Bloodymindedness: The Birth of the Celibate Rifles
The story of the Celibate Rifles starts in 1979. We're looking back at their gestation - in schools, surf clubs and garages on Sydney's Northern Beaches - and eventual birth.
As we take it up, our narrative stars a stark collection of individuals. Some of them were there fron the start, others came in later.
Damien Lovelock: singer, writer, Rifle since 1982;
David Morris: rhythm guitarist, Rifle since 1981;
Kent Steedman: lead guitarist, founding Rifle, still there;
Michael Couvret: bass guitarist, founding Rifle, quit 1983, 1986;
Phillip Jacquet: frenzied drummer, founding Rifle, quit 1986.
Mikey: Living in Belrose, very sheltered, safe little upbringing. The only time I ever went anywhere non-Anglo was going to footy games. I remember going to Belmore Oval and sitting there going what the fuck are they doing? Watching people eating Lebanese food. My upbringing was so white, I'd never even seen people eat Lebanese bread or something like that, put it in dips and stuff. It was bizarre.
Belrose was the whitest suburb. Incredibly white. I remember in all the suburbs, Belrose, Frenchs Forest, there was one black family. I remember there was one Asian person at any of the schools I ever went to. That's how white it was.
The Insular Peninsula?
Totally. Yeah... That's not a meaningless expression.
Sydney, 1979. Mi-Sex and Radiators were packing in the punters, Fleetwood Mac was selling albums by the truckload and Little River Band was Australia’s biggest musical export. Skateboards and yo-yos had come and gone again and BMX bikes were about to become the next big thing.
Damien: It was a really awful time. So you go along (to an audition) it'd take three fucking hours, 120 degrees. Finally get there, a bunch of guys in a little garage, they'd say ‘Do you know Locomotive Breath?' Yep. 'Do you know Roadhouse Blues?' Yep. ‘ Do you know Route 66?' Yep. They'd say ‘Great, now, here's one of our songs’ and it'd be some song about, I'm a gay space man and it'd be ni ni ni ni ni ni ni ni. How is anybody supposed to sing this? Why are we playing balls out rock and roll for the audition, and then you give me something I wouldn't whistle for money? Let alone actually fucking sing. These were very good musicians, most of them were quite good players, but … It was all about commercial success. And I wasn't into any of that.
Australia slumbered. The Saints had 30 seconds on Countdown in 1977 and were barely heard from again. There was a handful of people scattered across the country who were attuned to a more esoteric, energetic brand of rock and roll that had antecedents in Sonics, Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, Velvet Underground and a host of regional one-hit wonders. In any city, these people all came to know each other. They hung out in the same pubs, shared houses and got together in each other’s lounge rooms to listen to records.
The bands that grew out of this scene played wherever they could. A few pubs in the city and a few in the suburbs. By 1978, this tiny scene was beginning to generate its own momentum and draw in suburban high-school kids who had heard about something exciting.
Phil: Playing drums is something I used to do when I was young. I used to set up the cushions at home when I was really young and just bash them around, so I guess it was always gonna be in me.
Mikey: I went to primary school with Phil. I knew Phil in kindergarten.
Phil: I was drumming with Mikey back in primary school, Wakehurst Primary, about Year Three, started mucking around. We did a concert when we were in fifth grade. I played on an old garbage bin. That was our first concert. Then I got a drumkit and we started doing things from there.
Kent: My old man brought home a guitar one day. I started playing, I was liking punk music. Not that I was a punk, or knew anything about it. I liked the energy of the music, the politics.
Guitar playing became a good adjunct for smoking dope. Go to my mate's place, pull a couple of cones and jam. Playing guitar was better than doing homework. My folks tolerated quite a bit of that. As long as I did something and did it right they didn't care.
If you start something young enough you get alright. I could always make an hour a day and I was into it. I got bitten and it was never going to stop.
Kent and Kent and Mikey
Mikey: He (Phil) went off to a different high school to me. In about third form I crossed paths with a guy who was my friend in primary school. He came over one day and saw that I was learning to play bass, he had some friends who were getting together a band, they jam every weekend and they need a bass player.
I was listening to Boz Scaggs and Abba, I went over there and it was like, how does the song go? Kent showed me the first song they were going to do, which was “Gimme Shelter”.
So we played that for a few hours and I must have come across to them as the biggest dag in the world. These guys were pretty bent. They were smoking cigarettes and stuff, you know? I came from a really sheltered, incredibly straight family.
Kent: I was going to school with Ian, the guy who was singing. He knew Mikey. And then Phil, they knew him, knew he was a drummer. So it was like, let's have a rehearsal. I ended up jamming with Mikey and Phil and I think Ian. Mikey was fucking straight as.
