Custard? Yes please!
In Brisbane time used to pass slow and the past was always a scratch away. Queensland is a big rural state and Brisbane and its surrounds are tucked deep in the SE corner of the QLD triangle. For a long time Brisbane was just the biggest country town in a state that was all country.
The last thirty or forty years have changed that a lot. So much that Brisbane is starting to drift away from its state. The hard core of rural conservatism, the parochial mistrust are still there in spades further north but are now a lot harder to find in Brisbane. Queensland still is Australia’s version of the USA’s Deep South. We have the culture, industries, history and politicians to prove it but in Brisbane things have been evolving.
Last night the Brisbane past and the present rubbed up together in a way those sums up for me how Brisbane has and hasn’t changed.
At Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, one of the many flash buildings that make up the Southbank precinct [all part of the new Brisbane], 90s Indi-rock favourites Custard performed a blistering set. As well as having a few bevvies and enjoying the band, punters also got to wander around the Gallery and take in works from a beloved old favourite and a new lion of the fine art scene, painters Margaret Olley and Ben Quilty. It all fitted together beautifully and I think in an artistic sense the whole added up to more than the sum of the parts.
These Up Late gallery functions combining entertainment and art are common around the world. But if you went to one in Melbourne I don’t think you would feel the same frission that I felt last night. Why? Because Melbourne has shaken off the past, at least in the sense of attitudes if not objects like buildings. It is a city intent on experiences and food and art and fashion. Blame the weather; blame the multicultural vibes but for whatever reason Melbourne looks forward. A bash like last night’s happens every night somewhere in Melbourne. It is just the size that might be different.
Ditto with Sydney but in a more “get of the way I am a world city” kind of a way. Brash and egotistical, there is little place for anything from yesterday in Harbourtown. In NSW, the bush feels far away when you are in Sydney.
But now I still find the idea of last night occurring in Brisbane to be not astounding but somehow a novelty. It still surprises me how much my home town has grown up and yet when you look at Olley’s early work from the 1940s set around West End, Hill End and South Brisbane, suburbs very much on the gentrification journey, you see buildings that are still there now, just with different hoardings.
There are paintings of indigenous men and women in domestic settings and bedrooms from the early 60s, right around the time the referendum was passed that extended Indigenous Australians the vote. These works capture a past that is still just below the surface and although they are not exploitive they are uncomfortable.
The Queensland architecture plays a major part in Olley’s early work. The Queenslander style of dwelling works in the Queensland climate be it located in city, town or on a farm. These works of Olley’s through subject and setting reinforce the Brisbane that was and in an environmental sense still frequently is. There is always something there to remind me.
The other thing that the big Queenslander style of housing provided was cheap accommodation in the 70s, 80s and 90s, especially in the suburbs around the CBD and the University of Queensland.
Therefore the Queenslander house was at least indirectly responsible for the two Brisbane bands that produced not just fine music but true art. There are now many fine Queensland bands in existence but in the 80s and 90s this was still a novelty and whilst The Saints were pivotal and Powderfinger, Savage Garden and Regurgitator were great fun they never transcended their genres in the way that first The Go Betweens and then Custard did.
The Go Betweens are rightly revered and are the first band to have a Queensland sensibility so strong it became known as the striped sunlight sound. But after last night I think it might be time to revaluate the output of the lads from Custard.
Great live shows, a sense of fun and pisstake, smartarse, literate, post modernist lyrics, a unique guitar sound that is part Pixies, part spaghetti western and quality musicianship from Glenn Thompson, Matthew Strong, Paul Medew and entertaining front man Dave McCormack and you have a great band that has produced seven consistent albums. Age seems not to weary them, they still rock, they still write great songs now and again but why are they art?
Art as well as having form and representation exists to provoke emotions from its consumers. Rock and roll transcends its barriers when it serves a purpose beyond the immediate need for music to eat dinner or have sex or dance to.
Custard achieves this by describing and portraying a distinct sense of time and place [Brisbane of the late 1980s and 1990s, a city then starting to leave behind its past but still feeling like it had to catch up] and providing a mirror to their audience. That mirror allowed and still does permit their fans, now twenty years older, to be quirky and sarcastic wisenheimers without chips on their shoulders. It lets them know that it was ok to either stay or to leave Brisbane and be successful elsewhere and then later, it was fine as well, to either resist or give in to Brisvegas’s strange attraction and come back.
And since that message is universal for anyone anywhere who wants to go to the Big Smoke and be more than they could be at home, Custard are much more than an indie rock band of some musical chops.
PS. It just me who finds it weird/ ironic/ sad that Melbourne and Brisbane are the two most weather obsessed cities in Australia, one as a reason to leave and the other as a reason to come. For Christ’s sake, you are going to decide where you live by weather?
Anyone would think that Melbourne was Antarctica and conversely Brisbane has nothing to offer but the ability to live without wearing anything made of wool for eleven months of the year.
Thanks to The Courier Mail for band photo.