Exploring one of the most influential movements in Australian music history.
Emerging in Melbourne towards the tail end of the 1970s around the same time as outfits like The Birthday Party, Models and Dead Can Dance, the Little Band Scene might be one of the most exciting, short-lived and quietly influential movements of its time.
In contrast to many of the blues and hard rock groups that dominated Sydney’s stages around this era, the Little Band Scene eschewed the notion of commercial success in favour of unadulterated artistic experimentation, fusing post-punk, electronic and noise rock with the angular funk and disco of international groups like Talking Heads and Television.
Preferring clunky analogue synthesisers, primitive home-made drum machines and warbling guitar tones, groups within the Little Band Scene would frequently share members and gear with one another, and could often be found performing in inner city venues around Fitzroy and St Kilda, usually only for a brief span of 15 minutes before the next group would clamber onstage to perform their own tiny freakout.
Despite being a relatively short-lived movement, the ethos of the Little Band Scene became entrenched within Melbourne’s burgeoning identity as a musical city, and was later immortalised by film director Richard Lowenstein with two separate flicks: 1986’s Dogs In Space (starring INXS frontman Michael Hutchence) and the 2009 documentary We’re Livin’ on Dog Food.
Although the come-and-go nature of the groups within this movement made it rather hard to keep a tab on what was going on, there were a number of groups whose contributions did stand out from the pack and as such, are much easier to discuss critically.
As much as we’d love to uncover lost bootleg tapes of some of the scene’s lesser-known groups, the chances of that happening right now are fairly slim, so we’ll have to save that for another day to focus on the groups who stood the test of time and defined the sound, ethos and legacy of Melbourne’s Little Band Scene.
It’d seem unfair to say that Primitive Calculators were the group that started the Little Band Scene, but realistically, it’s not too far from truth. Meeting as teenagers in the working class suburb of Springvale, Primitive Calculators would move to St Kilda in 1977 in an effort to embed themselves within the suburb’s burgeoning punk scene; however, they considered themselves as outsiders due to the majority of the bands coming from middle class, private school-educated backgrounds.
After relocating to Fitzroy the following year, Primitive Calculators linked up with like-minded bands like Whirlywirld and began to shape a distinctive sound, primarily comprised of screeching vocals, guitar feedback, treated synths, electric organs and jittery drum machine patterns, which can be heard on tracks like ‘Pumping Ugly Muscle’ and ‘I Can’t Stop It’. To call the band’s sound dissonant would be polite – but then again, that was the whole point.
Despite breaking up in 1980, Primitive Calculators would regroup to perform in Richard Lowenstein’s Dogs In Space six years later, and officially reformed in 2009 to release new material under Chapter Music.
After the break-up of his former band The Charlatans – comprised of himself, The Birthday Party’s Rowland S. Howard, The Saints’ Janine Hall and Laughing Clowns’ Jeffery Wegener – a young guitarist named Ollie Olsen met the late drummer John Murphy and assembled Whirlywirld, becoming an influential force in the Little Band Scene alongside Primitive Calculators.
Forming with the intention to forgo typical guitar-based rock styles, Whirlywirld debuted their unique brand of synth-heavy post-punk at a legendary live show at St Kilda’s Crystal Ballroom in 1979, immediately asserting their status as a cult live act. While Olsen’s vocals could easily be compared to Ian Curtis’s monotone drawl, Whirlywirld’s sonics were much more akin to groups like Suicide or Throbbing Gristle, and proved to be much more conventional in structure compared to the harsh, noisy chaos of Primitive Calculators.
Although Whirlywirld would only play 13 more shows – each with a varying lineup, of course – before breaking up in 1980, the band contributed a re-recorded version of ‘Win/Lose’ for Dogs In Space, while Olsen and Murphy would go on to form other pivotal post-punk groups such as NO and Orchestra of Skin and Bone.
If you have seen Dogs In Space, then you’ll surely be familiar with The Ears; the band lived in a share-house with the film’s director Richard Lowenstein, who would later centre his cult classic film around his experiences with the group. Fronted by the eclectic lead vocalist Sam Sejavka, The Ears were considered to be one of the most popular groups of the Little Band Scene, with their art-punk stylings and energetic live performances proving to be a hit with scene goers.
Like many other groups in the Little Band Scene, The Ears would frequently perform live at the Crystal Ballroom, and released a number of recordings via the hallowed institution Missing Link Records. Although the band’s best-known single ‘Leap For Lunch’ was a relatively tame example of post-punk, The Ears did have a few freakish tendencies, best exemplified by the jarring oscillators and mangled guitars of ‘Sagging Insects’.
Years after breaking up and subsequently being immortalised in Dogs In Space, The Ears would reform in 2010 to play a number of shows in Melbourne, and even shared a new record in 2012. Judging from the footage from one said show, they’ve still got the goods.
Representing the funkier side of the Melbourne sound around this era, Essendon Airport weren’t necessarily considered to have been a Little Band Scene group, but their artsy ethos and bold sound isn’t too dissimilar to that of their contemporaries. Formed in 1978 by keyboardist David Chesworth and guitarist Robert Goodge, the group took their name from the former international airport that neighboured their suburb, and drew influence from minimalism, electronic music and jazz.
The group held close ties to the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre and audio/visual collective → ↑ → (pronounced Tsk Tsk Tsk, and not to be confused with !!!/Chk Chk Chk), who released the duo’s first EP Sonic Investigations (Of the Trivial), a collection of sparse compositions under their label Innocent Records.
After snagging a cult following with the release of ‘Talking To Cleopatra’ featuring Anne Cessna in 1980, Chesworth and Goodge added bassist Barbara Hogarth, saxophonist Ian Cox and drummer Paul Fletcher to the unit to record Palimpsest in 1982, a quirky, frenetic art-funk opus – before breaking up shortly afterwards.
Upon breaking up, several of Essendon Airport’s members would go on to form pop-funk group I’m Talking with a young Kate Ceberano. The group would later reform in 2003 and again in 2011 to perform a number of shows after Chapter Music reissued their early works.
Use No Hooks
Perhaps one of the most intriguing groups to have emerged from the Little Band Scene, Use No Hooks were far more funky than their peers: think of Talking Heads and pretend David Byrne was a ranting suburban Aussie bloke, and you’ll find yourself somewhere in the ball park.
Fusing groovy disco beats and thick synths with Mick Earls’ funky guitars and Stuart Grant’s politically-conscious spoken word vocals, Use No Hooks carved out quite a niche for themselves towards the end of the Little Band Scene’s lifespan, with the band’s nine members making for one hell of a live show. The band’s single ‘Do The Job’ would later become a cult hit among club-goers in the years following its release, with the track’s freak-funk groove proving to be pure ethanol on the dancefloor for the cool kids of the era.
Against the odds, Use No Hooks have experienced a sizable renaissance as of late: indie legends Chapter Music reissued some of their early recordings to mass acclaim earlier in the year to considerable acclaim, and the group are supposedly even writing new material according to The Age. We can’t wait!
This article originally appeared in Mixdown Magazine.