Monday, 29 December 2014

Escape (The Pina Colada Song)

Rupert Holmes
I read a review recently of the soundtrack to the film 'Guardians of the Galaxy' which astutely observed that it's a soundtrack for people that love 1970s rock but don't own any 1970s rock albums.

I am a fan of 1970s rock and own many albums in the genre. I bought the 'Guardians' album anyway, because many of the songs are AM radio classics that I remember from when I was a child driving around with my mother and sister for what seemed like endless hours in the back seat of our white Ford Escort, either on shopping centre visits, or to the outer suburb of Oxley where my father was working as a pharmacist.

In the brief interludes between fighting with my sister and reeling from threats coming from the front seat of the car, I found time to absorb some of the important hits of the day. It's amazing what sticks with you over the years and what can take you back to younger, simpler times. The songs that still seem to be able to do this are Glen Campbell's 'Wichita Lineman' and the divisive novelty hit by Rupert Holmes - 'Escape (The Pina Colada Song)', which incongruously is featured on the 'Guardians' soundtrack.

I've always liked a big chorus and 'The Pina Colada Song' was one of the earliest examples I can think of that managed to instil this love in me. (Perhaps the other one was Kate Bush's 'Wuthering Heights')

A Ford Escort (white)
To my seven year-old brain 'The Pina Colada Song's' chorus also posed a number of mysterious questions that I wasn't sure I knew the answer to. I can remember running through responses in my head as I gazed vacantly at the passing traffic, while absorbing the vibes in glorious mono that were emanating from the car's speakers.

"Do you like Pina Coladas?" the song asked.

"Uh, I'm not sure, but I know they're made with pineapple juice and coconut, so they could be okay." I responded.

"...and getting caught in the rain?"

"Of Course! It's a chance to race leaves down the storm drains with my friends."

"... and the feel of the ocean?"


"... and the taste of Champagne?"

"It has bubbles like Coca Cola!"

"Do you like making love at midnight - In the dunes on the Cape?"

The Dunes on the Cape
"Well, here things get tricky. I've heard some frankly terrifying rumours in the schoolyard from some unreliable sources, but I'm willing to concede that love is a good thing, so 'making love' can't be bad, right? Also, I like the challenge of staying up until midnight and the beach would be a nice place to hang out."

The mystery of the song stayed with me and even made me aware of the possibility that I might have a romantic soul, even though the young Trevor only had the faintest inkling of what 'romance' meant.

Unfortunately, through the years I also became aware that being 'romantic' to me came with a proviso that I can neither say nor do anything of a romantic nature for fear of embarrassment, rejection, or some soul-paralysing combination of both. But deep down, I know the romantic Trevor still exists somewhere.

The seven year-old Trevor was not available for comment when I recently re-listened to the song from an adult perspective which left me feeling quite critical of the protagonists.

For a start, the guy is responding to a personal column while his wife is lying there next to him in bed.

Why don't they talk?

I know the 70s were a different time and perhaps they were tired after attending a 'key party' or some sort of suburban orgy, but isn't communication still important in the most open of relationships?

Of course, the ultimate irony of the song is that his 'lady' is the one who placed the add in the personal column in the first place, but he is too dumb or insensitive to even recognise that the list of the woman's desires corresponded perfectly with his wife's.

O'Malley's Bar
Selfishly, the man responds to the add and doesn't even mention that he's already in a relationship. What's worse is that he even suggests meeting at a bar called 'O'Malley's', which is obviously a favourite place where he would take his 'lady' for a special night out. He's rubbing her nose in this whole tawdry affair!

The 'lady' is not without fault in this whole ridiculous charade. She didn't even suspect her husband when he suggested that their grubby little get together should take place at her beloved O'Malley's.

The whole scenario comes to a head when they meet and realise that they both have responded to the same personal column ad. Instead of an ugly public scene of shouting and fingernails dashed across lovers' cheeks in a fit of fury, there is a laughing acceptance of each other.

The adult Trevor can't help feeling that maybe they deserve each other!

However, even as I write these words and come to this conclusion about the song, I sense a remnant of the romantic Trevor suggesting that maybe the point of the whole song is forgiveness and they have learned to accept each other for what they are.

Maybe the whole meeting was a catalyst that allowed them to meet half way and offer a romantic gesture without fear of embarrassment?

Maybe it's important to have a catalyst to allow yourself to express a romantic notion?

Perhaps we should all stop fighting over the holidays and take our significant others out for a Pina Colada instead?

It's what the young Trevor would have wanted


Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Show

I've been living in Melbourne for many years now, but this is the first one where I dared to venture to 'The Royal Melbourne Show.'

I have fond memories of visiting the Brisbane's own version 'The Ekka' when I was a kid, so I was not averse to the idea of reliving happy memories.

The one thing that had stopped me up until this point was remembering myself as a child and how I would transform from a benevolent free-spirited young man, happy and content to play in the wondrous garden of my own imagination, into a rampant, materialistic capitalist at the very mention of the word 'showbag.'

The fact that I would be attending the show this year with my daughter Clementine, who is six years old and in the prime showbag demographic, gave me cause for concern.

We ventured forth anyway.

The train ride to the show was as cramped and uncomfortable as I expected and the exorbitant entry fee had, at the very least, kept up with the inflation rate. Overall, I was surprised at how similar things were to the last time I attended, even though many years had passed and we were in a completely different geographic location.

The entry point to the show from the train platform was through 'Side Show Alley.' I instantly had fond memories of being a teenager and going on every ride imaginable, before finally being defeated by the 'Gravitron' and regurgitating pink cotton-candy vomit into a nearby bin. As an adult, it struck me as rather silly to put the food stalls right near the rides. To me, this just seems to be asking for trouble and I carefully navigated any suspicious-looking puddles as we ventured towards the main showgrounds.

There were hordes of eager children just like Clementine, dragging around weary and reluctant parents like giant pet gorillas, with expressions on their faces that could pass for World War II concentration camp survivors dreaming of home. Their children, conversely, were absorbing the neural stimulation and trying to process all the data. A lot of them had already been unable to do this and had reverted to the factory setting of 'tantrum' mode.

Amongst all this family dynamic I was delighted to discover still existing one demographic that I had almost forgotten about: The in-betweeners.

I remember being one myself, caught between not being interested in showbags anymore and too young to go to the pub. Invariably, this marginalisation leaves in-betweeners in an unenviable situation of walking around with a look that is a mixture of self-consciousness, a disdainful superiority and the added awkwardness of the 'teenage date' scenario, if you were lucky enough to attend with a partner.

I find it very hard to differentiate certain 'tribes' when I look at teenagers today. They seemed a lot more defined when I was younger, but now with globalisation, I suspect even the time tested divisions between teenage subcultures are falling in a similar manner to the Berlin Wall circa 1989.

The only subculture I really miss is the Goths. I used to silently appreciate their efforts in a sweltering Brisbane summer, where their dedication to flowing black robes and pancake makeup in 40 degree heat struck me as a noble triumph of style over logic.

