There’s a little patch of fence in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley that serves no purpose beyond the promotion of music – a shabby piece of chickenwire fronting a vacant block of land. Because no one really cares what happens to this neglected structure, it’s been commandeered; covered in tour posters.
Every day I walk past that fence, and increasingly its posters are promoting what might be considered comeback or revival tours. At times they cover 40% of this fence. And while it’s admittedly one posterboard and not necessarily reflective of the whole of Australia, it seems to suggest something that, as a musician, I don’t like to admit. Namely: when it comes to live music, we are stuck in the past.
Fleetwood Mac are on there, touring again. The Cult are playing their album Electric, released in 1987, in its entirety. And last month How Deep Is Your Love: the Hits of the Bee Gees came to town, featuring both Tina Arena and Anthony Callea. There’s comfort in nostalgia, I get that. But the problem is that nostalgia doesn’t add anything to our culture. The question is not so much stylistic but economic. Every dollar spent on a revival tour is a dollar not spent on going to the Zoo, or the Tote, or the Oxford Art Factory and seeing someone that’s trying to push Australian music forward.
Emerging Australian musicians are already struggling to get shows and draw crowds. Dave Faulkner, the Hoodoo Gurus frontman, recently gave an impassioned speech about music in Sydney, which, he claims, is dying because of, amongst other things, poker machines, noise complaints and venues going bankrupt.
People might still be going to festivals such as Splendour in the Grass and the Big Day Out, but that’s at the expense of seeing local artists doing new, progressive work. One of the biggest tours in Australia last year was Roger Waters of Pink Floyd doing The Wall. It grossed $17 million over 11 shows. One of the biggest in Australian history was AC/DC’s last tour.
Let’s not forget, too, that great music is a product of its time. What Dylan was writing about, and reacting to, became a crucial part of his music. What Midnight Oil were doing in this country was a reaction to the injustice they saw at that point in the Australian narrative. How would that translate now? It wouldn’t – and not because Peter Garrett is the world’s least rock-and-roll former rock star. We are in a different era, with different concerns, and if no one is writing about them then they won’t get written about. We can’t sleep while our beds are burning.
I say the question is not stylistic because, as much as musicians hate to admit it, we steal. We revisit and revive, taking guitar sounds from here, vocal effects from there, and generally using imitation and idolatry as a form of progression.
But we draw a line at regurgitation. Did you miss You Am I the first time they toured Hourly, Daily? Bad luck. I did too, but I’d rather they look back at Berlin Chair or Mr Milk privately, in their rehearsal studio, and try to better it, than wallow in the nostalgia of seeing a great band play songs they wrote 20 years ago.
If we don’t keep pushing forward – creating new work, telling new stories – then what happens to a whole generation of musicians? We risk telling them that what they do is not good enough, that the best stuff is behind them, that they need to either copy what came before them or quit. Will I recognise the names promoted on that Fortitude Valley poster wall in 20 years’ time? I don’t know, but I hope not.