A Savage Journey to the Heart of Aussie Rock & Roll with The Cosmic Psychos
I’m sitting on a mound of gravel next to the two Daves. Behind me, a man in a black T-shirt is urinating. I’m studying the contours of an appreciably-sized mound of cowshit sitting two feet in front of me. My notebook is balanced on my knee and I’m trying to manoeuvre words onto the pages, which are being mobilised by the winds blowing in from somewhere along the vast expanse of the Victorian countryside. Dave Dave and the other Dave, Ridgy, and I attempted to figure out where the hell we are five minutes ago using the latter’s iPhone. We surmised that we’re somewhere equidistant from Ballarat and Bendigo, about a half-hour’s drive from Lake Eppalock, off the C326.
Dave tells me he’s going to take a piss and stands up, brushing dirt and gravel off his arse. He’s dressed in a white Mark of Cane T-shirt, a frayed Everlast baseball cap, sunglasses, white runners and oversized blue denim jeans—dad jeans. Ridgy is wearing a faded Sub Pop T-shirt, a camo hat, sunglasses, runners and a much better-fitting pair of blue jeans. They both flew from Adelaide to Melbourne the day before. Back home they both drive tractors for a living and Dave has a wife and two daughters. Dave is thoughtful and amiable with stern features undercut by an ever-present warmth and humour. Ridgy is laid-back and quick to laugh, and refers to himself self-deprecatingly as a “bogan.” Both have a firm handshake and speak in an accent distinctly country-Australian. Dave walks off a few feet behind us to take care of business and Ridgy offers me a beer.
Two hours before we’d assembled at the Espy in St. Kilda. We had our names ticked off by a lady in a fluoro vest that read “Cosmic Psychos Insecurity Team,” who brandished a clipboard and a bundle of fluoro wristbands which he applied to you after you check in. The tables at the front of the Espy were sparsely occupied by people, mostly middle-aged, in flannel over faded T-shirts brandishing fluoro wristbands, their legs wresting on cases of Carlton Draught. Ten kilometres away, in Collingwood, people at the Tote were doing the same thing. Same age-group, dressed much the same and each slowly wading into drunkenness. A drunkenness that will sustain for the rest of the day. Ever the diligent one, I kept the integrity of my role as reporter, drinking Mount Franklin as I etched the first few notes into my A4 Spirax and waited for the bus to arrive, which it did shortly.
A long white coach that read Doncaster Coaches on either side, driven by a stout, sonorous-voiced St. Nick with a full greying beard named Pete. Pete deftly peeled the coach from the lane way beside the Espy and introduced himself over the PA. “Now, it is illegal to have alcohol aboard a bus and a few of you snuck some cans on, but I didn’t see that now did I?” he said before being greeted with a chorus of exuberantly loutish voices crying “No, Pete! No way!” He put on a Moody Blues playlist that he switched to AC/DC once we hit the Westgate Bridge. Acca Dacca saw us out of Melbourne and into that verdant territory known as rural Victoria.
“You know, I mean, we both drive tractors back home. That’s what we do,” Ridgy says definably. He explains to me what this is all about. The Cosmic Psychos have been his favourite band since the 90s. He’s seen them five or six times, whenever they toured Adelaide. Before them he liked Mudhoney and a few other bands, but the Psychos were a band made for him, “They write songs about their tractors and shit, you know? It’s great.” Dave had heard on the internet that someone was making a documentary about the Cosmic Psychos. A crowd funded project, if you contributed $100 it bought you a ticket to the premiere of the film, an invitation to a gig at bass player Ross Knight’s infamous farm, a DVD copy of the film once it’s released and a T-shirt and stubby holder. If the film secured distribution, this was all yours, if it didn’t, your money was refunded. “It was really a win-win situation,” says Ridgy optimistically. The deadline for the funds was 31st August of 2012. They needed to raise $28,000. They raised just under $50k.
