When I call Ray Ahn to arrange a story about his obsession with record collecting, he’s circumspect. “You know, there are a lot of other guys with much bigger collections than mine that you could talk to,” he tells me, before reflecting, “But they smell pretty bad. And they’re not bass players in bands”.
It’s not just Ahn’s 8000-odd haul of vinyl, lovingly collected over five decades, that he’s known for. As one of the founding members of Sydney punk/pop/hardcore band The Hard-Ons, he’s become a legend of Australian independent music. His band has shared the bill with everyone from Nirvana to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he’s collaborated with Henry Rollins and Dave Grohl, and, after having scored 17 consecutive No. 1 hits on the Australian independent charts in the 80s and 90s, The Hard-Ons released their thirteenth studio album with new frontman, You Am I’s Tim Rogers, last year. Ahn designs the band's album covers and posters, has had a collection of his art published, and was the inspiration for [Sydney punk band] Frenzal Rhomb’s festival banger, “Ray Ahn is my Spirit Animal”.
The front room of the house he shares with his wife and kids has been fitted with floor-to-ceiling shelves. His records, each one carefully stored in its own plastic sleeve, are arranged alphabetically, except for V, for “Various Artists”, which is arranged by genre. “There’s reggae here, and then soundtracks” – he pulls out a couple to show me. Footloose (“great song”), and Snow White (“I love Disney”). His fingers flick through the discs with practised speed. “Top 40 stuff, oh wait, that one should be in 60s rock” – the album is duly re-homed – “I’ll play this once every 30 years, but it’s there.”
The single-storey brick house is in western Sydney, not far from Punchbowl High School, where the band was formed in 1981 by a trio of Year 10 mates. The Hard-Ons reflected the area’s multiculturalism; Ahn’s family emigrated from South Korea in 1974 when he was nine, and original singer/drummer Keish de Silva was born in Sri Lanka. With Croatian parents, guitarist Peter “Blackie” Black is white.
From the start, the band had a clear identity: anti-elitism (they taught themselves to play their instruments), anti-mainstream (the band’s name initially made it hard for them to get gigs), anti-pretension (early songs include the singalong favourite “Everytime I Do a Fart”).
So far, so punk.
But in the early 80s the hardcore punk scene was heavy with skinheads, who brought their neo-Nazi-flavoured violent racism with them to gigs. You Am I drummer Russell Hopkinson recalls the first time he met Ahn in 1984. “I was up from Melbourne with my punk band [Vicious Circle] and we were playing this show at an infamous venue called the Bondi Tram … the headline band was called C.H.A.O.S which apparently stood for Cannabis, Hash and Overproof Spirits. Unbenownst to us their crowd was a mix of bikies and Nazi skinheads and they hated us because we played too fast and were from Melbourne. The opening act was the Hard-Ons who they also hated due to the fact that they were a multi-ethnic trio who also played too fast. Both bands ended up being barricaded into a room upstairs with a couple of six-packs whilst the bouncers and police cleared the room – the publican thought we were going to get murdered”.
Ahn’s memories of early gigs are no less bloody. “You know, getting a glass shattered over your head by skinheads, dragged off the stage by the ankle and beaten up. Just violence”. At their first-ever gig, the crowd started chanting “Channel O” – what multicultural broadcaster SBS was then known as – when the band took the stage. “If you're playing in a punk band, and you have different skin colour, then they're gonna let you know”.
It must have been a lot for a trio of schoolkids to take, but they kept going. “The three of us had this really just unshakeable self-belief that our songs were good”. More than that, playing gigs became a way for them to confront racism head-on. After one gig, “a guy came up to me and said, ‘you make me sick, you just really made me sick’. And I said, ‘why?’ And he goes, ‘because I saw you with that blonde girl last week’. And he actually said to me, ‘the reason we didn't jump in and bash you is because I like your music. Remember that.’” Rather than being scared off, this encounter, and the many others like it, spurred the band on.
“The music is that good, it overrides the hatred and bullshit”, Ahn says. “This is really powerful. This is the most powerful thing I've ever heard. This, to a certain degree, has overcome hate”.
This is an excerpt from issue 2 of Swill. Grab a copy of Swill today to read the whole thing!