In his 20s, future playwright and documentary maker Greg Appel wrote for and played in a Sydney band which didn’t make it. Or at least didn’t make it big enough to be noticed – and that’s all that mattered isn’t it? They recorded. They toured. They played through Europe. They broke up. They formed another band. They broke up too. And you almost certainly don’t know them.
It was the 1980s and Cold Chisel ruled locally; Midnight Oil and INXS would eventually rule internationally. Everyone knows them and their stories. Even lesser bands like Noiseworks, and nearly as successful bands like Australian Crawl, ordinary bands like Rose Tattoo and once-despised bands like Nick Cave’s Birthday Party/Bad Seeds have reputations and legends known.
A young Melbourne artist, blown in originally from Adelaide, called Paul Kelly opened for them in Perth. You probably know him.
Not Appel’s band, called The Lighthouse Keepers. Sometimes messy, often gently attractive, caught between country and folk and a kind of rock that had little to do with posturing. Appel’s songs were sung by Juliet Ward, a woman as shy as he was but with the delicious voice of a sleepy confessor, and they could seriously charm.
However, unless you were in rooms like the Southern Cross/Strawberry Hills Hotel, Trade Union Club or Graphics Arts, unless you were watching bands like Died Pretty and The Particles, The Triffids and The Cockroaches, you would not have known to care.
But it is their haphazard story, and just as much that of their milieu - that set of grimy band rooms and cheap shared houses, random 7” singles and street press interviews - which Appel tells in Confessions Of A Lighthouse Keeper. It’s a memoir of the nearly weres and never was, put it this way, Kyle & Jackie O won’t be having him on to chat, so why write it?
“I’m not sure I can answer it that clearly,” says Appel from his home south of Sydney. “I certainly had mixed feelings about doing it, which I’ve written at the start of it, and I’m not trying to say this is the greatest band of creative genius, but I still wanted to tell the story of someone working and trying to be creative, doing all that stuff. And no one else was going to write it, so I thought I’d give it a go.”
With humour and frankness that sometimes feels quite brutal, Appel’s book stumbles into a story of people making music because they could, on little money and not necessarily great ambition, just the sense that doing this fleshed out a need they might not even be able to articulate.
“There are plenty of people like me, who aren’t Jimmy Barnes - most people aren’t,” he says. “We were quite shy, myself and Juliet, all of the band really and quite introverted nerds on a whole. We were ambitious enough to stand up nervously and do all that stuff.”
There’s sex and drugs of course (though mostly being had by others as Appel and Ward lived in “a bubble” that sailed blithely by much of it), laziness and petty jealousies, but most of the time what the book chronicles is a Sydney underground that was almost a world on its own, and now mostly gone.
It’s also told through more than the one voice, with regular contributions from band members, touring buddies, journalists and childhood friend and ABC announcer, Sarah Macdonald, which don’t always align with Appel’s memories or attitude.
Amusingly, Appel is quite open about the delicate nature of friendship and rivalry with your peers and is a little sceptical of the idea of a cohesive scene. After all even for those of us who were at gigs and buying records at the time, you wouldn’t necessarily put the ‘60s revivalists, the Melbourne “heroin bands”, Sydney’s sometimes oafish post-Radio Birdman rock groups, the cheap electro outfits on the M Squared label, the roots-revivalists, the leftover punks, the Go-Betweens and Triffids, the country punks, Chisels and Oils together.
“We were friends with a lot of them because we are on the same wavelength but they were little scenes that interacted almost by accident; they just happen to be doing the same thing,” Appel recalls, adding wryly that “there were a lot of white people, a lot of white men, of a certain age, doing quite different things, and it gets called a scene.”
In keeping with his general resistance to hype, even the type that might help him, Appel is just as open about claims to greatness so easily made about “lost” sounds and ignored scenes.
“When you listen to some of that music too, it’s all kind of patchy, Lighthouse Keepers included, and I don’t feel like a huge scene was missed by the world. But it’s also probably interesting to other places, like little bits and pieces of it are good I think.”
Even as a fan of many of the bands from this period and this scene, the truth of it is many of these bands, as good as the songs were, as great as the gigs might have been, a satisfying as they were for many of us, could never really translate to wide public favour.
They were too much or too little, too thin sounding or too noisy, not desperate enough, or just off centre enough. And you know, that’s okay. If you judge the arts by the most visible or the most viable, you are missing the point.
“You couldn’t put Ocean Liner on commercial radio,” Appel says of the last Lighthouse Keepers single. “People would just turn it off. And if you put that next to Michael Jackson, then it would be like ‘what the hell happened? This is shit.’ But still, with the better songs of the band you can still listen to them; they’re just different, and you’re never going to be popular with people that want to have a bit of fun music that’s well produced. You can see why Michael Jackson was popular: it’s a totally different thing.”
Nor of course were they all wanting to get somewhere. If they could agree on what that “somewhere” was.
“I probably should have gone overseas and stayed there if I was that ambitious but I just like it here I think,” Appel says. “I was reading the Paul Kelly book [the new biography by Stuart Coupe] and I was thinking God, that sounds too hard what he did. Constantly on the road. I feel in retrospect I didn’t want to do that. I did enough of it to know that it would really be a grind after a while.”
Knowing what he knows now, would he do it again?
“You know, I think I would. That’s my initial reaction. A lot of that period was good fun. I don’t think I’m just being nostalgic; I did really enjoy it,” says Appel. “As an adolescent I wasn’t that happy but that period with the band was just great. It was a happy relationship with Juliet - I don’t think she’s going to deny that: I think she would support it. We lived together for six years which at that age was quite a long period. So, yes, I would do it again.”
Confessions Of A Lighthouse Keeper is published by Guthugga Pipeline Press
A version of this story was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald.