Since late-April 2017 I’ve consulted with the curatorial team at the Museum of Brisbane for their exhibition of Brisbane’s popular music scene from 1989–2019. The High Rotation exhibition is a snapshot of artists, as the title suggests, that were on ‘high rotation’ on radio, TV, stages, on the car stereo and at home. It is not a definitive social history, nor does it exhaustively cover the multiplicity of vibrant music scenes that made Brisbane the creative hotbed it continues to be.
With a long career working in music from Brisbane, I was acutely aware of the task at hand and I was inspired me to reflect on my own experience of the times.
Men. Brisbane. Music.
Stories told by men, about men and the music made by men have dominated the Brisbane music narrative for decades, with scant exceptions. I am not criticizing individuals’ writing, research or creative work and, like many of us from the 1990s, I’ve willingly embraced the status quo.
To understand where I fit (or don’t) here is a high quality Venn diagram of Brisbane, its men and its music.
There I am in the middle. Me — a cis white woman, bristling with anxiety, childhood trauma and a fierce sense of social injustice. Somewhere I adopted an unconscious mission to carve out my purpose and livelihood between all that music and all those men in an adopted hometown.
Brisbane is not my birthplace. As an adoptee, I know my maternal side is Sydney back to the second fleet and the paternal is unknown (yes, I am still searching for Steve). I grew up in a working class, northern suburbs devout Catholic family and given the name Leanne Mary Dethlefs.
Andrew Stafford, the bestselling author of Pig City (which unpicks Brisbane music from “The Saints to Savage Garden”) and I share a lot of common touch points. Both born in 1971 and influenced heavily by 1984 (the music not the Orwell novel). However, loving Madonna is not one of them.
Andrew writes in his memoir “Nineteen eighty-four seems to be the year when my musical memories snap into focus. . . one of the stars on my wall was Madonna. This was mostly a matter of physical attraction, because I don’t recall especially caring for her music then (and still don’t). But she had sass and attitude, and Into the Groove was (and still is) a great song.”
Madonna changed the course of this anxious 14-year-old, music obsessed suburban Brisbane girl. That ‘sass and attitude’ was not an object it was an education. Madonna provided a blueprint for working class girls to speak up, voice opinions and express ourselves. Yet, there was unspoken peer pressure that ‘real’ music fans were male, scruffy, listened to 4ZZZ, bought vinyl at Rockinghorse and Skinnys and hung out at the Treasury Hotel listening to punk bands. Lord knows I tried. That scene scared the bejeezus out of 16–22 year old me. It smelt like a leery cult, of sweat and masculinity. I was an outsider, hell I liked jazz!
Go Live Music Agency
With Kristina Flemming I co-founded a boutique booking agency, Go Live Music Agency, in July 1992. We earned 10% commissions on $150-$800 gigs (before overheads, do the math!) and we existed on door spots and free drinks. I was in the trenches and learned how to channel anxiety, mild-mania and a fixation on music into hard work. I attended countless hundreds of live shows in the pursuit of building a roster of local bands. I was inside the ‘doing’ of music but remained firmly outside the Men/Brisbane/Music axis. I booked anything and everything and even Powderfinger, once, after seeing them at St Paul’s Tavern over a $5 jug of bourbon and coke. I remember their hair and energy but not the songs. Like Stafford – when given a Time Off assignment by Sean Sennett to review their debut album Parables for Wooden Ears – in a small town, with a small scene, they were a local band on the rise and “no one wanted to carve it up for the fat Thanksgiving turkey it was”. I learnt to keep opinions on the actual music to myself and instead concentrated on cultivating relationships and respect for all people on and offstage.
I was never schooled in the classics of Men/Brisbane/Music – The Saints, Go-Betweens, Ups and Downs, Pineapples from the Dawn of Time etc. They were names on posters and in the street press but not influential for young-Leanne. I was captivated by Custard, Kev Carmody, Regurgitator, Chalk, Solar Baby, Jeff Usher, Madame Bones Brothel and 60s soul revival band Big City with the big dueling voices of the Bull Brothers (Robert and Louis) and the prodigious guitar work of Anders Karlen. It was always the potential of an artist that enthralled me, escaping from my past into rehearsals, gigs, demos, advance copies of albums and EPS that felt they were going ‘somewhere’ — onwards, upwards, out there, not here.
It was the perfect driving force for what is required of a music manager.
