The Living End
Chris Cheney – circa 2004
“Well we don’t need no one / To tell us what to do” – ‘Prisoner Of Society’ (Chris Cheney)
On 22 September 2001 Chris Cheney, vocalist, guitarist and prime songwriter for Australian band The Living End, is driving along the Great Ocean Road in the State of Victoria. At his side is his girlfriend, Emma Hameister. They are on their way to visit a member of fellow Australian band Bodyjar. A speeding car veers onto their side of the road and Chris and Emma’s vehicle ends up in a ditch. Emma has only minor injuries, but Chris, who was driving, is worse off. His right leg is crushed. In hospital, the damaged limb is reset with a rod and three pins. Chris Cheney is confined to bed and then, after months of physical therapy and using a cane for support for six months, the leader of The Living End is back on his feet and in business again. It was a scary period for Chris and the band but is also a characteristic show of dogged determination.
Christopher John Cheney (pronounced ‘chee-knee’) is born on 2 January 1975. His father, Noel, is a used car salesman. His mother is a secretary. Chris Cheney grows up in Wheeler’s Hill, an outer eastern suburb of Melbourne, the capital city of the State of Victoria. He begins playing guitar at 6. At the time, Chris is a student at Jells Park Primary School. His older sister attends Wheeler’s Hill Secondary College. One of her school friends also has a younger brother who is into music. It is the girls who bring together their younger siblings and soon the whole families are socialising with each other. Chris Cheney’s new little friend is Scott Owen. They meet in 1986.
Scott Owen (born 14 February 1975) is the son of the local grocery store owner. From his early teens, Scott plays the family’s baby grand piano, an instrument bought by his uncle after a windfall at the horse races. “We had a couple of jams,” Chris Cheney claims, ”playing what little I knew – maybe ‘Wild Thing’ [the 1966 hit by British group The Troggs].” Scott Owen is, at this point, a fan of British ska bands like The Specials and Madness. His new friend changes his direction. Chris Cheney gives him a copy of The Stray Cats’ ‘Rant And Rave’ (1983). Scott Owen recalls, “I said ‘This is the best!’” He switches from piano to playing an upright bass in imitation of Lee Rocker of The Stray Cats.
The Stray Cats (1980 – 1984) are an American rockabilly trio. Since the heyday of rockabilly (a mix of rock ‘n’ roll and hillbilly music) is in the late 1950s, these latter day revivalists threw in a dose of mid-1970s British punk rock as well. Chris Cheney and Scott Owen absorb the influence of not only The Stray Cats, but that trio’s source material as well: 1950s rockabilly acts like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran and 1970s punk bands such as The Clash and The Jam. To this brew, the boys add the pop melodicism of The Beatles and the hard rock of AC/DC and Iggy Pop And The Stooges. Another formative influence is Australian band The Sharp (1988 – 1996) who, to bring things full circle, are a trio with an upright bass player like The Stray Cats.
Chris Cheney and Scott Owen follow their elder sisters to become students at Wheelers Hill Secondary College. “I did art at school and everything,” notes Chris Cheney. In 1990, Chris and Scott form a group called The Runaway Boys (named after The Stray Cats first hit single). They begin writing songs. “Me and Scott had a muck around tune called ‘Little Girl’ or something,” Chris vaguely remembers. Still, at this time, they are basically just doing cover versions of songs they like. The Runaway Boys work with ‘a succession of drummers.’ Chris Cheney notes, “The first two guys, Shane and Grant, were at high school with us and they were never really into 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. We were probably a bit pushy at that point. Grant was happy to play along, but then when high school finished he was ready to move on and go to university.” Scott and Chris pick up some extra money stacking shelves at the Owens family grocery store while nursing their musical ambitions. “We’d always be out playing gigs and getting smashed,” Chris states, ”and Scott’s Dad would come in at six o’clock or something ridiculous like that and go, ’You’ve got sixty minutes, the clock is ticking.’ We’d stack the shelves all day feeling hungover and seedy.”
