Posted January 12, 2006

THEY ONLY THINK TWICE:
RETURN OF THE
THOUGHT CRIMINALS

 

Nearly hree decades on, Sydney's Thought Criminals have a unique place in the history of that city's music scene. One of the first bands, outside of the Radio Birdman circle, to spring up in the second-half of the '70s and be tagged punk, the Thoughties were perhaps the purest expression of the DIY ethic, establishing their own record label and booking agency (Doublethink) to issue their own records and book their own shows. In time, Doublethink became a virtual clearing house for like-minded acts like Tactics, Popular Mechanics, Seems Twice and Sekret Sekret, all footnotes now but genuinely innovative left-field acts at the time. The Thought Criminals were the thinking man's (or woman's) punks and 'the alternative to the alternative'. Adopting their name (and slogans) from George Orwell's harrowing tale of a world under the rule of Big Brother (the global corporate dictator - not the shitty reality TV show), their angular, fast and quirky punk rock was a fixture on the burgeoning Sydney underground scene.

Their recorded legacy of two EPs ("Hilton Bomber", "Food For Thoughtcrimes", two singles (one a giveaway 7-incher) and a brace of albums - "Speed...Madness...Flying Saucers" (1980) and "You Only Think Twice" (1981) - shows a band blessed with a sharp wit and some substantial tunes with an edgy, unsettling energy that the mainstream music industry could never accept. Songs like "More Suicides Please" and "Fuck the Neighbours" remain classics. Although the Thoughties crossed Sydney's Rubicon and took their music out of inner-city drinking holes and into the suburbs, wide acceptance remained elusive. The band eschewed whatever it was that might have taken them to the fabled next step, retired to the studio and eventually broke up, after one final (packed) show at Chequers on August 29, 1980.

The various members didn't drop off the face of the earth; bass player Roger Grierson establishing
Green Records and managing the likes of Tactics, the Johnnys, Nick Cave, the Allniters and a string of other influential Australian acts. He ended up running major label Festival before a takeover sent him off in pursuit of other challenges. Guitarist Stephen Phillip found his way into the charting Do Re Mi, keyboardist John Hoey joined Died Pretty and drummer Ken Doyle was in the first studio incarnation of the New Christs, playing on the "Waiting World" single.Bruce Warner became an animator and Doyle moved onto a career in I.T.

Like many bands of the era, the Thought Criminals are re-convening, for a one-off show at Sydney's Annandale Hotel on February 4, with the definitive line-up. The show also serves to officially launch the double CD set "Chrono-Logical", which compiles the band's body-of-work. It's a digipak CD or double vinyl set but, in true punk fashion, is also available, in its entirety, as a download at the band's website. If we were fond of cliches we might say: You can't get more punk than that...

THE BARMAN got Roger Grierson on the line at the Ministry of Truth shortly before Xmas 2005 to find out what's behind the sudden re-appearance of one of Sydney's most intriguing and determinedly independent punk bands.

ROGER: Why not? Everybody from the Johnnys to Van Der Graaf Generator to the Stooges have reformed. It seemed like everybody was doing it and with the release of the CD, and we put a website up to give away all the songs for free, it dragged a few people out of the woodwork.

We got offered a few other shows, none of which we could actually do. Or some we didn't want to do. One we got offered was the Punk Picnic, the BYO festival, In January. And got a couple of emails from all sorts of people around the world, really.

We all talk, we're all good friends. When we originally stopped, we decided we'd stop if it wasn't fun any more. We did. Relationships are all good. We've all still got our hair. We thought, why not?

Tell me about when the band formed. What made you want to play music?

The Ramones, really. The Ramones was the inspiration. Just the general DIY enthusiasm of punk in general. We were all music fans.

In the '70s, to be a successful musician it was associated with virtuosity. You had to be a "thoroughly accomplished musician" and there were very few people who were accomplished, successful and interesting. But obviously punk broke the mould and suddenly you were thinking: 'Gee, we could do that'.

The combination of the Ramones and a band called the Desperate Bicycles. They had a song called "Xerox Music" and their chorus was: "I f you can understand/Go and form a band/It was easy/It was Cheap/Go and do it". So people did.

And as I understand it, Bruce Griffiths, who started Aberrant Records, was inspired by the same song.

Shades of "Sniffing Glue" zine.

Exactly! The first thing that happened was - I'd been working at White Light, the independent record shop that Mark Taylor from the Lipstick Killers had. I'd worked there before it became a fully punk shop. I'd worked there with all the bootlegs and stuff. It seemed the thing to do. Punk was around so let's form a band.

You answered an ad in the foyer of the Paris Theatre in Liverpool Street?

I'd met Bruce Warner, the Thought Criminals singer, when I bought some singles from him at Paddington Markets. I had a stall selling bootlegs and he had a stall selling punk singles. We said 'Let's form a band'. We put an ad up in the foyer of the Paris Cinema.

Rique Lee Kendall answered it. He was in this band called The Skulls, with Joey Shithead who ended up in DOA. He was looking for a gig and said, 'Sure, I'll play the bass'. I'd been friends for a long time, and still am, with Mark Kingsmill, the drummer from the Gurus, so that was our band.

How long was Mark in the band?

He played on the first EP.

But he wasn't the drummer from the start?

We had a bunch of different people. Was he the drummer from the start? No, but he drummed in the period when we made the first EP. Famously resigned one night when we had a gig and he said: "Mate, there's a movie on television tonight I really want to see". That's as good a reason as any!

And then Steven and Ken were in this band - believe or not - backing (actor) Bryan Brown, and then Lee, the bass player, decided he was going...the Last Words asked Lee to join. We asked Ken (drummer for the Last Words) to join us because we were on our way to bigger and better things. Lee said sure and then Ken thought: 'I'm not interested in playing with these guys. I might go and fill the (Thought Criminals) drum spot. Then Stephen came with him and he played guitar, so I switched to the bass and that was that.

Musical chairs, but very much like what was happening in Sydney at the time, wasn't it?

Except than none of us played in any other bands, apart from the Last Words. Bruce and I knew what we wanted to do. Stephen and Ken had been in this half-band thing with Bryan Brown. We all clicked. We all liked the same records. It was all pretty straight forward.

We just managed to play a few shows in the early days of punk in 1977, when it was Wire and the Adverts. We bought both those records, and grew as those bands grew. It was an exciting time, and the whole DIY attitude spread out from there, into organising your own gigs. One of the reasons we were fiercely independent was because nobody wanted to help us. You had to do it in those days. You had to learn how to print posters, you had to learn how to master a record, you had to learn how to sleeve them. You had to because no-one else was going to do it for you.

Did you own your own PA? What about your screen-printing gear?

No we didn't own our PA. John Hoey did our printing. He was friends with Kingsmill. He did our posters. He did a lot of stuff, Martin Sharp as well. He did all the posters for the Stagedoor, all that sort of stuff. Then he joined the band.

One of the very first posters we did, we broke into the poster-printing place at the Tin Sheds or the University of NSW, and printed them off in the middle of the night. I laugh about it now but this is just what you did. You'd break into places. We used to break into the Last Words' rehearsal studio to rehearse. Use their gear, leave a mess and come back in the morning.

Going back to those early shows, do you remember a divide between the UK punk-influenced stuff and the US-influenced music?

Well, no. The thing was, the scene was very tiny. We used to joke that there were more people on the guest list for Tumbleweed at the Phoenician Club than actually saw Radio Birdman in their entire career. In the early days of the Funhouse, there were probably 100 people. The Saints and Radio Birdman at the Paddington Town Hall, I'm guess, there was probably 400 people? And that was a big event. It wasn't a case of 'Which gig do you want to go to?' - it was a case of 'Is there a gig on?' It was in the day before gig guides, which people seem to forget. It just worked differently. There wasn't the amount of information there is now.

