Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 08/06/2003.
Being a somewhat outdated description of what we did when we visited Melbourne and Sydney in Spring 2003 - or, as they amusingly call it, "Autumn". This piece should be read in conjunction with the report on the Melbourne Comedy Festival 2003.
I don't regret calling Heath Ledger "six foot of fuck all in a beard", by the way. It was true back then: the tragedy is, at the time of his death he was becoming a very interesting actor indeed. So it goes.
Well I was sick of the girls and I was sick of the game / And I know Alzheimer's is a goddamn shame / But I still think it's cute when she forgets her name / Or tries to remember mine / And the years go by and our loving grows / Just like the hairs on her chin or the warts on her toes / Her best years may be behind / But still she's 75, she's beautiful and she's mine.
It's surprising what you can hear on the radio at 8.30 in the morning, isn't it? (And that's before we get to the verse about what they did after she died.)
Then again, maybe it's not so surprising if you're in Australia, which is where The Belated Birthday Girl and I went on holiday in April 2003 - primarily Melbourne for the Comedy Festival, with a few days in Sydney thrown in at the end. As is our wont, we attempted to fit in all manner of Australian cultural experiences so we could tell you about them. And a constant fixture during those two and a bit weeks was the Triple J Radio breakfast show, hosted by Adam Spencer and Wil Anderson. Triple J is the ABC's Yoof Station, with a working brief to concentrate on new music: and from what we heard they're doing a pretty good job, kicking up a filthy racket even in the early hours of the morning. Visiting as we were in the middle of Gulf War 2, Adam and Wil's take on current events was particularly refreshing. Back home, Danny Baker's BBC London breakfast show had been pulled off the air for the duration of hostilities, to be replaced by a daily three-hour phone-in with right-wing fuckoon Jon Gaunt. Meanwhile, Triple J were baiting John Howard and his allies with Good Morning Baghdad!, an occasional series of short sketches with a definite anti-war bent.
Frenzal Rhomb - the people responsible for 60, Beautiful And Mine, the ode to sexagenarian sex quoted above - are fairly typical of Triple J's musical output. At first glance you'd imagine that the album Sans Souci, with tracks like the pro-drugs anthem Stand Up And Be Cunted, is nothing more than an Australian version of the sort of thing The Macc Lads used to do over here. But the ugly misogyny that makes the Lads unbearable is totally absent, and the plugs for PETA and anti-racist organisations in the sleeve notes (not to mention the bonus DVD in which they can be seen smashing Ronald McDonald's face in with a TV set) imply there's a social conscience carefully buried under the jokes. And there are a lot of jokes: songs like I Went Out With A Hippy And Now I Love Everybody Apart From Her don't make the typical mistake of coasting on a funny title, they also manage to get in a whole clutch of funny lines ("I passively resist your coup / Now I love everyone but you") and a tune that puts all those American teenage faux-punks to shame.
I ended up buying Frenzal Rhomb's CD on the basis of that one song heard on the radio: but in the case of Machine Gun Fellatio, I didn't hear a single note prior to purchase, going solely on the strength of the band's name (plus a recommendation by the guy at the record store in the Darling Harbour mall, whose band rehearses next door to them). Compared with Frenzal Rhomb's slightly adolescent approach to sex, this is full-on grown-up sleaze - you suspect they really have Done It With Dirty Ladies, and it comes through in the music. On their most recent album 2nd Page For Mr Strike (a reissue of 2002's Paging Mr Strike plus a bonus CD of b-sides and remixes), even a track with the inexcusable title of Sick With The Taste (Of Truckers' Come) is redeemed by its creepy funk backing. Plus, in a couple of songs like the ballad My Ex-Girlfriend's Boyfriend, there's some genuine wit involved. MGF appear to be visiting London in September 2003, and I'm seriously tempted.
