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IT’S NO SECRET that James Baker is dying. A terminal cancer diagnosis doesn’t leave much room for argument or cajoling and the man hasn’t shied away from it. Or the fact that he’s just turned 70, an age where drummers like him – especially drummers like him who weren’t tap-tap-tapping away gently but putting their bodies through the wringer every show – might prefer to curl up in the kickdrum and have a little snooze.

But after a music career that began properly in one of few rooms playing punk music in Perth in 1977 and saw him go on to found some of the most important, often loudest, and always pushing bands in the country – The Victims, Hoodoo Gurus, Dubrovniks, Scientists, Beasts Of Bourbon, to name a few – he isn’t easing out the door.

Tonight he starts a final round of shows with one of those now-legendary bands, The Beasts Of Bourbon, and out there at the same time is only the second record under his name – in this case James Baker & The Groundbreakers – a six-song set called Born To Rock.

So James Baker, it’s been a pretty decent career.

“Well, lots of bands, yeah,” he chuckles. “Lots of fun.”

One of those things I heard about him way back in the reaches of prehistoric times, when at the Southern Cross hotel or Trade Union Club we were in awe of that bloke up the back pounding a primal beat under the blond Troggs fringe, was that he had been this slightly older figure in Perth who, after a couple of bands had formed and fallen apart, had travelled overseas in the mid-‘70s and touched the hem of punk and pre-punk legends in London and New York just as they became this new movement, punk. A man who returned to WA both as the font of knowledge – a.k.a. the coolest man in town – and the inspiration for more.

“I guess I was lucky to be there at the right time. If I had gone a year before that I wouldn’t have seen anything and it changed my life. It was great to have that knowledge, having seen what those bands did live, instead of just listening to it on record. Most of those bands were small: CBGBs held maybe 150 people, and the same at the Roxy club in London. Those bands weren’t playing big venues.”

Who had the most impact on him?

“The Ramones, The Heartbreakers, The Sex Pistols, early Damned and The Clash.”

Oh, nobody too special then. As with people who saw some of Baker’s own bands soon after and decided to pick up an instrument, buy tickets or pick up a pen to write about what they saw, Baker came away from those birth of punk encounters with a sense of commitment to the cause. A desire to do and be.

“Walking out of CBGBs at 5 o’clock in the morning after seeing The Heartbreakers, I opened the door to daylight and thought, fuck, this is what I want to do when I come back to Perth – open my own punk club and get out at daylight every morning.”

How close did he come to doing that? Not that close really, even if theoretically he could have made a fortune as some entrepreneur rather than spending the next 50 years as a working musician.

“Most of those clubs went bankrupt,” he jovially points out. Fair. Can anyone name someone who got wealthy running punk clubs? “Not in Perth anyway.”

Taking into account that personal history and then his part in Australian musical history, it’s worth noting that the title track opening his mini LP, Born To Rock, is like the opening track on the first Hoodoo Gurus album, Let’s All Turn On, which he also co-wrote. That is, it’s a statement of first principles and lifelong loves. This is who I am, this is who I’ve always been, this is who I’m going out as.

“It was accidental [link] but I can see it now. They are both saying we love rock ‘n’ roll,” says Baker. “You have to tell people out there!”

Okay then let’s go for some of that telling the people out there. Let’s hear about some of the key moments in, to borrow the name of one of his many bands, the James Baker experience.

“The early days of the Victims, playing at the Governor Broome Hotel. The first official gig was a turning point because we got it down. The band was working and the 50 people that came loved it. We were underground heroes almost overnight.”

It was, he concedes, not exactly huge scene. “There were like only two [punk] bands in Perth: The Cheap Nasties and The Victims.” But they mattered – not just then, but in the indie/underground legends who emerged from those two bands: Dave Faulkner of the Gurus, Kim Salmon of Scientists and Beasts Of Bourbon et al, and Baker himself of course – and they recorded.

“Recording our single, Television Addict, there was a new experience for me. We banged that down in a first take, and that was the first song I ever played in a studio.”

Another turning point was out of Australia.

“The early tours of Europe I did with The Beasts Of Bourbon, we saw there are other people around the world that like the band that you’re in. Not just liked the music, because the Europeans always liked punk bands, but they knew a lot about Australian bands and I was asked to autograph my solo single [Born To Be Punched].

"That happened more in Europe than it did in Australia,” he chuckles. “It did make you feel like there was a whole world out there. Just because they don’t like you in Australia it definitely isn’t the end of the world.”

When some people in Australia started to pay attention, and pay cash, it had an impact.

“Signing to a major label in the Hoodoo Gurus was a bit of a big deal. That was a good thing and I don’t think it ever compromised the band. Maybe did a little bit but I think it was a good thing.”

They proved you could sign to a major label as a guitar pop band and not be turned into a slick Taxiride. Unless you wanted to.

“They didn’t try to stop us: that’s pretty much how the songs sounded live. I don’t really like the production on that record but having worked with Tony Cohen the day before doing [the debut album from Beasts Of Bourbon recorded in one beer and other things-fuelled session] Axeman’s Jazz it was,” he laughs. “a lot different.”

Where does The Axeman’s Jazz fit into his list of favourite albums?

The Axeman’s Jazz is one of them; the fourth Dubrovnik’s album, Medicine Wheel [another Perth alumni group featuring Boris Sudjovic, another Beasts member, and Roddy Radalj, who had formed Le Hoodoo Gurus with Baker and Faulkner], is a great album. And most of the Beasts stuff I like. I only did three albums with them but they were all cool.

“The Victims stuff, even though we didn’t do an album as such, was pretty cool.”

Ah yes, cool. That is something worth noting. How has he managed to stay on the right side of that line through nearly 50 years?

“Maybe because I am,” he laughs. As he does so, in the background his partner, Cathy, calls out “that’s absolutely the truth, he’s just a very cool dude. He’s very chilled and has got impeccable style, and he is always lovely to everybody.”

That’s a pretty ringing endorsement, from someone not at all biased either! But maybe one of the explanations is in the fact that through all the punk, ragged blues, alternative pop and other styles he’s played in, James Baker has pretty much retained his signature hairstyle. That’s dedication. That’s self-awareness. That’s cool.

Like his taste in music, when he found something that worked he saw no need to change.

So that’s the positives. Are there any regrets?

“My one regret is that I didn’t do a full length album with The Victims, because we certainly had the songs. We had about 25 songs,” he says. “Then again that’s about an album[‘s worth because] every song was about half a minute.”

One regret? After 50 years? That’s not a bad result. The rest of us? Maybe one regret is that this recording and the Beasts tour is probably the last we will get from him. But he’s okay with that.

“This tour will be good,” he says. “The band is in top form.”

Okay then, on that note, as a parting gift to us, what is James Baker’s best piece of advice for any of us fans, musicians, hangers on in the music world?

(James Baker at The Governor Broome, Perth 1978)

“Just do it. Don’t sit around talking about it, go ahead and do it,” he says. “I’ve met so many people that spend their whole life playing guitar but don’t go out and do anything. As soon as you do that, things just fall into place.

“And don’t steal other bands’ riders. That’s not on.”

Now that’s some proper advice to live by.

James Baker & The Groundbreakers' Born To Rock is out now on In The Red Records

Beasts Of Bourbon play:

April 5 – Metro, Sydney

April 6 – Triffid, Brisbane

April 12 – The Gov, Adelaide

April 13 – Freo Social, Fremantle

April 19 – Chelsea Heights Hotel

April 20 – Northcote Theatre, Melbourne


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