For day five of the ’90s Musical Memories challenge, I figured I’d go with something without words. It’s by a band who I discovered thanks to a tween magazine, and who generally make their work on the fly. The song I’ve chosen is fairly unique in the band’s catalogue as it comes from an album that’s both a soundtrack and a collection of short pieces. (They’re normally keen on disc-long tracks, so anything less than about 30 minutes is punk as fuck, as far as they’re concerned.)
So listen, won’t you, to ‘The Boys II’ by Australia’s leading ambient jazz improvisational trio, The Necks.
Instantly, the tune is eerie. If you didn’t know this was from a soundtrack, you’d suspect it was, at least. There’s that little piano riff, which echoes – though given Chris Abrahams’ precise, repetitive playing it’s difficult to know whether it’s through effects or monomania – as an organ part slowly steps through the background. The rhythm section, meanwhile, are a heartbeat, or a ticking clock – Lloyd Swanton’s bass throbs as Tony Buck’s ride cymbal keeps clinical time. The piece opens up as it goes on – waves of feedback call, mimic passing cars, while added toms beat a slow warning. There’s layering at work, longer pedal notes underneath sounds at their most clustered, before everything begins to retreat into the blackness that birthed them. There’s the sense of someone coming out from beneath a streetlight in order to open their coat and show you the organs beneath.
Naturally, this was a band I discovered thanks to TV Hits magazine. I’d been working there in the late ’90s, when Rowan Woods’ cinema version of the Gordon Graham play came out. Somehow, the office got a screener for it – because where else would you send a copy? – and I took it home to watch.
Holy fucking shit is probably the best description.
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love the film. It is up there with Wake In Fright in terms of being one of the most powerful portrayals of Australia in cinema. It’s one of my favourite films, but it is a very, very difficult film to like, or to enjoy. It tells the story of Brett Sprague, an ex-con returning home to exert his will upon his dickhead brothers, and to monster the women in his life. It’s a portrait of frustrated masculinity and it’s terrifying. It’s a ride to suburbs where there’s no hope, no future, and Where Bad Things Happen. Ultimately, Very Bad Things.
Loosely based on the Anita Cobby case, The Boys is something that’s very difficult to watch. It’s violent, but not graphic: there’s so much implication, and so much pregnant waiting for the inevitable explosion that the tension is, sometimes, unbearable. This remains David Wenham’s best film role, though the entire cast are at career-best strength. Wenham’s shark-eyed Brett is absolutely fucking terrifying, adrift in a smeary world captured in dripping sinks, and eventual washes of blue and green – the colour of night, of the abyss.
It’s the sort of movie I watch every couple of years, because that’s generally enough. You absolutely should try to find a copy – it’s only yesterday been shown in a restored version at the Sydney Film Festival so I hope there’s a wider release ahead – but be prepared for it to Be No Fun. But man, it’s a story that needs to be seen, and The Necks’ soundtrack is integral to it. The trailer should give you an idea of what awaits. (Thanks, TV Hits!)
Anyway, the way I came to know The Necks was almost by accident. I had no idea that they’d done the soundtrack, or even who they were. I found a copy of the soundtrack to find out who was making those excellent drone noises that accompanied some evening scenes. Turns out that was Alan Lamb, who’s better known for recording telegraph wires, and whose album Night Passage I can thoroughly recommend.
However, the disc proved my introduction to The Necks, and I soon let my quest for Lamb slide, drawn in by the repetitive simplicity, the easy unease they were able to create from such a sparse setup. The album is consists of a couple of variations of the title track (I’ve gone with the second as I can’t find the first online) and some other, slightly longer tracks – including the jacked-up ‘Fife and Drum’ or the spacey, almost lovely ‘He Led Them Into The World’. It’s evocative and great, perhaps moreso because it goes against the band’s normal way of operating, as I was to discover.
Though you mightn’t get the idea from their earlier albums, such as the deeply relaxing Sex, or the monster-with-field-recordings that is Silent Night, The Necks are, at heart, a live band, something that’s celebrated in a couple of their releases which present unvarnished live sets. They’ve been playing for something like thirty years, and I believe almost every performance is recorded. Certainly, thirty years’ worth of musical communication is on show when you see them live. Their gigs generally take the same format each time: two sets, each about an hour long. Each set is different, obviously, as they’re created spontaneously.
The best thing about seeing the band play is that it shows relativity at work. Your perception of time disappears: sets could flash by in seconds or last for ever. The sets generally begin simply – a riff here, or a percussive bed. Little by little, the players hook in, creating some kind of breathing monolith. The music transitions, often from very, very simple to balls-0ut busy and intense, and their method is such that you can’t pinpoint exactly when it changed. It’s disorienting and yet somehow deeply enjoyable at the same time. I’ve been lucky enough to see them a bunch of times, and while some have been better than others, there’s always a sense of bravery in their performance, and the promise that this could be the best show ever, and that you’ll be there for it.
I remember seeing the band play a show out at a theater in Parramatta. It wasn’t the sort of place I’d expected to see them perform, and the crowd didn’t look like “their” crowd: it was more the sort of gig for people who like James Morrison horn-blowing rather than Ornette Coleman freedom. The band were on the floor, not a stage, and raked seating for about 100 or so was in front of them. They began their first set and about ten minutes in – after it became apparent that slow development was their thing, not Dixieland showtunes – the row in front of me, consisting largely of subscription ticketholders, began to talk. And laugh. And discuss how they could do this kind of thing, only better,.
It went on, and the band ignored it as best they could until – at the climax of the first set, and probably about six or seven minutes before it would come to a conclusion – the whole first row stood up and walked out, tutting. It was breathtaking in its lack of regard for performers or other audience members. I remember a sort of what the fuck is this? look going between Swanton and Buck, and it caused the performance to briefly falter. The people who’d left drank through the intermission and didn’t come back for the hitch-free second set.
Obviously, they’re not for everyone. But if you were going to go to a show, wouldn’t you bother to check what it was you were seeing, to see whether you were actually going to dig it? Seems a bit strange to me.
The Necks still tour regularly, and obviously are worth seeing. Their site contains details of upcoming shows – sporadic, sometimes, as there’s international distances involved to get them in the same room. If you’ve a chance to see them, take it. It’ll be unlike anything you’ve seen, really.
If you’re looking to buy albums from these guys, buy a bunch at once as postage can be brutal. But to put it in perspective, you can buy a physical copy of the 2CD Silent Night from them for about $22: iTunes wants $54 for an MP4 copy. (Their official provider wants 15 Euro for it, which while slightly better is still on the sharper end of things.) Their albums can be difficult to find, but they’re all worth checking out – I would suggest Sex, Hanging Gardens, Aether and The Boys if you’re curious about where to start.
(Unless, that is, you track down a copy of Necks Box which is probably the most cost-effective way of grabbing eight albums for yourself.)
I’ve managed to talk more about a movie than about music in this post, so I’ll leave you with a fairly cinematic snapshot. When I discovered the band, I was still living at home with my parents. I’d often go out for long drives at night, nowhere in particular, just to escape, to feel like I wasn’t caught somewhere. And I’d play Necks albums as I drove in my car: long slabs of music with something of the evening in them. Silent Night would lurk as I passed beneath yellow streetlights. The Boys scored passing scrub, hinting at buried bodies. The music I heard as I drove, thinking, introduced me to the movie of my own life: the little stories that lead to great decisions.
Every time I listen to them now, I sense a little bit of that flickering screen, and I wonder where I’ll go to next.