See that it gets delivered.
Love Serenade is a quirky Australian comedy from 1996 starring Miranda Otto.
I first watched it in 2006 when my then-girlfriend was championing it as a cult sleeper hit. It comes from a fine vintage of Australian quirky comedies featuring Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle but made up also of lesser knowns such as Jane Campion’s Sweetie.
This was a time when Australian comedies were oddball, understated and devastatingly rural. It’s a flavour that has not been seen for twenty years now, when Baz Luhrmann brought in the ‘more is less’ acting bombastics and writer/directors opted to ‘shirk the quirk,’ investing in bleak, gritty dramas and high-gloss middle-class comedies. Perhaps The Castle capped the golden age of the quirky Australian comedy – with a nod to Two Hands rounding out the decade in ‘99.
A last celluloid gasp of an Australia on film that hadn’t quite been nebulised by an American cultural assimilation powered by the globalisation of social media and the echo chamber of the reality-tv decade.
Sound complicated? Well, by contrast Love Serenade is a simple film. It’s about two deadbeat sisters who work themselves into a craze when the star of the Brisbane radio scene Ken Sherry rolls into town and moves in next door.
This film may receive the all-time lowest score in the The Bechdel Test (aside from Mary Magdelene) as the entire lives of the two girls revolve around a man. This is fine and I really do try hard not to reverse engineer films by today’s political standards. Rather, I get a hotshot of bemusement from nineties films referencing themselves as the ‘here and now.’ (For example, Cameron Crowe’s Singles from ‘92 was unexpectedly humorous as the hip twenty-something dude stayed at home hanging on a very important fax.)
In our case, Ken Sherry is disappointed that the local radio station of Sunray hasn’t evolved to CD technology. Instead, he must play his records and wax philosophical into the microphone (allowing the movie to date in a more timeless, graceful, needle-in-the-groove manner) in one of cinemas most relentless presentations of ‘mansplaining’ (which along with the Bechdel Test atrocities might make some millennial viewers anxious and perhaps should come with a label warning) which would probably be worthy of some kind of academic stoush if the film weren’t written and directed by a woman, Shirley Barrett.
The highlight of this film is Miranda Otto. She is very funny. For someone who might be known as the shieldmaiden from Lord of the Rings or a steadfast character in a low budget indie – it’s something of a revelation that she plays the all-slouching, all-scowling, amateur seductress and fish enthusiast Dimity Hurley. Some of the best scenes come early, in which Dimity is the embodiment of teen angst and low self-esteem, trying to carry on a conversation with Ken Sherry. It’s as if she’s so riddled with disappointment at her own answers that she can’t convince her face to arrange itself in any position other than forlorn contempt.
There is something fiendishly anti gender-type and bountifully funny about a severely disappointed looking girl delivering lines matter-of-factly – as if absolutely everything in the world is a bother to her. (To quote Joyce from American Splendour “why does everything in my life have to be such a complicated disaster?”) There is something so familiar and believable about Dimity. She is so devastatingly…plain. Yet, also in possession of a defiant, non-conformist attitude that surely deserves some cultural positioning alongside the ‘riot-grrl’ movement of the 90s. Perhaps certain elements of the Australian ‘calling bullshit’ country attitude crosses-over with the aforementioned punk-grunge aesthetics of the big cities.
Dimity is the embodiment of the sociologically suppressed endearingly oddball ‘misfit girl’ – an archetype that isn’t exactly over-represented in TV and cinema. I think of Tora Birch in Ghost World, but she is positively glamorous compared to the washed out polar-fleece suburban world that Dimity dwells within. (And say, Mattie in True Grit is brash as a way to overcompensate for her non-lady likeness – as if the writer is thinking we’d better give this girl some redeemable qualities or the audience will never embrace her, similar to Daria and Darlene from Roseanne.)
Dimity in contrast is a strange and daring understatement of quirkiness and low-stature. To find a closer example one would do well to stick closer to home – and enjoy the whimsically understated performance of Karen Colston in Sweetie (or perhaps Mary from Mary & Max?) and Magda Szubanski’s immortal Sharon Strzelecki from Kath & Kim. The only American attempt that comes to mind is Martha from the sitcom Baskets (played by comedian Martha Kelly) – a veritable masterclass in deadpan comedy.
Love Serenade’s underhanded approach means that by the time Dimity is throwing herself at Ken Sherry, the sight of her teeth bared in a dorky smile is positively confronting. A scene which could have been positioned as glib or throwaway is given considerable gravitas as the actor and director demonstrate a commitment to the idea, Otto flipping the tone from bumbling comedy to surreal arthouse in what must be one of cinemas most idiosyncratic depictions of female nudity.
Films like this are a time warp for Australian culture. Not to say that sleepy old country towns don’t still exist and resemble the fictional Sunray (located on the Murray River), but more to the point of how we used to represent ourselves on screen. Muriel, Priscilla and The Castle spoke to an affinity with our innate sense of dagginess. Rather than pump itself up to be seen as America’s cool little brother, we used to double down on how isolated and underdog* we were (perhaps a final shudder of low self-esteem from being Britain’s punching bag?)
* the underdag, if you will – screw you auto-correct, I had to type that three times.
Think of The Late Show’s ABC parody Still Number Four. A quarter of a century sounds like a long time for a cultural shift, especially when you’ve had twenty years of the world wide web. In the 90s we had ‘battler pride’ infused in the cultural lifeblood of our creatives – not just something cynical politicians pulled out to seem relatable. Australia celebrated being the little guy and more importantly (and accurately) the outsider. It feels a world away from the high-camp high-gloss meme-toting in-your-face brashness of the kinds of millennial comedies that seem to pop up and manifested itself in Working Dogs’ 2012 mainstream comedy ‘Any Questions For Ben?’ in which the lead character was a marketing guru.
