The cultural cringe – that feeling that Australia can’t do art/culture/society as well as the rest of the Western world – manifested itself most strongly in the pop music industry from the 1960s through to the 1990s.
To a certain extent it was true. We had some magnificent, snappy pop groups in the 1960s (The Master’s Apprentices, The Loved Ones, The Twitlights/Axiom) but no production skills or industry infrastructure to support them. And we were chasing trends, not setting them. In the ‘70s the Little River Band, with the help of an American producer, succeeded magnificently by virtually becoming an American West Coast rock band. Meanwhile Daddy Cool and the Skyhooks flopped in the US. Major inroads were made in the ’80s by a handful: the Divinyls, INXS, Midnight Oil, Men At Work.
All the acts that ‘got through’ worked with international producers, as did my own band, Boom Crash Opera. We felt constantly berated; ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. You need an international perspective’. It seemed there was a mysterious formula that was well understood by everybody but beyond the grasp of the actual music creators. It was a magic spell, a secret code.
The excellent mini series, Friday on My Mind: The Story Of The Easybeats inadvertently or not, presents the case for the cultural cringe. The members of the Easybeats arrived by boat from England, Scotland and Holland, formed a band and then returned to conquer the charts in the Old World. The Bee Gees pulled the same trick. Then, consider the slew of Australian rock bands following in their wake that were partially comprised of immigrants; most of the 1960s contingent I’ve already listed, and AC/DC, The Angels, ‘our’ Jimmy Barnes. What if the secret code is not a product of cultural practice but a deep mystery carried in the genes of immigrants?
The Easybeats jumped out of the gate in the mid ‘60s and went straight for the prize. They produced a clutch of stunning pop gems – She’s So Fine, Wedding Ring, Sorry – and then a masterpiece; the song, Friday on My Mind (made with an international producer). Subsequently the songwriting team of Harry Vanda (Mackenzie Fearnley) and George Young (William Rush) succeeded internationally (producing themselves) across diverse genres in the 1970s and into the 1980s. They had sussed the secret. They had cracked the code.
I’m not sure if the creators of Friday On My Mind, in their atmospheric time-warp recreations, intended to drag us back into the vortex of the cultural cringe discourse (a time-warp in and of itself). The show does, however, remind us of the bleeding obvious, and in a most charming way. We are (nearly all of us) immigrants.
I loved the early migrant hostel scenes. Despite the sentimental gloss of the production design (everybody looks so clean in their retro gear – the reffo huts are so tidy), we are subtly haunted by the fact that the name ‘Villawood’ is now associated with ‘detention’.
In the first episode migrants are pelted with eggs. New arrivals are set upon by gangs of youths; a bit of ‘biffo’ ensues. Bass player Dick Diamonde (Du Toit Bredenkamp) is torn between being a Jehovah’s Witness and being in a band. The band is picked on for their long hair. More biffo ensues. The misty-eyed lens of an art-directed past almost distracts us from the fact that these underlying themes still persist: racism, sectarianism, homophobia. Welcome to Australia.
Our attitude to ‘other’ and how we treat recent arrivals is still fraught. These days there’s incarceration; ‘… we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ In one scene the press, when interviewing the band, are constantly flummoxed by ‘who is from where?’ One journalist, in frustration, asks, ‘are anyof you Australian?’
As a musician I was interested in the recreation of the ‘60s vibe. Just as the look is lovingly retro, the music – both the reproductions of the hits and the incidental music – is nerdily spot on. So often actors look awkward addressing musical instruments; not the case here. They mimic the actual parts and in many scenes they actually play. And the instruments they play are also accurate (I own a 1959 Hofner Clubman very similar to the one George Young played).
Of course nerdy accuracy is only relevant for musical trainspotters. But when done effectively there’s a confluence of obscure technicalities and drama. When Ted Albert (played with quirky dignity by Ashley Zuckerman) records the band for the first time there are awkward pauses and hovering uncertainty as he makes arcane technical adjustments. Singer, Stevie Wright (Christian Byers), suspiciously sits out the session. George Young is tense and angry at Stevie. He is also bewildered by and curious about the recording process. The scene plays out on two levels; technical and emotional. We are all caught up in the swirl of frustration, anticipation and confusion. We don’t have to know that the bass was actually distorted and the bass drum needed dampening; only that something was not ‘optimal’.
These reproductions of 1960s music-making are lovingly evinced; the chunky knobs and vu meters on antique recording equipment, the whirring tape machines and clunky vintage microphones. In one private moment Ted Albert, while manipulating these tape machines, locates Stevie Wright’s scream of frustration at an earlier failed take. Ted dubs it onto the intro of She’s So Fine, not only creating the memorable sonic signature to that song, but also bringing into being an essential character-defining rock’n’roll moment; a nice way of demonstrating how the manipulation of time and space provided by technology is an act of creation. And you don’t have to be a nerd to get it.
Historic bio-pics are often thin and slight. They skate across the surface of events merely marking milestone moments. We are expected to feel something because of the cumulative significance of the story arc rather than the depth of any particular scene. It’s like watching mountain climbers from a helicopter. It’s an amazing feat but what’s going on down there? What are they saying to each other? Who are they, really?
Friday On My Mind manages to immerse us in brief moments that reveal character and the deep strain of family that runs under this story. In an early scene we witness this exchange between George Young and his sister, Margaret (Hannah Day):
Margaret: What (kind of music) do you play
Margaret: That doesn’t mean anything
George: ¥eah, it means everything
Margaret: It means nothing
George: It means everything. Piss off Margaret
Margaret: Oh that’s lovely
Margaret: (at the same time) Very nice
The performances feel almost improvised; crackling lines delivered overlapping, no eye contact, food being hurriedly slurped. Youthful George is alternately impatient and narkily repentant. There’s an economy here that expresses the abrupt intimacy of siblings. Margaret’s character figures in only a few scenes but we feel the import of the family bond. And it’s funny.
The series lost me a little in the second half. For some reason the ‘successful phase’ of the band’s career was less interesting than Villawood, the family and Ted Albert’s seer-like quirkiness in the first episode. Events are compressed and conflated. Stevie Wright’s eventual journey into hard drugs starts here (much earlier than I originally thought in real-life). There’s international success. There’s a scene at Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Despite the fact we see the band faltering, the end is experienced as an inevitable dramatic climax and resolution rather than the dull petering out that it actually was. The band’s closing years in London were excised from the story. But I was already hooked by the acting performances – William Rush’s tart smarts, Christian Bryers’ impish charm, Mackenzie Fearnley’s taciturn wisdom – so I went with the flow.
In the second episode a journalist once again presses the band on the issue of where they are from:
Interviewer: What makes you an Australian band?
George: The music, mate
I’m not sure it that’s a bit too tidy a resolution to the complex stew of identity and nationality at the heart of the Easybeats’ story. When Australian music did start to break through (dare I include my old band in this?) ‘international ears’ claimed to discern an Australian attitude; a freshness fired and hardened by years playing in pubs.
Except for the original occupants of this land we are all immigrants. Friday On My Mind: The Easybeats Story sweetly reminds us of that. And that in coming here and being here this land has made and changed us all.