History of The Australian Underground by Clinton Green
Rik Rue’s tape was one of the first that I got from Australia. A wonderfully woven tapestry of sound collage, meticulously edited and executed.
Another early band I heard was Dogmachine. I couldn’t find the tape but here is a CD that was released later.
A compilation first released on cassette and then later released on CD, “Down Under Ground” put together by Stephen Harris and the T.O.A.N. label. This one featured many styles and 16 different bands.
I never knew the real name of The Bedroom Musician but I really enjoyed his repetitive, droning bedroom rock a lot. He did tapes and then this LP that came out in 1986.
Leaning toward the goth side of things, Lemon Avenue put out tapes, records and eventually CDs. Valerios Calocerinos was an instrumental figure in the gloom rock scene and still puts out various projects of high quality. Their 1991 LP above.
From 1978 , a picture of David Chesworth and Robert Goodge, two early players on the Australian underground scene with their group, Essendon Airport.
Another favorite of mine was the goofy band, Vocabularinist. They mixed odd, fractured rock with humor and flippancy to create a very engaging result.Their almost unpronounceable CD, “hasznasznisznasz” above.
Perhaps not truly underground but still fiercely independent, singer-songwriter Louisa John-Krol produced several albums of ethereal song and atmosphere. Above, her CD, “Alexandria”.
Perhaps not truly underground but still fiercely independent, singer-songwriter Louisa John-Krol produced several albums of ethereal song and atmosphere. Below, her CD, “Alexandria”.
The Stinking Badge Of Java were an excellent mixing group dynamics with fine musicianship and songwriting skills. Led by Tom Bollinger who went on to solo projects. Their fine CD, “If It’s Fetishes You’re After”, above.
Andrew McIntosh has been producing challenging sounds for many years under different guises. One of his most recent projects is Screwtape, an in-your-face dynamic noise project. His recent tape “Fist Of The Sun” above.
One of the central figures in Australian improvised music for many years, Jim Denley’s Machine For Making Sense also featured Rik Rue and Steve Wishhart among others. Denley has gone on to work with countless musicians internationally. Above, the CD “Dissect The Body”.
Leigh Julian has been running the Smell The Stench label for several years releasing an unbelievable amount of mainly noise product. Above, the band, Slicing Grandpa, from their split release with Italian noisemongers, Harshcore.
Another crucial member of the improvising scene Down Under is percussionist Will Guthrie. Teamed up here with Adam Sussman and Matthew Earle, Guthrie has recorded and performed with many international artists. This CD was called “Bridges”.
The Australian cassette underground: a historical overview – Clinton Green
Like in many other parts of the Western world, audio cassettes came into common use in Australia from the late 1970s and through the 1980s as both a cheaper alternative format to vinyl, and most significantly, as a recordable media. Anyone who was a music fan in the 1980s knows that blank cassettes were the first ‘peer-to-peer’ tools for music sharing. My own earliest memories of cassettes involve buying blank C90s from the supermarket after school so my friends and I could tape copies of each others records. And when I couldn’t afford a new C90, I would scavenge whatever other cassettes I could find to record over, like dubbed tapes I no longer liked or even commercially produced tapes on which I would cover the write-protect tabs with sticky tape so I could record onto them. A love of heavy metal led me beyond the record collections of immediate friends to tape trading networks, which would see massive trade lists, sometimes numbering hundreds of pages, arrive in the mail. There was even an Australian fanzine called Trade Contact that existed specifically as a listing of tape traders and their wants (although these listings were international and covered various genres); all made redundant now by the internet.
Although I lost interest in heavy metal as my teenage years progressed, the genre’s associated tape trading community provided my first contact with self-produced/released cassettes. Bands would either professionally duplicate their cassettes (or ‘demos’, as they were more commonly referred to in that scene) or dub copies themselves with photocopied covers. It was a cheaper alternative to vinyl for distributing your own music; similar to the function later served by CDR and mp3 formats. Not only were Australian heavy metal bands embracing this new cheap and compact format, but so were other genres like indie, punk/hardcore and experimental music in the 1980s. Cassette culture in Australia can be traced back to the mid 1970s, and the American-born/Australian resident composer, Warren Burt, asserts that activity in Australia predates much of what later took place in the Britain and the United States.
Rather than give a general overview of music cassettes in Australia, I want to focus here on two particular aspects of the phenomenon that were specific to aspects of underground culture in respect to cassettes – the experimental ‘tape music’ scene, and artists/labels with an intense focus on cassettes in preference to other formats.
