No joke; a man walks into a bar. Upon first glance he appears well dressed and a class above the regulars that haunt this sticky carpet dive joint. Sweat puddles profusely on his brow as he statically spies the room. He seems nervous, somewhat agitated. Upon second glance, as the man approaches the bar, it appears that he’s not well dressed at all. In fact, he’s a scruff. The illusion of a crisply tailored dark grey suit jacket is shattered by a menagerie of suspicious stains and cigarette burns. He is short, his features are exaggerated, and his hair is a frizzy, mad professorial mess. Upon closer inspection, this guy just looks like a damn sleaze.
Clumsily tripping over the words making up his beer order, he clenches his fist in agitation, and as the word beer spews from his dry lips, he pummels his fist on the counter. Upon receiving his beer, this odd little creature smiles politely and demurely mouths the words “thank you”. It later occurred to me that this guy isn’t a psychopath, he’s socially awkward.
That was my first impression of Jim White, drummer extraordinaire for Melbourne’s scuzz/punk/jazz type noisesters, Venom P. Stinger. Twenty-five years later, it would appear that Jim White has done it all; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, P.J. Harvey, The Dirty Three, Low, Cat Power… the guy’s played with them all, either live or in the studio, not only simply laying down a series of drum tracks, but tangibly adding richness and body to music that may otherwise be deemed as straight down the line.
Distracting my growing stares from the socially awkward man is a staggering, wayward individual with his right arm in a sling, cuts on his face and a voice so horrible, so obnoxious, that he would fit right in on the toughest of building sites, Italian parliament, or right-wing talkback radio. I didn’t know it then, but that’s Dugald McKenzie, Venom P. Stinger’s frontman, wild child and drunk, warbling mascot. His notoriety precedes him though, having sung for legendary mid-eighties Melbourne punk bands, Fungus Brains and the Sick Things. Oh, the stories I’ve since heard.
As the band takes the stage, Dugald and Jim are joined by bass player Alan Secher-Jensen, a man whose appearance could best be described as school teacher by day, serial killer by night, and guitarist Mick Turner (ex-Sick Things, Fungus Brains and Moodists) who seems quite normal in comparison to his band mates, although he does have that heroin-addict- skeletor-face type vibe going on.
As a sixteen-year-old back in 1990, I thought I’d seen it all. Punk, thrash, metal, pop punk… erm… more punk… but as it turns out, I hadn’t. In a cacophony of screaming, off-kilter guitar, thumping and frenetic bass and a semi-improvisational jazz-style drum ethic that still blows me away to this very day, Venom P. were off and running and my life, along with many others’ lives, was changed immeasurably.
What the hell is this?!
It’s claustrophobic. It’s paranoid. It’s assaulting. And when Dugald finally decides to stop swinging from the low ceiling rafters shadowing the tiny stage and starts singing, well, yelling, well holy shit, I don’t think I’d ever been so scared yet so adrenalized in my 16 years on this planet.
“They got my car, they got my house
They got the keys to my door, I can’t get out
They got a game, where I’m the mouse
While they’re beating my brains in and smashing my face around”
Venom P. Stinger ‘Walking About’
For close to a decade, Venom P. Stinger circled not only the Melbourne punk scene’s shady bars and clubs, but toured worldwide, gaining a cult following in Germany, Spain and Italy, and also getting some well deserved recognition in music’s holy grail, America. Hence, it was such a horrifically untimely, yet necessary exit for Dugald McKenzie when he was committed to a psychiatric facility by the end of 1991. Venom P. Stinger were left rudderless right when they were on the cusp of cult-level greatness. Enter Nick Palmer.
With two full length LP’s (Aberrant Records’ Meet My Friend Venom and What’s Yours is Mine) and a swathe of killer 45’s on their resume, Venom P. Stinger could very well have called it quits there and then and still gone down in Australian history at least, as one of music’s more avant-garde, wild and musically ambitious acts, destroying the tepid counter-culture of late eighties/early nineties Melbourne and laying the foundation for a far more culturally aware and vital late twenty-first century scene. But they didn’t.
Nick Palmer is just like you, and he’s just like me. Back in 1990, he was simply another face in the crowd, standing all slack-jawed and goofy as the blistering assault of Dugald, Mick, Alan and Jim unfolded before him. He’s a music fan, but more importantly, he’s a Venom P. Stinger fan. So much so, that at the time of Dugald’s departure, Nick, in one of those famous Henry Rollins from-ice-cream-store-to-Black-Flag moments, was approached by the band to take the former singer’s place. He already knew the band, he knew every word to every song, wasn’t shy, and appeared equally as menacing and bloodthirsty as Dugald ever was. When Nick sang, it was almost impossible to tell the difference. He was ready made.
In late 1991, with new singer in tow, Venom P. released a slightly crisper, higher budget 4-track EP ‘Waiting Room’. The terms crisper and higher budget can often be taken as dirty words in punk rock circles, but not in this case. The transition was seamless, and if one was to avoid reading the band credits, it would have just been assumed that Dugald had returned.
But the bands biggest break came in late 1992 when Los Angeles radio station KDVS invited the band to perform a full set live on air. What ensued was the sonically twisted album simply titled ‘Live’; a collection of old and new songs where Nick Palmer could show his chops on the battlefield of punk/jazz freneticism to the world. Dugald’s legacy was upheld. Nick Palmer did the songs absolute justice.
With the band now entering the earholes of an incestuous, underground U.S. market, and with a sustainable amount of dollars coming in, the original three momentarily pulled the plug to concentrate on other projects. Alan Secher-Jensen formed his own band Come the Rubber Pig, while Mick Turner and Jim White joined a young Warren Ellis (Busload of Faith, Bad Seeds) to form an equally wild instrumental piece The Dirty Three.
A final full length LP followed in 1996 (Tearbucketer), but it seemed that the wind had been taken from the sails of a once vibrant Venom P., and the combination of dwindling crowds, poor sales and other projects gaining more importance, saw the band split in 1997.
In 2004, original singer Dugald McKenzie passed away from a long battle with cancer. By then, most from the scene had moved on either to bigger and better things in the music world, some forging extremely successful careers along the way. Others became accountants. But the legacy lived on, as indeed it still does to this very day. What was left from the ruins of Venom P. and the life of the unique Dugald McKenzie was a savage legacy of a musical ethos that asked questions of the stock standard, poked and prodded the listening audience with suggestions of paranoia, claustrophobia and drug-induced madness, and challenged up and coming bands to up the ante, to steer away from the stale 4/4 signature that dominated the Melbourne punk scene at the time and to run the razor sharp gauntlet of originality beyond the avant-garde, beyond punk and the counter-culture, and to create a style and a scene all of their own.
And they did.
“Meet my friend Venom
Lives up to his name
Always stabs from behind
Practicing on shadows
With those grinning eyes
He’ll suck the marrow from your bones”