The 1970s and 80s saw DAVE WARNER lead two influential punk-rock bands. His demanding musician’s lifestyle left little time for writing anything but his next single. Nowadays Dave is a full-time screenwriter, novelist and playwright, but he still takes to the stage every so often for a good old-fashioned rock-out. ANGUS DALTON finds out more about Dave’s life and his latest crime novel, Before It Breaks.
I’m in a sunny suburban house on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, sitting across from the Grim Reaper. Two laptops are open in front of him, and scattered on the desk between us are pages of lyrics scrawled with annotations and chord changes, a pile of dusty master tapes, and a draft manuscript awaiting the Reaper’s attention. Known better as Dave Warner – founder of Pus, one of Australia’s first punk bands in the early 1970s – he was also the frontman of the iconic suburban rock band Dave Warner’s From the Suburbs. The Grim Reaper was one of Dave’s most popular stage names.
Though Dave’s music had its heyday in the late 70s and early 80s, this full-time writer and father of three still performs occasionally for his devoted fans, which he and his bandmates used to refer to as ‘The Screamers’ or the ‘The Suburban Soldiers’. I went to one of Dave’s gigs back in 2012 and saw his wife, supermodel turned supermum Nicole, perform as the opening act. I stood next to Dave and Nicole’s eldest daughter, Violet, who cringed in horrified admiration as her mum stripped down to a black leotard, channelling Debbie Harry as she belted out ‘Forever and a Day’ and ‘I Didn’t Vote for This Emotion’, two of Dave’s original songs. Someone in the crowd yelled out ‘Nicole, have my babies!’ She quipped: ‘I’ve had quite enough, thank you’ before rolling unperturbed into the next song.
When Dave came on stage, the Suburban Soldiers went wild. The highlight of his set – apart from his hit ‘Suburban Boy’ – had to be ‘Half Time at the Football’, a seven-minute satirical saga detailing the sexual escapades of a bunch of suburban girls left home alone while their parents are off at the AFL. Delivered as a monologue spoken over a chunky guitar riff, it’s the story of a group of suburban boys knocking on the door of the unsupervised girls. Next thing you know, the teenagers are going at it on the lounge room floor. Dave’s speak-singing became increasingly fast paced as he reached the climax of the song, where he describes the horror of the old lady next door as she pokes her head through the window to see the fornicating teenagers surrounded by flames, which have been sparked by the friction of their rapidly gyrating posteriors on the carpet. Mortified, she staggers and falls into the thorns of her rose garden while Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott throw punches at each other on the street. Did I mention that Dave was influenced by absurdist theatre?
‘In the Pus days I had a lot of literary influences, and we all loved Frank Zappa,’ Dave tells me. ‘We thought he was one of the coolest anti-pop people out there. On the back of one of his albums he credited all these people he really liked, and Harold Pinter was on there, so we read all his plays, which were very Theatre of the Absurd. A big influence on Pus was also a band called the Fugs; they were part of the New York beat-poem generation. They’d do all these outrageous songs – ‘Nova Slum Goddess’, ‘Boobs a Lot’, ‘I Couldn’t Get High’ – and they were banned in most places. But they were great intellectuals celebrating pop culture and taking the piss out of it at the same time. That’s what Pus came out of.’
Dave wrote all the songs for both of his bands, creating different onstage personas for himself. For his first public show with Pus, he enlisted the help of his grandmother, who made him a Thor costume. Deciding that costume was ‘a bit twee’ for a punk rocker, he slipped into Grim Reaper mode, sporting all-black clothes and a wolfish grin. This proved to be a popular persona for Dave, who, after living and writing in England for a year, heralded his return to Australia in 1977 with a concert he called ‘Grim’s Back: But are the Screamers?’ It was around this time that he formed his second band, Dave Warner’s From the Suburbs, and released the song ‘Suburban Boy’, which would go on to become his most popular record. Singing from the perspective of an everyday citizen from the suburban sprawl in an unabashed ocker accent was a novel approach to Australian songwriting.
‘In those days Australian suburbia was so incredibly boring,’ says Dave, who grew up in Bicton, a suburb of Perth. ‘So when I sang ‘Suburban Boy’, that was going in the face of everything Australia had ever done artistically. Everyone either claimed some outback identity or some kind of false city identity, but no-one acknowledged the suburbs, even though 98 percent of Australians lived there.’
Much of Dave’s other writing seems to reflect this focus on everyday Australian life, especially his work as a screenwriter for television; he wrote for shows such as McLeod’s Daughters and Packed to the Rafters. He also wrote the screenplay for a movie called Cut, which was released in 2000 and starred Kylie Minogue, and he’s just finished a sell-out tour of his two-handed musical The King and Me, which he wrote and starred in for Perth’s Fringe World Festival.
Dave says he always wanted to write novels, but it wasn’t until he picked up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie while on holiday in Greece that he started thinking seriously about crime writing. Inspired by Christie, he organised Murder Weekends, a kind of interactive theatre in which he invited people to an old house and played out a script around them. The guests would have to solve the fake crime, similar to a live-action version of the board game Cluedo.
‘Creating those Murder Weekends gave me confidence that I could deliver on plot. Johnny Leopard, my old guitarist, was always updating me with modern crime writers like Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy, and I’d read them and think, I can do this. So when I started City of Light, my first novel, I knew I could do the plot, but to give it resonance I went back to the most successful things that worked with the band and what people connected with most. It was when I reached into songs like ‘Half Time at the Football’ – that got into the suburban psyche – that people really responded. So I put that into the books.’
Dave says that he’s been influenced by authors such as James Lee Burke (most famous for his ‘Dave Robicheaux’ series set in rural Louisiana) and Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell. For these writers the landscape is an important component of every sentence of their stories, which are often set in remote communities.
‘I love that idea of isolation. I thought I’d love to do something with a character way up in the Kimberley region. In the end I set Before It Breaks in Broome.’
Dave’s protagonist, Dan Clement, leaves his life as a detective in Perth to live a low-key existence in his home town of Broome. He has followed his ex-wife there so that he can be closer to his nine-year-old daughter, a weak attempt at convincing himself that he’s a worthy father. Bored with the petty thefts and minor drug busts carried out with his new police team, Dan relishes the chance to flex his crime-solving muscles when a bloated body is found floating in a local billabong.
The case is electrified by the danger of lurking crocs, the arrival of unfamiliar bikies in town, and the revelation that the murder victim is a former policeman from Germany with a shadowy past. While Clement is investigating the home of the murdered policeman, he takes a major blow to the head – and his confidence – from an unseen assailant who flees on a motorbike. Left sprawling and bleeding in the dirt, Dan must consider if his homicide-solving instincts have become blunt.
A brilliantly handled, complex mystery unfolds. Dave hadn’t written a novel in over 12 years, but to the delight of punk rockers and crime readers alike – Grim’s back.
Before It Breaks by Dave Warner is published by Fremantle Press, rrp $29.99.