Rock’n’roll has always been as much about attitudes and ideas as it is about music, at least insofar as it appeals to me. In fact, the first thing that drew me towards it involved the printed word rather than anything audible. I loved the surreal malapropisms and black humour of John Lennon’s books In His Own Write and A Spaniard In The Works, and read them over and over again. (If you’re looking for punk antecedents, come to think of it, you could do worse than such choice Lennon similes as “His face lit up like a boiling wart” and “He leapt off the bus like a burning spastic”.) From there I progressed to collecting The Beatles’ music, and thence to the Stones, then Hendrix, Zappa and beyond. I remember the first time I bought an LP that didn’t have a picture of an apple in the middle, and regarding it as something of a novelty.
A rather more significant revelation came in 1972, my last year at school. There was a great radio show – the ONLY great radio show – on the ABC on Monday nights: Chris Winter’s Room To Move. One week he did a two-hour special about The Velvet Underground, and I can still ‘feel’ the visceral excitement of first hearing I’m Waiting For The Man. As well as Velvets’ songs, he played a selection of their solo material, and I was equally stunned by the transcendent power of Nico’s Janitor Of Lunacy.
I got introduced to The Stooges’ music slightly more directly. I’d read (in Circus Magazine) about Iggy’s onstage outrages with candle wax and drumsticks and peanut paste, and been suitably taken with the Grand Guignol shock value of it all – as I had with Alice Cooper – but never actually heard the Stooges’ songs. But in July 1973 I dropped out of WA Uni, after a fairly token stab at an Arts course, and got a job at the ABC. In October ’73 I got transferred to a new office. I walked in, and was introduced to my new clerical workmates in turn. One of them was James Baker (Jim, as I’ve always called him). To my astonishment, his opening words – literally – were “Come with me, man. I’ve got a great record I want you to hear.” Without further ado he walked out of the office, and I followed him to the ABC Record Library, wondering vaguely how this abrupt departure squared with the boss. Jim proceeded to play me Funhouse, at full blast. Apparently he’d seen me wandering around the premises, and was waiting for the opportunity to find out if this fellow longhair was a potential kindred spirit.
But if we’re talking moments of epiphany, the key one came the following year – May ’74 to be precise. I’d quit the ABC and was bumming around Europe. One night in Amsterdam I went to see Lou Reed, and it really did change my life. This was during his so-called amphetamine Nazi phase, when he was skeletally thin and had cropped dyed-blond hair with iron crosses shaved into his scalp. The band were tight and poundingly loud. Lou was unhinged. He leapt or rather lurched around, repeatedly knocked over his mike-stand, and his only comment to the audience was “Why don’t you start clapping, you little motherfuckers?” It was transfixing and incredibly exciting.
The net result was a sort of paring-down process. I was already into most things protopunk. What changed was that suddenly a lot of other current music – especially of the ‘progressive’ hippy variety – lost all its appeal. It seemed anachronistic, long-winded and kitschy (in a bad way), and quite simply it didn’t rock. Louis Armstrong was onto something when he said “If you can’t tap your foot to it, forget it.”
Back in Perth there were very very few people – at least that I was aware of – who shared this aesthetic. And it was hard to find a shorthand way to describe what all the inspired bands and solo artists had in common. There’s an attitude of mind, or at least intention, which united The Velvets, The MC5, The Stooges, The Dolls, Mott The Hoople, The Blue Oyster Cult, Dr. Feelgood, The Dictators, John Cale, Brian Eno, Kevin Coyne… But the music itself was diverse. Certainly we didn’t call it punk. And it wasn’t confined to music as far as I was concerned: you could get exactly the same kind of enrichment from, say, reading a William Burroughs novel, watching an old Kenneth Anger or Cocteau film, or looking at a Warhol painting.
In the absence of any local support network we devoured issues of Creem, Circus and Rock Scene (with its tantalising B&W photos of the nascent New York scene, and its agony column by Wayne County), and lamented being stuck in remote Perth. We groaned in disbelief as antipodean jokes like Skyhooks were lauded as keepers of the flame; there were bands who DID get the point – The Saints and Radio Birdman – but they were way over East, and as yet unknown to we benighted Sandgropers.
