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The Lastdrager Chronicles
Chronicles 1 | Chronicles 2
Hearing of CBGB’s closure this week I found myself reminiscing over my experience at the famed birthplace of punk in the Bowery on New York’s lower east side. The venue was born in the 70’s to a blistering array of talent who became the archetypal punk bands of the era. From the Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, Television, New York Dolls on it goes, this gritty hole in the wall became synonymous with punk music, art and fashion. Anyone growing up listening to underground music was made well aware that CBGBs was a shrine to the purity of filthy punk and dirty rock and roll.
I didn’t get there until a cold and snow laden February of 1994 with a punk pop trio from Melbourne en route to London via shows in Boston and New York. And what a place it was. Smaller than I’d ever imagined it could be and warm as toast inside, it was simply the real deal.
While we checked out the space, the house sound engineer was tuning the PA system. He’d opened the old black wall casing to expose a crypt of very large and ancient looking valve tubes scarcely illuminated under a mound of silvery grey cobwebs and dust…it was like something out of the Addams Family.
The walls were covered thick with the posters, stickers, sweat, snot and ash of ten thousand bands, and I was keen as mustard to add our little poster to the sea of grimy paste and paper. The only problem was nobody had any sticky tape. It was mid week and a couple of hours before show time I wandered off across the streets of the Bowery.
I entered a small and cluttered Hispanic milk bar and asked the guy behind the pigeonhole counter for sticky tape. He threw his arms in the air and barked repeatedly at me in Spanish. Finally a beautiful young woman sitting on his side of the counter - legs crossed, doing her nails and chewing gum - translated my request. It soon became obvious that they were both unaware of what the hell “sticky tape” was.
I attempted once more to explain but was cut off by a very tall older Texan gent, leaning down on the counter in a cream coloured cowboy suit with matching Stetson. His open suit exposed a large pearl handled silver plated revolver nestled in a tan leather holster “They ain’t got what you want, little buddy” he lamented with a Texan drawl. Within minutes I was back in the safety of CBGBs relaxing with a Rolling Rock and peeling away bits of blu tac and tape from other bands posters to get the job done!
The crowd of 70 to 100 punters that night enjoyed styles from old school punk to hard industrial rock and freaky folk punk. It was one of the few gigs I have ever played where all the bands on the bill supported each other with real verve during each of the performances; everyone enjoyed their half hour in the sun.
A few more beers and visits to the most decrepit toilet I’ve seen anywhere on the planet and we were off to indulge in the multiple invitations we’d received during the evening. First stop was a pizza joint 2 doors down with the boys from Conflict Burning who were insulted for hailing from New Jersey by a number of Russ Meyer Faster Pussycat look-alike waitresses. In response the band members indulged in a magnificent tirade of New Jersey v New York abuse. “Frankie Sin-at-ra and da Stray Cats are from Joisey, you freakin’ bimbo freaks!!…” We moved from club to club that night, and were introduced as a band that had just played CBGBs; it carried a lot of cred with New Yorkers. It always will with me.
Photos [clockwise]: Outside view of CBGBs; Television performing in CBGBs; Blondie's Deborah Harry performing at the last night; The Ramones at CBGBs
Thanks to home studio technology and global forums such as MySpace, musicians and bands can create, promote and sell their music worldwide without leaving their bedrooms. It’s easy to forget that just over 10 years ago the humble email was unheard of, no laptops, no facebook and no hanging around the cul de sacs of cyberspace either. Back then the business of promoting an indie band seemed a whole lot harder. Trying to get a recording done and paid for took enormous tenacity, self-belief and a calendar full of bad paying little gigs. Communication was a real grind and the eternal wait for transactions such as artwork to complete their next phase, often drew blood.
In the early 90’s I was part of a Melbourne garage rock and roll band called the Stiff Kittens and we were like so many others in the inner city then, writing songs and rehearsing feverishly day and night. Our first recording “As You Walk” resulted in a record deal with London label Psychic Records and by 1995 we had four EP’s released in the UK including the Tony Cohen produced “Fat Boy” which became Melody Makers single of the week.
The label were keen to consolidate growing interest following a previous promotional tour of the UK and the USA, so it was with great anticipation and organization that the band departed from Melbourne on a scorching summer’s afternoon bound for England. I kept a little diary of that tour which I’d titled “How we survived the Rock and Roll blitz on Branston Pickle and Trophy bitter”. It contained a host of blurry references to three months of living and touring the UK, and it turned up recently while I was sorting through some old boxes in storage. I sat down to read and before I knew it I was back there again.
