Many have claimed the album is dead.
Since 2009, when Ian Astbury of band The Cult accused iTunes of destroying the format, many people have weighed in about how streaming has shifted the focus (back?) to singles.
Clearly Bloomsbury, the publishers of the 33 1/3 series, aren’t heeding these forecasts and the writers they’ve commissioned never seemed too concerned with sticking to the album format anyway — such as the book about Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros game.
These little books will also sometimes look beyond the production of an album, such as Marc Weidenbaum’s book on Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works 2” was preoccupied with a kind of cultural history of how that recording developed after it was released.
Now a new series of the books brings a focus to the Oceania region and the book on Regurgitator’s “Unit” album might earn another first for these titles in being written by someone actively involved in the recording of the album being discussed.
That band have a remarkable pedigree in the trio of talented musicians who refused to be pigeonholed, so it was interesting to learn how they came together and how that dynamic developed one of Australia’s great albums from the 1990s.
It reminded this fan how one of the few times they saw someone playing a sitar was at the start of a Regurgitator gig many years ago.
Now, as “Unit” approaches it’s 25th anniversary, we can learn how the album took shape and reflect on the critical success it achieved:
In October 2010, the album was listed in the top 30 in the book, 100 Best Australian Albums. In July 2011, the album was voted 10th in Triple J’s Hottest 100 Australian Albums of All Time. In December of 2021, the album was listed at no. 14 in Rolling Stone Australia’s ‘200 Greatest Albums of All Time’ countdown.
You might not immediately recognise co-author Lachlan Goold, but his work as Magoo included producing recordings for many Australian bands.
These days Goold is a lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast and co-author Lauren Istvandity is also an academic, which might be why the tone of this book sometimes feels as though they’re writing for a peer-reviewed journal.
Then again, this Oceania series of 33 1/3 books is published by Bloomsbury Academic and a media release quotes the senior editor, Adjunct Professor Jon Stratton, who views:
These books are definitely intended for all music fans, but because many of them also have an academic dimension, the series can explore some ideas and topics that might not be open to mainstream writers in more commercial settings.
It’s in this light the book provides a surprising amount of context about decades of Queensland politics and the trends in contemporary music that saw musicians from an overlooked city like Brisbane become signed to Warner Brothers and then reach a wide audience with support from Triple J broadcasts and extensive touring.
There’s discussion of how Nirvana led the rise of the Grunge movement, but it seems surprising there’s no mention of Silverchair, since the success of that band seemed to encourage many record labels to look for talent in cities other than Sydney and Melbourne.
Maybe it’s not necessary to discuss every trend from the time and the chapter will likely serve as a useful backgrounding for readers outside Australia.
Regurgitator’s diverse influences and experiences were stimulating for listeners and Michael Parisi of Warners Brothers Australia thought so too:
The thing that excited me the most, to be frank, was just the music. It was like you couldn’t categorise it. It was like a mishmash of everything. It sounded like nothing else.
Such was the enthusiasm of Warner Brothers for the band that they were given creative control and soon set about demonstrating their independence with provocative lyrics like the track euphemistically known as ‘Rinsing’ for the catchy refrain “I sucked a lot of cock to get where I am.”
That track opened their first album “Tu-Plang”, which was recorded in Thailand to avoid influence from the record label and the successful reception was enough that the band could then spend their budget for recording “Unit” by buying equipment to build their own studio.
Among the interviews conducted for the book, band member Quan Yeomans is quoted as saying:
…it definitely had a “this was our fun area to do whatever we wanted in” vibe, and I think because of that reason, it felt really creative.
There’s detail of the equipment bought by members of the band and discussion of the preparations required to transform a rehearsal space into a recording studio, as well as a detailed glossary at the back of the book that explains technologies like Alesis Digital Audio Tape.
The authors remind the reader a number of times that, while it doesn’t seem unusual these days for a band to record themselves, it’s an approach that has become more common in subsequent years.
However, before heading into the so-called Dirty Room to write and record, Regurgitator toured the US with Helmet and The Melvins:
Yeomans said of the tour, “I remember being completely frightened the whole time. They were real hard-arses. Helmet were a little army unit, and their fans were fucking really intense, really aggressive guys. Yeah, really full-on. So maybe it did have an effect.”
Others are more definite in describing how “the ‘Gurge” (as they were affectionately called) returned home to “BrisVegas” (as it was becoming known) with a desire to reach a broader audience than those their hybrid music had attracted so far.
Bassist Ben Ely is quoted as saying:
I guess we felt a sound that included more girls and a less aggressive vibe would be a better scenario. Yeah, especially with a guy like Quan [who]was conscious of that all-male crowd energy…
While “Tu-Plang” had included a couple of synth-based tracks that emulated hiphop of the time, the band took an unexpected turn when it came to tracks that became hits like ‘Polyester Girl’ and ‘! (The Song Formerly Known As)’.
The latter remains one of my all-time favourite Australian songs and the lyrics about preferring to dance at home speak directly to this listener.
It always seemed like a tune that deserved a bigger audience, until I learned from this book how the band had to relinquish a massive chunk of their royalties to pay for the use of an uncleared sample.
Clearly the song would benefit from a remix and the authors explain why this isn’t likely to happen.
The disappearance of the master tapes only became apparent in the approach to the ten-year anniversary of the album…
Each copy of the Unit CD the audience has now is fixed in time. It is the master recording, an exact replication of the master unit. Such an event seems like a fitting closure on an album that captures time, space, and place for so many listeners: a time capsule in and of itself…
As it stands, without the masters, a remix, remaster, or rerelease would be impossible.
However, that doesn’t seem to have discouraged the record label from producing a 25th anniversary release and some descriptions identify it as remastered.
The joy in reading a book like this one is getting into these details and discerning the dynamics within the band and their music.
While the authors only hint at the conflict that would lead Martin Lee to later leave Regurgitator, there are some colourful observations on how we ended up with a gem like “Unit” among a thorough description of the circumstances in which the band formed and produced music during the late 1990s.
One example comes in discussion of the song ‘Modern Life,’ where the authors note “this song title emerged as Ben was sharing a joint with Quan’s mum on the deck of her Bardon house”!
This book does a remarkable job in capturing the band within a broad context at a time when popular music was rich with diversity and technologies were shifting.
The digital paradigm hadn’t yet reached the disruption of MP3 encoding and file-sharing, but Australian society was embodying multiculturalism and postmodernism in many cultural products.
While the authors use many paragraphs to outline the opportunities that presented to the band, it’s wonderful to ponder how art serves as a mirror to society.
And it’s on that broader view that this book approaches a conclusion:
Certainly, Regurgitator’s music itself is not particularly tied to a place, in that it has always stepped outside of local contexts to either critique wider social or political issues or is highly introspective. While the context of [Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley] is still highly influential to the development of the local alternative scene, it can also be viewed as a neutral platform on which Regurgitator matured creatively.
That the paragraph quoted above goes on to cite Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is a sign of how serious this text considers a seminal album from a popular band known to take the piss.
Regurgitator might have been misunderstood by some audiences but the authors have given considerable thought to ensuring that readers can appreciate them in a variety of contexts.