The Meanies by Patrick Emery
Formed at a time when the Australian pub rock scene was still dominated by the major label success stories of the 1980s – INXS, Midnight Oil, Jimmy Barnes – local punk band The Meanies represented the new guard of punter: loud, unkempt, snotty, enthusiastic. Serendipitously, The Meanies arrived on the scene at the perfect time to surf the commercial tidal wave caused by the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Yet unlike so many other bands of that era, The Meanies were not an act hot-housed for success by the major labels eager to cash in on the punk thing. The Meanies – the band members, their fans and the various people who supported The Meanies – were symptomatic of the disenchanted local music scene that provided the fertile soil that would subsequently be exploited by the star-crazed music industry.
Local film maker Rachael Hough’s new documentary, A Seminal Australian Punk Tale, describes The Meanies accidental rise to legendary status, from their genesis as a local punk rock act in the late 1980s to their initial break-up in the mid 1990s and subsequent return to the live scene at the beginning of the 21st century. Sitting in the offices of Madman Entertainment (the film’s distributor), Meanies vocalist and songwriter Link McLennan and bassist Roderick ‘Wally’ Kempton are attempting to sift through their beer drained memories of the Meanies’ halcyon days.
Kempton’s recollection of the sequence of events that led to the band’s first EP illustrates the serendipitous nature of the Meanies’ early break-through. “We never even thought of taking anything to a major label. Even that EP we recorded, Dave Kendall from the Throwaways suggested we put out a split 7”, with us, The Throwaways and another band we were playing with Nice Girls From Cincinatti. He investigated how much it would cost to get the record pressed, and we had this place recommended to us, and rang them and found out how much it was going to cost. So he came back and said it was going to cost this much for a 7”, and only this much more for a 12”, so why don’t we do a few songs each. Dave just happened to have it on him one day when he went shopping in Au-Go-Go and got talking to Bruce [Milne] behind the counter, and Bruce said ‘yeah, I’ve heard of those bands’ and he asked to listen to it. And it was pretty much the same day when Bruce rang up and offered to put it out. So that was a happy accident.”
Having successfully made the transition to the studio, The Meanies rapidly developed a loyal following. Was there a vacuum in the local scene – or even the Australian scene – that the Meanies were able to fill? While McLennan refers to contemporaries “in the same vein”, such as The Splatterheads, Hard-Ons and Cosmic Psychos, Kempton concedes that “there must have been or else we wouldn’t have been successful – we were in the right place at the right time.” But, he’s keen to emphasise, there was no grand plan. “We weren’t even of the mindset of ‘let’s take over the world’. We just thought this is good fun. We didn’t even know the next step.”
The amateur cultural historian in me is keen to identify the reason for The Meanies’ initial attraction and lingering legacy. Were The Meanies a unique musical beast destined for success (albeit on a cult rather than commercial level), or was there a vacuum waiting to be filled. It’s a line of inquiry that Kempton dead bats on a few separate occasions. “The hardest thing is to answer these questions because it’s us we’re talking about. It wasn’t calculated. We just did stuff,” he replies initially. McLennan, however, is willing to take a stab at the question. “It was a pretty wild stage show, and people liked that,” he muses. “We were quite melodic, but so were a lot of other bands.”
Warming to the task Kempton points to the perceived audience empathy toward the band. “We were affable, approachable. People looked at us and thought ‘I could do that’ because even though that’s not necessarily the case, it looks like it’s really fucking simple to do. Me, DD and Ringo up there – you couldn’t get three blokes that look less like they should be there. But it’s the old cliché, you can’t judge a book by its cover. And then you’ve got Mr Spastic here, ” he adds, gesticulating to Link (“Mr Bombastic”, McLennan counters) “with his spray on jeans, pointing boots, leather jacket and dreadlocks, and then his suave suits and leisure gear.”
The Meanies’ following extended beyond Melbourne, with the band touring up the east coast, and to Adelaide. Kempton recalls a gig that didn’t go according to plan. “There was a Beastie Boys crowd in Adelaide that didn’t appreciate our music prowess, decided to flip us the bird, started spitting at us, calling for us to get off the stage. And Link decided the best plan of attack was to stage dive right into them.”
“I’m not very bright,” McLennan adds quickly.
Link’s flying charge was “met with open arms, shall we say, by the crowd,” Kempton says. “Link ended up having serious damage done to his teeth. We were being sprayed with a fire extinguisher. Our booking agent took it upon himself to jump into the crowd and retrieve the fire extinguisher and almost extinguish the perpetrators.” Later on the Meanies toured Japan, Europe and the United States, a chance meeting in Seattle leading eventually to the band supporting Pearl Jam on its Australian tour in 1993.
The live footage of crowds at Meanies gigs in Hough’s film is a step back in time. To the untrained eye the combination of assault, alcohol and untamed testosterone in the moshpit is an all-in brawl waiting to happen. Yet, Kempton says, “there was never any trouble in the crowd. Everyone was always out for a good time. There was always an intense mosh going on, but no one ever seemed to get hurt. It was a like a big party – it was a big social thing to go and see the Meanies.”
When I ask about the Meanies’ legacy – not so much the music per se, but in terms of their impact on how bands market themselves to local audiences – Kempton returns to his mantra of accidental success. “We didn’t even think of it at the time,” he says. But having taken that approach to the band’s marketing – calculated or accidental – has that approach been adopted by other bands since The Meanies rose to prominence? “I think there’s a lot more of it now.” McLennan says. “But at the time, I don’t remember a lot of bands doing it.”
Kempton agrees. “I don’t remember the Cosmic Psychos doing it at the time. Even today you don’t often see people with really old Cosmic Psychos t-shirts.”
Finally, with the benefit of hindsight, what lessons did they learn while playing with The Meanies that they try and impart onto new bands these days? “It’s not what you know, it’s what you know about who you know,” Kempton says matter of factly. McLennan’s lesson is far more personal. “It really hurts to jump off a stage and not be caught,” he says, provoking howls of laughter from Kempton.
The documentary on The Meanies, A Seminal Australian Punk Tale, is out now through Madman.