“Subversion is something that’s becoming incredibly hard to spot, I don’t even know what subversion is anymore.”
Regurgitator’s Quan Yeomans was adamant there wasn’t an agenda underlining some of the eyebrow raising moments explored on his group’s second record Unit.
When pressed further by Richard Kingsmill in 1997 about song titles like ‘The World Of Sleaze’ and ‘I Will Lick Your Arsehole’ Quan conceded, “I guess you can say we’re subversive in relation to our popularity, that is surprising to me, that we can get away with certain things that a lot of other bands may not seem to touch.
“But, in the big scope of things, I don’t think we’re particularly subversive.”
“We’re just a bunch of geeks trying to make each other laugh at dumb gags that’s all,” bandmate Ben Ely quipped succinctly.
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Having a laugh is one thing. But Quan and Ben also had well-founded fears about how the synthpop follow up to the huge success of guitar heavy debut Tu-Plang, would be received.
“I was terrified of going in and recording the next record because there was so much pressure to be as successful or more successful, so I didn’t get cocky at all,” Yeomans said. “I just thought, ‘wow, that’s a fluke’. We really didn’t deserve it, and it’s reflected in all the interviews we did at that time.
“I remember Ben being really annoyed at me for talking it down and being really negative and cynical about it, because I really didn’t get why it was so successful. I just thought we were some goofy dudes in this ridiculous set up playing stupid music we could barely do. We could barely sing.”
Ben Ely also had concerns about how fans of Tu-Plang would react.
“I had a lot of fear thinking that everyone was going to hate our new electro pop, and we played it and all these guys with long hair and muscles and no shirt on, they liked it, and I just thought that was awesome,” he told triple j in 1997.
What’s obvious is that this Brissy band wanted to be sure they didn’t paint themselves into a corner and only be known for one particular kind of sound, especially at a time when guitar rock was the dominant form.
“I think it’s really important for this band to just make it clear it to people that we like to do a wide variety of things and we don’t like to keep the doors closed on any sort of front,” Yeomans said.
There was a strategy in place though to help fans make the transition from the debut record to Unit.
“The first single was ‘Everyday Formula’, which was quite heavy,” Yeomans said. “I guess we were a little worried about how different the record was, so we thought we’d ease them into it a little with something slightly heavier than the rest of the record.”
Elsewhere though, Unit’s songs about the synthetic nature of society (‘Polyester Girl’), video game obsession (‘Black Bugs’), cynicism toward artistic endeavour (‘I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff’), and stay at home parties (‘Song Formerly Known As’) showed a group ramping up their love of pop and the synth driven sounds of the 80s.
It’s the latter track, a firm nod to Prince, that presented an interesting challenge for the limitations of recording technology at the time. Quan had to sing the song at a lower pitch and at a slower speed as the tape rolled, also at a slower speed. The tape was then played at normal speed which created the effect of a higher sounding voice.
The really tricky part was having to harmonise with himself, which involved listening to the main vocal again, finding the right tones and going through the whole process from the top.
Why did they do something so overtly Prince inspired?
“Because it’s so out at the moment,” Yeomans said. “Everyone hates it, but I really dig it and love that heavy funk. Plus Prince is a really bad person to imitate. Not many people would do it so I thought I’d give it a go.”
Perhaps making Unit wasn’t a planned act of subversiveness.
“There’s plenty of other bands that have sworn on records and made comments about genitalia and toilet humour,” Yeomans said. “They just prefer to use punk rock music as their genre, whereas we use pop music, which is easier and more palatable for people to listen to.”
The fact that, two decades on, we’re still revelling in its pop brilliance, smiling broadly at its juvenile lyrics and pulling awkward robot inspired dance moves, suggests we value Unit just as much, maybe even more, than the Gurge's debut.
Unit has an ability to take us out of the everyday, even momentarily, for some silly and joyful respite. As the lyrics to ‘Everyday Formula’ deadpan: ‘It’s gonna be alright, it’s gonna be alright, it’s gonna be alright, it’s gonna be all SHITE!’