By Shane Pinnegar
Dave Warner has been many things in his 40-odd years in the entertainment business. Starting off in garage punk band Pus, The Boy From Bicton sought fame overseas, invented ‘Suburban Rock’, blazed a musical trail that was almost always ahead of it’s time, and has since dabbled in theatre, script and novel-writing, which is what takes up most of his time nowadays.
Through the late Seventies Warner and his band Dave Warner’s From The Suburbs packed out pubs around Australia, thrilling audiences with tales of suburban life and Aussie culture long before Midnight Oil or Cold Chisel made it cool to do so, but while those bands went on to huge success, Warner always struggled to find big marketing and production budgets which would allow him to break through to the mainstream.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Dave Warner for a half hour, primarily about his music career, and got taken on a historical joyride through Perth’s 1970’s music scene and beyond.
Dave Warner’s From The Suburbs returns to Perth for one show only at The Charles Hotel on August 24th – tickets available from the venue.
100% ROCK MAG: You’ve had a pretty amazing career from 70’s punk through to Suburban Rock, you’re an author of movie and TV screenplays, novels, theatre – the whole lot. Has it been a satisfying creative ride for you?
Warner: Yeah, I think the creative part of it is always satisfying. Well I wouldn’t say ‘always’ – there are times you think ‘well that song wasn’t good enough, I never quite nailed it’, or that screenplay or whatever. But in general the creative aspect of it is good. If there’s frustration it comes off the back of ‘could I have done that better’ or ‘why didn’t that work so well’, and especially in the case of film and stuff, you deliver scripts which get the money raised for the film, and they’re pretty good scripts, but you see the producer or director or somebody gets their hands on it and destroys what was good about it. So that’s frustrating, but the creative process itself is very satisfying.
100% ROCK MAG: The funny thing with movies of course is that there are just so many more creative people having input – producer, director, actors, money people, writers, so you maybe don’t have that hands-on focus that you have as a musician perhaps.
Warner: Well that’s right, and I was never in a situation where we had a really big name producer come in and do an album with us. I wish we did, because I think that would have been great. You keep your fingers crossed that you end up with the right team. It is frustrating though – sometimes I’ve been with a great director, and then the producers or somebody has stuffed it up, or other times you’re with a producer who is pretty sympathetic and the director will have a different vision. But yeah, that aside – I don’t want to whinge on about that – it is what it is. These things just evolve and all these things are part of a creative team in a way. The least is probably writing novels. I like that a bit because that’s 95-96% YOUR WORK. There’s a little bit of input from an editor – though in Australia the editors don’t tend to be substantially hands on. So at the end of the day you can look at it and think ‘that worked and it was all my work’, or ‘that didn’t work and it was all my own work’.
100% ROCK MAG: I really wanted to focus on your music today. Going back to the beginning one of your first bands was PUS of course, giving you a legitimate claim to being one of the world’s first punks, so to speak. Dressing up in crazy costumes and playing songs like Throbbing Knob must have been pretty radical in Perth in 1974!?
Warner: Yeah it was! Nobody really wore costumes until we did. We were playing around in 1972, ’73 – I think I must have rehearsed with that band for about three years before we finally played a live gig! And then just about the time we were starting to get ready to do public stuff we MIGHT have played a party or two. Skyhooks appeared and they had a similar thing – colour and movement, doing Australian songs that were scatological and risqué. But apart from them there wasn’t much else, it was pretty much jeans, long haired blues bands, and if it wasn’t that it was colour co-ordinated uniformed cover bands. So yeah, [Pus] was pretty radical.
100% ROCK MAG: How did your music evolve from that neo-punk scene to become the flagbearer of what you christened Suburban Rock?
