Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ole Tarantula - Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3

When I first listened to Ole Tarantula, I was in a hurry to see the band that night and I didn't play it very loud.

That was my first mistake!

My second was to conclude that it was one of Robyn's lesser albums.

I heard a number of the songs live before I had another chance to come back to the album.

This was when I first started to realise just how strong it is.
Robyn's advice is to listen to it for pleasure first and only then to think about the words and their meaning.

Having now done both numerous times, I recognise what I missed at first: the album is an unadulterated pleasure.

Sorry I'm a bit slow on the uptake!

Adventure Rocket Ship

The first song is an upbeat, fun song that purports to be nothing more.

It gallops along at a rate of knots that, at first, annoyed me for some reason, but it gradually won me over with its good-natured insistence.

Now I can't get it out of my head.

I thought it was a throwaway kind of song. But it's better than that.

In a way, it's a bookend that announces that this rocket ship of an album is packed full of messages for the aliens in our universe and maybe just a few for us on earth as well.

Underground Sun

This song continues the upbeat start. It has some of the feel of REM's Shiny Happy People, even though it concerns the death of a friend.

She is underground, but she hasn't really "gone" while there are people who remember her.

Their memories keep the flame of her life alight. She still shines like the sun: "I know you're there, I can relive you."

It's an affirmation of life despite the inevitability of death and the need to experience the death of others in our own lives.

Museum of Sex

Museum has a funkier sound with hand claps, buoyant bass playing, chunky guitars and some nice R 'n' B horns.

Basically, it's a secular hymn to a great rock 'n' roll riff. "Music is the antidote/to the world of pain and sorrow."

Who knows what the lyrics or the title really mean, but music is the pulse of life and life begins with sex and this riff is now housed forever in a song that might just be a museum of sex!

Belltown Ramble

One day I think we'll see this song as one of Robyn's greatest.

It has a delightful syncopated drum beat accompanied by Scott McCaughey's skittish, simplistic piano.

It's the most nursery rhyme-like of the songs on the album, but it's also the most obvious message from one generation to another, in this case a parent to their daughter.

It's a song of comfort to a young inquiring mind wanting to know their place in the world, most likely intimidated by what life might have in store for them.

The song hints that the most important thing to strive for is an "independent life".

If you do it your way (in Robyn's words, whether you walk a square or an oblong or even just walk straight), even though you might think you've done it wrong, "you did it great".

Within this simple message, Robyn enumerates seven worldly threats to his daughter(?):
1. ignorance;
2. opportunism;
3. greed;
4. fundamental(-ist) faith;
5. haste;
6. waste; and
7. something that I'll paraphrase as insular, self-centred idealism or utopianism that aspires to your own paradise on earth while turning your back on the people in our lives (especially while seated at a computer!).

This is Robyn at his most political, yet the song still comes across as personal rather than polemical.

I love the way he places this message in an identifiable place (Belltown) and coyly plays down its profundity by calling the song a "ramble".

At its heart, it's a warning not to take life or situations or songs or lyrics too seriously.

Ole! Tarantula

This song also disappointed me on first hearing.

However, again, I took it too seriously. It's a playful Basement Tapes-era Dylan pastiche complete with harmonica, saxophone and harmony vocals.

Still, beneath its flippancy, it's a celebration of the wonder of birth and "the shock of human existence" that emerges from the process.

With so much birth and death on this album, it's reassuring that its title derives from a song about birth and rebirth.

(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs

This song started off its life as a lyrical extrapolation on a Clint Eastwood film.

It's musical arrangement has matured with age. Now it's a tour de force of duelling jangle pop guitars, possibly the closest to the Hitchcock and Buck sound of the 2006 tour.

It also seems a bit of a caution that there is more to life than living within the sphere of the imagination. You have to accommodate reality as well. Otherwise you just might explode!

Red Locust Frenzy

This is a more contemplative ballad in the style of solo John Lennon.

Again, both guitars and vocals intertwine gracefully throughout the song.

Lyrically, it contains just a few simple brush-strokes, almost like a haiku, that suggest that you ward off the devil and death for as long as you can, so that you can savour love while you have it.

Ironically, the advice seems to come from the afterlife, even though…"there is no God up here/No captain of your dreams."

'Cause It's Love (Saint Parallelogram)

This is an unpretentious guitar driven song about being in love with the idea of love more than actually loving someone.

Saint Parallelogram moves parallel to life and love without ever truly experiencing it.

The Authority Box

This tale of middle class paranoia and fear of failure is a cross between Dylan at his most accusatory and the Beatles at their most psychedelic.

N.Y. Doll

Slower paced than Briggs, this song about the New York Dolls bass player Arthur Kane is one of Robyn's most beautiful compositions.

It opens with the words "I never finished the book", as if it was starting mid-conversation.

While this line originally made me grin, later you realise that Robyn uses the word "book" as a metaphor for life and mortality:

"But in the library of your memory/ People live in their books/ Till the pages close/ Close on me like they're gonna/ Close on you."

There's something that reminds me of "Tears of a Clown" in the feel of this song.

I recently read a review of the Sydney Basement gig that regretted that the band never really kicked butt.