By 1994 The Runaway Boys have changed their name to The Living End, a title derived from a reference in the early rock ‘n’ roll film ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (1956). Between 1994 and 1995 Chris Cheney studies jazz at the Box Hill Institute of TAFE (Technical And Further Education, a less formal venue for higher education). He also has a brief stint as a child care worker. Alex Sarris plays drums with the group for several months, but doesn’t prove suitable. Joe Piripitzi takes over as drummer in 1994. A gig as the support act for visiting U.S. latter day punk band Green Day on their Australian tour is a crucial stepping stone.
The first EP by The Living End, ‘Hellbound’, is released in 1995. It contains “the first real song we wrote,” as Chris Cheney puts it, a track called ‘So Lonely’. Also present is the impressive ‘Strange’.
A second EP, ‘It’s For Your Own Good’, follows in 1996. The romping rhythm of ‘From Here On In’ from this set gains the band airplay on Australia’s alternative music youth radio network, Triple J. The EP is produced by Lindsay Gravina.
Shortly after this release, Joey Piripitzi is fired and Travis Demsey takes over on drums. Another crucial change is that Rae Harvey assumes the role of manager for the group.
Most of the songs recorded by The Living End are written and sung by Chris Cheney. The odd song here and there is written by Scott Owen who otherwise provides backing vocals. Chris Cheney’s voice is probably closer to Joe Strummer of The Clash than any of his other influences, but Cheney’s vocals are smoother and less hoarse. A lot rests on Cheney’s shoulders. As a three-piece, The Living End have a limited instrumental palette upon which to draw, so variations in tone are usually dependent on Cheney’s inventiveness as a guitarist. His favoured model of instrument is a bulky, white Gretsch guitar. Chris Cheney’s greatest weapon – in fact, the band’s greatest strength – is his ability as a songwriter to find a catchy hook for a song. Whether it’s a seemingly previously undiscovered classic riff, an undeniable sing-along chorus, or just a musical progression that seeps into your brain by stealth, the man is a human hook factory. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Chris Cheney is also a keen rock music historian with an encyclopedic knowledge and an instinctive understanding of what makes this form of music work.
The big break for The Living End comes in 1998 with the double A side single ‘Prisoner Of Society’ (AUS no. 4, UK no. 179) backed with ‘Second Solution’. ‘Prisoner Of Society’ is their greatest song. “’Prisoner Of Society’ came from such a great place,” Chris Cheney recalls, “where you’re not thinking about potential success or whether people are gonna relate to it.” In an angry scream, Cheney proclaims in the song’s lyrics “I’m a brat – and I know everything / And I talk back – ‘Cos I’m not listening / To anything you say…” The howl of adolescent angst is driven home with a slap of the bass and propulsive rhythm, climaxing in a chanted chorus that leaves crowds exhausted. ‘Second Solution’ is almost as good. It’s a prison drama that negotiates rhythmic changes from reggae to rockabilly: “And what I wanna know / Is will I get death row / Or is there a second solution?”
The debut album, ‘The Living End’ (1998) (AUS no. 1), is co-produced by Lindsay Gravina and The Living End and is released on Modular Records. This is the group’s best album. It distils their finest traits into short, sharp, well-constructed compositions. As well as the aforementioned ‘Prisoner Of Society’ and ‘Second Solution’, the disc is home to a number of other notable pieces. ‘West End Riot’ is heralded by police siren guitars. The song is a bit like an antipodean version of The Jam’s ‘Eton Rifles’ is so far as it is another chronicle of urban class warfare: “We’ll be here next Saturday / With our guns and our heads held high / So listen up boys, you’d better not cry this time.” The song is delivered with punkish fury. ‘All Torn Down’ (AUS no. 12) trades in a different sort of social concern since it looks at rampant, uncontrolled urban renewal: “No time to let the concrete set before it’s broken up again / Don’t care if it’s historic – don’t really care at all.” From a delicate opening, ‘All Torn Down’ builds through choked reggae up to a powerful punch. ‘Save The Day’ (AUS no. 22) comes across as a rambunctious cartoon theme. ‘Bloody Mary’ is a showcase for some of Chris Cheney’s best guitar-playing while Scott Owen’s composition, ‘I Want A Day’, stands tall amidst impressive company. ‘The Living End’ is ‘one of the best, most realised debuts ever by an Australian band.’
