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Ken Stewart: The Urban Guerilla

Ken Stewart and I have shared an occasional friendship for twenty years. Very occasional, as it happens. We spent a bit of time together in the early 1980s, when we both played in (different) bands in Adelaide, and we were re-acquainted about three years ago when I purchased an Urban Guerillas CD in a second hand shop. An Internet search engine led me to Ken's email in-box, and since then we have corresponded freely, and played a few gigs together.

Ken is one of those people who possess an indefatigable spirit. The life of the minstrel is not usually an easy one, and most of us would have given up fighting the good fight years ago. It is refreshing to know someone who is constantly upbeat where his music is concerned. Ken always has something to say.

I recently had the opportunity of sitting down and talking with Ken about his musical journey.

Origin of the Species

Ken comes from a large family, one of seven brothers. He experienced a chaotic home life, which is to be fully expected when there are so many boys in one house. Grasping for attention, space and affection can be an exhausting task when one is faced with wall-to-wall siblings. Ken sought out music as a welcome distraction.

"To sing and relate to a song was my escape from the constant harassment of my 6 brothers. I was different." he says.

As the family grew up, Ken's attract ion to all things musical continued to develop. Many hours were passed listening to the radio, and pocket money was spent on records. The others kept their feet more firmly on the ground, dealing with issues of schooling, and ultimately responsibilities of working life.

"I was a red sheep in a family of self-made men", Ken says, referring to his leftist leanings.

Sometime in 1980 Ken put together the first incarnation of what would become the Urban Guerillas and by November of that same year they took the stage.

"The Urban Guerillas played their first gig with 7 songs at a party in Collinswood and were immediately encouraged to do more. At this stage we could hardly play but had many ideas on what we wanted to sing about."

After this encouraging start, the Guerillas managed to get themselves a spot at the Tivoli in early 1981.

The early Urban Guerillas'shows came courtesy of the Shreds (later known as the Screaming Believers), who invited Ken and the boys to share the Union Hotel as a venue. Audiences soon w armed to the blending of melodic power pop and lyrics dealing with social issues.

It was social consciousness that proved to be the driving force behind Ken and the Guerillas'music.

"Being spontaneously relevant was the most significant driving force behind the Urban Guerillas then, as it is now."

Ken remembers the shows at The Union as "incredible nights of social awareness and a passion for a better world all wrapped up into a night of maximum entertainment. It was like a stadium gig in the lounge-room. It was huge but intimate."

After sharing gigs with The Shreds at the Union Hotel, the three-piece Guerillas looked for a residency of their own, and before too long the Cremorne Hotel was adopted. New life was breathed into the venue. The quiet suburban pub became a vibrant centre of activity on Friday and Saturday nights, and the Guerillas put on some great shows, with a little help from their friends.

advert from street mag
Aurora Hotel Beer Garden, 23 December 1981 "Bands who helped us get the Cremorne going and kept it cooking were the Discount Kings, The Vents, TV Dinners, Action Men, Deviants, The Kingbees, the Cores, Fools Apart, Chequers, Del Webb Explosion and, of course, our good mates the Screaming Believers."

The gigs, and the Urban Guerillas, were becoming increasingly popular.

"Promoters and agents wanted to use us because of our popularity but agonised over our lack of musical skill. It was never going to hold us back because we were always working on it and although we knew our limitations we always pushed the envelope when we played live. It was, and still is all about entertainment and the musicianship was always a learned skill that would naturally come."

The Guerillas played over 150 gigs in a two-year period. Live shows were consistently well attended, yet Adelaide was not providing the rewards and recognition that the band felt was warranted.

There was a perpetual tension between the Urban Guerillas and the rest of the world.

"Our position in the Adelaide scene was unique in that we were like a pop/mod band in musical structure, melody and energy but more like a punk band in attitude. We were supposedly too straight for the punks and too punk for the straights."

There were also issues about the artistic integrity of the band. Ken has completely refused to sell out, to go "lame for fame".

Ken remembers: "T he Urban Guerillas were full of attitude and self-confidence about their relevance but were never quite accepted into the clique by other bands and certainly by promoters. I guess there was a bit of professional jealousy of how easy the Guerillas related to an audience and we spent a lot of time learning new songs and practicing rather than going to all the parties, although I do remember going to quite a few."

"We were never fully accepted or understood by the mainstream music industry in Adelaide and only tolerated because of our popularity and ability to put bums on seats. The most shattering part though was that I didn't believe we were totally accepted by the independent scene in Adelaide either. We were a rather ordinary, working class band eating into the audience of the intellectual elite and like a magician who gives away the secrets of others, we were not trusted."

Ken adds that it could simply have been a case of people misunderstanding what the band was about, or an inability to pigeonhole them. Whatever the reason, Ken and the Guerillas were just about done with Adelaide.

poster from street mag

Sydney Beckons

Looking for a fresh challenge, the band to decided to try their luck interstate. But where to go?