Miles From Nowhere
By the mid-1990s I was a full-time artist manager, for a super successful band in the microcosm of a pre-internet, or bankrupted Ansett, Brisbane. Miles From Nowhere – a quartet of flawless harmony singers with an “I’m here to entertain you” chutzpah. MFN were crazy popular for a period in the mid-late 90s. We played 4–5 shows a week (often for wads of cash or was that a pre-GST dream?!), made rudimentary demos, learned the craft of song writing and although all young(ish) white men they were definitely outsiders of Men/Brisbane/Music.
I always loved The Zoo and had booked shows there, but MFN never played a show at the beloved venue. Joc and C let me down gently that the band was simply “too twee” for the venue’s preferred programming. Fair call but it hurt. Onward we went to the next show, phone call, spreadsheet, invoice, hire car, merchandise float, door list, band meeting. Rinse and repeat.
“I have never seen such a case of manifest destiny as Savage Garden” wrote Stafford in Something to Believe In. “Darren was sweet-natured but entirely convinced of his place on the world stage” and he quotes Daniel “we didn’t know how to fail.”
Stafford wrote that Savage Garden didn’t perform in Brisbane clubs, but this I must contest — it did happen. Once. I was among a handful of invited local industry guests to witness a tiny club showcase. In the backroom of a pre-millennium-renovated Royal George Hotel. A weeknight, with no stage lights and a dodgy vocal PA Darren and Daniel earnestly showcased their melodic synth pop. It sounded so strange to my ears at the time and I remember thinking “what could you ever do with that live?”. Well, what did I know! Two years later they dominated the world with a stadium show that featured a high caliber local backing band and two phenomenal back up singers, Nicole McIntyre and Trevelyn Brady. Nicole was dating the MFN bass player, Benjamin McCarthy, and to our amazement a suitcase of Darren Hayes’ used designer clothing landed on the doorstep. Miles From Nowhere performed for the next 2 years in Savage Garden cast offs!
Savage Garden were the no brainer starting point when planning High Rotation. The most successful Brisbane band ever . It became a personal mission to loan a multi-platinum sales plaque for Savage Garden. (Thanks John Woodruff!)
A New Millennium
Stafford opines that by the early-2000s Brisbane was “a bit in love with itself” when it came to its music pedigree and he busied himself researching what would become the cult classic Pig City — I busied myself with having two children and all that entails. I wound right in on the ‘doing’ of music. When the post-natal fog began to lift I was thrilled to hear of new bands, scenes and people making things happen. Deb Suckling and Craig Spann, Stephen Foster, Stephen Green, Evan Alexander, Rick Chazan, Jo and Mark at Brispop, Blair Hughes with his Brisbane Sounds CD compilations, new energy at Q Music with Stuart Watters who left for AIR and his successor Denise Foley. You could sense the commitment to get Brisbane ‘out there and happening’.
Not so exciting was that as an early-30s mother of two I had to continue to function in a misogynist music business that was on the precipice of major disruption. Whatever, I dived straight back in — taking over the reins from Sydney’s One Louder to work with the band George and developing strategic career/business plans for dozens of Brisbane artists.
Afters spending my 20s convinced if I worked harder than the men I would be successful (not true) I tapped my feminist roots and sought the company, support, guidance and mentored as many “women in music” as possible. There were meet ups, dinners, lunches and the smashing of frustration on golf balls at the Victoria Park driving range.
Andrew Stafford and I again had divergent experiences in 2007 of the Paul Grabowsky conceptualized Pig City concert event, headlined by a reformation of The Saints at the University of Queensland for the Queensland Music Festival.
At the time I was managing Kate Miller-Heidke and totally unconscious that I was doubling down on being outside the Men/Brisbane/Music pantheon of history. I’d taken several meetings with Grabowsky, a well-known musician, polymath and champion of prodigiously talented young female artists including Katie Noonan and Megan Washington. Paul sowed the idea of KMH being the vocalist to accompany a brass band as a poignant tribute to the recently passed Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens — an idea creatively sanctioned by Robert Forster himself.
Working furiously in my own lane for years meant my only encounters with the fabled Go-Betweens were discovered after the fact. It was at Ric’s Bar and may have been at a weeknight gig of the Trevor Hart Quarter, Brindle or Halfway. Grant and I found ourselves shoulder to shoulder against the mirrored wall talking about music, the sound and the curse of sticky floors and slip on shoes. It would be another decade before I spent quality time with Lindy Morrison discussing mental health, feminism and ethics over lunch.
