Punky and Western
Ever since white hillbilly music got together with black rhythm and blues to spawn that wayward child by the name of rock’n’roll, there’s always been someone, somewhere, trying to get ‘back to the roots’.
Whether it’s Daddy Cool, Sha Na Na, the Stray Cats or Shakin’ Stevens, the door to the rich vault of early rock’n’roll seems to be perpetually open and inside there’s some young bucks happily plundering the treasures.
Although this seems to be a continuous process, it’s most noticeable when there’s a faltering in the forward march of musical innovation. The death of psychedelic rock in the early 1970s set the stage for the meteoric rise of Daddy Cool in Australia, while the expiration of the punk movement in the UK left a big gap that Shakin’ Stevens, the Stray Cats and a host of others rushed to fill.
Looking around at a generally moribund Australian live scene, perhaps it’s no wonder the only perceptible new movement seems to be a wild, raucous and primitive form of country/rockabilly played by drunken young men wearing cowboy outfits.
Ladeez and gennelmen, please allow me to introduce the inner-city cowboy cult,featuring the Johnnys, Tex Deadly and the Dum Dums, the Sacred Cowboys and the Corpse Grinders.
With a record deal with Regular Records in hand and some really wild tours of Melbourne and Brisbane under their belt, the Johnnys are probably the leading lights of the movement, although Melbourne’s Sacred Cowboys have been around longer and had a minor hit late last year with Nothing Grows in Texas.
The Johnnys are the only ones who go the whole hog though, with chaps (leather leggings), guns, spurs and Stetsons. In fact they bought the gear before they even started playing. Sacred Cowboys manager Michael Lynch recalls the first time he ever saw them. ‘They were hiding in the toilets, the female toilets, at the Vulcan Hotel.’ And what were they doing? ‘Just running in and out and screaming.’
Bass player Graham Hood (who left the Allniters because he ‘…wanted to play in a wild rock’n’roll band again,’ according to manager Roger Grierson) met up with guitarist Rod Ray’da who had just left Le Hoodoo Gurus and had the same ambition in mind. ‘They played around with a drummer and whoever else would sit in,’ recalls Grierson. ‘The ring-ins didn’t have to know the songs. Then they asked Spencer (Jones, of wacky psychedelic combo the North 2 Alaskans) to come up from Melbourne. But certainly the idea of dressing up as cowboys came first. And they decided they would call themselves the Johnnys because that was the most rock’n’roll name they could think of.’
And what about the music? Well, according to both Grierson and Lynch, who as well as managing their respective bands act in a ‘career advisory’ capacity to Tex Deadly and the Dum Dums and the Corpse Grinders, that comes third in priority after the clothes … and the drinking.
‘It’s got a lot to do with drinking,’ laughs Michael Lynch. ‘That’s a large part of it.’
‘One thing about dressing up as a cowboy and getting shit-faced drunk is that meatheads will call you a faggot but no-one’ll pick you,’
The wild tales that surround the bands are proof enough of this. According to Grierson, Johnnys’ guitarist Roddy Ray’da was locked up for a couple of hours recently after police came across him hiding up a tree at six o’clock in the morning. He had partaken generously in two bottles of Scotch that an elderly and enthusiastic fan had presented to the band after a particularly loud and raucous performance at the Sydney Cove Tavern. The fact that he was in full cowboy regalia didn’t help matters.
‘One thing about dressing up as a cowboy and getting shit-faced drunk is that meatheads will call you a faggot but no-one’ll pick you,’ grins Grierson. ‘And it’s really amazing how much beer you can drink when you put your mind to it. On the Johnnys’ last tour of Melbourne, Michael Lynch, who was the agent for the tour, got so out of it that he lost all the tour accounts and can’t remember what gig money was picked up or what happened to it. I mean it’s just wild.‘
The common musical thread linking all four bands, and there are other bands too who could be roped in, like the Bum Steers from Melbourne and the Spitfires from Adelaide, is loud, loose early rock’n’roll.
There are discernible links with the crazed voodoobilly of cult American band the Cramps and the psychotic blitzkrieg of our very own lovable Birthday Party, whose bass player Tracey Pew has been sporting a Stetson and a very butch moustache for the past couple of years. In fact Grierson is of the opinion that the whole thing is more of a noise revival than a cowboy cult.