I can't agree. N.Y. Doll shows that the band (especially Scott McCaughey on bass and Bill Rieflin on drums) can conjure up a sound that kicks like the best of Motown without having to resort to the thrash of a lot of their contemporaries.

So, what to make of the album as a whole?

It's draped in the fabric of nursery rhymes, but like the stories we tell our children, it subtly disguises tales of birth, life and death, imagination and dreams, success and failure.

In the face of mortality, this is Robyn's defiant expression of his joire de vivre.

Ultimately, like the Soft Boys song of the same name, the album is a vessel that conveys "the pulse of my heart".

As long as that pulse survives and beats strong, it will help us battle the "poisons" with which life tempted Arthur Kane.

And when we eventually succumb, then hopefully there will be another generation that has learned from our lessons.

So perhaps Robyn's Adventure Rocket Ship is not just a missive for aliens, it might actually be a Satellite of Love for us earthlings as well!

The Saints - "Call It Mine"

As much as I loved the original Saints (with both Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey), I have always had a soft spot for the Saints Mark II, a version that Chris Bailey started to much consternation in 1979/1980 (after Ed and everybody else had left).

The consternation revolved around Bailey's entitlement to call his band the Saints, something that will never be resolved.

For fans of both Ed and Chris, it was like being asked to take sides in an ugly divorce. Nobody wins. Sometimes, you're just better off keeping your head down and ignoring the fuss.

I had loved "Prehistoric Sounds" and still regard it as the best Australian album ever.

Ed Kuepper took that sound and explored it in the Laughing Clowns. One day, Ed will be appreciated as rock music's equivalent of Miles Davis, except coming from the other side of the fence.

Chris Bailey headed in the opposite direction.

Despite all of the New Wave experimentation in the wake of punk (Gang of Four, Wire, Magazine), Bailey ventured into some modest studio in south London and came up with an E.P. full of immodest but "mid tempo rockers" called "Paralytic Tonight, Dublin Tomorrow".

This wasn't cool enough for NME or many other Saints fans, but I'm sorry, I was just totally knocked out by it. Three songs in particular - Simple Love, Don't Send Me Roses and Call It Mine.

Simple Love grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let go.

However, I recently decided that I had to elevate Call It Mine to top billing, when I was making a ringtone for my phone.

The cascading guitars that introduce the song were just what I needed to hear every time someone rang me.

So, how to describe the sound?

It's not a slashing punk buzzsaw kind of sound. It's dirty, it's mid tempo and it's jangly.

Looking for something similar in my collection, I keep returning to the Byrds doing "Mr Tambourine Man", especially live.

So a few years before R.E.M., the Saints were playing with a dirty jangly sound.

The chorus introduces a more chugging sound, some would say more pub rock, but there's also an eastern feel.

It's also multi-tracked, so I love trying to work out the interaction of the guitars, so that one day if I ever get around to learning, maybe I'll be able to mimic the sound.

Over the top of this, imagine Chris Bailey's vocals.

They're monosyllabic, somehow stumbling or jumping or leap-frogging from one syllable to another without tripping or losing momentum.

Somehow it all pieces togther into some deceptively passionate singing. It's almost soul music, it's stripped back, it's personal, it's revealing. And those guitars just keep jangling and chugging and driving it along.

Unfortunately, it's still pretty hard to find any versions of the song.

I had to pay a lot of money to get my favourite version on the 16 track New Rose release of the subsequent album "The Monkey Puzzle".

It's also on the New Rose version of the album "Out in the Jungle" (also released as "Casablanca") in an inferior faster guise.

I live in hope that they'll remaster the whole of "The Monkey Puzzle" and add "Paralytic Tonight, Dublin Tomorrow" one today.

I've never been happy with any of the versions of the album, and they seem to choose versions of some of my favourite songs that aren't the best available.

Unfortunately, it's possible that the E.P. was done so much on the cheap that no amount of remastering will help. However, I still think that they could put together a pretty good CD of this transitional material recorded in 1980 and 1981.

It's timeless, but that doesn't mean it should be lost in time.

Hey, there goes my phone...

The Sleepy Jackson - A Selection of Lyrics For Your Listening Pleasure

If I was a girl I would wear a miniskirt into town * When you think with your mind, you've got a place to go now * I had everything I wanted, but you wanted more, I had everything I needed, but you needed more * Crime comes to them like a worried vein, girls get married like they live in vain * I will start myself a revolution * This will take some time I know, and it's going slow I know * Your lonely town's in fear, your idols are crushed by the wind * I lost my mind, it was blown in the wind and I did all of this for you * Girl, it's a long time without lovin' * Love in two days, it's too much, and I fell right through all of you into nothing * When I wake up in the morning, I see your eyes, your bright eyes * It's hard to have fun like a kid does * Take this bucket of love and add some laughter to it * You're better off on your own, when things get tough, just take a rest * The pretty ones seem to get fucked up all the time * It's hard when you don't know what you've done, and it causes no-one fun * Girl, it's a long time when you're runnin' * Love lasts forever with you * God knows if you're ever going to show, but they all know that it's dark and there's no light * We're too far gone, I feel the lights will not come back on * It's true I never had no fun with you, now there's acid in my heart * I understand what you want, I understand what you need, but I just don't agree * You miss my friends more than you ever miss me.

