Saturday 23rd May @ Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
I’ve had a long and storied history with Newtown’s Repressed Records, but really, it’s a story that’s been replicated by individuals all over Australia and the world. You walk into the shop on South King Street, begin digging through the sizeable collection of records, and lose yourself for hours. When your fingers become dull and blunted from flicking through the best collection of obscure and underrepresented Australian albums, you can move onto the book collections, the zine selections, or the vast array of cassette tapes. There’s also some CD’s, but they’re about as cheap as a piece of plastic with a laserdisc inside should be. Repressed Records is the perfect stronghold of punk paraphernalia, a place of relentless discovery and the occasional cry of ecstasy when a rare gem is stumbled upon. This is the place where I picked up a scarce Jodie Foster’s Army record, where I first heard Blank Realm blaring out of a system, and where countless over-the-counter conversations/grillings about music and culture have taken place with Nic and Chris, aka two of the most clued-in blokes in Shitney.
As a bastion and champion of Australian music weird and wonderful, Repressed Records pulled together a lineup at the Opera House that they alone were probably capable of. Case in point was the debut performance of Snake, the solo project of Al Montfort. You may know Al Montfort as the Unrequited Australian of the Year, as well as that bloke with the mullet who plays in a couple of bands. You know, like Dick Diver, The UV Race, Straightjacket Nation, Total Control, Russell St Bombings, Lower Plenty and Eastlink. Just a coupla very diverse and very incredible bands. Anyway, Snake unveiled yet another dimension to Al Montfort’s songwriting; a loose, slightly experimental set that utilised a myriad of instruments, from flutes and mandolins to nameless tools of percussion. It was an opportunity for Montfort to unleash his usual simple demeanour to a more exotic soundscape than the rest of his bands would execute. After watching him and his cohort kill it onstage, it made the idea of more live shows from Snake a very desirable prospect.
Melbourne’s Superstar followed Snake with a set that exaggerated all the lush, poetic beauty that makes their name so applicable. With a new record out on Bedroom Suck, their quaint, refined electronic soundscapes were serene and beautiful, and in the live format, their music swelled. It was aloft, floating amongst the room, intimate, timid and personal. Like Portishead as fronted by Karen Carpenter, Superstar are a rare thing that honestly feel suspended in time, bending modern and retro stylings upon one another like benevolent gods. It was a soundtrack to a elongated, wordless drama never committed to the screen. Incredibly mesmerising. Also, they gave the greatest awkward walk off a stage that anyone has ever seen, ever. So, if you needed any more of a push to go see Superstar for yourself, well, there ya go.
I don’t believe Exhaustion haven’t played in Sydney since the 2013 Sound Summit, so it was with (my) welcome arms that they began an improvised set with acclaimed Dutch saxophonist Kris Wanders. Exhaustion can be a bit hit & miss – their recent collaboration album with KW wasn’t too rewarding, especially compared to the gruelling post-punk excellence of ‘Biker’. But live, the Melbourne trio and European legend play one of the most intoxicatingly noisy and brilliant sets I’ve ever seen. Just as Superstar had enthralled with their spacial gloss, Exhaustion lambasted the Opera House with some of the most gruelling and poisonous sounds known to man. It was thrilling, a horror film built from samples of a nightmare. Screaming, droning, a half hour on the ol’ emotional roller coaster. Kris Wanders especially punished punters with his schizophrenic saxophone outbursts. It was visceral and haywire, more frightening than letting Jehovah’s Witness into your house.
Monica Brooks’ set was unfortunately missed due to long lines for a beer, but according to everyone’s mate Ads Lewis, “…she was gorgeous”. That’s all the info you need to know, as this bloke has got a music taste more on point than the record clerks behind the counters of High Fidelity. Next time she’s got a show, make sure you get down.
Blank Realm released the bonafide best album of 2014 – a magical pop journey of heartbreak, self-detriment and depression. Whenever they get on stage, my heart floats like a blimp that’s been inflated by keytar. I can watch this band for hours – they have never failed to get this bloated ginger to crack a smile. It’s impossible not to get swept up in the majesty of Blank Realm’s performance – from the cobra-like onstage whirlings of bassist Luke Spencer, to the endless joy that is Sarah Spencer’s urge to break through the floors of every venue she plays at. She jumps up and down like she’s running across asphalt in bare feet in 40 degree heat, otherwise known as a little bit crisp in Brisbane.
Rock n roll is in full steam as Blank Realm seduce the audience with their music. From “Grassed Inn” standouts like “Falling Down the Stairs” and “Falling Down the Stairs”, to “Go Easy”, the exhilaration never escapes from underneath Blank Realm. In the confines of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, the band have never sounded better, and they bring movement and exuberance to the Repressed Records showcase that had yet to be revealed up until this point. As soon as their set finished, I wasn’t even the first person to immediately leap out of my seat in a standing ovation for this incredible group. May all the major deities of the globe bless Blank Realm and their wonderful, wonderful music.
Before the main event of Royal Headache, who would perform their first major public appearance in nearly two years, appeared, I reflected. I’m not much of thinker, but here I was, knuckles resting in my second chin, mind buzzing. Royal Headache are one of the bands that brought me into the realm of local music, and here I was, at 19 years old, finally seeing one of my formative bands in the flesh. I’d seen them before – once with The Black Keys, and once at Big Day Out – but both performances had been shadows of the stories I had heard. The reckless endangerment, the commitment, the crowd interaction. A hazy and hyperbolic word-of-mouth mythical throwback to a time that I could never experience. As the members shuffled in the dark, preparing and whispering to each other, I grew nervous. This was the band who were only capable of recording material that resonated and excited me more than almost anything else. I had connected with their song “Surprise” on a more personal level than most, and it became painful to realise that all this could become undone if Royal Headache delivered a lacklustre affair. I’d seen some of my previously favourite bands shrivel in favour when their live show faltered, and I desperately wanted Royal Headache to uphold to the saga that they had established.