Warner: As I started to write more of my own stuff… Pus came about from wanting to do stuff, [but] not being a great musician, and my friends and I tended to play garage band stuff anyway. I had some influences from people like Country Joe And The Fish and The Doors from that West Coast U.S. scene, and then I liked The Who and The Troggs and The Fugs. The Fugs were a big thing for me. At Disc Curio one day on the way to Uni – I remember we used to drop in there every morning on the way to Uni – and I found Golden Filth by The Fugs and that was a real lightbulb moment because the songs were great and provocative, and the music was really crude, it was so crude that I could play it with my friends! That was a really good prototype to set it off.
Around that time – 1972 – I started to write with my friend Al Howard, aka ‘Wild Scrote’ [Howard wrote a hard to find but excellent book on Warner called Suburban Boy, published by Creative Research in 1981] and by myself and we started to write songs. So there was Throbbing Knob, Hot Crotch, Suburban Boy and a couple of other things like Campus Days that were a bit more musical because I was playing on the keyboard. And then reading about punk – I listened to MC5, which I didn’t like all that much, but I’d read about Detroit punk, and I don’t think I ever listened to Iggy & The Stooges, but I’d read about his stage show where he gouged himself with drumsticks and so on. So when I started with Pus I thought that what I’d read about, and what I’d seen from Elvis Presley’s early film clips, that excitement was what I was trying to get into the stage thing. And quite apart from that, I’d always had problems with asthma and phlegm in my throat, so when we were playing and everyone was smoking, I’d gob on the ceiling – so I was actually doing what punks were doing but out of total necessity!
But that stuff was – there was a punk element, but I never thought of myself as punk, I was just thinking of these influences and delivering a type of raw music that came straight from the heart. Sweet Jane was another [influence]. So there were all these influences that were kind of influences that I think later punks and new wave people would have had. And everyone [in the band] went overseas in 1975-76, so we wound Pus down, and I wanted to get something happening so I went to the U.K. to write some songs, and I recorded some of my more melodic songs and saw some people like Richard Williams who was a famous A&R guy with Island Records, and I never played them Suburban Boy or any of the punky stuff like that – I played them these other things. This was late 1975, early 1976, and they said ‘It’s all good, but I’m looking for a different thing, I don’t know what it is yet.’ So had I played him the rawer stuff things might be very different today!
But whilst I was sitting in the flat in Brixton where I lived I was surrounded by reggae music and got on really well with the West Indian guys next door who were from Barbados and Trinidad and Jamaica, so I kind’ve got influenced by their stuff, [and I was] re-writing my stuff recreating the things I had already done, kind of reworking them in my head. And thinking about Perth, I kind’ve looked at all these disparate songs that really had nothing in common in terms of musical style, but conceptually they’re all about my life and what I know. To divert here a little, I’d read a book by Nick Cohn called Wopbopalooboplopbamboom [Or Wop Bopa Loo Bop Lop Bam Boom Pop From the Beginning], a writer who’d analysed rock music and pop music and talked about how powerful people like Chuck Berry were because they could capture an essence of what people knew.
And at the time that I wrote Suburban Boy, Australian bands were doing the complete opposite. Axiom were doing Arkansas Grass, even The Easybeats were doing St Louis. So there was a lot of Australians writing stuff about places other than Australia, so I flipped that on it’s head even before I left Australia, but when I was overseas, it’s that classic thing, I think, that with a bit of distance comes a lot of clarity. So I started to write more songs. A lot were just personal experience songs, but a lot were things like Convict Streak which could only have been written if I was in Europe at the time, surrounded by these influences and bumping into crazy Aussies and stuff.
So at the end of it all I looked at all this stuff and thought ‘what have I got’, and I figured what I had was the essence of ‘Suburban Rock’, which through it all flowed laminex table, football, TV – this kind of suburban existence that up until then NO-ONE had considered could have been the genesis for anything creative, let alone popular in Australia. That was THE most cringe-worthy thing, to do anything suburban. And so it was sitting in the flat in Brixton that I decided the band would be called Dave Warner’s From The Suburbs, and I’d come back and do this stuff and loosely call it ‘Suburban Rock’
100% ROCK MAG: And how ironic that you had to go all that way to get in touch with that!
