DOWN THE PUNK-FOLK HIGHWAY: Four Satires and a Highway Ballad, Recorded live to tape at the Stanley Palmer Culture Palace, Darlinghurst, for Radio 2JJ, June 1975

 
 

This captivating handful of five road songs, satires, comedies, and social commentary is the fourth release from James's newly unearthed, previously unreleased archive, Lost Songs from the Rusting Shed of Disappeared Guitars.

 

 

These tracks, plus The Property Master and the Moon are the surviving aural record of a restless year James spent travelling back and forth between Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and his hometown of Corryong in 1974-75...performing on the street, in house concerts, in wine-bars, folk clubs, and coffee shops, at rent parties...sleeping on the floors of friends, friends of friends, and strangers who became friends, before finally settling in Sydney in early '75.

"I grew up influenced by the countercultural, anti-war, anti-establishment and bohemian ideas of the '60s and early '70's and then got fascinated by avant-garde art, dada, surrealism, the theatre of the absurd and, particularly, situationism...all of which often aimed to mock, satirise, and generally make comedy of bourgeois, TV driven, consumer culture...a lot of big words there, I know...but luckily there was a more down to earth end of that mix because we'd also fallen in love with jazz and blues based jug band music from the 1920's and '30s....and a lot of those songs were comedy songs...and I guess that's all a long way of saying my friends and I wanted to have fun by making fun of the world we'd grown up in but didn't want to join....

"On this album the song, 20th Century Blues sort of encapsulates all that...the narrator wakes up drowning in American popular culture, runs from the TV onto the street into a surreal, hallucinatory movie involving Kentucky-fried chicken, a violent street party, brain washing, body armour, airport security, whisky, Hare Krishnas, Marihuana, LSD, Strontium 90, the hydrogen bomb...and the great relief of having friends who'd rather have fun than do what they're told....

"If it hadn't been for ABC Radio's 2JJ (later Triple J) which only began broadcasting in January 1975 (just five months before these recordings happened) the tracks on Down the Punk Folk Highway would never have been taped when they were still new, rough and passionate and I was still in love with them....and that happened because a Double J producer thought announcer Mac Cocker might like to do a story on his radio show about two concerts of new original songs my friends and I were staging one winter weekend at the Stanley Palmer Culture Palace in Darlinghurst.

So someone from the radio station came down with a portable tape recorder, I put down five songs in one take, background traffic noise and all, to go with the story....and later on ended up with a copy of the tape. The concerts were titled '20th Century Blues', the song being a theme for the shows, and they were really the beginning of my performing life in Sydney...so it seems that on the 26th of June, 1975, a kind of minor miracle happened to me on the corner of Stanley and Palmer Streets, Darlinghurst....

I've found lyrics and chords for more songs I wrote during that year of travelling...Central Station Rag, Clean Sheets and Wine, Glenmore Road, As Game as Ned Kelly, Stoning the Crows Blues, Mary Jane (is Coming to Town), Kissing in High-heeled Shoes...and so-on....but the five on Down the Punk Folk Highway are the only ones that got recorded....

The album is called, Down the Punk Folk Highway because 'punk folk' is a description I would have used for these songs if it'd been available to me....music/songs that are scornful, physical, anti-establishment, DIY...but solo and on the acoustic guitar. Of course punk as we know it wasn't really named until 1976 but by 1977-'78-'79 I'd become a sort of acoustic new wave artist and my friends and I were also playing with post punk, new wave electric bands...in my case, the Agents.

How Many Miles to Gundagai is in some ways my favourite of these songs. It's based a little on the traditional English/Scottish ballad, The False Knight on the Road, but I wanted to make a modern Australian highway ballad, so the child out walking who meets the passer-by on the road reflects not on riddles told by the devil, as happens in the False Knight, but rather, asks his own questions...about the changing faces of time passing, the fates of his mother and father, the finding of one's own unique voice, how to counter balance cultural domination from the USA...how to speak truthfully, how to prevail, even under threat of war....

