The People’s Republic of Camperdown is a bit like Fight Club. First rule is: don’t put it on social media. The People’s Republic doesn’t use social media because it doesn’t have to. Because it operates at capacity and sometimes beyond as it is, putting on (let’s just call it) marginal music (for the moment) on an irregular regular basis, and if you want to know about it, if you need to know about it, it will find you, according to that great old leveller word of mouth, and if you go along you and the music will be the better for it.
I wanted to jot a few words on the Republic and its founding father Nick S here now because they just celebrated their tenth anniversary and that is really quite an astonishing feat that warrants at least these few thoughts for the record, even if they do nothing more make Nick feel a little bit of a warm glow. Not to my knowledge has the Republic ever enjoyed any media coverage. In ten years at the cutting edge! The only reason I haven't done it is because I gave up trying to get published in the mediocre mainstream more than two decades back.
The powers-that-be have systematically destroyed the Sydney live music circuit that, say, thirty years ago was the equal of any anywhere else in the world; the equal even of Melbourne today! Since then, it’s been a case of the death of a thousand cuts and many already know that story and certainly it’s outlined in the book I wrote for Currency Press in 2012, History is Made at Night, which of course was how I met the great good Nick in the first place, as he was the book’s editor.
Since then, when I ended that book on a note of cautious optimism, hoping that the powers-that-be would see the worth of live music, economically if not culturally, the situation’s only gotten worse. The lockout laws were introduced and that meant there was no more violence on the streets because there were no more people on the streets, at least after 8pm, by which time you were supposed to be safe at home tucked-in in bed in anticipation of going to Sunday school bright and early next morning. That’s what these right-wing, church-going prudes and wowsers have turned this once bustling, cosmopolitan city into.
Don’t be kidded that the rise of music festivals, at least up until recently, was any compensation either. I’ve got a whole theory that the festivalisation of music and culture is just another way for the Man to control it, to make culture state-sanctioned (because you can’t put on a festival without major leverage), and certainly, or surely anyone can see, if you cut off the roots the middle and upper echelons will wither. I’m watching it happen in my once-beloved AFL football (the decimation of the grass-roots game means the top level no longer has a feeder apart from privileged private schools) and it’s happened in music too. How come none of these PMS academics or worse still the people who once might have been entrepreneurs but are now bureaucrats who go to more conferences than gigs have sussed this? But maybe it’s not in their interest either, so long as they can keep writing papers on the problem and conducting studies into it, rather than actually doing anything about it.
Don’t be fooled by Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore either, with her spiky hair and dog collars suggesting a latent punkiness. All the rhetoric about small bars and even the reality of them means little to most music. I even go to them occasionally but me and only a dozen other people at any given time, because there’s no room for any more heads than that in these tiny places. Which means that only a particular type of music is encouraged, quiet acoustic solo singer/songwriters or small combo stuff, and means that there’s next to no money in it for the musicians either. But for music in between the small bars and what might once have been called the prestige, medium-sized club gigs like, say, the Metro in the city – and the Metro is about the only such gig in town anyway – for music that requires production that’s a mite bigger than a small bar can accommodate, and that attracts an audience that’s a mite bigger than a small bar can accommodate, where can it go? It and I and crowds go to the Marrickville Bowlo or the newly-reopened Lansdowne, but again, along with the OAF, that’s about it.
A seeming and reluctant roll-back on this draconian situation is of course only fuelled by money, the powers-that-be realising that there’s a buck in people going out at night (!), and that Sydney was starting to look like a complete joke, especially compared to Melbourne.
Yet even then the NSW state government's greed is still torn by its puritanism, and the festivals that have more recently flourished because they were all there is have been hammered by this drug-testing bullshit, which is probably no worse than the Bjelke-Petersonesque sniffer dogs that spoil a nice harmless beer-garden drink in Sydney at the best of times but still a total furphy and a travesty.
The Sydney Morning Herald is a culprit in this too. The Herald’s been going downhill for a long time but the timbre of this city is something it used to care about, used to run campaigns to protect, and it’s a travesty that none of its music writers or even Pascall Prize-winning urban affairs commentator Elizabeth Farrelly have offered much more than lip-service on the subject. Pathetic. And I can’t see the Herald improving under its new ownership.
But then, who reads newspapers any more anyway?
Just as, who wants to go see lame rock bands any more either?
Which might bring us back around – you may breathe a sigh of relief – to the real subject here: A celebration of the People’s Republic of Camperdown. Having put it in context, it is a small but big kick against the major prick that is this city’s current cultural landscape.
As ever, what does the real culture do when it’s squeezed out of more open conduct?
It goes underground.
That’s what the young people have done, with ‘illegal’ warehouse gigs and moveable raves at secret locations and all that, and that’s what the People’s Republic does too. It’s a warehouse gig for old people that young people sometimes come to as well, whether as performers or audience-members.
I make-weighted the term ‘marginal music’ at the top because it’s hard to know what else to call most of what goes on at the People’s Republic. I’m loathe to call it experimental music for a whole number of reasons. A bit more long-winded exposition: When I first went down to a gig at the Republic, when I first met Nick back in 2012 and he invited me along, I was somewhat taken aback. I hadn’t seen anything like it since the heady days of post-punk in Sydney (and all round the country) in the 80s, when music would find different ways to put itself out there, mostly because it wouldn’t be tolerated in the bigger, more mainstream venues (like, say, the Hopetoun! or the Annandale! although the Petersham Inn was actually always wont to doing almost anything…); and where, for which reason, it was driven not by careerism but largely aesthetics, in other words, the art of it.
