The first Tactics album begins with a word, words, as a cry strung up between two hooks of pain and exultancy. It’s half an intensely irritated yelp, half anticipation of the terrain ahead, like a “woooo!” let out as you strap yourself in for a rollercoaster ride. It foregrounds language, its complications and dangers; the ways in which words both explain and evade the world. “I’m not talking to myself anymore!’ the voice declares, plagued by sentences running crossways and contrariwise, and determined, even momentarily, to get those words under control.
“No More Talking,’ the song is called, and we know immediately that this is a band interested in structures and signifiers, and how such things might be broken down; the person voicing the voice would even, many years on, claim that Tactics were â€œa post-structuralist band before post-structuralism existed.” You could certainly describe them as post-punk, in the best sense of that term: as a band moving beyond the primary, necessary nihilism of punk to a place where destruction gives way to the more subtle art of disruption. To pause, to take apart, to analyse and consider; and perhaps, to move on and rebuild in newer, odder shapes. It’s all in the name, really.
The first Tactics album was called My Houdini, and like that skilled but ultimately luckless magician it might have vanished for good, forever rendered in the past tense, had not the Sydney-based Reverberation label chosen to re-release what amounts to almost the entire Tactics back catalogue over the past two years. As The Sound Of Sound Volumes 1 & 2, three Tactics LPs – My Houdini (1980), Glebe (1981) and Blue & White Future Whale (1984) are collected together alongside a welter of outtakes, live recordings and b-sides. To discover Tactics – or to rediscover them – is to stumble across a sound unique within the history of Sydney music, and to uncover a history of Sydney as a very different city from the one it currently is, or pretends to be: â€œBefore it was a globalised city,” comments David Studdert, Tactics’ vocalist and core songwriter, “which is all style and no life.â€ Before investment apartments, colour newspaper supplements, and bus shelters designed so they can’ be slept in; before the Monorail, Darling Harbour, World Tower and even Centrepoint, Tactics moved through Sydney and wrote songs about what they saw.
“I just liked the whole vibe of the city then,” states Studdert. “It felt very empty.” In the liner notes to The Sound Of Sound Vol 1, he describes a number of spaces that were unpoliced and unregulated in a way that is difficult to imagine today. â€œIt was so good it was like Wonderland,” Studdert writes, recalling his favourite venue, Rags on Goulburn St. â€œRags really felt like that,” he tells me now. “I don’t think in the whole time I was going there I actually met anyone who ran it. There were a lot of bands that played there during the week, on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. My favourite was Seems Twice. They had 30-second songs with titles like “Andy Warhol’ and “Yasser Araffat’. Conceptually they were brilliant, though musically they weren’ my cup of tea. Voigt 465 played there, and they were an incredible band too.â€ Tuesday nights in town with conceptual art bands singing about Yasser Arrafat, or perhaps a stroll down Sussex St to Darling Harbour, then a dusty mess of disused railway yards, to watch Voigt 465 play an illegal, impromptu outdoor show propped up against the concrete pylons – what happened to this Sydney, and to a sense of what is possible here?
To ask these questions is not merely to invite nostalgia. The possibilities of space and of expression are deeply connected: when one is curtailed, so is the other, while the textures of each are shared. A neo-liberal Sydney of mirror-reflective high rise and anonymously chill “public” squares has left us with a vocabulary of matching slipperiness, so much so that it is necessary to put quote marks around certain words just to gain some traction in the glossy spill of PR land. Irony is barely a factor: when the language is so flattened and limp, it takes great effort just to haul it to its knees again, let alone to make it speak with the provocations and contradictions that a post-punk band like Tactics were so fired by. Their Sydney was one of holes and corners, and hence their sound was an agitated stop-start, a stuttering mixture of rhythm guitar, saxophone, piano and vocals that recall the anxious, nasal intensity of Pere Ubu’ David Thomas.
