From Adelaide to Seattle: The Moulding of a Commercial Giant
The wonderful city of Adelaide, Australia’s own city of churches, is known for many things; mullet hair-dos, Lleyton Hewitt, bad drinking water, and as a touring friend once confirmed to me, women with unusually large nipples.
Some of those virtues, even in isolation, sure do make for a great city. But, to some, stomach bugs and freaky areolae just aren't enough. People are so hard to please.
In the 1980s, Australia’s east coast music scene was looming large and pretty much schooled its foreign peers on how to run a vibrant, socially important scene without pretension or pomp. Melbourne had its hardcore punk and art rock scenes, Sydney had its Stooges-influenced rock circuit, and Brisbane, albeit slower to evolve, still rode on the coattails of the barnstorming monster that was the Saints. But, lurking with sinister intentions in the shadows of the spotlight, was another bubbling cauldron of boundless, experimental music. A scene so untouched by outside influence, so numb to the world of imitation and mainstream, that those that helped create it, and those who kept the train rolling, must be considered as pioneers in equal measure to those who are continually beheld to pedestal and hero status. The scene? Adelaide. Sweet, little Adelaide.
Watch here as Adelaide scene stalwarts Grong Grong grind out their first gig at the city's infamous Sett Up bar; circa 1983.
It was a bludgeoning of the highest order. A young, pimply-faced intellectual from San Francisco, understanding very little about the uniquely unpretentious savagery of the Australian underground music scene, stood side-stage with his jaw bouncing off the sticky floor, as a derelict group of hell-bound misfits proceeded to audibly rape any poor sucker within earshot. Neither he, nor the unsuspecting crowd, bless them, ever stood a chance.
It was a typical late-winter’s Saturday night in Adelaide. Early September was bitter in its isolation, and as clear and crisp as a semi-desolate coastal city on the edge of the desert might expect to be. The sticky-floor belonged to the venue that is now the legendary Thebarton Theatre, just a cigarette away from the guts of the city centre. And the slack-jawed intellectual from San Francisco? Well, he’s a legend in his own right, and an eventual catalyst for the unveiling of a maniacal music scene to an unprepared world; a mouthpiece if you will, for he does possess a loud one does the great Jello Biafra.
The sonic bludgeoning that was taking place symbolized a red letter day. A landmark. Etch Saturday 3rd, September, 1983 down in history. The day that the Adelaide underground music scene became born to the rest of the planet. The invasion of the noisesters. Ground zero.
I lay awake for two nights after seeing Grong Grong, wondering if I actually saw what I really saw.
-Jello Biafra (lead singer Dead Kennedys)
Grong Grong were a band like no other. Formed in late 1982 by half brothers Michael Farkas and Charlie Tolnay, they soon gained a fierce live reputation around the Adelaide circuit for their confrontational and uncompromising live shows. So much so, that by September of the next year, they had crash-landed on the support bill for transcendental political punksters, the Dead Kennedys.
Adopting the most extreme influences of art-punk contemporaries such as the Birthday Party, the Pop Group, and Pere Ubu, along with a sledgehammering of their own unique twists, Grong Grong settled into a live groove and confrontational performance style that not only raised the bar for trailing local acts to come, but obliterated the set standards of rock with a violent stage assault and audience suffocation for at least the next decade to come. Their sound was wild, claustrophobic, and bone-scrapingly good, and it is on rare occasion only that those standards are ever surpassed, even to this day.
The band’s blistering aura was driven for the most part by axeman Charlie Tolnay, who would not only go on to be a stalwart of the Adelaide music scene, but would provide a heavy influence to Sydney’s Cleveland Street collective, as well as many up and coming acts the world over. To describe Tolnay’s guitar onslaught would be akin to describing the scene during an A-bomb explosion. Hunched over in that famous crippled stance, burning cigarette dangling precariously from his mouth, his assault was devastating. But it was so much more. Imagine your leg being hacksawed from your body by an escaped mental patient wearing an evil clown face while probing you rectally with his fist and singing the lyrics of Captain Beefheart in reverse. Well, that would be a walk in the park compared to the challenges thrown down by the Tolnay axe. It’s just that uncomfortable.
Charlie’s brother, Michael, an antagonist in his own right, would often stalk the stage in a gimp mask, epileptically jutting the life out of his skeleton, and belting out a set of lyrics so morbidly unkind, that if one were to actually speak such words in certain public places, one’s soul would be damned to hell and then promptly evicted by Beezlebub himself. Farkas’ delivery can be described very easily in one simple word; abrasive. He didn’t so much sing to his audience, he sandpapered.
