Rhythms and Refrains: A Brief History of Australian Electronica – Ross Harley, Andrew Murphie

Electronic music has played an important role in Australian popular music since the early to mid-1980s. It also has played a singular role in the transformation of Australian culture, including – but not exclusively restricted to – youth culture. It is surrounded by an enormous amount of cultural noise and loosely documented and ephemeral literature found in street magazines, fan and musician websites, CD stores and a handful of publications. In recent years, there has been a growing body of academic work concerning the cultures of electronica (e.g. Brookman, 2001; Gibson, 1999; Gibson and Pagan, 2001; Luckman, 2001; Murphie and Scheer, 1992; St John, 2001). Yet there has been very little in the way of a historical overview of Australian electronic popular music and its role within the attached cultures of electronica. This article gives one pathway through this history, leading into a discussion of the contemporary state of electronica in Australia. Although there is not sufficient space here to detail all the significant features of this evolution, we hope to provide an overview that will be helpful for others who seek to expand, challenge or develop our introductory groundwork.


We begin with a brief outline of some significant Australian precursors to the growth of electronica, including composer Percy Grainger, along with Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, who developed the Fairlight digital music sampler in the mid-1970s (which was followed by the Fairlight video synthesiser in the 1980s). We then discuss the rise of electronic music in Australia from the late 1970s on: the early intrusion of synthesisers into rock music in the early 1980s; the first electronica artists and labels; the RAT (recreational art team) parties, dance parties, gay parties and raves of the late 1980s to mid-1990s that changed music culture forever; the rise of clubbing and the role of DJ-as-producer; producers such as Robert Racic and Ollie Olsen, and the new music labels, such as Volition and Psy Harmonics, that arose during this period in most major Australian cities; the crisis of the big party scene in Sydney in 1995; and the paradoxical flowering of diversity in Australian electronic music after the ‘crisis’ that accompanied post-rave electronicas – such as IDM (intelligent dance music) and doof.

We should note before we begin that there are at least two other pathways through a history of Australian electronic music that we shall only gesture towards. The first pathway is a history that follows what can only be called ‘serious’ electronic music. This would be a history following the experiments and compositions using electronic instruments by the likes of composers/musicians/instrument inventors Warren Burt, Greg Schiemer, Carl Vine, Ros Bandt, Rik Rue, Rainer Linz, Jon Rose and many more. It might also discuss artists who use electronic audio in a significant and innovative way in their work (artists such as Joan Brassil, Nigel Helyer, Joyce Hinterding, David Haines, Philip Samartzis and numerous others). Indeed, there is much crossover between ‘serious’ electronic music, the ‘electronic arts’, and the music that interests us here. For example, Severed Heads’ Tom Ellard has always been more interested in the experimental development of electronic music than its danceability (despite international success with the latter). The most noteworthy example of such a crossover between ‘serious’ electronic music and its other is probably David Chesworth, formerly of the Melbourne experimental pop group Essendon Airport.

Another pathway we will not be able to follow here would be that involving the highly successful artists who often use electronica to produce commercial dance music (such as Kylie) or techno-pop ( Savage Garden). This is another story that has been told extensively elsewhere.

Music Production and Social Contexts – A Brief Framework

Along with the above, we are concerned with the following questions. In the light of a fairly extensive body of academic work surrounding the Australian cultures of raves, doofs (‘non-profit community events, often held outdoors in remote regions’ (St John, 2001: 15)) and so on, and the relatively scant analysis of Australian electronic music, how can we define the relations between music and the broader cultural activities produced alongside it? How do we give an account of the production of the music that acknowledges its social contexts without completely subsuming the music itself into these contexts? As Nicholas Gebhardt writes, ‘in following a cultural process from a source to a consequence’, how do we avoid making:

the mistake of reducing music to an elaborate cry of either ecstasy (in both senses of the word) or, if linked to subsistence or alienation, a cry of pain (in the usual sense) … a musical event is … a symbol system in its own right, existing within the complexities of the larger system or structure … (Gebhardt, 2003)

For Gebhardt, this means that ‘the question of how underground techno, hip hop, drum’n’bass, etc, and social events are related has to be treated as an ideological one’. However, instead of discussing the ideological relations to be found within music when it is taken as a ‘symbol system in its own right’, we are guided by a slightly different, less ‘ideological’ account of a possible framework for understanding both music production and music’s role in the formation of cultural events. This is a framework based on the interweaving of musical rhythms with other rhythms of everyday life. It combines related concepts taken from four French thinkers. From Henri Lefebvre and Catherine Régulier (Lefebvre, 2004) we take the idea of ‘rhythmanalysis’. Rhythmanalysis was meant to be a new science of rhythms. Rhythms are seen as entirely central to the way culture organises itself. Lefebvre and Régulier conceived of a whole criss-crossing (we might say a polyrhythmic) engagement of different rhythms that, although we tend to ignore them, are in fact at the centre of everyday life. This is not only a question of obviously musical or other cultural rhythms, but of technical rhythms, social rhythms, bodily rhythms, and cyclic rhythms (such as the relation between night and day – one could note here the importance of ‘moon cycles and solstices’ [St John, 2001: 15] to doofs, for example). Of course, musical rhythms – and particularly the rhythms of electronic music – can be seen to play a key role in the production of the complexity of life as it is lived.

At the same time, to think in terms of ‘rhythmanalysis’ is also to challenge standard modes of social analysis such as those examining ‘ideology’. Even if ‘rhythmanalysis’ and ideological analysis can be seen as complementary, the former perhaps ‘exposes’ much more starkly the challenges that music presents to social analysis. To analyse the assemblage of rhythms across the cultural, musical, technical and natural, presents a strong ‘epistemological challenge to the human sciences’ (Henri Meschonnic in Lefebvre, 2004: xiv). This is perhaps the same challenge that electronica itself has posed to its cultural contexts. It is a challenge precisely to be able to think/live the social not only as an assemblage of signs and objects, but, at perhaps a more fundamental level, an assemblage of rhythms and movements. There is much at stake in this. As Lefebvre puts it:

The critique of the thing and of the process of thingification (of reification) in modern thought would fill volumes. It has been led in the name of becoming, of movement, of mobility in general. But has it been seen through to the end? Does it not remain to be taken up again, starting from what is most concrete: rhythm? (2004: 3)

There is only the space to gesture towards rhythmanalysis in this article. However, in doing so we point towards something fundamental when considering music’s active work in reassembling cultural events, and this shall guide us in much that follows.

From Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari we take the related idea of the interweaving of musical and existential refrains (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 310ff; Stivale, 2003; Murphie, 1996; Tagg, 1994). In this context, a refrain is ‘any kind of rhythmic pattern any repetition, musical or otherwise that stakes out a territory’ (Bogue, 2003: 17). Refrains – and the mixing of refrains – not only produce new musics but at the same moment produce new cultural territories, holding them together (or dismantling old ones).

Refrains have three aspects. First, they emerge from the desire to reassemble a context. For example, ‘a child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 311), thus reassembling not only the environment as a whole but the rhythms of his own breath. As is echoed in many events in the history of Australian electronica, the song ‘is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is always in danger of breaking apart at any moment’ (1987: 311). Secondly, refrains bring one home. More precisely, refrains create ‘home’, as ‘home does not preexist: it was necessary to draw a circle around that uncertain and fragile centre, to organize a limited space’ (311). This is again something that can be seen in the rhythms and sounds of electronic music, whether re-assembling the rhythms of the living room or the rainforest. Thirdly, ‘one opens the circle a crack, opens it all the way … One opens the circle not on the side where the old forces of chaos press against it but in another region, one created by the circle itself’ (311). In short, the refrain not only enables the staking out of territory or home, but becomes the basis for a movement away from territories towards the new. This ongoing creation, dismantling and shifting of territories via refrains and rhythms is something very obvious in a country such as Australia in which the population is so dispersed through such wide-open spaces (in Australia the processes of differentiation and invention are often enhanced by distance). This can be seen, for example, in the opening up of electronica in forests in regional Australia at a time when Sydney events were almost closed down by new forms of regulation (St John, 2001). Another example would be the complex musical/cultural re-assemblages surrounding Aboriginal group Yothu Yindi’s hit 1991 single (remixed by Filthy Lucre), Treaty (Hayward, 1993; Nicol, 1993). As Deleuze and Guattari note, in such events the three aspects of the refrain ‘are not successive movements in an evolution. They are three aspects of a single thing’ (1987: 312). Bringing specific rhythms together, for example to rework the milieu of city warehouses or regional rainforests, is always simultaneously the bringing of order in chaos, the drawing of a fragile circle around something that feels like home, and the ‘opening of a circle a crack’ in a new direction.

Electronica’s Australian Precursors

Australian innovation has often been a question of necessity as much as desire, and significantly has to do with the necessity of overcoming distance – not only within Australia, but between Australia and the rest of the world (a recurring theme in the development of Australian electronica). As with electronica everywhere, there are three pools of significant precursors that produce a milieu for electronic innovation: 1) ideas and musical techniques to do with ‘serious’ musical composition; 2) innovative instruments or musical technologies, created either by artists or commercial engineers (although in electronica the difference between artist and engineer is often blurred); and 3) what might be called innovative cultural desires expressed through music. Of course, these three are often found in combination.

There have been many innovative musical techniques and technologies developed in Australia (Bebbington, 1997: 195-196). Two of these in particular deserve mention here.

The first is an example where ideas about composition merge with the creation of new instruments. Australian composer Percy Grainger (often working with scientist Burnett Cross) invented a number of experimental musical instruments, and while working in the United States, developed the notion of ‘Free Music’ machines (between 1945 and 1961). These were machines that worked largely with the technical/musical rhythms of sine waves (Bebbington, 1997: 195; Linz, 2003) – the basis of analogue synthesisers. In what could be seen as a kind of combination of contemporary software packages and analogue synthesis, they assembled such things as perforated or cut-and-shaped paper rolls (precursors perhaps to the flexible sequencer panels of contemporary music software packages), sewing machines, hand drills, piano rolls and, of course, various oscillators (see Linz, 2003, for details, or the Grainger Museum, online at http://www.lib.unimelb.edu.au/collections/grainger/index.html). Recording sine-wave-based material onto acetate discs created ‘the world’s first pieces made with these materials’ (Bebbington, 1997: 195).Consequently, Grainger not only worked with new means of composition but also of necessity with new means of recording and ‘distribution’. Significantly, in what is a constant theme in electronica, these arose out of a new concept of what music could be – and more particularly, from the idea that music should be more open to ‘non-classical’ sounds and rhythms than it was. Grainger had been thinking about new techniques of composition in music since he was very young. Rainer Linz writes that

Grainger first conceived his idea of Free Music as a boy of 11 or 12. It was suggested to him by the undulating movements of the sea, and by observing the waves on Albert Park Lake in Melbourne. These experiences eventually led him to conclude that the future of music lay in freeing up rhythmic procedures and in the subtle variation of pitch, producing glissando-like movement. These ideas were to remain with him throughout his life, and he spent a great deal of his time in later years developing machines to realise his conception. (Linz, 2003)

Here Linz effectively outlines the importance to Grainger of the rhythms of a local milieu. It was these that created the refrains that would resonate throughout Grainger’s life, and from there throughout electronic music. The electronic as ‘freeing up rhythmic procedures’ was of course to become crucial to the mutual exchanges between electronic music and cultures. Grainger was especially interested in incorporating random events, chance, and noise into music, in ideas that significantly predated the more famous work of American composer John Cage (often cited as a seminal electronica influence). At the same time, Grainger had an interest in folk music – so even here we see this crossover between the ‘serious’ and the popular that continues to the present.