We landed in London on January the 24th and didn’t waste any time. Within days we headlined an Australia day gig at the Mean Fiddler to a large happy crowd of ex pats and were feeling red hot. That first month was spent organising and buying instruments, amplifiers, transport, accommodation, rehearsals and playing small shows all over England in preparation of our national tour support with Irish punk legends the Stiff Little Fingers. From university and pub gigs in Bradford, Grimsby, Knottingly, Scunthorpe, York and Hull, to small snowed covered cottage pubs with names like My Father’s Moustache and the Steam Packet, we ploughed up and down the length of England like sardines in a red mini van.
After each new exploration we would return to London and rehearse constantly, surfacing only to attend to radio and magazine interviews. With the imminent release of our fourth and final EP Face we were introduced to NME photographer Martin Goodacre, who took us to an abandoned fire station on the Old Kent road in South London. Following the shoot he introduced us to one of his favourite pubs around the corner, the Green Man, a notorious old school gangster boozer in Kray brothers’ territory. The smoky old mirrors were still angled above the bar so the colourful clientele could watch their backs from the comfort of their barstools without ever having to leave their warm pints.
The pictures came out a treat, and before we knew it the new EP was out, our mugs were all over the English music press and our national tour support with the Fingers was upon us.
Mar 9 - Up early today, met at the Holloway Road studio round 11am, packed the van and hit the road. Played the first tour support at the Roadmender in Northampton. Strange big square, beer barn type of venue, with wooden floors and high brick walls. Played really well to a quiet reserved crowd. Relieved to have the first show out of the way. Sold 14-cd s and 2 T-Shirts.
Mar 10 - Off to Wolverhampton Civic Centre about 1.5 hours away. This is more like it, great looking venue, balconies, and loads of style. Went on around 8.15, big crowd started to dig us after the first two tunes, good response, everybody happy.
Mar 11 - Sweet old Manchester. We all gave the Boddington Brewery a big salute on arrival. Venue at the University sold out, hoorah! Played a great show to a big cheeky crowd. The Fingers sent us a bottle of Stoli in an ice bucket with the message “Thanks for warming them up for us”. We had a massive night back at the Ramada hotel with Faith No More and Prince road crews.
Mar 12 - Screaming hangover…all of us. Next up was Leeds Polytechnic, a strange place and even stranger crowd. No real reaction at all and we played our best set so far. After the show we had a great laugh with Mike Peters from The Alarm, who opened the evening.
Mar 13 - Long drive to Bristol University. Another sold out show! Played a fabulous set to a large mixed crowd in a stinking hot auditorium. Great to have our first encore, all feeling very confident. Also meet a couple of fans from Melbourne. Back in the sardine can and straight to London.
Mar 14 - Rest day.
Mar 15 - Left London at noon and arrived in a cold and sleet covered Nottingham about 4 pm. The venue Rock City is a big 80’s Disco/ Venue run by the Hell’s Angels. Played really well and great to meet fans from previous road trips.
Mar 16 - Off to Newcastle today stopping at Sunderland University to do an acoustic set and radio interview mid afternoon. Arrived at the Mayfair Suite in Newcastle for sound check at 6 pm. I’m in love with all these beautiful old venues. We play really well to lots of excited punters watching from all the balconies.
Mar 17 - Arrived in Glasgow at midday and had a couple of beers in the bar next to the venue Barrowlands. St Patricks Day! Full On!! Getting the “evil eye” severely, so time to look for a quiet bar till sound check. Show Time. The venue manager leads us from our dressing room at the front of the venue through a labyrinth of wood panelled doors and tight corridors under the dance floor to the rear of stage, where an amazing view of the most beautiful ballroom awaits us. I’m transfixed staring at the astrological images on the inverted dome ceiling as the large drunken crowd chant “Fingers! Fingers!” in amongst the “Fuck Offs!” directed at us. We give it everything we’ve got to repel the mad bastards. Played really well and had a ball. We head south, back to the hotel in Newcastle through heavy snow totally knackered.
Mar 18 - After driving all day we reach The Forum in London. Wild looking place, reminds me of an old Greek theatre. Gave it everything to a large appreciative audience. Enjoyed having a chat and a drink with Jake Burns and Bruce Foxton of the Fingers at the after tour party in the West End. Finally got the chance to tell Bruce Foxton what a fan of The Jam I’ve been, and that I always thought the line from Town Called Malice was “Just got past the Fuhrer”. He laughs and tells me it’s a much better line and that he’ll let Paul Weller know. Happy and relieved the tour was a success, I sleep for days.
