Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Soul Wax Punk 45 versus Inner City Sound: No place in the sun for dogs in space

Australian journalist and author Clinton Walker  isn’t dead, but he must be turning over in his metaphorical grave at the (current) lack of a Soul Wax Punk 45 compilation focusing on Australian punk and post-punk. Hopefully I am wrong and there is one on the works, but at the moment it doesn’t look likely. Focusing mostly on 7” singles, the label just published their fifth volume of the excellent series, with one on the origins of punk (Sick On You! One Way Spit! After The Love & Before The Revolution - Proto-Punk 1969-76 Vol. 3), one on UK punk (There Is No Such Thing As Society - Get A Job, Get A Car, Get A Bed, Get Drunk! - Vol. 2: Underground Punk And Post-Punk In The UK 1977-81) and three on the US scene the general collection Kill The Hippies! Kill Yourself! The American Nation Destroys Its Young - Underground Punk In The United States Of America, 1973-1980 Vol. 1, followed by two specific volumes: Burn Rubber City Burn! Akron, Ohio : Punk And The Decline Of The Mid-West 1975 – 80 and Extermination Nights In The Sixth City! Cleveland, Ohio: Punk And The Decline Of The Mid-West 1975 – 82. That the last two do not have volume numbers is curious as it suggests maybe a more open ended approach to the series? As well as Australian punk there could surely be volumes on German, Spanish  and Japanese punk?

Before we discuss some potential reasons for this oversight lets return to Walker. In many ways, Walker has already done Soul Jazz’s job for them, publishing the Inner City Sound book first in 1982 and again in 2005 with some extra sections. The republication came about partially as a result of the original book fetching outrageous prices on eBay and having been bootlegged and sold around Melbourne. However, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Mojo, a January 2004 issue on Post Punk and perhaps the CD with the April 2005 issue that paid only the most respects to the Australian groups. Apparently not much has changed in the attitude towards Australian music since 2005, but we will still give Soul Jazz the benefit of the doubt and assume that a future compilation is in the works.

 Inner City Sound the book is essentially a compilation of articles, reviews and interviews culled from punk and post-punk reviews, many of which were written by Walker or appearing in zines he coordinated. Walker went on to become a noted journalist on TV and in press of the scene and appears in the odd video clip interviewing some of the stalwarts of the scene. He also wrote Stranded: The Secret History of Australian Independent Music 1977–1991 which was published in 1996 and covers much of the same territory.

Clinton Walker interviews Rowland S Howard about Shivers

The re-release of the Inner City Sound book was also accompanied by an essential 2xCD compilation of published tracks  as well as some unreleased demos exclusive to the compilation and featuring extra notes and Walker’s indispensable family tree map of Australian punk and post-punk groups. Given the exorbitant price that many of the original Australian issue 7” singles fetch on Discogs and eBay as well as the extravagant rerelease programs underway for some bands (such as Domino’s recent Go-betweens box set), you would think there might be sufficient interest in such a compilation of Australian music?

So what would a hypothetical Punk 45: Australian Punk and Post-Punk 1976-1982 sound like if we assume the rule that we can only collect tracks off 7” singles and one per group? This is my independently curated list and although it overlaps in parts with the Inner City Sound compilation it is independent.

Punk 45: No place in the sun for dogs in space: Australian punk and post-punk 1976-1982

The originators and pioneers:

The Saints – No time
Like Walker, Brisbane’s The Saints must feel a little hard done by. They are often credited as being one of the world’s first punk bands, forming in 1974 and self-releasing their debut single “(I’m) Stranded” in 1976 on their own Fatal Records label, before most other punk groups, including the Sex Pistols, had even begun to make any kind of real impression and before do-it-yourself releases had become the wider norm. “(I’m) Stranded”, also lent its name to the debut album released a year later in 1977 and to Walker’s book, and is therefore one of the most iconic releases in Australian music and this track would be an obvious choice for inclusion. However, the B-side of this single “No time” is an acceptable alternative choice if only for being less obvious. It was also an album track off the debut and is a coruscating track with a burning, buzzing riff. Second choice might also be the longer “Erotic neurotic” and another blinding track from the debut album. Sadly, the Saint’s trip to England to promote the album would end in lack of acceptance from the fickle English press and disaster and would provoke the first of many line-up changes in the group that would essentially derail the groups quest for success. Consequently the follow-up album “Prehistoric Sounds” from 1978 was a bit uncertain and frustrating for a lot of pure punk fans as it dropped the naked aggression for a more sophisticated approach even if it was based on the Stooges “Fun House” (check Chris Bailey’s snarled vocal impersonation of Iggy and the sax overdubs not quite reminiscent of Steve Mackay). As a result of this album and the subsequent developments of the group, the Saints were something of an unfairly derided name in Australia in the 90s and were more associated, rightly or wrongly, with pub rock than any kind or indie or punk music although with time their legacy has come been more re-established.