Such were the ways of the brilliant Adelaide scene back in the day, and despite many east coast contemporaries largely ignoring the goings on out west, for the next decade or so, Adelaide produced some highly original, and brutally savage bands. All evolved with their own unique sound, respectfully set apart in vibe from one another, yet to the trained ear, that sound was all so distinctively Adelaide. And thanks to hardcore fans like Mr. Biafra, the entire world would soon be allowed at least a small lick of the salty insanity.
Watch as Charlie Tolnay and Michael Farkas reminisce about the early days of Grong Grong in the short film, 'The Curse of Grong Grong'.
Australian music in the late 1970’s was going through somewhat of an evolutionary transition. With popular acts like Skyhooks, LRB, and Sherbet very quickly becoming stale and irrelevant, the way had been paved for a new sound to march forth. And it did. Thanks to trailblazers like the Sex Pistols, Ramones, and the Saints, punk soon conquered the world, and its aggressive mantra took little time to reach the shores of an increasingly desperate Australia.
During that time, Melbourne and Sydney were undergoing a sonic boom of bands eager to either emulate, or completely originate a sequence of sounds that many describe as being unmatched by any other scene or era since. But, in their own isolated world, with little fuss or fanfare, Adelaide was undergoing a very loud renaissance of its own.
Venues like the Sett Up on Hindley Street offered an open stage to any young groups that required exposure, or at the very least, a forum in which to be heard, while in the city’s northern suburbs, groundbreaking venues like Elizabeth’s Seacliff Hotel happily played host to a number of punk up and comers. Only a year old, local rock acts like the Angels and Cold Chisel were already becoming substandard to a certain class of the disillusioned that wholeheartedly needed more than just stale bread to accompany the angst and oppression that they were surrounded by at the time. They wanted dynamite. A feast. And it was the suburb of Elizabeth, a struggling lower middle-class neighbourhood with high unemployment that always seemed to be the talisman for what was coming musically, not only in Adelaide, but often the rest of the country, and it was there that the punk boom first hit.
With a surge of late 70s punk acts like the U-Bombs (Australia’s answer to Los Angeles’ the Dils), and other originators like the Sputniks (featuring Dave Graney and Clare Moore), Bohdan X, and Nasty Nigel and the Teenage Hellcats, the city’s bland, spectral streets were finally brought to life with bored and angry teenagers seeking a way out of the socio-economic slum they found themselves in, at least for a few hours a week. There was even an Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame moment when local act Black Chrome with their anthemic hit ‘We Are Tomorrow’ broke on commercial television on the conservative This Day Tonight as the current affairs program very much tried to make sense of this dangerous new trend called punk.
But it was the emergence of a new form of media, an independently created, easily accessible format of communication and ideas called the fanzine, that really dragged the Adelaide punk scene out of the dungeons and into their own chunk of limelight. The evolution of the fanzine really drove home the ethos of ‘punk D.I.Y.’, with the general template comprising of a black and white, photocopied ethic, handwritten or loosely typed articles and reviews, with limited pages and a small circulation. More importantly, respected fanzines spoke accurately for the burgeoning punk movement, something that the mainstream media either couldn’t, or simply refused to do. For the mainstream, to revel in misrepresentation was a far more lucrative path to crawl down.
So, in October of 1979, taking its cue from Melbourne based fanzine Plastered Press and Australia’s original fanzine, Brisbane’s Suicide Alley, Adelaide’s DNA ‘zine was born. Founded by Harry Butler, a well known writer and musician around both Adelaide and Melbourne, DNA introduced to disillusioned Adelaide kids an alternative, more legitimate forum in which to gather information about upcoming gigs, new bands, and even a mouthpiece in which to express their own views on a vast array of pressing issues. Most importantly of all, fanzines were cheap, and bloody good fun to read.
The very first issue of DNA set the tone for years to come; ugly, uncompromising, cheap and entertaining. Issue #1 featured several up and coming Adelaide punk bands such as the Sputniks and the U-Bombs, as well as features on the Saints, Scientists, Radio Birdman, and even America’s recently defunct Stooges. Its launch symbolised the authentication for a fledgling scene, and once the word spread not only about the fanzine, but also of many obscure and cliquey upcoming gigs, like-minded creatives flew out of the woodwork to form and promote bands of their own.