The second example of Australian innovation was to come at electronica from a very different direction to Grainger’s analogue Free Music machines. We are referring to the invention and development of the Fairlight CMI, the world’s first digital sampler (1979). This made a completely new composition of rhythms possible, with a new way to rework refrains (now as samples). Though the initial motivation came not so much from music as from engineering, the Fairlight gave rise to the mass use of digital sampling. It was enormously expensive, yet, initially at least, commercially successful. It also found its way quite early into art schools, which, then as now, were bastions of electronica experiments (and therefore the cradle of many electronica artists). Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie were the engineers credited with the development of the Fairlight CMI (and its commercialisation), but they built it on the basis of the Qasar synthesiser developed from 1972-1978 by the engineer Anthony Furse under advise given by Don Banks, who founded the Canberra School of Music’s studio in 1972 (Callaway and Tunley, 1978: 95).1 Despite its expense, the Fairlight was quickly embraced by a number of artists who could afford it (such as mainstream rock giant, Peter Gabriel). It changed the sound of popular music, and is often claimed to be as significant as Robert Moog’s synthesiser.

Instruments such as the Fairlight also rekindled the desire of musicians to work with the new electronic means of musical production. This question of desire brings us to the final pool of innovations necessary for the development of electronica. It is impossible to conceive of electronica without a wide variety of developments in individual and cultural formations of desire. These are formations which we will define here as precisely the assemblage of rhythms and refrains, chaos and ‘home’, into forms of individual and cultural mobility. These formations of desire often respond to a shift in the nature of rhythms and refrains made available within the local milieu. In Australia, more marked shifts would include the beginnings of Australian rock’n’roll in the 1950s; and 1970s psychedelia in music, graphics and culture (it is no accident, for example, that the North Eastern corner of New South Wales has contained both a significant outbreak of counter-culture in the 1970s and a significant and idiosyncratic series of electronica cultures and musics in the 1990s). They would include, famously, the shift in popular music and dance cultures occasioned by the high numbers of American servicemen on rest and recreation leave in Australia during the Vietnam War. They would, perhaps more importantly, include Australian punk and post-punk, and the rise of the gay and lesbian movement (particularly in Sydney and Melbourne parties and clubs – although this has also been significant to the more recent electronica events surrounding Byron Bay). They would include important shifts regarding gender, music, dance and the nature of venues and the kinds of activities that might occur in various venues (Homan, 2003), and perhaps also the development of significant inner city alternative cultures from the late 1970s. An important part of these cultures, even if it is often seen as antagonist to electronica and dance music initially, was pub culture. Finally, they would include what we might call ‘link cultures’ and ‘link individuals’. By the latter we might mean the likes of figures such as English migrant Andrew Penhallow, who moved from managing bands to founding Volition Records in Sydney, linking Australian music with Factory Records in Manchester – and to other labels elsewhere in the process. By the former, we mean link cultures such as the (mostly European) backpackers who became entrepreneurs within the explosion of rave culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The initial intrusion into rock and the beginnings of electronica

The mid-1980s saw many changes in the composition of the electronic music scene, internationally, which was preceded by another extremely fertile period within popular music cultures during the late 1970s. This period presents a very significant break within the history of popular music, and is often portrayed (in a restricted manner) as the punk rejection of the pseudo-baroque complexity (many would say pretentiousness) of musical fusions that arose in the mid-1970s (such as jazz- and progressive-rock). Examples of the latter include Australian bands Spectrum, Ariel and perhaps even Blackfeather – although, like much music of the 1970s, some of this found a uniquely Australian flavour in its tinges of blues and boogie (for example, in the music of Matt Taylor and Chain). Punk did play a significant role in Australia via bands such as The Saints, The Boys Next Door, Radio Birdman and many other groups that emerged in the late 1970s in reaction to the stilted nature of the rock establishment. However, Australia has often seemed happier to mix musical styles than many other places, and this was true of punk. First, although much of the punk ethic was imported, there did seem to be many instances of ‘authentic’ Australian punk music, which were themselves transformed, as these imports settled into Australian spaces and mixed into Australian milieu. Secondly, as we shall see, punk was quickly accompanied by, and mixed in with, the rise of electronica. This once again suggests that the often noted vastness of space within Australia, together with its distance from many of the places from which it imports rhythms and refrains, are not necessarily the problems they are sometimes taken to be. Both allow for a complex series of shifts in the events of rhythm and refrain.

Wherever it came from, and wherever it went, the punk ethic was liberating, and not only for punk itself. This was in part because of the rejection of overly slick production methods which had the advantage of taking popular music out of the hands of the record companies and ‘their’ bands (who could afford the studios). Yet, as we have begun to suggest, the events of the late 1970s in Australia were much more diverse than this particular punk reaction.

Other mutant musics, rhythms and refrains – along with structural innovations – were also emerging. All these together lay the ground for what was to come. So it is important to note that punk was accompanied by several other emergent musics. One of these musics was found in rap and hip hop. 2 Punk was also accompanied by the beginnings of another, very different version of the do-it-yourself music ethic – electronica. Indeed, punk, hip hop and electronica were mutually enabling at a structural level. They shared an ethic of DIY self-production that could be turned towards musical experimentation by those able to create their own electronic devices and sounds in a manner not premised on traditional musical abilities. They opened popular music more to the joy of playing with ‘noise’. They often worked against the mainstream reception (and use) of popular music in favour of diverse minority groups – or simply the disaffected. Again, the significant role that punk did play for these other musics was that it made a break with major labels possible. This allowed the development of ‘independent’ labels more able to release local and experimental deviations from mainstream music. Bruce Milne’s Au Go Go label in Melbourne, Phantom Records, and Steven Stavrakis’s Waterfront Records in Sydney were among the most successful. As we shall see, significant early electronic labels such as Innocent Records in Melbourne and Volition in Sydney provided the model for producing and selling electronica that has proliferated into the present. That the late 1970s contained all these tendencies is perhaps best seen in post-punk’s immediate embrace of excess – even if in a somewhat ironic manner in groups such as Essendon Airport, Makers Of The Dead Travel Fast, Tch Tch Tch, and Scattered Order. Indeed, this was the moment when electronic music (that is, music that began to foreground synthetic sounds) made its first incursions into mainstream and alternative rock in Australia via many bands, such as Not Drowning Waving, the Reels, INXS and Brendan Perry’s Marching Girls (and later Dead Can Dance). This moment was a perfect example involving a set of refrains that ‘opens the circle not on the side where the old forces of chaos press against it but in another region, one created by the circle itself’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 311).

