Proto-punk is so yesterday: Garry Gray on St Kilda, Sacred Cowboys and making Sydney sit up and listen

sacred cowboys st kildaSacred Cowboys on St Kilda Beach with the SS Minow.

“Sydney audiences can expect to hear much of the ‘Diamond in the Forehead’ album and a number of songs that will comprise our second album. Expect rock and roll out of the early 1970s, expect high volume in the guitar department, expect Nobel Prize-winning freak flag songs”

Garry Gray wrote this to me, and I visualise him, pounding the keyboard with pride about his forthcoming shows in Sydney in mid-November.

Gray has been making music for 42 years. I imagine by now he knows when he has a killer album ("Diamond in the Forehead") and a killer live band (The Sixth Circle) locked in. As I wrote a few months ago who when I caught The Sixth Circle live at the Tote Hotel and was blown away by a great, pure rock, street-level band:

All that dark and shade in this set; theatrics and drama. The tempo pulls back with “Club Siren”. “Our God hangs #6” is wild rock beat and with the guitars blues-based. Gray’s menacing vocals howling: 'I got hung without a trial'. "Cadillacs” has that proto punk rawness and a blues progression. There are elements of deep soul with raw gritty urban blues, and a solid rock 4/4 backbeat. Live, it is a no-nonsense rock monster.

Gary has been deep in the Australian underbelly, making music with his bands, since the mid-'70s. There were The Negatives, The Sacred Cowboys and now, Garry Gray and the Sixth Circle. Instead of the usual history lesson, let’s talk about an album launch and dissect the chain of events with the creation of a record because I know the readership here is quite refined and certainly not of the "Smash Hits" magazine mindset. 

Gray is one of those characters eternally working on the fringes. He is talented, articulate and full of yarns about the underbelly of Australian music. We should capture the oral history - the words of the late Ian Rilen and Lobby Lloyde, Garry Gray, Rob Younger and Lindsay Bjerre - in one place. Their stories should, and need to be, captured. Theirs are the important voices from the underground. They're musicians who are largely ignored (except for important online magazines like our own I-94 Bar) by a mainstream media characterised by self-congratulatory, slobbering networkers and group-thinkers. 

The most significant aspect of underground music around the world is the universal artistic like-mindedness. Its history is littered with collections of kids coming to the same musical place while being totally unaware of each other. The classic example is post-War Britain and the USA of the early '60s. People "got" rock ‘n’ roll via the authentic blues of Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters. There was only one record shop in London that imported blues records in 1962-63 and it was frequented by Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, John Mayall, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards. All were unaware of each other as they flicked through piles of records, but within two years they were tearing England apart with similar music.

It was the same again in 1974 with the Ramones, Richard Hell, The Electric Eels surfacing in the USA, while in the United Kingdom people like Brian James, Glen Matlock and Steve Jones were finding inspiration. Meanwhile, in Brisbane, Ed Kuepper played in the most primitive band in the world. It was a record called “"Fun House" by The Stooges that really opened his mind to the possibilities. In Sydney, there was like-minded counterpartds in a medical student from Detroit called Deniz Tek and a music geek called Rob Younger. All this is well documented now.

What happened in Melbourne, with like-minded kids, has been less analysed in the words of the partcipants. Garry Gray lifts the lid on a time when he was also coming up with his own variation of the theme.

nothing grows in texas single

I asked Garry about his music in 1973 and 1974, the demos and rehearsal tapes and how it appears that he was right into proto-punk at same time as Ed Kuepper and Rob Younger.  (Garry’s answers were such good post-Kerouac prose, that I left them largely unedited.)

GG: Proto-punk as you know, was a retrospectively devised genre, so it’s probably worth getting that clear. There are some bits I disagree with, but we haven’t got all day.