Alas, I was not fortunate enough to identify with any subculture when I was a teen, so this left me a slave to mid eighties fashion, which unfortunately involved a lot of pastel coloured shirts and baggy jeans. In 1980s movie terminology, I would describe myself as something of a 'Brian' from 'The Breakfast Club' or an even-more awkward 'Ducky' from 'Pretty in Pink'... I was not cool.

This lack of coolness led, inevitably, to not being troubled by any female companionship during my early teenage years. I was spared the 'awkward date' scenario.

Luckily, this left me free to enjoy outings like Brisbane's 'Ekka' in the way only a teenage boy can.

The Ekka was a particularly special event for me. It was one of the first places I was allowed to go unaccompanied by my parents, so I took advantage of my newfound freedom in the weirdest ways possible. One time a friend and I went to all the exhibition stands and pretended we were German exchange students that had lost our way and asked for directions in our rudimentary English. The tricky part was to try and keep straight faces while we did it. We were both surprised at how often it actually worked.

It was almost touching in the way some stall holders would ask us about our home towns back in Germany, so we felt we owed them the courtesy of keeping up the charade. We only stopped because we were laughing so hard it was impossible to continue with tears rolling down our cheeks.

We would follow this up by literally going on every ride at the show, trying to keep up our 'exchange student' act the whole time. We pretended to be terrified on the rides designed for much younger children and played it ultra-cool on the stomach-churning rides that would make an astronaut reconsider his vocation. Luckily for me the 'Gravitron' was the last ride we attempted. There is no shame in spewing on the last ride of the day!

Eventually, these shenanigans spilled out beyond the confines of Ekka grounds and the young Trevor was unleashed upon Brisbane City itself!

Like a typical teenager, I still blame my parents for any trouble I got up to as an in-betweener. I ventured forth resplendent in my latest pastel-coloured attire to the new frontier of Brisbane City, armed only with enough money for a movie and the train fare home. What was I supposed to do in the intervening time between when the movie ended and I was expected to be at home?

As it turns out, my partner in crime and I wandered around the 'Wintergarden Centre' and looked for any free stuff we could find.

Luckily, the ABC Shop was giving away some giant posters of 'Count Down' star Molly Meldrum, so we helped ourself to their entire stock.

We decided to go to the top floor of the centre, which was an open-air carpark. We used our considerable skills at constructing paper airplanes to launch a squadron of Molly Meldrum jet fighters on an unsuspecting public in the mall below. They sailed gracefully on a warm summer breeze towards their targets, with Molly's distorted yet gormless expression smiling back at us.

Eventually, people started to notice their airspace being invaded and squinted skyward to see where the squadron leaders might be located. Finally, we were spotted and beat a hasty retreat like a giddy couple of school girls. (Except for the fact we were boys, this was an otherwise accurate description.)

* * * * * 

Back in 2014 at the Melbourne Show, I consider these follies of youth as Clementine and I find a spot of brown grass under a makeshift tarpaulin. I enjoy what is certainly going to be my first and last Dagwood Dog of the year as Clementine explains the contents of her showbags that she has badgered me into buying. One day I suppose Clementine will be an in-betweener herself. I wonder what weird things she'll get up to? I am actually thankful she's still content with her showbags at the moment.

It occurs to me that being an in-betweener was not such a bad thing after all. Besides the long stretches of boredom sitting around waiting to grow up, it was also some of the best fun I've had that you couldn't begin to get away with as an adult. There was a sense of rebellion, nobody got hurt and we weren't actually doing anything wrong. I kind of miss the opportunity to act weird without people sitting in judgement.

As I watch all the weary parents leave for the day I wonder: 'Is it too late to become a Goth?'

Saturday, 13 September 2014


When I was in grade eight, my music teacher was a swaggering, saxophone playing, jazz aficionado. For the sake of this story, let's call him Mr Jones. I didn't like Mr Jones very much and didn't find him particularly inspiring. I found him arrogant at a time when I found arrogance to be a universally bad attribute. These days I don't mind arrogant people if they have something they can legitimately be self-righteous about. For example: The French are allowed to be arrogant because Paris is a beautiful city and they have a rich cultural legacy.

Mr Jones was way less deserving of his arrogance than the French. He hated rock music but never gave a reason beyond an example of what he considered quantifiable proof that jazz and classical were better than rock. He would often cite a dubious university study that claimed to have played classical music to one group of chickens and rock to another group of chickens over a six month period. The results showed that the chickens subjected to classical music produced far more eggs than those subjected to rock. This supposedly proved once-and-for-all the degenerative nature of rock music.

Whenever I look at a chicken these days, I can't help but think of this analogy. I see no intelligence when I look in the eye of a chicken. All they seem to do is cluck, scratch around in their own droppings and produce eggs for their invisible human overlords. The musical preferences of creatures such as these does not constitute a ringing endorsement from my point of view.

At the end of the first semester, Mr Jones reluctantly allowed us to have a 'free music' day where we were allowed to bring in music from home and have it critiqued by the rest of the class. Seeing as I went to a boys' only school and the year was 1984, most of the music was ska, which was brought in on cassette. I think I brought in something that would have been considered pretty lame from the point of view of my classmates. Perhaps it was Duran Duran's 'Planet Earth.' I surely would have copped a lot of ridicule for playing this. Thank god I never got a chance!

The class skanked along to several selections of unremarkable ska before one particularly memorable musical entry was played. It was a choice selection from the private collection of a student named 'Dan.' Mr Jones wearily placed the cassette in the stereo system and Dan waited blank-faced for the song to kick in.

"Gimme head like you did last night, Baby!!!" came blazing out of the speakers. Dan had selected the signature bogan-rock song 'Gimme Head' from the 1980's pub rock band 'The Radiators.' The class erupted in laughter and Mr Jones shook his head in disgust, no doubt suddenly wishing he was a chicken, so he would not have to be subjected to such filth. Needless to say, nobody else was allowed to play any of their own music that day, but it was almost worth it just to see the look on our teachers' face. 

I say 'almost' because, you see, I didn't like Dan very much. He was my least favourite bully in a school that was not lacking in this regard. 

Dan and I had had an altercation earlier in the year, which, to be fair, was at least partly my fault. We used to catch the same train home together and Dan had taken offense at me being a smart-ass to him in front of his friends. How was I to know he couldn't take a joke? 

So Dan decided he was going to fight me one day at lunch time. I think I thought he was joking at first and my initial reaction was to laugh, which just made him angrier. I never even entertained the thought of hitting him, which in hindsight makes me consider that this is why he chose to fight me. I would be curious  to go back in time now and punch him squarely in the nose to see if a look of surprise would register as the blood flowed down his gormless little monkey-face. 

As it turned out, I never even got a chance to land a punch. As I was backing away from Dan I fell ass-backwards over the front school fence, which for some reason was only knee-high and fell squarely on the pavement. Dan obviously considered me too pathetic to continue fighting and walked away. His hostility towards me never really relented for the rest of our high school life together, but thankfully we never had to interact much, so it was fine.

I recently watched Arrested Development on TV and noted that borderline mentally-challenged momma's boy Buster had gone to a private school whose motto was 'Neither Seen Nor Heard.' This registered a bit of a chuckle on my behalf, because I think this altercation with Dan was where I learned to keep a low profile. I think a lot of high school kids still do this as a survival mechanism. 

