A few years ago, it occurred to me that Canberra is coming of age. It was a gangly, rural adolescent of a town when I arrived as a child in 1976. Almost everyone was transplanted from somewhere else. We all complained that there was nothing to do (echoing our parents and older siblings). “There’s no soul; no history, no life”. Somewhere along the line that changed. The dormitory city where I grew from a child to an adult became a home. The place Canberra was in the 70s and 80s was first forgotten and disregarded, then remembered like a bad dream, then mythologised; and now, it’s even celebrated.
There were some early but obvious signs of history resurfacing. In 2004 I directed a theatre piece with actors in their mid-teens. I noticed with some surprise that several cast members had a familiar “DK” logo emblazoned in permanent marker on their schoolbags. “I saw the Dead Kennedys.” I told them, feeling simultaneously old and cool, “They played the Uni Bar in 1983. Jello Biafra stage-dived into a seething mass of skinheads singing ‘Nazi Punks F*ck Off’. And he survived!”
More recently, a Facebook page called Canberra Punk and Beyond has seen a community reconnect, sharing stories, photos and memories from the late 70’s onwards.
Last Friday, at the Polish Club in Turner, I saw The Lighthouse Keepers play after many silent years. My younger friends and newer Canberra arrivals were unaware of this much-loved early Canberra band. In the 1980s, the Lighthouse Keepers released independent records and achieved local, national and some international success that ran its course then faded away. They were of a generation with Steve Kilbey of The Church, The Gadflys, The Falling Joys and many other original and talented musicians living in the self-proclaimed culture-vacuum that was adolescent Canberra.
Looking back through the gilded glasses of time, I can see that there was life, culture and community. If there wasn’t history already, we were making it then and there. In Garema Place where today’s emo kids hang out by the silver goon bag, there was a toilet block and a stage. There were punks, rude boys and girls, Marxist lesbians and early goths. We feasted on chips and sauce from “Mama’s”, the café that was still in the same location till recently. In those days “Mama’s” sold cigarettes, had a couple of pinball machines and a juke-box featuring the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK.
Philip in Woden was home to mix of light industrial businesses and live music venues. My parents saw Galapagos Duck at the jazz joint, “Clean Living Clive’s”. My older cousins danced at “The Floyd” and when I was old enough to be an under-ager, I saw local psychedelic punks, The Young Doctors, play at “The Jam Factory”.
The Young Doctors have also resurfaced after several fallow decades. They played at the Uni Bar late last year and will play again on March 10 as part of the Canberra Festival, alongside other bands of the day. Songs are like smells in the way they can directly access your buried memories and emotions. My recent experiences of seeing these two long lost local bands has been uplifting and affirming. They’re still some of the most accomplished bands I know, proving that Canberra does and always has had soul - and great taste in indie music.