Bow ties. Suits. Bottles flying towards us. Supporting the Go-Betweens. The first Livid Festival. What’s Robert Forster wearing? Four Skins on the Wall. Jesus dies for whose sins? 1988/9.
Why say ‘no’ when you can say ‘why not’? Second year university. You start to get a sense of those above you. In various arenas, I had come to know Andrew Buchanan and David Fenton who were studying to be drama teachers, but seemed to be more into performing and directing. What I didn’t know was that they had a kind of musical comedy group called Skins on the Wall.
Their original guitarist had left and they had a gig coming up so they asked me to join. I did. I was a bit in awe of them. I learned their existing songs and came up with the backing music for several more new ones.
The material was mostly absurd, the lyrics dada-esque the backing rudimentary. Their performance was mediated by character, I came to understand. Andrew’s character ‘Myles Myles Luncheon Willoughby Luncheon’ was a kind of entrepreneur/showman: a Hooray Henry.
David F’s was weirder, he carried twins: a repressed principal character, haunted by an alter-ego called Croydon Moist. I hadn’t seen the group perform, so it was rather surreal seeing them adopt these personas in rehearsal at David’s lounge room on Waterworks Road. Another chap called Kevin McLaren played ‘Clem’, the group’s ‘work-experience assistant stage manager’, a non-musical role. The guy was a hilarious physical comedy performer who performed ‘inept’ very skilfully.
We all wore suits. Some wore a fez. It had a 1930’s feel. We painted on moustaches, even a female guest artist did this later on. Out of time. Pythonesque. I can now see the influence of Cambridge Footlights and other comedy tropes I only had third-hand or unarticulatable knowledge of at the time. The Doug Anthony All-Stars had been going for a while, not that I knew of them, but I can see it was a similar idea. One guitar and some talented boys having silly, musical fun together. We’d fake barbershop harmony until it sounded OK. Continuing the sadly time-honoured tradition of allowing a female performer to appear as a guest, but not giving her space to be funny. Mucking around at back of the class in front of everyone.
Except we weren’t mucking around. We rehearsed. Once these guys started performing the material I could see where they were coming from. The stuff they wrote was just a vehicle for the stuff they did. I often found it hard to keep a straight face. They were comfortable in their talents and seemed to have no inhibitions, or rather they employed those inhibitions fruitfully and weren’t afraid of showing off. The group’s collective identity was framed by the identity of its members. I realized I’d have to come up with some kind of character if I was to stand alongside them.
Andrew wanted to do I’ve Been Everywhere, probably just to show off. A noble intention. I went and learned how to play it. I thought it might be fun to do it in a minor key: a spooky version. I also discovered it had an ‘intro’ section which sets up the scenario of someone hitching a ride with a truckie.
We did two separate revue-style shows at the La Boite Theatre, which ran a late-night music/comedy/cabaret slot. Each of our shows as advertised under a spurious theme. (‘Man’s Quest for Flight’) We performed songs and silly set-pieces, and ‘Clem’, the work-experience stage manager’ came into his own.
The stage lights would extinguish, plunging us into darkness, and then suddenly reignite, revealing ‘Clem’ plugging together two extension leads. He’d then scurry off. I introduced one of my own songs, one I’d written with my brother called You Can’t Cross a Ferret with a Budgie, which was a kind of absurd safety-instructional song. The song was intended as a ‘sing-along’ but instead of the audience being guided through the lyrics by a bouncing ball, they were followed by ‘Clem’… the ‘bouncing dickhead’. Silly.
The group proved quite popular given the scale we were working at. Lots of people came to see those shows. They laughed. The songs seemed to stick.
It felt good to be part of it, I loved working with these guys, and it was lovely for a not-very-confident but arrogant-seeming young guy like me to finally be part of something I could be genuinely falsely modest about.
Someone arranged a paid gig at the student guild bar. It turned out to be a heavy metal night. I remember being a bit scared before we went on. We did the gig, but rapidly shortened the set as people started throwing bottles.
In January 1989 a gig was arranged at this thing called the Livid Festival out at the University of Queensland. It was the first outdoor music festival I attended. I got really excited when I found out we were going to be supporting (or rather, on the same bill as) The Go-Betweens, a band whose songs I loved with a passion.
We did our stuff on the main tent’s smaller stage while they re-set the main stage for one of the headliners. We went over OK. In that context we would have cut a fine set of figures visually (though it was a bit hot to be wearing suits) but away from the focused environment of a theatre, the group was a bit lost.
We’re ‘theatre’, and this is ‘rock’ (I thought).
Clearly theatre and rock are ‘different’(I thought).
And then at the end of the night, The Go-Betweens. Literate, poppy and jangly, they had just released the gorgeous 16 Lovers Lane, but I was more familiar with the Talullah songs at the time. I looked along the crowd barrier at a sea of floppy-haired young men about my age, looking at the stage adoringly. Were they looking at Amanda Brown, the gorgeous multi-instrumentalist who’d just joined the group? No.
They were looking at Robert Forster, who was half-mincing, half prowling the stage in scarlet high-waisted pants and bolero jacket, mysteriously remarking that ‘Jesus had died for somebody’s sin’s, but not for his.’ (years later I found out he was of course quoting Patti Smith) Then he sang ‘The House Jack Kerouac Built’ while the band burned up the stage. A Character? A persona? Showing off? Music? Performance? Who knows??
That was rock. [And] That was theatre.
Skins on the Wall didn’t perform much after that. Andrew and David graduated and went on to do lots of interesting things. I’d work with both of them later.
Our last gig was the festival club of the Brisbane Festival, as roving musicians. However, the venue had party music playing so loudly and constantly that we couldn’t be heard acoustically. We saw out the (well-paid) gigs doing visual things. I wore a lamp-shade on my head. I went on to perform at a few more Livid Festivals, as Tyrone. Alone. With an iguana.