THE VISITORS by Vivien Johnson
The following article appears courtesy of Vivien Johnson. It first appeared in Sydney based fanzine 48 Crash in 1982.
If you saw The Man Who Fell To Earth, you might remember the scene at the end of the film with David Bowie sitting in a kerbside cafe. A record bar behind him prominently displays his musical statement to the Earth, a record called simply The Visitor.
When I mentioned this to Deniz during a discussion of the names of some of his bands, he said that out of the several pages of names he and Mark Sisto were going through walking down the beach one day The Visitors seemed to "sit right". Neither he or Mark had seen the movie. No artistic cross referencing here. But in spite of Deniz' disclaimer, I do find the connection relevant to an understanding of the of the music of the group into which he poured his inspirational musical energies after the break-up of Radio Birdman.
Like the mythological Icarus who flew too close to the sun, melted his wings and came crashing down, the flight of the Birdmen - who "tried too hard and went too far" (The song Hangin' On from Living Eyes) - also came to an abrupt and untimely end. The Visitors' music may be understood as a statement in Rock from a man who has fallen to earth from those extra-terrestrial heights.
The sense of loss is integral to the peak experiences of rock and roll. (Journalist) Nicholas Rothwell's analysis of Radio Birdman (The Australian, April 14, 1981) centres on the notion that they transformed rock and roll into Art by making it reflexive. The ephemerality which reduces the artefacts of popular culture to insignificance becomes, for him, the heart of the meaning of this music. Its power is in that transmutation of primal fears - of death and of love - into musical passion.
Although Mark Sisto did indulge himself at the Death of The Visitors gig (Stagedoor Tavern, Sydney, August 5, 1979 and Deniz' farewell appearance before returning to the United States to practice medicine) in the throwaway line: "Shorter lifespan than a mayfly, in death we reign", morbidity really has nothing to do with it. But increasingly now, even in the process in which music is generated, ephemerality has a lot. The Visitors are a perfect example.
In early December 1978, not long after his return via America to Australia following the Birdman (European) tour, Deniz got together with Steve Harris (bass), Pip Hoyle (keyboards), Ron Keeley (drums) and Mark Sisto (vocals) for a jam in what Steve describes as "a hole in the wall" - the old Studio 20 in Foley Street (Sydney). It went so well that they decided to do a performance at the now defunct Stagedoor Tavern on December 27th, calling themselves The Visitors.
The gig was publicised through an interview on 2JJ with Deniz and a press conference with the band at the Hyatt Hotel. The latter attracted scant press coverage - just a few lines in Rolling Stone. Only four or five short reviews have ever been written about the band. But the gig was packed. The audience of about 700 was sharply divided in its reactions to the band. But for every hostile response, there was another equally enthusiastic. This extract from Toby Cresswell's review in Roadrunner magazine is a sample of the positive reaction:
"The Visitors played to the hilt, the unspoken strength of a tiger flexing muscles to pounce and the chaos of an intellectual firefight, but it was a show that was never boring. The Visitors may never play again, maybe they will, but if you miss it you'll regret it the rest of your life".
As the prophetic last sentence indicates, many present that night - including the band - thought this was the only time they would perform. However with this sort of reaction from most of the already established audience for their music, plus their own enjoyment of playing together, they took to the stage again some six weeks later at Balmain Town Hall and again a few weeks later on the first night of Rob Younger's new band The Other Side (February 29, 1979 at the Civic Hotel).
It's been said that they blew The Visitors off stage that night and they probably did - but only because that was in the nature of the different kind of music each band was playing. The Other Side were beyond the mirror of self, unyielding partisans of Rock and Roll as an all-consuming passion, whose attitude to the past was to "burn it...I don't look back" who kept the faith that "New Dreams gonna be all right / before it's time to fall" (New Dreams).
