The Balmain Sound – Indie Rock from the Balmain Peninsula

by Chris Newton on January 29, 2013

in Classic Aussie Music

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Here’s a little piece about the Balmain indie-rock scene I grew up in. Originally published, in part, in a small article in the local Balmain paper Village Voice in 2006/2007.

By the late 1970s, Balmain (in Sydney’s inner west) had already been through a sea-change of sorts with the influx of a younger, politically left-leaning populus a decade earlier. It happened again in the early 1980s with what most were politely calling “the gentrification of the area”.
For many years, it was also known as the home of blues in Sydney as the reputations of gigs like the William Wallace, the Cat & Fiddle and the Bridge hotels and the bands that played there were arguably unsurpassed at the time.

The Hippos, The Foreday Riders, The Mighty Reapers of Vengeance, Bondi Cigars, Bridie King and Baby Loves To Cha Cha. These were some of the names that graced the myriad of pole-posters throughout the suburb. All great bands – R’n’B, blues and cover versions – they were pretty much the staple of live music in the inner west (as far we knew.we were blissfully unaware that members of bands such as The Church and The Sea Monsters lived amongst us).
Naturally enough, it seemed, the kids of the families that had arrived in the sixties and seventies would gravitate towards the idea of playing blues-rock. The only thing was, we were growing up in the mid-eighties.staunch new-wavers, punks, Mods, hippy-revivalists. whatever. Too young to drink (legally), too different to be ignored by the local goons, we all started garage bands at high school. We loved relieved boredom, and most people I knew were playing guitar by 1985.
We all started at the bluesier end of things, but it was always more Hendrix, Zeppelin and Cream rather than Albert Collins, Johnny Winter or Muddy Waters. Pretty quickly for us, though, the musical boundaries soon blurred.

Everyone had their thing. Be it early U2, The Jam, The Cure, Hunters & Collectors, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Van Halen or The Cult, our whole outlook had changed and with it, the songs in our set-lists did too. The blues influence was always going to be there, it was something that we all still loved. Things just took a decidedly alternative spin.
There were, however, still no gigs for most under-agers so we had to be content with parties, lounge rooms and backyards until the cops would often shut us down. The infamous B.O.P.E. (Bent On Pure Enjoyment) parties held at Balmain Town Hall and the old RSL in 1988/89 were so out of control we were all banned from playing at either venue again.
By 1989 there were a bunch of great bands which made up a wave of indie rock that had actually grown up and lived in the suburb, mostly attending the local Balmain and Fort Street High Schools and most of these bands existed in some form into the 1990s. The evolution and success of these bands increased ten-fold in the early part of that decade. Six bands, in particular, had emerged from the local school halls and had started to make some impact on the wider “world” of Sydney – Psyclone Smyle, Walk The Fire, Baby Sugar Loud, Mother Hubbard, The Silenced and Metal Fatigue. Psyclone Smyle, Baby Sugar Loud and Mother Hubbard all enjoyed label success through Festival and Outlaw Records – all with high rotation airplay Triple J throughout the early half of the 90s.

* Described in an early Drum Media as “a funkomatic whirlwind of sound”, Psyclone Smyle were essentially a funk-metal hybrid who became the first local signing (to Festival Records) from the scene. They racked up an impressive 200 shows in their 4 years, playing with everyone from Noiseworks & The Baby Animals to Def FX, Caligula, The Hellmenn, Falling Joys and the Plunderers, before disbanding in 1993.

* Baby Sugar Loud, formed from Fort Street High band Sooty Blotch, also gigged extensively and went on to release several great single/EPs and one impressive, albeit under-rated, album of Beatles/Bowie soaked psychedelic-rock. They toured much of the east coast with such luminaries as Divinyls and good friends Powderfinger, as well as playing the 1995 Big Day Out, before heading to the UK in 1997 and splitting shortly after.

