Do The Pop: Year Zero
The ongoing ‘Do The Pop!’ series mark the birth of modern Australian music, PATRICK EMERY is there all over again.
While the ABC’s Long Way to the Top history of Australian rock & roll condemned Radio Birdman to a fleeting video image in a collage of also ran Australian rock bands of the 1970s, most narratives of contemporary Australian music recognise Birdman, along with Brisbane punk outfit The Saints, as the seminal influences in wresting Australian rock & roll from its self-indulgent, insipid and satin slumber in the 1970s. With AM radio dominated by pale imitations of Lobby Loyde’s blues and booze rock attack, and television screens saturated with the vivid colours of Sherbert, Skyhooks and a host of forgotten pop stars, Radio Birdman and The Saints gave the proverbial two-fingered salute to the prevailing music of the time, finding instead inspiration in the garage and proto-punk sounds of the 1960s. And with punk emerging as a tabloid synonym for anti-establishment fear and loathing, things were destined never to be the same again.
In 2002 Shock Records released the Do the Pop! compilation, a double CD retrospective of Australian independent rock & roll from the mid 1970s through to the 1980s that was the brainchild of Dave Laing, former boss of Dog Meat Records and long time Shock Records employee. Released to lavish reviews, including a full page spread in Rolling Stone magazine (written by David Fricke) and a favourable write up in Mojo in the UK, Do the Pop! took its name from a Radio Birdman song, and made its reference point the rock & roll scene that grew up around, and in the wake of, Birdman and the Saints.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Laing has returned to the original project and orchestrated the release of what he’s calling the ‘redux’ version of the Do the Pop! compilation. The new version comprises three separate double CD releases, with a total of 150 tracks. Each release will cover a separate timeline, with Volume 1 surveying the era encompassing 1974 to 1981, Volume 2 the early to mid 1980s, and the Volume 3 through to the end of the 1980s. Volume 1 features tracks from Radio Birdman (including a live version of ‘New Race’ recorded at the Paddington Town Hall in 1977), The Saints (including ‘I’m Stranded’ from the band’s days as Kid Galahad and the Eternals) and a host of classic Australian acts of the time, including The Hitmen, New Christs, The Lipstick Killers, Psychosurgeons, The Dagoes, Manikins, The Victims, The Passengers and even Birdman guitarist Deniz Tek’s formative outfit, TV Jones. Volume 1 hits the shelves in mid December, with subsequent releases due in March or April 2008.
Dave Laing makes no apologies about the narrow focus of the Do the Pop! series, and makes the obvious link back to the title of the compilation. “The one point I’ve tried to make with Do the Pop!, which I think most people have missed, with the continued comments like ‘it’s a bit Sydney-centric isn’t it?’, ‘where’s the Laughing Clowns track?’ or ‘no Go-Betweens?’, is that Radio Birdman inspired a small scene, or at very least nurtured an appreciative audience for that scene”, Laing says. “And that scene was unlike any other in the world at the time, because it was very pro-rock & roll and wore its 60s and 70s influences on its sleeve.”
Yet the mere presence of Radio Birdman does not necessarily explain the evolution of the Sydney scene from a small community of fans of Detroit and New York garage and punk rock – as it was in 1976 – to the thriving sub-cultural beast of 1977 and beyond. While neither Radio Birdman (nor the Saints for that matter) welcomed the ‘punk’ label, it’s more than coincidence that 1977 was the year Malcolm McLaren’s tabloid friendly brand of punk appeared in print and electronic media. At very least, the public appearance of punk was a catalyst for the growth in interest in the high energy rock & roll style already embraced by Birdman, the Saints and their followers.
“I don’t like this legacy shit,” Younger says. “It encourages immodesty, false claims, at the least, and sheer grandiosity at the top end.”
For Laing, however, it’s what happened in the late 1970s – when both Birdman and the original line-up of The Saints had imploded – that’s significant. “Given that I’d reckon most people who went and saw Birdman weren’t ‘punks’, I’d say a lot of it was self-generated – but I wasn’t there, so it’s hard to say”, he says. “The fact that the Melbourne ‘crew’ congregated at Birdman and Saints gigs, before turning their back on Birdman, suggests they were seen as the centre of the Australian ‘scene’, whether that was considered ‘punk’ or just ‘underground’ at the time. The ‘next wave’, if you’re looking at what Do the Pop! is about, rather than the general post-punk scene, was certainly also strongly influenced by the Hitmen, the Other Side and the Visitors. The kids who picked up from there weren’t really influenced by punk – at least not really the UK side of it. Ramones and Dead Boys covers were common amongst this wave though, as well as Pebbles or Nuggets favourites. And what followed with that thread is very different to what happened anywhere else,” Laing says.
Radio Birdman lead singer Rob Younger – who went on to front the New Christs and New Race, as well as producing a raft of independent bands in the 1980s as Citadel Records’ in-house producer – remembers the prevailing music of the day as being “predominantly pubs, with the odd city venue – shit places like the Manzil Room in King’s Cross, the dying days of Chequers off Goulburn Street. There was the Oxford Tavern - later called the Funhouse - the odd wine bar such as French’s, and not much else. Blues or blues-based cock-rock was the mainstay of these places.”
But despite his own history, Younger isn’t one to glorify the legacy of Radio Birdman, or indeed anything he’s been involved with directly. “I think much of that [perceived influence] is born of hindsight”, Younger says. “Sure, we had some degree of influence because so many people have told me over the years they started their group after hearing us. That’s how I got started, hearing other groups, except it was via the records of the New York Dolls and the Stooges, because the local groups were so vapid rather than inspiring”.