I’ve often argued that dagginess, in its purest form, no longer exists. The internet has simply made us too self-aware. It’s a ‘genie out of the bottle’ level of consciousness that can’t be rolled back. Films from the 90s, like music videos from the 80s (unhinged American dancing makes me uncomfortable), confirm this theory – their authenticity and blind confidence making them nostalgia darlings for future generations finding their footing amidst a cultural melting pot of cold cuts and fragmented references.
Love Serenade has a clear and present soundtrack. (You can find it on Spotify. I’m a very big fan of Rock Your Baby.) 1996 was a time when Barry White was played. The 70s tribute was a characteristically 90s thing to do, which now feels like a double throwback as I can’t think of the last time I heard Barry White used to earnestly represent something sexy. It’s gone the way of The Stripper, Wipeout, theme from Psycho and other scene-setting loony tunes I first heard played on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. (I mean, did Paul Thomas Anderson use Barry White in 1998s Boogie Nights? No. That was probably first on his list of last songs to use.)
Ken Sherry is WAY older than the girls, which gives the film a layer of menace and dramatic tension that I’m sure wasn’t around even ten years ago. He’s positively sleazy and reprehensible, in a way that was a lot easier to doze off in front of in 2006 (even right next to your feminist partner), but now feels like an invisible finger in the room poking you regularly. Modern day real-time comedic-value depreciation aside – it’s a mesmerisingly even performance by George Shevtsov who I haven’t seen since. (Incidentally only the day before I watched the Seinfeld episode in which an actor (Larry Hankin) plays ‘Tom Pepper’ playing Kramer in the meta-fictional version of Jerry’s sitcom Jerry (you following me?) – the similarities between the two actors felt oddly familiar).
They both look like they could be half-fish half-man.
This theme is explored in a delightfully unexpected way as Love Serenade deploys one of the rarest of all ingredients in Australian film – surrealism.
A linguist would note the integrity of the 1980s Australian accent as archived in films like Muriel’s Wedding. It’s a commodity that is rapidly diminishing as the Americanisation of our dialect continues unabated. In fact, it’s not just the absence of mobile phones that makes films like this a surreal dream of an experience, but also the omission of the word ‘like’ and inclusions of dinki-di Australianisms like…casserole.
Miranda Otto is the star of this show. Right up to the end, goofily grinning in the background as Ken Sherry delves into one of his exterior monologues atop the silo. I found myself laughing out loud at the performer who has no lines in the actual scene. In fact, so much of Otto’s comedy is conveyed through the silent mannerisms of Dimity, that it feels like requisite viewing to go back and appreciate the subtleties of her face winding its way around from content to troubled and back again as she waits at a park bench – or the good twenty seconds spent tying and untying her t-shirt around her waist as she waits for her sister.
Much like Otto’s performance, Love Serenade is a film that looks deceptively simple to make on the surface, but sails an understated and consistent line that requires great craft and forethought. Watching the director / actor pair up again for 2010s South Solitary, one can appreciate that cracking a frequency of laconic lowkey charm (and making it gripping and refreshing and amusing) is a lightning in a beer bottle exercise. I wish this film were more available as it might restore some battered pride in this country’s ability to produce comedies that are not only funny but unique and original – it seems that baton got passed over to New Zealand and Taika Waititi in the late 2000s.
NOTE: There is a sex scene featuring a less than animated Dimity underneath a workmanlike Ken Sherry that is amazingly similar in tone and framing to a similar scene in Amelie, which came out five years later. A sly tribute perhaps?
Love Serenade is a film about sex and loneliness and the lengths people will go to for comfort. What could be more timeless, human and lung-wrenching than that?
FURTHER CULTURAL DEEP-DIVES ON JHs FUZZY LOGIC:
The Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System launched today. I gave a statement and interview for it which can be found online. The intention is to build a whole new system from scratch, which could inspire universal change.
The damage has been done, but hope is pretty cool.
I’m honoured to be able to contribute to this brave new world. I hope the report can make waves from butterfly wings and pour light on the darkest hours of the human mind and the systems that govern our hearts.
In the spirit of the vibe, you can carouse a package of my mental themed columns here (there) everywhere.
That’s good Justin how are you going?
Oh alright I think. The usual baseline of atomic stress endurance and a horizon line of potential difficulties to high jump over.
I have a lot of dreams where everyone is sitting down and participating in something like school or a gig but I’m unable to participate as there is some huge dilemma like a conflict or haphazard preparation and I’m in a total panic.
Gotta love dreams.
At least dreams tell it how it is. Honesty overrides platitudes.
Did you like high jump as a kid?
Not so much. It’s a bit like backstroke in that you can’t see where you’re going. Still, I fared better than javelin. There was one day in PE where I threw it and the back of the pole smacked me in the head.
Did everyone laugh?
They’re still laughing.
I’m up and about and ready to stop. Stop collaborate and listen, that is.
There’s news afoot and updates aplenty, providing you haven’t been paying attention – which is okay because I’m on the ball / having a ball (a wrecking ball, that is). Knocking over walls and kicking goals and shifting goal posts and not posting on social media. Are we cool? “Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!.” Here we go (again) for the first time (in a long time).
- The latest issue of my rebooted mailing list Justin Heazlewood’s Fuzzy Logic.