Radio Birdman – New Race
The story of Sydney’s Radio Birdman is almost the same as The Saints: forming in 1974 they also pioneered the punk trail, released one of the world’s first punk singles in 1976 followed by their debut album in 1977, “Radios Appear”, before fracturing after a failed trip to the UK at the height of punk and their powers. The band’s debut 7” “Burn my eye” and album featured a more melodic take on punk relative to the firestorm of the Saints’ debut. The band’s sound drew heavily from US influences, particularly Detroit (guitarist Deniz Tek was originally a resident of the city before migrating to Australia) and the tighter guitar sound of MC5’s “Back in the USA” album as well as the Stooges who they covered on the opening track of the album and who also gave the band their name from a lyric to the track “1970”. None of the four tracks from the 1976 debut single “Burn my eye” appeared on “Radios Appear” making them an interesting collectors choice for inclusion, but another early single of interest was “New race" from 1977 which was recorded in several versions including one on 1996’s “Ritualism”. The music is one of the most overtly punky tracks recorded by the group whereas the simple lyrics read like a call to arms and a marker of change in youth culture towards more independence

“There's gonna be a new race
Kids are gonna start it up”

Boys next door/The Birthday Party – Happy Birthday
The origins of the chequered careers of Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Rowland S Howard as well as their less enduring companions Tracey Pew and Phill Calvert is a twisting and slippery story that is hard to pin down. One 7” would certainly never do them justice in any incarnation. The original trio of Cave, Harvey and Calvert formed in 1973 at Caulfield Grammar School before Pew joined in 1975. The band was a staple on the Melbourne scene and often toured the east coast The Inner City Sound compilation features the track “Sex crimes” that was a live favourite from this early incarnation of the group and shows their more traditional punk roots, but this was never officially released and is one of a number of early demos on the “Lost and brave…” compilation available on eBay, but strangely absent from Discogs.

When Howard joined in June 1978 the band had already recorded and released the “These boots were made for walking” 7” single and several other tracks for the legendary Suicide label and its 1978 Lethal Weapon compilation. With Howard on board, the second side of “Door, door” became a different affair and Howard’s track “Shivers” was added which became one of the most iconic tracks in Australian music history (and also featured in the Dogs in Space film of which more below). The original of “Shivers” was demoed by Howard’s earlier supergroup Young Charlatans and has a rougher edge and is available on Inner City Sound, but never officially released except for a rare 1981 cassette appearance, despite being widely covered by many groups based on the Boys Next Door version.

The sound of “Door, door” was strangely poppy after the punkier earlier tracks and before the claustrophobic darkness of their subsequent metamorphosis. The follow-up “Hee haw” 12” EP from 1979 is also essential, but it is the 7” of “Happy birthday”, also the last track off “The Birthday Party” album released by Missing Link in 1980, that acted as the crucial fulcrum for the band, precipitating the change of name to the Birthday Party and their exodus to the UK where they were one of the few Australian groups to genuinely make it. The single was also released by The Birthday Party as the B side to their first single the “Mr Clarinet” 7” from the same year.

“King Ink” from “Prayers on Fire”  is one of the most significant Australian and post punk tracks of all time, but was never released as a single. However, the Birthday Party also deserve mention for “The friend catcher” 7” which showcases Howard’s inventive and intimidating guitar sound that would go on to influence everyone from shoe gaze rock to techno and artists like Sandwell District; and “Release the bats” single from 1981 which although not the best release from the group also became iconic for its influence on the burgeoning goth scene and for other new romantic groups.

East coast artists

The Ears – Leap for lunch

The Ears was a Melbourne band who released little in their time, only two 7”s including “Leap for lunch”, but would nonetheless have a defining influence on the history of Australian punk and post punk. This was largely due to the relationship of front man Sam Sejavka and film director Richard Lowenstein. The two shared a house together and the events would become the legendary film Dogs in Space, named after a blistering and incredible track from the band that was a live favourite, but unreleased until 2010 when it became available on the "Dogs in Space" collection available on the bands Bandcamp page . The film Dogs in Space was filmed in the same house where Sejavka and Lowenstein lived, refurbished at some expense for the film, and Lowenstein also directed the video clip apparently filmed also in the same house. Lowenstein would go on to make several video clips for groups including INXS and U2, and would make the documentary “We're Living on Dog food”, which accompanied the re-release of Dogs in Space, and later in 2011 the award winning documentary Autoluminescent about the life of Rowland S Howard. Incidentally, Sejavka is played by Michael Hutchence of INXS in the film who sings a cover of Suicide’s “Franky Teardrop” whereas Marie Hoy sings Rowland S Howard’s “Shivers”. Both artists would later appear on the Max Q project with Ollie Olsen.

Primitive Calculators – I can´t stop it
Also appearing in Dogs in Space were the Primitive Calculators, another band from Melbourne. The Calculators were again, under recorded, but did release a couple of 7” s and an eponymous album in 1982. Several reformations also saw a second album emerge in 2013 on Chapter Music, another long-lived and important Perth-Melbourne label run by Guy Blackman, that has released several other important punk and post-punk compilations. However, the impact of the group is also recorded through their critical role in organizing and donating equipment for the so-called “Little Band Nights” at Melbourne’s Champion Hotel in Fitzroy as well as in the Crystal Ballroom in St Kilda, a shooting venue for the live band scenes in Dogs in Space, where the likes of Whirlywirld and Boys Next Door, amongst others, would play. The band’s sound at the time was impressively future-looking, mixing electronics with guitars in a heady, noisy blend.

