Track Record

A new se­ries ex­am­ines four clas­sic Aus­tralian al­bums and what made them great, writes Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

ONCE we bought col­lec­tions of songs on vinyl records. Our favourites be­came totems and we lis­tened to them over and over, as if un­der a spell. The mu­sic ended and we flipped the album again, let­ting it wash over us. At times in my life I would have died for an album such as Van Mor­ri­son’s As­tral Weeks , in which, with so much won­der and pain, he sang of his teenage years in the 1960s, free from un­cer­tainty and sor­row.

Al­bums pos­sessed con­text. It might be a con­sciously cre­ated at­mos­phere or sub­ject, a co­he­sive sound or some­thing that at­tached to your own ex­pe­ri­ence, such as a love song.

The best ones had an in­escapable back­ground set­ting that coloured the way we lis­tened to them, pro­vid­ing sig­nif­i­cant clues that helped us to un­der­stand who we had be­come.

Pro­ducer Martin Fabinyi has long wanted to doc­u­ment for television the great Aus­tralian al­bums that have helped us con­struct mu­si­cal au­to­bi­ogra­phies. ‘‘ I wanted some­how to tap into peo­ple’s mem­o­ries, to take them back in emo­tional waves,’’ he says. ‘‘ I wanted to cap­ture the bands that in­spired us be­fore the tapes dis­ap­pear, peo­ple die and all the archival ma­te­rial be­comes dust.’’

It took time but Great Aus­tralian Al­bums is his classy doc­u­men­tary TV se­ries that ex­plores the cre­ation of four mas­ter­pieces across four decades: Dio­rama by Sil­ver­chair, Wood­face by Crowded House, Born Sandy Devo­tional by the Trif­fids and ( I’m) Stranded by the Saints.

The four- part se­ries mixes ob­ser­va­tional doc­u­men­tary prac­tice with archival footage, home video ma­te­rial and art­fully shot di­rect in­ter­views ( sump­tu­ous pho­tog­ra­phy by Si­mon Chap­man) with the bands and those cre­atively con­nected with their mu­sic. And, like all good rock doc­u­men­taries, Great Aus­tralian Al­bums brings to­gether doc­u­men­tary’s tra­di­tional fo­cus on ac­tu­al­ity and the fic­tional cin­ema’s em­pha­sis on stars, spec­ta­cle, con­flict and pain.

There are new and lengthy in­ter­views with key per­form­ers in­clud­ing Daniel Johns, Paul Mac, Tim and Neil Finn, Nick Sey­mour, Chris Bai­ley and Ed Kuep­per. And the Church’s Steve Kil­bey, along with Nick Cave and Paul Kelly, pro­vide exclusive, pen­e­trat­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally touch­ing re­flec­tions on the songs. ‘‘ There’s a lot of lone­li­ness there,’’ Kelly says of Born Sandy Devo­tional . ‘‘ In a lot of the songs, some guy’s some­where in a lonely place, by him­self.’’

The high­light of each pro­gram is pos­si­bly the new per­for­mances recorded for the se­ries and the way the var­i­ous artists re­veal al­ter­na­tive mixes, em­bry­onic takes and ear­lier ver­sions of songs that be­came part of our col­lec­tive me­mory.

‘‘ We wanted to get be­hind the creative in­spi­ra­tion,’’ says Fabinyi. ‘‘ I thought get­ting th­ese mu­si­cians to show how they cre­ated the songs would be re­ally dif­fi­cult, the way a se­ries of chords cre­ates some mag­i­cal jour­ney, but they loved re­veal­ing their se­crets.’’

Fabinyi, who has an en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of pop his­tory, fully un­der­stands that the iconic images of rock- re­lated cin­ema, to which bands that agree to be filmed pre­sum­ably as­pire, come from films where mu­si­cians sur­ren­der artis­tic con­trol to film­mak­ers.