- An episode of RNs All In Your Mind podcast which I recently contributed to.
- I’m an ambassador for Satellite Foundation. They’re an organisation based in VIC who help kids of parents with a mental illness. They’re running a six-week online program for people aged 17-23 (living anywhere in AUS). If you know anyone who might benefit from such connections, there’s info HERE
- A newly separated, individual, lowly tailored social media page, to dwell the nature of my own intellectual property within.
- Some quiet reading (about reading) for you.
A dedication to my artist brethren who might be doing it tough at this (or any) time.
Hear the Funemployed EP in its entirety HERE
To mark two years since the release of my childhood memoir, I’ve made there be a soundtrack album on Bandcamp. For bonus amusement, here are some beside the scenes tales of nostalgic and emotional interest.
In primary school I clocked my transition into maturity as switching over from ABC cartoons (repeating Wizard of Oz for the 10th time) to the Southern Cross antics of Monty the weatherman and Roscoe the newsreader. The Today Show with Steve Lieberman and Liz Hayes had a clock in the corner which helped me track my timing to leave for school. I had a game where if it read 7:47 I’d sing the line ‘riding along in a 747’ in my head. It was from some country song Uncle Ken must have played when I visited his place in Canberra in grade four.
I wanted to include this detail in my book (I’ve probably been singing the line ever since). As you can imagine, I was pretty keen to hear the song again – the first time in 30 years. Thing is, I had no way of tracking it. I googled the lyric in many variations but there were no matches! (Not you Beatles 909! I’d be late for school.) I wasn’t in touch with my Uncle, so asking him was moot.
Over the time spent writing, this was the white whale of nostalgia trips, which is saying something considering the most obscure Commodore 64 games are on YouTube these days (you mean Trapdoor did have gameplay, you didn’t just wander around aimlessly opening and closing the door?)
Late in the piece I had another cheeky search ‘riding along on a 747’ and found a hit! It seems the Australian singer/songwriter Kevin Johnson (no, not the Phoenix Suns point guard) had launched a new website which included the lyrics to Man of the 20th Century. He was a bit of an unsung Australian JJ Cale type best known for Rock and Roll I Gave You The Best Years of my Life. The song and album are fantastic. Do yourself a favour.
Deep Deep Trouble
My favourite moment of ‘constructive procrastination’ was listening to one of my many tape recordings from the 1992/93 childhood season. In the one marked SLIDES with NIGEL POP JUSTIN – Pop, Uncle Nigel and I (funnily enough) spent an evening in the summer before grade seven clicking through the family slide collection. We’re up late being silly and eventually wake up Nan! Uh-oh. Uncle Nigel is pretty funny and pins the blame on the infamously placid Pop. “We might be able to get away with it, with a few swingin’ words,” he jokes, “but not you pal, you’re in big trouble.”
You then hear squeaky lil’ me sing “you’re in Deep Deep Trouble.” When I searched I was pleasantly reminded that The Simpsons put out the single in 1991. Do The Bartman gets the attention and reruns on r a g e (it was written by Michael Jackson you know?) but I’d completely forgotten about the difficult second single. From this discovery I was able to reference the ‘Bart in hell’ scenes as a reference point for my childhood understanding of the afterlife. So, within that session you could surmise that twelve year old me was helping with the writing of his own story. Coolness!
My Friend Jenna
At the Fitzroy Writers Festival launch of Get Up Mum in 2019 I met a fellow only child with a Mother with schizophrenia. This ultra rare combo match twin was exciting for a lonely Gemini. Consider that until this point I was only friends with about two other only-children (we’re quite rare in my generation) and I knew of only two other people who had a Mum with a mental illness. Between striking up a friendship with Jenna and the several other mental health organisations such as Satellite Foundation who reached out to me (all of which I wasn’t previously aware of), Get Up Mum really did act as a distress paper firework of light and hope.
The Kid and the Whip
I liked the Sydney book launch because not only was the effervescent Benjamin Law hosting but a lady came up afterwards and said that Jon Faine was really unfair to me during the notorious Funemployed interview from 2014, which was one of the nicest (and most accurate) things anyone had said to me in a while.
It was one of the few launches where small children were present. These weren’t just small kids but restless ADHD-ish youngsters. Towards the end they were running around getting glasses of water and being a bit nuisance. I drew them in by holding up a blank tape and describing in detail how magical it was that this brown ribbon could trap magnetic particles and turn them into sound. The kid had a good look before peering up and asking “could you use it as a whip?”
In a troubling snapshot of the post-Fortnight generation’s mindset, the kid had managed to weaponise a TDK 90 cassette. Ha ha! A whip, I dunno mate, maybe torture someone to death with Michael Bolton.
Amanda Palmer’s Post
[Now, just because I am preternaturally conscientious and self-aware doesn’t mean I’m not immune to some straight up ego-shooting and name-dropping, as I am well within my rights to do as my jaded friend Jo accused me of in 2005 after returning from tour with Tripod and daring to refer to them by name in answer to the question ‘so how did the tour go?’ No sheepishness present from the presence of excommunicated friends at this juncture, just an alarmingly unguarded and unsolicited outburst of conscious rationalising, for which you can assume a psychologist would be all like ‘you go girl.’]
[[Think what you like but as Kurt Rambis said ‘you miss 100% of the shots you never take.’ Kurt, Kurt he’s our boy, if he can’t do it no one….will.]]
[[[Rest assured that being me, I will still manage to self-deprecate my social standing to its lowest possible ebb. Cover up that light people – COVER!]]]
Amanda Palmer posted out of the gates early, having been given an advanced copy. It was a rather confronting time as I contemplated sharing my secret life story with the cosmos. From my furtive glances betwixt the slits in my pillow case, I noted there were what seemed like hundreds of comments below her post which almost entirely consisted of impassioned confessions of American experiences of mental illness. The only comment mentioning me said that my promo photo (sans glasses) made me look like Paul Dano (which is true). This was mildly exciting in that it was the first time I had been assigned a famous person I look like without glasses. (For the record I used to like to think I had a Christian Slatery vibe.) Oh, I have been assigned about (last count) 102 people I look like with glasses. Austin Powers anyone?
NOTE: Paul Dano’s 2012 film Ruby Sparks is pretty close to a documentary on me. Although I’d attest that if I was ever invited to Annette Bening’s house and had a hot girlfriend like Zoe Kazan there, there’s no way I’d just sit around reading a book while everyone played in the pool. NO WAY!
Being such an intensely personal book, I was shaky about the thought of doing interviews. To assist me with this my publisher Affirm set about preparing me. (Cue Rocky style montage with More Than This and me pushing myself on a swing at Burnie Park laughing and crying.) This was the first time I’d been given any kind of media training in my life. My publicist Laura transmitted me a set of practise questions to cut my heart on. I found the support helpful.
There was an eclectic spectrum of emotional niceness from journalists. “You should have expected being asked about that,” was fired at me accusatorily a couple of times. Journalists desensitise themselves as an upskill. It sure was weird being trapped in my favourite restaurant on a blind date digesting invading personal questions about my Nan. (Did you know I have a secret conspiracy theory that media goes harder on me because I’m a comedian and because I’m a boy but there’s no way to prove this until the next life?)
Others like Myf Warhurst were especially warm. This approach coaxed no lesser potency of frankness out of me. Arguably more. “Warmth will get you further than shock” as Charlie Pickering once told me. Would I do it all again? Shit no. Justin 2.0 I’m going straight into advertising and learning to drive.
Read my Age Lunch Feature interview about Get Up Mum if you like candidness to the apeshit.
We were trying to get permission for using lyrics to popular songs included in the manuscript. I was actually sending an email to Metallica’s management at one stage (unforgiven_2@hotmail), which is a pretty rock and roll thing to do on a Wednesday. I was trying to imagine James Hetfield flicking through my book about caravan trips and Nan going on about the mossies. In the end there wasn’t really much time or budget so we just did a bit of paraphrasing.
Funfact: The song Unforgiven is h e a – v y.
Everyone (everyone) wanted to know what Mum thought of the book.
So what does your Mum think of the book?
“I’m not sure what Mum thinks about anything” was the preferred reply (come up with months after the event.) Thanks media training! Look at me go like a swimmer at the Olympics just taking it one lap at a time.
Mum read the book, which was a lot for her considering she may not have read a whole book since Mozart’s biography. (To which I found her in her room laughing more than anyone in history over the reference to his brisk walking style as ‘old scissor legs.’) Laughter is contagious and the memory is beautiful.
Mum thinks my book was well written. Of course there was a pause when we finally met up and spoke about it. She said, in as many words as she was comfortable with, that she was happy if the book was going to help others. You may want a neat little answer to put in your compartment (sorry ‘you’, I know you’re a card-carrying individual with rights to a separate autonomy, I was just amalgamating the last few women and Auntie staff I’ve met), but almost nothing in my life works that way. Please assemble pieces into an esoteric hexagon.
To be honest I’d say that there was a little guy inside me secretly disappointed that not a single person thought to ask ‘so what do you think about the book’ but that would be saying a lot more about me than it would about the audience which is beside the point and out of bounds on the full.
Izzy from Art School
Way back in the day Mum was friends with Izzy from Art School. They lived together in a sharehouse in Hobart when Mum was working in the Miss Fitz & Co shop (at Fitzgeralds, a Tasmanian department store) and training to be a Mothercraft nurse. They used to push each other around in shopping trolleys and have paper sailboat races along the sodden streets. In the chapter in the book which gives an overview of Mum’s history I made sure to name drop Izzy.
The two had long since lost touch and Mum wasn’t even sure of her surname so there was no way of tracking her down. Izzy ended up reading Get Up Mum and reached out to me by email. It was from there that I was able to set up a reunion lunch between the two in Burnie. Paper firework to the rescue! Seriously, write a book – it’ll do cool things.
There’s an iconic bit of graffiti along the beige cement walls as you head to Wynyard after passing Burnie Park (the best way to see Burnie haha). During my childhood the thick paint always read 1981 ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE with a peace sign.
For NYE 2001 Someone ‘updated’ it artfully (not) turning the 1981 into a 2001. Disastrously, this only drew untoward attention towards the freshly complicated missive triggering the wrath of the local council who covered it up like a streaker at the football.
The unnecessariness of this maneuver was matched only by its lack of execution. The graffiti wasn’t hidden. All they did was leave a scar of the love, a lighter shade of beige. I referenced the message in my book, going to the trouble of using Windows 95 Paint spray can feature to render the original as authentically as I could. (Thanks Mr Badcock.)
A few months after the release of Get Up Mum someone spray painted over the words in white paint! I chose to assume that my book, which had been received surprisingly passionately and positively in Burnie, had somehow shone a light on the cultural significance of the artefact. All you need is John Lennon.
There’s no year this time. The message is timeless. Love is for all ages.
- Check out the Google Map reference to the graffiti pre-2019 makeover.
Get Up Mum is available from Booktopia.