Deniz' reply to the sentiment expressed in The Other Side's New Dreams is most concisely stated at the end of Journey by Sledge, the song which in performance was always to my mind The Visitors' finest moment and one of the highlights of the 12" EP produced by Rob Younger from the tracks laid down at Palm Studios and released by Phantom Records in late 1980.
Journey by Sledge
Visual white-out in night's endless realm
Above looms the ghost of our comrades who fell
Staring up to the skies
Motorised sledge tracks pounding across
Frozen lakes and fields of the permafrost
Your tears can turn them against you
Children will love us in stories told for evermore
And nevermore will they have to ride on the sledge
Cold endless nights in the land of Thule
Crystalline skies over mountains of cruelty
We spent our last few hours
Motorised sledge to the end of the earth
Where no-one survives we can be the first
To suffer here just till tomorrow
Children will love us in stories told for evermore
And nevermore will they have to ride on the sledge
Remember me, remember me, remember me
The background to the lyrics of Sledge is illuminating in this context. The chorus was written by Mark Sisto, who originally wrote a complete sets of words for the song which Deniz re-wrote, retaining the chorus. Mark's lyrics were about "this nightmare I had about these people, in some little village somewhere. They had to keep on going to fight this war. They were really enthusiastic about it. They kept thinking that they'd have be able to spare their offspring from it. They didn't know that it had happened before. Only when they were killed did they realise. It wasn't just a war though - you know how dreams are, they can be about one thing and then they're about something else, or both at the same time".
So the chorus is a declaration of an illusionary belief in the attainability of the dream of finality - in permanence. The verses substituted by Deniz locate this declaration in a mythical-poetic context rich in rock allusions.
Deniz: "I can tell you where this song came from. There's a chapter in a book by Sven Hassel. Do you know who Sven Hassel is? He's Danish really, but German parents and when the Third Reich took over, technically according to their law, he was a German and subject to being drafted. So they drafted him and he deserted and he was caught for desertion and put in a concentration camp. After they started losing too many guys (in the war) they formed these penal regiments - just took all these convicts, people that were waiting to be executed, trained them and put them into these units and sent them to Russia.
They had to do all these amazing missions, these completely suicide missions, because they'd rather have them killed off anyway, but get use of them while they're being killed off. They had to do things like get into Russian uniforms and captured Russian tanks and go behind the lines to look around and come back and tell them what they saw.
So he wrote a series of books about his experiences. The writing is remarkable - he's actually a remarkable writer, right up there with Remark - All's Quiet on the Western Front - you know? That kind of stuff. He wrote about 12 books. Each book covers a nine-month period of the war, and there's one in particular called "SS General" that deals with the retreat from Stalingrad. There's one chapter called "Journey by Sledge" about how they had to ride on this sledge, this amazing machine that's got like tank tracks on the back and skis on the front. It holds about 30 men and it's armoured and they can go about a hundred miles an hour on the ice. It's a remarkable chapter so I decided to write a song about it.
But while I was writing it, it sort of deviated from being literally about that chapter of that book to being more about a mythical tribe of Norsemen or something in the olden days, and it's a function of that tribe that when the men reach a certain age they've got to take these sledges and go out on them so far that no-one's ever made it back from doing it. The song's about this particular group that's getting ready to go out and they're wondering if they're going to be the first to ever actually make it. They're riding along knowing they'll probably die, but maybe they'll make it."
Deniz' rock and roll soldiers sustain the illusion in the face of their imminent extinction "Remember" because you only learn from your mistakes. This is the music of the Man Who Fell to Earth.
On July 7 and 8, 1979 - less than a month before their final performance - The Visitors went into Palm Studios, Paddington, to lay down their 12 originals: Haunted Road, Brother John, Sad TV, Journey by Sledge, Euro Girls, Miss You Too Much, Living World, Hell Yes, Let's Have Some Fun, Disperse, Skimp the Pimp and Life Spill. Palm's resident, Alistair McFarlane, engineered on the studio's old 12-track equipment and Deniz did a rough mix of all the songs at the time.
