REMEMBERING THE FUTURE
PUBLISHED IN RIOT MAGAZINE ON THE OCCASION OF THE RELEASE OF A NEW EDITION OF INNER CITY SOUND IN 2005. AS THE MAGAZINE'S SUB-HEAD PUT IT, "CLINTON WALKER RECALLS HOW HIS 'INFAMOUS PUNK DIATRIBE' ORIGINALLY CAME ABOUT - AND WHY IT HAD TO COME OUT AGAIN"
‘Tipping point’ is the new way of putting it. The title of American writer Malcolm Gladwell’s million-selling 2000 book is now an understood part of global infojargon, Gladwell himself a sage on the corporate speaking circuit, telling the white collar careerists and marketeers how they can get ahead of the curve.
Gladwell’s theories are founded in the currently fashionable science of ‘memesis’, the idea that an idea can behave like a virus, spreading from a very small beginning. “The word comes from epidemiology,” Gladwell says. “It’s the name given to that moment when a virus reaches boiling point.” What he’s saying is a bit like the old adage about ideas whose time has come, the mark of which is when different people in different places start thinking the same thing at the same time. As John Coltrane, the Johnny Rotten of Free Jazz, said in 1964, “I don’t think people are necessarily copying me. In any art, there may be certain things in the air at certain times… a number of people may reach the same end by making a similar discovery at the same time.”
That’s what punk was like too: In 1977 – the tipping point – tiny clusters of people all round the world took a leap, or were propelled into broader consciousness, under the common rubric of punk rock.
Having myself been directly caught up in the Australian arm of this music uprising, starting some of the first local fanzines and quickly becoming an enfant terrible critic writing for the Big 3 Rs of the Australian rock press at the time (RAM, Rolling Stone and Roadrunner), in 1981 I edited my first book Inner City Sound. Inner City Sound was effectively just a scrapbook of those early years of the Australian punk/post-punk underground, which paved the way world-wide for indie/alternative rock to follow and produced such seminal names as the Saints and Ed Kuepper, Radio Birdman, Nick Cave and the Birthday Party, the GoBetweens, Triffids, Scientists, Sunnyboys, X, Severed Heads, Thought Criminals, SPK – the list could go on…
On the GoBetweens’ current, tenth album Oceans Apart, Robert Forster sings a song called “Darlinghurst Nights,” in which he returns to those heady days of the early 80s. We all have our own versions of history. In many ways I consider myself lucky just to have come out of it all in one piece.
Inner City Sound was a compendium of reprinted real-time articles and photos that, now I look back on it, was a sort of personal-prehistory-as-it-happened of a cultural revolution whose do-it-yourself egalitarianism changed not just rock but everything in popular culture.
The punk cipher reinvented a future for rock in the late 70s, and it might only be now that Australia’s getting due credit for its role in that process. This was a big part of what motivated me back when: You always heard about all the English and American bands – but what about the Australian bands?! It’s still going on now – most pop histories are English and America-centric, with Australia as persona non grata, even if the Australian stuff was always as good if not better; even if our prime progenitors, the Big 3 as I saw them – Nick Cave, Ed Kuepper and the GoBetweens – have had the legs not only to outlast their first-generation contemporaries overseas (Johnny Rotten anyone? or Richard Hell or Tom Verlaine? or the Damned?) but also go way beyond the local industry’s then-favoured pub rockers like Jimmy Barnes.
What happened to me was, in high school in Brisbane’s western suburbs in the early 70s, I met a teenage band (then) called Kid Galahad and the Eternals. This band soon morphed into the Saints. Perhaps because he’s an Imperial inferior himself, Bob Geldoff once put the non-myopic view, that music was changed by three bands – “the Ramones, Sex Pistols and Saints.”
Before anything else – sooner than it was ‘political’ – punk was an aesthetic revolution, a rejection of the bland, burnt-out afterlife of the 60s, which in the mid-70s still spread out over rock like a wet blanket. After the fall of glam, everything went West Coast. 1972 was a great time to be fifteen, but being eighteen in 1975 sucked. It was all Supertramp, Peter Frampton and the Eagles. Disco was never the enemy.
