Various Artists : Dirty Jeans: The Rise of Australian Alternative Rock
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Various Artists : Dirty Jeans: The Rise of Australian Alternative Rock

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Two personal experiences signify the transition of alternative music into commercially-friendly territory. Firstly, a sold-out Ratcat concert in Adelaide in 1990, replete with stage-diving and other frenetic behaviour. ‘Wow, Ratcat has gone mainstream,’ remarked a friend. The second in September 1991 when a friend (always ahead of the taste-making curve) proudly showed us his newly-purchased vinyl copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind; in subsequent years, the release of Nevermind would be heralded as the music industry’s equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The subtitle of Dirty Jeans: The Rise of Australian Alternative Rock, the new compilation surveying that seminal era, is both pertinent, and misleading. The first track, the God’s timeless My Pal, backdates the so-called rise of Australian alternative rock’n’roll five years before Nevermind, making it clear that, like Indigenous culture, the alternative music scene already existed well before it was apparently ‘discovered’ by the manipulating forces of dominant culture. That the next band featured is the Beasts of Bourbon – who’d been conceived in the early ‘80s, and had already established a powerful reputation both in Australia and overseas well before the band’s Red Eye label hitched itself to Polygram – suggests that the use of the verb ‘rise’ is gilding the lily somewhat.

So what does this compilation celebrate? On an immediate level, it’s the quality of the music around at the time: the abrasive punk-pub rock of The Powder Monkeys (who, figuratively and literally, greeted major label attention with a single-figured salute), the coastal Motor City attitude of Magic Dirt (whose song Dirty Jeans gives the compilation its title), the irreverence of The Meanies, the metal-electro-pop of Spiderbait, the mod-pop of You Am I and the laconic stoner rock of Tumbleweed continue to be championed at home and abroad. And there are some distant memories: Ammonia, Gerling, Jebediah, Front End Loader, Grinspoon and 28 Days.

From another perspective, this is a case study of the influence of economic factors on a loosely-defined sub-culture – rock’n’roll – that has tended to construct itself as in natural opposition to hegemonic factors. In the early ‘80s, The Go Betweens couldn’t get arrested – actually, they could have quite easily, but that’s not the point – in their hometown of Brisbane; 15 years later, and that band’s geographical contemporary Powderfinger was, like Pearl Jam on the other side of the world, the commercially promulgated representation of a once marginalised scene.

Add to that the influence of the government-funded but staunchly independent triple j – which evolved over the course of 10 years from important to pervasive to suffocating – and it was clear the music market would never be the same again. And if it’s an honest appraisal that you’re looking for, go no further than Regurgitator’s I Sucked A Lot of Cock to Get Where I Am.

Dirty Jeans is a compilation of quality, and convenience. Adalita Srsen (Magic Dirt) was both a participant and an observer, and her comments in the liner notes barely scratch the surface of those tumultuous times (some of which Magic Dirt brought upon themselves); Bruce Milne, whose Au-Go-Go label gave a leg up to Magic Dirt, The Meanies and Spiderbait offers his own astute reflections on days of yore. For every band featured, there are at least ten others who could make an equal claim for inclusion (Exploding White Mice, anyone?), but you have to start and stop somewhere. And Dirty Jeans is as a good place to begin as anywhere.

BY PATRICK EMERY

Best Track: Buy Me A Pony SPIDERBAIT, I Sucked A Lot of Cock to Get Where I Am REGURGITATOR

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In A Word: Alternative™