They used the first takes of nearly everything, not even overdubbing the vocals, so the sound is virtually live. The idea was to have a record of the band for the musicians involved; there was no particular plan for releasing any of the material. I'll comment on each of the tracks on the order they appear on the tape, leaving out Life Spill, Hell Yes and Journey by Sledge which are familiar to people who have the EP:
Haunted Road: A song in the classic Tek tradition, fusing veiled mythical themes with the fast car imagery of archetypal rock.
Sad TV: Also covered by New Race and containing an earlier form of that great lead break by Deniz, which was the focus of their version. Reminiscent lyrically of Time to Fall on Living Eyes, The Visitors' version moves along on the gentle but powerful undercurrent of Ron Keeley's fluid drumming and Pip Hoyle's intermeshing organ. Mark Sisto said it should have been on the EP instead of Life Spill.
Euro Girls: Lyrics by Mark Sisto evoking a romantic encounter with a girl: "Everyone knew we would miss the glory of a soft summer night". Pip wrote the music, which features his organ.
Miss You Too Much: A hauntingly beautiful song about lost love which will be familiar to the Angie Pepper Band's audience. The Visitors' version is similar, featuring the crystallised emotion of Pip's piano.
Living World: According to Mark Sisto's introduction, this song is "about a guy who was awed by the world - that he's alive. He feels a real sense of humility. Could be a cartoon character, could be anyone". Occasionally performed by New Race, The Visitors' recorded version has a mellower feel enhanced by Deniz' mix which consistently places the drums back behind the sound and brings out the organ.
Let's Have Some Fun: Sounds at first like a throwaway fun song - "until you notice the tension between the mood of the music and the content of the lyrics: "Lost my girlfriend late last year/Trying to forget that she ain't here" and "Had that dream again/Letter I never sent/Gonna call buddies/Try and have some fun".
Disperse: Arguably The Visitors' masterpiece. The music. written by Pip Hoyle and Mark, mounts to a chilling crescendo behind instructions from Mark Sisto in the event of a holocaust. Deniz described it at the Death of The Visitors gig as "Nuremberg in reality". Like all The Visitors songs in some measure.
Skimp the Pimp: Mark Sisto takes the opportunity during this old TV Jones number to introduce the band in turn, with some rare solos.
The following excerpt from a review of The Visitors' EP which appeared in Roadrunner in November 1980 is an accurate description of the overall sound achieved by the band on these tapes:
"I would have really liked to have seen this band live, as the recorded product leads me to believe they would have been an excellent rock powerhouse. There's a very raw and vibrant feel to these songs. They all push along without letting up for a moment, and would be music to raise a sweat by. The product is very honest and clean with overdubs kept to a minimum except for some primitive 'African natives at work and chanting' backing vocals. It's straightforward rock with few frills and no evidence of slickness. Keyboards are dominant, mainly in the shape of a very staccato piano sound. Deniz Tek's guitar playing is high on power and distortion and features long sustained notes and liberal use of mid-level feedback which contributes to the controlled wildness the band projects".
The language of rock music is a synthesis of the extremities of incantation and meaning. The lyric element in rock is sometimes emphasised to the exclusion of its musical contest, and more often is overlooked entirely. Deniz Tek's brilliance as a lyricist has never really been appreciated for what it is; the missing fourth dimension which converts the timeless musical object into an event. Consider now the words of Brother John, the opening track of the EP and the song by which many remember this band:
When your last good eye is looking down to the sea
And your last goodbye has driven you to your knees
Then you walk alone in mystery
Face revealed in a radar light
Ain't seen nothing in a million years
Reflected in a head-up display
And taste the blood within your tears
Your face has pulled too many Gs
Living too far from the sun
Hit re-entry at Mach 23
Miss a chance to use your gun
He was fishing all day and sleeping in the sand
He killed a shark and ate it with his bleeding hands
Was a winter's night when the skull took him away
He was on the mothership where they used his brain
Brother John Brother John
Brother John Brother John
Face revealed in a radar light...
