Various Artists: Tales from the Australian Underground Vol. 1: Singles 1976-1989

Various Artists
Tales from the Australian Underground Vol. 1: Singles 1976-1989
Shock
Available as import

Every country’s underground musical history deserves as careful a chronicling as has now been lovingly compiled by Tim Pitman and the team at Feel records. This extensive, four-disc, two-volume set compiles 89 singles and rarities from the years 1976 to 1990, many digitally transferred from vinyl and offered here on CD for the first time. This era has been mined before — see Shock Records’ Do the Pop! set from 2002 — but never with this academic a bent. Add to that the ultra-extensive linter notes, outlining the history and background track by track, and you’ve got a document with an archival quality.

The first volume (two CDs) compiles independently released singles from the years 1976 to 1989; the second charts songs from 1977 to 1990. The dates may seem somewhat arbitrary, but roughly correspond with the emergence of an “independent” or “alternative” scene in Australia. The seminal, founding bands of this scene are known at least by name in Australia — Brisbane’s the Saints and Sydney’s Radio Birdman — and have provided a lasting influence on the garage rock/punk scenes that still exist in the country. Both those bands released their first material in 1976, and so that year is a convenient starting point for both volumes of Tales. From there, the discs proceed with an indiscriminate, inclusive spirit that encompasses better-known alternative bands like the Birthday Party, the Scientists and Severed Heads, as well as entirely obscure acts such as Makers of the Dead Travel Fast and Happy Hate Me Nots. A few of these acts, namely the Scientists, Cosmic Psychos and the Celibate Rifles, have been cited as influences on the Seattle grunge scene in the mid-’80s. But the styles are as diverse as the number of bands on these discs, so apart from identifying a certain Aussie proclivity for messy DIY-rock, there’s not much of a stylistic arc that you can trace from this collection.

But these musicians are important, and have come to play a leading role in Australian alternative music over the past four decades. Ed Kuepper, guitarist from the Saints, went on to form the Laughing Clowns and, later, to pen 19 solo albums. One of his songs provides a fitting, and slightly emotional, ending to Tales‘ listening journey. Kim Salmon, leader of the Perth band the Scientists, closely informed a generation of alternative artists from Tex Perkins to Nick Cave, whose own early band the Birthday Party is also represented. For the most part, it’s a band’s first single or early, original recording that finds its way onto Tales from the Australian Underground — rarities until now confined to dusty basements or second hand record shops, no doubt. It’s an impressive feat, the result of Pitman’s obsessive research. But since the bands here are presented in such an embryonic form (often with only a hint at their eventual sound) it can occasionally be a less rewarding listening experience for those not already familiar with these musicians’ work.

Looking back at this scene from the skewed perspective of the present day, it’s a disservice to filter bands like the Saints and the Scientists through the haze of mediocre pub rock that it has spawned. Aussies, it seems, have always appreciated a good garage growl, but the link between these first messy experiments and the slick retro disposability of Jet or Airborne is tenuous. Just listen to the strong vein of classic rock and blues influence that runs through the early period, say 1975-1980, of Tales. The Riptides’ “Sunset Strip” (1979) energizes the classic 1-5-4-5 chord progression with a surf-rock enthusiasm; sun-soaked and carefree, this kind of wide-eyed rock is so refreshing in our post-ironic times. The longevity of Severed Heads’ “Dead Eyes Opened” is already well known — the song, remixed, was voted No. 10 best song of 1994 on Triple J’s Hottest 100 – but even the 1983 cassette version presented here could have been put out last year by a group like WhoMadeWho and hailed as new disco brilliance.

As with any compilation so wide in its reach, the listener is often surprised by how modern the sensibility of some older bands was. The breakout single for Perth band the Triffids, “Raining Pleasure”, presages recently remastered Born Sandy Devotional for an almost Bjork-like meditation over open string/marimba fifths and wonky, space-filled time. The Moffs’ “Another Day in the Sun”, a minor independent hit in 1985, is a revelation, combining layers of slow-moving synth chords and a repetitive, mantra-like vocal melody in a way that brings to mind modern drone music.

Yes, these discs are so wide-ranging that there can hardly be a listener for whom every track is a pleasure (the industrial drone of Thug’s “Dad”, with its line “Fuck your dad!”, was lost on me). But if you’re at all interested in the roots of Australia’s well-cemented rock tradition or even in where those carrying the country’s indie flame (Dappled Cities, Damn Arms, etc.) sprung from, you’ll find plenty of fascinating material here. Tales From the Australian Underground is an often eye-opening, occasionally enthralling look into that country’s alternative explosion from the mid-’70s onwards, compiled with care and representative of the spirit of the bands represented.

RATING 7 / 10
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