Mambo: Art Irritates Life

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Reg Mombassa.
Interview with Monash academic Associate Professor Tony Moore

 “A recognition of the distinctness of cultural production – its involvement of genuinely different values – is not the end of sociological enquiry, but the beginning, leading us to examine the social interests in which it is inscribed. […] How do position-takings within the field define new genres, styles or aesthetic sensibilities? How do creative innovations establish differences between schools or tendencies, marking out new spaces of possibilities? How do they make claims on artistic ‘truth’, ‘beauty’ or insight into the human condition?”

– Associate Professor Mark Gibson & Associate Professor Tony Moore

Mambo: Arts Irritates Life is available on iView after the documentary is shown.

How did Mambo go from being a team of irreverent surf culture enthusiasts, artists and rockers in a tiny shed, to the multimillion dollar company it is today? A new documentary, Mambo: Art Irritates Life (premiering Tuesday 9 November at 9.30pm, ABC), explores the evolution of the Mambo phenomenon and features Monash academic Associate Professor Tony Moore. We talked to Tony about his research into the mechanisms behind the irreverent art movement that became the iconic label for the masses in the 80s and 90s, and the wider questions on what policy-makers, emerging artists and people shaping our creative ecologies can learn from its transformation.

How did Mambo start? Who were its founders and why did they start it?

Mambo emerged in 1984 and it came out of a kind of a subversion to the established surfwear industry – which originally came out of hippy surfing and surf culture in the 60s and 70s. Mambo was clearly aimed at surfwear/beachwear, but it came out of post-punk music and kind of agit-pop leftie Sydney tradition of graphic art – subversive but overtly political graphic design built on Andy Warhol pop art aesthetic but also playful irreverent Australian traditions.

It also drew very early on from post-punk post-modern artists like Reg Mombassa (Chris O’Doherty) who was in a band called ‘Mental as Anything’ and people like him who were associated with the youth subcultures of the early 80s in inner cities particularly inner Sydney.

So you’ve got this kind of punk, thumbing your nose at authority, you’ve got a post-modern sampling, a kind of retro irony of the experience of the beach, and surfing, and suburbia and you had this larrikin Australian comedic tradition which is one of my case studies in Fringe to Famous. This tradition, that I term  the “larrikin carnivalesque” mobilises your Aussie Ocker and other working class types as an anti-authoritarian symbol which uses humour and vulgarity and profanity  to mock and destabilise – and these all flowed into Mambo.

Mambo: Arts Irritates Life is available on iView after the documentary is shown.

Mambo’s genesis was in the Phantom Records store in the late 70s / early 80s that sold import records and signed up and recorded punk, post-punk bands, what we now call indie, and also sold rock’n’roll t-shirts. Phantom Record’s founder Dare Jennings was at the centre of this shop, so was involved in the printing of these shirts and also liked surfing and he was the entrepreneur – what we call the “Cultural Entrepreneur” someone who is an intermediary with these emerging youth subcultures (in his case the music and surf scenes). He came to adulthood in the Whitlam era, an era of possibility, taking after the streets and streets to the art. He was basically unhappy with the status quo in Australian streetwear and the hippie aesthetic of fake spiritualism, sort of bland dropping out ethos, and he takes that on.

He (Jennings) was the entrepreneur – what we call the “Cultural Entrepreneur” someone who is an intermediary with these emerging youth subcultures (in his case the music scene). He came to adulthood in the Whitlam era, an era of possibility, taking after the streets and streets to the art. He was basically unhappy with the status quo in Australian streetwear and the hippie aesthetic of fake spiritualism, sort of bland, and he takes that on.

People forget that British punks claimed to despise hippies as much as they hated Thatcher, even though punk is a counterculture and so are hippies – like a little rebellion within countercultures if you like, just like the way post-modern owes as much to the modern, punk is a reaction to but related to hippiedom.

In our research we draw on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who looks at how within the avant-garde, in the underground, indie scenes, new players often pick a fight with those just a bit older than them or the established players – it’s a game really. So punks against the hippies or the Angry Penguins group around Heide versus the established Impressionist painters, the Heidelberg School grown old.

