featuring NIAGARA
The Crest Hotel, Sylvania
Saturday, February 23, 2008


On paper, it was a match made in Detroit Rock and Roll Heaven. The pairing of Australia’s revived Hitmen, the tireless journeymen-cum-Johnny-Appleseeds of the 1980s, with Niagara, the Motor City’s First Lady of Spooky Protopunk Rock.

The planets seemed aligned.

For a while, it looked like the gods had determined otherwise.

Consider where we were at when this tag teaming was first floated in late 2007.

The Hitmen were about to launch a short but successful Australian tour. Their first in 15 years. Coincidentally, their last was in tandem with Niagara’s then-band, Dark Carnival and Hitmen singer Johnny Kannis was the promoter.

Niagara was coming to Australia for the second time in as many years. Nowadays, she’s a successful pop artist. She doesn’t do music any more. She was coming for art exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney. Could she be coaxed out of musical retirement for a string of gigs with the Hitmen? Hang on a minute, honey, I’ll check my diary…

For those not in the know, Niagara came to notice in the mid-‘70s as the artfully artless vocalist and fab femme fatale for Destroy All Monsters and Dark Carnival. DAM kept the Stooges flame flickering for several years, being a vehicle for that band’s former guitarist Ron Asheton.

(Yeah, I know Ig played Stoogetunes in his solo bands and that also kept the flag flying, but he also recorded “Party” which was a 14-carat turd. And yeah, we’re not re-writing history here either ‘cos there was a previous version of DAM, but they were a group of non-musical dilettantes playing experimental sound and for the purposes of this determinedly rock review, they don’t really figure.)

Anyway, after playing to the American Midwest and the usual music press snobs in England, DAM dissolved in a cocktail of booze and major label disinterest which was a damned pity. Their steady output of singles was exciting fodder for anyone looking for music outside the template of two-chord punk and watery new wave.

A year or two later, thanks to the good graces of driving force/empressario/Niagara’s husband, Colonel Galaxy, Dark Carnival was born as a rotating cast of (mainly Michigan) underground musical entities, built on the axis of Niagara-Asheton. That’s the outfit that made it to Australia.

Meanwhile, back to the gig and there were more twists and turns in the lead-up to this one than a John Grisham thriller. Not the least of these was prime mover and Hitmen singer Johnny Kannis being diagnosed with a genetic heart condition. With Zeus in and out of hospital - and being probed more thoroughly than a Middle Eastern student pilot with a homemade passport on “Border Security” - what was planned as a dual-city War Against The Jive was scaled down to a one-off act of Shock and Awe restricted to Sydney.

The Shock element was that punters would have to trek to Sydney’s Sutherland Shire (a 40-minute haul from the inner-city - or almost anywhere else) and the Awe was that if J.K.’s dicky ticker took a turn for the worse (i.e. his condition became Awful), it was all bets off and obtain your refund from the usual outlets.

The pre-sales were good and the portents for a sizeable crowd even better when the mysteriously-billed support act “SISTO” (originally ex-Visitors singer Mark Sisto and whichever of his ever widening net of musical collaborators were available) recruited first Deniz Tek and then Pip Hoyle. Talk about a morph. So with The Visitors entrenched, there were no excuses for non-attendance.

Opening band Southern Preachers are veteran locals who are heavily influenced by the Citadel back catalogue. Not a bad thing. Two of them (Darren Trew and Mark Tondi) used to be in the Killer Klowns whose antecedents are well-known in the Sutherland Shire. For reasons involving a wedding an an inability to be in two places at once I missed them but, hey, the free grog at the reception was top-shelf. Or maybe it should have been on the top shelf, then I wouldn't have been able to reach it.

Anyway, reports back about Southern Preachers were positive. I'm sure beat the hell out of the string quartet at the wedding.

Onto The Visitors and post-taxi ride from the city, I walk in on the second song of the set ("Long Tall Sally" was the opener, I'm told.) Sisto, Hoyle and Tek are lined out up front and the thought occurs that this is as close to the original band as you're going to see. Masterful bassist Steve Harris lives in Brisbane these days but is not really up to full capability on that instrument after a hand injury. Ron Keeley has an even longer commute (12,000 miles in Imperial measurements.)

Andy Newman has a teenage flashback while elder statesmen Sisto and Tek lead the way.

They don't come more capable than their replacements in Nik Rieth (re-inducted into the Drumming Club after standing down due to study commitments) and Andy Newman so this is a momentous re-configuration. It's an especially big night for Andy, who was a teenager when he saw all of the original band's shows but one. From fan to band member.

There's been a previous reunion but most of Sydney appeared to be on early Xmas holiday when the Visitors played the Gaelic Club in December 2005. That gig and the Newcastle warm-up featured Americans Art and Steve Godoy in the engine room, but having locally-based players should boost the chances of more gigs happening.

Hopefully, that'll occur as tonight's brief 30-minute set was right on the money. The addition of Vindicator Smooth member Jack Shanley on sax for half the set was a bold experiment that struggled early to be heard in the mix but eventually worked in spectacular fashion on the set closer, the rarely-played Radio Birdman number "Hit 'Em Again". A surprise for many, a revelation for most.

