In the ’90s, before the advent of online ticket sales, teenagers would camp outside box offices across the country. Heads of unwashed hair, often dyed pink or green, would emerge from tents to see if the queue had moved up. You would hear: “Yeah, I know, Kurt’s dead. But Hole has a new album.” And another voice would chime in: “The first single is called ‘Miss World’. It’s about Courtney growing up with tough love. Or something like that.”
The new exhibition Unpopular, at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, captures this atmosphere of alternative music in ’90s Australia. It’s the brainchild of notorious music mogul Steve Pavlovic – also known simply as Pav – who worked with the designer Alice Babidge to feature memorabilia from his personal collection, opened for the very first time. These include original tour posters, band photographs, fanzines, setlists, and some hilarious letters written by musicians and punters.
Watch rare footage of Nirvana’s iconic gig at The Phoenician Club, in Sydney, and ogle Kurt’s 1959 Martin D-18E acoustic guitar, immortalised in the band’s performance at MTV Unplugged. Hear a specially commissioned soundtrack by Warren Ellis of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and The Dirty Three, and listen to raw interviews with members of Helmet, Hole, Fugazi, Beastie Boys, Bikini Kill, The Lemonheads and Sonic Youth.
“It’s taken years to come together,” Pavlovic tells NME. “I had to go through my whole archive. There’s so much stuff. I’ve got so many stories from that time. When people walk through they’ll see how crazy and exciting it all was.”
He relays one such story: “I was talking to Dave Grohl the other day and we were laughing about the time I took him and Kurt and Krist to a pub for Thai food. There was a Black Sabbath cover band playing and they were really bad. People were booing them to stop. And the singer said, ‘Leave us alone. It’s not like we’re Nirvana.’ They had no idea the actual band was in the audience.” There was a dark side, too. “Kurt was doing heroin and one time I walked into a room and he had a needle sticking out of his arm. He said, ‘Catch me if I fall’. It was hard seeing him like that because I was such a fan of the music.”
After cutting his teeth booking local bands in the mid ’80s, Pavlovic established the company Golden Sounds and successfully toured Fugazi, Mudhoney, My Bloody Valentine and Nirvana. He was no corporate suit, and the musicians trusted him. For a time, he worked with Ken West and Vivian Lees from the Big Day Out, but conflict arose over finances and relations soured. Battle lines were established and Pavlovic decided to go his own way.
“I was a mad fan of these bands. Even though I toured them and worked in promotion, the music always came first”
Enter Summersault, an ambitious festival headlined by the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth, which also featured local bands of the moment: Gerling, Bodyjar, Crow, Sourpuss and slow-core pioneers Blue Tile Lounge. In the Summersault magazine, sold in newsagents for $3.50 in the lead up to the festival, Pavlovic quoted William Blake: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” He wanted to stick it to his Big Day Out rivals, which he referred to, collectively, as “Lord Sleaze.”
Despite this hubris, the festival was only a one-off.
Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill remembered the Summersault experience in 2015: “We’d never been on a big festival tour at all. We were, like, living large – we were so excited because we’d always stayed on people’s floors. We’d never had that kind of treatment, and Steve made sure that all of the bands – whether you’d played by the port-a-pottie or by the dumpsters, or on the mainstage – got treated the same. We all had nice hotels, that’s why he lost so much money.”
For the punter, oblivious of spending behind the scenes, Summersault was a rich assault on the senses. Moving between two stages, there was the cut-loose garage punk of Kim Deal’s The Amps, Beck’s mopish ‘One Foot In The Grave’ material, Pavement’s beautifully weird riffs from the jokey ‘Wowee Zowee’ and the blistering earworms of Rancid, who played so loud that half a dozen people at the Gold Coast event fainted. Beyond the music, pro skaters rode a custom-built half pipe and a tent featured clothes from the fashion label X-Large, co-founded by Mike D and Kim Gordon.
One highlight of the festival was Sonic Youth’s 26-minute rendition of ‘The Diamond Sea.’ With the song’s dreamy ebb and glitch, a lull descended over the crowd. After a day of rock, it was time to breathe. When Thurston Moore hit the line “All the little kids are dressed in dreams,” there was a wild cheer for a band at the height of their powers.
Unpopular documents the thrill of Summersault with remastered 16mm film. Pavlovic worked with the multidisciplinary artist Julian Klincewicz to find the right edit and tone. “I didn’t want it to be just concert footage,” he says. “That would be too obvious. I wanted it to be more of an art piece. Something special.” The result is akin to Fugazi’s video portrait, Instrument, from 1999, with its collage-like structure and close-up portraits of fans.
Numerous photographs that appear in the exhibition were taken by Sophie Howarth. Displayed on large light boxes, they act as a powerful time machine. Her eye takes you there, a window into the music and spirit of the time. “Working as a photographer in the music industry took off when I was at art school in 1991,” says Howarth. “The best way to put it is that ‘it just took me.’ I began photographing musicians playing live and promotional band shoots, in the recording studio and on the road.” She dated Pavlovic for a couple of years and recalls his love of music. “At his home, there was stacks and stacks of vinyl, floor to ceiling shelves.”
No expense has been spared for Unpopular. Pub carpet covers the floor and each item is curated with meticulous attention to detail. The archive has been a life’s work. What has Pavlovic learned after decades in the hot seat of the music industry (in more ways than one)?
“I can’t stand noise now,” he says, holding up a blurry photograph of Adam Horovitz from the Beastie Boys. “Too many years in clubs. But more than anything, I was a mad fan of these bands. Even though I toured them and worked in promotion, the music always came first. It outlives everything.”
Unpopular is open at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney till June 4, 2023. Entry is free