Yes Sir I Can Boogee

Yesterday I was inspired with generosity, and made not 1, but 2 donations on Australian crowdfunding website, Pozible. One of these was to Australian Muso David Bridie, who for years was the leader of one of my favourite, although now defunct, Australian bands, Not Drowning Waving.

Now, both of the causes I donated to could have inspired a post, (there’s currently a link on my sidebar to the other cause, Young Vagabond magazine), but I’ve had a draft of a half-written post about Not Drowning Waving languishing here for months, I thought it was a good time to dust it off and give it a run, (just to mix a few metaphors.)

Of course, as I’ve said before on this blog, I am not a music critic/reviewer, so don’t expect a post analysing the music and history of Not Drowning Waving. This will, rather, be about my personal experience of the band (let’s use NDW from here on in, to keep things shorter!)

I have to speak in the past tense about NDW, as they have not played for years now. They were a large outfit, with up to 7 regular members, and often had additional musicians on stage with them at any one time, so I can appreciate that there must be a lot of logistics, not to mention dynamics, to deal with when you have a huge amount of human and instrumental resources that have to travel everywhere with you and no HR manager to take all the flack.

But, I loved this band!  From about 1988 when I accidentally came across them playing live at a tiny Melbourne club,  through to about 1996, their music featured highly in the soundtrack of my life.

I first encountered Not Drowning Waving at a very small club called I.D’s, in Greville Street, Prahran. In the late 80’s, Greville Street was a vibrant, colorful hub of arty bohemia in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, full of groovy little cafes, second hand furniture shops, and vintage clothes shops with a strong bent towards a 50’s/60’s rockabilly aesthetic. Nothing opened until 10am, when the noise of 50’s Rock music, and the smell of cigarettes (various types) and espresso wafted up the street. I. D.’s later became the Continental, a great venue that hosted live music for many years, but that club no longer exists, and I’ve lost touch with what is in that building now.

I think it was 1988, the first year I lived in Melbourne, when I found myself in this bar, expecting dance music, and faced instead by a live band. I was immediately struck by an unusual aspect to the band –  all the band members looked ordinary and unpretentious! In Melbourne in the 80s this was, in my experience, unheard of. The guys had short hair, blue jeans and t-shirts, and the girl (Penny Hewson at that time) looked as though she had a growing-out 80’s shaggy perm, and wore a floral dress – that distinctly lacked the groovy 50’s vintage look that was all the rage at the time. Not a skerrick of black clothing, heavy make-up, or dyed hair to be seen. My expectations were low.

I was, however, struck by their set, which included a washing line, complete with items of clothing. Well, as it turned out, if I’d never seen a band that looked so “ordinary” before, I’d also never seen a band (apart from at large venues) screen audio-visual projections on a screen behind them, and I’d never heard a band play recorded sounds – old men chatting, rain falling – over their music, nor a band that played some purely instrumental pieces amongst their set.

When I picture that gig now, I imagine it playing out as many band gigs would in my band-going days: my friends talked to each other, and I ignored them and concentrated on listening to, and watching, the band.

On that night back in 1988,  my musical knowledge was too limited to know what comparisons to make, and even now their sound still defies any easy comparisons, and not just by me. An article on their website by Jon Casimir suggests comparisons to Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads. I’d probably add Aussie band The Go Betweens, and music by indigenous Australian and Papua New Guinean artists, as well as influences from classically trained musicians like The Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

The Cold and The Crackle....maybe my favourite NDW album

The Cold and The Crackle….maybe my favourite NDW album

But I didn’t make any comparisons at the time, I simply recognised that this music felt somehow “right” to me.

After this I saw NDW any time they played a live gig. No other friends were fans the way I was, but back then, there was always one friend or another available and willing to come along. Their gigs always included projection, (courtesy of sound engineer, mixer, sound/a.v. artist and occasional band member, Tim Cole) which seemed to add an element of drama to music that already had a powerful sense of place and atmosphere to it.

Sweat, from the album, Claim. (If this looks old, it is! I’m pretty sure this is the same clip they played behind the band back in the late 80s.)

In his article, Casimir wrote, Critics loved NDW because they demanded adjectives. Their music was haunting, evocative, brooding, sensuous and a million other words that excite people who type for a living. (1) 

Casimir goes on to say that this gave them an undeserved reputation as a pretentious band – with their poetic name not aiding that impression. Well, I can assure you that they never came across that way in concert. Songwriter/lead singer/keyboard player David Bridie was never too arty or cool to chat to the audience and display a keen interest in the cricket or football scores, depending on the time of year.

In my humble opinion, there were two different sides to the band’s music, and I liked both equally. These different “sides” can be seen on The Cold and The Crackle, the first album on which they recorded Sing Sing, the instrumental that they ended every live performance with – a piece of tribal percussion that builds up into a frenzy of drumming, accompanied by David Bridie on keyboards and John Phillips on guitar. The album also includes songs that seem to harken back to an Irish Australian heritage, like Kerry’s Green, about an apparently mad but happy woman living alone by the sea,

and the purple tea cosy she wears on her head

it has holes for her ears, and why not,

and she’s happy

I was reminded of my mother (for reasons best left to another time) – an experience I’d probably never had before while listening to a contemporary rock band!

