Getting the Last Laugh


One day I noticed in the back room of Egg Records a big box full of – I don’t know – maybe a hundred different James Last records. I was impressed because I didn’t think there were a hundred different James Last records. There certainly doesn’t need to be a hundred different ones. Although I’ve never listened to even one James Last record, I’m certain they all are of the same ilk of ‘muzak’, and so are interchangeable. The best thing about seeing so many of them in one place is being able to marvel at the kitsch cover art.

When pressed, my boss Ric admitted that not only had he acquired a hundred-odd James Last records, he had also ended up with an equal amount of James Last CDs. “But I didn’t buy them,” he was at pains to assure me. He had certainly taken possession of them with a big collection that he had recently bought, but, he insisted, throughout the negotiation of the purchase, he was adamant that he didn’t want to buy any James Last records. And why would he buy them? He didn’t want them, they didn’t suit our shop, we surely couldn’t expect customers to buy them from us. But the seller was just as adamant: he wouldn’t sell his collection unless Ric bought the James Last records and CDs as part of it. “I’d already decided the amount I’d offer him for the collection,” Ric explained. “Then, I thought, if he makes me take the James Last stuff, I’d actually offer him less than if he agreed to keep them himself. So in the end, he lost money by making me take it.”

Fantastic. Although he didn’t know it, some guy had effectively paid us a wad of cash to get rid of his James Last collection.

But who has the last laugh here?

Egg Records is a pretty cool shop. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, like members of Spiritualized when they were in Sydney, shopped at Egg Records and raved about the store. Do we want to be a shop full of James Last records and CDs? Which musicians would rave about us then? Richard Clayderman, maybe. Klaus Wunderlich, if he hadn’t passed away.

I know ‘easy listening’ and ‘muzak’ have a place in society, particularly since ‘cocktail music’ was exonerated and rehabilitated a little while back. Even Albert Einstein argued that the uninitiated should listen to Mantovani’s schmaltzy renditions of classical music in order to prepare for giving the real thing a go. Perhaps one day DJs will flock to op shops to locate James Last, as they do to locate copies of moog albums and field recordings of peoples indigenous to third-world countries, in order to base dance grooves upon them. If so, we should hold on to these records until a time that they’re worth twenty bucks each. However, forgetting for a moment that we have recourse to intellectual discourse and instead taking musical appreciation back to first principles in order to appraise it with the passion and raw emotion that, for most music lovers, hooked us onto it in the first place, the question remains:

What on earth could we do with this shit?

I suggested we put them up on the wall and charge customers a buck for three darts, to chuck at them, maybe with prizes for the best shots.

The problem with this is, obviously, the charging of a buck for what must be every music-lover’s inaliable right: to chuck pointy projectiles at effigies of James Last. Besides which, there’d always be one moron who’d have someone’s eye out, and it would all end in tears.

Ric came up with a better idea: suspending black markers from the ceiling, and mounting a bunch of covers as a wall disply, customers are invited to deface the covers as they see fit. Once the selection has been defaced, they will be replaced with a fresh batch. How cool is that!

For a closer look at the covers that came out slightly less blurred when snapped in a hurry during the dead period shortly before closing on a dull day, click here. (If I can be bothered, I’ll have another go during another lull in the working day. Or not.)

Getting My Head Around The Necks

I first became aware of the Necks when I was working as a shop assistant in a ‘classical and jazz’ music shop. The assistant manager was actually foolhardy enough to try and put a Necks CD on in the shop and was thwarted, moments into it, by the shop owner. See, although, as a music consumer, you may think music shops exist to expose new music to music-lovers, they in fact exist to shift units of product. So you don’t actually play new, exciting, challenging, thought-provoking stuff. The only new stuff you play is either what is already popular, or what sounds as safe and accessible as something already popular. The Necks – like, say, Stravinsky – never stood a chance in our shop. Not that the Necks should be considered the jazz equivalent of Stravinsky or anything like that; what the Necks have in common with Stravinsky is an essential non-beingness: you’d never play Stravinsky in the store because it’s not Mozart. Little old ladies, middle aged businessmen who ought to know better and kids who just ought to know something would complain. And you’d never play the Necks because they aren’t the safe, pre-‘70s fusion’ Miles Davis.

So, obviously, I had no idea what I was in for when I was coerced – by my friend Miranda – to go and see the Necks at the Bondi Pavilion one Saturday night. I didn’t know that the set would consist of two hour-long utterly improvised (apparently) pieces separated by a fifteen-minute interval. I didn’t know people would be lying down on the floor in front of the stage. I didn’t know it was okay to start to nod off somewhere in the middle. But by the end of it, I knew I wanted to interview the band, who were about to spend a month doing gigs all around Australia, culminating with a show at the Sydney jazz club known as the Basement.

