Q: Is Fraser on the fucking dole?
A: No, I don't think so
In every scene there's a band that seems to have a bristly relationship with other parts of the scene. In the case of Adelaide punks The Brats, that included an impressive list including themselves, promoters, venues, journalists, radio stations and political parties (though not the one you might expect from the above lyric).
Starting in May 1979, the band for the first seven months was Bruce Brat (bs), John Brat (dr), Paul Brat (gtr) and Peter Brat (keyb, voc). Bruce (aka Bored Bruce) got bored and was replaced by Stan Brat, and John also left to be replaced by someone named Sticks. All had histories going back to the late '60s and early '70s. Of particular interest are Stan's sojourn in politically inspired Adelaide band Glass Web, whose 1970 7", In A Year Or So, is an early anti-Australian-presence-in-Vietnam song. Their second 7" from 1971, National Hero, reiterated their opposition, this time with striking graphics of military tombstones. Peter had been in Rashamra, who had two singles out in 1972. Look past the band's name and the flute at the start of Antelope to hear some good tuff riffing.
Unusual in punk circles the band also had female backing vocalists, the B-Side Bitches, the roll call of which included Annalissa Vague (also from Rashamra), Brenda Brat, Carol Brat (later Cazzby Brat) and Gay Brat (later remonikered as Gay Wales, one of the great punk names).
So to the feuds. The band's first gig was at a Cannabis Law Reform Society party. On the back of that the Australian Marijuana Party, for which Gay worked as a volunteer, booked them and the Accountants for a benefit gig in July 1979. The potheads then decided punk bands would harsh their mellow and cancelled the whole thing. Major bummer, dudes. A storm in a teacup really, but enough acrimony was generated to break up the band.
In August they reunited and over September and early October headlined five weekly gigs at the Austral Hotel. Now, the Austral was a hangout of the Iroquois bikie gang, and as a result promoters and venues elsewhere in the city branded The Brats a "bikie band" - hence no bookings, anywhere.
In November they did score bottom of the bill at a Scientists show. Nick Pervert (a friend, and guitarist with Exhibit A) got pissed and threw a bottle which hit Peter Brat. Local newspapers reported the story and The Brats were now seen to "have a violent following". While on the media, Roadrunner magazine was also perceived to have dissed the group. "Punkoid thrashers in the style of the Accountants" is the quote which the band felt misrepresented them. Listen to the interesting, jazzy chords driving Life On The Dole and you might admit they may have had a point.
Since no-one wanted to touch the band, their next gig was a self-organised show in January 1980 in a fully lit basketball stadium at a juvie institution called McNally Training Centre. All went well and the kids loved it.
Over Easter, the band recorded six tracks at Noumenon Studios - Life On The Dole / 1, 2, Truro / Explosions / Nobody (Is Really Where They Wanna Be) / Hoodlums / 2002. The tracks were released as a cassette. Life On The Dole had been noticed as the band's strongest track right from the early gigs, and comes across as a piss-taking reflection on the somewhat realistic potential, in 1979, of a life spent on welfare:
I'm gonna go from from the dole to an old age pension,
I wanna be a government sponsored institution,
And when I die, my last cheque,
Will be cashed, and completely spent.
Life On The Dole
Not quite Supernaut's take on things...
Due to their various reputational difficulties the band was also viewed unfavourably by community radio station 5MMM (one of a string of "public radio" stations, set up as a Whitlam government initiative, which had only started broadcasting in 1979). They wouldn't play the tape. Since this was the band's only realistic chance of local airplay the entire band fronted for a meeting with station management. They managed to nix all the station's objections to the band, most based on rumours and hearsay, and as a result got valuable airplay and gig bookings through the station.
Life On The Dole thus became a local hit, reaching number 2 on the station's charts. 4ZZZ in Brisbane also played the track a lot, as did 2JJJ in Sydney, and in later years the band was told it had also received airplay on Californian college stations. Eventually, it saw vinyl release on 5MMM's imaginatively titled 5MMM's Compilation Of Adelaide Bands 1980.
The gigs came through too, starting with a 5MMM night at the Tivoli in May 1980, where the band finally started to see some live success, with good crowd feedback. The black ban lifted, more gigs followed. This included support for the Ramones, following a push from Roadrunner and 5MMM. The promoter refused to pay the supports, and the band had to join the Muso's Union to get them to fight the case, successfully.
In the end, having challenged rumours and perceptions, and achieved local success, it all suddenly didn't seem worth it. Too poor to move to Melbourne or Sydney, the band broke up, members moving off to Darwin, New York, and their own homes. Apart from a one-off 1985 reunion, that was it for the Brats, though Peter did surface recently to cut a new version of Life On The Dole with the Moulting Vultures.
This month at Wallaby Beat is Malcolm Fraser month, where we feature songs that mention Australia's conservative prime minister for pretty much the period this blog covers. He was named caretaker PM after the Dismissal in November 1975 (then won the followup election in December), and his Liberal Party lost the March 1983 election to Bob Hawke.
Australian bands never really played the name and shame game for our punk-era conservative heads-of-state that the US (Reagan), UK (Thatcher) or the Netherlands (van Agt) did for theirs. But old Malcy-walcy did inspire a few missives - and we'll cover them this month.
At the time this song was written the unemployment rate in Australia was at the mid-range of the historical scale, though it had risen from the postwar average of around 2% (from 1945 to 1974) to around 6% in 1979. Under Fraser and his Treasurer John Howard ("Is Howard on the dole?") it would then rise to 10% by the 1983 election, hence the popularity of the song Australia-wide in the early 80s.
Howard would of course later become Prime Minister, and drag Australia hard to the Right, including work for the dole. In a sense he made the Fraser years look quaint in their conservatism.
Thanks to Harry Butler's DNA fanzine for the photo and for all