It was only possible to see the full extent of the town if you spent many years there. Only then could you see the barriers shimmer at its edges, and know what the edges meant.
Shaun Prescott – The Town (2017)
Shaun Prescott wasn’t talking about Sydney when he wrote these opening lines to his first novel, but Sydney was the first place I thought of when I read them. I’ve lived here most of my life and I do see the city’s shimmering barriers; I feel hollow when I look at them. Prescott’s book is not about Sydney, but it is about a disappearing town, and I have just enough lower arm strength to take the tension of that longbow.
The narrative thread of why Sydney (and cities like it) might be disappearing are already storied and beginning to tire, but there are frayed ends I like to follow. I tend to think less about state planning legislation and more about why the city’s young punks turned in their drum kits and embraced the drum machine. A loose thread struck me in November 2017 when Sydney bands Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys and Sex Tourists released new LPs four days apart on RIP Society and Paradise Daily respectively. The former is a four-piece rock band singing of forcing themselves into adulthood, while the latter is an electronic three-piece singing of youthful bitterness. Disparate as these sounds might seem, there’s a deeper thematic connection between the two records, one that is timelier than a first glance suggests.
I’m sure there’s a story of Sydney’s underground music scene moving from a return-to-rock’s-roots before turning to electronics, but writing the words “drum machine? public transport?” only led me to realise that these records say more about us than just logistics. Both come from a place of disillusionment and rejection from Sydney City, and, in the company of other texts of 2017, make up a chorus about a generation.
Reading Briohny Doyle’s 2017 memoir-via-social-analysis Adult Fantasy reminded me of Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys’ Rot. Doyle takes societal measures of maturity to task, from permanent employment to child-rearing, while Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys strive listlessly to achieve them. Sex Tourists fail to meet these same standards and sing it with a murmur, while Prescott’s The Town sees its characters vanish alongside their town’s monuments. In these four works are aspects of a generation suffering from discontent, distraction, loss and uncertainty. That they were all released within months of each other is neither coincidence nor conspiracy: our condition is underlined by the telling of stories, as strangely as they might form.
Sex Tourists began in 2015 with a home-recorded demo tape and a newcomer’s attitude to electronics. The tape drew an instant following, well before the band (song-writer Ewan Finley, synth player Darius Ottignon and guitarist Nicola Babbage) played their first show at The Vic on the Park, by no coincidence, in support of the Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys. With a learn-on-the-run philosophy, their development through the next few years was stunted. Live performances fell into disarray as messes of cables and sequencers failed to communicate. Finley would stare deflated as sections of songs would repeat out-of-control, waiting patiently for something human to reign in the beats. When Sex Tourists would land on a track, even just for a chorus before it all derailed again, there was an indescribable power that I hadn’t been as affected by since bands like Orion or Royal Headache (Sydney bands who somehow united members of vastly opposed musical ideologies, suggesting something universal). It was ‘Guts’ that stuck out the most, a club hit soaked in pity, with Finley gazing in confusion at the happiness that surrounded him and asking, “Who has the guts? / Who wins the prize, smiles, and laughs?”
It’s appropriate that Sex Tourists’ machines would spiral out of control while Babbage powered stubbornly over them with chorus-laden guitar lines, and Finley muttered words of discontent underneath. Sex Tourists are as much at the will of their instruments as their generation is at the will of city-wide machinations. Sex Tourists speak of being confused voyeurs of normality (“I looked at some people how they were arranged / The longer I looked at them the worse it became”), of a failure to connect (“Pass me by / And we’ll feel disconnected”), and of being inexplicably off the grid (“I’m staring at my phone, the signal tells me I’m alone / I’m waiting for nothing at all”). The record is a painful example of youthful disenchantment: its empty depressions are a symptom of grasping at the intangible.
Prescott’s novel The Town has striking similarities to Sex Tourists. Its narrator is writing a book on disappearing rural towns, settling in a locale likely to blink off the map. The characters around him care little for his documentation and continue their fruitless pursuits unabated: a bus driver traces a route that no one has boarded for years, while a radio announcer distributes mysterious experimental music tapes to no one. The Town’s characters witness almost every occurrence with a disinterested shrug, even as their town begins to physically disappear beneath their feet. The Town is in some ways about contemporary complacency, with every character at the mercy of unstoppable change. The characters of The Town and Sex Tourists observe the disappearance and combing over of what once was, and feel little more than flat as a result.
In the Sex Tourists’ song ‘Homeworld’, intergenerational ties grow weaker between cities and towns. Its central character sees hearses, shopping centres and nursing homes, before the ties are snapped, with Finley muttering, “At the school disco she kissed a boy / As grandma died alone in the Central West.” The song recalls a point in The Town when the narrator and his friend move, with the simultaneous feelings of being overawed and lost, to a coastal city not unlike Sydney. They’re out of their depth in the city, but grow frustrated when recalling the townsfolk’s empty complaints:
“Nothing they had lost was real. None of it could be substantiated.”
When the narrator finishes his book (the only tangible evidence that the town ever existed), even its most analytical resident barely renders a shrug at the feat, as though the town’s substantiation never mattered. Sex Tourists also allude to being in places of limbo. While there may be brief accusations (“Drink / The pond water you have fermented”), sarcastic glances at the society around them (“He said make me a bourbon and coke / And get me two with diet coke for the girls / He likes his his and hers / He likes things in their place”), they ultimately leave resigned:
If nothing happens,
Don’t cry after the facts.
