The Big Beat In The Heart Of The Vinyl Jungle
Editor’s note: the following is reprinted with kind permission from trakMARX 22 — December 2005 — The Dubwise Issue, as a follow-up feature to the following Collapse Board articles
- Everett True’s Australian Garage Rock Primer
- In defence of Cold Chisel – an incomplete aural + visual history of GOOD Australian soft rock
(the article starts after the following video)
Jules Normington is a legend on the Australian Punk Rock Underground: entrepreneur, manager and above all, catalyst.
In any music scene the bulk of the credit rightly goes to the bands, since without them there’d be nothing. But there are almost always figures behind the curtain who have a huge impact on the direction that the scene takes. Jules Normington is such an individual – he was part of the Radio Birdman camp in their day, including a stint as their manager. He then ran Phantom, Sydney’s most important record shop in the period from just after Radio Birdman until about 1987. Phantom promoted and sold thousands of records by obscure and terrific underground bands, many of them to people who were subsequently inspired to start some of the bands that made the Australian music scene of the 80s what it was.
In addition, Phantom launched one of Sydney’s four or five best indie labels (along with Citadel, Waterfront, and Aberrant), and certainly THE best Sydney label in its heyday from 1979 until 1983 or so. Phantom Records released outstanding first vinyl by the Hoodoo Gurus, Sunnyboys, Visitors, and Hummingbirds, and others that were ultimately far more commercially successful than these.
The Phantom shop down on Pitt Street was one of those record stores that was packed to the gills … used, new, imports, local, indie, underground, 60s garage, punk, Detroit metal – there was a bin for everything and every bin was stuffed full. Fanzines lay in stacks and posters and gig flyers were stapled everywhere. It was one of those shops where a music fan felt comfortably at home. Many musicians from well known Sydney bands worked at Phantom at various times, and the employee roster also included key figures like the trio of Frank Cotterell, Steve Stavrakis and Chris Dunn, who left to form Waterfront Records in 1985.
The Phantom label began some time after the shop with a single by The Passengers in early 1980. Taking their name from an Iggy Pop song, the band was fronted by Angie Pepper, and also included former Survivor and future New Christ Jim Dickson on bass with Jeff Sullivan on guitar and Steve Harris on keyboards. Pepper’s vocals and the sixties girl-group nature of the lyrics made an instant comparison to Blondie inevitable, but Harris’ electric piano sound was substantially different from Blondie’s farfisa approach. The A side of the single, “A Face With No Name”, is a terrific song, but the B side is a little too coy.
The Passengers had already split when their single hit the shops, but Harris and Sullivan quickly teamed up with another female singer in Julie Mostyn to form the Flaming Hands and with this band they recorded three singles for Phantom before going on to a superior record deal (and inferior record releases) with Big Time. Mostyn’s vocal style was more English sounding than Pepper’s, with more than a touch of melodrama, especially in a tearjerker like “It’s Just That I Miss You”, Phantom’s fourteenth single.
The second and ninth Phantom releases were by the Surfside Six, a band that could be dismissed as fairly lightweight surf pop if it wasn’t for one song – the A side of their second single. “Can’t You See The Sign” sounds like something that could have been done by Radio Birdman, the Visitors or the early Hitmen – an ominous and intense song. It fit well with the fourth Phantom release, a four track 12″ ep by the Visitors that included “Brother John”, “Life Spill”, “Journey By Sledge” and “Hell Yes”. These same versions later showed up on the Visitors’ Citadel lp but with different mixes. To my ears the Phantom mixes are tougher and hotter, with an especially powerful bass sound. Steve Harris pops up again in the Visitors lineup, this time playing bass – placing him in 3 different bands within that first year of the label.
A solid single from the Shy Impostors pairing the strong “At The Barrier” with “Seeing Double” gave Phantom a trio of female-fronted rock bands in their first six releases, this time with Penny Ward at the mike. As so often happens, the Shy Impostors dissolved shortly after their recording sessions were completed in early 1980. Guitarist Richard Burgman and bassist Peter Oxley then teamed with drummer Bil Bilson and Oxley’s talented kid brother Jeremy on guitar and vocals to form the Sunnyboys.
Jules tells the story of how he first saw The Sunnyboys in the interview below – suffice to say, Phantom would release their debut four song 7″ ep in late 1980 and sell the full 1000 copy pressing in two weeks. And the record deserved it, too – a superb and unique brand of pop/rock with first rate songs and tough playing. A few months later when the Sunnyboys signed to Mushroom Records and appeared on their way to becoming an Australian sensation, Phantom reissued the four tracks in a re-mixed 12″ ep (the need for this only came about thanks only to some clandestine happenings up at EMI’s tape storage which saw the original EP master and pressing mothers go missing – according to Jules: “I think you run that by Gudinski and you’d get a swift denial that’d send a polygraph needle scattering all over the page”).
The second dozen Phantom releases show more variety and less strength than the first fistful. Debut singles by the Hoodoo Gurus (a version of “Leilani” that’s different from the one on their first album), the Kelpies, the Deadly Hume, the Vanilla Chainsaws and the Hummingbirds were all terrific, but the electro-pop of Machinations, the jump music of the Cockroaches, and the rave party sound of the Rockmelons seemed directed at an audience that might not have liked previous Phantom releases.
