Monday, July 14, 2008

Miracle in Marrickville in Erskineville

Over the last few years I’ve been driven to discover more about Australia’s indie music heritage. Not quite sure why this should be so – it’s partly something to do with the appetite for diffracted nostalgia that I struggled to express in that Takeaways post.

There’s also a bit of bloody-mindedness involved – a sense that nobody else particularly cares about this music. Invisible in the media, absent from folklore, unavailable to purchase - the fact that nobody is telling me to look this stuff up seems as good a reason as any to hunt it down.

(In a media-saturated environment, I’m often conscious of sailing the seas of other people’s enthusiasms; perhaps having found reasonably under-explored territory so close to home I am excited by the obscurity itself, the way I can map my own thoughts and associations onto this stuff.)

More than enough tenuous theorising. I know for sure that I have a John Kennedy compilation called “From Woe to Go” – I got it for about five bucks from Red Eye in the late eighties, and used to listen to it sometimes but not quite get it. It had a slightly country thing going on (not least in JFK’s look) at a time when country music appreciation wasn’t a fitted-as-standard part of the indie-kid repertoire, or mine anyway.

My world is full of records that I didn’t quite get when I was younger – many of them I have since revisited with rewarding results. A while ago I downloaded a copy of “From Woe to Go” from the excellent Striped Sunlight Sound site, and have been enjoying listening to it while I push my crummy Pintara around the inner city.

I was a little apprehensive about JFK’s gig at the Rose in Erskineville; I’ve seen some pretty terrible shows there - it’s one of those Sydney places that isn’t really meant to have a band and the crowd can be pretty unforgiving. Saturday night was pretty cool, though – after a few songs they turned off the all the fucken televisions (the football was over) and the atmosphere instantly became 100% better - what with the tiled walls and old school bar, I was pleasantly reminded of the lovely clip for “Ghost Ships” by the Chris Bailey Saints.

Kennedy’s voice is strong, his songs are interesting and the band were excellent. That last factor isn’t an uncomplicated asset for me – there’s a real tentative charm in some of his 1980s recordings that I think comes from uncertain indie types playing country-inflected music. Nonetheless, having a muscular roots band behind him had a lot to do with the success of this evening. Perry Keyes had the crowd cheering his solo on “Your Cheating Heart” – I’m not much of a guitar solo man, but I could definitely see their point.

It’s a genuine treat to hear someone singing about Brisbane and Sydney’s Inner West with all the (mixed) passion and engagement with place that we associate with Other Countries’ Music. There’s a directness to Kennedy’s songs that sometimes verges on the hokey, but this is quickly undercut by a wry smile or a knowing couplet – he’s in on the potential for this to be silly, he got there before you and isn’t going to let himself be stopped by anything as pissant as the cultural cringe . This isn’t novelty music, though – there’s something brave about his “Urban and Western” project, and there’s something cherishable in the slight incongruity of hearing Sydney and Brisbane landmarks referenced against the strains of the harp and dobro.

The only two songs I really knew (apart from some predictable but well-realised covers) were “Miracle in Marrickville” and King Street. The former feels like it has grown in stature since 1984 – maybe it’s just that Marrickville has become Ground Zero for independent music in Sydney, as the shifting affordability/close-to-city equations force everyone out of the old haunts. Hence “King Street” sounding like a paean to days gone by - its celebration of Newtown’s key artery as a place of diversity and inclusion is pretty heartbreaking when contrasted against the expensively bland commercial strip of today.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Glam to Wham

Luna Park during the daytime – some times and places in Sydney, you can squint a bit and summon the ghosts, maybe feel like you’re standing in the same town that was once a disagreeable host to bands like the Laughing Clowns, Triffids, SPK, Voight/465, Tactics… stirring names from Golden Days, when Giants Walked the Earth.

I listen to this music a lot, and enjoy thinking about those times, the idea that while I was a ten year-old riding my bike around North Ryde, there were superb bands lurking around the city’s edges making some of the most interesting music this country has ever coughed up.

It’s that odd brand of nostalgia for a time not directly experienced, ethereal and slightly sad – but definitely not unpleasant. It’s a state of mind I actually really enjoy, sometimes even going so far as to deliberately cultivate it. Sometimes.

Helping things along is an odd, half-forgotten cultural artifact – one that created an unusual bridge between pre-teen imaginings of adult life and the (hardly) grown-up world of music and girls.

Sweet and Sour was an Australian television series that aired in 1984. It portrayed the formation, brief career and eventual disbandment of fictional Sydney band The Takeaways.

