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ART AND POLITICS The heart of the rock and roll industry Is the thousands o f men and women who rock It out night after night in the pubs and clu b s across A u stra lia. NEIL PORTER and ARNIE OLBRICH
ART AND POLITICS The heart of the rock and roll industry Is the thousands o f men and women who rock It out night after night in the pubs and clu b s across A u stra lia. NEIL PORTER and ARNIE OLBRICH live and play in Wollongong, a bastion of heavy metal. Here they speak to MIKE DO NALD SON about the current state ot the rock Industry, and reflect on the 22 years their careers span. Neil: I first seriously picked up a guitar In learned to play E, A, B7 wnich is about par for most guitar players and joined my first band In I performed pretty continuously until 1980 when I gave it away. I played with a famous W ollongong mid-sixties band. The Marksmen, until 1968 We then had a name change, became Imagination and went on to Sydney for two years playing full-tim e and living hand-to-mouth, stealing fooo where we could get it. We played every major venue in Sydney and a few other states and put out two singles. The first single got to number 80 nationally, scoring a 13 on a country station in Queensland, and 25 on another Queensland station. That caved in due to starvation and other financial problems. I decided that it was better to be a big frog in a small pond, than nothing in Sydney, so I moved back to Wollongong and playeo out the rest of my career here in Music Co Arnie: I've be-3n playing 20 years. I began with The Coffin Cheaters with whom I toured Leeton and G riffith (laughs). It's hard to believe but in one night we made a hundred bucks, each. That was unbelievable for those days, and is bloody good money today. After that, I spent a short time with The Solomon Right Crusade, another Wollongong band. I had a break in '68, coming back in '72 with a band calleu Gas sfove. tne remnants of which became the three-piece that Neil worked with in his closing seven-year stretch. Then came Tree with whom I played Checkers and all the major Sydney venues. AC/DC were playing at Checkers at that time too and we used to do half hour about. When the special guest band came on, we d sit down together and I'd say to Angus (Young), ''What're you guys going to do next set7' He d say, Aw, sh?i... Jumping Jack Flash, Wishing Well, AH Right Now... I'd say, Christ, you can't do them, that's what we were going to do... Ahh... OK. we'll play the first set agein. We did that for about four years. And then that band merged with Freshwater which was al ready an establ isheo band with a top ten national hit single, directed by Peter Sheen. I left them to it and started a band called Fools Theatre, which didn't last long. Then came Cloud. Then I went to the UK and played around a bit. doing some time with the guys from the Masters ' Apprentices, Nashville Teens. When I came back I started Hard Grind. put out a single, and I'm now in the process of kicking oft The Warns. Mike: Neil, why's Arnie going around again? Nell: Nobody from Wollongong in the hard rock scene has ever made it . We aon't even know of an individual person, let alone a band, that has made it out of steel city. But it's just not true that all the best musicians are in Sydney, Melbourne and the capital cities, so why hasn't Wollongong produced any significant music? The bands in W ollongong that have made their own singles. Reverend Black and the Rocking Vicars in 1967, my band, Imagination in 1969, a great huge gap until Tarquin/Gangsters in about 1978, and Arnie's old band Hard Grind in Four bands in 20 years. What happened? Why didn't they get famous? We call it the Wollongong syndrome, but we don tkn o w w h a titis. It's discouragement, despair and slackness all mixed in together, which stops W ollongong musicians fium ever really making it. Arnie: It's not lack of talent. If you take the working class suburb of Berkeley, one small area of Wollongong, it had a greater concentration of musos than anywhere, and that's no shit. Heaos and heaps of players and bands, all from Berneley. Mike: Maybe the problem is that it's also got the highest concentration of com m unists7 Arnie: Yeah, it's probably all your fault. But maybe it s that we prefer to be big fish in a small pond than a sardine in the ocean. Nell: The five top Wollongong bands that had a single and toured have all had one individual who has been maniacally single-minded, and has driven the rest of the band. I drove my band,.nade them practice seven days a week, They jacked up, hated me, said that what I was expecting of them was humanly impossible. Arnie drove his band, but not hard enough in my opinion. Billy Mawer of Tarquin used to diive his band hard and sometimes seemed cold-blooded in the way that he would sack someone. I used to say tohim, Sack 'em now, mate, don't wait for five years regrelting that you h a d n t. So he tu rn e d in to a bloodthirsty slave driver. Arnie: Yeah. I've been catching so much shit