People are filing into a makeshift arena. One gentleman, dressed in a turquoise-black flannel shirt and blue jeans carrying a black, curly mullet atop his head, steps out of his coach and makes his way over to the stage. As he steps onto the decline into the pit, his pants fall to his knees. With one hand he deftly catches them before they go any lower and pulls them back up, his stride uninterrupted, brandishing a beer can in his other hand. The stage sits at the foot of a dirt hill, that is, the stage is the foot of the dirt hill. The length of the dirt hill connects onto a knoll which cordons off this DIY arena. which cordons off this DIY arena. The stage is settled with amps and monitors and microphones and instruments. Beside a large Orange amplifier stands a large white raffle wheel. A Stooges bootleg plays over the monitors. The ground around the stage is rocky, made up mostly of clay, which has been visibly eroded by tractors. More people gather around the stage and from a distance, they look like a variegated patchwork of flannel and black. They take photos, they drink beer, they see old friends. To the far right, little kids are playing in a fulvous pool of muddy water, flanked either side by mounds of rocks.
Dave returns and Ridgy hands him a beer, Ridgy offers me one again. They two tell me a story about a Psychos gig they went to in the 90s, “Someone rammed their car into a hairdresser’s shop across the road and then drove off. This bloke comes out and it’s the drummer from the band and he just says ‘Don’t see that at every gig.’ And then the cops arrive and ask which direction they went and the three of us all pointed in the opposite direction.” We laugh and stare out at the field in front of us, which is peppered with Eskies. A member of the Turbojugend passes by in front of us. As the band get ready to take the stage, Ridgy goes into how much he hates the Pokies, “They sucked Adelaide dry of its music scene.” A few feet from us, two guys, one in a Ride the Lightning Metallica T-shirt and the, Buddha-faced with a Travis Bickle mohawk, are sitting in a pair of discarded school chairs they found. They’ve made a game of throwing rocks into two small rusted vats emblazoned with BP logos. The band takes the stage.
Bass player and de facto bandleader Ross Knight, drummer Dean Muller and guitarist John McKeering, play a set of propulsive, electrifying garage rock. The wah-drenched, fuzzbox guitars and droning anvil bass make a sound that comes from some dark, claustrophobic place, somewhere between the Stooges and Oi! Punk. “I get six dollars a tonne for the gravel so empty your boots before you leave, please!” says Knight to a spattering of laughter before launching into another song. Ridgy sings along with every word. They’re his band. He provides me with the song titles as they play through each number. The songs are decided by the giant lollipop to the right of Knight’s amp. The names of audience members are called out in the interstices between songs for them to come up on stage and spin the wheel. The wheel is labeled with the names of Psychos songs: Custom Credit, Hooray Fuck, Dead Roo, Lost Cause, Pub. “Life is always dictated by the wheel,” says Knight. “The bass player there, Ross, he’s the heart and soul of the band. The surviving member,” Ridgy tells me. “Play something we can dance to!” someone calls out, “Dance something we can play to,” replies Knight.
Dave’s name is called out and he runs over to the stage to spin the wheel. In between each song the band members shoot off ocker one-liners about not remembering the songs or how dimwitted they are. At the end of the set Knight thanks everyone for coming down to his farm and supporting the band. The three members come together at the centre of the stage and embrace before taking their bows. Knight comes to the mic a final time to tell us to “get the hell outta here!” “I’ve gotta put my kids to bed,” he says. “Anyway, you’ve got a movie to go to.”
We pull up to the Castlemane Theatre Royal. The film’s title Blokes You Can Trust is on the marquee, illuminated by light bulbs. The ride had been electrified by the onslaught of the Psychos’ music booming overhead. My fellow passengers demanded repeatedly that Pete pump the music louder, the small, inadequate speakers of the Doncaster Coach distorting the already gnarled sounds of the Cosmic Psychos even further. “Volume, Pete!” they called, over and over. Nightfall came shortly after the gig ended and Pete’s deft maneuvering of the bus through the darkness of the Victorian country side was impressive.
Pete had told us that we should be ready to leave 15 minutes after the performance ends, around 6 o’clock. After the band took their bows the crowd dispersed and started leisurely making their way up the dirt road to where an assembly of coaches, microbuses, cars and vans sat idle. On the bus I watched as the passengers from the ride over stumbled onboard accompanied by friends they’d met or that they had made. A girl clandestinely sparked off a pipe beside the bus eliciting a coy smile from a gentleman passing by her. One of the passengers from my bus, a tall, long-limbed guy with a shaved head took photos with various people. It was afterwards explained to me that his name is Ryan Fitzgerald, or Fitzy, and he’s a radio and television personality. Before that he was a Big Brother contestant and an AFL player before that. He stood beside a grey-haired man in a flannel shirt who’d put his arm around Fitzy’s shoulders. Waiting for a camera flash, Fitzy had a genuinely warm and joyful smile on his face. He took a few more photos with various people, his smile authentic in each photo. One of the photographers wore a Cosmic Psychos shirt with a design like the Twisties logo.
