“He still suffers from vertigo and it still affects his 3D vision and stuff. I don’t think you can treat head injuries lightly. Unlike a broken bone, you can’t really see inside it or anything, other than go with what your neurosurgeon says. And his neurosurgeon said ‘You’re allowed to fly, you’re allowed to play rock n roll, you just can’t drive a car more than two days a week’.” Hard Ons bass player Ray Ahn is talking about his band’s ill-starred frontman Peter “Blackie” Black, who was crowned with a skateboard back in May by a couple of teenage thugs during a robbery. The assault shattered his skull and left him severly concussed to the point where some feared he may never recover. With the help and support of his close friends and the love of music, however, he was back out touring his solo album within weeks and then on the road throughout Europe and Japan with the Hard Ons.
“Going to Europe and Japan was pretty much like a carrot dangling for Blackie,” Ray says. “He really wanted to get better so he could go and play music. It’s a massive part of who he is so it was a big thing for him to get better so he really looked after himself physically. And he was OK! There was a couple of days where he was complaining of dizziness and headaches and stuff like that, but that was only a few days towards the end there. He was ok.”
The attack not only put an end to a tour they were in the middle of at the time but it had serious implications for his future in general, as his injuries left him unable to support himself. Ray swung into action immediately, launching an appeal that was quickly taken up around the world.
“When this happened [Blackie’s assault], we managed to raise a fair bit of money for Blackie – enough for him to take four months off work. Enough for him to pay all his bills… he’s still got ongoing medical bills and stuff like that, so his money’s run out, but he’s back at work now. But in the time he was away from being able to work he was able to make ends meet. The so-called music industry came to his aid,” he says, before clarifying. “But it wasn’t exactly the music industry – it was music fans, in general. 90% of the donations came from Hard Ons fans. We were just very very lucky that some of those Hard Ons fans were wealthy dudes. For example – Grinspoon, that’s a band we’ve never played with. We’ve met them a couple of times and they seem like really nice guys. They came through and gave us just an unthinkable amount of money! All these people in other bands gave us money. Even jazz bands… this coalition of comedians from Sydney gave Blackie money, people from jazz bands gave him money, people from the avant garde scene. Even a few heavy metal musicians gave Blackie money.”
Ray believes that a lot of those who donated funds for Blackie’s recovery were motivated by a feeling of empathy with his situation as a struggling artist.
“All these people gave Blackie money who were playing in bands,” he says. “I think they could relate to the fact that he wasn’t in a big band, he’s in a small band, not a famous band, a band that’s struggling. So he had to have a day job to make ends meet to support his music. People related to that and gave generously. And bands that were famous and wealthy, bands like Grinspoon who have far more political clout and money than a band like us, they gave generously too because once upon a time they were a probably a poor band too.”
The Hard Ons’ remarkable recorded output now includes 14 albums, more than 20 singles/EPs and several compilations, netting them worldwide sales figures somewhere around the quarter million mark. While that may look like a formidable figure from an independent band point of view, when that’s averaged out over the three decades the Hard Ons have been around, it doesn’t work out to be very much. It’s even less when you consider the group does almost everything themselves – artwork, merch design, tour booking – and pays for it all out of their own pockets just like thousands of other bands without the same kind of infamy.
“There’s all these really weird discrepancies existing within the music industry. We’re just not that interested in it,” Ray says. “Just the other day we got an email from somebody saying, ‘We’re not gonna do a story in our free magazine, our free street press, because you haven’t been advertising with us.’ I emailed him back saying, ‘Well, how much for a front cover? It’s like you’re buying publicity. You have to pay to be featured in the street press. Does that mean that only the richest bands get all the press?’ That isn’t fair. It doesn’t matter about their music or how hard they work, but who’s got the biggest amount of money.”
Despite their longevity and fame/notoreity on a cult level around the world, as well as a staggering record of hits on the Australian indie charts throughout their career, the Hard Ons have rarely found themselves on the same side as the mainstream music industry. From the very beginning, the band made a conscious decision not to conform or fit in. Even the name they chose was a deliberate effort to be as inaccessible as possible. In their early days, even punk crowds were known to reject them because they had long hair and wore footy shorts on stage, instead of the way a punk band was supposed to look. There’s a delicious kind of irony about that.
“We specifically devised, designed and engineered this band to not fit inside the music industry,” Ray explains. “It kinda runs its own course. On our own, we’re fine. But within the confines of the industry, we’re quite uncomfortable. I’ll give you a classic example: we signed a deal with Festival Records in 1990. They used a little bit of money to publicise us, and they had the distribution network and stuff. One of our singles actually made the Top 20 in New South Wales [their version of “Let There be Rock”, with Henry Rollins on vocals]. There was a TV show on Saturday mornings in 1991 that used to play the Top 20 countdown in NSW. I think we were at #19 maybe, and they just skipped our song altogether and played some classic song from the 60s or 70s or something. At nine o’clock in the morning you can’t be playing a song by a band called the fucking Hard Ons!”
If he has any regrets about the way the Hard Ons have conducted themselves over the years, Ray Ahn certainly isn’t letting on. The band has always been keenly self-aware, doggedly playing to their set of rules with little to no thought about how they’re perceived. The bassist is mischieviously proud of the fact that they reap what they sow.
“None of us are complaining. We’re getting exactly what we expected. When you call your band the Hard Ons, you go around making fun of people, you mock other people, other bands, people in the music industy… we do that and this is exactly what we get! We deserve it and we’ve asked for it!”
The Hard Ons disbanded for a brief period in the early 90s as the guys moved on to other projects, only to get back together in 97 for a one-off tour. They reformed properly a short time later and have stayed together ever since, although original drummer Keish de Silva soon handed in his notice for Front End Loader/Regurgitator member Pete Kostic to replace him. Kostic himself departed last year, leaving Captain Cleanoff’s Murray Ruse to take over. A mere three line-up changes in a DYI- career spanning thirty years is enviable, and the Hard Ons have been part of the Australian musical landscape for so long it’s difficult to imagine what it would be like without them.
“Well my wife is pregnant and we’re gonna have a baby in March, so I’ll be getting a good taste of what life will be like without the Hard Ons,” Ray says as he thinks about the question. “Because I’ll have to stop touring for a while once the baby’s born because I have to be a good father and a good husband. It’s a strange question, what life is like without the Hard Ons, because since we reformed back in 1998… 99, it’s a band that’s existed without any thought about why we exist and why we do it.”
If it was any other way, it just wouldn’t be the Hard Ons.
The Hard Ons are touring this month:
30/11: Sandringham Hotel, Sydney NSW
1/12: Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle NSW
14/12: Northcote Social Club, Melbourne VIC
15/12: Enigma Bar, Adelaide SA