lately, too. Like at rehearsal, I say Pretzel, what the fucking hell are you doing? Last time you sang in that song, now you're not Singing, what are you doing? He gets all petulant and drops his bottom lip, You know, well..., it just didn't sound right I'd say Look, man, we got two rehearsals to go. Are you going to sing, or are you not going to sing? I don't like surprises on the first gig. Look, Arnie he'd say, 'I'm just trying it out. Nell: Sack him, I m serious, sack him. Opposite page: 1974 (from left) Arnie Olbrlch, Jim McCallum. Lou Bellanclc and Pete Mazzloll In Tree. Look, who's the leader in that band? You've got to have someone to hold the thing together. Arnie: I tell you what. I'd hate to work for a rock and roll musician. They treat you like shit, and I d be working for monkey's shit. I w ouldn't be getting any overtime or any of the other benefits. Look, the overwhelming majority of rock musos have got absolutely no commitment to anything except the individual road to money or fame, and that s it. They have no time for trade unions, and no sense of class solidarity at alt. Mike: What were the toois of the trade like that you starteo off with? Nell: I boughl myself a twin 12-inch speaker amp and started olaying bass through it bass d id n't go very we l through those sort of speakers so we gradually tried to build upourgear, but you tend not to, thinking that you'll only be playing rocn and roll for a coudle of years, while you're an im mature teenager , and then you'll grow up and do snmething else. So it goes on for a few more years, and you suddenly think, Gee, I've played for five years on this rotten dud gear . We saw The Executives playing out at W ollongong Showgrounds, and they had these beautiful amplifiers called Leonard amplifiers, so we found out where to buy then, went up to Sydney and spent a thousand bucks each on these new amps and went fulltime. ft did look impressive, with big walls of amps stacked up behind you A wrile up in Go-Sef, Australia s only rock magazine at the time, said that we were so loud that you had to go four blacks away for the sound to come in focus we were ahead o f our time with regard to booming volume. So the point about equipment back then was that through the 'sixties it got bigger, and more and more expensive. B ut th e e q u ip m e n t was fo r instrumental music. What was a microphone? You never made any announcements you just got up there and played. Of course Thf Beatles came in and kicked the bottom out of the bucket. Overnight, we had to learn how to sing. Six guys singing through a six-inch speaker. The feedback! Then it just grew like crazy, the amps got o.gger and bigger. Now, of course, they have a one-foot square amo, like the one I started with, but with unbelievable quality. Tne quality these days is incredible. You can hear every instrument. And mixing became crucial. Before, if you had a solo, vou turned yourself up and set new settings on your guitar and tnen, after tne solo, you readjusted. I reckon we worked Australian Left Review IMAGINATION' h * n a g e d a b s o l u t e o o n t o SOUNDS J 1 - U S I 1969: (From left) Lyle McLalne, Nell Porter, Max Stefanovlc, and G eoff Foster In Imagination. hard for our money. Arnle: I don't know. I think you work a lot harder now. If you're in a band that's on a shoestring budget like most of us still are. you ve got to hump gear. You can't afford roadies, so you've got to hump half a to r. or a ton of gear to the gig. trebling and quadrupling, but you're still making the same money in the pubs, in the hope of maybe getting there one aay. Another really big change in music that we haven't spoken about yet concerns original music. With The Beatles we had to start thinking about You've got to get there about four writing music too Australia didn't o'clock, set up your gear, have a quick sound check. Then you work while really come into its own with local songs until 1970/71, but now original you're still sweating, knackered, stuff just can't be played in clubs. absolutely tired out. At the end of the N e ll: W o llo n g o n g B a n d s g e t night, after you've finished your gig, instead of sitting down and having a nice beer and driving home, you've got to have a real quick beer and then disheartened because they get all fired up, buy their gear practise for six months without a gig.get their first g ig. wail six months for another one, find hump your gear out to the truck again and then drive home. It's no fun. Roadies are a luxury, without them we re on overheads of $350 a night. In a pub you only earn $250 a night you're paying to play. Nell: To play a four-hour gig takes you from 2.30 in the afternoon to 2.30 at night and you m ight come home with $15 or $20 apiece, if you're lucky. In the 'sixties, a four-hour gig would only take you six hours maximum, and the money was more or less the same, maybe a bit less. Mike: Well, why aren't you making more money? Arnle: I just, think it's a matter that you've got to have the technology. Your overheads have gone