Ladies of Collins Street was written in the backseat of a Volkswagen Beetle driving on dirt roads to visit a newly created hippy commune in the forest inland from Pambula on the far south coast of New South Wales. My friend L was living there with T, a guitar player and singer who owned the first Gibson Hummingbird I had ever seen close up. In the car, as I read one of the Melbourne newspapers, I was struck by the glamorous ads for fur coats and ivory jewellery....and also one-more-time-again by how 1970's advertising was defined by men aiming to be rich and was all about the male gaze and clichéd female stereotypes....their inherent oppressiveness often glossed over by a false sense of freedom created by the recent 'sexual revolution'. And in this case, given the products were furs and ivory, the ads were also about power, class, privilege, money, the blind pursuit of status symbols, conspicuous consumption....all high on the list of things my scornful, satirical, situationist inclinations were drawn to. My female friends of the time were feminists and we all did a lot of reading and talking about it...I also had a guitar in the VW, and in the front seats, two friends (female, feminist) to workshop the ads with...so, by the time we'd driven all the miles back closer to civilisation and on to whatever communal, rented, decaying farm house we were spending the night in, I'd completed this song in which the narrator speaks to the images in the fur and ivory ads...and somehow, S. T. Coleridge's Ancient Mariner found his way into the story as well....

Phone Tap Blues tells of weirdness, strange phenomena and even stranger strangers around every corner and reveals it's the police, the security agencies...all the big brothers...hiding, spying, infiltrating, betraying....in the bedroom, at the window...eavesdropping through rotary dial telephones, secret camera electric light bulbs and trained, mic'd up, cockroaches (ironic, now that robot insects and light bulb cameras are actually possible with nano technology and have become a cliché of film and TV thrillers)...all this sounds silly (and was meant to) but surveillance was a live issue then for anyone living an alternative lifestyle because in response to civil rights, black power and anti-Vietnam-war movements the Nixon administration in America had demonised all alternative society movements to such a degree that anyone who smoked dope, looked odd, questioned any established creed or idea, was seen as needing to be controlled...and that paranoia easily spread to conservative politics in Australia....so we made jokes about it....

And Bourgeois Shake is another jug-band song...this time a satire on trendyness, hipness, being cool, fashion victimhood, trying too hard to make the scene, to be up to the minute, 'now', 'with-it'...whatever descriptions work for your age, era, vocabulary, prejudices....

In 1975 I was living in Sydney in Collins Street Surry Hills, off Crown street...and on Saturdays, up from Taylor Square in nearby Oxford Street, Paddington, was a parade of ultra cool strolling, shopping and coffee drinking...and the hub of all this was the Paddington Bazaar...where, still, as one current Sydney guide puts it, 'Always on parade are the young and fashionable, children and dogs....'

I loved the Bazaar. We busked there, ate whole foods, bathed in the exiting atmosphere of Asian artifacts, pretty exotic in 1975 when Australians had just begun travelling north in numbers. But by then Paddington also had money, was moving away from its working class, bohemian past, and was a playground for the wealthy suburbs further up the road....and we situationists had nothing but contempt for well-to-do folk trying to be hip....as far as we were concerned, true hipness came only out of a garret and a poverty stricken life of the imagination. Much fashion then was rooted in bohemian and artistic lifestyles of the past...early 20th Century left bank Paris, 1950s and60s San Francisco, mid 20th Century Greenwich village...I think now it would be closer to the truth to say what we really manifested then was an arrogant, proprietorial sense that bourgeois fashion victims take the style but not the ideas...and that as emerging intellectual bohemians, we felt our claim to style was more 'genuine'...and believed that alternative fashions of the time were supposed to be about social change, not safe middle class posturing.

But speaking as someone who loves clothes, objects and artefacts and who has done their time, too, on the merry-go-rounds of fashion and style, I think it's pretty clear that we just wanted to make fun of the trendies of 1975....and I wanted a song that would make people laugh in the satirical cabaret shows we were putting together back in Surry Hills and Redfern. And I do like (and identify with) the song's inherent acknowledgment that the real allure of fashion is the feeling that one has at last shed ones dull, old, tired or inherited skin and finally 'arrived'....and that's a feeling you can renew with every new wave of hip style if you need to. A bargain indeed! Frankly, I wouldn't really mind hearing a scornful song about my attempts to look good...

Down the Punk Folk Highway is available from James's Store
The complete work is available digitally as one single 18 minute track from Apple Music, Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Deezer, Pandora, You Tube Music, Tidal, Groove Music (Microsoft)