When we arrive at the theatre, Fitzy grabs me by the shoulders “You’re very cool, calm and collected, mate.” I had spent most of the ride to the theatre with my head entombed in my notebook, making notes, crossing others out. I explain my purpose on the bus and we have a quick, friendly exchange before stepping off the bus onto a red carpet. It’s really more of a red rug, dirty and faded but possessing a thrifty charm. To the side sits a rather small but nonetheless impressive and fully operational tractor. A yellow skid-steer loader, it’s covered in dried mud and a poster for the film obscures the windshield. The poster has Knighty, Dean and John standing atop a bulldozer with “Cosmic Psychos” in large, white block-lettering with “Blokes You Can Trust” supplementing it below. A security guard explains that those of us with wrist bands can proceed to the back of the venue now and those without are to go inside the theatre foyer and receive one before proceeding to the back.
We flash our wristbands to a security guard dressed in a suit standing at the opening of a short alleyway that brings you into the courtyard behind the Theatre Royal. The security guard permits each of us entry with a solemn nod and brief interstice of darkness takes us into a fairy-lit courtyard that has been settled with a merch table and a chilli stand. The chilli stand has been setup beside the entrance into the main theatre and the merch table on the opposing wall. They are selling T-shirts and posters for the film. Towards the back, after a small Hawaiian-style bar which is closed, and down a small set of steps, are tables, at which some people have already started established themselves. Most people though are massing around the merch table. Those that have already visited the merch table are ordering chilli.
A group of guys gather around someone puffing on an electronic cigarette. I’m sitting at a table still sullying my notebook pages and he’s a few feet to my right. Fitzy is one of the guys who approaches, he seems to know the guy smoking, the two start conversing loudly. The other guys are some that I recognise from the gig at Ridgy’s farm and some that I don’t. They talk about the guy’s electronic cigarette. He prefers the electronic cigarette, he explains. Their speech is slurred and peppered with outbursts of laughter. “Anybody got a fuckin’ durry?” Fitzy calls out. The man with the electronic cigarette repeats the question. Fitzy runs over to a corner table and quickly returns with a cigarette, handing it to Electronic Puffer Guy. He takes it in his hand and proceeds to put on a quick magic routine using the cigarette. He makes it disappear several times using different sleights of hand. From where I’m sitting I see each time where he’s holding it. His audience, neck-deep in a Carlton Draught stupor all react with giddy incredulity. “Fuck off! How’d you do that?” The Electronic Puffer Guy smiles coyly.“It’s fuckin’ magic,” he tells them.
I can hear “When is this fuckin’ movie start?” being repeated around me. Someone’s singing a cover of “You’re the One That I Want” and someone else is threatening to cut them if they don’t stop. A young couple in front of me are sitting at a table with a grey-haired man, in his fifties maybe, dressed in a black T-shirt, the three of them eating chilli and drinking beer. A member of the couple, the guy, probably still a teenager, is dressed in a purple button-up, the cuffs peeking out of the sleeves of a dark velour suit jacket, black skinny jeans and Beatle boots. His hair is a greasy lattice and his skin is as pale as his girlfriend’s, a redhead dressed in a cheetah-print dress. I think to myself that he looks a lot like Richard Hell, and his girlfriend looks like someone who could’ve been Richard Hell’s girlfriend. They converse with the older man like old friends, suggesting they all hang out next time he’s in Melbourne. The guy, Richard Hell, talks about how much he hates people who take photos of their food. The girl explains that she was the one who picked him up when they first met, he’s “too scared to speak to girls,” he says. The older man talks about the band The Gun Club. Most of their sentences end in “man,” like “When is this fucking movie going to start, man?”
