The last legal impediment to the dissolution of our band is shortly to be removed by an act of parliament. Once the unfair dismissal laws are revoked, any band comprising less than 100 members will be able to sack itself with impunity. Never again will a vitriolic parting of the ways require the euphemistic explanation ‘musical differences’. ‘He was a cockhead’, the lead singer will declare to the music press of the member latterly pointed towards the loading bay of the rehearsal room with a directive to keep walking. Everywhere superfluous musicians are shifting edgily on their drum stools. “We got sick of him trying to get us to do one of his songs”, the rest of the band openly declares as the bass player roadcases his instrument for the last time. From now on, any reason will be good enough.
While this is doubtless a welcome development, it is the prospect of a free run with the secateurs through the woody ends of our overgrown fan base that really has us excited. Yes, the new laws will also be applicable to bands with less than 100 FANS! Henceforth we can alienate our following with such music as will eventually result in its complete disillusionment, all without fear of legal action. Long time aficionados, disaffected with our increasingly irrelevant musical wanderings will see soon find a roadblock barring every avenue of complaint. No longer may the disgruntled punter approach us as we clear the stage to remind us they liked our early albums best. Provision for free speech at gigs, most pointedly in respect of a person’s right to request favourite songs from the audience, will be severely curtailed. Importunate demands for the return of the trumpet will be outlawed altogether. In short, all power will soon reside in our hands
In truth we wrested a large portion of it back some years ago. Moshing and general crowd excitement in the wake of the modest success of Future Spa forced us to make Lazy Highways, an album whose apostate spectre skulked menacingly away from the high church of grunge. Recusancy was written into every bar of it’s mid-paced tempos, its gentle instrumentation and introspective themes. Accordingly the album sold only slightly more than half as many copies as its predecessor: a formula that proved surprisingly easy to replicate on Thousand Yard Stare. The common denominator was 2 and we applied it with ruthless efficiency, divesting ourselves of another 50% of our audience with wanton disregard. By Footage Missing we were comfortable with the mathematics: Old Album/2 = New album. It was our Special Theory of Irrelevancy. We targeted the unpopular timbres of The Fauves at that half of our audience we liked the least and, it must be allowed, were remarkably successful in the operation.
The conception of our 8th album centred again on the perennial question - which half of our stalwart following to dispense with? How best to write and record music that would leave 50% of an audience that - by its longevity alone had exhibited a remarkable tenacity - fed up, disenfranchised and left with no option but to abandon our cause forever. As we composed these pre-emptive death marches, we were possessed of a vague idea that it might be nice to serenade the erstwhile cognoscenti as they strode determinedly past the ‘F’ section at record shop. So, how to make music that would sing to the discarded fans even as we sacked them; a kind of gold watch approach to the retrenched supporters? Our album, then, would be a small, but spiritually meaningless token of manufactured appreciation for their years of sterling service.
The initial demoing phase risked applying the apocalyptic formulae of the Special Theory of Irrelevancy to the nucleus of the band itself. Ted in particular proved stoically resistant to the siren call of the new music that beckoned from the jagged rocks of artistic ruin. Notwithstanding the tact he employed when discussing the material with me, my prying ears played surreptitious audience to the forthright conversations he undertook with our 2 colleagues. “I can’t tell when one song ends and the next one starts”, I overheard him opine one grey afternoon in those dawdling hours before show time. Trying hard to draw positives from this stinging critique, I consoled myself with the fanciful notion that he thought the new music symphonic in its breadth. “We’ve got to get Doctor demoing”, he added. “It’s the only way we’re going to get an album”.
At length we began rehearsals. Reacquainting ourselves with our instruments proved to be a laborious process. It was as though we were put to the effort of raising the Tudor ship Mary Rose from the bottom of the sea, sorting and identifying its cargo of medieval instruments and selecting the Shawm – an antiquated precursor to the oboe – as the one we would decipher and learn before recording the album. These early undertakings were notable for the fact that they were conducted almost exclusively as a 3 piece. Rehearsal day inevitably found Ted in absentia, the victim of a work regime that required his valued services elsewhere. Who were we to compete with the paid employ offered by a generation of doomed bands in need of a sound guy through which to channel their uninspiring crochets and quavers to a near -empty room of ambivalent bystanders? While there remain deluded dilettantes labouring under the misconception that their bedroom meanderings deserve public approbation, then men like Ted - the evolutionary apotheosis of that rare breed who purport to understand the difference between feedback and foldback -will always have a job. In the meantime, we consulted oracles, shuffled tarot cards and sought the counsel of astrological charts for an indication as to the earliest date he might be expected to rejoin our number.
