There is a FANTASTIC book on Australian music in the stores at the moment. Dig: Australian Rock and Pop History 1960-1985 by Melbourne writer, musician and academic David Nichols in a monumental 600 page overview of what most ILYOS readers will no doubt consider the most vital period of Australian music history. It’s not the same old dry and superficial history or over-blown music biz-based hype though; David digs deep, makes connections, offers opinions and comes at things from different directions to most. He pulls it ALL together. He’s knowledgeable, open minded, and not predisposed to one decade or era - or genre - over any other; indeed he shines a light on a lot of stuff that has been traditionally given short shrift by writers of these histories in the past. None of which is to say that it’s elitist or – despite David’s career – at all academic. It’s action-packed and as amusing as it is illuminating. And if you have a serious interest in Australian pop and rock history, it’s a book that we think you simply have to read.
David has been ‘on the scene’ since the early 1980s, when he published the influential fanzine Distant Violins. Around the same time he also started presenting on 3RRR in Melbourne; all this while still in his mid-teens. A few years later he was in Sydney, becoming a founding member of internationally lauded indie band the Cannanes and working for Smash Hits magazine in its pop prime. He’s published a number of other music books, including the first biography of The Go-Betweens (1997, revised edition 2003), and is the co-writer of Pop Life: Inside Smash Hits Australia (2007). These days David is Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne. His non-music books include The Bogan Delusion (2011) and Trendyville: The Battle for Australia's Inner Cities (2014).
ILYOS posed David a few questions and asked him to come up with a playlist that in some way reflects the story told in his book:
ILYOS - David, congratulations on getting the book out. Can you give us a quick overview of the process of writing it.
DN - Thanks. I have been writing this thing for a decade. It was commissioned by Verse Chorus Press, who published the revised editions of my Go-Betweens book, in 2006. The process? It was reading everything that had been written about popular music since 1960 – that’s how it feels anyway. And talking to a few people and sourcing records, tv shows, etc etc. I’m a historian so that kind of thing comes naturally but more importantly for me I wanted to make sure I wasn’t accepting any preconceived ideas – including my own. I had to try and forget things I thought I knew.
Something I hate in music books is when an author says a record’s not worth bothering with and you know they either couldn’t find it or didn’t care enough to listen to it. I listened to everything I wrote about and if I couldn’t find it I wouldn’t write about it. That’s why I don’t hide my contempt for other writers who depend on received opinions. They’re not writers, critics or historians, they’re just dirt.
Steven and Katherine at Verse Chorus had this idea: people outside Australia often know the big Australian artists (let’s say: AC/DC, Nick Cave, INXS, blah blah) but they don’t know how those people interact (if they did) and any connections they might have otherwise, in Australia. That was the extent of what they asked of me, and I did have a mythical Norwegian in my head all the time saying ‘but how come Nick Cave performed at Michael Hutchence’s funeral?’ not that I actually cover that in my book of course. I do discuss the Australian end of a lot of internationally famous Australians’ careers though.
ILYOS - The book is INCREDIBLY dense with information. What were you particularly aiming to achieve wirth the book and any role models that you were following?
DN - Thanks again, if that’s a compliment. As I said I’m a historian, I mean, officially a real professional historian not just someone who likes history and rehashes it for fun, so I wanted to make sure everything was correct and verifiable – that’s the historians’ code. That means you can’t take the word of old mate down the pub for why the Seekers only played 20 minutes at the Myer Music Bowl in whatever year it was (it’s in the book) – you have to find sources. I didn’t have any models or templates but what I did have was a strong antipathy to ‘clean’ histories, in the sense that, life and society and of course culture are all over the place – like I say in the book, Billy Green might have been influenced by the Beatles or whatever but that’s too easy an assessment, particularly of him, he’s a total legend. But if you want to talk about influences, he was surely mainly influenced by the necessity for Doug Parkinson In Focus to have another record out in six weeks when they toured Queensland, and great creative people just do what they have to do. To say Billy Green was influenced by the Beatles is a neat way of pigeonholing him, but it’s only a little part of his story.
Doug Parkinson In Focus (with Billy Green)
ILYOS - I love how you occasionally let seemingly random connections between subjects direct the flow of the book. I find myself starting at a certain point and before I know it I’m somewhere I wasn’t expecting, but which is no less interesting. Was that a conscious thing?
DN - Thanks. Everything in there was done on purpose, yes.
The world of pop is a complete mess. Music is so personal to people’s lives, pop music in particular. People remember things in particular ways, it’s the way we remember music – associated with key events or time periods. I didn’t want to just pander to sentimental memories, I wanted people to be challenged by different realities. Things like the mundane fact that some records were hits by chance, or weren’t hits, because Molly liked them or didn’t like them, for instance, or because musicians are quite obviously often (usually?) their own worst enemies. What I mean is, talent doesn’t guarantee anything, it may not even be an inherent trait.
That said, the world is just shifting pebbles on a beach.
ILYOS - You’re someone in the very unique position of working at the two extremes of pop music print media. You published your own, very indie-oriented fanzine Distant violins, and you were the editor of the Australian edition Smash Hits at the height of the pop thing in the ‘80s. How do you think that has shaped you as an observer and critic?
DN - Probably shaped me into a blob of blu-tac to stick any lame opinion, wafting through the window, onto the wall. But just apropos of the indie thing, remember that Smash Hits in Australia was originally the work of James Manning very ably assisted by Eddy Sarafian. James and Eddy and I all volunteered at 3RRR in the early 80s, and we all worked at James’ bookshop, Gaumont. Basically Smash Hits’ genesis was in public radio. My fanzine was indie oriented in a sense but I had no problem featuring major label bands if I liked them, incidentally (I can only think of MEO245 and The Reels but there must have been plenty more).
