Compilations, Context, and Melbourne

I absolutely hate it when I receive playlists or mix CDs. Even when I received free CDs or demos on tour I barely ever listened to them, so I’m not the most open person when it comes to appreciating other’s musical recommendations. If you’re the kind of person that conducts conversations by asking if I’ve heard any number of obscure bands, then scram: you’ll get no pleasure from my company.

I’m the worst with playlists. People’s massive hundred band-long recommendations on music forums make me want to punch the screen. Magazine cover-mount CDs bore me to death, and somehow manage to make even the decent tracks on them sound dull. There may have been a time years ago when I extracted some enjoyment from them but these days cover mount CDs serve as beer coasters or musical liferafts when driving long distances. I know I’m in the minority here, but that’s cool. I’ve worked out why playlists and compilations so often get my goat.

For me, music is contextual. There are times when a song gets me through sheer brilliance alone, but mostly I love songs for vividly recalling feelings I had at the time I got into the songs. Slayer’s entire Reign in Blood album reminds me of feeling nervous before playing Australian Rules football matches as a kid. Kreator’s “When the Sun Burns Red” takes me back to my last few years of high school. Anything by Lamb makes me think of when I first moved to England, and Cartman’s rendition of Sailing Away takes me back to a particularly painful breakup ten years ago. It’s almost like there needs to be some residual emotion in my life to hang some music on. Do I need to explain how important time and place can be? I developed an infatuation for Kanye West’s track Flashing Lights during a week-long trip to Paris a few years ago and I swear to everything unholy that there was no way I would have enjoyed it if I had been anywhere else. The aspirational vibe to the song just fit with the insane wealth and beauty of Paris perfectly. If I had heard that track in Baltimore I probably would have written it off as Kanye’s usual talentless trash. I mean, the guy can’t rap for shit and has to whip out a vocoder when he ‘sings’. Come on. I can’t be the only one who has noticed this.

The Café Del Mar CD compilation series has to be one of the most successful and ubiquitous out there. It succeeds where other compilations fail in that it provides you with the entire context you need – a Mediterranean holiday location, warm Ibiza seaside locale populated with exotic hot Europeans gagging for it. The bar Café Del Mar is known for its sunset parties and one of the CD covers is a sunset painting. The opening track on that same CD is A R Rahman’s ‘Mumbai Theme Tune’, and between those elements you have the entire context you need for that brilliant piece of music to utterly shine. You can almost hear the sun setting over your mixed drink.

The Back to Mine compilation series works as well, if not quite as spectacularly, and again it’s due to setting the scene: what do you play in your flat after you’ve been out clubbing when you’re drunk, hanging in your lounge with chain-smoking strangers with the lighting on low, trying not to disturb too many neighbours, and feeling your eyeballs vibrate from partying hard? That’s an urban experience laden with an assortment of feelings that just about everyone can dip into, and it gives whatever music that appears on the compilation a setting familiar to the listener.

This is why almost every heavy metal compilation brings me no pleasure whatsoever – because they’re mostly picks du jour, or someone trying to display contextless personal preferences or eclecticism. There’s no life there to hang the music on.

I think I’ve probably made my point.

 

A song by Melbourne grindcore band The Kill is absolutely slaying me right now. Apart from being a total holocaust of a track, it is actually sending me back in time. I can remember the venue where I first saw the band play this song. I can vividly remember what I was drinking, what the venue smelled like, who I was talking to, how warm the air was outside the gig. Most importantly for a Melbourne expat in his thirties, it sends me back into the body of a younger me running around the amazing place that was Melbourne in the 1990s. There was so much I had forgotten and it shocks the life out of me how sharply it all returns, like a benign flashback. I took everything for granted; I thought at the time that was how growing up in a city was for everyone. It has taken me almost twenty years, a few continents, and a lot of living to look around and realise that I was witness to a time and place that was very, very special.

I have decided to make a compilation of metal bands from Melbourne from the nineties as a sort of time-travel machine for myself. It encapsulates everything that made the metal bands coming out of Melbourne special, and defines the era…for me at least. It can’t be summed up with a few neat adjectives, nouns, or experiences. And there is no way I can describe the bands, the music, and what it all means, without describing Melbourne as well.

