May 2008


The uncorking

By Robert Forster
The uncorking
Mark Seymour’s ‘Thirteen Tonne Theory’

The best description of Hunters and Collectors' music, especially in their first incarnation, comes from their percussionist, Greg Perano, who when asked by a suspicious English customs officer to describe the band's sound replied, "Reggae-funk fusion with rock roots and a tinge of New York underground in the guitars." It is doubtful whether a customs officer anywhere in the world has ever heard such a confident and succinct summary of a group's music under the pressure of a border crossing, and it remains as good a grab as any at defining the band's sound and approach in its early years. The music got more commercial and straight-ahead as the group shifted its focus to the suburban-pub circuit and the record company called for hits. But from the start Hunters and Collectors had the talent and ambition to live up to these deftly stated influences, and although their inspiration may have thinned over the years, in the process a successful 18-year career was built - one that is now etched deep in Australian rock history.

Mark Seymour, the band's lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, is here to tell the story. And he does it very well. Thirteen Tonne Theory: Life Inside Hunters and Collectors (Viking, 416pp; $32.95) is, in fact, a breakthrough rock biography, for not only has Seymour managed to get the band's history down in a fresh and entertaining manner, he has done it in an inventive way that leaves much rock history and memoir, here and overseas, looking stodgy and uninspired. Seymour has gone for the snapshot approach, small single-theme chapters that have the enigma and impact of short stories, and in doing so has skipped the bog of naming years and pinning down dates, and the whole weary and-then-we-did-this-and-then-we-did-that which strangles much middle-of-the-road biography. Instead, the chapters - mostly five to ten pages long - zoom in on pivotal or odd moments, giving the book the impressionistic air of good fiction while simultaneously allowing a surprisingly clear and detailed account of the group's history to emerge. Also, these fleeting shots of band life and decisive career moments help convey the heightened and often disjointed sense of things that can come from being in a famous rock band.

All of this smart jump-cut storytelling would be of little use if Seymour couldn't write, but he can. There are two surprises in this book. The first is that Seymour can craft sentence and paragraph, weave in dialogue and know when to gracefully exit a chapter. And the second is his authorial voice. This is the big surprise. For those who'd seen Mark Seymour as the bantam-sized, bulging-T-shirted, ultra-serious lead singer hollering over his band, the tone of his book will come as a revelation. And perhaps it shouldn't. Perhaps Seymour was like this all along, known to his friends and fans as the warm, generous, laconic and, most importantly, self-deprecating person we meet in this book. But as the author himself admits, diplomacy and judgement have not always been his strengths. The book is littered with explosions or suppressed explosions and inner tension. Clarity may have come with the writing and the ten years that have passed since the break-up of his beloved band.

Wisely, he begins the story at Melbourne University, meeting future Hunters and Collectors bass player John Archer. Childhood is ditched. This is the first swerve away from the routine showbiz biography, and it is welcome. The book bursts into life in no less a way than Hunters and Collectors burst upon the Melbourne music scene of late 1980. They were an intriguing bunch of musicians, and the casting and formation of the band has a cinematic quality to it: handsome, swarthy young men in '30s suits on a mission. Scorcese would love it. The beginnings of the band were decidedly arty, and one of the few false notes in the book comes when Seymour states, "Whatever ‘cool' was, we simply weren't it, and we never were over the entire 18 years." This is not true. The band was named after a Can song, they had Perano banging a hot-water cylinder on stage, Richard Lowenstein was making their videos, and they were soon signed to Virgin Records in London - the home of PiL, Magazine and XTC. This is cool; Seymour is right, though, to maintain that the cool did not last long. What brought its end was the convergence of two things: the failure of the band to break through in Europe on their first trip, and the need to survive artistically and financially in Australia. It led to a ditching of the art and the first hints of the move to the suburbs and regional towns.