BONUS: Man of the 20th Century (or 7:47 as it can be known) was released in 1976 and came during a very cool era for smooth rock dudes penning songs about air travel. See also JJ Cale’s Travelling Light (1975) and Steve Miller Band’s Jet Airliner (1977).
I wrote a column about my love of arpeggiated synths for music site Mess+Noise in 2011. Since then, I’ve observed the explosion in popularity of what has long been my favourite sound in music. In short, it’s a run of synthesizer notes that groove back and forth – sparkling, colourful, magical and mysterious. The audio equivalent of a palindrome. A mirror image wave form, glowing and sparking on loop like an enchanted roller coaster.
Here’s a quick example – the spritely business partying up the back of Lionel Richie’s Dancing On The Ceiling as demonstrated:
The most popular example of recent times is the Stranger Things opening theme which dropped in 2016. A good example of the slower, more agitating end of the arpeggiator spectrum.
Like the show (set in 1984), the theme was a throwback to a time when pop songs like The Never Ending Story and The Riddle (both released in ’84) and There Must Be An Angel (’85) had a melancholic sonic blowwave wafting ephemerally through the back of the mix.
In 2013 my favourite band Boards of Canada utilised their biggest batch of arpeggiated synths to date in a 1980s John Carpenter soundtrack tribute Tomorrow’s Harvest. Like Stranger Things, they took the warm cosmos of the Popcorn sound and reduced it to a steely, robotic chill.
To me, arpeggiated synths are the sound of infinity. The glorious, cascading, expanding universe of my imagination. The spiritual projection of what I imagine an all-star all-flying glittering afterlife to be. The Never Ending Story’s Fantasia meets Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road.
A frosted, pulsing rainbow run.
Echo nebulas, rebounding through the galaxy.
Fireflies of sound, synchronised like hexagons.
In 2011 arpeggiated synths were thin on the ground in alternative music. There was my favourite song of all time Infinity by Guru Josh, in which he synth-bombed a whole decade with his audacious lyrics and a (count it) two minute piano solo. In grade ten I requested Infinity as part of my ‘Hi 5’ favourite songs of all-time played by Michael Tunn on Triple J! For a long time the only copy I had of the extended mix (which wasn’t on the CD album) was the cassette recording from the radio, including the bump where I accidentally pressed record.
Infinity contains what I believe to be the best 20 seconds of recorded music, ever. [2:06 – 2:25 of the 12” version]
For the rest of the nineties the only place to find arpeggiated synths was in remixes of obscure techno songs like Pizzaman’s Happiness. 2000 marked an indie-rock retro explosion as Grandaddy brought the arpeggiator love on their landmark album The Software Slump. Tracks such as Crystal Lake were striking for the juxtaposition of synth used in a rock song. (The origins of which could be traced back to 1972’s landmark single Virginia Plain by Roxy Music, the same year that Popcorn was released. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon would appear the following year). Radiohead, having successfully married computers on Kid A were soon joined by Wilco with Heavy Metal Drummer and in five years LCD Soundsystem would take the dance/rock fusion full circle.
If xylophone is “the music you hear when skeletons are dancing” (Homer Simpson) then arpeggiators are the sound of a unicorn galloping.
Sometimes I’m asked whether I’ve ever wanted to make my own synth music. Unfortunately I’ve never afforded my own machine to play with. It’s a sweet dream with a long tail. I picture myself locked away in a strawberry-lime studio with lava lamp, buggy posters and velour robe, crafting my own downtempo ambient electronica like a sporty Tasmanian Jean-Michel Jarre.
In 2012 I made an unreleased album working with Melbourne cult-electro wildman SPOD (Brent Griffin) and my favourite psychedelic songwriter Richard Cartright of Sydney’s Richard In Your Mind. SPOD had a vintage Micromoog, the kind of which Popcorn was no doubt composed on. It looks like the dashboard of Dr Who’s Tardis and is about as abstract to operate.
No ‘demo’ button here. You twist knobs and dials, squashing and squelching the soundwaves like a lightsaber manipulator. I watched SPOD with awe reserved for the Level 20 teenagers at my kiddie video arcade. This trucker-capped wizard of rhythm flounced and flocked the unit until it was growling and flanging with the savageness of Tom Morello’s guitar amp.*
Richard had an Oberheim synth with 100 prebuilt effects. He was soon able to recreate the impossibly warm sounds of everything from Take My Breath Away to Great Southern Land. It was exciting just to be in the same room as the equipment responsible for the friendly radio ghosts of my childhood. These unsung studio sentinels evoking the underlying longing and lunar loneliness that make up the soft padded bed of my eighties nostalgia.
Oh yeah, I got to play with synths on my 2009 album Brown & Orange. Hanna Silver had a retro Korg with some delightful presets. The most notable use was this track, which was always a bit of a messy record favourite.
And now, the original column from 2011 followed by some recent examples of my favourite arpeggiated synth based tunes, featuring the likes of Daft Punk, Beach House and Gorillaz. You can make your own arpeggiated sequences on this Online Sequencer if you wish. Dig.
TREBLE TREBLE // POPCORN AND INFINITY (2011)
My first memory of music is listening to Popcorn by Hot Butter. I’m standing beside Nan and Pop’s ‘Stereo Sonic’ entertainment deck with black sponge headphones wrapped around my noggin. I load a cassette into the deck and press down on the chunky metallic button. The oceanic tape hiss fills with a sci-fi whine, followed by a warbly synth waddle of baroque alien ducks and the novelty combustion of a robotic, whistle-ready melody.