Whilrywirld – Window to the world
Ollie Olsen started out in legendary Melbourne group Young Charlatans with Rowland S Howard, Janine Hall (also at one time of the Saints and Weddings, Parties, Anything) and Jeffrey Wegener (also playing temporarily in the Birthday Party, the Saints and with former Saint Ed Keuper in the Laughing Clowns). Having grown tired of purely guitar music, Olsen began to incorporate electronic instruments into his new band Whirlywirld as well his other project Hugo Klang. Walker famously described them in Inner City Sound as “not unlike a truckie yelling and screaming as he drives slowly through a china shop.” While some of the music pushed towards the new wave synth music beginning to develop at the time, Olsen always maintained an experimental edge, with some abrasive sounds and repetitive rhythms that foresaw techno as evident on Whirlywirld’s 1980 mini LP on Missing Link.

Like many of the Australian punk and post-punk artists, Olsen would later find some critical success, but limited commercial success with the Max Q project with Michael Hutchence on sabbatical from INXS. Named after Olsen’s dog.

Slugfuckers – Deaf disco
Sydney’s Slugfuckers had the best name and the most unrecognisable lineage. Part punk, part psych and part art project, the group featured as core members Terry Blake (vocals), John Laidler (guitar) and Graham Forsyth (bass) and recorded only a small amount of material in their time including two 7”s and the “Transformational Salt” album all of which were collected on the 2xCD set Cacophony: 1979-1981which also featured some of their inspired live jams. Their “Instant Classic” EP featured two tracks, the first called “Deaf Disco” was a parody of Public Image’s recently released “Death Disco” and highlights the bands anti-establishment and unhinged low-fi approach to punk’s DIY attitude.

Thought Criminals – More suicides, please
The Thought Criminals had a classic buzzsaw guitar sound with a typical Australian black humoured lyric on their second single released in 1979 on their own Double Think label (both the label and group name were inspired by George Orwell’s 1984). However, the career of the group was anything but typical. After several years on the live scene and self-releasing a debut album “Speed Madness and Flying Saucers” the group retired from gigging in disgust at the music industry (check the track “I Won't Pay (For Punk Records)” off their debut single to get an idea for some of the reasons why). Nonetheless, they continued to record while their label became an important operational point for many other bands in terms of management, releases and promotion.

Essendon Airport – How low can you go
Before !!! (chk chk chk) and Swedish techno duo Shxcxchcxsh was Melbourne art rockers → ↑ → (pronounced with three clicks of the tongue) who were in existence as early as 1975. Their mixture of punk, electronics, experimental music and multimedia work was as impossible to classify as it is hard to find traces of on the internet except one video on Youtube (below). The group thankfully also spawned several side projects including Essendon Airport which continued the band’s curious blend of experimentation with pop forms. Essendon Airport released the “Palimpsest” album in 1981 as well as a handful of singles including the “Sonic investigations (of the trivial)” in 1980. The sound on this release, mixing keyboards, simple electronic beats chirpy guitar patterns and brushed drums sounds like the origins of To Rococo Rot and later post-rock than anything classically post-punk.

Voigt/465 – A secret west
Hailing from Sydney was another short-lived and uncompromising band Voigt 465 who’s points of reference are as much Krautrock, especially Faust, as well as the avant garde (Hunters and Collectors also had a strong Krautrock influence, being named after a Can track off “Landed”). The group only existed for around 2 years from 1977 until 1979 when bass-player Lindsay O’Meara left to join Crime and the City Solution (who themselves remained unrecorded until the 1980s). The band released a solitary 7” and an album “Slights unspoken”, both of which were originally self-released and unavailable but rumours suggest that it may be re-released again soon by Chapter Music. This B-side “A secret west” from their single is hard to classify with its male and female vocal cacophony, driving, but buried guitar and proto-electronics.

The Go-Betweens - Your turn, my turn
There is a lot already written about Brisbane’s Go-Betweens. Their story is a long and winding one as they journeyed from the rough climes of Brisbane’s punk scene, to Sydney and eventual commercial success. Their earliest singles, recently reissued as a single disc as part of a mammoth retrospective boxset, are far from punk in sound, but clearly punk in attitude as they reacted to and defied the rough and tumble of Brisbane’s scene fired up and fuelled by the troubles the Saint’s had had with the law and the perennial overarching arm of the conservative government of the Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the Hillbilly Dictator. Having many parallels with Perth’s The Triffids, their origins were in the art and drama department of the university and the jangly pop of later Velvet Underground tracks (in Lindy Morrison they even had a female drummer akin to Moe Tucker) and referenced a more literary and literate underground than the mindless romping of a lot of purely reactionary punk that burned itself out on its own anger. Once they had a few singles under their belt, the Go-Betweens started to sound a little more original and like their future selves, but despite a lot of underground interest and a formidable song writing partnership in Robert Forster and Grant McClennan, fame and fortune would be slow to come. “Your turn, my turn” is from a 7” released on Missing Link in 1981.

Interestingly, in 2005 the Go-Betweens released their “Oceans Apart” album that featured the track “Darlingurst Nights” which has a retrospective lyric about the groups time playing in Sydney in the post-punk period that reference Clinton Walker as Clint in the closing lyrics (Darlinghurst is an inner city suburb of Sydney).

