Books, Music Business
Sydney: Currency House, Platform Papers No. 32 July 2012. 73 pages
Reviewed by David Mayocchi, April 1st, 2014
In History Is Made at Night, Clinton Walker takes the lens to the ‘sticky carpet, dodgy house PAs and moshpit etiquette’ of live popular music.
History Is Made at Night is one of the quarterly essays published in Currency House’s Platform Papers Series which provides a regular forum on the performing arts in Australia. Walker is well placed to write on popular music, with a reputation for uncovering often undocumented aspects of the genre. His books include Buried Country, a history of Aboriginal country music, Stranded, a history of Australian independent music and Highway to Hell, an internationally published biography on the life of the late AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott.
Walker has spent most of his life watching live music in Australia; his own estimate is three thousand gigs. What prompted this latest work was the sudden closure of the Tote Hotel in Melbourne. In 2010, this small inner-city alternative music venue was caught up in Victoria’s efforts to fight public drunkenness and violence. Licensee Bruce Milne couldn’t meet the new compliance costs for his ‘high risk’ venue and closed it. The reaction was immediate and 15,000 people took to the streets of Melbourne to protest.
Small hotels and venues are critically important incubators for emerging performers, places where they first test their songs in public and start to build an audience. So why, asks Walker, do governments generously support other performing arts but ignore and even harm Australia’s largely self-sufficient and global popular music industry? It’s a good question.
Walker believes it’s due to a misconception that popular music is not a legitimate art form and traces this institutional blind spot back to Whitlam’s establishment of the Australia Council with no place for contemporary popular music.
Walker does an excellent job tracing the social, cultural, political and legislative forces that have shaped the live performance of Australian popular music since the 1960s. With its initial celebration of ‘sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’, Walker himself acknowledges that for a while, the new musical culture was closer to crime than art. The development of a pub rock circuit and better management provided an opportunity for a generation of Australian musicians to develop exceptional live performance skills that they could successfully take to the world. It was the Department of Trade under Bob Hawke that eventually started supporting Australian popular music and it was the Queensland government in the early 2000s that provided the model for government support for live music precincts.
Overly polemic in places – ‘Everybody knows that our arts establishment is an elitist cabal that disdains the vulgarity of popular music and only looks after its own.’ – Walker concludes that the contemporary music sector needs the recognition and support of the arts establishment if it is to thrive. He wants popular music to be recognised finally as a sub-set of the arts, sharing in the respect and advocacy that this change might bring.