Tactics didn’ begin in Sydney, forming initially in Canberra, where Studdert picked up a guitar in an attempt â€œto get as far away from the world of my father as possible.â€ He learned to play from a rudimentary how-to guide in the NME, but thought carefully about his craft. â€œI was writing one song at a time until everything was very, very polished.â€ Songs dating from the band’ early days in Canberra include “Buried Country,’ which ended up on My Houdini, an extraordinary song for its time and still so today. It addresses Australia’ legacy of colonial dispossession, but with a very different tone to the fists-in-the-air rhetoric of, say, Midnight Oil. On the surface it feels like a pop song, with an upbeat, energetic rhythm which holds traces of the reggae influence that would emerge more fully on the second Tactics LP, Glebe. Studdert’s vocal runs over the top, not focused on delivering a narrative so much as offering up a heap of disconcerting lyrical fragments – a view of Canberra’ hills through car headlights, “memories of baited flour’. “I don’t have any problems with Australia, but I have big problems with white Australia,â€ says Studdert, by which he means a colonial mentality that still pervades our thinking, a denial of what – and who – was here before white people arrived. It is a denial that returns over and again to unsettle the settlers, as a sense of awful violence buried within our collective memory, deep and unspeakable. “In some ways white Australia sees itself fairly accurately: as a population perched on the edge of a vast space,” Studdert comments. “After the white man came along huge parts of the country became uninhabited. The process of colonisation, it doesn’t colonise, it de-populates.â€ In “Buried Country’, Canberra is figured as an empty and almost alien space, its veneer of civilisation vanishing away to leave a wound where lies “black blood on frozen ground’.
As for the song’ own legacy, Studdert believes that it too has remained largely unacknowledged. “People like Midnight Oil who write big anthems, I don’t mean to sound arrogant about it, but they weren’t writing songs like that before “Buried Country’ came out,” he says. Where Tactics differed from their peers was their interest in the quotidean: they never reached for either tragedy or heroics, and their songs were borne out of the fragmentary experiences of everyday urban living.
“The ordinary stuff do to with just walking around, there’ not that many [Australian] bands who have done that,â€ Studdert reflects. â€œI mean at that point – and it wasn’ just walking around the city – I was living on Bourke St [in Redfern], and I could literally look out my window and see Centrepoint being built. It was there everyday. And these are the things I was writing about. The best stuff always comes out of a specific locality,” he summarises. “You can always find the general in the specific, and if you start out with a strong sense of locality then your work is much more grounded.”
Certainly no other Australian band has ever called an album Glebe – or Fortitude Valley or Glenelg, for that matter. Named after the inner-Sydney suburb – then as now a mixed bag of housing commission renters, cashed-up owners of terraced Victorian mansions, students, Aboriginal residents, and wilful bohemians – Glebe is an album that succeeds in making the ordinary sound strange and often eerie, largely by virtue of its reverberant, disorientating sonic design. The original master was compromised due to a lack of funds; the band was unhappy with it and critical reaction at the time was generally either indifferent or hostile. “People wanted My Houdini Mk 2,” Studdert recalls, and instead they got a darker, slower sound, laced with voices that appeared and then disappeared at the edges of the mix.
“That’s exactly where I wanted to locate it,” confirms Studdert, of Glebe’ subconscious reverie. “At that time I was listening to a record called Garvey’ Ghost, which was a dub record by Burning Spear. I’d listen to it all the time, just play it and play it. And I’m sure there’ a lot of that on Glebe. That was the element which got lost originally, and which didn’ come back in until we had the chance to remaster it.”
Glebe shares with dub an instinct for how erasures – partial ones – can unbalance and disturb a sonic space, making it menacing, dread-full. There is nothing whole to hold on to, only impressions: fleeting voices and visions gleaned from televisions flickering in the corners of dark rooms, and building sites seen at a distance. Centrepoint is framed by that Bourke St bedroom window, the sky an “overwhelming blue” cut by cranes and clouds. The arrangements on Glebe swap the emphasis on reggae’ ching-a-ching guitar that shaped My Houdini for dub’ bottom-end focus: thick basslines and drums that follow â€œthe rhythm and not the beat,â€ as Studdert describes it.
