If it wasn’t for Rhythms etc… thanks then to the mag and DES COWLEY for this amazing review of Stranded. I love the way Cowley so easily bats off the petty carping that still seems to haunt the book. The two main gripes were/are that a) the author himself is present as ‘I’ in the narrative, and b) the author’s choices, in terms of the emphases the book places. Well, umm, a) like you’ve never heard of the new journalism? and, umm, like, the author wasn’t a player in this story? The criticism was “outdated even” in 1996. And b) for most people who didn’t like my choices it was because they were my choices and not theirs (funny that); as Cowley says, “Walker mostly got things right. And if he stumbled now and again, it’s still the case he was streaks ahead of the pack when it came to grasping the magnitude of the moment.” With the surfeit of lauding/documentation on whether Nick Cave, the GoBetweens or the Triffids and others these days, it seems as if the world is finally catching up. But who else was suss/game enough to do it 25 years ago? Read it all:
Hard to believe it’s been 25 years since Clinton Walker first released Stranded, his classic account of the rise of Australian independent music from the mid-seventies to the early-nineties. Back then, Walker was not so much writing history as reporting from the trenches. The music scene, such as it was, was very much an amorphous jungle, spread across several states and cities, and the jury was still out as to which artists or bands were destined for immortality. Now, with a quarter-century’s hindsight, it’s far easier to delineate the era’s peaks and troughs. Reading Stranded today, it’s easy to see that Walker mostly got things right. And if he stumbled now and again, it’s still the case he was streaks ahead of the pack when it came to grasping the magnitude of the moment.
This new-look Stranded, sporting a malevolent Nick Cave on the cover, is billed as a revised and expanded edition. But rather than mess with the original book – which, after all, retains its own historical and artefactual validity – Walker has opted instead to incorporate new reflections by way of extended footnotes. This has enabled him to fill in gaps, update stories, correct errors, even confess the odd mea culpa (he concedes he never ‘got’ David Bridie’s not Drowning, Waving; still better late than never.)
Walker’s modus operandi for Stranded was influenced by the oral history approach adopted by books such as Jean Stein’s biography of Edie Sedgwick (1982) and Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming (1991). Having long been a part of the independent music scene as a journalist, Walker was well-placed to write about this music from the inside. Musicians, many of whom counted as friends, opened up freely, often with surprising candour, furnishing him with a rich chorus of voices from which to weave his narrative: Chris Bailey, Ed Kuepper, Rob Younger, Mick Harvey, Robert Forster, Lindy Morrison, Rowland Howard, Nick Cave, Dave Graney, Clare Moore, David McComb, Kim Salmon and many others.
Be warned: Walker namechecks innumerable bands throughout, many of whom have since fallen from grace. For some, their achievements amounted to the odd single release; for others, like the Primitive Calculators, they just never seemed to get their due. But out of the bustling, hectic, overcrowded tale materialises the larger-then-life heroes of Walker’s story: The Saints, Radio Birdman, Laughing Clowns, Go-Betweens, Birthday Party, Triffids, Scientists, Moodists, Beasts of Bourbon. It’s an enviable roster that reads like an alternative history of Australian music.
Walker structures the narrative year by year, taking as ground-zero the Saints’ debut single ‘I’m Stranded’, released on their own Fatal label in September 1976. When it comes to Australian independent music, ‘Stranded’ was the shot heard round the world. The following year saw both the Saints and Radio Birdman plying their trade in London, an all too familiar pattern repeated by the next wave of indie bands. Despite being treated as colonials, the Go-Betweens, Birthday Party and Moodists gradually built sizeable followings in Europe, even if they rarely saw a penny for their effort.
When Stranded was first released, Walker found himself on the receiving end of criticism for writing himself into the narrative. Such criticism seems outdated even then, given the so-called ‘new journalists’ like Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and Robert Christgau had been doing it for years. Walker’s proximity to his subjects is a fundamental strength of his book, feeding and nurturing his own musical vision. And while his book is mostly about the music, Stranded harbours an element of autobiography, in which he’s chasing down his own demons. By allowing himself a walk-on role, Walker openly declares his allegiences, planting his opinonated flag for all to see.
It’s a truism that no independent music scene operates in a vacuum. Aside from the artists, there are any number of small record labels, distributors, record shops, venues, radio stations, promoters, music press, fanzines, most of them galvanised more by enthusiasm than financial sense. In recognising these complex forces at work, Walker intentionally casts his net widely, detailing the critical role, among others, of labels like Missing Link, Au Go Go, Shock, Hot, Red Eye and rooArt.
Sticking to his strict definition of independent, Walker steers clear of major label activity that dominated Australian music during the period, much of it at the expense of the music he champions. Bands like Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel, INXS, all of whom benefited from major label support, have no place in his story. It is arguable that the vitality of the independent music scene, which flourished well away from the corporate glare, found itself galvanised by this very rejection. With nothing left to lose, artists manifested a fierce creativity when it came to making music.
By the early nineties, the landscape was in transition. The onslaught of international grunge finally made the powerbrokers sit up and take notice. It was clear there was money to be made from the independent scene and big record labels soon came courting. Today Nick Cave is an international icon, Tex Perkins graces our loungeroom guest-hosting RocKwiz, and everybody belatedly loves the Go-Betweens. The music Walker writes about, once marginal, is now centre stage. At the same time, many of the artists featured in this book have since departed: David McComb, Grant McLennan, Rowland Howard, Ian Rilen, Anita Lane for starters. His book is as much a paean to their spirited lives as anything else.
Most books on music tell a single story. Rarer are the ones that attempt to sum up an era. With Stranded, Clinton Walker sets his sights squarely on the latter, for the most part achieving his goal. Reading it is like watching a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle coming slowly into focus. A quarter-century on, it remains an essential touchstone charting Australia’s adventurous passage from punk to grunge.