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[ Sydney Post-Punk Memoirs ]

Patrick Gibson

SYSTEMATICS - ANNALS OF A SMALL POND

III - WILD OATS, SENESCENCE AND DEATH - 1981


The Systematics performed live for the 1st time at the 21st birthday party of Mr. John Blades who went on to co-found the legendary Loop Orchestra, who are still revolving and reiterating more than 21 years after the event in Question. But on 13 December 1980, there we were on the patio of the Blades family household, sketching timorous musical reflections on topics as mutually inclusive as autism, herbicides, water-borne hepatitis, self-inflicted electrocution and physical deformity-related agoraphobia, in effort thereby to delight and edify assembled family and guests. We made an impression, to be sure - what's remarkable is that it wasn't the wrong one. We weren't immediately invited to appear again, 21st birthdays tending to be unique occasions in the life of an honest individual, but with John's blessing we embarked on 39 more exposures of greater or lesser felicity during the course of 1981, until we decided to call it a day at the start of 1982 - but patience, it will be 1982 soon enough.

The Roland 101 was our ground, something that could faithfully emulate the cries of a mutilated baby but couldn't quite manage those crisp bass registers pop tunes seemed to want at the time; it provided us instead with something muted and muffled and loosely more in keeping with a dub-style bass, and arguably to our ultimate advantage as stylists. Guitar, what an expressive instrument, and we had that in abundance, and any number of effects pedals to guide us. Rhythm - my word, we had rhythm aplenty, first from a cube, later from a box, as we upgraded, during our lifetime to a Korg KR-55, and also managed, during our allotted span, to acquire a Roland Saturn-9 keyboard which, on the one hand broadened our timbral palette, as it were, but on the other tended to lengthen the already lengthy breaks between songs that I manfully filled with snappy patter, enjoyed (or, depending on your frame of mind, endured) by one and all. Allow me at last to introduce to you the musicians employing the technology: Michael Filewood on Guitar, ladies and gentlemen, Fiona Graham on Bass and Keyboards, and Himself on Box and Vox. We would go on to conquer a world, or at least a teeny part of it.

After the Institute of Contemporary Events, our next performance was at the Civic Hotel, an old art deco pub located corner Pitt and Goulburn Streets, Sydney. For Filewood and I, this was remarkable, something of an attainment - we used to stumble into the city on a Saturday night in search of punk foci, for the most part unaware that we were a year or two late - we'd missed the high days of The Grand, let alone the Oxford Funhouse; Frenches may have proved edifying (if Frenches could ever be accused of that) if we'd known at the time that it existed, and the Sussex, while it still had bands in our day, seemed even to our callow ears, a bit past it. Not so the Civic, which we, beguiled, thought was punk par excellence. Downstairs was no more and no less than what it was, a superannuated, semi-abandoned six o'clock swill establishment, spotted here and there with a forgotten dependent, his middy of beer, his prejudices, his grievances, and nowhere else to go... while upstairs, congenial in comparison but, it seemed to me, perfectly natural by association, exciting bands like the Thought Criminals or, that night, Tactics performed, following support groups like the Systematics, who, as I recall, enjoyed their third small but not unappreciative audience that night. 

If downstairs was a bit cold, vegetative, desolate and moribund, then it was our good fortune to perform a lot of the time in locations that were a bit sweaty, synthetic, claustrophobic and, if only during the interminable hours before a performance, at worst tedious, and at best... drunken. (Lyn Bardsley has a nice take on this aspect of live performance, and it's only a click or two of the mouse away). The first floor of the Civic was such a place, but so was the first floor of the Paddington Green, another pub cum venue, that wished the world would call it by the impossible name of "Brownies", and a teeny part of it consented to do just that, made up predominantly of the people in the bands that performed there and the people who paid to see those bands. This was late January 1981, and M Squared was becoming increasingly well known both as a recording studio and as an independent label prepared to release the unusual, possibly inheriting the mantle from Doublethink which, and perhaps I'm mistaken, died a natural death sometime the previous year. Everyone and everything seemed to be absorbing and radiating unnatural levels of confidence - the burgeoning profile of M2 as a whole, but also the DTF [(Makers of the) Dead Travel Fast, to you], who must've released "Tael of a Saeghors" by then and were probably working on "The Vessels", both of which warranted acclaim in microcosms large and small, as well as the Systematics, who were becoming increasingly proficient and stage-savvy, and in the process had acquired about a dozen dedicated neophytes known collectively as the Zwah Pixies, all of whom became co-conspirators to a greater or lesser degree.

