Monday, 14 September 2009

Mint Custard's Australian Top 40 Countdown: 4

So here we are, the toppermost of the poppermost of the Mint Custard Australian Music Top 40 countdown. I'm sure many of you will have tutted away in despair over the past 10 days. Maybe you'll finally find something to smile about in the list below - I know I do.

10. The Court of King Caractacus - Rolf Harris (1964) - much beloved in Britain, Rolf Harris has long been the man who put the cringe in cultural cringe for many Australians. In all my time here I've only met two or three people who can tolerate him in any way, much less like him. Rolf is one of this countries tallest poppies and yet he has done more to share the wonders of Australia to the world than any other entertainer. Pre-Neighbours, Rolf was the first contact most British kids had with Australia. He painted bush landscapes and cockatoos, played the didge and music sticks. He sang about kangaroos and Darwin and Jindabyne and the Six White Boomers that pull Father Christmas around down here. Eye-opening stuff when you're six. For me, Rolf is a formidable entertainer. He may be an embarrassing older uncle to some Australians, but to others he's a tour de force - an 80 year old tornado that never stops moving and giving his all. He's been on TV for almost 50 years bringing music and art (and a few sick kittens) to the masses. I got his autograph once, back in the UK, but more importantly I finally got to see him play last year at the Sydney Opera House. It was a beautiful summer's evening and he played everything that I wanted to hear - including a snippet of the Court of King Caractacus - and as I looked at the stage I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps this was the guy who started me out on the path to this country in the first place.

9. Demon Days – Robert Forster (2008) - from wonder to heartbreak with a devastatingly beautiful song for a fallen comrade. Demon Days is taken from The Evangelist, Robert Forster's first solo album after the unexpected death of his fellow Go-Between Grant McLennan in 2006 aged just 49. Some of the songs on the Evangelist (including this one) were written by Forster and McLennan for what should have been the Go-Betweens' next album, so whilst Grant doesn't appear in person his spirit is all over Robert's finest solo album. The song Demon Days is affecting enough without the eerie foretelling in the lyrics that 'something's not right, something's gone wrong' or that 'fingers of fate, stretch out and take'. Forster has stated that it's the more jaunty It Ain't Easy which was written explicitly as a tribute to his late partner but the whole of the Evangelist, and especially Demon Days, is a beautiful last stand bugle call for a wonderful man.

8. Come to My Senses – M. Craft (2004) or Martin as his mum calls him... and probably Jarvis Cocker whose band Mr Craft seems to have become a member of since moving to England from his native Canberra. As nice as that must be, personally I'm keen to hear some new music from Martin himself, who briefly threatened to become Australia's answer to Elliott Smith with the 2004 EP I Can See It All Tonight and 2006 full length Silver and Fire. Come to My Senses is a gently-rollicking, shuffling, slightly funky number with layers of vocals and a guitar which echoes Edwin Collins' A Girl Like You - and I've probably still sold it short. You'll have to seek out the I Can See It All Tonight EP to hear it, but for a nice M.Craft taster why not watch the clip for Sweets featuring another lovely Australian export, Rose Byrne.

7. Stop Go – The Tranquilizers (2004) or the self proclaimed laziest band in Melbourne. I saw this scuzzy Australian / New Zealand combo supporting somebody I've long forgotten in Sydney and was taken enough to buy their self titled EP on which Stop Go appears. Their detached, organ-driven sound isn't wholly original, but if you want your rock infused with the ghosts of the Velvet Underground, Clinic, the Charlatans, Spiritualized and drenched in the cool of the Jesus and Mary Chain then this is your song. I played my Dad it yesterday and even he liked it - so keep an eye out for it in second hand shops.

6. Sleep Foreverthe redsunband (2004) – yes, another song from 2004; I was surprised myself. For much of that period the Sydney band scene seemed to be about which bunch of pretty boys with guitars would make it first. Much glee then in the fact that the decade's best guitar tune came from the redsunband, a girl-boy-girl dream-pop trio fronted by Sarah Kelly - the diminutive indie sauce-pot that Natalie Imbruglia wants to be. Sleep Forever is a dreamy, sexy, spiky two minute gem without an ounce of fat in its skinny jeans. It has nods to Cat Power and Elastica and yet manages to be more discrete in it's pilfering than Justine Frischmann's former band. When they visited our radio show they came on matching red bicycles which was a nice touch. More power to bands on bikes, I say.