Thou Shalt Not Steal
Amidst all the noise and sweaty maleness of early-90s Brisbane music I had heard Kev Carmody on 4ZZZ and Pillars of Society had been a staple on my car tape deck. Thou Shalt Not Steal was the first video listed for inclusion in High Rotation. That song was the first black voice I heard express what my Uncle Wally Dethlefs had been teaching me about colonization and the genocide of Aboriginal people since I was young. In the early-90s Kev always graciously accepted gigs I booked him. Years later, through the connectivity of the national music industry Kate Miller-Heidke’s sophomore manager, Bill Cullen, reached out to invite my management clients Thelma Plum and The Medics’ Kahl Wallis and Jhindu Lawrie to attend the function for Kev’s 2013 Australia Council “Don Banks Award.” The thread of justice, struggle and the inter-generational power of music and song of our First Nations artists runs deep through Brisbane’s music history.
Stayers and Leavers
Matthew Condon OAM wrote in his urban-biography Brisbane of the cultural transformation in the post-Bjeilke decade. The infrastructure of GOMA and the Brisbane Powerhouse alongside the commitment by the ‘stayers’, those that put down roots here and made culture happen. I have witnessed many of what Condon labels ‘leavers’ over the decades — many folks left for Sydney, Melbourne, London, Berlin, Los Angeles and New York. The ‘leavers’ often returned bringing new skills, insights and perspectives that have further enriched the cultural diversity and courage of the independent music, arts and cultural scenes.
When I reflect on the music community I think of the ‘stayers’ and what that meant to those that came after us. With affection, I refer to the 4Ps — Paul Curtis, Paul Campbell-Ryder, Paul Piticco and Powderfinger. The impact of DIY, ambition and hustle of these men of music is deep and varied and Brisbane has much to be thankful for their work and tenacity.
Andrew Stafford wrote of his time touring Europe with HITS and catching up with Ben Salter (Giants of Science, The Gin Club) “You look like you’ve got the fear Staffo…it’s just generalized anxiety, existential dread” Salter commented cheerfully, adding “everyone on tour gets it at some point. It’s the drinking that does it”.
After being immersed in artists’ careers, countless shows, tours, after parties, festivals, backstage riders and notwithstanding I had been the one ostensibly ‘in charge’ to collect the cash, stock-take the band merchandise, pay and thank the venue and crew. By approx. 2006 I too had “the fear.” For the next decade until my mid-40s going out in Brisbane to see emerging artists, friends’ bands, album and EP launches, new venues and touring artists increasingly led to feelings of doom, panic attacks and social anxiety. My lane was crumbling and rapidly. It was time to retreat and you can read my resignation letter to the business of music here.
Reflecting on my life through the process of consulting on High Rotation has been a cathartic gift. (Re)connecting with a diverse cross section of the Brisbane music community, past and present, informed an experience that encourages respect for the multitude of fingerprints in the ephemera, videos, photographs, posters, interviews and most crucially the music has been a blast.
Thank you to all the Aboriginal, Torres Strait and Pacific Islanders, the women, the non-binary and LGBTQI folks, the outsiders, the stayers, the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the creative work of the young, the gifted, the diverse, the fans, the writers, photographers, designers, directors, producers and the obsessives.
My personal hope is that the integrity of the whole will be felt by all those that visit the exhibition.
Go see it from 30 August 2019 and let’s all share our memories and experiences of the last thirty years of music from Brisbane and bring on the next thirty!
Thank you to Renai Grace, Madeleine Johns, Georgie Sedgwick, the board, staff and sponsors of MoB for the opportunity and encouragement.
High Rotation is open daily from 10am-5pm (7pm Fridays) from 30 August 2019–19 April 2020. More Information and Tickets HERE.
The Rock and Roll Writers Festival returns 1 & 2 February 2020 as part of the public program of High Rotation.
I’d like to give gratitude and acknowledge Andrew Stafford. Andrew is one of my favourite music writers. It was his work that is partially responsible for the spark that inspired a Rock and Roll Writers Festival in a Valley car park. His latest memoir Something To Believe In is a deftly written take on life, love, family, mental health and the power of music. I’d encourage everyone to read it and consider joining me as a patron and support his writing and creative endeavors. Sign up HERE.