A burst of noise: two chords played on guitar and bass fold into one another while splitting apart into digital grains. A single shouted syllable cuts through the mix as it drops below the ear-splitting peak, the volume plateaus, and then plummets. After the initial barrage, you strain your ears to make out details; trying to decipher lyrics and riffs under an artificial distance created by lowering the recording gain on a microphone. At the end of the song the bassist asks the crowd: “Are the levels ok?” The audience responds with one of those strange “yeah”s that wobble out in a collective voice.
I wasn’t at the show, but I remember it. A Tuesday night on King Street, Newtown. A relatively new club night: Cobra Club (CCXO for short). Upstairs at the Bank Hotel in a room sometimes referred to as Waywards. The room itself juts out in a kind of L-shape where the stage sits in the intersection of the two lines, facing out towards the lower-right hand of the letter. If you’re lucky enough to cram your body into the “_” you can hear (and maybe even see) the band. If you’re stuck in the “|”: good luck to you. It’s not entirely conducive to watching a band play (or playing yourself), but it’s also not the worst spot in Sydney. I was excited to see Display Homes (the as-of-yet unmentioned band playing in the above paragraph) but thinking back some months later, I can’t put my finger on the reason of my absence: A clashing event? Exhaustion? The lure of a home-cooked meal and an early night?
Once the moment passes and you miss it, nothing is left but the recordings: blurry smart-phone images, the all-too ephemeral social media “story” post, the recollections of friends. The recordings of this particular show arrived to me in all of these ways, and two others: a digital audio bootleg and a set of film photographs that were scanned and distributed online.
Now, sitting some three months into the future and 16,000 km away, listening to the bootleg in tinny earbud headphones, my ears are led erratically around the L-shaped room. The unofficial live recording is freed from the mysterious magickal process of audio mastering—the sound is unbalanced, shifting dramatically from channel to channel, peaking and dipping. One philosophy held by those who churn out records (musicians, producers, engineers, and mastering technicians alike) is that they want the listener to feel like they are in the room with the artist. But in order to achieve this illusion, they split the ears into an array of microphones positioned in acoustically advantageous locations and/or warp time through the process of overdubbing to make it all seem more ‘real’. It’s ultimately a futile act, but one that is interesting nonetheless.
In the bootleg recording, the two tin(n)y microphones mounted in a digital audio recorder do not necessarily get any closer to capturing the ‘real’ of a live show, but they do provide an interesting alternative. They swap out the static, disembodied recording techniques of the studio for a more dynamic, unstable approach to recording. As the bootlegger’s body moves through the room and what they hear shifts in relation to the musicians/speakers, so does the sound that we listen to at a later time.
Even more importantly, the bootleg operates in a largely different sphere of circulation. That is, an economy of sharing—not the neo-liberal ‘sharing economy’ of Uber and Air B’n’B, but one based in the acts of trading, passing on, swapping. It is an activity that fosters living, breathing, and lively communities, which are the oft-unrecognised cog in the broader movement of sounds/ideas within underground spaces alongside independent labels and record stores.
Bootlegging is by no means anything new or contained to the ‘digital age.’ To sketch a (very) rough history of unofficial audience tapes, one that follows a tattered thread of history, one could start from Albert Alvarez’s Edison cylinders, through to recordings taken in jazz clubs throughout America in the first half of the twentieth century. With the ubiquity of consumer grade reel-to-reel and then cassette tape recorders growing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the creation of these documents became even more prominent, leading to communities of collectors who shared recordings and created their own canons. While this underground practice has ultimately been co-opted by major labels as extra discs in anniversary reissues, it has not been contained to a distant past—with recent, locally-orientated recordings readily shared on forums and blogs via mediafire, and now in a range of Facebook groups via Google Drive/Dropbox.
The source of the aforementioned Display Homes bootleg was Jake Ollett, a Western Sydney-based photographer whose work primarily consists of 35mm point-and-shoot photos of bands around Sydney. But this is a gross simplification. His work is broader in terms of geography (he spent six months photographing bands in Paris, as well as bands in Geelong and the south coast of NSW) and more importantly media—his work also spans digital audio bootlegs, zine-making, and camcorder footage. Ollett is regularly found up the front of shows, breaching that awkward space between the stage and the audience who stand a couple of metres back. His own actions are just as, if not more, performative than most of the bands he covers: climbing onto speaker stacks, sneaking onto the side or behind the stage, weaving through the audience, juggling his camera in one hand with a beer and a portable audio recorder in his other. At this particular cultural moment, it’s not shocking when someone pulls out a 35mm camera at a show, snaps a photo or two, and stuffs it back into their bag. But what differentiates Ollett is the scale of his documentation in terms of both the number of bands covered and the number of photos taken.