According to the Allmusic guide: "Proto-punk was never a cohesive movement, nor was there a readily identifiable proto-punk sound that made its artists seem related at the time" (and fair enough.) "What ties proto-punk together is a certain provocative sensibility that didn't fit the prevailing counterculture of the time (or I’d say, sat uncomfortably with the mainstream as well). It was consciously subversive and fully aware of its outsider status (sometimes…these artists are in show business, they’re not chartered accountants) ... In terms of its lasting influence, much proto-punk was primitive and stripped-down, even when it wasn't aggressive, and its production was usually just as unpolished. (debatable) It also frequently dealt with taboo subject matters, depicting society's grimy underbelly in great detail, and venting alienation that was more intense and personal than ever before.’’ (Back then, a lot of this stuff hit the mainstream radio too).

In the band listings for proto punk, sure, we find The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, the MC5, and The New York Dolls, the Monks, to name but an obvious few.

The thing that is forgotten is that all of these artists were simply making rock and roll and being themselves. This is why it isn't a cohesive movement. In the same way, Mushroom and the Suicide label tried to sell the public a punk scene with "Lethal Weapons" in 1978. But there was no scene, just a changing of the guard, really. Anyway, basically. I gravitated towards some of these "proto" artists, this so called "genre", via the mainstream radio…3XY where no wrinklies fly…

The first artist that really got my interest in 73 was Alice Cooper. I heard "No More Mr Nice Guy" - Mick Mashbir's solo - on the radio and had to have the album. Subsequently, I got the Cooper back catalogue ("School’s Out", "Killer", "Love it to Death".) Lou Reed was in the charts and I managed to track the Velvets down at a jazz store in Melbourne (and to ask them) to import the banana album, which was on the Verve jazz label. It took three months to get it.

David Bowie of course was in the charts. NME and Rolling Stone magazine were the catalyst linking Bowie and Reed to Iggy Pop, and along with Alice referencing Detroit as a rock and roll city, the MC5 and Blue Oyster Cult were found.

My then collaborator, bass player Chris Walsh, found the "Raw Power" album in the Australian Record Club - on sale next to Barry Crocker in early 1974! Our first garage band Stooges cover in 1974 was "Shake Appeal"; the song was 12-months-old then. At the time, "Beggars Banquet" was only a few years old. Keith’s solo in "Sympathy for the Devil", Lou’s solo in "I Heard Her Call My Name", and James Williamson on "Raw Power" in general said everything I needed to know about guitar players. And add Mick Ronson, Glenn Buxton and Fred "Sonic" Smith to that. I guess in the lyrics department, I bought Patti Smith’s "Horses" in '75, and "Marquee Moon" by Television in due course … the aforementioned artists ticked that box for me as well.

sacred cowboys portrait

Sacred Cowboys simulate a police line-up in the 1980s.  

Allmusic talks about "scuzzy production". I don’t subscribe to that as a benchmark. Back then, as now, I’ve been impressed by an array of artists not confined to this retrospectively devised category.

Over the years to follow, I found the music that I was making was attributed to this or that category. When the first Sacred Cowboys EP came out in 1983, I couldn’t find it in the racks. I asked then owner of Greville Records, Andrew McGee why he didn’t have it. He told me "You’re in 'Swamp Rock'…surprise, surprise…next to Kim Salmon and The Gun Club. But back in '73, I wasn’t aware that other Australian artists were into similar things. We just did whatever we felt like doing, which remains true to this day, at least for me, just making rock and roll music

He quotes Alice Cooper: “Can’t salute ya can’t find a flag, if that don’t suit ya, that’s a drag”. I asked Garry to me about 1978 and how punk really seemed take old of certain areas around Melbourne. The St Kilda scene, of course, is legendary.

I went to primary school with Tracey Pew and Chris Walsh in Mount Waverley……sweet birds of youth……the amorphous suburban sprawl we group up in, we all had ideas, that made us scary…reads like Nicholson in Easy Rider, I know…, we the alienated .. on the outside of the great Australian lie …the Colgate invisible shield …but I don’t expect anyone to get that en masse today, people didn’t get it then …and here we are living in the long predicted zone of the ‘swithched off majority’, a land in which realists are branded cynics and true bread is white bread hunted by shoppers toting hate and fear …of form and substance we hear nothing…blaming everyone but themselves for their inept choices.

