From Cold Chisel to Craft Beer: The Gentrification of Pub Rock

On a Friday night in the winter of 1980, the humble Rydalmere Family Inn in Sydney’s western suburbs hosted Cold Chisel, at the time one of Australia’s biggest and hardest rock bands. The venue’s cheap acoustics may have butchered Ian Moss’ howling guitar riffs and Jimmy Barnes’ guttural vocals, but for the rowdy, beer-soaked crowd that was all part of the charm.

Earlier this year Royal Headache played a sold out show at Melbourne’s Corner Hotel. Their melodic punk may have been a touch more soulful than Chisel’s meat-and-potatoes rock, but the hooky anthems had a young crowd frothing just as it had almost four decades earlier.

There’s still the lads and louts opening the mosh but it’s now a minority flanked by an awkward mix of students and young professionals. Most sip pints of Coopers while dodging the commotion at the front of stage. Their neat button-ups, styled crew cuts and patterned socks are indicative of the many ways Australian pub rock has changed over the years.

For dewy-eyed baby boomers, the brawn of pub rock evokes memories of hot, smoky, crowded suburban beer barns with basic set-ups and ear-splitting power chords. A spit at the dominant pop and progressive rock of the time, it was a music built in the early 1970s around acts such as Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs, Blackfeather, and Buffalo. By the 80s, led by bands such as Chisel, Australian Crawl, Hunters and Collectors, Rose Tattoo and the Angels, it had became a magnetic force drawing hordes of young fans to its no frills but full bore style.

For many younger Australians, pub rock is part of a cultural cringe, a throwback developed from an abrasive, insular and mostly white scene that failed to grab outsiders and overseas audiences due to its localism and hyper-masculine attitude. For others it remains exciting and relevant music with bands such as Power, Amyl and the Sniffers, Miss Destiny, and Tyrannamen leading a charge of new bands that continue to excite on stage.

“It’s hard to capture, define or say, ‘This is pub rock,'” says Lachlan Kanoniuk, former editor of Faster Louder and Beat magazine. “You could boil it down to the riffs and the chorus, (but) it’s a perpetual thing where the bands feed off it and respond to the audience responding to them. There’s an energy created there.”

Throughout the 70s and 80s this energy was created in inner-city and suburban pubs that were sanctuaries for bands such as Rose Tattoo, The Angels, Midnight Oil, and INXS ,and venues such as Sydney’s Royal Antler and Melbourne’s Station Hotel sold out shows three or four nights a week.

Strict licensing laws, random breath testing, in-home entertainment, and Triple J’s booming popularity would all spell the disintegration of pub rock’s golden era in the early 90s. But following a blunt period of alt-rock, rap rock, and pop punk copycats, the mid-00s saw a resurgence of homegrown rock. The core of this revival centred around The Drones and Eddy Current Suppression Ring. While they weren’t the only home-grown outfits pushing DIY guitar rock, they certainly had the chops to introduce it to a wider audience.

Eddy Current Suppression Ring’s 2008 opus, Primary Colours was a game-changer for the small-scale Australian rock scene. The Melbourne band’s sprawling 73-minute record peaked at six on the ARIA charts and was nominated for Best Rock Album at the 2008 ARIA Awards. With Australian rock heavily reliant on the bloated throwbacks of Wolfmother and The Vines, ECSR brought an exciting new punk spirit and for an independent act to nudge into the national chart was a massive step forward for the once-again budding pub circuit.

In 2011 Chapter Music released albums by Twerps and Dick Diver, two melodic Melbourne guitar acts who while having more in common with the jangle of Paul Kelly and the Dots and The Sunnyboys than the more aggressive pub rock groups of old quickly grew a national fanbase.

These bands, along with acts on smaller labels such as Bedroom Suck and Tenth Court, helped cement a distinctly Australian flavor in local music. Though most—particularly those lazily grouped in the much maligned “dolewave” category—shared more in common with Flying Nun outfits and the famed Dunedin indie scene than, say, early Divinyls or Rose Tattoo.