The Tuff Monks – After the Fireworks
Finally, a curiosity of the times is the Tuff Monks solitary 7” single on Au Go Go. The Tuff Monks were a bona fide super group featuring the three members of the Go-Betweens and the three core members of the Birthday Party (Cave, Howard and Harvey) in a one off track.

West coast artists

Victims – Television addict
Easily one of the best Australian punk anthems was the Victims “Television Addict” in 1977, making it also one of the world’s earliest. The group consisted of Dave Faulkner (stage name Dave Flick) on guitar and vocals, Dave Cardwell (stage name Rudolph V) on bass and James Baker (drums) and their influence was clearly the heavier rock sounds of Detroit and the chaotic abandon and fuzz of MC5 and the Stooges. Their second 7” would also feature a sister song “TV freak” that was blisteringly fast and short. There were only two 7”s in the groups short career, rereleased on Japan’s 1977 Records in 2010, but the group members would go on to have important careers. Faulker would also play in the Manikins and found the Hoodoo Gurus, whereas Baker would also play in the Scientists, Hoodoo Gurus and Beasts of Bourbon.

Manikins - I Never Thought I'd Find
Not the Swedish group of the same name, but another short-lived group from Perth. Of their three 7”s, the best is probably the first, 1978s “Model for mankind” whose A-side is the mesmerizingly catchy and rough “I Never Thought I'd Find Someone Who Could Be So Kind” which was a track that also didn’t feature on their 1980 album. The sound is incredibly big and the lead single “Premonition” sounds frighteningly like grunge and fuzzy bands like Dinosaur Junior who would not arrive until several years in the future.

Scientists - Swampland
The Scientists had their origin in the Cheap Nasties a group formed by key member Kim Salmon in 1976. The Scientists were active by 1977 and left a long and important legacy not only in Perth, but in the Australian scene and even internationally where they are heralded as godfather’s of grunge and one single, indeed one compilation could never do them justice. It was often said that their late 70s and early 80s shows were as good as anything the MC5 ever did in terms of intensity and power, but just that less people saw them. Certainly their recordings are honed and dangerous right from 1979’s debut single “Frantic romantic”, but it is the “Swampland” single, their first after they eponymous debut in 1981 and first for Au Go Go around the time they left Perth for the eastern states and later Europe that really set them on their way.

The Triffids – Spanish blue
AC/DC is too global to be really associated with Perth, Bluetile Lounge  perhaps still too unknown, but it is The Triffids who are probably Perth’s most iconic group. This is not down to just their success, much of this hard come by, but due to their lyrical content as well. Perhaps no other group has caught the slow and mesmerising lifestyle of the west, its boredom and attrition under a fierce summer sun and its isolation from the rest of Australia. Tracks like “Place in the sun” and especially “Spanish blue” from 1982 and its lyric:

“Nothing happens here
Nothing gets done
But you get to like it
You get to like the beating of the sun”

are just as iconic as their seminal work “Born sandy devotional” from 1986 with its cover image of Mandurah in the 1960s (once a holiday destination and now a suburb of the sprawling city), and its frank and vulnerable lyrics. The title reference is also partly anti-establishment and a reaction against mindless acceptance of ideas and the common teaching that Perth has a Mediterranean climate (presumably said to please the southern European migrants) when in fact most people from the city have never left there and don't really know the truth. The “Field of Glass” 12” from 1985 is also an amazing work, especially the epic title track clocking in at just under 9 minutes.

It’s also worth watching another version of the song here with an awful TV interview on Sounds (check out that shirt and the pint of beer) that also features Chris Bailey from the Saints and Joe Camilleri (Black Sorrows who also has a cameo in Dogs in Space as well as various punk and other Australian music releases from the time).

Punk origins of more commercial groups
Many of the groups who made it big in the mid- to late-80s in Australia where often derided by the indie contingent for their commercial successes, but this is perhaps to overlook their origins and often hard fought struggle. The literal long-way-to-the-top. Midnight Oil had their origins as Farm as early as 1972 and were gigging regularly in 1975 and released their debut album and first single on their own Powderworks label in 1978, but despite the often jerky energy they didn’t really feel like a punk group.

The Oils manager Gary Morris may have been right when he told the Farris Brothers, also once briefly The Vegetables, to change their name to INXS, but he was wisely ignored (and subsequently dropped in favour of Chris Murphy) when he suggested the group adopt clean living and Christian themes to the music. The group debuted with several punk and new wave singles in the 1980s before finding gradual success. The B-side of their first single was one of their roughest cuts “We are the vegetables” and a theme for their former incarnation.

Curiously INXS would come to fame with albums produced by Chris Thomas, who had shared duties on the Sex Pistols album “Never mind the bollocks”.

Chris Murphy, the INXS manager, was also shared with Melbourne group The Models who also had a long and fascinating history before reaching number 1 with “Out of mind, out of sight” in 1985 (a track softened by the synths at the front, but the guitar in the back is still fairly gnarly). To confirm the groups authentic origins, the group’s first release was even a split 7” in 1979 with the Boys Next Door on the other side and released on the short-lived Crystal Ballroom label, named after the legendary St Kilda “little band scene” venue. The band’s sound was always more new wave than punk, often featuring synths saxophone and sparser instrumentation than some of their punk rivals. As well as the intriguing, but in-progress 7” “Talking” from 1980, their first major label 7” for Mushroom, 1980s “2 people per so km” (a reference to Australia’s low population density) from their debut album “ALPHABRAVOCHARLIEDELTAECHOFOXTROTGOLF” was also of interest for its punk-funk sound, before gradual industry pressure and ambition drove them in a more commercial direction.

