Some bands peak early. Almost all the great ones, however, take several years to hit their stride. Andrew Stafford ‘Pig City’

Andrew Stafford explores the Brisbane music scene between 1975 and 2005. The book discusses the place and politics that laid the foundation to the music scene. Stafford dives into groups such as The Saints, The Go-Betweens, The Apartments, The Riptides, Died Pretty, Kev Carmody, Tex Perkins, Screamfeeder, Custard, Regurgitator, Powderfinger and Savage Garden. This is tided together with investigations of various cultural and historical institutions that were integral to the change, such as the Curry House, Triple Zed, the Fitzgerald Inquiry, and the Livid Festival.

Although I had read David Nichols’ The Go-Betweens, Robert Forster’s Grant and I, Tracey Thorn’s My Rock n Roll Friend, and Clinton Walker’s Stranded, I did not really appreciate the politics of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Although not quite East Berlin described in Anna Funder’s Stasiland, it certainly seems a world away from the Melbourne music scene. For me, it really put criticisms of ‘Dictator Dan‘ in perspective.

I also enjoyed Stafford’s book for the insight it provided to various artists, such as Custard and Powderfinger. For example, I was shocked at Darren Middleton’s glam metal beginnings:

Darren Middleton was recruited to add the requisite metallic flash after the band discovered him strutting his stuff in a glam-metal band called Pirate. Middleton, now probably the least showy member of Powderfinger, has never heard the end of it since.

Ian Haug: He was doing the shred thing, dancing on the tables with a wireless guitar. He was into Dokken and all those terrible bands and we thought he was just the sort of idiot we needed! He was really funny.

While I was intrigued by the endeavor of the COW (Country Or Western), Dave McCormick’s band before Custard, to be the something akin to the Wild Bunch.

Robert Moore had imagined COW as a musical collective similar to the Wild Bunch behind the first Massive Attack album, where a virtual reserve bench of musicians would be on call to play gigs or recordings. Often the band would be joined on stage by backing vocalists the Sirloin Sisters, twins Maureen and Suzie Hansen; at other times, former Go-Between John Willsteed and occasional Queensland Symphony Orchestra violinist John Bone would jump up to add their own flourishes.

All in all, Pig City is a great read that helps with appreciating some of complex the roots to Australian music.


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Review: Pig City (Andrew Stafford) by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

4 thoughts on “Review: Pig City (Andrew Stafford)

  1. I remember reading about COW (Country or Western) featuring Dave McCormack, Glenn Thompson and Robert Moore, in Andrew Stafford’s book about the Brisbane music scene, Pig City: From the Saints to Savage Garden.

    COW was far more than the in-joke their name suggested. Intending to score a hotel residency where they could have some fun, a few drinks and pick up a little extra cash at the end of the night, the band could indeed play country ‘or’ western, albeit with a knowing smirk. But such was the improvisational flair and natural showmanship of the musicians – McCormack in particular was becoming a formidable guitarist, distilling influences from Tom Waits’ sideman Marc Ribot to the Pixies’ Joey Santiago – that COW’s scope was almost limitless.

    SOURCE: Andrew Stafford – Pig City: From the Saints to Savage Garden

    Having played on Robert Forster’s Calling from a Country Phone, Moore had imagined COW as more than a band, but a ‘musical collective’.

    Robert Moore had imagined COW as a musical collective similar to the Wild Bunch behind the first Massive Attack album, where a virtual reserve bench of musicians would be on call to play gigs or recordings. Often the band would be joined on stage by backing vocalists the Sirloin Sisters, twins Maureen and Suzie Hansen; at other times, former Go-Between John Willsteed and occasional Queensland Symphony Orchestra violinist John Bone would jump up to add their own flourishes.