Central to the dilemma was the fact that Ted remains the only band member still resident in metropolitan Melbourne. This, in combination with his lack of a licence, a car and an inclination to procure either, proved a near insurmountable problem. No amount of runic manipulation seemed capable of co-ordinating the public transport schedule with Ted’s highly precise requirements. In fact only when we resolved to leave the safari vehicle and meet the lion in his natural habitat was it that he ventured out from the long grass into our purview. This undertaking necessitated a tedious journey north into the Serengeti of inner suburban Melbourne, an unappealing prospect for the lazy, the unmotivated and the resentful.
The bulk of our practice sessions, thus, were divided between Doctor’s house and a rehearsal room some few hundred metres down the road from Doug. Its unassuming façade offered no clues as to the artistic furnace burning inside, largely due to its position on a freehold property next to a neatly maintained family home. Where once a garage protected gleaming duco from inclement weather, shelves of oily tools now gave way to hessian-lined walls and jerry-built soundproofing. The proprietor had performed an admirable job in the conversion. No sooner were the double doors secured than a nuclear testing facility might have been switched on, for all the world outside would have known. A disgraced businessman might conceivably leave a late model engine running for days, his asphyxiated frame slumped lifelessly in the front seat, without ever arousing the prying neighbour’s concern. This was class A sonic insulation.
A generous supply of power boards, extension leads and double adaptors – the working class heroes of any rock band’s kit – hung from an array of hooks purpose-built for the task. An old café bar lay disused next to a worn couch beneath a sign promising free coffee for regulars. Not sure if it was really broken or simply off limits to newcomers, we resolved to get our flying hours up, the sooner that we might drink from its dank interiors. The proprietor amiably informed us that Australian Crawl had once recorded at his facility. Regrettably there seemed no trace of those esteemed visages beckoning from amongst a collage of snapshots that lined the walls. In fact the studio was something of a latter day Khumran, its Dead Band Scrolls yellowed and curled at the edges, faithfully documenting every no hope outfit that had ever hauled their amplifiers from the back of a station wagon in the drive to spend several weeknight hours honing and recasting their limited musical vision. “I think the chorus should come after that refrain sort of bit”. “How about we make the middle eight 16 bars instead so Steve can really kick into his lead break” “Let’s do one of mine”.
Unknown soldiers in a mass grave of thwarted ambition, none of the bands seemed to have a headstone. Each was captioned as the eponymous incarnation of it’s lead figure - Pete’s band, Dave’s band, Mike’s band and so on. It was as though the owner, having presided over their first uncertain steps, had proceeded to lock each in a time capsule; a dead mother in a basement. Together they were embalmed in this stifling crypt, victims of the proprietor’s truculent refusal to allow them a life beyond the cosseting walls of his homely facility. Mullet-haired tradesmen in tracksuit pants and work boots shared wall space with mousy bookkeepers, bearded teachers and overweight trade union officials. A sepia catalogue of the unexceptional and the ordinary – the stolid foundations on which the music industry builds its gaudy towers. How else might Fender, Gibson and Maton sell those guitars that they donate with such enthusiasm to the only people who actually have the money to pay for them? By selling at top dollar to the aspirational hacks! See the instrument in Guitar Player and save for the day that you might finally hold a mass-produced facsimile over a 4-week residency in a cover band at the local pub.
Before long, rehearsal became a desperate race to give each song an airing that we might assess its merits for inclusion. Long past are the days when we would stroll languidly into a high priced recording studio around midday, take up our positions at either end of the table tennis table and demand to record every idea we’d had in the last 2 years. Fiscal constraints now determine that major editing decisions occur long before we get anywhere a mixing desk and a microphone. Major label budgets once afforded us the luxury of recasting as B-sides those songs not press-ganged into service on the album proper. Now we don’t even release singles. The B-side is a quaint reminder of a different time, like an amusement arcade at the end of a seaside pier.
Budgetary considerations impinge equally on our choice of venue. Extended leisure areas, a spacious kitchen facility and proximity to the finest restaurants were once overarching considerations in our choice of recording studio. Such considerations also proved to be majority shareholders in the $150,000 debt with which we saddled Universal records. At length we spent too much, loading up the old mule with bags of worthless rubble before donning the Shock Records silks, mounting the thoroughbred and galloping headlong into our beautiful future. Nowadays frugality is of prime moment in our deliberations. If we had recorded this album dressed in tartan and kilts, playing the bagpipes and adapting the songs of Robert Burns we couldn’t have exercised a greater degree of fiscal canniness.
We chose to record in the seaside hamlet of St. Andrews Beach, a couple of hours south of Melbourne. St. Andrew is the patron saint of failed rock stars and the geographical connection was a powerful augury. The prospect of his paternal arm extended around the slumped shoulders of our humble project was immensely comforting. Why, he might eventually decide to manage us! – 20% of gross and a small retainer. St. Andrew’s Beach it must be. The fact too that the studio was within a half hour drive of my house was of no little import. Nassau, Memphis, Monserrat and Nashville all require long international flights, an exhausting daily commute. Moreover, the in-house accommodation alluded to on the website promised to eliminate travelling times altogether. I should make it clear that at no point did we deem it necessary to actually effect visual reconnaissance of our prospective workplace before making the booking. We would cook from Tuscan recipe books in the rustic wood-fired kitchen, watch as the sun sank each evening beneath the sea’s shimmering horizon and take inspiring walks along the beach’s golden sands. In that time remaining to us we would record the greatest album of our glittering career.
We finally made the acquaintance of St. Andrew’s Beach one showery day in mid-September. A roaring gale muscled in from Bass Strait as I drove the quiet streets scanning anonymous domestic facades for any hint of a recording studio inside. I bitterly regretted neglecting to arm myself with the studio’s address and was reduced to driving along the curb at 10km an hour like a John trawling for streetwalkers. At length I hove into a small wayside from where I achieved phone reception, effectuating a call that quickly put me back on track.
The studio presented a dismal scene. Drums without skins lay like discarded cans around a redneck’s campsite. Leads sprouted from unplugged musical hardware like alfalfa from the sides of half-eaten salad roll. The centre could not hold. The blood-dimmed tide was loosed. Mere anarchy descended upon the world and everywhere the ceremony of innocence was drowned. I looked upon the chaos with dismay. Ted and Doug had led an advance party together with Wayne, who was back producing us for the first time since the heady days of Lazy Highways. They loitered balefully in the cramped confines, barely acknowledging my arrival. A quick tour of the facility revealed the studio unfurnished even by a television, let alone the panoply of sybaritic delights to which we had become so accustomed across 17 years of recording. Burke and Wills’ 1861 sessions would have nothing on the privations we were set to endure.
I pulled myself together. Years of experience has taught me that the first day of a session is invariably unproductive - its long hours devoted more to erecting the tents than singing harmonies of Kumbaya around the campfire. Let them fiddle with EQ settings. Let them hit their drums in search of the perfect percussive resonance. The real album would start when I strapped on the first guitar, turned the first gain knob to 3 o’clock and fed a starving world with my luscious sonic banquet.
Clad in special Gore-Tex-lined leather pants, mesh top and platform soles I padded a short way up the road and out onto the windswept expanse of Rye back beach. From here I could assay nature’s fury, perfectly dry beneath my waterproofs whilst maintaining all the sartorial elegance expected from the man voted five times in Who Weekly’s 10 Best Dressed Rock Personalities Whom No One Has Heard Of. Presently it began to pour. The wind whipped a mixture of sand and rain in a horizontal fury against my face. I turned my back towards the ferocious gale. It felt like a frustrated Chinese herbalist was throwing acupuncture needles at my intractable spinal problem. Signs alerted the unwary to the folly of swimming in the treacherous waters that now threw themselves angrily onto the cowering shore. A short way round the point lay the beach from whose safety Harold Holt had struck out boldly on his fateful post meridian dip, calling boisterously to the smiling retinue gathered on the sand that the water was fine and not to worry, he thought he had seen a Chinese submarine prowling nearby and was just going to take a quick duck dive to check it out. Never again would a Prime Minister fail to heed a warning to be alert though not alarmed.
Progress was slow back at the studio. I took the opportunity to further explore the facility. It quickly became apparent that its hosting style was more Amanda Vanstone than Hugh Heffner. A small antechamber next to the control room doubled as a kitchen, a poky little galley in which jars of instant coffee and home brand tea mooched insolently on the scuffed benches. Several ant platoons made their way in single file towards a crusty sugar bowl. The fridge housed a carton of yoghurt that had actually been milk back when the world’s crude oil reserves were still majestic forests swaying in the gentle zephyrs of the Miocene. Elsewhere within its arctic recesses, plastic containers housed the takeaway food leftovers of the death metal band that were in before us. Tuscany seemed a long way away.
Fauves’ recording sessions have historically been as much a culinary enterprise as an artistic one. Inappropriately expensive dinners have ranged long into the evening while back at the studio an assistant keeps the expectant tape machine warm. Deadlines have loomed ominously as we asked to see the dessert menu and tarried over the petits fours. Gluttony, however, was the most difficult of the sins to practice in St. Andrew’s Beach. In search of sustenance we drove a short distance to the desultory strip of shops that represented the St. Andrew’s commercial hub. A milk bar traded greasy chips from a bain-marie. A bakery showcased a near empty oven of over-cooked pies whose igneous contents could be heard to rattle from within hard pastry cases. Where were the Michelin-starred restaurants that would buttress our hearty appetites against the energy-sapping rigours of a nine-day recording session? What kind of studio was this that located itself so far from the gourmand’s purlieu? We drove further, across the narrow peninsula separating Port Phillip Bay from Bass Strait to the holiday town of Rye. The results were only marginally more promising. A couple of Asian takeaway joints and the counter meals at the Rye Pub. Somebody get Bob Geldof on the phone! An apocalyptic horseman rode up the driveway of the studio and tethered his steed to the mixing desk. Famine loomed.
Over the next couple of days we gradually settled into the familiar routine. Having recorded little more than an aural test pattern on day 1, we were, as the literature says, ‘A la recherché du temps perdu’. A little of this temps we decided might be recaptured by basing ourselves permanently in the immediate locality. In the short term this meant lodging at the studio itself, utilising the ‘accommodation’ that had been sold with a real estate agent’s creativity. Six bunks, stacked in threes, occupied a cramped recess along one wall of the room housing the bass amplifier. The endmost of these required the weary musician to squeeze into a sepulchral blackness as though undertaking a fitting for a coffin. Each bunk was clothed with a mean mattress. The toilet already bore the effects of prolonged male usage without recourse to household cleaning products. It was the kind of situation to which we had adapted without demur so many times when young and hungry. Now, grown first soft with success and then difficult with the subsequent lack of it, this arrangement bordered on the unacceptable. Peevishly we accepted the reality and cast around for the most favourable situation. Wayne settled for a mattress next to the still-warm guitar amps, a weary drover curling round a dying campfire. I followed a ladder leading from the bathroom into a small attic – a space whose location directly above the toilet left it fatally exposed to the septic vapours rising from below. Still, it afforded some small measure of the separation that the officer class must always maintain from the beastly foot soldiers. There, on a dirty wooden floor strewn with cast off electrical equipment, empty beer cans and soft-core pornography I unrolled my swag.
By day 3 we had begun adapting the studios limited resources to our needs. We furnished a half-built recreation room with folding chairs and a card table, while Doug managed to secure a snowy reception on a small portable TV brought from home. After breakfast we visited a selection of local estate agents in search of a rental property, taking care to ensure that the rising gorge of disgust at dealing with these parasites did not result in our depositing regurgitated scrambled egg across the counters of their esteemed establishments. Alas, accommodation proved to be in short supply; such that was available being prohibitively expensive. Back at the studio we fell ever further behind schedule.
And then, that afternoon, as we loitered in the street holding our phones in the air like radio astronomers seeking an improbable signal from the outer cosmos, providence jogged by, an avatar in footy shorts and old sandshoes. “Doug!” the jogger called from beneath a sweaty mop of hair. Doug instantly recoiled, hitting the roadside curb in a brace position learnt years ago in celebrity school. A senior member of our elite security team was on him instantly, shielding the drummer from the pistol shots soon to report around the ti-tree copses lining the road. An all night prayer vigil might take place on the gravel verge where Doug now cringed in craven anticipation of his imminent demise. Shrines, wreaths and candles would be lovingly placed next to 8 x 10 promo shots of the drummer who occupied a place in the nation’s heart like few before him. Disconsolate mourners would clap their hands together in clumsy imitation of their favourite fills, tapping their feet as one in tribute to that inimitable kick drum technique.
Amazingly, no shots were forthcoming and Doug sheepishly dusted himself off, reproving the eager vassal for his hastiness. He drew himself to his full height and met the interloper with a firm gaze. “Matt”.
Matt, an ex-flatmate of a good friend, was the living embodiment of that old Cox family adage: The best friend you will ever have is the one currently standing in front of you with something to offer. He was quickly apprised of our desperate situation. Listening intently, he let it be known that he was the manorial overlord of a property not two kilometres down the road. Furthermore, this day was the last of his sojourn at that peaceful caravanserai. Would we like access to the premises for the remainder of our stay? Why certainly! I was instantly reminded of that other great aphorism so beloved of Cox family tradition: ”The second best friend you will ever have is the one who will do you a good deal on price”. For a modest fee we secured tenancy and were winched instantly out of our slough of despond.
Matt mentioned in passing that there was an outside chance of his brother using the house that evening. “If he comes he’ll only be there for the night”, he continued. “I’m sure he won’t mind if you guys are there too. Anyway, I’ll give you a call if he’s coming”. We returned to our labours with renewed enthusiasm. Tricky middle eights fell like Mussulmen before the armies of the Cross. Insoluble introductions were breached like the walls of Tyre under a battery of siege engines. Jerusalem lay visible on the horizon. Gentlemen you are recording your first number one album!
Later we broke for dinner, excited at the prospect of our first meal outside of the straightened confines of the studio. After negotiating the narrow drive up to the house we were delighted to find our thoughtful host had left the lights on for us. Further, he had seen fit to leave the front door unlocked, obviating the need for us to fumble with a key outside in the dark. Inside, the television murmured softly in anticipation of company. We stormed the sleeping quarters, each of us anxious to secure the best available bed. It quickly became apparent, however, that at least one of the rooms was currently in use. An open sports bag spilled clothes onto the floor. Various personal items and toiletries were arranged around a basin in the bathroom. Like the ursine hosts of fairy tale legend returning from their peregrinations to find Goldilocks squatting on the premises, someone had been sleeping in our bed.
A nervous frisson rippled through the room. The deserted parking area at the end of the drive had vouchsafed an empty building. Now, looming ominously through the glass sliding door of the kitchen, it seemed to beckon a returning vehicle’s imminent arrival. The inhabitant had quite obviously repaired briefly to the nearby shops for a takeaway meal. Surely the brother of whom Matt spoke was at hand. Surely the Second Coming was at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly were those words out when Doug’s mobile phone attained reception for the first time since early afternoon. The tocsin call of its message alert merely confirmed the inevitable.
Gathering our possessions, we made hastily for the door, united in our fear at the prospect of the awkward encounter with the returning brother. Who were these frightened minstrels running headlong into the gloaming? I did not recognise myself among their number. The historical record, however, proves otherwise. Our cause was not helped by the fact that Matt’s brother was an ex-AFL footballer; a Brownlow medallist, now prominent in the sporting media. The tenuous superiority complex, so comfortable dispensing patronising salutations to deluded fans in backstage encounters, melted way in the face of genuine celebrity. Shrieking, we ran into the night.
