Billed as grunge fiction, Christos Tsiolkas’s first novel Loaded was packed with sex, drugs and music. He’s written another five books since, including his most recent The Slap, but Christos and music go deeper than low-fi rock’n’roll. “Being an adolescent at the moment of punk and post-punk music, succumbing to the aggressiveness, revolt and atonality of the music, influenced the rhythms and tones and expression of what I wanted to write,” he said, at last year’s Sydney Writers Festival. Six novels, six plays, a couple of screenplays. This is Christos’s back-story, told through disco, house, art rock and pop, folk and beats.
Donna Summer – ‘I Feel Love’/’State of Independence’
I had an older cousin who used to DJ in the seventies and who had the first collection of 12 inch singles I ever encountered. I do remember him playing us little kids the almost 20 minute long version of ‘I Love to Love You Baby,’ which had us all sniggering and jumping up and down in delight as it reached what can only be called its climax. We may not have known what an orgasm was, but we sure as fuck now knew what it sounded like. I’m not sure of exactly when I first heard ‘I Feel Love’: I do know I thought it sounded sinister, that as it kept building and building and getting more and more underneath my skin it sounded like the most evil and delicious thing I had ever heard. It used to come on the radio and I’d tremble with delight. Giorgio Moroder produced ‘I Feel Love’ and it was all about the body and the machine. In the early eighties, Summer recorded a version of Jon and Vangelis’s ‘State of Independence,’ which was all about the soul and the machine. By then the disco era was kicked up the arse by punk (to emerge even harder-better-faster-stronger in the clubs of Detroit and Chicago), a generation was being wiped away by a big disease with a little name and everyone was telling me Donna Summer was a homophobe. I didn’ much care. I had the seven inch of ‘State of Independence’ and it felt like all the promise of redemption, and of the sacred, was contained within the grooves of that single. It was the best song to play after a long day’ journey into night: with the emerging new dawn, it always seemed to make everything right. The monotheistic tradition that separates the soul and the body is cruel and insane. The perfect double A-side single would be ‘I Feel Love’ on one side and ‘State of Independence’ on the flip. The body and the heart would both be satisfied.
John Corigliano – Altered States (Original Soundtrack)
William Hurt is a mad scientist who experiments with peyote and LSD and becomes convinced that through hallucinagenics he can unlock the mysteries of DNA and become one with the Collective Unconscience. Directed by Ken Russell and literally one of the most bonkers things I have ever seen, Altered States the movie made a big impression on me when I was 15, but has since seemed progressively sillier every time I watch it. But I bought the soundtrack by John Corigliano and in contrast it becomes better and better every time I put it on. Atonal, sometimes symphonic and at other times purely electronic, sometimes a cacophony of noise, it proves genuinely unsettling on every listen. So why do I keep returning to it? I think there are experiences I want to take from music that are not just about joy. I want to be made to pace the room, to move beyond myself and to kick down walls and open doors and stare into danger. Which is what is the most exciting aspect of the movie, Altered States – the idea that there are substances and experiences that can lead you away from the safety and complacency of the normal and the everyday. The movie doesn’t have the courage of its convictions (or rather the director’s convictions and those of the scriptwriter were at odds) and so in the end a compromised Hollywood resolution brings the Mad Doctor back to Pleasantville, USA. Just say no to drugs. But there’s no compromise in Corigliano’s score which even at the end leaves you anxious, wired, driven. It makes you want more.
Talking Heads – Remain in Light
This is how I remember it. It is a Saturday afternoon and I’ve just had a huge fight with mum and dad, about something stupid, but it is one of those vile bilious arguments, full of rage and I walk out of the house and go to a friend’ place. She’s got some speed and we take it and talk and talk for hours and she tells me she is going to a party at her boyfriend’ place and I don’t want to go because his friends always give me a hard time about being a poofter so I take the train into the city instead and walk around for an hour until I pass a Victorian terrace close to the city and I hear this music pumping out of the house that sounds like dance music but isn’ a dance music I have ever heard before, it sounds all jangly and agitated, a mutant bass that is inviting me into the house and I walk down the corridor into a lounge room where a group of people are dancing in a circle. They’re all a bit older than me but I don’ care and they are all smiles and they invite me in and I just jump into the circle and I’m dancing. And the heat goes on, the heat goes on. I dance to the next song and to the song after that and when ‘Once in a Lifetime’ comes on – which I know, which I’ve heard on the radio – I am the happiest I can ever recall being. The music seems to be at odds with itself, chemical and organic, from all over the globe and pure distilled American energy – but it works. In the end I crash on the couch and next morning one of the women who lives there makes me coffee and while she is making the coffee she plays me ‘Listening Wind.’ We drink, we chat, in the end I say thank you, I should go, and she says maybe you should call your mum. I walk into the city and buy the album at Brashs and take it home with me and mum and dad shout at me a little bit more but I don’ answer back. I just put the record on the turntable and play it again and again and again. This is how I remember it, how I discovered another world.
