Not Drowning, Waving

In cavernous beer barns across Australia, sweat and smoke condensed on ceilings and rained down on t-shirted blokes, crushed like fish in cans, desperately shielding foamy glasses from stray elbows. In front of them, bands flailed away at four-square guitar anthems. Lights blinded. Amps sucked electricity until the grid buckled. Singers shouted to be heard. It was loud. It had to be. In the early 1980s, they were always, always trying to drown out the noise from the bar.

Not Drowning, Waving arrived with other ideas. Why not play in places that didn’t fit the description? Why not write songs with texture and space as well as melody and rhythm? Songs with colours from the non-rock palette: piano, violin, cello, harmonium and a whole library of things that go clack and thud when you hit them? And why not turn for inspiration to places generally overlooked, from the acoustic and electronic lines of old Europe to the indigenous atmospherics of this country and the islands that surround us?

It was a big plan. Maybe, sat around a wonky laminex table in a Richmond kitchen, they assured each other that it was so crazy it just might work. Or maybe they simply didn’t know any better. They were only two (at first, and then quickly six) wannabe musicians who knew each other from the inner city share house circuit. Why would they know the rules of pub rock? And why would they care?

If they did have an inkling of the preposterousness of their scheme, they obviously ignored it. NDW failed immediately, and in every ongoing sense, to fit in with the prevailing trends of the Australian music industry. They were proudly, brilliantly unlike any band this country has produced. And the sound they made was as distinctive as it was indefinable. They wrote songs you could feel like sunlight on your skin, taste like salt left behind by the sea.

Critics loved NDW because they demanded adjectives. Their music was haunting, evocative, brooding, sensuous and a million other words that excite people who type for a living. Looking back, the adulation that tailed them probably lent an image of pretentiousness, though the band did little to deserve that millstone. Okay, maybe the poetic name was a problem, but there was nothing precious about them as performers or people. Even now, they will be squirming as they read these words, because they’re stupidly modest. They would choose to deflect and demur and distract.

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