St Andrews, Victoria, March 2009
Three weeks after the Black Saturday bushfires I’m spinning in the post-blaze smoke haze. One minute I’m leaping to life with blasts of inner adrenalin, then moments later, I’m fatigued, flat as a run over snake. I lurch from mood to mood, buffeted and blown around by the blackened environment that used to be so green.
Today, or at least for this moment, I’m up – pumped and on a mission. Purpose! In a world that has been forever altered by something as arbitrary as a bushfire, finding purpose and its associated flow is like sipping some sort of deeply spiritual nectar. Purpose! For mind, body, and soul. Purpose! It lands. I grab it. I’m off. Running. Pumped.
I have an errand to run, so I grab my car keys, a copy of Status Quo’s album On The Level and roar off down (down) the road.
This is a disc of much maligned British guitar boogie from the mid-1970s that I have treasured since I was a teenager. The critics hate these guys, and I’ve never really understood why. To my ears, Quo have always made the kind of music that sounds simple but is seemingly impossible to emulate. There is enormous mystery in this. How do they do it? A small handful of chords, a limited palette of sonic paint, lyrics a million miles away from a Shakespeare sonnet, and a simple guitar boogie attitude combine again, again, again, again to create minor miracles of tight, muscular music. It’s a unique kind of ragged minimalism.
My scratched and tattered vinyl copy of On The Level has made way for the digital age. Now I have it on CD. And now I can play it in my car, surely the quintessential Quo stage. This is driving music in both senses of the word.
Windows open, I wind up the volume and feel an intensity in the band’s playing that suddenly seems new to me. This opening of my senses is one of the unexpected gifts of the fires. Everything that I am hearing – all the riffs, powerchords, solos and lyrics – were subservient to the pounding, limping, thump, d’thump, d’thump rhythm the Quo are famous for. (This is a group that once released an album called Piledriver). The car shudders and rumbles with the sound of a four man, four cylinder, four-on-the-floor engine room.
The old side two opener, Down Down, is the highpoint and pivot of an album full of impossibly rich songs. The mystery I mentioned before is here too, but it’s even deeper (and down). The lyrics to this song are at once impassioned, meaningless, indecipherable, pointed and pointless. Google them and see. Metaphorical and metaphysical (Tao, tao, deeper than tao?!), these simple couplets are carried by those classic Rossi/Parfit close harmonies. These lyrics sit on the steel riveted chassis of John Coghlan’s thick-sticked beat and Alan Lancaster’s brutal and bulbous bass. This list of parts, however, fails to convey the transformative magic that emerges when all these elements are combined.
There’s no bridge. Just verse’n’chorus. There’s no solo. Where you’d expect one, the band just wig out and wring out the last drops of juice from the rhythm track. Listen to them play out the last minute and a half of the song and you’ll find it impossible to imagine any other vision than a tight line of three men, legs wide, backs bent, guitars fixed at 45 degrees, heads a-rocking like a kind of giant, turbulent, mopped, sea anemone. Hair guitar. Synchronised swinging.
As I sped along the blackened backstreets of St Andrews, this band created all and everything art could and should be. At that moment there was nothing more to be longed for or acquired. The sound was total. Utterly present. I was imbued with the music. It was I. And after all the loss, lability and disintegration that I had experienced in the preceding three weeks, this unity felt blessed.
© Stephen Andrew.