Posted October 18, 2006
The Sydney music scene of the 1970s was indelibly altered by a combination of the Detroit garage rock sound, pummelled into local music venues by Radio Birdman, and its spin-offs, contemporaries and imitators, as well as the visual style of the English punk movement. Tactics eschewed the prevailing garage sound; the band also avoided tying its lot to the tabloid punk movement. Its idiosyncratic aesthetic and resolute opposition to conformity, however, had more in common with the philosophy of punk than teenagers raiding their mothers’ sewing kits for safety pins or using CFC-heavy hair product to create a crazy spiked style.
Tactics released two albums, “My Houdini” and “Glebe”, in the late 1970s and early 1980s being imploding in the wake of the release of the second long player (coinciding with various personality clashes and substance abuse problems). Lead singer and guitarist DAVE STUDDERT took time out from performing before forming another version of Tactics (to be subject of a new compilation in the near future), eventually completing a PhD in Political Philosophy and moving to England.
To celebrate the release of the Tactics retrospective “The Sound of the Sound Volume 1”, Studdert returned to Australia to play a couple of shows. PATRICK EMERY spoke to Studdert about Tactics, punk and political philosophy.
Canberra has produced some notable artists and bands over the years (although those artists have rarely stayed in Canberra) – as a teenager growing up in Canberra in the 1960s and 1970s, what was the Canberra musical scene like?
I didn’t really grow up there. I kind of grew up in army camps up and down the coast. I really only went to Canberra when I did my final year of high school, and then I went away for a while and then I came back again. And I was there for basically a couple of years when I started the band. So I wasn’t really a Canberra person, I just happened to be there at the time. But I also thought there was something kind of peculiarly Canberrian about what we did – it kind of heightened my sense of white Australia because Canberra kind of symbolises it in a way. I always interested in why that had happened. And when I started listening to Love, there’s that sense in Love, the way Arthur Lee combines different bits in his songs almost equates with the way Canberra was both real and hallucinatory. That really played into what I was thinking about, and it affected Angus and Bob too. So it helped us work out what we were doing.
You subsequently moved to Sydney, a city that (in my and others’ observation!) is plagued by notions of style and conformity, concepts that seem anathema to the Tactics’ modus operandi. Did you feel comfortable being consciously different to the prevailing popular and independent scenes?
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt comfortable about anything! It didn’t really matter whether we were comfortable with it or not. When you listen to the tracks on Australian Underground Volumes 1 and 2 you can pretty well put the bands in one of three categories. I was amazed when I listened to Volume 1 at how English some of the bands sounded, and I never felt comfortable with doing any of that. So it was a more case of we were like that, whether we liked it or not.
And it was also true that people in Melbourne overstate the contrasts with Sydney. But these days one of the reasons I don’t want to live in Sydney is that it’s all lifestyle, no life, and in some ways it’s grown into that picture people had in Melbourne, but that picture wasn’t always the case.
In the early 1980s there was a lot of different things, different scenes happening – it wasn’t all that lifestyle thing. It was a pretty kind of diverse kind of city. We were torn with the idea of going to Melbourne when we were ready to move but we’d already been to Sydney a few times and gone down well there so it felt natural to move there. In some ways if we’d gone to Melbourne we probably wouldn’t have had to battle so much. The Detroit garage scene was really big in Sydney when we got there and the scene around Doublethink was just starting out. We went where our friends were.
It’s like it says in the booklet – we didn’t even have a bio, but we were really committed to what we were doing. In some ways we were isolated mentally from everything else, and the industry, and from what was happening in England – except that we kind of sympathised with their anger.
What’s the origin of the band’s name? It suggests you had a plan for what the band was trying to achieve – is that accurate?
Well, these things always kind of fit, but you don’t think about it consciously. I was looking for names and we’d gone through quite a few but when I saw the word “tactics” written in a book somewhere it just seemed like the right thing. But as it turned out it was exactly in keeping with the way we were looking at things. Somebody once said we were a post-structuralist band before post-structuralism came about. When I think about “Long Story” and some of that stuff there’s sort of truth in there – the notion of tactics as the kind of ideas fitting into that whole post-structuralist thing ended up being fitting.
The Tactics’ sound was influenced by the reggae sounds, at that stage being championed by English punk bands like The Clash and Public Image Ltd. What was the awareness and perception of reggae in Australia at the time The Tactics were playing?
I wrote the first review of Bob Marley that ever appeared – I wrote it in a student newspaper in 1973. I was really into Burning Spear – we didn’t have many records but they were really good records, like “Garbage Days”. Like I say in the booklet I used to hunt around for all this sort of stuff.
What I really liked about reggae was it really represented its own culture in its own way, and this is what we wanted to do. We never played reggae songs, just like we never played songs that sounded like Love, in that sense. But we used those two records to help us in what we were aiming to do. They influence us not in a particular sort of a way in terms of what notes we played or how we constructed songs but just in the general attitude that came through them. That sense in the Love record of dislocation, the dynamics that are in the record, the contrasts in instrumentation, the differences in the drumming – the guy plays the rhythm, not the beat, most of the time. It’s the same in reggae. Also with reggae the band is putting down the music – it’s not about individuals. So we weren’t really into solos. Angus was by far the best musician but he wasn’t interested in soloing. It was a case that everybody played something pretty simple but it all built up into a really complex whole.
That’s what we took out of reggae – that sense of strangeness, a series of people playing things that were a little bit weird. Because we weren’t trying to copy anyone we didn’t have a template in our heads of how we wanted to play. We didn’t say “I want a guitar sound like X” or “I want to play chords like Iggy and the Stooges”. Because of that it sounded a little bit different to what everyone else was doing, but that was part of what we were trying to say.
Do you think The Tactics was a “punk” band? What defines (if anything) “punk”?
If you want to take a narrow definition and base it on how people dressed then we weren’t like that at all. If you want to take it as a wider feeling, as distinct from a particular style then we certainly connected with all that sort of anger and the desire to do it all yourself. So from that point of view, the wider point of view, we had a connection with all that thing.
But we were always vigorous against adopting safety pins and that sort of thing. Some people came to Sydney, or to Melbourne from a provincial city be it Newcastle, or Canberra, or Ballarat and they have a kind of hierarchy in their minds so they immediately start copying people. But we were the complete reverse because we had a strong idea of who we were, and who we wanted to be, and we were pretty obstinate and we just didn’t want to copy other people.
So when we went to Sydney we didn’t go as provincials who wanted to be educated in the big city – we went there because we knew we’d get a better audience in Sydney than in Canberra for what we were trying to say, and we carried what we were trying to say – in terms of what we were trying to say, rather than musically – to Sydney.
The liner notes to the new compilation suggest that the recording of “My Houdini” was a very intense event, including a run-in between you and Martin Bishop to keep the tapes of the recording. Do you think the intensity of the recording contributed to the quality of the final product – or was the quality of the product in spite of the difficulties in creating it?
We were a pretty full-on and intense band. I was incredibly focused, and so were the other guys. He [Bishop] put us in a situation where we had to watch what he was doing, every five minutes, otherwise he’d do something we didn’t want him to do. We were pretty paranoid about what people wanted to do with us anyway. So all that meant was that at the end – it was done in a little house in Hurstville – as Hamish says in the liner notes we recorded during the day, played gigs at night and there was a lot of intensity and grinding poverty. So it was a pretty intense process. And he was a pretty intense guy too, but not necessarily in a positive way – that’s what Hamish and I were trying to say in the liner notes. But yeah, I’m sure that contributed to it – but we were pretty intense to start with.
When “My Houdini” came out you received some critical and popular acclaim, albeit focused in the inner-city Sydney area. How did that acclaim sit with your self-proclaimed loner/outsider persona?
I don’t know really – that’s a hard one to answer. I wouldn’t say that I went out consciously to be an outsider – quite the opposite. It was just something that happened, to with certain things with my family and my background. It became a habit – I wouldn’t say I was picking fights or anything – but taking certain attitudes toward certain things. These things seem to be conscious choices based on the evidence but there’s always an emotional element to it.
Some people choose conservative politics because they’re inclined to that sort of way, and others choose radical politics because they’re inclined to that sort of way. When the record came out it didn’t feel any different. We were living it on a day-to-day basis so you don’t really see it the same way you see it 26 years later.
By the time “Glebe” came out the band seemed to be in disarray. Do you think (in hindsight) it was a mistake to release the album out?
Were we in disarray? We were certainly not as focused because all these things have a curve – they have a life, they start, they die. We’d done a lot in that period, we’d started in 1978, we’d recorded an album, we’d played a lot, we’d toured a lot. And I wouldn’t say we were running out of energy but you can’t keep that type of energy for ever – you can’t keep going for ever.
The band wasn’t in disarray that we couldn’t record an album – we went in and recorded the album in eight days. Fundamentally I’m really in love with the record, I think it’s fantastic. I think disarray is probably too hard – it’s fair to say that we weren’t together in the same way that we were when we recorded My Houdini.
From a marketing point of view the record was a wrong move but while recognising that it was, I don’t regret it for one moment. I love the album, and I’m really happy that we did it and I know the reasons why we did a record that was so different to “My Houdini”. We weren’t thinking in those terms about marketing, and we never had. If we had then that would’ve been the death of the band much more than what happened.
There were massive expectations about what would be on the record – they all thought it was going to be “My Houdini Mark 2”, which is pretty fair and reasonable expectations but it wasn’t what we were going to live up to. There was an expectation from us that it would be a finished record, and that it would be finished and polished in the way that we wanted it to be, and that didn’t happen either. In some ways that was more devastating for us than anything else.
What involvement in music did you have after The Tactics imploded?
Nothing for about a year-and-a-half. At the end of the liner notes I describe that whole process. Then I came back and put another band together, also called Tactics, which is coming out on Volume 2. That, except for Angus, had a completely different personnel. Then halfway through that Angus left and then jumped out of a window, and it all happened like that.
What contact (if any) have you had with the other members of the band in the last 25 years?
Well we played a gig the other night with two of the people, Ingrid and Gary. I don’t know where Bob the drummer is – apparently he’s living up on the Gold Coast somewhere. I saw Angus for the first time in about 20 years about a month ago and I see the people from the other band quite a lot.
I’ve heard you completed a PhD – is this true? What was the subject of your thesis?
I’ve put out two books in the last year, plus the CD – it’s been a pretty productive period.
What was the subject of your PhD?
Political Philosophy. Basically how to discuss sociality in a different way – how to think about political formations and social formations in a different way. I’m trying to move beyond post-modernism.
You’ve cited the late Arthur Lee and Love – particularly Love’s “Forever Changes” – as a major influence on the Tactics’ style. In the aftermath of Lee’s death, what’s your assessment of Arthur Lee?
One of the things about his music was how peculiarly individual it was, and how he used existing things to develop things that was very personal for him and his band and how he was never able to reproduce it himself. But fundamentally I’m just interested in the record. I met Arthur once, by accident actually. I didn’t particularly want to hang around and talk to him, I’m just interested in the record, the document.