One day Australia’s hottest new rock exports are opening for heavy metal heroes AC/DC, the next day they are sharing the bill with race horses.
Bands that want to make it big sometimes have to swallow their pride. During the 1960s, rock acts appearing on Ed Sullivan’s prestigious TV variety show were squeezed in between chimpanzees and circus clowns.
In 2001, Australian punk-rock trio the Living End recently played for several thousand fans at a Los Angeles racetrack. But their afternoon set was punctuated by a 10-minute break so the horses would not panic as they galloped past the makeshift stage. The absurdity was not lost on the band.
“I reckon the horses should get on the arses of the jockeys and give them a bit of a (expletive) hiding,” proclaimed singer-guitarist Chris Cheney, returning to the stage after the enforced tea break.
The fans cheered, and resumed tossing water bottles and goading women into baring their breasts. Scott Owen performed a delicate balancing act standing on his upright bass as he plucked its strings, and drummer Travis Demsey defied the heat to pummel his kit.
The Santa Anita Park stop was just one on a brief U.S. tour to prepare fans for a new album, “Roll On,” the second of their career. A certified platinum act at home, where the band opened for AC/DC earlier this year, the Living End created some U.S. radio airplay buzz in 1998 with “Prisoner of Society,” a furious punk anthem from the group’s self-titled debut album.
“Roll On,” released March 27 in the United States via Reprise Records, is the band’s attempt to crack the American market – at least as far as the label is concerned. The band is a little more cagey.
“The good feeling in some of the songs and stuff will definitely work over here,” Cheney told Reuters during a recent interview at the band’s Sunset Strip hotel.
“But I still think of us as a Melbourne band. We’re not writing stuff that we go, ‘This is going to be huge in the States!’ I just don’t know what we’d do to predict that. I wouldn’t know.”
Not unlike compatriots Midnight Oil, who won international fame by singing about Aboriginal rights and the nuclear arms race, the Living End takes a political tack on some of its songs too.
The title track revolves around a crippling waterfront strike in the band’s Melbourne hometown; “Don’t Shut the Gate” is a plea for looser immigration laws; “Revolution Regained” is about the independence struggle in neighboring East Timor.
But the band’s members are wary of being perceived as political ideologues.
“We don’t want to be a political band. We just want to be a good rock ‘n’ roll band, and that’s hard enough to do in this day and age without getting antsy-pantsy about issues,” said drummer Demsey, the outspoken, gung-ho member of the group.
Added Cheney, who writes the group’s songs, “It’s just nice to tell stories, and to get it across, and hopefully send over a positive message.”
All three grew up in working-class families where the big issues of the day took second place to job security and putting food on the table.
Cheney and bass player Owen, both 26, became friends as teen-agers, and formed the Living End in 1994. Cheney and Owen shared a love of acts like English singer-songwriter Elvis Costello and American swing-rocker Brian Setzer. Demsey, 28, a devotee of the Rolling Stones and the Who, brought a more mainstream rock attitude to the band when he joined in late 1996.
After landing support slots on tours by American punk bands Green Day, Blink 182 and the Offspring, the group released its debut album in 1998. It went to No. 1 in Australia and yielded five hit singles.
“Roll On,” which was released in Australia last November, expands the group’s musical palette. Whereas the group proudly bared its rockabilly/ska/punk influences on the first album, the new one is less derivative and more sonically adventurous.
When punk bands win mainstream acceptance, they often suffer a backlash from the hard-core fans who were cheering for them right from the start. So far, the Living End seems to have escaped being pilloried.
“I think people can see that … we haven’t really sold out any of our ideals to become what we’ve become,” Owen said. “It’s generally just been an organic progression for us.”
The hard-core fans at home will be lucky to see the Living End this year. The band will be on the road virtually non-stop, spreading the punk gospel. The travel and the glad-handing gets tiresome, but the band feels it is on a mission.
“The hard yards are hard yards,” Demsey said. “AC/DC did it that way, so we have to do it too. We’re from Australia.”