Whirlywirld – The Complete Studio Works CD
Pioneer new wave electronic outfit that was the home of the maverick team of Ollie Olsen and John Murphy from 1978 to 1980.
“If punk had purged the excess and irrelevance of mid-70’s rock by going back to basics, returning to what was essentially the traditional tenets of classic rock’n’roll, the new guard was self-conscious enough to want to take giant steps forward from there. To propel rock into the future. And a good place to start, it seemed, was to supersede some of the traditional instrumentation – get rid of guitars (those vile phallic symbols) and bring in the synths. So synthesisers became synonymous with an advancement; rock’s new ‘avant garde’ was electronic musik (sic). The object, as one trade paper put it at the time, was ‘rather than trying to incorporate the synthesiser into a conventional rock format, trying to create its own musical context’. There were so many possibilities…
What the great record buying public ended up with, of course was Gary Numan, which was all the disillusionment electronic music could have asked for, but integration was inevitable. Electronic music per se was freed of a burden; so that now we may have Tears For Fears or Psuedo Echo, but we still have Laurie Anderson and New Order. If it was Kraftwerk who, in the early 70’s, engendered an electronic thrust into rock, it was the post-punk electronic outfits of the late 70’s that assumed the initiative, extending it and paving the way for the broad acceptance of electronics in the 80’s (there are not many records made nowadays without an electronic component). A great breakthrough bands like Cabaret Voltaire and Suicide made was to demystify electronics. Thanks to the do-it-yourself ethos they shared with punk, they made do with a minimum of technology, and even technique, bringing electronics back down to earth and within everyone’s reach.
Alongside Cabaret Voltaire and Suicide, Melbourne based band Whirlywirld were also pioneers in the field, but like so many an unsung pioneer their achievements remain unrecognised. In a career that lasted barely three years between 1978 and ’80, Whirlywirld released only two records, both EP’s on the Missing Link label and as prophets do if they made little commercial impact then, their influence can still be felt today.
Whirlywirld began life as an almost orchestral, yet still hard-edged all electronic ensemble, evolving into an all-encompassing, almost free-form aggregation by their end. In stressing Whirlywirld’s innovations however, it is easy to overlook what is perhaps their deeper significance, the effect of their muse – their supreme emotionalism, the philosophy of their position – for which elements such as electronics and structural divergences were, of course, merely means. To begin with, Ollie Olsen, who fronted the group, was always a great songwriter, one possessed of a vision and the ear to steer it in the right direction. Moreover – and this is a bonus – as a singer too Ollie was nothing short of magnificent, able to wring every drop of blood, sweat and tears out of every song he sang. But if Ollie was wilfully perverse, or obscure, this was all that kept him going, and Whirlywirld surging forth – the exploration of uncharted territory, discovering new reserves, a larger range of expressive scope. Ollie only ever wanted a band that allowed for an internal rapport, to give full vent to his spleen. So the importance of Ollie’s faithful partner-in-crime, drummer John Murphy cannot be underestimated. Murphy was a terrifically imaginative, dynamic percussionist whose playing underlined everything Whirlywirld did.
Whirlywirld pushed themselves, realising a musical vision unlike any before, a constantly shifting soundscape whose only constants themselves were its level of intensity and its starting adventurousness. You don’t have to take my word for it because the proof is here before you, contained in these grooves, but it’s gratifying for me to come back to these tracks and find I still feel much the same way about them, that they still wield the same power. No, to me this music has lost none of its authority. Ollie Olsen, like John Murphy, like myself, was a product of the punk generation. In fact he still calls himself a punk, a true punk.