up, but the wages that you get from the pub haven't gone up at all. Ten years ago, you were making $150 a night in a pub, without overheads. Nowadays you've got heaps more overheads, but you're still earning basically the same wages. If you want to get better, you've got to get better gear. Your overheads are 40 that no one will hire them because they play their own music. So they start playing 30 percent of their own songs, so someone books them and says, Look, you need 50 percent covers , so they learn 50 percent of other people's songs, and so they're ud to 80 percent. By then they're five years oider, got a wife and kids, and think, Gee, it's easier to learn other people's songs than to write your own , and so the originals disappear, and they become a bland, boring, tame club band. Arnle: But I suppose that there is some room for optimism in all this. Thgre is simply such a vast diversity of music around today you ve got your jazz freaks, old time rock and rollers, heavy metal, the so-called ounks, the new wavers, and popular music. It s so diversified I think that you couid find a niche for yourself and almost survive. A lot of yes's ago everyone soundsd like The Shadows, th«n it was The Stones, and The Beatles, but the range of choice around now is so much greater today. M ike: Isn't that the same as saying that you have to become more specialised? If you put all your eqgs in one basket and become a highly proficient specialised musician, and put all your talent and money into one style what happens if you ve chosen wrong? Neil: You cry a lot and get old quick. Mike: How do you get your little niche to become the Hordern Pavilion? Neil: Radio Birdman, when they first cam e o u t, s o u n d e d a b s o lu te ly abominable to the average ear which had been trained on Abba at that time, and trie Ramones. they ' ere playing punk in the sixties, and just kept on playing it, until someone picked upon 1967: Arnle Otbrich (left) and Henry Emerich In Coffin Cheaters. A L R A utu m n rt Like Birdman roaring chords some kids saw in that style of music a need, and supported them, is it luck or what? Who knows, they got cult enough to be popular, and Birdman is accredited as being the precursors of Australian punk, and they did pretty well between 1974 and Playing covers is a funny business, too I mean you have to be good to play them properly, and it's easy to tell a bad band by listening to how they play covers. The guitar player In The Marksmen used to write a lot of original instrumentals, for the truth was that we weren't good enough to copy The Shadows, so we did a lot of originals. Later, of course, we got good enough. Original stuff was pretty unheard of in those days. Even The Beatles didn't produce an LP of all their own stuff until Revolver. The only Australian band to producp all their own stuff was The Easybeats. Right from their first album, they did hundreds ot originals, ana I don't know anyone who can say that. Mike: Disco was a major technological innovation that was said to be bad for rock and roll. I guess it hit in the m idseventies, but live bands are still around and seem just as popular now as when we were young. Neil: By 1979, bands were back in discos, and the band got paid its full price, and the oisco got paid its full price, but they both only worked half a night each, so really the musicians got it better. 1976/77 when disco peaked, were worrying years, when disco appeared to be taking over, but it was just a fashion. But you see, the bands weren't playing good music to dance to, whereas disco music between 1975 and 1978 wasjust great to dance to. So, of course, the bands started playing funkier music, and they got their jobs back. Arnie: It's really hard to criticise a disco, know what I mean? A record, you hear it, you like it, you don't. What is there to talk about? People were getting sick of disco they liked human musicians, up on stage with t h e ir o w n p e r s o n a litie s a n d idiosyncrasies. Mike: After the disco flare-up in the mid-seventies, bands adapted their music to get back to dance music, but at the same time the speea of technological change in the industry seemed to be accelerating with quite marked effects on social relations inside the band increasing use of keyboard, lead guitarists starting to move away from centre stage, wind instruments starting to come back. There's been massive changes in technology on stage fool pedals, equalisers and offstage mixing, phrasing. Did you have to re-learn, reeducate yourselves? Nell: Yeah, I've undergone a fair bit of retraining Take a graphic equaliser. Bass guitarists like me might once have said what on earth's a graphic equaliser? And yet most stereos and even car stereos contain these things now. What it does is to adjust the various frequencies in the sound range of that instrument, and colour the tone of the instrument in a beautiful way, so that with a couple of switches your guitar can sound like a heavy metal instrument, next song, jazz. Before, you had to work a lot harder to get