Warner: Yeah, it crystallised. I think all the elements were there, forming in my mind, but… when I came back and punk happened, I’d already left that behind and the raw punk of Sex Pistols and so on was different stuff, it was much more suitable to unemployed Poms in England than to anyone in Australia, but I think where it was coming from musically was the same – it was a reaction against things like The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac which were very smooth sounding, L.A. kind of adult contemporary sound. So it was very much a return to the raw 45rpm sound of The Who, The Troggs, a garage thing. So in that sense what I was doing was similar.
100% ROCK MAG: And you said that by doing that you – if not changed the overall sound of Australian music – at least you certainly helped open it up to be more about Australianisms.
Warner: Yeah, and at the same time, I remember the first time we played Sydney at the Bondi Lifesaver and a guy poked his head in and said ‘you guys should hear this band Midnight Oil’. I since found out it was their manager Gavin Morris, so I heard about this band who he said were doing very similar stuff to us, and there was Skyhooks, Midnight Oil, us, other artists – there was a real core vanguard driving Australian music, yeah.
100% ROCK MAG: In playing music like that which was so integrally Australian, why do think it didn’t cross over into more serious chart success in Australia?
Warner: I think it was the mentality of FM radio, because we did actually have surprisingly good chart success with Mug’s Game and Suburban Boy. Mug’s Game was, I think, top 5 in Perth and I think probably ten or twelve in Australia – we were the third biggest selling Australian act that year.
100% ROCK MAG: That album went gold didn’t it?
Warner: Yeah, Mug’s Game went gold. And we were the third biggest selling album that year. We were album oriented rather than singles oriented, we had a couple of songs released as singles but radio stations were very conservative, so with some of the material they couldn’t play it because of language restrictions, or it wasn’t really pop format. I didn’t have a lot of Suburban Boy material up my sleeve, but you didn’t need to then because albums were selling. We got really good support from some of the smaller stations like Double J in Sydney, 4ZZZ or QQQ in Queensland or whatever it was, RMIT in Melbourne. But there was no Triple J – I think if Triple J had existed at that time we would’ve been much bigger because that was a national station and we were on really good rotation on Double J, and we played a lot of the Double J concerts and did really well as they were totally our target audience. So we didn’t have that kind of national exposure, we had a bit here and a bit there. The big AM stations didn’t play us, then FM stations came along and maybe we just weren’t cool enough for FM stations. Maybe we needed better management, because I was managing the band myself a lot of the time, so maybe it was that. Maybe we just didn’t have the right material for them. So it could have been a combination of things. Yeah, maybe the songs just didn’t have the right space for FM radio. I think by the time of the fourth album I was just uncool then, but some of the songs off that album could have been played on the radio.
100% ROCK MAG: Kookaburra Girl from that record is the only time I recall seeing you on Countdown
Warner: I did Nothing To Lose live on Countdown and we did have the clip for Kookaburra Girl on too. See Countdown, that was another struggle. Kookaburra Girl went Top 5, I think, in Tasmania of all places, and up the North West. I think that was another problem. You know, I was always very anti-Countdown, well, tongue in cheek anti-Countdown. With Molly [Meldrum] and the way he used to suck up over bands, and bands like LRB who were playing Eagles-sounding songs, and again that was the thing where you had to play American sounding music and then get raved about by Australians, and be glorified as an Australian success when really all you’re doing is covering American songs. They were original songs, but they were as if they were covers.