* From the ashes of Balmain High School blues band The Beefs, Mother Hubbard (featuring a younger, bearded Alex Lloyd) were the indie scene’s link to the suburb’s blues heritage. Their sound was akin to a Black Crowes/Rolling Stones sing along – a full 10 years before the likes of Jet “claimed” it as their own, and again after a string of great singles and one album, they toured tirelessly until the band amicably split in 1998.

* Walk The Fire had spent a couple of years out of high school as The Front, before singer Dan Chapman found his true calling as the band’s manager and tireless promoter of the then burgeoning Balmain indie rock scene. With a post-Guns ‘n’ Roses/proto-grunge bent, they were on the cusp of bigger things, but unfortunately never quite got there. Guitarist Val Gray has since embarked on a prolific solo career under various monikers, and still plays around the traps on a regular basis.

* The scene’s tenuous link to the surf culture (there were a lot of surf & skater types around at the time, for an inner city suburb.) The Silenced played around with a sound vaguely reminiscent of early Cure and Hunters & Collectors. With a deliberately original flavour, synonymous in those early grunge years, The Silenced gigged around Sydney for the better part of 6 years, before disbanding.

* Metal Fatigue were just a couple of years younger than the other Balmain High School “alumni” bands, but no less worthy. While many others were still toiling in the post-blues haze of Zeppelin-rock, Metal Fatigue were busting out LA metal in the vein of early Guns’n’Roses and LA Guns. After several band competitions and Balmain High concerts, culminating in supports for Screaming Jets amongst others, they called it a day sometime in the early 90s. Singer-guitarist Chris Marshall went on to re-invent himself as the hokum blues master CW Stoneking.

Of course, it’s all just the tip of an ongoing iceberg.
In the mid-late 1990s, others would soon follow suit – Plummet, Phlo’em/An Empty Flight, Nitocris, Stoneyard, Once Upon A Time, Zahlu, Readymars, Papa Lips, Alex Lloyd, Josh Pyke, Holly Throsby, Butterfly 9, Val Gray, The Lost Husky and George Byrne.
The list goes on in to the modern era, and while many of the bands have moved on and out of the now-too-expensive suburb, it probably will do into the future with local kids jamming in garages as they have done for many a year.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Liza Feeney February 6, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Loved reading this! Certainly brought back memories for me, Baby Sugar Loud, Falling Joys (I was a regular at the Sando on a Sunday afternoon when the brothers would play (can’t remember their name), such great times, we lived just down the road, one night my boyfriend Lyall helped them fight off a bunch of bikers! Def FX were awesome, Fiona Horne is a fellow witch and you can see it inspired a lot of their lyrics. She has gone on to write many books, has spoken at Harvard and loves skydiving, scuba diving and has a pilot’s licence! I loved being a partaker of these memorable eras and now my son is in a band on vocals and guitar, and my cousin Dean is in a band – Papercrane – and they are gigging all over the old stomping grounds of these fine bands and are getting AirPlay on JJJ, I’m so proud of his achievements and it’s great to see new bands emerging of the same genre!


2 Chris February 7, 2013 at 6:09 am

Cheers Liza!


3 paul harrigan February 13, 2013 at 3:22 pm

I really enjoyed the article, it bought back memeories both fond and painful. I happened to be right amongst the late 80’s Balmain scene, particularly with The Beefs. I first met Alex (Wasiliev), Kinnon (Holt), Declan (Kelly) and Mitch (Grainger) while working at Fat Boy Studios. The guys (kids at the time) rocked up to do a demo with all their instruments loaded into two shopping trolleys……most of their gear was falling to bits, but as soon as they started playing….. WOW.
I started doing sound for them and our Saturday nights for the next year was build the stage at the Sando out of milk crates and chip board, mix from the desk in the stairwell, load the car drive to St Peters Hotel play for an hour then haul arse with the rear of my car dragging along King Street to the Bridge Hotel for a 1am to 3am set.
Great memories.


4 Chris February 14, 2013 at 7:25 pm

It was indeed a great era for us all – a fantastic scene to be part of!


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