They took his living head, or so I heard
No-one spoke, they didn't say a word
And now he's going and there's nothing we can do
Are you so far you wish your life was through?
Brother John Brother John
Brother John Brother John
Ostensibly, it's a fantasy about a friend of Deniz' (John Needham) who headed off overland after Radio Birdman's European tour and gets taken by a UFO. The lyrics recount a mixture of Brother John's real life exploits ("Killed a shark and ate it with his bleeding hands") and his science fiction adventure. But they also spell out the musical direction Deniz took in the wake of events on that tour, which saw his dreams for Radio Birdman go up in smoke.
"And taste the blood within your tears" evokes an unforgettable line from Hanging On which Deniz explicitly identified (at the near reunion of Birdman, without Rob Younger, as Comrades of War, who headlined the Death of The Visitors gig) as "a song about the death of a band". And "No-one spoke, they didn't say a word/And now he's gone and there's nothing that we can do" is surely the definitive statement on that demise.
"Then you walk alone in mystery". Never again perhaps, certainly not in the three-and-a-half years since Birdman nosedived, has Deniz involved himself in a the kind of total commitment to rock and roll which the band exacted of its members.
"He was on the mothership where they used his brains". America and medical science now claim the major part of Deniz' energies and he embraces in Rock the strategy of "Miss a chance to use your gun". In the interviews he gave for the New Race tour, Deniz repeatedly articulated the concept of the rock and roll "event" - of a band as a meeting of individual musical energies for a finite segment of space/time - as opposed to the Radio Birdman concept (embraced by The Other Side) of rock as an all-consuming passion by which one is possessed. The Visitors were the embodiment of this as yet unformulated musical philosophy - the prototype for Deniz' future endeavours in the art of passion.
When I talked to Steve Harris about The Visitors it slipped out almost involuntarily that the ever present possibility that each performance would be their last made each of the 12 times the band played around the Sydney pub circuit in the seven months they were together "an event".
Mark Sisto went even further - in his account the entire existence of the band, almost to the last note, was a precisely calculated entity in space/time:
"We were on such a tight schedule, we knew when we were gonna get together - it was like a quarter after till something thirty we'd be able to practice. So we bang, got there, non nonsense, got as much in as we could cause we were working the absolute minimum to be able to have a band that we felt was worthy to playing around the pubs. If we'd had any less time we wouldn't have been able to do it good enough to want to do it. We didn't waste any time. If we looked like we were going to argue about something, we just went on to something else."
That's about all I can tell you about The Visitors at this stage. I'll give Deniz the last word on the band - the only general observation he made about it in our conversation, apart from the comment that The Visitors line-up of one guitar player and one keyboard was "the ideal thing...what I like working with the best". Perhaps the preceding analysis sets the limits of memory in a new light:
"It was just great in The Visitors - that band was so relaxed, it was amazing compared to other bands we've been in. There was really no conflict between the members at all. It was just a fantastic situation to work with".
Visitors Gigs (1978 - 1979):
December 27 - Stagedoor Tavern (with Lipstick Killers)
February 9 - Balmain Town Hall (with Lipstick Killers)
February 29 - Civic Hotel (With The Other Side)
April 7 - Governor Bourke Hotel (with Lipstick Killers)
April 21 - Stagedoor Hotel (With Hitmen)
May 19 - Governor Bourke Hotel (with The Other Side)
June 2 - Civic Hotel (with Lipstick Killers)
June 22 - Newcastle Uni (with Lipstick Killers and The Passengers)
June 23 - Manly Flicks (with Lipstick Killers and The Other Side)
June 30 - Rags (with Nightshift and Works)
July 28 - Stagedoor Tavern (with Thought Criminals)
August 5 - Stagedoor Tavern (with Hitmen and Comrades of War)
Copyright Vivien Johnson 1982