At the same time as a small pocket of inner-city Sydney was holding out against the anti-rock forces prevalent in the so-called alternative music world in the early '80s, across the seas in London there was a like-minded outfit - a gang of outcasts from not only the UK but Canada, the States and yes Australia - who were doing the same, fighting off the evil hordes of Goth and New Romance and all sorts of post-punk dreariness, with 12-string guitars and a love of the surf music, garage rock, folk rock and the Stooges.
The Barracudas, formed in '78 by Brit guitarist Robin Wills and Canadian rock writer Jeremy Gluck, hit the scene just as the simple joys of punk rock were becoming passe, and disappeared before the wide-spread garage rock revival really kicked in in the mid-80s. But they were much more than just keepers of the flame during a particularly dim period; they were a flat out great rock'n'roll band, as a new series of reissues on the Lemon label through Cherry Red clearly attests.
Bob Short has beaten me to the punch on reviewing the great reissues of the band's second and third albums 'Mean Time' and "Endeavour To Persevere" (and you can read his great Barracudas overview and interview with Jermey Gluck here) which leaves me to look at two essential collections, "The Big Gap 1978-81" and "Two Sides of A Coin 1979-84", before I have a quick chat to Gentleman Jim Dickson. Jim of course is the afore-mentioned Australian. He was a Barracuda after his stints with the Survivors and the Shakers in Brisbane and the Passengers in Sydney, and prior to his joining the New Christs in '86.
Jim however does not appear on "The Big Gap", a great collection of early demos and live tracks that preceding the band's heyday. Whilst a number of the demos - ones that they cut for EMI - appear on the latest EMI issue of the band's debut album "Drop Out with…", there is an abundance of riches here, all in the wonderful technicolor sound that fans of the 'Drop Out'-period band will be familiar with. Some of this is band at their most Ramones-influenced - tracks like "Neighborhood Girls" and "Tokyo Rose" plusa cover of "Little Red Book" would sit nicely alongside such chewy "Rocket To Rocket" gum as "Locket Love" and "Rockaway Beach" - while elsewhere their primal garage roots can be heard in a rough "Boss Hoss" and "I'm A Barbarian for Your Love". The encroaching sense of melancholy and doom which really kicked in post-"Drop Out" can be heard already be heard the likes of "Gotta Get A Gun" and a raw live take of their epic "Dead Skin". A bonus live take of the Trashmen's "King of the Surf" from '79 doesn't hold a candle to Johnny Kannis' Birdman-backed version from a couple of years earlier - I doubt whether any version could - but it does make me wonder how much Gluck's exposure to Birdman on their ill-fated UK tour shaped the Barracudas' early direction.
"Two Sides of A Coin' is another odds'n'sods-type collection - one which originally appeared unheralded sometime in the early '90s. It stands as a wonderful career overview. Kicking off with the band's joyous debut single "I Want My Woody Back", it then jumps to their early post-EMI period - their first recordings with Jim - and closes out with a brace of ragged but brilliant demos from prior to their '84 split. This latter session - the only stuff on either of these collections to illustrate the wonderful period when former Flamin' Groovie Chris Wilson was in the band - shows the band capable of focusing Stooges-like desperation through stinging 12-string guitar - the Barracudas never just jangled - and prove the band would've made awesome touring partners with the New Christs at the time.
Of course Gluck and Wills reformed the band with a new line-up in the early '90s for the under-rated Andy Shernoff-produced album "Wait For Everything" (and again in '05 for a fine self-titled album on the tiny NDN label - still in print I believe but certainly ripe for reappraisal); hopefully Lemon has plans to reissue that fine album soon, together with the two great albums by Wills' late '80s combo The Fortunate Sons, and Jeremy & Jim's short-lived post-'Cudas prohects The Life Ahead Corporation and the Civilization Machine..
Thinking it would be cool to grab additional Australian perspective on the Barracudas - from someone who was obvlously part of it all - I shot Jim Dickson a few questions via email. Not only was Jim a long serving member of the band, he is also someone who has spent the majority of his performing life in the midst of the rich Sydney post-Birdman rockn'roll scene - including of course a long stint last decade with Birdman themselves. Here's what he had to say.
DL -Legend has it you went to London with the intention of joining either the Barracudas of the Soft Boys - true? When/how did you discover the Barracudas - you would've been back in Brisbane with the Shakers when they first appeared -yeah? Initial impressions?