There were a lot of kids at school who were more on the disruptive side instead of outright mean and over the five years of high school there were occasions where most of them, at times, let down their tough veneer and showed at least a modicum of humanity and the occasional thought for others.

Not Dan - I never saw him let his guard down through the whole of high school. There was one time when he was chewing gum in class and the teacher whacked him in the back of the head sending the gum flying like a miniature projectile. On this occasion I was sure I could see his eyes well up with tears, but I didn't really interpret this as a sense of sorrow and a desire for atonement. Moreso, it was a reaction to being physically hurt. Reaction to personal injury was the closest most boys at my school came to showing genuine emotion.

Dan's 'acting-out' became more advanced over the years until eventually in grade 12 he was busted for smoking pot during lunch hours and may have even been suspended for a while. This wasn't really surprising and I consider it a fairly normal way for a teenager to rebel, but Dan found a way to get in trouble for just about everything.

During a school visit to the Chandler Aquatic Centre, Dan insisted on scaling the highest diving platform which was roped off to the public and was unceremoniously thrown out after a mere five minutes in the building. This struck me as amazingly stupid. Mainly because I enjoyed the diving platforms a lot and would never jeopardise a chance to act like superman in a world where it was becoming more frowned upon to act like a child. Surely he must have known he was going to get caught and would have to spend an hour sitting in the bus by himself? I'm all for 'sticking it to the man' as much as the next guy, but sometimes you just have to choose your fights.

* * * * * 

It's been several decades since I left school and I have never heard Dan's name mentioned in all that time. A discussion at work during the week got me thinking about him for the first time since high school. My work colleagues were saying that Facebook is a little disappointing, because the people you really wonder what happened to after high school are sadly under-represented. 

They were right! A quick scan of Facebook and the internet revealed no mention of Dan whatsoever. This made me wonder what might have happened to him. I came up with a number of scenarios:

  • Dan was able to channel all that negative energy into some useful endeavour.
  • He might have become one of those annoying 'born again' fundamentalist types who are continuously judgemental of others and profess to have all the answers in a desperate attempt to atone for their own past indiscretions. 
  • He continued on the path he was on and became 'marginalised.'

Unfortunately for Dan I think the last scenario is the most likely. I shudder to think what 'marginalised' might mean, but I can't imagine it would be good.

I just can't envision Dan finding a place in the real world.

Ultimately, the best thing I got from Dan was a good story to tell at the pub regarding The Radiators and that one time in music class. To be honest, besides the occasions I tell that story, I rarely think about  Dan... I wonder if anyone does.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

No Time Wasters

If you were to believe most of the ads looking for musicians posted on the board at Skinny's records in the early 1990's, then 'no time wasters' is what most bands were looking for. I wasn't interested in this. I was looking to waste some time. One particularly neglected ad I saw was looking for a female bass player. Seeing as I wasn't a female or much of a bass player, this ad seemed perverse enough to reply to, so I hesitantly organised to meet with a guy called 'John.'
I turned up for our meeting with my bass in hand and was greeted by a disarmingly enthusiastic figure who had a strikingly similar haircut to Prince Valiant. While I don't remember exactly what John was wearing, I feel almost certain it was a stripy t-shirt, shorts, either Doc Marten boots or 'rollers' and the seemingly ubiquitous hippie 'love beads' that everyone was wearing at the time. They have not become a fashion trend since.

We had a reasonably uneventful run-through of our meagre repertoire of songs we had in common, before John showed me some of the songs that he had recently recorded with his band 'The Melniks'. The name struck a chord straight away as I had remembered reading about the Melniks in the street press. They had been compared to The Modern Lovers, which had recently become a favourite band of mine. I went home with a copy of The Melniks' cassette 'I Was a Cartoon Porn Star' and a vague invitation to meet up for a drink at some point.

It turned out that the meeting at the pub was the real audition. It was at The Shamrock Hotel in Fortitude Valley. This is where I first met the only other member of the Melniks, drummer Jason 'Cass' Cassidy. Cass was similarly attired to John, but seemed a bit bit more formidable in as much as he possessed at least one percent menace, which was one hundred per cent more than John or I could muster. I was impressed that The Melniks seemed to have a 'crew', which at the time consisted of (among others) Bek Moore and Bre O'Neil who would later go on to form the band Clag.

My drunken exuberance must have struck a chord with John and Cass that night and I became aware that I might have got the gig when their friend Paul introduced me to a group of people as 'The Melniks' new bass player.' Nothing more was said by anyone on the subject and we got to work rehearsing.

My previous musical experience consisted mostly of endlessly jamming with friends from high school. We had become involved in somewhat of a musical arms race, which resulted in me purchasing a formidably loud bass amp and a flashy Rickenbacker bass which I bought with the proceeds from an unexpectedly large tax return. Our high school band had a permanent practice room equipped with a vocal PA. We had every conceivable luxury, but unfortunately seemed to just aimlessly play random indie hits and the occasional embarrassing original.

Melniks rehearsals were different. They were conducted at Cass' mum's house which seemed to be ruled by three scruffy little white dogs. Cass had a cobbled-together drum kit covered in purple fur and John had a cheap semi-acoustic guitar adorned with a giant hand-painted daisy. He seemed to be playing through an even-cheaper practice amp, but John assured me later that this was his amp he actually used when playing gigs! There was no vocal PA. What the Melniks lacked in equipment they more than made up for with personality and a sense of direction. They were fun!

The songs were not really Modern Lovers inspired and at the time John and Cass seemed to be more influenced by British groups such as The Buzzcocks and The Toy Dolls. John had a great pop sensibility whilst Cass had a good turn of phrase and a penchant for unusual rhymes. I'm not sure who wrote what in those early Melniks recordings, but I feel almost certain that Cass would have come up the inspired rhyming couplet of 'defecate' and 'amputate' in the song 'Prunella', which was an ode to an unfortunate girl who rapidly seemed to be running out of limbs.

John's guitar playing was really unique. He wasn't content to just play rhythm and seemed to have a great repertoire of little rockabilly-style riffs that hinted at a very analytical mind behind the silliness. He confided in me once that he was a bit of a Rubik's cube champ in high school - I was not surprised. I still have a book that magically seemed to have appeared from nowhere - 'Rockabilly Riffs for Guitar' - I bet it used to belong to John. It's the sort of thing he would own.

Anyway, for a warm-up gig before hitting the Brisbane pub circuit, we played a show at a hospital canteen (I can't remember which one) - this was lucky because Cass got so drunk that he had to have his drum sticks gaffa-taped to his hands in order to play. Fortunately, he didn't need to have his stomach pumped that night, but it was good to know that this was an option. You might think this would be cause for alarm on my behalf, but I was just glad to be playing in front of some people. Maybe  this is where I fell in love with shambolic, unpredictable live performances. Luckily there would be plenty more to come.

Our second gig was at The Orient Hotel. If I had never played another show in my life after this one, then I still would have been content that I had 'made it.' Something about it felt so right, like a mad little dream that had come true. Even though there was probably only 20 people there, it felt perfect, like the feeling a surfer must get when riding his first wave, or a junky his first fix. It was a feeling that I continually wanted to replicate, but, like the junkie and the surfer knows, it gets increasingly difficult to replicate that first 'high.'

