Died Pretty by Steve Gardner
Noise For Heroes #14 in the fall of 1988.
If I had to pick a handful of bands from the current Australian crop that best exemplify the incredible variety and vitality of the scene there, from hardcore to hard pop to avant garde to garage band, I'd have to pick the Celibate Rifles, Happy Hate Me Nots, feedtime, Lime Spiders, and Died Pretty. These bands are clearly among the best to emerge anywhere in the 80s; bands with power and vision that create songs that stay with you and don't lose their grip as time goes by.
Died Pretty consist of Mark Lock on stoic bass, Frank Brunetti on casual keyboards, Chris Welsh making smashing noises, Brett Myers on smooth-as-silk guitar, and Ron Peno on vocals and the floor. The band started with Brett, Ron and Frank after Brett Myer's band the End broke up in 1983. Frank, who had been a rock writer for the Sydney weekly rock magazine RAM (kind of an Aussie version of New Musical Express, except not so obnoxious) joined from the ashes of Super K, a bizarre amalgam of ex-superstars and almost-wuz-somebodies whose names grace the covers of records by bands like the Birdmen and Hoodoo Gurus, yet managed only to produce one single of fairly tame pop (which can be had on Citadel even today). Ron Peno meanwhile, was singing in front of the still fetal Screaming Tribesmen (!) who prior to that apparently had actually used the name Died Pretty for a few months in an incarnation that had included Chris Welsh on drums. (This whole situation is more incestuous and complex than you could ever hope to get a handle on unless you have access to Harry Butler's fanzine DNA#49, an absolutely transmagical document that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that you can't judge a book by its cover...try Augogo to see if they have any left.)
Anyway, Died Pretty started as a four piece under the moniker The Final Solution for their first two months, with the fourth member being (gasp!) Rob Younger! on drums!. As my friend Mike says, it's another case of truth being stranger than shit.
This version of the band never actually got beyond the rehearsal stage, and their approach centered around a fondness for New York vomit inducing agents Suicide. After a couple months, the band reorganized without Younger and with two former members of The End, Jonathan Lickliter on bass and Colin Barwick on drums. This line up of the band can be heard on the "Out Of The Unknown" single, which was recorded in January 1984 and released on Citadel, as have been all their records up until this year (when they switched to Citadel spin off Blue Mosque). Their first live shows were in Brisbane, the Atlantic City of Australia, which was the home turf of several band members. According to Brett Myers, these shows didn't draw a huge number of people (like 70-80), but it was enough to keep the band happy. The shows were allegedly very inconsistent and got them banned at a couple of venues.
It's at this point that the band changed their name to Died Pretty for keeps. Myers claims that the name was chosen as the only name suggested that didn't find at least one band member opponent who hated it, and that it has absolutely no meaning. After the first single was recorded (with Younger producing) it became apparent that Jonathan wasn't working out on bass, so he was given the heave-ho and Mark was brought in at the start of a tour to Melbourne. Mark's background isn't well documented anywhere that I've seen, except for a reference in the liner notes of the "Hard To Beat" compilation that he once played in a band called the Dum Dum Boys, which may be the same outfit that produced the great "Let There Be Noise" lp reviewed last issue. If he's on that lp, it's under the name "Sid Noise". In addition, he played in a band called the Swedish Rhythm Kings, whose only live appearance was a gig for the Communist party in Brisbane, and one other much earlier appearance (see the details in the tree). Anyway, Myers tabs this as the point where things began to attain critical mass for the band; the shows in Melbourne were consistently good, and the crowds, whose preconceptions of the band were solely based on the single, didn't have any of the biases the band felt they were subjected to by Sydney crowds who had seen all the members in other bands at various times, and had also seen their faltering first shows.
