Friday, January 6, 2012

Brisbane independent music in the 80's

This is something a little different for this blog but it should be of some interest to you if you're reading this. The following is an article written by my landlord Frank about growing up in Brisbane during the 1980s. It's a uniquely personal look into the era and a worthwhile read if you have an interest in the history of Brisbane music.

Part 1

A view of the past …..Brisbane independent music in the 80s

At the risk of sounding like an old fart I’d like to say something perfectly stereotypical, and that is, “I don’t feel like an old fart”. Sure I have a wife, kids and a mortgage. Sure I don’t get pissed as much anymore, or see as many bands as I did, but I still don’t feel that old. And believe me this is not a novel position.

By way of example:

It was 1986 and I was in my late teens and I saw The Flamin Groovies, who started in the 60s, live at the Love Inn in Ann Street, the Valley. They were supported by the then, “next big thing” from Brisbane, The Headstones, who had their own large following, and who co-incidentally had been a few years above me at high school. The venue was notoriously small and accordingly packed. I was forced into a corner and started talking to two “old” guys. They were a hoot as they told me about the 60s in Brisbane and seeing the Beatles and the Kinks and all that and I was standing there in awe and I said something like “wow, it’s great that you old guys get out”. One of them laughed and said “steady on, we aren’t that old, and don’t feel old”. They were in their early 40s, the same age as I am now. I now know what they meant, felt. Time is subjective. As Orson Welles once warbled on an ill advised 45 …. “I Know What It Is To Be Young (But You Don't Know What It Is To Be Old)”. That night both bands put on great shows. The Groovies on stage that night are still one of the best live gigs I have seen, and the “young crowd” loved them and the old crowd loved “The Headstones”. Everyone was in sync and age had no bearing on anything.

Music, I believe, to anyone who is genuinely interested in it is not so much about what is new. Sure, in rock and pop there is an overabundance of emphasis on the “here and now” but I suspect that largely this has to do with record companies forever having to create new music to sell to people who are too lazy to find music for themselves. After all, unless you are Elvis, The Beatles or a couple of others where is the money in back catalogue sales?

I believe though that non mainstream music is the most fertile ground for music and for future musicians. Within that arena both “old” music and “new music” including new emerging sounds all co-exist with each other on a more or less equal footing. It is that accessibility to all music which, hopefully, gives the music listener, satisfaction and gives the musician, original inspiration.

Music should transcend time, all the time. Again, the labels don’t want that but that is exactly what jazz and classical music enthusiasts do. You don’t see the Deutsche Grammophon classical label trying to find the next great composer. Sure, they put out new works but they are also forever repackaging Beethoven conducted by Karajan, because that was one of the high water marks in that music. It’s the same with jazz in that you can get as much Miles Davis and John Coltrane back catalogue as you can contemporary jazz. Rock and pop however have been poorly done by despite quite a few enthusiast independent labels (Norton, Sundazed, Bear).

I say here what I have always maintained and that is that I listen to new music all the time though some of that new music was recorded before I was born. If I find a 45 from 1957 by some little known singer from Tennessee banging loudly on his guitar and which I haven’t heard before, that’s still new music to me, isn’t it? If that music satisfies me or inspires me to pick up a guitar does it matter that it’s 50 years old?

“New” doesn’t have to be something on the charts now or even something “forward thinking”. After all if rock history shows anything it is that every time there is a “revolution” in rock music, the sounds that are being referenced are always variations on the basics set down by Elvis and others in the 50s. It is about stripping back and going back to the roots or the essentials …

Similarly, if you are looking for new music you cannot avoid live music. Going to a dance bar where there is a DJ is never going to be enough, no matter how hip the DJ is. That may be a good start but sooner or later you will have to see live music. It may not be “new” or great always but it does open your mind and expose you to music that you may not have come across before. I’m not talking about seeing Pearl Jam at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre here, because there is nothing to be learnt there but I am talking about seeing local bands, interstate acts and small to midsize overseas acts. You will be exposed to music and it will be delivered to you like a punch to the forehead – it will be loud and personal as you would expect from a sweaty, “intimate” Brisbane venue.

Back in the 80s, which were my after school and University years I spent a lot of time seeing bands, discovering new music, listening to music and hanging out with like minded individuals. Roughly, 1983 – 1993, were my most intensive band going years but I never ceased liking or discovering the music that I loved. Unlike my peers I never had a great desire to join a band but also unlike some of my peers I was enthusiastic about the music itself rather than some of the benefits it delivers.

The 70s may have been my formative years as a kid, but the 80s expanded my tastes and established my attitude and world view. Do not get me wrong, I am not defending this era as I’m of the view that nothing good came out of mainstream pop/rock music in the 80s (OK, I generalise). The 80s to me though had the best indie/alternative/underground scene of any era (another generalisation).

Maybe it was because the 80s was that time when the mainstream and underground collided in an organic way without the benefit of the internet or digital downloads and because people listened to music in a different way, a way which was to be replaced by something more immediate.