Tracking the Necks down to request an interview was easy enough – an e-mail address for the band, along with one for each individual member may be found on the band’s website. Getting a reply to the e-mail is a bit harder. No response for days, and just when you’re about to give up hope, two of them will reply within an hour of each other.

A Necks gig is a majestic, magical thing – but it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For some, the ‘at least I’ve seen what an improvised jazz show is like’ mindset prevails – justifying it as not a wasted night out because not having the most pleasant of entertainment experiences still provides the opportunity for personal growth. This is probably a valid position – but it also validates a heap of activities that only the truly psychotic or perverse engage in, and I'm not so keen to experience some of those activities just so that I can say that I’ve been there and done that. There’s a valid philosophical argument that justifies the art you have to think a bit about or know a bit more about to enjoy, and although I can’t recite it for you, I know from personal experience that it holds true. Discordant cacophonies and utter disorder – if that’s how you hear it – can be constructed to be beautiful and ordered, even when it’s being made up on the spot, but occasionally you need some theoretical underpinning to appreciate the fact. Like Stravinsky, the Necks produce a rather gorgeous, awe-inspiring noise whose beauty is somehow greater because it isn’t easily recognised by the masses. Besides that, if you are able to lose yourself in a Necks performance, you do find yourself drifting off into what some people describe as “hypnagogia” – “that stage just before sleep when you have brief, surreal flashes of scenes”. After that Bondi Pavilion gig, I heard punters referring to “meditative states”. For me, I was finding myself relaxed and happy in a way that usually costs a lot and leads to munchies, paranoia, a heightened risk of schizophrenia and a two-day hangover. I felt great after the Necks gig.

If this is the first you’ve heard of the Necks, you are not alone. Most of my friends aren’t familiar with them. When I told my friend Damien that I was going to see the Necks at the Basement, he wanted to know if “they’re the support for the Heads!”

Funny bastard.

I can’t even be bothered working out when this interview with bassist Lloyd Swanton was broadcast; it is included here not only because I’m addicted to my blog and it’s been a while since I updated it, but also because everyone should hear the Necks at some stage. They’re incredible musicians.

Demetrius Romeo: Now Lloyd, the term ‘jazz’ can mean many different things to many different people. How would you label the sort of music you make with the Necks?

LLOYD SWANTON: That’s a very difficult question because I feel like I can modestly say that what we’re doing is very different to what anyone else is doing anywhere. There have been terms like ‘improvised trance jazz’ and I'm reasonably comfortable with that.

Demetrius Romeo: ‘Minimalism’ is a word that appears occasionally as well. Are you less comfortable with that word?

LLOYD SWANTON: I think there are elements of ‘minimalism’ in what we do, but I think that sometimes, when things get particularly frenzied, we’d have to be described as ‘maximalist’, to say the least. It can get very, very physical and ‘orgiastic’ on stage.

Demetrius Romeo: Ninety-five percent of actors don’t actually make money from acting. How does it compare for jazz musicians?

LLOYD SWANTON: I think there are a few more opportunities in the music scene to make money out of music, even if it’s not doing your own beloved project. A lot of musicians I know make their living out of teaching, or out of freelance music, doing their own projects when they want to, or when they get the chance. I guess I'm really fortunate that I get to prioritise my beloved group the Necks, and everything else I do is just money for beer and pudding.

Demetrius Romeo: You actually play in a number of other bands as well. How do they interact, and what is your approach when you're playing with each one?

LLOYD SWANTON: The way I see it, you have a whole spectrum of work posibilities from your very personal projects at one extreme through to other people’s very personal projects that you're involved in, all the way to the other extreme which is just ‘take the money and run’, doing weddings, parties, bar mitzvahs and the like, where people call up and you say, ‘where’s it on at, how much do I get paid and when do you want me there?’ So it’s a constant juggling process because the scene just isn’t quite big enough for us to totally focus on our personal projects, so it’s a constant give-and-take.

Demetrius Romeo: What’s your role in the different bands that you play with?

LLOYD SWANTON: In the Necks I’m a co-leader; the three of us are equal leaders. In the Catholics, I’m the leader of a seven-piece ensemble. In every other band I’m in, I’m a side-man.

Demetrius Romeo: Does your approach differ markedly depending on which combo your playing in at the time?

LLOYD SWANTON: Stylistically, often the bands are often very, very different, so as a professional musician, I'm always trying to provide what is most appropriate within those stylistic bounds and yet still try to come up with something creative and stimulating.

Demetrius Romeo: Now you’ve described your work in the Necks as being improvised trance jazz. When you play live, is it a hundred percent utterly imrovised, or are there bits of what, if you’ll forgive me, I’d describe as ‘musician’s shtick’, that you can bring into play whenever a phrase or a circumstance warrants it.

LLOYD SWANTON: Well, after sixteen years of playing together, obviously we’re going to fall into a few familiar routines. It’s unspoken; we’ve certainly never said, ‘let’s do this every time!’ and obviously the band, even though it’s free improvisation, has its stylistic parametres. I think the fact that our pieces are so slow-moving and repetitive is a framework that we always work within. Having said that, all three of us have a pretty high standard of performance and I can speak for myself and say that I wouldn’t want to get up on stage and fall into some familiar routine and worry that Chris and Tony are going, ‘oh dear, Lloyd’s doing that again!’ We try to keep each other stimulated, we try to provide fresh ideas. The other good thing about the band is that it’s essentially a brain-storming session on stage, so there are occasions when you do feel quite uninspired, but there's a fair probability that at least one or both of the other musicians will have an idea, so we're rarely lost for words.

Demetrius Romeo: When I was watching you live, because the music begins slowly and is a bit repetitive, I found it easy to drift off and get into that state where, when you're just starting to fall asleep, you have funny visions. Now, I never actually fell asleep, because nobody elbowed me in the gut to stop snoring, so you’re safe there, but when I came out of the gig I heard other punters saying that they were getting into a meditative state as well, and I did see a few people down the front reclining, lying down on the floor. Do you have people who fall asleep in your gigs? Does it matter to you? What is the reaction that you normally get from your average punter?

LLOYD SWANTON: We certainly have people falling asleep at our gigs; I’m one, particularly if I’m jet-lagged and we have a heavy schedule overseas and in Australia. We're not at all offended if someone falls asleep. We are trying to conjure that trance-like state just before you do nod off. I believe it’s known as the ‘alpha state’, where the normal barricades between the different parts of your brain start getting broken down, and so you make all sorts of connections wouldn’t be made if you were alert. That’s actually a very rewarding and rich state to be in, so if people can hover there, that’s fantastic. I know as a performer with the Necks that my mind goes off into all sorts of bizarre directions. It really does trigger something. I don’t know how it works, but that's one of the things - not the only thing, but certainly one of the things - we aim to conjure up when we're performing.

Demetrius Romeo: Lloyd, thank you very much.

LLOYD SWANTON: It’s my pleasure, thank you.

A Really Horrible Dream

Taking the article ‘Hatchet Piece (101 Things I Hate)’ that appears in the book ‘Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters’ as read (which we should, because it was, by me, midway through an Arts degree when it was far more fun to read weird books on the lawn in front of the Main Quad at university than actually attend English, Psychology or Philosophy lectures), it turns out that I am not just one of the things John Waters hates, but in fact the one-hundred-and-first thing; the thing, he says, that he hates “more than anything in the world: a person who confides, ‘I had the weirdest dream last night…’” At the risk of angering the pontifex of perversity, I must tell you that this morning, shortly before I awoke, I had the most horrific dream I have had for some time.

When my dad died, I was plagued by dreams about him. Initially they were ultra-vivid visions: he’d be laying bright red bricks under a clear blue sky in the hot summer sun, and I’d be helping him. Upon waking up, I’d usually burst into tears – all those years of resenting having to play bricky’s labourer on weekends and school holidays when there was serious guitar playing, record shopping or flirting to be done, and now those days were the source of about the best memories my unconscious thought I had of the old man.

After the extra-sensory memory dreams came the stress dreams: often, the old man would have just discovered a terminal disease and we’d all panic and wonder how we’d cope if he didn’t pull through. I’d wake up relieved, knowing that it was just a dream, and then remember that he had been diagnosed with a terminal disease, that he hadn’t pulled through, and that this sort of dream was part of the coping mechanism. I had a lot of these dreams in Italy especially, having gone over with my mum to settle the old man’s estate. In the early hours I’d dream that he was lying in a death-like state, and panic would ensue until I realised I could hear him snoring. Then church bells would ring and all would be well. I’d wake up, still hearing the church bells pealing from both our village cathedral and the one nestled on the side of the mountain facing our village, and realise that it was actually my mum snoring in the next room.

Although the emotions appear to be inverted, ‘interpersonal relationship’ dreams seem to be of a similar kind to the ‘coping with the death of a loved one’ dreams. They begin as erotic dreams prior to and during the actual interpersonal relationship, but afterwards they’re just ‘all’s well in the relationship’ dreams that invariably come after you’ve been dumped. You awaken from a peaceful reverie to realise that, actually, all’s not well in your world. You suddenly realise that your stomach cavity is once again filled with lead, as it was when you woke up during the early hours of the previous morning. You wonder how on earth you’ll get through another day and fall asleep again that evening. And so it goes...