This is a perennial thing and I explore this over a 150 year period in a history of Australian bohemia Dancing with Empty Pockets, on which Fringe to Famous builds on, examining the fertile cross-over between indie/underground/avant-garde fringe scenes and mainstream popular culture from  the 1980s till the present. The case studies are rock music, comedy, digital games, screen fiction, and of course Mambo, which is being researched by our ANU colleague Professor Chris McAuliffe.

Were there conditions specific to that period of time that enabled the rise of Mambo?

There was a generational stoush in the late 70s/ early 80s around punk, new social movements, new identities, youth subcultures and new theories and in a way Mambo is part of that. What it comes up with is an irreverent, ironic, somewhat subversive and vulgar style of surfwear which both celebrates and mocks white Australian suburbia’s surf life and the kind of yobbo elements in that.

In the 1960s the staff at Oz Magazine, including its co-founder Richard Neville, were arrested for obscenity in Australia and went to jail briefly for among other things, doing a surf satire that played on all the booze, drugs, vulgarity and the sex of the surf scene. That was a satirical act that was considered beyond the pale.

Mambo: Arts Irritates Life is available on iView after the documentary is shown.

Then 20 years later Mambo is delivering this aesthetic on our board shorts, our surfwear, our beach towels and Hawaiian shirts that is a mockery but also a wry, ironic, and I would argue, liberatory art form. It is both art and a commodity. It is taking art out of the tin sheds, silk screen workshops, galleries and the small places where the artists exhibited and had us wearing our art on our sleeve. And I think that was great for Australian iconography to the point where they grow from a very small outfit in selected surf shops to taking on the establishment and become a bigger company, eventually exporting globally, but with an indie aesthetic.

In the 1960s the staff at Oz Magazine, including its co-founder Richard Neville, were arrested for obscenity in Australia and went to jail briefly for doing a surf satire […]  Then 20 years later Mambo is delivering this aesthetic on our board shorts, our surfwear, our beach towels …

Another such company was a small record label called Virgin – I remember when Virgin was sold out of the back of a boot in Camden Rd by a guy called Richard Branson. When does that indie company become a mainstream big company? I suspect with Virgin it’s when they have a transatlantic airfleet. With Mambo I guess it’s when they’re finally sold to a multinational.

It’s not just that Mambo becomes big, it’s that the world also changes with Nirvana, and that 90’s moment when indie culture also becomes mainstream. And I would also argue this has often occurred, within Australia’s smaller cultural market: think Barry Humphries, or in music people like Nick Cave, or in theatre people like Dave Williamson. Things that are prickly and avant-garde and transgressive and a bit disturbing are picked up and ultimately influence popular culture. Sometimes the artists, sometimes the people doing that moving themselves find ways to become mainstream, or sometimes it’s their ideas.

It’s not just that Mambo just becomes big, it’s that the world also changes with Nirvana, and that 90s moment when indie culture also becomes mainstream. And I would also argue this has often occurred […] Things that are prickly and avant-garde and transgressive and a bit disturbing are picked up and ultimately influence popular culture. Sometimes the artists, sometimes the people doing that moving themselves find ways to become mainstream, or sometimes it’s their ideas.

With Mambo it was quite quick as they took on an existing market for surfwear; I think at the point they took on department stores they became a big player and then comes more compromising than in surf shops. But then the energy saps in the 21st century when post-90s everything is a bit ‘alt’, nothing is shocking anymore. Like someone says in the doco (Mambo: Art Irritates Life), ‘when your fat Uncle’ is wearing this gear it’s become dad wear and a nostalgic thing. But there was a point where many of us who liked the beach would hunt out retro 60s Hawaiian shirts and things and suddenly there was this stuff being made but with this great post-punk art on it and it was a cutting edge thing. I guess there’s a point that comes when it’s not.

Mambo: Arts Irritates Life is available on iView after the documentary is shown.

In our research we’re interested in Australia, looking at the 1980s to the present, on what it is that enables innovative or transgressive cultural forms, aesthetics, ideas developed in the fringe to become popular. And we don’t see that as selling out, we see that as just a process of becoming more professional, increasing scale, actually have a sense of a bigger audience than when it’s just your mates, or peers, or a little niche. What enables creativity on the fringe to find a bigger market? How does economic value in our case studies relate to cultural value?

