The actions that define culture are rarely deliberate. Culture is, in many ways, an accumulation of accidents, small gestures and stumbles that somehow end up sticking together like a giant snowball rolling down a hill. Every successful band has the moment when they almost gave up just before their breakthrough; every artistic movement has its rejections, arguments, and fistfights; every book has a graveyard of characters and scenes that were killed to make way for the story. The end result may look neat — libraries of books ordered alphabetically, artworks organized into linear chronologies — but the process of making culture is anything but. - Matt Locke ‘The Hot List: The Rise and Fall of the Singles Chart’

I was recently inspired to read Clinton Walker’s Stranded – The Secret History Of Australian Independent Music by the deaths of Ken West and Chris Bailey. Over the years I have watched various music documentaries exploring Australian music over the years, including Autoluminescent, Something In the Water), Midnight Oil 1984 and The Go-Betweens: Right Here, as well as listened to Damian Cowell’s Only The Shit You Love podcast and Double J’s series on the Big Day Out. However, it occurred to me that although I might have heard many of the names, my understanding of the history of Australian independent music is rather patchy.

My introduction in the 90’s to artists like Tex Perkins, Dave Graney and TISM primarily came via Triple J, Rage and the annual ARIA awards. Although there were programs like The J Files which would provide some of the back stories to artists and their music, for whatever reason, I do not remember these retrospectives addressing the history. For example, it would seem that Perkins giving the bird to Scott Morrison was pretty timid to some of the things he did in the past.

Walker’s book provides something of a ‘thick description‘ of the Australian music scene between 1972 – 1992, the bedrock of much of the music I grew up with.

It took time before my analysis of grunge came together, before I could see what had been under my nose all along—that its roots were Australian as much as anything! That’s perhaps why it never did much for me, because I’d sort of heard it all already. Grunge, the defining Sub Pop/Seattle Sound of Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, was basically the sound of Australia’s ’80s underground—the Scientists, the Cosmic Psychos, even the Birthday Party, and bands like Feedtime, Grong Grong, Lubricated Goat and Bloodloss—mixed up with classic early metal, classic early punk and, I’d now add, AC/DC and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse.

Not only was Walker there for much of it, but he was a part of it as well.

Stranded is, for better or worse, simply my version of a history.

It goes beyond the world of Countdown, Farnsey and Barnsey, Michael Gudinski and the pub rock scene. Instead, it captures the rise of bands such as The Birthday Party, The Saints, The Triffids, The Hard Ons, The Beasts of Bourbon and The Go-Betweens. As well as the many other bands and artists who seemingly came and went.

Some of things that stood out to me were:

  1. How fluid, volatile and connected tge scene seemed to be. Often one band would demise only to have members pop-up in another band, if they were not already in more than one band.
  2. Hearing some of this music was incredibly hard. Whereas these days we might go online to listen or purchase new music, finding some of these pressings would have involved going to a handful of niche record stores.
  3. Place of covers. With so many bands forming on a whim, covers seem to play an important role in filling out a set or helping to define a bands sound. I feel that Walker’s latest book, Suburban Songbook, might have more to say on this.
  4. How many moving parts there were and are. It can be easy to think that success is all just about the music, but there are so many other parts at play. Whether it be the labels, the record stores, the local radio stations, the magazines, the venues, the promoters, the managers, the producers. Each play their own particular part in the rise and fall.

What amazes me about this book is that Walker was able to remember what he did. As he posits:

They say that if you remember the ’60s you can’t have been there. So much about the ’80s I can’t remember either. My journalism brings a lot back; I can’t help wondering if the rest isn’t best forgotten.

I guess the task of remembering is often ruefully aided with snipets from the artists in question that help provide further perspective and fill out some of the gaps.

There is so much more that I would love to know. This was the feeling I had after listening to Damian Cowell too. However, as Walker suggests, maybe sometimes it is best left forgotten.


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Review – Stranded: The Secret History Of Australian Independent Music by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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