Posted May 6, 2003

Underground Tales from the Glory Days:
Tim Pittman's Labour of Love

Manager, promoter and now record label honcho and musical archivist, Sydney's Tim Pittman has been impeccably positioned to see some galvanising moments in recent Australian underground music. Early management moves had him helping guide the fortunes of The Eastern Dark and the Hard Ons, and later Kim Salmon and The Mark of Cain. Pittman spent a year as booker for legendary venue the Sydney Trade Union Club, a multi-level around-the-clock playground for bands, fans and mutual excess. In more recent years he's been at the wheel of Feel Presents, who've brought Australia tours by Lou Reed, The Violent Femmes, the Buzzcocks, Rollins Band, Spoon, Bob Mould, Radio Birdman and the Dirty Three. In March 2003, Feel moved into the record business with a landmark double disc compilation, "Tales From the Australian Underground: Singles 1976-1989".

An expansive, sometimes idiosyncratic collection of 45 singles from the heyday of Australian "indie" music, it seeks to give an overview of the music that the mainstream forgot or ignored. Lovingly restored from master tapes or, mostly, original vinyl, it sounds amazingly bright and, in places, urgently contemporary. Chronologically ordered and expansively notated with liner notes by the compiler, it gives a complete picture of the years it spans.

We thought it high time to catch up with the affable and talkative Tim to chew the fat over "Tales", tours and the state of local underground music. THE BARMAN fired the questions on the evening of March 4, 2003, the anniversary of the passing of The Eastern Dark mainman James Darroch.

BARMAN: Congratulations on the album. What was the inspiration for it? Where did the idea come from? You being an enthusiast as well as a promoter must have had something to do with it.

TIM: Being a promoter didn't have anything to do with it. It was purely through being an enthusiast. Going back many years, I really liked the "Ugly Things" series and I wondered why they never did it for that era (the late '70s and '80s). I'm not sure what the actual catalyst was for it, other than wondering why this stuff hadn't come out (on a re-issue)...why can't you buy it?

I've got very old cassettes I made when I was 16 or 17. Stuff like "New King Jack" (by Sekret Sekret) and "Hindu Gods of Love" (The Lipstick Killers). I started playing them again and I thought, 'My god, these are so great'. It's just as good now, really. I thought: 'You can't get these, they have no new albums, they'll never come back...maybe I can put this compile idea together and get all the great singles' from what I saw as the most inspirational time frame of Australian music.

B: You've taken a different approach from the other compilations on the market ("Do the Pop" and "Born Out of Time"). Was that deliberate or is this just a reflection of your personal tastes?

T: It wasn't deliberate because the others didn't exist then. I didn't they were doing theirs.

It took a long time really. Five years from me saying 'Yes, I want to do this'. For some years before that it (the idea) was going around in my head and I was saying 'How do I do this?' A reflection of my personal tastes?

Well ultimately I like every single song on there, yeah, but I didn't have all the stuff, or know all the stuff, when I set about doing it. I probably had 70-75 percent of it and I had a whole lot more stuff sifting through. I figured out two CDs was the way to do it. But I kept going back to my old books....Clinton Walker's "Inner City Sound" and the "Australian Encyclopedia of Rock and Pop"...Ian McFarlane's collector magazines...just finding stuff that I didn't have or didn't know but knowing that it meant something to someone.

So I just went out of my to find the stuff I didn't have, that maybe as a young 'un I didn't appreciate. Being older, I could get my head around it a bit better. So I bought loads of stuff. A lot of it wasn't any good. I was right, back then. I also unearthed some stuff that was pretty neat, like that thing ("Taels of the Saeghors") by the Makers of the Dead Travel Fast. That's pretty contemporary. I had a different Tactics track earmarked until I heard that one, which I just love. Stuff I just remembered, like that Do Re Mi thing ("Standing on Wires"), I heard on the radio (back then) and it wasn't to my immediate tastes. But it stuck so I figured I must like it somehow. So I had to find it, play it again.

And it was really important to show what happened, musically, over the period of time. I didn't want to stick to one genre as I wanted to show the things that came and went and the scenes that we had. And what was important or popular to people. The Moffs came out of nowhere, that thing went number-one on the indie charts for a very long time, they drew very big crowds. People just forget about that, or that song ("Another Day in the Sun"). It even used to get radio play on Double Jay, (while) a lot of the other stuff on there got no play.

