Sunday, May 13, 2007

Never say die

More than 30 years after it emerged, punk is being kept alive by the likes of PBS announcer Phil Macdougall (in glasses above) and Smeer (above left), lead singer of Depressed. Their younger selves (right at top and bottom) would surely sneer in approval.

More than 30 years after it emerged, punk is being kept alive by the likes of PBS announcer Phil Macdougall (in glasses above) and Smeer (above left), lead singer of Depressed. Their younger selves (right at top and bottom) would surely sneer in approval.
Photo: Simon Schluter

Larry Schwartz
May 14, 2007

Phil Macdougall has kept the faith. "I still hold the beliefs that drew me into punk," he says. "I still hold them close to my heart. It's sort of like surviving in society but not letting the man f--- you over."

Founder of Melbourne's first punk rock record label, Reactor, Macdougall still has some of the 30,000 vinyl records he released in the 1980s by such bands as Perdition, Permanent Damage, Vicious Circle, Condemned, Arm the Insane and Psychotic Maniacs. He's working on a compilation of early works by Depression, whose guitarist and singer, Smeer, aka Stephen Lazaros, is a Flinders Street tattooist.

At 47, Macdougall hosts a Thursday night PBS FM program, Sunglasses After Dark, featuring, as he puts it, "punk, hardcore, garage, rockabilly, metal and lots of Australian independent bands.

"Punk music in general - well whatever you want to call it nowadays - will never die," Macdougall says. "It just keeps going on, with young kids in a garage rehearsing as we speak, who will in the future change the face of music just as the Sex Pistols and Nirvana did all those years ago.That's what makes it so interesting and fun to be a part of ."

Macdougall once sang in a band called Human Waste. He started out listening to "pop stuff" on radio. At 14, he bought his first two records - by Joe Cocker and, "yeah, this is pretty embarrassing", Pink Floyd. "I hated Rod Stewart and I hated Elton John and I hated the Doobie Brothers."

He graduated mercifully to Black Sabbath and Status Quo and, finally, after viewing a clip of the Sex Pistol's on Countdown, found the genre that is being celebrated in a season of feature films and documentaries this week at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

Focus on Punk is curated by British author Jack Sargeant, who has selected films, including Julien Temple's Great Rock n Roll Swindle that shows how manager Malcolm Maclaren created the Sex Pistols; The Blank Generation, with live performances by Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Ramones, Blondie among others; and Alex Cox's sci-fi /punk Repo Man.

"It's just rock honed down to its rawest elements," the late Lester Bangs once opined on punk. "Simple playing with a lot of power and vocalists who may not have the range but have so much conviction and passion it makes up for it 10 times over. Because PASSION IS WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT."

Bruce Milne, who published one of Australia's first punk fanzines, Pulp, in the 1970s, says punk celebrated a stark style that informed the work of artists as varied as fashion designer Alannah Hill and painters Howard Arkley and Jenny Watson. "It wasn't just a musical thing. It was a lot of energetic, creative people."

Milne, 49, played "bad guitar", founded the Au Go Go record label and city store and now has a label called In-fidelity. "It was sort of an explosion," Milne says, recalling the impact in Melbourne in the mid-1970s. "The idea was to throw things out and find new things from reacting against the past..."

Among the early influences were photographs of artists including the Ramones, Television, Richard Hell and Patti Smith "in their torn clothes"."Very stark," he says. "Completely the opposite of the flowery images or the air-brushed excesses of the time."

This was a few years before you saw the first Mohawks, studs, "bondage trousers" and T-shirts emblazoned with images of The Clash, the Dead Kennedys or Ramones. Back then it was a bold statement simply to dress in black and sport an "anti-long hairstyle". "I was certainly nervous travelling on public transport," Milne says of the days he ventured forth in black winkle pickers, pants and singlet, "wearing the sort of clothes I was wearing."

Drugs of choice were "very much alcohol and speed", and the Crystal Ballroom in St Kilda and Richmond's Tiger Lounge among favoured venues. "Very few venues would put on punk gigs," Milne says. "So a lot of gigs were held at parties in houses and backyards.

"We had one called Punk Gunk, New Year's Eve '77-'78, because we couldn't get a venue. We had it in the street outside a house in Faraday Street, Carlton. All the Melbourne bands played at that. There was the Negatives, The Boys Next Door, the News... and Philip Brophy's group."

He considers the enduring impact. "It's hard to explain," he says. "You've got to take yourself back to being 18 or 19 at a time when suddenly you felt that all these disparate things were coming together and you were getting your own music revolution. I thought it was the most incredibly important music of all time."

He thought punk was "going to be recognised as our version of the Beat explosion, or the rock'n'roll explosion". "Now I don't know, historically, whether it was that important," he says. "(Though) it's of great importance obviously."

To Milne, Macdougall is a "second generation" punk fan who came to the music after the "explosion".

"I didn't come into the whole thing until 1979 or 1980," Macdougall concedes. "I started seeing all these punk bands down at the Seaview Ballroom in St Kilda. After the first burst of punk at various sleazeholes and venues, it became a bit more serious in the early 1980s. There was a band called the Sick Things that was one of the first to cover UK bands like Discharge and stuff like that.

"Every Wednesday night at the Ballroom about 200-250 people would go down to see these bands from Sydney like Mass Appeal and the Hard Ons. So what was it like? It had it's moments. Some (performances) went by without incident. But occasionally there'd be a couple of fights and a bit of aggro. Most of the time people would go and see the bands and jump up and down and have a good time. Heavens it was a long time ago."

There was a political dimension, he says. Punks would go out in support of anti-war demonstrators. Some of the bands made it known they were vegetarian. "Depression were vegetarian. They wouldn't eat meat. But they did wear leather."

A teacher's son from solid Camberwell, Macdougall laughs a little when asked if he has settled down to mid-life in suburbia. "I still hold the same beliefs that I did then," he repeats defiantly. "It's individuality. Being against the corporate system. Being against big business. Saying f--- you to authorities like the police and school and stuff like that. Very much so."

Focus on Punk is on at ACMI at Federation Square in Flinders Street until Sunday, May 20.

Phil Macdougall hosts Sunglasses After Dark on PBS FM on Thursday nights 8pm to 10pm.


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