We’ve drawn on ideas of cultural entrepreneurship and the role of arts festivals and cultural entrepreneurs such as Dare Jennings and Baz Luhrmann who take and hybridise fringe aesthetics and turn it into something new and also manage to scale it up and actually smuggle it to a mainstream audience. I argue Barry Humphries work has always been transgressive and it took him a long time to find a global audience. Ditto with Mambo – it starts in Australia and then they have arrangements around the world and it becomes a global niche business. And the global niche is a really interesting thing.

It starts in Australia and then they have arrangements around the world and it becomes a global niche business. And the global niche is a really interesting thing.

What about the digital landscape, has that aided the game?

Digital and social media have delivered the tools to allow the making and distribution of art much more affordable, and within a range of many more people. At the same time there is so much more out there so there is an attention economy – fighting for attention.

Digital and social media have delivered the tools to allow the making and distribution of art much more affordable and within a range of many more people. At the same time there is so much more out there so there is an attention economy – fighting for attention.

We’ve interviewed a present day band (one of our case studies), based in Sydney called Royal Headache. I’ve never seen such passionate, wild audiences for a band and they’ve come from a punk aesthetic (they describe themselves as that) and sing about a city that does not care. The label that first signed them perceives that they’re a band that’s excluded from mainstream media. So even though people my age may feel all of that punk stuff became mainstream, for a new emerging person there’s still commercial radio, Nova and all of these things, even Triple J, that may seem like a closed door because they haven’t won in UnEarthed – and I think that UnEarthed is a great initiative – but there’s still going to be that kind of thing that’s on the edge.

If I can use Royal Headache as an example, they have in our couple of years of research found acclaim in America, acclaim in Britain as one of the best, really interesting guitar bands in the last ten years but we don’t know them in Australia the way we all in in my day knew Skyhooks or Sherbet or any other – it’s harder, people don’t fill the public space in the same way anymore. We either know about it or we don’t. It’s fragmented. And those spaces that curate and broadcast something we all know are few and far between. It’s easier in Australia still, if you’re an international act to gain that kind of coverage or you need to make it visibly overseas.

We don’t know them in Australia the way we all in my day knew Skyhooks or Sherbet or any other – it’s harder, people don’t fill the public space in the same way anymore.

It’s a different question now. Royal Headache are selling, having greater success than some of the bands that everyone knew in Australian in the 70s or 80s because they’re appealing via social media and pressed vinyl records – once you’re in the American, Britain, German or other alternative indie market it’s huge. So it’s a different way of configuring scale – so you don’t need to be a household name like Abba – so that has changed.

It’s a different question now. Royal Headache are selling, having greater success than some of the bands that everyone knew in Australian in the 70s or 80s […] it’s a different way of configuring scale – so you don’t need to be a household name like Abba – so that has changed.

Also, think of the Bondi Hipsters – they’ve come through Youtube, created their own audience, and organisations like the ABC and SBS, public broadcasters that have always been at the forefront of nurturing and doing outreach for comedy or music, in particular maybe subversive kinds of drama, and developing it. Now they go on Youtube to see who’s already got a following. So the Bondi Hipsters is a great example of that and UnEarthed on Triple J. But you’ll always have people who don’t want to play by those rules and Nick Cave was one such person until he wasn’t, or more consistently Melbourne punk era band the Primitive Calculators or Brisbane’s the GoBetweens, who opted to work experimentally to a smaller, more cult audience.

Think of the Bondi Hipsters – they’ve come through Youtube, created their own audience, and organisations like the ABC and SBS who have always been at the forefront of nurturing and doing outreach for comedy or music, in particular maybe subversive kinds of drama and developing it. Now they go on Youtube to see who’s already got a following. […] But you’ll always have people who don’t want to play by those rules …

So with those who don’t want to play by the rules, is this perhaps a perspective on “selling out”?

