Can a historical documentary “lack intellectual rigour” yet still notch up four stars? That’s how Fairfax newspapers judged documentary-maker Paul Clarke’s latest offering, Blood + Thunder: The Sound of Alberts, a two part series on Australian rock in the 1960s and 70s that is currently screening.
But with a little more scholarly discipline, would the program’s star rating have risen to five or slipped to three? Is historical rigour at odds with entertainment values?
Blood + Thunder chronicles three decades at the Sydney production house Albert Music. Beginning in the early 1960s, the show follows Ted Albert on his quest to discover the “Australian Sound” and the working-class migrant kids who supplied it.
Clarke and his team have a good eye for a choice bit of archive footage and a discerning ear for a killer guitar lick. But this is not a documentary where the images speak for themselves. At times overblown, often fun, the narrator leads the audience by the nose through the highs and lows of the Alberts’ stable of artists.
Clarke walks a fine line: setting down “what really happened” and spinning the national yarn – at times, even exaggerating the music’s “unique” qualities and glossing over anything that might rupture the shiny veneer.
Astonishingly, the most conspicuous absence is the blues. We learn that the Glasgow streets forged guitarists George, Malcolm and Angus Young, but know nothing about the records spinning on their turntables. Exactly which Chicago bluesmen were they strumming along to? And what song sealed the musical deal between the Easybeat’s founding members, Harry Vanda and George Young, once they met at Sydney’s Villawood Migrant Centre?
Ted Albert is a strangely absent figure, too. Yes, he had a patrician bearing and “rebel streak”, but which musical touchstone awoke him to the beauty of feedback? What sustained him through the era of soppy homegrown pop?
Blood + Thunder dodges the existential terrors of Australia’s cultural cringe, focusing instead on the hordes of kids “primed for rebellion”. “All they needed was the soundtrack”, reassured the narrator.
Oz Rock and the White Australia policy
That explanation might feel good to a patriotic audience but it diminishes the film’s historical authority, particularly when matched with silences around the blues.
If Clarke and his team cared to grapple with big ideas such as race and exclusionary populism, they might identify White Australia as an obstacle in the path of Ted Albert’s vision quest.
Since the Great War, the defenders of the White Australian ideal considered it their national duty to quarantine the British cultural imagination. An interlocking network of apparatchiks worked hard to keep out “foreign” musicians, particularly the “coloured” ones, for fear that their “deviant” styles would thwart the creation of an authentic local culture.
In 1928, “negro” jazz and blues arrived in Australia courtesy of the Sonny Clay Orchestra. Albert Music was part of this story, granting them exclusive performing rights to My Blue Heaven.
Nine weeks later the band was deported, the victims of a trumped-up moral scandal orchestrated by the Commonwealth Investigation Branch. In line with a Musicians Union prohibition on “coloured members”, the government ushered in a ban on black musicians that would hold for the next quarter century.
Three years later, authorities vetoed the entry on all but a handful of other “foreign” musicians. “Doldrums” was how one music historian summed up the 1930s. Disappointment and feelings of inadequacy marked reviews of local bands.
Granted, the arrival of a half million American servicemen in 1942 injected a much-needed vigour into the music scene, but the years of cultural isolation had taken their toll. “A country musically strangled by reaction and narrow chauvinism” was how British composer Sir Eugene Goossens described Australia in 1947.
Only when the union lifted its ban on “coloured” musicians in 1953 were visas issued to Louis Armstrong and other black artists. Big Joe Turner may have shown Johnny O’Keefe how to shout at Lee Gordon’s Rock ’n’ Roll Show, but the roots were shallow – especially when compared to young migrants from countries where African American music traditions had flourished.
And that’s how Australia got the blues and Ted Albert discovered his much-fabled sound.
Blood + Thunder is correct in claiming that the “Australian Sound” was homegrown and an embodiment of the culture. But the style was in no ways unique to the national character. It was part of a tradition that stretched from Sydney to the Niger Delta.
So why pretend otherwise? Overboiling the nationalist egg offers little nourishment. It’s a tired argument and contributes nothing to the emotional heart of Blood + Thunder.
Good storytelling lies not in patriotic claims of authenticity but in the hopes of greatness, the tragedy of broken dreams and the less palatable truths about ourselves.
Filmmakers with such intellectual and artistic courage warrant the full five stars.
The second episode of Blood and Thunder screens on ABC1 tonight. It’s available to watch on iView. Details here.