This Perfect Band: An Oral History of Dagoes
They were Australia's punk rock goofballs, stumbling into a scene they loved before defining a legacy all their own. This is their story.
The generalized history of the first punk rock movement doesn't leave much room for all the bands that weren't fortunate enough to have come from New York City, England, or Southern California. As the growth of the Internet has recently helped bring to light, there were many artists and scenes outside of the officially sanctioned margins that were more than just marginal. Cities everywhere had their own thing going on. Cities like Adelaide, Australia.
Before and after that time, Adelaide's legacy was and is somewhat limited. The western point of a triangle along with Sydney and Melbourne on the Southwestern edge of the continent in which most of the country's population lives, Adelaide is nestled between beaches and wine country, perhaps a pure paradise were it not also the home of Australia's most depraved murders. For a few years in the early '70s, original AC/DC singer Bon Scott's former band, Fraternity, called it home. Nowadays, the most widely known musical act to come from the City of Churches is probably Sia, of big blonde wig fame. However, in the years between the ascent of punk and the phenomenon of New Wave, Adelaide had a vibrant music scene, which a band called the Dagoes were at the very heart of.
The Dagoes' sound was truly a melting pot of garage rock and punk from the UK, US, and Australia, all of which Australian radio was progressive enough to be giving airtime to through the '60s and '70s. Their heyday came on the pivot from the '70s to the '80s. In their short time, they grew from the spikey bashed-out pop of "Let's Liquidate" and "Little Blackie" to the dramatic builds and group harmonies of keyboard driven songs like "Daunting" and "Blood On My Face". Now, a generation or two later, 16 of their best recordings are finally available in the US in the form of Supreme, a Dagoes retrospective released earlier this February by the Seattle-based reissue label Sinister Torch Records.
Dagoes guitarist Doug Thomas grew up listening to the greats: the Beatles, the Kinks, you name it. In 1965, his older brother took him to a Roy Orbison concert with the Rolling Stones supporting, and he knew then and there that music would be his career. After that experience, though, he doesn't recall seeing that much live music until he joined the Dagoes. In 1978, Thomas moved his family over 1,600 miles from the geographically isolated city of Perth, on the west coast of the country, to Adelaide, in the province of South Australia. He relocated there in order to take over a record store called Umbrella Music.
Guitarist and main songwriter Neil Perryman was similarly running a record bar in the city, called Modern Love Songs, with his friend Bo Costerson. That is, when he wasn't also working as a baker, which he still does to this day. The two of them decided to start a band with a few other like-minded record store owners and staff. That is how Doug Thomas came into the fold. Along with deciding on the irreverently good-humored name the Dagoes (fun fact: Adelaide is known for being the city with the highest Italian immigrant population in Australia), they also took up punk nicknames in the same vein: Perryman was Tony Rome, Thomas was Frankie Thomazzio, and Costerson was Johnny Tomato.
Thomas remembers it well: "Most of us were working in record stores, and out of the blue I got a call from Johnny Tomato: 'We're forming a band, do you want to join us?' My response was: 'I can't really play and I don't have an electric guitar.' Johnny said, 'It doesn't matter, neither can the rest of us, but just listen to this English shit we're selling, anyone can do that'." A week after seeing the Sydney punk band Radio Birdman, Thomas bought a guitar and joined. "Probably the major influence on us was Radio Birdman," he explains. "Compare them to the Velvet Underground in America: most everyone who saw Birdman in the '70s formed a band."
Perryman took the lead as the guitarist and principle songwriter. "We were really trying to be a rock band to play Neil's songs," Thomas recalls, "but all the members were just coming to grips with their instruments, and often it must've sounded like free-form jazz, as we butchered the songs. Somehow we were lumped into the 'punk' scene, probably because of our ability, and, with a lack of live venues in Adelaide, we often found our own venues for gigs, and played together with younger bands playing more in the style of English punk." At one point, he adds, the Dagoes were billed together with two other bands, The Accountants and Irving & the U-Bombs, as the "St. Vitus Dance Package."
While Thomas and Perryman were carving out time in between their jobs and other obligations to get the Dagoes rolling, their future singer, Richard Cant, was still in school. Being roughly ten years younger than the others gave him a different perspective on things. Reflecting on that time from his current city of Boston, where he very recently relocated for work after living in China for the past decade, Cant also notes that he came from something of a different Adelaide than the other members of the band.
