New book ‘Orstralia’ explores the rise and fall of Aussie punk music

New book ‘Orstralia’ explores the rise and fall of Aussie punk music
Image: The Hard-Ons. L-R: Ray Ahn, Keish De Silva, Peter Black. Image supplied.

In his new book Orstralia: A Punk History 1974-1989, Melbourne based writer Tristan Clark attempts to define the undefinable, the rise and fall of punk music in Australia.

Across more than 130 interviews with members of punk bands, Clark plots the rise of early exponents who would be coopted into the genre such as Radio Birdman, The Saints and the Hard-Ons, through to the hundreds of DIY bands that were spawned in garages and pubs across Australia, particularly working class centres outside of the capital cities such as Wollongong, Newcastle and Geelong.

Clark is unflinching as he records the personal highlights of a fast and furious music culture along with its inevitable self destruction and burn-outs, all the while placing its against the prevailing culture of the time.

“I wasn’t around when the Pistols were around,” Tristan Clark said. “There had been books done on the scene but nothing definitive, and I wanted to bring all that together and look at each city, rather than through the narrow lens of the punk scene.”

Like Rock’n’Roll before it, there would be many claims as to who and where were the first punks in the seventies, but as a music and cultural form its defining moment must have been in December 1976 when the yet unrecorded Sex Pistols were interviewed trading insults and swearing with the staid and pompous Bill Grundy on his television show.

It destroyed Grundy’s career and elevated the Sex Pistols across the globe and punk was on the map.

“Australia is unique that we have a band (The Saints) who have claimed (which they deny) to be the first punk band, and obviously you had Radio Birdman, the Ramones in New York City, and the Sex Pistols in London, and things are all fermenting around them,” Clark said.

“That reaches Brisbane and that is both confounding and compelling, given that Australia was such an isolated place, and there was this weird osmosis.”

Author Tristan Clark. Supplied.

The rise of punk in Australia

The rise of punk was more than expected as music of the day had lost its way in over production, pomposity and instrumental histrionics.

In Australia Malcolm Fraser was prime minister and “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”.

“There was that disgruntlement that needed a way to express itself,” Clark said.

“It was also an expression of a darker and more pessimistic side of things that had crept in after the Summer of Love and that coincided with unemployment for young people in Australia and you had a confluence of cultural, political and economic factors.”

Ray Ahn is the bassist with the Hard-Ons who formed in 1982 and are still a major festival band who have also had strong record sales across their long career.

“My neighbour had a copy of “God Save the Queen” and it was popular in my neighbourhood,” Ahn said.

“You didn’t have to be punk to like punk music. When you say punk it has so many different definitions.”

Warwick Gilbert played bass in a number of incarnations of Radio Birdman and also denies that they were a punk band, he saw it as a fresh scene.

“They didn’t know how to categorise us and we got lumped into the punk movement,” Warwick Gilbert said.

“There had already been the garage punk stuff earlier in Australia with Lobby Lloyd’s bands and the Purple Hearts.”

Punk was as much an attitude as it was another step in music that was more democratic in that it was accessible to almost everyone.

“Complete novices were playing a week after picking up their instruments and at times the image was more important than the music itself,” Clark said.

Using direct contacts, social media and friends of friends Clark built up an extensive contacts list for bands across the country and has charted them extensively in Orstralia.

Radio Birdman. L-R: Warwick Gilbert, Rob Younger, Deniz Tek, Chris Masuak, Ron Keeley. Imaged supplied.

Where to find Orstralia

This is a well written book, even if the layout with bold sub-headings are annoying, and is valuable addition to the recent wave of music books focusing on more mainstream artists.

Published by PM Press in California, Orstralia is distributed by New South and is available through Abbey’s Bookstore and Utopia Records.

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