The Sound of the City

Yesterday I read a post by a fellow Melbourne blogger, on her site Sampling Station, where she asked, what does your hometown sound like?

I started to write a reply in the comments section, but of course, that became too long very quickly and I realised I would have to reply via a post instead.

Perhaps I should begin by clarifying what town I’m referring to. I grew up in a small country town about 1.5 hrs away from Melbourne, so strictly speaking that small town is my “hometown”. But I’ve already written a post about the soundtrack to growing up in a country town in regional Victoria in the 1970s so there’s no need to cover that ground again. I don’t get sentimental about my hometown – my affection for Melbourne is much stronger – so on this occasion I’ll be exploring the soundtrack to the town I’ve lived in for the majority of my life now, ie, the fair city of Verona Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Before I lived in Melbourne, it was always the city that I aspired to get to. My main goal in life was to leave home, and get the hell out of the country.

Let’s face it, as a young kid, and then teenager, growing up in a small country town, in a working class family that had to pack 8 people into a mini-van in order to take a family holiday to Mildura, it was pretty unlikely my experience of cities was going to range any further than the capital of my own state, so I didn’t exactly have a wide repertoire of cities to draw on for my choice. When I was about 14, a one-off trip with a cousin to stay with some distant relative of hers enabled me to add one more city to my list: Sydney. But Sydney was a long way away, and no-one I knew lived there. Melbourne was only a few hours drive away from home, and I knew people there. As a kid, it was my relatives, then, as a teenager, a friend moved there with her family, and after finishing high school, most of my friends moved to Melbourne to attend various universities and colleges there.

Through my childhood, I associated Melbourne with a sense of freedom and a cool, sophisticated lifestyle. To my 12-year-old mind, freedom and a sophisticated lifestyle meant moving out of home and listening to rock music without parents around to switch it off and give me a lecture on its evils. This was because my own very strict, religious parents disapproved of any rock or pop music written after the mid 1960s, and would frequently remind me of this if I was ever caught listening to it on the radio. Most of my older cousins lived in Melbourne, and when I would stay with them, all they talked about was the latest record they had bought, and what bands they had seen on Countdown! that week.

300px-CountdownLogo

Pic: Wikipedia

One of the songs that sticks in my mind from those days, which I associated with Melbourne, is actually by a New Zealand band, Split Enz. They were a quirky, new-wave (sometimes described as “art rock”) band in the late 1970s and early 80s, a time when film clips were new, and you can tell when you look at them now! But I recall sitting in the lounge at my grandmother’s house in Reservoir, in the northern suburbs of Melbourne (back then, an outer suburb with a high population of first generation Greek and Italian families), surrounded by heaps of cousins of all ages, and watching the entire clip of I Got You, by Split Enz and thinking it was the coolest thing ever.

(No doubt I was probably caught by my parents and kicked out of the room shortly afterwards, missing the second half of something like Tired of Toeing the Line by Rocky Burnett. This is why I’ve never seen the clips that everyone else has seen.)

At the time, (around 1980), this clip was very arty indeed: note the billowing curtain, the mod-ish, stylised look of the band, the special effects (as witnessed at the line “Sometimes we shout” at about 32 seconds in). Now, of course, it is amusingly B-grade, and I love it all the more for that.

Fast forward to the late 80s, when I was 17, and Australian film director Richard Lowenstein released a film about musicians living in a shared house in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond, named Dogs In Space. My friend Jane and I managed to see the film, which was R-rated, at the cinema. Our main reason for being interested in it was because we loved Michael Hutchence, from INXS, who starred in it. (I’ve written previously on this blog about being a huge INXS fan as a teenager.) I’m glad we did see the film when it was originally out at the cinema, because it has become a cult classic. It’s centred around the “little band scene” – the thriving post-punk band scene in Melbourne in the late 70s. The soundtrack was great, although it was more about setting the scene than highlighting the local “little bands” featured in the movie, and included Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and new material written for the movie by Michael Hutchence and Ollie Olsen, along with a few bands who were actually from the scene, such as the Primitive Calculators. (Olsen was part of the original little band scene.)

