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Grong Grong - To Hell N‘ Back

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Artist: Grong Grong

Album: To Hell N‘ Back

Label: Memorandum

Review date: Feb. 26, 2010

In original Aboriginal, Grong Grong means “very bad camping ground” – a land so not-nice, they named it twice. This village in New South Wales was visited upon by one Michael Farkas, besotted as he was on LSD, during a youthful indiscretion. History indicates that this was more influential on Farkas than it was the town.

Upon returning to Adelaide, he began to cobble together a band under the same name. His half-brother, Charles Tolnay, was recruited as guitarist, and the rest of the band (bassist Dave Taskas and drummer George Klestinis) followed suit. Throughout 1983 and 1984, Grong Grong are said to have terrorized audiences all across Australia, opening for the Birthday Party, Public Image Ltd., and the Dead Kennedys; the band had impressed Jello Biafra so much that he offered them a record on Alternative Tentacles. And that’s the extent of how any American had become familiar with the band. I got my copy of the LP for $2 somewhere, price tag still affixed. I’m sure there are many more out there to be found, but that’s beside the point.

What Grong Grong represented was a break for Australian bands to get truly weird. The streak of extreme music had been going down there for a while, whether it be the too-punk-for-1973 thrashings of the Coloured Balls, or the metal-feasting corrosion of industrial-era S.P.K. Bands like Fungus Brains, X, Sick Things, Fun Things, Victims, Primitive Calculators, and the Slugfuckers were getting fairly ripe down there, but it wouldn’t be for a few more years that the rest of the world might have a chance to catch up. Grong Grong had a driving sound that likely bludgeoned everyone who came in contact. They had digested Flipper, the Stooges, the Cramps, Pere Ubu, and the national talent, and made something out of them that was wholly indigestible. Eat this and it’ll knock your teeth out; look at them sideways on stage, and the last thing you’d see was three rockabilly-looking squids beating down their instruments in rapid repetition, and a hulking guy wearing a ski mask, just before getting cracked in the forehead by his microphone.

The music is well above-average sleaze, of which we’ve heard a lot of in the intervening years. It’s Farkas’ vocal delivery, particularly on the live offerings presented in this set (which constitutes all but the first four tracks, recorded in a studio as a result of the band winning a radio contest), that pushes things to justifiable levels of chaos. He and Negative Approach’s John Brannon share an unspoken understanding of how to front a loud rock band: you have to try to outdo what’s behind you and allow your voice to embody all that the music has to offer. In both cases, this results in a acid-throated, pained delivery, its owner driven mad by everyday life until foam collects at the corners of his mouth.

To Hell N‘ Back collects 20 recordings, 16 of which were recorded live, and a DVD with 17 more tracks, from Grong Grong’s first show to its last (Farkas OD’ed on Christmas Eve 1984, leaving him mentally incapacitated for two years, and paralyzed to this day, effectively putting the band to rest). The further you get from the previously-released material, wading out into the nth-generation room recordings of the band destroying a venue somewhere in Australia, you’ll find what’s really exciting about this set. The band that Jello had heard and signed is right here, and the confines of the studio set free, Grong Grong proved to be a formidable contender — pity the band that would headline over them, for either the audience would be cleared out, or there’d be too much blood on the stage to continue. They rip through covers and unrecorded originals with determination and vigor. The practice room session from the DVD, replete with Tolnay abusing his guitar, cigarette dangling from his lips, and the shrunken head dangling off the headstock of Taskas’s bass, stay with you after you hit eject. The deeper you dive into this one, the more rewarding; it’s by no means a high-quality audio reproduction, but there’s a compulsion to keep going through the live tracks, the band getting more and more wound up through the sequencing. By the middle of the CD, if you’re not sold, there’s no helping you; if the DVD and its unhinged live performances can’t get through, then you might check your pulse.

There seems to be no video footage to support it, but Grong Grong reunited in 2009, a good 25 years after the fact, and are told to have wrecked it once again. Tougher than comas, stronger than dirt.

By Doug Mosurock

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