Psychogeography: Jump in my car it’s the suburban sprawl versus Inner City Sound


Wide open legs versus wide open roads

The two most recognised epicentres of punk’s genesis in the 1970s were New York and London. Both places at this time were turbulent post-industrial centres of dystopian living. New York was essentially bankrupt and crime ridden, with a down town rife with drugs and violence, whereas London had garbage piled in the streets while the country was also close to requesting a bail out from the IMF as the economy sputtered and shuddered to a halt due to the international oil crisis and the oppression of a conservative government. In down town Manhattan the World Trade Centres had opened in 1974 as a bitter sign of contrast between the wealth of those who had it and those who did not: the Bronx was literally on fire at the turn of the decade as gasoline shortages, black outs and unemployment began to take its toll. In the UK the picture was the same: closed factories, anger and the rise of the polluted Ballardian city-scape. In both countries a policy of cultural isolation was in order, the US from the world and the UK from Europe. Meanwhile, racial tensions were major issues in both countries. The music scene was also bloated and stagnant, with prog rock and the tail end of glam failing to deliver any deeper meaning as disco went underground. This was the psychogeography of punk.

Although much is shared between all regions, in Australia, however, it wasn’t quite the same picture as the US and the UK and one can interpret this to some degree in the music. In Australian punk music there is remarkably less anger and political discourse perhaps reflecting a less dystopian psychogeography. Certainly The Saints and Radio Birdman who pioneered punk in Australia had the attitude and the aggression of their UK and US contemporaries, particularly the Americans and the Detroit scene, which caught on to a lot of other bands, but generally the trend was for power and aggression not to be channelled so much against the system, but for a new cultural identity and musical road map for independent listening. Radio Birdman had pleaded for the “new race” to come out of punk and Saints had got it right when speaking out against the police on “Brisbane (Security city)” from “Prehistoric Sound”, but there were few other signs of physical rebellion.

“Thirteen hot nights in a row
The cops drive past and they move slow”

The cops had become a constant force at their shows that had degenerated into pantomime punk violence and this would be paralleled in Western Australia (see below), the other ultra conservative state.

Overall, Australia had fewer factories to close down and inner city centres that were generally less crowded and cleaner places than their bigger rivals overseas. The endless space also meant plenty of room to expand by centrifugal force, with the centres abandoned to business and residences built in the endless periphery creating new urban sprawls and their requisite shopping centres that were the real harbours of boredom that was such a central theme to punk. In London the Trellick Tower and Ballard’s High Rise novel were meant to capture the idea of internal, self-contained living, a kind of buffer zone against society, with ultimately alarming consequences. But these types of high rises are rarer in Australia where urban isolation and self-containment is created by space: you move from your detached house in the suburbs, separated from your neighbours (sic) by fences, to your car, to the freeway, to the parking at work and into your cubicle or office and then you repeat the process in reverse to go home again without every really sharing the space. You stay indoors away from the heat receiving the outside through the television or the radio.

The Saint's also catch this idea further in "Brisbane (Security city)" where security, as well as being the police, is also made a play on the idea of feeling safe, safe at home and safe from harm:

"Living room isolation
Extraordinary situation
I see police but where's the crime?
We're just like convicts doing time"

The Birthday Party too refer to "a prison of sound" in The Friend Catcher which was one of Howard's finest moments with the band.

The idea of law and lawlessness is forever in the subconsciousness of Australian art and identity, where in the founding days everyone was essentially either a cop or a robber, until the post-war migration anyway. Where once the "stain" of having convict ancestory was shunned, it became something of a badge. But the situation is more complex than that. Once the two sides began to merge, the two psychologies fused, but did not lose their independence. On one side, Australian's love to be the rebel, the larrikin, to disrespect authority; but on the other the are highly conservative, fearful of change and requiring a nanny-like state of intervention and carefully sign-posted rule making to maintain order. The Australian psyche is one of cops and robbers. Let us not forget as well that "Prisoner - Cell Block H", one of Australia's most famous series started in April 1979 at the height of punk.

Returning to the idea of space, it is also one critical aspect to The Triffids work, from 1983s "Treeless Plane" album, and in particular on their seminal track “Wide open road” that would come later in 1986.

“I wake up in the morning
thinking I'm still by your side
I reach out just to touch you
then I realise
It's a wide open road”

The Go-Betweens “Streets of your town” may also hide a darker side and a similar theme within its candy pop exterior.

“Round and round up and down
Through the streets of your town
Everyday I make my way
Through the streets of your town” 

Sung with a dizzy, buzz it almost feels happy and innocent, but it also conjures maze like images of entrapment and the numbness of repetition ("The rain is on its way"). In Australia, you don’t have to go to the country to find space and isolation, there was also plenty in the city centre until recently (see also above in relation to the Models track “2 people per so km”).