We had a tolerance level and it was cool. He could play, he had a bass and he liked the same music. So we got to know each other, and it happened. I think I'd written a couple of songs. He might have as well. Just started playing. Went from there. Never thought much was going to come of it.
Mikey: So I met them and we played together and it went alright then we did it again another week and before you know it you've been given a party to play at. That's sort of how we started up. We played at parties and the occasional school lunchtime thing.
Phil: He (Mikey) went to Davidson High School and Ian and Michael’s brother, Tom, who’s the keyboard player at that stage, went to Davidson as well. But we still got together and we managed to have a few gigs. Mikey would come from high school and get time off to play a lunchtime concert at Forest High with Kent and me. They were really good fun.
First known The first known photo of a Celibate Rifles gig: Davidson High School in 1978 supporting Supernaught.
The inset photos are Ian on vocals and Tom Couvret on keyboards. Photos courtesy of Mikey Couvret.
Kent: We were pretty good, we played every couple of weeks. The odd school gig, parties. We were mates, there was a bunch of friends that liked what we were doing. If there was a party on it was like let's get these guys to play.
Phil: We used to do gigs at the North Steyne Surf Club. They were wild. I think that’s half the reason we got that tag as being the northern beaches band, we did play all those sorts of gigs. They weren’t venues as much as they were parties. We did a lot of party stuff and word would get around, people would come see the Rifles knowing they were just a good rock and roll party band.
Mikey: We started putting on our own dances at the North Steyne Surf Club where we'd just advertise them at the schools and make up a few posters and put them up and you'd get fifty or a hundred people would come and pay a dollar each through the door. You'd buy some floodlights out of the money or something and try and do it again in six months time. So that's what we were doing in the middle of high school.
It’s a tale as old as the teenage Beatles, the high school band getting together to play their favourite songs, goofing off, having themselves some real fun and discovering that they could take it a bit further than high school dances.
Not unlike The Beach Boys – another group known as a surf band but, like the Rifles, the drummer was the only one who actually rode a surfboard.
Dave Morris was the first of two changes that took the Celibate Rifles from a great high-school band to a great rock and roll band. He was a few years older than Kent, Mikey and Phil, a gulf between 18 and 21. Dave is the definitive example of a musician who brings far more to the band than the listener would ever notice. He’s a true eccentric with a Derek & Clive sense of humour, disinclined to be seen taking anything too seriously, and the heart and soul of the Celibate Rifles.
Dave Morris. Joan Cootes photo
Dave: I went to school with two of their elder brothers. Mikey's brother Paul was one of my best mates and Ian, who was their original singer, was my best mate at school. I liked their style.
I've never wanted to play lead guitar very much, if other people want to, that's fine. Occasionally I get a solo together but I've always done the easy stuff. Being a total Ramones fan for years, didn't really encourage me to want to get out and play too many solos and stuff.
We bought one of those ten-foot square garden sheds. The Zigaloof or whatever it was and it was fun in summer lined with underfelt, the shed was down the road from my oldies in the bush in Belrose which is near Frenchs Forest for all of you who don't know.
Mikey's other brother Tom was playing keyboards. So the Rifles had Kel (Kent) on guitar, Phil Jacquet on drums, Mikey on bass and Ian was singing. Tom was closed for the day or something and because I was living there somebody said grab a guitar and have a jam. They just sounded good, you know? Sounded a lot more Birdman-esque. I remember Mikey ringing me up every day for a week going 'Join the band! Join the band!' I went 'Oh yeah, okay.'
Kent: Mikey's brother was in the Phantom Agents with Dave. We started rehearsing at Dave's place. We all sort of hung out a bit, went to see gigs. Played a bit, and, you know, it went from there.
Mikey: It really started to take off when Dave joined. Dave was mates with my brother, Tom. We used to rehearse at Dave's place. And one time Tom, who was playing keyboards, was away and we said hey Dave do you want to jam with us today? I can still so clearly remember going into the solo in King of the Surf, where Kent went to the lead you kind of lost a lot of the noise and instead of having an organ going ‘eeeeeee’ you got Dave flinging away on his Mosrite. The whole band just lifted up. It's a really clear musical memory for me. And after that I was given the job of sacking my brother. But it wasn't too hard cos he never practiced and he made a lot of mistakes. He was a bit of a hobbyist really, that was how the high school band was happening.
"…urban teen frenzy with lyricist Lovelock's adult fears erupting in a glowing atomic fireball of bazooka guitars and terminal volume" - David Fricke, US Rolling Stone magazine
It’s one of the archetypal tales of rock and roll, the band that forms in high school full of dreams and swagger. They rehearse at lunchtime, play school dances and youth clubs on the weekends, brimful of youthful energies, they throw every spare minute and thought and calorie into playing and rehearsing.