5. The E.L.F – Cockroaches (2008) - when I said that I would only allow one song per artist in this Top 40, I hope I was clear that I didn't include solo careers of people in bands. No? Bugger... well anyway... consider this my first cheat and be warned that it won't be the last... but it's worth it because The E.L.F (aka Gerling's Darren Cross) is worth his place for this hugely catchy indie-dance number about insect infestation, breakfast and genocide. Musically influenced by the lo-fi aesthetic of Cornershop's 1997 album When I was Born for the 7th Time, the beauty of Cockroaches lies in Darren's genial acceptance of his lot amongst his insect invaders. Meanwhile, the video is another piece of lo-fi gold. It allegedly cost $12 which - considering its 250,000 hits on You Tube - must make Kanye's record company weep. Mind you, Kanye still hasn't recorded anything this good either...

4. Know Your Product – The Saints (1978) I'm conscious as I run out of places on this list that there are some Australian bands that I know I will like when I get to hear more of them. David McCombs' The Triffids are one, Radio Birdman another. Ten years is not enough to absorb everything one country has to offer and I'm sure if I repeat this process in a decade this list will look a bit different. And yet some bands leap out of jukeboxes and off the pages of rock encyclopedias in a way that makes you sit up and take notice, even 35 years on. Brisbane's The Saints are one of those bands, one of Australia's holy of holies whose influence is so big that they have a rightful claim to have developed the sound which the Clash and the Sex Pistols took to the masses as punk. I'm Stranded remains their most famous song, but it's Know Your Product - the lead track from their sophomore album - that gets me dancing. With its huge brass riff married to Stooges guitars, Know Your Product leaves behind the punk sound to foreshadow Dexy's Midnight Runners' Searching for the Young Soul Rebels worldview. Vocalist Chris Bailey's delivery also sounds like it made an impression on a young Mark E Smith as he was putting together the Fall's first long player. Maybe the Saints will never be recognised outside of these shores, but those who know know something very special indeed. Do the Professor!

3. Run DNA – the Avalanches - (1997) Ah, the Avalanches, a band whose last album was so glorious that they haven’t felt the need to release even a hint of a follow up for over eight years - a work rate that makes the Stone Roses and Elastica look like sweat shop employees. 2000’s sampladelic Since I Left You, its title track and UK top ten single Frontier Psychiatrist marked the end of a remarkable period for Melbourne’s premier genre-destroying party band during which they went from indie-hopefuls to Madonna-sampling remixers to the stars. In this time they almost single-handedly invented the mash-up, redefined live hip-hop shows and gave Australian dance music a much needed kick up the arse. But it all started with 1997’s El Producto - the sound of Odelay-era Beck, Hello Nasty Beastie Boys and the Lo-Fidelity Allstars emerging triumphant from the carnage of a three-truck pile up, standing on the roofs of their flaming, twisted vehicles, plugging in their instruments and playing an impromptu party to passers-by whilst they wait for the rescue crews. Run DNA (or the ‘it’s in my backpack’ song) is just one piece of sheer brilliance El Producto has to offer, but it’s also my favourite. If you get time have a look at their performance on the ABC’s Recovery and understand why, at least in this corner of the world, we’re holding our breath for their return.

2. Surfing Magazines – the Go-Betweens (2000) A dear friend of mine who is an artist once told me she loves watching people age or (as she put it) 'growing into their faces'. She thinks that some people only blossom when time starts etching lines onto their youthful features. As vain as I am I do think there is some truth in this. Youth usually wins the PR battle, but there are little things worth shouting about as you get older.

For example, it seems like no matter where you start, the playing field has a way of levelling out. High achievers and those with better things to do eventually meet somewhere on common ground where school grades and university degrees don’t matter anymore. Similarly, those of us wracked with adolescent angst for our pimpled faces and dimpled bottoms find ways to survive until we meet other beautiful dimply, pimply types and realise that life isn’t so bad after all. Over time things that are good and important become clearer and, with practice, the horrid and the trivial can be put in their place. They don’t really explain these things at school.

I pontificate thus, because when I think of the Go-Betweens – and specifically founder members Robert Forster and Grant McLennan – they remind me (and forgive the Hallmark sentimentality here) that great art and beauty are ageless.

My introduction to the Go-Betweens was via their first post-reformation album, The Friends of Rachel Worth. For me this meant I had no expectations for them to live up to. When I saw them live I wasn’t hankering for Spring Rain or Cattle and Cane. I was quietly pleased that they played most of the new album because I loved it to death. Most of all I remember Robert – an imposing figure at the best of times; equal parts toreador, dandy and RAF pilot – running around the drum riser for at least five laps at the end of the gig with an energy that belied both his age and gentlemanly demeanour.

