David Nichols: From Punk Zine To Pop Stars
Every chapter of David Nichols’ life comes with a dry joke, writes ANDREW RAMADGE of the former fanzine editor who went on to work for 'Smash Hits' and later founded seminal outfit The Cannanes.
Today they have a bridge in Brisbane named after them. Last year, Julia Gillard gave their music to Barack Obama on an iPod. But in 1983 few people wanted to know about The Go-Betweens – including the producers of Countdown. As David Nichols remembers: “I sent a letter [to the show] saying that it’s a really exciting time for music and Countdown isn’t reflecting that, so why don’t they get The Go-Betweens to perform ‘Cattle and Cane’? They wrote back and said no, in the nicest possible way.”
The Go-Betweens did perform on the TV show eventually, and Nichols went on to write the definitive account of the band’s history, The Go-Betweens, now in its third edition. “I should send some copies to Julia Gillard to hand out with their music,” Nichols quips of the new run at his home in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.
Almost every chapter of Nichols’ life comes with a dry joke. On the bookshelves of his lounge room, comic books and children’s classics are left on display, while those about music – such a juvenile pursuit! – are tucked out of sight. Pop music is one of Nichols’ lifelong passions. In 1982, fresh out of John Gardiner High – now Hawthorn Secondary College – he joined a generation of music fans scribbling the first draft of punk and new wave history on photocopied fanzines.
Nichols’ effort, a collection of hand-drawn headlines and cut-and-paste stories, was one of the more idiosyncratic. Bored by the aggressive style of other punk zines of the day, he called it Distant Violins and drew pictures of rabbits on the cover. Through the 1980s, Distant Violins published off-the-cuff interviews with now-legendary groups like The Birthday Party, Go-Betweens, Church and Triffids, as well as comics, correspondence and mail-order catalogues. It was all very “small beer”, says Nichols. Issue number 1 cost 50 cents and sold 20 copies in its first week.
“I was a two-finger typist then – I’ve actually graduated to 10 now – and I would laboriously bash out these columns of print and shrink them on the photocopier to 50 percent, and then lay them out badly. There were all these typos in there,” he says.
“And you know, I’d do a run of 20, and then someone would say, ‘Oh, you’ve mixed up column two and column three the wrong way around on page seven’,and so I’d fix it for the next run of 20. It was amazing how many people were happy to talk to me. I had some really great interviews early on. I can’t remember anybody ever saying no to a request. It’s not just that people [artists] weren’t so micro-managed as they are now, but there wasn’t such an audience. There weren’t so many people who gave so much of a shit.”
Today, Nichols lives with his wife, artist Mia Schoen, two beagles and three cats in Jacana, about 16 kilometres north of the CBD, and lectures in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne. Life in the outer suburbs inspired last year’s book The Bogan Delusion, a thesis on the prejudice underpinning inner-city wisecracks about mullets and VB. He wrote it on the train to and from Broadmeadows Station.
Nichols’ latest book, published in December, is a return to the subject of music, but from a very different angle. Pop Life is a memoir of time spent at Australia’s best-selling pop magazine Smash Hits, written by Nichols and two of his former colleagues, Claire Isaac and Marc Andrews. Nichols wound up as a reporter for the magazine by chance, after his employer at Gaumont Books – where Nichols worked on Sundays after his 6am radio show on 3RRR – secured the license to publish the British title locally.
After returning from a trip to London in 1986, Nichols joined Smash Hits in the magazine’s warehouse offices in Sydney. An average day involved supervising photo shoots in Darlinghurst, interviewing TV soap stars and editing the letters page. The egos at stake, if not bigger, could be much more fragile than those in the underground. “One of our staff – not me – wrote a small article on this up-and-coming pop star called Johnny Diesel, and used the last line ‘yum’. Diesel’s management were absolutely furious and forbid him to have anything to do with us ever again,” he says. “There was a line of thought at the time that you could only maintain a career if you completely avoided being a pop star and went straight on to being some kind of rock legend.”
In 1989, Michael Hutchence was already a legend. INXS’s Kick had reached number one on the charts and Hutchence had started a new side-project, Max Q, off the back of his work on the soundtrack to Dogs in Space. Nichols was sent out to interview the singer. At the time, he thought talk of a relationship with a soap actress was just hearsay. “His relationship with Kylie was notorious at the time. I’m always late to every bandwagon, so I actually thought it was untrue. I couldn’t believe it was true. Anyway, I went to interview Michael and Kylie was there, and they were kissing in front of me,” he says. “It was a great interview as well, which his management hated because it veered away from the important subject of Max Q’s third single, which is what we were there to talk about. It was a great chat. He was in some ways a lot more down to earth than I was.”
Smash Hits folklore has it that during the interview, Hutchence asked where he could buy marijuana – but Nichols doesn’t remember that. “Apparently I came back to the office and said that he was trying to get me to tell him somewhere where he could buy pot. I knew nothing. I couldn’t help him out with that,” he says. “I don’t remember it, actually. Someone else told me that that’s what happened, that I went back to the office sort of shocked.”
It was during his time in Sydney that Nichols moved from side of the stage to centre as well, founding cult band The Cannanes. Listed by Kurt Cobain as one of his favourite acts, The Cannanes are still playing today after dozens of releases, an endless list of members and zero major label deals. Nichols left in 1996, but continues to draw the band’s record artwork – and, in one bizarre case, Converse sneakers. “I was sent a shoe, and I drew on it. How? I don’t know. Really weird,” he says.
The sneakers were part of Bono’s “red” campaign with companies like Converse and Coca Cola to launch products drawing attention to HIV/AIDS. The Cannanes were one of the bands invited to take part. “It was passed on to me as the person who’s done a lot of record covers, or the person they knew who drew, and I did a shoe,” Nichols says. “Probably about two years ago, I saw a guy wearing some, you know, 10 metres from my workplace and I just had to stop and talk to him. It was really strange.”
Nichols left Smash Hits in 1991 to look for “an actual career”, eventually finding himself studying history and literature at the University of Sydney. Inspired by City of Sydney historian Shirley Fitzgerald, Nichols discovered urban planning and with it, the crossroads of many of his passions. “[Fitzgerald] introduced me to a whole world that I’d always been interested in, but I never really realised how interested I was,” he says. “In a sense, urban history is the history of people overall. It combines wonderful elements of sociology and anthropology, I suppose, and all the other aspects of culture and literature and so on. All of those things are blended in the one.”
Nichols also took on a much larger writing venture after Smash Hits – recording the history of one of his favourite acts, The Go-Betweens. The first edition of his book was published in 1997, by which time the band were nothing more than a fond memory after breaking up in the wake of their sixth album 16 Lovers Lane.
“I would laboriously bash out these columns of print and shrink them on the photocopier to 50 percent, and then lay them out badly.”
Three years later, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan reunited to give the Go-Betweens a second life, and with it came a new edition of Nichols’ book. However the two songwriters were less than impressed by extra chapters which detailed, among other things, the “disaster” of a recent European tour. “There was friction because they didn’t like what they saw as the direction I was taking with the updated version of the book,” Nichols says.
McLennan in particular had never liked elements of the story which strayed from the music. “I thought you got the balance wrong,” he told Nichols at the time. The two reconciled before McLennan’s unexpected death from a heart attack in 2006. “I’m glad the last time I saw Grant McLennan, we had a very good conversation. He didn’t ask me where to score pot,” Nichols jokes. “We parted on a very friendly note, which in hindsight of course I’m really glad about. But that’s kind of what Grant was like. He was actually a very gentlemanly person. He wasn’t really one to hold a grudge.”