those sounds, and couldn't just flip a switch. Speaking for myself, I'm greatly in favour of the current te c h n o lo g y. It is a b s o lu te ly magnificent, and I can't over-praise it. Arnie: Yeah, but it's not just foot pedals, you know? The whole thing has become so professionalised now that it's not funny In order to step out on stage now, it seems that you've got to have a choreographer trained in the USA to tell you where to stand and how to move. Nell: Ah... come on. Sure, there is professional choreography, but look, you take someone like Ross Wilson from Mondo Rock. You can't tell me anyone is pulling his strings. From the first moment he walks on stage he is brilliant. He is just there. Arnie: You re putting the chicken in front of the egg now. He's already famous; he s already made it. If he got out there with a bunch of guys that weren't famous and tried to do his stuff, everybody would scream out Bullshit, bullshit; fuck off. W want Mondo Rock . Nell: No, a brand new band can walk on stage and if the players have got real presence and charisma, and precision tim ing to back it up, they'll get their following. Arnie: But what are the kids going to think? They can go up to the Entertainment Centre, or Horderns in Sydney, and see this super tech-ed up band, and then they come back home and go down to the Heaaies (Hotel) and check out the local band, what are they going to tnmk? Nell: OK. so how do you cross that gap? How do you go from a local band to the Sydney Entertainment Centre? There's only one way to get famous, have an album and a film clip. Above: Tree. Right 1981: (From left) Bert Matteschek, Brett Cooper, Peter Ryan and Arnie Olbrlch in Hard Grind. A u s t r a l i a n L e f t R e v i e w 87 REcanDB continued on page 19 41 20 YEARS OF ROCK AND ROLL IN WOLLONGONG from page 41 Amie: Oh, yeah? And tell me, how do you do that without money? Neil: You worn part-time jobs until you've got the money. Dedication, ferocious dedication, that's what it requires. Amie: We had all that. We had an album In the can, we had arranged some guy from the university to finance us to the tune of $10,000. We had a film clip that Donny Sutherland played two or three times, we dropped the single out, all fine and great. And what happened? We end up back at the Oxford (Hotel) getting the sack tne first night for swearing. We had to crawt back and say, Look, we re really sorry for swearing, we won t do it any more, just give us another gig, this is the only one we have to go to. Look, I m just saying it s not all simply a matter of commitment. Commitment has a way of running dry, especially when you've got a family to support. A family man can't afford to hump gear around till 4 am in the morning and then start down at the steelworks at six. How can you do that for more than a few years? How long can you live in absolute poverty? Yoi1need more than the songs and the drive, you need someone who can push, and it's money that pushes songs. Now, here's a good example of albums and successful people so called, I was hanging around with The Masters' Apprentices, rehearsing in London. So we're sitting around, we'd rehearse for a while, have a cup of tea or, go downstairs to the kitchen and ponder the day, and think, Well, what are we going to do? , and somebody would say, Well, let's check out the Melody Maker again, there might be some options in there, so we all go through the Ciassifieds. Everyone's sitting there with no money to spend, all pretty down and out in the days when tight jeans were in fashion they were still wearing flares. Here they are, sitting there, a successful band, they recorded an album at Abbey Road, they had three or four number one singles in Australia, and two or three albums out, and they're still on the compilation albums that come out here every six months. So here we are going through the ads, and suddenly here's an ad which says Masters' Apprentices album due to be re-released. So someone says, Shit, better phone the record company up, we might get some royalties out of this . So we did, and got two and six, or something. I mean, there's a band that got somewhere, with no work, no money, nothing. A month ago. the two of them Australian Left Review : Nell Porter In New Beginnings. that were left played Shellharbour pub. The point is, they're just hanging in; guys who have had top records. Mike: Getting back to the tools of the tr^de, tell me, Amie, what s the difference in the hard gear that you have to play successful rock and roll today, compared with what you had wnen you set up your first one? Arnle: The essential eauipment is a decent p.a. system that is capable of mixing the whole band, music ana vocals. You need about a dozen mikes just on the drums. To buy a system like the one we can only hire, would cost $30,000 that's the mikes, the p a., the desk. That still leaves you to find the lights and the truck. Nell: The current style is such that keyboards and synthesisers are really big. Austra
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