April 20, 2021

HISTORY OF THE AUSTRALIAN SOUND: NOT DROWNING, WAVING

The 1980s were a fertile decade for innovation in Australian music, there was a diverse range of alternative, art bands altering the sonic landscape in new and interesting ways, overcoming the cultural cringe of the era they created something uniquely Australian.

One of the premier exponents of what I will, from this point, refer to as the Australian Sound were Melbourne’s Not Drowning, Waving. Formed in 1983 by keyboard player/vocalist David Bridie and guitarist John Phillips the band became something of an art collective incorporating film, electronics and environmental soundscapes into their performances.

Their live performances were something really special, with stunning film projections and virtuoso performances, I recall one show in particular from their tour in support of 1989’s Claim album at the long-demolished Old Greek Theatre in Richmond. My wife and I remained sober throughout the gig because we couldn’t tear our eyes away from the stage long enough to get to the bar; the crowd were spellbound, driven at times to ecstatic dancing by the up-tempo instrumentals then floored by the emotional impact of Bridie’s vocals.

Although Claim and their subsequent album Tabaran garnered the band commercial success and critical acclaim my favourite Not Drowning, Waving album is 1987’s Cold And The Crackle. There is a very Australian feel to the songs, apart from the percussion-driven, ethno-rock instrumentals such as Yes Sir I Can Boogie and Sing Sing the lyric tracks are evocative of both suburban life and the rural hinterland.

The title track feels oppressive in the sense that it brings to mind the dead spaces and endless skies of the cleared land which surround our country towns, a feeling of profound despair and loss pervades the song.

Kerrys Green is a song of change tempered by nostalgia, about Eleanor Talbot, a lady who sings to her new home by the sea, dances with her dog to a Rhumba and remembers far away Northcote.

The Marriage Is A Mess is a heartbreaking depiction of the 1980s mortgage belt blues, it tells of how couples trapped by crippling interest rates and suburban malaise slowly disintegrated, while the bankers made out like bandits.

Little King is an eccentric poem set to music, written and voiced by filmmaker and NDW collaborator Robbie Douglas Turner, who delivers his lines in hysterical shrieks and bellows and we are treated to such lyrics as:

“I’m still eating beans. Hold it there with the cake jester,
here comes the cream, here comes the cream, Noddy,
Noddy, Noddy. Kill the clock, I’m hearing those I’m
hearing those bells, Noddy. Slap me, uncle, you gotta slap
me uncle, I’m hearing bells, you got to bring me to my
feet uncle, my little feet, yeah, I’m doing good and I can
do it again, heh, ooh, ooh, slap me uncle brings me to my little
Feet, what’s that rushes through my body thus?”

Cold and The Crackle is a beautiful and haunting album filled with David Bridie’s dreamy lyrics, Phillips’ distorted guitars and cellist Helen Mountfort’s ethereal vocals and sublime string arrangements.

This is a sound that calls to mind both the bewildering scale of our landscapes and the love-hate relationship many of us have with our cities, the songs are timeless and gently political, this feels like an Australian album in the proudest sense.