In these times, of, seemingly, everything in creation being available to view at our whim, it was strange for me to revisit something that I was crazy about the first time I saw it and yet had never seen a second time: namely, the ABC’s 1984 television series Sweet and Sour. Unfortunately, the show is not available in any official format because, apparently, it was ‘produced on a broadcast only basis’ (a mystery that, I fear, will never be solved); as well, there has never, to my knowledge, been a repeat showing. Fortunately, however, YouTube has rescued this raggedy classic from its bee-level lifespan, and, as it happens, the occasional blockiness that results from watching something that has been taped from the television nearly thirty years before works nicely, given that the viewer is often not sure whether it is a technical fault or a visual effect along the lines of the video for The Machinations’ ‘Pressure Sway’, the artistry of which was the talk of the schoolyard, back in the day. Now, usually when I watch something that was made back when I was young, I merely feel very grateful that I am old and living in these times. However, I found myself feeling entirely the opposite when having my belated encore screening of Sweet and Sour.
As the reader may, or may not, know, Sweet concerns the fortunes of a musical group, the Takeaways. Struggling actress/dilettante fashion designer Carol (Tracy Mann) decides to, in a move that could not seem more hilarious today, leave Melbourne for Sydney because she wishes to improve her standard of living. In short order, she encounters an old friend, seen-it-all guitarist Martin (David Reyne), and, in a venture masterminded by zestful ‘Media Studies’ student Darrell (Ric Herbert), they form the band; handily, the three of them live in an enormous warehouse that can double as a rehearsal space. They are joined by bass player George, a young Greek–Australian man (Arky Michael), who, due to his bass playing, eventually becomes the band’s manager; saxophonist, vocalist and energetic shaker of her hands to the music Christine (Sandie Lillingston); and an inarticulate blond drummer, Johnny (Robin Copping), who, strangely for the period, replaces a drum machine. To make an elementary story even more elementary, the Takeaways play gigs, record a single, make a video, have ego problems, break up and reform, all while playing sprightly pop. (‘I’m not going to do that,’ insists Carol, when Martin says darkly that one day they will surely be pressured to make their music more commercial. My question is, how would that even be possible?) Along the way, they encounter music industry folk such as Leo (Daniel Abineri), lead singer of the perhaps-even-more-ludicrous-then-than-they-are-now glam metal band The Dead Lions; and Damien Huntingley (Sam Saunders), who ‘promotes the alternative circuit’ and, not unusually for the times, looks like a member of Blancmange crossed with Greg Combet. As well, there are many cameos from actual musicians of the day, some of whom, I would hazard, are more fondly remembered than others: for example, we have Dave Mason wanting to know where Yurong Street is; Kirk Pengilly turning up in a pub while wearing big glasses, a gelled quiff teamed with a rat’s tail and a rockabilly tie; and Alex Smith from Moving Pictures, while looking confusingly like Darrell, as an attendee at a conceptual art night.
Yes, of course, the enjoyment to be had from the show is partly simple-minded nostalgia, with everyone, man or woman, cheerfully modelling polka-dotted shirts, ‘recession dressing’, and ‘New Wave’ haircuts that, problematically if your circumstances are straitened, would have demanded continual upkeep. While I don’t wish to sound like my grandfather, there was one scene featuring Darrell in a long shot in which I thought he was Carol. Speaking of whom, Carol’s attire, despite or because of the fact she is handy with a needle and thread, is almost always hideous, especially her glad wrags at the Takeaways’ debut gig, which are like something a dinosaur would put on if it decided to wear clothes; on another occasion, she wears a shirt that is so artistically splattered and has shoulders so wide that she looks like an easel. And all this is without even mentioning another character, the proprietor of a ‘trendy’ boutique, who wears togas over Bonds singlets – a fashion that I do not recall; or the occasion that Johnny wears a pyjama top with rolled-up sleeves under a pink and green vest; or when the band plays at a fashion show where not only do the clothes make the eyes scream in pain, the whole enterprise is sickeningly reminiscent of Graeme Murphy’s Boxes. There is, too, the glad-and-sorry pang of hearing references to long-gone venues such as the San Miguel, and seeing a poster for the then-ubiquitous Matt Finish (though what of those other gig guide perennials the Kevin Borich Express and Chasin’ the Train?). Sweet brims over with the charms of the days that black forest cake or a cheque for $100 really meant something, and when a music paper could have an immense staff, and run on typewriters and Clag glue.
And the show also has certain arresting peculiarities, such as the song ‘Pop Stars and Politicians’, in which Carol and Christine intone ‘Mostly they see to business/power is the key to passion’, against footage of, among others, Bob Hawke in his ACTU days; or the curious phenomenon of Molly Meldrum interviewing obscure bands on a ‘university radio station’. Speaking of radio, I was struck by how incredibly easy it apparently used to be for members of aspiring bands just to walk right into the studios of Triple J; on one occasion, the only person on duty is asleep, reminding me of the story I heard in the eighties about the host of the ‘ambient’ music show nodding off during his shift. (‘Just because I work for Triple J, that doesn’t mean I’m an idiot,’ states another, awake, announcer, which is, of course, these days an estimation with which millions of people would disagree.) Basically, Sweet is pleasingly goofy, harking back to the days of Australian television when most industry people’s ideas exceeded their abilities, as opposed to their limited ideas being at the same level as their limited abilities. In fact, much of the time, it is as though a daggy lunatic has taken control of the show, with its peculiar pacing, random plotting and flailing stabs at humour: most of the episodes have no plot to speak of, and there is a huge of amount of scenes that go on interminably, such as one in which Darrell interviews Ignatius Jones in a cemetery or one in which Darrell pretends to meditate while in a bag at a shopping centre.
