The Tote Hotel, Melbourne
December 29, 2006


When you’re young – and still believe in the intellectual, philosophical and non-commercial integrity – of the Yuletide festival, you tend to look forward to Christmas with a mixture of excitement, hope and youthful yearning.  Will Santa Claus/Father Christmas/Saint Nicholas bring me a bike, a cricket bat, a Thomas the Tank Engine train set or a complete set of Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedias? (OK, so that last one is pretty low on kiddies’ Christmas lists, but I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s asked for it over the years). 

Then, as adolescence sets in, and the naive pleasures of childhood are replaced by hormone explosions, acne and the myriad of ephemeral, pissweak emotional dramas that plague the teenage years, Christmas becomes something different.  It’s a time when families get together – or fracture even further – when advertising agencies find new and interesting ways of intertwining the images of Christmas with the exploitative discourse of consumer capitalism, over weight men with deep throaty laughs find themselves in high demand and supermarkets dust off their copy of Boney M’s Christmas album and thrash it senseless for six straight weeks. 

Yet beyond the glitz, the glamour, the madness and elevator music is the sense of community that’s said to underpin the modern Christmas festival.  Christmas, it’s claimed, is a time when families come together and celebrate the year that’s passed.  Like most social rituals, such utopian descriptions often disguises the dystopian reality – festering familial grudges, unresolved personality clashes, a cesspit of fear and loathing that’s revealed every year to the pain of all concerned. 

This year Christmas in Melbourne took on a very, very special character.  Christmas itself was still the mish-mash of lights, gratuitous elevator quality tunes and deranged consumer behaviour – but its occurrence came shortly before arguably the most awaited garage rock event in recent Australian history: the brief, and triumphant reunion of legendary Japanese garage punks, Teengenerate.  Like Radio Birdman, Teengenerate burned as bright as flaming magnesium, before the flame was suddenly expunged.  From its embers came not only various spin-off bands, but a line of like-minded Japanese garage bands, including Guitar Wolf, 5,6,7,8s, The Gimmies, The Faceful and 50 Kaitenz.  And like Birdman before its 1996 reunion, most of us had given up hope of ever seeing Teengenerate ever again.

That was before Mach Pelican drummer Toshi Maeda put his mind to things.  Toshi must surely claim the title of the hardest working man in Melbourne rock’n’roll.  Having showered us with the best garage and rock’n’roll delights this year, Toshi moved mountains and turned water into wine to get Teengenerate to come to Australia for some super rare reunion shows.  If the first night’s line-up wasn’t too bad – including supports from the Breadmakers and the Kamikaze Trio – the second line-up was the stuff of blood, sweat and tears ... The Onyas, Kim Salmon, Spencer P Jones and the Escape Committee, Teengenerate and the increasingly legendary Eddy Current Suppression Ring upstairs in Cobra.  The moment the gig was announced the Melbourne music fraternity knew Santa Claus was a garage rock fan.

And so it was that Christmas passed with the requisite amount of excitement, food, alcohol and musing on the subtext of the Queen’s Christmas message, and the days counted down to Friday.  Before leaving home early Friday  evening I received a very important late Christmas gift from my wife – a promise that I could sleep in beyond the standard 7.30am time that comes with having young children (“It’s the gig of the year”, she said, “so you might as well enjoy it”).  With this in mind, I jumped on my push bike, rode via the closest drive through for a couple of cans of fortifying ale (note for next Cooper’s Club night – when is Coopers going to bring back ale in cans?) and headed Tote-side.  The crowd was already milling by 9pm.  I spotted fellow bar patron Richard Sharman in the front bar, equally excited.  Andy Moore (drummer with Digger and the Pussycats, Kamikaze Trio and the Escape Committee) procured a beer from the bar, muttering “I can’t believe I’m drinking beer again after last night (Andy surpassed himself on New Year’s Eve, playing four separate gigs over the evening and morning – once with the Escape Committee, twice with Digger and once with Kamikaze Trio).  A friend curtailed his early evening beers in St Kilda to cross the Yarra to arrive in time.  The air in the Tote is as clean as Chernobyl on a hot summer’s day, but tonight there was a definite waft of garage rock expectation.

We nailed a couple of Cooper’s Pales early and it was into the main band room to catch the Onyas.  Mad Macka has his shirt off already (though this time there was no repeat of the “put your shirt back on, ya fat cunt” that accompanied an Onyas gig sometime in 2005) and Richard Stanley looks like his head is going to crash into the decaying rafters of the Tote at any moment.  It’s taken me a while to appreciate the Onyas, but there’s no going back now.  The lyrics have a distinctly college edge, albeit more in the realm of Animal House than Ivy League academia.  With his other band possibly in longer-term hiatus, it’s good to see Jordan Stanley belting the buggery out of his drum skin.  The set ends with all the fanfare of a meat pie consumed at the footy, and almost as much regret.