The Panics - My Best Mistake

What do you get when you cross the sounds of Perth and Manchester? And Liverpool and L.A.?

The Panics.

I can't remember the first time I heard My Best Mistake, but I knew I had discovered my New Favourite Band.

It was just like hearing the Stone Roses for the first time (in fact, the Panics take their sound and give it an Australian accent, sort of like the Strine Roses).

This song captures the sound of summer.

It's the sort of song that defines a period of your life, what you were doing, who you were doing it with, all of your memories and all of the consequences.

Its guitars lift you up and fly you over the clouds. They sear and soar and inspire like George Harrison at his best.

The drums propel you along with a nice touch of American Indian beats. And the vocals confide in you like only your lover could late on the night you first met.

If there's anything that makes me slightly hesitant about the song, its a hint of the band America's Sister Golden Hair in the slide guitar. But hey I guess there's not many distinctive ways you can play slide.

I don't know what it is they drink in Perth, but it inspires some classic pop rock music that builds on the traditions of the Beatles and the countrified sounds of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash and Young.

It's a timeless urban and western sound.

Perhaps, it has something to do with the fact that, like L.A. and Liverpool, they're on the western side of the country and they watch the sun go down into the ocean.

Whatever it is, I hope they keep doing it.

The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Darklands” (The Single)

Every time I read a list of someone's Top 100 Singles, I have to wonder what my number one would be, and every time I choose "Darklands".

The song is the first song on the Jesus and Mary Chain album of the same name that came out in 1987.

Many fans thought their second album had sold out the sound of the feedback-drenched "Psychocandy".

I first heard "Psycocandy" at my friend Steve's. He had just returned from a holiday in London and was desperate to play it for me.

I'm embarrassed to say that I just didn't get it on the first play. It seemed to be no more than feedback and distortion. How wrong was I! Just like Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, feedback and distortion were just ingredients in a new vision of what music should sound like.

Once you listen through the apparent dissonance, you discover that the Jesus and Mary Chain are creators of pristine pop music at the level of both the Velvet Underground and the Ramones.

There is something both very complex and very simple going on at the same time.

"Darklands" starts with a simple lead guitar intro that is almost immediately shadowed by a drum beat that holds the song together like something Smoky Robinson could have written for Motown.

Each lead works up to considered, understated but somehow still slashing chords.

This conversation of alternating guitar styles winds its way through the song, and ultimately represents William's options, heaven and hell.

The most obvious of meanings of the song is that the Darklands are the world you enter when you're in a heroin-induced high.

William goes there to escape the real world. He wants to "talk in rhyme with my chaotic soul".

His motive is simple. Life means nothing, all things end in nothing, real life is chaos, but at least in the Darklands he gets to talk in rhyme with himself, as if he finds some beauty there.

Yet now he is held back from his quest. Perhaps he has O.D.'ed, perhaps he is doing cold turkey, perhaps he just can't afford his next hit.

Whatever the cause, he feels like he is dying, maybe dying to go to the Darklands.

The heaven he experiences in the Darklands is too close to hell. He feels like he could die, then he feels that he is dying, and finally he recognises that he is dying.

He is brought to his knees, pleading to go, but in his time of dying, as he confronts his own death, he recognises that he wants to stay more than he wants to go.

Ultimately, however, his survival instinct wakes him from his dreams and persuades him to stay.

It's not easy though. At the same time as he concludes he wants to stay, he starts off the final chorus by declaring he wants to go.

Another possible meaning is that William actually contemplates suicide in the song, but retreats from the precipice.

Either way, he has stared death in the face and lived to tell the tale.

Out of this drama, the Jesus and Mary Chain create an epic of subtle, but Phil Spector-like proportions.

Many of the things that appealed to me about the sound of the song are founded in the 60's: the drum beats, the instrumental call and response, the guitar crescendos, the doo doo doo's.

Unlike "Psychocandy", I had no doubt that I was witnessing pop music at its greatest, so much so that I can still listen to this song dozens of times in a row.

It took just one song on their second album to realise that this band could be king of all it surveyed. And I was happy while it reigned. Even now, I can close my eyes and pretend that the JAMC still do.

P.S. I still can't work out why "Just Like Honey" didn't have the same impact on me on first listen. It has many of the same 60's ingredients.

Ed Kuepper - “Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You”

I love Ed Kuepper's music. It's got me hooked.

No matter what tempo, he is a master of subtle propulsion and sublime grooves.

When he multi-tracks his guitars and adds piano and organ melodies, he can create a cocoon of sound that you just don't want to escape.

It's even more enticing when his lyrics hook you and refuse to let you off the hook.

Maybe that's a bad metaphor. It must sound violent, which is not what I wanted to convey.

The "hook" that I mean is the lure of sophistication, of a thought or emotion perfectly captured and then projected out to his audience.

