‘In Seattle they are thought of as pioneers of grunge rock.’ By Brian Wise.
COSMIC PSYCHOS – BLOKES YOU CAN TRUST (MADMAN)
After I first saw this film at the Melbourne International Film Festival a few months ago I declared that it was the perfect example of how you should never let a lack of talent hold you back! I was certainly not trying to insult the members of the Cosmic Psycho. Rather I was citing them as models of how a passion for something can often take one much further than just having mere talent.
I am sure that the band members would agree that they were not the most outstanding musicians and lead singer Ross Knight would possibly admit that his vocals very much exemplified enthusiasm over technique. I am sure you can think of many examples of musicians (or sportspeople) who were brilliant but lacked the necessary force of will or application to consistently succeed?
Remarkably, the Cosmic Psychos became 30-year veterans of punk and grunge and along the way picked up admirers such as Eddie Vedder, Nirvana’s producer Butch Vig, The Melvins, Mudhoney and more. The band might never have even raised a blip on the mainstream charts but their influence was far greater than most of us realise. In Seattle they are thought of as pioneers of grunge rock.
Thirty years on and the Psychos have just been touring the USA, playing gigs in Seattle, Chicago, Austin, LA, San Francisco, Memphis and elsewhere – often in conjunction with screenings of this film. There are much more commercially successful bands that have never been able to get a single gig in the States, let alone tour from coast to coast!
Buzz Osborne of the Melvins describes the Psychos sound as ‘late-’70s punk rock played through a stereo inside the muffler of a car dragging down the freeway.’ I am not sure as to whether the songs about tractors and dead kangaroos were exotic to an American audience but musicians certainly related to the band’s energy and the fact that they wrote about the things that they knew.
Blokes You Can Trust, while it purports to be a history of the Cosmic Psychos, is really the story of its charismatic leader Ross Knight who has his own fascinating story to tell and it is not always about music. ‘I’m just a fuckin’ farmer,’ he says disingenuously. He is much more than that. As the only remaining original member Knight’s on stage persona still drives the band.
Kyneton in rural Victoria seems an unlikely place to spawn an internationally recognised ‘grunge’ band. Born as Rancid Spam with ‘the only three punks in Kyneton,’ the band grew into Spring Plains and then into the Cosmic Psychos when Walsh teamed up with drummer Bill Walsh and guitarist Peter Jones. Typically, Knight decided to adopt the band’s name when he heard that Split Enz hated it.
The Psychos song catalogue probably best sums up their approach to music and the world around them: ‘Pub,’ ‘Go The Hack,’ ‘Lost Cause,’ ‘Dead Roo,’ ‘Hooray Fuck,’ ‘Shot The Cat,’ ‘The Man Who Drank Too Much,’ ‘Psycho Sheila,’ ‘Dead In A Ditch,’ ‘Letter To My Liver,’ ’20 Pot Screamer.’
Need I continue? Musically and lyrically it is the very antithesis of John Williamson: they are his anti-Christ. Or perhaps that is vice versa. The Psychos observations of Australian life are every bit as valid; it is just that Knight wrote about a different Australia and perhaps a more real one at that.
The sound on the band’s first EP was so distorted that some record shops sent it back claiming the pressings were faulty! It might have sounded rough but it found an audience overseas, built a reputation and enabled the band to tour in America.
Director Matt Weston, who has named his film after the band’s 1991 album, uses archival material, interviews and animation to tell the chronological history. On what I imagine was a limited budget he has done a marvellous job. Like the subject of the film, what it lacks in technique it more than makes up for in enthusiasm.
For the most part Blokes You Can Trust is a rollicking story of a bunch of Aussie blokes ripping out some songs, travelling the world and leaving a trail of empty beer cans and busted eardrums behind them. There are plenty of interviewees, such as Edie Vedder, to attest to the appeal of the Psychos, and often the stories are absolutely hilarious.
Sometimes, however, the stories are not funny at all. After Jones and Walsh quit the band they were replaced by Robbie Watts and Dean Muller. Watts later died of a heart attack in 2006, perhaps brought on by years of heroin use. Walsh is circumspect about the reasons for his departure, which appears to be over financial matters, and admits that perhaps things could have been better handled. At least Walsh’s departure inspired the song ‘Kill Bill’!
Knight might be a rough and tumble bloke on stage and have an apparently casual air of indifference, or even puzzlement, at the band’s ‘success’ but he is a devoted father (one of his sons is disabled). He often visits Robbie Watts’ grave and leaves a couple of stubbies. He is also a world champion power lifter (so don’t start a fight with him at the pub).
So, if you are musician or singer worried about whether or not you have done the right thing in choosing this career over becoming an accountant or brain surgeon you need to watch this film before you make your final decision. Hopefully, it will inspire you.
While so many documentaries about bands and musicians are really promotional films designed to enhance reputations, rewrite history or cover up past flaws, Blokes You Can Trust is about as honest a film as it gets. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I probably own only one Cosmic Psychos record (on vinyl).
Blokes You Can Trust ends with a performance at legendary Melbourne venue The Tote. “Who’d have thought that at 50, I’d still be at the fuckin’ Tote with my shirt off,” yells a self-deprecating Knight. It might also be seen as a triumph.
Or as the Psychos would say, “it’s a fuckin’ ripper.”