The crowd is gradually building by the time Kim Salmon shuffles onto stage, with Ripe (and one half of Salmon drumming team) Michael Stranges on drums.  The dulcet chords of "We Had Love" grind through the Tote, and Salmon’s away.  As Kim’s promised, it’s a set that celebrates old school garage punk – plenty of Scientists ("Set It On Fire", "Frantic Romantic"), some Heartbreakers ("Chinese Rocks") and some newer Salmon solo material (including "Pearls and Swine", which Kim’s eight-headed instrumental monster SALMON has been playing recently).  Kim mutters something about an old Scientists song “which we never recorded ... but someone else did” and before we’ve got a chance to mutter ‘James Baker’ he’s launched into "Drop Out".  The final track is a gift from the heavens – a cover of the oft-requested, and rarely (if ever) played "Pissed On Another Planet".  The ubiquitous Julian Wu has a grin from ear to ear, and we wonder if things might have peaked too early.

But Spencer P Jones has other ideas.  These days Spencer isn’t so much older as more gracious and graceful.  His guitar looks like it’s weathered 1000 rock’n’roll storms.  Spencer’s vocals are barren in the extreme, similar to the nasal tones of his fellow countryman, the ridiculously funny John Clarke.  Andy Moore on drums is the red cordial kid, rarely static and conducting his own dialogue with Spencer.  Phil Gionfriddo (apologies if I’ve fucked up the spelling there) on guitar has an acceptably reverential posture toward Spencer, but takes the mike to sing what we assume is one of his own compositions.  "Bogans" gets a roar from the crowd and my comment to a friend (as we rest after some rousing mullet and Jack Daniels style celebration) that “only the bogans are dancing” is greeted with the offended retort “speak for yourself”, to which I respond “I am – and I’m proud”.  Spencer departs with a brutal rendition of the Beasts’ "Make ‘Em Cry", a song that always disappoints me in Beasts’ sets, but in Spencer’s capable hands takes on a completely different, and flattering, guise.

It’s getting late by now, and we’ve still got a couple of bands to go.  The cohesion of the beer round has been lost, and it’s a case of buying jugs and seeing who’s short of an ale (the presence of Cooper’s Pale on tap at the Tote still brings a tear to my eye).  Toshi is spotted coming through the door, having driven from Lorne after Mach Pelican played its mid-evening set.  Next thing we know Teengenerate’s on stage, scraping the walls with caustic garage punk chords.  The beer has taken its toll and it’s a frenzy of dancing and gesticulating in vigorous rock’n’roll camaraderie.  Fifi and Fink look like the estranged brothers their public statements suggest, though who knows (or even cares) where the reality lies.  The encore sees Teengenerate drag Kim Salmon on stage to play the Scientists’ "Last Night", yet another illustration of Teengenerate’s affection for Australian garage punk.  Then there’s a rendition of "TV Eye" (half Stooges, half Birdman), which sees a member of the crowd up on stage (much to others’ subsequent criticism) to scream the vocals.

Teengenerate are finished for the night, but there’s no time to waste as we bolt madly up the stairs to the Cobra Bar for Eddy Current Suppression Ring.  Somewhere along the short journey I find another beer in my hand (looking a bit too clear to be Coopers, but shit happens) and Eddy Current is away.  Later I hear that the stairs had to be closed due to the mass of punters forcing their way upstairs.  At one stage a friend refers to the undulating floor.  Mikey’s riffs are spot on, and the rhythm section is as robust as ever.  Brendan does his usual crowd surf towards the end of the gig.  My t-shirt is soaked to the skin with beer, sweat and tears.  Mikey plays the opening chords to "Noise In My Head", and we approach the line in the sand that is rock’n’roll insanity.  It has to end eventually, and it does.  The crowd starts to clear and we spot Richie Ramone basking in the glory of another great Tote night.  We ponder if this was better than The Soundtrack of Our Lives, and decide it’s all apples and oranges, and who really gives a flying fuck about objective analysis in a post-modern world. 

The next morning I wonder if this moment was the perfect illustration of the Tote community.  Everyone’s happy, and despite the regular assaults in the crowd, there’s not a hint of anger or gratuitous aggression.  Everyone who attended tonight will go home happy, and cherish the experience.  This is Christmas spirit in its purest rock’n’roll form.

I get on my bike to ride home and almost find myself lying on the ground.  I decide to walk the bike home, lest the permanent legacy of tonight be broken bones, or worse.  There’s a quick stop at a convenience store on the way home, but I’m not sure in hindsight what I purchased.

The next morning I’m sleeping off the night before when I hear World War III breaking out in the lounge room.  It’s 8.30am, a solid hour of extra sleep under the belt.  Today’s a tough day, but it’s worth it.  Gig of the year?  Gig of the fucking century more like it.

Rating: A Million Beers