My freakiest stress dream usually finds me sitting the English paper of the Higher School Certificate (commonly known as “the HSC”, Australia’s ‘leaving certificate’ examination) again. I particularly recall having this recurring nightmare when facing extra difficult periods of employment, specificially at my last full-time job, as a Publications Co-ordinator at a school(!) Why the English paper? Possibly because it is the first examination in the HSC and so at the time was the most stressful; after getting through the first, the rest would have appeared less formidable. And yet, my less-frequently dreamt and scarier nightmare, in a similar vein, is of a mathematics exam. I don’t know why.

Actually, my freakiest stress dream involves a scenario worse still than being thrown headlong into the examination scenario once again. It hasn’t happened often, but occasionally I dream that I am on the stage, performing, but under-prepared. Originally, these dreams involved memories of actual performances I’d been in, and amazingly, I’d remember whole chunks of dialogue and song from school musicals. (“So, if it ain’t Prince Tiny and the ‘little league’!” – my first line, as Freddie the Fidler, in Tin Pan Alley, the St Augustine's College musical from 1987. I was in Year 10. It featured girls from the local Catholic girl’s school, Stella Maris College, amongst whose ranks was a young Kym Wilson. She was fifteen, gorgeous and very popular amongst us horny and repressed Catholic school boys, so although I don’t quite dream about her, I may have the occasional little ‘think’ about her before dropping off to sleep at night!)

Nowadays, these dreams still occasionally take place in the school auditorium. However, when they do not, school teachers’ faces accompany those of past employers throughout the audience. I am on stage alone. There is nothing prepared. I start to improvise. And it always goes well. Hats off to my Id! Why can’t real life be that good?

So anyway, this morning I awoke from a dream that was worse than any of the above examples. In fact, I reckon it worse than all of the above put together. Here’s my dream:

I return to the venue of a party – obviously a friend’s house in the dream, but one I don’t recognise from my normal waking life – to retrieve a bunch of CD singles I left at the party the night before. But I can’t find them. And I wonder why I possibly thought I could leave them to retrieve later. Amongst the missing items is the ultra-limited Costello/Nieve box set that was released nearly a decade ago now, as well as a pile of Radiohead CD singles, including the even older and rarer ‘Drill’ EP. Although I eventually find the Costello/Nieve box set (autographed, to boot! My copy ain’t autographed in real life) I cannot locate any of the Radiohead stuff, and I am most miffed about losing the ‘Drill’ EP. I'm really despondent, disheartened, angry.

Eventually, I drift into wakefulness and start to tell myself I never took Radiohead CD singles to anyone’s party. And then I realise I’ve never even seen a copy of the ‘Drill’ EP in real life, let alone owned one.

Do you think I should consider an alternative form of employment to working in a secondhand/collectibles music shop?

Heartless Bastard Me

I was just doing my Sunday thing, sitting behind the counter in Egg Records’ city store, wishing some customers would come in and buy stuff, when all of a sudden a woman strode purposefully in, parked herself directly in front of the counter, and thrust an open lecture pad in my face.

Damn, I thought, this is going to be one of those nuts who either

a) compiles lists of millions of titles of albums, and stands by while the shop assistant searches from one end of the store to the other in order to confirm, John-Cleese-in-the-Bookshop-Sketch-like, that we have nothing on the list currently in stock,


b) compiles lists of millions of titles of songs, and stands by while the shop assistant searches from one end of the store to the other in order to find out that the few albums that actually feature one, or if you’re lucky, a couple, of songs from the list, are unsuitable because the other songs contained therein already reside somewhere else within the customer's collection and must not be replicated, or just do not appeal to the customer’s taste.

Not that there’s anything wrong with either of these things; technically, searching the store from one end to the other is what I’m paid to do. It’s just that if the customer searched the store from one end to the other, rather than standing back and letting the shop assistant do it, there’d at least be a chance of the customer stumbling onto some other gem worth spending some money on.

Rather than one of the infuriating lists, the woman’s lecture pad bore a scrawled note informing that in addition to being mute and an orphan, she was bereft of a husband and had not seen her daughter for nine years, despite having searched desperately for her, but as her most immediate problem was hunger, could I possibly help her out by handing over ten dollars? When I informed her that I in fact couldn’t, she stalked out in silence, making a dismissive gesture that, strictly speaking, wasn’t obscene, but certainly conveyed the spirit of obscenety.

More obscene, however, was the realisation, the second after she’d left, that I probably should have offered her a couple of bucks in exchange for letting me take a digital photo of her and her note.

Does this make me a bad person?

What about if I scrawled the offer down in a notebook of my own and flashed it at her?

God must certainly think so; I’ve spent the rest of the day knocking whole shelves of stock over.