Melbourne is an amazing place and like all things truly cool, does not let you in on how fantastic it is at first. Sydney is all upfront with the bridge, the beaches, and the opera house. Perth is the epitome of Remote Australia. Even Adelaide and Brisbane are accessible to tourists, their charms evident upon arrival. But Melbourne plays hard to get. You’ve got to hang out there for a while to get to know it and love it, and you’ve got either be lucky or have a local show you around to fall for it. It doesn’t care if you like it or not. It’s a bay side town, but the beaches aren’t as stunning as Sydney. The weather – quite famously – isn’t as nice as Brisbane or Perth. The wineries are further from town than Adelaide.

But once you become familiar with the place, you’re hooked. There are gorgeous bars hidden in every nook and cranny. There are cinemas on rooftops, in lush botanical gardens, in old restored theatres with leather seats. There are alleyways exploding with amazing graffiti – not tags, but full multicoloured stencilled explosions. There are fantastic restaurants doing every cuisine under the sun. There are stores selling crafts with soul, second-hand rags, artisanal cheeses, cassette tapes. I found a side street in the centre of Melbourne where all signs had been replaced by Zen sayings. Instead of “no standing” there’d be something like “embrace nothingness”. I had walked past the place for over a decade until I realised it was there.

And the music venues are the best of all. A nonstop 24/7 place like Revolver – where it’s possible to go in for a drink Friday night and subsist on Thai cooking and alcohol without leaving until Sunday night – can have a pop band followed by a grind band in one room, while a house DJ follows a hip-hop DJ in another room. The Esplanade Hotel in seedy St.Kilda has three rooms booked with bands most nights of the week. Over the road from that was the Palace for larger bands, and the Prince around the corner would also have a different major act on every night of the week, all music styles. If the band was boring you, you could step outside and avail yourself to sushi, hookers, kebabs, lentils, or roller coasters at Luna Park. When I was older and learned that so many towns had their live music venues miles away from any sort of life, I’d think back to the venues of St.Kilda as a gleaming Valhalla.

I’ve barely scratched the surface. There was Bennett’s Lane, a tiny hidden jazz bar where you could luck in on travelling superstars playing shows under pseudonyms. The Arthouse would have punk, metal, or grind bands almost every night of the week. It had a big patterned duvet attached to the roof for soundproofing. There was the Corner Hotel, the Metro, the Tote, Punters Club, Edward’s Tavern, the Greyhound, Festival Hall, the list goes on, but the point is this – on any night of the week, whatever kind of music you were into, there was a gig happening somewhere in Melbourne that would be right up your alley. Melbournians often boast that the city is the live music capital of the world. That’s a claim I’d agree with.

Why this is so, I don’t know. I mean, the place is miles away from anywhere. Whether you’re visiting from New York or London, you’re going to spend a day on a plane getting to the place and that doesn’t make it easy or profitable for internationals to travel to – unless they’re getting paid a truckload by the promoter. Thinking about it now, a lot of the performers and acts are home-grown, and fair enough. The city hums with creativity. I get more inspiration walking down the street in Melbourne than anywhere else. You are witness to so much creative genius that you can’t help but get inspired yourself. Until the last decade, it was easier for your broke artistic type to find their feet in Melbourne as well. The cost of living was low, but the standard of living was high. Work of all types was plentiful and it was perfectly possible to eat well, own a car, and live close to the city centre on a small wage. You could actually spend your time perfecting your art instead of endlessly struggling to find ways to pay the bills. Instead of a subsistence existence in an ugly environment it was possible to have a decent quality of life. This may be less so now, but this is definitely what it was like in the nineties.

I moved to Melbourne in 1993 from Geelong at the age of seventeen. Geelong was a smaller boring town of no variety, where the people  generally had no ambition and came adorned in blue jeans, blundstone boots, trucker cap, with an appreciation for beer, rum, and Australian rock. Well I say this, but bumped into my next door neighbour from Geelong in London a few years ago, a wildly successful banker living near Warwick Avenue and of impeccable taste in all things. Whatever. The point is, I didn’t really fit into the place. I was one of five or six guys in a school of seven hundred who listened to metal and didn’t drive a utility truck, so I was glad to get out of there.

When I arrived in Melbourne I moved into the suburb of Prahran and started university. Prahran contains Chapel Street, a shopping precinct laden with bars, record stores, skate pipes, and food. It was the perfect place for a broke student. The Astor Cinema ran double features for $10 that changed daily. If I had $20 on me, I’d visit a nearby store and buy a second-hand novel and a second-hand tape and that’d be my entertainment for a week. I remember picking up Alice in Chains “Jar of Flies/Sap” and “The Untouchables” by Eliot Ness and happily surviving off them for a month. Even if I had no money, things were great. The people watching down there is outrageous, and I could always pick up free copies of the ubiquitous street press papers – Inpress and Beat. These two weekly papers ended up forming the backbone of my university social life.

