Back in May, 2016, Bob Gordon was called upon to ponder some of Fremantle’s musical past as part of the From History To Future Talks held at Mojos. Here’s a transcript of a subject that reaches high and wide…
THE PREMISE – ‘The trends of music emerging from Fremantle over the years and what a national publication (X-Press/TheMusic.com) defines or expects the “Freo Sound” to sound like and how that has changed over the years’.
By Bob Gordon
I’ll begin with an apology. Upon delving into something like this, once you start thinking and talking to people about it and collecting names, places and people to mention, the more you collect the more you realise that there will be a shitload of names left out.
So, this is by no means definitive – if you feel like mentioning someone at the end who has not been noted in this talk, please sing their name out, always!
In the last few days leading up to this I picked the minds of around 20 people I knew – musicians or people involved in music, some from Freo, some not, about Fremantle, its music and its bands.
Quite often, one simple question arose – what qualifies as a Freo band?
Is it a case of being born or bred? Do you have to live off South Terrace or just practice in it? Does loading the gear into the station wagon and driving down Stirling Highway and playing gigs in the Shire help with your geographical and cultural status?
Sometimes when these friends were on a roll with their thoughts they’d literally stop… ‘wait, were The Triffids a Freo band?’ ‘Were The Boys a Freo band?’ ‘The Stems?’ ‘Were Little Birdy a Freo band?’
In the ’90s, there was a band called Circus Murders (Roly Skender, Matt Cheetham, Joe Scholz, Chris Horan) who were considered your classic example of a Fremantle band except for one thing –
They were from West Perth. Not only that, but West Street, West Perth – where they rehearsed and wrote. They released a CD titled West St 1-5 to commemorate.
In asking people their thoughts – some of which I’ll quote from – out of all the eras and phases of time one band’s name came up all the time as a great example of a Fremantle band and that was…
Joe Kapiteyn (Infected , The Devil Rides Out)
“One of my first local shows was at the Stoned Crow and that had a big impact on me – Was Cinema Prague and Inquisition. Were Cinema Prague a “Freo” band? I don’t have much in the way of Freo music stories as most of my personal music career has been more focused around the inner city and northern suburbs. Not much of an audience for heavy music in Freo.”
Possibly another debate right there, depending what your definition of heavy is. Like Fremantle, Cinema Prague were diversity itself. They didn’t have one sound, they had many – jazz, rock, punk, speed metal, pop, funk, blues, reggae, hip hop. None of it token or ornamental, it all flowed.
A very handy trio – George Kailis, Tim Lowe and Rex Horan.
Not only lead guitar, but lead bass and lead drums. When necessary, of course. They used to be compared all the time to Frank Zappa. Which is quite a complement for a couple of guys who were at the time in their early 20s. But I recall Rex found that comparison quite frustrating and somewhat lazy – I think, oddly enough, because it was limiting – it reduced a band that was doing deep and wide things into a two-word description, even if those two words were ‘Frank’ and ‘Zappa’.
So, there was no Cinema Prague ‘sound’. And I would propose that there is no such thing as a ‘Fremantle sound’.
I think that the people who propose that there are scenes or sounds in a certain region, aren’t from that locality.
Think of Seattle and grunge – in a reportage sense, it’s widely thought this term was first used by the UK critic, Everett True. It’s an example of someone from far afield telling other outsiders what it’s like ‘over there’.
The doom, gloom, desperation and inspiration of an entire community gets dumbed down into one word. And only a handful of bands, at most, ‘benefit’ from it at all.
I used to hate it when every few years people would say ‘Perth could become the new Seattle’. Hell no! Not with that drug problem.
Similarly, ‘The Liverpool of the South’ – To a wider world Merseyside simply means The Beatles and Gerry & The Pacemakers.
In the ’90s there certainly was a proliferation of funk music being played at places like the Harbourside – but it was a prevailing wind, not the dominant scene.
There were heavy periods of blues music spearheaded by the Zar brothers, Steve Tallis, Jim Fisher and many others. There was also the power pop/paisley revolution of The Go Starts, The Stems and DM3.
Soon enough in the late ’90s there was a lot of electronic music being played at places like Phillimore’s by bands such as Proton and also a band called Rhibosome who were on a path that Koi Child are consolidating in this modern era.
And in amongst that you have the likes of the Kill Devil Hills – now what scene do they fit in? Their Own – I would suggest. Much like The Triffids.
The Fremantle scene constitutes ‘Hippies with sandals’ – now people have referred to that one for decades.
ANONYMOUS – “I have a northsider’s perception of Fremantle music over the years as a largely regressive mish-mash of reggae/funk/folk which usually involves some members of the band being barefoot on stage…… with dreadies. Soon as they came on RTR you could tell they were from Freo. Eskimo Joe were clearly not in that category but were a proudly Freo band who I found refreshingly different to that simplistic appraisal. I’m not being very helpful am I? But the calibre of people like Jim Fisher, Lucky Oceans, Dave Brewer, Reg Zar and the like have ensured world-class musicianship can be found at your local bowlo or corner bar, what a treat. These guys are unassuming craftsmen, local treasures.”
Pretty helpful, as it turns out. There are great characters in the history of the Fremantle music community such as those just mentioned. And others such as The Boy From Bicton – Dave Warner, Phil Stevens, Lee Sappho, John Reid, Kevin Parker, Jodie Regan, John Butler, Danielle Caruana, Kim Salmon, Felicity Groom, Dom Mariani, Andrew Ryan…
They don’t lead by ego, but by their actions.
And there’s many great foot soldiers…
Paul McCarthy (The Jackals, The Wishers, solo artist)
” …first one that springs to mind for me personally is Touchstone …a three-piece folk rock band featuring Paul Noonan on bass (he went on to play with Dave Warner) Scott Wise (he went on to be a gifted instrument maker) and Eric Kowalski ( was probably the most talented of the lot played violin and guitar….disappeared of my radar) they were quiet big in the late ’70s ….inspired me to play music…….other more obvious bands that come to mind are Dave Warner (the boy from Bicton) The Triffids, Kim Salmon, Kill Devil Hillls, Stems, John Butler, Eskimo Joe and Tame Impala…must be heaps more but that’s what immediately comes to mind for me.
“And the musos go from one thing to another ignoring the genres. Paul Noonan, bass player of Touchstone, became known as a folk muso… then never played that style again. Lots of musos flipping from one style to another… but the community they play with remains fairly constant… more constant that the sound, anyway.”
To me, Fremantle is not a sound or a scene. Scenes come and go, but as Paul McCarthy noted, it’s about community.
An Eternal Community
That was something that I, as someone who lived mostly around Subi, Shenton Park, North Perth and Leederville over the years loved about coming to Fremantle for gigs.
I always loved making ‘the trek’ – the bands and the people around them – the communicativeness and the open hearts and minds.
For years ‘Perth’ bands found it very hard to encourage and applaud when other – rival? – bands achieved something, or moved a step closer to a notion of ‘success’. These days it’s far more apparent because there’s a much more mature and confident musical state of mind across the board.
To my mind, in the Fremantle community that always existed. That open-minded and open-heartedness that I just mentioned. It’s just a different vibe when you come to Freo and you feel it when you live there.
Tom Fisher (Tom Fisher & The Layabouts, Booker – Clancy’s Fremantle)
“When I was a teen, you’d go to these Freo parties, and it would be like $5 with a couple of kegs pouring (if you were there early enough). I was always worried they olde hosts wouldn’t let us in. I remember Rod (Aravena, End of Fashion) hosting some corkers. Remember seeing Freud’s Pillow (early Eskimo Joe seeds). Cinema Prague were great. I loved a punk band called White Trash and got them to play my 18th birthday at the Seaview. The folk scene with bands like Press Gang etc was pretty large around the Fly By Night. The fact that the Zydecats Sunday session was so huge here could only have probably happened in Freo, I feel. The right culture.”
In 1983 Australia II won the America’s Cup and pretty soon after that came the initial gentrification of Fremantle.
George Wesley (Worked at many Fremantle live venues and long-time champion of/in the Freo music community)
“You know, in pre-America’s Cup days, when Freo was an old port town and people actually used to speak more Italian than English, there were traditional musos everywhere. You would sit at Papa Luigi’s and listen to a piano-accordion. My uncle used to play at the footy club every Friday eve sundowner; he played folk tunes on his violin accompanied by ‘Les’, whose big claim to fame was that he wrote the Aeroplane Jelly jingle. When I was really little there was lots of cultural music everywhere. Freo isn’t like that anymore.”
True, however Freo’s rich history as a multi-ethnic, harbourside city has given it a richness in culture that makes it special to this day. KULCHA was a mainstay for multi-cultural music. As has been the Fly By Night Club – a multi-genre paradise – and more power to those keeping that dream alive.
Mathew de la Hunty (Tall Tales & True, The Lazy Horses)
“My early experience was from 1976-77 when Martyn Casey and I first started playing live. We weren’t even of age but we did a couple of coffee shop acoustic shows and played with our first band at the Orient Hotel in 1977. (We lived south of the river). There were colourful hippies mixed with some pretty hard-drinking, hard living visiting seamen (Not military, tattooed rough nuts) who were plentiful around town. A fight broke out on the dance floor, blood everywhere. I got propositioned by a short old man in his bowling whites who wanted to tell me all about his penis. Rock and Roll! What a start. When we started as the Nobodies – our first original band in 1980. We played at The Stoned Crow many times. Lots of hippies and no beer! Cider and wine. The emergence of post punk/new wave seemed to mainly come from the northside. Mutant Mule studio was in North Fremantle. Originally built by the Clarion Records guy, Martin Clarke, it was the home to early recordings of many bands of the new breed of early ’80s bands, Nobodies, Silent Type (later Never Never), And An A, to name a few. It was run by Tim Lambert and Evan Smith who moved from a mobile 8-track studio they used to record Dave Warner gigs live, to the permanent 16-track on location for about three years. Last I saw it was a carpet warehouse So whilst cover bands, boogie bands, R&B bands continued to play in beer barns there was a sense that a new thing was happening and the (now) Mojo’s and Mutant Mule Studio just down the road were two hubs of activity in the early ’80s.
“There’s been lots of talent lurking around the back streets of Freo across the decade -, Jill and Alsy, Roddy Radalj, Martyn Casey, and more recent locals.”
I guess what national magazines or journalists expect the ‘Freo Sound’ to be is based on what is dominating attention spans at any given time. So if I was over east I probably might say the Fremantle Sound is like Koi Child. Or Tame Impala.
But look at Kevin Parker’s influence on music around the globe these past few years. If his work is influencing people as disparate as Mark Ronson, The Flaming Lips and Rihanna – then is the sound of the world’s music the ‘Fremantle Sound’?
I’d prefer to think of it as the eternal community – artistic, open and giving. Something to embrace, because it will embrace you. As it has done to me.
Someone should write a book about it.