Big And Ugly

It's 1979 and Robert 'Simply Irresistible' Palmer stands at the back of a dingy Melbourne venue in his best pop star finery looking at the stage in mild disgust. Someone from his entourage has dragged him along to a Little Bands night and he doesn't...

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May 1 2008, 12:00am


Primative Calculators, Sydney 1979


It’s 1979 and Robert ‘Simply Irresistible’ Palmer stands at the back of a dingy Melbourne venue in his best pop star finery looking at the stage in mild disgust. Someone from his entourage has dragged him along to a Little Bands night and he doesn’t like what he hears. At all. On stage there’s something quite punk rock happening; only it’s not the safety-pinned, mo-hawked version of punk that others are aping in 1979. With drum machines, synths, guitars and minimal musical know-how, a group of so-called Little Bands are performing under monikers like Thrush And The Cunts and Too Fat To Fit Through The Door, making loud, weird music that they’ll play for one or two gigs before disbanding to start another loud, weird, short-lived musical outfit.

Almost 30 years after the incident, Stuart Grant and Dave Light, two of the key figures in the Little Bands scene, sit in a Vietnamese restaurant a short walk from where they once lived together and made grotesque electronic battle cries with their group Primitive Calculators. In recent years there’s been rekindled interest in the band—who were immortalised by their appearance in the 1987 film Dogs In Space, which starred a young Michael Hutchence—on the back of reissues of their material. Soap boxing over his steaming noodle soup, Stuart, who was the group’s livewire singer and guitarist is somewhat dismissive of what he calls their “incompetent, plinky-plonky” output. “We weren’t thinking about the musicality of it,” he offers, “we were thinking about hurting people and being as ugly as possible.”

The first Little Band formed after friends of the Primitive Calculators put together a temporary group to support Nick Cave’s earliest ensemble, The Boys Next Door. At the time the Calculators—which also included Denise Hilton and Frank Lovelace on keyboards and drum machine—were living in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of North Fitzroy next door to fellow synth renegades Whirlywirld. Both groups latched onto the idea of forming temporary, side-project bands that would play no more than two gigs, for no more 15 minutes and share each other’s equipment—i.e., Little Bands. Soon, a raft of Little Bands started up, convening at the Calculators’ and Whirlywirld’s twin terraces to use their equipment and rehearsal space. Made up mostly of dole recipients, with a lot of spare time on their hands, Little Bands proliferated amid of haze of booze, weed and speed. In a milieu where ideas were considered more important than musical prowess, the bands often sounded quite terrible; these kids were sloppy, clangy and discordant. By turns, they could sound equally fantastic: a mixture of epileptic drum machine rhythms, stabbing synth lines and creepy/witty lyrics making for oddly compelling results.

The concept reached its zenith with monthly Little Band nights at the Champion Hotel in late 1979. Come 1980, however, the Calculators split up and hightailed to Europe (except for Dave) and Whirlywirld relocated to London. A second wave of Little Bands including The Oroton Bags, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Gave Up Music To Become Crazy Mixed Up Zombies and Use No Hooks kept the flame burning. By 1982 though, the scene lost momentum and reached its final, amphetamine-fuelled splutters.

Still friends three decades later, Dave Light, who now teaches immigrant kids in community housing, and Stuart Grant, who’s writing a thesis about the philosophy of laughter, are talking about the legacy of the Primitive Calculators and Little Bands in a crappy restaurant between slurps of noodle soup. Both grew up in the rough outer suburb of Springvale before moving to the then hub of Melbourne’s music scene, St Kilda, to form their first band The Moths. They quickly found themselves at odds with the punk scene there (Stuart refers to it as being full of “private school fuckwits”) and moved to North Fitzroy where they formed the Calculators and kick-started the Little Bands phenomena.

Vice: So it probably makes you feel a bit old being in the History issue of Vice?

Stuart:
You can’t help but feel old. I wouldn’t want to be young.

What was it like growing up on the outskirts of Melbourne in Springvale?

Dave:
There was a ridiculous amount of pot and really crappy cars.

Stuart: We’d smash into other cars and get really drunk and fall out of trees. I looked at the photo of my 18th birthday party the other day and more than half the people in it are dead. All drug deaths. Just a bunch of dirty suburban losers.

When did you first start making music together?