So anyway, Jim and a guitarist called Lee started a band called The Slick City Boys, exalting his love of flash and trash in the grand Johnny Thunders manner. To dress like that in Perth in the early 70s – or even, as in my case, to associate with someone who dressed like that – was to take your life in your hands, I can tell you. As far as I can remember, they never played a gig.
Cut to London in November ’76, and my first exposure to punk rock as such, as opposed to ‘avant la lettre’. (I remember seeing my first real-live punk sitting in the Sun In Splendour pub in Notting Hill. He had a dog collar and peroxided spiky blond hair, and he looked like he’d just arrived from outer space: the look was new even if the rock’n’roll wasn’t. It turned out that he played in a band called Generation X, and his name was Billy Idol.)
There were a surprising number of young English groups knocking out live versions of Ramones, Stooges or Velvets songs, or rip-offs thereof. To appropriate Dr Johnson’s line about a woman speaking in public, the surprise was not to hear it done well, but to hear it done at all. Many of these bands were woeful – stand up Slaughter And The Dogs and Eater – but others, such as The Damned and the criminally underrated Vibrators – were brilliant. And the Sex Pistols released the greatest rock song ever, Anarchy In The UK. It was a matter of vindication rather than revelation: suddenly the spirit and style and sounds we’d cherished for years were occupying centre stage, and key influences were being duly acknowledged. We saw The Heartbreakers, went to The Roxy, I nipped over to The Big Apple and checked out Patti Smith and Television and The Dolls… You get the idea. It was a lot of fun.
OK, so now it’s 1977, and punk is getting a fair measure of publicity, even in The Arsehole Of The Universe,* to employ the title of my heartfelt paean to my home town. (Actually, New Wave is a rather more evocative term for the aggregate of noises crammed together under the punk umbrella. Or at least it would be, if it didn’t also evoke memories of the ghastly and weedy and watered-down thin-black-tie brigade, enamoured of Elvis Costello and Graham Parker and The Rumour, who followed in its wake.)
I won’t buy into the who-was-Perth’s-first-punk-band debate, and it’s probably unresolvable anyway. (A case could even be made for Dave Warner’s 1974 outfit Pus, incidentally, with their Troggs and Fugs covers, but I was out of the country at the time and missed them completely.) But my favourite one was definitely The Victims. I can’t be objective about The Victims, having seen all their gigs and many of their rehearsals, but talk about a power trio! Their formation derives from an evening when Jim introduced himself to Dave Faulkner, who was then playing keyboards with The Beagle Boys* and was said (accurately) to be a fan of Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers. As everybody (hopefully) knows, Jim played drums, Dave sang and played guitar, and with the addition of Rudolph V on bass The Victims were born.
The first Victims gig was actually a (rather riotous) party, at the indescribably messy dump/rehearsal space called The Victim Manor, located opposite a railway line in East Perth. Subsequently – from August ’77 until the finale at the Perth Punk Festival at West Leederville Town Hall in May ’78 – they tended to play at a nightclub called Hernando’s Hideaway. But there were other venues, invariably one-offs as the proprietors always took a dim view of the volume level. (An Easter Saturday gig at the suburban Waverley Hotel springs particularly readily to mind. The advance posters featured a cartoon with Jesus on the cross, saying “Let me down, the Victims are playing.” On the night the pub manager literally pulled the plug mid-song, after they turned their amps up, rather than down as requested.) The Victims rapidly drew a good and nicely disparate (compulsory leather jackets notwithstanding) crowd, there was wall-to-wall pogoing and a good time was had by all. The songs were well-crafted, witty, raw, melodically strong, timelessly apolitical and sometimes satirical. And they were played at breakneck speed – if anything arguably a little TOO fast at times, so that their differences could get blurred in the rush. But a Victims gig was never less than thrilling. The highlight was always Disco Junkies for my money, partly because it somehow reminded me of The Velvets’ Sister Ray. If you want to hear what The Victims sounded like, I heartily recommend the All Loud On The Western Front CD (title courtesy of me).
I’ve been asked to include a genealogy/bio of whatever bands I was in, but I should stress that my involvement in rock’n’roll (punk or otherwise) has to all intents and purposes just been at spectator level. I can’t play any instrument, and – as anyone who saw any of the blink-and-you-missed-them outfits I fronted will attest – I can’t sing either.