I sit mesmerised, staring at a yellow and brown swirl print cushion. These sounds are colour to a blind man. An aurora to a caveman. A Christmas and birthday imagination sandwich. Cerebral sorcery that fits like a tshirt and springs like a trampoline. Music was shaking hands and asking to be my friend.
The song continues, the pad chord bed hitting the profound F#m. The vibrations enter my ears like molten fireworks then vapourise, leaving puffs of awe. Popcorn, at once silly and profound, is a Moog minstrel with a weeping heart. The jaunty lead tickles my chin while the broody rhythm of the bridge places a steady hand on my chest. The song is trying to tell me something.
At 1:08, something incredible occurs. The carriage of the song slips off its rails and sails into the air, gliding on a glitteringly gorgeous magic carpet of harpsichord and arpeggiated minor chords. The chords are broken down to their base notes and knitted back together to form a musical spine which flexes and flickers, like the tail of an electric dragon. The sonic flux swings and snakes, mirroring the waves and mountain tops of a stereo equaliser. The luck dragon cycles its way through the dazzling axis of my mind. Lava coated flowers burn red, blue then yellow. My LCD creature zips and darts, spelling mathematical shapes before exploding into rainbows and lightning rods.
After this uplifting bridge the song breaks down into the tribal simplicity of tom drum and tambourine. An anxious two-note timer synth creeps in, adding a sense of urgency. Each layer of instrumentation is cleared, leaving only the ticking of a laser clock, soon blotted out by the squelch of Martian flatulence. It is at once comical and menacing. The sound of a spaceman being obliterated in a Commodore 64 game.
I take off the headphones and gaze at the rows of tapes and photo frames, my head slowly morphing back into shape like ear plug foam. What is this “music?” This kaleidoscope of sounds. I am caught hook, line and syncopation.
My second memory of music is listening to I Just Called To Say I Love You by Stevie Wonder. For this six year old, the song is trumped by the micro-single which opens the tape. The XDR Test Toneburst that sits at the beginning of cassette albums from the era. An audio distress flare sounding out the basic spectrum of tones from sub bass to high treble. An arpeggiated fantail for my brain to decode.
The song plays. I am drawn to the warmth of the synths, blending sweetly with the early 80’s compression and Wonders rich voice. Listening back, I detect lightly arpeggiated notes in the mix, adding a mystical, tinkling ambience – crystal rain on glass. (A similar effect to The Never Ending Story.) The song has a lightweight of melancholy I am drawn to, and while my emotional palette is primitive, my synaesthesiac instincts associate the thick pad of the minor chords with a quiet internal warmth, as my heart increases the blood flow around my body, sending a rainstorm of thoughtfulness to my tummy.
Being a child of the 80’s, it’s little wonder my earliest memories of music are mostly synthesiser based. A glance at the children’s programming of the time shows cult classics such as Ulysses 31 and Mysterious Cities of Gold using the kind of synth-heavy soundtracks that Gary Numan could take back to his laser pyramid. I recently rewatched Mysterious Cities of Gold and found to my delight that not only had the animation aged gracefully, but the soundtrack was a full bodied tremolo dreamscape.
One of my first cinema memories was the opening credits to The Never Ending Story, featuring the title track playing while the camera tracked over dreamy clouds. While the single already contained brilliant melodic structure and a rousing chorus, my brain was excited by the arpeggiated bed, sublimely oscillating in the background like robo piano roll. Coupled with the epic adventure of the film, The Never Ending Story made me want to melt from happiness and sadness all at once. Add the prettiness of the childlike empress, the savagery of the wolf and ARTAX! and you have an original sex and death soundtrack with training wheels.
A few years later, in 1990, I would accidentally bump into the greatest arpeggiated synth sequence of all time. The song was called Infinity by the UK artist Guru Josh. The song revolved around a melody played on saxophone utilising a stirring F-C-G chord sequence similar to that found in Manic Street Preacher’s If You Tolerate This, Live’s Lightning Crashes and Scatman John’s Scatman.
Behind the sax are heavenly orchestral pad synths punctuated by a subtle oscillation of notes, brilliantly complimenting the chord sequence but not yet fanning all the hues to its peacock tail. It’s an ambitiously anthemic and acutely ambient opening, especially when listened to through earnest young ears.
The verses comprise of Guru Josh staking audacious claim to the entire decade “1990’s – time for the guru” backed by some industrial Terminator-esque effects and scattershot house beats. A looming three note bass line keeps the track in check while Guru Josh scats some ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ landing somewhere between Max Headroom, Kraftwerk and David Koresh.
At the two minute mark of the extended mix we are treated to a twenty second burst of what I have, for most of my life, accepted to be the greatest section of music ever recorded. The chorus chords are reprised with an arpeggiated lead running brightly over the top. The stirring ambience of angelic electro wash, flush with a dramatic major to minor chord change are punctuated with a constellation of digital train tracks whose rise and fall evoke the exotic quasars of my spatial awareness. It’s like a squadron of effervescent sprites line my kinetic pathways, waving brilliant sonic pom poms as I run a victory lap around my swirling fantasia – the music shining a neon blacklight on the dream bursts of my mind’s eye – a cross between the last rainbow level in Mario Kart, the time travel scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey and a Flaming Lips concert.
The reverb on the mix evokes an underwater dream – the audio equivalent of bubbles bursting as they rush to the surface. It is not dissimilar to Caribou’s Sun at the 3:40 mark, from a house album he wanted to sound organically underwater. Infinity creates a magic speedway inside my imagination where natural and synthetic are one. Circuits become veins and stars turn to pixels. I am the king of colours – flying through a psychedelic utopia, smelling the freshness and licking tears from my lips.