So I took it was beyond my immediate tastes and stretched it to try and make it a more complete picture, to show how unique Australian music was in that time as opposed to now, where it's pretty much a carbon copy of what everyone else is doing in the world.

B: It's fall-out from globalisation, really.

T: Isn't it. There's no identity, really. I think the identity we had back then was because of the isolation. There was no Internet, web streaming, cable TV, MTV and everything else. Everyone made up their interpretation of that they thought something was. That's the way I see it. Things like the Victims and the Psychosurgeons - that stuff is created in isolation and based on some sort of ideal of what something is somewhere else. As opposed to watching something on telly and thinking: 'I want to be like that'.

As you would recall, it was hard to even get overseas records in those days. I really think our environment and isolation, even up until the '80s, was playing a large part in the sounds that we produced.

B: It was a strength and a weakness. Being out of the scene a bit. I think it even increased the cachet of what was being produced, in markets like Europe. People over there went apeshit for it.

T: It was really wasn't underground (in Europe), as the title says. I chose that word because "independent" and "alternative" are so used and abused. I was trying to find a word that would somehow give the people an idea of what I mean. Stuff like the Beasts and Died Pretty, the Scientists and up to the Hard Ons, it was as important to people in Europe as Black Flag, Butthole Surfers, Pussy Galore and Sonic Youth. It meant as much. It was underground music and Australian stuff was good because it sounded Australian. It didn't sound like the other stuff. It was unique for that reason.

Touring with the Hard Ons for all those years over there, we felt the change coming. On the first tour, it was a tidal wave, this thing called The Pixies coming behind us. Everyone was talking about them. The second tour, the Mudhoney thing had started. By the time we hit there in '91, it had all changed. Even though it was a big year for us over there and in Australia, '92 was just a dead year. It all changed on the Nirvana thing, If you had existed pre-Nirvana, you didn't exist any more. Your life was just shortened.

Which was ironic for the band that I (later) managed, The Mark of Cain. They'd been around since '88 or even earlier. But nobody really heard them outside Adelaide. So when they got singed to a label in '95, for all intents and purposes the public thought they'd released their first album. So they were perceived as "post-Nirvana", even though they'd had a 10-year history prior to that. You couldn't sell the Hard Ons at that point because they'd been way too high profile. TMOC had been to Sydney once or twice, played really obscure venues and disappeared. It was like that in Melbourne. All of a sudden they put out their record...Henry Rollins' name was attached...they were on Triple Jay...there's this brand new band The Mark of Cain (laughs).

B: I know that probably a third of the tracks on "Tales" you tracked own the masters. How did you do that?

T: Ummm...

B: And how come it all sounds so good????!!!

T: Well I guess we can probably thank Mark Taylor (Lipstick Killers guitarist) for that.

B: He did a fantastic job transferring it.

T: He did. He really took a lot of time and effort and took pride in it. I have a lot to thank him for because if he wasn't there, it would not have been affordable because of the expense of doing it. He did it literally at mate's rates.

How did I find it all? Obviously I owned the majority of it, but where I'd played my copies a bit too much, "Dr Rock" (record label head and ex-owner of one of Sydney's coolest stores) happened to have multiples. He had lot of stuff, unplayed.

This obscure character called "Robert" rang me one day and said: 'Steve Lucas (X singer) told me to call you. My name is Robert. I have lots of vinyl things you're looking for'. I just met this odd character in town, that looked like an old drunk. He had dandruff all over his jacket, like this weird, eccentric guy. He said: 'I have all these records. I bought all of them. I've only ever played them once. I recorded them on cassettes'. So, I had pretty much a complete selection of virgin vinyl.

B: Robert had to have been in "Hi Fidelity".

T: (Laughs) Yeah. I don't think he'd been near a woman in his life! He was just isolated, a weird character....'How well do I really wan to know this guy? Do I really want to take his vinyl? That means he might call me again' (laughs).

And then other things I had to buy. The Numbers thing ("Government Boy") I found at Vicious Sloth Collectables in Melbourne. It was 115 bucks. I hadn't seen it since I was a kid. I only remember it from a friend of mine who had it. I'd not really come across anyone in Sydney who really knows that record. I just remember seeing them at the time. One of the first bands I'd seen when I was about 15 at the Stagedoor. And really liking that record. Having it on a really old, battered TDK C60 cassette. What a great song.

