Growing up in a small country town and being obsessed with discovering strange new music had its complications. One was that there was no “music scene”. In fact with each new style that I discovered; be it punk, reggae, soul or 80’s post-punk; I didn’t know a single other person who was into the music I was listening to.
Another complication was how to actually find music. Triple J was invaluable as a starter point, but pretty soon my hunger for new sounds was seeking more than it offered. Staying up late on a Saturday night to watch Rage was great for discovering music from the past, but I wanted more. The internet was an incredible resource, but it was not like today’s internet – no youtube, no streaming, dial-up download speed. A lot of music I would read about long before I would ever hear it.
My home town of Mudgee had one CD shop. Well, technically it wasn’t just a music store – half of it was taken up with books, and a small section sold role-player games like Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons. The music selection was small and not very diverse. You could order in CDs they didn’t have in stock, but they could literally take months to come in. Fortunately there was one other place in town where you could buy music. The local hock shop, called “The Trading Post”, was a second hand music goldmine.
I have no idea how some of the obscure and varied music ever got on to the shelves of that shop. But it started what was to become a long-lasting hobby of trawling through the music section of second hand stores, and taught me a valuable lesson – sometimes the more random the location, the better the haul. From its ever-changing selection of second hand CDs I not only got some of the big alternative acts of the time like Grinspoon, Jebediah and Frenzal Rhomb; but I first heard a number of artists who I would go on to love – Bob Marley, The Pixies, MxPx, Billy Bragg plus many more.
And it was cheap too (every CD was $8, which isn’t very cheap these days, but back then people had to actually pay for music and $8 was cheap). So sometimes if I went there and didn’t see anything I knew, I could just take a punt on something with a cool name or a cool looking cover.
Sure, this strategy had a few misses. But it was this habit that led me, when I was 16 years old, to picking up a compilation called Not A Number.
The album cover was a fist punching through a barcode. There were 14 bands and 24 songs on it. I had heard of none of them, but even as someone fairly new to the genre I could decipher they were probably punk bands.
Once I got home and put it on, I discovered that it was indeed punk bands – it was a compilation put out by a Brisbane based label called Mouthbreeder Records. It was mostly pop punk, with some ska, a bit of hardcore, an instrumental surf band, and one slow grungey song that I didn’t like and would always skip.
I loved this album. It was lo-fi (I listened to it for the first time in many years this week and some of those songs are so badly recorded you can not distinguish any instruments except a snare drum thwacking away); the songs were about things like missing the bus, playing in a crap band, and pretending to like someone because they’re a friend of a friend. My favourites were a joyous ska song called “WOW” by Fetish that I have never had any idea what any of the words are; and “Skateboard” by Girls Germs, with its opening line “I wish I could ride a skateboard, then I’d be like all the punk rock kids.”
It was the joy of punk music that endeared it to me – these bands were not famous, technically brilliant or with access to good recording equipment. But they could write songs that were catchy, funny and about their own lives. The virtues of DIY. I could only imagine living in a city where a punk scene existed, and people made their own wonderful music, for their own friends, with no need for boring rockstars singing about fake emotions.
There was one other thing about that CD that influenced me a lot. Inside the front cover was a little graphic for a radio station – 4ZZZ 102.1mHz. I got on the computer and looked up this radio station. I don’t remember what I found on the website, but I do remember having my imagination captured by the thought of a community radio station that played alternative local music (even if it wasn’t the clearest recording), and covered alternative local issues.
Today I actually picked up the CD for probably the first time in a decade, and I realised that the only thing linking Not A Number and 4ZZZ is that one little graphic in the artwork. So strongly have the two been linked in my head that I have always assumed that zed actually released the compilation. And though I loved the music on the album (listening to it again, I still do), I have heard virtually no more music from any of these bands. 4ZZZ though, I kept investigating. Further second hand shopping adventures netted me “Lots Of Brisbane Punk Bands”, curated by zed presenter Rollo and put out by the station; plus the only ever 4ZZZ Hot 100 album – before I had ever spent a night in Brisbane. When I drove through Brisbane on the M1 with some friends once, I insisted on tuning in. When I met Brisbanites, I would invariably ask about the station.
Those who know me will know where the story goes from here. It took me five years after leaving Mudgee to end up in Brisbane, and two more after that till I began volunteering at 4ZZZ, but I have come to be more and more involved – to the point that this month when 4ZZZ celebrated its 40th anniversary, I was in the studio, presenting a history of the station’s news reporting.
Having written all of this, I’m not quite sure what the moral of the story is that brings it all together. It’s definitely fun to reminisce about being a teenager and discovering things for the first time, imagining what wonders the outside world could hold. I also don’t mind singing the praises of second hand music shopping, even today when nearly everything in the world is googleable.
Maybe it’s just coincidence that I picked up that CD as a teenager and later ended up involved at 4ZZZ – certainly there were a lot of other factors involved. But I think reflecting on it all, I’m grateful for that spirit of exploration that led me to seek out music I’d never heard of as a kid, that led to me looking up information about a radio station more than 1000km away. That same spirit of exploration would keep me always asking “but what else is out there? What else is possible?”
It meant that when those city punk scenes didn’t turn out quite like I had imagined, I made my own music and organised my own shows. It led to me getting involved in community radio and trying to create the kind of media I wish we had. I’m not a teenager any more, but I hope that I can still hold onto that spirit. And I hope that more and more kids keep emerging with that same questing enthusiasm.