By the late 70s/early 80s, two crucial components collided as one to form the solid base of the next decade to come; firstly, the perpetually snooty, very English post punk scene had very quickly died a slow death in Australia, allowing the more Americanised hardcore punk scene to fruit and evolve. Secondly, with Harry Butler already being a great champion for Melbourne hardcore bands such as Depression and Vicious Circle, hardcore punk naturally spread like rabies through the intimate Adelaide scene. To many, it was the only natural progression from the predominantly British sound of the time, and set the platform for a more politically-edged climate to take over in a culturally adjacent symbol of the times. Inspired by the goings on in Melbourne while still utilizing a purely Adelaide strain of music, trailblazers like the evergreen Where’s the Pope?, Filthy Scumbags, Septic Saw Blades, Fear and Loathing and scene stalwarts the Bearded Clams, attracted a following and blew audiences away with their rampant, impassioned sound and mostly politically educated lyrics. Rather than acting as mere degenerates, the kids were now acting as wise degenerates, and to many, going to a weekly punk gig proved more of an education than school ever would. Leading hardcore group Where’s the Pope? in particular grew a notorious reputation, not only in Adelaide, but in hardcore central’s holy grail of Melbourne, as producing a savage and energetic sound, while putting on often chaotic and out of control live shows.
With the emergence of the New York hardcore scene and the existing Los Angeles scene chugging along and evolving nicely, influences to draw from were far and wide, and now, with fanzines like Harry Butler’s DNA cropping up on a regular basis, more and more hardcore acts soon followed, with groups including Order of Decay, Perdition and the ska-based assault of Hoot McKloot. With such a surge in local talent, there was only one obvious element required to complete the circle of a fully-fledged underground scene; someone needed to start a record label. Enter Doug Thomas.
Thomas had been playing the Adelaide circuit for several years with his band and local legends, The Dagoes, and later would help form the harder-edged and equally loved The Spikes. By the early 1980s he was considered a seasoned veteran with many connections in the local industry that would allow him to not only do the job properly, but to also do Adelaide proud. So, in 1980, he founded Greasy Pop records, a label now as synonymous with Adelaide music as America’s SST label is with L.A.
Somewhat cheekily, Thomas initially set up Greasy Pop in order to provide his own band, The Dagoes, with a release forum. Thus, in February 1980, the label’s debut release hit the streets, The Dagoes’ ‘Sell Soul’. But it didn’t take long for word to spread that a new label had hit town, and before long, more and more quality acts were queuing up to be recorded and released.
It wasn’t until the mid-eighties though, 1985, when Greasy Pop really began to sink its claws into the psyches of music fans across the world with the promotional release of the brand new compilation sampler ‘An Oasis in a Desert of Noise’. The marketing album featured bands signed to the label, and gained frequent community radio airplay where it mattered most; Australia’s east coast. Melbourne’s PBS fm, with its multitude of selective punk rock themed shows, wore out the album with its continuous airplay, and eventually, word had spread to the U.S. that it wasn’t just Grong Grong that Adelaide had to rest its laurels on.
Bands that many of us now know and love like Exploding White Mice, Mad Turks from Istanbul, Thomas’ The Spikes and the newly formed Primevils (featuring a young Renestair EJ and Martin Bland who went on to form Sydney’s notorious art rockers Lubricated Goat; remember that Denton show), began to gain publicity outside of their home city and before long were signing up to tour the country, and in some cases, the world. Along side Grong Grong’s Charlie Tolnay and Mike Farkas, it was the likes of Renestair EJ and Martin Bland who would heavily influence the prototype of Seattle’s grunge scene, with pioneers Green River and the Melvins drawing distinct inspiration from the beastly and untamed music. Perhaps the emergence of grunge-lite parasites of the industry, Nickelback, is all Adelaide’s fault!
Of that infamous compilation though, it was the Ramones-edged Exploding White Mice and the more sophisticated Mad Turks From Istanbul that really drove the Adelaide music movement forward, with both acts embarking on successful careers that would take them through to the nineties in style and with much outside respect. It was these bands that continued to march along, thus inspiring a whole new generation of artists to emerge; the Mark of Cain, Bloodloss, the Iron Shieks and Mike Farkas’s new band, Hack, to name a few.
The soundscape had changed; straight up punk was becoming passe, so many of the new breed turned to a more sophisticated sound. Post-hardcore giants The Mark of Cain infused elements of Joy Division, post-punk and raw aggression into their sound repertoire, while Renestair EJ and Martin Bland’s Bloodloss took the more savage and aurally challenging route, picking up where Grong Grong had left off.
Now, in the late 80s, artists of already major influence were beginning to take notice; Mudhoney’s Mark Arm became a champion for the scene, particularly Bloodloss and Lubricated Goat, and with Grong Grong’s Charlie Tolnay now in Sydney with his new band King Snake Roost, old friend Jello Biafra had invited him to play lead with his new side project, Tumor Circus.