Of course everything was not idyll. Unemployment figures in Australia increased from around 2% at the beginning of the 1970s to be around 7.5% during the punk years, a noticeable shift fuelling in part some restlessness in youth and also the squat scene from where punk had its roots all over the world. This value would be the result of the oil crisis, a poor global economic performance and lack of macroeconomic management at home, although the peak unemployment figures would not occur until 1992 as Australia struggled to capitalise on its natural resources, waiting for the Asian boom to launch forward. That is to say that Australia moved from having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world to a relatively high rate in the punk years (in the non-depression era) in a short period of time.

The 1970s also saw more migration, and not just from the UK and Western Europe as hoped, but from Asia, particularly from Vietnam. Following the takeover of South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese communist government in April 1975, Australia agreed to resettle its share of Vietnam-born refugees. This clearly signified the end of “white” Australia policies and was not without its problems and lead to a rise in nationalism and racism. Ironically it was the second generation of many migrants who often fuelled the racist agenda, particularly British migrants in conservative areas as well as, for example, the infamous Jack van Tongren . This was not unique to Australia and was also occurring in England, for example, with the rise of skin head punks. The Soul Jazz compilations conveniently erase this history from punk, sanitising it to some degree for their target audience, but these fascinating news reports from Australia in 1981 show the impact felt by Perth Oi punk and skins band the Quick and the Dead who despite their protestations, clearly come across as likely believers in the swastika and the National Front. David McComb of the Triffids often complained about the number of skins turning up to punk shows in WA, a good a reason as any to make a new kind of music.

The corny journalists (one of them a young Terry Willesee) confirm the views of the background of Australian punks in their banal and scripted exchange: “The phenomenon in Britain was born out of the under developed or badly deprived industrial areas of the country, can that parallel be drawn here in Perth? Well, only in as much as most are from working class backgrounds [indicating that there was essentially no working class as such; a foreign import] although it is interesting to note that one of the girls injured in Northam [scene of a reported  fight between Skins and Rockers] gave her address as Peppermint Grove [perhaps the most expensive and lucrative suburb of Perth and hence not working class*] As with the link with the mother country, estimates vary, but estimates suggest that half of those in Perth are British born and the rest are Australians."

 As a footnote, David McComb grew up in The Cliffe  one of the most historical, iconic and controversial houses in Peppermint Grove. The band had this to say about the poor treatment of the house where the yhad recorded at times and taken inspiration: "When we were in Europe, we were invited to London for the unveiling of a plaque on a building with The Triffids name on it - on the building where we recorded our album Born Sandy Devotional. That building was in quite a derelict part of town. This council put a plaque up on a building where we recorded, so I find it's kind of odd that the Peppermint Grove council now doesn't think that the very house where the band started out is not worth saving.".

But the best is for last in their brief presentation of the groups 7” single “Another violent night” which does nothing to convince that the group are not looking for trouble.

But the idea of migration to a former prison colony with little history and a vague and counter-productive cultural identity must have pained and frustrated many of the migrants, Europeans and Asians alike. It is a hard concept to take on board by tourists temporarily visiting Australia, but the slow pace, vast size and geographical isolation make it seem like you will never leave, and many never do. For this it must have been a bitter sweet feeling to be there, but thinking of somewhere else. It is no surprise that most of the bigger punk groups left Australia to try and make it big, but to the chagrin of many, as Australians they were neither taken seriously nor their roots well accepted whether they were from the Mother Land or elsewhere. Again, The Saints have their finger somewhere near the pulse on "Brisbane (Security city)":

"It's always guarded by the sea
Our prison island is not free
Our hope goes, but is still there"

Even the cops are in jail dow nunder, no surprise that jail and crime are such common lyrical/thematic themes from The Saints, Nick Cave, Rowland S Howard to hAC/DC and Rose Tattoo. One cannot help but draw comparison between the idea that Australia was founded as a way of isolating undesireables (and not "real" criminals; most of the criminals were not rapists and murderers who would have received capital punishment, but poor people displaced and unemployed due to the Industrial Revolution and the over crowded cities) by sending them away to an island where they would not contaminate the homeland, in much the same way as Australia currently sends "unprocessed" refugees to off-shore Pacific Islands . History repeats itself, much like an abused child often becomes an abuser (sic).

But there is another provocative aspect to Australian punk and post-punk groups that is a little harder to see from the outside and that is the literariness of certain bands, particular Nick Cave’s work (check King Ink and the references to Kafka or the Harold Pinter reference in the band name and more), Thought Criminals (George Orwell references), the Go-Betweens (named after the LP Hartley novel) and The Triffids (named after the John Wyndham novel) Australia has always favoured “physical” and less intellectual men and women and this part of the national psyche was at its peak at the time of punk and is one that still persists to some degree today. Australia has always been a rugged colony, a man’s world and often a rough one back in those days where the typical Aussie male was expected to be a tough bloke with a big gut, thongs (flip flops) a beer in hand, misogynist racist views and a cultural indifference to all except hard rock. Sporting achievements have always ranked more than artistic or intellectual merit and various conservative governments have continuously rallied against the “elitism” of intellectual activity, which is one way of trying to stifle debate and academic and creative expression. This was the archetypal Norm of the Life Be In It campaign, Paul Hogan, or Ted Bullpitt from TV’s Kingswood Country, in essence the Australian bogan or yobbo.

