Despite being a thriving, blue-collar industrial town throughout the fifties, sixties & seventies, Wollongong in the mid-eighties was a miserable place to be. BHP - the regions' biggest employer - began slashing jobs in 1982 in an attempt "to push down production costs and to make Australian steel competitive again on its own home market" (Donaldson, pg 1). The effect of these job losses is still being felt today with youth unemployment rates in the Illawarra consistently amongst the nations' highest (Pomfret et al, summary).
However, from great adversity comes great art and the local youth, with little else to do between cashing dole cheques, began forming bands. Inspired by other steel town scenes (Detroit, Liverpool, Newcastle) the sound emanating from these bands (The Stayns, The Mutated Noddys, The Unheard) were a frenetic mixture of sixties garage rock, MC5-styled punk and pre-Nirvana grunge.
One of the more influential acts to rise from this scene was The Proton Energy Pills. The Protons first formed in mid-1986 by Stewart Cunningham (guitar), Terry Callan (guitar) Richie Lewis (drums), Michael Foy (bass), and Lenny Curley (vocals). A few of these names (plus a few more that would go through the ranks) would, in time, become synonymous with the Wollongong music scene, but for now they were just a bunch spotty school mates with a penchant for Ramones and Radio Birdman.
Foy didn't last long and was soon replaced by Lenny's younger brother Jay. It was this line-up that played the band's first gig at the Ironworkers Club supporting The Stayns. By their own admission the band sounded terrible, but they had enough fun to realise that they wanted to keep going.
Lenny soon replaced Callan on guitar (who went on to join Mudlungs) and another friend Dave Achille joined on vocals. This line-up lasted for about a year before Achilles left and was replaced by an older Curley. Dave Curley was a few years senior to the rest of the band, and had some live experience under his belt with The Mudfrogs, The Mojo Hands and The Unloved.
Under the guidance of the older Curley, The Protons began taking their craft more seriously - though not too much so. Lenny took on the comical art direction which helped give the band an identity, and a number of originals were written enabling the covers to be dropped from their live set. One of the first gigs with Dave was at Sutherland's Royal Hotel - the first Protons show outside Wollongong.
The Protons were introduced to manager Steve Pavlovic by the guys from Waterfront Records, who also agreed to release their first 7" single ('Survival') in 1989. With interest growing, The Protons landed some major supports alongside The Buzzcocks, Rollins Band, and PIL, and toured with Dinosaur Jr and Mudhoney.
This valuable touring experience also led to J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr) producing the band's second 7" '(Less Than I) Spend' which climbed to number 3 on the independent charts.
The end of The Protons came just as quickly as the beginnings. Having worked up a solid live reputation and some good interest on the back of their two 7-inches, the band booked into Electric Avenue to record an EP with Celibate Rifles gunman Kent Steedman signed up as producer. The sessions did not go well with in-fighting and confusion as to the direction of the band.
Cunningham writes in the Rocket to Tarrawanna liner notes "We had lots of people in our ears... that really was just irrelevant noise. We started to believe what other people said and for a moment we lost our belief in each other." That "moment" proved fatal for the the band, as they split before the sessions were through.
But where one road finishes, another begins. Each of the five Protons went on to form other bands, some even more influential than The Protons themselves.
The Curley brothers formed Tumbleweed with Lewis who would go on to become the flagship of mid-nineties Wollongong grunge. Dave Achille would too join Tumbleweed, albeit in a later incarnation.
Dave Curley wouldn't remain in Tumbleweed for long however, and would soon jump ship and join another of Wollongong's legendary mid-nineties acts, Zambian Goat Herders. Possibly even more influential than his time in The Protons, Tumbleweed or The Goat Herders was his position with Wollongong Youth Services between 1990 and 1997. "Noise Up North 1990 - 1993 encouraged kids to play their own music and run their own shows," recalls Dave today. " Prior to that it was about poxy band comps and cover bands. The subsequent development of the Wollongong Youth Centre in 1993 took that to another level. Somewhere to jam, play, hang and see cool bands. The positive working relationship that I had with Kim (Waters) and Dave (Kettle) at Sunami ensured that the all ages scene in terms of young people as audience members, performers, participants and producers was at an all time high. I think this was key to what was going on (at the time). My history in the Protons led to this. My belief in the importance of activating kids voices through rock and roll (or whatever art form they chose) is a legacy of that band. I don't see myself as a 'gong rock icon. However I do see myself as a guy who gave a fuck about Wollongong, kids and rock & roll."
After the downfall of Tumbleweed, Lewis formed Richie & The Creeps, while Lenny Curley went on to form The Pink Fits.
Cunningham headed for Sydney where he formed Brother Brick and also joined Challenger 7 and Asteroid B612, before moving to Melbourne where he formed The Yes Men, a band that would later also include Jay Curley. Nowadays Cunningham fronts Leadfinger alongside other Wollongong music scene notables.
In an indication of just how far The Proton's influence was felt, Spain's Bang! Records issued a retrospective of The Protons in 2003 featuring all their recorded tracks plus a selection of live cuts and unreleased recordings.
1989: 'Survival' b/w 'Symmetry' 7"
1990: '(Less Than I) Spend' b/w 'Strawberry Patch' 7"
1990: The Proton Energy Pills 12" EP
2003: Rocket to Tarrawanna (buy)
Ajax (demo - taken from Rocket to Tarrawanna)
Nothing (taken from The Proton Energy Pills EP)
Where Do We Go? (taken from The Proton Energy Pills EP)
Proton Energy Pills - Rocket to Tarrawanna liner notes
Donaldson M., & Donaldson J., The Crisis in the Steel Industry 1983
Pomfret, Simon et al, Youth Unemployment in the Illawarra; Final Report IRIS 2008
A BIG thank-you to Stew Cunningham & Dave Curley for making this post possible and their ongoing words of encouragement.