The story of GOD's 'My Pal', an enduring Australian underground classic
As part of Ausmusic Month, Double J is airing a special hour-long documentary about Melbourne underground rock band GOD, and their iconic song 'My Pal'. This track was their 1987 debut single, written by the band's Joel Silbersher when he was just 15 years old. It has since become a punk rock classic, one of the most enduring songs of the Aussie underground.
Characterised by a simple descending guitar riff, a driving rhythm section and the impassioned roar of Silbersher's vocal, 'My Pal' is ferocious but catchy and possesses an intoxicating, loose energy. An archetypal grunge song released years before grunge went mainstream.
"It was extremely easy," Silbersher says of writing the song. "It was the first good song I ever wrote. And it was extremely easy to write the music. I thought up that line that goes through the whole thing and I was trying to think of another one, and then went... oh no, if you just do this... that’s a song. That’s a whole piece of music.
"And then I had the “You’re my only friend / You don’t even like me” bit but then it took a while to erode the other lyrics into it. Which is funny when people think it’s about some specific incident. Because you go, 'Okay, got enough words now'."
The song was released as a single in 1987 and went on to sell reasonably well, somewhere in the thousands of copies. It was a great result for a record that didn't cost very much and didn't take very long to make.
"That recording was actually just intended to be a demo," bassist Matty Whittle says. "It was a fairly low budget recording. Joel’s Dad put up the money for that. It wasn’t a very laboured-over process.
"I think Joel may have gone back and redone the vocals for ‘My Pal’ on one occasion. I think he did an initial vocal take that he wasn’t happy with. Went back and redid it. Other than that, there wasn’t that much to it really. It would have only cost a couple hundred dollars to record that song."
Silbersher recalls an earlier mix of the song sounding better than the version that has become so well-loved over the years, but it was lost
I knew anybody would put out that record. It’s just a really catchy, really great sounding song.Joel Silbersher
"Actually, the first mix of ‘My Pal’, which I don’t what the issue was... It was something with the test pressing. The first mix we had which I’ve never been able to get a hold of again, was better than the one that’s on the record. It had a deeper snare sound, and just a bit of weird reverb on that feedback guitar that I do.
"I can’t remember what the fuzz pedal was that Simon had that I used for that feedback. It looked like a whole amp head, but it was only for fuzz and vibrato. It was a huge old thing."
The single came out on Au Go Go Records, a small Melbourne label run out of a shop of the same name by Bruce Milne.
"I remember playing the tape," Milne says of hearing the song for the first time. "It was a cassette in those days, of course. And I don’t think I even got towards the end of it before I just said 'I’ve got to put this out'. There was no doubt it was going to be a renowned record, if not necessarily a huge seller. It was just one of those records... The reason why you start a record label is for those sort of golden moments."
"Well that was the first place I took it," Silbersher says of Au Go Go. "And I had quite a few friends who had little labels. I knew anybody would put out that record. It’s just a really catchy, really great sounding song. But Bruce was the first person we played it to and he just automatically was really excited about it.
"Dave Laing [indie label owner] was probably working out the back of Au Go Go at that time, and would have gone... ‘Ahh, fuck! Fuck it! Fuck it!’."
Dave Laing had a label called Grown Up Wrong Records at the time, which became Dog Meat Records and would go on to release bands like The Powder Monkeys, Hoss and The Freeloaders, featuring former GOD members.
"I think one of the things with the song is that it kind of crosses across so many musical boundaries," Laing says.
"‘My Pal’, for indie kids it’s an indie song, for punk kids it’s a punk song, for rock'n'roll people it’s a rock'n'roll song. It can be a pop song if you want it to be. It just seems to appeal to everybody in the alternative kind of world. It just covers all those bases. So I think that’s part of its resonance as well."
"But yes, I mean the great thing about the song is it’s got a killer riff," Milne says. "And then once the vocals come in, they’re just... sounds so real. It doesn’t sound like a constructed song. It’s got that brutal honesty about it that I think is the reason why it still resonates with people."
After negotiations with the band's parents – they were teens at the time – Milne readied the release of the 'My Pal' single.
"The very first pressing of the single would have only been 500 I assume," he says. "That was with an orange cover and I think it had Joel’s parents address on the back. They didn’t like that so I think we had to texta it out on every single one of them. Then on the represses we removed it."
"I assume Joel didn’t ask his parents if he could put their address in fairly big lettering on the back of the record," Laing says. "So I don’t know if they ended up having GOD groupies camping out on their front lawn. But maybe they were scared of that."
GOD didn't have any songs as big as 'My Pal', a song which they grew to resent as it completely overshadowed the rest off their output.
"Man, I was made to feel ashamed of that song," Silbersher says. "I mean I understand that the other guys, and me a bit as well, were irritated that audiences were... Like, you’d play it, and sometimes a few songs in they’d go 'My Pal!' and we were like, 'yeah, we opened up with that one'.
"We stopped playing it in political revolt. Yeah, I was made fun of. I was kind of made to feel ashamed of that song for a while. In the band that played it."
The band released a mini-album, Rock Is Hell, in 1988 before disbanding, leaving their final 1989 album, For Lovers Only, as a posthumous legacy.
"Past ‘My Pal’, just about every move that we made was almost perversely designed to bring us undone," Silbersher says.
"It’s so funny when dickheads say, 'you were kind of like the Silverchair of your day'. And we go, 'No, we were not'. There’s no comparison. We were perverts. It’s amazing we lasted as long as we did."
Members of GOD would go on to make more seminal music in their careers in bands like The Powder Monkeys, Hoss and Tendrils. Hear the full Double J documentary for the story of what happened next.