From D. A. Pen­nebaker’s Don’t Look Back to Martin Scors­ese’s The Last Waltz , the mu­sic doco of­fered a glimpse of the rock star as artist and au­thor, some­thing in which TV shows lit­tle in­ter­est th­ese days.

Fabinyi and his col­lab­o­ra­tors wanted th­ese films to be as much about mo­ments in time as about the mu­sic. Cer­tainly Sil­ver­chair’s Johns sug­gests that at the point of con­ceiv­ing Dio­rama

A sense of space: From far left, Sil­ver­chair’s Daniel Johns, Chris Joan­nou and Ben Gillies he was caught in the me­dia quag­mire that is the in­evitable re­sult of writ­ing suc­cess­ful al­bums.

The first pro­gram in the se­ries is about this pe­riod in Johns’s life: the story of a great band grow­ing into its own skin, fi­nally emerg­ing out of work­ing- class teen angst and songs of anger and de­pres­sion, and find­ing a sense of space and won­der­ful tune­ful­ness.

In 1995 three greasy- haired teenagers from New­cas­tle re­leased their Kurt Cobain- in­spired Frogstomp , sold 2.5 mil­lion records, and toured the world with the Red Hot Chili Pep­pers while still at school. Which wasn’t easy, as Johns re­calls in his charm­ingly hes­i­tant way. ‘‘ We weren’t re­ally al­lowed to leave school be­cause ev­ery­one wanted us to re­main grounded,’’ he says. ‘‘ Ev­ery­one hated me, thought I was a fag­got, and I was get­ting beaten up all the time.’’

Only a cou­ple of years later the world thought Sil­ver­chair were fin­ished, spaced- out vic­tims of hubris and celebrity fa­tigue.

Then they recorded Dio­rama in the months be­fore Christ­mas 2001. By then Sil­ver­chair were no longer teenagers; what’s more, they were no longer tied down by their three- album con­tract with Sony, and Johns wasn’t ill and de­pressed any more. As the film re­veals, Dio­rama was re­ally an in­vi­ta­tion to a dream, a world within a world of intelligence and beauty and new­found melody.

I was touched by Johns’s care­ful, med­i­ta­tive com­men­tary on the album’s ge­n­e­sis and his trans­for­ma­tion from anorexic, ago­ra­pho­bic, an­tide­pres­sant pill- pop­ping freak to cool lyri­cist and pro­ducer. He’s a cap­ti­vat­ing, be­guil­ing per­former even when he’s not singing.

Th­ese four al­bums, cho­sen by the bands them­selves, rep­re­sent dis­tant ex­pe­ri­ences that con­tinue to tie us to the past in spe­cial ways. Fabinyi, di­rec­tor Larry Meltzer and writer Toby Creswell treat them as trea­sured ob­jects, sym­bolic of the chem­istry of time and our at­tempts to re­sist its pas­sage, in the way they im­mor­talise mo­ments and ideas we once held.

The se­ries is com­pelling and never ha­gio­graphic: there is no in­di­ca­tion that bal­ance or in­tegrity were sac­ri­ficed for ac­cess. The ac­count of the Trif­fids’ mas­ter­piece, with David McComb’s rich words and the band’s lash­ings of melody, is heart­break­ing.

The show re­minds us that ev­ery mo­ment of favourite al­bums such as th­ese is laboured over and loved, and the fin­ished prod­uct is like some­one’s per­sonal gift to us. It cel­e­brates that time when mu­sic was meant to be heard at length, be­fore the in­ter­net pro­vided a mu­si­cal li­brary where songs dis­con­nected from their ori­gins are avail­able in­di­vid­u­ally, stripped of all con­text.

It is an en­light­en­ing re­minder that, in a world over­stuffed with stim­uli and chok­ing on in­for­ma­tion and sounds, a mu­si­cal album once had a kind of pu­rity and whole­ness, rep­re­sent­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of a pe­riod in an artist’s life. Great Aus­tralian Al­bums: Sil­ver­chair’s Dio­rama, tonight 8.30pm, SBS.

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