After this tour, in August 1984, the band recorded another Rob Younger production, "Mirror Blues", an epic 10 minute song that is split over both sides of the 7" record, but appears whole on the 12" version available on What Goes On. This is the last Died Pretty record to include Colin on drums; apparently he wanted to move away (ended up in India!) and so the band went through a period of revolving drummers in which they wanted to get Chris from the Screaming Tribesmen, but a bizarre situation developed in which neither Chris nor Died Pretty could afford a drum kit, while the better off Tribesmen were able to finance one for him. So Welsh played with the Tribesmen until the drum kit was paid for and then made the jump. Mercenary bastard!
From here on the band began to really solidify, and though the singles were both good, the band were now in a position to show their real power. They did this in a curious way, with the release of their mellowest record by far, the four track Next To Nothing ep, which reflects the band's roots in such diverse sources as the Velvet Underground, John Cale, bluegrass music, and early Rolling Stones. Surprisingly, this record was received to rave reviews by the local cognoscenti (there were no non-local cognoscenti at this point) despite the almost universal Australian reverence to raucous, Birdman/Stooges type rock'n'roll. The record itself is a real grower; the sort of thing that seems like a piece of fluff the first time you hear it and grows steadily to eventually assume major proportions.
At this point the soap opera twistings and turnings of personnel were over and the band settled into the tour/record/tour syndrome, where they have been to today. Australia is a difficult place to break out of, because it isn't big enough to make a home grown band a big deal on its own, and if a band leaves too soon, they are lost in the morass of millions of British and US bands also trying to make it big, and no matter how good they are, it is an overwhelming proposition to gain acceptance based on one blitzkrieg overseas tour, which is likely (as in the case of Radio Birdman) to drain a band of every last ounce of vitality and heart. Died Pretty have taken a wise road in this regard; building their overseas support gradually through a series of excellent record releases to the point where they may have a chance to tour on their own terms as headliners in large club settings, and in the meantime, sharpening their live show through repeated tours in the increasingly competitive Australian concert marketplace. They've tried a couple of sample forays just to test the waters, but nothing like a serious overseas saturation tour.
In 1986, the band finally put out a full length lp, the fabulous Free Dirt, released on Citadel in Australia, What Goes On? in the US and UK, and Closer in France. Well worth the wait, this record exceeded all expectations by leaps. It's a mixed batch of uptempo tracks and ballads, all of which work fantastically well, and contains what has to be considered the band's masterpiece to date, the incredible "Blue Sky Day". I reviewed the lp in full last issue, so I won't spend a lot more time belaboring it here; let's just say that I count it a crucial lp for any collection and leave it at that.
Live the band are a far cry from the sometimes too mellow bunch that appear on record...songs that rock politely on vinyl careen wildly on stage as Ron Peno, who has referred to himself as "the bastard son of Iggy Pop" flails his way around the stage, dropping to his knees or crawling on the floor to emphasize a passage and bawling out the words in a totally unintelligible fashion. Frank Brunetti is the professorial keyboard player, Mark Lock the seemingly wide-eyed youngster on bass, Brett Myers the seen-it-all-ain't-nuthin-new-to-me stoic sparingly doling out leads on guitar, and Chris Welsh pounds out those fluid, rippling drum rolls like nobody else I can think of. It's a devastating live act.
As I mentioned above, so far there have been two overseas forays; one in 1987 in which Chris Welsh received two broken toes when a fruit truck backed over his feet in London, Ron Peno was assaulted in New York, and Frank Brunetti broke his ankle in New Zealand. Their second look at the outside world was slated to bring them to Italy, France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and the UK this spring, but not the US. I haven't heard any reports to date of whether this one was any less disastrous.
Thus here in the States, we've been able to get our hands on whatever Citadel imports make their way over, or through the releases of What Goes On, which licenses some Citadel releases for US distribution, but except for that one New York show, no chance for a live set. Those who are aware have thus been treated to the fabulous "Stoneage Cinderella" 45, recorded in the November 1985 sessions that also yielded the powerful Free Dirt lp, a disc that will end up in the small pile of lps that have really made a difference. Last fall it was another dynamic new single, "Winterland", and now this summer, there's a new lp Lost to plant in your brain and the new single "Towers Of Strength", as well as a reissue/compilation Pre-Deity lp that includes the first two singles and the entire Next To Nothing ep. Rumors of more overseas tours continue to fly, and with a little luck, we may actually see the band in the states this year. Don't miss them if you have the chance to see them.