Last month, Ollett held an exhibition of his photographs at Video Club, a rehearsal space in the (former?) industrial suburb of Sydenham. An alphabetical list, circulated before the opening, almost achieved an A-Z of bands featured (only missing bands starting with Q and X) and some 2000 shots slated to be on display. Photos of the photos posted on social media or sent to me by friends show the characteristic wood-lined walls of the space now lined floor to ceiling with white-boarded prints, with extras kept in photo albums throughout the space. Just looking at the sheer scale of the exhibition, the photos recall the thumbnail reproductions of digital images on a computer screen. People walked through the show spotting themselves or their friends, but that way of viewing missed the overall importance of the exhibition—this was not the occasional snapshot of a musician or band—rather, the importance of the show rested in the mass of the photography.
One only has to focus on the individual photos themselves in order to see the importance of the whole. Ollett strays from the usual tropes of rock photography—glamourous portraits of the “star” in action that elevate them as a figure physically and figuratively above the audience. Using point-and-shoot cameras, the photos almost recall those that fill the photo albums of my childhood; subjects replete with red eyes, caught in an unflattering pose mid-sentence, over-blown flash. With the rise of digital photography and the immediate viewability and disposability of the image created, pictures have become more and more curated, staged, and perfected; they look more “professional”. The physicality of 35mm film, hidden in the camera itself, counters this. It only gives you so many shots within a roll, but rolls of film are not particularly cheap to buy or develop, thus placing a limit on the number of rolls that can be shot. The only opportunity to delete photos is in the stage of curation: before they are posted to social media or hung on a wall. This is not to suggest that Ollett does not have an eye for composition, colour, or chemically securing an impressive shot on film. Rather, it is the inclusion of these often-overlooked photos that broaden the scope of what he is trying to achieve. Any notion of the curation of pictures after they have been taken does not appear to be of utmost concern for Ollett—why waste the money on film if you are only going to cull half the photos?
Rather, the act of taking the photos in the first place is one of curation. Ollett’s documentation is not an anthropological or sociological study of live music scenes but stems from a genuine enjoyment of seeing these bands. The body of work is so extensive that it can be seen as an archive, and all archives are curated in some way shape or form to ultimately fulfil a broad purpose. In this case, it is a means of piecing together a contemporary history of Australian underground music. I’m sceptical of saying that an ‘essence’ of sorts is captured in Ollett’s work (and all artistic work for that matter), but such an extensive collection of photos shot in such a consistent manner offers something of use. For one, the oft-unflattering shots of bands and audience do not shy away from the uncomfortable nature of standing in a tight room among sweaty bodies under hot stage lights. But beyond this, looking at Ollett’s oeuvre over the last three years, one can trace the rise and fall of different venues, bands, and trends.
Writing this article while travelling has been a strange experience. I missed the exhibition of Ollett’s photos just as I had missed the Display Homes show some months earlier (albeit under different circumstances). But, in a way, it reinforced the power of such an archive. It exists not a means of inflating the ego of musicians, but rather such a collection fosters a collective memory within the community, the uses of which are not entirely set in stone. On the one hand, it plays a role in breaking down the mythologies that happen to arise around particular bands and shows—one only has to revisit the recordings and images to see that the show was as packed or impressive as otherwise stated. But certain recordings can also equally fuel these mythologies (think: Bob Dylan at Royal Albert Hall/Manchester Free Trade Hall, 1966). It ultimately toys with the way that we remember the events of the past—whether it makes it more accurate or not is up for debate. Sitting here writing about Ollett’s work, I feel like I have attended the events without being there in body.
Being so far from home it also reminds me of the ways that these kinds of documents move. The level of communication and cross-pollination across underground music communities in differing towns/cities/countries seems unprecedented. Faster internet speeds with greater download capacity, cheaper airfares, and the proliferation of quality (and not-so-quality) writing on these scenes has aided in the gradual crumbling of geographical boundaries. Thus, Ollett’s archive works across local, national, and international spaces. While it is primarily distributed among friends and bands, it also crops up on social media, as illustrations for music blogs, and as decoration/documentation in the liner notes of independent releases. The archive leaks out into the public and provides a means of accessing the recent history of a scene from afar. It is not a static “document” but a continually evolving resource.
Mitchell Ryan is a writer, researcher and musician based in Sydney. His work has previously appeared in TEMPERED music journal and SPLIT.
Top photo: Mahne Frame.