You may be getting the impression that Australian music nowadays is all guitars and obscenity. That's not strictly the case, although there may be some truth in the bit about the obscenity. Even the breezy top ten pop of Lovesong, the excellent debut solo single by Puretone's vocalist Amiel Daemion, pulls you up short when its chorus sarcastically thanks a former lover for providing her with material for "another fucking lovesong". In fact, the only record I bought over there that didn't have a Parental Advisory sticker was Hotel Radio by David Bridie. Bridie first came to our attention when he appeared as a guest at the Scared Weird Little Guys comedy show in Melbourne: he was obviously a Deeply Serious Recording Artiste, but still threw himself into the silliness quite gleefully, which I found rather endearing. Bridie's probably sick of being labelled an Australian Peter Gabriel, but the label fits: an introspective feel to much of his music, a willingness to experiment with influences from all over the world, a quietly understated political edge coming through in the lyrics of songs like Stumble Away.
Comedy Festival commitments stopped us from seeing any live music in Melbourne, but we did have a couple of nights free in Sydney to check out the concert scene. At one extreme, the Metro had a gig featuring two quirky trios (God's own band structure - well, if it's good enough for him…). The Beautiful Girls were Australian, and got instant bonus points for coming on stage with tea cosies on their heads and saying "hi, we're Badly Drawn Boy from England". As well as their own rather cool songs, they also did the why-hasn't-anyone-thought-of-doing-this-before medley of Guns Of Brixton and Dub Be Good To Me. (The headliners G Love and Special Sauce were equally fine, but as mere Philadelphians - sorry Carole - they don't get a review here.) And at the other extreme, we also visited the Sydney Opera House for a rare performance of Bach's long-lost St Mark Passion - or at least the bits we know Bach wrote, tied together with other people's filler material. There's at least one choral section in the resulting composite that's a complete steal from the composer's better-known St Matthew Passion. By comparison, this is a lesser work - Christ's death in Matthew is marked by a transcendental choral passage, while at the equivalent point in Mark we get an aria along the lines of "everything's gonna be all right". Still, beautifully performed, and it showed off the acoustics of one of the world's leading concert halls a treat. (Not to mention the clinical efficiency of its bar service.)
As usual, movies were fairly high on our cultural agenda during this trip. At the time, Ned Kelly was making the headlines as the next great white hope of Australian cinema: understandable, given the naff domestic comedies that tend to be their main product. (Recent examples include ethnic hitman farce Beware Of Greeks Bearing Guns, and the terrifying sounding You Can't Stop The Murders about a serial killer inspired by the Village People.) A new version of the Kelly legend is guaranteed to go down well with the locals - its release coincided with the excellent Kelly Culture exhibition at the Victoria State Library, looking at his appearances in paintings, music, literature and film. And I'd assumed that the story was well-known worldwide, until an American passenger on one of our tour buses claimed he'd never heard of Kelly. "Did he kill people?" he asked our bus driver, and I swear he got the reply "just a couple of cops..."
Ned Kelly is reasonably faithful to the original story, I think (though my main historical reference here is Peter Carey's novel True Story Of The Kelly Gang, which may be somewhat flawed). It covers all the key events - the initial run-ins with the police, the daring raids, the taunting letters to the authorities, the armoured-up last stand. It's very watchable, but suffers badly from the casting of Heath Ledger in the lead. He plays the same role here as he did in The Four Feathers: to whit, Six Foot Of Fuck All In A Beard. Orlando Bloom, the elf himself (© Sergeant Todd), does better as the ladies man of the Kelly Gang, and Naomi Watts does what she can with a thankless love interest role: but they can't work around the gaping vortex at the centre, where there should be a hugely charismatic figure. Only a completely talentless director could mess up Kelly's final hours, and Gregor Jordan certainly isn't that: the finale is the point where the film finally delivers. Unfortunately, that's a bit late in the day, and all too often it's content to fall back on OTT animal symbolism and the pipes and dancing clichés of crap movie Oirishry. Still, you should be able to see for yourselves when the film gets a global release later in 2003.
On the other hand, most of the films made in Australia nowadays will never see the light of the Northern Hemisphere, as they're broad comedies made purely for domestic consumption. So we headed off to see Fat Pizza, a movie based on a popular TV sitcom about the various ethnic stereotypes who work for a pizza delivery firm. And by God, it's terrible: a farrago of wog jokes, poof jokes, cripple jokes, fat bird jokes, shit jokes (both varieties), and I'm sure that if they'd been able to drag out post-production a little longer they'd have got some SARS jokes out of the Asian immigrants responsible for one of the subplots. Your jaw drops as one of the Lebanese delivery boys is beaten up by a white cop with the cry "that's for September 11th", but the film's got a lot further down to go, notably the bit where lead character Pauly tries to shake off some asylum seekers by saying "there's some money in those trees over there".
Bizarrely, all the swearing in the film's been replaced by comedy foghorn noises: writer/director/star Paul Fenech says they had to cut either the language or the drugs references to avoid an R rating that would keep the teenagers out. I can see why he made the choice he did, because without the drugs references this film would only last five minutes. There are two gags that work for a non-Australian audience: some predictably tasteless fun involving a dingo and a baby (it's not set up with any great lightness of touch - in fact, it's like watching tectonic plates move - but the predictability is part of the joke), and a surprisingly abrupt ending that's either a piece of post-Godardian anti-narrative genius or a cockup by the projectionist. Thankfully, I suspect that a film where the Queen gets shagged doggy-style by a cleaner at the Sydney Opera House has virtually no chance of making it over to the UK.
I didn't want my opinion of Australian comedy movies to be coloured by one bad example, so I picked up The Nugget on DVD while I was over there and watched it on my return. It's a rather sweet story (made in 2002) about three mates who work on the roads for the council. When they discover a four-foot nugget of gold, it has a slowly corrosive effect on their friendship: although given the nature of this film, it quickly becomes apparent that despite the moralising, there will be simultaneous possession and consumption of cake by the end. The Nugget's directed by Bill Bennett, who had a minor impact here a few years ago with Kiss Or Kill but hasn't had a release in this hemisphere since then: that debut was a fascinatingly hard-edged thriller, which couldn't be further away from this amiable fluff. For non-Aussies, it's most notable for the presence of Eric Bana in the lead, who's rather charming in films where he isn't required to be psychopathic (Chopper) or green (Hulk). It teeters on the edge of stereotyping when it gets to the Chinese wife of one of the gang, but for the most part it's good-humoured enough to keep you chuckling.
And now, as has become traditional in these pieces (i.e. for the second time ever), here's The Belated Birthday Girl with her roundup of the best in Australian food and drink.
Melbourne apparently keeps winning some "The World's Most Livable City" award, and it's very easy to see why. The scale of the place is manageable, the grid system combined with the trams makes it very easy to get around. And then there's eating. To start with, Melbourne has to be one of the best places I've been for getting breakfast. Whether it's just a slice of raisin toast, or eggs done any way you want, there seemed in the centre of Melbourne to be no end of choices.
Although it seems a shame to miss out some of the places we had breakfast, there are three which really stand out in my memory. Verve (177 Little Collins Street) is the first clothes shop I've ever been served breakfast in, and very nice it was too. You could have anything from raisin toast, to muesli, to scrambled eggs. We had scrambled eggs on toast, with excellent coffee. Nicely served, too, on almost Japanese-esque earthenware dishes. Just down the road is the terrific Hairy Canary (212 Little Collins Street). This place is open right through until late into the night and is a fashionable - and popular - bar-cum-restaurant. Their breakfast menu is extensive and everything we sampled was terrific. Although the first time round the service was a bit slow (and they forgot the extra bacon on Spank's mushrooms on toast), on our second visit everything was just right. The other Melbourne breakfast really worth a mention was Cafe Da Capo (City Square), a pleasant spot also for a coffee in the afternoon. Again, a wide range of breakfast choices are available, and the day we ate there I was so filled up by my breakfast I didn't want to eat again until very much later.
