Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Here's a new self-published book worth your while: Fly. Written by local author, Ann Witherall, it  allegedly tells a fictional story of a teenage girl's experiences in the Melbourne punk/squatting scenes in the 1980s, although given Witherall's strong involvement in that scene, I'm willing to gamble that there's more than a little fact at play here. It was launched here a couple of weeks ago at the Prince Of Wales Hotel (the old punker haunt of the '80s; it is neither "punk" nor a "haunt" anymore), and coincidentally, Ann rang me at work on the following Monday as she was looking for some distribution for her work in some shops. That's not why I'm writing this (to sell books that is; this blog has nothing to do w/ my day job, really), but perhaps you should know that. She sent me a free copy that day, I received it on the Tuesday and proceeded to plow through its 254 pages in two nights. It had me hooked.

A quick backtrack here: I never was, nor never will be, much of a fan of the "hardcore punk" which emanated from Melbourne in the 1980s. Fact is, I think the vast bulk of it stunk like a dead mule. The music was heavily Brit-damaged, humourless, politically trite, musically uninventive (and mostly flat-out fucking dreadful) and in essence summed up the dopier, comical aspects of "punk" which never held any appeal to me. It seemed like a big dress-up, the music being a secondary consideration. I started going to gigs at the tail-end of this scene, in 1988, although I managed to largely avoid any bands centred around it. As a 16-year-old, I dragged my bourgeois self down to the Prince to see Massappeal on their first trip down south - the Sydney HC outfit who at that time were in peak form and borrowed their sound mostly from US HC w/ a bit of Italian thrash thrown in (the good stuff, like Negazione) - and the presence of bad-arsed-looking skinheads and glue-sniffing/cider-drinking squatter-punks scared my lilly-white ass half to death. I loved the music, "punk rock", that is, but my sheltered suburban existence couldn't relate for a second to the rough street & squat lives of some of the people in attendance. I admired their seemingly outlaw existence, but knew it wasn't for me. I would go back home to North Balwyn that night; on Monday I would go back to school. I came from a loving, if hopelessly square home, but didn't have much to flee from or a whole lot to complain about outside of the usual teenage woes. I was a shmuck. And all this waffle brings me to Fly: it takes you into the lives and lifestyles of those who didn't have the comfy existence I enjoyed, and most of them very likely wouldn't have wanted it anyway. 

It's told from the perspective of Annie - later nicknamed "Agro" - who runs away from a bad home/school/life situation in Adelaide as a 15 year-old in the early/mid '80s to Melbourne to "meet some punks". Up until then, it had all been band/music worship from afar with not a kindred soul in sight. Her and her friend Julie start squatting in an empty house in Collingwood before Julie leaves to follow a boyfriend and Annie is left to fend for herself in a new city w/ no money, no friends and the threat of being evicted at a moment's notice. She lands voluntary work at a nearby anarchist bookstore and soon begins to meet some local punkers, and then the adventures begin. By the last third of the novel, things start going very downhill indeed, as she becomes a speed freak living in a rundown squat in Brunswick mixing it up w/ the local criminal element. Fly certainly has its faults: there are multiple grammatical and syntax errors which need fixing (sentences run on when they should be broken up, and vice versa) and some clumsy spelling errors (I can't believe it went through to the final print with "Siouzsie And The Banshees"), but the involvement in the characters moves it along briskly. Like I said: I devoured it in two nights. I didn't really have to read it at all, but found that, once begun, I couldn't let it rest.

By the very end, I didn't want it to end. There is a second book already planned, which carries on from where Fly finishes off, and I'm curious to see where her life will take her. For the first half of Fly, I found the main protagonist quite unsympathetic, but the story arc presented some glimmer of hope that her life would ultimately lead to something more than a life of drug abuse and bad company. There's many mentions of bands and music from the era, from X to Venom P. Stinger to Fear & Loathing, Death Sentence, the Germs, Husker Du and Black Flag, although it's not a trainspotter's handbook and the music is not really discussed (it's not that kind of book). I would highly recommend it as a document of a time and place, tracing the lives of desperate characters, many of whom didn't have much to lose. If nothing else, it's inspired me to at least consider a crack at a similar book myself one day, although I'm not sure if the world needs to read about the dull exploits of a suburban nudnik trapped in his room listening to SST records and jerking off to pictures of Molly Ringwald. For now, stick with Fly. You can get it here.

I've heard this album so many times over the past week that I feel I should at least give it a brief spiel. Why so? I just spent six days down in Tasmania w/ the family on a holiday, and hired a car to get around. I didn't bring any CDs to play in the car (nor do I have a hook-up for my iphone to play through a car stereo system), I struggled to find listenable radio outside of a classical station, and most importantly in this thrillride of a story, a friend of mine who runs a record store down there gave me a copy of this very album in the compact disc format - The Groundhog's Thank Christ For the Bomb - and hence it was the only thing I had to play. It sat in there on repeat for days on end. By the last day of the trip, I reverted back to the classical station. I think this album a whole lot, but too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Got me? Good.

I have written of the Groundhogs before: their Split LP from 1971 is an absolute classic of Brit underground rock (the best track, "Cherry Red", is here), although since the album reached # 5 in the UK and they toured w/ the Stones, perhaps it's too overground to be undergound, although the sensibilities were certainly there. They originally formed in the early '60s - the mainstay of the band has been guitarist/singer Tony McPhee - and backed the likes of John Lee Hooker and Little Walter on tours and recordings. They morphed into a heavy Brit-blues outfit by the late '60s and released their holy triumvate or LPs from 1970 - 1972: Thanks Christ For The Bomb, Split and Who Will Save The World? The Groundhogs. These were recorded when they were a power trio par excellence. They eschewed the jamming borefest oft propogated by the likes of Cream and instead concentrated on a stripped-down raw power which mixes up sharp, jagged blues riffs w/ a white-hot rhythm section and shouted vocals. They're caught sonically between the worlds of High Time-era MC5 and early-'70s Hawkwind (now that's a good place to be), with a dash of UK diehard undergrounders like the Pink Fairies and the Deviants (sans the lame humour) and the Beefheartish twang of the Edgar Broughton Band and various John Peel/Dandelion Records types (The Fall even covered "Strange Town" from Thank Christ..., adding in an extra Peel-related footnote). Are you sold yet? You oughta be. Thank Christ..., the CD I had on repeat for days on end (to the point where my eldest asked me, frightened in tone, if I was going to play "that record" again), is a disc you need. There's a cheapy CD on EMI/UK which is a nice remastered edition w/ 3 killer bonus tracks (BBC 1 recordings from 1971), and McPhee's spiky guitar jabs are present throughout. They were a unique proposition as a band: steeped in a certain reverence for "da blues" but leaping beyond the cliches of the UK blues-rock genre through an explosive approach to the material that made them a far more desirable listening prospect than many others in the field. Since I'm in the mood for drawing bows to breaking point, I may even put it on record that I would consider them the English equivalent of the Coloured Balls. Or something like that. Groundhogs are good. You need 'em in your life.

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