When I refer to ‘tape music’, I mean a music performance and/or composition where the tape recorder plays a primary role as a compositional tool or an instrument in its own right. Tape of the reel-to-reel kind had been an important part of early electronic and experimental music since the mid-twentieth century, and Australia produced the occasional early experimenter in this field during the 1960s, like Val Stephen and Arthur Cantrill. A well-known international example of this form of ‘tape music’ is Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room (1969), where Lucier reads a text aloud, records it and plays it back, recording the playback then plays this back and so on. The tape plays a (de)generative role in the composition, with each generation of the recording taking on more of the room’s acoustic qualities (reverberation, etc). I Am Sitting In A Room was originally recorded on reel-to-reel in an electronic music studio, but with the advent of the humble domestic tape recorder such tape experiments became feasible outside the studio.
Tape music became quite prolific in Melbourne during decade from the late 1970s and through the 1980s (many of the techniques and tape recorders used by Melbourne experimental composers from this time are documented by Ernie Althoff here http://www.rainerlinz.net/NMA/articles/Ferric-oxide.html .
The origins of this music scene can be traced back to San Diego around 1974. The young Melbourne composer, Ron Nagorcka (who had already presented several experimental pieces in Melbourne) was undertaking post graduate studies at the University of California San Diego, where along with other significant names in experimental music from the day like Warren Burt and Jean Charles Francois, he put on an informal concert series called the Atomic Cafe. As well as instrumental and electronic works, tape pieces were also regularly performed. One significant tape piece by Burt called Frou Frou Flamingo was the result of unforseen circumstances; Burt was called out of town unexpectedly, but instead of cancelling his concert he arranged for three tape recorders to be placed around the performance space (for spatial effect) playing pre-recorded cassettes prepared by Burt. This event, along with his existing interest in Lucier’s piece, formed part of Nagorcka’s inspiration to explore the possibilities of the portable tape recorder as a primary musical instrument (Fox 2002, pp.76-77). Burt would accept a job the following year at the newly-formed La Trobe University Music department in Melbourne, Australia. He and Nagorcka flew across the Pacific together; Nagorcka returning home and Burt arriving for the first time at what would become his adopted home.
Along with John Campbell, Burt and Nagorcka founded the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre in a former Melbourne organ factory see http://www.rainerlinz.net/NMA/repr/Clifton_Hill.html for Ernie Althoff’s history of the CHCMC), which became a key venue for experimental tape music. Nagorcka was part of several ensembles that often used portable tape recorders as key instruments and/or generators of compositional material, including Plastic Platypus (with Burt) and The Institute for Dronal Anarchy (IDA, with Althoff and Graeme Davis). Nagorcka’s defining tape music moment was his Atom Bomb trilogy (1977), intended to be an opera in three parts for tape recorders. Each of the three parts was written for different numbers of performers and tape recorders (duo, solo and ensemble), but followed similar structures and processes. Similar to Lucier’s earlier work, Atom Bomb began with performers creating live sound that is recorded on one tape recorder, then played back and recorded on another recorder for a specified duration, with this process continuing throughout the duration of the piece. Yet not only did Atom Bomb differ from earlier tape music works like Lucier’s through the use of portable domestic cassette recorders, but the performers also added further layers of sound by speaking, singing or playing instruments (in this case, toy xylophones and keyboards) during the cassette playback/recording process (as a kind of live overdub). The music/speech added was outlined in Nagorcka’s score (which used a series of tables and graphic representations, as well as some traditional music notation) and allowed performers some choice in how they proceeded. The text (or libretto, if you like) consisted of snippets of often provocative political comment on music and Marxism (amongst other topics). It is obvious how these playback/record exchanges between tape recorders are comparable to a primitive form of sampling, particularly when further live sound is added. The effect was a gradually building soundscape that grows before the audience’s ears, not only taking on the layers of repeated ‘samples’, but also the imperfections of the recordings as their generation increases. Nagorcka recalled a statement from Francois earlier in the decade to the effect that ‘all electronic music is a distortion of music’s reality’; Atom Bomb is an exploration of this concept with cassette tapes.
The influence of Nagorcka along with the CHCMC’s emphasis on low cost means of production meant cassettes were a regular fixture amongst other artists active in this scene, both as a performance/composition tool and a means of distributing their music. This was aided by professional cassette duplication services like Dex Audio in Melbourne, who offered affordable short-run cassette packages (and still does today, along with CD duplication). Burt continued to use tape recorders regularly well into the 1980s, and ran his own cassette label (Scarlet Aardvark Recordings) from 1981 to 1998. The label released some extremely limited editions, including unique performances recorded to one cassette only. Nagorcka’s IDA offsider, Ernie Althoff, was particularly active into the 1980s in tape music, releasing a number of short run cassettes. Althoff had been a cassette aficionado before his involvement in experimental music, recording jazz and prog rock gigs on his portable tape recorder. Around 1977 he acquired a recorder with a varispeed controller that allowed him to control the pitch and timbre of sounds he recorded by altering the tape speed (an old electro-acoustic practice used in musique concrete).
