November 2013

Arts & Letters

You Am I and the new nostalgia

By Anwen Crawford

You Am I’s line-up, c.1990: Nik Tischler, Tim Rogers and Mark Tunaley © Tony Mott

The rise of heritage rock

In August this year Tim Rogers took to the stage of Sydney’s Enmore Theatre wearing a white waistcoat, a silvery neckerchief, and trousers that closely resembled a pair of tartan golfing slacks. One never could accuse Rogers of being dull. As lead singer and guitarist of You Am I he’s been, for more than 20 years, about as close to a bona fide rock star as this country has produced.

Flamboyant masculinity is not common in Australia; our celebrated “mateship” only really functions when a man is much the same as his neighbour. The great dynamism of You Am I, at least on their early records, came from the ordinariness of suburban life as directed through Rogers’ blowtorch charisma and, at times, his rage. He was sexy, and he was angry – an almost irresistible combination – windmilling and pirouetting across the stage, but his lyrics were wry, tender and generous. In his narrative sympathy, his eye (and ear) for small sadnesses, Rogers closely resembled his idol, The Kinks’ Ray Davies.

It’s 20 years since You Am I’s first album, Sound As Ever, was released. The occasion has been marked by the kind of lavish reissue – complete with remastering, B-sides and demos – that is becoming compulsory as the music of the 1990s is archived for an audience now reaching middle age. Sound As Ever was recorded at the same Minnesota studio as Nirvana’s final album, In Utero, the 20-year reissue of which has recently grabbed headlines. Never mind – era-appropriate pun intended – that you can buy a scuffed, 1993 CD copy of either album for a handful of coins; in the era of iTunes the album as lavish limited-edition object has acquired a talismanic significance.

Sound As Ever wasn’t that great an album, even 20 years ago, but it does contain two genuinely great songs: ‘Berlin Chair’ and ‘Jaimme’s Got a Gal’. The latter remains as moving an examination of male friendship as I have ever heard, rivalled only by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s crushingly sorrowful ‘I See a Darkness’. “Jaimme’s got a girl / Don’t think things gonna be the same,” sings Rogers at half-volume. “He ain’t coming out and drinking tonight / I think he’s gonna change his name.” It’s a love triangle not often broached in popular music, a woman interrupting the poignant, unacknowledged intimacy between two men. ‘Berlin Chair’, on the other hand, is a power-pop gem – melancholy in its own way, but propelled by a guitar riff so gorgeously urgent that to this day I can’t help but dance my way across the room when I hear it. And who’s ever forgotten the film clip who saw it, some late 1994 night on Rage, with PJ the ageing boxer leaping through an underground carpark in silver sequinned jumpsuit? Then the camera swung across to Rogers in an electric blue crushed-velvet jacket – oh, how I wanted that jacket – and he nearly burned through the screen.

“I’m the re-run that you’ll always force yourself to sit through,” Rogers sang, describing the ennui of a failed love affair. At the Enmore Theatre, though, this didn’t feel so much like a metaphor. You Am I were there to play, back to back, their second and third albums, which established them at the heart of Australian rock in the 1990s: Hi Fi Way (1995) and Hourly, Daily (1996). It was easy to tell that the audience had a median age of 40 or so, as barely anyone was brandishing a camera phone. This was a crowd who learnt their gig-going etiquette in an earlier time, before live shows became so mediated that one might as well stay at home and track the Twitter feed.

In this case, one might as well have stayed at home and listened to the records. Rogers never was a songbird, but he could hold a melody when he put his mind to it; now his voice is almost gone, and You Am I have lost at least half their appeal. Rogers’ and Davey Lane’s guitars, Andy Kent’s bass and Russell Hopkinson’s drums – not to mention the cellist and assorted horn players who joined them on stage – couldn’t make up for the missing restless, yearning vocal timbre at the forefront. Nor could nostalgia compensate. The album-as-concert format seems almost cruel, forcing an artist to acknowledge that their best – or at least most celebrated – work is behind them, and leaving them no option to play new material to escape, even for a moment, the burdensome glories of the past. Rogers acknowledged as much, cracking double-edged jokes about his fans’ loyalty.

Nostalgia was built into You Am I’s sound right from the start. Like so many rock bands of the 1990s, their musical ethos was not so much new as newly energised – they sounded like The Who, sure, but they did it with such fervour, and besides, The Who never sang about the Glebe Point bridge. You Am I were a great Sydney band, and it’s the Sydney in their music that I’m nostalgic for, more so than for the music itself. It’s a Sydney that existed before the 2000 Olympics and the property boom; a Sydney that didn’t harp on about its role as a “global city”. “Did you ever want to just lose touch with everybody you know?” sang Rogers on ‘How Much Is Enough’, the closing track on Hi Fi Way, and it seems a line that could only have been written before Facebook and in a time when Sydney was a smaller, steadier and less self-regarding town.

You Am I seemed to lose something vital when Tim Rogers left Sydney towards the end of the 1990s, but then, Hi Fi Way was recorded in New York, so who’s to say what kind of alchemy a particular city will or won’t provide to the practice of making rock songs? At a certain point in the middle of that decade, You Am I were the great hope of the Australian music industry; the band who could prove that we did electric guitars better than all those long-haired Americans, especially the ones from Seattle. Seattle and grunge, the movement that never was, still dominate the rock imagination: Pearl Jam will headline the 2014 Big Day Out, and The Breeders, Kim Deal’s brilliant post-Pixies band, have just performed here their 1993 album Last Splash as part of All Tomorrow’s Parties ‘Release the Bats’ festival.

If there’s a brand leader in 1990s nostalgia it’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, a London-based promoter which, through its eponymous annual festivals and the album concert series Don’t Look Back, has re-created the record collections of today’s 30- and 40-somethings as an indie rock heritage circuit, complete with curators and boutique accommodation. All Tomorrow’s Parties was the first to realise that rock nostalgia wasn’t just the domain of baby boomers and their interminable Rolling Stones tours, and its shows have given a second wind (not to mention a second income) to several artists who, only five or six years ago, may have considered their gigging days long behind them. And who can fault these artists for taking the cash, or the keen audiences who turn up for a band they haven’t seen for 15 years, or maybe never saw at all? It’s hard to frown on anyone’s pleasure, even though these album shows are puzzling, if only because knowing exactly which songs an artist will play and in what order, before they even take the stage, removes a great deal of the chancy, serendipitous thrill that marks a memorable live show. Sometimes the agony of not hearing the one or two songs you are most desperate to hear is in itself a kind of pleasure.

The only mystery at You Am I’s Enmore show was which album they’d play first – they went with Hourly, Daily. The first track is the title track, and as Tim Rogers played through this fraught, acoustic narrative, one lyric rang out: “This fourteen year old’s screaming / ‘Get out of my country’.” That observation, sadly, still seems as pertinent as ever.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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