Ultimately over time the question we’re asking is how do you establish a longer-term career as opposed to being a flash in a pan? How do you maintain, if your initial burst is based on innovation/ transgression/ being different, how do you maintain that ‘street cred’? We’re interested in that, in moving between what you could call an avant-garde art market and popular culture, doing the two can help you maintain a sense of autonomy and freedom despite the inevitable compromises that are necessary in reaching a bigger audience. We don’t see them as necessarily negative compromises in our project, they can be, the trick is having a sense of an audience or a bigger audience can be a democratic thing and people are not necessarily conservative.

The question we’re asking is how do you establish a longer-term career as opposed to being a flash in a pan and how do you maintain, if your initial burst is based on innovation, transgression, being different? How do you maintain that street cred if you like?

Scorsese calls it smuggling things into the mainstream. Particularly when you’re dealing with free to air television that’s often the way it works, but online you don’t have to do that. You’re dealing with people who are up there for, I won’t call it extreme content, but stuff for a smaller group that share something, or people that share something in common that aren’t necessarily a small group but something that can go viral and establish a new market.

Is this the “global niche” concept you speak of?

Global niche is really interesting. In our interviews it was a proposition put by documentary maker Marcus Westbury in relation to Australian-made bespoke craft, and also by Nic Warnock, a young man responsible for  punk record label R.I.P. Society, associated with Royal Headache.

RIP presses records in Cleveland USA, is based in Newtown, started in the University of Western Sydney and a record shop in Penrith, and the principal comes from Cairns. You see that the college market who like vinyl is big in America so you press the records there, but you also provide the download link so people can get the digital file too, so it’s not like they don’t do all the other things but I guess compared to my day the bands don’t play as much.

We’ve seen the business models and the performance models change over the 30 or 40 year period. People used to have the idea going back to the Beatles, certainly in the early 70s, 80s, 90s, that as a band you perform all the time to earn money. Now people don’t do that, they’ll go on an overseas tour, do special gigs and festivals and make some money from that.

The bands are far more managing their own brand, being more like artists or authors, like a filmmaker, they don’t give up their day job to just be a rockstar because you won’t survive on that. So it’s certainly different and the art paradigm seems far more pronounced in what they do. Frankly people often always had another job but they were often the ones who didn’t become the big stars, but now I’m noticing most of the artists have another job.

Do these only exist because there is a “mainstream” so there’s something to be alternative “against”?

Some would say there is no mainstream anymore, just a delta – not one big river but lots of rivulets. Certainly that’s there, but I think that depends where you live and what your cultural capital is. I think everyone can be exposed to everything but not everyone is exposed to everything. And a certain cultural literacy is needed.

When I was young, there was a real art to finding out about things that were not mainstream. You’d go to that particular record store like Phantom where Mambo began, or you’d go to a special movie bookshop, and you’d find out the clues and become what you fancied was a connoisseur of these things or a bit indie to use current phrase.

Now it’s easier to find out about everything, but that doesn’t mean everyone does. So there’s a role for curation and in music – today there’s things like Pitchfork, and in the classic period there was The New Music Express, and you’d wait for that to be imported from England or you’d go to the import record store and see what had been imported in. Nowadays you hear about something distributed by your friends on social media; I think there are limitations to the social network in that sometimes you just have confirmed what you already know. But there are people that are known to be tastemakers. But how do you get exposed to them?

Some would say there is no mainstream anymore, just a delta – not one big river but lots of rivulets. Certainly that’s there but I think that depends where you live and what your cultural capital is. I think everyone can be exposed to everything but not everyone is exposed to everything. And a certain cultural literacy is needed.

Nowadays you hear about something distributed by your friends on social mediaI think there are limitations to the social network in that sometimes you just have confirmed what you already know. But there are people that are known to be tastemakers. But how do you get exposed to them?

Yes! How do we get exposed to them? I feel like this question strikes at the core of your research for all parties in our creative ecologies. 

Is it that only hipsters who go to certain universities or move in particular scenes know about it? I discovered these things living in a working class suburb of Illawarra in the 70s but that was because Gough Whitlam had created Double J radio which beamed into Wollongong late at night. That was a public intervention to overcome scarcity, to provide an alternative. And I actually think Triple J being a national network backed up by the public radio network also created by that government, like Melbourne’s 3RRR, were during the whole period of our study but even more so now, really significant for exposing people to things.

And now it’s through their websites and streaming as much as FBI radio in Sydney. So we’re interested in those interventions in policy which are frequently within the public sector, or are public encouragements directed at the private sector,, to do outreach and to work with emerging talent to do these things, to scale up from small to large audiences.

So we’re interested in those interventions in policy which are frequently within the public sector, or are public encouragements directed at the private sector, to do outreach and to work with emerging talent to do these things, to scale up from small to large audiences. 

Double J went national as Triple J and took alternatives to regional areas. Youtube, Facebook etc are private concerns. Comedy in the 80s had outreach from commercial TV like Channel 7 and 10 and you don’t normally associate that with them but there were moments when Channel 10 has been the groovy youth station and has done that stuff and gone into the X-Files and Simpsons sensibilities in the 90s and early noughties. In the 80s it had Comedy Company and Channel 7 had Fast Forward, ABC had Degeneration, and out of Fast Forward came Kath and Kim.

So people that were emerging through the kind of underground theatre scene in Melbourne and the comedy scene in Melbourne and University Student Review got tapped and became the new generation of new wave comedy on the back of the punk cultural energy of inner city art initiatives, particularly from Melbourne. Though The Chaser in the later period came out of Sydney, Sydney University and the Revue scene.  Our study reveals an alternative narrative in defence of the ABC and SBS as agents of outreach that nurture emerging talent from the fringe, and connect it with popular audiences and bring a genuine innovation to our culture.

In our ARC Discovery Project we’re looking at the establishment of innovative units such as SBS Independent established by the Keating government in the mid 90s which gave SBS money to really tap independent drama, comedy, film initiatives.

So we got Eat Carpet – a series from 1989-2005 that ran dozens of short films. The ABC had the Aboriginal programs unit from the 1980s which has continued to thrive and all sorts of great people came out of that and did really innovative new aesthetics. SBS was tapping people of non-English speaking backgrounds and alternative styles doing really interesting things. You had Paul Fenech who came out of the Indigenous unit at the ABC and won a Tropfest under a hoax name Laura Feinstein with a short film featuring comedian Austen Tayshus. He made Pizza and then Housous and they have been phenomenally successfully yet vulgar and contemptuous of middle class good taste. We look at Paul Fenech’s work in the research and argue that it is extremely transgressive yet also inclusive and gives a great deal of agency to marginalised people. Barry Humphries has always done a bit of that too and Kath and Kim in a different way.

We’re interested in both the cultural value and economic value in this and we think in Australia they’ve not looked at the policy settings that enable creativity in the fringe or enables it to move into and be developed for a more popular audience. But it happens and we’ve tried to conceptualise and quantify it through extensive interviews with creative practitioners, cultural managers and entrepreneurs.

We’re interested in both the cultural value and economic value in this and we think in Australia they’ve not looked at the policy settings that enable creativity in the fringe or enables it to move into and be developed for a more popular audience. But it happens and we’ve tried to conceptualise and quantify it …

Associate Professor Tony Moore is in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University and is Program Director of the Communications and Media Studies Graduate Program.

He is in the final year as lead Chief Investigator on an ARC Discovery project entitled Fringe to Famous: Contemporary Australian Culture as an Innovation System, with collaborating CIs Associate Professor Mark Gibson at Monash’s School of Media, Film and Journalism, and Professor Chris McAuliffe, art historian, former director of the Ian Potter Museum and a Professor at ANU.

Emerging out of Associate Professor Moore’s book on Australian bohemia, Dancing with Empty Pockets, Fringe to Famous examines the crossover between ‘alternative’ and ‘mainstream’ cultural production in Australia, identifying ways in which a hybridisation between the avant garde and the popular has promoted the development of cultural industries since the 1980s.

One of the five case studies in this research is Mambo, helmed by Professor McAuliffe.

Mambo: Art Irritates Life premieres Tuesday 9 November at 9.30pm on ABC.

This is available on iView after the documentary is shown.