Half way through the project we began to cull material. As the time remaining to us dwindled, the long list of songs pinned optimistically to the studio wall came under increased scrutiny. Few complete litters of wild cubs ever make it to adulthood. The weakest languish and die, the better that the remaining resources can be focussed on securing the best prospects for the strong. Attaches, envoys, middle ranking diplomats and consular aides caught the first available flight into St. Andrew’s Beach. The deliberations at Yalta in 1945 would have nothing on this diplomatic wrangle.
Generally an elite cadre of material resists all attempts at editing. Consensus is that these songs form the basis of the album and they remain non-negotiable. Anything not embossed onto the gold leaf of this privileged list is liable for review. It is at this point that the songwriter, hitherto largely shielded from the more forthright opinions of his colleagues, is brought rapidly up to date with the lay of the land. If song A - a heartfelt paean documenting the final bedside hours spent with his dying grandmother - is not deemed sufficiently radio friendly then no amount of latent sympathy will forestall the honest critique. So what if your girlfriend’s favourite track is song B? If the majority deems it expendable then you can start thinking about recording it on your solo album. The band argues against song C but the bassist has a funky part in the middle bit and will resort to any amount of circuitous argument that avoids mentioning his real reason for advocating its inclusion.
At length we lost 3 songs: Scouting For Boys (1909) – my stunning denunciation of Lord Baden-Powell’s passion for fresh air, young men and the imperialist cause; No Stomach for It – a quiet number in which I spend nearly 4 minutes telling most of humanity to go and fuck itself and Exercise – a half-formed Doctor song that he let go with the ease of a child losing a helium balloon at the Royal show.
We ploughed on with recording the remaining list, now numbering thirteen. I wish in no way to imply that there was a sense of grim duty about our labours. To the contrary, recording sessions are inevitably a time of unrivalled joy. Each new album feels like a major victory, a gross improbability come to pass despite a sales record that should deny all hope of ever again securing a commercial release. For those few days, cloistered together, consumed with the creative process and sheltered from a world of indifference, it is just possible to believe that what we are creating together might have a purpose beyond satisfying our own starved egos. When we engage in earnest discussion about the minutiae of the recording process, disbelief is momentarily suspended. For those short moments the world does care about whether the bass starts with the drums or comes in when the singing begins. It becomes entirely feasible that the commercial success of the project is dependant on making sure that the tricky note in the 3rd line of the second verse is sung in perfect pitch. An indifferent marketplace may well be wooed by the cadence of a snare drum sound or the delay time on a reverb. We take painstaking care over every decision, exercising power of attorney on behalf of a mythical audience and fooling ourselves into believing that there remains a flickering candlelight of hope that someone beyond the perimeters of the recording studio might care a damn about the conclusions we draw. The very act of recording is the embodiment of that last kernel of idealism not gone rancid on the vine. All too soon the radio programmers, CD reviewers, retail outlets, concert audiences and record company functionaries will get to have their say. They will grind that kernel beneath the same boot that O’Brien invites Winston Smith to imagine will presently be stamping on a human face – for ever. A picture of the future – the marketplace stamping on The Fauves’ catalogue – for ever. Blithe ambivalence meets wanton cruelty. For no sooner shall we send our child out into the world than it shall learn that the world cares not for it. That child, destined to loiter forever like a hobo on the park benches of chart failure, glows with its one delicate blush of innocence here in the studio, unsullied and conceptually perfect, its foetal potential yet to evaporate in the desiccated air outside, possibility stretching like an empty coast road to a seaside resort.
On the final evening we bade Wayne farewell around 6. His brother was due to be married the next day many hundreds of kilometres away in Parkes. Thankfully we had Ted to steer us home, the able co-pilot reaching for the controls while the captain excuses himself with an upset stomach. With barely a shudder the plane flew on into the enveloping night. At length the lights were dimmed and the passengers dozed comfortably, sure in the knowledge that if their trusted pilot were to plough the craft into the side of a mountain he would at least have the decency to do it without the upsetting intrusion of a warning. The arrivals screens of the world’s airports were blank. Control towers remained oblivious to our spectral presence. There were no schedules, no timetables to keep, no relatives peering patiently into a beckoning gangway for the first glimpse of disembarkation. Nothing but a long night’s journey into eternity.