Energy needs focus. That adolescent energy and super-fucking tight playing collided with an acidic worldview.
Damien Lovelock at the Trade Union Club. Joan Cootes photo
Damien: I played A grade rugby union, rugby league and then football. Or soccer, as it was called then. I was an elite athlete, a state sprinter. I went to a Catholic boarding school, and that sort of team spirit thing and having the right attitude to what you do was drummed into you from day one. And I viewed any group enterprise the same way, life's too short for bickering and bullshit. If there's something you want to do, let's get to doing it. You can have fun on the way. but I used to watch most bands and it seemed that it was more a part of a look.
As soon as I met the Rifles I thought OK, there's something here. There's an energy and... there's something that sets them apart from a lot of the other bands. And that, nothing lasts forever. If you don't look after it it'll just dissipate and go. So yeah, I got into that.
Mikey: We just put an ad in Musicians Placement Services or the Manly Daily, there wasn't much street press. The only person who responded was Damien. He rang and I talked to him. And I remember asking at the end how old are you? And he said 27 and it was like... we were 17 and he was 27 and I thought that's not going to work. But he was the only person who replied so he came along and it went okay. He thought there was something about us and we thought that he had potential so that's sort of how the band really fell together.
Phil: Damo just appeared on the scene when Ian went to university and didn’t have time for the band. So Damo answered the ad in the paper, came back with some good influences... He won us over, very convincingly, with his argumentative vocabualry.
Phil Jacquet on his kit. Joan Cootes photo
Dave: We didn't really know how to audition for singers but we contacted Damo... I was the old man of the band, I was 21. The youngest singer that was available was 26 and we were all going 'Oh that's too old for this sort of music'. I laugh about that now when I think about it.
Damien: Dale Steedman, Kent's older brother, described them once as the best high school band in history. That's what the Rifles were. They were super tight. They could really play. They were young guys, younger than me. When I met them I knew straightaway. There was an energy about it that was just fantastic. Young guys, they gave a shit. It wasn't just a look, they really cared about what it sounded like. They didn't give a fuck what it looked like.
And to me, that's what I thought punk was supposed to give us as a legacy, that image didn't matter. But in fact, that was the reverse. The punk look was the ONLY thing that mattered. Whether you could play or not was irrelevant, but you had to look right. And if you didn't look right, the rules and the punishment was far more severe than straight world, where it was just 'get fucked fuck off' whereas here it was like banishment. Never to be, never darken my horizon again because you're wearing the WRONG leather jacket. It's a little like the rockabilly people, you know? They are so insanely authentic that you've got to look this way and you can't use modern hair gel it's gotta be Brylcreem. People get nuts about rules.
Punk to me, which was probably more New York punk than English punk, was liberating. The idea was break all the rules. And it was alright to make shithouse music, but make it because that's what you're passionate about doing. Not because you didn't have time to learn your instrument because you were too busy getting everything else right (throaty laugh!)
The best high school band in the world found the focus they needed to be something more. It was the combination of Damien’s adult outlook with the youthful energy and bragadocio of the Celibate Rifles that made them the unique band that they are and it threw together, in Damien and Kent, two very strong-willed characters with widely divergent attitudes on how success should be measured, what should be striven for.
Kent Steedman. Joan Cootes photo
Damien: I brought, I think, a different ear. I didn't grow up on the Pistols. I grew up on Joe Stafford, all the jazz singers my mother listened to. Fifties rock n roll, cos I had an older cousin who was right into it, she was like my big sister. She was an only child, I was an only child. So 4 or 5 years old, I was listening to whatever she was listening to. Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, those were her teenage years. Bobby Lee, Bobby Rydell, that stuff.
So when I came to the Rifles, my idea of a cover version and theirs were pretty different. Theirs might extend all the way back to 1975, whereas I think the first song I taught them was "Runaway", Del Shannon. It was like, are we going to play this? And we played it and everyone liked it. So, I think I brought along an attitude, a width to the music that wasn't there. Equally, I learned from them, they had this encyclopedic knowledge of this really narrow band you know, Detroit sound or whatever people called it back then. And ah, so, I learned things off them that I wouldn't have learned. Like the MC5, I knew who they were but I never really listened to them or took them seriously, to tell you the truth.
The Celibate Rifles paralleled the MC5; Rob Tyner was a college student when he joined an energetic band of high school kids. He brought with him a broader sensibility and a range of contacts that were to profoundly influence the band, as Damien would.
Phil: They’re just a band – pure-hearted musicians who just love playing.