I became serious about music in the 1970s. It was the early 1970s, just after the Beatles had finished blowing everybody away with their sonic inventiveness and while Pink Floyd was busy with Meddle and Dark Side of the Moon. This was the music that inspired me and the sort of music I wanted to make. It was rich, enveloping, complex, innovative and beautifully-crafted, on just about every level of musicality. This was the sound I was chasing.
What I didn’t realise, at the time, was that music making, at least on record, in the popular genre, required resources and lots of them. The more resources you could command, the better your record. At the time, you needed to be able to buy better instruments and pay for expensive studios and these were both out of the reach of most people, where I grew up. Of course, when those resources came your way, you had to be able to do something worthwhile with them, but without the resources, you were fighting with one hand tied behind your back. No Hammond organ, meant no organ sounds would be on your record. No record company funded studio budget meant overdubs were never going to be a possibility, for your music. If you didn’t have friends that were in a string quartet, there was no chance in hell of making your own kind of Eleanor Rigby. Bands with backing made interesting music. Bands in garages, as inventive as we tried to be, made garage music.
In the provincial Australian city I grew up in, strange Italian, German and Australian made guitars were the norm. They were generally well-made, but meant for jazz. Purpose-built rock instruments were uncommon. It was only in the mid 1970s that the Japanese threw some of us a bone and made really quite usable copies of Gibson guitars, at very reasonable prices. It was still a major stretch to get one, but at least you had an instrument you could be competitive with. Mine turns forty, next year. The better gear was owned by musicians with very indulgent, middle class parents or else those with such an obsession that they spent any and all money they had on musical instruments.
The larger cities had halfway decent studios and record companies that would advance enough cash to buy Moogs and Melotrons. You could make an interesting sounding record, with those things going for you and many bands did. My fate, though, was to plod along with two guitars, bass and drums and to try to be an interesting song writer, despite the limited sonic palette. It was a struggle and not particularly satisfying, but at least the dream stayed alive that if you were good enough, as a song writer and instrumentalist, then if your break came, you could seize it with both hands. That was the fuel that stoked my inner fire.
Then Disco music appeared and slapped those of us of that mind set in the face. Here was a music that was not only even more slickly produced than what had gone before, requiring large studios, horn sections, string sections and all manner of sonic gimmickry, but it was music that carried this one message, to struggling, aspiring musicians: give up. This music was saying that there was no point being in a local band, when playing a damned record, which takes almost zero talent and application, could deliver these admittedly well-made, highly danceable pieces of music, to people that wanted to hear it more than they wanted to listen to your own half-baked musical attempts. Disco announced the defeat of the struggling garage band and told those concerned to not even bother doing anything more than dropping a needle on their excellent records. The purveyors of Disco music, in effect, were asserting that they had won.
They were right. Lots of people I knew much preferred going to discos and dancing, rather than listening to live bands. Live bands, for their part, had to learn the disco repertoire and perform it, inadequately, compared to the records. It was a bleak time, in my home town, for aspiring song writers and record producers. Our bubble was sort of burst.
That isn’t to say that pub rock didn’t make a defiant and successful stand. It did. Some pub rock bands flourished, by embracing their garage band roots, but you still needed resources. Touring involved vast distances and the gear had to be roadworthy, or you were very quickly out of business. You have to admire those bands for sticking with it. Many became internationally successful and had long careers, but none from my home town, from that era. Our flashest local bands fizzled out and disappeared.
For a guitarist, Disco represented the lean years. Guitar players were not generally featured, in Disco music and when they were, they played an alien, funk style, which required a different set of guitar playing skills to the ones we had honed, over a period of years. Sure, you could adapt, but then you lost the ability to wail on a distorted guitar solo. That felt like too big a loss.
Eventually, Disco lost its steam too, as all musical genres eventually do. People became habituated to it and consequently, became bored by it. It became sonic wallpaper, rather than something new and exciting. What came next, locally, was Punk. Punk was another slap in the face for those musicians that had honed their skills in song writing and playing. The sound of Punk was raw and brutal. The idea was that anybody with a (stolen) guitar could make it, but for those musicians with higher sonic aspirations, who had already progressed beyond the raw, brutal, garage band sound they started with, it held little interest. It felt like a game of snakes and ladders, where you rolled the dice and hit a snake, causing you to slither back down to square one.
I understand why Punk was liberating and empowering for new musicians, who finally had a chance. For those that had grown out of three chords and thrashing about, though, it provided nothing new or interesting. It was just another bleak desert. Been there, done that, but with less vomit.
Finally, the 1980s came and interesting music returned, in terms of sonic palette and production values, but you needed even bigger studios and even more ridiculously priced instruments than ever before. The resource gap widened further. A very few bands from our bigger cities punched above their weight, internationally, with this music, but some tremendously talented and domestically successful acts made almost no impression overseas. As for our local bands, they did very poorly, from that point of view.
So, that’s the story of my formative musical years. We were too poor, then way too poor, then too sophisticated and aspirational and then astronomically too poor, again. We were also somewhat demoralised by the musical trends. Whether our musical skills would have been up to scratch, given a level playing field of equal gear, opportunity and studio technology, will never be known. The fact is: the music we imagined in our heads could never have been made, with the materials and chances we had available to us. Most of us didn’t even have the resources (and courage) to move to the big cities, though some of us ended up in and around London, in the UK. The price you pay, for a move like that, is leaving everything behind, including your friendship networks and connections. You arrive like an alien refugee and it takes a very long time to find your way into bands and into the circles you need to be in, to make music. Your gear also stays behind, so you have to accumulate what you need from scratch, again, all the while trying to survive in a very expensive place.
Being a song writer and music producer has never been easy. It gets harder, I think, if you start from the wrong place and the wrong economic opportunities. You’ve always needed plenty of courage, self-belief and sheer luck, but I can’t help thinking my musical life might have been very different, had I grown up in Sheffield, Los Angeles, London or the Home Counties like Surrey, in the UK and so on. Those guys struggled too and faced many, if not more, of the same discouragements. The serious musicians all, to a man, carved out some sort of a musical career, however.
Maybe my experience of this period was highly individual and idiosyncratic and unrepresentative of everybody else’s way of seeing it, but it was how it felt to me. Perhaps I’m rationalising and making excuses, or maybe I was too blinded by my love of music to understand and address the resource gap. Maybe the attitudes and constraints of the society I grew up in precluded taking wild chances with one’s own life and career. I have no way of seeing this from anybody else’s eyes other than my own.
In hindsight, it just seems like it was an impossible struggle against largely insurmountable odds. Maybe that’s how it seems to every musician, regardless of their background, geographical location and resources. The older I get, the more I appreciate the pros and cons of both Disco and Punk, but they were both highly discouraging trends, at the time. It’s possible that my musical dream was just a fantasy side-show for my real life. Who knows?
It isn’t over yet.