For Truck’s Sake

An article about Mark Seymour’s book Thirteen Tonne Theory.

Author: Jeff Jenkins, Howlspace.

Date: March 2008.

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Article Text

There’s never been an Australian rock book like Mark Seymour’s Thirteen Tonne Theory ($32.95, Penguin).

Have you ever seen the word “praesidium” used in a rock book? “Most stories about life in a rock band are just a succession of cute anecdotes of random sex and profligate drug-taking, leaving out the long periods when nothing actually happened and nobody broke anything,” Mark writes. “The awful truth is that, for long stretches, life in Hunters and Collectors was really boring.”

This is an intellectual look at life in a band. There’s no sex and drugs, and, in some ways, there’s very little rock ‘n’ roll. “We weren’t sexy,” Mark states, “we didn’t behave badly … and none of us had famous girlfriends (except me, for three weeks, and no one ever found out, and you won’t read about it here, either).”

Mark examines band dynamics and human frailty, and it’s fascinating stuff. The book goes to the heart of the matter: “How did the machine run and how did it break down?” Also, if everyone is equal, will everyone be happy?

Mark Seymour explains that the Hunnas were, indeed, “a bunch of communists”, as one of their producers, Don Gehman, called them. Even the sound engineer shared in the songwriting royalties. “It’s a very Australian concept (equality) and also a very cruel one. For a while it was our greatest strength … but in the end it destroyed us.”

The Hunnas were post-Birthday Party St Kilda alternative darlings. Mushroom Records set up their White label especially to accommodate them, and organised their ill-fated English deal with Virgin. The Hunnas relocated to the UK, and it was not a happy time. “I defy anyone who was in London in 1982 to say that it was a fun-loving, optimistic place in which to be broke. There wasn’t the slightest sense of warmth or openness from anybody.”

Over a curry chicken dinner, the band immediately fell out with their London label. Mark says their second album, The Fireman’s Curse, was a “gothic ‘up yours’ to the Virgin empire … the whole exercise was excruciatingly juvenile and a tragic waste of what could easily have been an international breakthrough record. When you wonder why some Aussie groups break through and others don’t, maybe it simply boils down to one thing: the ‘fear factor’, or lack of it.”

Despite the international setback, the Hunnas stayed together, and transformed themselves into a mainstream monolith, the kings of pub rock. But success was slow to come. “It took nine years to convince Australian commercial radio to play the music of Hunters and Collectors,” Mark laments. “Where else but Australia? We eat our own.”

The band continued to try to break overseas, signing to IRS and then Atlantic. They toured with Midnight Oil, did the David Letterman show, Billboard magazine compared them to Duran Duran, and a young Eddie Vedder got their autograph. But they never got the Holy Grail.

The band then decided to focus on the Australian market, with the book’s title coming from a theory devised by bass player John Archer: “The total mass of production required to sustain the touring career of a rock band in the current economy is exactly equivalent to the space contained by the pan of a thirteen-tonne truck.”

Despite writing Holy Grail, the song that became a footy anthem, Mark shows he’s no football expert. He mistakenly calls the AFL’s late-90s pre-season competition “the Winfield Cup” (confusing it with rugby league), when the Hunnas actually played at the Ansett Cup Grand Final.

But it’s the only misfire in a book packed with intriguing anecdotes. Thirteen Tonne Theory – which comes 10 years after the Hunnas called it quits – is a brilliant rock ‘n’ roll memoir, a must-read for anyone interested in band dynamics and the music business. Mark is doing a book launch at Readings in Carlton, “in conversation with Mick Thomas”, on Friday at 6pm.