Electronic music has played an important role in Australian popular music since the early to mid-1980s. It also has played a singular role in the transformation of Australian culture, and is surrounded by an enormous amount of cultural noise, documented in street magazines, fan and musician websites, CD stores and a handful of publications. In recent years, there has been a growing body of academic work concerning the cultures of electronica (see References), although very little in the way of a historical overview of Australian electronic popular music.
We begin with a brief outline of some significant Australian precursors to the growth of electronica, including composer Percy Grainger, Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, who developed the Fairlight digital music sampler in the mid-1970s (which was followed by the Fairlight video synthesiser in the 1980s). We then discuss the rise of electronic music in Australia from the late 1970s on.
There are at least two other pathways through a history of Australian electronic music that we shall only gesture towards. The first pathway is a history that follows what can only be called "serious" electronic music. This would be a history following the experiments and compositions using electronic instruments by the likes of composers/musicians/instrument inventors Warren Burt, Greg Schiemer, Carl Vine, Ros Bandt, Rik Rue, Rainer Linz, Jon Rose and many more. It might also discuss artists who use electronic audio in a significant and innovative way in their work (artists such as Joan Brassil, Nigel Helyer, Joyce Hinterding, David Haines, Philip Samartzis and many others). Indeed, there is much crossover between "serious" electronic music, the "electronic arts", and the music that interests us here. For example, Severed Heads' Tom Ellard has always been more interested in the experimental development of electronic music than its dancibility (despite international success with the latter). The most noteworthy example of such a crossover between "serious" electronic music and its other more "popular" cousins is probably David Chesworth, formerly of the Melbourne experimental pop group Essendon Airport.
Another pathway we will not be able to follow here would be that involving the highly successful artists who often use electronica to produce commercial dance music (such as Kylie) or techno-pop (Savage Garden). This is another story that has been told extensively elsewhere.
There have been many innovative musical techniques and technologies developed in Australia (Bebbington 1997: 195-196). Two of these in particular deserve mention here.
Australian composer Percy Grainger (often working with scientist Burnett Cross) invented a number of experimental musical instruments, and while working in the United States, developed the notion of "Free Music" machines (developed from 1945-1961). These were machines that worked largely with the technical/musical rhythms of sine waves (Bebbington 1997: 195; Linz 2003) — the basis of analogue synthesisers. Recording sine-wave-based material onto acetate discs created "the world's first pieces made with these materials" (Bebbington 1997: 195). Consequently, Grainger not only worked with new means of composition but also of necessity with new means of recording and "distribution". Significantly, in what is a constant theme in electronica, these arose out of a new concept of what music could be — and more particularly, from the idea that music should be more open to "non-classical" sounds and rhythms than it was. Grainger had been thinking about new techniques of composition in music since he was very young. Rainer Linz (2003) outlines the importance to Grainger of the rhythms of a local milieu, of random events, in ideas that significantly predated the work of John Cage, and of folk music. Thus Grainger made a major contribution to the crossover between the "serious" and the popular that continues to the present.
A second example of Australian innovation is the invention and development of the Fairlight CMI, the world's first digital sampler, in 1979. This made a completely new composition of rhythms possible, with a new way to rework refrains (now as samples). Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie were the engineers credited with the development of the Fairlight CMI (and its commercialisation) but they built it on the basis of the Qasar synthesiser developed from 1972-1978 by the engineer Anthony Furse under advice given by Don Banks, who founded the Canberra School of Music's studio in 1972 (Callaway and Tunley 1978: 95). Despite its expense, the Fairlight was quickly embraced by a number of artists who could afford it (such as mainstream rock giant, Peter Gabriel). It changed the sound of popular music, and is often claimed to be as significant as Robert Moog's synthesiser.
