Hard Ons 40 Years On: 'We Never Thought We’d Be Doing This Forever'

7 June 2023 | 11:58 am | Steve Bell

For the founders of Sydney rock legends the Hard-Ons, their longevity is testament to both the enduring power of punk rock and the unbreakable bonds of friendship.

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At the tail-end of 2021, something happened that had never transpired before in Australian music history - an album by Sydney punk legends the Hard-Ons cracked the Top 50 of the ARIA Australian album chart.

Having started out as a trio of snotty teenagers from the south-west Sydney suburb of Punchbowl back in 1982, for almost four decades, the Hard-Ons essentially lived a parallel existence to the mainstream, carving out their niche as the most commercially-successful independent band in our country’s rich lineage.

With their music veering seemingly on a whim between pristine bubblegum surf-pop perfection and frenetic, metal-tinged hardcore, they sold over a quarter of a million albums - at one stage racking up 17 consecutive number ones on the Australian alternative charts - in the process accumulating hordes of ravenous fans all across the globe without ever becoming a household name in their homeland. 

The record that cracked their ARIA chart drought - their 13th album, I’m Sorry Sir, That Riff’s Been Taken (2021), which debuted agonisingly close to the top spot at #4 - was the first to feature long-term fan Tim Rogers on vocals, the You Am I frontman having been parachuted into the ranks just before the recording sessions after the previous vocalist was forced to exit the ranks suddenly in well-publicised (and sadly unsavoury) circumstances

Rogers joined founding Hard-Ons members Ray Ahn (bass) and Peter “Blackie” Black (guitar/vocals) - also ensuring that drummer Murray Ruse, who joined in 2011, was no longer “the new guy” - and the union paid immediate dividends, with fans old and new clambering to give this fascinating new partnership a shot at the title.

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“I’ll tell you what that is - people love a story,” Black laughs. “Tim joining the band was a story, so people actually took a bit of notice, but for us, it wasn’t a gimmick or anything like that, even though you can see why people might have thought that it could have been. 

“People love that sort of shit - they love a weird little story - and that’s what they thought it was. Hopefully, when they hear Ripper ’23, they’ll get that it wasn’t some sort of novelty thing that we were doing - it was a very serious artistic endeavour.”

Ripper ’23 is the brand new Hard-Ons album, and Black - who writes the bulk of the band’s songs - reckons that he was invigorated during the creative process knowing that his new compositions were going to be in the safest of vocal hands.

“In terms of doing the music, we’ve always been pushing forward and trying things, seeing what sounds good and what doesn’t, so I didn’t really have to change anything,” he reflects. “Having Tim join is just fucking awesome - it’s just extra arsenal, really - but what made me pinch myself was that we could do these songs knowing that we had a singer of his capabilities, which let us flex a little bit more.

“It just feels so good. It was Ray’s idea to ask Tim to join - Ray suggested it before anyone else - and as soon as he said it, all of us could hear it; it was like, ‘That would be fucking mad!’ And it was, from the very first rehearsal we had together - from the very first song - I got goosebumps thinking, ‘This is going to be shit hot!’”

“The reason I wanted Tim to join the band,” Ahn explains, "was because when I thought about his voice, he certainly understands how to carry a melody, and I think the Hard-Ons have been unfairly neglected in terms of our songs. The Hard-Ons have got some really fine melodic songs, and I just wanted people to pay attention to the songs and how good they are. 

"Tim has the vocal capability to bring the vocal melody to the fore - that’s what I figured - but not only that, the other really important thing was that Tim understood the band really well and had been a fan for a long time. 

“We found out that even though he’s our friend, he was going on to this mail-order site and buying all our stuff! Right up until he joined the band, he was on the mailing list, and it turned out that Tim Rogers bought all the latest releases and t-shirts and whatnot.

“So when he joined the band, we were thinking about coming up with a live set, and all the songs that he mentioned were songs from recent years - the last couple of albums - so he’d kept up with us. Some Hard-Ons fans only like the early stuff, but Tim actually kept up with the band’s career for 35 or 40 years and understood the band really well in terms of our sound and what we do. 

“That was evidenced by the fact that he wanted to do a lot of songs in the live set from the last few albums - albums that a lot of people, quite frankly, ignored - so I knew that he liked the band and understood the band. It’s really important when someone joins a band that they fit, and I knew Tim would fit.”

Like a reflection of the Hard-Ons’ entire storied career, Ripper ’23 is a diverse collection, running a gamut of different styles over the journey but hanging together cohesively as an album in that finest rock’n’roll tradition. 

“Because of our age, we’re always conscious of what would make a killer album, from start to finish,” Black smiles. “A lot of my favourite albums don’t have songs that all sound the same. There are a few exceptions with bands like the Ramones or AC/DC - to a certain extent - but with most of the bands we really love, most of their albums were musical journeys, and that’s what I like to give to people as well. I think stylistically, the songs all fit together really well, despite maybe going in a few different musical directions.” 

According to Ahn - from the outset responsible for the band’s inimitable visual aesthetic - the diverse sonic nature of Ripper ’23 is also reflected in its cover art, a pastiche of the popular Australian compilation series from the ‘70s. 

“I love playing in the Hard-Ons,” he offers, “because sometimes I fantasise about being in a heavy metal band and playing that crazy, powerful, rampaging thrash metal and stuff like that - I’ve always loved that - and I’ve always wanted to play in a bubblegum band with beautiful harmony singing because I love music by The Beach Boys and The Beatles and The Monkees and stuff like that. 

“With the Hard-Ons, I can actually have both - I can play in a thrash band and then in the next minute be in a bubblegum pop band, and that’s what I love about being in the Hard-Ons. What we lack in marketability - because we’re not a typical metal band or a teenybopper band, but we’re a bit of everything - what we have is musical freedom, which I just love about our band.