Countdown played the Suburban Boy filmclip and it did really well, but Molly was really keen to get us on and I thought it was musical suicide. I thought we can’t go on or we’d alienate a lot of people, especially campus [Uni] audiences. So the band and I didn’t want to go on and I had a conversation with Michael Gudinski of Mushroom Records who was determined to get us on and I had a deal with Mushroom where I had paid for the Mug’s Game and Free Kicks albums and they were supposed to do the promotional support. And Gudinski said ‘well if you don’t do Countdown I won’t do a filmclip, I won’t give you any promotional support for your records’. So I was between a rock and a hard place, so we went on and did Nothing To Lose – I remember Plastic Bertrand was on that show! And I felt that there was definitely a backlash, especially in the campus and alternative – though it wasn’t called ‘alternative’ back then – scene, because we’d gone on Countdown. It was hard to then maintain the momentum in the smaller radio stations. [Back then] it was completely independant – some DJ would just decide you were a wanker and decide to just not play your stuff! That made it harder too I think.
100% ROCK MAG: Having said that, you created a cult fanbase that is largely still with you now.
Warner: I think most of the fans probably stayed with us but it meant we couldn’t quickly expand, you know? It’s great – my fans are incredibly loyal and they always were the most voracious of fans. Again, in Sydney for years we played Bondi Lifesaver and I knew a bar manager there and she would say ‘You’ve still got the record’ – we had the record for drinking there! And finally in about the last month of The Lifesaver Cold Chisel were playing and they busted our record. It was a dubious thing to be proud of I suppose!
100% ROCK MAG: There was a documentary aired in 2009 called Something In The Water, about the West Australian music scene, and you famously made some very good points about the film makers ignoring Dave Warner’s From The Suburbs – you put up an essay, or I think you called it a rant, on your website. Did you ever get a response from the film makers about that?
Warner: No, I didn’t. And I assume that they just weren’t aware of me and I don’t mind that. I think as a film maker you make your film – if you love The Triffids or something, you do something about them. What got to me was that the whole point of [the film] was talking about West Australian people making West Australian music and talking about Perth, and that was exactly what I did – so that’s why I got angry at that. If it was just about your favourite bands then that’s fine, everyone has their personal tastes, and there’s plenty of people who hate me and love other bands whether it’s Last Chance Cafe or The Triffids or Hoodoo Gurus or whoever it might be. But to make a documentary on what you claim is West Australian musicians talking about, and in their songs celebrating the culture of West Australian music, and to not [include] me was ludicrous and a big shortcoming.
100% ROCK MAG: Absolutely! Do you feel there is still a definitive documentary about West Australian music yet to be made?
Warner: Oh I think so – definitely! Because, I don’t know who there was before me – as a kid I can remember there was Club 17 on Channel 7, hosted by Johnny Young and they had bands in the studio like Russ Kennedy and The Little Wheels. These bands, a lot of the things they were doing were covers, but then they were doing original material as well, and they were doing it in that 60’s pop way. There was Clarion Records that Martin Clarke set up and had acts like Robbie Snowden on, so there’s all that stuff that came through. Then there were the bands of my time. [But] you see it constantly in books and heard it in Something About The Water – ‘Perth was a cover band town and there was no original music there prior to 1985’, which was just bullshit! I mean, I went around and knocked on doors of pubs who had no music or had cover band music on, and made them a deal. Maybe the first week it’d be ‘well just give us $100’ or ‘just give me the door’ or whatever, and venues that had been venues before like the Shenton Park that we kind’ve re-opened, we weren’t the only band doing it, but we probably did more [than most]. We used to do 3 or 4 hours of songs, 85% of those were original. We did quite a few cover songs to keep the audience going over that period of time, you know four hours of originals could get pretty boring if you weren’t familiar with that!
But there were some other bands like The Riffs and Rock Bottom and others who came up, they either did original material or did songs in a really original way, they certainly existed and the public responded. So when they say ‘Perth was a cover band town til 1984’, well it wasn’t – we were getting full houses at the Subiaco Hotel and the Shenton Park and The Vic Hotel and we weren’t the only ones doing it.
100% ROCK MAG: And not just in Perth of course – you were playing over in Melbourne and Sydney…
Warner: Oh yeah, once we went over there, that’s right.
100% ROCK MAG: You’ve periodically reformed The Suburbs, most recently in January for a show in Perth, and you’re doing so again August 24th for a show at The Charles Hotel. Do you still get a buzz out of playing Half Time At The Football and Hot Crotch and all those old songs?