Nick Launay produces the ambitious follow-up album, ‘Roll On’ (2000) (AUS no. 8), their first album on EMI Records. The title track, ‘Roll On’ (AUS no. 15, UK no. 148), is a proud, defiant slab of rabble-rousing: “The shipyards are deserted on the docks of Melbourne town / The wharfies standing strong [‘wharfies’ is an Australian term for stevedores, wharf-workers] / They gathered ‘round to see what the unions had to say / There’s too much work and not enough pay.” The hard-charging ‘Pictures In The Mirror’ (AUS no. 18) shows someone “Caught by social evil / Wasn’t streetwise after all.” Shards of guitar notes stick like barbs in ‘Dirty Man’ and the arrangement negotiates sudden brakes and turns while crying “Just got married and divorced in the one day / And it’s not my fault.”
If ‘Roll On’ is less successful than the group’s debut album, it can be partially attributed to Chris Cheney’s car accident on 22 September 2001 which sidelines the band during promotion for the album. Cheney’s recovery is not the only impediment to their momentum. In early 2002, drummer Travis Demsey decides to quit. “You’ve got to pat him on the back for realising, ‘That’s for you, not for me’,“ Scott Owen claims. Andy Strachan (born 20 August 1974) is recruited as the band’s new drummer. He proves the longest-lasting of the group’s drummers, delivering the steady line-up of Chris Cheney (vocals, guitar), Scott Owen (bass, backing vocals) and Andy Strachan (drums).
To work in Andy Strachan and road test some new material, The Living End play some gigs under the name of The Longnecks to avoid the usual scrutiny. The name, The Longnecks, is a reference to a type of beer bottle. The band goes on to use the alias again in later years for similar low key shows. Although The Longnecks is their most common fake billing, The Living End also play gigs under such false names as Glen Waverley & The Mentones [two Melbourne suburbs]; The Dovetones; Roller Toasters; Doncaster & The Dandenongs [more Victorian place names]; Redwings; and The Safety Matches.
Andy Strachan debuts on ‘Modern Artillery’ (2003) (AUS no. 3). For the first time, the band records outside Australia, journeying to Los Angeles, California, in the U.S.A., to work with producer Mark Trombino. ‘Tabloid Magazines’ (AUS no. 56) takes a shot at the media: “Don’t believe in all you read / You can’t trust a tabloid magazine.” The guitar chords are cloaked in reverb for this track. From the big chorus, ‘Tabloid Magazine’ steps back for the (comparatively) quieter verses. The same contrast is used again on the bruising ‘One Said To The Other’ (AUS no. 19). ‘Who’s Gonna Save Us’ (AUS no. 37) is inspired by Chris Cheney observing Australia’s political parties jockeying for position. “Step aside, make way for the new leader,” he urges before moving on to another pile-driver chorus. ‘Jimmy’ is a personal favourite for Cheney. “I like the chord progression, the way it flows, and I like the emotion in it.” Scott Owen’s ‘What Would You Do?’ and the group composition ‘Short Notice’ are both muscular.
The compilation album ‘From Here On In – The Singles 1997 – 2004’ (2004) (AUS no. 10) includes two new songs: ‘I Can’t Give You What I Haven’t Got’ and ‘Bringing It All Back Home’. The former is reputedly born from frustration with the band’s U.S. record company, but it’s harsh, stammering rock and reggae combo seems to adopt a wider view than that. It climaxes with Chris Cheney urging “Take the car, the house, the dog, the boat, the whole f***in’ lot / But I can’t give you what I haven’t got.”
In 2005 Chris Cheney marries his long-time girlfriend, Emma. The couple have two daughters: Charlie Bella (born 2006) and Scarlett Lyric (born 2008).