In Australia’s other major capital city, Sydney, Rik Rue had also come to tape music before having any direct contact with experimental music theory. As a teenager in the mid 1960s he used whatever sound making tools he could find (trash can lids, breaking glass, etc, as well as environmental sound) and edited the sounds onto reel-to-reel tape. Rue moved into experimental jazz improvisation during the 1970s, and although this would occasionally include tape as part of live improvisations, it wasn’t until 1982 when Rue embraced tape technology fully as a live improvisation instrument (Jenkins 1988). He would improvise live with a Tascam Portastudio and other tape machines connected through a six channel mixer, along with other Sydney improvisers like Jim Denley, using pitch control and panning in the live situation. He was also an Australian pioneer in what he described as ‘pause culture’, where the tape recorder is used as a real-time compositional tool, with the pause button the preferred means of editing for it’s immediacy instead tape-splicing. Rue also founded his own tape label, Pedestrian Tapes, to release his own work and later the music of others.
Further north on Australia’s eastern seaboard in the city of Brisbane, the ANTI-MUSIC collective was embracing the cassette format as a means of affordable and immediate music distribution. Originally founded in Melbourne by John Nixon in the late 1970s, the collective’s output blossomed when Nixon relocated to Brisbane in 1980, releasing over 500 cassettes from 1979 to 1981, which Nixon referred to as ‘an archive of primitive industrial folk music’. ANTI-MUSIC functioned as an informal improvisation network that valued anonymity (band names were invented one-off affairs) and amateurism (performers were often visual artists with no music training, and where professionals were involved they were encouraged to use instruments other than those they were trained on). It acted as a recording (rather than live performance) collective primarily producing master tapes that became an archive for use in exhibitions and galleries. None of the ANTI-MUSIC groups played live. These exhibitions and the occasional radio program were used as the public forum for the music. On rare occasions Nixon himself would stage ANTI-MUSIC public performances bordering on Dadaism or Situationalist happenings, such as advertising a performance at McDonalds (without the restaurant chain’s knowledge) that would consist of Nixon playing an ANTI-MUSIC tape on a portable cassette player while he ate his hamburger. Yet despite the astonishing output of ANTI-MUSIC, the cassette format suited Nixon’s requirements of affordability and portability rather than through any devotion to the format itself; Nixon now leads another improvisation collective in Melbourne called The Donkey’s Tail, who releases prodigious amounts of recordings on CDR, and perform live.
The rise of DIY punk values and various facets of experimental music saw a number of important cassette-orientated labels emerge through the 1980s and early 1990s, such as Adelaide’s Blank Tapes and Melbourne’s NMATAPES http://shamefilemusic.com/nma.html (associated with New Music Articles magazine). Sydney post-punk label M Squared produced limited edition (initially home-dubbed) cassettes as well as vinyl. The Spill label (originally from Brisbane and later relocating to Melbourne) released cassettes and occasional vinyl, before later moving to CDs, but are of most interest for releases by New Waver. This project evolved out of Loser Magazine as a parody/concept band in the late 1980s, mostly the work of Spill’s Greg Wadley. New Waver’s music consisted largely of pop covers executed with cheesy organs and drum machines, with lyrics altered and samples added to reflect New Waver’s ‘world view’ (as seen from the perspective of the ‘loser’ in society, with a Darwinian/natural selection slant). Their closest relative in Australian music is probably TISM http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TISM , but New Waver differs in embracing failure and a lack of perceived-‘coolness’. Wadley recalls a time in the early 1980s where cassette releases had some cultural currency in underground and art music as something distinctly apart from more mainstream and popular music. Yet into the 1990s, New Waver’s preferred format of cassette came to be another aspect added to their veneer of ‘loserdom’; of less value than the increasingly-preferred CD format and retro-cool of vinyl. New Waver, now practically a solo project for Wadley, have since released CDs, with his latest release being only available online, although Wadley has been playing with the idea of a release on a USB memory stick as a further play on his conceptual approach to music formats.
The punk scene and it’s increasing use of cassettes for DIY distribution throughout the 1980s inspired Andrew McIntosh, one of Australia’s most prolific home tapers, to record and release his own material on the format. McIntosh’s home-taper ethics have their foundations in both anarchistic ideals and the practical realities of distributing his considerable musical output. Beginning with his punk project The Scroungers
in 1991 and countless other solo home-recording projects that spanned many genres throughout the decade, McIntosh tapped into the international home taper scene, accepting only trades and refusing money for his music. He also published a fanzine that reviewed exclusively home-recorded music called The Taped Crusader.
