The mural on the side of the Domain parking station is peeling and obscured in parts by graffiti, but its details are still visible if you look past the decay. In the centre of the mural is a woman playing a synthesiser. Above her short, red hair the words Head Above Water are still visible through the grime. She’s Judy McGee of Pel Mel, one of the key bands involved in the flourishing Sydney post-punk scene in the early 1980s.
In the early 80s inner city Sydney had plentiful run down terrace houses and easily squattable empty office buildings, and it was easy to get by on the dole and devote time to making music. New bands sprung up weekly, with obscure names like Hope is a New Coat, No Night Sweats, The Goat that Went Om or Brrr Cold. They played shows at old pubs like the Sussex Hotel or the Governer’s Pleasure Tavern at Circular Quay, unusual venues such as the St Peters parish hall on Devonshire Street, or under the newly constructed pylons of the Western Distributor at Darling Harbour.
Sydney was a different city then. The mood, at least among the post-punk music scene, was one of space and possibility. In interviews, musicians from that time describe the plentiful spaces and the communities that sprung up among what seemed to be the ruins of a past city. Abandoned buildings, unloved terrace houses, old working men’s pubs with a dwindling, ageing clientele. Dave Studdert of Tactics, described the Sydney of the time as “empty”, but it was a productive emptiness. Sydney’s emptiness, its holes and cracks, were an invitation. Tactics had moved to Sydney from Canberra. Most of the musicians who ended up in Surry Hills and Darlinghurst were from elsewhere, be it the Sydney suburbs or other cities. Pel Mel moved from Newcastle in 1980 and took up residence in two big terrace houses in Commonwealth Street, near Central station. These houses were were a hub of activity. “If you didn’t actually live there,” writes Phil Turbull, once of Voigt/465, “then you went there all the time anyway.” Like Melbourne, Sydney had a “little bands” scene of offshoot and one-off bands, which might get together to play one or two shows before breaking up.
Music can be a good way to time travel. Listening to the songs from this scene and era, the scratchy punk songs and songs with cool female vocals, synthesisers and saxophones, I imagine I can hear the Sydney of the time in the music. Songs made to fill empty rooms.
1. Head Above Water – Pel Mel
This song has a video filmed in a large, rickety wooden building , somewhere I assume is on Sydney Harbour, but I don’t know exactly where – do let me know if you can identify it.
UPDATE: Mystery solved. “A big old timber coal box near Sydney Fish Market. Parts of it are still there, on the water opposite Wentworth Park,” Pel Mel say.
2. Driving Me – The Particles
“I want you to stay but I can’t see to say it/the words just won’t come/so I’m driving you home instead”
The Particles came together in a small block of flats on Berry Street in North Sydney, where punk bands lived and rehearsed until the building was demolished in the late 1970s.
3. Sabotage – Sardine V
Sardine V were a side project for Ian Rilen of X with his wife, Stephanie.
4. Curl Curl – Tame O’Mearas
Drummerless, experimental – they described their style as playing with their instruments rather than playing them.
5. Fun Loving – Dropbears
The video for this song features one of the crumbling terrace houses, and was shot on a bright summer’s day; it’s a familiar kind of light.
6. Parramatta Road – XL Capris
Punk rather than post-punk, XL Capris are best known for their cover of My City of Sydney, a version which gets at the feeling of loving a place which can be hard to love. They had great names: Nancy Serapax, Errol Cruz, Alligator Bagg and Dag Rattler.
7. Hilton Bomber – Thought Criminals
Classic Sydney punk band and their take on the Sydney Hilton Hotel bombing in 1978. The Thought Criminals were one of the first bands of this era I heard, thanks to the Alternative Music Show on 2SER, hosted by Wayne DZ. This show is still on air and I recommend it highly.
8. No Control – Ya Ya Choral
Described by Mark Mordue as the “dark side of winnie the pooh”. Ya Ya Choral described their sound as “tinkily bonk”. Both good descriptions.
9. Ghost Train – The Limp
Pel Mel side project with a slightly more electronic focus than Pel Mel. Ghost Train is elegant and melancholy, a contemplative song.
10. Standing by the Window – Tactics
Tactics had a number of styles and influences but this song is fairly straightforward punk. Dave Studdert’s distinctive, high tensile voice makes the peaceful-sounding activity of standing by a window into something laced with menace.
11. The Pirate Song – The Goat That Went Om
Of all the band names from Sydney post-punk, The Goat That Went Om is my pick for most obscure. A song about pirates with a keyboard sound like a wind up music-box.
12. State – Voight/465
The photograph of Voigt/465 playing under the pylons of the western distributor is one of my favourite photos of Sydney, and one of my favourite band photos. The gig ended when the police arrived.
13. The Dumb Waiters – The Makers of the Dead Travel Fast
They wrote a song called “The Dead Travel Fast” – hence their name. Also listen to their wonderfully odd single Tael of a Seaghors.
There are many good resources online for this time in Sydney’s musical history. No Night Sweats is a comprehensive archive of post-punk Sydney, compiled by Phil Turnbull (Voigt 465, Wild West, No Night Sweats). There’s a Radio National documentary, Do That Dance, which includes interviews with many of the musicians from that time and some good descriptions of the Sydney of the time.
M Squared Records released music by many of Sydney’s post-punk bands.
There are a number of compilations such as Can’t Stop It Vol. 1 and 2 on Chapter Music and Inner City Sound – the soundtrack to the Clinton Walker book of the same name, also an excellent resource for this time in Sydney music history.