The Golden Barley School

an anarchist, a communist & a feminist walk into a bar…

Mutiny on Sydney Harbour (gig review)

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A review/ collection of thoughts from the shows by Mutiny on the recent Australia Day long weekend. Also to be found at http://disassemblyline.blog.com/

The short-story of Mutiny bringing their pirate-punk stylings to Sydney on the Australia/ Invasion Day long weekend was “fucken awesome, something fun to do where I can see friends, listen to great bands and get seriously drunk without having to deal with flag-waving jerks”. And that’s pretty much how it went. I was intending to only go to their on-land show at the Red Rattler on the Saturday night, but as great as they were that night, I had a desire to see them in a more contained space. The Rattler’s cavernous room properly drowned some of the energy in the crowd, even if it couldn’t totally contain the momentum jumping off stage. That, and a bunch of my friends already going, decided for me that I’d also get along to the Sydney Harbour cruise show on the Monday. So twice the amount of friends, fun, awesome music and drunkenness! Easy review.

So is there a long story? Yeah, I reckon, or at least I’m going to do my darndest to make one. But firstly I want to emphasise that some of the ideas raised here should in no way be read as a criticism of what Mutiny do, just that as well as being fun, they are an important band for a few reasons and as such important questions come up through their music. To start, calling Mutiny a pirate-punk band is a description that only has the particularly limited use where it might give someone who hadn’t seen them a fairly good idea of what they do. Rollicking, folk-y punk with some nice big sing along choruses, a scratchy voiced singer with some extra layers of melody folded through by means of accordion, tin whistle and more. But pirate-punk also isn’t a good enough indicator of what is contained in their music and why these shows were particularly pertinent. Mutiny’s music is steeped in the stories and sound of the history of colonial Australia. More directly than ‘pirate-punk’ the nature of their music brings to mind the tradition of convict ballads – sped up and sounding a whole lot more punk.

The relationship between drawing so much on the Australian colonial tradition, a lefty, working-class punk band and these shows on the nationalists’ long weekend present a potentially confusing scenario. Australian nationalism today is very much an extension of the narrative of violent settler, colonialism. Even though there has no doubt been certain shifts (like towards ‘multiculturalism’ – although, the problems of this trajectory would require a much longer discussion), the dominant themes and ideas such as hard work, a ‘fair go’, mateship and egalitarianism, are underpinned by the ‘heroic’ settler history of this country. With the basis of this nationalism generally forgoing the reality of indigenous displacement, racist violence and machismo.

The problem for Mutiny is that many of the stories and images they draw on in their lyrics are greatly implicated in this nationalist narrative. Mutiny suggest at the numerous moments of class politics and struggle in Australian history in songs such as Rum Rebellion and Digging for Gold. However, the reality is that at the same time as being conservative, racist and obsessed with hardwork, nationalism in Australia loves to use these same stories of rowdy convicts, rebellious bushrangers and brave settlers. It gives some colour (apart from the general blood-red that Australian colonialism is awash in) to Australian history and allows for a self-congratulatory narrative of how from inauspicious beginnings ‘we’ have made it as a ‘tolerant’, wealthy, productive capitalist nation.

Particular emotional responses that are crucial for holding together a national(ist) identity – such as patriotic pride and fear of the ‘other’ – are mobilised and reinscribed with a specific value through their connection with certain historical moments and images. This is a terrain of conflict that some on the class struggle left do enter, trying to reclaim images such as the Eureka flag. I have my doubts that this is worthwhile, because I do think those emotional responses are already too strongly tied to these things. It’s probably pretty unlikely that this one band necessarily consider themselves part of some larger attempt to reclaim those moments of rebellion, rowdiness and struggle from the hands of nationalist myth-makers. They simply tell stories of being poor and working-class, drawn from Australian history and from their own lives. And look, despite the unavoidable sense that many of these stories do correlate to particular nationalist narratives, I do generally consider it worthwhile to be able to see the instances of struggle and rebellion that exist even in the least obvious times. Also, while they do not overstate their political position (more on that in a moment), Mutiny do make it clear enough that they have no time for Aussie nationalism.

All this does leave another point to be made – that these stories are definitely white, male expressions of class struggle. And the band this weekend was made up of seven white-looking dudes (although, I’ve definitely seen them play before with a couple of women). Don’t worry though, I’m not at all interested in reductionist critiques based on identity and representation. It is clear that Mutiny are simply articulating being poor and making their antagonism towards capitalist society clear through a particular framework that makes sense to their position in this complicated field of relations. But I reckon it’s worth saying that a band made up of seven women or seven brown folk would not choose these particular stories to tell even if they were a folk-punk outfit (that said it’s certainly possible that another band like Mutiny could contain one woman or non-white person). I don’t think this is particularly an issue that this band need confront – it more raises the question of what spaces exist, and can be created that are conducive for a variety of other stories of proletarian struggle to be told. Certainly, the prole history of the blue-collar, white male is already a dominant one.

So having proceeded to give some pretty weighty political context to these Mutiny shows, how do the band themselves refer to such socio-political questions? Well, by not saying much at all really. And that’s actually another thing I like about them. No matter how much a person retains the strongest of radical political beliefs, age inevitably means some degree of cynicism takes over from idealism. This is not just a bad thing and I’ve seen it happen to many punk bands, not to mention actual people. While support band The Lurkers were typically excellent, their somewhat preachy, activist-based calls to action sometimes just feel a bit too condescending and removed from people’s actual experience of life. Mutiny are a long way from such pretension and it seemed perfect that the most they really said at either show was in introducing “an anti-fascist song” with a pointed reference to Australia Day.

Mutiny have been around for 21 years. I almost want to call them iconic, if that wasn’t often just another way of saying ‘were great once, are boring now’. I recently saw Refused, another iconic punk band with a political tone to their lyrics and they were very much the bad sort of iconic. Talking in cliches, they were unable to be anything more than a performative spectacle of punk urgency – becoming exactly the thing they used to hate (read my Refused review at http://disassemblyline.blog.com/). Although I can’t pick exactly why, Mutiny manage to avoid such a problem. And considering the harbour show was a redo of the same thing from 10 years previously it certainly wasn’t a given that it wouldn’t just be a trip down memory lane. But the rawness and immediacy did very much feel like it was still there.

The crowd being a good mix of ages maybe had something to do with the feeling that this show was very much anchored (hehe) in the present. This was one of those shows which both older punk and younger punks came to. And kids. There was a great moment where a kid of about eight years wandered into the heaving dancefloor and a protective ring of bouncing folk quickly formed around them. Mutiny gave everyone something to dance to. And just in case what I’ve written here sounds like I’m putting a bunch of negative connotations on this band, I want to be clear that’s not the intention. Mutiny played some awesomely fun shows and through their music tell tales of class struggle that they think are important. They sent everyone away on a high, finishing with ‘Drink to Better Days’ (and, oh how we drank!). It’d be great if there were more bands around like them writing songs that tell other versions of struggle and rebellion.

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