Of course, there's more to life than breakfast, and we had plenty of other very good meals in Melbourne. Toofey's Seafood Restaurant (162 Elgin Street, Carlton) is known as one of the city's best seafood restaurants, and deservedly so. The fish was terrific quality, and cooked to perfection, and the atmosphere was very sleek, but not stuffy. This was probably the best meal we had on our trip. The other place which has to be mentioned is Walter's Wine Bar (upper level, Southgate). Walter's is on the waterfront, and we booked a table by the window through their web-site. The food was very good, although perhaps not as outstanding as I had hoped it would be: but I happened to choose very well with the wine, a bottle of Pierro Chardonnay from Margaret River - one of the top Australian Chardonnays, and something rather special. Also worth visiting in Melbourne are Rosati (95, Flinders Lane), which had good food and a very good wine list (especially the Ralph Fowler Sauvignon Blanc, and the very Claret-like Yarra Edge Cabernet blend): and The Portland Hotel (127 Russell Street), notable for being where Spank first sampled kangaroo loin (or, as he insists on calling it, "Skippy crotch").
I couldn't go all the way to Australia without doing a trip to the vineyards, so while in Melbourne we did the Yarra Valley Winery Tour, visiting five wineries over a single day. We started out at Domaine Chandon, where rather than the usual tasting of a selection of wines, we had to choose a full glass of just one. I went for the Blanc de Blancs, which was very good, but Spank went for the far more interesting and unusual red sparkling Pinot Shiraz: it was all Shiraz on the nose, but the pinot came through much more on the palate, and there was only a hit of pepper from the Shiraz right at the end. Very unusual and definitely very worth trying. At Domaine Chandon, our guide also did a whole tour of the winery, explaining the processes and showing us some of it in action. Lunch was at De Bortoli, and was excellent - we both went for the gnocchi - plus we got to sample a wide range of their table wines before lunch, and a few of their fortifieds after. Of these, the one which sticks in the memory was the Black Noble: strong black treacle flavour but very grapey, too. In between and after we went to Punt Road, Tarrawarra (who make Tin Cows, worth it for the label alone, and a range of Kosher wines), and Yarra Ridge. Our guide was very helpful and well-informed, and although the fifth winery is possibly one more than necessary, it made for a good day's wine tasting.
And so to Sydney. To be fair, we really didn't have enough time there to get a real appreciation of the city, and I think that's especially true of the eating out. We did have a couple of decent seafood dinners around Darling Harbour, the first at Nick's Seafood Restaurant (The Promenade, Cockle Bay Wharf), and the second at Jordon's International Seafood Restaurant (197 Harbourside, Darling Harbour): the latter surprisingly good, given that the atmosphere was very family restaurant. But by far the best meal we had in Sydney was a Yum Cha breakfast (the local name for Dim Sum). We picked The Emperor's Garden Seafood Restaurant (100 Hay Street, Haymarket) at random from the many Chinatown restaurants serving Yum Cha, and it was very good indeed. The only problem was just wanting to eat more than was possible, but there was plenty of tea to wash it all down. Later that day we had dinner at the revolving restaurant at Sydney Tower Restaurants (Centrepoint, 100 Market Street). We had the buffet, which was OK, but you're definitely up there for the view, not the food. The one other place which really derives a mention is Shakespeare's Pies (13 The Corso, Manly). It was just a High Street take-away with a couple of tables, but the pies (including a selection of veggie options) were excellent. It's one place we actually had planned on going to before we ever left London: I think Weebl definitely has that one to answer for.
So, lots of good eating and drinking, especially in Melbourne. Other Melbourne places which I wish I had room to mention properly are Café Chinotto (Federation Square), where I had possibly the best mussels I've ever had anywhere, and Funkfish Cafe (also Federation Square), excellent for proper fish & chips. I'd happily go back to Melbourne for the food & drink alone, and would like to give Sydney a shot at impressing as much.
Me again. Heading into the hideously unstructured Miscellaneous section of this round-up, we have a trip to the theatre in Sydney. Andrew Bovell's play Speaking In Tongues is nearly ten years old, but has acquired a new lease of life off the back of Lantana, its award-winning film adaptation. The stage version has some major structural differences, most notably the cracking opening: two couples have one-night stands with each other's partners, and both nights are played out on stage simultaneously, with overlapping and echoed lines. Like the film, the play delves interestingly into issues of trust in relationships, albeit in a more humorous fashion (notably in the way the various coincidences in the plot are handled). It falls down in the second act, where the cast of four play five new characters previously mentioned in passing, and flesh out their stories - it feels superfluous after the unforced closure of Act 1, even though this is the part of the play where the main plots of Lantana came from. But the doubled-up cast all have their moments, with Nicki Wendt having the best of them.
It was The Belated Birthday Girl's idea to catch some Australian Rules football while we were in Melbourne, given that it's the home of the sport. A panic speedread of Aussie Rules For Dummies - honestly, it's a real book, written by Jim Main, $39.95 - proved to be a surprisingly good preparation for seeing Carlton v Essendon at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Knowing the basic scoring system and how 'marks' work is enough to keep you focussed on the game. However, I can't understand the British reputation of the game being Aussie No-Rules - it would appear that there are endless fouls and obscure penalty rulings that seem to exist solely to give the crowd something to yell at the referees about, like a more physical version of Mornington Crescent. But despite the crowd getting mightily loud and annoyed at times, it never gets rude: the worst we got was a chant of 'Lloyd is a wanker' in response to a couple of unpunished fouls by Essendon's number 18.
It turned out that Carlton had everything to play for, as they'd only won three games in the previous season, ending up with the wooden spoon for the first time in the team's history. The result was a real back-and-forth match: I eventually gave up trying to support one side or the other, and just cheered for anyone who was good at the time. The final quarter played out in torrential rain, giving a vague Seven Samurai feel to the proceedings: and there was a major outburst of joy as Carlton finally pulled it off with a 15.15-13.16 win (that's a win of 105 points to 94, as any fule kno). And three cheers for the MCG too, a great-looking venue that manages to pull off the thing that UK stadia can rarely manage, keeping all its punters stuffed with pies and beer with virtually no queueing.
But for sheer balls-out family entertainment, there's very little on earth that can touch The Royal Easter Show in Sydney, an enormous mixture of old-fashioned country displays and nakedly commercial entertainment. The agricultural show side of things is a traditional stinky collection of prizewinning livestock, including pigs, cows and goats, though the kids seemed slightly more impressed by the domestic pets they could fondle for themselves. The kids also got to fondle some of Australia's scarier animals, courtesy of Anthony Stimson and his collection of baby snakes and crocodiles. The much hyped pig-racing event (oh yes) picked up all the advance press, but the resulting huge crowds made it almost impossible to see two races that lasted six seconds apiece - though the climax of a pig high-diving into a tub of water nearly made up for the disappointment. And traditional Australian skills like woodcutting were on display in competitions, culminating in an international relay chopping contest between Australia, NZ and USA. The commentator said "each year the Americans just get better and better", which is amusing given that they came last. (Australia and NZ pulled off a spectacular dead heat that couldn't even be resolved on video. Hmmmm.)
And alongside, there's the more commercial stuff. There's the fine old tradition of the showbag: huge goody bags (usually $40's worth of gifts in a $16 bag) to keep the kids happy. I picked up WWF, Hot Wheels and Teletubbies bags for Spank's Nephews and his Very Small Niece, before the BBG could point out they'd take up half the space in my suitcase. She was happier with a stroll round the Food and Drink Pavilion, tasting all the various chillis, olive oils and other nibbles on offer. The day climaxed in a cavalcade of oversized entertainment in the main arena. Singer Scott Mellish performing from the back of a pick-up truck driving round the circumference: some breathtaking precision driving and motocross stunts: and a gloriously tacky arena-sized theatre piece called Jemma: Spirit Of The Outback, featuring dancers, acting (horse riders miming to taped dialogue, gesticulating wildly so that people at the back of the arena could see who's meant to be talking) and animal stunts. Finally, a fabulously OTT firework display which simultaneously finished off both the show and our holiday, leaving me pleasantly weary with exhaustion and minor sunstroke.