    SOURCE: Andrew Stafford – Pig City: From the Saints to Savage Garden

    Coming to Bedford / Buttercup, I was left wondering where the country inspiration was. Although there are moments, say on the samples and licks on Fuming Out, but instead the album felt to me like jangly pop on speed. The fact that the album does not go much beyond 30 minutes with 11 tracks highlights this. In Andrew Stafford – Pig City: From the Saints to Savage Garden, Stafford includes a quote from from McCormick about the use of speed:

    David McCormack: That’s when the drugs really came into play, around that time . . . In 1988–89 it was all speed, acid, ecstasy had just hit. And because we had nothing to do – we’d basically finished our degrees and were on the dole, and we were white middle-class kids from Kenmore – we could just get out of it forever. That’s why Who’s Gerald? broke up. We’d be speeding for days on end.

    SOURCE: Andrew Stafford – Pig City: From the Saints to Savage Garden

    One of the odd things about jumping into a focus on a band/artist is that it creates the conditions for different listening. With Buttercup/Bedford, I could not help make comparisons, whether it be:

    • Anna Lucia’s nod to The Pixies’ Debaser.
    • The British influences behind Delerious/I Live By The River.
    • The jingle jangle of the Go-Betweens throughout.

    I wonder if these ideas are actually beyond that. The initial links are with the obvious, but somehow the true inspiration is outside of our reach. Stafford makes mention of the influence of Jonathan Richman.

    Like Robert Forster, David McCormack had drawn considerable early inspiration from the suburban obsessions of Jonathan Richman.

    David McCormack: I was at John Swingle’s house, he was in the Melniks, and he said you’ve got to hear this . . . He played me Roadrunner and Government Centre and it just blew my mind, it was one of those life-changing experiences. Because up until then I was listening to Devo and Kraftwerk, stuff like that, which is all very alienated, but it’s not really Brisbane. Brisbane’s too hot for that!

    SOURCE: Andrew Stafford – Pig City: From the Saints to Savage Garden

    Personally, I have not really listened to much of Richman’s work, even after my dive into The Go-Betweens. It leaves me thinking that maybe that although ideas often have origins and references, that these are not always present. Reading Paul Carter’s Dark Writings, I cannot help but wonder if the influences are beneath the line retraced:

    The line is always the trace of earlier lines. However perfectly it copies what went before, the very act of retracing it represents a new departure.
    To think the line differently is not only to read — and draw — maps and plans in a new way. It is to think differently about history. To materialize the act of representation is to appreciate that the performances of everyday life can themselves produce historical change.

    SOURCE: Paul Carter – Dark Writing: Geography, Performance, Design

    One of the oddities of the record are the inconsistences when it comes to the vocals. There is a lot made of Australian Academy of Music’s Encouragement Award prize of $500 recording time and how the band quickly recorded about 13 songs in eight hours, marking Buttercup / Bedford. However, looking at the booklet, I assume that this was the session in October 1990.

    Booklet

    On first listen, I thought that tracks 4-10 was someone other than McCormick singing. However, looking at the booklet, clearly not. I am not sure if in the year between recording the initial tracks and the later tracks, McCormick had developed and changed or it was in the quality of the recording.

  2. I wonder how many people came to Wisenheimer, Custard’s third album, after hearing the opening single, Apartment, and were somewhat disappointed? This is the feeling that I get from Lachlan J’s review:

    So, my verdict is that Custard’s Wisenheimer is a pretty good album. It’s not great and it doesn’t really capture my imagination in any significant way, but it is quite a bit of fun to let play while I’m driving about the town or doing the housework. It has some rather good tracks on it and it has quite a few rather average tracks, but it doesn’t really have any bad tracks, which is a nice upside. The song-writing is decent and the musicians are competent, but it’s really nothing to write home about, and the scope of music is comfortably broad, but nothing particularly challenging or intriguing. Really this album is just a nicely comfortable piece of work. It doesn’t break any boundaries, but it’s good enough.

