Perfect Sound Forever

Whatever happened to ‘independent rock
music from Australia’?

HoneysmackMississippi Barry

by Aaron Goldberg (November 1997)

The thing about you Americans is that you guys have everything when it comes to ‘pop’ culture. You got the rock n’ roll and the writers and the movies and the TV shows. You got the lot. But occasionally having everything can get boring, so you go out and find something different, something weird and foreign and exotic. Once upon a time, maybe 10 to 20 years ago now, ‘independent rock music from Australia’ was one of those things. When foreigners think about Australia, it evokes images of somewhere far-far-away, where everyone says ‘g’day’ and fights crocodiles and has kangaroos and other fucked up animals living in their backyard. I mean most of us know that Australia is really very much like America - we have stupid white foreigners who think they know everything that run the place, totally ignoring the indigenous cultures that were here first, everyone works for a big company, we live in suburbs and watch TV, and have decent weather (except for Melbourne, where I come from anyway). We also have this weird electrified music, influenced by foreigners, but mutated into something else.

There was a book released here recently called Stranded - the secret history of Australian independent music 1977-1991 (PanMcMillan Australia, 1997) written by esteemed local rock-journo Clinton Walker. He actually isn’t such a bad writer, and he’s the only person down here in Aussie-land who actually has some semblance of a clue when it comes to independent music. Walkers’ book is pretty much the bible for anyone interested in what Australian rock n’ roll was all about, but doesn’t really such much about where its going. In it you’ll find some interesting information about such once great Australian bands like the Saints, the Birthday Party, Radio Birdman, the Scientists, died Pretty, the Hard-Ons and a little bit about the Dirty Three. You’ll also find other stuff in there, but I leave that up to you interested parties to read for yourself.

Which leads me to my main point, what the fuck happened to Australian independent rock? I mean, it was once the shit in the USA, in much the same way New Zealand bands are the rage over there now. To put it simply there are two reasons why music from Australia sucks these days - 1. Sydney 2. Globalisation

I blame Sydney the city because basically it represents as much to Australian culture as Los Angeles represents to American culture .But it is also the ‘international’ city that represents Australia for most of the culture you guys get from down here. Also in the early 90’s Australia got a nationwide government sponsored ‘youth’ radio station called JJJ-FM, mainly run from Sydney, it basically controls the ‘alternative’ of Australia, but also dictates what gets into the chart down here, which is funny, because an American no-hoper band like Cake can suddenly have a number one hit and be rockstars in Australia! Regardless any artist trying to get anywhere in Australia needs at least some JJJ airplay or, as they say, you are fucked.

Sydney is also where most of the multi-national record companies have their offices. So what you get is basically polished turds packaged and shipped over to the USA and other regions of the planet for your consumption. Let me prove my point - Silverchair, they come from somewhere near Sydney, the Baby Animals - they come from Perth, but they might as well be Sydney, INXS - I rest my fucking case. It doesn’t matter where these bands come from in Australia, once they have any connection to ‘Sydney’ they are fucked.

You see, Sydney isn’t really a rockin’ or ‘doofin’ (an Aussie slangism for the sound of a techno beat) or a hip hoppin’ town. The reasons are simple - Sydney has good weather, the people there eat well because they’re all rich, they have a nicer city geographically, better looking babes, more fashion. In fact there really isn’t much to react against in Sydney because nobody really gives a fuck because their lives are so good. They got beaches and scenery and better things to do with their lives than be creative. And you wanna know something, I’m fucking jealous! Because Sydney has so much of an influence about how Australian culture is presented to the rest of the world, its no wonder why Australian music generally sucks these days.

(Note : AC/DC, Men at Work, Ed Kuepper, Nick Cave, Magic Dirt, did not come from Sydney, so go figure)

Globalisation via the Internet and multi national corporations and CNN, is another reason why music from down under generally sucks. It’s alright to be influenced by a band, to pick up on their spirit and then apply it to your own endeavours. But to mimic! Even though the Hoodoo Gurus sounded a lot like Green on Red or the Long Ryders, there was still something about them that was a bit nisht. Same with the Scientists, who even if they wanted to be like the Cramps, they weren’t- and it was that inability to just not quite make it, that made them something else, something interesting, something you guys don’t have. The Cosmic Psycho’s might have technically been retarded, but that was their genius. They were a pack of blokes trying to play like the Stooges and Jimi Hendrix, but sonically and rhythmically it worked and sounded familiar, but unlike anything else. Its no wonder Aussie bands like that, and Feedtime and Sunset Strip and Lubricated Goat would be such influences on more interesting grunge bands like Mudhoney, Babes in Toyland etc..

When I was in the USA a few years ago with a band I used to play in called the Earthmen (who some people actually genuinely liked), indie aesthetes were asking me about Aussie bands like Ashtray Boy and Crabstick. Ashtray Boy, who are a kind of lo-fi scratchy pop band, popular with the Chicago indie set, are so vehemently ignored and obscure here, that last time they were in town they played to a capacity crowd of five. Even Joe Shmoe-jock-self financed hobby bands that play to a few friends and drunks in crappy pubs pull bigger crowds! Crabstick exist only in their bedroom.

Well these days our ‘hot’ new indie talents are mere mimics of the ‘cool’ new US indies. Check this - the Clouds = ‘Pixies/Throwing Muses’, Powderfinger = ‘Pearl Jam, with EXACT Vedder-Style Yodel/Doodle singing’, Ricaine = ‘Shellac, Albini would have them murdered if he heard them’. I don’t want to bore you too much, because really you Yanks and anyone else in the world probably have better things to do than search out this obscure crap. (but it may be worth it for a good laugh or two).

So there you have why Aussie independent music disappeared off the map, but don’t despair, because there is still an underground. But in the age of availability it is the artists doing it themselves. What is happening is that the artists are taking control and releasing the music themselves, not because no one gives a fuck, but because it is the only way that original music makers can win their independence in light of the monopolies that are rubbing our noses in it. Kim Salmon and the Surrealists latest album You Gotta Let Me Do My Thing started off as some singles released on Kim’s own label Guilt Free Records, and he finally released the album in conjunction with the more discerning major-bankrolled indie Half-a-Cow Records. The Cosmic Psychos still release independently, and mutant-hard rock outfit Hoss are releasing their new album on their own label. It may be a burden on the artists financially, but these bands still pull bigger crowds than such ‘hot’ local acts like Ammonia (or as an American friend said ‘I didn’t know they were Australian, I thought they came from a suburb in Minneapolis’).

What does the future hold for fans Australian independent music? Well in guitar music there’s a band called Mississippi Barry, whose new album For a Few Barry’s More (Way Over There records) is a fine slab of mutant blues, with a weird Australian edge. Think of Let it Bleed era Stones with a tinge of Neu/Feedtime propulsion and you’re getting warm. Beside that, everything that independent and worth your time is techno/beat music. There’s only really two artists cutting it in Aussie land, and I’m no expert in this field, but when I hear something I like, I respond. Honeysmack makes minimal squelch in the ‘acid-slap’ style. Its all fat beat and heaps of 303 acid action, similar to US boogie-fuckers Robert Armani and Freedy Fresh. This guy has his own label, and is ready to introduce to world to ‘more of that 909 music made by some bloke’- kapiche? Voitek also makes this electronic music, but more refined and leaning toward drum and bass. Finally, Guyver 3 makes manga-style electronics, for whatever that means.

So Australian music didn’t really disappear, it became the same as everything else. The good stuff is still out there, you just gotta look for it.