Thirteen Tonne Theory – The Australian Review

Review from Thirteen Tonne Theory from The Australian.

Author: Jack Marx, The Australian – Literary Review.

Date: 5 March 2008.

Original URL: N/A.

 

Article Text

Thirteen Tonne Theory: Life Inside Hunters and Collectors
By Mark Seymour
Viking, 416pp, $32.95

The rock ‘n’ roll autobiography has a history of giving fans what they didn’t particularly expect. In I, Me, Mine (1979), George Harrison managed to fill 400 pages without so much as a mention of Patti Boyd, who famously left him for Eric Clapton. Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One (2004) ignored his hit records in favour of a Huck Finn-like dialogue through small-town America, while A Dysfunctional Success (2003) saw Eric Goulde (aka Wreckless Eric) dismiss his only three years in the charts thus: “If I got started on that I’d have to write a book about Stiff Records. There isn’t room in this one, and in any case, this is a book about me.”

Such stubborn arrogance may be the product of having to face audiences that holler for hits the songwriter has long confined to history, an irritation with which Mark Seymour must be well familiar. He took his first dolly steps into Australia’s consciousness in 1980, as the frontman for Melbourne band Hunters and Collectors. Few who saw the group in those early years will easily forget the encounter. They were awesome, tribal and ethereal, their stage decked in skulls under canopies and jungle netting, the whole experience, like the Morlock sirens from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, entrancing the audience into some bizarre world of subterranean cannibalism.

It was post-punk theatre at its most stylised and spectacular, and when no-defunct music bible RAM ran with a cover strap in 1982 that mocked: “Absolutely no mention of Hunters and Collectors inside!”, it was obvious this band were the next big thing. When they left for England late that same year, we thought we’d never see them again, save for on the television.

We were wrong and we were right. Hunters and Collectors did return, but battered, fractured and very different. Gone was the tribalism, the compelling dark, the effects pedals, the thunderous voodoo, the eerie supremacy. The band had shed its theatrical trappings for a look reminiscent of an off-duty policemen’s Sunday barbecue, the sound now more Mellencamp than mystique. Hunters and Collectors had come in from the cold, and when Seymour declared in a 1984 interview: “We’re not hip. we’re dags!”, it was as much a fashion statement as a “f..k you” to the fans who’d swallowed the former act wholesale. So began life in the mainstream for Hunters and Collectors, where hey would remain on the frustrated fringes until breaking up in 1998.

Thirteen Tonne Theory is Seymour’s memoir of those 19 years and eight albums. As he makes clear from the outset, it “isn’t meant to be a complete chronology of events” but rather ” a series of snapshots” – anecdotes, basically, man of which began their lives a blog recollections on Seymour’s website, now removed and fashioned into a book.Those looking for a detailed history and analysis of each album will be disappointed. Seymour picks up Dylan’s ball and runs with it, though his rose is more suggestive of Jack Kerouac than Mark Twain.

The title is from a quote credited to the band’s 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 an of a 13-tonne truck.”

As theories go, it doesn’t exactly challenge Isaac Newton’s legacy, but entertainers are fond of qualifying their world with such rule and equations (being in a band, we are so often told, is “like being in a marriage”, as if we mortals have never experienced a gang), of alluding to a “craft” behind what is basically a big noisy road trip with a wage attached.

Seymour engages in such stuff liberally the politics of Hegel and Marx are summoned, and the laws of Stalin’s”praesidium” are repeatedly mention in reference to the inner mechanics that drove this group of left-leaning troubadours. It’s not entirely unwarranted or pretentious: Hunters and Collectors were “the most democratic rock band that ever went off”, every one of the eight core members (sometimes more) receiving equal vote and copyright privileges, a fact that, interestingly, comes to haunt Seymour in the songwriter’s later years.

What is surprising about Thirteen Tonne Theory, although it probably shouldn’t be, is that the early chapters, which deal with the band Seymour ultimately rejects as an exercise in style over substance, are the most intriguing. Naturally, those accelerating first months of fame, when “the level of interest in Hunters and Collectors was extraordinary – even a bit silly”, left an impression on the young Seymour, but there’s more then just youthful reverie at work here (we are halfway through the book, three years into an 18-year career, before Hunters and Collectors Mark II even begins).

he describes a show in New Zealand in late 1983 as “a pentecostal experience”, the crowd a “pulsing tattoo that went on relentlessly all night” with a ” fierce human energy … we would always remember it”. No other experience is recalled so fondly. Similarly, Seymour writes of Richard Lowenstein’s video for the band’s first single, Talking to a Stranger.

Through the organism of the band twisted and turned over the years, and though Hunters and Collectors NEVER released a single that was a hit, that song and that clip will live forever. There is nothing like it then and there will be.

Such pride in any single piece of work does not again appear in Thirteen Tonne Theory.