This resurgence in distinctly Australian rock seems to come from nostalgia for a time when Australian life seemed simpler and local music more “genuine.” While inner-city bands sporting mullets, cowboy boots, acid dyed jeans and boogying to classic rock station Gold 104.3 is met with scepticism from some quarters, for others it’s a continuation of an Australian tradition.

Founder of local indie label Bedroom Suck Joe Alexander says modern Australian pub rock is the result of young people just wanting to identify with and feel part of a community.

“People who may want to start playing in a band might hear people singing in an Australian accent and say, “That’s me, that’s what I sound like, I can do that!”” he says.

For Amy Taylor and her band, Amyl and the Sniffers, their simple and relatable rock sound isn’t an act, but an honest reflection of who they are. “We listen to Gold FM in the kitchen, we work shitty jobs, [and] we’re simple people. I think that’s what it translates to,” she says. “It’s simple music but it’s relatable.”

Not every artist has embraced this resurgence. Adelaide’s Bad//Dreems are arguably one of the more renowned bands linked to pub rock thanks to heavy rotation on national tastemakers Triple J. However, the band has been quick to distance themselves from the genre.

“Early on, there was a review from a Melbourne-based writer who used the term ‘pub rock’ in an acrimonious manner towards us,” says guitarist, Alex Cameron. “It certainly isn’t a term we ever felt comfortable with. If people are going to judge you by an all-encompassing genre term then they can piss off.”

For whatever reason, pub rock is still linked to Australia’s white working class, even though the nation’s demographics and economics have done a 180 since the genre’s glory days. Mixing the blue-collar themes of yesteryears with the cosmopolitan crowd of 2017 should be like mixing oil and water. Instead, there’s now a (mostly) gentrified, middle and upper-class crowd fetishizing the working class through fashion and music. Even if it’s just young Australians wanting to identify with a culture—like Alexander says—there’s an element of privilege which overshadows the music itself. Cameron and his band are vigilant enough to avoid this.

“People often describe us as being blue collar, which I find problematic,” says Cameron. “We’d hate for people to have to think we’re trying to portray ourselves as one economic class or another because that’s not what we’re about.”

Melbourne punk band Wet Lips slam this quasi-Marxism on their track, “Can’t Take It Anymore” with lines like “Yeah, you drink Melbourne Bitter/ Yeah, you wear your wife beater/ Yeah, you look working class/ You probably live in Camberwell!”

“It all ties to national identity,” says Kanoniuk. “There are definitely working-class bands, (but) there’s a few acts out there who use it as this conceited or contrived marketing thing that I don’t like.”

These “conceited” acts also risk only fixating on the golden era virtues—relaxed drinking laws, thriving rock n’ roll scenes, socialising without social media—without accepting its many flaws: insular communities, lack of diversity, casual sexism, and racism.

These acts are nothing but tiny splinters in the thick skin of modern Australian rock. Most artists—like Nathan Williams of Melbourne fried-boogie rockers Power—are hesitant to admit to their connection to a bygone Australian rock era. “The rock n roll we play is really direct (and) it’s not trying to prove anything,” he says. “We’re playing for the hell of it and we’re just trying to put on a good show where everyone has fun.

Still, Williams thinks pub rock is a passing movement that will likely run out of breath before it’s ever embraced by the greater Sydney and Melbourne crowds. “It’s probably not a full revival—bands like Cosmic Psychos have always been on that style—You’re not going to win anyone over with a new pub rock sound,” he says. “Music always goes in trends, but I don’t think pub rock’s going to be all that trendy anytime soon.”

In 2017, there are always going to be fans bending over backwards to dictate what is and isn’t authentic, but Dick Diver selling out multiple nights at the Tote is no less pub rock than watching The Divinyls blast The Village Green on a Saturday night.

Forgetting for one moment what the band is wearing—and that you’re likely watching them while sipping a craft beer—the music is still simple, catchy and brutally honest. It’s the perfect retort for the annoying shit your dad used to say when blasting Cold Chisel’s Breakfast at Sweethearts every Saturday afternoon. “Mate, they don’t make music like this anymore.”

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