And I had a lady that I get my magazines from, this old lady, I just like her. She used to run this shop at Oxford Square. She's moved somewhere else now. I told her what I was doing. She said: 'I've got loads of those records in the back of the shop. A lot of the bands used to come in and sell them on consignment. Sometimes they wouldn't come back and collect what they didn't sell. 'You can go and have a look if you want'.

B: Oh god.

T: Under this really thick coat of dust I found that Tactics single ("Standing By The Window") which I didn't even know existed. Then I found the Makers of the Dead Travel Fast single. I found another version of the first Sunnyboys EP. I got the first Sekret Sekret single "Charity". Finally found that. All this stuff. 400 bucks worth of stuff.

So, it all just came together, you know. Then there were the rare few master tapes that existed. Then Mark Taylor - I don't know if you've ever been to Mark's place?

B: I've heard!

T: Yeah, it's something else! (Laughs) It's pretty funny that he has this sound system to listen to the most raw music imaginable, the most primitive stuff you could listen to.

B: And it's filed by country and year!

T: He must go and crank this stuff up and bounce around the walls. He transferred things...he'd clean the records and he'd transfer them on his very elaborate, very expensive turntable onto his own computer. He reckons he's the only guy in the country who has this particular software for cleaning it up.

I just took it down to a professional mastering studio run by a guy I know. We just fine-tuned it. Made sure the levels were all good. A couple of things I didn't think were quite up to scratch. The Flaming Hands and Pel Mel were still a little dull so we clicked those a little bit. And put the whole thing together.

Tim on tour with the Buzzcocks.

B: I understand there are prospects of the thing going live?

T: Building by the day. There's a lot of bands that were just really happy to be involved. They were grateful or honoured that someone was doing such a thing and they'd been nominated, Which was really pleasing. A few have volunteered their services and are quite happy to play.

So far names suggested have been Ups and Downs, Tactics, The Moodists, Sekret Sekret. The Lipstick Killers obviously sort of exist. So that's a few of them. I'm trying to figure out exactly how to do it. I have a few ideas. I wouldn't exactly say it's going to be Long Way to the Top standard (laughs). Multi-venues and go regional! But it will certainly bring the inner city back to life for a few nights.

B: Maybe find a venue similar to the old Trade?

T: Well, I can actually do the Metro over two rooms. I can do five bands across two rooms. It's just that some of the people involved actually get paid quite well these days in the bands they're in. I don't know if they'd be wanting to go back to working for peanuts again.

B: For beer money.

T: That's right. I'm sure the financials can be worked out so I'm not going to lose and they are going to get paid.

B: Speaking of the Trade, what years were you booking there? Who did you put through?

T: The whole of '87. Which I'm proud to say was the most fruitful year for them since 1984. We had Go Betweens, their return tour, who filled the place. Ed Kuepper and the Yard Goes on Forever used to do a thousand people. Lime Spiders were at their peak in that year. We did a couple of nights with the Damned after their Selinas show. We did - my biggest mistake in terms of drawing - Suzi Quatro! (Laughs) Some people thought it was a cool thing to do! Not enough of them actually.

B: She's touring right now!

T: I gave it a shot. We lost a bit of money but I gave it a shot. It was worth a shot.

I booked things like Southern Fried Kidneys, the Ups and Downs, Toys Went Berserk, Happy Hate Me Nots, probably Harem Scarem. And we did the two Scientists return home shows. It was a pretty big year.

B: Was it a natural move into management? You'd managed before hadn't you?

T: I don't know if I'd call (what I did for) The Eastern Dark management, now that I know what management is. James called the shots on everything, as long as Bill wasn't arguing with him.

B: Are you aware today is the anniversary of the accident?

T: Not until Bill (Gibson) told me. It brought a tear to my eye immediately. Everytime I think of James in that context it just makes me cry. It's just really...I can't imagine him any other way than what he's 17 years ago, I'm 12 years older than what he was at the time. He'll always remain, like, not a father figure to me, more like an older brother. We had a really good relationship, for the most part, and it's just such a shame. I don't know where he might have gone with his music but he was such a successful guy in his own right, a smart guy. He was an engineer. He had control of himself. He didn't drink or do drugs. He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it. It's just really unfortunate that that sort of thing happened to someone that together and in control of their life, really. You don't want it to happen to anyone really but to someone who was on the edge of getting their dreams. Very sad.