As the 1990s progressed, the currency of cassettes in Australia became less viable. CDR became the dominant format of independent music, and fewer listeners had access to tape decks as their units broke down and there seemed little reason to replace or repair them. A whole new generation, whom we previously would have called ‘home tapers’, were now creating music on computers, which made CDR and increasingly mp3 the logical end-formats. To many of this new generation, the cassette was an oddity from their parents’ day that held none of the exotic allure of vinyl. I had started my own tape label in 1990 (Shame File Music http://ShameFileMusic.com ), and by the latter part of the decade it seemed I couldn’t give cassettes away. Like many (including Blank Tapes, Spill, Nixon and McIntosh), I moved to CDR/CD, and later online releases. One who bucked this trend was Leigh Julian’s (AKA Leigh Stench) Smell The Stench label. Julian began releasing home-dubbed cassettes of harsh noise and noise-orientated death metal from all over the world around the turn of the century, and continues to prefer trades rather than cash. Julian’s emphasis is obviously on quantity to the almost total exclusion of any quality control, both in musical worthiness and production quality (the use of high speed dubbing on many of these early period Smell The Stench releases gives the sound a muddy feel, and nearly all covers were black and white photocopies). Yet he released an astonishing amount of tapes, often several titles a month, and has become known in noise circles around the world. These aspects of Smell the Stench tapes are in some ways emblematic of the noise scene (‘shit noise’, as Julian refers to it) that emerged out of the 1990s, which has unknowingly responded to Jacques Attali’s cultural critique of music as commodity as expressed in his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music; ‘shit noise’ eschews any traditional measures of value (either artistic or monetary). The label’s large number of releases and egalitarian attitude to noise music (anyone can make noise’, Julian says )
are even reminiscent of ANTI-MUSIC’s philosophy. Smell The Stench has been controversial for its common use of pornographic imagery and Julian’s occasional disregard of some artists’ ownership of their music, yet his impact on noise music is significant, if largely unacknowledged. The label has moved to mostly CDR and online releases, but still releases some cassettes (Julian professes a love for cassettes and has a personal collection of thousands).
When even Smell The Stench ventured into the digital world, it seemed in the early years of twenty-first century that the Australian cassette was finally dead. Yet the past few years have seen some of the format fetishism previously associated with vinyl spread to cassettes. Several Australian noise-associated labels have begun releasing cassettes again, often with black and white covers that appear to by inspired by the Smell The Stench look. Magik Crowbar http://mindtimedestroy.blogspot.com is a particularly interesting contemporary micro-label that releases cassettes and CDRs of noise and hardcore-orientated local music, often on recycled overdubbed commercial cassettes in limited editions (with the cassettes themselves sometimes hand-painted). Magik Crowbar’s Tommy Guun remarked recently that tapes are a format that has retained an association with underground music. ‘Who else would be interested in tapes?’ he said.
Andrew McIntosh is increasingly releasing on limited edition cassette again, mostly associated with his Screwtape noise project. A new store in Newcastle (north of Sydney) called Vox Cyclops
(associated with the Spanish Magic label, also an occasional cassette issuer) is developing a specialisation in cassette releases. And Melbourne radio show, Makeshift Swahili, recently did a two part all-cassette special
When I recently restocked Vox Cyclops with a second batch of Ernie Althoff cassettes (released twenty years prior) after they’d sold out in the store, Althoff was somewhat incredulous at this new demand for his tapes, which had been sitting unwanted in boxes for years. It seems reports of the death of Australian underground cassette culture may have been premature.
Thanks to Ernie Althoff, Ron Nagorcka, Warren Burt, Greg Wadley, John Nixon and Andrew McIntosh for their assistance with this article.
Clinton Green is an Australian researcher and writer specialising in experimental music. He performs as Undecisive God
and runs the Shame File Music label
Later in 2010 he will release the Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music: volume II 1974 – 1983 double CD, which features several artists and recordings mentioned in this article, including Ron Nagorcka’s Atom Bomb, IDA, Warren Burt, Rik Rue and ANTI-MUSIC.
Sources and further reading
Ernie Althoff The Clifton Hill Community Music Centre: 1976-1983
New Music Articles no.7 (1989), pp.39-43
Ernie Althoff ‘Ferric-oxide archaeology: a survey of audio cassette player manipulation techniques in live performance
1977- 91’ (NMA Publications: 2002)
Jacques Attali, Noise : the political economy of music (Manchester University Press, 1985)
John Jenkins, 22 contemporary Australian composers
(Brunswick, Victoria: NMA Publications, 1988)
Paul McHenry and Chris Spencer, Get it down on tape : a discography of cassettes released by Australian artists 1972-98 (Golden Square, Victoria: Moonlight Publishing, 1998)