Warner: Oh yeah, it’s great! It’s always dependant, of course, on what kind of crowd there is and what kind of buzz you get. The difference now is you have to do a lot more preparation to get it anywhere near the level that we had when we were playing day to day. So it’s quite a lot of rehearsal goes into it, and everyone has jobs and family so you can’t get quite intensive rehearsal like you would have had before, so you’re never quite sure what might stuff up. But The Charles Hotel gig that we did [in January] was fantastic. We did a gig the night before down at Clancy’s Fish Pub in Yallingup – we only had probably 50 or 60 people there, but it didn’t matter, they were really into it, it was a really FUN gig to do. It reminded me of the really early gigs I used to do, where you’d walk along the bar, sing to the barmaid and jump down and sing to the crowd.
100% ROCK MAG: Do you plan on keeping on doing that – reforming once every now and then?
Warner: Well yeah, I’d like to. I’ve got a couple of offers to do some more gigs over East. I did one Melbourne show last year with Tony Durant, the original guitarist and Greg Macainsh played a bit of bass on it, and they invited me back this year. But I just have a few writing deadlines so it might just clash unfortunately. The good thing about last year was I had six months free of any other kind of writing commitments so I could put the time into getting a band together and do that kind of stuff. But I definitely want to do that more frequently – I don’t know how much the market can take of Warner [laughs], maybe one or two gigs a year?
100% ROCK MAG: You mentioned Greg Macainsh there from Skyhooks. Considering what we were talking about earlier where you had mentioned a rivalry there – I’ve certainly heard some live material where you said on stage that you felt you had blazed a trail that Skyhooks perhaps came afterwards, without using words like ‘stole ideas’ or anything like that. He also produced and played on your 1988 Meanwhile In The Suburbs EP, and you’ve co-written with him, Surplus & Dearth had quite a few songs co written by you both on it. So obviously there was no hard feelings there since you ended up working together on and off?
Warner: Look, the early stuff there, the only references I can remember would be in Monster’s Back, which was always pretty tongue in cheek anyway. I never felt that they’d copied me – I was pissed off that they got there before me! That was my thing – it was envy more than feeling that those bands had copied me. We’re very good friends – Greg is one of my best friends, and I’d like to encourage him to keep writing and doing stuff.
100% ROCK MAG: Of your Suburbs output, which song do you rate as your best?
Warner: Well, I guess there’s kind of different sorts of things. I think Mug’s Game is a really original thing that brings together a lot of influences from the Ray Manzarak keyboard to a bunch of other stuff. So I think that’s very original and something that no-one else did and probably no-one else has done [since].
100% ROCK MAG: Half Time At The Football as well gave you that vehicle to express your sometimes satirical views mid-song.
Warner: Absolutely, Half Time At The Football. So those kind of monologue things, I like them because they’re unique and very Warner-esque. I still like Suburban Boy to this day as it’s been very kind to me as my one and only ‘hit’! And it’s a good structured pop song. There’s other songs too – I’ve always loved Oklahoma, I love African Summer because I think that’s a really original sounding song. But there’s some other songs I’ve written that I just like because, they’re not particularly Warner-esque, but they’re good pop or rock songs in a more standard form. Things like They Can’t Take This Night Away, which I think is a really good emotional ballad with heart. And Key To The City, written around the same time, which I think is a good song.
100% ROCK MAG: They’re two very under-rated songs right there.
Warner: Yeah they’re certainly two of my favourites. With each album there’s different things I like for different reasons. I love the version of Suburban Rock which was on Free Kicks. I like Suburban Rock ‘cos it was kind of this punk but anti-punk song. And I love Johnny Leopard’s just crazy guitar playing on it. Leopard was just totally unique, that’s a really great example – no-one else can play that part like Leopard. So I love listening to that version of that one. When I was doing the band we reworked some songs up, one of the really early ones I liked was called Around These Parts, it was one of the first songs that I wrote, and it’s very un-Suburbs but there’s things about it I enjoy. And Waiting For The Cyclone, I’ve always really liked that song, and with this band we’ve really kind’ve got the feel right. So different sorts of songs for different occasions.