I notice that the mass of people that had been pinched between the merch table and the chilli stand has dispersed and collect my things to make my way into the theatre. I’m followed soon after by most of the people who were sitting in the courtyard. The main theatre of the Castlemane Theatre Royal is large and rustic. The paint on the walls is peeling and the rows of chairs that have been arranged look like donations from a local high school or the like. At the front of the room is a large stage, the wood panels of which are half painted in black and half exposed wood, the black paint receding from years of being trod upon, a crust of whitewash visible at the edges of the black.
On stage a portly guy of average height dressed in a T-shirt and jeans with runners is trying to make himself audible over the crowd, a microphone in his hand. Finally he figures out how to turn the mic on and starts commandeering the crowd, telling them to settle down and take their seats and be quiet. “You’re all pigs,” he says dryly. I hear someone mention that he’s a 3RRR DJ, he looks the part. “Say something funny!” someone yells out. “Say something funny? Shut up! That’s my first point of business,” he replies, “The movie is about to start,” he adds. “We’ve got people here from Canada, Perth and Adelaide, and what a fantastic day we had on the farm!” The crowd responds with cheers and applause. “Say something funny!” someone calls out again, this time a different voice. “You wanna know what’s funny? Most of you people actually put money in to see this fucking thing. That’s funny, you suckers! That’s funny.” He gives a short monologue on the Cosmic Psychos being one of the greatest, if not the greatest, bands in Australia before explaining that the buses are set to leave an hour after the film is finished and that if we can’t afford to spend the night in Castlemaine, we better haul off back to Melbourne, “cheap cunts,” he adds.
I look around the theatre, the members of the Cosmic Psychos are sitting in the front row a few feet away from me. Behind me two kids are discussing Nick Cave. “Yeah, Nick Cave fucking sucks,” one of them says. It’s said with an appreciation for everything there is to hate about a verbose, pseudo-literary, self-aggrandising, self-eroticising death-rock doofus and for everything there is to like about a band like the one sitting two rows in front of them. The 3RRR DJ hands the microphone over to Matt Weston, the director of Cosmic Psychos: Blokes You Can Trust. He’s skinny and stern-featured with a handlebar moustache. He’s met with cheers and applause when he takes the mic. “About two years ago Kim Muller, Dean from the Psychos’ wife, approached me and suggested I should think about doing a Cosmic Psychos doco and I thought ‘Who the fuck would wanna watch that?’ and I guess, there was a few of ya. So, uh, I just wanna say thank-you so much, this wouldn’t be possible without all your input, whether it was sending stuff through, photos, video, um, money, the money really helped. I hope you all had a great time today and on behalf of the Psychos as well, a big thank-you to all you guys. Good news is we’ve got film distribution with Umbrella, they jumped on early,” the crowd applauds, “so if you’re due for a DVD you’ll get it later in the year. Before the film starts we’re gonna show a couple of shorts of the rewards that some guys received for donating. Other than that, rip ‘n’ dig!”
The Cosmic Psychos might well deserve a place in the annals of music history. If for nothing else, they are progenitors of a new and completely self-styled musical genre: Fuckyouism. More than a musical style, it’s a bona fide life philosophy, sitting somewhere between nihilism and full-fledged anarchism. While Iggy may arguably have been the first to engage with it on a notable scale, the Psychos got it right. Iggy’s was about fuck you by way of fuck me. Self-debasement, bridge-burning, mouldering lugubriousness and self-destruction on a stupendous level, the Psychos’ was about self-preservation. Of course, the pendulum of the great decider sways favourably for both parties: both Iggy and the Cosmic Psychos made great fuckin’ records. Iggy’s story has been told through TV shows, interviews, documentary films, books, some very extensive reissue liner notes and biographies, including one very good one by Paul Trynka that’s a recommended read for anyone interested in just how systemic a crack in psychological eggshell can be. Iggy’s epic, which is on par with tales of Achilles, Caligula and the Galilean carpenter himself, has had its orators and is now one of the most important parts of the rock & roll canon. Now the Psychos get their turn.