It comprised 20 half-hour episodes, and was repeated twice in pretty short succession. Since then it hasn’t been screened anywhere, as far as I’m aware – although there is a clip on youtube that is dubbed with Italian voices. It is excellent regardless, featuring all the great characters – is it from their “last gig”?

These days the show is remembered – if it is remembered at all – in a kitchy, nostalgic sort of way. It’s easy to see why – it was an odd blend of “safe” youth-oriented drama with mild aspirations to credibility, and hence full of happy absurdities. To attempt a series about a young band in 80’s Sydney without sex, drugs or bad language was always going to be a whimsical endeavour. In one of the earliest episodes the band are sitting around in their warehouse – one of them starts playing a new song and the others join in, getting the chord changes spot on, first time. Lovely.

Obviously this has never happened to me - yet when I’m playing a new song with friends and it goes right, I often think back to this sequence. Then there was “Shrug” Yates, the washed up jazzman father of sax player/singer Christine Yates – my earliest encounter with the “legendary musician lost in everyday life” trope that I continue to find endlessly compelling.

Bassist George’s “music vs day job” struggles are also pretty resonant in retrospect; I also remember that there were various romantic threads that were played out during the series, although the details escape me.

It is also stuffed with plum awful 1980s fashion disasters, and each episode tends to contain one or two “video clip” sequences – sometimes these are presented as non-naturalistic interludes, and sometimes they are woven into the narrative in the style of a musical.

I’m always very happy to have a laugh about this tatty relic of government-funded 1980s youth programming, but beneath the giggles there exists something deeper, less mocking and more genuinely affectionate, even passionate.

I don’t think I would have started playing music if it hadn’t been for “Sweet and Sour”. I was just the right age to be seduced by its hokey vision of camaraderie in the adventuresome pursuit of creative endeavour - old enough to have aspirations to roll with the cool kids, yet before cynicism really kicked in.

Thinking about this led me to draw utterly fanciful parallels with the far-too-oft-quoted Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Trade Hall in 1976 – “manufactured” band, everyone who saw it started a group etc. I often wonder how many folks playing music in 1990s Australia had a little bit of The Takeaways in their musical DNA – I’ve certainly talked to a fair few.

The music itself was pretty great, too. There were some pretty substantial songwriting contributors – David McComb, Don Walker – and a lot of great pop from the likes of Mark Callaghan, Sharon O’Neill, Reg Mombassa, Todd Hunter etc.

My personal favourites are McComb’s “On The Street Where You Live” – an excellent pop song charmingly sung by Deckchairs Overboard’s Cathy McQuade; “Glam to Wham”, an dreamy studio confection that was released as a single; and the high-energy closing theme “Sweet”, with rather strange lyrics by XL Capris singer and show co-creator Johanna Piggott.

There were two volumes of music from the show, a few singles and even some appearances on Countdown. The first soundtrack sold 70000 copies and went platinum. I remember being pretty sure that they weren’t a proper band, but still enjoyed a certain amount of confusion about the whole thing. Is sort-of-believing in the manufactured mythology of a pretend pop band more enduringly satisfying than buying the manufactured mythology of a “real” pop band?

Of course nowadays the Takeaways have a myspace page, and it’s gratifying to see that there are quite a few comments that gel with my own sense of this being an influential piece of work – not influential in the sense of having any ongoing cultural clout, but because it actually affected people’s lives, even in a small way. That’s pretty nice.

Another odd little resonance this show holds for me is part of my gradual awareness that actors were real people. I remember being a little aghast at a friend’s report that (I think) Sandra Lillingston was working behind the perfume counter in David Jones Bondi Junction. Without thinking about it, I’d always assumed that anyone who’d ever appeared on television was made for life, living a charmed existence quite apart from the worries of everyday folk like me.

I know that Tracey Mann was recently in the very successful play “Minefields and Miniskirts”, and a few years ago I saw Arky Michael in a play called “The Book-keeper”, which is still one of the best theatre productions I have ever seen. It was about the life of the Portugese poet Fernando Pessoa, and it was absolutely beautiful.

These days I have some work-related dealings with Ric Herbert, who played the Takeaways’ ever-scheming manager Darrell Winters. Ric is going great guns, acting, doing voiceovers and performing music himself. At a recent gig, someone brought a copy of the Sweet and Sour LP and asked him to sign it. An actor playing a real gig signing a copy of a record by an imaginary band.

Ric has “Sweet and Sour” on VHS – the old tapes are marked up in biro, I get a sense that they might have been taped by his proud family. He lent them to me about a year ago and I watched the first couple of episodes. Among the riches were cameos from Renee Geyer, Dave Mason and The Johnnys, and scads of heartbreaking footage of “old Sydney” – the time before development really kicked in, when there was still underutilized space left in the city, maybe the possibility of stillness.