Though he never explicitly says so, it’s clear that, for Seymour,something died in London in the winter of 1983 and the spirit of Hunters and Collectors would never be the same again, not even for the man who most championed it. I was a death thanks in no small part to the inertia imposed by a bad deal with Richard Branson’s Virgin Records,which prevented the band playing live until they’d recorded a new album under the label’s watchful eye (a typical industry tale of the ’80’s that’s is agonising to read here). But it had more to do with the same human frailty that cured Macbeth, and it’s here that Thirteen Tonne Theory gets really interesting.

The author makes no bones about the fact that Greg Perano, the striking part-Maori whom Seymour had seconded into the outfit as percussionist, was the star in those early days.

“He was bloody intense,” Seymour writes, ” a pop star in the making…Perano had one thing we all lacked: the ‘it’ factor.” Despite doing little more than pounding on gas cylinders and hubcaps, Perano, in both his look and his clang, became the defining quality of Hunters and Collectors: “The band’s identity,” Seymour rightly declares, “was HIM.”

But the stage was a little too crowded with stars for the liking of Seymour, who’d already overseen the ejection of talented and handsome guitarist Ray Tosti, who had “made a fatal mistake: he began to draw attention to himself and away from the significant others”. A clandestine peek at Perano’s tour diary, which contained notes pertaining to his perceived “ownership” of sections of songs,convinced Seymour that ” this other bloke had the same needs as me…Perano and I were competing with each other without openly admitting it”. Perano had to go, Seymour forcing a communal vote and gambling that the sacking of his friend “would remain hidden inside the labyrinth of the band’s power structure”.

Seymour’s candour here is fascinating and is the key to all that is good about Thirteen Tonne Theory. Despite the author’s allusions to egalitarianism – a “faith”, as he later writes, “in collectivism as an all-embracing mechanism for human endeavour” – performing is all about hubris and there’s little even the most politically correct can do to escape it. “That’s the nature of human beings,” Seymour writes. “We are competitive creatures.”

What lets Thirteen Tonne Theory down is Seymour’s attention to anecdotes that can only be of real interest to those who were there. Like Billy Thorpe in Sex and Thugs and Rock and Roll (1997) and the subsequent Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy (1998). Seymour has a great personal attachment to the kooky cast of critters that waits by the roadside of rock, their rambling dialogues quoted verbatim some 20 years after the fact.

As with Thorpe memories, much of it doesn’t ring true, the passing of time distilling such characters as Virgin’s Simon Draper( ” he rubbed his hands together and smiled radiantly around the room”) to mere caricatures from a naive soap opera. Elsewhere, Seymour’s literary pretensions can be a trifle cumbersome, considering the weight of the subject matter. He “quietly envied” Perano when he was sacked:

I was jealous of his freedom.Somehow I’d allowed myself to be chained to the mast of that great ship as we drifted back and forth along the coast, doomed never to reach landfall, as I listened ot the alluring cry of the wild erotic sirens whose companionship I could never enjoy.

Unforgivably florid, unless this event really did touch Seymour in a way he can barely sensibly express, and that seems to be the case.Seymour obviously still struggles with those decisions – Perano and others – made in pursuit of his own creative exhibitionism, his “basic artistic nature – to express myself”. Ultimately, his ego didn’t sit comfortably in the “the most democratic rock band that ever went off”, a fact Seymour makes plain much later in the book,when he naturally rebels against the communal sharing of intellectual ownership. “Copyright is property,” he writes, “and those who write the song own it. I believe that now but the belief was incompatible with being in Hunters and Collectors.”

Which is not to say Thirteen Tonne Theory is a bitter book devoid of humour or self-deprecating reflection. Seymour devotes a whole chapter to the writing and recording of the band’s last and perhaps most enduring hit, Holy Grail, recalling quite frankly that others in the band insisted it riffed on Boston’s More Than a Feeling.

Seymour disagrees, pointing out to both band and reader the various reasons why the mix of the song might have made it seem so. Nevertheless, the chapter is titled Boston. Cute.

Thirteen Tonne Theory is a book that, on first reading, irritated me greatly, on the behalf of the fans, on behalf of Tosti and Perano, on behalf of the literature itself. I’m glad I persevered to read it a second tie, whereupon came the realisation that Seymour has done a commendable thing here. He might have just trotted out a chronology for the diehards (those anecdotes, perhaps, might go some way to feeding such appetites), but in risking something deeper, a post-mortem which the morality and politics is neither slick nor certain, he has produced something brave for its uncomfortable vanity, a worth addiction to the literary of Australian rock memoirs, for sure.

“what I am left with is this question,” Seymour asks himself towards the end of the book. “Did the relationships matter? Of course. But they weren’t enough.”

Being in a band is it sees, like being in a marriage after all, full of love and tedium, selective remembrances and a lifetime to wonder what the hell went wrong.

 

Comments

Thankyou to Tammy for typing out this article for us all to enjoy.