In the early to mid- 70s Chris and Tracey started learning bass. I played guitar for a while and shifted to lead singer when Chris and I formed the Reals with Ollie Olsen. Our gang was Tracey, Nick Cave, Mick Harvey. We used to check out each other's rehearsals. The first Boys Next Door show was at Mick's father's Parish hall. Chris and I got beaten up at the show by Jordy Boys, sharpies and rockers from housing estate suburb Jordanville. Next night we did our first show with Reals at an event called "Breakfast for Buddha" in Glen Waverley. I had a hundred foot mike lead. Chris played with boot marks on his face from the previous night's beating which the audience thought was stage make-up...

There we were with original songs like 'Nothing to Say', a version of Loose, a Blue Oyster Cult tune...out there...so this was '76 or '77…Division 4 and Homicide on TV … ‘l’enfer c’est les autres’…

Chris and I moved to St Kilda, we were the beachhead. Tracey and Nick would crash at our place. Chris and I formed the Negatives and started playing at the Tiger Lounge in Richmond. One day I was drinking in the downstairs bar at the Seaview with my girlfriend and she told Graeme, one of the owners that I had a band and asked if we could play there. So we did a show, Negatives and Boys Next Door. This was the first ever Ballroom show with Dolores and Laurie Richards starting to run it about six months later.

So somewhere there in 1978, Barrie Earl from the Suicide label said he'd make us all stars and signed us up. Chris and I didn't take it all that seriously. We felt we'd been signed to pad out the stable of a non-existent scene. Rather than take the pop route, we unleashed the seven-minute marvel "Planet on the Prowl" and demanded that be released. The "Lethal Weapons" era did bring musicians into contact with each other, though. I met Johnny Crash who was the Sacred Cowboys' first drummer, and Ash Wednesday who has worked with the Cowboys live up to 2006 and notably on "Trouble from Providence." Both played in JAB, then the Models and via them I met Mark Ferrie.

I asked him to tell me about The Sacred Cowboys’ approach. They were a band that seemed to take no prisoners.

Mark Ferrie and I became friends in 1981. In early '82 we formed the Sacred Cowboys after seeing the Sacred Cows on an old episode of "Get Smart". It was an iconoclastic idea from the outset and remained so. Avoiding being tagged into genre when we saw one coming, eschewing cowboy hats, fashion statements and rejecting the hype…the band had impeccable taste in music and we set about our mission of pushing genre and rejecting calls to cash in …

I guess in the early days of the band, we used to stare at the ground, but after a time we started moving forward ….we followed our own compass to our commercial detriment but it kept us alive musically over a number of decades … I guess the punters love a circus….so as journalists tripped over themselves in trying to define what we were dragging out their thesauruses and having themselves a ball …

The years saw us honing the band to our ideal, the things which drew us to music in the first place …the power of the written word and the pull of guitars and great rock and roll bands in conveying strong ideas to the few who were remotely interested in hearing our take on music and our vision of the world. We always gained more traction overseas which kept us alive from the '80s into the 2000s. Our late '80s outing, "Trouble from Providence" was released on Normal Records in the then West Germany and songs such as "Hell Sucks", "Canned Goods" and "Pacification" took a stark look at the socio political landscape of the mess created in the world, post-World War II.

The wall came down a year after release and this led to writing the next album which eventually surfaced as "Cold Harvest" on Bang Records in Spain. "Black City" took a stark look at what the future might be and now is. Spencer P Jones and Penny Ikinger joined the band for this phase of the Sacred Cowboys. The album delved into the murky side of America and looked at the world in the new uncertain context, that which it remains in today.

the sixth circle liz reed tote
 Liz 

Garry Gray and the Sixth Circle in full flight at The Tote in Melbourne. Liz Reed photo.

I asked Garry how the scene has changed and how it affects the way he approaches making music in 2016.

Well, I’ve observed the scene and its changes since the 1970s and to be frank, the scene itself has never influenced how I go about making the songs. I’ve never given a damn about what the scene is doing, though it is not so much about "a scene" these days, things are as fractured now as they always have been…I would say there are far less places to play now, for anything new and get paid for it….