"When I first met them I was 17," Cant notes, "and so my Adelaide was very different to their Adelaide, in fact. In that sense, when I first joined the band, I was in private school. Adelaide is a pretty place, but boring, genteel." Cant elaborates that there are two sides to the city: the East being the wealthier middle class side, the west being more working class. In that sense, the two sides of the city don't meet. "I was from the nice middle class side, and the guys were from the other side. So they were from a different world."
Fortunately, punk rock landed on both hemispheres of Adelaide. Cant remembers getting into punk music in 1977 at 15 years old. Like so many of his generation, he saw the Sex Pistols playing "Anarchy in the UK" on TV and was bowled over. "My musical tastes up until then were things like ELO and Wings, you know, like that [laughs]." David Bowie was probably the most radical thing he had ever seen up to that point, so the Sex Pistols blew his mind. "From my point of view, it was more English punk ... whereas some of the older guys were more into the American punk side, MC5, Jonathan Richman, things like that."
Cant's story confirms Thomas' view that the young'uns were on the side of the Brits, whereas, he says, "I saw it mainly as phony rebellion that had little to do with life in Australia. American and Aussie '60s punk was the real appeal: sped up rock 'n' roll." Both Thomas and Perryman cite a number of classic American punk influences: the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, MC5, Television, the Ramones, the Dictators, and many others. Closer to home, in addition to being big Radio Birdman fans, they loved the Saints, the Easybeats, Masters Apprentices, and more. Considering that they both ran record shops, it's not surprising how well-versed they were in both the national and international punk scenes.
Not too long after the Dagoes had started rehearsing, Cant was invited to an audition via a friend of his who was drumming for a few different punk bands. Up to that point, his previous singing experience had been with the school choir:
"They put me down in this basement in the middle of the city ... and there I did this audition for these other guys. In my school uniform, mind you. Neil or Doug might remember exactly what we sang, and then it was like 'OK, see you later.' Then they had to decide between a hippie and the private school kid, and they picked the private school kid. And, basically, a week later I was on stage at one of the biggest underground pubs in Adelaide, in front of a thousand people."
He was given little warning that his first time out with the band would be in front of so many people. In order to get there, Cant had to hitch a ride with his mother, who then stood at the back of the gig, "absolutely horrified," he says. "I thought it was a bit of a joke, quite frankly. It just seemed to get bigger and bigger and bigger."
The Dagoes and the scene around them grew in tandem. A live music culture that had once been limited to mostly cover bands playing in pubs and clubs on the weekends was beginning to define its own vision. After some time spent getting all the right pieces in place, the band decided it was time to cut their first record: a cover of Roky Erickson's "We Sell Soul", backed with two Perryman originals, "Little Blackie" and "Let's Liquidate". Keeping with the punk rock ethos of the time, Thomas started his own label to release "The Dagoes Sell Soul", christening his newfound project with a term that had been used to describe his band's music: Greasy Pop Records. Thomas thought it would be just a one-off affair, but by then both the band and the label were gaining steam.
The follow-up to "The Dagoes Sell Soul" highlighted the group's creativity and unique sense of ambition. "It's You" splashed six songs across two 7" records. It was a double EP that came in a full-color, embossed gatefold sleeve, in a limited run of only 300 copies. A weekend trip to Melbourne for the band produced their next single, "I Do It For Mama". The "Blood On My Face" b/w "Daunting" single became their fourth and final release in 1982. "The punk attitude of do-it-yourself appealed," says Thomas. "The Dagoes were a garage band that no one else would release, so I had to do it. Back then Greasy Pop was about the only independent label in Adelaide, so it seemed to get some respect, at least from other garage musicians."
The Dagoes may have only ever played one show outside of Adelaide back in the day, on that same weekend trip to Melbourne, but in spite of their limitations they amassed an impressive body of recorded material that managed to finely capture each step of the band's creative progress over their four years as a band. With each Greasy Pop release, the Dagoes got bigger not just in hometown fame, but in size as well. By the time of "I Do It For Mama", the group had swelled to nine members, including three guitarists and three singers. This had less to do with the Dagoes aiming for a huge sound, and more to do with going against the grain. Seeing punk as just a fashion, Perryman always viewed the Dagoes as more of rock band. "At that time," he succinctly puts it, "most bands were three- or four-piece, so we thought, 'Let's have a big rock band.'"