M Squared began their Brownies (shudder!) nights 20/1, and continued them until August that year, on and off, although there was a consistency in programme and appearances during the first month or two - Tuesday, 8ish - 11ish, featuring the Systs, DTF and Moving Parts (who had nothing whatsoever to do with M2, who had released an EP and then a single entitled "Living China Doll", and who deservedly or undeservedly vanished into an obscurity that eventually claims us all). Later, around the beginning of April, these nights having become less frequent, we had a couple of showcases for M2 alone, until finally, in August, they became more Systematics and Friends evenings. But by no means were we confined to (shudder!) Brownies - it was thanks to the enterprise of Michael Tee and, later, with the occasional assistance of a young ambitious kid by the name of Ken West, that the DTF and the Systs, we were something of a double act by then, were able to play so many other places, so many of which no longer exist. I know that the Marquee no longer exists, as I live not too far from where I think it existed, but I have to concede that the Paddington Town Hall still does (at least structurally, I don't think they've had bands there for quite some time), and I assume Wollongong and NSW Universities both endure. More problematic are the Governor's Pleasure and the Abraham Mott Hall in the Rocks, the Criterion Hotel and the Boardriders Club in Newcastle, the San Miguel in Cammeray - I have no direct experiential confirmation, but wish them all the best, whether concrete still, or remaining now no more than memories.

The Trade Union Club, I know that's gone, torn down and transformed into flats for the bosses and not unaffordable by middle management. If you care to consider inner-city Sydney during the early 80s as a vortex, and I know I do, and enjoy carelessly mixing metaphors while you're at it, then this place was its eye, its ugly wind and monoxide scraped facade its iris, the door its pupil, and its interior a kind of triple-storeyed camera obscura where everything was upside down, and once enclosed within these chambers, imbibing their aqueous humours, you had no good reason at all to believe that it wouldn't remain 4am forevermore, no matter what time of day or night it was outside, To have done with the analogy, it was the cause of many a blinding headache the day after, and no few cases of blind lust the night before. The TUC doesn't figure prominently in the Syst Story except at the end, and I may as well tell you now that we washed up there New Years Day 1982 with, I might suggest, a modicum of dignity, and the assistance of the DTF (of course), The Same and No-V-Bleet (see Lyn B, above).

Indeed, The Systematics assisted, or were assisted by, any number of interesting manifestations of the times - apart from those already mentioned and other 'house' bands like Scattered Order and Splendid Mess, there was Negative Reaction and Mice Against God (Michael & Milan and Ian Hartley, respectively), Wild West (you've accessed this site and don't know who they are? For shame! Back to Home!), Serious Young Insects (ah, where are the serious young insects of yesteryear?), The Allniters (a ska band related to a coeval 'mod' revival), The Laughing Clowns (that firebrand West was managing them at the time), NZ Pop (so called, amidst some easily forgettable ballyhoo, because their real name, Popular Mechanics, had already been appropriated by people this side of the Tasman), Sardine (featuring Ian Rilen, a gentleman from one of the seminal punk bands, "X"), XL Capris (who recorded a 'punk' version of "My City of Sydney", a piece of sub-Sinatra business as interpreted by Tommy Leonetti, used by the Seven Network to observe their nightly close of transmission - hands up all of you who can remember when television stations went off the air every night, perchance to dream, like human beings...), Tablewaiters, Fast Cars, The Limp (part of the Newcastle brigade, some of whose secrets you can read about elsewhere on this site), Nervous System (one of whom now graces the member roll of the Loop Orchestra), and then, of course, The Cure...

