Living It Up
Author: Patrick Donovan
Like a rash of US skate bands, the Living End owe their popularity to the punk renaissance. But unlike many others of their ilk, the Melburnians know their roots – and really know how to write a song, writes PATRICK DONOVAN
Growing up in Wheelers Hill, the Living End singer-guitarist Chris Cheney was somewhat of a musical outcast in suburbia. While most of his classmates were into the latest rock bands, Cheney idolised rockabillies such as Elvis and the Stray Cats, and although he quickly moved on to ’70s punk bands such as the Clash, he was still 20 years behind the fads.
With school and bandmates Scott Owen and Trav Demsey, he formed a Stray Cats cover band and, five years ago, they started writing songs based on a love of ’50s American rockabilly and ’70s UK punk. They sent a tape to American neo-punk band Green Day, who liked them so much they invited them on their Australian tour. Before they knew it, the Living End had been swept up in the ’90s punk-pop craze, their anthem-like songs broadcast around the country by national youth broadcaster Triple J. Now officially the biggest band in the country, they sold nearly 250,000 copies of their self-titled debut album here this year. The Living End are now so successful that their support act on this tour is one of the hottest bands in Britain, Stereophonics, who also happen to be one of Cheney’s favorites.
The success is Cheney’s reward for sticking to his guns. “Not bad for a hack band from Wheelers Hill,” he jokes. Speaking on the phone from Rockhampton at the start of a national tour, Cheney says he always knew he would find people who shared his musical tastes.
“I always knew I was different, but that spurred my hunger and love for it. I knew I would always have my place and I would always be doing something different, and I liked the thought of that, whether it would amount to success or not.”
His initial inspiration came from the King.
“I don’t really know what first hit me. I think I saw Elvis on the telly and I fell in love with the whole ’50s thing. And I loved Buddy Holly’s songwriting. He was such a smart songwriter and he was using recording techniques long before anyone else. My mum had those records, and all I did was listen to those records and tried to play my guitar along with it. I was never interested in any of the grunge bands. Now, I appreciate bands like Nirvana, but I’m glad that back then I was so caught up in all the ’50s bands. Everyone else at school hated it and thought I was a bit of a weirdo, but I’m really proud that I got into that stuff first.”
Cheney knows the band had luck on their side. If they had started five years earlier, when rockabilly was still underground and there was no national broadcaster to spread their message, they could have remained as obscure as their local rockabilly heroes, the Fireballs. And if Cheney had followed trends in school and started a grunge band, they would have just added to the over-supply of a tiring genre.
Although the Living End were aided by the US punk renaissance, they sounded different to many of the skater bands because of their British punk influences, Cheney says.
“It’s only the early rockabilly guys that I like from the States, like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, that have influenced me. Once they all died off, in the 1960s, England took over and my main influences became the Beatles and the Stones, the Jam, the Clash and the Pistols.”
And, unlike some, the Living End could play.
“The timing was right, and we were playing fast and hard and aggressive. But we could also play scales and jazz and stuff that a lot of kids thought was very refreshing.”
After playing almost every night since leaving for overseas in February, the band are returning home. Cheney says while none of them like being away for so long, they benefited from having to earn their stripes again.
“It was a great opportunity to go over there and play our arses off and prove ourselves, and win people over again. I think it should have to be part of every band’s career, once they get popular, to go back and discover their roots and get hungry again.”
While the band played in most parts of the US, unfortunately for Cheney they didn’t make it to Elvis’s spiritual homes, Memphis and Las Vegas. In England, he visited some of the shrines of UK punk as part of an interview with Melody Maker.
“We went to the 100 Club and Kings Road, Buckingham Palace, which is also famous for the Queen. That’s the best part about touring, really – traveling around seeing things.” The Oz stereotype has worked in their favor.
“People are really intrigued as to what it’s really like down here. But they have no idea. They think there’s 10 bands and five pubs and a hell of a lot of kangaroos. They found it hard to believe that a band that’s playing a hybrid of punk and rockabilly and pop can come from Australia, the great desert land. We always have to say, ‘But there are a million bands down there.”
Cheney believes Australia’s small population contributes to diversity.
“Because there’s not enough people to support each little scene, everyone kind of mixes it up, the bands and the fans, so the bands are really original down here – and the proof is with bands like Regurgitator and Spiderbait.”
The Living End are determined never to forget why they started making music.