Before this, Seymour fires off a few chapters on the band's rise, and none are funnier or more accurate than the two that chronicle the group's meetings with record companies. The first sees Mushroom Records head Michael Gudinski in full early '80s form, stomping on his desk while offering a startled Hunters and Collectors not only a record deal but their own label. And the second is set in London with A&R guru Simon Draper, of Virgin Records. This is a comic masterpiece of Australians in Pommie-land worthy of Barry Humphries, as the nine-piece band, two-man road crew and three girlfriends cram into a tiny Notting Hill office to be indulged (hash, champagne and £30,000) and then told exactly where and with whom they will be recording their next album. Unfortunately, the record-signing celebrations continue. At an Indian restaurant, an aggressively inebriated member of the entourage informs the all-powerful Mr Draper, "You see us as a bunch of colonials who'll just fuck it up ... you poncey little blue-blood. You just don't get us, do you? Do you?" With this, and more that came on the night, Hunters and Collectors died in Europe.

Seymour doesn't just leave the episode there; after hilariously and ruefully laying out the shenanigans and crimes of his band, the record company and the English in general, Seymour adds a postscript both bitter and perceptive. The chapter is called ‘Virgin #3: Animal Farm'. It begins with the Orwell quote "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others," and goes on to wring a startling admission out of the author. "The right thing to do next was that somebody, probably me, should have gone round to Draper's and humbly apologised. Instead, as always, the cork was pushed back in tightly. The band closed ranks and the problem wasn't addressed." And here's the heart of the book.

Seymour is obsessed with Hunters and Collectors. Other musicians have written about their bands, but it is difficult to think of anyone who has devoted so much effort to the internal wiring and mechanics of their own group. The band's successes and failures and career-hops all get chronicled, but it's the uniqueness of Hunters and Collectors - the all-consuming fire of their live show playing off against the anal-retentive, almost military nature of their organisation - that Seymour wants to examine. Where most groups are a casual coming together of social misfits, Hunters and Collectors was a business from the start, with rules, punishments for breaking them and an approach to work, ownership and shared creativity that was most un-rocklike. Seymour compares Hunters and Collectors to a trade union and to Trappist monks; a record producer called them "a bunch of communists". They were a large all-male group who approached the rock industry with suspicion and guile, and with the idea of building assets and attitude into a fortress, a position of self-contained power that would allow them to deal with the music business on as good a terms as they could get. With all the associated themes of masculinity and democracy, it's an approach that appealed to Seymour. He signed onto it, and gave the copyrights to his songs to the group as he did so. It strangled him slowly, and the goodbye chapter to the band is free of tears.

Success did come and it doesn't make for dull reading. It is a very Australian situation, where the riches gained in this land have to be spent conquering others, and Hunters and Collectors tried like so many bands before. The attempts are mostly comical in Seymour's wry telling. Hunters and Collectors' suspicion of hype and trends was never going to be an advantage in cracking the very markets that subsist on the latest thing and flashy displays of charisma and image. Australia was the level playing field for the band, where triumphs could be built on road miles, an impressive PA and production, and the desire to kick arse live. It meant nothing to Dutch and Swedish rock journalists who taunted the hapless Seymour in interviews. So the second half of the book is the tale of two lands, the constant knocking on success's door with Midnight Oil leading the way through Europe and America, and then the return to the comforts and the wild shores of Australian rock 'n' roll - a place where audience members are known as punters, the veneration of the road crew and their eating habits exists, and the legendary Hunters and Collectors rider provokes a stunned Peter Garrett to exclaim, "They'll never drink that."

Thirteen Tonne Theory deserves to find a readership outside the rock community. Any Australian in any field of endeavour, whether within the arts or out in rougher terrain, would be proud to have written a memoir as good as this. Many novelists are not going to get close when they look back. Seymour has cracked it open with sliced-up chapters, an enigmatic approach to time, and his ability to lace a cocky and colloquial manner with vulnerability and wit. Anyone who comes after him to write of their years and careers in rock music must know that this is the book they are going to have to trump.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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