… and here it was, a quarter of a century later, still going on! To strike onto music again that was driven by little but the love of music was totally refreshing, totally. Nick had set up the Republic to happen in his own home, admittedly a pretty big, certainly very high-ceilinged living room in a converted warehouse apartment, at which he’d somehow managed to get the tolerance of his fellow tenants and put on these gigs that attracted often overflowing crowds and that demanded no door-charge and yet inevitably ended the night with the jar full of cash. Of which Nick takes none; it all goes to the artists. It was and remains a textbook case of the organic underground resistance doing what it’s supposed to do.
Which brings me back to this question of semantics and the term ‘marginal music’. One of the early gigs I saw at the Republic – and I’ve seen a lot in the seven out of its ten years I’ve been going there, and I’ve even helped line up a few and even done one myself, rarely presenting a film there (my Buried Country documentary) – but one of the gigs, a classic People’s Republic show, was Scattered Order. Now Scattered Order was a(n M-Squared) band I used to see back in those post-punk days I just mentioned, and I was delighted to see them making a comeback because mainly as I understood it, there was a demand wanting to be satisfied.
And I remember thinking, how come it’s called experimental music? When it sounded pretty much the same it did where it left off twenty years ago, arrhythmic, atonal, and anarchically or at least intuitively structured. If it was experimental back then, have they still not found an answer to the problems or questions posed? Or if they are still looking, how come it still sounds much the same? And then it struck me: it’s all semantics, and in my own head. Maybe it’s not experimental music at all but rather, umm, in the particular instance of Scattered Order, call it free-form industrial music? ‘Free jazz’ is known as that and it’s a fair tag and the music operates on its own inherent and very open-ended principles. And so if that was my problem to get over, and not Nick S’s or Scattered Order’s or anybody else’s, I got over it and I’ve continued to go to the Republic evermore and enjoy or not so much enjoy the music depending purely on whether I like it or enjoy it or not.
The range of stuff Nick’s put on with the unstinting and ever-patient support of his partner Corinne and the other folks who help out like on things technical is broad, international and really quite stunning. At the tenth anniversary celebration gig I went to the other week there was big illustrated timeline pinned up on the wall, but I was too involved in the music and meeting and conversing with nice folks around the sets that I didn’t get a chance to look at it.
It’s rare to find anything and anyone these days who isn’t all about big-noting themselves on social media but again, it’s just so refreshing and humbling to find an endeavour like this that runs independently on its own terms, under its own steam, and which couldn’t be doing more to expose a whole strata of music that otherwise doesn’t get a look in but which is catering to a demand that clearly exists. Not going on social media or producing a compendium box-set live album or a film or anything like that is not a case of elitism or trying to be esoteric, it’s just a case of doing what’s do-able.
At the recent tenth birthday show there was two bands on, the Holy Soul and Party Dozen. I want to conclude on a wrap for Party Dozen because they’re pretty damn brand new and pretty damn amazing and many are probably already well familiar with the redoubtable Holy Soul. Who weighed with a great little set. (Which is another great thing about the Republic – most of the acts who appear there have learnt or understand that brevity is the soul of wit. Was it the same night that U2 were on at some stadium in Sydney? and finished off an apparently already epic set with an eight-song encore? Eight songs!? [I never thought they had one decent song.] And while I can understand the punters at such a gig might want their money’s worth, since they’ve probably paid hundreds of dollars to be there, to me, you couldn’t pay me!) But – after we chucked a lobster into the jar at the Republic, and it was overflowing with them – Party Dozen!? OMG! I’d been clued to them by Nick and I tuned in online and listened to their signature song ‘Party Dozen’ and I was blown away. Party Dozen is a duo, a sax/drums duo augmented by a throbbing little black box the boy drummer runs, and they’re young people, young musicians, and I hadn’t heard anything quite like them since… ever. Oh, I could hear little traces of post-punk things like, say, Blurt, or DAF (though if I made a reference to a fleeting Sydney jazz-punk band from the early 80s called Kill the King it would probably mean nothing to next to nobody, let alone Party Dozen themselves, so I’ll tantalizingly leave it at that; KtK never released a recording, so you can’t look them up). I might glibly call Party Dozen the Ramones of free jazz, or Coltrane’s Interstellar Space meets the Sabs' Master of Reality. Just don't call them experimental. They know what they're doing, and they're just exploring it to its outer reaches. Basically, Party Dozen blew their own little electro-organic tornado through that Sunday night for me and I don’t doubt they will continue to do so more broadly because they’ve got the drive, they’ve got the ideas and the wherewithal and they got the sort of response at the People’s Republic that’s what you need to keep on keeping on…
As long as there’s a few little joints like the Republic flying the flag, they can make it possible for different sorts of music to be accessed, to refuse to be beaten down by the prigs, the prudes and the squares…
I queued up the merch table after Party Dozen’s set and happily scored a copy of their debut LP; you can check them and it out here.
And I will continue to patronise the People’s Republic as long as Nick S is putting on something to interest me and others, and it’s unlikely he won’t be doing that, and I will follow with keen interest Party Dozen’s progress from now on. How about a double-header national tour with Melbourne's Surprise Chef? Just a thought.