Ed Kuepper has a rare ability to focus a magnifying glass on the machinations of heart and soul, body and mind, and then report his findings to us in such simple unpretentious words that you could almost overlook how precious they are. His songs aren't wordy or pretentious, but when repeated until they become familiar, they are loaded and hypnotic. His cocoon is both musical and verbal.

"Everything I've Got Belongs to You" is one song that blends music and words perfectly. It deserves to be on lists of the Top 100 best songs ever. Well, it's close to the top of mine!

It's a love song, at least I think it is.

It's not about saccharine romance or puppy love. It's about real, grown-up love where two people grow in and out of love. They argue and lose each other, then make up and find each other again, in the process maybe learning a little or a lot about themselves and one another.

You have to look as far as Lou Reed and "Ecstasy" and songs like "Tatters" to find someone who can document the dynamics of a relationship this subtly in music. ("Some couples live in harmony, some do not. Some couples yell and scream, some do not.")

"Everything" starts with one of the most amazing first lines in rock music: "I have designs on you that come from dirty books ".

I grin every time I hear it, then I wonder what it really means.

Is the object of Ed's affection an existing lover or a photo in a magazine? Has some fashion model taken over his life? I don't think so. I think a real relationship has begun and ended and begun again. Good on him for still having designs on her! She must be "worth it".

OK he might be churlish, he might be rude. I'm sure she has her faults as well, although he doesn't list them like he does his own. ("You might boohoo" doesn't seem to be that much of a fault.)

There's no point even trying to revisit the issue that once divided them, it will only lead to another fight. Besides "she" seems to be able to win these battles anyway, she always gets her "comeuppance" (I wonder if anyone else has used this word in a song, maybe Cole Porter or Elvis Costello?)

Ultimately, the relationship matters more than who is wrong or right. The relationship is truth, it's no fiction or fantasy.

It drives him to revive it when it falls over. He has to "take" her by the hand and get her back, despite his own faults and perhaps despite any that she might have.

So the title itself…it sounds so romantic. It is romantic. But there's this underlying sense of ownership and possession. Or is there? Does "she" now own everything he used to own? Has she deprived him of it?

I don't think so. It's interesting that Ed doesn't even use the word "own".

The things he's talking about are things that he's "got". She doesn't own them now, they "belong" to her. They mightn't even be material possessions; they might be his qualities, good or bad.

Either way, she deserves them, he's offering them to her or to them. Again, she's worth it.

The relationship is not two people, but one thing. And every time they do something that temporarily splits it, "it" gets itself back together again.

OK he doesn't want to let her "off the hook", but it sounds like he's on the hook as well.

Maybe it's not such a bad hook to be caught on. Real love can keep us on tenterhooks, but they can be such tender hooks!

I hope Ed doesn't mind me printing the lyrics to this greatest of real love songs, so you can enjoy it and make up your own mind.

Everything I've Got Belongs To You
Ed Kuepper

I have designs on you that come from dirty books
And I'd lie to you if that was what it took
Well I'd act out of spite and those times ain't few
Cause everything I've got belongs to you
Yeah everything I've got belongs to you
I'd come by for you and take you by the wrist
You might well boohoo, yes there could be that risk
To let you off of the hook, that just wouldn't do
Cause everything I've got belongs to you
Yeah everything I've got belongs to you
I don't care who's wrong or right
I'd just start another fight
And you'd get yours, can't you see
You always get your comeuppance with me
Now, time has proved I'm churlish and I'm rude
And I find a real contentment in bad moods
And because it's all true, there's nothing to do
Cause everything I've got belongs to you
Yeah everything I've got belongs to you

“After Dark” by Haruki Murakami

"After Dark" is probably the easiest Murakami novel to read.

At 201 pages, it's not difficult to finish in one session.

It's also close to what you would call "high concept" in the film industry.

Its execution is not much more than its conception.

All of the action takes place from 11:56pm to 6:52am on a midwinter night, more or less "after dark" when the days are shortest and the nights are longest.

Murakami's writing is stripped back, simple, present tense, in the style of detective fiction, yet there is always a sense of deeper meaning, even if it is or remains hidden.

We see the surface, almost like a camera, but we know there is something behind it, even if he doesn't choose or have to describe it.

"Darkness" is an extended metaphor throughout the entire novel.

At the most superficial level, it describes the night.

However, it also represents the darkness of the human soul.

This level of meaning is most likely to resonate with its likely audience – youth in their teens or early twenties who are still trying to piece together some sense of the meaning of life and how they fit into it.

Before people developed the technology to build houses, they huddled together in caves at night, primarily to escape their predators, but also to share their collective warmth.

Darkness then created a sense of family, if not society as well.

Language as a form of communication probably developed during these hours of darkness, when there was little else to do.

Now that we can build accommodation, we create smaller scale, more individualised caves where we can live alone and lonely.

What was once a source of comfort has become a source of alienation.

This spiritual or anti-spiritual life of buildings in Murakami's fiction has been coming for some time.

The homes, office blocks, cafes, bars and hotels in his novels take on a life of their own. They are characters with their own mysteries that embrace and surround the human characters. They're almost microcosms with their own cosmic significance.
Inside these buildings, we can be easily lured away from interaction with other humans, even the members of our own family.