"Brother John" doesn't have the same bite tonight (mainly because Deniz's guitar amp goes MIA) but things pick up quickly. The jazzy "Atoms Action" (an old Manifestations song that re-surfaces in Sisto's various solo bands) is the real boundary rider in this lot. "Persecution Smith" by The Last Herd (an old Bob Seger band) is a killer choice of cover; the rest are mostly Visitors standards with "Journey By Sledge" and "Haunted Road" personal faves. The latter features a re-arranged ending, thus getting around the problem of simulating the fade-out. Word must have got around that these guys were playing because the room was as full as I'd seen it for a support.

Tony Juke actually likes what he hears.

"Dancin' Time" marks the arrival on centre stage of the Hitmen and the start of a marathon two-hour set. No complaints about that value for dollar equation. The fervent crowd is within spitting distance when Zeus joins his soldiers onstage and lots of faces are back from the December run, plus a bunch of heads that are even recognisable from the "Tora Tora DTK" tour of 20-something years ago.

It's a solid bet that a good proportion of tonight's crowd was also here in '91. The Shire's been a happy Hitmen hunting ground but the area's also a Hotel California for people who grow up there (i.e. you can check out but you can never leave.) I reckon the Hitmen would own some of the brickwork at the nearby Caringbah Inn if the place was still a functioning music venue, and they'd have to be one of the few genuine rock and roll bands to have tried their hand at kicking out the jams at the urbane Kareela Golf Club.

(The one thing that hasn't changed at Sylvania is that it's a right royal shit-fight when it comes to buying a drink. A few more bar staff wouldn't have gone astray. Not that I needed too many after the wedding - shame on me buying three at a time AND then joining a shout with my mates - so if the narrative becomes slightly dusty from this point in, you'll know why.)

If you saw the recent run of Hitmen shows there wouldn't have been many surprises in the set list. "Rock and Roll Soldiers" makes an earlier appearance and the forthcoming iTunes single "Just Another Weekend" (an adoring Dictators cop writ large) is sandwiched in the middle of the bracket.

It wouldn't be a Hitmen show without "Shake Some Action" and long may it run.

It's an energetic display by Kannis who was all over the stage like a case of measles. At a pricem however, as he ended up spending the following day in hospital.

In lieu of Tab, Niagara orders the scarce bar staff to line up some Diet Coke.

Time comes for Zeus to temporarily depart (no jokes about an intensive care ambulance on standby in the driveway) and the Special Guest to arrive. The words 'Presence' and 'Niagara' sit well in the same sentence. When the opening drumbeat of "Little Doll" kicks in and the lady herself enters in silver trenchcoat and heels, there's a palpable jockeying for a better view up front because NIAGRA DEMANDS IT.

Silver, Iggy-like gloves give way to red ones and then a black swimsuit and mini combo. I don't know how Niagara stays upright on those heels - I was having trouble in flats - and before the set's out, she's on the ground crawling on all fours.

"Gonna Die" was the first DAM single to hit Australian shores around the turn of the '80s and seemed positively avant garde in those days with its lashings of Ben Miller sax and enough supercharged Asheton "stun guitar" to make your ears bleed. If tonight's version was more straight up and rockist it was still powerfully wrought.

In fact, guitarists Klondike Masuak and Tony Jukic positively burned at various stages of the night and if this was off the back of one rehearsal, you can only wonder what a full tour would have delivered. "Bored" deserves special mention.

"I know I dropped that contact lens somewhere here..."

Some punters were critical of the Stooges-heavy nature of the mini-set with "Real Cool Time" and "TV Eye" also entering the fray, but I have to say that these were understandably present as staples of DAM and Dark Carnival sets. My only misgiving is that "November 22nd 1963" would have been a worthy inclusion, if only because any Australians with a modicum of taste would known it from the New Race live album.

"I Love You But You're Dead": was one for the hardcore DAM fans (you'll only find in its live form.) "I Died 1000 Times" is nicely psychotic urban neuroticism. "Anyone Can Fuck Her" draws Kannis onstage for backing vocals and then it's the end of the Hitmen set, barring encores.

Great encores they were with the Masuak vocal-led "Death By The Gun", a surging "LA Woman", a stunning "Don't Fear The Reaper" (an absent friend, restored at last) and the aforementioned "TV Eye" all bustling for attention.

Whether or not we'll see the likes of tonight's main event again is open to speculation with all sorts of post-gig speculation flying around. There's talk Niagara might retire gracefully back into the art world but who knows? Both her and Colonel Galaxy enjoy coming Down Under, even if they're not that keen accruing the long-haul frequent flyer points to get here. The one certainty is that when the Hitmen and the Visitors re-convene, on their own, with or without special guests, you'd do well to be there.

Dancin' Time
Big Love
Oh No
R n R Soldiers
15 Hours
King of the Surf
JUst Another Weekend
Everybody Knows (I Don't Like Love)
Shake Some Action
This Bar
I Don't Mind
Solid As a Rock

Little Doll
You're Gonna Die
I Love You But You're Dead
Real Cool Time
I Died 1000 Times
Anyone Can Fuck Her

Death By The Gun
Bwana Devil
Don't Fear The Reaper
TV Eye
It's So Hard
Pay Up Or Shut Up

Long Tall Sally
Brother John
Sad TV
Persecution Smith
Atoms Action
Journey By Sledge
Haunted Road
Hit 'Em Again