Friday, 23 September 2011

Australian's relationship with Britain

Some years ago I spoke to a gentleman by the name of Stuart Coupe, who is the owner and proprietor of Laughing Outlaw Records in Lewisham, NSW. I had occasion to drop in there on my way to classes at Uni at one stage.

One of things that has stuck with me from those times in the small shop when we spoke was a point that Stuart made about commercial radio in this country:

"...Australians don't buy British sounding records...".

In context he was saying that the record he was spruiking would not be getting airplay on the station because it sounded too "British".

I have thought about this for many years. I find it laughable that such a statement needs to be said; however, the evidence is there to back up his claims.

Staunchly British bands such as Madness, The Jam and Blur have barely sold a record in this country. Ditto The Smiths, Joy Division, Suede and plenty of others. Paul Weller formed The Style Council after dissolving The Jam and turned his music into a more American styled soul sound and was quite popular here for a few years. Oasis did well despite there being far better Brit-pop bands around.

So why is this the case? I have a few theories.

1. Radio dictates the public's taste.
Radio panders to its advertisers, so it tailors its playlists to suit. By limiting the field of reference (i.e. the scope of the music, narrowing the playlist) you reduce the risk of being eclectic, and thus alienating people. You can then play something within that narrow range of music and everyone is happy...almost.

2. Most Listeners only consume what they are fed, rarely going and actively seeking out new music under their own steam.
The listeners will often attach themselves to a station over long periods. Once loyalty is established and a reputation for playing a similar style of music, radio can play anything they want and the audience will lap it up. Even if a new song is complete rubbish, by continual repetition the song will get into the listeners heads and it will be a hit.

I still don't think that covers all the bases, but it's a start. I may be wrong. Discuss...

R.I.P. R.E.M.

The news resounding around the world over the past 48 hours has been about REM splitting up after 31 years. Sad, maybe, but not at all shocking. I'm surprised they kept going after drummer Bill Berry retired in 1997. Even so, the grace and dignity with which they conducted themselves and the circumstances of their split is admirable, something the Gallagher brothers could learn a lot from.

Here is a playlist of career highlights from the band, from their first EP in 1982 to their latest record, 51 tracks in all. Enjoy.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Red Dog

Yesterday I saw a new Australian film entitled "Red Dog".

I was intrigued by what the ABC's movie program "At The Movies" had to say about the film. Surprisingly (considering their usual lofty opinions on films), they gave it 4 and 4.5 stars. A number of commenters on the page for the film have them slammed the film as being an inaccurate reflection of Australia. Some comments included:

"It was like watching a bunch of b grade Aussie actors from the city with fake dirt on them trying to act as if they are from a mining town…"

and also: "
"Cliched charactures, cringe and corn abound."

As well as:
"This country is so full of culture, history, tradition, good and bad and this is the only thing we can come up with."

Of course this country is full of tradition, but there is one side of the country and its history that we have forgotten about - the side that does it tough in the North West. I lived there for a couple of years to get my career started again after retraining. I can tell you that the life is tough and you need to build yourself a life all over again in order to survive. You need to become part of the community - get involved, meet people, be part of the town's events, otherwise you'll be one lonely little black duck.

I can tell you that people still come from all different countries to work in the mines of WA. The housing is still bad - they still live in dongas (disused shipping containers with doors and windows cut into them.) The Heat is still hot, the red dust still gets into everything, the sense of community and mateship is strong. You need to be tough to handle it - the homesickness is a killer, the scorching sunlight is also a killer, the isolation and the humidity and drive you insane. If you want a change of scenery, be prepared for a drive of 2 hours or more in any direction before you meet the next town, and even then, the change will be little more than another choice of fast food and a few more shops.

Consequently, those who survive are rough and tough but they have a heart of gold. And you cannot find a better sunset anywhere in the world than in the Pilbara. You can't find better friends than up you'll find up there. The landscape, the openness and the space of the place is awe-inspiring. The ranges, the gorges and waterholes are like nothing else. It has it's plusses and minuses, but trust me, you'll never come back the same person as when you left the place…and that's for the better.