JD -I didn't go to London with any specific plan, other than to get out of Australia and see the wider world. I'd migrated out of England as a 16 year old clutching a copy of Electric Ladyland. It seemed that I had I'd missed out on something all the years I'd been away and I thought I might find it by going back there.
I knew about the Soft Boys....owned their Give it to The Soft Boys EP, bought it in a bargain bin in an import store in Sydney....so knew they were up to something good. The Barracudas I heard about in London once I'd found VINYL SOLUTION - a cool record shop to hang around, and naturally met them eventually. London was a lonely town for a rock'n'roll fan in those days so it was inevitable that likeminded people gravitated to the same places. Really, out of all the bands that I saw at that time, these were the only two that had any shine, so in my dreams, playing in either would have been great. Remember, I was a nobody from the other side of the world and was wanting in, somewhere.
DL - It's ironic but very fitting that Jeremy had seen Birdman on their UK stint. Do you think the Birdman's surf influence had anything to do with the Barracudas heading that way (before your time obviously)? Both bands did 'King of the Surf'...
JD - No idea... I guess they were in the same time/culture line as we were....same as people I met In France and Sweden later on...
DL - How would the Barracudas have gone down on the Sydney scene at the time? Obviously very strong parallels between the garage scene in Sydney and what the Barracudas were doing... Phantom used to sell a bunch of their stuff - no one in Mebourne was stocking it (except the local EMI release of the album) so I had to mailorder it from Phantom. I actually remember being told by the Phantom guys in a letter that accompanied an order that you'd joined the band...
JD - The band would have fitted right in......squeezed right in is more appropriate.... The Sydney scene then was only a couple of city blocks. When I came back to Sydney in '83 I was trying to line up shows for the band through the management of the Hoodoo Gurus but nothing came of it. It would have been hard to support an international tour with a couple of shows at the Hopetoun
DL - The introduction of Chris Wilson into the band and move towards a folk-rockier sound - how did you feel about that? were you as big a Groovies fan as Robin and Jeremy?
JD - We were all Groovies fans.....the songs for Meantime were mostly already written when Chris joined....he added his thing to them and wrote the most rock'n'roll song on the album, Middle Class Blues. In genre mining we were equally Paul Revere as Chocolate Watchband as Byrds as Thirteenth Floor Elevators...
DL - Every live recording I've heard with Chris in the band he sounds out of his head and there were always tuning problems - accurate assessment?
JD - 12 strings, 6 strings, 4 strings, no tuners...often a cacophany.
DL - Highlights/memories/stories?
JD - Proudly...the first western band to play in Algeria post-Communism. We went where others (literally)feared to go...and had a great time!!! 1983.
DL - Jeremy has written that the band split because you and he wanted to go in heavier directions, and Robin and Chis wanted to keep doing the folk-rock stuff - yeah?
JD - Jeremy was leaning towards the Stooges/BOC, I was showing my Sydney roots. Robin thought that was wanky stuff. The Barracudas had new songs but finding financing for a recording was hard. I decided to call it a day and throw my lot in with Jeremy but it was hard to find musicians with "that" attitude that gave what we wanted its sound.
DL - Life Ahead Corp and other post Barracudas projects - a quick overview please.
JD - So Jeremy got some money to do Life Ahead with Penny Ward on board. Civilisation Machine followed and came out halfbaked.
I went to the airport and Jeremy was the only one there to say goodbye.
DL - Penny Ward (of Sydney's Shy Imposters) and Mark Taylor (Lipstick Killers) recorded with Jeremy and you I think - can you explain those circumstances???
JD - Mark was in a bedsit in Earls Court for a while. Penny had been in London since '81 so was part of the scene. In fact I had abandoned a project of trying to get a band together with Penny when the Barracudas gig came up (sorry Penny)...Ron Keeley had auditioned on drums and Steve Robinson, later playing bass for the 'Cudas , was on guitar.. Small world in the big city!
DL - When/why did you head back to Aus? Was the New Christs on the cards at that point?
JD - I'd been talking to John Needham and Rob....Europe looked like a really cool place to play music and I believed that Australian Independent bands were what Europe was waiting for in 1985. The Barracudas taught me that there were fans out there, somewhere, and really all over the place. You COULD fly below the radar and survive.
DL - Any thoughts/comments on later Barrcacudas recordings, or any of Jeremy, Robin or Chris' other work?
JD - "Wait for Everything" is really good....Fortunate Sons stuff is good too and Jeremy continues to amaze us all
DL - While I've got you - how's the reformed Passengers going?
JD - On hiatus….would love to find some shows in Melbourne...