The main theatre of the Castlemane Theatre Royal is at capacity. The patchwork of black and flannel travelled 45 minutes by bus and van, bought merch, ate chilli, drank beer, waited, drank more beer, endured a preamble from a radio DJ, heard word from a filmmaker and now sits, buzzing, in dilapidated chairs awaiting the celluloid-told tale of their favourite band. Before the film starts we’re treated to a couple of shorts, both documenting the prizes received by fans that donated considerable amounts to the film’s cause.
The first, a gentleman who donated five grand, received a three-course meal cooked for him by the Psychos themselves. No member of the Psychos has ever been nor will ever probably be a chef and that is something to keep in mind when considering the dishes the three served up for the generous benefactor. The first course, three meat pies (naturally) made to perfection by bass player Ross Knight, topped with a garnish of calamari ring. Next up, a second course of that most sumptuous of haute cuisine delicacies: the Chiko roll, served by guitarist John McKeering. Finally, dessert made by drummer Dean Muller, a dish of poop and pee (that is, yellow jelly with Picnic bars). The verdict: good enough for $5,000.
The film is an entertaining, remarkably funny, heartfelt and oddly fastidious rock & roll tale unlike any other rock documentary you’ve ever seen. Nothing before has been this engaging and unmistakably Australian. Ross Knight serves the film’s protagonist and the nucleus around which a sideshow universe forms and begins to spiral. Weston engages the raconteur in each of his subjects as they explain the initial formation of the band, their first tour (from which Knight was absent because he thought Europe was for “poofs”), their influence on the grunge scene of Seattle, their various tastes of success including their co-writing credit on a Prodigy song (Prodigy’s album The Fat of the Land included a cover of an L7 song, friends and fans of the Psychos, the song’s chorus was lifted from a Psychos song and as a result the Psychos received co-writing credit on one of the biggest albums of 1997), the untimely death of guitar player Robbie Watts and Ross Knight’s career as an amateur weightlifter (a hobby motivated by his disabled son who often needs to be carried and Knight’s desire to be able to do so into old age).
It features a roll call of alt-rock royalty: Eddie Vedder, Butch Vig, the members of Mudhoney, Ray Ahn of The Hard-Ons and King Buzzo of the Melvins and Fantomas who describes the Psychos’ sound as “late 70s punk rock played through a stereo inside of a muffler of a car dragging down the freeway.” The grown-up boys of Mudhoney describe finding the rather familiar and archetypical Psychos as “exotic.”
The crowd inside the theatre cheer and wail and applaud as they watch the film that they put on the screen. A particularly heart-warming frisson occurs when Ray Ahn describes the Psychos’ role as ambassadors of Australian music when touring Europe. “Alright, Belgium, you’ve got great chocolate and everything but what bands have you got?” his hypothetical sparks something in the crowd, the cheers crescendo as Ahn fires off an extensive list: AC/DC, Rose Tattoo, Radio Birdman, The Saints, The Easybeats, The Living End, INXS, Midnight Oil and on and on and on.
The film is punctuated with genuinely entertaining and funny animated sequences that are employed whenever a yarn should be ripped. For example, Butch Vig’s account of a night spent drinking with the Psychos while recording with them in the US. We observe the three animated Psychos members watch with glee as an engineer attempts to keep up with their alcohol consumption. He was drunk so far under the table, Dante couldn’t imagine it.
A particular highlight comes when Vedder explains “the game.” Taking out an Australian 50 cent piece that he “always carries” with him (“you never know when you the game is going to begin”), he and friend Matt Lukin of Mudhoney and Melvins proceed to demonstrate the game, with Lukin dropping his pants, pinching the coin between his butt cheeks and waddling it over to a glass placed on the floor in the middle of the room, when Lukin unclenches and drops the coin its impact shatters the glass. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened,” says Vedder.
The film and indeed the Psychos themselves embody a spirit that is transcendentally Australian, a pastoral freak show amplified by the gnashing cogs of the music world and the nature of people themselves. They’re a testament to the fact that while “you can take the boy out of the farm…you can’t take the farm out of the boy” and an embodiment of an attitude at once Australian and quintessentially punk: refusing to be anyone but yourself, and they expose it for being a triumph unto itself. So I guess, finishing off my savage journey, I’ll end it in kind: fuck you, rip’n’dig.
Photos by Nicole Reed and Kane Hibberd. Special thanks to Matt Weston and Mishell Vremen.