The film Red Dog captured all that beautifully. The landscape was beautifully captured, the people rugged but loveable. The work and the living is tough, and sometimes people die in the process. The film captured all of that. There's not much to do out there, and you need to keep yourself amused with whatever you can, and a mate in the form of a kelpie sometimes is all that you need.

There were a few anachronisms though, like for example some of the music was out of time and place. For example, when Johnny-boy was romancing Nancy and Jocko was looking after Red Dog, they played "Shadow Boxer" by The Angels. The story goes that Johnny died in 1975, The song by the Angels was released in 1979.

Anyway, get out and see the film, here's a sample of what you'll hear on the soundtrack.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The Easybeats

In anticipation for the upcoming SBS documentary this Saturday night, let's take a look at the impact of The Easybeats.

It is very easy to write off the Easybeats as just another beat group out of about 1 million of them in the mid 1960s. There is merit in the argument that out of the millions of bands in the mid-1960s, The Beatles and the Stones were the top of the heap.

Down here in the Antipodes, most bands could merely copy these bands in the hope of riding the wave of success achieved by the British beat bands. They were in most cases doing copies of the sounds learned from records that were often released quite a while after they were released in Britain. This inherently meant that the bands were already one step behind the rest of the bands in the world (we'll talk more about that in a minute).

One of the things that made the Easybeats special was that they wrote their own material and released it exclusively. Thorpey and the Aztecs, Ray Brown and the Whispers and The Twilights were all among the big bands of the time in Australia, and all of them almost always did covers. The Easys wrote all their singles themselves, which was something quite novel in those days. After that, bands like The Groop and the Master's Apprentices wrote their own songs, but largely the bands and singers of the time were all sourcing outside material.

The Easybeats early records crackle with energy and fire that outstrips their local rivals of the time. Those early tracks, like "Wedding Ring", "Sorry", "I'll Make You Happy", and "Women" still hold up today, despite the fact they were recorded on primitive mono equipment.

From 1964 to 1966, the band conquered the local market, they were far and away the biggest band in the land. They decided to try their luck in England. After all, they were capable of generating Beatlemania-styled hysteria in Australia, they should be able to achieve a similar level of success in the mother country, right?

...well, remember how I said that the bands were copying styles from records that were slightly behind when compared to the British? In 1966 through to 1969, rock music changed so rapidly and it left many bands washed-up in the wake. The Beatles were at the vanguard of this change. Their songs and their music changing rapidly from single to single and from album to album (just listen to the jump between "Revolver" and "Sgt Pepper" in terms of songwriting and musicianship!). Even bands like the Stones and The Beach Boys struggled to keep up (Brian Wilson from the band had a mental breakdown trying to compete with the Beatles!)

The Easybeats were also casualties of this change. These cocky naturalised Australians swanned into Swinging London, went down to the Marquee club to see some local bands and realised how behind the times they really were. This was the start of a crisis of confidence and identity for the band. Their first overseas release, "Sorry", hit #1 in Australia but bombed in the UK and US. Their first recording session with Shel Talmy (producer of The Kinks and The Who) produced the landmark single "Friday On My Mind" and then they failed to have any more hit records of the same magnitude.

"Friday..." was their high watermark. Trying to keep up with rapidly changing trends, they failed to hit on a singular sound and style that worked for them and they spent the next couple of years releasing single after single only to see them sink like a stone. Management problems, record company problems, depression, alcohol abuse and drug abuse set in and the band imploded in 1969, but not before they had one last hit in Australia: "St Louis". By the time it was released the band no longer existed.

The post-Easybeats fallout was somewhat bittersweet: Lead singer Stevie Wright descended into heroin abuse, but released a couple of highly regarded records in the mid 1970s, including a three-part, 11 minute epic track "Evie" that hit #1 in Australia in 1974. Guitarists Vanda and Young went on to produce a string of excellent records for the likes of AC/DC, The Angels, Rose Tattoo and others, as well as having a few hits of their own under the name of "Flash and The Pan"; not much is known about the other band members. Maybe the doco on Saturday night will shed some light on things...

...for now, remind yourself how good those early records were.