The decision to get back together as the Go-Betweens after a ten year hiatus cannot have been easy. Few reformed bands ever make music worthy of their history – even the commercially successful ones. Ageing musicians assure us that they have become more technically accomplished these days and that their next release is their finest work. Yet all too often we end up with a highly polished turd and turn back to their older records that we grew up with.

The Friends of Rachel Worth is the antidote to ageing rocker syndrome. Musically it’s deliciously light and spacious; lyrically as deep as the ocean and as funny as Peter Cook. Without knowing, it would be hard to guess it was the work of a band who disbanded after 12 frustrating years without a bona fide hit, despite being one of the greatest bands - perhaps the greatest - that Australia has produced. Surfing Magazines is Forster's nostalgic paean to innocent youthful kicks and Australia’s best surfing beaches. The topic, delivery and sing-a-long da dah da dah refrain would be wrong from any other band, but in the hands of two men with this much warmth, talent and a point to prove it can't help but feel just right.

We got the Go-Betweens for another six years during which they recorded two more wonderful albums, and with 2005's Ocean's Apart, finally received some of the recognition they deserved. Their decision to go one more time around the block vindicated, it's a relaxed Grant and Robert that feature on their Striped Sunlight Sound DVD playing back through their catalogue on acoustic guitars in McLennan's house and telling the stories of the songs. Much like Johnny Cash's disintegrating voice added gravitas to his American Recordings, so the dry humour, Australian imagery, nostalgia and poetry that infuses their work seemed more appropriate delivered by the middle aged Go-Betweens, as if this was the age they were always meant to be.

With McLennan's death we were all robbed, none more so than Forster who seemed to be finding a new stride. Still, I'm thankful for having seen them at all and even more grateful to them for proving that if you wait long enough, everyone gets their moment in the (striped) sun.

1. There She Goes, My Beautiful World - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (2004)

And so we come to the end, but what a glorious way to finish. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds may seem a rather obvious choice – even if they don’t actually live in Australia - but this was a surprise to me. If I’m honest I truly thought that the Go-Betweens were a shoe-in for the top spot when I first started. I have a few Bad Seeds albums, but I’m no obsessive. Yet this list is about songs and when push comes to shove There She Goes, My Beautiful World inhabits a special place in my head.

Taken from their 2004 (that year again) magnum opus
Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, TSGMBW has more angles than an Escher painting. It is simultaneously a treaty on the relationship between artist and muse, a plea to the heavens for inspiration, a call to arms for underachievers, a doffing of the cap to famous writers in history and a love song to life itself.

Cave’s lyrics are perfection. He’s both egotistical (
I will ask for nothing but everlasting life), reverential (John Wilmot penned his poetry riddled with the pox, Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote Chinese Rocks) and playful (you weren't much of a muse, but then I weren't much of a poet). Elsewhere there are more references to trials and tribulations that faced other writers (Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital, And Gauguin, he buggered off, man, and went all tropical) and even a cute slap down of the town where I was born (Philip Larkin stuck it out in a library in Hull) which leaves me more honoured for the mention than offended.

Ultimately Cave is dissecting his writers block (
me, I'm lying here, for what seems years, I'm just lying on my bed with nothing in my head) and with that knowledge even the title seems to take on new meaning and increased desperation with every repeat: wonderment (there she goes, my beautiful world!), frustration (there she goes, my beautiful world), and finally anguish (there she goes!) Cave urges others to not to succumb to his fate (if you got a trumpet, get on your feet, brother, and blow it!) and, anxious to capture something – anything - he can before it’s too late, begs for help from some higher being (send that stuff on down to me!)

Musically, it is breathless stuff; rollicking, thunderous, highly emotional. Cave’s voice rises and falls across every chapter and sub-chapter, occasionally turning words into howls. You can almost sense his total physical collapse by the end. He’s backed by a celestial sounding choir and the Bad Seeds at full pelt, urging him on with a cacophony designed to wake the Gods. In short, it is ace. Watch this video of the Cave-ster live on Later. You’ll be glad you did.

So there you go. Ten years, forty songs. Hardly representative of a country but representative of the time I’ve spent here. Thanks for reading through and feel free to suggest any of your favourites that you think I might like. Might I suggest that you don’t bother with any Hilltop Hoods or AC/DC though – there should be enough clues above – but I do love a good recommendation if you’ve got one.

Right, that's that. I’m off for a cheese and vegemite sandwich. TTFN.

1 comment:

thehipkat said...

very impressive list that, even helping to fill some gaps as i've gone the other way and been in the northern hemisphere for almost 10 years.

might i suggest you sample some Bluebottle Kiss, particularly their 99-ish album Patient.

and early Magic Dirt.

oh, and Sandpit.

rock on,