“You wrote in your Critic’s Pick that the Cannanes are influential. Who have they influenced?”
So asked a fellow RFT scribe at Friday's night’s CBGB show. It wasn’t a challenge or anything; it was more of an honest desire to know how this little-known Australian band, playing a free show in a tiny St. Louis bar on their way through a small-scale American tour, has influenced the greater musical culture at large.
Good question. And one that I hadn’t really considered, though perhaps I should have. Here’s how I’d answer that question given a second opportunity: They are torch-bearers for the notion that one doesn’t have to be a musical virtuoso or a skilled songsmith to produce great pop records. The Cannanes' earliest singles and cassette releases barely held together: the drums were shambling, the guitars barely in tune, the vocals untrained…yet there was clearly a spark there.
Behold "I Dig You," the first track on their first single, circa 1984:
Baby, I DIG you! I don't know if you feel the same too. Mumsy says it's so But then, with Mumsy, one can never know.
This does not seem like any kind of mission statement, but hearing former vocalist Annabel Bleach shouting the lyrics with sarcastic glee over discordant guitar and the barest thread of melody is something to behold. You can hear the stirrings of an aesthetic: a sort of unrehearsed pop noise with lyrics as simple as hopscotch chants, yet with a foundation of intelligence and sarcasm. Other bands were doing similar things at the same time, such as the early Flying Nun bands and especially Beat Happening. It’s no surprise that the Cannanes' earliest American releases appeared on Calvin Johnson's K label, and that they've actually recorded in Olympia. They were one of the earliest harbingers of an actual International Pop Underground.
And here, I think, is where their influence lies. The Cannanes are not the Velvet Underground or the Pixies -- their influence has not been nearly that widespread or direct -- but for at least a small segment of the indiepop world, they were and are revered as a true inspiration. You can hear at least a small bit of their approach in the hundreds of tiny indie bands that sprouted in the wake of K Records' love-rock micro-revolution.
The Cannanes have persisted ever since, with a cast of dozens revolving around core members Frances Gibson and Stephen O'Neill. They went through a slight Go-Betweens phase for the brief time Randall Lee was with the band, but for the most part their sound has been dominated by Gibson's plaintive vocals and O'Neill's hyperactive strummed guitar and occasional whistling solos. In that time, they've gotten more sophisticated: their songs slowly became concise, articulate portraits of ennui, annoyance and dark humor. This is best heard on 1990's "Vivienne," probably their greatest hit. "There's something about Australia/You want to tear it down," Gibson sings, over a bed of guitar and violin. Then she delivers this chorus, a barroom singalong saturated with regret and self-awareness:
Oh, I had posters on my wall It looked just like a wall in London. I was so disappointed Because I wanted it like a New York one. I want to feel like I'm part of a city.
Currently the Cannanes are on their first American tour in almost a decade. It turns out that they have friends here in town; they'd spent a few days in town before Friday night's show, taking in such local sights as the Gateway Arch and the Cahokia Mounds. Appearing at the tail end of a fun but very long bill, the Cannanes played a set of songs old and new for an enthusiastic crowd. It's been awhile since I've seen them, and they did not disappoint, mixing new songs with such favorites as "Get On Down" and "I Met You As A Baby." (I was hoping for "Vivienne," but to no avail.) It was a true lovefest: the CBGB crowd loved them; even the drunken hecklers were friendly, including the girl who kept saying, "You guys are good! Where are you from? Are you Irish?" I just stood there in front near the pinball machine, grinning nonstop, feeling like there was no place in the world I'd have rather been at that moment.