work is in the singer/songwriter tradition, similarly with Nick Cave. At the end of the madness,
it is still the song that wins.


Just as some Indie stars reach the mainstream, many mainstream stars go on to find their place in the Indie world. Don Walker, the guy that wrote "Khe Sanh" and
played in Oz pub rock superstars Cold Chisel, has spent time since the band broke up pursuing a solo career, his current focus being on the Tex, Don & Charlie project.

Rob Hirst, drummer for Midnight Oil, has led a similar existence. In recent times his work, aside from playing in The Backsliders, has been with Ghostwriters, a band created in order to play Hirst's songs that don't make the Oils' final cut.

The Scientists made the trip from Perth to Sydney, taking with them their sound of buzzing guitars that played Elvis Presley and Link Wray riffs in unusual
time signatures (they liked to count to five instead of four).

The Johnnys stayed in Sydney to play a beer-fuelled country music that took a wrong turn into loud rock music. Their shows featured duel on-stage bar fridges and hay bails that were thrown over the audience.

The Sunnyboys, who also resided in Sydney, mixed the pop sensibilities of The Beatles, The Kinks, and many other 1960s pop pioneers with the ideals and power of
the artists of the new wave such as Elvis Costello & The Attractions and The Clash.

Indie rock icons sometimes move in tribes. Others congregate in darkened bar rooms. Perhaps the Australian Indie scene's Travelling Wilburys, the monster that is known as The Beasts Of Bourbon is a collaboration of a number of Indie icons, principle
players being maestro Tex Perkins (the Cruel Sea guy, or Greg as his mum calls him), Spencer P. Jones (lead Johnny of The Johnnys), Kim Salmon (head Scientist), and Brian Hooper (he plays with everyone, now is working on his solo career). When Salmon went upstream, his replacement was and has been Charlie Owens (a later member of The Divinyls, also as Charlie of Tex, Don & Charlie, the Australian Indie version of CSN&Y). What The Beasts deliver captures a lot of what the whole rock thing is about - loudness, obnoxious couldn't-care-less attitudes, and well-written songs at the base of it all.


Crow are an obvious candidate. Based around Peter Fenton's songs (and later some from Peter Archer), the band existed from 1988 until 1998, producing a rock style that saw the songs shift from one focus to another in a gloriously ugly fashion that created its own beauty.

The Perth Indie scene in 1988 saw the birth of The Gutterville Splendour Six, a band heard by few but lauded by those who did - the late English radio personality John Peel was in the 'those that did' category. What made the band was the sense that every
word and noise was essential in expressing an urgency and desperation. The music is loud, messy and sludge-like because there is no other choice - an
emotional response. The story goes that the band ceased when some of its members left Perth for Sydney (a common thread in the Australian Indie rock story).
What is left are the products of the various members of the band, the main ones being The Drones, Lowdorados, and The Kill Devil Hills. The urgency was passed along to The Drones. They have a similar fundamental sound. This music is uncomfortable the
first few times around but becomes vital once properly digested.

But what happened next? Find out in Part III



Part III

AFTERTHOUGHT
I wrote this article in 2005 and never really finished it. It is now 2009 and not much has changed except perhaps for the following:

-Digger And The Pussycats played their last show, Andy moved to Germany. Game off. Then he moved back to Australia. Game back on.

-Nick Cave grew a moustache, started a band called Grinderman, did more shows with the Bad Seeds then Mick Harvey left the Bad Seeds.

-Ed Kuepper regrouped The Saints and Laughing Clowns and is now Mick Harvey's replacement in The Bad Seeds.

-Scientists, The Johnnys, Crow and The Beasts Of Bourbon continue to reform and break up and reform and break up and reform.

-Tex Perkins released an intentionally awful covers album. It sold poorly, Dale bought a copy.

-Kill Devil Hills and The Drones continue their rise to greatness. The Drones have new albums and sold out shows in abundance.

The current state of affairs is there is a new band born every other week, a new gang of people looking to do their "thing", those needing and willing to do the hard yards stick it out, others fall by the wayside.

David Thomas of Pere Ubu said it best
"Rock music is about moving big black boxes from one side of town to the other in the back of your car."

If this is true, in the words of Neil Young
"Long may you run".

Or perhaps I should end with the words of an Australian? Or at least a New Zealander who has been in Australia long enough to be considered Australian…

I checked into a cheap motel
I liked the look, I liked the smell
It was like a dive and bell from inside
I had a gig that day I guess
I never had the time to rest
Caught 5 minutes more or less before the show
Suddenly i see success
Success is dead, long live the rest
I'm lucky to be living through
whatever I say, whatever I do

from memory, Spencer P. Jones said that, or something quite like it.

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