Ian McFarlane interviews David Laing, compiler of (When the Sun Sets Over) Carlton – Melbourne’s Countercultural Inner City Scene Of The ’70s.
Congratulations on undertaking such a massive task, David. There has always been the notion of a mythical or idealistic ‘Carlton rock scene’ or ‘Carlton school’ in the history of Melbourne inner-city rock music. Is there an identifiable ‘Carlton Sound’? And if so, what does it mean to you?
“It’s interesting – as I started working on this a lot of people didn’t really know what I was talking about. One band member even asked if I was putting together something for the football club! And those that did understand it – many had different ideas. Some people saw it more as a late ’70s/early ’80s thing. My initial concept was more mid-late ’70s myself – I remember the term being bandied about a lot in the local rock mags in ’79/80 in reference to all this stuff. It was Jen Jewel Brown who really showed me that it went back to the early ’70s and the Ballrooms. I don’t think there really is an identifiable sound, other than guitars and a certain rawness. There’s a rootsy thread through some of it, which stems from the influence of the likes of Daddy Cool and/or the whole ’60s/70s local blues thing, and most of it rocks, which is that whole pub rock thing. Some of it is pretty radical, which comes from the theatrical and political influences…
“In terms of what it means to me: I discovered 3RRR-FM [Melbourne community radio station] in early ’79. I already was a Sports and Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons fan thanks to 3XY [Melbourne’s top rating commercial radio station], but RRR opened up this world to me. People like Peter Lillie and Mark Gillespie were all over the RRR airwaves at that time. Likewise Juke magazine and RAM magazine covered all this stuff. To me it was the local equivalent of bands like Graham Parker and The Rumour and early Elvis Costello, both of whom I was a big fan of.”
Do you think you’ve succeeded in encapsulating that sound with your compilation?
“Not the sound seeing as there really isn’t one, but the full diversity of the scene – yes, I think so. Realistically there is only one shot at doing this, so I wanted to make sure it was done right.”
Carlton has always engendered a convergence of influences and artistic pursuits: music, theatre, film making, art, counter-culturalism, multi-culturalism. Why do you think rock music became such a galvanising element of the Carlton ideal?
“Same reason why rock became affiliated with the arts and radicalism in other parts of the world in the late ’60s and ’70s – it was the authentic expression of youth culture, a relatively easy artistic endeavour to pursue, and gave people the opportunity to become very rich and famous whilst pursuing their countercultural ideals! The sex and drugs on offer was also appealing no doubt!”
As with any compilation, the process of assembling the track listing can either be an enjoyable or a laborious task. How was it for you? And how did you go about picking the tracks?
“I’d been carrying the idea around in my head for a few years, and it was knocked into shape the more I talked to people and the more I researched. It was fun and a great education.”
Do you have any particular favourite tracks on the compilation, and if so why?
“Martin Armiger’s ‘I Love my Car’ from the Pure Shit soundtrack. Totally decadent and raunchy hard rock, and an incredible tune that I reckon should be acknowledged as one of the all time Oz Rock tracks by AC/DC fans the world over. Loved the song since I first heard The Bleeding Hearts’ version of it when I was a kid, but Martin’s original is best. ‘Lowdown’ off the first Dots EP is also incredible – I think that little record is the pinnacle of Paul Kelly’s career, and that’s not to slight anything he’s since done, because I think that record is absolutely wonderful, one of my all-time favourite things. Perfect Bob Dylan/Lou Reed hybrid. I really, really love ‘Let’s Get Rich Together’ by Spare Change too, and also ‘The Ballad Of Good & Evil’ – an unreleased Paul Kelly/Chris Langman tune – by the 1980 sort-of Spare Change reformation under the name the Glory Boys… I don’t think there’s really any filler on the album though – it’s all meat.”
Ultimately, it’s the music that matters but so much of the Carlton rock ideal was developed by the musicians, the characters, themselves. Who do you see as the main players in the development of the scene?
“There’s a bunch of different threads that take a lot of explaining, but Martin Armiger (The Toads, Pure Shit soundtrack, The Bleeding Hearts, High Rise Bombers and The Sports, as well as song writing for Stiletto) and Chris Worrall (The Pelaco Bros, Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, The Bleeding Hearts, Stiletto and The Dots) are I think the two MVP’s on the record. Martin being more of a band leader type has to get the nod as the major player I think. But of course Peter Lillie, Stephen Cummings, Joe Camilleri, Eric Gradman and Ross Wilson as artist/producer and nurturer of talent were all involved in multiple bands featured and were very important and creative figures on the scene.”
I see Bert Deling’s film Pure Shit as being a significant merger of film, music and anti-establishment attitude, centred as it is on the Carlton drug scene of the day; it’s also one of the most mad-arsed Aussie indie movies ever made (I love it!). Despite its high velocity, anarchic energy (or maybe because of that) it works on so many different levels. Does that film figure in your appreciation of the Carlton ideal and if so how strongly?
“Yeah sure. I saw it either at school or college (my memory says school but doesn’t seem possible given the nature of the film!) and spent years wondering how ‘I Love My Car’ featured in the film given it was made before The Bleeding Hearts even formed. The film obviously aligns the music with a down and dirty vibe that was kind of punk before punk – the whole heroin thing also aligns it with the music of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground and a lot of other streetwise pre-punk music. Although most of the ‘Carlton’ artists didn’t really relate to punk – they were a bit older – it was that grittiness that appealed to me.”
Finally, and this is one of those more nebulous kind of arguments – inner-city Melbourne is a divided locale, north and south of the Yarra River. To the north you have Carlton, Richmond, Collingwood, Fitzroy and the CBD; to the south you have Prahran, Sth Melbourne, Albert Park and St. Kilda (and upper class Toorak and South Yarra, but they don’t figure in a rock ‘n’ roll sense). Although there was inevitably some crossover, north and south of the river have always seemed to be musically disparate and never the twain shall meet. Do you agree with that theory?
“Yes and no. The fact that all the so-called ‘Carlton’ bands regularly played south of the river probably shows it as something of a false hood. I could be wrong, but that divide to me probably came about in the late punk/new wave days, with the Crystal/Seaview Ballroom and aligned bands – especially like the Boys Next Door/Birthday Party who had played north of the river a lot earlier on – creating a very strong St Kilda identity.”
Which brings us back to Carlton – why is it that Carlton came to epitomise the countercultural Melbourne inner-city rock scene of the 1970s?
“Cheap rent, lots of pubs, drugs, and lots of uni students.”
(When The Sun Sets Over) Carlton: Melbourne’s Countercultural Inner City Rock Scene Of The ’70s (Warner Music Australia)