David Nichols is a musical encyclopedia. The renowned writer, lecturer, historian and musician, was asked by Warner music to compile some of the Australian DIY scene's most influential tracks from three decades ago.
The result, the rather unwieldy titled Closed Circuits: Australian Alternative Electronic Music of the 70s & 80s documents the era of progressive Australian bands making the leap into the unknown bounds of alternative electronica. The Primitive Calculators, Models, The Metronomes, and Shower Scene From Psycho are just some of the names that made it from the cutting room floor.
People looked at playing a synthesiser like it was slightly better than miming.
It was a momentous time for Australian music. The introduction of machines in popular music had begun and the days of the standard rock band were being brought into question. As all progressive ideas go, Nichols remembers some friction during this time. "When 1980 rolled around I was 15 so I was just going out to see bands. What I remember is a lot of resistance. People looked at playing a synthesiser like it was slightly better than miming. It was seen as deceptive, it was seen as cheating, particularly the use of drum machines and tapes and things like that. It was seen as slacking off and covering up for your lack of talent. Because electronic music won the day so to say, people forget that there was a strong resistance. Some people embraced it, you know – there was no choice but to embrace it."
He remembers it not as a threat to retrospective music, but as an exciting opportunity for newness. "In the 70s and into the 80s it looked like the place you could do new work, you know? Whereas if you pick up a guitar – I'm not dissing guitars, or guitar playing, or guitars at all — but if you pick up a guitar you're likely to fall into some old patterns quite possibly, or sound a bit retro whereas if you pick up a synthesiser there's every chance you could be creating something entirely new."
Guided in hand by what was available at the time for musicians, Nichols describes why it was instrumental access combined with alternative creativity that led to such a profound stage of innovation.
"I think the era was largely driven by the technology and the availability of the technology. The rise of the synthesiser in progressive rock in the very late 60s meant that designers and manufacturers were investigating synth technology and not just creating new branches of technology but ways to make it affordable and accessible. So by the time the early 80s rolled around new synthesiser models and things like drum machines came into affordability for younger people."
An intriguing part of the arrangement is the sense of history not just from the songs but from the underground community in Melbourne in the 80s. Nichols describes the era as a hugely important time for music, but is hesitant to name favourites from the enormous talent pool of the time. "I'm not going to commit to any favourites … but I will go back to The Reels. One of the things they did, which had nothing to do with their synthesiser predilection, was they used headset microphones which later became really common because people wanted to — I think a lot of people associate that with Madonna — people wanted to sing and dance at the same time and be freed up from a microphone on a stand.
Just as they were getting away from the idea of four or five guys in a band the guitarists all stand in a row and the drummers behind them you know, bashing away, they wanted to get away from what they called 'cock-mics'. They were really just like 'raise the slate and start again', was their idea, conceptually. They were probably hamstrung every step of the way by peoples expectations and by money and so on, but on that front they did it really well. It was really exciting to see people going 'ok we're putting it on the line, we're showing you how it can be done when it comes to performing a really great live music experience using electronic instruments and state of the art technology', as it was then."
He also talked about the way that this particular era gave platform to a rise in the numbers of women on stage, not just as singers but as musicians and players. He states how the compilation is evidence of this. "It was a very interesting time on that front. Once again, huge resistance from the conventional music industry to that kind of thing — extraordinary. When you look back now you go: 'What the fuck were those people's problems that they were so upset by women being in bands? But they were."
Asked how he thinks this era has influenced the ever-growing 80s style of music today, Nichols was clear on its impact. "I think it's totally just washed through. It's inseparable but it's still being recreated and remade every step of the way. How could you not be influenced by the past? It's everywhere."
'Closed Circuits: Australian Alternative Electronic Music of the '70s & '80s' is available now through Warner Music.
Esther Rivers is a Melbourne based writer and musician. Follow her @EstherERivers