Cultural note: In Australia, the first wave of non-British immigrants, usually Italians and Greeks, were referred to derogatively as “wogs”, one of whom, an Italian called Bruno, is married to Bullpitt’s daughter in the scene. Bruno is a second generation born in the similar sounding town Wagga Wagga hence the pun and joke of the scene. Note also there was an Adelaide punk band called the Wogs and famous folk singer Eric Bogle, famed for the highly nationalist “The band played Waltzing Matilda” also wrote a satirical "nationalist" song “I hate wogs”

“I love this sunburned country and I'm bloody proud of it
And I love our simple way of life and the things we all hold dear
Like V.F.L. and Big Ben Pies and foamin' Toohey's beer
I love our open friendliness where a man can make good mates
In fact in all Australia there's just one thing I hates:
I hate Wogs, they live like dogs”

The musical gods of this type of Australian male were the two of the biggest groups at the time, Cold Chisel and AC/DC, both working class bands whose roster was half full of migrants and half Australians, particularly Scotts. It wasn’t only Bon Scott who was from the Highlands, but the Young brothers and Cold Chisels’ iconic singer Jimmy Barnes whereas Men at Work who wrote one of Australia’s most famous anthems “Down under” also included a Scott. Barnes was particularly legendary for his gravelly, shouting voice, unkempt appearance and his heavy drinking antics that captured the macho Aussie belief in the power of drinking and respect for the man who could hold his liquor.

Strangely, the DNA of the two groups was almost what you would expect to go into a punk group, but didn’t: both groups featured bored, working class youths armed with guitars and privy to plenty of violent incidents to give them attitude. Chisel in many ways captured an eternal snapshot of the times, a sense of isolation, cultural confusion and even a bit of politics, but were essentially a mirror of Australia and not a force of change or a projection into the future (“Cheap wine and three day growth”). They were the status quo, the man. One of their most controversial songs is “Khe Sanh” about the restlessness of Vietnam vets after the war and paralleled by Bruce Springsteen in "Born in the USA" to similar effect. Despite the powerful connotations, the lyric

“their legs were often open
but their minds were always closed"

might as well sum up the philosophy of the culture they represented, the virile, macho Aussie bloke and his attitude to culture and women (see below). Ironically “Khe Sanh” has been called "a song that will forever epitomise this period of Australian music" and well it might for those who don’t step outside the tight inner circle. Epitomise for some, but not all. The music too was far too conventional to really fire up any intellectual movement or youth culture; it just reinforced what was already there and concreted the conservative path for the next few years until it became merely and only entertainment, nostalgia and another arm of the music industry, albeit one whose legacy never really made it out of Australia because of their hyperspecific psychogeographical references.

AC/DC were the opposite in terms of propensity. They were always international. Their path didn’t take the streets of your town or the wide open roads, but stayed cruising on the perennial highway to hell that runs downwards from every town in the world, albeit one that does travel better in a V8 muscle car or other vehicle that reflects your physical potency. AC/DC’s themes were always more banal and more general and hardly cloaked in local signals or poetry and hence their global stardom. There was no complication there and no room for thought. Perfect for the Aussie bogan and their equivalent around the world. Australia’s “problem” was the lack of class stratification present in other societies that could buffer such a cultural phenomenon or bud off another archetype, at least until INXS came along in the mid-1980s.

Two of AC/DC’s punk era songs highlight the difference between the two schools of the archetypal Aussie man of the time, the classical common “working class” man (sic) and the alternative young intellectual. First up is 1977’s blues rock standard “Whole lotta Rosie”

“She ain't exactly pretty
Ain't exactly small
Fourt'two thirt'nine fiftysix”

Later the group let you know where they are at, no beating around the bush (so to speak):

“Honey you can do it
Do it to me all night long”

This line of course leads in to the equally legendary sequel “She shook me all night long” released in 1980, a macho, misogynistic song about being man enough to fuck a tireless lascivious woman, who could also still be Rosie of course. But ironically “She shook me all night long” could also just as easily be about premature ejaculation (“She told me to come but I was already there”). Importantly, the opening line refers to the ubiquitous vehicle necessary for navigating the endless roads and spaces of Australia and of course a metaphor for her disease-free vagina.

“She was a fast machine she kept her motor clean”

But presumably her “sightless eyes telling me no lies” aren’t good for reading books even if her “American thighs” were good for something, sex obviously, but perhaps sport as well?

Contrast this with the track “Karen”, the B-side to the Go-Betweens debut single “Lee Remick” (itself a quaint song about infatuation, but hardly a meaty, masturbation fantasy) which came out the same year as “She shook me all night long”. 