Inpress and Beat covered absolutely everything going on in Melbourne. There was so much in them that reading them from cover to cover would keep me going for a couple of days. Apart from regular appearances from the obscene cartoonist Fred Negro or columns by the entertaining drunk James ‘Jim Bob’ Young, there were listings and reviews for absolutely everything happening in Melbourne – store openings, fashion shows, festivals, and gigs. Especially gigs.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that a lot of the metal gigs were happening half an hour’s walk from where I lived, for very little money, at a venue called the Great Britain Hotel in  Richmond. I ended up going to a lot of gigs at this place. The interior was dark and had paintings of ghosts and nonsense all over the interior walls.  There was always a certain smell in the air, a mixture of patchouli, cheap detergent available from coin laundrettes, and hemp soap. In other words, it smelled of hippies. As far as I can recall the room fit about a hundred punters in and was packed quite often. There was some lank-haired druggie running the place and I believe that on a couple of occasions if I was short of the door charge they’d let me in for whatever change I had at the time. If  you looked the place up online – it turned into a fashionable wine bar over ten years ago now – its history is described as a “less-than-desirable metal joint”.  The place finally went under when the owner got busted for dealing coke, or so the rumours went. When I moved to Melbourne, the Great Britain was ground zero for metal in the city. The baton had been passed from another venue, the noble Sarah Sands Hotel.

The gigs I saw in this place! I saw Christbait rock out plenty of times before members went onto bigger and better things. I saw Necrotomy play their indecipherable brutal noise which even my ears of iron still cannot make sense of. I saw Magnacite play sets where every song the band would swap instruments. I saw Blood Duster play and try and break records for how many dildos they could adorn a drum kit with. I saw the singer of Undinisim  smash a bottle and stab himself in the head with it during the first song of their set. I witnessed Damaged, a band of savants, junkies, and savages who despite being truly and certifiably insane managed to stay focused long enough to play the most amazing sets of music I’ve witnessed, before inevitably falling apart. I’ve got to stop here. I could really go on forever. But the essence of what I’m saying is that every venue, every band and every show had an extra volt of electricity running through them and these cultural Frankensteins ran around being shockingly amazing.

***

I wrote everything above four years ago while living in England, on a late-night nostalgia trip. It might have been even longer ago than that, I’m not sure. It’s now 2014 and I returned to Australia over two years ago. Since those amazing days in the nineties, I joined a few bands and have lived in Japan and the UK, and travelled to countless other places, met legendary metal bands I’ve read about in magazines, and lived a variety of lives. Nothing comes close to being a metalhead in Melbourne in the nineties.

Australia is now more expensive. Melbourne isn’t the bohemian hangout it once was. Living there is as costly as living in London. Some of the venues have disappeared and some have changed hands. The Esplanade Hotel is currently for sale. Everyone’s expecting it to be turned into apartment blocks. The developers have been hovering like vultures around the site for over a decade now. The Palace burned down some years ago. Nearby venue The Prince looks like it will be turned into a luxury hotel, with bucketloads of apartments attached. Inner city venues are currently under siege from people moving to nearby residential properties and then complaining about the noise. You can’t be a bum anymore and get by. That time is gone.

There’s one small spark of optimism out there. The Great Britain went from fashionable wine bar back to a live music venue. I remember when some of my house-music friends suggested we catch up for drinks there a few years back and I thought Christ, you wouldn’t have been seen dead here a decade and a half ago.  The management for the Great Britain decided to leave this year. Everyone feared for its future but I read in an article recently that a large venue management company has picked it up, and the live music is staying.

So there’s that.

 

My compilation of Melbourne nineties metal, spanning the full decade. Many legends have been omitted. Don’t like my list? Post your own in the comments.

The KillMetal Spastic
BeanflipperRemove Skin Before Use
DamagedPassive Backseat Demon Engines
Necrotomy
Doors of Perception
ChristbaitSphagnum
Corpse Molestation – At The Graveyard of God
Blood DusterKill Kill Kill
The Wolves – Kill It (not sure if this is the correct song title – corrections welcome!)
AbramelinStargazer
SuperheistRetarded Barbie
FrankenbokLinguistics

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