With the music industry more over-produced than ever, a distinct lack of offbeat personalities – and personal style – now pervades our homegrown culture, writes Jonathan Seidler.
Michael Hutchence hung himself less than five minutes drive from where I grew up.
Retrospectively, that day was always a turning point, though I couldn’t have possibly realised it as a ten year-old. At lunch that afternoon with my grandmother, I remember seeing a bunch of women who didn’t even know each other crowding together over a newspaper, tears rolling down their faces. I wondered what kind of person could possibly have that effect on total strangers. In fact, I recall asking my dad later if the Pope had died.
We don’t make them like Mr Hutchence anymore. Sartorially, creatively, emotionally and sexually, the intriguing allure of the frontman has all but vanished from the Australian musical landscape. Having since embarked on a long career of writing about rock and roll, I’ve noticed that the danger and romance has been sucked out of our biggest stadium-fillers. In its place are lead singers who could well be drummers, individuals who really just want to be part of the wallpaper. They all dress the same, never act out of turn, don’t challenge gender roles and certainly won’t sleep with other singers’ wives.
Nick Cave is another, and he’s still scaring the daylights out of everyone as he rapidly approaches his sixth decade on this planet. With his sharply tailored suits, swampy blues songs about sexual depravity and take-no-prisoners attitude, Mr Cave is not only one of the last genuine rock and rollers we have left, he’s also one of the oldest. And the prospects for heirs to his blackened throne are looking decidedly bleak.
But the tinge of adopted nostalgia is decidedly rose-coloured in nature. It may well be that the recent curse of reality TV, electronic production and hyper-inflated DJ culture is masking the obvious fact that we were always just a bunch of blokes who wore the same jeans and flannel shirts, while tried not to be different from one another. Bernard Zuel, music editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, certainly thinks so. By the time Mr Hutchence exited stage left, he’d already been writing about Australian rock for over a decade, and he reckons flashy, fashion-forward frontmen were exceptions to the rule, even in the eighties.
“When he started, he didn't even face the audience,” Mr Zuel says of the INXS heartthrob. “It took him several years to become the more strutty figure that he became known for. He was a massively insecure, pockmarked, greasy-haired guy who did not want to be seen. He was an outlier.”
Nonetheless, Mr Hutchence did it. He was sexy, he was trying on a different look in every video clip and photo shoot, turning himself into the kind of shamanistic leading man that every woman would die for (including one that eventually would). These are not usually the sorts of people who succeed in Australia. We are very good at propping up our heroes to a point, but cutting their legs out from under them when they get too ahead of themselves, when those leather jackets start looking a bit too fitted and the make-up stays after they leave the stage. It’s called ‘tall poppy syndrome’, and we practically invented it.
The only obvious successors to the outliers are other outliers, and all of them have made sure to decamp overseas before trying anything excessively radical. Luke Steele, the kohl-rimmed Perth boy who played in an avant-garde indie band, emerged from the cocoon fully formed and dressed like a French revolutionary from space for Empire of the Sun, no longer belongs to our country, let alone the planet. Daniel Johns, Steele’s longtime friend from across the plain, turned from a long-haired surf rat into a purple sequined jacket-wearing, piano pounding glam rocker. All it took was a few laps of the States and an eating disorder. “They understand the British concept of having to go beyond the songs. That may get you buying the record, but it won't get you out to a show,” says Mr Zuel. “Post-Oasis, every band had to say that they wanted to be the biggest in the world. While people might be called arrogant for that, it was still celebrated. Do that in Australia, and you’re a dickhead.”
Back on the ground, nobody’s really trying to challenge or be celebrated for anything. Just ask Alvin Manolo, who ran the now-defunct St. Augustine Academy brand that specialised in dressing proper rockstars like Nick Cave. “I think Australians are quite relaxed, where people maybe think we're kind of lazy,” he says. “We are not really a showy culture. Empire of the Sun, for instance; those two are really great dressers for stage but most of our guys don't really do that. I remember at one point sending white suits over for Angus Stone for the ARIA [Awards], but he just ended up wearing a ripped up T-shirt, baggy pants and no shoes.”
No shoes. Seriously.
This isn’t just a generational thing, either. Have you seen Caleb Followil’s country-couture duds or Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys lately? The kid is barely into his twenties and has already remade himself into a living incarnation of Johnny Depp in Cry Baby, all big quiff, black leather and classic Ray-Bans. They seem to mint a new rockstar in the UK every two minutes. They love those charismatic, flashy frontmen in the US. Right now our single biggest star is Gotye, and frankly he doesn’t want to be seen in public at all.
In fact, Australians generally pride themselves on trying to be invisible. After thirty plus years in the business, Mr Zuel has this philosophy down to something of a mantra: “You don't identify yourself or separate yourself from others. You don't put others down by making yourself bigger. Others might elevate you, but you do that with self-deprecation and you make a point of saying 'I am you. I am just like you. Yes, I've got all this money, but I'm still an ordinary guy.'”
Maybe the problem isn’t sex, but sex. It could be that in focusing on the men, we’re forgetting about the women, many of whom are doing a far better job at pushing the envelope than Mr Hutchence’s barefoot successors. Real riot girls like Abbe May, Bertie Blackman, Kimbra Johnson and the late Chrissy Amphlett. They’ve got better outfits, stronger visual identities and more balls than most of the blokes combined. Ms Johnson turned up to the Grammys in the most out-there, brilliant Jamie Lee Major dress anyone had ever seen. She even outshone the perennially shimmering Prince, who was presenting her award. Now that was rock and roll.
Mr Manolo still knows that Nick Cave “likes his pants four inches from the floor and slightly bootcut, and nobody else can pull that off.“ But there’s no reason why they shouldn’t try. We can’t keep recycling ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ on Australian Idol, hoping that it will bring us closer to some form of salvation. We need danger and mystery, even if we have to force it at first. “In the '70s, there were bands who glammed up because that's just what they did; they wore make-up and ridiculous clothes,” says Mr Zuel. “It doesn't mean that they liked it. Shirley Strachan from Skyhooks, for example… that band was incredibly lurid in their presentation, but as soon as it was possible, they pulled out from that altogether.”
Ultimately, we need our fabulous rockstars, our ethereal otherwordly men in leather pants or Doc Martens or red velvet suits because nobody likes to go out to a show or turn on a television and be faced with a slightly more famous version of themselves. I, like you, am ordinary. We deal with ordinary people every day, so having them out there as the flagbearers of our culture does nothing but let that same culture stagnate.
Image: Michael Hutchence circa 1990 by Michael Putland/Hulton Archive.