    Source: Wisenheimer – Custard by Lachlan J
    This is something that the band’s manager, Dave Brown, touches on in Andrew Stafford’s Pig City, arguing that Apartment was released too early:

    Custard had met keyboard player and producer Eric Feldman while touring in support of another of McCormack’s heroes, former Pixie Frank Black. Feldman had a long list of credits and contacts, and Frank Black himself had been impressed enough by Custard to loan McCormack three of his guitars for the recording of what was to become Wisenheimer. If the album lacked its predecessor’s rambling charm, it also contained some brilliant material (the woozy, beautiful art-rock of Columbus is perhaps Custard’s greatest moment).
    The obvious standout, Apartment, was the first single. It was a disappointing choice for Dave Brown, who reasoned that by leading with their best punch, excellent follow-up singles such as Lucky Star and Sunset Strip were rendered anti-climactic after the album’s release in late 1995. Dave Brown:

    It’s always my bitch that they released Apartment at the wrong time, and that was the difference between Wisenheimer being a successful album versus a really successful album. It was the first single and it was too good for that, without a doubt in the world. It should have been released second or third; I think that gets proven every time.

    Source: Pig City by Andrew Stafford
    Comparing the album with Wahooti Fandango, I kept on thinking that having one producer for the whole album, Eric Drew Feldman, made it more consistent, but I feel that is possibly in the ear of the beholder. Maybe, Wisenheimer is less contrasting than Wahooti Fandango, but each track still jumps around between genres, whether it be the angular rock guitar one minute with GooFinder, to leaning back into the country origins with Leisuremaster. There are also strange interludes and extras, such as the saxophone led jam of Cut Lunch or the the excerpt about gold at the end of I Love Television that reminded me of Jim Carey’s monologues on The Weeknd’s Dawn FM.
    With the length of tracks, I feel that you never really get to settle as a listener. Even the slower tracks fly on by. Or maybe like a box of Roses chocolates, this is an album for those who just like eating chocolates, no matter the flavour, but would possibly frustrate those who just like this flavour or that. I wonder this maybe what Damian Cowell was touching upon when he spoke about Custard and anchovies. All in all, it was one of those albums that really benefited from multiple plays.
    On a side note, the one thing that I am left intrigued by is how they presented this tapestry of sounds live? The sound often contrasts between a wall of sound and more subtle sounds. When I saw McCormick live playing acoustically, it felt like the tracks were chosen because they fitted the bill, with the only track that felt like it did not fit was Girls, but nobody cared. However, thinking about it now, I wonder if McCormick / Custard could in fact play a number of different sets that would cater for different audiences? I have searched YouTube in the vain hope of finding an old concert, but all I can find is them performing Apartment.

  3. Growing up, I remember finding a copy of We Have the Technology at Cash Convertors. My guitar teacher was encouraging me to play the surf rock tune ‘Memory Man’ as a part of my Year 12 group music performance. I knew the singles, such as ‘Anatomically Correct’, ‘Nice Bird’ and ‘Music is Crap’ and probably skipped to those on my CD player or computer, but I fear that I never gave the album the patience it probably deserved or needed.

    As an album, We Have The Technology seems to continue on from the other albums in forever bouncing between pop, surf, stoner, country and rock. The problem is that at times there were just too many flavours on the plate, balancing between genius, chaos and who cares. Although each track seems to make its own statement in themselves – a change from some of their earlier tracks – they feel like they are contrasted with how they are organised on the album. For example, ‘Scared of Skills’ gives the impression of a rock album, only to pivot to ‘Memory Man’, then quickly followed by ‘Very Biased’. It plays like a child with ADHD ready for their Ritalin.

    It is interesting listening and hearing various sounds. At times, I feel like there are similarities to say Blur and their jangly pop. However, I have gone and listened to Pavement’s Wowee Zowee and can hear some of the influences. (Growing up in an era before streaming, it is interesting how some bands simply escaped your radar.) What I feel is probably the case is that I am missing the albums that influenced both bands and albums. Maybe I need to go and listen to Captain Beefheart maybe? Or Jonathan Richman? (Interestingly, in a recent interview for a book on the Velvet Underground, Dylan Jones suggested that Jonathan Richman has been largely forgotten. I would agree with this, until The Go-Betweens, I had not even heard of him.)

