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