Mari and her beautiful sister, Eri, are two sides of the one coin (their names are only one syllable apart) that have lost touch with each other.

Eri is at home sleeping a deep sleep that is "too perfect, too pure" and has lasted for two months.

Late in the book, we learn that they once embraced each other for protection in a lift while it remained trapped in darkness in a blackout. Spiritually, it was the closest they ever came to each other, a return to the comfort of the cave.

Since then, they have drifted apart for no discernible reason.

Metaphorically, they have lost touch, but it's almost as if it is important that they have literally lost touch as well.

Although Eri never fully regains consciousness during the span of the novel, their reconciliation and sense of wholeness begin when Mari learns to open up personally over the course of meetings with strangers during the night and decides to sleep in Eri's bed, holding her close under the sheets, just as the sun starts to rise and the darkness starts to dissipate.

In Murakami's concluding words, "this hint of things to come takes time to expand in the new morning light, and we attempt to watch it unobtrusively, with deep concentration. The night has begun to open up at last."

Throughout the night, we have watched two flowers start to blossom…or, more likely, two shrubs about to re-blossom.

In a sense, they have emerged from the dark and into the light. They are literally "after dark" or post-darkness.

There is a suggestion of a recurring cycle at work here too. Just as day follows night, night follows day.

Murakami's very last words are that the hint of things to come will continue to expand in the light, at least "until the next darkness arrives".

This might just mean that we will retreat to our caves at night, pending a new sunrise.

But it could also mean that, all through our lives, we have to deal with darkness and depression, but we have to remember that there will be a new sunrise, especially if we make it happen ourselves.

Someone has suggested that this novel could be the first in a trilogy based around these characters.

There are a myriad of questions that the detective in the reader wants to find answers for.

On the other hand, the metaphorical significance of the novel and its title is complete in one volume.

Bettie Serveert - I’ll Keep It With Mine

This is one of my favourite songs of the B-sides and rarities genre.

It's a song by Bob Dylan about a female member of the Velvet Underground sung by a female member of a Dutch band who grew up in Canada that you can only get on the soundtrack of a film about Andy Warhol made by a woman who has made some other pretty interesting films.

One of the things I love about it is the way Bettie Serveert have injected into it a Velvet Underground feel (is it the rhythm?) that makes you wonder what it would have been like to see Lou Reed and Bob Dylan in the same band, perhaps during the Rolling Thunder Revue, perhaps produced by the platinum-haired Spider, Mick Ronson.

Even though it's steeped in all these images of New York circa '65, it's still a song that is rewarding for fans of Bettie Serveert.

I love this band, I love Carol Van Dijk and Peter Visser. They are so much more than their first album Palomine, as great as it was and is.

They are so much more than their influences, even if they do wear them on their velvet sleeves, their ermine furs and their shiny shiny, shiny boots of leather.

Bettie Serveert make music that can cure your heart or break your heart in two, it's true!

I hope you like it if you haven't heard it before.

Here's another song that reflects the Velvets influence:

Luna and Dean Wareham – "So why aren't you guys more famous?"

I experienced a little sense of excitement yesterday when I learned that Dean Wareham had written a book about his life before, in and since one of my favourite indie bands, Luna (due out March 13, 2008).

The promo says that "Black Postcards" is also about what it's like to have to pretend to be civil as you answer the same helpful question over and over again, "Why aren't you guys more famous?"

I can't wait to see what Dean has to say.

I don't know the answer to the question, but I'll have a go.

Luna was a cult indie band that played from 1991 to 2005.

Like another of my favourites, Bettie Serveert, and perhaps the Go-Betweens, they seemed to have everything needed to generate popular and commercial success.

They flirted with major record companies (Elektra and Beggars Banquet), but ultimately they got jilted.

So ultimately they remain(ed) a cult band whose obsessive fans (e.g., me) wonder why more music lovers don't join them in their (my) obsession.

So What is a Cult Band Anyway?

I know this will sound like heresy, but I think there is a sense of both success and failure implicit in the term "cult band".


A cult band usually creates a sound that is different, unique, distinctive, quality, a worthy addition to what Julie Burchill used to sarcastically call "rock's rich tapestry".

This is the first and foremost duty of the band to itself and to its audience.

Everything else is secondary.

If the sound of the band is special to the band, then how many people "get" the sound is secondary from the musical point of view.

A cult band will usually have the right pedigree. In the early days, they will play the right covers, they'll name the right influences, they'll get name-checked by the right people. If they're lucky, some of the right people might even guest on their albums or invite them to play on their tours.

As a result, they will develop a dedicated following of early adopters.

A successful act of creativity communicates in some way (whether deep or superficial) with its audience.

We fans will want to buy everything, watch everything, read everything, see them every show and bore our friends senseless with our enthusiasm.

We will also look at our friends a little askew if they don't immediately share our passion.

The duty of the fan is to give the work an audience and space to breathe and grow.

This includes publicising or promoting the work if you're so inclined.