It is impossible to conceive of electronica without a wide variety of developments in individual and cultural formations of desire. In Australia, more marked shifts would include the beginnings of Australian rock'n'roll in the 1950s and 1970s psychedelia in music, graphics and culture (it is no accident, for example, the North Eastern corner of New South Wales has contained both a significant outbreak of counter-culture in the 1970s and a significant and idiosyncratic series of electronica cultures and musics in the 1990s). These shifts would also include the change in popular music and dance cultures occasioned by the high numbers of American servicemen on rest and recreation leave in Australia during the Vietnam War. They would, perhaps more importantly, include Australian punk and post-punk, and the rise of the gay and lesbian movement. They would include important shifts regarding gender, music, dance and the nature of venues and the kinds of activities that might occur in various venues (Homan 2003), and perhaps also to the development of significant inner city alternative cultures from the late 1970s. An important part of these cultures, even if it is often seen as antagonist to electronica and dance music initially, was pub culture. Finally, they would include what we might call "link cultures" and "link individuals". By the latter we might mean the likes of figures such as English migrant Andrew Penhallow, who moved from managing bands to founding Volition Records in Sydney, linking Australian music with Factory Records in Manchester — and to other labels elsewhere in the process. By the former, we mean link cultures such as the (mostly European) backpackers who became entrepreneurs within the explosion of rave culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The 1970s presents a very significant break within the history of popular music, and is often portrayed (in a restricted manner) as the punk rejection of the pseudo-baroque complexity (many would say pretentiousness) of musical fusions that arose in the mid-1970s (such as jazz- and progressive-rock). However, Australia has often seemed happier to mix musical styles than many other places, and this was true of punk. First, there seemed to be many instances of "authentic" Australian punk music, which were themselves transformed, as these imports settled into Australian spaces and mixed into Australian milieu. Secondly, punk was quickly accompanied by, and mixed in with, the rise of electronica. Yet the events of the late 1970s in Australia were much more diverse than this particular punk reaction, which was accompanied by several other emergent musics. One of these musics was found in rap and hip hop (which in Australia found purchase early, if somewhat invisibly, away from the inner cities, radio playlists and recording contracts - see Maxwell 2003). Punk was also accompanied by the beginnings of another, very different version of the do-it-yourself music ethic — electronica. Indeed, punk, hip hop and electronica were mutually enabling at a structural level. They shared an ethic of DIY self-production. They opened popular music more to the joy of playing with "noise". They often worked against the mainstream reception (and use) of popular music in favour of diverse minority groups — or simply the disaffected. Finally, punk's break with the major labels allowed the development of 'independent' labels more able to release local and experimental deviations from mainstream music. Bruce Milne's Au Go Go label in Melbourne, Phantom Records, and Steven Stavrakis's Waterfront Records in Sydney were among the most successful. As we shall see, significant early electronic labels such as Innocent Records in Melbourne and Volition in Sydney provided the model for producing and selling electronica that has proliferated into the present. That the late 1970s contained all these tendencies is perhaps best seen in post-punk's immediate embrace of excess — even if in a somewhat ironic manner in groups such as Essendon Airport, Makers Of The Dead Travel Fast, Tch Tch Tch, and Scattered Order. Indeed, this was the moment when electronic music (that is, music that began to foreground synthetic sounds) made its first incursions into mainstream and alternative rock in Australia via many bands, such as Not Drowning Waving, the Reels, INXS and Brendan Perry's Marching Girls (and later Dead Can Dance).
Severed Heads and the label which eventually promoted them (Volition) provide a key instance of Australian electronica in the 1980s. Severed Heads were formed in 1979 by Tom Ellard, school friend Richard Fielding and Andrew Wright. Their story is typical of many groups who emerged out of punk into an underground experimental scene. They made music by playing around with tape loops, synthesisers, rhythm machines, and anything electro-mechanical that made a noise. From the outset, Severed Heads made and sold their material independently, and (like many in the early 1980s and indeed many in the present), showed no interest in the trappings of major record labels, fancy studios and expensive equipment. Although Ellard used pretty much the same gear that techno outfits started to utilise in the 1990s (an old 808 drum machine, an SH-1 sequencer, a Prophet-1 and an old Korg polysynth), the music created by the Severed Heads was far from easily-consumable electro-pop. Like the music of groups associated with the M-Squared label (eg Scattered Order and Makers of the Dead Travel Fast), the "progressive" qualities of the music were about advancing the aesthetics, style and purpose of contemporary music.