Still, that didn’t stop me from wanting to start a band called The Exterminators (named after the Burroughs novel Exterminator!). Boris Sudjovic played bass, Rod Radalj was on guitar and John (‘Johnno’) Rushin on drums. About 1.30 one morning at Hernando’s we came on, and went through half-a-dozen songs including the aforementioned Arsehole… and The Modern Lovers’ Pablo Picasso. At least one of us fell over onstage, though I – despite inordinate vodka consumption – was spared that indignity because, being the vocalist, I had the advantage of a mike-stand to lean on. Shortly thereafter I was replaced by Kim Salmon – who definitely could sing – and The Exterminators became The Invaders. The Invaders in turn became The Scientists, who debuted when Jim replaced Johnno on drums at the aforementioned Perth Punk Festival.
Then came Sad Sack and The Bags. (I intended the name both to evoke the titular comic-strip G.I. and to suggest a garage-punk group like Sam The Sham And The Pharoahs, longstanding favourites of mine. Not surprisingly for such an obscure allusion, nobody got it.) Tony (‘Zak’) Zaknich drummed, Bradley Clark – subsequently in The Manikins – was the guitarist, and I think Vernon (Ernie) Littlewood played bass. Once again it involved a lot of theory and precious little execution. I had the idea for an LP called Funny Peculiar, and even jumped far enough ahead to envisage an album cover featuring Diane Arbus’s photo of a boy with a toy hand grenade. But in the event there was only one gig – AGAIN this was the Perth Punk Festival – where we played The Coasters’ Riot In Cell Block Number Nine and a few primitive original numbers including Euthanasia (For Youth In Asia). The latter was, by the way, not racist, the lyrical target being Australian surfie tourists in Bali rather than the locals. Incidentally, I don’t remember there ever being any combo, however fleeting, called The Circumcised Bags (as claimed elsewhere on this website), but I couldn’t swear to it.*
Lastly – and probably least – there were (in late ’78) The Sensitive Artists, and a right bunch of aesthetes we were too. Personnel included Mark (‘Hungry’) Hayward on drums, and the utterly singular ‘Sid’ on guitar. Sid’s idiosyncrasies included a penchant for photographing roadkill and a return-to-the-womb-like love of being shut inside a car boot. He was genuinely incapable of understanding why his suggested name for the band was impractical, and would never secure us a booking or get printed in an ad in, say, The Daily News. As it turned out, although we rehearsed lots of times (on Sid’s brother-in-law’s farm), The Sensitive Artists never actually played a single gig – as opposed to their predecessors, who each DID play a single gig. So the debate over nomenclature was hypothetical, and we might as well have run with Sid’s suggestion after all: The Sexually Aroused Mongols Who Wanked Prince Philip To Death.
Punk rock never changed the world, but then some of us never expected it to; it was great as an end in itself. Any movement celebrating minimalism has its limits, by definition, and although it was originally a focal point for a lot of individuals and misfits, it rapidly deteriorated into soccer-hooligan conformity. But for music which set out to be ephemeral, an amazing amount of ‘punk’ has stood the test of time. Considering that Perth is the most isolated city of its size on the planet – maybe partly because of that fact – it produced a particularly healthy and inventive punk/New Wave scene. At one point it was as exciting in its way as the analogous scenes in English or American cities. And from that small core of Perth ‘pioneers’ evolved a surprising number of important, creative and very successful bands in other parts of the country.
But not in my case. They say that those who can’t do, teach. Maybe those who can’t play rock’n’roll become rock journalists.
Mark Demetrius was a freelance rock journalist and film critic for many years, writing for publications including RAM, Rolling Stone, Juice and Addicted To Noise. In 2005 when asked to write a bio for this site, he added:
“[I] have also had a succession of unrelated and rather unenviable jobs. These range from a brief stint at a funeral parlour to a seeming eternity in the Australian Taxation Office. I’m currently a theatre support assistant in a London hospital. But hey, it’s enabled me to see a string of great bands old and new, including the re-formed MC5, New York Dolls, Stooges and Electric Prunes.”
Mark subsequently returned to Australia, and in recent years has written movie reviews for FilmInk.