"Melbourne was considered the music industry headquarters and probably still is but Sydney had the taster of better weather and a more playful, less stringent approach to music from what we could gather. We thought about the bands that came from Melbourne like the Models and Pseudo Echo compared to the bands that came from Sydney like Mental as Anything and Midnight Oil."

The band chose Sydney over Melbourne, and buoyed by their Adelaide success, set off on a trip that they knew would end in fame and fortune.

Terry Burgan, 1981

"The decision was based on various circumstances that occurred separately to all three of us in our private lives that made the prospect feasible. The Units who were living in Sydney offered us to take over their flat in Bondi and we said yeah."

And success beckoned?

"Judging by the rate of success of the band in its first two years in Adelaide, we anticipated that after a year or so in Sydney we would be picked up by somebody and go overseas."

Things started well in Sydney, audiences were getting into the Urban Guerillas’ high energy sound. Momentum was building, even the press were taking note. RAM Magazine reported "The Urban Guerillas perform with a forceful blend of aggression and calculation which rarely allows the energy level to sag. A pop band with a punk spirit"

Ken adds "Sydney’s largest daily paper, the Sydney Morning Herald, came to what turned out to be our last gig in the original line up to do a feature on us as the next big thing."

As with so many rock and roll tales, the "next big thing" turned out to be somewhere in another part of town. Terry Burgan, the Guerillas bass player, had been "wooed by the industry and left to play in a band that could get Angels supports in Melbourne but never went any further…" The big gig didn’t raise the roof as planned.

Ken was left to pick up the pieces, find a new bass player, and wonder what might have been.

The Journey

In the decade that followed, The Urban Guerillas went through numerous line-up changes, and had many ebbs and flows in terms of live appear ances and record/CD releases. But they have endured, still based in Sydney, and the single constant has been Ken Stewart. He has been captain of the good ship UG from the outset, and it is his songs, his guitar, and his vocals that define the band. There have been a number of CD releases, gigs and tours, and many other activities. You would expect that a career now into its third decade would offer some high spots. Ken certainly has his:

"Stand out moments that I can recall immediately are doing the Dave Warner support at the Arkaba Hotel, getting off stage and running to the Union Hotel to do it all again."

I have a vision of Ken, sweating, guitar slung over his shoulder, amplifier strapped to his back, sprinting down Greenhill Road in an effort to make it to the Union gig on time (actually they went in a car).

Other highlights?

"Playing to 200 people crushed up to our space on the floor at the Cremorne was absolutely amazing and having the microphone bumped into your mouth, chipping teeth was just a part of it. 

Ken Stewart at the Folk Centre, 2000

The small hotels didn't have stages just a place to set up and play and in many ways I prefer that. With the 'Parks and Wildlife'and the 'Storm the Beaches' tours I put together I was able to perform with the Urban Guerillas in many of the rotundas where my grandfather played trumpet in the Municipal Tramways band before I was even born. I knew this pleased my mother, and it sure pleased me.""Having the 'over the bar' record at the Sandringham Hotel in 1987 and touring Melbourne with the Saints. Keeping the Urban Guerillas going with enthusiastic young musicians dropping in and out over a twenty-year period has always made me feel so humble and grateful that so many people share my dream. Getting nominated for the 1993 APRA Children's Song of the Year for my song Funky Zoo. Writing the music and storyline to a complete children's musical and then putting together a cast of nine, and directing and performing in the play for the Festival of Sydney 1993. Going back to Adelaide last year and playing in You rs Truly and reconnecting with some of the Adelaide Guerillas contingent in solo gigs."

"There have been so many high points and memories; from having Mental as Anything support the Guerillas in the Rocks in Sydney at the launch of our second single 'She's Probably' in 1983, to playing live in the studio at triple j in 1986, playing on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour to save workers jobs. Being asked by Michael Weiley backstage at a Midnight Oil gig at the Entertainment Centre to replace Craig Bloxom in Spy vs Spy for a 12-month tour in South America in 1995. Playing on the 'Hungry Mile' to 12,000 people to celebrate the May Day that the MUA beat Patrick's and on the back of truck out front of John Howard's office to 5,000 building workers seeking justice."

Not all lasting memories are entirely triumphant:

"Throwing up before going on stage at a packed soccer club in Whyalla." Please, do go on...

John Martin, 1981 "Playing an Undertones song at Unley High School end-of-year social. The song was 'My Perfect Cousin'. There must have been nearly a thousand kids jumping up and down on the wooden gymnasium floor in time with the song as we played. The song climaxed with an abrupt off-time ending, leaving all these bodies suspended in mid air in silence. They all hit the floor at th e same time with an almighty resonant crash. I'll always remember that."

"The recording session we've just finished. Getting two encores from 150 people a few months ago at the Britannia Hotel, our current residency in Sydney. Playing in Melbourne at the S11 and at the M1 in Sydney."