So what about the new records? Well, Pre-Deity needs little more to be said about it; it has Citadel's usual classy packaging with some good group photos, and the great early songs I've already been lathering about for the past two issues. If you don't have 'em yet, this is a nice way to get 'em.
The real new one, Lost, is on Citadel's spin-off label, Blue Mosque. The lp jacket is a departure from their normal style; no stark rural landscape pictures, but instead several soft shots of a young boy's face. In the grooves there's little change in approach from Free Dirt. There's the mix of ballads and rockers, the indecipherable lyrics, the supple keyboards that actually complement the songs instead of wrecking as all too often happens, there's the fluid undistorted guitar leads, the throbbing bass lines, and the deft bludgeoning drumwork. Production and engineering are again handled by the team of Rob Younger and Alan Thorne. The title track leads off, and although it doesn't compare with "Blue Sky Day" as an opening thrust, there's no denying the quality in it...a typically solid Died Pretty rocker. Next is "Out Of My Hands", which features Myer's singing instead of Peno's (thus rendering it a little more comprehensible). It leads with a simple organ riff that builds and builds and then is sliced in two with a beautiful guitar solo by Myers. After almost a minute-long intro that says tons with no words at all, Myer's vocals begin almost as though by accident. A killer.
"As Must Have" and "Springenfall", the next two tracks, are ballads. But though I'm generally not so enthusiastic about slower songs, and I'm sure most readers of this aren't either, for some reason Died Pretty ballads work in spite of all my desires to go wild. "As Must Have" is just Ron Peno and a simple guitar lead with no other backing, but "Springenfall" builds from a simple beginning to a strong chorus, and then backs down again into the subtle verse part. It doesn't seem possible until you hear it, but the effect is powerful.
Side one closes with last winter's "Winterland" single, which grabs your attention with Peno's opening "puhtoo!" and rivets you to the wall the rest of the way. Peno's vocals are at their greatest here, with loads of grunts, groans, coughs and other guttural noises punctuating the attack. A great Died Pretty rocker as a single, and a great one on lp.
On side two, things lead off with another ballad, "Caesar's Cold", another one that builds from a quiet verse to a climactic chorus; the sort of thing Died Pretty pull off like nobody else, probably because rather than acting as individual musicians, they act as a band; each member contributes what's needed to give the desired effect, and if that means you don't play anything for 30 seconds, that's what you do. Most bands never reach this fairly simple level of understanding, and although for some bands it isn't important, if you want to make use of space then it's crucial to realize that often what you don't play is as important as what you do.
"Crawls Away" is next, and this may give an idea why Peno thinks of himself as Iggy's bastard son...it's a crazed rocker propelled by Chris Welsh's stuttering drumwork. Sadly it's the last blaster, but the three closing ballads, "One Day", the single "Towers Of Strength" and "Free Dirt" (typical Died Pretty stunt; have an lp called Free Dirt and put the song "Free Dirt" on another one) are nevertheless not something you'll find yourself cueing over.
Taken as a whole, Lost is approximately the equal of Free Dirt for the quality of songs and the proportion of rockers to ballads. Free Dirt had the benefit of being the first Died Pretty lp, with no real basis for comparison other than two singles and an ep. The tendency is thus to rate Free Dirt as great and this one as merely good. Some might even say it represents a holding pattern. But this is unfair, because the level set by Free Dirt is so high; just maintaining that level has to be regarded as an impressive achievement. I can guarantee that Lost will be in my top five lps for the year by year's end, and it'll sit proudly in it's place next to a well worn Free Dirt lp for years to come.