When one hears the word “punk”, images of leather clad young people, mohawks, loud violent music, angry screams and outraged adults inevitably come to mind. The Queensland government of the 1970s was particularly against this new brand of youthful revolt and Brisbane’s music scene was hit hard by the pressure put on them by the authorities. Prehistoric tells the tale of Brisbane bands fighting for their right to play the music the rest of the world was absorbed by, and will be part of the upcoming Melbourne Fringe Festival. I spoke with its director and composer Marcel Dorney about this riveting story.
What inspired you to write a play about the Brisbane punk scene of the ‘70s?
I was working with uni students and I was approached to explore a story around this time because of the impact of the Queensland government on its cultural life being negative. I was keen to tell the story to get the audience to imagine it from the point of view of young people who grew up not only in Brisbane, where venues were being shut down by the cops, now that we’re living in era where music is available at a push of a button, how important it was to hear music from elsewhere like Sex Pistols or The Ramones. And also what kind of impact it had on a band like The Saints to make a record before either of those still by people in the UK and America, an absolute punk record made in that environment of repression. I was born in end of ‘70s, heard about this stuff growing up. We had interviewed people about their experience, which was extraordinary in itself. It’s not nostalgic piece about how daggy the era was, that’s not the point of it. It’s about how easy it is to get into state of oppression, the basic challenge is against our own complacency, not just in music, but attitude in punk movement and post punk movement.
Were you a fan of punk music back when it was new?
I didn’t catch up with this stuff until I was 17, in the mid-90s. As far as I went, in high school I was into hip hop. After I went to uni and started mixing with artier types, I thought punk was the Sex Pistols. I started to be introduced to other things and see how interesting and funny and savage and wonderful this stuff was. First hearing The Slits and what they were trying to do was incredible. By understanding that, I understood what bands like Nirvana were about. At The Drive-In and talking about referencing both really smart and unreasonable and for us to treat each other better and excuses, which is a hard thing because there’s always excuses and reason to not treat people well, there’s always a reason to look the other way when a homeless person or person of colour by a police officer, and there’s always a reason to assume until that power, specifically capital, will look after you until it doesn’t.
How do you feel punk music holds up today?
I feel the energy is still strong. If you hear this stuff, one thing we’ve done is spend the first part of the show trying to get the audience a space where you can hear its music, a little bit like you heard it back then. When you just get onto YouTube and hear something, and if you understand and take a little time and show the surroundings and this is what’s on TV and in school. When the music, it hits you again, how do we understand what make this music exciting.
Do you feel that perhaps Prehistoric is Brisbane’s answer to the Melbourne based movie Dogs In Space, about Melbourne’s punk scene? Do you feel the two are compatible?
I love that film and one cool thing is that it inspired us, and it’s a very Melbourne story. In a way, we’re doing a Brisbane version of it, but show what was the same and what was different as it was a different situation. In a way, it’s funny, for the people in our show, a place like Melbourne where you can do the things in Dogs In Space it’s like an amazing. There wasn’t much welcoming about Brisbane for musicians, who left for Melbourne, Sydney or London.
Back then, Brisbane was seen as being conservative and somewhat backwards culturally compared to the rest of Australia. Was this something that you feel contributed to the rise of Brisbane’s punk scene?
I wasn’ t there, but the people who were will say so. It’s not so much the rest of the country, but compared with London. I think that was Australia’s problem. What it was what they didn’t know and what they grew to understand, they grew in this environment, and how oppressive Brisbane was until bands from Sydney and Melbourne started playing and wowed them. Brisbane people took it for granted the normalastion of something that’s wrong, which is the subject of the play. There was also a lot of female singers in punk bands in Brisbane, something I didn’t expect. Australia in the ‘70s was even more sexist than now and Brisbane was a bigger step in that direction, a difficult place for women. I believe that should be resonant in the play by how that was the norm in those days.
How do you feel Brisbane’s music scene is today? Is there still some lingering conservatism around?
Not conservatism. What Brisbane has and I hope it doesn’t lose is it’s squashed in together. Not a big scene, but unique scene. By isolation and figured “fuck it, no one else is listening anyway”. People are more likely to say if we sound more like this band, we’d be better. Brisbane has, I think in the last 10 years, when I was in bands to do what the fuck you wanted. That makes for some bad bands and some great bands. Melbourne knows what’s that about too. Although the sound’s different, the cities do have more in common than people realise.
How do you feel this Brisbane based play will be received in Melbourne?
Freedom is relative. What we’re talking about is the attidue is there being no place to hide and to express yourself. Feeling always under threat. Not easy to do good stuff anywhere. I hope it will be received with generousity and good humour. Maybe something you don’t know that much about because Brisbane is a still a bit of mystery to a lot of people. There’s something that’s relateable and a little different I hope.
Originally published here at milkbarmag.com on Monday 1 September 2014