It means playing the CD to friends. It means buying new copies if it's within your budget (artists don't receive any royalties from second-hand sales).

It also means knowing when to stop obsessing and let your friends make their own decisions about what they like and what they want to buy.


I'm talking solely about commercial success now.

I don't know at what point of sales a four member band can live comfortably on their royalties.
Obviously, it depends on your costs, whether collective or personal.

Unfortunately, if you're signed to a major label, it's not 50,000 copies.

Most groups never get a shot at the big time. They never get signed by a major label. Equally, they never get dropped by a major label.

If they're not too obsessive about commercial success or fame, they make do with where they have got. They play music for their audience of loyal fans, they tour relentlessly, they work their butts off and maybe they make enough to survive without a day job.

It can be done nowadays, although there weren't the same income opportunities in the 80's and 90's.

This type of band can't really be said to have failed: if they are satisfied with what they have achieved, they have succeeded in their own vision.

If they are more commercially ambitious or set on financial success or they woo fame too slavishly, then they impose different expectations on themselves.

By failing to achieve these expectations, their only failure is that they have failed to achieve commercial success. So what?

It doesn't mean that they have failed musically, at least from a fan's point of view.

We fans have to make do with what the band was able to generate before the financial pressures terminated their career.

So ultimately the test of every band is: what were they able to achieve with the time and money available?

The Cult of Luna Takes Shape

I think my Luna CD's were among the first CD's I ever bought.

I had assembled quite a large vinyl collection when CD's were introduced and was a slow adopter of the new (replacement?) technology.

What attracted me to Luna was the sticker proclaiming "featuring members of Galaxie 500, the Chills and the Feelies".

Because both Lunapark and the Slide EP had been released in Australia by the time I found them, the deal was sealed when I noticed a Dream Syndicate cover on the EP (not to mention the Velvet's "Ride Into the Sun").

Quite early in their career, they supported the Velvets on their reunion tour of Europe in 1993.
Sterling Morrison played on a couple of tracks on "Bewitched" and Tom Verlaine played on "Penthouse".

It was clear that Luna was building on the foundations of the Velvet Underground sound and that they were firmly planted in the traditions of New York rock.

So I was hooked.

Defining the Luna Sound

The essence of the Luna sound is the standard rock combo: two guitars, bass and drums.

If pressed, I would say that the music is more important than the lyrics. However, I might be wrong.

What I mean by this is that Luna are first and foremost skilled musicians.

Unlike, say, the Go-Betweens, they are not essentially writers who happen to be in a band.

Music is primary, and the lyrics, while enjoyable, are songs, not paragraphs from novels (although I for one would like to read that novel).

Right from the beginning, their music strode the loud/soft divide like the Velvet Underground.

The louder stuff was driven by propulsive guitars and an always subtle rhythm section.

The guitars could be both rude or polite. But while they were often neat, they were never messy.

Some people call them simplistic. As a non-playing fan, I just marvelled at the melodies, even if they were simple or common or traditional or even classical.

By the time they released "Romantica" and "Rendezvous", I think they had taken their compositions to the level of an orchestra for guitars where they used layers of sound to develop a more complex textured sound.

As one critic has said, it was perfect music for headphones.

So to the lyrics…

Romantic, flirtatious, decadent, hedonistic, witty, sarcastic, mischievous, nonchalant, sincere, ironic, nostalgic, innocent, guilty, warm, cool, wistful, affable, arch, self-deprecating, funny, punny, comfortable, relaxed, moody, languid, intimate, post-coital, pre-coital…

Lou Reed might have captured the life and language of Andy Warhol's Factory set in the 60's, but Dean Wareham did the same for a generation in the 90's and noughties that were just getting on with business and life and love and more recently children.

Joe Levy has copped a bit of stick for his effusive liner notes for the Live album, but he does capture how a lot of non-critical fans relate to Luna music.

He also draws a picture of Dean Wareham that betrays a few Warholian brushstrokes:

"I often think of Warhol when I go to see Luna play. Not just because Dean Wareham stands still and shy onstage with a slight smile while his songs act out every manner of misbehaviour he can think of or orchestrate, but also because Warhol is the ground zero for the New York rock & roll that Luna have taken up.

"Without his outsider's desire, his fakery, his honest delight in invention, his thirst for gossip, his cruelty and kindness, his parties, where would we be?"

One of the things that I respect about Dean Wareham is that he came to the flame of New York from New Zealand (via Sydney), yet he appears to have fit in like a hand in glove, perhaps because he insinuated his hand into a velvet glove.

However, sometimes you need an outsider from Pittsburgh or Hibbing or Wellington to see things as they really are.

"So Why Aren't You Guys More Famous?"

Like any fan, I can only enthuse or list the reasons I'm a fan.

Yet my reasons can't be enough. I know I have friends who have no Luna in their collections, who have never heard of them or hate them as purveyors of wimpy dream pop rock.

It's not that they don't get it, some of them get it and just don't like it.

Perhaps, despite the Velvet feel, the music is just a bit too crafted for some? Perhaps, it needs to be a bit more torn and frayed? Perhaps, they haven't transcended their influences enough?