So the cradle of electronica in Australia is found to have a diverse number of hands rocking it. Soon, however, it was to assert its independence. Here we shall give a brief overview of Severed Heads and the label which eventually promoted them (Volition) as a key instance of Australian electronica in the 1980s, and follow this with a more detailed description of some of the more important figures, events and labels that have emerged in the last 10 years.

Audio-Visual Electronica: the case of Severed Heads

Severed Heads were formed in 1979 by Tom Ellard, school friend Richard Fielding and Andrew Wright. Their story is typical of many groups who emerged out of punk into an underground experimental scene. They made music by playing around with tape loops, synthesisers, rhythm machines, and anything electro-mechanical that made a noise. Like many groups who work in the same lineage, their music has been made for small ‘intelligent’ audiences, who are uninterested in the excesses and commercial styles of the popular rock ethos. At the same time that their music is ‘serious’, many individuals and groups working in this niche exhibit an acerbic sense of humour that permeates their entire approach, from the qualities of the sound through to the critical humour often exhibited in song titles and lyrical content.

From the outset, Severed Heads made and sold their material independently, and (like many in the early 1980s and indeed many in the present), showed no interest in the trappings of major record labels, fancy studios and expensive equipment. Their brash and noisy musical offerings were, in Ellard’s opinion, made palatable for the music industry that distributed their work, ‘not because we were experimental, but because the record company could get a dance single out of us’ (Harley, 1994: 62). Although Ellard used pretty much the same gear that techno outfits started to utilise in the 1990s (an old 808 drum machine, an SH-1 sequencer, a Prophet-1 and an old Korg polysynth), the music created by the Severed Heads was far from easily-consumable electro-pop. Like the music of groups associated with the M-Squared label (e.g. Scattered Order and Makers of the Dead Travel Fast), the ‘progressive’ qualities of the music were about advancing the aesthetics, style and purpose of contemporary music.

Though the group has been through many transformations, the mainstay has been Ellard. In 1982 he worked with Gary Bradbury (who remains a key figure in the Sydney experimental music scene, and a frequent collaborator with Ellard), while in 1984 the pioneering video artist Stephen Jones joined the band. It was the duo of Ellard producing music and Jones on visuals that toured England for three months in 1985, attracting the interest of Ink/Virgin Records in London, and Vancouver’s Nettwerk label. It was also during this same period that the group signed with Volition Records in Australia, forming what Ellard joking refers to as the ‘Ink/Nettwerk/Volition Axis’, which helped the band’s profile in the European, North American and Australian markets. As Deleuze and Guattari have put it, ‘One ventures from home on the thread of a tune’ (1987: 311).

The identity of the band was from this point on strongly grounded in a visual culture that was produced and managed by the group. The work of Stephen Jones in live performances ensured that the videographic image was more than ambient wallpaper. There was an inherent relationship between the architecture of the sound and the shape of the kinetic image. The pulse, tone, colour, rhythm and design of the live video mixing created an electronic performance style that would soon become almost ubiquitous in the club scene (which was beginning to be spurned by the rise of dance music and electronica in the more mainstream venues). In collaboration with other important experimental videomaker/musicians such as Gary Bradbury and Jason Gee, Severed Heads’ videos gained notoriety for their often audacious (and always playful) use of the music video format. Volition label-mates such as Vision Four Five (founded by Tim Gruchy, who earlier had worked on many RAT parties) were also part of this same trajectory, as were a number of other key figures from this period who continue to experiment with the cutting, mixing and collision of audio and video in challenging works. Ian Andrews’ cross-media performances and scratch-video work with Subvertigo and later Clan Analogue represents another trajectory in the use of electro image/sound. The image sound work of Philip Brophy and Ian Haig also stand as important early examples of audio-visual experiments that employ electronically produced sounds and images at live performances and for distribution on disc or tape. Many of the strategies and experiments in mixing live video with electronically produced sounds have been adapted for broader cultural contexts such as dance parties, raves and clubs that came to the fore in the 1980s.

Parties and raves from the late-1980s to 1995

It is in the parties and raves of the mid- to late-1980s to the present that we see the full flowering of electronica culture en masse. This began with the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Sleaze parties (from 1980 and 1982 respectively to the present). These were soon accompanied by the RAT (Recreational Art Team) parties from the mid-1980s in inner-city Sydney. The letter were notable not for musical innovation per se but for the home they provided for the innovative mixing of pre-given rhythms and refrains, not only musical, but also visual and social. Huge rave events followed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Madchester, Sweatbox, Dance Delirium, and a small but vibrant ‘Summer of Love’ in Melbourne (Mittmann and Flavell, 2003). At their peak in Sydney, the events involved many British entrepreneurs.3

There is some debate as to whether this rise of electronica cultures is quite the same as the development of Australian electronica musics (Murphie and Scheer, 1992). The music in raves was eclectic but largely international. For example, in the early 1990s there were many DJs who played mostly imported dance music from Europe and North America. Indeed, it is arguable that, although Australian music was played at these events, there was more innovation within Australian electronic music before these huge events took place in the work of groups like Severed Heads, Tch Tch Tch and Essendon Airport. At the same time, these big events did provide the impetus and inspiration, not to mention the employment, for many electronic artists to prosper creatively and to survive financially. They also, of course, gave massive credence to the role of the DJ-as-producer and subsequently, to the art of mixing and turntablism. Most importantly, these events provided the critical mass via which electronica entered mainstream popular music culture, the fertile ground for a sophisticated culture of DJs and producers, and a potential market to be tapped by a proliferation of labels and artists in the second half of the 1990s. The development of this culture was important in part because it was no simple matter for electronica to receive airplay on mainstream radio. The territoriality of refrains saw one of its most conflicted periods. There were tensions surrounding the national youth broadcaster, Triple-J, throughout this period, as it began to play an increasing amount of electronica, and rock and indie music listeners felt threatened. Most commercial stations, such as 2MMM-FM, simply refused to play electronica or dance music, and it was largely left to alternative and community radio stations (such as 2-SER in Sydney and RRR in Melbourne) to take up the slack. The positive side of this was that community radio provided an opportunity for the young DJs and other electronica artists both to develop their skills and to promote electronic music in new and more experimental ways (and often to much smaller but more dedicated, even ‘serious’, audiences).

