Great Melbourne Albums #4: Hunters & Collectors – Jaws of Life (1984)

Review of the great The Jaws of Life album from the Melbourne perspective.

Author:  Michael Witheford, Time Out Melbourne.

Date: 29 January 2012.

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A gut-punching band who defined the vibrant and hard-boiled inner city scene of the mid-80s

For Hunters & Collectors, commercial success arrived in 1986 with the Human Frailty album and the singles ‘Say Goodbye’ and ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’. As is often the case, it followed the transitional record, the one that takes the artistic pretensions of the early experimental stuff and adds more structure and song craft. And that record for the Hunters was Jaws of Life.

In the early 80s when members arrived and departed like peak hour trains, the band’s key instruments were a variety of horns and improvised percussion, the highlight being a giant gas cylinder, which would be clanged repeatedly with a stick. John Archer’s bass pulsed in a deep groove and propelled the songs along like careering train carriages, while head honch Mark Seymour’s guitar sliced chords and riffs thin and sharp. The band were inspired by Krautrock – Jaws of Life was produced by German Conny Plank who had worked with Neu, Devo and Eno amongst many others – but they were far more brutally Australian and industrial.

Jaws of Life is a record of desperate passions with Seymour pleading for love, and seeking consolation in booze before heading out again onto the bitumen ribbon in a juggernaut 42-wheeler aiming for the deep interior. (The album opens with the bullying sound of a truck being fired up.) It’s almost a concept record; the soundscape of a drive over the West Gate Bridge towards the refineries and container docks and far beyond. Always sweat, heavy lifting, beer, and the cleansing offered by the temporary deliverance of sex and the support of a woman to wipe the steaming brow and carry home the hopeless barfly. “Shovel me up when I’m sinking to this tear-stained floor”.

All this existential desperation and the confusing signals and imperatives of masculinity are clear in the songs, even though Seymour’s lyrics are often allusive and open to a deeper interpretation. It makes for a taut and emotionally explosive tour de force of an album. And one which is feverishly, almost perversely funky.

When Jaws of Life was released, Hunters were the kings of the St Kilda scene. This at a time when the Crystal Ballroom and the now-demolished Venue were the country’s primo musical hot spots. Seymour often wore a singlet (now crudely known as the wife-beater) with a giant V for Victoria on the front. He would wrench at it in desperation, then hold his hands aloft like a charismatic preacher begging for salvation. And in the crowd we would feel those prayers come true.