I guess I'll have to wait until March to see if Dean Wareham can shed any light on the question!

The Go-Betweens – One Wild and Precious Life

John Keats “On Fame”

Fame, like a wayward girl, will still be coy
To those who woo her with too slavish knees,
But makes surrender to some thoughtless boy,
And dotes the more upon a heart at ease;
She is a Gypsy,—will not speak to those
Who have not learnt to be content without her…
Ye Artists lovelorn! Madmen that ye are!
Make your best bow to her and bid adieu,
Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.

If you talk to any Go-Betweens fan or read any article about their music, you will almost immediately encounter a sense of disappointment that they never crossed over from cult status to popular and commercial success.

The Go-Betweens were formed when music was still part of a counter-cultural scene.

Only in the 80’s and 90’s did it morph into a mainstream scene that was diverse enough to embrace commercial pop, overtly alternative bands and music, and independent labels.

However, right from the very beginning, the Go-Betweens were always very concerned about the process of becoming commercially successful.

At the same time, in interviews they clung to ideas of countercultural integrity and definitions of hip or cool.

What emerged was a band that was precious about its integrity, but determined to be commercially successful.

Objectively, perhaps, they had all the ingredients needed to extend their devoted indie audience into the mainstream in the wake of 80’s peers like REM, U2 and Simple Minds.

They were intelligent, creative, worldly, serious, funny, literary, cinematic, curious, informed, informative, interested, interesting – a perfect amalgam for the post-modern 90’s and beyond.

However, they remained a cult band, possibly even a critic’s band.

So what happened? Why did greater success elude them? Did their quest for success somehow eat away at the soul of their integrity? Does it matter? Isn’t it enough that they created a valuable and enjoyable body of work?

We Can Be Fans

Robert Forster and Grant McLennan emerged from Brisbane private schools in the mid-70’s into a world of comfort, frustration and potential.

Comfort, because whatever your financial status, Brisbane was a cheap place to live in and, if you enjoyed the beach and surfing, it wasn’t far from the Gold and Sunshine Coasts.

Frustration, however, because Brisbane was still a country town in the politically and socially conservative state of Queensland that didn’t hesitate to use force to address any form of challenge to the authority of the status quo.

The potential was partly the potential available to any resident of Brisbane and partly the potential Robert and Grant created for themselves.

Politically, Brisbane and Queensland were intent on economic growth, whatever the cost (including corruption).

Ironically, as it happened and Brisbane matured economically, the appetite of its people for culture matured as well.

But Robert and Grant weren’t necessarily to know that at the time.

Instead, they focussed on what was happening elsewhere.

They read widely, they watched European film, they observed Andy Warhol break down the barriers between High Art and Pop Art, they heard Bob Dylan create his Wild Mercury Sound, they witnessed four separate talents combine to form the Velvet Underground and define music and an era.

They listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio on the way to the beach, back in their rooms they learned about what was happening in London and New York in New Musical Express and New York Rocker.

From a base in Brisbane, two boys became fans, and they never really ceased to be a band of fans.

We Can Be Heroes

Suddenly, the fact that Robert and Grant were in and from Brisbane didn’t matter.

Two Brisbane boys, essentially fans, wanted to emulate their heroes, even though they weren’t then musically literate.

Initially, like any adolescents, they dreamed that “we can be our heroes”.

It didn’t take long for their dream to morph into an ambition that “we can be heroes” in our own right.

So part of the dilemma of the Go-Betweens is intertwined with the process of crossing the border from audience or fan to performer.

We Can Be Critics

For anyone whose love of music developed in the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s, there is a sense that music defines life, especially your own life.

We look to it for meaning, but we tend to take it too seriously.

We become walking encyclopaedias of rock, we generate play lists, we make and debate lists of favourite artists, albums and songs, we secretly hope to appear on music trivia programs on TV.

We take our passion, something we should feel at one with, and we adopt a critical approach to it.

Instead of relating to it spontaneously and intuitively, we describe it, we define it, we argue with it, we criticise it.

In a way, our taste in music defines us: we are what we like, we are not what we don’t like.

Both Robert and Grant came from this critical background.

Starting as fans, their ambition was always to go beyond their musical interests into magazine publishing (e.g., Torn Curtain) and critical debates.

They had a very definite ideal of what was hip or cool. Obviously, this definition included themselves. However, it was very judgmental (though possibly no more judgmental than the definition of any critic or fan).

We Can Be Our Influences

In their writing and interviews, the Go-Betweens repeatedly name-check influences and compare their own music to their influences and heroes.

In the absence of a language to describe their own music, they defined it in terms of their inspiration.

In New Musical Express, their interviews are replete with references to antecedents and contemporaries like the Velvet Underground, Creedence, the Monkees, Bob Dylan, the Modern Lovers, Television, Talking Heads, Orange Juice and later the Smiths.

Then you get Grant describing “Send Me a Lullaby” as a 1981 version of the Pixies.

There is nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleave. However, it was all too calculated.

hey seemed to be co-opting influences and piggy-backing their credibility to pursue their own musical and marketing goals.

The band was a chameleon that would change its description of itself and its music to suit the fashion at the time.

