Frenzal Rhomb
by Blair Boyer

Frenzal Rhomb hold a unique place in the Australian music landscape. Not only are they one of the few home grown punk acts to achieve any sort of mainstream success, but they have purposely traded on their own alternative sense of Australianaess. 15 years after forming in Sydney, and after several line up changes, the motley quartet still shuns the typical punk-rock clichés – Mohawks, black leather and chains are noticeably absent and tartan only appears when vocalist Jay Whalley dons his checkered lounge suit. 

The band, of which Jay is the only original member after the mysterious departure of co-founding member and bassist Lex Feltham in 2002, has always understood that true longevity and relevance are only achieved by a commitment to the ideals that lay at the heart of their music – and not by recycling the tired slogans and gestures of their punk predecessors.

The entire band is vegan, and guitarist Lindsay McDougall is an active animal liberationist. Furthermore, after a failed flirtation with major record labels the band has returned to their independent roots and this has seen them focus their acerbic wit into sharper and more incisive missives that not only bear the trademark Frenzal irreverence and oddball humour but also a more intelligent understanding of society. 

1998's breakthrough album 'Meet the Family' was certified gold on the strength of singles such as 'All Your Friends (think you're a fuckhead)' and 'You Can't Move Into My House'. But the stand out track was undoubtedly 'Racist', which appeared on the Vans Warped Tour compilation of that year along with 'Ship of Beers' another track from the same album. 'Racist' was short, fast and undeniably catchy – the hallmarks of most Frenzal songs – but it also provided an articulate account of the difficulties in opposing the racist sentiments encouraged by Hansonism; especially when those sentiments were espoused by your friends. "To ignore it's to condone it, if you think about it don't shut up," goes the track, "…you might as well be speaking at the next One Nation Meet." It could be the stripped-down punk take on Martin Luther King's famous quote "There comes a time when silence is betrayal." Indeed, Frenzal Rhomb appear to have adopted this philosophy as their credo; for instance, 'Racist' takes no prisoners in its advice to those who tolerate their friends' bigotry and ends abruptly with: "Some of my best friends are racist - my best friends are arseholes." 

On 'Meet the Family' tracks such as 'Racist' were few and far between, but fast-forward to 2003 (and skip the successful 'A Man's Not a Camel' and the failed major label release 'Shut Your Mouth') and Frenzal Rhomb returned with the independent 'Sans Souci' (a Sydney suburb named after the French term for 'no worries'). By far the band's most mature and insightful work, 'Sans Souci' won Frenzal the respect from critics that fans felt had been long overdue. Although opening single 'Bucket Bong' hinted at a return to the humorous banality of earlier recordings, it's themes of drug use could be better described as a statement to fans and the punk community that the band was again free of major label pressure to gain commercial radio play. This issue came to a head in July 2004 when Jay and the band had a much publicized confrontation with Austereo employee and radio 2Day FM host Jackie O (Jacqueline O'Neil) at an all day concert in Darwin. 

Jackie O, who co-hosts with Australian Idol's Kyle Sandilyands, was allegedly 9 hours late for the concert at which she was booked to make a guest appearance and rumours quickly circulated that she had been spotted in nightclubs early that morning. Upon arriving O'Neil attempted to address the crowd during Frenzal's set at which point the band unceremoniously began to play over her. Suffice to say that this angered the AWOL radio presenter who left the stage in tears. What ensued was a public slanging match that culminated in an on-air argument between Jay, Jackie O and Sandilands. 

At one point the increasingly aggressive Sandilands promised Jay that Austereo would "…never play Frenzal Rhomb again", to which Jay proudly remarked "you never have." A recording of the argument remains on the band's MySpace site as ever-popular proof to their fans of their willingness to sacrifice popularity and mainstream acceptance for grassroots credibility. 

But the band's ability to make these distinctions clear to their fans has been tested by the appointment of Jay and Lindsay (aka the Doctor) as Triple J breakfast hosts following the departure of Adam Spencer and Will Anderson at the end of 2004. All of a sudden the notoriously outspoken pair was forced to bite their tongues when playing music and interviewing musicians about whom they would preferably be writing outrageously offensive songs.  'Sans Souci' included a number entitled 'Russell Crowe's Band' which spawned some predictably popular T-shirts adorned by the lyric: "At least we know that Russell Crowe's band is a fucking pile of shit." Frenzal have also written a song about Johnny Ramone which ignores his hallowed contribution to punk rock and focuses on the contradictory man himself. Aside from the unpalatable title 'Johnny Ramone Was In A Fucken Good Band But He Was A Cunt (Gabba Gabba You Suck)' it also includes the line: "Second verse different from the first, hey redneck hop in my fucking hearse." 

Those who appreciate these songs for their honesty (and let's face it, accuracy too) would agree that Jay and The Doctor appear to struggle occasionally with their role as supporters of new Australian talent when that 'talent' doesn't meet their own expectations. This is understandable, and one can only assume that if the Australian market were big enough to support an independent band such as Frenzal Rhomb (whose audience is almost entirely Australian) on a full-time basis, they would quit their day jobs and return to throwing muck from outside the mainstream media. But this is not a luxury afforded to independent bands in Australia that receive airplay from just one of the major radio stations. Much has been written about John Butler's worthy resolution to remain indie, however this task is made much easier by the fact that JBT hits such as 'Zebra' and 'Betterman' have been played consistently on stations as diverse as Triple J and Nova. In light of the fact that commercial radio stations steer clear of music that contains offensive language, it goes without saying that they have avoided songs such as 'Bucket Bong' like the plague.

In 2004 Jay and the Doctor were labeled insensitive by the Adelaide Tourism Commission after playing a song on air that they had written about the bizarre murders in Snowtown titled, 'There's No Town Like Snowtown." This song and other irreverent offerings like it were released on the album 'Love Songs for the Wrong at Heart' under the pseudonym The Self Righteous Brothers, in 2004. It also included the tracks '(I'm) The Only Gay Soldier Left in Iraq' and 'Daddy Drinks Because You Cry'. But back to 'Sans Souci'.

What set this album apart from Frenzal's previous work was the skill with which they blended their leftist outlook, warped and politically incorrect sense of humour and articulate social commentary into a cohesive punk album that didn't shy away from referencing their native country. Unlike 'Meet the Family' or 'Not So Tough Now', it focused more heavily on songs inspired by the inequities of Australian society, like 'Lead Poisoned Jean', 'White White World' (a take on Cat Stevens' 'Wild World') and 'Who'd Be a Cop?'. However, Sans Souci is still unmistakably Frenzal Rhomb and tracks such as '60, Beautiful and Mine', and 'I Went Out With A Hippy And Now I Love Everyone Except For Her' maintain the humor whilst relying more on wit than sheer juvenility. 

But ultimately, it is Frenzal's willingness to identify themselves as Australian that will secure them a place, if any, in the underappreciated pantheon of great Australian rock bands. In an era were Australia's few successful exports have been heralded largely for their feats of musical impressionism (early silverchair/Nirvana, Jet/Rolling Stones, Wolfmother/Led Zeppelin), Frenzal have refused to adopt the mannerisms, fashions and predilection for nihilism so prevalent in their American counterparts.

Blanket anti-authoritarianism is the refuge of anarchists and the ill-informed, but Frenzal Rhomb have exhibited a more reasoned and intelligent view of the world that separates them from the snotty nosed posers who rely on their clichéd outfits and borrowed gestures to inform the audience of their intentions. In this department Frenzal deserve to be likened to some of the great Australian punk bands such as Midnight Oil and The Celibate Rifles who acknowledged that grandiose cries for revolution were, in many ways, an anathema to the Australian way of doing business, at least in the political sense. 

Instead of cheap sloganeering, these bands gave us the kind of studied opinion that Pink Floyd would be proud of, and disguised it with incendiary guitars and typically loose punk production values. 

But Frenzal's contribution has gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream audience. This is due in part to their irrepressible and sometimes offensive sense of humour which has often detracted from the more serious messages underlying their music. Of course, their disregard for commercial radio play is also a factor, although 1999's 'A Man's Not A Camel' peaked at number 11 on the ARIA charts. Their decision to remain independent will ensure that this scenario doesn't change, and the reality of their unappreciated place in the Australian music scene is dealt with, perhaps unintentionally, on their latest release, 'Forever Malcolm Young'. A clever play on Youth Group's number one cover of Alphaville's 'Forever Young' and the 'eternal bridesmaid' status of AC/DC's rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, this 2006 offering picks up where 'Sans Souci' left off.

With short and sharp (none of the 20 tracks break the three minute barrier) outbursts against philandering priests ('Red Wine And Altar Boys'), cruelty to animals ('Don't Touch The Rabbit'), predictive text ('Predickle Me This'), emo bands ('Fuck You And Your Stupid Band'), the Americanization of Australian culture ('Holiday Not Vacation') and of course Johnny Ramone (enough said), 'Forever Malcolm Young' confirms that Frenzal Rhomb are one of the few Australian bands with any discernible profile that are prepared to call it exactly as they see it. 

But it is the title track that provides an unwitting analogy for the band's own progression. "Always Gnocchi not Linguine, Never Hitler You're Mussolini," Jay laments, apparently oblivious to his band's own under-dog status. "Always Malcolm never Angus, end up Carlton when you want to be Negus', is a suitably Australian metaphor for the second-string roll of AC/DC's other guitarist, but die hard fans of Frenzal Rhomb will recognize the thinly veiled reference to the band's own status. "Single pluggers never speakers, always headphones never the speakers."

To the doe eyed masses who feed on the insipid ditties churned out by the likes of Delta Goodrem, they will be forever Malcolm Young, but to their fans they remain one of the few punk bands who have grappled with Australian iconography and lived to tell the tale. For this they deserve better.

BLAIR BOYER


 

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