For a period of my teenage years, Infinity was my drug. I would slip on the earphones, press play on my walkman and escape. I lived for the arpeggiated section, and thankfully, after an astoundingly lengthy (2:05!) piano solo, Infinity offers a sixty second outro of the enchanting sequence, spiralling skywards before dipping and dissipating into a mushroom cloud of ambience.
I was finding my own non-druggy relationship between electronic dance music and hallucinating. During car trips, I’d disappear into deep trances, triggering the stained glass screensaver of my mind. In grade ten I fully explored this concept with a short film I wrote called Infinity. The story revolved around a DJ who believed that if you took the live speaker wires and inserted them directly into the brain, while high on a certain drug, you could physically transform and “become the song.” (It was not long after The Lawnmower Man where the protagonist became pure energy via virtual reality). In the final scene two investigators burst into the DJ’s compound (bed-sit) to find he has been successful with his experiment. On his bed burns the infinity symbol, rendered in blue flames.
What I was expressing was my deep desire to completely connect with electronic songs like Popcorn, The Never Ending Story, Infinity and whatever was happening on my Strictly Techno 2 cassette. I wanted to trip as hard as I could, powered by my imagination and a box of Nerds. Like in the book Gillian Rubenstein’s Space Demons where the characters are trapped inside a video game, I wanted to be sucked inside these songs – able to fly along the sonic dimension they existed within. I could hear and see music, I wanted to be able to touch, taste and smell it as well. I don’t think many other people my age wanted to smell anything to do with Guru Josh. He had a goatee and always looked sweaty. (I later discovered he fell out of favour after publicly supporting Thatcherism).
My love of arpeggiated synths continues to this day, and I’ve been drawn to it in recent alt-rock tracks such as Grandaddy’s The Crystal Lake, Wilco’s Heavy Metal Drummer and the music of Ratatat. I’ve used it on one of my own songs For The Love I Have For You, to moderate success, but have resisted the urge to buy my own keyboard. I fear that once I find the arpeggiation settings and put on the cans, I’ll swim down a sonic wormhole of no return.
FURTHER LISTENING — A PHOENIX DOUBLE HELIX
The Gorillaz Plastic Beach features an arpeggiator drop so satisfying that the comments reference the 0:41 point of the song!
When you’re sleeping and your body does that fake fall thing
When you’re playing Rock paper scissors in the mirror and you win.
Gorillaz // Plastic Beach
Daft Punk // Motherboard
Midnight Juggernauts // Into The Galaxy
Rafael Anton Iriscuri // Arduous Clarity
Slow Meadow // Artificial Algorithm
Beach House // Space Song
Black Moth Super Rainbow // Psychic Love Damage
Blockhead // Life Support
Zarelli // Falling Light
Sesame Street // Geometery of Circles
* Rage Against The Machine made their guitars sound like electronic effects, and each album contained in the liner notes “no samples, keyboards or synthesizers used in the making of this record.”
I’m not always reading. I wrote a piece for Meanjin about this. I also gave anecdotes to the ABC about self-doubt recently. I answered these questions for Hobart’s Weekend of Reading festival last year. Dig.
Q: What is a book that everyone should read?
Maus by Art Spiegalman. It’s a graphic novel about the holocaust by the cartoonist who used to do the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards from the 1980s. It teaches you about everything that is relevant in our modern world – in case you need some perspective – which you probably do (no offence).
Q: If you could save one book in a fire, what would it be?
My original pressing of Grug and the Rainbow. Ted Prior made only five copies with an actual rainbow inside. That guy is next level.
Q: What are you currently reading?
The blurbs of several books in my friends’ bookcase including Extinction. Seriously, who would read a book that’s all internal monologue and no paragraphs (sorry Tom Doig x). Gee you ‘readers’ are suckers for punishment. I got the Karl Ove Knausgaard cookbook and it was 1000 pages of his memories of soup. I don’t read so many books these days but I do like settling into middle age by enjoying the weekend papers.
Want more fun? I delivered further witted insights about my bookish behaviour to Brunswick Bound here. I read out my grade seven diary in the seventh episode of the Get Up Mum radio series. What have you!
“On my bed is a new pillow case and matching doona cover which has lots of crazy padded squares in green and white and pink paisley. I have a dark brown wood veneer bedhead with bedside table and three drawers attached. On the bedside table is an old style silver reading lamp and my ‘P’Jammer’ clock radio that used to be Mum’s. There’s also my new Korg guitar tuner and the book Michael and the Secret War which I have to finish and return to the library by next week. I’m really enjoying it.
It’s about a boy whose mirror cracks and from then on his life is in turmoil. Strange creatures come and visit him and he unintentionally gives them his help. He gets messages from the ‘enemy’ asking him to stop helping. In the end he helps the friends to win the secret war. I reckon I’ll give it nine out of ten.”
Taken from the first draft of Get Up Mum.
MY REVIEW FOR ONE OF THE LAST THINGS I READ:
KENNETH COOK’S WAKE IN FRIGHT
204 pages – feels like a short read.
School teacher goes on a dark bender in an Australian desert town.
Mood: Hot, dark and claustrophobic. The hazy mash of inebriation. Trapped in a car with foul men. Face to face with a stabbed kangaroo.
Best sentence: Things half remembered and terribly feared, shrieked at him; tears of mystic terror rimmed his eyes.
