The bassline is as flexible as a millionaire’s tax return. Synthesiser gleams through the mix. I’m thinking: New York, late ’70s through early ’80s, where funk met disco met the earliest rap in groups like the Cold Crush Brothers or Fatback, and got routed immediately through the punk scene happening downtown.
But then a voice enters: a man with the cocksure, everybloke accent common to Australian politicians. “I can say without fear of contradiction / at this point in time, I’m above suspicion,” he drawls. “No secret deals, no side commissions / It’ll all come out in my submission.” All this is more or less spoken over the song’s near-circular groove. Three women add their voices to the chorus; their tone is undemonstrative, the message disingenuous. “I’m in the clear / Got nothing to fear,” they chime.
Sometimes the vortex of history will spit out an artefact that can still speak to the present. Such a thing is “In the Clear”, one of only a handful of songs recorded by the Melbourne band Use No Hooks, and released this month by the long-running Melbourne independent label Chapter Music. Who knew that in this time of sports rorts, water buybacks and Paladin contracts there’d be a punk-funk banger to soundtrack it, made decades ago?
Five songs originally laid down on reel-to-reel tape in 1983, plus two live cuts, constitute this vinyl mini-album, which also comes with six bonus digital tracks that trace the group’s development back to 1979. It’s called The Job, named for the sole track by Use No Hooks that has previously seen a release, of sorts. “Do the Job” was included on Chapter Music’s 2007 compilation, Can’t Stop It! II: Australian Post-Punk 1979–84.
Even in that context, the sardonic party vibes of “Do the Job” (“Get your head down! Arse up! Back straight!”) are in vibrant contrast to the extempore recordings of other short-lived local groups such as Microfilm (whose singer, Lisa Gerrard, would go on to form one half of the much more successful Dead Can Dance) or The Jetsonnes (you may know their guitarist, Mark Seymour, from a later band called Hunters & Collectors). Amid such mumbling and feedback – and there’s nothing wrong with mumbling or feedback; I love both as qualities in music judiciously deployed – Use No Hooks face outward to an audience they must have intimated, even then, would understand what they were on about, years into the future.
Use No Hooks perform a kind of Brechtian theatre in music. Stuart Grant, on lead vocals, always takes on the role of the self-satisfied authoritarian – one who speaks in empty bureaucratese in order to disguise his amorality. (The songs’ lyrics were written by Use No Hooks’ guitarist, Mick Earls, which furthers the sense that Grant is cut off from any spontaneous or personal use of language.) Backing vocalists Denise Hilton, Marisa Stirpe and Wendy Morrissey act as the stony-faced fixers to Grant’s petty tyrant, and sometimes as his id. “Squeeze the blood from a stone” they chant on “Circumstances Beyond Our Control”, while Grant boasts of “due process” and “the latest Morgan Gallup poll”.
Setting this power play into irresistible motion are the dynamic, disciplined arrangements of Earls, Arne Hanna (drums), Andre Schuster (bass) and the group’s two keyboard players, Phil Nichols and Matt Errey. These nine musicians formed the final and – judging by the pre-1983 tracks included on The Job – most potent incarnation of Use No Hooks. But the band’s origins lie in the tumult of post-punk creativity that took place in Melbourne in the late 1970s – a scene documented only patchily, and thus, at this distance, appearing almost mythical.
Back then, in the mists of time, there was a band called Primitive Calculators. Actually, they still sort of exist, but let’s not complicate the story.
The members of Primitive Calculators – Stuart Grant, Denise Hilton (then Rosenberg), Dave Light and Frank Lovece – lived next door to another band, Whirlywirld, in North Fitzroy. It was 1978, more or less: all the right-on young people loathed Malcolm Fraser and the cool kids hated Sherbet, too. No soft rock or flares for these cadres; they stayed up nights taking speed and plotting revolution.
Punk was their fixation, or had been, but punk worldwide had soured just as quickly as it spread, fermenting into a self-parodic brew of electric guitars and hubris. Unfortunately – and despite much effort – this aspect of punk has never been wholly vanquished; hence the sorry spectacle, in 2020, of stadium-filling career punks Green Day advertising their new album with billboards that guarantee “No Swedish Songwriters. No Trap Beats”. Oh, gerroff the stage already, you bores.
And hence the pressing need, 40 years ago, for a scene or scenes that would take the driving energies of punk – its contempt for rock pomp, its commitment to an amateur ethos – but push beyond three chords and some shouting. Maybe one chord would be more interesting? Or maybe disco beats and dub bass; maybe a squall of saxophone or the hum of an analogue synthesiser. When it comes to your actual punk rock records, I could take The Clash (1977) and leave the rest to rot, but post-punk is a lifetime’s listening. As critic Simon Reynolds posited in his 2005 history of post-punk, Rip It Up and Start Again, in terms of the breadth and excitement of music produced then, “1978–82 rivals those fabled years between 1963 and 1967 commonly known as ‘the sixties’ … There was a similar mood-blend of anticipation and anxiety, a mania for all things new and futuristic coupled with a fear of what the future had in store.”
