undergroundOVERCONSUMPTION with the Underground Lovers

Melbourne in early 2001 is a fantastic time and place to be a fan of the Underground Lovers (or undergroundLOVERS, as some of their CD covers have it). In the space of a month we've seen the release of lead singer Vince Giarrusso's new film Mallboy, the soundtrack of same, a series of interviews and reviews in the local papers about both, live performances by the band, and a new live CD for sale at those gigs. It's enough to make their die-hard fans (among whom I certainly number myself) deliriously happy.

Mallboy, the film

I began my month's undergroundOVERCONSUMPTION with a viewing of Mallboy at the Hoyts cinemas in Northland, the giant Melbourne mall where half of it was filmed. Recognising locations that were just down the escalators or out in the carpark certainly added to the enjoyment.

'Enjoyment', though, isn't a word that immediately springs to mind when considering Mallboy. Appreciation, certainly; this is a fine film. But the difficult lives of these characters can at times be hard to watch. Giarrusso has drawn on the experience of his day-job as a social worker to paint a picture of Australia's working—or not-working—underclass, and the cumulative effect is like watching Ken Loach raised to the power of Mike Leigh. It's appropriate that SBS was a part-sponsor; this will fit right into their programming schedules alongside the latest grim and gritty dramas from Iran and Eastern Europe.

Which is not to say that it's exaggerated. Mallboy is a fair portrayal of the limited opportunities many Australians face in a wealthy consumer society, for which the looming monolith of Northland is the perfect symbol. (Giarrusso uses his locations with great flair, squeezing every last atmospheric moment out of a tiny A$1.1 million budget—about half a million US dollars.)

It's primarily a character study, of a boy and his mother, with other friends and family drifting in and out. Kane McNay is impressive as Shaun, the mallboy, showing more range and depth than in his better-known role in SeaChange; vacant, angry, passionate, mixed-up—he's the essence of fifteenness.

Nell Feeney has an equally demanding role as Shaun's mother Jenny. A drug-taking single mum is a difficult role to portray sympathetically, but Feeney (and of course writer-director Giarrusso) manages it well. Jenny is somewhere in her mid-30s but already has adult children; her eldest daughter is heavily pregnant throughout the film. The demands of motherhood and drugs have made her prematurely old, but she's still capable of acting young, as in one key and hilarious party scene of a bunch of '70s refugees dancing to Suzi Quatro. The bemused and disgusted reaction of her kids speaks beautifully to the timelessness of generation gaps.

Shaun's father is just out of jail, and behaves less than admirably towards Jenny and ultimately Shaun; but here, too, we see glimpses of decency. None of Giarrusso's characters are one-dimensional stereotypes. Not even the friends of Shaun wagging school or the friends of Jenny who catch them doing it.

There's not much of a plot, and the 'upbeat' ending feels like it's probably a false dawn, but that's not the point. Giarrusso has painted a portrait of an Australian culture that's too rarely portrayed on our big or small screens. The closest movie we've had to this has been Idiot Box, but in portraying young teenagers instead of young adults Giarrusso has heightened the poignancy of the situation: these characters are still children, children who have been given precious few choices in life. The sense that they are doomed to be trapped in the same cycle as their parents—reinforced by the presence of the pregnant sister—makes Mallboy a depressing film, but also a wise one. No easy answers are offered. For too many people, life isn't easy.

Mallboy, the soundtrack

Adding to the aimless, gritty atmosphere of Mallboy is its soundtrack by Giarrusso's band, the Underground Lovers, which has been released in its entirety (as guitarist Glenn Bennie says, 'dumped from the hard drive onto disc with minimal tweaking') by Silvertone Records.

Giarrusso has said in interviews that he and Bennie originally intended to score the film traditionally, with orchestra, but were dissuaded from doing so by RMIT academic (and sound designer for the movie) Philip Brophy. The result is, one suspects, far better at imparting 'the interior world of the main character Shaun' than orchestras would have been, and it's refreshing that Giarrusso avoided filling the soundtrack with 'peer group pressure music' as a shortcut to evoking Shaun's teenage world.

As a stand-alone album, though, it's fairly forgettable; the music of the Lovers needs the lyrics and more formal structure of the songs on their studio albums, rather than this improvised cloud of guitars. The 'Trackies' remix by Pauly B provides an upbeat dance-number to end the disk, but seems out of place next to what comes before it.

The album does make a fine souvenir of the movie, though, and is very reasonably priced compared to most soundtracks. Undies fans will, of course, scoop it up.

Live at the Evelyn, Fitzroy, 10 February 2001

It was with great anticipation that I rolled up to the Evelyn Hotel on a Saturday night and paid my twelve bucks to see the Underground Lovers. I'd tried to see them twice before and, for one reason and another, had failed miserably. This time I wasn't missing out; I turned up before the doors opened, patiently watched the support band Gersey (who were clearly modelling themselves on the Lovers, but had some way to go yet), and bopped to the jazzy filler music until the Lovers themselves came onstage at twenty minutes to midnight.