Incidentally, Studdert’s interest in rhythms, which don’ simply “mark out the time”, have led him over the years from dub to, as a long-term resident in London, the complexities of jungle. “Jungle is the form of dance music that I really love,” he says. â€œThe original jungle, before it became drum “n’ bass, had a very strong emotion to it. And the whole scene existed completely outside of the state” – the kind of scene where, as with punk, new communities formed in overlooked or derelict spaces, calling into question the values and hierarchies of the mainstream music industry. And Studdert firmly believes that Tactics were a part of something that was indeed a community. “Oh there was, there was one. And one of the things I say in the [re-release] liner notes is that I wish I’d been a bit more open to it at the time. I was rather closed off, and at the time I think I could have been more supportive of other bands. I think other people wanted that from me.”
Was he ever tempted – alongside Australian post-punk’ holy triumvirate of The Triffids, The Go-Betweens and The Birthday Party – to move to London in the early 1980s, and seek out a wider community for Tactics to speak to?
“Oh look, of course it crossed my mind, but the fact was I’d had enough trouble moving from Canberra [to Sydney]. I didn’t have a whole lot of resources, but I also had a very strong feeling that what I wanted to say, I wanted to say to Australians. Somebody wrote in Time Out here in London, “Is there currently a person living in the backwaters of the Appalachian Mountains with a burning desire to write songs about living in Melbourne?” And that’s Nick Cave. And I wanted nothing to do with that. What was driving me at the time was wanting to know who I was, and where I was, those basic philosophical questions. And the idea of getting on a plane and flying to the other side of the world, to a place where I knew that it was much harder to live, to get on stage in front of people who wouldn’ understand the basics of what I was talking about – no. Not at all. I was aware when we were in Canberra that we needed to move to Sydney, and when we were in Sydney that we needed to move to London, if we had wanted to take it to that level.”
With its lyrical references to “doors open wide” and “bright lights,” “Coat-Tails’ – one of two singles recorded at EMI studios and released in 1984 – could be read as an embittered commentary upon the market demands that shape the music industry, and squeeze out the bands too stubborn to bow down. “People said to us at the time, “Oh, you should try to sound more like Talking Heads’,” Studdert recalls. “But where do you go? There’ probably 50 bands all over the world trying to sound like Talking Heads, and the industry’ only got room for one Talking Heads. What happens to the other 49?â€ But as a whole, the song rides with a wonderful energy, looking back to the speed and deftness of My Houdini but with the rhythm more fluid and propulsive. It sounds like a band moving forward. â€œI hadn’ heard “Coat-Tails for so many years,” says Studdert. â€œAnd when played it back again I just ran around the room.”
Tactics never did follow those lights to London, instead staying in Sydney and, after a couple of years’ hiatus and a few line-up changes, releasing their third album, Blue and White Future Whale, in 1985 (fourth if you count the live recording The Bones of Barry Harrison, which was released in 1982, partly due to the band’ frustration with the sound of the original Glebe master.) More recordings would follow, intermittently, and in a way Tactics have never ceased to exist as a project that takes its best material from the life and textures of Australia’ most populous city. Studdert, for his part, saw reasons both to celebrate and to despair upon a recent visit. â€œRight now everyone’ so desperate, they’re looking for something,” he reflects. “It’s like when we played at the Annandale [earlier this year]we nearly lifted the roof off, because the joint power of the audience and us was so great. And a friend said to me later, “People probably haven’ been talked to in that way for a long time’. And I think he was right.” On the other hand, he mentions community radio station FBI and off-the-radar venues like the CAD Factory as signs of a possibly renewing spirit that drives the city’ underground. “You know, those moments happen and then they go away, and then they happen again.â€ Histories are buried, and then one day, perhaps completely unexpectedly, they re-emerge. How does Studdert feel about the renewed interest in Tactics, and a younger audience hearing his band for the first time? â€œThe whole thing has been a real joy,” he states, simply.
Tactics’ The Sound of the Sound Vol 1 & 2 is available from Reverberation.