I loved Stig Can’t Clap.
I was in the band, but that’s somewhat beside the point – in fact, for the most part I liked them less with me in it.
Stig’s firm foundation, after a few folks had come and go, was as a three-piece with the brothers Ohlback, Neil (guitar & vocals) and Russell (drums), and Mark Jago, playing bass guitar and a conspicuous Type-A personality.
They were nice northern suburbs boys in Sydney, Jago emerging from the healthy mod scene and some weird private school while the Ohlbacks were the product of a handsomely talented musical family.
In one sense they were typical of the large and impressive wave of mid to late ‘80s bands sustained by a relatively adventurous music pub scene and informed by the great Australian live-rock tradition that was brilliantly coloured at the time by punk and new wave influences, mostly from far away.
But there was something especially captivating about this three-piece. Pretty boys, they regularly sweated profusely and swooned atmospherically to a fashionably down at heel audience at the Mosman Hotel. That got them a strong following and an unofficial license to indulge and focus on their individual strengths without being troubled too much by the mundane stuff like technical excellence.
As a rich result, Russie’s drumming was borderline calamitous but also regularly awe inspiring. Tempo-schempo — he hit harder than Mike Tyson – and this was no 4/4 head banger meat and potatoes beater, he was playing frantic punk-disco rhythms, assaulting his hi-hat and snare as if simultaneously channeling Keith Moon and Nile Rodgers.
His brother Neil, like many forward thinking ‘80s guitarists was drenched in the influence of The Edge and the new wavers of the time who replaced the old fuzz box with digital delay F/X. He quickly developed a noteworthy style, concocting a massive noise out of his Vox, making the most of the chorus effect by playing riffs and highlighting individual notes and power chords, rather than strumming. It was a swirling, all enveloping sound that was always just this side of getting out of control.
And Mark Jago? God help us. He always wanted to be a six-string guitarist but he was playing bass as a result of a conversation with four string strummer Craig Bloxham of Spy Vs Spy. He’s also partially deaf. You following me here? Never before (or since) had I heard the kind of bass sound he wickedly extracted from his Maton JB4, Peavey amp and long suffering quad box.
A kind of ‘click-and-boom’ aural assault on a loop – it had a metallic quality while still managing to be quite melodic for a rhythm instrument: his insane busy-ness around the fret-board meant the bass line often explored every nuance of a song. Then, at times, he’d strum the bastard like it was a tuneless six string, useful it only as a percussive instrument. It was intrusive and delicious. When I first heard him play, I thought he was playing counter to a backing track.
Stig – the name comes from Mark’s old drum machine that couldn’t ‘clap’ – by accident and admirable design hurled a truly unique sound at the audience. Neil did most of the singing, his guttural moans and groans rarely pitch perfect but certainly arresting.
Their fresh sound caught the attention of a few important industry people. Garry ‘Gary’ Beers INXS’s bass player saw their potential and offered to produce their first record, a three song single, The Other Side of Midnight.
There was an INXS quality to Stig, a kind of funk-rock ‘n’ pop that U2 completely nailed and Simple Minds flirted with before perverting with layers of keyboards. The only cover version Stig played was The Teardrop Explodes’ Poppies, a grand pop song with a hint of the psychedelic and a fine example of the British new wave before it directed all its creative energies to perfecting hairstyles.
The Rockmelons terrific singer, Sandi Chick, helped out with backing vocals on the Other Side recording which was a notable accomplishment: Beers’ production is astute, highlighting Jago’s thunderous bass and fully indulging the guitar atmospherics.
In mid 1985, plans were made for the record release; the band was making waves, appearing on the cover of the Sydney music magazine On The Street and playing to big audiences. However, the obvious weak spot, some believed, was their vocals.
I’d played with numerous bands as I made my way through university; one a money-making floating line-up cover band I’d put together sort of specialising in playing songs by dead people. I was, however, inexplicably committed to some nonsense idea of only playing music with ‘the proletariat’.
Well, I didn’t articulate that too often, but I was pissed off that punk had evolved into a fashion statement crafted by the British elite and got sick of seeing (fellow) private school boys at all gigs with attitude in Sydney. Angry, loud rock with a message should surely be made by the working people – the oppressed. Unfortunately it took me a few years to work out most of my blue collar mates just wanted to play metal and have really long teased hair.
By the time Mark and Neil turned up at a gig I was playing with the covers band in St Leonards in Sydney, I was sick of my ideological commitment and prepared to completely prostitute myself. Although I suspect I justified it some other way at the time. Without question, however, a bunch of stylish northern beaches boys with a bit of a vibe about them seemed just the ticket.
The first gig would be the record launch at the Mosman Hotel. I wasn’t on the record, but it was a great takeoff event for the new lineup. We rehearsed in a room behind Smithy’s, a cluttered, legendary guitar sales/repair shop in Neutral Bay where Neil worked.
Unfortunately, it was right next to the famed Oaks Hotel, purveyor of fine lager and corruptor of musicians.
