Musings on Rock and Roll
by Ken Shimamoto





Posted October 21, 2001


The band o' the hour at my house: the Celibate Rifles. Who else has conducted such a spot-on critique of modern society, with loud electric guitars? (Did I hear somebody say Gang of Four? Nah, those Pommy Reds went disco too quickly!) Who else can write 'em and play 'em as well as the Rifles, and more importantly, time after time, put it all together in the recording studio? More to the point, who else has done it so long and so consistently?

I recently had my interest in the Rifles rekindled by reading the article in the latest Big Takeover wherein Steve Gardner briefly recaps the Rifles' history (as well as the New Christs' and Died Pretty's) and the lengthy Gardner interview with Damien Lovelock on the NKVD Records website upon which the BTO article is partially based. For the next coupla months, with ace guitarist/producer Kent Steedman back in Oz from his spiritual retreat in the woods of Oregon, Antipodean fans can dig the Rifles' live fury, while we here in the States must await the imminent domestic release (on Real O Mind) of "Mid-Stream of Consciousness" to experience the same thrills vicariously.

Consider Gardner's other two subjects: while both the New Christs and Died Pretty have had great runs and produced a coupla classic albums, their output has been more uneven (not to mention less prolific) than the Rifles'. Chalk it up to shifting personnel, perhaps. Since their inception, Rob Younger's been the only consistent element in the New Christs (and it appears that the demise of Man's Ruin Records, who were supposed to pay for the recording of the New Christs' unfinished album, has put the last nail in the coffin of the long-running lineup Rob built around Mark Wilkinson and Christian Houllemare), while there have been two men (Ron Peno and Brett Myers) at the stable center of Died Pretty. For the past 21 years, the Celibate Rifles' core has always been three: the acidly idiosyncratic, fuzz-and-wah-drenched axe explorations of Steedman, bolstered by the rock-steady buzzsaw riddim of his guitar partner Dave Morris (the joker in the pack and the best-kept secret this side of AC/DC's Malcolm Young), over which frontman/TV personality Damien Lovelock declaims his thoughtful lyrics (which are socially-conscious without preaching) in a broad, flat, Everyman's voice. Fodder for numerologists? YOU decide!!!

In fact, shortly after the release of "Mid-Stream" and the Rifles' last series of dates, the long-serving (10 years!) engine room of Jim Leone and Nik Rieth departed (Nik having also recently walked his gig with the New Christs, presumably to concentrate on his bassless power trio, the Thermals), replaced in time for the Rifles' stand on "Studio 22" by the returning riddim team of third-time Rifle Mikey Couvret (whose power will hopefully make up for the loss of Jim Leone's musicality and backing vocals) and Paul Larsen (a disciple of Scott Asheton and Ron Keeley who Real O Mind supremo and long-time Rifles fan Geoff Ginsberg reckons to be "Detroit-rock ready in the same way that Nik Rieth is arena-rock ready"). The more things change, uh, the more they stay the same, I guess. (And how many bands' "old boys" would jump at such an opportunity?)

The Rifles had their shot at America in the late '80s and early '90s, when they toured this country four times in the vanguard of an Oz assault that also included the Hoodoo Gurus, Died Pretty (on record only), and later Asteroid B-612; recorded two live albums at CBGBs in Manhattan (the Barman and Geoff Ginsberg were both eyewitnesses to one of 'em); appeared on MTV's "120 Minutes" playing "Jesus On T.V.;" and were hailed by the Village Voice as "the band of 1986." The advent of the Seattle grunge phenom pretty effectively stalled the Stateside progress of Oz rock bands - ironic, considering that Kent Steedman produced Mudhoney and briefly played with the Screaming Trees, his fave band.
From their inception, joke name (play on the Sex Pistols, get it?) aside, theRifles were ALWAYS (as Clinton Walker noted) more than just yr typical three-chord punk band. The very first cut on their very first album has HORNS on it, for Chrissakes. They've always had an adventurous streak that elevates them above the general run of bands who wave the rock'n'roll flag. Perhaps that's why, as Gardner points out, they reward repeated close listening so well.

