21 Jul 2009

Joh would've loved The Grates

The photo to the left is of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the longest serving premier in Queensland's history. He held office from 1968 to 1987, mostly due to an electoral malapportionment giving unprecedented power to rural Queensland voters. Joh was loved by many older Queenslanders because he represented them: uneducated, from the land, with conservative views. For my generation, he was all that we despised.

Under his reign in the mid '80s, it was nothing to find yourself staring at an empty block of land where a historical building used to stand. In fact, his association with demolishing company The Deen Brothers saw Brisbane lose many of its landmarks and began the destruction of the old Brisbane -- glorious in its sandstone beauty -- and the introduction of the new Brisbane -- concrete bunkers posing as office towers. All in the name of progress.

The destruction was so underhanded and rarely publicised prior to the act. I actually remember walking to a club one night and marvelling at an impressive architectural example only to find it turned to rubble on my way home from the club five hours later. To me, this was the beginning of the 'uglification' of my capital city; thank goodness some regional cities, like Ipswich and Toowoomba, still retain this character that makes them special.

Not only did Joh's relationship with the Deen Brothers dampen the architectural spirit of Brisbane, but his corrupt police cronies tried to destroy the spirit of young Brisbane-ites at the time. Especially those with long hair, stovepipe black jeans, and winkle-pickers. Otherwise known as 'swampies'.

Not to be confused with goths, swampies were a breed of subculture created by their influences in music: part Ramones, part Kinks, we idolised both the punk attitude and the '60s melodies. We adopted the tight black jeans and dyed black hair of the Ramones, and the paisley shirts and winkle-picker boots of the '60s psychedelic generation. Bands from The Cult to The Stems typify the look and the attitude: one of romanticism and subdued rebellion.

Brisbane had some truly magnificent dens of iniquity for we swampies, but the best was Morticia's, named of course after the delicous Morticia Addams. This club had a clientele ranging from mods to punks to swampies to goths to metal-heads (yes, always resplendant in lycra leggings and big hair). It was a place for the alternative subcultures to feel safe, dance to great music (ranging from The Doors to Guns'n'Roses to Wall of Voodoo), and to get to know other 'weirdos'. Morticia's was held in various venues, but for me the most memorable was at The Hacienda, a former gay bar in Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley.

The Valley in the '80s was not the popular hangout for Gen Ys sporting stilettos and mini skirts which it now is...although the stilettos and minis were worn by the many prostitutes who roamed the streets. The Valley was a haven for the outcasts, the misfits, the people who couldn't get into clubs at the Riverside or in the CBD because their black jeans were unacceptable under conservative club dress codes. Yes, we still congregated outside Hungry Jacks in the Queen Street Mall -- like the EMOs do now -- but the city was a hostile zone for us. The Valley was our home. There, swampies, transexuals, prostitutes and gay folk blended into one, an accepting environment without judgement. And one of the major binding points was our fear and loathing of the corrupt Queensland Police.

It astounded me the first time I walked through the Valley with my friends in 1986. We'd had a couple of drinks before setting out for Morticia's but were by no means drunk. The police stopped us for questioning anyhow. They thought we looked like we were "up to no good". They threw one of our friends in a jail cell for the night because he had less than $2 on him. Another friend was thrown against a wall, searched, and punched in the face. We girls were screaming at the police the entire time to stop, begging them to cease their violence. They then threatened us with rape if we didn't shut up and "piss off". That's the way the cookie crumbled under Joh; fittingly, the police corruption under his reign was finally his undoing. Thanks to a Chris Masters' special on Four Corners called The Moonlight State, and the tenacious journalism of local reporter Phil Dickie, the Fitzgerald Inquiry was established and eventually, we were rid of the monster and his violent thugs.

One of the valuable aspects of his cruelty and lack of judgement as a premier was that my generation grew up with a sense of having to fight for our rights. We protested against the midnight Deen Brothers' specials, against police violence and corruption. We didn't trust our government, and they didn't trust us. There were no youth-friendly government policies to butter young people up; we had to stand on our own feet and make or break it through our own tenacity. There were no music grants or politicians rewarding or encouraging young artists or bands; we were artists, musicians or writers because that was how we expressed our anger/frustration at the environment we were growing up in. In the mid '80s, there was no room for the apathy I see in Brisbane's creative industries today, where it's all about the money and who has more 'friends' on Facebook. (We didn't even have the internet back then, so had no idea what was going on in the world of music until we received our latest copy of a two month old Smash Hits magazine from the UK via our local newsagent.)

The musicians I knew back then had a fabulous sense of irony and their lyrics were often tainted by their experiences of being persecuted for looking or thinking differently; out of this pool of potential talent, you're most likely familiar with the Brisbane musicians who now form Powderfinger and Regurgitator. Less well-known Brisbane bands such as Voodoo Lust and The Screaming Tribesmen had true pub-band grit and their live performances in local pubs -- back before they decided pokies were more lucrative than music -- were always passionate and a little bit psycho! The only local band I thought retained this vibe was SixFtHick, however I have been pleasantly surprised lately, mostly due to the growing metal and experimental scenes, and bands like Headkase.

I see young musicians in the Valley now: many are consumer-friendly costly versions of us in our $2 op shop shirts from Paddy's Market (now an uber yuppie apartment area named Teneriffe). The corporate world has adopted 'alternative' and it's now an industry that rakes in millions each year: Converse are more than four times the price they were when we wore them, EMO style and designer 'skinny' jeans ensure 'alternative' is now socially acceptable. The police in Queensland are better behaved and are -- like most public servants -- slightly afraid of the precious youth market. Wouldn't want to touch or offend them or their mums and dads will sue them. In Australia, youth is idolised and everyone classified as youth (16 to 30 in some companies!) seem to have more rights than anybody else.

And this all comes through in young Brisbane's plastic, consumer-friendly music. From Operator Please to The Grates, it's all meaningless pap, despite their claims to be "baroque pop" or some other silly, made-up genre. They're marketable, they're inoffensive, they'll make someone money. Not like the unattractive screamers from my past or even the offensive screamers of the present, who continue to be ignored by both record labels and the music media. Even Triple J, the government-owned radio station which played an important part in promoting alternative music, now devotes most of its airplay to innocuous indie bands with nothing to say...but a pretty face to say it with.

Where is the aggression? Where is the angst? There is still plenty to be pissed off about in Queensland: despite our current premier's pleasant public demeanour, the government continues to waste money, act selfishly, and ignore public opinion. Where is the media in all of this? Waist deep in it, preferring to re-print press releases rather than investigate potential corruption. So that leaves the rabble-rousing to the creative community, to members of the public. But where is the 2009 Brisbane equivalent of The Saints? Nowhere to be found.

This blog has but one purpose: to put life as a young person living in Brisbane into historical perspective. It wasn't always this easy being young, creative or different. It's a plea to young creative types to always question what governments and corporations are doing, and how important it is to place the microscope over your hometown sometimes. To remind them that no matter how easy it might be to get famous on a pretty face and a vapid tune, to become famous speaking out for someone or something is always going to be far more rewarding. You might even get what I doubt many musicians around at the moment will receive in the long run: Respect.

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