God Bless Ron S. Peno: Died Pretty Frontman Passes Away, Aged 68

12 August 2023 | 12:06 pm | Jeff Jenkins

‘Part Iggy Pop, part Michael Hutchence, part Bowie’...

Ron S. Peno

Ron S. Peno (Credit: Barry Schipplock)

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“If I was a music journalist, how would I describe that gig?” Penny Ikinger pondered as she took to the Retreat stage in Brunswick after Ron S. Peno had debuted his new band. “Cinematic, classic, a bit retro, hip,” she said before asking the crowd for help. “Psychedelic,” suggested one fan. “3D,” proffered another. “Peno vision,” cried one voice, which might have belonged to the man himself. “Peno envy!” 

Ikinger smiled. “I think ‘Peno vision’ might win the competition.” 

A friend spotted me scribbling the descriptions in my little notebook. He leaned over and grabbed my arm. “Add one to the list: national treasure.

Ron S. Peno – the redoubtable lead singer of Died Pretty, The Superstitions and The Darling Downshas died after a battle with cancer. He was 68.

In a music world where originality is in short supply, Ron was a remarkable one-off. There was something magical about seeing Ron on stage. He seemed to get lost in the music. These weren’t rehearsed rock moves; Ron felt it.

When my friend John Cain met Ron, he was surprised by how small he was in real life. “He’s tiny,” John remarked, “but on stage, he’s 10-foot tall.” 

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Many musicians worshipped Died Pretty, including Melbourne band Sand Pebbles. Guitarist Ben Michael called them “a band that knew how to blow minds with strength and power but also beauty. Not many Australian bands do both. They’re either tough-guy rock or twee-core. Died Pretty went for both.

“It’s best heard on Doughboy Hollow. From go to woe a contender. By that, I mean it wants to be heard by as many people as possible, and it goes for that without sacrificing anything. It’s a stone-cold classic.”

Released in 1991 and produced by Englishman Hugh Jones (Echo & the Bunnymen), Doughboy Hollow was Died Pretty’s fourth album, and their first Top 40 hit. It was rightly acclaimed as one of the greatest Australian albums of all time, but it should have made them international superstars. R.E.M. never made an album better than Doughboy Hollow.

Every time I play the record, I’m blown away by its majestic grace. It’s like a cinematic masterpiece that reveals itself over time. It’s the keyboard intro to D.C, the shimmering crescendo of Doused, the dark beauty of Sweetheart, the downbeat delight of Ron singing “I don’t love you” in The Love Song, and many other things you can’t put into words. Usually, I like an album to come with a lyric sheet, but with Doughboy Hollow, the lack of a lyric sheet is part of the attraction – the subtleties are an unfolding mystery. 

And has there ever been a better tribute from one great Australian band to another: “So here I am/Alone with you/The Sunnyboys, God bless them/And God bless you.

Ron explained the title in the liner notes for the 2008 reissue. “We used to tour a lot, travelling down the Hume Highway in various makes and models of Taragos and for some sort of reason a signpost ‘Doughboy Hollow Creek’ caught my eye out the window one time, and I just sort of liked the Doughboy Hollow part. Then I saw another signpost again, going up the New England Highway with exactly the same wording and just said, ‘Fine, I’ve seen it again, it’s a sign!’”

Died Pretty departed in September 2002, but in the hearts of fans, they never went away. They did several reunion shows, including the Don’t Look Back tour in 2008 when they performed the Doughboy Hollow album. Nick Cave’s biographer Mark Mordue saw the Sydney show. 

“Have you ever experienced that moment in a performance when the band in front of you have peeled away their skin to reveal an entirely more intense and grander being?” he wrote. “Great musicians strive to get to such places. And Died Pretty did just that.

“Out front was Ron Peno. His antecedents were obvious: Iggy Pop, Stevie Wright and Bon Scott. Peno is their equal, a poet of the body as much as lyric and voice.”

A&R man and manager Michael Parisi recalls seeing Died Pretty support the Beasts of Bourbon at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne many years ago.

“The Beasts were a beast of a band, pardon the pun, but Died Pretty just fucking blew them off stage. It felt like you were tripping. It was kind of like they were doing 10-minute songs and you didn’t mind because it was like you were in a trance. Died Pretty were the kind of band where you didn’t know what you were going to get on any given night. They were just explosive.

“And you had that crazy Ron Peno, one of my favourite frontmen of all time; just mesmerising. God, he had a presence. He was kind of part Iggy Pop, part Michael Hutchence, part Bowie.”

