Tim O’Neill Thirteen Tonne Theory Review

A positive review of Mark Seymour’s book Thirteen Tonne Theory.

Author: Tim O’Neill.

Date: April 2008.

Original URL: http://www.whiteroom.com.au/howlspace/howzat/index.htm


Article Text

Thirteen Tonne Theory – Life Inside Hunters and Collectors by Mark Seymour

Penguin/Viking 416 pp $35

If Hunters and Collectors hadn’t had the string of timeless hits they had – Throw Your Arms Around Me, Say Goodbye, Holy Grail et al – they’d still deserve a gong as one of Australia’s best loved live acts and hardest working bands. From their earliest gigs, in St. Kilda’s Crystal Ballroom in 1981, Hunnas drew a devoted fan base and critical acclaim (though the latter would come and go). The end came in 1998 with a farewell tour – their biggest yet – and a subsequent live album and DVD.

Seymour charts the years between with a selective but acerbic eye, dishing out snapshots of major eras rather than a blow-by-blow history. Early chapters deal with the consolidation of H&C’s group identity, musical and otherwise. All band decisions, insists founding member and drummer Doug Falconer, must be reached by a majority vote. All songwriting royalties are split equally between members (variously, eight to eleven, including soundman) and no one is a ‘star’. Seymour goes with the flow, though it emerges in the group songwriting sessions that he possesses the main lyrical chops in the band. Hunnas’ collectivist ethic spawns the dense, steely electro-funk of the first two albums. So far, so alternative.

The ill-fated UK excursion of ’82 to ’83 tests friendships and casts a pall over the band’s previously unshakeable belief in its own powers. Founding member Greg Perano is ‘asked to leave’ following the first US visit and Seymour raises in earnest one of the book’s major themes: the tyranny of ‘democracy’ within a social unit as volatile as a rock band on the road. There’s also the unabashed blokiness of pub band culture, with its attendant suspicion of anyone with ‘tickets’ on himself, e.g. Mark Seymour.

Seymour, as frontman, gets cut down to size regularly by the band’s power bloc (Falconer, bassist John Archer and sound- and ideas-man Rob Miles) but his stature within Hunnas’ ranks grows as his songwriting matures on the third LP, ‘Jaws Of Life’. The Can and Pere Ubu influences wane in favour of the more primal kind of sound that X in particular were purveying at the time: plenty of thumping bass intros, chopped down rhythm guitar and a harder, more minimalist feel. Existential angst, long a thematic fallback for Seymour, shapes songs like The Slab and 42 Wheels as he comes into his own as a specifically Australian voice. Tour after relentless tour follows (with financial reward remaining elusive) but Seymour takes pains to point out that by 1986’s ‘Human Frailty’, Hunters and Collectors are a vehicle for delivering songs – albeit with a sound and power matched by few. There’s a sense of the author coming to terms with the role of frontman.

By the time of the lacklustre ‘What’s a Few Men’ the polyrhythmic avant-funk of the Ballroom days is a memory, as is the time-honoured method of everyone having a say in the studio. On Ghost Nation, Seymour’s song structures are worked out beforehand with a producer to ensure radio-friendly arrangements. The band mutter darkly; Seymour rails again about the incompatibility of the group mind and the artistic process. The seeds of his solo career are sown on the penultimate studio offering, ‘Cut’, with the evergreen Holy Grail as a standout track. Solo work follows; later the band regroup for a final tour and album. Hunters and Collectors are all over after 18 years.

Whether you lived through the Australian pub rock explosion of the ’70s and ’80s, or came late to Hunnas’ and Seymour’s work, this is an always lively, era-defining story of life in one of our greatest bands of the last 30 years. It’s no groupie-shagging, drug-snorting tale of macho excess as per many a rock bio, (although Seymour makes clear that the band have their fun over years on the road). Sheer hard work predominates here, along with gritty humour, and the occasional transcendent moment – onstage mostly – where playing wonderful music elevates ordinary men enough to want to keep on doing it over and over. Highly recommended.