That's not to say we didn't continue to play memorable shows. I especially liked to play out of town shows in areas such as Ipswich and Toowoomba. Places where we were barely tolerated and audiences expected bands to play eighties' hits rather than quirky originals. We did pad out our sets with covers in these early years, but they were mostly theme songs from 60s and 70s TV shows.

The more welcoming venues were places such as The Funk Yard and Metropolis where every Friday they would have 'Rock Against Work', where local bands would play in the afternoon until the after-work crowd kicked in. I was working as a public servant at the time and there was no better feeling in my tiny world than 'flexing off', sinking a few cheap beers and playing an afternoon gig. One especially memorable Funk Yard show (which was located in the basement of Brisbane's Myer Centre) saw us serenade a lift full of people stranded in the glass elevator next to the stage.

After several months of playing shows consistently, The Melniks entered Red Zeds studios to record a follow-up to the 'Cartoon Pornstar' cassette. The reluctant acceptance that seemed to meet a lot of our live gigs also seemed to transfer into the recording sphere. An engineer called Jeff Lovejoy, who went on to be quite well-known in Brisbane recording circles was in charge and while he was quite encouraging, it felt like he would rather be engineering a Black Sabbath session rather than a quirky little pop band.

To be fair, though, we were our own worst enemies in those days. Recording in a studio was expensive and we blew all our budget on the sessions, with no money left over for crucial elements such as 'mixing' and 'mastering.' We were so naive that we didn't even know how important these steps were. It took several more years, and a lot of below average recordings, before the rusty penny finally dropped. 

It was around this time that John suddenly decided to go overseas. I found this confusing and the timing couldn't have been worse, with our new cassette-only release 'The Melniks are Uncool' about to be unleashed on the public. To fill the impending John-sized void, we expanded to a four-piece for a while with local shop owner and noise-terroist James Straker taking over on guitar. Cass and I took over all vocal duties when John finally departed. I found this acceptable as an interim measure until John returned, but when John confided that he would not be returning to The Melniks, I left the band also. I couldn't imagine the band without John.

As it turns out, Cass and James had a lot more foresight than I and continued under the Melniks moniker to even greater success. John and I were replaced by Trent McNamara on guitar and Terry Devantier on bass. Trent especially was a great asset to the band and was a good songwriter. The band's style changed considerably. I suppose I felt slightly peeved that they continued to use the Melniks moniker, because I felt I had contributed a lot into getting The Melniks a public profile and now it wasn't really the same band. Other than that I bore them no ill-will.

John and I formed another band 'Biro' when he returned from overseas with my friend, housemate and general force-of-nature Nick Naughton on drums. Biro was even more fey and naive than The Melniks. I must admit that this sort of cutesy-pop really rubs me up the wrong way these days, but at the time I think Biro had some context. Grunge was still riding high in the mid 1990s and I think we saw our mini anthems about space girls, sneezes and rubbish bins as an antidote to all the seriousness of the grunge movement. We took a leaf from George Costanza from Seinfeld's book and decided to do 'the opposite,' which worked very well for us for a period of time.

We released two further poorly mixed cassettes as a three piece 'Ready to Go Steady' and 'Hula.' Luckily we wrote a barely-disguised rip-off of the surf instrumental 'Wipe Out' on the latter cassette which gave us the first inkling what it's like to get a royalty cheque. The revamped TV show 'Wonder World' used that piece of music whenever they had a story about surfing. Perhaps we were a cheaper option. Anyway, it's lucky we split the song writing credits three ways in those early days, because I've noted with other bands there is often a lot of resentment when half the band are smoking cigars and wearing for coats while the rest of the band are wearing rags and eating baked beans.

It was after the release of the second cassette that I noticed John's enthusiasm waning again, so this time I decided to go overseas myself. I only lasted a few months travelling through England and Europe before missing the drunken reverie of a Friday afternoon at Rock Against Work. There's only so many crumbling museums that a traveller can endure!

I moved back into the weird office space in Bardon where John and I lived with a line-up of housemates of varying degrees of strangeness and we set about devising plans for Biro Mark II. 

It was a productive time. We drifted in and out of various levels of employment, gained a second guitarist in the form of Dylan McCormack and slightly updated our sound to include such mid-20s concerns as relationships and, uh, tattoos. It was a great period of just hanging out and playing guitars and socialising with other musicians. Robert Forster from the Go-Betweens moved in a couple of doors down from us and would often come around and borrow bits of musical equipment, or else shoot the breeze if we ran into each other at the local shops. It was quite surreal.

We even garnered some interest from Mushroom records when their little Indie offshoot label MDS  released our EP 'Spare Parts for Broken Hearts.' It did quite well locally and garnered a bit of local support from Brisbane radio station 4ZZZ as well as a higher profile in local shows and on Market Day bills. However, a disasterous tour of Melbourne and rumblings of musical dissatisfaction from John seemed to put the skids on our upward trajectory once again. We decided to break up! 

I have to admit that I did very little to stop this from happening. I could't see the point in John continuing to do something he was unhappy with, even though I wasn't sure what he was trying to achieve in the longer term. Maybe I thought he had a 'vision', but even if he didn't, I felt reasonably sure that whatever he had in mind for the future, at least I would be involved. On hindsight, I probably would have tried to make him see the value of what he already had. 

Unfortunately, the four of us seemed to have developed some sort of co-dependent relationship by this point, and it was not long before we were jamming together again. You'd think John and I would have learned the importance of brand recognition to a fickle music public after our stint in The Melniks, but instead we dropped the snappy 'Biro' moniker we had spent so long cultivating and adopted the ludicrous name 'Small Fantasy' even though our musical manifesto was ostensibly the same.

Luckily, the public seemed to remember us and even MDS gave us another chance. We released an eponymous EP which was a slightly more mature take on our innocent pop sound. This time we dealt with such adult issues as falling in love while waiting in the welfare line 'DSS' and developed a burgeoning self awareness in the song 'Soft Side' (which has always been a favourite of mine). The song 'DSS' even made it to the top five on ZZZ Radio's top 100 of the year. Things were looking up yet again, so right on cue, the whole operation ground to a halt. This time for good.

By the time Small Fantasy were in operation John and I were living in a house in Fortitude Valley with John's brother and another housemate. In hindsight there was an unspoken feeling of atrophy and a growing awareness that John and I were moving in different directions (as people in their twenties are prone to do). I remember once proudly telling an ex-girlfriend that John and I never fought. This was true. I used to think it was a good thing, but now I know that this can end up in years of frustration and resentment releasing in one catastrophic display. All we needed was a catalyst to make us aware of this.

This catalyst presented itself in the form of John's brother getting into verbal and physical disputes first with drummer Nick and then guitarist Dylan. I still don't know exactly what the issue was in both cases, but it certainly shone some light on the fractured relationships that existed within the band. 

Still, I don't think our band differences would have been irreconcilable at this point, if wasn't for the fact that John failed to show up for a gig the day after his brother had fought with Dylan.

Was he trying to punish us? To prove that we couldn't get on without him? Or was he just too embarrassed to show up? It turned out to be not too much of a big deal anyway, because we got our friend Glenn (the drummer from Custard and the Go-Betweens, who we had a side-project with) to come along and play instead. It was fine.   

I moved out of our Fortitude Valley house straight away after this incident. In my typical fashion, I would do anything to avoid a confrontation, but it was clear to everyone in the band that it was officially 'over.' Unfortunately we still had a days' worth of radio and street press interviews to do to promote the EP, even though the band no longer existed. Dylan and I went to ground for that day leaving Nick to take up the slack and do all the interviews himself. It's funny now, but Nick must have been fuming. I would've loved to hear what he had to say. Poor bastard!

Like the Melniks breakup, I was preparing myself for John to regroup with other musicians and eventually surpass any of my endeavours in popularity. This didn't end up being the case. Inexplicably John decided to take up the drums and join an even less ambitious Brisbane band called 'Special Branch.' They were okay, but the only couple of good songs they had were written by John.

Nick, Dylan and I kept playing together and ended up gigging pretty regularly. We even kept up the trend of ridiculous monikers first as 'The Lookalikes' and then 'Skippy.' We had a regular Saturday afternoon gig at Ric's Cafe in Fortitude Valley for a long time and were pretty much the house band like the one on Conan O'Brien's show, or, more accurately 'Hey Hey It's Saturday.' This eventually morphed into 'Gentle Ben and His Sensitive Side' when we joined with our friend Ben Corbett to play country covers before realising we weren't very good at that and writing originals instead. 'Gentle Ben' had some considerable success and recorded albums that were mixed, mastered and not released on shoddy cassettes!

In a strange twist, Cass, John and I also had a band 'The B-Sides' which played mostly songs that Cass had written and a couple of my songs. It was a good band, but by this time it was nobody's main musical concern, so it got slightly overlooked. Very few people made the connection that it was the original Melniks together again. John was playing drums instead of guitar, which was a bit of a shame, because he didn't really have the right 'instinct' for drums.

Eventually Cass moved to Norway and I moved to Melbourne and sightings of John became fewer and fewer. Even when he would turn up to something he would often disappear mysteriously. I invited him to my wedding. He turned up, but left before the reception. This is crazy! If I wasn't required to be at the ceremony, I would have skipped it entirely and instead just turned up for the free booze. 

The last time I saw John was when I returned to Brisbane in 2008 to play a gig with my solo-band 'The Hellraisers' at The Judith Wright Centre. It was a bit expensive and people were hassling me for door spots, which I tried to accommodate as much as possible. John turned up for the gig, payed the full entry fee and left half-way through the night. I would have put him on the door!

I often wonder why John always seemed to lose interest in projects just when things were looking to pan out. Some may say it was a 'fear of success', but I think that's not true. There is an inherent 'ridiculousness' involved with being in a band that is at once appealing but also makes it hard to commit to completely. It's supposed to be fun but it takes a certain type of person to put up with the endless touring, shmoozing and pressure to keep producing content. Maybe John knew he wasn't cut out for this. Most musicians will just keep plugging away until the phone stops ringing which is hardly a dignified way to live your life. Maybe John was cutting his losses early.

I don't think world domination was ever the goal with any band I've been in, but I think the early Melniks and especially Biro could easily have recorded a couple of classic lo-fi albums if we were just a bit focussed and possessed some 'life skills,' which admittedly are hard to come by in your early 20s.

I often sit on the couch in my lounge-room playing my expensive guitar and marvel at how little my playing seems to have improved in the last 20 years. Surely I must know something by now? It's true the phone doesn't ring much anymore, but it occurs to me that the gigs themselves were never really my favourite musical memories anyway. I try not to glamorise the past too much, but sometimes sitting by myself, I wish that it was a Tuesday afternoon 20 years ago, there was nothing to do for the rest of the week and John and I could sit around and play guitars, sip tea and giggle about what we could get away with. 


Monday, 23 June 2014


Jerry Seinfeld was right when he said 'If your body was a car - you wouldn't buy it.' The maintenance required is ridiculous. Especially after the age of 40.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn't been physically ill for a number of decades. Sure, there was the occasional flu and inevitable hangovers resulting from endless nights of self abuse, but other than that I had pretty much considered myself to be 'right as rain.'

My usual strategy when getting the flu is to just ignore it and push on regardless - like some sort of stiff-upper-lipped infantryman in World War I. Unfortunately, during a recent battle with a cold, the enemy overpowered my unknown soldier and I quickly developed pneumonia.

Perhaps it had not been a wise idea to go on a 10 kilometre run a day after missing work with a chest-cold? Nevertheless, I stand by my mantra that it 'seemed like a good idea at the time.'

I consider myself to be quite optimistic and the positive experiences I took away from my illness included: a relaxing five-day bed rest, catching up on the last series of Mad Men and a comical encounter with a mouse while waiting to have X-rays at the local hospital.

More than anything, though, I took the opportunity of being sick as a way of recalibrating what the term 'sick' meant. I hadn't been sick for so long that I was worried I might have accidentally and unknowingly been in a constant state of sickness. How does anyone know what 'sick' is if they are always 'well?' For all I knew I was constantly at deaths door. My 'normal' might have been someone else's 'wretched.'

Luckily I was able to identify the symptoms of 'no energy,' 'a persistent cough' and 'a throbbing pain in my head' as being 'unusual' and decided to seek medical advice. I was prescribed a course of antibiotics. These, combined with feverish sweats and codeine, had unexpected results when it came to thoughts and dreams over the course of my illness. I had descended into the maelstrom of sickness and desperately clung to thoughts as if they were flotsam and jetsam that would buoy me back to health. Unfortunately, in my weakened state I found it hard to separate moments of clarity from mad delusions.

My usual dreams of teeth falling out and being late for exams were supplemented by visions of giant babies eating rusted playground equipment and entertaining the thought of becoming an evil alien overlord. These dream scenarios all seemed equally vivid and plausible. At one point I even considered the option of moving to Zimbabwe as a perfectly sane and reasonable idea.

After a few feverish days, however, I awoke from a cold sweat one morning into a moment of clarity. Maybe it was a state that christians might term 'born again.' Feeling marginally better, I considered the possibility that I was 'on the mend' and in that moment a truth was revealed to me as if trumpeted from angels on high. The truth was this: "Nothing feels as good as feeling well!"

Instantly I hatched plans to stop drinking, eat better and use my time more efficiently. Maybe I would even start being nice to people. The possibilities of the good I could do in the world seemed endless  - as long as I could just find a way to get out of bed and stand up for longer than half an hour.

Of course, my symptoms improved rapidly as the antibiotics took effect and unfortunately my mind just as rapidly returned to its usual 'well' state. Thoughts of being healthy were replaced with a desire to have 'fun.' The longing to return to the cold night air and the unhealthy lifestyle that had contributed to my downfall is a phenomenon I can only speculate as being similar to the mindset of someone that has survived an airline disaster: To truly get over the disaster you have to face your fear and get on board another flight.

Author Stephen King did something similar when he was run over while walking along the road near his home in Maine. He decided to buy the truck that had hit him so that he could wreak his own vengeance and take control of his own destiny once more by personally beating the crap out of the vehicle.