"My musical journey and the journey of my life have been intertwined for over twenty years and that has brought me great satisfaction and many achievements on a personal level and with other band members and with audiences. Too many to remember... I 'll save the detail for my memoirs."And what about the downside of the music business? "Rock & Roll Babylon" and all that...

"I only regret that I haven't reaped a sustainable income wholly from my music and ideas as yet." I suspect that Ken is a member of quite a large club, in that respect...

"I am obviously working on it but it doesn't quite make sense that in our economic system you are either poor or fabulously wealthy. A band, an artist, an athlete are either worth nothing or everything . I have no regrets about maintaining my dignity in the music industry and thus having the sum worth of nothing because my integrity is not for sale but I can still sing the truth. What Australia needs is a 'music' industry to assist in the manufacture and distribution of music. That space is currently taken up by a fashion industry."

Under the Influence

As a songwriter, musician and human being, Ken is influenced by a wide variety of things, such his own socio-economic background ("We were a lower working class family of which I was proud but which must have been an embarrassment to some of my brothers"), his political orientation, as well as environmental issues.

"I was naive and wanted peace and harmony and a world where no one was sick or hungry and where civilisations would exist with the quest for knowledge and participation in all forms of art as their main initiatives. I actually haven't moved from this perspective and I write songs to try and expose those who plot against this dream. You see I don't believe there are bad people. There are just people who are driven to do bad things. More people are forced to do more bad things to survive when the community takes second place to an economy."

He is also influenced by many musicians and songwriters. During the course of the interview, he speaks of The Beatles, Dylan, Paul Weller, Leadbelly, John Lennon, Elvis Costello, Pete Townshend, Ronnie Lane, Billy Bragg, Sex Pistols, Police, U2, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Who, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Undertones , Midnight Oil, The Jam, Mark Seymour and AC/DC. I might add that this list is not exhaustive. "Anyone who has touched my heart with their song has left a permanent mark on me"

Just a Lifetime

So after all this time, I imagine that Ken might be slowing down, taking the chance to put his feet up and slip in to a cardigan when no-one is looking. Not so.

"We have 6 songs under construction and we are looking at setting up another residency in another suburb while we negotiate distribution for a new single and a mini album."

"We are involved with the S11 anti-corporate take-over of our country and against the nuclear reactor and mining of uranium and of course work toward reconciliation with our koori brothers and sisters. We are a busy band."

Urban Guerillas 2001: Ken Stewart, Anthony Waugh, Michael Elsley

"I have many individual projects like animated short stories, radio plays and musicals, all in various stages of development but all that is on hold while we throw everything at the Urban Guerillas in a bid to push through the 'industry walls' to expand our audience base to a financially self sustainable level. This in itself encompasses many projects like videos, and maybe some animated clips. We also want to start touring the band regularly."

Obviously, Ken still gets a great deal out of the Urban Guerillas, and is still planning to unleash the band on an unsuspecting worldwide audience. I begin to wonder what the 'Glorious Five Year Plan' looks like. I ask Ken where he'll be in five years time.

"Hopefully I'm still in the mirror when I look, although a little more worse for wear I suspect. It is my hope to be living off my music in five years' time and I could probably achieve it if I don't sustain an injury or fall into poor health. I am fit and fired up right now to make a super human effort to turn the Urban Guerillas into a household name that is as potent as Midnight Oil if a little more comical. I one day hope to complete the many ideas for plays and musicals that I have. I also want to see the Funky Zoo presented as a movie like Toy Story. I have so many musical projects outside the Urban Guerillas but at present I am enjoying playing live and having too much fun being a problematic ratbag."

As the sun sets, and the last Granita is consumed, I ask Ken what keeps him going.

"A belief in what I do is right and is good. The Urban Guerillas are still a focal point for community change. The young guys are teaching me new ways and I'm teaching them new ways. The family of people who have put the guernsey on for the Urban Guerillas is what keeps me writing songs. I am motivated to speak out in song against those things that are bad and in celebration of the love that keeps us all together making the struggle worthwhile. The overwhelming view of anyone who has seen the Urban Guerillas play is that they are good songs and that we are a tight outfit."

"I do hope one day that my protest songs will become dated. There is nothing to suggest that an anti nuclear song that I can sing about Maralinga will ever become irrelevant. All of my songs have sadly maintained their relevance. I 'll keep singing them until things change. I similarly hope that my love songs might become classics because I hope we stay in touch with our basic emotions and nurture the good that is in us all."

The Sunday Telegraph once wrote of the Urban Guerillas "It takes persistence to succeed in Rock and Roll and the Urban Guerillas have it!" I get the feeling that Ken will be going strong for years yet, long after I have thrown in the towel. Good thing too .

© Copyright David Robinson, 2001

Not to be reproduced without the permission of the author