Punk was the great confluence. Rock went back to the garage to unlearn all the bullshit it had become, to reconnect with its grass roots: This was the origin of its central do-it-yourself philosophy.
In Australia, it was prefigured not single-handedly but as a sort of one-two punch, in the form of the Saints and Radio Birdman, who were both extant as early as 1974. By 1977 – the year we fought the big one, as Nick Cave once joked – I’d already seen first-hand how the Saints went from would-be neighbourhood threat to a real band with a recording contract with EMI and getting flown over to London.
Any plans I might have had (or that my parents had!) for my life were immediately, completely derailed. I wasn’t going to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to at least be an eye-witness to a revolution. I quit the advertising job I’d just started in Brisbane and drove my dying Cortina down to Melbourne to start up a fanzine with my brother Bruce Milne, called Pulp. In a big way, that’s where Inner City Sound began.
By 1979, Pulp was already dying out (after a mere four issues), superseded by a new national monthly called Roadrunner that Bruce had gone over to Adelaide to help Stuart Coupe and Donald Robertson launch. By 1980, I’d moved up to Sydney and Bruce back to Melbourne, to launch his label Au-Go-Go. I could now get stuff in the three nationals, though their covers still tended to be square; say, I remember RAM running Richie Blackmore.
It was still very much us-against-them. The unpassable line along Cleveland Street, as Roger Grierson put it, was quite real. Growing out from the fifth issue of Pulp that had never been printed, Inner City Sound was conceived as much as anything as a riposte to, first of all, the idea that inner city music couldn’t cross over to the suburbs or major labels; that, say, Nick Cave couldn’t be as likely an icon as Jimmy Barnes or Peter Garrett. It’s hard to convey now the degree of fear and loathing the established Australian music industry felt for us punk upstarts (easy to forget that Midnight Oil started out as a Yes/Jethro Tull/Genesis covers band). But maybe the fact that, as history now tells us, Saint Nick had to go into exile before he was accepted at home (as did quite a few others), goes some way to illustrating the point.
The second big thing the book set against was the idea that all the action in the punk/post-punk eruption happened in England and America. Which, again, I think time has completely disproved.
Long before the internet and instant and virtually unlimited access, when fanzines and notes on record shop notice boards were the cutting edge of communication, Australia’s isolation, tiny population and record company conservatism might have conspired to impede our music. But in another way, those factors might also have helped succour a certain maverick spirit. It’s this spirit, I reckon, that pervades the best Australian post-punk, pre-‘indie’/‘alternative’ rock.
From a tipping point in 1977/’78, punk exploded out in a myriad of different directions. That’s why the term ‘post-punk’ had to be invented, and why I applied it to Inner City Sound – because it was a non-pejorative catch-all that suggested only a follow-on. After punk gave rock the flushing out it so desperately needed, this getting back to ground zero, in effect, merely provided a place for rock to re-start from again. I mean, why get back to ground zero for no reason other than to stay there? That’s why the idea of punk as a generic term, as in the Mokhawk’n’Doc Martens caricature, or even according to the Ramones’ ideal blueprint, is to me inadequate at best and at worst misses the whole point.
‘New wave’ was but one of post-punk’s sub-genres, its commercial end (the term devised by the big American record companies to sell acts like Blondie, the Pretenders, the Clash and the B-52s). Otherwise, post-punk could mean – almost anything! – country-rock! jazz-funk! whatever, just do it yourself! The inner-city indie ghetto – which it wasn’t really at the time, but was becoming – was in fact a ferment of opposing factions, splinter genres and star-crossed loyalties (not to mention bed-hopping and before long, sadly, needle-sharing too).
I remember the time I put Inner City Sound together. It was 1981 and I was living in a big share house in Woomerah Avenue, Darlinghurst. They were great days, the last sunny days, I see now, of a certain innocence in my life. The book was possible because a lot of people shared my belief in it, and in the music, and they gave to the Cause. That’s what it was all about. It wasn’t about career or money – it was about art and glamour. We were all kids.
But even then the scene was riven by more factions, and factions within factions, than the NSW ALP. First of all, there was the Saints and Radio Birdman duality, and like the Beatles and the Stones, Holden and Ford, you had to be on one side or the other. There was the usual Sydney-Melbourne rivalry, and Melbourne had north and south of the river too. The Saints held sway in Melbourne as well as Brisbane. To Sydney’s dominant ‘Detroit’ crowd, Melbourne bands like the Boys Next Door were ‘hairdressers’; to us acolytes of ‘arty punk’, the ‘Detroit’ Sound was meat and potatoes at best and pure hambone at worst. There’s still hard rockers from those days who shudder at the mere mention of the GoBetweens’ name, as if softness is the ultimate sin. I still don’t get that. Of course, now that I can enjoy the luxury of hindsight, I see some things differently, and indeed, as much as Inner City Sound causes me pride (for the impact it did have), it also causes me embarrassment. I cringe now at the shrillness of my prose, the sternness of my judgements, the incoherence of many of my arguments. I read some things and think, What was I thinking? I listen to some of the records again and think, I got that one wrong!
A few years ago when Radio Birdman first re-formed to play the Big Day Out, I read an interview in which guitarist Deniz Tek railed: “Did Clinton Walker write Inner City Sound? He has always been biased against us and for the Saints to the point of gross journalistic dishonesty. A pitiful fellow.” I could hardly blame him. I had no concept of objectivity. Even while there is an intellectual basis to Inner City Sound, I allowed my emotions, personal taste and allegiances to run all over it.
But then I look at other things and think, Gee, I was on the money there! Finally I’ve realised that that volatility, that character, is the book’s strength and its weakness, and so certainly, as the idea of getting it out again came up (and, significantly, not from an Australian publisher, but Verse Chorus Press in the US), I decided I didn’t want to tamper with it, to indulge in revisionism, but rather leave it exactly as was, warts and all.
It was with mixed feelings, then, that I started work on preparing the new edition. It’s sobering to flick through it now – what a sea of faces! – and count the casualties. I don’t mean, say, a Jeremy Oxley, who tragically succumbed to schizophrenia long before Sunnyboys songs were licensed for car ads. Drugs and bitterness were much more lethal, and killed in equal portions.
One of the rewards of doing this new edition was getting back in touch with people who in some cases I hadn’t spoken to for twenty years. Many of the original contributors, the writers and photographers, like many of the musicians, remain among my oldest friends; many of them have gone on to distinguished careers. Some people are no longer with us. I remember, for example, Graham Aisthorpe, who gave so much before he gave his life in 1988. Or, say, Francine McDougall, who was my regular photographer partner in the 80s and who is now arguably the most successful Aussie in Aussiewood that Aussieland itself has never heard of. I remember Marjorie and Kim, Debbie, Bertie – people came and went… But even the people who might have been lost in the times to me were universally enthusiastic about getting the book back in print. I owe them all a debt, and I only hope, to start with, that the book pays them a fitting tribute too.
I wasn’t there in January 1982 when the book was launched with a special Birthday Party/Hunters & Collectors/Pel Mel show that Ken West put on at Sydney Uni. I had already left for London, after getting the back half of my advance and copies of the book in early December, ’81.
I returned to Australia in 1983, rite of passage completed, and resumed what I’ve always thought of as my anti-career in writing. Already, Inner City Sound seemed light years away; now, it is half a lifetime.
Things were already very different in 1983, and within another year or so a whole new phase had begun. The definitions and delineations of the Australian music industry were finally shifting. Pub rock could now mean the Models, Hunters & Collectors, Hoodoo Gurus, even I’m Talking; ‘new wave’ trappings infected everything except Cold Chisel. Video came in. The mainstream recognised its antipathy towards independent/post-punk music was not in its own best interest – it saw that it could be a feeder stream. By the early 90s, so-called grunge was so successful precisely because the big record companies got behind it, co-opting the indie imperative.
They say – another old adage – that pioneers get arrows in their backs. And/or that prophets are never recognised in their own land. It may be that Inner City Sound is still too ‘spiky’ for the mainstream. Certainly, to me, what I know was once seen as almost heretical revisionism-in-waiting now seems to be a pretty orthodox reading of Australian rock history. But still it feels bittersweet. I mean, I only hope now that my new new book, Golden Miles, won’t take quite so long to catch on.