In 1976, as a guitarist, Ollie formed one of the first punky crews seen in Melbourne, The Reals, who on occasion shared the bill at suburban dance halls with The Boys Next Door. The Reals would eventually mutate into Suicide stable band The Negatives, but before that Ollie had become dissatisfied with their exclusively savage, guitar-based attack and left. The Young Charlatans were awaiting him. The Young Charlatans were what might be now called a seminal supergroup, boasting the membership of, as well as Ollie, guitarist Rowland Howard (later of The Boys Next Door/Birthday Party), drummer Jeffrey Wegener (Laughing Clowns) and bassist Janine Hall (later of The Saints). But if the volatile Charlatans were an extraordinary outfit – closer, earlier, to art-punk than almost anybody – their greater potential went unfulfilled. After a very brief, stormy existence, the band inevitably imploded. By then Ollie had met John Murphy. Murphy was manning the kit for another early Melbourne punk band, NEWS, but his ambitions went beyond their Ramones-plus-politics routine and it happened they coincided with Ollie’s.
So the pair set to mounting Whirlywirld. Their stated priority, from the outset, was to go electronic, determined as they were to take flight from the sonic limitations of the conventional, guitar-based rock format. So the first Whirlywirld to see the dim of the rehearsal room, upstairs at Ollie’s house in Collingwood, was completed by two “keyboardists”, who got credited with “electronics”, Andrew Duffield and Simon Smith (Ollie too, by this point, had abandoned guitar in favour of “electronics” plus “electrical” guitarist Dean Richards. Duffield would, of course, later join The Models; and Dean Richards went on to front a couple of cult combos, Equal Local and Hot Half Hour. Call it stage-fright, paranoia or whatever you will, Whirlywirld refused to play live; but they did rehearse religiously. Experimenting all the time, while Ollie was also soul-searching.
But the band did record, and the best results were released, late in 1978, as Whirlywirld’s self titled debut EP. The EP contained three tracks, Window To The World, Moto, Signals. Listen to them; remember this was 1978, the same year as the first offerings from Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League and Throbbing Gristle. The Pop Group, Suicide and the New York No Wave wouldn’t be heard for a while yet. Whirlywirld made their live debut at The Crystal Ballroom the following year, 1979, by which time Andrew Duffield had been replaced by Philip Jackson (later Dean Richards’ collaborator).Already they were altered. It was a more openly structured sound. If the EP was impressive, on stage Whirlywirld could at times inspire awe.
Whirlywirld would go on to play only 14 gigs in their entire career (Ollie recently reminded me), but the entity itself was obsessed with making music. Gradually, the personal within the band changed, in accordance with a change in direction, Richards, Jackson and Smith departed. Arnie Hanna came in on guitar and Greg Sun on bass – two guitars. Yet John Murphy belted an array of percussion devices, natural, electronic or otherwise; there were tapes, and Ollie even tackled sax as well as keyboards. This was the era of the ‘Little Bands’, with whom Whirlywirld and the Primitive Calculators overlapped.
Whirlywirld arose as an almost free-form affray, spontaneous and powerful, often awesome still, an engulfing and original experience. This incarnation of the band put down a number of tracks at York St. Studios in December, 1979. Four tracks came out on a 12″ EP, again titled Whirlywirld – they were Big Gun Action, Boys Of The Badlands, Red River, Win/Lose. Inside the EP was a 45 with the tracks Sextronics and Eyebrows Still Shaved. Around that time, the exodus from Melbourne began. The Birthday Party left for London. Unlike The Birthday Party however, Whirlywirld didn’t go on to get their just desserts. Ollie and John Murphy took on a new guise first as The Beast Apparel, then Hugo Klang, and they played a handful of gigs in England, even recorded a single, Beat Up On The Old Shack, released in Australia on Prince Melon Records, but eventually bitterness and neglect saw to their demise.
Ollie Olsen was also enlisted to oversee the soundtrack for a the feature film by Richard Lowenstein called Dogs In Space . Starring Michael Hutchence of INXS, Dogs In Space looks back at the scene and the music in Melbourne in the late seventies. One great old Whirlywirld song (one among many), Rooms For The Memory, was recorded for the film, with Hutchence on vocal.
It’s the least we can do to pay them belated credit now and the lesson that teaches us that it would be foolish to again ignore, this time around, the activities of the maverick Olsen/Murphy union.”
Clinton Walker – March 1986