Home and far away

Tara Brabazon on the soundtrack to life on a continent’s edge

June 27, 2008

I was born in Perth. That is always a conversation stopper. Living on the cusp of a continent and the periphery of power creates a community of resident-tourists clinging to the edge of a coastline. Inhabitants of Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane are accustomed to seeing their cities featured in cinematic and televisual backdrops. But Perth rarely pops up as an outer suburb of Middle Earth or an Antipodean Paris in Moulin Rouge. “Peripheral” is a fashionable address in postcolonial theory, but it is difficult to live there.

When Perth does feature, it is – in soap-opera speak – like going to Coventry. Either characters from Neighbours or Home and Away are killed in mysterious circumstances, or they are sent to Perth. This is supposedly death of a different kind. If there is a chance that a character may return from a pantomime season in Maidstone, then Adelaide is always a safer option.

When migrating to the UK, these local differences did not matter. Being foreign is enough. I remember being introduced to another professor soon after my arrival in this country. The stuttered, stunned response from a colleague was worth bottling: “I’ve never met an Australian who didn’t work in a bar.” Stuart Hall could have predicted this response. In the essay “Minimal selves”, he reports that migrants are asked (only) two questions: “Why are you here?” and “When are you going back home?” Being unable to answer either inquiry to the satisfaction of Daily Mail readers, I find it calming to think about “home” while “away” through the few popular cultural imaginings that exist of Perth’s chalk-white beaches, turquoise ocean and dry heat that both warms and burns.

One film uses Perth as a place of discovery rather than a soap-opera Alcatraz. Thunderstruck is the tale of post-mullet heavy metal boys who – in their thirties – decide to lodge the ashes of their mate near the remains of Bon Scott in Fremantle cemetery. Bon was a great rock tragedy. The lead singer of AC/DC with the paint-stripping voice died too young – as the best rockers do.

But – secretly – we know that rock stars never die too young. There are only three options for the high-rolling (ex) rocker. The first choice is a big-bang early death and eternal fame. Janis Joplin, Keith Moon and the two Jims – Hendrix and Morrison – mobilised this path to posterity. The other option is looking like Mick Jagger, who is only attractive to models so starved of carbohydrates that their brain has ceased functioning. In a calorie-starved hallucination, Mick looks sexy. Pass me the cheesecake. The final option is to become Keith Richards, wearing a face like the worn tread of a Doc Marten boot and a mouth that works ten seconds out of phase with his brain. Keith is managing to live in two time zones simultaneously, carrying a whisper of smile that speaks of his deal with the Grim Reaper. Bon, having taken the first option, permanently resides in Fremantle cemetery where fans regularly make the pilgrimage to his graveside. They keep going back in black.

Thunderstruck uses Bon’s resting place as the basis of an Australian road movie in which disillusioned Generation X men drive across the Nullabor, the bitumen smile of a road that slices the continent. While fulfilling their friend’s final wishes, they use the driving time to determine when their life hit the gravel. Filled with X-er angst and a nostalgic head-banging soundtrack, it is a funny, tacky film.

Such cinematic expeditions are rare. It has always been music that captures the emotional landscapes of Perth. The long-departed Triffids are our greatest sonic ambassadors. The scale and grandeur of Bury Me Deep in Love and the silent desperation of Wide Open Road offer more than a tale of gutted relationships. They are the best soundtrack for ambling along a deserted beach or speeding on an enormous freeway that carves through the suburbs.

Music has always been made differently in Perth. The city has – for two decades – been a dance music capital, with the two tribes of house and drum’n’bass claiming their share of the drugs, DJs and door bitches. But the success of Eskimo Joe, The Waifs, John Butler Trio and Little Birdy is extraordinary. The music is so diverse – so good – that it has been one of the great pleasures of my Generation X-er life to see a city bloom with sound.

Seattle had the grunge revolution. Manchester raised its hands in the air to acid house. Bristol pulsed with dub. I watched these musical revelations through a metaphorically grated dirty window, excluded from the great clubs by an accident of geography and history. I was a spectator to the excitement, not a participant. Then suddenly, a new band grasped the stretched space and dark displacement of Perth, mashed The Stone Roses with The Triffids, and created music that captured this isolated, solitary, staunch and robust city locked between the sea and the desert.

Appropriately, The Panics had a global citizen to guide them through this journey. Pete Carroll – broadcaster, producer, manager, brother of Matt and Pat Carroll from Central Station Design and the cousin of Shaun and Paul Ryder – signed The Panics to littleBIGMAN records. He is still their manager now that they have moved to a major record label. But through Carroll’s presence, the relationship between Perth and Manchester was transposed into their music and design. Framed by a wider history of migration and movement, art and sound, The Panics pluck around the last 50 years of guitar-based history, gliding effortlessly from the 1960s to the 1980s, and on to the 2000s.

The Panics’ first album used Carroll’s connections in Manchester to record songs between the two cities. Through such a process, it is no surprise that A House on a Street in a Town I’m From sounds like the “great” second album that the Stone Roses never recorded. It is important to remember that the two Stone Roses albums were separated by five years. They sounded like they were made by different bands. The Rosetta Stone linking the two records was produced – some ten years later and from an Antipodean city. It would take a band from Perth, signed by a cousin of Shaun Ryder, to provide a fitting conclusion to the Stone Roses story, a denouement that Ian Brown never managed or imagined.

Their second album, Sleeps Like a Curse, was also demoed in Manchester while the band were listening to Johnny Cash. It sounds like a combination of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Motown and Led Zeppelin. After producing this sonic tapestry, they have created their most unified, brooding release: the award-winning 2007 album Cruel Guards. Fittingly, they completed the musical cycle, continuing the history of The Triffids by wrapping well-deep personal tragedies in a biting, isolating landscape. Jae Laffer, their lead singer and lyricist, confirmed their intent.

“I tried to keep the language and descriptions distinctly Australian; song tracks like Sundowner, Something in the Garden and Get Us Home are all set in Australian landscapes and backstreets, mostly drawn from growing up in the outskirts of Perth and road trips when I was younger. Scenes I remember vividly that have always stayed with me. They sum up my feelings of the country. The unused bridge, weatherboard shacks of the orchards, a disused train’s cabin door swinging, fly wire, the distance that plays tricks on the eyes.”

As a writer, I have always respected and admired musicians. The capacity to write a song that splinters a listener’s life is a profound cultural gift. To produce one great track in a lifetime is remarkable. To be able to sustain success in an iPod age is extraordinary. Those of us who write words for a screen, rather than chords for a guitar, are on a different journey. A writer’s goals are smaller in scale. Shorten the sentence, blade the adjectives, cut the clause. To write music that talks to a time and place is a startling contribution to a city and its people. Writers only grasp at the coat-tails of such influence.

Once more, it is Stuart Hall who, besides being the great scholar of difference, offers a guide for those of us who are a long way from home in an age of terrorism and too close for comfort to the suffocations of xenophobia. He confirmed that in “thinking about my own sense of identity, I realise that it has always depended on the fact of being a migrant, on the difference from the rest of you”. By dancing to distinctive rhythms and seeing city streets in a fresh way, “foreigners” and “citizens” can accept the multicultural challenge to not only hear difference, but meet it and – just occasionally – understand it.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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