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The Game Breakers

Sydney Morning Herald

Thursday April 6, 1989

John O'Donnell

ONLY 12 months ago, Johnny Diesel said: "The world is full of guitar players." He was trying to play down the tag of "Next Big Thing" that was beginning to plague him and his Injectors. Today, however, Diesel is the "big thing".

With a debut album sitting comfortably in the national Top 10 and two singles that have also recently climbed into the upper echelons of the charts, he is the prediction made good. He is also the exception.

For every Diesel, there are thousands of Urban Guerillas. You may not have heard of the Urban Guerillas and probably would not want to, but there they are, in the gig guide, week in, week out. For the past five years, the Urban Guerillas have regularly been slogging their ordinary brand of sloganeering punk at venues like the Sandringham Hotel, Newtown, and, when they're lucky, the Lansdowne Hotel, Broadway. Five years is long enough for everyone, including, hopefully, the band themselves, to realise that they'll never "make it". Yet they soldier on, regardless.

Then there are the more promising, talented bands like the Widdershins and the Cruel Sea, who may have the songs, the personnel and even look good, but you just know you will never see them on the charts. The Widdershins, for example, would probably be described by most major record labels as having an attitude problem.

As their soon-to-be-released debut album, Ascension, indicates, the Widdershins have a powerful, idiosyncratic base in songwriter/guitarist Greg Appel and singer Juliet Ward. Return of the Kings, the album's single, and many other tracks, clearly have strong commercial potential. But at present the band's on-stage demeanour is too reserved and subtle, almost shy, to make an impression outside the small inner-city venues. Their image is more that they don't have one.

In the bigger suburban venues, such as The Venue, Dee Why, and Sweethearts, Cabramatta, the audience generally does not suffer subtlety gladly. They want a full-tilt rock show. Rock songs, lights and effects, a bit of strut and swagger, and a minimum of pretence. It is a case of put up or shut up. Responding to this, there has been a growing mood in suburban pubs to play host to more and more covers or, even worse, clone bands.

"The pub scene in Sydney is in very bad shape," says Rolling Stone editor Toby Creswell, who has closely observed the Australian music scene for years.

"The development that's been going on in Sydney has seen the tearing down of venues like the Tivoli, the Chevron; and now the Sydney Cove Tavern is about to close. There's no major venue in the inner city that has a band on before midnight."

Creswell offers that the pub scene was at its most potent and exciting in the late seventies, early eighties. Insisting that he is not simply romanticising the past, he explains: "The reason the scene was so strong then was because there were so many venues that you could play. That built up a community of musicians who were hearing each other and developing their skills.

"But now there are no venues in the inner city where new bands can support the more successful groups.

"People still like music; they listen to the radio and are buying more records than ever, but ..." he trails off, and then warns: "You're not going to see the effects of all this on the industry now, you're going to see it in five years' time."

When asked to name five "new" bands that he thinks most deserve to succeed on the charts, Creswell, quite rightly, includes Martha's Vineyard, who have recently moved from their home town, Perth, to Sydney.

Formed three years ago, Martha's Vineyard had been planning their move to Sydney for over two years. It was a very necessary step, says manager Norman Parkhill. It had become "more or less a rule of thumb for original Perth bands" who are serious about pursuing a future in the music industry to move to the east coast, in particular, Sydney.

The band's mixture of Peggy Van Zalm's acute lyrics and Chrissie Hynde-meets-Joni Mitchell voice with its sparse, folk-based instrumentation became a critics' favourite last year when the band made a brief trip across the Nullarbor for a handful of performances, and released an independent mini-album, For A Small World.

The band has signed to new label rooArt, which in its short existence has signed such highly talented acts as the Hummingbirds and Tall Tales & True.

Critic and band manager Stuart Coupe named two bands that he manages, The Chosen Few and The Danglin' Brothers, as two of Australia's five best non-mainstream acts.

"Eventually this country is going to embrace country music," Coupe says, when discussing the Danglin' Brothers. "And they're the best contemporary country band in Australia. I take demo tapes of their songs to record companies and they say, 'They're a great band, but we can't sell country music'. That's what you're up against."

Coupe, like many, predicts a big future for the Melbourne act Nick Barker &the Reptiles. "They're the closest thing we've got to a Guns N' Roses. They're the real stuff-you rock and roll band in the way that Guns N' Roses are, and in the way that the Rolling Stones were."

And herein lies another of the problems that is inherent when naming "the next big thing"-that is, not everyone agrees.

For example, Nick Barker & The Reptiles strike this writer as one of the most contrived acts to emerge in some time. With a big push from Mushroom Records, Barker has thrown off the angst and gloom that surrounded him as part of The Wreckery and suddenly become a "loud, hard and dirty" rock and roller. "I like all the cliches that go with rock and roll. I love it all," says Barker.

To each his own, as they say.

CRITICS TOP FIVES

John O'Donnell

The Hummingbirds.

Crown of Thorns.

Martha's Vineyard.

Dave Steel.

Rat Cat.

Toby Creswell (Rolling Stone)

Nick Barker & The Reptiles.

Eccohomo.

Harem Scarem.

Martha's Vineyard.

Dave Steel.

Jon Casimir

Boxcar.

The Cruel Sea.

Falling Joys.

The Hummingbirds.

Martha's Vineyard.

Stuart Coupe

(The Edge)

Nick Barker & The Reptiles.

Candy Harlots.

The Chosen Few.

Crown of Thorns.

The Danglin' Brothers.

James Manning (Smash Hits)

Nick Barker & The Reptiles.

Collette.

Go 101.

Mortal Sin.

The Injectors.

© 1989 Sydney Morning Herald

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