There are still large dance events, yet as early as 1990, the ‘death of the dance party’ was being proclaimed. Prominent DJs of the time such as Tim Ritchie declared in that year that ‘they really stopped being riveting a year ago’ (Murphie and Scheer, 1992: 179), and governments at all levels began to re-regulate venues in an attempt to reign in the dance events (174). However, the parties continued to grow in Sydney and Melbourne, especially with the rise of techno music (where promoters included Richie Rich) until at least 1995. However, with the sad death of party-goer Anna Wood in 1995 at Sydney’s Phoenician Club (Homan, 2003: 137), the State government stepped in, and the subsequent mess culminated in a police baton charge at a dance event at Sydney Park in 1995. This changed the scene in Sydney once and for all. However, as Sebastian Chan comments (Mittmann and Flavell, 2003), it also freed things up a little. Some electronica groups split up and moved on elsewhere (notably to Byron Bay where a new electronica scene was to develop). It is also perhaps the case that Sydney (and maybe Melbourne to a lesser extent) lost their significance as the Australian ‘centres’ of electronica – especially as the popularisation of the World Wide Web was starting to allow for new forms of virtual community (which were often very friendly to cultural forms such as electronica).

Techno was indeed the dominant music in the early 1990s, but it had many variations in terms of the way its rhythms and refrains created territory. Perhaps the most novel local style that has emerged from the progeny of these large events has been doof (see Luckman, 2003; St John, 2001). Doof’s uniqueness arises at an unusual conjunction of musical, cultural and environmental refrains and rhythms. Their setting is often outdoors (the very Australian outdoors – again that particular sense of space). They have an even more ‘ritual’ nature than usual, and they are often attached to several unique sub-cultures, and, most significantly, to environmental politics. At the same time, they are as concerned with reworking experience via rhythms and refrains as challenging ‘ideology’. One commentator refers to the resulting music as peculiarly Australian, ‘that stripped-down, scratchy sound that’s a million miles from euphoric Isra-European oldskool’ (anon n.d.).

Graham St John sees doof as a response to a question posed by Simon Reynolds – ‘is it possible to base a culture around sensations rather than truths, fascination rather than meaning, jouissance rather than plaisir?’ (St John, 2001: 14). St John’s analysis suggests that as raves became over-regulated and over-commodified territory, doofs reworked the whole form in favour of new sensations, fascination and jouissance.

[A]s rave became domesticated in ‘pleasure-prisons’, as dilettante renegades queued at the turn-styles and weekend ferals occupied the dance floor, ‘doofs’ represented an escape route – an alternative to the encroaching forces of state, capital and cliché. In Australia, the term ‘doof’ has become a synonym for youth cultural dissonance, a ‘rave underculture’, its habitues embodying a refusal – ‘to be subjected to what the beer barons and the mainstream culture cabal dole out as entertainment’ … the term … ‘doof’ continues to be applied to non-profit community events, often held outdoors in remote regions where all-night dancing to a range of electronic musics transpires. (2001: 15)

In the ‘outdoors in remote regions’ there is, of course, a very different coming together of milieu. This has led to an often unusual assemblage of musical, cultural and natural rhythms and refrains, particular to each event and each location (see Short, 2006).

Other notable high profile events such as the experimental music stage, E.A.R., presented as part of the annual Big Day Out Festival (organised by Gary Bradbury), have also provided an ongoing venue for local electronica artists.

The Rise of Clubbing, the New DJs, New Networks

Like now, there’s virtually nothing on, but there’s heaps and heaps of people making tracks (Chan, 2003; in Mittmann and Flavell, 2003)

It is arguable that, as the large ‘events’ lost their punch, local electronicas found much more of their own voices once again, in parallel with the rise of techno and its spread throughout a much wider community than the inner cities. Local clubs, always present alongside the larger and higher profile dance events, became more prominent.4 Clubs also became much more diverse as electronica matured, and its many sub-species found their own micro-ecologies (with a rapid fragmentation and proliferation of rhythms and refrains). At the same time, clubs began to be found in more unlikely places.5 From the beginning of the 1990s, DJs began opening their own record shops, such as Outpost Incorporated in Adelaide (Mittmann and Flavell, 2003). So two trends can be detected from the early- to the mid-1990s until the present. The first trend is that Australian electronica artists and DJs settled down to make their own mixes and musics, start up community radio shows, and sell their own music. This led to a quite different flourishing of electronic artists, labels and events – usually on a smaller scale, but immensely eclectic. Perhaps the eclecticism that emerged during this period, and which dominates to this day, is due in part to the fact that electronica by this time had such a strong history. This is reflected in the description of DJ Simon Caldwell on the Mad Racket web site:

Simon Caldwell is one of a handful of DJ’s whose name adds a certain integrity to an event. Throughout the 12 years he’s been playing records to beer drinkers, bum shakers and radio listeners alike, he has managed to avoid the stifling ‘style’ classification so many other DJ’s trap themselves into, keeping himself free to draw on his varied loves of deep, soulful house, techno, funk, jazz, electro, booty, hip hop and anything else which catches his ear. (Mad Racket n.d.)

