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50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #49: The Necks

Dave Williams of Augie March discusses the resounding impact of the world-renowned Australian improvisational trio The Necks.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time: The Necks

Camille Walsh Photography*; Supplied

In December of 2020, Rolling Stone Australia released a special edition issue which looks at the 50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time, paying tribute to the best and most impactful artists in Australian music history. While it would have been easy for the editors and writers of the publication to profess their love of the listed artists, the decision was instead made for those who found themselves inspired by these world-renowned names to share their own testimonials of why these artists deserve to make the list.

In celebration of the issue’s release in December, we’re counting down the full 50 artists and their accompanying testimonials in this ongoing online feature. If you want to get your hands on an physical copy of the magazine, be sure to subscribe now to experience the double-length edition featuring some of Australia’s best and brightest discussing the finest names in local music.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #49: The Necks (by Dave Williams of Augie March)

I don’t care if this sounds hyperbolic but The Necks are one of the most important bands Australia has ever produced.

Their influence on musicians across the musical spectrum has been profound. Their approach to composition and live performance – gently unfurling a piece of improvised music over the course of an hour through incremental changes to each member’s part – has become a template for schooled and unschooled musicians alike when approaching solo or group improvisation. 

That they themselves are highly skilled musicians who continually make the trippy and complex, the esoteric and weird, accessible and somehow imbue it all with such raw emotion and pathos is further proof of their individual and collective artistry. 

I was turned onto them in the mid ’90s by a genius piano player named Ben Winkleman (thx Ben!) after sharing with him an idea I had of starting a band which only performed improvised music but was not strictly a ‘jazz’ band. He replied that there already existed such a band; they were a three piece based in Sydney made up of Chris Abrahams on grand piano, Lloyd Swanton on double bass, and Tony Buck on drum set, and that I should check them out when they were next in town. 

They blew my tiny little mind. 

The grand piano played like the keyboard was a typewriter; relentless repetitive notes a semitone apart blurring together; ecstatic cascading arpeggios; mind bending drum set counter rhythms; conventional and unconventional percussion soundscapes and textures; mysterious and funky double bass ostinato figures.

“They blew my tiny little mind.”

It was so unlike anything I had ever heard before; physical, abstract, cerebral…but deeply moving.

I instantly became a fan for life. 

As other members of Augie March became aware of The Necks, it was realised Chris Abrahams had played keyboards on two albums by Sydney band, Crow who had been tremendously influential on us in our early years. That definitely helped The Necks get onto the tour van playlist – a sacred but highly contested space for any touring band – and we all fell under the spell of this magical ensemble.

All these years later The Necks are still bobbing up on the touring van stereo. I’ve lost count the number of times we have chucked on Sex, Piano, Bass, Drums, or Hanging Gardens to accompany a post show night time drive, staring hard out into the blackness and gradually disappearing into the music.

They have informed the approach to so many jams we have had in rehearsal, soundchecks, gigs, or in the recording studio. But most importantly, they continually remind us what can be achieved through the uncompromising commitment to a singular artistic vision.