August 27, 2006

Crossing Cleveland Street

"No bands in the inner-city should have ever crossed Cleveland Street. " — Roger Grierson in an old interview at

I was always physically on the wrong side of Cleveland Street from Roger during those times, but I think Roger's really making the point that there was quite a divide between the "rednecks" out there in the suburbs and we blessed punks and post-punks forging ahead in the inner city, and a lot of our attempts at evangelism or bringing the kulcha to the masses (or vice versa) were generally pointless, wrong-headed, and actually fairly painful for some of us. And he's right, sort of, at least for the Punk (rather than the post-Punk) era: Punk's now such a tourist phenomenon, so tinged with misty reminiscences and twee nostalgia, so generally harmless, that I don't think people remember just how much we were absolutely hated by the vast majority of the rock audience at the time, especially almost anywhere outside the inner city.

I remember the tension in the air as one of the early bands I was in got up on stage to play in front of a nicely beered-up audience in the Sydney suburbs Out West somewhere the other side of Bankstown or Paramatta. Most of the audience were (reasonably) expecting highly-polished covers of Boston or Yes or the Stones, with lead breaks, huge drum kits, smooth singing, etc. Instead, they got some home-grown enthusiasm, simple (sometimes just simplistic) songs, badly-played and often unoriginal, played with an evangelical fervour that seemed to condescend to — or outright insult — the audiences. I once had a chair broken over my head by an angry punter who objected to our playing "that English punk shit" (the chair incident probably explains a lot about my later behaviour — never mind that the chair was already broken and seemed to be made of balsa… ). I can remember the sick feeling I sometimes felt when we watched the band before us play with practiced professionalism, or (as Roger alludes to as well) realising the audience was only interested in the slick rock of the headliner, at total musical (and cultural) cross-purposes to our own music and intentions.

The flip side of this for Australian punk was the often claustrophobic and deeply reactionary posturing that almost entirely missed the point of why the punters were there in the first place: entertainment, dammit. Who wanted to go to the pub to be hit over the head by a bunch of spotty bastards trying to convert you to some of the worst music you ever heard? Sure, the band was having fun, and sure the band believed anyone could and should just get up and make music, but not everyone wanted to make music, and — as was often just too painfully obvious — the results rarely justified anything more than mocking sneers or worse. Much worse.

And so much Sydney Punk, being something of a cargo cult, badly missed a lot of the context of punk in places like London (never mind the black clothes in Sydney's hot summers…) — it was an import, an attempt to graft a certain style, music, and (sometimes) politics onto a different set of problems and culture, a grafting that often (especially in retrospect) seemed ludicrous rather than constructive or refreshing (but that didn't make it any different from any other form of popular music in Oz at the time, did it?). Punk didn't so much travel (or even immigrate) to Sydney, as it toured Sydney; sure, it didn't wear loud American mid-west clothing, but it was still a tourist (it even sometimes wore tartan pants).

But there was also a sometimes less-than-subtle and much smaller-scale divide across Cleveland Street between the whole Darlinghurst / Surry Hills axis and the Redfern / Chippo / Newtown axis I always belonged to, at least in the early years. It wasn't quite the Cleveland Street Divide (even though Cleveland Street almost exactly defines and bridges the border between the two axes), but in the early days for me Punk always seemed to come from up there in Darlinghurst rather down here in Darlington, and I can remember a bit of the condescending hipster attitude towards us rubes on the wrong side of the street. Yes, I'm exaggerating a bit, but it's significant that the poet John Forbes, a guy I vaguely knew at the time through neighbours (and later through the Gig Ryan connection), sometimes talked portentously of "Moving To Darlinghurst" (it begs to be capitalised) as though that were moving to the centre of an authentic new cultural universe (he probably wrote a poem about it; I used to use the phrase "slouching to Redfern" as a riposte to him). I often wonder if this little inferiority complex didn't mirror the larger one between London and Sydney; it certainly left its mark in some of the punkier-than-thou Punk events around Sydney University in the late 1970's.

(Part of Punk (and Later)).


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