Jet: The Rise And Fall Of The Nu-Rock Scene
The recently disbanded Jet captured a moment in Melbourne that’s unlikely to happen again, writes DARREN LEVIN.
They called it the “Bermuda Triangle”: a three-pronged party vortex that extended from Cherry on Corporation Lane to Ding Dong on Market Lane and, finally, to Pony on Little Collins; the only place in Melbourne where you could (and still can) listen to ‘Search & Destroy’ at 6am while downing a Carlton Draught, until those musty red awnings would fling up and you’d be left scurrying out into the real world among the joggers and the soccer mums. This was Melbourne in the early-2000s – and it was happening every weekend.
“There was an always an after party,” recalls Dave Powell, who was booking the now defunct Duke of Windsor on Chapel Street during that time. “The gig would be only 40 or 50 minutes, and then it’d be, ‘What to do now?’ And that’s why the crowds started to build too. It wasn’t just the gig, it’d be where we kicked on – Cherry? Pony? I believe that’s what really makes a scene. Everyone knew everyone, everyone knew the door people. It was pretty crazy. There were some very long nights.”
One of those long nights began with a gig at The Duke (now a cheap pizza bar) with The Specimens and an unnamed support band who could “bring chicks”. The sound guy pulled out that night, leaving Powell to person the eight-channel mixing desk alone. “This band, as soon as they started, I realised the singer could actually sing. I was blown away … They had a lot of potential and I didn’t have a lot of bands coming through who were like that. And Tim [Wold] from The Specimens was right: it was packed with girls. The most I’d ever seen at The Duke.”
At Powell’s insistence, the band settled on a name, Jet, after Paul McCartney & Wings’ 1974 single of the same name. After flogging their demo for fun – “I’ve listened to thousands, but never listened to one purely for enjoyment sake,” he says – Powell started bumping other bands to get them decent supports. He made sure they landed the choice spot every Friday night for a month, and even drove with them up the Hume to Sydney for their first interstate show at Club 77 in King’s Cross.
“There was quite a lot of press about them,” recalls Powell, who managed the band up until 2003. “I was getting a lot of phone calls, but no one knew them up in Sydney except for record industry people. It was very embarrassing … We had a situation where there was 30 or 40 people there, but instead of being fans, they were industry people: A&Rs and publishers. They could all see each other and you could tell it was going to go off then.”
Back in Melbourne things were heating up, too. Off the back of The Vines’ success overseas – they appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, with “ROCK IS BACK” in big block letters underneath – Melbourne was in the midst of its own Seattle-like feeding frenzy. All of a sudden established rock acts like Dallas Crane and The Casanovas were getting triple j airplay, and it wasn’t uncommon for industry bigwigs to turn up at gigs. “I remember a head of one of the Australian record labels actually jumping in front of me because I was talking to the head of Warner at the time,” says Powell. “There was some really silly stuff going on, and I knew that – in terms of contracts – we’d be getting them what they needed.”
Powell says The Vines’ impact on the Melbourne scene at the time cannot be underestimated. Their 2002 debut Highly Evolved sold 1.5-million copies worldwide, and the kind of international success that eluded bands like Powderfinger and You Am I in the 1990s was finally becoming within the grasp of young Australian bands. “The Vines coming out and exploding out of the blocks with this pretty punky sound – it was like, ‘Wow.’ It meant that you could do it and it gave everyone impetus to have a go. They were a very big influence.”
Jet soon received some NME hype of their own. Their debut single, the Lindsay Gravina-produced ‘Take It or Leave It’ from the Dirty Sweet EP, was described by the UK tastemakers as a mixture of the “Rolling Stones and the balls-out stadium rock of ACDC”. David Vodicka, who released the EP on his Rubber Records label (also home to Even and The Casanovas) recalls how it blew up overseas. “I remember going to the UK and playing it to people who got incredibly excited,” he says. “At the same time, Bruce Milne [from In-Fidelity Recordings] got [former vice-president of A&R at Warner] Geoffrey Weiss’ A&R guy onto it out of the states. Then it just blew up into a ball of excitement.”
When it came time to recording their debut album, Get Born, Jet signed with Elektra internationally, but a bidding war ensued for its local release. While Vodicka thought he was initially in the frame, they went with Capitol/EMI in the end, leaving Rubber the rights to the Dirty Sweet EP and Get Born’s vinyl release. “For a moment, I thought we were going to do the record, then it just went fucking ridiculous. To the band’s credit, when it came time to do that first EP, they called and asked us to put it out. It was a limited edition and we never reissued. We sold it out in a day. I think we did 2000 copies in a day.”
Recorded at Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles with US producer Dave Sardy and released in October 2003, Get Born went on to sell 3.5-million copies worldwide; half-a-million more than Cold Chisel managed in their entire career. In many ways its success could be put down to a perfect storm of events: a global rock’n’roll revival spearheaded by The Strokes, The White Stripes and The Libertines; a rekindling of overseas interest in the Australian market thanks to The Vines; a more progressive approach to playlisting on Australia commercial radio; and, crucially, the fact that people were still buying music.