Unfortunately, this practice continued the whole way through their career, far beyond the point when any fan would have expected them to have transcended their influences.

Ultimately, there was always an underlying suspicion that they might be making calculated, derivative music, all the time playing some arch join the dots critical game.

That Striped Sunlight Sound

One way they attempted to escape this lack of critical language for their own music was to coin the phrase “That Striped Sunlight Sound”.

It was as evocative of a Queensland upbringing as “Cattle and Cane”.

However, even this phrase is derivative of Bob Dylan’s description of his own music as “that wild mercury sound”, right down to the book-ending of the phrase with the words “that” and “sound”.

Again, they co-opted Dylan and his credibility for their own devices.

No doubt, there’s supposed to be an element of irony in this process. However, ultimately, the constancy of their self-mythologising moved beyond irony into a conscious modus operandi.

Their self-referentialism had become part of a highly deliberate marketing strategy designed to achieve success, at least critical success with the opinion-shapers in the UK music press.

Robert and Grant, always capable of literate criticism themselves, were crafting a critical framework for others to use when talking or writing about their music.

Perhaps, they were being too crafty for their own good.

It wasn’t just funny. They were being overtly manipulative as well. Pretty soon, it just wasn’t funny anymore.

Fortunately, for sympathisers, the music was still there to speak for itself.

Retro Chic Threads

Throughout the 70’s, Robert and Grant adopted the casual sub-hippy surfie dude garb of the sub-tropical uni student.

They didn’t stand out in Brisbane, but ultimately they did when they arrived in London in the wake of punk rock.

Just as post-punk music had become post-modernist, street fashions appropriated second hand and retro clothing.

You shopped in second-hand stores. You wore coats and trousers with cuffs. You avoided labels and marques. It was a proto-No Logo movement.

Oxfam chic was everywhere, at least in London. In Brisbane, it was to become Salvo chic.

While Grant always maintained a casual elegance, Robert identified with the suits.

He never quite managed to look like a businessman. Instead, he hinted more at the colonial man of leisure, a Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene striding up the stairs of Raffles in Singapore in search of his first gin and tonic of the day.

That Andy Warhol Persona

The Go-Betweens were always heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground, at least musically.

However, one way or another, exposure to the Velvets meant exposure to Andy Warhol as well.

If the Velvets were to be a musical inspiration, then Warhol was to be the source of some of the Go-Betweens’ visual style.

For a time, Robert mimicked Warhol’s silver grey hair colour, apparently adding age to the seriousness of his demeanour.

He was creating an authorial presence separately from his music and lyrics.

That Dandy from Down Under

The clothes and the persona meant that Robert had embarked on another journey away from the social and cultural confines of Brisbane.

The man himself was becoming a fabrication, a construct, a work of art, not just on stage, but on the street as well.

The visual persona was a conscious attempt to define not just a “look”, but a sense of perfection.

The self-referentialism of the Go-Betweens had become a self-infatuation.

Although Robert started wearing dresses in private and public, it wasn’t necessarily sexual, it stopped short of gay. It was an attempt by a Brisbane boy to live life as art.

Unfortunately, it was a strategy that would be trapped in its own artifice. It was an affectation, evidence that Robert’s vanity was pushing too hard.

He was no longer just an upstart. He was becoming a poseur, a dandy, a latter day Beau Brummell.

This social style is still quite unfamiliar to most people, including those in the music scene.

In the form of camp, it might be more familiar in theatre, film and comedy, which are more tolerant of artifice.

However, it’s more difficult to get away with it in the audience for indie-oriented rock music.

If it’s difficult anywhere in the world, it’s even more difficult in Australia and Brisbane.

Here, we have finely-tuned bullshit detectors that can spot pretension at 40 paces. We are deeply suspicious of anything that doesn’t appear to be authentic.

If Robert wasn’t careful, this preoccupation with self could come across as superior and condescending to those around him.

There was too much risk that the former private school boy might be construed as a snob.

Those Striped Sunlight Disciples

The Go-Betweens quickly generated an informal fan club, some of whom would form bands that copied and in some cases bettered the Go-Betweens sound (e.g., the Four Gods).

These fans were sensitive new age guys, even before the term had been invented.

They studied creative design or architecture. They were influenced by movements from around the world and they dreamed of leaving Brisbane and exploring that world.

The example of the Go-Betweens showed that you could dream these dreams and that they could take you overseas, even if commercial success still managed to elude you.

The Quest for Fame and Fortune

Robert and Grant were role models that encouraged another generation to create, when everywhere else you looked Brisbane seemed to be a teenage wasteland.

Nevertheless, the existence of the disciples validated and perpetuated the myths that the Go-Betweens had generated themselves.

Because someone believed them, they continued to believe their own publicity.

They never had to do a reality check and adjust the controls in their quest for fame and fortune.

Ultimately, their real quest was fame and fortune, not music.

Music was just the vehicle for achieving a more important goal.

Despite the quality of their music, they might have failed in their real quest, perhaps because they tried too hard.

Their music was precious, but ultimately its makers were a little too precious in how they went about achieving their goals.