Touring is not a glamorous past time for a small rock and roll band when you’re crammed into a small freezing van and looking at a prehistoric pie under the heat lamps of a desolate motorway café at 3.30am. Being a long way from home tired and short of cash you begin to realise that you are a commodity with a use by date. Of course none of that matters when the adrenalin kicks in during the opening chords of a live performance and you realise it’s you against the world: it’s an invigorating feeling.
Within days of the tour ending the band had exploded like a string of Chinese firecrackers (a fine tradition for Oz bands touring the UK) and before I knew it I was walking around the streets of Melbourne in a daze saying What the F@#! Happened? Finding that mouldy old diary in my shed was a great little postcard from the past. The music industry has always been a tough business and the artists of today are lucky to have the technology to cut out the middleman, I wish we had. To quote Ben Harper “How I miss the good old days, but I’m so glad they’re gone”.
In 2007 Allkiller Music released a Stiff Kittens compilation entitled Greatest Trips.
(c) 2008 Robert Lastdrager (Previously published in The Big Issue, Australian edition, 2008)
During a recent night out with a couple of mates in Melbourne, conversation centred on the deaths of Lobby Loyde and Billy Thorpe, their Queensland origins and the impending reformation of the original Saints line-up at Brisbane’s coming of age festival “Pig City” later this month. My friends took the opportunity to remind me that I had left Queensland in the mid 1980’s vowing never to return. They asked how it felt having been 2000 kilometres from home for over 20 years. “Just lovely” was my reply.
In the early seventies my parents took me to a tourist attraction called Bullen’s Lion Safari situated half way between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. There on a humid 30 plus degree-day I watched a large polar bear swaying from side to side in a cage so cramped the animal was unable to turn around. “ That’s not right is it Pop?” I queried “ No, no it’s not” the old man replied, shaking his head. Ironically that enclosure was to mirror my adolescent relationship with the ‘Sunshine State’, the feeling of being born and trapped in a humid cultureless cage.
By the age of sixteen I was taking regular hour-long Friday night train rides from the southern working underclass suburb of Woodridge to the Cloudland Ballroom in Bowen Hills, a majestic venue frequented by generations of dancing Queenslanders. There I experienced the most amazing array of early eighties Australian pub rock bands along with a cavalcade of international acts including The Clash and Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Dury was warned that if he sang “Spasticus Autisticus” police would storm the stage and arrest the band. They played the track during the encore and nothing happened, but the suspense was fabulously nerve-wracking. One thing was always assured at Cloudland, everybody had to jump in time to the music due to the 1940’s multi cross ply American GI built dance floor and everybody had to jump to the omni present mass of intimidation that was the Queensland police force.
In 1982 the Bjelke Petersen Government ordered the illegal demolition of Cloudland during the middle of the night, turning it to rubble and dust before daybreak. That act of bastardry tore a lot of people’s hearts out, including mine. For me it represented the continued erosion of not only civil liberties but also artistic vitality. It was the last straw.
It’s not easy to explain to the uninitiated the effect the Bjelke Petersen government’s political and social agenda had on the population all those years ago. Police intimidation and oppression all took their toll, particularly on the indigenous communities, students, union workers, rock and roll bands and anyone else on the wrong side of the political fence.
The government’s righteous and wholesome media façade contrasted sharply with the reality of life on the street. Blatant police brutality was commonplace for anyone involved in unlawful protest marches, as was the anxiety and paranoia induced by the frenzied clatter of police camera shutters that documented everyone and everything. Imagine coming home to see television footage of Minister Russ Hinze at the notorious Bubbles Bathhouse in Woolloongabba, declaring that no brothels existed in the state. The place was warped, pure and simple.
The media have never focused on the exodus of bands and individual artists, filmmakers, photographers, writers, poets and DJ’s from Brisbane during that era. There must have been thousands who headed south. It wasn’t about wanting to leave; it was about having no choice but to leave. The Queensland regime unwittingly became an exporter of popular culture of which the rest of the Australian capital cities, primarily Sydney and Melbourne, were the main beneficiaries.
I left Brisbane with $400 and a car full of drums. I arrived in Sydney during Monday afternoon peak hour and crawled across the harbour bridge to the muffled roar of The Saints Prehistoric Sounds on my car stereo. I felt triumphant.
