Earwax – Introduction

Earwax – Live Music in Melbourne

Elvis Costello is reported to have once said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  It wasn’t his line, he takes pains to clarify in his autobiography, ‘Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink.’ Although attributed to him, it was actually uttered by American actor and comedian Martin Mull – who you may know as the school principal in ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’.

Like Costello, Mull was also a musician, so you might assume they speak with some authority on the matter. But before you nod your head in agreement and condemn any attempts to write about music, consider that despite this comment, Costello made music about writing, ‘Everyday I Write the Book’. He also made music about dancing, ‘ Mystery Dance’ and as he himself points out, architecture, ‘Hoover Factory.’

Likewise, Mull has been known to write music about architecture, or at least interior design, on his 1973 album, ‘Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture in Your Living Room’.  I haven’t heard the album so I can’t vouch for its rug cutting qualities, but if these two can make music about writing, dancing and even architecture, who are they to draw such parallels and scoff at people who write about music?

Not only that, but in 1978 Talking Heads recorded an album called ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food’ that was actually very danceable.  And before you say that a temple might not get you twerking, or that you wouldn’t boogy to a bungalow, consider House music and Garage – dance genres actually named after architecture?

In the end, I’m not sure that Elvis Costello and Martin Mull’s correlation withstands close scrutiny.

I go to lots of gigs in Melbourne, both local and international acts, and for the past couple of years I’ve been taking notes and writing about the shows – the sounds and the singers, the moshing and the merch, ticket prices and tape loops, the punters and the price of drinks.

I’ve seen bands in pubs, town halls, convents, convention centres, cinemas, street corners, markets, vineyards, the zoo, art galleries, amphitheatres, town halls, reception rooms, football stadiums, tennis courts and even, on very rare occasions, concert halls. The hills may not be alive with music, but the architecture sure is, and even if you can’t dance about architecture, as Messrs Costello and Mull assert, you can sure dance inside it (unless you’re upstairs at The Palais where there is strict enforcement of the ‘no dancing’ policy – an edict that provides very little comfort for those sitting under the lip of the Dress Circle).

Among the many plaudits Melbourne awards itself – sporting and cultural capital of Australia, cuisine capital, world’s most liveable city – we also boast of being the music capital of Australia. I suspect we’re also in the running for the most boastful capital. Our claim to being the music capital is supported by data on the number of live music venues operating and the number of people employed in them, the number of live performances per week and the amount of money spent by Melburnians on tickets – a sizeable proportion of which is mine. From 2014 to 2016, I spent approximately $4,000 on tickets, and that’s not including credit card surcharges, booking fees and handling charges.

That may seem like a lot of discretionary spending, but I make up for it through careful thriftiness in other areas, like food and shelter. Besides, I’ve seen some magnificent performances during this period – some of the best of which are St Vincent at Howler, Adalita at the Northcote Social Club, Tame Impala at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and Sufjan Stevens at Hamer Hall.

I’ve seen big ticket arena acts like AC-DC, Ed Sheeran and Kanye West; up and coming local acts like Teeth & Tongue, Totally Mild and Big Scary; old bands reuniting, The Sports, The Pop Group and blur; indie hipsters Courtney Barnett, Vampire Weekend and The National, and a few of my favourites; Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and The Fall.

During the period I’ve been tracking my musical adventures, big music news has continued to break; the tragic death of David Bowie, Kate Bush’s return to the stage after 40 years, and the performance by Katy Perry’s dancer, ‘left shark’ at Super Bowl XLIX.  Plus Kanye West released arguably the greatest album of all time. Well, he argued it at least.

Australian artists have also made news; there was the rise and rise of Courtney Barnett, the death of Doc Neeson, and Rolf Harris gaoled in the UK for indecent sexual assault against young girls and women – turns out Rolf was more rock ‘n’ roll than we gave him credit for.

The way we listen to music continues to change – downloading is out and streaming is in. CDs are out and vinyl is back in. iPods are out, made redundant by smartphones and big headphone cans are back in – you get on a tram now and it looks like everyone is on their way to work on an airport tarmac. I was in Thornbury Records recently and they were even selling cassettes! As in newly manufactured ones. As a child of the 1970s, I can vouch that cassettes are by far the least satisfying musical platform you’ll ever experience – in both sound quality and convenience. In fact they’re not so much a platform as a precarious ledge. The idea of a bearded hipster dude surrounded by all of his sleek, shiny Apple products spooling a thread of tape around an HB pencil to get it back into the case tells me that the tech bubble has burst.

The change in formats has also brought about a change in the lexicon. Singles and albums are no longer ‘released’ but ‘dropped’ – which I suppose, if you think about it in relation to letting go of a ball, means pretty much the same thing. Music is no longer played, but streamed and when working together, artists no longer ‘vs’ or even collaborate, but simply ‘collab’.

The most notable change over the past few years has been the sheer number of artists touring Australia. Some of this is due to the festival circuit that brings more bands out to Australia, some of it is due to our summer coinciding with the northern hemisphere winter, but the major reason why so many more bands are coming out, according to conventional wisdom at least, is that due to widespread illegal downloading and stingy royalty payments from streaming services, artists no longer reap the same fortunes from recordings as they once did. So basically they have to work for a living.

Which is great for those of us who like to go to live shows. I‘ve always loved the live experience, and when I was young I liked being right up the front. The advent of vigorous, verging on violent, moshing ended that, but I still love to be as close as possible – except at The Forum where the sound up the front is terrible.

The appeal for me, as David Byrne writes in ‘How Music Works’ is that ‘performance is ephemeral…it’s happening in front of you, and in a couple of hours it won’t be there anymore. You can’t press a button and experience it again…that’s part of the excitement.’ Which might explain why, except for a few rare exceptions, live albums aren’t worth listening to – the moment has passed. As Byrne says, ‘you simply have to be there.’

In fact the very first concert I paid my own money to see was Talking Heads’ ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food’ tour at Dallas Brooks Hall in 1979. I was just 15 years old and I went with my friends Mark and Jenny, and we were chaperoned by Jenny’s older brother Ross, who lived nearby in Fitzroy. It took a lot of convincing, and quite possibly a fair bit of sulking, to get my parents to agree to let me go. Not because of Talking Heads or being out late, but because the trip involved staying overnight at Ross’ apartment in Gertrude Street.

In 1979 Gertrude Street wasn’t the trendy, gentrified hipster haunt lined with quirky boutiques that it is today. It wasn’t even shabby chic – it was just shabby and was the sort of place cited when police were investigating a grizzly murder.

At the show I remember Ross pointing out a ramshackle bunch of blokes who he identified as local band The Boys Next Door. The defining moment of the night came during Psycho Killer, when a heavy booted punk strode up the centre aisle and plunged a large hunting knife into the floorboards of the stage. David Byrne, who at that stage of his career was a far shyer performer than the big-suited extrovert the world would later come to know. Up until that point he had barely ventured toward the front of the stage, and he beat an immediate retreat to the relative safety of the drum kit. It may have been one of the moments Byrne wishes he wasn’t there.

In any case, I’ve loved live gigs ever since and have seen many of my musical heroes swing through Melbourne over the past 30 years or so, and some, such as Nick Cave, even emerge through the Melbourne live scene.

This blog includes articles about shows as I experience them and will also delve back into the archives. They are not so much reviews as records of nights out, odes to sore feet, aching backs, ringing ears, overpriced drinks and last trams home.

Rock on!

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