Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Stems: Heads Up!

The Stems

Heads Up
Shock Records

My favorite music 'scene' and perhaps, the one that has really withstood the test of time as far as the number of bands that are still together or have reunited to recod and tour is the Aussie Garage Rock scene from the late '70s to the mid '80s. What made this scene so good was its size, which was very small, but more prolific compared to its size, but likely overall than any other rock scene. The scene was split between Melbourne/Sydney on the east coast, and Perth on the west coast. Everybody not only was in a band, they were in a few, so they all played together, went to shows together when they weren't playing, and developed a scene that put out more great music both in volume and quality than anywhere else. Aussie garage rock is based on the influences of bands like The Master's Apprentices, Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs, The Loved Ones, Black Diamonds and most notably, The Easybeats. Many of these bands had people who were recent immigrants from Britain, so there was a British beat influence that was somehow combined with American garage rock to form its basis. In the 70's, it was reborn in Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, and Melbourne almost simulataneously, and with little or no regional differences. '70s Aussie garage rock has a basis in a combination of two things: Many families emigrated to Australia from The UK, so they had relatives and access to British music and fashion in the '60s and thus, Aussie rock had a '60s British beat sensibility, but a little bit of rawness brought on by the Australian sense of independence and dislike of authority.

These two things provide a basis that was nurtured by The Easybeats, but more notably, their rhythm guitarist George Young, who went on with former lead guitarist Harry Vanda to produce the first seven albums for George's two younger brothers, Angus and Malcolm, obviously the legendary heavy metal boogie rockers AC/DC, and combined this influence with The Stooges and MC5. The result was bands like The Saints, The Geeks, and Radio Birdman. Later acts to follow were The Victims, Lipstick Killers, Hoodoo Gurus, The Scientists, The Screaming Tribesman, and The Lime Spiders,, just to name a few. They all sounded different, but had a basis in the above influences, which created an almost metallic style, loud pop rock with '60s hooks, which is what one could call powerpop, but in varying degrees. Not only was the music great, it's quite enduring. Recently, The Hitmen, Radio Birdman, The Hoodoo Gurus, and Perth's The Stems have reunited to take advantage of the old rule in rock 'n roll: Great bands are not recognized until they're gone or dead. We should consider ourselves lucky that they reunited.

The Stems December 2007 new release Heads Up is definitely garage, but most definitely, Aussie Garage. Guitar/vocalist Dom Mariani rocks his Gibson SG with enough fuzz to sound rough, choppy, and clean simultaneously on "Leave You Way Behind", but combines it with voice of confidence and authority that comes from years of both keeping his pipes clear with the occasional whiskey shots, but combines it with a subtlety, range and heart that is also reflected in his words that can only come from experience on when explaining "I take a self prescribed medicine, I know that's good for me. I don't want to get down by the things that are around" on the equally L.A. Folk Rock and British Beat inspired "Surround Me." Dom's talents combine on "She Sees Everything" with some great, R&B mouth harp work from Keyboard/guitar/harmonica wizard Richard Lane. Other tracks like "Undying Love" further emphasize The Stems' great song structures with a basic foundation, then showcases drummer Dave Shaw's perfection in combining the primitive with the complex in its changing beats. One of the staple instruments of great '60s garage, an Ace Tone, is added by Richard on "Hellbound Train" but combines with a dual fuzz guitar by both Richard and Dom. Julian Matthews takes his own lead as bass man by giving everyone else the basis to play, fuzz out, and groove along to the soul rocker "Get to Know Me." Richard takes us on a catchier, '60s Aussie Beat inspired ride with some great vocal harmonies on "only if You Want It" but Dom's guitar gives it a raunchy feel that takes the song, and us by extension, to somewhere new.

Comeback albums, even if they're done by legendary acts, are hit and miss; either it's great or it doesn't measure up to they're earlier days. Heads Up is telling you to listen again, or if you listen for the first time, you'll hear your new favorite band, but the announcement seems both internal and outward. The reason for that is because Heads Up is loud and wild, but comparable, if not better than their earlier work, which is seminal. In other words, this is a great album, but it also shows how great The Stems ARE, not were. After so many years off, a reunion in 2003, and a new release that is an absolute rocker, they haven't missed a beat during their long hiatus. Instead, they've returned with an album that shows a real band that rocks better and harder with age. There are few, if any bands like that which come to mind.

You should crank this up!

Click on the photo to see my photo album from the Get Hip! Records Showcase at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas this year.

For more Australian garage rock, here are a few other recommendations:

Radio Birdman
The Essential Radio Birdman: 1974-1978
Sub Pop

The Hoodoo Gurus
Stoneage Romeos
There are three versions: The original from A&M/Big Time, The 2002 reissue from Arcadia, and the 2005 EMI reissue with extra tracks, a foldout poster, and new liner notes

The Lime Spiders
The Cave Comes Alive
Just about everything by them is rare and out of print. There's a good collection available that's in print called Nine Miles High

That's a start, but due to the fact that almost all of the material put out by the Australian garage rock scene, one can only have their favorites, but there is no way to rank the bands since for the most part, all of it was incredible. Other great bands include The Scientists, Hard Ons, New Race, Died Pretty, Johny Kannis, The Hitmen, and many, many more. There's a great compilation of the Australian garage scene that is quite extensive for a compilation:

Do the Pop! The Australian Garage-Rock Sound 1976-1987
Savage Beat/Shock Records

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