I think it's fair to say that the Systematics managed during their brief lifetime to breathe a small breath of something particular into the by no means rarefied atmosphere of the time. It might have been because we were a bunch of bright eyed kids in our late teens who didn't really know what we were doing but were going ahead and doing it anyway, like Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Francis the Talking Mule, and it may have been due to a certain streak of irreverence in our behaviour on stage that we were thought of as the only ones who might've been cheeky enough to take advantage of the opportunity - reasons, of course, which go some way towards an understanding of why we possessed any charm at all. However it was, our performance with The Cure was an occasion not entirely devoid of local style, and was as surprising for us as it was for the Zwah Pixies, or any other of our regular audience that might've turned up, who must have felt as if they'd stumbled into some kind of gala presentation where the guests of honour were the unassuming friends they'd been having a few beers with in the pub just the other day...
 
The story goes that Michael Tee and Fiona were watching Sounds on the morning of Saturday Aug. 8 when Robert Smith of The Cure let slip in a live interview with Donnie Sutherland (who was one of the responses the commercial networks made to the success of Molly Meldrum and ABC TV's Countdown) that they were playing that night in Sydney and still hadn't organised a support band. As ludicrous as that sounds, I swear it's the truth. It was, in any event, the work of a moment for the enterprising Tee to hop on the blower to Channel Seven (for it was they) and offer the services of Fiona, Filewood and myself, should our British cousins require us. The Musicians Union seemed to think that they didů

So Filewood and I were hastily convened, and the three of us were perfunctorily made members of said Union. As a result, we were allowed to explore the secret labyrinth behind and beneath the proscenium arch of the Capitol Theatre in the days when it still resembled a Regency music hall, but forbidden from becoming irretrievably lost, which would've been our melancholy fate had we remained Unaffiliated. We had our own dressing room, which isn't as grand as it sounds, and resembled a scaled down version of a small suburban sports oval's changing facilities. The Headliners, however, were a pleasant surprise - after our soundcheck (Yes! We had a soundcheck!) Smith invited us around to their dressing room, which resembled a dressing room, where he and Lol Tolhurst were polite and friendly hosts, making us feel a bit guilty that The Cure wasn't really a band exceptionally well liked by any of us. Not even their guitarist, who was rather too involved with his own reflection to be bothered with the help, could make a bad impression.

This was our brush with the galactic, and could, in one sense, be understood as the beginning of the end. We went on to play with a number of local stellar objects - the Models (whose questionable legacy bequeathed us James Freud), Hunters and Collectors (who were, at the time, touring with their most engaging band member, the gas cylinder), the Reels (who were certainly the most interesting band signed to a major label in Australia at the time, precisely because they tried to run counter to policy) in places like Redfern Town Hall (another of those civic buildings that once but no longer seem to open their cloisters to live performance), Stranded (which seemed to function under the misapprehension that it was operating not in a shopping arcade but in New York or Berlin, or even the middle of Melbourne), the 279 Club (where we performed with the splendidly named Birds of Tin) and the New York Hotel (this latter pair located in Brisbane, where M2, in a fit of exuberance, had decided to spend a weekend in the Bjelke-Petersen Spring of '81. The NYH was a sight to behold, the stage 3 or 4 metres above the dance floor and graced by a human sized Statue of Liberty, with a pineapple impaled upon it's torch. Inspirited thus on our last night, we shook our fists defiantly at a constipation of police a block and a half away, climbed into our van and made it back across the border under cover of one or another of the phases of darkness.

And them penultimately, the Mosman Hotel, where we seemed at last to be as close to where we started geographically as we'd ever be, seeping back to our northern beaches origins down the loose slopes of the old valleys and the looser inclines of the shore, down to a saline sea - de-evolution was, after all, a popular crypto-concept of the time. And while we may have managed a teeny gust of something particular that year, particulates have a habit also of provoking allergies. Because we didn't take ourselves too seriously, we ran the risk of being accused of not taking ourselves seriously enough. It was believed our charm consisted largely of audience identification - this could be us up there, and we like the idea that it could be; we ran the risk of being too effective on this level, to the exclusion of other concerns. Playing with The Cure may have stretched our quasi-amateuristics just so far - where do you go from there, no stage quite so large as the Capital's on which to appear so small and yet so plucky, or even ironic. Anyway, not everyone was happy with so much irony by then, and so, with a minimum of acrimony (if there' s more than I remember, I hope its too long ago for it to matter) it's 1982 at last, and The Systematics are no more! 

Go to part 4

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