2002: The Vines, Jet and the year that rock’n’roll promised to change the world

Two decades on, we look back on the short-lived Aussie invasion spearheaded by the Vines and Jet

Twenty years ago Australian guitar music exploded on the world stage in a way that hadn’t been seen since the arrival of INXS almost two decades earlier.

It was exciting. It was fresh. And it was one of the last shining moments that guitar-based rock’n’roll was a defining part of mainstream popular culture – a reminder that sometimes what looks like a thrilling new dawn is actually a blazing sunset.

At the time I was the music editor for a now-defunct street press magazine and can still remember how invigorating it felt. It all started in 2002 with two releases from bands who were the epitome of inner-city cool, despite only having played a handful of gigs each: The Vines from Sydney, whose single ‘Get Free’ was two minutes of glorious string-bending post-grunge swagger, and Melbourne’s Jet, whose ‘Dirty Sweet’ EP became the must-have record of the season as the tiny local independent label Rubber Records found demand wildly outstripped their supply. I should know: I tried and tried to get a copy, through fair means and foul, and failed miserably.

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The timing of both bands was impeccable, as there was something of a new millennium global renaissance happening for bratty young (almost exclusively) men with guitars and photogenic cheekbones.

Nic Cester of Jet
Nic Cester of Jet playing Sydney in 2007. Credit: John Stanton/WireImage

The White Stripes had started the ball rolling in 2001 with the unexpected breakthrough of ‘White Blood Cells’ and Swedish quintet The Hives were already declaring themselves ‘Your New Favourite Band’. By the time the Vines and Jet appeared New York ultra-hipsters The Strokes had completely changed the game with ‘Is This It?’.

And so the stage was set for the Vines and Jet’s world domination. It was the NME who first twigged to the Vines, first making their debut single ‘Factory’ Single of the Week in October 2001 and then doing the same with their proper debut ‘Highly Evolved’ the following year, making them stars in the UK at a time when the band were still only known in their home country within a 500 metre radius of the Annandale Hotel.

In October of 2002, the Vines were on the cover of Rolling Stone in the US (the blaring headline: “Rock is back!”) and midway through an astonishing run of five NME covers in the UK. Their 2002 debut album ‘Highly Evolved’ got to #11 on the US charts and reportedly sold 1.5million copies worldwide (that’s just under half the entire number of CDs sold in Australia in 2020).

Jet’s numbers are even more astonishing. After ‘Dirty Sweet’ kicked the door open they sold 4million copies of their debut album ‘Get Born’ worldwide – 1.7million in the US alone – and ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ was downloaded 1.3million times after becoming the jingle for Apple’s fancy new device, the iPod.

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They toured with the Rolling Stones, they swept the 2004 ARIA awards (picking up Album of the Year, Best Group, Best Rock Album, Single of the Year and more) and they seemed destined to take up the mantle left by Oasis as rock classicists loved by young people and also their dads.

And for a moment there, they seemed to bring a whole movement with them. The Living End hit the road with The Vines and Jet in 2004 on what was billed the Aussie Invasion Tour of the US. Other older bands like You Am I and Dallas Crane found themselves unexpectedly current, while newcomer Wolfmother’s immediate, massive success seemed to herald an entire new generation of guitar-slinging, Sabbath-loving rock’n’rollers.

But history now shows that this was the beginning of the end of the rocknaissance – especially in Australia where new waves of nimble artists were starting to emerge. Between 2004 and 2006 hip-hop had broken through in a huge way thanks in large part to the success of Hilltop Hoods and The Herd. Introspective singer-songwriters like Josh Pyke, Sarah Blasko, Clare Bowditch and Darren Hanlon were becoming triple j darlings, as were hippified types like John Butler, Xavier Rudd and Angus & Julia Stone.

EDM was starting to bite too, via the Presets, Pnau and Bagraiders. Guitar music was still there, but now those kids were more interested in drop-tuned post-metallers like Cog, Karnivool and the Butterfly Effect, bands who made Jet and the Vines sound positively lightweight in comparison.

In the face of this extraordinary burst of musical fertility, both bands followed up their multi-platinum debuts with efforts that sounded dated when they landed, followed by sharply diminishing returns.

The Vines’ ‘Winning Days’ was a critical and commercial disappointment and the band all but ended their career two months later in May 2004 during a disastrous show at the Annandale Hotel for radio station Triple M, during which Nicholls slammed the station, mocked the audience and so incensed bassist Patrick Matthews that he walked off stage, climbed into a cab, and never came back. (In a Sydney courtroom later that year for assault charges linked to that gig, Nicholls revealed that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. The charges were ultimately dismissed on condition that Nicholls seek and continue treatment.) Five albums followed, the most recent in 2018, but the Vines never quite got that groove back.

Jet’s second album ‘Shine On’ appeared in 2006 and sold a fraction of ‘Get Born’’s millions, not helped by the viral hit that was Pitchfork’s notorious 0.0 review which consisted entirely of a video of a chimpanzee pissing in its own mouth. By the time 2009’s little-loved ‘Shaka Rock’ limped out the band were running on fumes, finally calling it a day in 2012 before reuniting four years later for the odd payday on the nostalgia circuit.

The Vines 2008
The Vines pose backstage in the Awards Room at the MTV Australia Awards 2008. Credit: Chris Ivin/WireImage

It wasn’t that the bands had changed all that much, but musical fashion certainly had. Rap crews, Idol winners, bedroom remixers and wispy-voiced kids with ukuleles? Commercial and often critical darlings. Sixties-influenced four-piece bands with loud guitars and interesting haircuts? Old news.

That’s not to say such groups stopped existing. Rock’s not dead – it’s just never again become the dominating force in (counter)culture that it once was.

At least… not yet. Maybe there’s another guitar renaissance lurking around the corner, just waiting for a time when sweaty gigs can return.

With the likes of Amyl and the Sniffers, Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers and the Buoys turning new generations on to the sheer joy of howling into a mic over big distorted guitars, it seems likely that in some suburban Australian garage there are some bratty kids with skinny jeans and Superfuzz pedals, getting ready to change the world again.

And you know what? Listening back to those early Vines and Jet records, stripped of the fashion and expectations of the time, they still fucking kick.

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