Dave:
This friend of ours had this house with a bungalow out the back. We used to hang around there and there were two or three hundred records that this guy had of The Stooges and MC5 and The Velvet Underground and a whole lot of American garage psychedelic rock. We used to have these ongoing alcoholic, drug-fuelled evenings where we’d sit there and listen to these records and bang on guitars.

When did you decide to move to St Kilda to form the band?

Dave:
Stuart came over one day around Christmas of 76 standing in the bungalow and his front teeth were all smashed in because he’d run into the back of a panel van and he’s gone, ‘I bought this guitar and amp, I saw The Saints on TV: let’s form a band’, and we’ve gone, ‘Yeah, we’ll find a house then we’ll move in’.

Could any of you play your instruments properly?

Dave:
No, not at all. That’s why we went electronic because…

Stuart: ...we had no talent. [laughs]

Dave: Well, Stuart had a bit more talent, he knew the A bar chord pattern and the G bar chord pattern, the rest of us knew nothing.

Stuart: We figured that going electronic was a shortcut. When we got our first synthesiser we realised we could make these piercing, horrible sounds and get more pronounced and powerful effects without needing to be able to play.

Dave: We were frustrated with that 60s garage rock sound that we’d tried with really limited success.

Stuart: Cause we couldn’t even play as well as the hopeless cunts that were playing it in the 60s.

Dave: Yeah, we heard Suicide. That’s what really gelled it all together and then we bought a drum machine.

Thrush and the Cunts   Too Fat to Fit Through the Door

Do you have fond memories of your time in St Kilda?

Dave:
Our next door neighbour was Steve Hill who used to be the original singer in Sky Hooks and he put his bags in the hall and said, ‘We’re moving out can I just leave my bags here?’. About two months later he came back and said, ‘Can I stay the night?’. A year later he was still there.

Stuart: He was a junkie, so we used to queue with our little arms out going, ‘Steve, do me! do me!’.

Dave: And he used to manage Jo Jo Zep—now he’s dead.

Stuart: We can say these things cause he’s dead.

Dave: He used to steal money from them and spend it and come home with stuff and go, ‘C’mon boys’. He was really big and butch.

Stuart: A big, fat gay man.

Dave: He’d chase Frank [Lovelace] around the lounge room climbing over the chairs with no clothes on, hanging onto his dick saying, ‘I’ve got a scab on here. Can you take a look?’

That sounds terrifying. A little while later you ended up in North Fitzroy next door to the band Whirlywirld.

Stuart:
Yeah, it was there that we started Little Bands. We’d just invite people around to our place to use our equipment and we were doing the regular Little Bands night. The two little abandoned shops we lived in became a central point where other bands started to seek it out and it was a little alternate scene to all that other stuff around that we hated.

So you all shared the same equipment at Little Band gigs?

Stuart:
Yeah. It was an attempt to make everything disposable like a protest against—cause it was 1979 by then—all of these so-called punk bands from the original English ones to all of the American bands and everyone in Australia. Punk had become a hat that you wore, a fashion and the next means by which people were getting successful in the industry.
 


Whirlywirld, Sydney 1979 (Ollie Olsen on mic)

Were people studying or working or mostly just dole bums?

Stuart:
No, just on the dole, taking drugs, making horrible noise and being suburban fuckwits. The dole was a lot of money in those days.

Dave: We all got $50 a week. When we lived in St Kilda, we partied, drank cheap red wine and ate really well seven days a week.

Stuart: We lived like kings. That was Gough Whitlam’s legacy, our generation of hopeless losers who never wanted to do anything.

Dave: We’d retired before we were 20.

Was there an ethos behind the band?

Stuart:
It came out of disappointment and disillusionment with punk because I think all rock music is obviously the province of young people and young people are all imbeciles. It’s like the Little Bands were the measure of our delusion and when we started the Primitive Calculators we really thought we were changing the world.

We had this idea that we could give people such an aural shock that it could somehow clear out their psyche through their ears and completely purge their whole understanding of the world and they would be somehow born again into a newer and freer awareness. This was our version of the punk ethos.

Why do you think people are still interested in the Primitive Calculators? It’s not what you’d call pleasant listening.

Dave:
Because it doesn’t sound like anything else on earth other than the Primitive Calculators. It was a really unique view of the world, and it’s fun.

Stuart: And a quintessentially suburban Melbourne product.


 

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