Young Modern were the fresh new thing on the Adelaide scene when I interviewed them for the debut issue of Roadrunner (March/April 1978). Their music has stood the test of time.
For a band that has been together for only four months Young Modern have received a lot of media attention—articles in RAM, Juke, the Advertiser and Adelaide Uni’s On Dit.
I caught up with singer John Dowler, guitarist Vic Yates and drummer Mark Kohler at John’s North Adelaide flat the night after they played the Marryatville as support to Rum Jungle (my second viewing of the band.) Why all the interest? I asked John.
‘I’ve got a lot of loyal friends.’ he laughed. ‘But no, I think it’s because we’re a rock’n’roll band and there aren’t any other rock’n’roll bands in Adelaide.’
Now there are some people who would perhaps dispute that but there is no denying that the Young Modern brand of music is melodic, catchy, irrepressibly danceable and the most refreshing sound to be heard around Adelaide since, ooh, The Twilights? (Those of you too young to remember the Twilights—and four-fifths of Young Modern fall into that category—ask your older brothers and sisters.)
Young Modern came together last year when John Dowler left Melbourne and his band Spare Change, and returned to Adelaide. (The rest of Spare Change resurfaced recently in Parachute.) John said he left Spare Change after disputes within the band (he admits to being somewhat of an egotist) and returned to Adelaide to get something new together because in his own words, ‘There’s less pressure here, A band has time to develop.’
John had a friend whose brother played in a high school band called Suggestion who were looking for a singer and as they say in the trades, the rest is history.
Apart from three songs the Young Modern repertoire is completely original. The three non-originals are an obscure Stones number, The Singer Not The Song, John Mayall’s On Top of The World and a surprise novelty encore. Andrew Richards, bass, Mick Jones, guitar and Vic all write the music for the original songs while John takes care of the lyrics.
Young Modern: Back, left to right – John Dowler, Mick Jones, Andrew Richards, Vic Yates. Front, Mark Kohler.
All the mid-sixties influences that I detected in the music (Velvet Underground, Kinks, Flaming Groovies) turned out to be bands that Vic and Mark (18 and 19 respectively) had never heard although John put all three among his favourites. Vic told me that his musical inspiration came from the period when rock supposedly died, 1959 to 1962; the era of insipid pop, one hit wonders and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
Were you trying for a sixties sound then?
‘No,’ answered John, ‘that’s just the way we play. None of us are brilliant musicians.’
Tell me about your song Wanna Be A Birdman.
‘It’s got nothing to do with Radio Birdman,’ said Mark.
‘Well it has, in that it was originally inspired by our first ever gig which was supporting Radio Birdman at the Unley Town Hall,’ added John. ‘Mick was really pissed off with the fact that they got a really great reception and we didn’t. So he came up with this chorus, ‘Wanna be a birdman/ I heard it on the radio/Birdman.’ I didn’t want a song about them so I changed it to a song about a guy who wanted to fly.’
‘I think people in the audience think it’s about Radio Birdman,’ commented Mark.’In fact it’s about the illegitimate son of Howard Hughes who inherits his father’s love of flying,’
You introduce the song New Wave as a surf song on stage. Are you taking a poke at the new wave?
‘It’s an affectionate parody,’ answered John. ‘There’s a lot of good stuff come out of the new wave—a lot of really bad stuff too. Some people are calling us a new wave band, which I don’t mind because it’s the thing of the moment, We are still going to be playing the same thing whether it’s called new wave or not.’
Young Modern usually finish their set with an old Spare Change single called The Big Beat. John played me the version recorded by Spare Change last year. Virtually the only resemblance is in the lyrics. Young Modern has taken out the tempo changes and the elaborate musical embroidery and replaced them with straight-ahead rhythm and a foot tapping beat that is the perfect backdrop for John’s lilting voice.
I could go on because all the songs are good, Automatic, My Favourite Drug, Red Dress On (‘I don’t know how I feel/ When you come around/ You got that red dress on’—sounding like the Velvets as the music builds, peaks and ebbs) and the band’s tour de force, I Get So Excited, a long slow poignant opus of lost love. It’s the only slow song the band does and—in much the same way as Elvis Costello’s Alison—acts as a reflective counterpoint to the rest of their set.
And what of the future?
The band have plans to make some demo tapes soon and with them as a basis, try to get a single out. They are playing about once a week at the moment, usually supporting interstate acts at the Marryatville and there is a possibility of getting a residency at a hotel in Elizabeth. It’s early days yet but with John’s undoubted stage charisma and his experience in the music business, the group have a great chance of negotiating the many hurdles faced by up and coming Adelaide bands.
If there is to be a renaissance in Australian rock then my money is on Young Modern to be right there in the front line. See them while you can – Adelaide might not be able to hang on to them.