 The lyric:

“I don't want no hoochie-coochie mama
No back door woman
No Queen Street sex thing”

would seem to be a subliminal response and rejection of AC/DC’s Rosie or “she shook me all night long”. Moreover, there are no physical features and Playboy numbers to attract you:

“She's no queen
She's no angel
Just a peasant from the village”

But above all else, Karen works in a library and is in the know about a host of the greats of literature and:

“[She] Helps me find James Joyce
She always makes the right choice”

One of the early Triffids singles “Twisted brain” The B-side to Spanish blue) also captures the opposite angle to AC/DC. Here is also what appears to be another “typical” Aussie man full of lust, beer and bravado, but with a totally different world inside:

“How I’d like to take her outside
Under bad light, blind drunk, doe eyed
But I’m no good for her”

Instead of the unquestionable cocksuredness of AC/DC and the expectant satisfaction, there is a more complex man of doubt and feeling and alienation, one who might read books and be an “elitist”. The Triffids would continue the very un-punk theme of relationships and fidelity right through their oeuvre to the peak of “Born Sandy Devotional” whose lyrics refer to children, doubt and separation. Sandy also had a double meaning, and was on one hand the dry, infertile sand of Western Australia and the cover image, as well as a fictional woman, not quite the Rosie of AC/DC one imagines. Or Rose Tattoo, one of the other critical “yobbo” bands of the time who seem less than a stone’s throw from AC/DC country with their debut 7” from 1977 “Bad boy for love” that starts with a motor sound and then rehashes the criminal element of Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" and AC/DC’s “Jailbreak”n for the biker crowd (Rose Tattoo's Angry Anderson would ignominiously lose his toughness performing "Suddenly" the Kylie and Jason wedding anthem on Neighbours many years later).

“Thirty days in the county jail
Let me out and I just wanted to wail
Some fool tried to hold me down
I got drunk and I ripped up the town”

The aforementioned Saints track “Brisbane (Security city)” is also telling to how the underground stood on these issues with the downcast lyric:

“I don't want it let down
My own hopes for this town
It's so hard to get around
Lots of cars, but not much sound in town”

This also came from a group who had had there run ins with the law, but who came from the other side.

In the mainstream then, there was nothing more to Australia than (Australian rules) football (a man’s game not like soccer for sheila’s wogs and poofters ), meatpies and Holden cars.

Australia’s dystopian iconography of the punk era is thus space, motor vehicles (and their phallic potency) and territorial violence, or in other words, the world of the 1979 film Mad Max, inspired in part by the oil crisis of the time. It’s probably no coincidence that the logo of the film, and the logo of Dogs in Space, also uses the same lightning bolt as the AC/DC logo. There are other clues as well. The film was billed as "the full force of the future" whereas gang member Bubba Zanetti played by Geoff Parry is asked about what happened to Night Rider's ruined car (Night Rider himself appears to be a yobbo on a jail break with a dyed red head punk girl in the shot gun seat). Zanetti (a wog name perhaps?) responds "Maybe it was anxiety?" referring to the work of Max and his doomed colleague Jim Goose (Steve Bisley), perhaps a forerunner to Anthony Edward's equally ill-fated Nick "Goose" Bradshaw  in Top Gun, in many ways the 80s American equivalent of Top Gun. Critically, Max is both Cop and Robber, a real hero and anti-hero, donning punks leathers (remember that even Fonzie from Happy Days nearly had his leather jacket censored back in those days) and ruling the highways with both law and anti-law. In the end, dystopia down-under is more Crash than High Rise. The anxiety ruining the cars is of course society: maybe our internal division made this? (Midnight) Oil or not oil (Mad Max 2), or law, disorder or Crime and the City Solution (Mad Max 3). But still, you first have to traverse the wide open roads.

Post-punk post-script

Warumpi Band - Jailangaru Pakarnu (out of jail)
If anyone had the rights to a punk attitude in Australia it would be the Aborigines. Their treatment has always been poor and their acceptance by non-Aborigines and reluctant or confused in the case of Asian(non-British invader immigrants, and is growing worse due to the current governments insensitive policies and embarrassing comments. But of course, coming so far from the bush, and subject to so many obstacles, it was always going to be difficult for Aboriginal music to rise. But in the years following the post-punk period came the Warumpi Band, the first to release a commercial single in their native language and to begin to represent the Aboriginal struggle to a broader audience. Their sound is not punk nor really Inner City, but is fundamental to Australian music history. They were taken under the wing by Midnight Oil and released on their label and became an important voice for many years before disbanding. Australia still needs more groups like them to rise from the diesel and dust.

Cranky - Australia don't become America
Finally, much later in the 90s as yuppies were the dominant cultural force and Australia, just over the peak wave of unemployment in 1992 was entering a phase of cultural subservience to the USA, then her closes allay, although the British roots were infinitely hard to sever. Nevertheless, this magnetism for US wealth, prosperity and “freedom” and its nuanced differences with the historical British conservative roots would be what has shaped modern Australia ever since, a divided country that was, unlike even “little” New Zealand too unsure to stand on its feet and be itself and enjoy its diversity. The drive towards American culture was at times intoxicatingly rushed and forced, ditching the BBC and the British connection for more American than Australian TV, movies, music and attitudes to money. John Howard even promised Australia would become Deputy to the US Sherriff  in the Asia region, a crass and sycophantic move in Yankee lingo if there ever was one. In 1995 the neo-punk group Cranky responded with one of the most overtly political tracks at the time, using a Dalek voice to warn young Australians “don’t become America”, the Dalek being also a subtle reference perhaps to English culture and the BBC of youth, whereas the sly flute intro may have been a reference to Men at Work and the nationalistic strains of “Down Under”.

Dedicated to: Kim "House of Wax" Williams, my first and best (record store) dealer; Lynn, who gave me her copy of "Born Sandy Devotional" just before she died of cancer; Rowland S Howard,one of my heroes.

Extra paragraphs were added to this article 23/03/2015.