Cant remembers it in much the same way: "I think it was more about show. One of the things the Dagoes did was, really, doing stuff that no one else was doing. If there was a normal way of doing something, we would do the opposite. We would put ballads on punk records, so in the middle of punk gig, we would do a ballad. A lot of the stuff was counterintuitive. In that sense, it was quite pure. Even in its calculation, and I think that's one reasons there's been the longevity, because it was so unusual, and we would do counterintuitive stuff."
Perhaps in keeping with that spirit, the size of their ever-increasing ranks didn't quite reflect the size of their ambitions, at least in the usual sense. Thomas and Perryman were both married, as were other members of the band, some of whom had children as well. All of that, and their other jobs, made touring and other traditional routes to wider success less of an option. At the time, this was admittedly, and understandably, frustrating to the much younger Cant. He appreciated that the Dagoes had started as something of an "anti-band," but saw the real potential in them:
"Neil developed as a great songwriter over the years, and the idea that it was a joke really went away ... we used to support a lot of international bands that came through Adelaide. I was interested in really ramping the whole thing up. Particularly when we got to the '80s. When we started getting quite, well, good-ish, we had a lot of labels sniffing around us. I was quite keen to try to make it, as it were. It was never an option for them, because they saw it as a part-time thing to their other lives. It was never really an option that we would sign and tour like other normal bands."
In fact, Cant left the Dagoes before the "Blood On My Face" single was released. The band replaced him with a female lead vocalist, Di Palma. After playing a few shows with Palma, they decided to re-record the 7" with her singing in place of Cant. It turned out to be the last record the Dagoes would make together. By September of 1982, they decided that the stopping point had been reached.
Meanwhile, Cant had joined a new band called the Name Droppers. Something of a super-group comprised of well-known musicians from the Adelaide scene, the Name Droppers were more in tune with Cant's aspirations. Something about the new group just didn't click, however. "It was a good, professional, well thought-out band, but it didn't have any soul," Cant confesses. "It was designed to be successful. We used to support quite important bands, did a lot of gigs, but it never really got anywhere."
The Dagoes might have been over by 1982, but Greasy Pop Records was going strong. Thomas now had his hands full not just with running the label, but also playing in a new band called the Spikes with Ian List, or Lou Arge, as he was known in the Dagoes. "By the time the band split," Thomas says, "I was being approached regularly to release records by other Adelaide groups, and started with my own bands; then the floodgates opened."
"Doug was the Seymour Stein of Adelaide," Perryman affirms, considering what the city's music scene was like when they left it, "or the 'Godfather of Greasy.'" Perryman remembers there being a lot more original bands by that time. Cant, who moved to Sydney not long after to pursue his current career in law, recalls that point in time somewhat differently. "A lot of the energy had gone," he recalls, "a lot of good Adelaide musicians end up in Melbourne or Sidney."
The fleeting life cycle of any given scene is inevitable. The Dagoes, however, were never forgotten by their hometown.
"We did some reunion gigs ten years on," Cant notes, echoing the Dagoes' own song, "Ten Years On". "We kept in touch, we're good friends. I'm great friends with Neil." In fact, they continue to record music to this day. "Every time I used to go back to Adelaide, even when I was in China, we'd record more stuff. I'd come into Adelaide for a week or so and spend two days in the studio with him. We've done that three times, we've released three albums that way."
"Yes, we're well remembered," says Perryman. "'We Sell Soul' always makes Adelaide's best ever singles list. Just this week, Supreme is number nine on the independent radio stations chart, though [that's] through airplay only, not sales. If I'm at a gig, people will ask if The Dagoes are going to play again. It's very unlikely."
"When Greasy Pop finished in 1992," Thomas reflects, "I returned to my hometown of Perth, leaving a daughter in Adelaide. I regularly returned over the following ten years to visit her and old friends. Through that time, it was regular for me to hear someone shout, 'Doug Thomas you're a fuckin' legend, man!'. Happily, I don't get that anymore."