Though the group has been through many transformations, the mainstay has been Ellard. In 1982 he worked with Gary Bradbury (who remains a key figure in the Sydney experimental music scene, and a frequent collaborator with Ellard), while in 1984 the pioneering video artist Stephen Jones joined the band. Jones' work in live performances ensured that the videographic image was more than ambient wallpaper. It was the duo of Ellard producing music and Jones on visuals that toured England for three months in 1985, attracting the interest of Ink/Virgin Records in London, and Vancouver's Nettwerk label. It was also during this same period that the group signed with Volition Records in Australia, forming what Ellard, joking, refers to as the "Ink/Nettwerk/Volition Axis", which helped the band's profile in the European, North American and Australian markets.
There was an inherent relationship between the architecture of the sound and the shape of the kinetic image. The pulse, tone, colour, rhythm and design of the live video mixing created an electronic performance style that would soon become almost ubiquitous in the club scene (which was beginning to be spurned by the rise of dance music and electronica in the more mainstream venues). In collaboration with other important experimental videomaker/musicians such as Gary Bradbury and Jason Gee, Severed Heads' videos gained notoriety for their often audacious (and always playful) use of the music video format. Volition label-mates such as Vision Four Five (founded by Tim Gruchy, who earlier had worked on many RAT parties) were also part of this same trajectory, as were a number of other key figures from this period who continue to experiment with the cutting, mixing and collision of audio and video in challenging works, such as Ian Andrews' cross-media performances and scratch-video work with Subvertigo, or the image sound work of Philip Brophy and Ian Haig. Many of the strategies and experiments in mixing live video with electronically produced sounds have been adapted for broader cultural contexts such as dance parties, raves and clubs that came to the fore in the 1980s.
It is in the parties and raves of the mid- to late-1980s to the present that we see the full flowering of electronica culture en masse. This began with the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Sleaze parties (from 1980 and 1982 respectively to the present). These were soon accompanied by the RAT (Recreational Art Team) parties from the mid-1980s in inner-city Sydney. These were notable not for musical innovation per se but for the home they provided for the innovative mixing of pre-given rhythms and refrains, not only musical, but also visual and social. Huge rave events followed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Madchester, Sweatbox, Dance Delirium, and a small but vibrant "Summer of Love" in Melbourne (Mittmann and Flavell 2003). At their peak in Sydney, the events involved many British entrepreneurs (see Luckman 2003, Murphie and Scheer 1992, Gibson and Pagan 2001, St John 2001, and Brookman 2001).
There is some debate as to whether this rise of electronica cultures is quite the same as the development of Australian electronica musics (Murphie and Scheer 1992). The music in raves was eclectic but largely international. Indeed it is arguable that there was more innovation within Australian electronic music before these huge events took place in the work of groups like Severed Heads, Tsch Tsch Tsch and Essendon Airport. At the same time, these big events did provide the impetus and inspiration, not to mention the employment, for many electronic artists to prosper creatively and to survive financially. They also, of course, gave massive credence to the role of the DJ-as-producer and subsequently, to the art of mixing and turntablism, along with the critical mass via which electronica entered mainstream popular music culture, the fertile ground for a sophisticated culture of DJs and producers, and a potential market to be tapped by a proliferation of labels and artists in the second half of the 1990s.
As early as 1990, the "death of the dance party" was being proclaimed, with prominent DJ Tim Ritchie declared in that year that "they really stopped being riveting a year ago" (Murphie and Scheer 1992: 179). Governments at all levels began to re-regulate venues in an attempt to rein in the dance events (174). However, the parties continued to grow in Sydney and Melbourne, especially with the rise of techno music (where promoters included Richie Rich) until at least 1995. However, with the sad death of party-goer Anna Wood in 1995 at Sydney's Phoenician Club (Homan 2003: 137), the State government stepped in, and the subsequent mess culminated in a police baton charge at a dance event at Sydney Park in 1995. This changed the scene in Sydney once and for all. Some electronica groups split up and moved on elsewhere (notably to Byron Bay where a new electronica scene was to develop).
Techno was indeed the dominant music in the early 1990s, but it had many variants. Perhaps the most novel local style that has emerged from the progeny of these large events has been doof (see Luckman 2003, St John 2001). Doof's uniqueness arises at an unusual conjunction of musical, cultural and environmental refrains and rhythms. Their setting is often outdoors (the very Australian outdoors - again that particular sense of space). They have an even more 'ritual' nature than usual, and they are often attached to several unique sub-cultures, and, most significantly, to environmental politics. One commentator refers to the resulting music as peculiarly Australian, "that stripped-down, scratchy sound that's a million miles from euphoric Isra-European oldskool" (anon n.d., see also St John, 2001).