“All three of us are such music fans. We’re always buying CDs and posters and magazines. And I hope we never lose that, because that’s what gives us our drive, rather than think that we are the be-all and end-all, with no one to look up to any more. I couldn’t imagine feeling like that.”
And being a semi-star comes in pretty handy for a music fan. The band recently met one of their heroes, Little Richard, in LA.
“He’s one of my original idols. He’s one of the only guys left. I always get a kick from being backstage and seeing those people. It’s silly, I guess, because you sort of realise when you’re backstage with them that they’re really nothing special. You’re all the same. But I’m fascinated by it.”
When major record companies realised how popular the Living End were, they engaged in a huge bidding war. But the band knocked them all back to to join small Sydney-based label Modular.
“When it all started to bubble, we said from the word go that we’re a very independent band; we’ve come from nothing. It was always me and Scott doing everything from printing T-shirts to the album’s artwork, total DIY, and we always said, ‘This is the way it’s always going to be, we never want to lose that side of it. I’ve never understood how some bands can just sign everything over and forget about the whole reason they got into it, the creativity side of it, and be run by someone who just wants to make money – because at the end of the day, that’s all it is.”
“And the label were cool with it, because they could see we had such a vision, and we’re really creative with what we do, and we know when an idea is being exhausted and when to move on.”
The Living End received a nice welcome home in the form of four ARIA nominations. Cheney said it was good to be recognised here after being almost unknown overseas.
“I don’t think it’s the be-all and end- all, but it’s nice to get some recognition.”
Everyone seems to love the Living End. Have they ever had a bad review?
“We’ve had a couple. A bad review, to me, is someone comparing us to a band that I don’t like, or a never-ending comparison, or someone calling us a crazy rockabilly band.
There’s a lot more to us than that. A lot of people fail to see the songwriting part of it, and the Beatles references. There’s a lot more going on than three – minute, throwaway songs. That offends me more than someone saying the timing was a bit off – we don’t care about that, as long as it’s got the energy and passion. But every band’s got to go through it and we’re only on our first album, so we’ve just got to prove ourselves.”
Abundant hooks and the anthemic quality of the songs aside, the Living End’s success can be attributed to Cheney’s intelligent lyrics about everything from overseas massacres to local over-development.
“I think when Prisoner of Society started to get a lot of airplay on Triple J, one of things was the lyrics,” says Cheney.
“They’re so plain, and almost corny to the point that they’re so in-your-face and easy to understand. But I also think people discovered the sound, which is a unique hybrid for an Australian band. But we get a lot of e-mails from fans who really get into the lyrics and say it’s refreshing to hear a band who can thrash out and have something to say at the same time.
“We always get lumped in with the whole punk explosion, but as far as those bands go, none of them are terribly involved in their lyrical writing. And we really make a point of having something to say. It’s fine to have a song about nothing with a great melody behind it, but I think it’s great if you can have both.”
But Cheney doesn’t like the notion of preaching.
“I don’t write the lyrics to try and change the world. It’s more about what I think. My lyrics are just simple observations of things that I think need attending to, and if it creates some sort of awareness, then it can only be a good thing. It just so happens that the songs end up on radio and a lot of people hear them. I don’t think of myself as a spokesman for a generation or anything like that. I think I’ll leave the politics to Peter Garrett; he’s a very smart man and seems to know what he’s talking about. I would probably botch it up.”
But now he has a huge audience, does he feel a responsibility to be positive?
“I don’t feel any responsibility, but I don’t think I’ll do a Marilyn Manson, or say anything too offensive. Maybe I’m just too much of a nice boy.”
Cheney says the band have a heap of ideas for their second album and are looking forward to writing songs at the end of the tour. While they want to break out of the punk-pop stereotype, they won’t be denying their roots.
“I want people to look back on the Living End as being a great rock’n’roll band, whether it be similar to You Am I or the Who. We have been stereotyped as a rockabilly-punk band, which is fine, because everyone’s got to be stereotyped as something or other when they first came out, but I think it’s limiting to be known as that considering we have taken it in a different direction. We’ve put a hell of a lot more thought into the songwriting than any of the rockabilly bands that have influenced us. The neo-rockabilly bands of the ’80s were just playing ’50s songs sped up a million times an hour. We’re really out to prove that we are not a one-dimensional band.”
The Living End play The Palace, St Kilda, tonight (over-18s) and tomorrow (under-18s), and at the Forum, city, on Tuesday night with Stereophonics.