I had grand plans to transfer the videos to DVD, but these days it can be a struggle to find the time for things one wants to do. Perhaps I’ll have another go.

“Sweet and Sour” had a perfect ending – the band played their last gig and parted ways. Outside in the street was a lone girl with a Walkman who had recorded the show – she flipped over the tape, pressed play and walked into the night with the music in her headphones.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Television That Dares Question Itself

Last night watched Dennis Potter’s “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”. It’s been a long while since I have seen any of his material, and I was quickly reminded of the reason for this – the thick, pervasive presence of a particularly rank and troubling relationship with matters sexual. In the play, the breakdown this engenders is portrayed as being an immediate result of the Denholm Elliott character finding his wife in bed with another man, but Jack’s deeper sexual dysfunction (the cause of her estrangement) is not explored beyond a few slabs of “insert psychosis here” dialogue.

I remember watching "The Singing Detective" as a child of nine or ten, and in retrospect the dark and unpleasant world of guilty, damaged relations between the sexes had a pretty significant negative effect on my subsequent murky perceptions of the adult world. This is pretty ironic, as one of the other strands of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” is the media’s colonization of one’s interior space. The main character is disgusted by the permissive filth and Socialist dissent propagated by the beardy TV authors of the day, and seeks solace in the bright clean world of the commercials. This concept also manifests itself in an (early?) appearance of Potter’s trademark use of self-aware dialogue – the character convinced that cameras are watching his every move, and that everyone is speaking from a script. This initially promises to be annoying and hackneyed-in-retrospect, but is actually quite effectively handled.

In the penultimate scene of the play, there is a sense that Potter is working us around to some sort of insight – Jack Black’s obviously ludicrous paean to the virginal virtues of his agent’s young and vacuous wife is the play’s clearest statement about the dangers of confusing imagery with reality, of substituting How Things Are Supposed To Be for how they actually are. Perhaps it is a mistake to look for any clearer enunciation of a tidy message in a play that purposefully sets out to denounce the media’s ability to distort perception – there is certainly an almost reckless lack of resolution (excepting a deliberately hollow pat ending) which is hugely refreshing in today’s environment of micromanaged television narrative.

The play feels like the confused work of a brilliant yet troubled mind. While its themes are hugely potent, they feel somewhat undermined by a lack of clarity in their deployment – Potter himself has commented on the raw nature of this work, and there is a certain sense of being privy to mental processes that are not under the artist’s control. Yet this savage honesty has its own virtues, and one is left to wonder at a time when this complex and fascinating piece of work would be commissioned by a major broadcaster, filmed with a quality cast (Billie Whitelaw! Richard Vernon! Dennis Waterman!) and served up to an unsuspecting public. In recent times I’ve been having plenty of lively arguments about whether television today is of generally inferior quality to the “golden age” of the 1960s and 1970s. “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” - relatively obscure, spiky and provocative and worthy of a sustained ponder - is definitely a valuable piece of evidence for the prosecution.

What else?

The stuff about God, and his disappearance - as a deeply irreligious sort I am perhaps too prone to skip over this sort of stuff, and should perhaps try and weave it into my understanding of the piece. Some of this dialogue was reminiscent of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers at times (as is the ultra-modern set where the two seductions occur). A different loss of innocence, feeding into the sexual / commercial material.

The title design, both of the Sextet franchise and the play itself, is causally amazing.

Our old friend Interiors on VT and Exteriors on Film. So comforting.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Thoughtless Young Man

It's not that I don't have thoughts, but I have to acknowledge that they are disconnected and incoherent. I have recently been listening to the new 6CD set by The Caretaker called "Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia" and it is a beautiful and sad evocation of this sense of dislocation and confusion and loss that seems quite close to home (and home seems quite far away - in time, rather than space).

There are a lot of clever people writing blogs who are able to spin this type of stuff out into extremely eloquent posts, to theorise their own lives as a work in progress. I wish I possessed this brand of smarts, but I'm deeply afraid that I'm too much a product of a culture I have come to despise. That sounds a bit self-pitying but there you go.

Nonetheless, I feel quite resolved to try and act in a manner contrary to my keenly-honed short attention span, to try and force my brain to work in increments longer than 30 seconds, to see if it might not be capable of constructing a complex framework of hard-won learning and conceptual rigour. Anything would be better than endlessly swinging back and forth on this tiny little set of monkey bars.

I suppose one traditionally must quietly delete these faltering, tonally uncertain first forays.