The second trend is that – in some ways mimicking the early global/local networks formed by electronica pioneers such as Severed Heads and Volition on a more local scale – the newer artists quickly acted to form complex webs of networks/collectives and regular events via which electronic music (and usually not only their own music) could be promoted and enjoyed.

These webs of eclecticism have persisted and flourished to this day, developed by interwoven networks across Australia and linked up with international artists and labels, made up of still not quite mainstream artists and promoters of electronica. As we have begun to suggest above, the artists and promoters (and sometimes labels) often involve the same people. An example can be found in the work of Sebastian Chan and Luke Bearnley, of Sub Bass Snarl. As ‘decks and effects’ artists, they have worked at many gigs since 1991, but they have also run the Paradigm Shift radio programme on community radio station 2-SER since 1995. Chan is also an editor of what is probably the best contemporary resource concerning Australian electronic music, the online and offline magazine, Cyclic Defrost. They also ran Frigid, a regular night of electronic music that was held from 1996 to 2006. Another example of this local networking by electronic artists is DJ Sveta, who regularly DJs at Mardi Gras and elsewhere, and has been actively involved with community radio stations such as 2-SER and FBI for over a decade. A third example is slightly different – that of Clan Analogue, which we shall discuss shortly.

Many of these networks, collectives, and their related labels can now be found online – indeed, the internet has enabled many of the new musics to position themselves more successfully within the global markets and electronica communities.

Contemporary Australian electronic artists and labels in an international setting

The last ten years may have been difficult for proponents of the various kinds of electronicas that have emerged in Australia, but this period has also seen the successful establishment of new networks of production, distribution, and debate and communication. Largely enabled by web-based technologies, individual artists and small independent labels have begun to find new audiences at both the local and international levels. Many of these websites are run by small but dedicated groups, who have an interest in making available a wide range of material produced by significant (and not so well-known) figures in the local scene. Though these small businesses do not make much money (for either the distributors or the artists), they have solved some of the problems of distribution that have often plagued the independents.

Though it is not possible to do a complete survey of these groups and services, we can give an indication of some of the better known labels, sites and collectives. Couchblip Records (http://www.couchblip.com/)and Crispy Disc (http://www.crispydisc.com/) are two instances of the way in which electronic music is sold and distributed to alternative niche markets around the world. Couchblip started in 2001 with a compilation release featuring tracks by its founders, Melinda Taylor (Robokoneko), Luke Killen (Disjunction Reunion) and Jim Dodd (Bloq). Crispy Disc is a Sydney-based online distribution service for locally produced small-scale releases and CD-Rs. It was established as joint venture between Adam and Bea Pierce and Jasper Russel (a.k.a. 5000 Fingers of Dr T and Chocolate Jelly). Serving as a ‘shopfront’ for many different independent labels and acting as distributor for small-run editions (often burned to CD-R on an order-by-order basis), these initiatives have extended the geographical function of the record shop to a trans-national context. They have operated as service-based sites that distribute small to micro-run editions, reissues of hard to get material, as well as providing cultural context and useful description of the musical material on offer.

Room 40 is good example of the new labels that have emerged in recent years and made available in the company of other independent labels on Couchblip. Based in Brisbane and established by sound artist Lawrence English, the label emerged at the same time new music and electronica started to flourish in local venues such as Ric’s Café, the Small Black Box at Metro Arts and at events such as Fabrique or REV at the Brisbane Powerhouse. The range of the label’s work, however, is much wider than the Brisbane region itself, as the label releases a wide variety of electronic and experimental music from Australia, the UK and Japan (a new form of ‘venturing from home on the thread of a tune’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 311)). Many of its CDs represent the crossover of experimentalists from around the world on various individual and compilation releases, providing an aural map of interconnections from Melbourne to New York, Tokyo and Brisbane. Artists include Japan’s avant pop queen Tujiko Noriko, British turntablists and improvisors Scanner and David Toop, Melbourne’s Philip Samartzis, DJ Olive, Ben Frost, Zane Trow, Erik Griswold, Matt Rosner, and Burrum Heads ‘globe-scapers’ IO.

Clan Analogue and its large database of artists bios and discographies is an excellent example of how electronica collectives have organised themselves across geographic spaces far wider than the innercity realm they may have grown from. Representing a huge roster of artists of various styles and ideologies, the website is the public face of a large and vibrant community of producers and fans of electronica. Formed in 1992, Clan Analogue was started in Sydney ‘by a small group of people who were interested and active in electronic sound’. It was ‘largely fuelled by the sore lack of live venues in Australia for electronic music and a lack of options for releasing recorded material’ and thus ‘… was born out of necessity … from a small group who were eager to swap tapes of each others’ compositions at meetings’. Significantly, Clan Analogue is now a national organisation with ‘active members in Sydney and Melbourne, associated artists in Albury, Brisbane and Perth’. The Clan very much sees itself as underground – with a DIY philosophy that ‘encourages the direct transmission of the artist’s works to the listener without filtering it via label mediation’ (all quotes Clan Analogue n.d.). The long line-up in the collective includes important groups and artists such as 5000 Fingers of Dr T, B(if)tek, Boo Boo and Mace, Deepchild, Ian Andrews, Meem, Scott McPhee, Prettyboy Crossover, Sub Bass Snarl, Telemetry Orchestra and Terra Nine.

Similarly, the Psy-Harmonics label in Melbourne is a who’s who of electronica, representing the work of Black Lung, Shaolin Wooden Men, Snog, All India Radio, Decoder Ring and Zen Paradox. While it is beyond the scope of this article to go into further detail, any future research into Australian electronica would start with an analysis and review of the recording, links and connections between the artists, groups and labels mentioned above.

As we have said earlier, much of this detailed work has been done over the past five years in the excellent criticism and chronicling of electronica in the specialist electronic music publication Cyclic Defrost.6 They also provide a music sampling/subscription service, where customers who have given up trying to find the music they want at record stores can receive (via snail-mail) a selection of recent music compiled to CD each month. These compilations mix a variety of locally-produced material with other related sounds from around the world.

