Purple Skies, Toxic River
Existence is everything. Sir Phil Collins once said that. And while it's more than likely The Great Train Robber was referencing compact discs and how he was able to successfully conquer the northern summit of Solo Career Success Mountain on the back of their invention, it's also completely plausible that he was making a longshot judgement call on Canberra's greatest export — Bobby "TV Colours" Kill and his long overdue debut LP.
Purple Skies, Toxic River exists. Step one complete. And, while it seems like a trivial point, for those of us who have longed for this moment, but feared it would never come, there's an obvious sense of associated relief. As always, it's nice to see we're not alone on that front.
Equally existent is Phil Collins' fourth solo LP, But Seriously. A genuinely timeless record that, even a quarter of a century after it's initial release, still sounds incredibly vibrant, loaded with more gusto, punch and ticker than Glen Lazarus (circa before he was a Clive Palmer political puppet). A record that proudly parades it's sickeningly pristine level of pop clarity.
Purple Skies — while abhorrently snobbing all of the significant technological advancements in recording techniques of the past 100 years and instead defining itself by self-created lo-fidelity parameters — still successfully embodies a sense of glamour. It's own over-stylised, yet warped, perspective of modernism. Sci-fi jingles bend around the despotic guitar riffs, which are punched out with a clear preference of determination over directness. A drum machine does it's job, but it's more convenience than a conscious musical direction. Words are rarely important, so it hardly matters that Bobby accidentally swallowed the microphone four songs ago and is now choking and unable to reach the stop button on his four-track recorder. Just let it roll Bob. Pop music just seems to effortlessly leak from your body anyway, our ears will invent their own tales to fill the indiscernible lyrics.
But Seriously is an amazingly adventurous record, an attribute never more apparent than on the epic, 8-minute prog-pop anthem, Colours. It's a captivating journey, set into two distinct movements — an overly theatrical celebration of grandeur and an uptempo, jazz-fused dance track. In-between, there's an eerily calming segway composition, a tribal drumming that, even without the helpful track progress options of modern audio devices, hints at the inevitability of an impending explosion.
Purple Skies disguises the obvious limitations of the punk rock genre, relying heavily on creative manipulation of it's available assets. Three chords was never enough, but throw in those fuzzy synths, the deep buried vocals, the overblown, detached cinematic rhythms, and it's an altogether different story. Even viewed solely as a response to the predictability of modern pop-punk music, this is an audaciously resolute statement.
But Seriously is an ideal document of its time. It's the decadent late-80s — money is cheap, time is cheaper and bigger is always better. The compositions are overly lavish and showy. The presentation is all that matters. And yet, ironically, the ardently forthright music is displaced by the serious subject matters of the lyrical content.
Phil feels guilty. His wealth, success, chiseled features and gold-plated saxophones still give him no actual superhuman powers. He's helpless to solve the multitude of global social problems that are successfully strangling the human race during the late-80s. Northern Ireland is burning, South Africa's racial segregation continues, homeless people line the streets of America. All the while, Phil's home life fares little better. His relationships with his parents, wife, son, former bandmates, milkman and pretty much everyone in his life are falling apart like his hairline did a decade-or-so earlier.
Naturally, this sense of helplessness dictates the record's tone. Phil doesn't offer solutions, he merely describes the depth and breadth of the turd swamp he finds himself drudging through. His tone is mostly reflective, whether he's attempting to re-live better times (Do You Remember), conjure up a flicker of optimism (Hang In Long Enough) or, most effectively, drown himself under a heavy weight of self-pity (I Wish It Would Rain Down).
Purple Skies is equally transfixed on the rear-view mirror of life. But rather than adapting a reflective tone, Bobby casts himself in those memory scenes. Still at high-school, still getting a bit too drunk on weekends, still ignoring the responsibilities of life. It's a unique take on the well-worn nostalgic perspective, changing the tone from contemplative to celebrative.
And that's the dominant, most appealing and liberating, characteristic of Purple Skies, Toxic River. It's just straight testies-out pop-punk music. It's countless cans of lager thrown skyward without worries as you strut along Parramatta Road at 2am looking for non-existent small bars. It's skateboarding down an abandoned rollercoaster on the New Jersey boardwalk, where the calendar says Now, but you're sure it's 1991 at the latest. It's slacking off, it's dropping out, it's dropping bad acid in Queanbeyan. It's living your teenage years in your 20s because you had a Serious Girlfriend from primary school onwards. It's stealing your parents car, even though you have you own adequate vehicle, purchased with savings from your sensible 9-5 job. It's calling shotgun. It's riding in the boot because the car's full. It's life. It's a celebration. It's a fucking blast.
But it's not. And much like But Seriously, once you peel back the flamboyantly dominant layers of pop jubilation, there's a genuine sense of helplessness - albeit a shade more subtle. There's inescapable boredom, trapped in the suburbs without any logical escape route. There's big city dreams and small town realities and the uncrossable abyss that separates the two. There's that "one day" mentality that inevitably creeps into the vocabulary of us all. Moving on, making plans, excuses made. And then years pass and what have you been doing? "Hanging out and drinking I guess".
The punk rock assertiveness is diluted further by a series of interjecting "field recordings" of mundane activities. Supermarket scanners, passing trains, thunderstorms. These brief snippets of everyday simplicity bring the record back into it's bedroom loner context, paradoxing the initially dominate beer-smashing revelry and associated imagery — which is neatly positioned somewhere between Death Race 2000 and a pick-up truck kegger hosted by a bunch of social misfits in the carpark of Some Small Redneck Town, USA.
For all it's hints at escapism, Purple Skies remains an introspective journey, isolated to the world of it's creator. Bobby Kill's day-dreaming outlook is rarely attached to any form of reality, instead he speaks in generalised terms as though he's watching (or imagining the scene itself unfold). Even when he repeatedly shouts that "[he] doesn't care any more" it sounds more like a tagline of an imaginary film, full of fast cars, time-travel and glittery glam-metal guitars that shoot lasers at Bad Dudes, rather than a genuinely passionate outcry.
Praise of But Seriously has always been focused on it's political and social dissections, but it's still essentially about Collins' own perspective. He refuses to remove himself. Instead, he creates connections between his own dramas and those that plague humankind as a whole, in turn implying a far greater level of significance on his own troubles. Even Another Day In Paradise, presented as simply a series of third-person tales centred around the issue of homelessness, is still more focused on the songwriter's own associated guilt towards the situation than the actual feelings of those involved.
In my opinion, all good pop music embodies this duality. Cleverly, or unintentionally, adapting the age-old Reverse Mullet Strategy. The party at the front, welcoming and full of comforting high fives and back-patting. You feel an immediate connection. Whether that's air-saxing like a dork or violently air-fisting your worries away, the temporary transportation vessel to a simpler existence is offered up on those first few listens. Then there's the business. If you don't get past the party, that's understandable. But at the back, that's where the good stuff is. It's the truth. It's a deep dive into the human condition, the soul. The real thoughts and meaning, buried deep beyond that jubilant frontline.
At the end of the day, the packaging — that is, the musical genre applied to communicate the pop methodology — isn't important. It's that intricate balance between passion and presentation that matters. The naturality. The honesty. And the creation of something our hearts and minds can instantly create a tangible attachment to. That's the true lifeblood of pop music and in modern times, the harmonious existence of those qualities is rarer than a Canberra Raiders semi-final appearance. But Purple Skies, Toxic River is a truly perfect pop record. An undeniable classic. And it fucking exists.