That first night at the Sandringham hotel in Newtown I watched Louis Tillet’s Paris Green do the business with a smokin’ Louis Burdett on drums. Celebrating my new found freedom I wandered outside and lit up a joint, only to have a NSW police F100 wagon pull up outside the pub at the same time and toot its horn. Flooded with residual paranoia I immediately flicked the J away into the gutter and continued to sheepishly sip my schooner. A barman appeared and launched himself onto the running board of the Ford and expertly slid a slab of beer into the passenger side window in one smooth movement. All I saw was an arm and thumbs up as the police re-entered the King St crawl. Jubilantly I skipped over to the gutter and retrieved the smoke. Finally I was in a big city!
I’m not really sure why I’ve written this piece, suffice to say that when I heard the terms “coming of age” and “Brisbane” and “Pig City” in the one sentence I felt a little aggressive twinge in my lower back. Maybe this is a form of therapy? Maybe I’m venting? Whatever. Here’s to all the Queensland refugees who fought the law and got out of town to play another day. I’ll be raising a glass and celebrating Brisbane’s coming of age from the comfort and safety of a gaffer taped bar stool in Melbourne. Cheers.
Originally published in Big Issue 2007
Please don’t tell anyone… but rock and roll isn’t doing it for me any more.
I’ve reached a juncture in my life and there’s no turning back. For me rock and roll has become a bloated concept, past its use by date and oblivious to the fact that it’s heading toward a cliff at sixty kilometres an hour with coffee and doughnut in hand, listening to mainstream FM radio while talking hands free. Somebody tell me I’m wrong. Please!
I should be excited about all the summer festivals, the fact that the stores are full of re mastered and re packaged discs and DVDs, and thankful that the street press is keeping all those graphic design graduates busy producing thousands of shiny full page ads. Trouble is the music on offer isn’t turning me on and furthermore those street mags don’t light up the BBQ well either; too many toxic colours in the flame.
Don’t get me wrong I love all styles of music from classical to hip-hop and everything in between; my beef is the aural ground hog day that is commercial radio. Sure I’ve loved the Stones, AC DC, the Beatles, Dylan, Neil Young - you name it - but I need a break from all the same old songs putting me in a sleeper hold as soon as I wake up.
Advertisers realise popular music is an emotional trigger for the listener that links their nostalgia for their youth to a new product, but surely enough is enough. Why does commercial radio in particular continue to indoctrinate us via a constant drip of The Eagles, Foreigner and Spandau Ballet etc… where is the quality control?
I decided to document every bit of unsolicited music I heard in a single day. It started at 6 am with a blackbird whistling the chorus of “Come on Eileen” on a branch outside my bedroom window. It was then that I knew it was going to be a long day. By 10 am at the supermarket writers’ cramp had well and truly taken hold. One after another - George Michael, Tom Jones, Johnny Cougar, Culture Club, The Monkees - and I hadn’t even got to K Mart yet, where to my horror, a flatulent organ ‘Best Of’ held my ears prisoner while I priced ladders and searched for socks.
During a much-needed lie down, I sought some respite from an ABC afternoon arts program, where the period in European history known as the Reformation was being discussed. What a great name for a band I thought, in this age of the rock and roll comeback. Why doesn’t some promoter create a “super cluster” of old has beens and work the stadiums of the world…oh, they have already? Sorry. I’ve got nothing against the Reformation concept except for maybe the unfortunate soiling of treasured musical memories and the stark realisation that time is moving way too fast.
That afternoon a friend and I had a few quiet ones at a hip inner city drinking hole. The barman was spinning some vinyl. He began playing the A-Z of the Doors back catalogue and thirty minutes later as Roadhouse Blues kicked in I asked him if he could give the stereo a nudge. His young face collapsed in an avalanche of disappointment before he dutifully obliged. “Ah, the next generation of fans,” I thought as I sat back down, only to hear the barman’s comeback in the form of Shirley Bassey belting out Goldfinger. ”Think you’ve shot yourself in the foot ol’ boy” my friend quipped.
It seems to me the new rock and roll has no real anger, intent or sense of humour and frankly I’d rather hear a trots call on AM radio in a shed lashed with hail. I keep hearing Myspace is the saviour, but that just seems like a lot of work to me. A few years back when the two-prong attack of the Hives and the Strokes appeared I really thought there was a glimmer of hope, finally a wave of new blood, the next generation, but I’ve been bored ever since. So how can I escape this ever-growing back catalogue of bland commercialised music? Finally the answer came to me when my daughter asked “ Dad, can I have an Ipod for my birthday?” “YES!” I beamed. “And maybe we can share it sometimes?” I enthused. “No Daddy,” she smiled, shaking her head. “You’ll need one for your music and I’ll need one for mine”. She was absolutely right, of course.
Originally published in Big Issue 2010
All written material © 2010 Rob Lastdrager