I wonder what is like being from another country. This sounds sort of stupid, but Americans often have a strange, warped view of the music of other countries. It is not unexpected to have a country-specific oritentation towards your own pop culture. We are the center of our experience and of our own perspective. In music, we are aware of the music originating in other countries, but it ebbs and flows. In the 90s the pendulum was the alt.rock movement coming from Seattle and other spots. Then the pendulum swung towards the UK with Oasis and Britpop. But what would the 90s have been like in other countries? Just how dominant is the American music scene in other countries? How did the music coming from the USA play in these countries during musical boom times and musical bust times? What happens when the pendulum swings in the opposite direction?
England may not the best example, since the UK has produced so much of our popular music in the past 50 years. Let’s think about other English-speaking countries like Canada and Australia. Have you ever tried to watch the Juno awards on CBC and felt that even without a language barrier that you may as well have been watching a program on how to learn Morse code? A quick trawl through the record books shows an unmatched FIVE YEAR WINNING STREAK FOR BRYAN ADAMS. On the female side, Anne Murray and Celine Dion have four-year streaks. The Tragically Hip, a quintessentially Canadian band, have won multiple Juno awards.
The Aria awards, from Australia, can feel equally as disjointed. The Hall of Fame class of 2011 consisted of Kylie Minogue and the Wiggles. Yes. The Wiggles, torturers of parents for over a decade. Yet a swirl through the award winners does not always yield a wacky result. For in 1998 the Aria Album of the Year was Unit by the Brisbane band, Regurgitator. Never heard of them? Of course not! But I have, and let me tell you, they’re great.
In 1998 I spent some time participating in an overseas study program through Michigan State University. I spent time in Australia, folks, Sydney and Canberra to be more precise. Now you would not know this from looking at me but I LOVE Australia and have for thirty years. (Is that possible? When did I first learn of Australia? Let’s see. . . Superman 2 on HBO, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor wanting beachfront property, globe spins to. . . Australi. New Year’s Day 1982. Yep, thirty years) Once I got over my initial cowardice and signed up for the program, I departed from Detroit in early January of 1998.
Once in Australia, I heard bits and bobs about this band from Brisbane. The HMV store I lived at in Sydney had the CD on display, a silver cover with a great yellow circle on the front. Yet I didn’t buy it. When our group arrived in Canberra I remember talking with an Australian girl about the band, “the Gurge” she called them. I was really trying to chat her up when my attention was distracted by a ditz with big brown eyes (look it up) and when I turned around the Aussie was gone. But her words on the band stuck with me. I bought a Rolling Stone with the band on the cover and read up on them before really digging into their catalog. It took my return to the states before I got a chance to buy Unit. Actually, I came into work one day and there was in my locker. I had no idea my manager ordered it for me from the import sheets, and it was such a wonderful shock. I bought the disc and took it home to listen to it.
The disc opens with the song, “I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff.” You need to know the first LP, Tu Plang, to understand that opening song. On their first CD the band is very rockish, muscular and melodic, with lots of crash and sturm und drang. The humor is evident (“I Sucked A Lot of Cock To Get Where I Am”) as are the band’s interest in different sounds (“G7 Dick Electric Boogie”). Hearing those songs and then this first song, you come to an understanding that the band is branching into a new direction, one that may not be well received. But then on “Everyday Formula” the band is just a ripping motor of super fast, super fun music. Two songs in and Unit is only about 6 minutes long and just tons of fun. Then you get to the third song, called “! (The Song Formerly Known As)” which is a killer. Sort of like a hybrid Prince song, catchy and rocking and vibrant. In these songs you hear the sounds that were being planted on that first disc and watching them bloom is very exciting. The disc was strong in 1998 and while it isn’t quite as strong in 2012, the tracks that stood out still stand out. “Bubble Boy” is the second greatest song about an inflatable sex doll, only trailing Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home A Heartache” on that sparsely inhabited trail.
The not-yet-extinct music video helped the band with their image and the videos from the Unit LP are as strong as the songs. “Everyday Formula” acts out the plot to Tron, while “!” shows the band standing around in Japanese crowds. Other videos are computer animated and silly and disposable but somehow entertaining and engaging as well.
There are a few themes that pop up on Unit that make their way into Regurgitator’s follow-up CD, . . . Art, most notably a sense of disconnection from humanity and the embrace of technology as a substitute for traditional human interaction. These themes are sometimes subtle, sometimes not. Even on their poppiest of songs, and man oh man does . . . Art have some poppy songs, there is a bittersweet underpinning to every lyric. On “Everyday Formula” from Unit, Quan Yeomans sings “everyday I talk to my machines/more sense than talking with human beings.” This disconnect, the withdrawal into the virtual doesn’t sound too far-fetched today but in 1998 could it have seemed real? The last song on . . . Art is titled “Virtual Life” and the words are about needing everything from the TV screen and needing nothing else from a regular life. As a man who spends too much time on Facebook, this song feels prophetic. We surrender so much of ourselves to exist online.
When I was in Australia I noticed a sign in the classrooms on my second day in the country: a sign beckoning students to turn off their cell phones. Back home, cell phones were car phones and were the size of a foot. They weren’t everywhere and they certainly weren’t “your phone.” In some ways it feels strange that one of the most removed continents, hell, THE most removed continent on the globe would be so quick to adapt to new technology. At the same time, with that early adaption, perhaps that is where the burnout so aptly described on these songs originates. In the late 90s there was so much of an undercurrent of chatter speaking to “pre-millennium tension” but without any substance or understanding of where that tension originated from. Here, in Australia, was a band that was singing out about a different type of tension between technology and human connection, which has grown and overgrown the globe in the 14 years since the words were put to tape.
When I listen to Unit and . . . Art, I am magically whisked away from here to another land and another time. As with any nostalgia, some of the memories hold up, some don’t. The tracks on these two LPs, however, hold up in all their poppy greatness. I see that the band continues to record and release music. I’m glad for that as we are all better off with a band like Regurgitator in the world. Humor, discontent, observation and melody. What more do you need?
Mike Vincent lives in Northern Michigan. He wrote this piece at the Eastfield Laundromat.