Younger has limited time for the ‘old fart’ syndrome, which leads to protagonists from ‘the day’ to interpret the era through rose coloured glasses. “I don’t like this legacy shit,” Younger says. “It encourages immodesty, false claims, at the least, and sheer grandiosity at the top end. You hear it all the time. These old farts banging on about how music these days is shit and how they did it so much better years ago.”
While Sydney may have been the epicentre of the garage rock scene, its tentacles spread beyond the tight knit underground community that grew out of the Oxford Funhouse scene. Doug Thomas had moved to Adelaide from his native Perth in 1976, and soon bought into a record store with a couple of friends. Shortly after seeing Radio Birdman at the Tivoli in Adelaide Thomas bought a guitar (in the time honoured punk fashion, Thomas didn’t know how to play the instrument) and formed The Dagoes.
Thomas acknowledges the direct influence of Birdman, but says the genesis of the Adelaide garage rock scene of the time was as much about the DIY aesthetic – typified by the Ramones’ simplistic approach – than it was about imitating the Sydney scene. “The conversation I recall went along the lines of: “We’re forming a band, do you want to join? But I can’t play. That’s okay, neither can we, but listen to the records you’re selling, anyone can do that!” Thomas recalls. Thomas went on to establish Greasy Pop Records in Adelaide, the focus of independent music in Adelaide for the 1980s, and home to such bands as the Exploding White Mice, Lizard Train, Twenty Second Sect, Spikes (which featured Thomas) and the Mad Turks from Istanbul (featuring a young Charles Jenkins, later of the Ice Cream Hands), all of whom are to feature on Volume 2 of the Do the Pop! series.
Over in Perth things were also happening. Ross Buncle formed The Geeks with Lloyd (last name not disclosed) around the same time Birdman and The Saints were causing ripples on the eastern seaboard. Not long after, Buncle and Lloyd were joined in The Geeks by James Baker, who had travelled to the United States and the UK in the mid 1970s, catching a glimpse of the New York and English punk scenes along the way. Baker went on to join seminal Perth punk bands The Victims (with Dave Faulkner, formerly of the Manikins and later the Hoodoo Gurus) and the Scientists (with Kim Salmon).
Buncle, who continues to document the Perth punk scene on his website (perthpunk.com) says Radio Birdman “was completely unknown in the West at that time”, while “the Saints were known from the time their Stranded album was released, but were not generally embraced by the Perth punks.” Despite the potency of the Perth scene – which gave Australia such luminaries as Dave Faulkner, Kim Salmon, Roddy Radalj and Boris Sudjovic, Buncle isn’t sure whether the Perth scene was so distinctive, but he does concede that the city’s isolation was a significant factor in shaping the local sound.
“Perth then was far more isolated than it is now. There was no email or web then, remember. All we knew of the Eastern States was whatever was written up in the rock mags of the day, and to be honest I rarely read the Aussie ones. NME was the bible at that time. Also, there were only two record importers in Perth then – 78 Records and Dada – and we had to wait months to get the more obscure new releases from the States or England. So you’d be reading about CBGBs and hanging out to hear what the fuss was about, but not able to get your hands on the records. No radio station played anything but oldies and Top 40 shite. Every release of a CBGBs band was a major event for us,” Buncle says. More so than any Countdown footage of the Sex Pistols, it was the release of The Ramones’ first album that, in Buncle’s words, “set off the fireworks factory”.
Buncle suggests the Perth scene was simply a local manifestation of the punk sound beginning to take hold in other parts of Australia, and around the world. “Musically, I don’t think we were that different from what was happening in other punk scenes,” Buncle says. “My bands – The Geeks, Hitler Youth and Orphans – were all far more influenced by US punk, a la The Ramones, and particularly proto-punk, specifically The Stooges. The Victims, though, certainly the punk band of that early era in Perth, sounded far more English than the rest. I think for all the first-wave bands, The Velvet Underground loomed as a significant presence. And Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ first album had a big influence. Plus any band that James Baker was in would hear plenty about The New York Dolls from him!”
Back to the present, and Dave Laing says there are plans afoot for a series of gigs around the country to promote the compilations. Bill Gibson, former bass player with The Eastern Dark has been sounded out to front a band that will play various tunes featured on the album. “Bill’s up for it,” Laing says. “It’s better to go along and hear a whole bunch of songs from different artists rather than a set of just one band on the compilation.” It’s intended that the band will be augmented by musicians of the day resident in the particular city or town – which could see a diverse cast of performers coming out of the woodwork to revisit classic tunes of yore.
In addition to the audio recordings recycled and uncovered for the compilation, there’s a wealth of video footage that could easily fill a DVD companion release. While Birdman fans the world over now have access to the live footage shot at the Marryatville Hotel in Adelaide in 1977 via YouTube, there’s live material featuring the New Christs, the Victims, the Lime Spiders, the Lizard Train and the Eastern Dark and plenty of others that deserves to be released. Laing, however, says no such product is currently being planned, despite the availability of suitable material.
One of the reasons, it seems, is that while the passage of time continues to be kind to the sonic attributes of the Australian punk rock scene, it’s not as favourable to the hairstyles and fashion sense of the artists. Laing says he was compelled to ignore a Johnny Kannis request to use a vintage Hitmen photo – replete with big hair and 80s fashion items – on the cover of the recent Hitmen reissues. “People would have thought the Hitmen were a new wave band,” Laing says with an incredulous laugh. “And the Trilobites – they looked like tennis players!”