Melbourne band booker Mary Mihelakos also loved Ron. “I think a lot of people underestimated how great Ron S. Peno is. Every time I go and see Ron S. Peno and The Superstitions or Died Pretty, it is one of the most incredible live music experiences I’ve ever had.”

Community radio legend Neil Rogers – he’s been a fixture of Melbourne radio for more than 40 years, hosting The Australian Mood on Triple R since the ’80s – booked Died Pretty’s early tours to Melbourne.

“I first set eyes on Ron and Died Pretty in early 1984 and have been transfixed ever since,” Neil says. “Ron is quite simply the best frontman I have ever personally witnessed. His humility and uncertainty about his own performance abilities are completely opposite to his prodigious talents. He was also wonderful and engaging company off stage.”

If The Australian Mood had a patron saint, it would be Ron Peno.

“I am utterly gutted by Ron’s passing. To say I will miss him terribly is an understatement.”

Andrew Stafford wrote about the genesis of Died Pretty in his seminal book, Pig City. “Just as Sydney was the place to go, Brisbane had become the place to leave.” Died Pretty formed in Sydney 40 years ago.

Everybody moves. Everybody changes.

I bonded with Ron when he moved to Melbourne. I remember the joy on his face when he showed me photos of his young son, Zebadiah. I mentioned that Died Pretty were my best mate’s favourite band, even though he thought their recent gigs had focused too much on their later material. Ron signed a copy of what would be their last album, Everydaydream: “Cory, dig the new!”

In his new home, Ron started two new bands: The Darling Downs with his old friend Kim Salmon, and The Superstitions with new songwriting partner, Cam Butler.

The Darling Downs were perhaps an unlikely combination: the grunge god with the flamboyant frontman. But it worked. They became the masters of mournful, with their elegant melancholia.

Ron and Kim were friends for more than 40 years, having met when The Scientists were doing a residency at the Vulcan in Sydney. Brett Myers, from The End, introduced his friend to Kim after a gig: “This is Ron from The Hellcats.” Ron took the opportunity to ask Kim about the lyrics to Swampland

Kim was instantly drawn to Ron – “he had such an engaging personality” – and Ron became a regular at Scientists shows. One night he was wearing a wig, which had Kim wondering, “Is he mocking us, or is he just drunk?”

Years later, backstage at a Surrealists show, Ron told Kim: “We’ve got to make a country record together!” Again, Kim wasn’t sure if Ron was serious. But they would eventually create the “country-politan” duo, releasing the 2005 album How Can I Forget This Heart Of Mine?, followed by 2007’s From One To Another and 2013’s In The Days When The World Was Wide.

They recorded their early records with Dave Graney and Clare Moore. “Ron came out a couple of days to sing the vocals,” Dave recalls. “He would sing for eight hours straight, and the needles were still going into the red at the end of the day. He has incredible pipes. Both Kim and Ron are two of the most musical people we have met in a lifetime of tooling about in the music business.”

Initially, Ron called his “solo project” RSVP, after his initials: Ronald Stephen Valentine Peno. And he dubbed the band The Return To Senders

“But nobody knew who RSVP was,” he lamented. “It was suggested to me that I just put my old moniker out there. Ron S. Peno and the Superstitions was the best I could come up with.” 

Was he a superstitious person? “Yes. If I see a ladder, I’ll walk around it. If I spill salt, I’ll have to throw some over my left shoulder. It’s a country thing. I grew up in the bush, near Tamworth in north-west New South Wales.”

On the second Darling Downs album, Ron sang, I’ve been on a timeless journey since 1964.” It was an unforgettable trip filled with music.

The Superstitions’ debut, Future Universe, came 11 years after Died Pretty’s final album and 25 years after their classic debut, Free Dirt. “I have my own fire to light again,” Ron declared.

Ron brought his own sense of style to every gig he did. I recall turning up to his birthday drinks one year, and he took one look at me and Dave Faulkner and shook his head, before telling us how much he disliked baseball caps.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Bernard Zuel admired a man who liked to wear “stylish suits without completely losing the suggestion of menace underneath”.

“I always liked how the bluegrass artists of the ’40s and ’50s, people like The Louvin Brothers, suited up with their ties even for radio,” Ron explained.

Talking about the dapper Darling Downs, he said: “We’re trying to bring a bit of GQ magazine into it. The Louvins meet GQ. It’s nice to dress up.”

“Suits make anyone look good,’ Kim noted. “They cover a multitude of sins.”

One Valentine’s Day, for some reason, I decided to interview Ron. His responses still make me smile.

