Friday, 8 October 2010

Songs About Brisbane - The Stress of Leisure

[Written initially for Collapse Board, but cross posted here]

So Andrew McMillen’s great coverage of Robert Forster’s ’15 Songs About Brisbane’ is the starting point for another article about artists who have used Brisbane as a muse, a setting in which to create their own myths. The Saints (‘Brisbane City’), Custard (‘Caboolture Speed Lab’) and Sekiden (‘BNE’) have all titled songs with obvious references to Brisbane locations and surrounding areas. I’m sure there are many others.

I want to concentrate on a more recent song by The Stress of Leisure, a local group that has evolved from the recordings of Ian Powne. He has a Pavement/Jarvis Cocker thing going on, but often moves into The Go-Betweens territory, investing tunes with the characteristic striped sunlight sound that is so familiar within many songs that concentrate on the city. It seems Forster and McClennan’s influence is undeniably pervasive when it comes to Brisbane.

The Stress of Leisure’s recent album, Soft Approach, an all-round excellent record, features a song called ‘Death On The Magic Mile’. It’s a sinister sounding tune, featuring overdriven guitars alternating between several low-end notes in the verse and a relatively bright and jangly chorus. The lyrical content refers specifically to ‘The Magic Mile’, which, for those who haven’t spent much time in Brisbane, refers to a stretch of Ipswich Road in the South Side suburb of Moorooka famous for an extensive array of car dealerships. Listening to the lyrics, I find it hard to pin down an exact meaning – could it refer to shady car-deals? Dodgy salespeople? I’m not sure. A look at the video for the song still has me puzzled, but there are many shots of the area, the band driving about in a Ford Mustang.

Curious, I contacted Ian Powne.

Hi Ian, I’ve listened intently to ‘Death On The Magic Mile’ and I have a few possible interpretations, but I was wondering what was the exact story you intended to tell with this song?

“I’ve wondered myself about possible storylines, and I’m not being pretentious or elusive when I say this: the song just happened. I think I have this romantic association with the Magic Mile for some reason and well, I’m basically trying to corrupt people into thinking there’s more going on at the Magic Mile than they’ve historically conceived.

“You’ve got the verses where I briefly describe the setting such as the caravans and caryards, adult shop. This all contributes to the backdrop. The chorus just came out like it did, possibly a reflection of someone who is obsessed with their own mortality. I think the lyrics in the chorus are of someone looking back at one’s younger self, reflecting. It’s all kind of stark, but romantic at the same time.”

So what do you think is so special about The Magic Mile?

“Well, it’s hilarious really, how did it come to be the Magic Mile? I find it amazing that someone has coined the name and everybody’s bought it to the extent it’s become an entity. You think about places like this and wonder how the name sticks. You can’t tell me people really believe it IS the Magic Mile, that’s what’s kind of brilliant about it."

“It’s got a bit of age to it now too. Places like this deserve some sort of mythology. Ben (bass player in The Stress of Leisure) and I would travel through it all the time when we rehearsed with Tony (former drummer) and laugh about this. One place in particular we constantly joked about was the adult shop that used to exist. It’s now been painted over, unfortunately, but it was right by the train station."

“There’s some great history to that shopfront actually. Back in Joh’s day, it was called The Golden Hands, a ‘massage parlour’ which was quite popular with many a gent. From what I’m told, many of them originated from Ipswich, but I’m sure there was a decent geographical spread (pardon the pun). It was also a popular place for the occasional police raid (flash to many years later and here’s The Stress of Leisure being photographed just by it, not to mention Ed Kuepper)."

“So yeah, there’s also this seedy history of massage parlours and who knows what else, also happening alongside the car dealerships. I’m sure others could expand on it; you scratch the surface of any place, you’re bound to find more. In the end, I think the possibilities of all these other stories are kind of where the song comes in, creating its own, even though it’s only a glimpse of a story. Also being a main thoroughfare out of Brisbane, it’s been around long enough now to form a particular place in many people’s lives, positive or otherwise. I thought the setting was ripe for the taking.”

How do you feels this song fits into a grander narrative about Brisbane?

“Well, perhaps it fits into that feeling of not taking oneself too seriously. The title certainly is humorous to me. Then there’s the ‘Hey everyone, come to Brisbane, I’m going to show you the Magic Mile!’ There’s a lot more appealing places to the eye in this city, we all know that. But it’s also an older part of Brisbane, whereas everything now is about ‘now’, this very instant. It’s about being the latest in design and about being ‘world class’, a term I can’t stand.

“Brisbane has always been obsessed with ‘new’, perhaps to its detriment. You only have to go just below the border to a place like Bangalow or Tenterfield to find the beauty in old architecture, buildings that have been around for a while. I’m more attracted to places like this. I still like the river walk, but I’m also turned off by it. I hate ‘Riverfire’! I guess the Magic Mile is referring back to a place that you really did the hard yards in, a Brisbane that wasn’t as flashy, a Brisbane that wasn’t as easy as it’s meant to be now. I like Brisbane now, but I cast a very wary eye over it. Familiarity breeds contempt."

“Ed Kuepper has also revealed a certain fascination with the Magic Mile. He released a compilation of his work called This Is The Magic Mile, so I guess we’re also one of the many Brisbane bands to follow the lead from Mr Kuepper. I’d be interested to hear what he’d have to say about the place.”

What is your own favourite song about Brisbane?

“My favourite song about Brisbane changes every week, but at this point in time I’ll say The Go-Betweens ‘Unkind And Unwise’, which I’m pretty sure is a song set in Brisbane. I love the imagery that Grant uses, particularly this verse: ‘The salt in the wind moves over the mudflats/Sticks to your skin and rusts up the lights/Blows through the ferns that breathe in the dark/I try to forget but it’s so hard’. As well as being odd timing wise, it has a distinct beauty, a worthy partner to ‘Cattle and Cane’.”

“It reminds me of an old Brisbane that patiently waited, still hanging on archly to old British traditions. This is all weighted against the harshness and grandeur of the local environs. It also reminds me of my grandparents and their house. Incidentally, I used to always see Grant walking past my place, he had a strut. Once I remember he was sitting outside the corner store, eating a banana paddle pop, content that the whole world was just passing him by. It’s such a cherished memory.”

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