Jane managed to find the soundtrack on a record in a dusty old record shop somewhere, and I taped a copy onto cassette. I still have that tape, and so far, I’ve never found that soundtrack in any other format. This soundtrack introduced me for the first time to Nick Cave, via the song Shivers, recorded with The Boys Next Door, the band that Cave fronted with Rowland S Howard, who I’ve written about previously. Howard was the one who wrote Shivers but it is the version sung by Nick Cave that most people are familiar with. In this clip Howard can be seen to the far right, barely more than a kid, playing guitar. This slow, melancholy song is not really typical of The Boys Next Door, but I’ve stuck with it because it was my introduction to Nick Cave, and also because back in the 80s, there were plenty of goths around Melbourne who idolised Cave and this song.

Around 1987, Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly released an album with a band known at the time as The Coloured Girls (later changed to The Messengers to avoid any racist connotations). The album was Gossip, and went on to have track after track of hit singles. Now, I’ve never called myself a huge fan of Paul Kelly’s, but in the same way that I’m not a huge fan of Bob Dylan or Neil Young – it’s not like these people need my endorsement. I can recognise that these singer-songwriters are hugely talented, and that their songs capture themes and imagery that resonate with many people. It’s just that I always choose other music before theirs, when I feel like listening to music. Perhaps all three are just a little too folksy for me. Whatever the reason, some Paul Kelly songs made it through my “folk” filters, and one of those, from Gossip, was Leaps and Bounds. If you lived in Melbourne at the time, which I didn’t, it must have seemed like an anthem.

I’m high on the hill

looking over the bridge 

to the MCG

and way up on high

the clock on the silo 

says eleven degrees

I picture a sunny, but frosty, winter morning, at the bridge near Punt Road in the inner suburb of Richmond. Punt Road is like Melbourne’s artery, the main road to get from the southern to the northern suburbs, and usually a traffic nightmare at peak times as it’s just a two lane road in parts. Back when this song was written, (and indeed right up until the existence of the Western Suburbs reached the general consciousness in the past 10 years or so), Richmond really felt like the centre of Melbourne as it had a major train station, and it’s easy to navigate from Richmond via road or public transport to the Northern, Eastern and Southern suburbs. The Nylex tower (with the clock on the silo) is recognised by anyone who has ever caught a train at Richmond station or driven up or down Punt Road. Even apart from the inclusion of the historic MCG, Melbourne’s cricket ground, it was an image of Melbourne that was of its time.

In the early 90’s I went to a nightclub in Prahran called IDs, and discovered a live band playing there, with the rather poetic name of Not Drowning Waving. I immediately became a fan of their melancholy sounding music that combined beautiful strings (violin and later cello) with a huge percussion section (live they usually had 3 to 4 people on percussion, or sometimes everyone!) I’ve written a post previously about Not Drowning Waving. Many of their songs and instrumental pieces were, by that time, about the landscape of Australia, and its troubled treatment of indigenous Australians, however they also wrote songs that were lyrically similar to another Aussie band, The Go-Betweens, in the sense that they captured the ordinariness of life in the suburbs and the quiet despair that is sometimes hidden from view.

Not Drowning Waving’s ode to Thomastown resonated with me because I had cousins who lived in that suburb. Coming from the country, Thomastown was all that I didn’t like about the city, and probably why I’ve always been adamantly against ever moving beyond the inner suburbs. It was a depressing suburb of bright orange seventies brick houses, surrounded by cement and ashpalt, with huge electricity pylons running down the centre of the main roads. My cousins’ front yard consisted of a cement path with little white pebbles on each side of it, bordered at the front by bright orange bricks. Even as a kid I found it a bleak and disheartening environment.

Well, dear reader, as I could have guessed would happen, my word count is already too long and I should wrap this up before anyone who has actually made it this far falls asleep, yet I’m barely even into the 90s with my soundtrack of Melbourne. Oh dear. Let’s call this instalment side 1, dedicated to those who recall a time when albums had 2 sides and you had to physically get up and turn them over (or wait for the cassette to get to the end and start up on the other side) before you could hear side 2.

So stay tuned for another instalment, when I will honestly try to select only a few more tunes, for Side 2 of the soundtrack to my hometown!

Soundtrack to Melbourne:

Side 1:

Split Enz, I Got You (c1980)

The Boys Next Door, Shivers (c 1979)

Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls, Leaps and Bounds (c 1987)

Not Drowning Waving, Thomastown (c 1989)

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1 Comment

  1. Awesome choices Blathering, and I’m glad I got you thinking and writing about your “adopted” music city 😉

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