Let’s imagine a hypothetical world where Kurt Cobain passed away in 1989. Bleach had been a minor hit, but there’d never be a Nevermind. Would the 1990s still sound much the same? Would it still have been all distorted guitars and punk attitudes? I think it, more or less, would have. I’ve been recording a podcast with some friends recently, called 90 Percent Hits, where we talk about #1 singles from the 1990s. And one of the things doing the podcast reminded me of was that an Australia band called Ratcat had two #1 hits in Australia in 1991, the Tingles EP featuring ‘That Ain’t Bad’, and ‘Don’t Go Now’. They were as big as Macklemore is now, you know? And the really interesting thing about Ratcat is that they were more or less a punk band, who had these hits about six months before Nirvana went big with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and Nevermind.
I mean, Ratcat were basically a bunch of punk guys from Sydney’s Northern Beaches who’d grown up on a diet of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. Their 1989 album This Nightmare was released on the Sydney indie label Waterfront. They played the kind of inner city venues you’d expect small-time indie bands in Sydney to play. Ratcat’s basic schtick was a sort of update/inversion of 1960s girl group tunes, with the sing-song melodies and pop simplicity that entails. Except with a fair bit more death and destruction. Simon Day’s vocals had a satisfyingly nasal punk whine to it, and Ratcat definitely knew how to use a fuzzbox guitar pedal (they’re actually a bit like Best Coast now I come to think of it). It fairly comfortably fits in the genre of alternative music.
Compared to the ultra-shiny Oz Rock of the time – your Noiseworks and Southern Sons – I can safely say that nobody ever dreamed that Ratcat would get to #1. But then, in 1990, they were signed to rooArt, the well-funded-and-connected indie label started by INXS’s manager (which later signed You Am I). And so, in 1990-1991, songs like ‘That Ain’t Bad’ and ‘Don’t Go Now’ actually got heard on the radio, on the likes of Video Hits. My mum’s workmate’s daughter was kind enough to tape a copy of their album Blind Love for me. I was 9, and I was listening to this stuff alongside Daryl Braithwaite and Paula Abdul. They had two #1 singles, ‘That Ain’t Bad’ and ‘Don’t Go Now’.
It makes me think that, basically, if Kurt Cobain had died before Nirvana had a chance to go supernova, the 1990s alternative revolution probably would have happened anyway. People, at that point, wanted to hear something darker, something loud and heavy, but without the macho bullshit of the guitar metal of the time. If not Nirvana, it would have been someone else. And Ratcat are the proof in that particular pudding. In Australia, six months before Nirvana, alternative music was at #1 in the charts. Apart from the glorious fuzz noise, ‘Don’t Go Now’ had such a great opening line – ‘well, I’ve been looking around for some kinda feeling, some kinda sensation’. The desire was there. In a way, it’s The Ramones squared; it’s more purely bubblegum pop than the Ramones ever were, and the guitars are sharper, edgier than the Ramones. And the song was catchy as all hell; there was something about the way that Simon Day sang the opening line, something about the rhythm of it. It also had a great, cartoonish video, with a Terry Gilliam-esque Mona Lisa and cartoon rats and cats (Simon Day, the lead singer, was also a graphic designer). It was the kind of thing that 9-year-old Tim dug.
When we talked about ‘Don’t Go Now’ on my podcast (yes, Tim has a podcast and it rules as hard as ours – Ed), I was surprised to discover that the other three guys on the podcast also agreed with me that ‘Don’t Go Now’ was superior to ‘That Ain’t Bad’ (which is probably the better known song). Craig Mathieson, in ‘The Sell In’, his book on the 1990s Australian alternative scene (from the Hummingbirds to You Am I to Powderfinger, etc), paints ‘Don’t Go Now’ as the beginning of the end for Ratcat. For Mathieson, it was the point where Ratcat sold out – the anodyne love song lyrics (which they more or less are, apart from that great opening line) and the cutesy video clip were sort of betrayals of the indie types who first loved Ratcat and propelled them to the top. But I dunno about that – the energy of ‘Don’t Go Now’, in the guitars, in Day’s delivery of the vocals, in the clip – means that it’s just a great guitar pop song full stop. Reading ‘The Sell In’, you get the impression that Ratcat were hardly around in 1991-1992 in Australia after their big success, because they were touring to promote an EP overseas (which sold reasonably well). rooArt were distributed by Polygram in Australia, and it was Polygram who were paying for the overseas touring. But the Polygram pulled the plug on tour support right before they were about to do Lollapalooza. Right before they were about to do Lollapalooza. And they did this because Chris Murphy, rooArt’s owner did a deal with Warner. So all the contacts Ratcat had made were lost, and they weren’t a high priority for Warner. Simon Day, once he came back to Australia spent three months in bed, depressed. It’s funny, though: ‘Holiday’, from their second album, is just as catchy and energetic as ‘Don’t Go Now’, but it barely reached the top 40. Either Ratcat’s fans had moved on, or nobody at the record label could be bothered. Perhaps by 2015 a similar fate lies in store for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.
Pop music is ephemeral. But if you look through the wreckage left behind after the storm has passed, you’ll find plenty of worthwhile stuff.
Ratcat – ‘Don’t Go Now’