It is arguable that, as the large "events" lost their punch, local electronicas found more of their own voices once again, in parallel with the rise of techno and its spread throughout a much wider community than the inner cities. Local clubs became more prominent (for example, the first techno club in Melbourne, the Commerce Club [Mittmann and Flavell 2003]). Clubs also became much more diverse as electronica matured. At the same time, clubs began to be found in more unlikely places (more recent examples have been Mad Racket, a DJ collective formed in 1998, running events at the suburban Marrickville Bowling Club, or the Frequency Lab in a privately run studio warehouse space in Sydney's Redfern district). From the beginning of the 1990s, DJs began opening their own record shops, such as Outpost Incorporated in Adelaide (Mittmann and Flavell 2003). From the early- to the mid-1990s until the present, Australian electronica artists settled down to make their own mixes and musics, start up community radio shows, and sell their own music — usually on a smaller scale, but immensely eclectic, also forming complex webs of networks/collectives and regular events via which electronic music could be promoted and enjoyed.
These webs of eclecticism have persisted and flourished to this day, developed by interwoven networks across Australia and linked up with international artists and labels, made up of still not quite mainstream artists and promoters of electronica. As we have begun to suggest above, the artists and promoters (and sometimes labels) often involve the same people. An example can be found in the work of Sebastian Chan and Luke Bearnley, of Sub Bass Snarl, with gigs since 1991, as well as running the Paradigm Shift radio programme on community radio station 2-SER since 1995. Chan is also an editor of what is probably the best contemporary resource concerning Australian electronic music, the online and offline magazine, Cyclic Defrost. They also ran Frigid, a regular night of electronic music that was held from 1996 to 2006. Many of these networks, collectives, and their related labels can now be found online, although some of them do come and go at times rather quickly.
The last ten years has seen the successful establishment of new networks of production, distribution, and debate and communication. Largely enabled by web-based technologies, individual artists and small independent labels have begun to find new audiences at both the local and international levels. Many of these websites are run by small but dedicated groups, who have an interest in making available a wide range of material produced by significant (and not so well-known) figures in the local scene. Though these small businesses do not make much money (for either the distributors or the artists), they have solved some of the problems of distribution that have often plagued the independents.
Room 40 is good example of the new labels that have emerged in recent years and made available in the company of other independents. Based in Brisbane and established by sound artist Lawrence English, the label emerged at the same time new music and electronica started to flourish in local venues such as Ric's Café, the Small Black Box at Metro Arts and at events such as Fabrique or REV at the Brisbane Powerhouse. The range of the label's work however is much wider than the Brisbane region itself, as the label releases a wide variety of electronic and experimental music from Australia, the UK and Japan. Similarly, the Psy-Harmonics label in Melbourne is a who's who of electronica, representing the work of Black Lung, Shoalin Wooden Men, Snog, All India Radio, Decoder Ring and Zen Paradox.
Clan Analogue, formed in 1992 in Sydney, and its large database of artists bios and discographies is an excellent example of how electronica collectives have organised themselves across geographic spaces far wider than the inner-city realm they may have grown from. Representing a huge roster of artists of various styles and ideologies, the website is the public face of a large and vibrant community of producers and fans of electronica. Significantly, Clan Analogue is now a national organisation with "active members in Sydney and Melbourne, associated artists in Albury, Brisbane and Perth". The Clan very much sees itself as underground — with a DIY philosophy that "encourages the direct transmission of the artist's works to the listener without filtering it via label mediation" (all quotes Clan Analogue n.d.).
While it is beyond the scope of this entry to go into further detail, any future research into Australian electronica would start with an analysis and review of the recording, links and connections between the artists, groups and labels mentioned above.
As we have said earlier, much of this detailed work has been done over the past five years in the excellent criticism and chronicling of electronica in the specialist electronic music publication Cyclic Defrost.
This entry is an abridged version of a more extensive discussion first published in Culture Machine.