At the start of the Phantom label, pickings were pretty slim for any inner city Sydney band trying to release a record. Jules could sit in his shop and bands would come in with finished tapes that they’d paid for themselves out of their own pockets. If it was good, Phantom would release it, and their costs would be primarily just the pressing and printing expenses. But by 1986, music from Sydney was becoming known internationally and labels like Waterfront and Citadel were paying recording costs to bands in the knowledge that they could often recoup the money from export sales. This effect possibly drained off a lot of the bands that used to come to Phantom by default, and the strongest Sydney bands were now appearing on other labels more often than not. From the late 80s on, Phantom’s catalogue lacked the overall consistency of the best Sydney labels, although there were still many fine releases sprinkled throughout the rest.
Phantom was primarily a singles label up until this time. There had been one excellent compilation album in 1983 called Paths Of Pain To Jewels Of Glory that featured many songs that had been on Phantom singles and a few previously unreleased tracks by some of the same bands – Shy Imposters and the Flaming Hands, to name two. But in the late eighties Phantom began to release 12″ records, starting with a Deadly Hume lp called Me, Grandma, Iliko and Hilarian. The Deadly Hume played a brand of mutant blues that seemed to match the atmosphere of Melbourne bands like the Moodists or some of the Scientists mid period material. The lp was followed by a Hume mini-lp, and then the Vanilla Chainsaws Wine Dark Sea mini-lp. Phantom had previously released two spectacular Chainsaws singles in “TS (Was It Really Me)” and “Like You”, both high tension, gripping rockers whose flip sides were nearly equal to their A side. This was followed by another compilation called Assorted Desecrations and Magnificent Mutations wherein Phantom bands covered songs by other Phantom bands – a concept that Jules mentions was followed in exact detail by Atlantic Records in the U.S. for their 40th anniversary some months later.
In addition to the two Chainsaws singles were three fine singles from the Hummingbirds and a tough record from Adelaide’s Mark Of Cain. Other more mainstream pop efforts by groups like One Million Pieces, the Whole World, and Fear Of Falling, and the Whitlams may have done better financially than they did artistically.
When CDs began to penetrate the indie market around 1989-1991, Phantom released a first rate Vanilla Chainsaws compilation called Red Lights, and followed that up with a nice Lighthouse Keepers retrospective. There was also a Sunnyboys disc called Shakin’ (recorded live when the original 4-piece reformed for a short tour in 1990) and a couple different CDs from ex-Birdman guitarist Chris Masuak’s band The Juke Savages.
One late period Phantom group that deserves special mention is the Purple Avengers. Their Emma Peel Sessions debut CD was a terrific brand of swirling psychedelic rock that reminds me of the first record by Adelaide’s (and Hobart’s) Philisteins. The Purple Avengers had two more very good CD releases for Phantom, but the debut is certainly the best.
In the interview below, Jules doesn’t talk a lot about Phantom’s activities from the late 80s on. It’s clear that this wasn’t a pleasant time for him as he found himself working with partners whose purposes and direction were different from his. He mentions a little of the story of how Sebastian Chase came to be his partner. Much more about Chase can be read in Craig Mathieson’s book The Sell In, which describes how the Australian indie scene was finally recognized by Australia’s commercial music industry and ultimately largely wrecked by it. Chase was a founding member of the label rooArt, which debuted with much fanfare (and substantially less quality) near the end of the 80s. When he approached Phantom in 1991, Chase had left rooArt in a bitter split with partner Chris Murphy. Jules knew of him because the Hummingbirds had moved from Phantom to rooArt a couple years earlier. But ultimately Chase’s goals for the Phantom label were quite different from Jules’ ideals, and the resulting mismatch took the joy out of Phantom for Jules.
I was in Sydney in late May of 2002 to see Radio Birdman on a reunion tour, and while there I’d arranged to meet with Jules for an interview the day after I arrived in Australia. I hopped the bus for Bondi Beach on Oxford Street and got off down by the famous waterfront around midday. As I walked the five or six blocks up the hill to the house where Jules lives, huge thunderheads reared up from the south. I’d just made it up to the porch when the downpour came in a rush. Jules wasn’t in, but he’d said he might be a couple minutes late, so I sat and waited. Very soon a cab splashed up to the curb and out jumped Jules, bag of groceries in one hand. By the time he made the steps, he was drenched.
We shook hands and entered the house, a comfortable two-story place. Jules invited me into the kitchen and began making lunch for both of us while we got to know each other a little. We’d exchanged e-mails on several occasions and had actually met briefly once many years before at the Phantom shop. In one discussion on an e-mail list about music, we’d somehow managed to find that we both started our record collections by buying a single by The Royal Guardsmen, and I’d sent him a compilation CD of theirs as a result.
Jules began by telling me how much he had to do that afternoon and how his time was going to be limited, but in the end we talked for well over two hours and blew most of his day. Jules talks like it rains – a complete torrent of words – with hardly a pause for breath. Although he’s in his late forties and mostly grey-haired, his enthusiasm for music exceeds that of any dozen 20-year-olds combined.
We sat down to eat, and naturally enough began talking about Radio Birdman, who had played their first two reunion gigs in Sydney a few nights before my plane arrived.