So, that's another travel piece completed for the site. That makes it four continents we've ticked off so far: so if anyone has any recommendations for things to do in Africa, let us know. It would somehow seem appropriate for me to be there. Being a monkey, and all.
British Airways flew us to Australia and back: in fact the outward journey was a codeshare with Qantas, which probably explains why it was quite a bit nicer than the return. But the real revelation in terms of air travel on this trip came from Virgin Blue, responsible for our flights between Melbourne and Sydney: they could teach easyJet a thing or two about how to make domestic flights both efficient and enjoyable. If only Virgin could run their shitty British trains to the same standard...
The Victoria Hotel in Melbourne was our base for the Comedy Festival, and you couldn't hope for a better one: reasonably priced, within walking distance of all the main comedy venues, and they even had a couple of shows in the basement of the hotel itself. Our equivalent hotel in Sydney was the Aarons Hotel in Chinatown, again scoring highly on both location and value: their site has virtual tours of all the key areas of the hotel, including the bottle shop.
Lonely Planet, Time Out and Rough Guide were our guide books of choice (in descending order of usefulness, as far as information about Australia goes). The Belated Birthday Girl was particularly pleased with Lonely Planet's Out To Eat [dead link] restaurant guide for Melbourne. For arts and entertainment listings, the Citysearch pages for Melbourne and Sydney have all you need.
Triple J Radio, part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, are responsible for Adam and Wil's Breakfast Show [five years on, the breakfast show's now being run by a team that includes Lindsay McDougall from Frenzal Rhomb]. If you want to hear it for yourself, you can listen to a live audio stream - the Breakfast Show runs from 6am to 9am (Melbourne time) Monday to Friday, so do the sums and tune in to hear it. Alternatively, the Breakfast Show Grab Bag [dead link] has some downloadable highlights for you, including the Good Morning Baghdad! skits.
Frenzal Rhomb, Machine Gun Fellatio [dead link], Amiel, David Bridie and The Beautiful Girls have their own sites, as do Sydney music venues The Metro Theatre and Sydney Opera House. If you fancy buying some Australian CDs for yourself, check out HMV Australia [hijacked link, try Sanity instead]: they have downloadable audio and video samples in some cases. Tracks by all of the artists mentioned here are also currently popping up now and again on Spank's Audio Lair.
Some foodie links courtesy of the BBG. Hairy Canary, Toofey's Seafood Restaurant, Walters Wine Bar, The Portland Hotel, Cafe Chinotto and Funkfish Cafe [dead link] are all recommended in Melbourne, while Nick's Seafood Restaurant, Sydney Tower Restaurants and Shakespeare's Pies are her choices from Sydney. Boozehounds are pointed in the direction of Yarra Valley Winery Tours, as well as the individual wineries we visited on the tour: De Bortoli, Domaine Chandon, Punt Road, Yarra Ridge and Tarrawarra.
Glen Street Theatre in Belrose, Sydney is a very fine venue with some excellent touring productions in its programme. But a word of warning: the transport system in Sydney is entirely geared towards getting people into the city in the mornings, and getting them out of it again in the evenings. Don't end up trapped like we were, when we discovered far too late that the last bus back from the theatre left around three hours before the play started. Be sure to check the Transport Infoline website and its timetables, making sure you've got a return route.
The Royal Easter Show is over for another year, but the site should give you some sort of idea of the gargantuan scale of it.
And finally, some useful links for those of you who want simple sightseeing fun without the hassle of a cultural agenda. In Melbourne, we can recommend the Philip Island Penguin Parade, day trips organised by the good people at Melbourne On The Move, and the free entertainment of a slow tour round town on a City Circle tram. In Sydney, no visit is complete without the heart-stopping fabulousness of the Sydney Bridge Climb (not suitable for people with heart conditions): and it's also worth taking a ferry out to the beach at Manly to giggle at the double entendres all over the place. (Even the website boasts a picture of some 'Manly Ladies'.)
P.S. The word 'fuckoon' is © http://www.eatonterry.com [dead link] and is used with their kind permission. Surprisingly, I appear to be the only person on the internet using it right now [no longer true in 2008].