Cancer in Rats – a critical review of Dave Warner, a very under-valued Australian rock artist

Dave Warner is one of Australia’s rock music’s treasures. In a three year span from 1978 to 1981 Warner released four albums, toured relentlessly (including overseas) and scored a minor national radio hit with the song, Suburban Boy. That is just one period of a music career that cut a swath through Glam, punk, disco and whatever you want to call the 80s!

As part of his following in Perth at the time I can say with some authority that Warner was a rock and roll god. At the Shents of a Friday night and numerous other Perth rock pubs of the times, he held court to hundreds of fervent punters. At one point he was arrested for swearing on stage. (Yes kids, this was back in the day … a day that was not as golden as that already tired expression suggests). The next week he was back on stage, a rapscallion grin on a still boyish face. He informed the crowd that he could not swear for fear of being deported to the UK. So, rather that say the word ‘fuck’ and risk further charges he would replace the swear word with the surname of the magistrate who presided over his case. He then flashed a wicked grin before informing the hushed gathering that the magistrate’s name was Buck. Then he let rip with ‘Carpark’, with the lyric, “I knew I should have dragged him off in the Bucking carpark”! Joyfully, accomplices, one and all, we sang along.

We knew the words, we knew his moves, we knew the play and we loved how he milked it and how he wrung every drop of sweat from himself, his band and his faithful. I might not have bought into the Suburban Army (sorry Dave, a cheesey bridge too far) but I may as well have for every other order I followed. When Warner sang, “do the hop, the Kangaroo Hop” we bloody well hopped. And loved it. They were good times and Warner was the key.

Warner didn’t “make it” in the way The Angels did, or Men At Work or even his Perth nephews (and niece), The Triffids. This is not the essay to ponder the illogicality of that. One factor may have been that Warner’s lyrics were streets ahead of his musical accompaniment. He always had good musicians backing him but there was never a standout player or instrument (sorry Johnny Leopard, more stage character than jaw dropping guitar player). Warner wasn’t the best singer and probably didn’t have a unique enough singing voice (as compared to his writing voice). Speculating off my head, I would even venture to say that he didn’t want the rock and roll life enough to give it the proverbial all or nothing at all.

What he did have and delivered is at risk of being forgotten. It would be a shame if a talent as good as Warner is forgotten in the history of Australian music. Warner is an important songwriter with what should be regarded as an Australian rock and roll legacy. He has left a catalogue of songs that would be the envy of songwriters, well beyond our shores. He is our Warren Zevon, our Glen Tilbrook (look it up), our John Prine, our Billy Bragg. Sadly, Australian rock music still doesn’t have a robust system for remembering its pioneers, its history.

So, why should Warner be regarded that highly? How much is hat and how much is cattle in my argument? Let’s start with Suburban Boy. He never wrote a better melody and riff (that connected with people well beyond his loyal fan-base). This song still has me tapping my foot 35 years after first hearing it. He conjoined it with a story so simple yet universal. It is his I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Except it’s about a kid that reckons that no one wants to hold his hand. And we can all identify with that. Even now, I implore my teenage daughters to consider that dorky kid at a party (or a gathering – it’s what the kids do these days) cracking wise in the corner with his mates rather than the cool guy with the great hair and haircut. They ignore their dad’s advice. The song still resonates.

There are three other songs that I think reinforce why he should not be forgotten (there are many more – I’m a fan FFS – but I’m trying to be objective). First, Convict Streak. It’s an anthem and hellva song to singalong to at his show. At his most recent concert (which this essay is building to) Warner felt the need to explain it was ironic. The lyrics are that strong and challenging. The chorus is a chant, especially for drunk fans. Live, the less interested audience member would miss the subtle but important line that brings the whole song into focus. It is a commentary about the violence underpinning the Australian character and the ignorant, unconscious racism that underlies that character. The verse and lyric are quite clear (and it is brilliant), but you have to know Australian history. I’m not sure, shy of Midnight Oil, there’s a songwriter that has enunciated Australian racist tension better.

“The world began with Adam and Eve
But Australia started at Gallipoli
Our fathers put the desert into Desert Rats
Their uncles slipped the boots in, up in Lambling Flats”.

The other key part of the song is the very first word. Maybe. Following that word the song takes on a defiant, over-confident tone. The sort of tone of a character that is quite unsure of their identity. The song drips with irony and it was curious that Warner needed to explain it. Satire is always a difficult fit.

Quite out of Warner’s soundscape is a song called African Summer. Lyrically, it is Warner at his most playful. I have never heard a definitive live version but I love the song and hang to hear it live. The song plays with the feeling the protagonist has dealing with the intensity of weather in Perth in January. The reference, deliberately, is another continent not another state. The word play is sublime, (Indian Ocean swimmer, swummer, swum under la Narrows … jumping like chimpanzees in their Staggers and Lees … neon bananas) and the tune reeks of a hot summer’s night, trying to score … something. It’s not a white (lite) reggae tune of that era. It’s a west Australian reflection of time and place. With better musical guidance it could perhaps have been ahead of the sort of music Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon went on to explore. As a text, it is still significant marker in how Australian rock music, attempting to blend and morph with funk, developed.

Finally, Joey Black. Is there another songwriter in the world that was as prescient in their observation about the changing face of inner city as Warner was in this song? He identified gentrification but, more importantly, he nails the loss at the heart of a change that has gone on to occur in most western cities across the world. The genius of this song is the choice of protagonist. He doesn’t choose the guy moving in. No, he chooses to write about the guy forced out (“they’ll drink their funny tea say money is for fools, well I tell you I want all the money I can get because that’s the only way a guy like me can get ahead”). For most of Warner’s audience this is the guy we would least identify with. Yet Warner forces the listener to consider Joey’s plight. And in doing so, punctuates emerging pretensions, indicts middle class desires and forecasts a new socio-economic political divide. No mean feat to achieve in 3 minutes and 40 seconds!

Warner played a gig at one of Perth’s last remaining rock pubs, The Charles, on 30 May this year. In one of those sweet coincidences, I happened to be in Perth that same weekend. I was a starter. The last time I saw a Warner gig was in 1998 at the old Continental in Prahran. He killed that night. We had a big old night of it. But in the ensuing years my children have grown to young adults and my hair has thinned and my belly not so much. Warner is in his 60s. Not his fabulous early 80s pub rock musical, ‘The Sensational 60s’ but his actual 60s. Music has long been a second or third bow to his writing career. This gig was either going to be a nice try effort or it was going to cook. It cooked.

Warner played, I think, about 28 songs. That’s Springsteen stamina. He played 6 songs from his breakout record, Mug’s Game, all but one song from his next LP (9), Free Kicks and ten songs from his next two. He also played at least a half a dozen other songs, from his band Pus and covers. Wow, he played over 30 songs!

There are so many highlights. My younger sister Monica and her husband came along. They were too young for Warner back then. At one point, while Warner was singing Australian Heat I lent into my brother –in-law, Dennis’ ear to help him understand the quality of lyrics being sung. The line I whispered was “and Mortein cannot smash that mozzie pipeline to my blood”. To see Dennis’ eyes widen as a wow smile spread across his face was worth the effort. Dennis was sold. Yes, Warner is that good.

Warner is an entertainer, with a EH Holden boot-load of great stories and rocking songs. It would be hard to focus or describe the epitome of this Charles Hotel gig. His breadth of characters and situations is so large. One minute he’s singing about those who belong nowhere living in mining towns beyond the 26th parallel, the next he’s describing a lazy afternoon frolicking with his lover while still attentive to John Arlott, on the radio, with his stories of the 40s from the Oval.

What really caught my attention this time around was how explicit are Warner songs about sex. How clearly, articulately and intimately he captures sexual activity, experience and joy. Four songs in particular. They were the highlights of a night filled with great moments. The songs were, in no particular order, Half Time at the Football, Throbbing Knob, Hot Crutch and Old Stock Road.
I would suggest that Warner was identifying his own raging hormones, but in doing so he has captured the teenager/twentysomething experience. I know the songs well but I have never considered how they stand together. Plato would have been proud of Warner’s exploration, observations and findings in relation to young, unsophisticated sexual experiences. Warner is, funny, witty, honest and embarrassingly frank to boot. To hear them as a 50 year old is to hear them anew. A part of you goes with the vivid detail, while a larger (older) part of you checks how loud you are mouthing the words.

The songs have aged well and Warner must feel justifiably proud of both how they sound live and what they are on about. This is not nudge-nudge nonsense. This is the heat of the night (or afternoon or even pants). Male and female experiences. With nary a gendered power imbalance in the lustful goings-on. It is literally revved up teenage hormones in the driver’s seat. Passion a plenty, romp without pomp. The songs don’t overstay their welcome (even if Half Time or Throbbing Knob are drawn out, rollicking audience participation pieces). During Throbbing Knob Warner had us mimicking early 70s Perth dance moves!

Dave Warner’s Charles Hotel, WA Day Demolition gig was a classic. If this essay has neglected to mention the band (including Dick Haynes!) it is not because they lacked in any way. They motored Warner’s tales of lust and betrayal, of dreams and shortcomings, reaching for the brass ring and falling for the mug’s game. They rocked. Warner was on fire. He seared through songs like UK Euchred and Yella In Me, slowed the joint right down for the tender Bicton Breezes and Campus Days and fairly raised the roof with his anthems.

Belying the rocking good fun is an artist of a talent (especially when captured across the canvas of this sprawling gig) so impressive as to wonder why he isn’t a household name. If wit, insight, social awareness and heightened language skills are ingredients that make up the best writers a country and a time can produce then step up Mr Warner.

This gig gave us so much and still Warner could leave out songs that are the equal to or better than songs played. That is a measure of talent. Warner’s well is over-flowing with choices. Lonely Bar-room Crawler didn’t get a guernsey. Neither did Buried in my own Backyard. Fine songs. Then there’s the B-side to Australia Heat, Summer of 78. We are now in the territory of all-time best Warner songs. Finally, Cancer in Rats. As Warner sings, “these are some of the amazing things that make me sick but they don’t produce cancer in rats”. He then drives full bore through the pretensions and prejudices bedeviling modern times, returning to the chorus (sung by the audience) before he’s off again. It would have been interesting to hear his insights of the moment the world is mired in right now.

The show was a ripper. It was great to see Warner rocking out. I relived my youth but also discovered another depth to Warner’s recordings. I urge you go fossick for his stuff. There is cultural gold in them there records.

About Rick Kane

Up in the mornin’, out on the job
Work like the devil for my pay
But that lucky old sun has nothin’ to do
But roll around Heaven all day

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    As if I’d have to look up Glen Tilbrook.

    My favourite is Mug’s Game; Campus Days still resonates

    Always liked his anti-Springsteen reference to “subway stations / TV stations” in Suburban Boy.

    Ripper Slim

  2. Brilliant piece, Trucker, I love your passion for Dave Warner’s music.
    I saw Dave play at a couple of Perth pubs in the mid-1980s and agree when you say that although he has a good voice, his lyrics are his massive strong point.
    No surprise at all that he’s written a few good murder-mystery novels, particularly City of Light (Perth in the 1980s) and Big Bad Blood (Sydney in the 1960s).

  3. So what’s wrong with being in the Suburban Army? I wear my Sergeant badge with pride!
    I was one of his regulars at the Shents in the late ’70, early ’80’s Surprisingly, I was never asked my age at the door.
    Maybe it was Dave’s influence that I now live in Bicton. I like to think of myself as The Girl from Bicton… ;-)

  4. Thanks for this Rick.

    You’ve educated me on the significant catalogue of DW. An early, telling memory was hearing as an adolescent his signature tune on Adelaide’s then only rock music station, the now Three D Radio. I found it a gripping, local song that wore its identity proudly.

    As always, you’ve given me and others plenty of homework.

  5. One of my favourite Dave Warner ongs was ‘Half time at the Football.” Can anyone imagine him performing this at the AFL Grand Final ?

    Glen!

  6. Gotta love your enthusiam, Rick. And your knowledge. And your perspective. And your passion. As Mickey Randall says, you’ve given us plenty of homework.

  7. Sean Gorman says:

    A tour de force Rickster. I will be forwarding to Alsy Mac and some other like minded WA muso’s.

  8. Have to agree ” Just a suburban boy. ” is a classic and should rank highly in any line up of Australian songs just as” City of Light ” is in the classic mode of crime thillers and deserves to be ranked with anything published by the likes of Peter Corris , Gary Disher etc
    Dave Warner is fine talent and deserves wider recognition for his work

  9. King Karutz says:

    All these Friday nights …

    Love to see Dave play at the G on the last Saturday in September… Fremantle versus West Coast Eagles

  10. Dr Rocket says:

    Half-Time-at-the-Football at half-time of the Grand Final.

    I’d like to see that!

  11. Trucker Slim says:

    Hi

    Thanks for the very supportive comments.

    Swish – not surprised you know Glen Tilbrook :) By the way, Graham Parker has just released a new record (Mystery Glue) as well.

    Fitzroy Pete – live, at his peak, in the 80s, he ruled Perth. The intro to Worst Day (from Mug’s Game) recorded live at Melbourne Uni in the late 70s shows just how dynamic and witty and aware he was/is.

    Lori – respect! A sergeant. Brilliant. We must have been at the same pubs many times. Great times.

    Mickey – from what I understand of your interest in music I reckon you’ll find may delights in Warner’s catalogue

    Glen, King Karutz, Dr Rocket – wouldn’t that be a sight to see? With audience participation. The Southern Stand making the fire engine noise, the Members chanting, “we don’t know what’s going on” etc. The meaning of footy writ large!

    Vin – next job, getting something on to Stereo Stories. Lori, I reckon you’d have a few great stories to tell

    Terry – you do wonder how his work seems to have slipped through the cracks. Hopefully, this piece is one small part of a greater effort to restore his critical recognition

    Sean – cheers and trust they enjoy it. They’ll certainly understand the circumstances for how the Perth music scene developed through the 70s and 80s, despite the significant wall of cover band mentality that originals bands had to surmount or smash through.

  12. Dave Nadel says:

    I used to see Dave Warner when he came to Melbourne in the late 70s. I remember going with Tony Roberts to see Dave at Martini’s a long gone venue in Rathdowne St. Carlton.He was great live. I have several of his records and they are very good but not as good as Dave was live.

    City of Light was an excellent book. I thought about it last month when Alan Bond died. I also think that Dave’s writing about football in City of Light is close to the best fictional writing about football that I have read.

  13. Dennis Gedling says:

    Some genuinely wonderful lyrics written over time. Too bad he is a passionate supporter of Old Easts.

  14. Have been reminiscing online about Leopard and this popped up. Listening to Mug’s Game as I type. Avoiding parenting. Now THAT’s a Mug’s Game…

  15. Witnessed Dave’s show at the Leopold on Saturday night. Great to see him perform again after nearly 30 years. Last time was on a Swan river cruise boat.
    Great write up Trucker. I could feel the love. Dave is surely one of our greatest song writers who captured Australian life so succinctly.

  16. Dave Warner’s great guitar side kick was Johnny Leopard.

    Is he still around?

    Glen!

  17. Sadly no. PLayed his last solo a few years back :(

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