A first shock was realising that the guy I'd always guessed from the cover-photos was Glenn Bennie in fact wasn't; the real Glenn Bennie was looking considerably less gaunt and much more comfortably middle-aged. But there's no mistaking that cavernous Bennie sound. The opening riff from the Mallboy soundtrack showed it off to excellent effect.

As Bennie (and bassist Emma Bortignon and drummer Andrew Nunns) played, singer Vince Giarrusso was grooving behind his mike and keyboards, eyes closed and arms twisting—another sight you won't see on the album covers. It was worth the price of entry alone to see this man who has been playing with this band for over ten years still getting off on the music; the feeling was definitely infectious.

Then it was Giarrusso's turn to take central stage, singing a crop of new songs. Fantastic new songs. Upbeat, powerful, rocking new songs: the songs of a band, as opposed to the solo synths of their last studio album, Cold Feeling. If these are anything to go by, the next album will be their finest in years.

The lyrics continue to surprise and entertain. 'Adults Only Own Entertainment' tells us that 'All the kids are out of control/On sex and drugs and hamburger rolls', a delicious twist on our clichéd expectations. But Giarrusso doesn't even need lyrics to get a vocal groove going, as he proved with an awesome performance of 'Theme from GBVG' from side-project album Whitey Trickstar. 'Ma ma-ma ma ma ma-ma-ma-ma-ma' was all he needed and all we needed.

He followed it with a keyboard reworking of Losin' It that was pure Cure, thanks to Bortignon's solid basswork. Towards the end Bennie joined in at the keyboard, swapping floppies in and out of a disk drive, until judging from the expression on his face he swapped in the wrong one and the song really lost it—but gloriously so.

The band took a break—too soon, too soon—before returning for a couple of 'oldies'. These proved to be two of my favourite songs from my favourite Lovers album, 'On and On and On and On' and 'Takes You Back'. After being called back to the stage a second time by the crowd, they rounded out the night with 'Beautiful World' from Dream It Down, performed beautifully—as it all was.

Some of us tried to call them back again—I wanted to hear every song they ever wrote, dammit—but they'd already given us one and a half hours of fine music. I left feeling satisfied at last: third time lucky, indeed.

The best thing I took away with me that night was the feeling that here were two musicians—Bennie and Giarrusso—who have been through the rock-and-roll treadmill and have stayed true to themselves and their art. They've had the brief brush with international fame—a short-lived signing with 4AD in the UK, a couple of Triple J hits in the early 1990s—but it faltered, pretty much, and it's clear that their music is unlikely to click with the 'Mainstream' (as they recognised, with tongues firmly in cheeks, when they named their independent record label just that). Yet they continue to release excellent work to an appreciative audience. That they have released six studio albums, several singles, a couple of EPs, and now a soundtrack and a live album, all over the space of a decade, is a testament to their perseverance and dedication to the music.

The world may not have discovered them, but to those who have, the Underground Lovers are more than entertainment, they're an inspiration.

Evil. Underground Lovers 94.97

The best thing about turning up to Saturday's gig early was that I was guaranteed a copy of their new live CD, which is only on sale at their gigs. (Even better, I finally had a chance to grab a copy of Vince Giarrusso's book of lyrics and short fiction, Rushall Station, and to grab the man himself—who was standing at the bar nearby—for an autograph on the title page.)

Evil is a great document of the live Lovers experience, and for those of us who missed seeing them in 1994 and 1996 (damn, damn, damn) gives the opportunity to hear the live work of past long-term members like Maurice Argiro and Philippa Nihill. Some elements of the classic Lovers sound left with them, but the GBVG heart remains...

The one track from Evil that I've seen played live, 'Theme from GBVG', actually doesn't capture the power of their live performance, mainly because Giarrusso's vocals are mixed too far down. But Evil remains a good live album from an excellent live band. If you get the chance, you owe it to yourself to see and hear both.

A Postscript

Since I bought it in that moment of completist fan-frenzy on Saturday night, I decided to actually read Rushall Station, all 80 slim pages of it, and I enjoyed what I read. This wasn't hard, seeing that most of it consisted of lyrics to songs I know and love. But the excerpts from The Bogstar Ritual, which has the makings of a classic comic exposé of the music industry if it ever finds a publisher, were also thoroughly enjoyable; and Giarrusso's imagined portrayal of the office politics behind an infamous Rolling Stone review of the Underground Lovers' best album (never named, but instantly recognisable to those who know the album and its review), was a masterpiece of black comedy, written in acid. He wuz robbed, but Rushall Station (the book) is certainly an entertaining form of revenge.


This page: 13 February 2001; last modified 16 February 2001.

©2001 Rory Ewins