100% ROCK MAG: Strange Night was a really good example of a ‘storyteller’ song. And Million Miles From Home – that struck a chord, especially when I was living overseas. You’d put that on and shed a tear but also remind you of home enough to be really comforting.
Warner: Yeah, I’ve had great feedback for Million Miles From Home – and the suggestion to do a song like that came from Kim Fowley when I was in America in 1980! He was going to record an album with me, I met him several times at his North Hollywood flat, we sat on the ground playing his records – he saw me as being a sort of garage punk and he wanted to record me, he said ‘I’ve got a studio out in Venice, the Garage Punk Studio’. ‘Cos a lot of people don’t know this, but he had The Runaways at that point and he had them doing Suburban Boy but he changed the lyrics to “Suburban Girl”
100% ROCK MAG: I read that on your website actually!
Warner: He told me ‘I won’t ever record it ‘cos then I’d have to pay you royalties!’ [laughs] So he was sitting there and saying ‘Do this album and it should be like an Aussie abroad doing all this sort of stuff’. So I took his idea, and there are things like Million Miles From Home and Buried In My Backyard. I took him at his word and worked through some songs, and even though Million Miles… was written in 1980 a lot of it was about 1975 when I was living in England. I think you’re right, that’s one of the most resonant songs for Aussies that I’ve written. I would say that and Suburban Boy and Convict Streak are up there.
100% ROCK MAG: Since 1995 you’ve really focussed on your legacy – you’ve re-released some of the early albums, put out some DVDs and live albums. Have these served the purpose of coralling the troops, reminding people that you’re still around and perhaps pulling in some new fans as well?
Warner: Yeah I think so, I don’t know how many new fans there are although I do get emails saying ‘I’m playing the songs with my son or daughter or whatever’. It’s usually sons, it’s not particularly female friendly music – it’s usually guys who say they got the guitars out and they’re playing the records. I think it helps, yeah. I have written some other stuff, but just the process of having to record and release them gets difficult so as you say it’s been mainly reissuing or adding a couple of tracks here or there, or redoing stuff. It certainly keeps the thing bubbling and whilst it doesn’t really make any real money it does mean I can put that into the next one. People say ‘when’s Suburbs In The Seventies gonna be back out?’ and I say ‘well my shelves are still full of Free Kicks and Mug’s Game, so when I sell out of them I can release the next thing’ you know?
100% ROCK MAG: Is there much more unreleased material floating around?
Warner: What I want to do next is, I actually just sold the last copy of This Is My Planet a couple of weeks ago and I would like to do a double album of that and Correct Weight. But Correct Weight is one album that needed to be played out more and since then I’ve done better versions of the songs that are on it, so at the moment I’m trying to work out if I can re-record two or three of those songs like Wimbledon and Refugee Song. Some of the songs I’m happy with, some I wouldn’t bother to re-record, they’re fine. So I’m tossing up whether to just do a reissue as a double album or to re-record some of those songs… which part of me wants to do. [Editor’s note – Correct Planet, featuring the albums Correct Weight and This Is My Planet, is now available HERE]
100% ROCK MAG: Interesting. So what does 2013 hold for you?
Warner: First half of the year I had a few TV projects to do and I’m co-writing a 4-hour INXS Story for Channel 7 and Shine Australia, and I’ll be doing the first half of that so hopefully will get to do a bit of the Farriss boys in Perth, etcetera. And then there’s a couple of other feature things that are converging around the same time, but I’m hoping that when they’re under control that I will be back and do some more gigs.
100% ROCK MAG: Great, well we look forward to hearing them
Warner: Thanks Shane
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Filed Under: Interviews
About the Author: Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE