Australia occupies a mysterious place in the British psyche; at once a land of endless opportunity and fun in the sun, and yet “a wide cultural desert populated by man-eating sharks, poisonous snakes, spiders and men in shorts,” as one British journalist put it. The former notion of Australia is a colonial construct designed to entice settlers, the latter perhaps a (semi-)postcolonial cringe – a refusal to recognise that white Australian culture, one that has sought to erase thousands of years of indigenous culture, is but a younger sibling of Britain’s cultural heritage. For the average Brit, Australia’s cultural output can easily be reduced to Neighbours and Home and Away, AC/DC and INXS. Sure, Australia has produced things, but they’re populist, throwaway, the butt of jokes – and what culturally credible things the country has produced can be claimed as our own, anyway.
In this context, it is not surprising that Australia’s musical underground remains largely ignored internationally, but this cannot simply be explained as being the result of British elitism. Indeed, the last few decades have seen significant numbers of Australians creating experimental music abroad, ‘making it’, and moving home, from Oren Ambarchi and HTRK, to one of 2017’s breakthrough artists, Carla dal Forno. Even veteran acts like Severed Heads have received a new wave of international fame in recent years, touring to global audiences as appreciative as the ones at home. It sometimes seems like the only way to receive an audience as an Australian working at the outer edges of music is to move elsewhere, to London or Berlin or New York – somewhere with a more established scene, with a stronger infrastructure and network, more journalists paying attention, and established labels to give you a shot.
It is this notion of Australia as an isolated backwater that is so vividly evoked by new wave groups like the Triffids and Icehouse, whose songs described an Australia marked by an all-consuming loneliness – and which found them a rapturous international audience, perhaps ironically. “Nothing happens here, nothing gets done…,” sings the Triffids’ David McComb on ‘Spanish Blue’, recorded in Sydney in 1982, “… but you get to like it, you get to like the feeling of the sun.” The novelist David Davies captured this sense of isolation similarly, writing: “Here in the Antipodes, one waits on events that will never come, since history takes place elsewhere. Far; so very far!” And so music does too?
This is only half the story: if only a few Aussie acts manage to find fame abroad, this doesn’t mean the music scene Down Under is not flourishing (or that it hasn’t flourished historically). Australia’s major cities have hosted rich and diverse music scenes for decades, which should theoretically make it a crate diggers paradise; so much left to be discovered and unearthed, made available to the wider world or kept in your crate to seal selector status. Yet just as British cultural snobbery tends to look down on Australian creations, it would seem Australia lacks the arguably problematic allure of trips to Japan, Brazil or Nigeria to dig rare records that will end up on the shelves of Rush Hour. It is, in the most crude language of the market, an untapped resource.
Luckily the work of archiving Australian underground history has fallen into safe hands at home, and 2017 saw the release of a number of notable reissues and compilations highlighting just some of the incredible music created in the country in the ’80s.
Once the stuff of legend, Chapter Music made this incredible work of weirdo disco and Antipodean no-wave available to the world in 2017. Described on its initial release in 1981 as “Ten arse-kicking tracks that encompass the wide dissemination of the most recent and prolific enigma yet to seduce the mass-market and tickle the art-cult: DISCO,” with Side A dedicated to “Disco Music for AM Airplay” and Side B “strictly for the dance-floor.” It is disco – or is it? What is disco anyway? Andrew Montana describes the record as “a parody of genres, a semiotic decoding of forms, cut and pasted,” which sounds about right.
The record is sometimes reminiscent of the work of Arthur Russell collaborator Peter Zummo and his Love of Life Orchestra, albeit on a far more modest budget (it was recorded live after all); playing with genre conventions whilst clearly having a foot in the art world. At moments it’s an Aussie take on James Chance or Lydia Lunch, an abrasive attack of funk. This is fitting: Asphixiation was lead by Philip Brophy, who cut his teeth in → ↑→ (Tsk Tsk Tsk), an experimental music and arts group that formed in Melbourne in 1977. Brophy performed What Is This Thing Called ‘Disco’? at the Popism exhibition, central to making the connection between the work of artists in Australia and in New York City at the time, most notably Keith Haring. One can only imagine an alternative historical timeline in which Haring returned from his famed 1984 trip to Australia with a copy of Brophy’s record for Levan to play at the Garage.
“We really just wanted to capture the feeling we shared when we were playing and listening to this kind of pop music,” says Moopie, “just as importantly, we were bored, desperate and unmoved by a lot of the things happening around us.” This is understandable: the word ‘gorgeous’ may be thrown around, but the tracks contained on A Colourful Storm‘s I Won’t Have To Think About You compilation are just that, and as such impossibly easy to fall in love with. Despite their simplicity, each song is a well of emotions, and so taking a personal approach to the record was also important to Bayu and Moopie, the record is no mere “chronological or historical survey.” If anything, it’s like a gift from friends.
Released on Noise in My Head sub-label Efficient Space, Oz Waves continues the work of 2016’s Midnite Spares (which featured Brophy’s aforementioned → ↑→) in showcasing the weirdest waves to ride out of ’80s Australia. “Chapter Music’s comprehensive Can’t Stop It comps had always been my road map for Australian post-punk,” says Noise in My Head’s Michael Kucyk, and “Steele‘s research for Oz Waves went deep sea, introducing me to another layer of artists and DIY industry.” Nevertheless, Kucyk wishes “we could do more to document the period but it often seems riddled with bad blood and unresolved inner-band tensions.”