At the end of the day, though, Sweet meant so very much to me at the time, and possibly means perhaps even more to me now, because of the picture it paints of what life as an adult can be if you have some kind of creative drive and live on the dole in Darlinghurst: namely, not having to go to work in a normal job and, furthermore, not even having to work that hard on your artistic pursuit, the way that you would if you were actually successful. I realised while watching the show again that it is this version of adult life that endures as my ideal to this day. That is, even though I’ve never actually been in a band, my concept of a moment of perfect happiness has continued to be, as demonstrated by the Takeaways, recording a demo tape and then eating fast food from a van in the early hours of the morning while not having a job to go to. It is impossible to overestimate what a crucial part unemployment benefits play in what passes for the action. In one episode, Martin, taking exception to the idea that he will not simply be able to be on the dole for all eternity, lengthily sticks it to an evil CES official (an individual who has dripped contempt about how everyone who comes in seems to be artistically inclined), and is then applauded by the other people who are on official business in the branch, one of whom wears a pirate shirt, fez and blazer. Yes, there is a dark moment when Martin is forced to announce to his bandmates,‘The dole office has won its battle and I have to take a night cleaner’s job’, but then he sensibly gets himself fired and returns to his wonderful lifestyle. In a further homage to unemployment, the musical interlude featuring Christine crooning the mystifying titled ‘Glam to Wham’ has a background of classified ads, and much visual reference to, you guessed it, the CES. Now, most elements of Sweet are purest fantasy, such as how astonishingly easy it appears to be for musical novices to play an instrument, sing and write songs, as well as those aspects that are surely due to the show’s six-thirty-pm broadcast slot, such as the way that there are no drugs, sex or swearing (Christine even says, in reference to another band, ‘They’re a bunch of meat pies!’) However, the crucial element of the plot, of having a lifestyle of artistic expression in an urban pad while being able to live on the dole in a major capital city, was, absolutely, a true story until the end of the eighties. Yes, of course it is unfair that the working-stiff tax payer should have to subsidise such people, and now I am a working-stiff tax payer, but I still reach yearningly across the decades and give my stamp of approval to this mode of existence, except for all the dirty bathrooms and empty fridges it would have involved.
But what should we believe happened to the Takeaways and their great lives? I’d always assumed that the ending of Sweet, in which they play their farewell gig but, the implication is, will actually stay together, having performed in front of an adoring crowd, and brought George back into the band, in order to recapture their original spirit, meant that they were off to fame and fortune. Now, though, it occurs to me that it may have been the opposite. That is, they bring George back in because all they want is for things to be fun again, and maybe they stop expecting to get anywhere, which means that they don’t, and that idea is something that I find very confronting. Still, while I was revisiting Sweet, I was also watching INXS: Never Tear Us Apart; both shows illustrate the tipping point into success in the same way, which is, of course, all members of the band in question being in a car together and hearing their single on the radio, but Sweet has much less statistics-based natter about being ‘the biggest band in the world’, Never Tear Us Apart being an in-shallow look at what can happen when a band is in a position actually to get off the dole. But whatever INXS mutated into, its early days continue to capture my imagination, and this is largely because of the band having been formed back when the members were in school. Fate intervening at this point in their lives surely meant that the members rarely, or never, had to consult a university or TAFE handbook and worry about getting a proper job: instead, they could rest assured early on that their futures would involve cultivating their greasy ringlets, wearing stupid leather trousers and spending Saturday mornings with Donnie Sutherland and his non-elucidating interview technique, and every one of these things would have been made easier by the fact that Sydney used to be a lot cheaper to live in.
The crux of the matter is that Sweet causes me to be homesick for a city that doesn’t exist anymore, and what really makes me wistful is that if I’d been more aware of the exact point that the Sydney that is depicted was starting to disappear, I would have tried to go out a lot more, instead of spending most of my time staying in to watch situation comedies that were axed in their first season. Even in Sweet, there is, in a disturbing portent, a mention of warehouses being converted into luxury apartments, and I should have paid more attention to it. Given that in the early nineteen eighties I was still too pubescent to be enjoying pretty much anything whatsoever, Never Tear Us Apart and Sweet and Sour don’t make me nostalgic for my own youth, but, in the case of the first, for other people’s young-adult lives, and, in the case of the second, the young-adult lives of people who aren’t even real people. It’s only the second of these programs, though, that makes me want to step through the television screen and get in amongst it, as I wouldn’t want to have Chris Murphy barking at me to go on ‘the road’ for ages, in order to ‘conquer the States’; hell, yes, I’m lazy and weak, but I’d way prefer to have the sunny natured Darrell’s guidance, dispensed while bunking off from his studies.