The Canonisation of Junk (1982)

The motivations for this article originally had their genesis in a knee-jerk reaction to the barrage of bad rock journalism that is continuing to pick up momentum here in Melbourne. I will still stick with this intention, but try to present it in a much broader field of criticism whose context and place lay in a more localised history of our own music culture, and will hopefully point to the way we position ourselves as critics. I, for one, will confess that I am torn, a split soul somewhere between being a fan and being a critic. Most of us are victims of attempting to rationalise or subvert popular forms of music, while at the same time contradicting our desire to be seduced by it.

First, a digression. In the latest edition of Local Consumption (no. 2/3, 1982), there is an article by Ross Harley and Peter Botsman called ‘Between No Payola and The Cocktail Set: Rock’n’Roll Journalism’. Although annoyingly dropping the word ‘discourse’ too often in their analysis of rock music/rock journalism, the essay announces its work with such brave questions as: ‘How is it that politics or a certain politics of music is constructed? What are its effects?’ The analysis then quotes a number of texts as illustration of a particular kind of ideology in rock journalism – ranking from the few serious accounts in Dick Hebidge’s book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Rolling Stone magazine, etc., to a variety of other cultural material in various language styles: essays on Brecht, Marxism, history and linguistics.

However, most of the article is dedicated to analysing Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill’s The Boy Looked at Johnny (1979), devaluing its worth due to its reactionary way of using traditional representations of rock phenomena: the biography format which reverts back to old rock clichés of Johnny-as-the-hero political/social leader. I would have thought that this line has already been considered by a number of people who have dismissed the Sex Pistols for reasons not dissimilar to Harley and Botsman’s but, nevertheless, they make their point well, and use this account as a model for interpreting the way in which we receive different perspectives of music criticism. They conclude that ‘they’ have been wrong all along, misguided by a politics of music which is not representative of a certain type of true situation – the correct line. They name Ian Penman and Paul Morley (NME) as coming close to the ideal that they constantly hint at: to create a new site for a discourse of rock’n’roll that is different to the one we are used to reading. The analysis closes with a promising statement of tackling such a problem:

The questions about politics and music in this new field are of a quite different order to those of the well-established field of rock, personalities and politics. Exactly what this new field looks like or says about the relation between various issues, politics and music is not yet all clear or certain. However, if it does not know exactly what it looks like, it certainly knows what it doesn’t look like.

It is at this point I will take my cue. Armed with choice and select references, I will embark on my original intention.

The compulsion to view our local music (by local, I mean that which falls into the avant-garde rock context, not the commercial mainstream) in relation to overseas standards does not, I believe, correspond to any economic or technical standards self-imposed by journalist or musicians. Rather, it is fixed on a more broadly distorted and romanticised view of what constitutes a ‘good’ record or ‘good’ piece of rock criticism. ‘Down under’ is a perverse truism for an Australian music culture, seeing itself as ‘alternative’, that is now dressed in frilly, misinformed tawdriness.

Rock journalism in Australia has consistently held forth on the assumption that Melbourne’s original responses to the Punk phenomena (1979) – and such delocalised bands such as The Saints who are not identified with any particular local history of their own, they are just our saviours, our mentors – had a similar cultural-artistic impetus as the scene in England two years prior. Filtered through the English press, there came a message to stylise and conform to negativity; but this incentive had little to do with what was being produced at the time (most bands were more in line with Art Rock than hard core Punk), given that Australia’s political and cultural climate differed greatly from that in England.

The punks here could only protest by moving out of the suburbs and into the more acceptable decadence of the inner suburbs, where the pose and style they took from Punk in England could be incorporated more effectively into their real-life image. The genuine efforts of bands such as Crime and The City Solution to integrate themselves into a fashion-conscious scene, as well as pursue a new expression of music (jazz-art-rock steeped in melancholia), were negated due to this incessant urge to comply with a romanticised view of what a cult band should be. Anyhow, The Boys Next Door was already cultivating and popularising this expression into a more accessible and desirable form; bands which extended it in a more interesting fashion (Whirlywirld, My L, Crime and the City Solution, etc.) were ignored as incompetent and unprofessional – hence wiping them out of any context that might have been useful.

In order to become a successful and acceptable member of the new social set, one had to adopt the English Punk manifesto that stated that everything before itself was rubbish, and that there was a crusade to subvert traditional mainstream rock music. In Australia this usually meant subverting anything that was Australian, a denial of any legitimate rock history. Suddenly the music of the early 1970s in Australia was dispensed with as ‘hippie’, even though the majority of people involved were not hippies at all, but more like the dope-smoking masses of America. Strangely enough, this prejudice is still alive here in the factionalism that exists in the old Carlton/Fitzroy battle against the St Kilda/South Yarra set, Hippie versus Punk, Old versus New, Dags versus Cool. Large rock concerts were denounced for their upholding of the capitalist rock ethos when, in fact, the unity expressed at these concerts was in itself a myth of shared experience – “all we have is the illusion of being together”, rock fans united for the same cause.