According to ARIA’s yearly figures, more than $640-million was spent on recorded music the year Get Born was released. Last year, that figure had dropped to $380-million. It’s in this climate that the thought of an Australian rock album going eight times platinum (approximately half-a-million units) seems almost inconceivable – even Gotye, whose single ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ has hit #1 in 15 countries, has only managed triple platinum sales in seven months for third album Making Mirrors. Ironically, Jet’s ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ was the soundtrack to this shift, ushering in the MP3 generation through an appearance in an iPod commercial.
So was it a case of right place, right time for Jet?
“I’d say 100 percent,” Vodicka explains. “[They were] ‘of the moment’. People wanted a rock band and they satisfied that: they were catchy, they were young, they had a bit of attitude, they wrote great songs. Get Born was a great record.”
But the problem with being “of the moment”, is that you’re always running on borrowed time. Jet’s difficult second album Shine On – released in 2006 – came out when the death knell for rock was sounding once again. It peaked at #3 in the ARIA charts, amassing platinum sales of around 70,000 copies. In the same way that Beavis and Butthead helped put the nail in the coffin of ’80s hair metal, the nu-rock revolution was unofficially put to bed by Pitchfork’s infamous ape-pissing-in-its-own mouth “review” of Shine On.
Jet, meanwhile, were getting on with what they did best: hitting the road hard overseas. I spoke to guitarist Cameron Muncey for Guitarist Australia in late-2006, a few weeks after Shine On’s release. He was talking to me from a tour bus en route to Newcastle from London, before Nic Cester cut the interview short so he could watch Band of Brothers in the backseat.
“I’ve actually told management I don’t want to know where it [Shine On] is on the charts,” he said when I asked how the band was dealing with external pressures. “I really just want to concentrate on the shows and what I do. If you do that, you’ll be much better off than always looking at stuff that you can’t change. The only thing we can do is present our music.”
Vodicka describes the critical response to Shine On, especially the Pitchfork review, as “brutal and unfair”, but also reflective of the backlash against Jet at the time. “The band exploded and became a talking point in the industry,” he says. “Sometimes when you have an industry talk band, there’s a lot of people who are happy to cut that down, particularly if they hadn’t been seen to be paying their dues.”
For third album Shaka Rock, Jet cut ties with Winterman & Goldstein, the Vines’ management company who squeezed out Powell, before overseeing the band’s success for six eventful years. They teamed up with Allen Kovac, the US manager who masterminded Buckcherry’s unlikely comeback, jointly releasing the album under his Five Seven Music imprint and their newly created Real Horrorshow Records. Shaka Rock only attained gold status in Australia (35,000 copies), despite the album featuring arguably “the most playful and artistically divergent songs of their career” (as I wrote at the time). By that stage of their career, however, Jet were effectively hemmed in.
“It’s always going to be tough when you represent a rock sound in a particular moment,” says Vodicka. “When you look at the big bands that have been able to continue on, it’s not easy to do: you have to carve out your own niche. It’s a really tricky thing to maintain, more than one record at a level like that.”
In comparison to the media whirlwind that thrust them onto the world stage, Jet’s break-up announcement last week was a comparative non-event. Pitchfork recycled the monkey gag, Spin described them as putting their “Beatles rip-off career to rest”. Though completely unintended, their headline, “Ding Dong, 2003 Is Dead!”, was particularly apt for anyone that lived in Melbourne during those heady days.
“I’ve seen Seymour Stein fall asleep at Ding Dong while watching a band. He was there – I don’t know if he ever saw anything.”
Still closed following a 2011 fire, Ding Dong Lounge may yet rise again, but it’s doubtful there’ll be as many Seymour Stein sightings as there were in the early- to mid-2000s. Following Get Born’s success overseas, there were reports of the legendary Sire Records founder turning up every second week. I recall a band called The Inches (or was it The Increments?) showing up on a weeknight to hand him their demo wearing their best nu-rock gear: tight sports coats and leather jackets, white Volleys, open-neck shirts and ill-fitting jeans. “I’ve seen Seymour Stein fall asleep at Ding Dong while watching a band,” Vodicka jokes. “He was there – I don’t know if he ever saw anything.”
Vodicka says the excitement generated by Get Born had a significant, albeit fleeting impact on the local scene. “The Melbourne scene at the time definitely benefited from the focus. People were wondering if there’s anything they could pick up … With The Casanovas, we almost got a deal several times, and I’m sure that’s because of the fact that Jet had been successful.”
But given how much the industry has changed in the nine years since Get Born’s release, could he ever see an Australian act attaining that level of commercial success again? “I reckon Gotye will do that this year,” he says, laughing. “Things go in cycles. At that time, there was an appetite for rock, which is definitely not in vogue at the moment – but I think it’ll come back. The current obsession internationally is mainstream pop, but I think that people will get sick of those things.”
For Powell, who’s now working with Melbourne rock band Kingswood, Jet’s improbable rise from a Dingley factory floor to the world’s biggest stage, alongside the likes of Oasis and The Rolling Stones, should not be lost among the passing soundbites and recycled memes that accompanied their break-up last week. “They signed the biggest record deal that an Australian band had ever seen – we shouldn’t forget that,” he says. “For a garage band from Melbourne to come from out of nowhere and sell that many records is a great achievement.”