“Valentine’s Day means nothing to me,” he said. “It’s just another day to this old fool. Why pick just one day to say I love you? I like to say it any time – and I’m more likely to say it after a couple of Sauv Blancs.”

What’s the perfect date? “Being left alone with an expensive bottle of white wine.”

Favourite love song? “I do love love songs. I really love I Only Have Eyes For You and Andy WilliamsCan’t Get Used To Losing You.”

Favourite romantic movie? “Probably Eraserhead.”

Pick-up lines? “‘Have you ever seen one like this?’ But it’s all bullshit. I’d never say something like that. Actually, I have. ‘Short jockey, long whip.’”

When should you say I love you? “They’re fairly strong words, aren’t they? Of course, there are different types of love. I tell my son that I love him daily. And he came from a loving relationship. He’s the light of my life. He inspires me every day.” 

Who should pay on the first date? “The other person.”

Can you be friends with your exes? “Definitely yes. I’m friends with all my exes, I love ’em.” 

A moral dilemma: You kissed your best friend’s partner when drunk. Do you keep it secret? “Um, that’s happened. And, no, don’t keep it a secret. Honesty is the best policy. I was drunk, I had no control over my tongue.” 

In the old days, after a few too many white wines, Ron could sometimes be a rascal. But you couldn’t help but love him. And in the past five years, he was very proud of his sobriety.

Like most great artists, Ron was competitive. I remember a Perry Keyes gig that our friend John organised. We could tell that Ron didn’t appreciate how much we loved Perry. When the show started, I spied him standing in the corner, quietly checking Perry out. But before the night was over, Ron had his arm around Perry, singing an unforgettable version of The Velvet Underground’s Sweet Jane.

Several hours later, I drove Ron back to his place in South Yarra. “You know what, Jeff,” he said, “I think I made a new friend tonight.”

There was something so sweet and childlike about Ron’s statement. On stage, he was a rock god; offstage, he was just looking to make a genuine connection. 

Strangely, Ron was awkward around adulation. Fans would regularly say how much they loved him; Ron would shyly say thanks before scurrying away.

He was most comfortable making music with his friends. Ron forged three significant songwriting partnerships, with Brett Myers, Kim Salmon and finally, Cam Butler, who Penny Ikinger introduced to Ron after a late-night gig at Yah Yah’s in Fitzroy. Ron said he always needed “a good foil”.

“Look, if I could play an instrument myself, a guitar or piano, I probably wouldn’t need anyone, ’cause I love writing songs and I’m fairly good with a melody. But I need that other person that can play a guitar, or instrument of some sort, to enable me to write the songs. I can come up with the vocal melody, but I need some sort of music.

“I’m not a writer,” he added. “It’s a real chore for me to write lyrics. I’m not a lyricist, I’m a performer. I can write a verse, and I’ll ad-lib the next verse. I’m not big on lyrics. All I’m concerned with is, ‘Is there a hook for people to grab onto?’”

Ron’s vocal could do all the work. It was something special and unique, gliding effortlessly from mournful to celebratory, from beauty to brooding.

“It’s all about emotion with Ron,” explained Cam Butler. “He has a knack for being able to come up with remarkable melodies on the spot, encapsulating a mood with his voice.”

For Kim Salmon, Ron is “kind of Dylan, Roger Daltrey; he’s Iggy, he’s got them all there in this strange kind of package that combines a bit of everything without being any of them”.

As Christopher Hollow from the Sand Pebbles observed, “There’s no performer in Australia like Ron S. Peno. No one as possessed, no one as wild. He’s the type of character you read about in books – the one who can stick his thumb in the air and attract electricity. On stage, he moves like a cat that’s been clipped by a car. The moves aren’t sexy, they’re not studied, they’re completely in the moment; moves that almost every performer wishes they had in them. Or were unafraid to let out.” 

Recently, Dave Faulkner organised a Support Act “Help a Mate” campaign to help with Ron’s medical expenses. Within a couple of days, friends and fans donated more than $30,000.

As Ron noted in D.C., there was respect and so much love that never ends.

Dave called his friend “a mesmerising performer, creative genius, hilarious conversationalist and dapper dresser. Ron Peno is all these things, but there is so much more to the man.”

As I write this, I’m listening to Say It Isn’t So, the opening track on Ron’s second album with The Superstitions, Anywhere And Everything Is Bright. “Hold me now, don’t let me go,” Ron sings, as the song broods and builds. “Whisper things I need to know. Hold me in your arms tonight.

I need to know if I satisfy.”

In the end, it’s pretty simple: Ron S. Peno was loved. 

As we dissolve into the dark, this is just to say goodbye. And thank you.