I do not begrudge technology …for an anal OCD type like me it makes storing, cataloguing, and listening to music easier but the discovery of music should perhaps always be organic …. through friends, zines, books, op shop finds or live music. Sure technology can supply just the same information, and quicker, but perhaps it supplies to much information, so you don’t know where to direct your atttention and you not surprisingly are overwhelmed and give up.

I remember in the 80s thinking there were some records I would never get to hear because they were so obscure. Well now, via ebay, on-line shopping, file sharing I have all that “old’ music. Unless people are lemmings or just not that interested I do not understand why there hasn’t been more people searching the past. The reality is some of the kids have become enamoured with that same music but despite the universal accessibility to that music the percentage of people getting turned on to that music is about the same as it was in the 80s.

I think there are a number of reasons for this which will become apparent … but I have digressed.

This article came about because I was asked by a 20 something year old to write something and the original question had something to do with what was it like in Brisbane in the 80s and the “punk” scene. I wrote what follows then added all of the above as a sort of introduction …….

Part 2

At the outset I should say that the definition of "punk" has probably changed over the years and maybe it isn’t what I call punk or what you guys call punk. Punk in the 80s at various times was California hardcore (Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, Germs, Black Flag etc), East Coast or elsewhere (Fugazi, Husker Du etc) or English ( Sex Pistols, Stiff Little Fingers, The Damned, Sham 69, Subhumans etc).

I never would have ever referred to myself as a punk and the punks of the time certainly would not have referred to me as the same.....I only ever had a high quiff or long hair which were not part of the “punk” uniform then and all the indie musical genres had a identifiable “uniform” that distinguished you from the mainstream. Accordingly, to be a "punk" in the early 80s you normally dressed strictly according to the English definition - high spiked hair, safety pins, torn clothes etc. By the mid 80s the more casual, less regimented dress of California hardcore and New York punk meant you didn’t have to try that hard to fit in. But, “fitting in” wasn’t a big deal since the “scene” was pretty much open to anyone who wanted to listen, or see, non mainstream acts. I saw a lot of international punk acts.....The Dead Kennedys, The Damned, The Cramps, The Stranglers, The Saints, Iggy Pop, The Ramones (who were not always referred to as punk at the time from what I recall) and I listened to a lot of California hardcore. A little later in the early to mid 90s I saw Rollins, Fugazi, Jesus Lizard and Shellac (are they punk?) as well as Sonic Youth, Pavement, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr, Mudhoney and others who blur the lines. There was never a large problem if you did not have the full uniform and anyway my tastes were not exclusively punk.

Generally, the scene was quite small (probably no more than 1000 people at any given time), and clubs (inevitably live venues) would play host to all sorts of different people into a wide variety of non mainstream music coming together. On any given night, depending on the year, if was not unusual to see rockabillies, goths, punks, mods, swampies, rude boys, Detroit rockers and everything in between all converging on the same place.

Because the scene was small there was also a slight “us and them” mentality and that was reasonable in the circumstances. Brisbane in the 80s was light years away from what it is now. The stereotype of the big country town was, in part true, and in some ways endearing. But there was another side, a dark side, where even slight deviations away from the norm were not tolerated. Indie dress codes, styles and haircuts which nowadays would not even raise an eyebrow in the most puritan person where then the subject of abuse, ridicule, laughter and the occasional thumping. And that is both from the public (mainly) and the police (more than occasionally). Maybe, even that moderate attire was too much of a shock to the status quo. I will let the cultural anthropologists do more research on the same if they are interested.

Also and again, because the scene was small, there were only a limited amount of bands playing. You were lucky if there was 100 indie bands at any given time, probably closer to 50. A lot maybe, but not in a town of 1.5 million. Venues (and even then there never seemed to be enough around) normally would try to get bands with similar sounds together on the same bill but generally you had bands of all the indie genres lumped together. Local proper punk acts like Crucified Truth, La Fettes, The Cursed, Death of a Nun, Post No Bills, Mutant Shitbags, Insurrection all ended up on bills with other "indie" bands who weren’t necessarily “punk” like Hotel Breslin, Dirt and the Rebels, The Five Hanks, Rubber Bug, The Girlies, Who’s Gerald, Aloha Pussycats, The Convertibles or Dementia 13. So, you may have had quite a schizophrenic night, but you were also exposed to other forms of music.

Likewise there was a cross-pollination of styles as well as blurred genre lines. My peers and I acknowledged that The Stooges, MC5, Radio Birdman etc were proto punks but they were generally referred to as "Detroit" which is what I was into. I was also into retro old school rock, rockabilly, 60s garage, California hardcore, new wave, power pop, swamp (silly name), early grunge (silly name again) and a couple of things which I was right into, which sounded cool then but now maybe sound stupid, namely, "cowpunk" and "the paisley underground". Both were largely California musical movements. Cowpunk was mainly ex California punks who started to mix punk with country and / or rockabilly. (stuff like Rank and File ( ex Dils and Nuns), The Blasters, The Knitters (post X), True West, Mojo Nixon, Green on Red) whilst "The Paisley Underground" were Californian bands playing 60s US psychedelia, electric folk etc (The Long Ryders, The Three O Clock). I was also into what at the time didn't have a separate name but what came to be known as punk blues ( The Gun Club etc). These last 3 "genres" all blurred the line with each other though (eg: The Flesheaters, Divine Horsemen, X, Wall of Voodoo).

It sounds like I was into a lot of things but I really wasn’t. Most of those styles and genres are inter-related. At around the same time you had all sorts of other music sub genres active in the indie/alternative scene: 60s mod, new wave, goth, synth, ska, oi, electric blues, retro hippie psychedelica, art rock, pop, English soul, folk, jingle jangle and even a bit of poodle metal.

The only thing I’m certain of is that I was into music that was American (or Australian) and not all of it. With a few exceptions I have never cared for English music. Still don't.

It's easy for me to now rattle off the "genres" I was into but at the time you didn't make as many distinctions or even know the name of the genre or sub genre generally. None of the genres above were called "punk" at the time, I don’t think, but I suppose a lot were "punk" or quasi punk. I don't recollect what I “called” myself at the time but I do recall that if anyone asked I would just say I was into "alternative music" or occasionally I would say "indie music" ….I think. I use “indie” in this article as “independent” as it seems to cover all the various non-mainstream genres.

I’ve referred to a number of overseas bands in an article supposedly devoted to Brisbane in the 80s. Like it or not this is unavoidable as most of the Brisbane bands from the 80s directly mirrored what was happening in the USA or in England. That’s not to say there weren’t any number of bands putting their own Australian twist on the music but ultimately they were twists on trends happening overseas.

And, discovering what was happening overseas, as I referred to earlier, was not necessarily an easy process, but one that involved some effort.

In the days before the internet you learnt about music from magazines or friends. You would read a zine and if a band you liked referred to another band or gave credit to their inspirations you would go out and buy that. This was risky business because you were buying a lot of things without having heard them. LPs I think cost about $10 and I was working at Woolworths (whilst I was at Uni) as a Thursday/Saturday casual earning $25. So, accordingly you had to put a lot of faith in the zine you were reading (Forced Exposure, Maximum Rock n Roll, Bucketful of Brains, Kicks and Byron Coley's column in Spin being my favourites), the label the record was on (I still buy anything old I find on IRS, Slash or SST ...or in Australia- Waterfront, Citadel, Red Eye) or your friends (though some of them with hindsight had quite mediocre taste).

There was 4ZZZ public radio but in about 1986 they had a cultural shift and refused to play most of the music I was into. For instance they banned the Hard Ons and The Johnnys. Haven't listened to them since .....

Also, this was in the days before JJJ – some people have said, and I would not disagree that the potency of musical categories were diluted when 2JJJ went national. Perhaps, that was the worst thing for local music because it only predated the internet by 5 or so years, but it did change, perhaps negatively, "the local scene".

Also there was the street press (Rave and Time Off) which were handy and at the time champions of local music even though they concentrated largely on acts touring and not on back catalogue or on the sounds that inspired the emerging music.

Live music was certainly a way of getting exposure to the new. And some of the musicians were old dudes in their mid 20s! The trouble was that their access to older and newer music had the same limitations we had. And of course, then as now, there never seemed to be enough venues for all the bands to play. Accordingly there were many DIY back yard gigs, some where hundreds of people attended.

The op shops were a treasure chest if you were looking for old back catalogue, which I was. There were records from the 50s and 60s in abundance from all sorts of “exotic” acts which I had never heard of but then subsequently found out the bands were well known ….. The Youngbloods, The Hombres, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Grin and a hundred others were op shop finds. Amongst my group of friends (largely) and the scene generally there was no distinguishing music by its age. So, a op shop find of a band from the 60s, if good, was going to get as many spins as something recent.

Basically you were looking for anything that was different and wasn't in the mainstream doesn't matter if that band had been in the top 10 in 1965 because they weren't in the mainstream in 1985.

A friend of mine maintains that it was also a time when songs were listened to the whole way through. Albums even. Many a hidden gem was found because "the record kept spinning" or "the tape kept playing", instead of the ADD approach today of lining up the "hits" on mp3. Simply, it wasn't like now, an mp3 curiosity, it was an investment of time and thought. I can’t disagree with that though I will say there still seems to be that small percentage of people who do take the time to search out and listen.

The 80s were a great time to kick against the (mainstream) pricks. That spirit is alive today every time someone buys a record from an op shop, puts on music which is 20 or 40 years old, joins a band that plays something left of centre, puts on a show in their backyard, or otherwise releases a record, CD or tape of music which has “limited commercial appeal”.

I’m not really sure if I have discussed punk or even music in the 80s in Brisbane but I have tried to give you some insight to what I think was the mindset at the time.