There are plenty of Australian bands who are perennially underrated throughout the world. Largely a function of being small and trapped on the other side of the world (England is the same size as my home state, Victoria), it takes a lot of effort for Australian bands to escape national success and make inroads internationally.
Only a few of them come to mind immediately for me – AC/DC, Kylie Minogue, and Sia are some of the leading lights. But the Australian music scene parallels its better known rivals in the United States and United Kingdom, and the 90s alt rock boom was no exception. Unarguably boosted by Triple J, a publicly funded alternative broadcaster, dozens of Aussie bands were able to make a lot of noise and earn themselves a place in the hearts (and Discmans) of teenagers across the nation.
For someone who’s way too young to remember this scene (despite my fondness for it), old editions of the Triple J Hottest 100 are a goldmine. An annual poll formerly held on Australia Day (but changed, like Australia Day should be), the station’s listeners would vote in their favourite songs of the past year. And while there’s plenty of space for international acts – 1996 had eight foreign acts in the top 10, for example – it serves as a great example of the best Aussie alt rock has to offer. And one of the best was Spiderbait.
Formed in the small town of Finley, close to the New South Wales/Victoria border, Spiderbait kicked onto the scene in the early 90s after moving to Melbourne and making a name for themselves with some hardcore punk thrash. They streamlined their performances as time went on, first on the EP P’tang Yang Kipper Bang Uh!, then first album Shashavaglava. 1995’s The Unfinished Spanish Galleon of Finley Lake was a huge step, reaching the Australian top 20 and earning them radio play. But it all kicked in on Ivy and the Big Apples, another example in the theory that a band’s third album is generally their best.
The band kicks into gear with ‘Chest Hair’, a gritty opener with loudly buzzing guitar and Kram yelling his way through the song from behind the drumkit. This is a rush of intensity that barely lets up all album, quick manic pop-punk that runs riot through your speakers.
It’s clear early on that Spiderbait have mastered the short punk tune, and the album is stacked with plenty of them. ‘Buy Me a Pony’ took out top spot in the 1996 Hottest 100, and it’s easy to see why, with Kram raving about the allure of fame while. Later track ‘Should Have Done What My Mum Always Told Me To’ repeats the dose, a huge fuzzy riff under angsty lyrics – “I’ve got no personality”, “Don’t you tell me what you’re doing / I don’t ever want to do it”, “no no no no no no!”
Some of the album’s highlights are when they tinker with the formula, though, showcasing a diversity that would blossom on other albums. ‘Calypso’ swings between soft and loud instantly, alternating between Janet English singing over a chirpy acoustic and aggressive choruses. ‘When Fusion Ruled the Earth’ is a lengthy instrumental, fuzzy and bass-heavy, building and amping you up. ‘Joyce’s Hut’ and ‘Horshack Army’ are the biggest outliers, techno-infused loopy jams that sound like precursors for 1999’s The Flight of Wally Funk, another of my favourite Spiderbait albums.
This is the sort of album that would’ve stormed the charts had it been released somewhere else. It did a pretty good job in Australia, winning an ARIA Award and getting double-platinum certification, but their overseas growth is more or less nil. But that may be a good thing – the Australian identity is proud of its uniqueness, and while other nations may share music, we jam to bands all our own.