Refrains and Rhythmanalysis

Throughout this article we have attempted to describe a specificity to the rhythms and refrains of Australian electronic music which is at the same time only a specific mix taking place within a global series of interactions. How then are we to understand the ‘Australian-ness’ of Australian electronica?7 In fact, there is very little in this context that could be fully labelled ‘Australian’, although there are specific mixes of music, visuals and cultures that we might label as inner-city Sydney, Byron Bay, Melbourne club scene, and so on. To answer such questions by way of a conclusion, we might return to our brief framing of this short account with the ideas of rhythms and refrains. This will enable us to understand the use to which electronica has been put within Australian culture (to enable a breakout from the overdetermined ‘Australian’ perhaps), and the changes that electronica might have made within Australian culture more generally.

Firstly, as we suggested at the start, there is the very useful idea of ‘rhythmanalysis”, taken from the work of French sociologist, Henri Lefebvre (2004). Lefebvre proposed a science of rhythms that, taking rhythm as an organising principle, structuring both time and space, and their varying repetitions, would allow the ‘rhythmanalyst’ to listen ‘to a house, a street, a town, as one listens to a symphony, an opera’ (87). In this, as in all electronica, there is little separation ‘between the scientific and the poetic’, between, we might say, engineering and dancing. Lefebvre’s concept of rhythmanalysis gives us the basis for a possible understanding of how it is that the rhythms of electronica enter into specific engagements, not only with each other, but also with the inner city party scenes or the bush. Just as importantly, such an idea might allow for the power of electronic invention to literally change culture by changing its rhythms. At the same time, although we have pointed to some general characteristics of Australian rhythms in relation to the openness of Australian space, Lefebvre’s analysis also pushes us towards acknowledging the specificity of times and locales. Specific rhythms emerge within these times and locales – for example the ‘stripped-down, scratchy sound’ [anon n.d.] of some doofs, indeed the focus on the ‘doof’ sounds itself resonating uniquely in different open spaces.

Secondly, there is the idea of the ‘refrain’, taken from the work of French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari. A refrain is something we repeat in order to build up our own (individual or collective) existential territory. This is a territory, perhaps at odds with the chaos that surrounds it, in which we can exist more successfully and perhaps also find our own little freedoms. As an idea, the refrain explains several things: why the links between electronica’s music and electronica’s culture territories are so tight; why a dynamic and responsive form of repetition (that is one able to maintain states while incorporating variations) is so important to electronica both musically and culturally, and why electronica’s music is so tightly tied to the movement of the body. As we suggested at the start of this article, there are three moves to the refrain, which are in fact never quite separate. First, there are the beginnings. Here the refrain involves a jump ‘from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 310). We could see this as the beginning of electronica or new moment in electronica, the formation of new musics such as that of Severed Heads and Essendon Airport, or unusual takes on electronica such as that of B(if)tek, Clan Analogue, or Lawrence English. It also might describe the fragility of new machines such as Grainger’s, the Fairlight, or especially those home-grown and often hacked machines of music and visuals found in much of the early electronica scenes, or new labels such as Room 40, Couchblip, Crispy Disc or Psy-Harmonics. Perhaps more insistently, it describes those moments when one begins to dance to electronic music, to take it on oneself in order to cut out one’s own little bit of existential territory. In the second move of the refrain ‘we are at home’ (a common sentiment describing the feeling of being at a party or rave). Here the refrain is powerful but closed, exactly perhaps as at a particular rave, or more generally in the late 1980s to mid-1990s peak of a confident rave culture, or perhaps as when a new label finds some ground, or the composition of electronic musics with refrains takes hold. In the third move of the refrain, ‘one opens the circle a crack, opens it all the way, lets someone in, calls someone, or else goes out oneself, launches forth’. The rave scene may break down but as it fragments it becomes so much else launched into the world. Or, new labels take their local strengths into a global market. Or the refrains of electronic music allow for new political movements (see Gibson, 1999; Luckman, 2003; St John, 2001; Poschardt, 1998: 340ff).

In all these moves, the refrain shows us how specific territories are created, and opened out the world. These might not be ‘Australian’ in any full sense. They might instead be a territory stretched between Sydney, Vancouver and Manchester, between Volition and Factory records, surrounding the specific multiple forms of existence surrounding Byron Bay in Northeast NSW, or between dancers or other specific and ephemeral subcultures.

It is at this point that we can only gesture to the research that needs to be done on Australian electronica – research that perhaps more carefully begins with the musical rhythms as not only reflecting cultural shifts, but also powerfully engaged within, perhaps even in part producing these cultural shifts, through their very play with new rhythms and refrains.


1. Banks was also an accomplished modernist who incorporated the lessons of Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez into film scores and music for cartoons and television. He is sometimes described as ‘the most distinguished living Australian composer, though perhaps not the most popular’ (Callaway and Tunley, 1978: 97).

2. Hip hop in Australia found purchase early, if somewhat invisibly, away from the inner cities, radio playlists and recording contracts – see Maxwell (2003) for an account of Australian hip hop.

3. See Luckman (2003) for a more detailed discussion of rave cultures, as well as Murphie and Scheer (1992), Gibson and Pagan (2001), St John (2001), and Brookman (2001).

4. For example, the first techno club in Melbourne, the Commerce Club, with DJs such as Jason Rudeboy, another export from the British Summer of Love (Mittmann and Flavell, 2003).

5. More recent examples are Mad Racket, a DJ collective formed in 1998, which soon began running events at the suburban Marrickville Bowling Club, or the establishment of the Frequency Lab in privately run studio warehouse space in Sydney’s Redfern district.

6. Available in both hard copy and online versions http://www.cyclicdefrost.com/.

7. On this and related issues see also the work of Chris Gibson – Gibson (1999), Connell and Gibson (2002), Murphie and Scheer (1992) and Luckman ( 2003).