‘State Of Emergency’ (2006) (AUS no. 1), released in February, is recorded in Australia and reunites The Living End with Nick Launay, producer of the ‘Roll On’ album. Although The Living End have never been averse to a fast-paced song, this album is perhaps their most adrenalised set, bursting with pell-mell performances. The first single is ‘What’s On Your Radio?’ (AUS no. 9), an urgent message that slams across the ears: “You’ve got your problems / And I’ve got mine / Lost transmission inside your mind.” ‘Long Live The Weekend’ (AUS no. 23) is a frothing ode to Saturdays and Sundays, replete with razored guitar-strokes. ‘State Of Emergency’, the title track, lives up to its name with its frantic execution. Amongst the more varied tones, ‘Wake Up’ (AUS no. 5) employs an ominous, almost Middle Eastern guitar figure, while ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ (AUS no. 29) is a poignant suburban portrait of marital breakdown.
After touring to promote ‘State Of Emergency’, Chris Cheney has a crisis of confidence. “I was completely burnt out,” he admits. He takes up yoga, tries his hand at painting again for the first time since his school days and generally just does anything other than play rock music. Cheney actually quits The Living End but, wisely, this is kept quiet until later because it is expected he will retract the resignation after he gets some space in his life. This proves to be an accurate prediction and The Living End regroup.
The next album by The Living End is ‘White Noise’ (2008) (AUS 2). This is their first release on the Dew Process label. The band again works in the U.S.A. recording this album in New Jersey with John Agnello co-producing with the band. “The idea for this record,” Chris Cheney explains, “was to capture the energy we have on stage.” ‘White Noise’ (AUS no. 12) b/w ‘How Do We Know’ is the double A side single. There is quite a contrast between the two songs. ‘White Noise’ is one of The Living End’s lighter, more commercial songs. It’s a defiant, high-volume, strum-along. If it suggests a softening in the band’s approach, ‘How Do We Know’ corrects the impression. A fantastic riff twitches like an exposed nerve as Chris declares “We’ve been waiting on the front line / We’ve been preparing our entire lives for this day to arrive.” The guitarist says he was “trying to come up with a Zeppelin-y thing [i.e. like heavy metal band Led Zeppelin]…but still that rockabilly [sound].” Scott Owen’s bass pulse enlivens ‘Raise The Alarm’ (AUS no. 68), and ‘Moment In The Sun’ (AUS no. 100) is another track taken at breakneck pace.
In October 2010 Chris Cheney, manager Rae Harvey, and their respective partners purchase the Australian recording facility Red Door Studios.
On 26 April 2011 Chris Cheney’s father dies from cancer. Noel Cheney is described as The Living End’s ‘number one fan’ so his loss is a sobering moment, not only for his son, but for the whole band.
‘The Ending Is Just The Beginning Repeating’ (2011) (AUS no. 3) is the cryptic title of the sixth album by The Living End. It is produced by Nick DiDia and recorded in Australia. Some tracks are laid down at Red Door Studios. The title song, ‘The Ending Is Just The Beginning Repeating’ (AUS no. 91) is co-written by Craig Finn and Chris Cheney. Introduced by a pounding bass drum, it builds into an anthemic effort. The treated vocals offer unofficial philosophy like “Everything goes away but comes back someday.” Some of the album’s most successful tracks are those that deviate most from the band’s usual sound. ‘Resist’ is a half-paced soundtrack to Armageddon; ‘Away From The City’ is touched off from a fake news bulletin (read by drummer Andy Strachan’s father, John F. Strachan) as a stuttering guitar leads to a pushy chorus; and ‘United’ is hammer-hard but built on a fractured rhythm. Chris Cheney describes ‘Song For The Lonely’ as “a tribal gathering call to arms.”
Later in 2011 Chris and Emma Cheney and their daughters move house to live in Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, Chris Cheney joins an all-star side project called Dead Man Walking. The other members of this act are Slim Jim Phantom (from The Stray Cats), Captain Sensible (from The Damned) and Mike Peters (from The Alarm). Guest performers with the band include Duff McKagan (from Guns N’ Roses) and Fred Armisen (a U.S. comedian known for his work on ‘Saturday Night Live’).
Back in Australia, bassist Scott Owen continues to make music as well as raising money for a charity rebuilding houses in the Philippines that were flattened by a typhoon. Drummer Andy Strachan releases a six-song EP on 30 May 2014 under the name of The Pants Collective.
The Living End reconvenes for ‘Shift’ (2016) (AUS no. 4). The album is co-produced by Paul ‘Woody’ Annison and Chris Cheney (though a few tracks have additional co-producers). With Cheney acting as co-producer, it suggests that this is perhaps a closer realisation of his musical vision. ‘Shift’ is an album with a darker tone than any previous Living End album. On some songs, Chris Cheney’s voice even sounds deeper – though this could just be a side-effect of maturity. The staccato and twitchy ‘Monkey’ has a ‘snarling’ vocal. The band tackles the ultimate darkness on ‘Death’, but faces it down. ‘Staring Down The Barrel’ (“of a gun tonight,” is the full line), is virtually suicidal. “My thoughts keep heading to a darker place,” sings Chris Cheney with some accuracy. (‘Staring Down The Barrel’ is one of the album’s two non-charting singles.) ‘Coma’ is a slower form of song with a creepy pulse beat underpinning the twilight haze. ‘Shift’ contains two songs that provide a bit of light. ‘Keep On Running’ (the other non-charting single) is an unusual musical departure with a string section at the fore. “But all will be okay my friend,” sings Chris Cheney in this song’s positive self-talk. ‘With Enemies Like That’ seeks comfort in nostalgia. The opening track, ‘One Step’, is a group composition, but there are two songs frontman Chris Cheney co-writes with authors outside the band: ‘Keep On Running’ (with Dylan Berry, Stefan Litrownik and Anton Patzner) and ‘Coma’ (with Marc Orrell). Also, for the record, the tracks with additional co-producers are: ‘Keep On Running’ (with Filthy Fidgets) and ‘One Step and ‘With Enemies Like That’ (both with The Living End). Chief songwriter Chris Cheney finds that, due to the honesty of the lyrics on this set, “There’s some songs I find really difficult to listen to on the record.” Bassist Scott Own concludes, “It’s personal, it’s an intimate record.”
Through broken bones, international activities, changes of drummers and personal crises, The Living End did not just persevere; they maintained a high level of consistent quality. Few Australian bands have such a lengthy track record for success and relevance. The Living End had ‘a monstrous reputation as ferocious roots / punk stylists.’ Chris Cheney was ‘a rock & roll true believer, from the peak of his hat to the pointy toe of his shoes.’
- wikipedia.org as at 29 April 2013, 7 January 2017
- ‘The Living End’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Modular Records, 1998) p. 2
- ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine [Australian edition]- ‘Lock & Load’ by Jeff Apter (December 2003) p. 53, 54, 56
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 207, 215
- ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine [Australian edition]- ‘The Music – Q & A – Chris Cheney of The Living End’ by Michael Dwyer (February 2004) p. 22
- ‘Time Off Media TV’ – The Living End video interview conducted by Sean Bennett (8 August 2008)
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 203
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Rockfilm, Rollfilm’ by Carrie Rickey (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 115
- ‘From Here On In – The Singles 1997-2004’ – Sleeve notes by John O’Donnell (EMI Music Australia Pty Ltd, 2004) p. 3
- ‘The Ending Is Just The Beginning Repeating’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Dew Process / Universal Music Australia Pty Ltd, 2011) p. 8
- Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – ‘Living Large’ – interview with The Living End conducted by Cameron Adams (12 May 2016) p. 36
- ‘Shift’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Dew Process, 2016) p. 3, 6
- deezer.com as at 7 January 2017
Song lyrics copyright EMI Music Publishing (1998 – 2003), Universal Music Publishing (2004 – 2011) with the exception of ‘The Ending Is Just The Beginning Repeating’ (Universal Music Publishing / BMG Chrysalis / Mushroom Music)
Last revised 11 January 2017