I am not a commercial artist anyway and live with those self - imposed limits quite happily – I just know what I like, but I guess that doesn’t enhance your chances to keep playing any, unless people turn up from time to time at the shows… I dunno, subject doesn’t interest me... I have always collaborated with other musicians. Making records is where it’s at…to hell with the rest of it.

In the Sixth Circle, I’ve had the great good fortune to work with my friend Tex Napalm who is a fine artist in his own right, a brilliant guitar player, sound engineer and songwriter, so we produced "Diamond in the Forehead" ourselves. The days of the open cheque book for recording my work are long gone. I guess this impacts on every artist sooner or later unless they hit the stratosphere and "make it". Having never peaked, I guess I maintain the freedom to do whatever I like.

In terms of different approach… so in making "Diamond in the Forehead", I felt comfortable with doing an album that has a loose connecting thread to "Cold Harvest" and "Trouble From Providence", perhaps vaguely thematically, or where those songs take a semi-autobiographical journey lyrically…but with a sound that is distinctly different to that of the Cowboys and that celebrates the imaginations of the musicians involved.

Also, essentially, if you haven’t "made it" after a certain point you never will, so I guess for me never having looked at writing and performing in those terms reduces things to the essential desire of creating and recording the work.

One day it is inevitable that my options will run out. So be it, I’ve made a lot of albums and there is nothing I regret about the body of work that I am leaving behind.

I asked Garry to tell me about the recording of the last record and the live band.

The original Sixth Circle line-up on the album had three guitar players: Tex Napalm, Spencer P Jones and Rob Wellington. I recruited Angela Howard on bass because of her interest in the songs, and Graeme Ward, our drummer was introduced to me by Spencer. We rehearsed a lot as I didn’t want to play live at all, initially, and just wanted to record the album and release it. …so when you ask about the music scene in general, I’d have to say I wasn’t really enamoured by the hackneyed approach of playing live and all that industry stuff…but when you have such a great band…ultimately it is fun to play live with them.

Andrew McGee invited us to record the album on his property in Nagambie. Tex, Spencer, Graeme and myself went up there for a few days to record all the basic tracks and get various overdubs done up there at the same time.

Tex and I finished the recording process back in Melbourne getting the other band members in to do overdubs and their parts as required. Tex mixed the album and we mastered the record with Lindsay Gravina at Birdland Studios. Mick Baty at Off The Hip released the album earlier this year and it has got airplay in Europe and at intelligent radio stations in Australia. At the beginning of the year it was necessary to re-organise the band live and this involved the inclusion of Chris Taranto from Bitter Sweet Kicks on guitar and the departure of Rob Wellington. 

And lastly, I asked him what Sydney audiences can expect from the live show.

Sydney audiences can expect to hear much of the ‘Diamond in the Forehead’ album and a number of songs that will comprise our second album. Expect rock and roll out of the early 1970s, expect high volume in the guitar department, expect Nobel prize winning freak flag songs, though I’m not quite sure which nobel prize as yet. Expect freedom of thought and expression. Expect tasers and light. Expect nothing. Expect everything. Expect to take out your wallet, Sydney ain’t cheap.

One thing is sure, the more you expect, the more disappointed you will be, so why not just buy the album …that says it all…go to the live show if you want because the band is freakin’ dynamite…this hype stuff is a bore, isn’t it! This could well be the moment Tex fires me out of a cannon, he’s been threatening this for a while and it could actually happen … we are looking forward to this but we have a few hurdles to overcome … it’s extremely hard to get to Tullamarine and expensive, so we are still sussing out how to get there!

Garry Gray and the Sixth Circle + Leadfinger + Chickenstones
The Factory Floor, Marrickville
Friday, November 18
Tickets here

+ Chickenstones
Beach Club, Collarory
Saturday, November 19
Tickets on the door

Garry Gray & The Third Circle (stripped back trio mode) + The Willing Ponies
Rubys L’otel, Rozelle
Sunday, November 20
5pm - free

 

Tags: live, sydney, st kilda, nick cave, sacred cowboys, garry gray, the sixth circle, tracey pew, the reals, diamond in the forehead, the negatives

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