How to collect pop music from down under, part four: the indie course

This is when I will admit, upfront, that I am bound to miss a lot of names here. As we shift our focus to Australia’s indie scene, I will admit that I didn’t quite know where to start, in part because this was my entry point to the country’s music, after over a decade of listening, on and off, to Triple J. The radio station is an important factor in unearthing (yes, that is a pun) a lot of Aussie talent from the underground scenes of the capital cities, and later the whole nation, and bringing them to the forefront, just as these bands began to explore all the new styles coming out of the US and the UK. Outside of the pub rock that the more prominent rock bands of the time were peddling, the influence of punk and its offshoots were moving a lot of bands to directions nobody had imagined before.

But unlike with their more mainstream counterparts, Australian indie were decidedly based on their local scenes. The support of local underground press outfits and community radio stations provided, and continues to provide, a vital link between burgeoning acts to the more national presence provided by bigger radio networks. The Internet may have shortened the trail, but for the most part this infrastructure still remains.

 

Australia’s contribution to the development of punk rock is often overlooked, perhaps because the pull of the side stories of their American and British counterparts are irresistible. But two bands critical to the genre’s development were bubbling down under just as it began swinging in the United States, and before it would explode in the United Kingdom.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Saints is how they came out of Brisbane, which at the time was exceedingly conservative compared to Sydney and Melbourne – unlike those two cities pub rock was having difficulty because bands were not allowed to play those pubs in the first place. Formed in 1973, they developed and pioneered what would become punk’s defining sound: fast tempos, rowdy vocals, and a distinct guitar style. The release of “(I’m) Stranded” in 1976 proved to be their breakthrough: the success of that single saw them move to Sydney, and later to the UK, where they resisted being shoehorned into the stereotypical punk fashion of the time. Creative difficulties resulting from that natural tendency to resist – their 1978 album Eternally Yours was an explicit rebuke to typical punk, particularly with their inclusion of a brass section in some songs – led them to split, with leader Chris Bailey continuing under the name and with different line-ups.

Their contemporaries are Radio Birdman, who emerged from Sydney inspired both by early American punk and the nascent art rock scene coming from New York. Their defiant stance against the usual got them critical acclaim and adoring audiences, but they were ignored by mainstream outfits. Difficulty in distribution – their acclaimed album Radios Appear set the template for how bands would distribute their material – disenchantment with the violence emerging from the rise of punk in the country, and squabbling between the members led to their split in 1978. By then both bands had already set the template for the explosion of indie in Australia, influencing not just punk bands but everybody else in between. (And, unlike the Saints, Radio Birdman would reunite sporadically, beginning in 1996.)

 

By the 1980s things seemed more favorable for Australia’s indie acts. The punk movement had settled down, with new wave knocking on doors, while the infrastructure for exposing new acts – Triple J, Countdown – were firmly in place. More importantly, these bands were more welcome internationally, with American music programmers looking for new material as MTV and college radio stations boomed. One such act that saw popularity around the world is Hoodoo Gurus, which was formed in Sydney in 1981, but can trace its origin to two iconic punk bands from Perth, the Victims and the Scientists.

“My Girl”, released in 1983, proved to be their breakthrough, leading the band to tour the United States for the first time. Their sound would evolve alongside their line-up: by the release of their 1985 album Mars Needs Guitars! only Dave Faulkner remained from the original line-up, and the band began moving towards a more pop-oriented sound, leading to singles such as “What’s My Scene?” and the surprise American hit “Come Anytime”. Still they kept their reputation for sharp lyrics and interesting arrangements, a reputation that carried them through their hiatus in 1998 through to their reunion in 2003.

 

Another band that attempted to make it big outside Australia is the Go-Betweens, founded in Brisbane by Robert Forster and Grant McClellan in 1977. Coming out at the tail-end of the punk era, the band fused a pop sensibility with influences from the art rock movement that was taking hold at the tail-end of the decade. Like most of their contemporaries, the band was popular amongst the underground crowd and saw critical national exposure through the music show Countdown, but was largely ignored by mainstream outfits. They saw some success in the United Kingdom, however; the band first tried their luck there in 1979 and later moved to London full-time, where they evolved their sound towards a more polished offering. This culminated in 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane, home to their signature hit “Streets of Your Town”. Disappointed with their lack of a bigger breakthrough – a fact often lamented by critics today – the band split a year later.

As Australian music went in transition in the 1980s, and with bigger acts like AC/DC and INXS making headway abroad, many other bands tried their luck in foreign shores. One success is the Church, who saw their single “Under the Milky Way” become a top 40 hit in the United States – although they would fade into obscurity (or cult status, depending on who’s asking) shortly after. Another is, well, Nick Cave, whose career we’ve documented a few weeks ago. (A word here about Melbourne: their indie scene zags when everybody else zigs. Just listen to how much more eclectic their community stations, 3RRR and 3PBS, are.) By the 1990s, and the explosion of alternative rock into the mainstream, bands like Silverchair and the Living End were making waves abroad, but other bands of a more indie persuasion – Something for Kate, Jebediah, Regurgitator – established a presence in their home country.

 

And then things get crazy. I told you, I’m bound to miss some acts, while some others, I have long scheduled to write about in the next three installments. By the 2000s what we call “indie” has come to cover many genres, to the point that we continue to grapple with what it really means in the first place. In Australia, indie rock and pop acts began to cover a lot of ground, from the bouncy pop of San Cisco, to the brooding anthems of the Temper Trap, to the revivalist nature of the Preatures and Courtney Barnett. (May I also put a word in to the many female indie acts in Australia these days? Sure, some can point the finger at how the supposed liberal bias of the ABC – and the so-dominant-it-can-make-or-break-acts Triple J – means it pays more lip service to female representation, but I like what I am hearing.)

Tame Impala is one of the most important indie acts to come out from down under in the past decade. Originally (and still is, in studio form) a project from multi-instrumentalist and producer Kevin Parker, they have helped bring psychedelic rock back to the forefront, with the success of 2010 debut album Innerspeaker and the subsequent Grammy nominations of follow-up albums Lonerism and Currents. Inspired both by the psychedelic movement and more straightforward 70s pop – he cites Supertramp as an inspiration – Kevin has also brought his talent as a producer, working for the likes of Pond (where he was a drummer at one point) as well as international acts like Kanye West, the Flaming Lips and Melody’s Echo Chamber.

 

On the other end of the indie spectrum is Sarah Blasko, who herself admits she stumbled into music by accident; she always thought it’d be her sister who’d pursue a musical career. Raised by Christian missionaries and exposed to music in church, she and her sister Kate joined the band Acquiesce in the mid-1990s, before joining short-lived acoustic project Sorija. By 2002 she was performing solo, with her debut EP Prelusive quickly gaining attention because of her songwriting and her vocals. Her breakthrough came with the 2009 album As Day Follows Night, which saw a step forward musically as well as thematically. Her later work would see her explore jazz and a bit of new wave, even, while still keeping the vulnerability in her lyrics.

Australian indie would see a lot of singer-songwriters whose influences go from the rock scenes of past decades to the quieter but similarly more potent country scene. Again, we’d write about that in the coming weeks, but if you think back to the likes of Holly Throsby, Jen Cloher, Kate Miller-Heidke and Mia Dyson, there is a rawness that you don’t often hear in heavier bands – but then, that’s the dual nature of Australian music coming in once again. And also the genre-bending nature of it, judging from how many acts I’d normally call “indie” will be appearing in next week’s installment, which is decidedly, well, clubby. [NB]

 

[Next week: Australia loves a party, so we dive into the dance and electronic scene.]

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