At this time, making the most noise overseas was Sydney’s Black Eye scene (named after the label), with King Snake Roost, Lubricated Goat, and Tex Perkins’ Thug and Butcher Shop ransacking listener’s ears with an industrially noised blend of art rock, wailing guitars, primal drumming, experimental tape loops, and utterly ridiculous humour. Despite Black Eye (a subsidiary of the more mainstream Red Eye records) being an exclusively Sydney-centric clique, most of the mainstays happened to stem directly from the fascinating microcosm that was the Adelaide underground, and it was the manic Charlie Tolnay who was the first to rise, performing with Jello on Tumor Circus’ debut single, Take Me Back or I’ll Drown Our Dog, and their solitary self-titled LP.
As a deserved reward, Jello’s Alternative Tentacles label exposed an unsuspecting America to Grong Grong’s entire back catalogue, christening the release To Hell and Back after the band's many near misses with drug-related death and destruction. It was a triple whammy for the King Midas Tolnay, with King Snake Roost’s churner My Zippo being included on the legendary Minneapolis label, Amphetamine Reptile’s compilation, Dope, Guns and Fucking in the Streets. Now, it was America’s turn for a bleeding ear epidemic, and before too long, Grong Grong, Lubricated Goat, Bloodloss and others, were heavily influencing the scene that started and finished it all; grunge. Even the term grunge stemmed from Grong Grong’s Mike Farkas who coined the term way back in the early 1980s, perceiving it to be a most suitable word to describe the soap-scum essence of the band’s sound.
In the mid to late nineties, in certain realms of the American music scene, The Mark of Cain made some headway of their own, befriending post-hardcore noisesters Helmet and eventually touring with them. Currently, in The Mark of Cain’s present form, the drummer is none other than Helmet’s own John Stanier. And it wasn’t just Charlie Tolnay and The Mark of Cain who were making their way in the U.S.; Adelaide’s Guy Maddison (Lubricated Goat/Bloodloss) had worked his way into grunge legends Mudhoney’s rhythm section, and Mike Farkas’ latest incarnation, Hack, were becoming a huge underground influence on Chicago’s Touch ‘n’ Go scene.
Back home, in the predominantly male-centric universe that was Adelaide punk rock, it was ex-Sputniks member Liz Dealey who blazed trails for the girls to rise, eventually lending influence to America’s Riot Grrrl scene of the nineties and beyond. With the Sputniks slowly evolving into Dave Graney’s The Moodists, Dealey, along with the rest of the band, relocated to Melbourne, a scene where Dave Graney and wife, ex-Moodist Clare Moore, are now king and queen respectively. By the mid-80s, Dealey had moved back to her home town and soon after formed her own punk/noise outfit the Twenty-Second Sect. Within weeks, they too were obliterating the live circuit with a nitro explosiveness and Dealey’s volatile lead vocal. In a nation that has produced some incredible female rockers over the decades, including the brilliant Wendy Saddington and Magic Dirt’s Adalita, Liz Dealey must well and truly rank up there as one of the loudest, most attitudinal female voices in the country’s music history.
More recently, the Adelaide music scene seems to have made some sort of revival, however not through the efforts of younger acts. It’s the old boys and girls that have reformed past glories to take Australia by storm again. The past decade has seen reunion gigs by hardcore act Where’s the Pope?, local legends The Bearded Clams and Blood Sucking Freaks, as well as the band that launched the city’s underground music into the stratosphere, Grong Grong.
Still punishing the stage and its audience, Grong Grong have taken on a slightly different vibe these days, as singer Mike Farkas is no longer able to walk after a lengthy heroin induced coma, while brother and best mate Charlie Tolnay is suffering with crippling arthritis. Despite the obvious restrictions, the band is still brutal, with Farkas pummeling his wheel chair on stage while screaming through a gimp mask, and Tolnay reinventing his already unique guitar style to suit his current condition.
In history, looking back some thirty years, it seems that the seminal and crucially important Adelaide scene has been somewhat forgotten. Looking around at the heads in the crowd at a recent Grong Grong gig in 2013, I couldn’t help but notice the mats of grey hair that seemed to dominate the room; a semi-legless scene of derelict dinosaurs (including myself) desperately clinging on to something that will most likely soon be forever gone, provided the relative torches are not passed down a generation. But as long as the fans who were there back in the day, as long as people like Harry Butler and Doug Thomas continue to emerge to carry the suffocating flame, history may end up looking kindly upon those heady days, one of the most important and influential times in Australian music history.
Watch this short Adelaide punk/hardcore documentary to learn more about this microcosmic, yet hugely influential scene.
*If you enjoy the writing of Benjamin Munday, subscribe to The Low Road for a free download of his award winning short story, 'The Ashtray'.