    I have been left thinking that maybe the best way to describe Custard is ‘seriously silly’. Whimsical songs about guitar cases, alien’s thoughts on music and long roads leading to drugs all seem rather silly, but then I was left wondering if they were any more ridiculous than some songs written using cut up poetry or even say something like Powderfinger’s Double Allergic, another ‘Brisbane’ album released at roughly the same time. I think that Andrew Stafford captures this period best in Pig City with the quote that the band had possibly ‘disappeared up its own arse’:

    We Have The Technology caught McCormack in an ornery mood. Heavily under the influence of Pavement’s Wowee Zowee, also made at Easley Studios, McCormack’s songs were growing ever more tangential and self-referential. And consequently, the music – as a review of another Brisbane band had earlier suggested – ‘disappeared up its own arse’.

    David McCormack: I remember Eric Drew Feldman sitting me down in some diner saying, ‘Look, you’ve got to have a radio single, you’ve just got to have one . . . Go as crazy as you want, but you need three or four radio songs so the band can keep going, you can’t just ignore that stuff,’ and he was right. But I was just like, ‘No, man, we’re fucking artists!’ It’s maturity . . . If I could go back, there would be a lot of decisions I would make differently.
    The release of Thompson’s Music Is Crap as a single in February 1998 painted the band into a corner.

    Source: Pig City by Andrew Stafford

    Although the same could be said about Powderfinger, at least they provided ‘Pick You Up’ as a somewhat accessible single. Yes ‘Anatomically Correct’ and ‘Nice Bird’ come close to this, but their feels like a refusal to play by the rules as personified by ‘Music is Crap’.

    What remains is a certain catchiness that pervades throughout. I was watching Dylan Lewis’ interview with McCormack on Recovery in which McCormack was questioned about being perfectionists. It is interesting to consider the idea of silly music being perfect is sometimes lost, but after a few listens everything feels intentional. (I have had a similar thought listening to TISM.) For example, they never really drag out songs and the only one that they do on We Have the Technology is ‘Very Biased’, when it drifts off into a dream-like state. After listening through a few times, I found that the various hooks and melodies really sink in, often leaving me unintentionally tapping or humming along. Also, thinking about it now, I probably could have covered all the criteria for my group performance playing Custard songs.

    Marginalia

    Track listing

    1. “Scared Of Skill” 1:25 – dirty distorted pop rock
    2. “Memory Man” 1:25 – surf Rock instrumental. Same length as the first track. Feels like a statement. This is going to be another ride.
    3. “Very Biased” 2:33 – back to rocking out again. Only to then washout like a lingering dream outro.
    4. “Anatomically Correct” 2:43 – pop rock, reminds me of blur.
    5. “Hello Machine” 2:46 – steel string slide back. I am reminded a little of Gomez, but wonder if one of the things about Custard is that not only do they never seem to settle, but their mix of sounds and genres within the one album is so novel.
    6. “Totally Confused” 3:14 – slowed right down and stripped back, with rich harmonies in the chorus.
    7. “Piece of Shit” 2:29 – bouncing vibe reminds me of Parklife.
    8. “Pinball Lez” 2:22
    9. “Sons and Daughters” 2:49
    10. “Nice Bird” 3:01 – starts out like a Pixies track
    11. “No Rock and Roll Record” 2:49 – self-referential song about being failed artist
    12. “Sinatra Theory” 2:54 – the angular meets thr melodic
    13. “Schtum” 3:50 – slide guitar back
    14. “The Truth About Drugs” 2:39 – this is called the truth about drugs, that maybe that life is boring and mundane.
    15. “Music Is Crap” 3:08 – quirky silliness takes everyone down
    16. “The Drum” 3:43
    17. “Eight Years of Rock and Roll Has Completely Destroyed My Memory*”

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