‘It’s just taking rock’n’roll back to its roots. Whether it’s Iggy Pop or what the Stones did in 1963 or what Hank Williams was doing in the fifties. I mean Hank Williams dressed up as a cowboy and drank a lot and took a whole lot of drugs and died really young as a result! I mean cowboys are incredibly wild people! But I see the whole thing as a reaction to the bands that are around now. I mean I thought bands in the style of Duran Duran and Soft Cell were supposed to go out the door in 1977, but they’re everywhere now.’
Grierson singles out Hank Williams, but it’s another country singer who emerged in the fifties who seems to have had the greatest influence on eighteen year old Texas Deadly, a tall spindly Nick Cave-lookalike who fronts the fearsome Dum Dums. That singer is Johnny Cash, though what Cash would make of Tex’s tender maulings of his great hits Ring of Fire, Folsom Prison Blues and I Walk the Line, is anyone’s guess.
Tex was ‘discovered’ by Roger Grierson in Brisbane where he was fronting a band called the Pits who ‘…used to wear Bermuda shorts and sunglasses and were the weirdest-looking band you’d ever seen in your life. They used to play just horrible two chord versions of songs like Funkytown and Stairway to Heaven and Release Me, with a few Johnny Cash songs thrown in. They were incredibly amusing.’
Grierson invited Tex down to Sydney, introduced him to a few people and TD and the Dum Dums are now very much a band to look out for. According to Michael Lynch, everyone agrees the boy is going to be a ‘star’. If they can come up with some original songs that match their impressive versions of the Cash songs, Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel and Fever, he could just be right.
While Melbourne’s Sacred Cowboys, the band that started as a laugh and found everyone wanted to get in on the joke, and Corpse Grinders both spurn string ties and Stetsons, they do play loud country/rockabilly.
Melbourne and Sydney rock critics swooned over the Sacred Cowboys when they appeared around the middle of last year. Richard Guilliat in the Age, said: ‘At this point the Cowboys are the only band in Melbourne still in touch with the sense of raucous energy that has always been at the heart of the best rock’n’roll.’
Like the waters of the Red Sea confronted by Moses, we all retreated to the back of the room, cowering against the walls as this demented madman brandished an evil-sounding and evil-smelling weapon at us.
I recall one particularly exciting performance they gave at the now defunct Exit Club in the Cross. Midway through the performance lead singer Garry Gray started up a chainsaw onstage and jumped into the audience waving it around his head in a menacing manner. I have never seen a crowd in a venue move so quickly. Like the waters of the Red Sea confronted by Moses, we all retreated to the back of the room, cowering against the walls as this demented madman brandished an evil-sounding and evil-smelling weapon at us. Apparently the chainsaw didn’t have a cutting chain attached but no-one in the crowd was to know that. The adrenalin rush was all too much for one poor chap who, when Gray returned to the stage and had switched the thing off, jumped on the singer from behind and attempted a form of anal intercourse. Gray lost his temper and dispatched his amorous admirer back from whence he came with a forearm to the head. Hoo, yeah! That was a wild night and a half!
As with the Johnnys, the Cowboys contain some familiar names. Drummer Janis Friedenfelds and bass player Mark Ferrie were once upon a time the rhythm section in the Models and Andrew Picouleau was half of electronic duo the Metronomes.
The Corpse Grinders have made two trips to Sydney so far, the first including a support to the mighty Birthday Party at the Trade Union Club, and the second to play at the cowboy gig of the century on June 10th playing third on the bill below the Sacred Cowboys and the Johnnys. (The cowboy gig of the century part two, which also included Tex Deadly and the Dum Dums, took place at the Tote in Melbourne the following week).
‘Some bands are serious about this sort of music,’ says Grierson, ‘and some of them aren’t. There’s definitely an element of cartoon humour in this whole thing. I mean some people have actually accused Tex of taking things that are, excuse the pun, sacred to them and sending them up. That what they are doing is making a mockery of these people who they consider really important. Now everyone understands they’re really important, but there’s no reason why you can’t do it with a sense of humour. It’s like sending up Bob Dylan.’
Main picture: Roddy Ray’da of the Johnnys
First published in 2MMM’s Dingo magazine, 1983