I leap onto the monitor wedge, perch precariously and tear into a guitar solo, which blasts out of the 50,000 watt PA. 8,000 punters put their hands in the air. I am in my mid 50s. Will my back hold out? Will my earplugs stay in? Why am I doing this? Why are we all here, celebrating “classic Aussie rock” from decades ago?
My old band, a resurrected Boom Crash Opera, has played a number of dates on the A Day On The Green festival circuit with a slew of Australian rock acts from the ‘70s and ‘80s. We are the youngsters – our last hit was in ‘94. While Big Day Out, Futuremusic and Summerdaze get all the press, ADOTG has been pulling huge crowds to wineries for over ten years with internationals like the Pretenders, Leonard Cohen and Devo and locals like Barnsey and Farnsy. The mid 30s to mid 50s demo are eager to perch on a hill (sometimes in blazing sun), sipping wine, nibbling cheese, and buying merch. The Hunters and Collectors recently did a tea towel which apparently sold out.
I’m surprised and delighted with how much fun I’m having doing these shows. The organisation, front and back-of-house, is superb. The dressing rooms are arranged like a small village, set up around the catering tent where the bands and workers co-mingle. Communal is the vibe. We sit down with old rock dogs and talk about our kids and the various dead ends in our “lives in music”; “yeah, I kind of lost it there from ’87 to ’89” … a mouthful of quiche … “the drugs…” In the ‘80s a big outdoor show would’ve been roughly organised; all the bands suspicious and competitive. Now I can sit down with Daryl Braithwaite, the Brewster brothers or a Hoodoo Guru or two without the feverish anxiety I had in my twenties. It’s heartwarming.
Onstage I attempt a little festival irony – “hey people – watch out for the brown acid”. This meta-joke is met with total non-comprehension; silence from 8,000 people. These shows are meta-free zones. After each performance I am ushered to a tent where I sign albums and autograph books. “I saw youse goise when I was 14. Would you sign my arm and my daughter’s arm too?”
ADOTG has led me to speculate on the nature of nostalgia and the quality and texture of Australian popular music; music that has moved from ephemera to iconic. All the acts here are still making new music but are boxed in by their legacies and regarded as “heritage” acts. My stage pass says “classic hits all day.” We slip a new song into our set but quickly follow it with a big hit.
A younger version of myself would’ve seen ADOTG as ageing rockers trundling out past glories. This perspective, taken from the comfort of the critic’s armchair, is the height of post-modernist rock snobbery or pomorockology as pop music semiotician Philip Tagg calls it. Pomorockology has nothing to do with music. Its about fashion and attitudes. It is subjective, self-serving and arbiitrary; does the music wear skinny black jeans and have associations with sex, drugs and self-abandon? If you’ve seen High Fidelity or been put out by some dude flicking through your record collection while clicking their tongue you know the deal. Better get some Triffids and hide the Australian Crawl. Early Models – cool. Late Models – uncool (although the mists of time can render the uncool, cool – the revival of ELO’s fortunes has already begun).
All day I have to push aside gut reactions that belong to my youth. I find myself warming to these musical journeymen (they are nearly all men). Listen to Daryl Braithwaite’s amazing voice, the Angel’s monolithic guitar tones, Mossy’s passionate musicianship, James Reynes’ catalogue of songs. It seems that the stature of these Australian acts is yet to undergo pomorock rehabilitation but it doesn’t matter here at ADOTG.
When I was a young post-punk art rocker I set myself apart from the communal experience of Aussie pub rock. It seemed brainless, lacking subtlety or nuance. The rhythms were stubbornly four-on-the-floor. The sentiments were yobbo. Take the Angels for example. “Back then” I thought they were aping punk rock whilst appealing to their vast suburban bogan following. With the distance of time and the mellowing of my youthful arrogance they have assumed a statuesque quality. The lyrical perspective is idiosyncratic urban expressionism. Their approach to rock guitar is distilled to an elemental essence; timeless, enormous monoliths of immensity that sound fabulous through the giant PA. There are no flamboyant flourishes but focus and discipline (not unlike AC/DC – a band with whom they have a lot in common). If this is nostalgia it reminds me of visiting galleries in Europe and looking at old statues. It ain’t the fancy modernist stuff but it expresses a fundamental rock aesthetic.
Ian Moss was the guitarist in Cold Chisel. That band’s identification with the suburban yobb masked their depth and nuance. It mightn’t be your cup of tea but they had songs. The whiteness of Aussie pub rock and its audience also masked the fact that Mossy is an old school blues/soul singer. At ADOTG he plays a powerhouse set accompanied by a drummer and bassist; the classic “power trio.” If he can’t take risks with the repertoire (it’s all solo hits and Chisel classics) then he walks a creative tightrope with his ensemble’s loose and expressive approach. Here is a man keeping the creative flame alive while pleasing the audience and paying the bills. He is a remarkable performer and wins the audience over, as much with pure musicianship as with the inbuilt nostalgia in the song selection – the songs don’t “sound like the record” but it doesn’t matter. This makes his performance “authentic” in a way that should satisfy the pomo rock critic.
Some artists’ onstage announcements sound like a speech at a sixtieth birthday party. It’s about how old a song is and “who isn’t with us” anymore. There’s no attempt to “be cool” or mysterious. We are all older and the pretentions fall away. Fans and musicians alike have families, health issues and baggage. Yet there’s something joyous in all of us coming together, communing around a shared legacy. At the climax of Mossy’s set, while performing Bow River, Barnsey – unannounced and not due onstage for another 90 minutes – slips in behind his band mate and sings harmony. The audience goes nuts. I was never a fan but I found this moving. There’s no grandstanding here. Now the music belongs to all of us.
Is it such a bad thing that Ross Wilson wrote a song called Eagle Rock and it has become woven into our DNA? I wish I wrote a To Her Door or Better Be Home Soon. Our Australian popular song book binds us together. As I type it is being enriched by contemporary artists who are expanding the aesthetic. White suburban rock crunch is being coloured by urban rhythms and Aussie inflected rap. ADOTG has helped me let go entrenched pomo rock snob attitudes and listen to what these legacy artists have done. I used to be so scared of the ordinary – I’m beginning to find it extraordinary.