In a similar way I had to return to my old life and claim my own destiny. I had to once again return to being king of my domain where a pint of Coopers was my Chalice and a greasy kebab at 1am was my sceptre.

I'm happy to be back to my usual state, but part of me hopes that next time I'm sick my epiphany to strive for constant wellness will stick.

Another part of me is mistrustful about listening to the ramblings of a fevered mind.

After all, there's no way I'm moving to Zimbabwe!

Thursday, 29 May 2014


All around me people seem to be going on exciting overseas adventures. My wife is currently in America touring with her band The Zebras, while I spend three wonderful weeks at home with my daughter and my parents. I don't think I've spent three weeks with my parents for about 20 years... God help me!

Previously, when my wife's band toured, she suggested I come along for fun. I found this incredibly insulting, as I still harbour increasingly-unlikely rock star dreams of my own. You don't go to an Eric Clapton concert and find David Bowie sitting dejectedly at the merch table! Also, the fact that the dog tends to leave the room every time I even look at my guitar tends to suggest that I'm not ready for a North American tour just yet. 

I have been overseas on several occasions - mostly around Europe and America - and from my modest travels I have discovered one thing - I hate being a tourist. This mostly stems from being an Australian backpacker in England while in my early 20s. The stigma of the drunken Aussie yobbo overseas cluttering up youth hostels and stealing all the bar jobs is well deserved and I confess that I did very little to challenge the average British citizen's perspective of this stereotype.

I travelled for several months around Europe by myself and found it to be a crushingly lonely experience, which wasn't relieved by the fact that I was sharing the company of similarly displaced individuals. How I longed to assimilate and seamlessly step into the cultures I was outwardly observing, like some sort of shape shifting space man, walking unquestioned through their alien societies. My cloaking-device always seemed to falter, however, and I couldn't help but feel like the 'other.'

Upon reflection, the reason I felt like this was because I was looking for a 'when' rather than a 'where.' For example, when I was in London in 1994, I couldn't understand why it was not 1968. I expected to get off the train at Waterloo Station and see Terry and Julie holding hands and staring in each others eyes, oblivious to the world passing them by, while the sunset lit their youthful faces. Instead, I alighted from the train to find some wasted hood-rats huffing paint from a plastic bag and a bunch of pissed-off commuters.

Similarly, In Berlin I couldn't escape the feeling that I wanted to be in the city at least a few years earlier to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall. If I was being honest, however, I probably would have preferred to be there in the 1970s, when the wall was still up and I could wallow in the romantic decadence that seemed to exist on the edge of the city's political and ideological divide.

I felt the same in America when visiting the famous punk club CBGBs in the mid 2000s. Sure, it was as dirty and squalid as it's reputation had led me to believe, but the creative spark that had made it a cultural touchstone in the 1970s and 1980s seemed to have moved on. New York was no longer Scorsese's Mean Streets or Woody Allen's Manhattan and instead had become gentrified to the extent that nobody actually interesting could afford to live there anymore. Sadly, CBGB's closed down a few months after I visited, but ironically opened up in Las Vegas, where visitors could visit the ghost of a former venue that in the new Manhattan had already become a ghost of its former self.

I suppose what I was looking for in my travels was a feeling that I was part of the Zeitgeist. I have since come to understand that this is not an easy thing to find and more often than not the Zeitgeist finds you. I probably have been a part of it several times in my life, but usually when I was there I didn't know about it or even care. I think it has to do with a 'grass is always greener' affect where nobody thinks their own story is particularly interesting.

This is why my favourite travel destination so far has been a place I barely knew anything about - the city of Prague in the Czech Republic. Unhampered by any cultural expectations, I was free to be surprised and delighted by a city that was steeped in history, but at the time was waking up to a new-found place in the modern European landscape.

I have to admit that things didn't start out well in Prague. It was popular for tourists to billet with families in Prague at the time, but I didn't feel comfortable doing this and instead sought some other accommodation. Unfortunately, the compound I ended up staying in seemed to be some sort of ex-soviet military installation on the outskirts of town. During the night of my first stay the constant slamming of heavy iron doors convinced me I might have accidentally become an inmate in a military prison.

Luckily, the overlords of the facility gave me a day pass the next day and I was delighted to find the contrast between my lodgings and the city of Prague itself only added to the jaw-dropping beauty of the city.

To an Australians' eyes, countries like England seem old, but comparatively Prague seems positively ancient. I would describe the architecture as medieval. Walking through Prague felt like being in the movie 'Snow White.' The best thing about all this ancient architecture was there always seemed to be some accompanying story of suicide, murder or some other shady dealings happening under a veil of secrecy.

Probably the most famous landmark in the city is the Astronomical Clock in the town square that features intricately rendered figures of morbidity such as a skeleton representing death and figures depicting vices such as greed, vanity and entertainment (?)

The story goes that the official who commissioned the clock was so impressed and delighted with the artisan's efforts that he promptly poked the poor guy's eyes out so that he wouldn't create anything again to match the clock's beauty... Reward for a job well done!

Equally as beautiful is the Charles Bridge that crosses the Vltava River. I was interested and surprised to learn that there was a 'John Lennon Wall' at one end of the bridge. Apparently it was something of a symbol off freedom for young people in Prague during the 1980s. I think I had come to believe after one day in Prague that there was still very little western influence in the city. This may have come from the fact that I tried to order a Coca-Cola from a local merchant and he didn't understand what this was. I found this charming, but in hindsight, maybe he just didn't understand my accent.

As my stay continued, I came to be aware that a lot of people in Prague were enthusiastically embracive of the new western influence. I was in two minds about this. I understood that the west represented freedom to the people of Prague, but one day while waiting at the train station I noticed someone walking along the platform wearing a 'Saturday Night Live' jacket. I immediately recognised a kindred spirit. 'Saturday Night Live' even now is a cultural touchstone, but the jacket this man was wearing was a silver retro-style number from the late 1970s. If so, then I think this fan might have been disappointed when he finally laid eyes on the show. John Belushi died decades ago. Like me, this new-found capitalist wasn't looking for 'somewhere' but 'somewhen.'

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

We bought a new car from a car-yard about six months ago... well, it was new for us, but second-hand technically. It runs pretty well now, but trying to get the company to fix problems we encountered with the car under warranty was a harrowing experience. It's only now that I am able to look back and laugh at how comically inept almost everybody involved with the business seemed to be. If I was a small-minded and petty man, then I would name and shame the company, so, seeing as I am - let me reveal it to be Preston Motors at Essendon.

I should have known things were going to be tough when the salesperson bore a strikingly similar demeanour and beaten-down world-weariness to Mr Lundegaard from the film 'Fargo.'  He seemed to be unconcerned and simply shrugged off obvious problems I noticed were wrong with the car. Whilst this did not instill confidence, we cautiously decided to buy the vehicle on the proviso that these problems would be fixed. They were eventually, but only after constant prompting from us. I have never seen a business so un-enthused about someone offering to give them large sums of money. Was I right in thinking they even offered us 'Truecoat' at some point?

Anyway, after we bought the car, other problems were revealed. We had a three month warranty, so we didn't consider it to be a big deal. It wouldn't have been either, if they were able to diagnose the problem correctly, keep us informed about what repairs were going on and offer us some support in terms of a courtesy car for the duration of the repairs.

