When I was a teenager, circa 1975, I had a band. We liked to play loud and we practiced in the front rooms or garages of our parents’ houses. Sometimes, if the weather was fine, we’d play on the back porch, which was about four feet off the ground and formed an imaginary stage, of sorts. In our dreams, we could play on that porch, imagining we were playing to a small festival audience, or some such. It was our favourite thing to do. We just loved to play. It’s practically all we did, outside of school. If we weren’t playing, we were talking about playing or planning to play.
We also liked to write songs. Our songs were not great, but whose are, when they’re just starting out? What we played was something like what has come to be known as “Aussie Pub Rock”. It was designed for dancing. Although relatively unsophisticated, it was good time music and we tried our best to inject a little technique and artifice, as we got better at playing our instruments. Our parents were indulgent, but encouragement was otherwise quite scarce. Our peer group largely ignored what we were doing, for the most part. The local popular culture revolved around going to the beach and surfing. Rock musicians were a relatively strange anomaly.
As we got louder and rehearsed for longer, with bigger amplifiers and drum kits, our constant struggle was to find a place to play that wouldn’t result in a visit from law enforcement. That’s right, folks. Our neighbours were so unappreciative of our nascent musical endeavours and thought so unlikely a career in music that they were prepared to unleash the forces of state violence to silence us prematurely. Having the police called out to issue you with a noise abatement warning was about as far from encouragement as you could possibly get.
Unsurprisingly, we eventually lost heart. The rock band broke up and I went and got the proverbial “proper job”, as an engineering trainee. My erstwhile band mates started playing jazz (some still do). At least people didn’t tell you playing jazz was wrong. That was acceptable music. It was also, even then, dated and somewhat antique. Conservative people liked jazz. It was the music that guaranteed parental approval. In short, it was a safer option than writing and performing original rock songs, about subjects that were relevant to people our age.
Our little band was seen, by our community, as a nuisance and an annoyance. We were considered to be a bad influence on more studious kids and unwelcome, as community members, if we insisted on making that ungodly racket. The thought that what we were doing could have been an industry, or earned anything of significance, I’m sure, never occurred to our neighbours and peers. Australia was a reactionary culture, still seeing the devil and debauchery in music that had a strong beat and an insistent rhythm section, which compelled audience members to dance. It was a pity that such clever, nice young boys had gone astray, was the general reaction we received. We were considered to be on our way to penury and a life of crime.
About the same time, not more than one hundred miles north of where we lived, in a bigger city, another bunch of lads were playing quite similar music to ours. They were writing their own songs and adding a little technical pizzazz to their performances. We shared pretty much the same schtick. Their band makeup was identical to ours; two guitars, bass and drums. They played loud and they played danceable rock music. Being a couple of years older than us and having started a year or two before we did, they were already playing the pubs and clubs. We, on the other hand, were too young to set foot in the door of those venues, under the liquor licensing laws that existed. Those laws were strictly enforced, too. We sat on the sidelines until the lack of permission and encouragement finally made us give up, rather than persist against what felt, at the time, like insurmountable obstacles.
If you want to know what happened to that other bunch of lads that seemed to have a better foothold on a musical career, in the middle seventies, than we were able to establish, AC/DC are still thriving. Now they’re pushing seventy! Last year, according to Forbes, they were paid $114 million USD. They grossed a staggering $226 million USD on their last tour, clearing $2m a night. Their career earnings are inestimable.
What was seen, in our home town, as having little potential (certainly not an export earning potential), annoying, noisy, a public nuisance of the first rank and representative of the decay and degeneracy of the youth of the day, which needed to be corrected and stopped, before it all got out of hand, was instead seen as the incubator of potential stars, in that other home town.
Nobody, I’m sure, could have predicted the earnings of AC/DC, even if optimistically calculated, back in those days. However, their songs were permitted to develop, they got to play and they became a big draw card. It can’t have been an easy climb for them, as their song, “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)”, states in its title and lyrics, but at least it was possible. The message we took, from community reaction to our efforts, was that what we were attempting to do was positively impossible.
(Cultures change. The same home town that had given us no hope spawned the globally successful band, Silverchair, almost twenty years later. The high school that two of our band members had learned to play jazz music in, as outcast, oddball music nerds, is now a dedicated school for the performing arts.)
I can’t help thinking that if both bands had swapped home towns, the outcomes might have been quite different. Or perhaps those lads felt they had no other options, so had to stick it out, despite the indignities and discouragements, whereas we were happily steered into other, more academic, safe and secure directions, because, being adjudicated as “bright boys”, people around us felt it their duty to ensure we didn’t waste our lives on a folly. This is one situation where being intelligent definitely didn’t help.
That’s the thing about artists, while they’re still struggling and unknown. You can’t tell what they’ll become. However, you can alter their outcomes, depending on whether you embrace their efforts and encourage them in that direction, or level strict prohibitions and sanctions against them, or else completely neglect and ignore them, in a misguided effort to straighten and correct them. The community you exist within, as an artist, can either nurture you or suffocate you. We had the misfortune of forming our band in an environment positively hostile to our new musical ideas and derisive about any far-fetched ambitions of making it biggish.
The naked truth about community attitudes toward unknown and struggling artists turns out to be this – it all depends on how you look at it. I wish we had known.
Ironic post script: The safe and secure job I was steered into was with the largest employer in the region, a steelworks. At the time, the works employed 13,000 people and it was considered to be a local institution. My father was its longest serving employee, with 47 years service, when he retired. Nobody could imagine the demand for steel abating at any time. That steelworks is now a vacant site, denuded of its buildings and machinery, which were sold to Chinese steel manufacturers and transported to China in crates, wholesale. All of those safe and secure jobs for life have disappeared forever. AC/DC, on the other hand, is still going.