As for a divide? People clearly had preference for the Saints or Radio Birdman, and whether it was Nick Cave or it was us, we firmly came down on the side of the Saints, just because we thought they were better. They seemed to be more...(sigh)...they seemed to be more kind of explosive and forward looking, whereas Birdman had this retro American things and were fans of the Stooges and Blue Oyster Cult (and who wasn't?) They certainly had a fanatical following, but the people who followed them weren't the people we knew. All the intellectuals - it's the wrong word - the pseudo intellectuals preferred the English stuff and the Saints. There wasn't a divide. There was certainly a difference.

Can you pick the point where the scene in Sydney actually took off? I've had this discussion with people. Deniz Tek, for example, says he came back from the UK and there weren't that many venues. The venues had changed. It exploded after that.

The Civic and the Stagedoor put it on the map. As far as any inflexion point, the Saints and Radio Birdman at Paddington Town Hall was probably a seminal moment, and if you look at photos from that show, there's a couple, along with the live video, that's got Bailey on the ground and all the people standing around surrounding him, it's me, it's Toby Creswell, it's Mark Taylor, it's John Foy. You go, 'Fuck, I know all those people'. I didn't know all of them then, but everybody knew everybody after a while.

The scene coalesced around the Civic. You had a venue that had bands seven nights a week, and the Stagedoor - certainly when we took over and helped Pat with the bookings - on one night you had the Angels/Mi-Sex nights, which were of course successful nights - but then the Wednesdays were traditional punk bands like the Rejex, the Bedhogs and Suicide Squad. Thursdays were a bit more intellectual because it was with Tactics and the M-Squared stuff, and Friday (or every other Friday) would be Popular Mechanics or the Thought Criminals, bands that were coming up. Sekret Sekret, I guess. And the same for the Civic. There was the usual crap like Mi-Sex, but there was a lot of stuff like the Mentals, Sekret Sekret and ourselves where a scene kinda formed around it.

And the Grand Hotel was the main focal point for the young punk ones. That was the place for X and Rocks.

Q I was going to ask you about The Grand...

It was fantastic. You played on the floor. The PA was sort of non-existent there.

One interesting fact was with what we used to call "the washing machine PA". It was this PA that looked like washing machines. It was actually owned by Jeff Fatt from the Wiggles. If you told most people that Jeff form the Wiggles did the PA for the Thought Criminals, most would refuse to believe it.

Q Maybe you could get him behind the desk for the reunion show at Annandale?

(Laughs) No, no, no, I don't think so! This was before people knew what foldback was. It was all very primitive.

The Funhouse - when the Psychosurgeons and the Hellcats played the Funhouse, leading up to Paddington Town Hall, and then the point when it became more organised with the Civic and the Stagedoor - that's when it started to take off.

Q Back to the Thought Criminals, lyrically, the social consciousness and political stuff was right up front. What was the fascination with "1984"? Were you guys form a university background?

No, none of us had any form of tertiary education. I think in those days you had to read it at school. It was powerful imagery for the time. We had a lot of fun with the image. We weren't card-carrying anarchists - in fact, quite the reverse. It was just a good image to have fun with. I liked what it stood for, and particularly in 1977 when 1984 was essentially a reality. 1984 hadn't actually happened. It's different now. When you looked at what was happening, you know, London burning, and you looked at what was happening in different places around the world, it was conceivable that by 1984 things would be heading in that direction. Let's face it, at that point everything that George Orwell had said turned out to be true. He's still quoted day in, day out.

Dennis Shanahan, the political commentator, said John Howard took the part of 1984 that said: "He who controls the present, controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future". And that was supposed to be a cautionary tale on Orwell's part but Howard took it as a manifesto.

Last week, the head of the Washington Strategic Institute, the think tank, who used to be a George Bush supporter, has now come out against Bush and said: "I'd like to quote George Orwell who said: 'The fastest way to end a war is to lose it'.

We read 1984 and Animal Farm and we were very impressed. We liked the imagery. We had the name, we just kind of used it.

Q Now, you mentioned London burning. What did you think of the Clash?

In our days, we thought The Clash were full of shit and we said that right form the start. At our gigs, you used to be able to buy a badge that said: "The Thought Criminals say the Clash are full of shit". I managed a couple of bands when the Clash came out (to Australia) and as far as I was concerned, the Clash were just hypocrites.

I thought they were a good band, and I liked what they stood for, but the problem was that they were hypocrites and if they didn't stand for anything it wouldn't have mattered. They were so adamant they were, you know...they signed to CBS...I mean, all of those people, whether it was Redgum or whatever, the more they went on about how they were anti-establishment, the more they -

Q Became part of it.

The Clash - they had to deliver a double live album to the record company, 20 years after the band had broken up and when the singer was dead, just to fulfill a contractual obligation. They weren't exactly smart. So they were stupid, and they were hypocrites!

They had "I'm So Bored With the USA" on their first album, then they got Pearlman and Kriegmann, who produced Blue Oyster Cult, to produce their second record. Hypocrites.
For what it's worth, I went to a film premier with Alan McGee and we ended up back at Clardiges in London where they had a party, and Don Letts and Mick Jones and Paul Simeon were there. Alan said: 'Don't you guys think it's ironic that we're standing around in tuxedos, drinking champagne with the Clash at Claridges?' And they went: 'What's your point?' They don't get it! 'You don't think this is ironic?...'No, not really. Should we?'. Don Letts got it. The others didn't. Paul Simeon is as thick as a brick!

Q When John Hoey came into the Thought Criminals and you introduced keyboards, how did that go down with the traditional punks?

Things moved quite quickly in those days. By the time Hoey joined, there was a sub section of punks - Proud Scum and bands like that - that was just "punk punk". They weren't Nazis but the National Front had an influence, and there was a whole bunch of punks that thought Sham 69 was a good idea. They kinda went the "dumb punk way". That split off into the Oi sub-set. They weren't fans of ours anyway. I can't recall any of those people hanging in there.

I think generally, the people that liked what we did preferred, preferred the simple "hit them on the head with a hammer" songs, and the stuff that we (later) did that we considered interesting, they found it too arty farty, or whatever. So that was it. At the time, as you do in a band, you want to go and play to new people. We wanted to open new venues and take other bands with us. We started going out and playing in the suburbs, which was a mistake. We thought we could break some new territory but, of course, when you get out there you realise, it's not worth the effort.

Q That was after the first album came out, when you started playing outside the inner-city?

No bands in the inner-city should have ever crossed Cleveland Street. They should have made people come to them. I just didn't work, I mean, the Scientists being bottled in front of the Angels' crowd. We went out and played those places. There were a couple of issues.

One was that the bands you had to play with were bands you wouldn't want to play with. You did it through necessity on the basis that you'd convert their crowd. Secondly, apart from a couple of cases, when you did go out and play to those crowds the people didn't like you anyway (because there was a certain redneck vibe). So it was a futile exercise.

We'd find venues. We'd get 10 people at the Mt Pritchard Community Centre, which we'd hire and promote ourselves. It was actually more satisfying going out and hiring a hall or community centre, and have 20 or 40 people turn up, all of whom were there saying: 'This is the most exciting thing that's happened to our shithole postcode'. That was much more rewarding than going and supporting the Party Girls or someone to 150 people at Rydalmere and having them going: 'When the fuck are you going to get off?'

Q Were you still working outside the booking agency system?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Totally booked ourselves. You know, we though the Lipstick Killers were sell-outs because they had a manager! (laughs). True!

So that was just us.

Q You mentioned before that you have the album available for free download. What's the rationale there?

Our first single was "I Won't Pay for Punk Records" and we always through music should be for free.

Q Should people pay for punk records?

Well, we didn't think so at the time. (Laughs) If you know what I've been doing the last 30 years, I've been the King of Copyright! I've looked after publishing companies; I've looked after peoples' publishing rights. Everybody from Powderfinger to Nick Cave. I think it's firmly the right of the artist and the writer to decide what's done with their songs. If Metallica want to sue Napster, then they can. And if Metallica want to give away they stuff for free, they can.