They did none of these things. The front counter team seemed friendly enough, but they also had a habit of developing amnesia whenever I called their office. This seemed strange to me, because you think they would remember someone who regularly blew-their-stack every time they called. Maybe this is not uncommon. Every time I spoke to the manager, it felt like I was Homer Simpson talking to Mr Burns. Once again he had forgotten my name, even though we had met hundreds of times before.

Ultimately, I suppose they did everything they were contractually obliged to do, but the seeming lack of concern and feet-dragging made the whole experience completely exhausting.

It's situations like these that usually remind me of the book 'Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance', which I read in my early twenties. I can't say that I can actually recommend it, because it's one of those hippy metaphysical tomes such as 'Jonathan Livingstone Seagull' that feel like they belong to a bygone era and scarily verge on one of my most hated of literary genres: The self help book. There's nothing wrong with people helping themselves per se, but I object to one-size-fits-all solutions to difficult life problems.

Anyway, one of the themes of 'Zen' was the search for 'quality' and what this means. The book uses motorcycle maintenance as metaphor for dealing with life's problems as they arise and the quest to fix them in the best manor possible. This sounds like a worthy quest, but the protagonist's obsession with maintaining and improving on this quality ends up sending him mad and ultimately needing electro-convulsive therapy. I want the people who sold me the car to be more interested in quality, but even I don't wish this sort of cruelty to befall them. Perhaps some of the slack-jawed, lethargic salespeople at Brunswick Street, Fitzroy could use the occasional jolt, though.

I suppose it's important to make a distinction between 'quality' and perfection. I don't expect perfection. In fact, I don't think such a thing exists. People try, of course and one of my personal movie heroes is Stanley Kubrick. I came across a quote from him the other day - 'You either care, or you don't.' This blew my mind! You really can see in his films that he put 100 percent in everything he did and also expected no less from others. It shames me to admit it, but if I had ever worked with Kubrick in any capacity, then I probably would have been fired the first day.

The most common complaint about Stanley Kubrick films is that they feel too 'clinical.' Whilst this is something I admire about his films, I can also see that it is a genuine criticism and a lot of other things I appreciate in life are enjoyable because they are 'imperfect.' I prefer music that doesn't always sit on the beat, enthusiasm that trumps technical ability and drawings done by my 5 year-old daughter. Hell, Louis Pasteur wouldn't have discovered Penicillin if he hadn't been lazy and left a mouldy orange out on a bench for too long!

Ultimately in the book 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance', the protagonist comes to the conclusion that you need to find a middle ground between the 'romantic' notion of living in the moment and the need to diagnose problems before they happen and appreciate technical quality.

Maybe Stanley Kubrick is right - either you care or you don't - but caring isn't an absolute and you need to accommodate the human element and happy accidents.

With this in mind I think everyone should care about what they do... except for used car salesmen - this is too much to ask - All I expect from them is that they give the impression that they care.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

My Favourite Album Cover: The Kinks' 'Muswell Hillbillies'

I'm a bit of a sucker for album cover art. I like everything from Tiki gods spewing forth fire and destruction on old Hawaiian albums to dystopian future landscapes depicted by unsmiling synth-wielding minimalists. My favourite album cover, however, is firmly rooted in the year 1971 and the city of London. It's the Kinks' slightly schizophrenic ode to Americana and condemnation of urban renewal entitled 'Muswell Hillbillies.'

The cover is a photo of a typical london pub (presumably in Muswell Hill) which is sparsely occupied in the afternoon by what appears to be 'the regulars.' There's some besuited businessmen in the background, an old man in the foreground and a hard-to-define casually dressed man staring disdainfully to his right sporting a moustache and an orange jumper. He looks like the sort of stereotype that Steve Coogan based his Paul Calf character on: Unemployed, student-hating, extra-strong lager-drinking man's-man. You might argue that his jumper looks slightly effeminate, but the orange colour is all the better for disguising blood stains when he head-butts you in the face after daring to make such a comment.

The full glory of the cover can only be appreciated by opening the gatefold sleeve. The second half of the photo features the members of The Kinks in all their bell-bottom wearing, tie-dyed, long hair and bearded 1970s glory. They look relaxed and oblivious to the fact that Mr Orange Jumper looks ready to take them on single-handedly and give them a right bollocking. Presumably The Kinks' celebrity status and regular custom at the pub makes them tolerated by the staff and there appears to be a reluctant truce in effect.

Besides being an hilarious image, it also makes me nostalgic for my own youth. Half way 'round the world in Brisbane, Australia, I myself was able to illicit similar disgust in people for doing so very little. I was born the year this album was released, but by the early 1990's this 'hippy' look seemed to have come around again and I was an enthusiastic adopter. I felt like I was doing something right when my friends and I would walk into a pub with long hair flowing, ironic t-shirts, pirate earrings and beads and watch as all conversation seemed to suddenly cease. If it was the old west, then I would imagine the guy playing honky-tonk piano in the corner would suddenly stop also. As it was the 90s, maybe the CD in the jukebox just skipped.

Of course this shock effect can't last forever. Over time we seemed to bridge the divide between The Kinks and Mr Orange Jumper. Gradually we went from being 'the outsiders' to being 'the regulars.' Both have their good and bad points, but I always tried not to roll my eyes at the latest cocky young upstarts that came through the door.

* * * * * 

In 1994 I visited London. I was curious to talk with my uncle who managed pubs in Muswell Hill in the early 1970s and enthusiastically asked if he had any good stories about The Kinks. He seemed to be rather dismissive in the way Mr Orange Jumper might be, but it also might have to do with a big city trend of seeming casual and dismissive of people that add cultural relevance to the place where you live. My theory is the bigger the city, the more dismissive people are.

When I lived in Brisbane, I was always delighted to see local heroes Grant or Robert from The Go-Betweens walking down the street, or Ed Kuepper from the Saints. Now that I live in Melbourne, however, it seems like nobody bats an eye if Cate Blanchett is sitting at the table next to them. My small-city mind in 1994 could not grasp the fact that there was no annual Kinks holiday in Muswell Hill, or at least a monument in the town square!

That trip to London also reminded me how different pub culture was in England. Pubs used to be packed at lunch time with people downing pints in thick smoke-filled environments before reluctantly returning to work. Australians certainly didn't seem to smoke as much as the English, and it is one vice I have never really succumbed to. I remember almost getting into a fight with someone at a pub in London because I told him I didn't smoke. It seemed like an unfathomable concept.

I have to admit there are things I miss about smoke-filled pubs. The lighting was less harsh and made you feel like you were in some sort of film-noire with the light carefully dissipated and lending an unearthly aura to everything. Today the light is a lot more harsh and smells besides the heavy aroma of tobacco are all-to-easy to detect. Also, it's hard these days to know what clothes you wore out the previous evening without being physically repelled by how much they stank of cigarette smoke.

I haven't returned to London since 1994 and I find it hard to fathom how much it must have changed, with new anti-smoking laws and a general greater emphasis on healthy living. I'm reminded of one of the themes from 'Muswell Hillbillies' - urban renewal. It seems in my absence London has had another shift besides a physical transformation to a cultural one.

