Urban Guerillas (Roaring Jack Archives, 21st Century Reviews)

The Urban Guerillas shared many an audience with Roaring Jack. The bands often played gigs together and united for causes such as the Cockatoo Island dock workers’ strike of 1989 and protests against Gulf War I. Hell, Roaring Jack even pilfered Guerillas drummer Rod Gilchrist in 1988, so there’s definitely a connection! The Guerillas and the Jacks may have had little in common musically, but they were political bedfellows and good mates besides.

Singer-guitarist Ken Stewart formed the Urban Guerillas in Adelaide at the dawning of the 1980s. Within a few years they had made Sydney their home and continue to play in this city in the twenty-first century. There have been countless line-up changes, leaving Ken Stewart the only surviving member from the early days, but it was always Ken’s vision and voice that propelled the Guerillas anyway. (Note that there are two singer-guitarists by this name in Sydney. This is not the same Ken Stewart who fronted punky britpopsters Mr Blonde!)

The Urban Guerillas have been quite prolific, and their discography gives an indication of what recordings are still available. Meanwhile, here are three that you can still obtain from the band and from decent record stores.

Soundtrack to the Revolution

This is the CD which the Urban Guerillas launched at the Sandringham Hotel, Newtown, in late 2003, supported by Roaring Jack’s Steph Miller. It’s a collection of recently released singles, along with a few newbies. The trademark Urban Guerillas sound is here: chugging electric guitars clashing with slashing acoustic ones, drums (Michael Elsley) well up in the mix, solid basswork (Anthony Waugh on Soundtrack, but it's Andrew Midson in the current lineup) and Ken’s versatile and almost theatrical vocals.

The basic sound hasn’t changed an awful lot in the past twenty years or so. However, it has developed into a more potent force. Ken’s voice has strengthened over time, song tempos have become more varied and the occasional uses of violin (Patrick Beissel) and didgeridoo (Mick Griffin) add new textures. The Guerillas also use voiceovers and samples effectively. Witness the drone of the traffic reports lifted from Sydney radio in ‘Traffic Jam’ as they tell us about breakdowns in Surry Hills and accidents in other familiar places. Or the ghoulish voices imploring us to smile for the camera in ‘Big Brother’. New versions of old favourites like ‘Lonely’ (originally released on the wonderful Eight Exploded Hits cassette in 1981) show just how much the band has progressed.

Mad in Australia

Released in 1997, this is a five track effort with some very good moments. While the electric guitars are set to stun as usual, there’s more emphasis on the acoustic guitar on this release. It still rocks nicely, thanks very much, with the excellent ‘Equation of Life’ and ‘Fall to Pieces’ standing out. Then there’s ‘Farewell to Welfare’, which opens with chanting recorded at a trade union rally. It’s that old chestnut, ‘The workers united will never be defeated’, which gives way to a Clash-like riff before the acoustic guitar rips the chorus apart. It’s about banding together, power in numbers, not just at work but socially as well.

Just A Lifetime!

When this was released in 1995, some of Sydney’s independent radio stations gave the brilliant title track heaps of airplay. It chronicles a typical life consisting of ’65 rides around the sun’: birth, school, and times spent in and out of work. Again the acoustic guitars are pushed forward but the electric guitar lurks deliciously in the background and forces its way out near the end. And oh, what a catchy chorus!

‘Maralinga’ deals with an issue which was also examined by Roaring Jack: nuclear testing by the British Government in the Australian outback in the 1950s. Charlie McMahon’s haunting didgeridoo on this track helps remind us of the irreparable damage that nuclear testing inflicted upon the local Aborigines and their land. And on a more personal note, in ‘Needle of Death’ Ken tells of a female friend lost to a heroin overdose. It’s not all social comment, for there are some amusing takes on personal relationships (‘Friendly Fire’ and ‘Let’s Talk’) and songs about being bored (‘Nothin’ to Do!’).

We’re treated to a couple of covers on this album: ‘Independence Day’ by 80s new wavers Comsat Angels and a supercharged rendition of The Who’s ‘Substitute’. And once again the Guerillas reach into the back catalogue. A goodie from the 1984 cassette Take No Prisoners is rediscovered: the Cold War classic, ‘Killing Trade’. Fear of what ‘Uncle Sam and the Kremlin’ are up to shows just how old this song is, with the US having moved on to make new enemies after the Soviet Union was dismantled. On a similar note, ‘Here Comes the Americans’ was first released in 1987, a commentary on Australia’s rapid Americanisation at that time. Over fifteen years later and it’s all but complete. But the Guerillas manage to retain a true Australian accent. Although the music sometimes reminds me of an unholy amalgam of The Clash, The Who and Australia’s Midnight Oil, here’s a band that could only be from Down Under. If you live in Sydney, go check ‘em out in January at the Sando with Steph Miller. If you’re from out of town or overseas, go to the Guerillas’ website and tune into their MP3s. (AC)

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