Why worry? Why fucking worry? They opened with a new song that took the air out of my lungs, as well as any other respiratory device in the vast hall. Shogun’s vocals weren’t just piercing, they were emotional terrorism – just thinking about it now, as the familiarly dishevelled frontman sang about his lows, it makes me want to weep. 20 seconds in, and there was not an eye that wasn’t zeroed in on the band, nor a jaw that wasn’t agape in shock and awe. You’ll know the song when you hear it, assuming it comes out on Royal Headache’s soon-to-be-released sophomore LP. You’ll know it because you’ll be curled up in a ball of rawness, as all your tough-guy exterior is peeled away by Shogun’s words. This man is a national fucking treasure, and any doubt I had about that was firmly battered into the furthest recesses of my mind.
I wasn’t the only one touched: Royal Headache moved folks out of their seats by the second song. With whiplash-inducing proficiency, they tore through now classic standards of Australian rock. From “Really In Love”, to “Pity”, to “Psychotic Episode” and “Stand & Stare”, the honest and gritty songwriting of the band exploded into a real-life marvel of music. Every word was shouted back to the band with intense and open passion, fists thrown in the air with the single-minded ambition of matching the unmatchable – Shogun’s onstage presence and personality.
Royal Headache were not just in fine form – they were historic, legendary. They were showcasing something that people were going to speak about for years. They were affecting people with an immediacy that really can’t be put into words. All around me, people from every background were jumping and thrusting, screaming with Beatlemania-fondness for their favourite band’s unlikely return. Royal Headache touched people – that was obvious. Throats grew sore, and eyes grew wider. Royal Headache continued to pummel and wallop the walls of the Opera House. Glee and happiness swelled to incredible heights. Disbelief became conventional. And then they launched into “Down the Lane”.
Immediately, Will Harley of treasured Sydney punks Housewives leapt onto the platform. The barrier between band and audience was broken, and whatever remained of that seal was smashed into oblivion as Harley brought onstage as many folks as he could grab with two hands. First there were three maniacs jumping around, then ten, then thirty. You’ve never seen such pure happiness like this. What was occurring in front of our very eyes was something special, and everyone knew it. It was unadulterated, a celebration of music and culture, in THE FUCKING OPERA HOUSE! A frenzy of moshing bodies dancing to some of the most celebrated punk music to be released in the last decade, taking place in perhaps the most refined establishment in the country. When “Down the Lane” wraps, a break of approximately 2.3 seconds is required, before Royal Headache launch into “Girls”, and tore our cultural landmark the new asshole it so desperately needed.
But that new asshole needed to shit, and it shat right into our open, naive mouths. Agape at the spectacle that was occurring in front of our disbelieving eyes, security, and then police, stormed the stage. It was the ultimate sucker punch – watching as friends and strangers having the time of their lives being cut so abruptly short by a parade of violent manhandling. From my seat of L11, I watched in horror as police roughly targeted these “dirty punks” with the same sort of respect that Tony Abbot gives to refugees. Afterwards, I overheard an officer bragging, “Yeah bro, I was just grabbing as many cunts as I could and throwing them off the stage”. Of course, you can understand where the Opera House is coming from – it’s a nice venue, and they don’t want anything to be trashed, fair enough. But instead of leaning into the ear of the band, and giving a “Hey mates, reckon you could just tell everyone to relax, and hop down? We’ve got a bond on this place!”, they dealt with the situation with the deft skill of Jason Voorhees trying to have a casual hang out with teenagers. It was a massacre of ideals, and soured the show faster than a BP oil rig ruins an ocean.
On a personal note, I’m thankful that Royal Headache managed to summon another song to placate the audience. If the show had cut as short as it did because of the police intrusion, it could have possibly ruined the night. But a cover of Womack & Womack’s “Teardrop” managed to produce the effect of a finale. Despite the obvious discomfort and tension onstage, the aura of there being some finality managed to give the evening some sort of wholeness to it. So, a personal and heartfelt thank you goes out to Royal Headache for doing that – it wasn’t hard to see that the band were teeming with dissatisfaction over how the stage invasion had been handled, and battling with the decision to play anymore, but that final song did justice to the legendary performance that they had unveiled that night.
Obviously, many questions are being raised over that night – why was such a heavy security force lodged against a mild stage invasion, (something that the organisers must have at least anticipated)? Why was it handled so violently? What does this mean for punk, or even rock music at the Opera House? How would Royal Headache’s performance have panned out had they continued to play? Would “Honey Joy” have been as stunning as I always imagined? Despite these hypotheticals and unanswered questions, it’s important to remember that this night is still historical. It was magical, not just because of Royal Headache’s incredible show, but because of all the music on show that night. Such a diverse spread of Australia’s terrific music was given the space and respect it deserved, which is as rewarding a concept as the gig that occurred. Furthermore, it was a chance for us all to say thank you to the record store that a lot of people have to thank for the introduction and furthering of their musical education in all things. Whether you’re a punk looking for a rabid 7″ by a snarling local band, a crate-digger eager to find the most rare of all records available to mankind, or you’re just keen to go buy an album, Repressed Records is the place to go. All of that respect and adoration was bundled into a night at The Opera House that is not likely to ever be forgotten.