Heaven 17 – Penthouse and Pavement
I used to not want to be a wog and part of not wanting to be a wog was turning my back on disco and dance music which was what the wogs in Australia were into. It was a classic case of double-think, of lying to oneself, as the reality was that I used to love disco as a child and that even when denying that history to myself I would still find my feet itching to move every time I heard Nile Rodgers’ guitar or a shimmer of Giorgio Moroder synths. I wore black, I refused to see the sun and I immersed myself in the dark guitars and funereal tones of post-punk and goth. But thank the gods that post-punk and goth got their groove back and that through them I got back to music that was as much about the body as it was about the head. I recall the thrill of abandoning myself to New Order – to ‘Temptation’ and ‘Blue Monday’ – and I remember Penthouse and Pavement by Heaven 17. The whole album is like English people learning to dance, the hesitant first steps of a toddler. It was all machine, even the vocals sounded mechanical, and I don’ think it is funk, not really, but it certainly wasn’ rock and roll. Listening to it now the synthesisers sound ancient, tinny and crude; not from last century but the century before that. But ‘(We Don’ Need) This Fascist Groove Thang’ still makes me laugh, in a good way, and the title track is pure R’n’B heaven: listening to it, getting off on it, I was glad I was a wog.
Various Artists – The House Sound of Chicago Volume III
There are two genres of music that when I listen to them I really feel the lack of my musical experience, where I am struck by the fact I am a fan, not a practitioner. The first is jazz. I don’t know why I am seduced by the music, I don’ know how it works, can’t decipher the logic of it at all. I can only listen and be caught up in it when for whatever inexplicable reason it makes me start nodding my head, tapping my feet, start experiencing the small rush of joy that comes from trying to follow where the notes are heading, trying to catch the sound as it falls. Some jazz leaves me cold. Nothing stirs and I can’t even pretend an appreciation of the technical skills involved. When I don’ get it, I don’ get it and it might as well be any white noise around me. House music is the same. I wish I knew exactly how it worked, how a beat, a rhythm, a repetition and a sound so monochromatic can be part of some of the music I love best. When house music works for me, when all I want to do is dance, or turn the Walkman or MP3 up to its loudest and feel those rhythms course through me, then I think I am the happiest man alive. But when it doesn’t work – and because I’m not a muso, I can’t explain why – then it does just sound like blips and beeps, doof doof doof doof. My favourite house music was acid house because I loved the soar of a vocal sample across the sea of swirls and waves of sound. I wanted to hear a vocalist of talent and soul and range be equal to the music. That happens on Sterling Void’s ‘It’s Alright,’ a track on this compilation, which is house and gospel and protest anthem. It’s sublime, that’s what it is. My vinyl copy of this compilation is scratched to buggery but I can’ let myself part with it. It reminds me too much of when I heard a music that for the first and only time sounded like I was right on time for it. I wasn’t too young, I wasn’t too old, I was right smack bang of the middle of it. I don’ know how it works but when house is good, just like jazz, wherever you are listening to it you feel like you are right smack bang in the middle of it.