Anon. (n.d.) ‘Welcome to Wonderland’ (review). Available at http://www.psyreviews.net/index.php?option=com_content& task=view&id=410&Itemid=46, accessed May 5, 2007.

Bebbington, W. (ed.) (1997) The Oxford Companion to Australian Music. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Bogue, R. (2003) Deleuze on Music, Painting and the Arts. New York: Routledge.

Brookman, C. (2001) ‘”Forever Young”: Consumption and Evolving Neo-Tribes in the Sydney Rave Scene’, BSc (Hons) Thesis, University of Sydney. Available at www.cia.com.au/peril/youth/brookman.pdf, accessed 11 May, 2007

Callaway, F. and Tunley, D. (1978) Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press: Melbourne.

Clan Analogue (n.d.) The Home of the Underground Electronic Music Collective Known as Clan Analogue. Available at http://www.clananalogue.org/, accessed September 9, 2005.

Connell, J. and Gibson, C. (2002) Soundtracks: Popular Music, Identity and Place. London: Routledge.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gibson, C. (1999) ‘Subversive Sites: Rave Culture, Spatial Politics, and the Internet’ Area 31 (1): 19-33.

Gibson, C. and Pagan, R. (2001) ‘Rave Culture In Sydney, Australia – Mapping Youth Spaces In Media Discourse’, Youth-Sound-Space. Available at http://www.cia.com.au/peril/youth/, accessed September 9, 2005.

Gebhardt, N. (2003) ‘We Are All “Ferals” Now – Rave, Post-Rave, and a Post-Rave Rave,’ Cyclic Defrost 3, March. Available at http://www.cyclicdefrost.com/article.php?article=149, accessed September 9, 2005.

Harley, R. (1994) The Subcultural Logic of Technology in Contemporary Popular Music, unpublished MA thesis.

Harley, R., (1995) ‘Acts of Volition: Volition Records, Independent Marketing and the Promotion of Australian Techno-Pop’, Perfect Beat: The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture2, 3, July: 21-48.

Hawyard, P. (1993) ‘Safe, Exotic and Somewhere Else: Yothu Yindi, Treaty and the Mediation of Aboriginality’, Perfect Beat: The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture 1, 2, January: 33-42.

Homan, S. (2003) The Mayor’s a Square: Live Music and Law and Order in Sydney. Sydney: Local Consumption Publications.

Luckman, S. (2001) ‘ “What Are They Raving On About?”: Temporary Autonomous Zones and Reclaiming the Streets’, Perfect Beat: The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture 5, 2: 49-68.

Luckman, S. (2003) ‘Going Bush and Finding One’s “Tribe”: Raving, Doof and the Australian Landscape’, Continuum: A Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 17, 3: 318-332.

Lefebvre, H. (2004) Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. London: Continuum.

Linz, R. (2003) ‘The Free Music Machines of Percy Grainger’. Available at http://www.rainerlinz.net/NMA/articles/FreeMusic.html, accessed August 8, 2005.

Mad Racket (n.d.) ‘Mad Racket – Well Rolled, Well Bowled’. Available at http://www.madracket.com.au/bios.html, accessed August 15, 2005.

Maxwell, I. (2003) Phat Beats, Dope Rhymes: Hip Hop Down Under Comin’ Upper, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Mittmann, J.D. and Flavell, K. (2003) Sounds Like Techno. Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Springtime Productions. Available at http://www2.abc.net.au/arts/soundsliketechno, accessed September 9, 2005.

Murphie, A. (1996) ‘Sound at the End of the World as We Know It: Nick Cave, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and a Deleuze-Guattarian? Ecology of Popular Music’ Perfect Beat: The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture 2, 4, January: 18-42. Available at http://www.dcms.mq.edu.au/perfectbeat/murphie.html, accessed September 9, 2005.

Murphie, A. and Scheer, E. (1992) ‘Capital, Culture and Simulation – Dance Parties in Sydney from 1985-1990’, in Hayward, Philip (ed.), From Pop to Punk to Postmodernism. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Nicol, L. (1993) ‘Culture, Custom and Collaboration – Yothu Yindi’s Treaty‘ Perfect Beat: The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture 1, 2, January: 23-32.

Poschardt, U. (1998) DJ Culture. London; Quartet Books.

Short, J. (2006) Welcome to Wonderland. (DVD) Short Documentaries (see http://www.welcometowonderland.com/)

St John, G. (ed.) (2001) FreeNRG: Notes from the Edge of the Dance Floor. Altona: Common Ground.

Stivale, C. (2003) Disenchanting Les Bons Temps: Identity and Authenticity in Cajun Music and Dance. Durham: Duke University Press.

Tagg, P.(1994) ‘From Refrain to Rave: The Decline of Figure and the Rise of Ground’, Popular Music 13, 2: 209-222.

Additional Resources about Labels and Artists

Cyclic Defrost is Australia’s only specialist electronic music magazine. http://www.cyclicdefrost.com/

Australian Music Online, government supported web-based initiative to support and promote independent, electronic and experimental music.


A list of Australian labels can be found at


Clan Analogue, the ‘home of the Australian underground electronic music collective’.


Couchblip, independent label, distributor and online store.


CrispyDisc, the ‘online vehicle to allow Australian electronic musicians to promote and distribute their work independently.’


Pioneering independent electronic label, distributors and online store, PsyHarmonics.


Room 40, the Brisbane-based label and sound events organization.


Independent electronic music distributor, Surgery Records, based in Adelaide. http://www.surgeryrecords.com.au/

Pneuma, an Australian-based electronic media label specialising in experimental audio, video and interactive projects.


Groovescooter ‘a two person outfit, operating as an independent record label, hard disk studio and production/remix team.’


22 contemporary Australian composers, first published in NMA Publications in 1988, and reproduced at this site


Aural Industries, ‘an electronic sound collective and research facility based in Sydney’. http://www.aural-industries.com.au/

Severed Heads website and information about the group and their associated projects’.


Philip Brophy’s website


David Chesworth’s website


Frequency Lab, live venue and electronic music hub


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