One thing about the Rifles: they don't sound like anybody else. They might have influences, but they keep them fairly well-hidden. The usual referents (the MC5, the Stooges, uh, the Ramones), while generally applicable in terms of pure sonics, don't quite catch it. Perhaps the best clue to their provenance is in their covers, which are legendary. Those they've recorded (by Radio Birdman, the Only Ones, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, the Stones, Sonic's Rendezvous Band, the Visitors, the Replacements) always seem to capture the spirit of the song while retaining the band's own essence, never descending to mimicry, and the ones they essay live are said to be worth the price of admission by themselves (never having made it to one of their Boxing Day shows or their Sydney Harbour cruise last year, I can only imagine).
Their own compositions don't readily suggest a convenient pigeonhole. For every explosion of punk fury like "Jesus On T.V." or "Spirits," there's a slow, moody piece like "Excommunication" or "Living What I Dream" - while these guys don't do the slow burn as well as, say, the "Distemper"-era New Christs, they're definitely capable of intensity at slower tempos. Like all the best Oz bands, the Rifles have their complement of singalong anthems ("Wonderful Life," "O Salvation"), but even these come with a slightly skewed perspective.

Their debut album, "Sideroxylon," had much the same feel as the first Clash album (dunno whether it's the lyrics, some of which address the British adventure in the Falklands, or Phil Jacquet's light touch on the drums, reminiscent of Terry Chimes'); I dock it a notch for its echoey, trebly sound. By "The Turgid Miasma of Existence," they were into something entirely Other, capable of stuff as un-"punk" as the dark, droning"Sentinel" or the meltdown at the end of "New Mistakes." I see "Roman Beach Party" as a turning point (the moment when Steedman and Morris found their GREAT guitar tones), and prefer the fuller, more confident sound of "Blind Ear," the Rob Younger-produced "Heaven On a Stick," and "Spaceman In a Satin Suit." (Brickbats, please!) My favourite of late has been "Platters du Jour," the 1990 compilation of early single and EP tracks which provides proof positive that these guys are (among many other things) the world's greatest experimental punk comedy band! Some of the material on the new "A Mid-Stream of Consciousness" ("G's Gone" and my personal pick, "Child of Mine") continues in the vein of the mostly-acoustic "On the Quiet," while the old strengths are in ample evidence on tracks like "Paddo Sharps," "I Shoulda," and "Wake Up."

As one who lost his faculty for remembering the words to songs around 1973, I gotta say that I'm particularly taken with Damien Lovelock's lyrics. I'm struck by how much smarter Damo's politics are than, say, Joe Strummer's. For every satiric jab at the emptiness of modern consumer culture ("Where Do I Go," "Some Kind of Feeling," "I Shoulda"), there's a piece filled with compassion for the folks who dwell at society's margins ("Eddie," "Cold Wind," "Dream of Night"). For every blast of vitriolic spleen like "Happy House" or "Rainforest," there's a gentler, more (dare I say) spiritual message like "Electric Flowers" or "This Gift" (the latter a lovely evocation of everyone's ideal scene). For a guy who makes his living there, Damo is pretty merciless on the media; check out "Conflict of Instinct," "Electravision Mantra," "S 'n' M T.V.," or "Talkback Saviour" for proof. Almost unheard of among rock songwriters, he avoids getting hung up on his own perspective (the "here I am observing" syndrome). He can portray a bored housewife's point of view ("Gonna Cry," "Compared to What?") just as easily as he can Everybloke's. A unique talent.
I could go on, and I probably will. If you've heard 'em, you KNOW. If you haven't and you're still here, you should. (If you're in the States, most of their albums are available from Steve Gardner at The Celibate Rifles are an Australian national treasure. Long may they run.
- Ken Shimamoto