Stig had a different way of working that was probably both their (unidentified) glory and eventually led to their downfall. The rehearsals were more sonic experiments than practice or songwriting sessions. Stig just made noise, identified what kinda worked and tried to make it stick.
No-one really had new ‘full’ songs ready to go – it just wasn’t the way they worked – regardless, we managed to cobble together a couple of good’uns: I’d Like to Believe What You Say, Conversations and a few others that completely elude me now.
It was fairly obvious to me that Neil didn’t like giving up the vocals, but I felt the new tunes – all strong melodies with reasonably astute lyrics I’d penned – demonstrated there was an attractive way forward for the group.
The launch was great. Four hundred sweaty souls packed in that old beer barn. The single, an independent release when that actually used to mean something, sold relatively well and I could sense we were possibly on our way. We were looking at management options, playing a few good gigs and weighing up the next record.
However, things went downhill fast, as they do for no real reason when you’re a dickhead in your 20s. Ego battles and fights over whatever – guitar picks, playing too loud (Mark!), anything – crippled that cooperative feeling that was integral to the band’s process.
Actually, I don’t know exactly what transpired, and quite frankly, after all these years, don’t really care but the end result was the Ohlback package deal was over so Mark and I decided to spend a lot of nights at the Oaks drinking beer and plotting the next chapter. We also drank beer while discussing the merits of the band Hunters and Collectors and, sometimes, I’d go off on a tangent about societal inequality. Then we’d drink more beer.
Life was catching up with us by this time too. How inconvenient. The prospect of being rock stars was not yet ‘nil’, although there was the little matter of earning a living. I’d thrown myself into a journalism career while Mark, as only my obsessive friend Mark can do, completely immersed himself in becoming a video tape operator at a Sydney post production company.
Meanwhile, we wrote songs together. Real songs. A few pretty darn good ones, while we scratched our heads about what to do next with the band.
In truth, we were looking for Russell and Neil clones to step in. On some level, we both knew there was an almost irreplaceable magic about that lineup, although we never really admitted it, particularly as we’d heard back that we were being maligned.
We messed about with a few people; some played brilliantly, but capturing sloppy musical lightning in a bottle again? Too hard.
Then along came Roger. God’s gift, well, he saw everything in those terms as he was dedicated Christian. Fortunately he played the drums like the devil and Mark loved him.
Roger Pye: Medical student (now Doc) and a lovely, serene fellow. Oi vey, how did he end up with us? Between his undoubtedly taxing studies he worked like a Trojan, beckoned by our idiot requests to hit hard … “harder, harder!”
I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but we decided, while agonizing on the lack of guitarists, that Rog was the drummer.
Mark and Roger, thanks to the free use of the basement of a Gladesville church (where our gear would later be stolen – a pox on you mongrels) rehearsed as a rhythm section with military discipline over the coming months.
Mark, said it was the first “sport” he’d ever done in his life. I’d come by and the pair of them would be saturated, sweating and smiling after two hours of relentlessly bashing on things. It was hard not to share their enthusiasm.
We did a bunch of guitarist auditions. I know there were two people we really liked. My preference, played this roaring, in ya face, no-effects style. Thinking back, I seem to picture him playing a semi-acoustic. He was really different to Neil and would have marched us off in a completely different direction musically.
I know Mark liked him too, but the crazy digital delay option had been an important part of what had made the band in the first place, so we both came around to favoring another guy, Peter, who played an effects laden-Strat through a Marshall combo.
He seemed enthused and committed to the weird effects fun. Technically he wasn’t the best person we saw, but he had that … that … noise.
Peter, who enjoyed the occasional joint, put in the hard work between his shifts at a health food store. He also told us he enjoyed howling at the moon. And that’s about all we knew about him – I don’t think we even got around to finding out his surname.
The third incarnation of Stig played a bunch of shows, some of them excellent. We basically threw out the old set list, with one or two exceptions and incorporated new stuff that Mark and I put together. I was particularly fond of the tunes Blind Faith, Little Bit Silly, Small Town Song, Dead Seed and Lizzie Taylor: stuff we’ll post on YouTube later.
We demo-ed a few of them and had plans to release a single, but things were starting to fall apart again. Mark was manically committed to his work and my job was demanding. We grew irritable with each other and at one rehearsal, fueled by the demon drink I called him something terrible and took a half-baked swing at him.
With that, we were pretty well done. He moved to London to continue advancing his career in video post production while I focused on journalism. A few decades later, Mark and I still play music occasionally. It’s hard to do it together as he lives in Sydney and I moved to New York years ago, but we try and do a project or two.
You’ll find a few of the songs I referred to here and Mark intends doing a few ‘clips’ for some of the tunes performed by the ‘third’ Stig.
Our goal with the page is modest – we have no ambition, we’re too old, sensible and cranky for that – we just felt it would be fun to share a few memories: good and bad.
But maybe, in a few years when I get back to Sydney we might just do a show or two. You should come along. Even if you don’t like the music, at least you’ll get a laugh listening to us berate each other.