Many songs were in the vein of other Australian bands like The Go-Betweens who also wrote about living in shared houses in inner city suburbs, the nuances and difficulties of troubled relationships, and the private lives of ordinary people, with Australian references thrown in. The album Claim included the song Thomastown, which was a depressing outer suburb of Melbourne where my cousins lived. This was subject matter I could relate to, and the songs conveyed empathy for their subjects. For example, The Marriage Is a Mess – a melancholy song about a couple trapped in the suburbs with a mortgage and a failing relationship:

While the banks put up bright posters, scream we’ve got money to give away

well it’s as easy as that right here,

but the bank man is a bastard,

and the marriage is a mess

and they hardly talk any more.

To offer my inexpert comparison with The Go-Betweens, I’d suggest that Not Drowning Waving’s songs about suburbia were less poppy sounding, and drew more on classical training. Both bands had a violinist at various times, but when Penny Hewson left NDW and was replaced by Helen Mountford, the cello became more often the stringed instrument of choice – and is there an instrument more able to break your heart just by playing a particular phrase of music?

Claim - or is THIS my favourite NDW album?

Claim – or is THIS my favourite NDW album?

Where NDW’s sound deviated wildly from bands like The Go-Betweens was in their tendancy towards creating a soundscape, and their (growing) interest in indigenous music. Their arrangements often included overlayed sounds recorded outdoors, (wind, rain, etc), and the rhythmns and sounds of indigenous Australians and surrounding countries (as time went on, specifically Papua New Guinea), with melodies and subject matter that ranged from the outback to the suburbs. They utilised multiple types of percussion, (a glance at the instrumentation on The Cold and the Crackle includes: “congas, cheese drum, bowed cymbal, bongos, tambas, big drums, toms, sticks, gong”, amongst other things). In certain tracks, John Phillips’ electric guitar emitted a  wall of sound that ranged from spooky and atmospheric, to capturing a sense of space that was sparse and empty, a perfect vehicle for conveying the immensity of the Australian outback. Combining all of the above with overlaid recorded sounds – of storms brewing, people chanting, old men talking – their music conjured up the Australian landscape in all it’s variations.

Sing Sing. (First released on The Cold and the Crackle, re-released on Tabaran. If you can imagine hearing this inside a venue,  you will know why the audience would be on their feet when they finished a show with this number.)

I’ve never been big on “World Music” (assuming that term to refer to music by indigenous cultures), but I loved the way that NDW incorporated the sounds, rhythms and beats into their music and made something really unique. They didn’t just appropriate elements of other cultures – they, and Bridie in particular, began to collaborate with Papua New Guinean musicians, and probably their most acclaimed album, Tabaran, was made with musicians from Papua New Guinea.

When I listen to Sing Sing, I am transported back to The Club, in Collingwood, or the Old Greek Theatre, in Richmond – past band venues now long gone and forgotten. I am pretty sure that between about 1988 and 1996 I saw this band every time they played in Melbourne. (Fortunately, perhaps, that was only a few gigs each year.)

A true fan, I have all their albums (except the most recent compilation). I took many friends along to their gigs back in the day, as well as my sister and the eldest of my brothers. Thanks to a few re-union gigs in the 2000’s, I then managed to take my 3 younger siblings, as well as my partner and child, and also gave out copies of the compilation “Through One Last Door” to every sibling’s household for Christmas one year. (one- between-two for my brothers who shared houses.)

Not Drowning Waving carved out an individual sound, and I can understand that their music is probably not to everyone’s taste – which is probably why many Australians have never heard of them – but I loved it.

The Little Desert - occasionally I think THIS could be my favourite....

The Little Desert – occasionally I think THIS could be my favourite….

(1) Jon Casimir, 2005,  Not Drowning Waving – A Brief History, http://www.followthegeography.com/ndw_start.html, viewed 8 Sept 2012.

*The youtube clips above are from Tim Cole’s youtube channel

* There is music available on the Not Drowning Waving website, Follow The Geography, and that’s where I took the pics of the albums from too!

*This post is named after an instrumental piece by Not Drowning Waving – NOT after the 70’s Disco hit by the same name!

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2 Comments

  1. Great review — thank you, especially for the memories of the Continental! I always really enjoyed them as My Friend the Chocolate Cake too. Was it the same line up?

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    • Hi Anne, I liked My Friend The Chocolate Cake too (it was after seeing them earlier this year that I started writing this post) but not as much as Not Drowning Waving! David Bridie, Helen Mountford and, at the start of MFTCC, drummer Russell Bradley, were in both bands. The Continental was one of my favourite band venues because you could stand at the back of the crowd and still see the stage!!

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