MEO 245 - "Other Places"
I was only the features editor at Smash Hits, never smart enough to be the actual editor. Still I take your point.
It made me a bad pop music writer for a long time, because I was obsessed with ‘selling out’, and I turned in some utterly ratshit articles revolving around that kind of nonsense (not that I don’t believe it’s possible to sell out – I just think it’s too boring to talk about). But actually the thing that my own fanzine and Smash Hits had in common was we totally hated pretension, which was and is everywhere in music. Pompous people and bombastic, nonsense records, ridiculous po-faced heavy metal and so on. That’s been my pet hate all along. Smash Hits created that whole ‘poptastic’ thing, which is kind of irritating in its current incarnation, but was a real truth to power thing in its early days.
ILYOS - Following this, you’re probably the only person I know of who would genuinely consider Australian Crawl’s "Oh Know Not You Again", Real Life’s "Send Me An Angel" and the Primitive Calculators "Pumping Ugly Muscle" to be brilliant songs. What do you look for in music? What makes a good song/artist/record in your mind? You’re the Go-betweens biographer – are they faves?
Australian Crawl - "Oh No Not You Again"
DN - I just realised early in life, thank Christ, that the notion of ‘taste’ is a bullshit, imposed concept that stops people realizing their full potential – not just as consumers, but creatively. Also, I like irony and self-awareness and as mentioned I hate pretension, in music (unless it’s really funny, clever pretension) and I suppose that’s why those three songs you randomly (?) selected appeal to me. They’re also all crafted by intelligent people, who know or knew what makes songs work.
I just like clever music, when it comes down to it. I don’t mean smartarse – Pink Floyd is smartarse – Jailbreak is a clever record, Take A Long Line is a really clever record. The Dugites had almost too many ideas. And what I look for in music is ideas, which is probably why three AC/DC songs will do me forever, thanks very much, but why I never get tired of Vanda and Young’s experiments. They were craftsmen, and they tried things out just to see what happened and if it was a hit, great, and if not, well there’s always tomorrow.
Vanda & Young aka Flash & the Pan - "St. Peter"
I don’t really know what makes a good song, artist or record though, aside from wearing your ideas on your sleeve. My favourite band ever is a band as old as I am, the Red Krayola, every record is different, they are often conceptual, they are knowing and great musicians rub shoulders with so-so musicians – it’s a feast.
Robert Forster is the Go-Betweens’ biographer now. I like them a lot, yes.
Go-Betweens - "Spring Rain"
ILYOS - Although for the most part you keep musical criticism out of the book, your opinions seem to sit there in between the lines. Is that how you see it, or am I just reading more into things because I know you..
DN - I totally have opinions. I tried to keep them to a minimum but it’s probably not hard to see how I feel about some things. And then I alienate half my readership by out and out saying that I think the Easybeats’ ‘Good Times’ is a piece of shit. I don’t know why no-one else has noticed that. Or that Falling in Love Again which Vanda and Young gave to Ted Mulry is, like, the best record ever made… or at least one of them.
Ted Mulry - "Falling In Love Again"
ILYOS - The book covers 1960 to 1985. Was there a ‘Golden Period’ in your mind and what defined it? Conversely, was there a nadir?
DN - I reckon that that’s completely subjective. I’m 51 and I feel like a disproportionate amount of records that came out when I was in my late teens – so, between about 1981-5 – are just incredible. ‘Avalanche of Love’ by Grooveyard, for instance, is about as close to perfect as a 7” record could be. Also the Laughing Clowns’ ‘Eternally Yours’. Additionally, though I try not to be, I’m kind of in awe of records from just before that time – the late 70s – stuff like the Saints, of course. I’m sure if you were a teenager in 1962, you’d have a very different attitude – of course you would. But that time seems to me to be nadir era, I can’t stand much of what I’ve heard from that period. I assume you know about the portal (or a version thereof): the music you liked when your adult brain was forming. Then your brain shrinks and you stop liking new things.
The only argument I can think of against the notion that I only think music from the early 80s is the best because that was the time my brain was growing is that as the Australian music industry grew and thrived, which it did in the early 80s, a lot more stuff was being produced. Therefore, there may actually be a lot more good stuff (and probably a lot more bad stuff, too) from that time.
ILYOS - How did you pick the artists that you singled out for their own chapters? The Missing Links and Pip Proud are hardly era-defining artists..
DN - I know, but a lot of the eras are defined by rubbish, let’s face it. Rubbish kind of rules the world. I love both the Missing Links and Pip, but more importantly for the book I firmly believed that their stories cast a light on the wider world of Australian music than some top ten artist, all due respect to Bobby and Laurie (seriously – all due respect and no disrespect).
Pip Proud - "De Da De Dum"
ILYOS - Knowing you and I are the same age, I must admit to being a bit surprised/frustrated that your cut off point for this volume coincides with the time both of us were probably getting more involved in things. Can we expect next volume any time soon?
DN - The cut-off is random, or at least, the original commission was for a 50-year history, which is why it starts in 1960 – I expected in 2006 that it would take four years and I would end in 2010. It soon became clear that 50 years was too much to cover, so what we have now is volume one.
Steve at Verse Chorus said to me a couple of years ago ‘So did you end the book in 1985 because that’s when you started becoming involved in music?’ I guess he thought I was being, I don’t know, modest or something? I said no, we talked about this five years ago, we had to cut the time period in half. He’d forgotten. That’s how long this whole debacle has been.
Don’t expect anything soon. This one took ten years, and I wrote the bulk of it before I got my very demanding current full-time job. I guess I will retire in about twenty years?