So it was that, in pursuit of all things new and averse to the ol’ rock ’n’ roll, those rabble-rousers living side by side in North Fitzroy hit upon the idea of “little bands”. Informal and fleeting, the little bands clustered, divided and clustered again like cells. Whirlywirld’s John Murphy described the little bands as “a bunch of like-minded people playing in an endless array of line-ups”.
The rules – as recalled by Stuart Grant in Richard Lowenstein’s 2009 documentary, We’re Livin’ on Dog Food – were simple, yet strict in their adherence to anti-careerist principles. (And, yes, Lowenstein’s 1986 film, Dogs in Space, was a fictionalised tribute to the little band scene.) Rule one: “anyone can play”, including members of the audience who felt so inclined to join in. Two: a little band was not allowed to play a live show “more than twice”. Three: 15 minutes was the limit; “you [could] only have three songs”.
But even punks’ rules are made to be broken – punks’ rules especially, I’d hope – which means that a handful of the little bands endured for longer than the 15 minutes (very Warholian) they had initially allowed themselves. Use No Hooks, which evolved out of Earls and Hanna’s little band Sample Only, were one of these. The early recordings included on The Job attest to Use No Hooks’ development: “Momentum”, nearly nine minutes long, is an instrumental that wants to reach the perfect, trance-inducing pulse achieved by mid-’70s German experimentalists Neu!, but can’t get there; “This Way Up”, another live instrumental, is a sketch for the funk direction they would later realise.
One of the things that draws me back repeatedly to post-punk is the sheer range of musical styles expressed there, and the way these styles found synthesis. Punk and disco were not opposing forces, as the most potent of the post-punk bands would quickly prove: Public Image Ltd, Gang of Four, Joy Division and others drew heavily upon the machine-tooled rigour of disco producers like Giorgio Moroder for their own stripped and minimal sound. As with Use No Hooks in Melbourne, Talking Heads in New York alighted on the supple, multi-vocal possibilities of funk and wedded them to their own nervous preoccupations. In 2016, on the occasion of Use No Hooks’ first live show in 30 years, Mick Earls told Vice that, along with funk and Afrobeat, the bands’ members were also keen students, back in the day, of Washington D.C.’s go-go scene, a regional variation on funk that would exert a palpable influence on early hip-hop.
This was a time of creative flux, cross-racial musical exchange and flash-in-the-pan experiments that still brim with energy. More than the now-canonical Talking Heads, Gang of Four et al., the DIY genre-blending of Use No Hooks reminds me of the fugitive post-punk and mutant disco groups that, caught up in the moment, laid down one or maybe a couple of perfect tracks, before moving on, or vanishing. Detroit’s Was (Not Was) for instance, whose 1980 12-inch “Wheel Me Out” laid sneering guitar and lissom brass over a propulsive disco beat. Or Bristol’s great (great) Maximum Joy, whose 1981 B side “Silent Street / Silent Dub” – fluid, controlled and as bass-heavy as the weightiest Jamaican riddims – was played frequently on New York’s KISS FM as hip-hop began to filter through the city’s consciousness.
Like those groups, Use No Hooks clearly grasped that the looping structures of dance music – whether that be funk, disco or otherwise – were ideally suited to evoking the repetitions of contemporary life. The grind of work, the boredom of habit, the fact that the same smug pricks keep running the show: all of this could be summoned, satirised and then spurned within the songs’ simple yet potentially infinite grooves. The music retains its power because time’s ticked on but circumstances appear static, even retrograde: anxiety festers, wages stagnate, today’s corrupt politician is yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s.
It’s important to remember – at least I find it so, having been born about 15 years too late to have experienced any of this music first-hand – that if post-punk was an accident of history, it was nevertheless an accident contingent upon a specific set of material circumstances. As various participants and eyewitnesses testify in We’re Livin’ on Dog Food, the late ’70s in Melbourne – and in Sydney, New York, Bristol and elsewhere – was a time of cheap inner-city rents and a dole payment you could live on. As Stuart Grant, ever the pithy punk theoretician, put it: “The state paid us to reject it.”
Post-punk took place just at the moment when neoliberal governance was about to gain hegemony in Australia and across the world, and it rejected that ideology almost in advance of the fact. Forty years on, the chances of something comparable to post-punk emerging now are highly unlikely – if not impossible. The deliberate erosion of labour rights, affordable city housing, public space, or any private mental energy left over from the enjoinder to sell oneself has seen to that. It’s no wonder “Do the Job” (“Work! Keep it up, keep up!” pipe the backing vocalists) still sounds so timely. And yet I think the spirit of post-punk, if taken rightly, must lead us to reject any idealisation of the past – especially when that past contained seeds of a future that has been foreclosed. Nostalgia’s not the post-punk way. Timeliness is.
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