What the new Punks in Melbourne did was not to alter this situation but merely gripe about it, complaining that no one would turn up to their gigs. Did it really matter? Moreover, the import LP appeared (which must be the most important asset for the New Wave record collector) – but it was in isolation, as an esoteric object seen in only a few households, where in reality it would have been given a vast media push in its native country. Nevertheless, this illusion of disavowing traditional rock as outdated and (more significantly) anuncivilised, uncouth artifact (only useful for ‘yobbos’ and hippies), in a rock culture they felt they were in no way part of, was not at all aggressive. The Boys Next Door are now held in adoration for their pioneering work in the field of promoting a subculture, giving rise to ridiculous phrases such as ‘Post-Birthday Party glut of Australian rock ‘n’ roll’. Young hipsters now fondly talk of The Birthday Party as belonging to them, too: they are our mentors, without them it would not be possible to be young and New Wave in 1982. Videos at ‘the Ballroom’ flash up old Birthday Party non-hits to remind everybody of their beginnings – a reassuring explanation and justification for the week’s nightly fare of junk to be consumed aurally, visually, orally and no doubt intravenously … a pitiful array of nostalgia gone haywire.

The recent reactions (both journalistic and otherwise) to Junkyard (The Birthday Party, 1982) have been nothing more than an introspective competition between different hyped-up interpretations of Nick Cave’s belligerencies. The album is conceived as a significant exploration of so-called powerful emotions – despair, solitude, madness, etc. – the symbolism usually only extending (in the review) to the parameters of a rock lifestyle of the sex/violence/mystery syndrome. The reviewer’s favorite metaphor for The Birthday Party (although sometimes reduced just to Cave) is always a variation of the same theme: animal → beast → carcass → monster – depending how far to the extreme the reviewer wants to take it in order to impress the reader. And now that the man himself has repeatedly established the fact in interviews that the Ubu/Beefheart analogy is not only incorrect but embarrassing to his credibility, cowering journalists no longer subject us to their ignorance; what we get now as the ‘true’ parallel is constant references to the Stooges and the The Velvet Underground.

In any case, the journalist is usually praised (by whom?) for taking on this labyrinth of unfathomable meanings called Junkyard, and matching it with equally unfathomable purple prose, dramatically decorated with the dreaded CAPITAL LETTERS that Craig N. Pearce has now popularised to such a degree that, soon, his reviews will be entirely capitalised. (1) If nothing else, Junkyard reinforces and exaggerates the whole system by which music culture (fans, fashion, band, image, product, industry) is now perceived as a cultural commodity – the more complicated and stylised, the better. ‘Art’ and fashion are meshed together in a vulgar non-entity that serves no constructive purpose but to reaffirm their mutual media image (which then becomes their own self-image – see Barney Hoskyns’ article ‘The Price of Fame – The Birth of Music from the Spirit of Tragedy’, NME, 14 August 14 1982, for more on the notion of the artist in angst), and ultimately render the listener, now consumer, useless. The images the band propagates – hell, sex, death – do nothing but inadvertently throw us back onto the Birthday spectacle itself, the horror show which is both real and mythic, that selfishly absorbs and reabsorbs.

The Birthday Party has no qualms about exploitation: the masochism that surfaces and is celebrated as ‘ritual’ is a mere disguise for a more deep-rooted chauvinism that exploits even their own heroes. Iggy is rehashed and regurgitated many a time in Nick Cave’s convulsing body, but all under the flying flag of ‘avant-garde rock’ which is more like ‘cool’. They can fool anybody into thinking that what they are doing is new, as long as it shocks and creates controversy. (Wait a minute, isn’t Garry Gray [lead singer of Sacred Cowboys] shocking them all out of their skins, too? When he falls into the audience everybody stands clear – wrong trick, try a chainsaw.) Unlike the music they produce, The Birthday Party will never fulfill their own promise. Because they misguide themselves and everybody else by dressing up a drug-addicted perception of the world that has little to do with lyrical profundity, and more to do with selling martyrdom and ruthlessness, their self-parodying gets out of hand and they become victims of their own act of subversion. Nick Cave: the tormented genius who gives the appearance of having moments of clarity only when he can see through the idiocy of his ways.

The obsession of current rock journalism for dwelling within the fallacy that criticism and music exist in a stylistically compatible world of in-jokes, in-quotes and in-references (still based on the English press model, wherein things are filed and pigeonholed for safe analysis into categories: funk, pop, post Punk’, pre-Punk, etc.) is the primary force behind the recent bombardment of attention toward – you guessed it! – Sacred Cowboys (going to see them play is like going to a children’s pantomime, except that nobody boos the villains). While Sacred Cowboys is credited with confounding conventions of traditional rock clichés, the band members themselves are completely immersed in the clichés of rock’s star system. They are representative of a trend that is traveling backward to old ideas of rock as a shared experience which unifies the fan with the plight of the spokesman, who in turn ‘speaks’ through his stagey gestures, mimicking a tortured soul/artist. Irresponsible journalism has cultivated a public image for Sacred Cowboys that is laughable, given that the band’s function is to reinterpret a rock phenomenon which happened a very long time ago.

Like Hunters and Collectors (their guitar solos are a modern version of the extended drum/guitar solos you are likely to find on a Zeppelin record), Sacred Cowboys thrives on this forced relationship of validating Art through Cool. Soon they will make a video clip which will function in the same way as the Hunters video does: a million references to images that amount to nothing in relation to the music they are intended to promote, just video art taken to its logical extreme of non-meaning and pure effect. Sacred Cowboys is just another fiction of the same type, a long line or tradition of personal histories which can be traced back to Models, JAB and The Negatives … But, of course, we all discreetly forget, or remember too easily – either way, it’s the same. The nature of the material presented (cover versions posed in different styles) is seen as ‘eclectic’ rather than revisionist because it is taken as new, modern, desirable. The essence of this ‘modern’ music is appropriated by the journalist who then fuses history and the new together in order to raise it to a more intellectually sophisticated level (this means longer words, more puns and self-references). The journalist who promotes Sacred Cowboys as changing the structural boundaries of rock music ignores the logic of his own statements; only when the band can transcend the narrowness of self-concern does its critique become a significant challenge to order. What the journalist then has to do is invent a cause, by constantly referring back to the band’s eclecticism of styles and rock histories. Richard Meltzer in The Aesthetics of Rock (1970) talks of a similar process of reading:

Rock ‘n’ roll, however, cannot rely upon the selling power of random circumlocution of the originally acceptable motif, but turns toward the utter compression of popularly acceptable, yet eclectically arranged, images. (…) As long as a fixture ‘works’ it remains in the forefront and shouts its presence; when it ceases to work it is relegated to relative obscurity until a new context presents itself and allows for favourable reacceptance. No branch can ever really become extinct if it continues to function in the memory, even dormantly, old but undiscovered branches from both ‘within’ and ‘without’ of things past. (2)

This is why journalists such as Craig N. Pearce will always have a place in the traditional rock culture. Whether it be old heroes (Iggy, Lou Reed) or new (Alan Vega, Nick Cave), he will recreate rock nostalgia for us: everybody who is anybody wishing they were born ten years earlier in the golden age of our rock mentors, or rather can give the illusion they actually were, and have lived through the period – knowing everything and able to quote with ‘experience’. It is a form of journalism that probably will always run at a tangent to so-called alternative interpretations of music, and the culture that is arbitrarily associated with it.

The Little Bands (who?) shattered, for a while, the possibility of these references to rock history, wherein aesthetic predominance gave way to a concept ‘lived’ rather than an idea simply embraced. Their approach was more artisanal than artistic; bands such as Primitive Calculators intensified the whole experience of band/audience, because they did not rely on the myth that music requires a mass audience to operate in. (I feel this is the problematic associated with → ↑ →: where is the line of self-promotion drawn? This certainly is the basis for prejudice against them by many people who label them ‘elitist’.)

The revulsion towards plagiarism by the Little Bands was not in opposition to salvaging trash – most of their repertoire consisted of straightforward cover versions of ‘unconventional’ songs – but, rather, was an accurate distaste for those referents in the first place. The Little Bands are long gone and forgotten now, and so are the Dee Rays, for reasons concerned more with personal objections and the misconceptions about their work. So my story comes to an end; but I hear a voice in my lounge room persisting: ‘But Vikki, people want to be entertained!’

Originally published in The Virgin Press, no. 20 (December 1982), pp. 8-9.



1. Editor’s Note: In the early 1980s, Craig N. Pearce (not to be confused with the actor-screenwriter Craig Pearce who collaborates with Baz Luhrmann) voluminously wrote for The Virgin Press, among other Australian music/culture magazines; his prose style was extravagantly purple. Working for 16 years in public relations after ‘mucking around in journalism and DJing in nightclubs’ (see’s-sails/), Pearce now runs a blog devoted to ‘Public Relations and Managing Reputation’ at

2. Reprinted in Paul Williams, The Crawdaddy! Book: Writings (and Images) from Magazine of Rock (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2002), p. 128.


© Estate of Vikki Riley 1982