Author: Ben Butler
They’ve had record companies salivating over them and sold thousands, but the Living End say they still pay rent. BEN BUTLER was in the EMI boardroom to make them walk the un-punk plank.
Rebellion is a commodity that can be bought and sold like any other. The Living End are rebellious, their hit single Prisoner Of Society a short, punkish stab of anti-authoritarian sentiment. “We don’t need no one/To tell us what to do”. And the kids have bought it – in bulk. This week, the band’s self-titled album made its debut at number one on the ARIA chart, knocking off dinosaur rockers Cold Chisel. Their record company EMI expects it to go gold (35,000 sales) by the time you read this (industry sources say it has probably sold more than 50,000 already). On Tuesday night, Prisoner Of Society won an ARIA for best-selling single of the year.
And why not? They’ve got everything a hit rock band needs; they’re fast, exciting and have catchy tunes – as well as a twist, in the form of a double bass player.
Just don’t call them punk – despite the number of times the word is used in their publicity material, it’s clear the band have a problem with it.
“The Living End is not a f–king punk band, for God’s sake,” says guitarist-singer Chris Cheney. “The same as we’re not a rockabilly band, we’re not a blues band; we’re just a band. I don’t want to be called a punk band.”
“I don’t care what anybody calls us,” chips in drummer Trav Demsey. “It’s bizarre. It’s just a generic term to label something you don’t know the full scope of.” Demsey says punk is about doing your own thing. “With the word punk – it’s easy to slap on some surf gear and watch a lot of surf videos and say ‘I’m into punk’. Tina Arena doing her own thing – she’s punk… a lot more than these people in f–kin’ punk bands who go ‘yeah, we’ll never sell out’ – and then the next minute they’re trying to sell their songs for the next surf video for Billabong.”
Despite not wanting to be identified as punks musically, the band still see themselves as being – somehow – punk-rock in the way they do business. “We have punk ethics in the fact that it’s a very do-it-yourself band,” says Demsey. “We have a management team that we dictate what we want to do and then they pretty much help us achieve that.
“We say, ‘Gee, we’d like to go to Tasmania and play.’ And people go, ‘Oh, what for? You’ll only get two gigs, you’ll lose money.’ It’s like: who gives a shit? We wanna go and play. That’s a lot more punk than some of these punk bands.”
And the scene of this interview? The EMI boardroom.
“No that is punk, you see,” says Cheney, “because no one else wants to do it because it would be seen as un-punk.”
“You came here to get the interview from us,” says Demsey. “That’s very un-punk, isn’t it? Why didn’t you go and get a band that needs to be discovered? Instead you come to a band that people already want to read about. I think that’s pretty lame, Ben! We’ve not changed. We’re still the same people. We still pay rent.”
The band seem to see no contradiction between the anti-war sentiments of their new single Save The Day and being distributed and promoted by EMI – although another part of the EMI conglomerate, Thorn EMI, makes missile guidance systems (among other things).
Even though the band don’t really comprehend their own commodification, they see it in others. Korn, for instance. “I know they’re probably really into what they’re doing and they’re great musos,” says Cheney. “But you can’t help thinking it’s kind of throwaway instant” – he snaps his fingers – “get the kids singing, that’s all there is to it. Bring out the next single. They’ve gone for the hard-hitting angle of sex, or the f-word.”
Cheney’s songs don’t have swearing in them. “I’ve never written it in my lyrics, really,” he says. He tries to make his words “Not too heavy, not too light, just right… I more lean towards songwriting from the punk era, songs that have a message and make you think, and you can get something out of it if you want. But I don’t think we write songs that are that deep or anything.”
Indeed, it’s difficult to see anyone holding up Prisoner Of Society with its “You’ll see it’s an emergency/You’ll see I’m not the enemy/Just a prisoner of society” as a lasting poetic legacy of the late 20th century.
Their gigs have drawn criticism – at one show at Richmond’s Corner Hotel, the queue of punters desperate to get in stretched around the corner. “We got there and there were lines like we’d never seen before, and I was thinking ‘Uh Oh,” says Demsey.
The gig sold out, and some disconsolate fans were convinced it was a publicity stunt. The band says otherwise. “We were panicking we wouldn’t get enough people to the Corner,” says Cheney. The band says the Corner shows were booked two months ahead and although they wanted to play another gig they were due to leave the country the next week. “Wouldn’t we have looked like dickheads if we thought we were bigger than we actually were?” Demsey asks. “We could have said,” he slaps a fist into his palm, ‘Get the Palace on the f–kin’ phone, we’re gonna rock the joint.’”
The Living End play the Hallam Hotel on Wednesday; Warragul’s Exhibition Hall (all ages) on Thursday; three gigs at the Hi-Fi Bar, city-two on 31 October (one all ages) and an over-18s on 2 November; Geelong’s Wool Exchange on the 4th and Warrnambool’s Lady Bay Hotel on the 5th.