Tim Buckley – Greetings from LA
The first time I hear of Tim Buckley it is because of the This Mortal Coil version of ‘Song to the Siren.’ I hunt out the original and initially I am disappointed. Buckley’ vocal sounds broken, sparse next to the otherworldly beauty of Liz Fraser’s voice. Sometime soon after I am in my room, listening to late night radio and a song begins to slip into the room, to invade, it makes me stop whatever I’m doing and just listen. Just stop. Listen. It is like a command. I turn up the volume and lay on the floor and the music slowly slowly is filling, seeping under my skin and coursing in my bloodstream, it is taking possession of me. I’m not even sure what the vocalist is singing, but the voice sounds pure, uncontaminated, manages something exquisite – to sound masculine and gentle all at once. The song comes to an end, but an end that seems to take an infinity to reach its conclusion, and I don’t want it to end. But it does. That was Tim Buckley’s ‘Sweet Surrender,’ the DJ announces, and I scramble to my feet and scrawl the title down on a piece of paper. She also adds that it comes from an album called Greetings from LA. Listening to it is still like listening to the best sex you’ve ever had.
Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
There are perfect days, there are perfect dreams, there are perfect loves and perfect lives. There are also perfect books, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, say, and perfect films. I’d stake that claim for Godard’s Contempt or Tourneur’s Out of the Past. A perfect album is Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space. Here’s why: the brilliantly uncluttered cover design, which replicates a pharmaceutical packet and indicates something of the intoxicating experience awaiting one’s first listen; the hushed female voice announcing the title track; the rock and roll swerve and swagger of ‘Come Together,’ the desperate sleazy R’n’B of ‘I Think I’m in Love,’ the sweet electro hush of ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘Broken Heart’s and the frenzy of ‘Electricity.’ The sparse design makes sense because even at its most explosive or un-contained there is a cool determination guiding this collection of tracks, which means the album never falls apart, never disappoints. I’ve put individual tracks on mixtapes I have made for friends but the best thing to do is always to give them the full album. I first heard it late one cold winter evening in London, in an HMV or a Virgin or something like that and a bored girl behind the counter put it on and I couldn’t leave the shop and I wandered around and around till it had finished and then asked, What was that? and she had a smile so big and wide and expressive on her face because I had obviously loved an album she loved and she told me and I bought it and I thought in another life she and I could have fallen in love across that counter and one day I want to write the story or the book or the film of that falling in love.
Tricky – Maxinquaye
There is a moment in the sluggish music documentary Live Forever, about nineteen-nineties Britpop, where there is a cut away from Blur and Oasis to the Bristol night and on the soundtrack we hear a tease of Portishead and I wanted the movie to ditch the lads and lager of London and remain in the Bristol shadows, with the Portishead of Dummy, the Massive Attack of Blue Lines and the Tricky of Maxinquaye. These three albums are sly and elusive – they enact a kind of alchemy that remains resistant to description or summation. It is probably impossible to convey what they once meant, how crucial they seemed, because their sound has become ubiquitous, a genre of consumer muzak called “chill-out” or “trip-hop” that sells all matter of shit and lifestyles and holidays on the Mediterranean. But at one point they sounded like the sweetest siren songs imaginable. Blue Lines is the most classical and endearing, Dummy is the most evocative and haunting, but it is Maxinquaye that is still closest to my heart. It is a druggy slow-burn of an album that can manage to undercut the macho fury of Public Enemy’s ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’ and claim it for a queerer, more feminine planet, while at the same time remaining at all times sinister, strange and seductive. ‘Ponderosa’ might just be the greatest drug song after the Velvet Underground’ ‘Heroin.’ Bold and beautiful is one of the most difficult combinations to achieve in art and I think this album does it.
A Certain Ratio – ’27 Forever (Testimonial Mix)’
I have a friend Rob who is one of the best DJs in the world. He loves music and like so many people who love music passionately his taste can be scary. His lip curls in a sneer if I dare admit to liking something he thinks crap or overrated or just plain mediocre. He left for London years ago and before he left he gave away heaps of his old vinyl. This is one I grabbed off him. It is a 12 inch, just a plain white jacket and a plain white label. I’m not sure I can defend why I love it so much. In many ways it is a standard Manchester meat-and-three-veg house track. It takes an age for the incessant beat to build and then there is a moment when the vocal sample comes in and that’s the moment that always makes me wish it was 2am and that I was on a dance floor and that the beat could just go on and on and on. I guess it reminds me of Rob, it reminds me of dancing and laughing and being with friends. I guess it reminds me that people can be passionate about music. I guess I don’t have to defend it. It is part of the soundtrack of my life and this is why it is here.
Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap is available from Allen & Unwin.