James Darroch, R.I.P.

B: Bringing us full circle...what about "Tales" volume 2?

T: It's sort of at the same stage where volume one was, and I had 75 percent of it picked, and I need to go and do a bit more research and find out what I haven't heard or could be missing. In the whole time I was doing volume one, as you know it would be an easy thing to do a punk rock/garage rock thing in one CD, but I couldn't really see the point of that. I wanted to show how we'd moved and what we did over the years. While I was doing number one I was planning number two and making sure it was going to be as strong.

So where number two would have things like the Thought Criminals, the Go Betweens, the Shy Imposters, and Toys Went Berserk. feedtime, as well as having a few bands repeated. I mean the second Riptides single "Tomorrow's Tears" was fantastic, but you can only have one, right.

Even hanging with the Dirty Three guys, as I was on the weekend, they did some shows over in WA. They told me a bunch of stuff they reckoned was great in Melbourne in the very early '80s that I'm really not familiar with.

B: Well there really wasn't a lot of crossover. In many respects there were Sydney people and Melbourne people and the two scenes didn't cut across until the late '80s.

T: That's right. Having been to Melbourne since '84 with the Moffs, I was very aware how vibrant and important it was. I was very conscious of that when I was putting this thing together, that Melbourne had its share. But I asked people, I asked and asked, and I went looking for stuff and I didn't get a lot of feedback about good tracks.

I think I picked really great tracks from Melbourne bands, but the Dirty Three guys really know their stuff from that time. They rattled off half a dozen names I'm not familiar with anyway. Buick XPT and Honeymoon Green. They swear by them. OK, I have to find those records. I can't put out another without having heard them. So I've got to find those things and that's stuff that we haven't necessarily heard of up here (Sydney). It may have been the case for them down there. I don't know that they would have heard of the Numbers' "Government Boy". I don't even know how clued up they were on the Leftovers, for instance. How many copies of that record got out of Brisbane?

B: A couple of hundred?

T: Well there were only 300 or so available. The majority surely went to people in Brisbane and Queensland.

B: It's been booted.

T: I mean at the time. Not everyone like us keeps looking back for those sort so things. People like the Dirty Three, that was stuff that they really liked at the time, but they would never have bought something like the Passengers. That wouldn't have made much impact in Melbourne, I'm sure.
So I've tried to ask people to come up with stuff. But I don't think Adelaide provided much stuff really. More Melbourne. So I think the next album will have a healthier representation of Melbourne acts.

B: How's it selling? Bit early to tell, I guess.

T: Yeah, bit early. It's certainly getting good press. I'm rapt in it actually. Someone approached me, wanting to know if I'd work on a DVD. It would be great.

B: It'd be fantastic if you could source the vision.

T: It exists, you know.

B: Unfortunately, a lot of it's tied up with the ABC.

T: I reckon there's a lot of people with home movies out there. No-one's ever asked them. Before number two, the next project is the Sunnyboys singles album. The reason is why hasn't it been done before? One of the greatest singles bands. The bulk of their B sides were recorded at the first album and "Happy Man" single session. With the first EP and those B sides, and there are five live tracks they never recorded (in a studio), they had a whole other album they could have released PRIOR to the first album. Which to my mind would have been even better than the one they put out.

So, what we're putting out is all the singles A's and B's, on the first one. On the second one, at the moment, I've got two Triple Jay sessions from '81 with all the unreleased live tracks, on a 24-track recording. We know Festival-Mushroom has a whole concert from Bombay Rock in 1981. I'm just having trouble locating it. It's also on video. Occasionally you see on MusicMax "Alone With You" live, which is from this particular night.

There's a higher profile compile coming out as well, higher profile in terms of acts. That would have the Saints "Know Your Product" and "Aloha Steve 'n' Danno" next to the Models and stuff like that. The ones that are semi-hits. You'd have the Go Betweens' "Cattle and Cane" on there, you know. I specialise in "non-hits".

"Tales of the Australian Underground" is available from Citadel or other good music outlets. Feel Presents have a web site that carries news of tours and upcoming releases.