Original review: “A classic novel which became a classic film. The Outback without the sentimental bulldust. Australia without the sugar coating.” Robert Drewe
Funfact: A keen amateur lepidopterist, Cook established the first butterfly farm in Australia on the banks of Sydney’s Hawkesbury River in the 1970s.
Best Australianism: “What the blazes…”
Suggested food pairings: Overdone steak from a hot bonnet. Lashing of cold beer.
SOME OF THE BEST BOOKS I CAN REMEMBER READING
A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius // Dave Eggers (Came through the uni magazine pigeon hole when I was twenty and basically influenced how I write.)
Space Demons // Gillian Rubinstein (Came through the primary school library pigeon hole and took me inside an Amstrad and influenced how I problem solve.)
A Confederacy Of Dunces // John Kennedy Toole (Gotta be the funniest book I’ve ever read. Cannot look at a hotdog.)
Lolly Scramble // Tony Martin (Followed closely by Sir Tone. Fab book cover!)
On Chesil Beach // Ian McEwan
Freedom // Jonathan Franzen
He was like the new Eggers for me.
I Never Promised You A Rose Garden // Hannah Green (A brill book about schizophrenia which was always sitting mysteriously on the bookshelf at Nan & Pop’s. The girl on the cover gave me my biggest ethereal crush since The Childlike Empress.)
Life After God // Douglas Coupland (Catherine Duniam recommended this. I cried massively at one point. One of those big ones that taps into your locked up late 20s melancholy.)
Maus // Art Spiegelman (Similarly. That last page panel reduced me to liquid form. It didn’t help that the girl in it was called Anja.)
The Sense Of An Ending // Julian Barnes
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time // Mark Haddon
1984 // George Orwell (A documentary, non?)
Lolita // Vladimir Nabokov (I did think at the time it was the best written book I’d ever read.)
Bridge To Terebithia // Katherine Paterson (Also one of the last books I had read to me. There was much talk at Parklands High School about how much Miss Stones cried when she got up to that bit.)
The Journey // John Mardsen (Read to us by Ms Moore in Grade Nine. She refused to vocalise the infamous ‘barn scene’ and said we had to read pages 57-59 ourselves. Incidentally, I absolutely dug the Tomorrow When The War Began series but forgot to read the last one and now I can’t remember what happened. Shit.)
Chronicles, Volume One // Bob Dylan
The Big Sleep // Raymond Chandler (A lovely gift! I really dig the writing style. Probably my favourite book cover.)
Tess of the d’Urbevilles // Thomas Hardy (Did I enjoy it? They made us read it in high school. Essay hint: The weather reflects her outlook.)
To Kill a Mockingbird // Harper Lee (yessum)
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close // Jonathan Safran Foer
Grug and the Rainbow // Ted Prior (A metaphor for…everything.)
Strawberry Hills Forever // Vanessa Berry (My favourite Australian author and retro-genius. Seek out her recent output!)
The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God & Other Stories // Etgar Keret (A very funny, clever dude. Recommended to me by Vanessa.)
Honourable mentions to Christopher Pike, Anna Krien, J.D. Salinger, Enid Blyton, Nicole Krauss, the Fighting Fantasy series & David Foster Wallace (Mainly for his essay Ticket To The Fair in which the greatest writer of our time reviews the US equivalent of the Burnie Show.)
Last book I technically read? Maybe The Circle by Dave Eggers. I thought it was fine. Or Follyfoot Farm by Monica Dickens as part of my Get Up Mum research (Mum always had it lying around). Research also included Where’s Morning Gone by Barney Roberts, the only other memoir I know set in the north-west coast of Tasmania. I remember it was a big deal for Nan and Pop in the late 1980s. Someone had come along and painted their childhood.
Hey, I’m not the only one not reading!
(Taken from Guardian interview with Etgar Keret 2019):
What’s the last really great book that you read?
I’m usually honest in my writing and less honest in interviews, but I can tell you that for the past year, I didn’t read any book, which is the first time since I went to first grade.
Why was that?
My wife and I were working on a very demanding TV series, a project that demanded relocation and that we direct in French, when we don’t speak French, so all in all it was a very overwhelming experience. It took a lot of my inner space.
This year, I’ve been doing something that – if we talk about changes in humanity – all humanity’s been doing, but I guess I gave myself a very good alibi. Whenever I wanted to delve into a book, I would go and watch a Netflix series instead; I must say for pure laziness, because I think the big difference between a TV or film and reading a book is that reading a book demands creativity from you, because you need to imagine things and you need to create them in your mind. And I felt so drained at the end of the day that I wanted somebody else to think out how the characters look.
As a child, were you a keen reader?
From the moment I started writing, I read less. I think reading was a way of widening the world in which I lived, and that the moment I started writing I found a different way to widen it. So I would alternate between writing such a reality or reading such a reality.
what are you lookin’ at 🙂
I’m a writer with anxiety and have been self-isolating for a while. I’ve got a rolling start on this like Daytona. Don’t get me started on performing with no one in the audience.
Whisper-out to all my mentally ill friends; those with anxiety and depression. The melancholic and broken. Perhaps it’s easier to be calm in a crisis when your entire life has been a crisis. Lean into the rollercoaster, one day at a time.
You are always stronger than you think.
You are always stranger than you think.
A brief history of the Rhythm Of The Night YouTube (as provided by Nate Vic 6 days ago):
Godspeed. There’s no panic in pandemic. Y’know, in a way it feels like we’ve been here before. Not at least referring to the general sense of ‘end times’ catastrophising. I wrote my first ever Frankie column about it called The World’s Fucked in 2007. For a long time it was the #4 thing people typed into google to find my website.