I can imagine if this album was made today the cover would be very different. The Kinks and Mr Orange Jumper would be leaning against the bar sharing a pint together and laughing at the people seated near the window. The air is smoke-free and pure. The people near the window are sipping green tea. They are not looking back, however and are oblivious to the fact that the other customers are laughing at them. They're too busy looking at their iPhones.

Hmmm, I might join Ray and the boys for a pint.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Blu Ray

I usually like to indulge myself and buy a Blu Ray box-set to watch over the Christmas holidays. This year I purchased 'Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection' to watch at my parents' house in Brisbane during our two week stay. My thinking was, at the very least, it would be a couple of hours of uninterrupted 'zone out' time to avoid awkward family conversations, nurse hangovers, or avoid the Queensland heat. It turned out to be quite engaging for everybody - It was a Christmas miracle!

My favourite memory of Christmas this year was sitting down as a family and watching 'Psycho' - even my five year-old daughter enjoyed it! I contemplated how shocking the film must have been in the sixties when it was released and how matter-of-fact the idea of a psychopathic killer with a multiple personality disorder is now. How times change.  I think the best way to enjoy these movies is to remember the historical context of the time and that ideas which seem outdated now were actually quite progressive back then. We need to remember it wasn't that long ago that people were shocked because 'the butler did it' or creepy little kids 'saw dead people.'

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the earliest film in the collection is actually one of the best - 'Shadow of a Doubt.' According to the booklet accompanying the Blu Ray, it was also Hitchcock's favourite. It's theme of evil bubbling under the surface of suburban middle-America is reminiscent of David Lynch's 'Blue Velvet'. Joseph Cotten's simmering 'Uncle Charlie' is almost as creepy as Dennis Hopper's character in Blue Velvet, although not as wildly camp and over-the-top.

Similarly, 'Saboteur' seems to serve as a template for a lot of chase films to come and even for Hitchcock's own 'North by Northwest' (which isn't included here). The film that seems to borrow most from 'Saboteur', however, is 'The Fugitive', with obvious themes of a man on the run from the law attempting to prove his innocence by catching the man who is actually responsible.

'Rope' in my opinion, is one of Hitchcock's best because it is set in one room, has only a few characters and is a relatively straightforward story. These types of films give Hitchcock the chance to work within his limitations and be a bit more experimental. In this film the camera really is another character and my favourite shot is one that lingers on a chest in which a dead body is concealed, while the main characters talk off-screen, oblivious to the fact that the maid is clearing away some books and about to reveal their crime.

The successful collaborations with Jimmy Stewart are also featured. Watching 'The Man Who Knew too Much' made me for the first time realise that I was watching Blu Ray and not a fuzzy cathode-ray image, like I had seen when I was a child. I find watching a Blu Ray isn't always a good thing and can often take you out of the story.

In 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' I was constantly distracted by the amount of blue screen shots that Hitchcock used, mainly because they obviously were on location in the Marrakech, but then suddenly it would revert to a studio recreation. I checked on the special features and found that Hitchcock was notorious for hating to film on location, but also on this occasion their filming schedule was interrupted by Islamic holiday of Ramadan and they were forced to pick up some shots in the studio.

Similarly, I realised for the first time what a beautiful and intricately constructed set 'Rear Window' was filmed on. It's great that Blu Ray allows you to see details you normally wouldn't, but it takes a bit of training to teach yourself not to focus on these and stick with the story.

'Vertigo' is the film that everybody talks about these days. British Film Institute judges bumped perennial favourite 'Citizen Kane' in favour of 'Vertigo' as the 'best film ever made' last year, which, to some, has been a controversial decision. There are certainly some innovations which are now standard such as the 'dolly zoom' effect and animation to depict his character Scottie Fergusson's mental state. These effects can appear quite laughable to a modern audience, but again, you need have to watch them from the point of view of the audience of the time.

The thing that still resonates with Vertigo, for me, is the theme of obsession and identity. Fergusson, wracked with guilt after failing to save a woman he loved from falling to her death, is obsessed with  changing a woman who is a dead ringer, into the woman he lost. Cleverly, Hitchcock informs the audience through a phone conversation that it actually is the same woman and she was playing a character all along as part of a murder plot. It makes the transformation all the more excruciating to watch. Who exactly did Fergusson fall in love with?

To modern eyes, a lot of Hitchcock's films - including Vertigo - seem to have pacing issues. Vertigo ends in the sudden death of Kim Novak's character. Modern audiences expect some sort of epilogue, but in this instance it just cuts to the credits. If Hitchcock had made 'Alien' - which certainly is indebted to his masterful use of suspense - then the film would have ended when the 'Nostromo' exploded and there would have been no final act where the alien was actually aboard the escape craft.

'The Birds' also has an abrupt ending where the survivors simply just 'leave' in a car. It seems a little anti-climactic after the first half of the film is involved in intricate character development. Big concept horror films to come, sadly, seem not to be concerned with the 'character' element of the story at all.

The one script that I believe still resonates with modern audiences is 'Psycho'. Mainly because it wilfully subverts audience expectations at almost every step of the way. It starts off as a simple story of a femme fatale stealing some money from her boss and fleeing across country, only to suddenly become a murder-mysery in the second act when the heroine is famously dispatched by kindly motel proprietor Norman Bates (or was it his mother?)

The policeman investigating the case is also unexpectedly dispatched before finally the femme fatale's concerned sister discovers the grisly truth. There are so many red herrings and unanswered questions, but I wonder what actually did happen to all that money that was rolled-up in newspaper and hidden in the night-stand next to the bed?

Curiously, The only unnecessary element of Psycho is the epilogue where the police chief explains the nature of Norman Bates' mental illness... Please - even my five year-old daughter knows what a psychopath is!

The last four or five films are not among Hitchcock's most celebrated, but there is still a lot there to love. 'Marnie' is probably among the most famous, but for me 'Frenzy' is the most successful because Hitchcock filmed it in England where he obviously felt comfortable. Times had changed, however, and Hitchcock's attempts to appear 'edgy' (was this the only Hitchcock film to feature nudity?) felt a little bit forced in an environment where the Hollywood studio system was collapsing and films such as 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Easy Rider' were now leading the way as part of the New Hollywood.

To me the Leon Uris-penned cold war thriller 'Topaz' is the least successful of these later films. It's too sprawling and epic for Hitchcock's sensibilities. It's understandable that he would try and appeal to modern audiences who had become hooked on James Bond and international spy thrillers but, to me, it is the intimate stories and discrete locations that allow Hitchcock to weave his magic.

Hitchcock's final film 'Family Plot' does a lot to rectify these excesses and is quite an enjoyable and lighthearted film. What could have been a heavy kidnapping plot is subverted by a wonderfully goofy performance by Bruce Dern and even the villan William Devane is so over-the-top camp that it is hard to hate him. It's not Hitchcock's best film, but it is a fun note to go out on.

Having come to the end of this blog, it suddenly occurs to me that maybe Hitchcock was right - some stories don't need an Epilogue - the content speaks for itself! If there's one thing I can take away from watching all these films is that style and fashions change over the years but wit and insight are perennial. Therefore let me simply say:

The End