On their LP, Sex Tourists discover that things aren’t what they were supposed to be and are crippled by the realisation. This may be where they leave that thread, but it’s from here that the Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys begin.
To get to the pertinence of current-day Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys, it’s worth starting at their beginnings in the late 2000’s, when Cairns natives Joe Sukit and brothers Nic and Ben Warnock moved to Sydney as an instrument-swapping three-piece. With one member on stand-up drums (less a stylistic choice than a consequence of their incompetence with a kick pedal), they were storied as the drunkest band in town, and developed a dichotomous following that they jokingly acknowledged on their 2010 7”, titled Best Band in Sydney/Worst Band in Sydney.
It was only a few years later that they’d eventually mature from being a band of trash and stupor, by adding a permanent drummer (photographer Douglas Lance Gibson) and naming their 2013 LP Ready For Boredom (a last-minute change from the sardonic first choice of Success Rock). The shift was indicative of a band that had just nudged into their mid-to-late twenties, with ‘boredom’ being a place-sitter for ‘conventional adulthood’–and they weren’t bluffing! By Rot’s release in November last year, the band’s members had either moved in with their long-term partners, married, or fathered a child.
Rot’s ideas of adulthood come via unexpected realisations (“Try to change your life / But life changes you”), or as hopeful ideas of development (“I could make the leap / from the pub to the gallery”). It’s most apparent on ‘Stunned’, with Nic Warnock referring to the three-piece era as “years held in limbo”, before veering into the most certain love song the band has written (“Didn’t look but I found you / I got tired of feeling nothing at all”). The record is flooded with sentiment and visions of growth, to the point that it’s a text in itself when it comes to contemporary adulthood and priority setting.
Briohny Doyle’s Adult Fantasy is both a counterpoint and accompaniment to the more uncertain and fearful aspects of Rot. She begins with the realisation that she was “bat-shit na-na” as she circled her thirtieth birthday, living a life that was barely different to her early twenties. She outlines the ways in which she (and we) got there—from neoliberal economic policy and the erosion of educational institutions, to casualisation of the workforce and the dissolving myth of the nuclear family—all with the cagey defensiveness that comes with being the recipient of relentless intergenerational sledging. Where Rot outlines anxious desires for adulthood, Adult Fantasy points to the erosion of adulthood as a concept, demonstrating its intangibility as a real and present facet of 2017 living.
It’s in the context of Adult Fantasy that Rot’s continuation of Ready For Boredom’s promises sound so pained. When Nic defiantly claims “I won’t demote my rock tees to sleepwear” on ‘Expanding Horizons’, he follows it with the qualifier: “But I’ll find the time to read more.” He hesitantly allows small parts of adulthood through the gap in the door. These grunts of self-improvement become bitter only a few tracks later on ‘Company’. In seeing someone else’s unexpected evolution, the hopeful claim of making the jump “from the pub to the gallery” is now sung with suspicion:
Drains company thin.
Where does inept stop,
And inconsiderate begin?
Reinvention as a dull tool,
To hide the real you.
Is it hypocrisy, internal conflict, or just Rot? It’s easy (for some!) to forget that this band called themselves the Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys and stuck by it. For as much as Rot reaches towards adulthood, there’s an unsettled agitation throughout, signs of what Doyle refers to as ‘permanent adolescence’. On ‘Victoria’, Sukit talks of romance in a near-accusation (“You believe in this thing called love / Is this the falling you were thinking of?”) before moving to comforting distractions (“A device to have, to love to hold / To distort your world, dissolve the walls.”) As much as we can make claims to adulthood, it’s exceedingly difficult to meet the definition: Rot may even denote a turning away from it.
Doyle refers to this unattainable goal as something of a generational curse for millennials. She finishes Adult Fantasy with an apt form of acceptance, writing: “We all know there is no destination called adult. That is part of what makes us so anxious about it.” Meanwhile, Rot ends with the unconvincing claim of “I feel alright.” But it’s Ben Warnock’s only turn at the microphone on ‘Work Again’ that seems most appropriate, barking like a wolfhound:
I just don’t know,
Where I’ll go,
But I’ll have to.
There are moments when I see these four works as terminal points on related lengths of rope, folded over each other to form a noose for our times—but I’m prone to over-reaching. From the songs of disconnection on Sex Tourists to the story of disappearing place in The Town, I see Sydney’s developer-driven comb over. From a generation’s lack of footing in Adult Fantasy to the forced self-improvement on Rot, I see my two-day-a-week casual contract following a decade of university. Together, I feel the same strange pit in my gut, an intangible feeling of loss and panic. Like Prescott asserts in the opening to his novel, I do see the edges of this town, but I don’t yet know what they mean.
Published by The Lifted Brow
Max Easton is a writer from Sydney. He was a regular contributor to the now defunct websites Mess + Noise and Crawlspace from 2011 – 2016, is the editor of the TEMPERED music journal and runs the record label Meatspin. He is currently writing a book-length version of his zine series on musical subverts (published by MoodWar in 2017) and plays in Sydney punk bands Basic Human and BB & The Blips.