We thought, as a band, that music should be free. The whole economics of making it so proved to be much more complicated than we thought. I think it's fantastic now that we can put up a website and anybody that wants to come along and take our music, for free. If you want to by the vinyl or the artifact, whatever, they can do that as well. But it's our choice and it's their choice.

Q The band wound up when it stopped being fun. That's the story, isn't it?

Yeah, we made a pact from the start. When it wasn't fun, we were going to stop. And then it wasn't fun, so we did. We were all perfectly happy with the start and the finish and everything in between. It was the best way to finish a band.

We could have gone the James Freud route and tried desperately to jump on a thousand different bandwagons with the only intention of having a hit. We could have continued to just plod along and become some curio or whatever, but it was beginning to become a drag. The music industry itself was becoming a drag.

When you first start, you'll do absolutely anything to get a gig, but once it starts to get routine...when you get into the thing of having to practice and writing songs...all that kinda stuff. The more gigs you do, you have to start involving other people. You lose a little bit of control. We wanted to do everything ourselves. When we got to the point where we had to get other people to help us, or we were going to be doing exactly the same thing, it didn't seem like an appealing proposition and we all had better things we wanted to do.

So we did.

Personally, I started managing other bands. Cos I thought Tactics was a better band than we were. I'd be better playing the telephone than the bass. Other people we started working with were Spy Vs Spy and the Allniters, who I wanted to help. That was taking up more and more of my time, and I really enjoyed it.

Stephen was filling in with Do Re Mi and I helped them put the records out. And then that kinda took off. Bruce was doing his animation. Everybody was doing their own thing.
We weren't enjoying playing live, it was becoming a hassle. So we thought why don't we make the (final) record and see what happens. We enjoyed each other's company. We enjoyed being in the studio with M-Squared, which was Mitch, our sound guy. A lovely bloke. We just took over Mitch's place, smoking dope and making records. And helping other bands.

Q It’s very true, isn't it, that all bands have a limited lifespan? Almost every band - except for the Stones.

That's right. Apart from them. Some of them keep on keeping on and thrive on that creative tension. The Who being the obvious example, they thrive on the tension within the band.

We weren't particularly interested in having tension in our band. The whole point about being in a band for us was to have fun and you were in a gang with your friends. If you've seen the documentary on the Ramones ("End of the Century"), it's heartbreaking. They're in the world's best band and they hate each other! It's awful. I felt so sorry for those guys.

Q It was extraordinary they went for so long!

Well, you've seen the doco, I presume. They didn't know what else to do! It was heart-wrenching. They didn't even have the objectivity to see that they were the Ramones.

Q On an up note, what can people expect from the show at the Annandale?

Uhhhh...for us to be shadows of our former selves, of course! People who saw us in the original era will go, 'Gee, they're older, wiser, more well fed and they used to be faster'. And there'll be younger people with whatever fucking preconceptions they bring to the gig. But, I think if anybody who's interested in the songs and understands what a wry smile and a decent tune is all about...I don't think anyone's going to be too disappointed.

We're having fun in the rehearsals. We can remember most of the tunes. I've got a clear idea of what people expect and what they want to hear, so I think it's going to be pretty good.

It's some sort of gathering of people, many of whom may not have seen each other for a while. We thought about getting w whole bunch of bands and having an event, but I think the reality is people just want to get together and have a chat to their friends. So we'll play a few tunes and show the 1984 movie.

I didn't realise that the movie had been withdrawn by George Orwell's wife and hasn't been shown in public for a really long time. So that's cool. We're breaking the law in one way by showing it but it's a great looking piece of eye candy.

It'll be as many songs as we can remember and there'll hopefully be a couple of new songs and a couple of covers that are unexpected.

Q Since we're in a Bar, what are you drinking?

(Laughs) Um...Lovell's Lager. It's on tap at the Annandale. Excellent. If you're at the Annandale, buy some Lovell's Lager!

 

BACK TO THE INTERVIEWS PORTAL

LET'S GO BACK TO THE BAR