“That’s why I came up with the idea of Ripper ’23 - some of us remember Ripper ’76 and Ripper ’77, those compilation records with a girl’s bottom on the front cover - and in a way I think that our records have lots and lots of variety that other bands might not have, so it’s like our own compilation album of all different styles. 

“But I’m really happy how all the different styles blend into each other really well, going from crazy hardcore music to perfect pop the next - I really like that about the band and this album in particular.”

“With us - the individual members of the band - we’re all just massive music fans; that’s why there’s so much different shit on there,” Black continues. “We’re never happy with just one thing. Some people are like, ‘There’s been nothing good since 1987!’ but I’m constantly searching for something else to give me that excitement. There’s so much good music out there - I’ll never get to hear all of the good music before I die; that’s how I feel. I like way more shit than I dislike.”

Most Australians don’t comprehend how revered the Hard-Ons are in some European markets such as Spain and France - they’ve conducted close to 20 trips to the old continent over the years - as well as being regular visitors to the States since the ‘80s, where they have an equally rabid following. According to Ahn, however, such recognition has never been a driving force for the Hard-Ons.

“To be honest, we formed the band at a time when we were teenagers, and the last thing on our minds was critical appraisal or commercial success. Hence you get a band of 15-year-olds calling themselves the Hard-Ons,” he chuckles. “Being in the charts or being famous or critically acclaimed or having the music industry - wasn’t really at the forefront of our minds, so we’re not exactly foot soldiers for the music industry. 

“But I gotta tell you, we sold enough records to make the commercial charts, but all of our records sold in independent shops - that’s where they sold volumes of them. The chart stores didn’t really sell many of our records, the bulk of our records were sold in stores like Rocking Horse, Waterfront, Phantom Records, Au Go Go, Missing Link and so on - all of those record stores that were not chart stores. 

“Maybe if our records had been sold in chart stores, maybe by now, we’d all be driving Ferraris, but that’s not why we formed the band. We certainly can’t complain about our career - our records sound great, so we’re happy.” 

“The only problem with that sort of thing is that we all have to have day jobs to keep the band going,” Black offers. “Our tours are shorter than a lot of other band’s tours because we have to go to work at the end of the day to pay the rent. 

“So having a little bit more critical acclaim or a bit more commercial success would be good in that way - just to pay the bills so we can do more music - because I would love to do this 24/7. But at the same time, we did call our band the Hard-Ons, which doesn’t marry so well with commercial aspirations.”

“In some ways, we’re not taken that seriously as an ongoing band,” Ahn ponders, “but at the same time, we’ve got something that most other bands don’t have, which is the freedom to do what we want - we’re basically left to our own devices to come up with our own thing. 

“Ever since we were kids, we embraced writing our own songs and doing our own record covers and doing our own t-shirt designs - basically forging our own unique path - and it’s an exhilarating place to be as a band, we don’t have to answer to anybody. 

“We’re not enslaved to anything, and it’s a fantastic band to play in because of that reason. If you’re not really worried about critical appraisal or anything like that, you can basically do whatever you want, and our fans trust us to come up with good music, and we always do. Only problem is a little more money wouldn’t go astray, but you can’t have everything.”

Fortunately, despite these fiscal concerns, the founding Hard-Ons can at least rest assured that they’ve made a massive impact on the music scene that they love, having transformed over time from the young punk acolytes they were at the start of their journey into influential elder statesmen in their own right. 

“Yeah, man, that feels unreal,” Black admits. “There was a really cool quote from the guitar player from [‘70s San Francisco post-punks] Chrome called Helios Creed, and he goes, ‘We’re all links in a chain’, and I’m stoked to consider ourselves in that light. 

“Just the other day, I got an email from Ben in C.O.F.F.I.N. who are currently in the UK, and he reckons they sit in the van going, ‘Fuck, this is what the Hard-Ons did back in the ‘80s!’ For them to take inspiration from us makes me proud as punch. Countless bands inspired us in the same way, and here we are, keeping that going.”  

“When we were little kids, we looked up to The Birthday Party, The Saints, Radio Birdman and bands like that,” Ahn recalls, “Australian bands from our neck of the woods. I remember running into the Radio Birdman singer Rob Younger back in the ‘80s and asking him if things were different now playing in a band, and he said, ‘Nah, it’s exactly the same - you have good bands and shit bands, that’s it, end of story. Nothing’s changed’. 

“And I thought, ‘This guy’s the oldest human being I know!’ But he was like a hero of mine, and I was really inspired by him, and years later, it dawned on me that younger bands were coming up to me and asking stupid questions, and I went, ‘Oh wow, we’re now the elder statesmen for the next generation!’

“But to be honest, we haven’t really stopped playing music, so we haven’t really had that much time to actually sit down and self-reflect on our career at all because we’ve not stopped playing. We’ve always moved and moved and moved. 

“It’s hard at the moment to take stock on anything we’ve achieved because we’re so focused on the album that’s coming out and the tour we’re going to do around Australia, and after that, there are other things we want to do. To be honest, that’s a really good way to be - never stopping and just keeping on going - and I think that’s the only way a band like us can survive; you just keep on going.” 

Keep on going seems to be the Hard-Ons’ mantra, and after 40 years of keepin’ on, they’re showing no signs of slowing down - did they realise from the outset that they were destined to be rock’n’roll lifers?

“I’ll be honest, I did,” Black laughs. “I wanted to. I was enthralled by music at a really early age, and I was adamant that I was going to do this. I really wanted to do it. The desire to be involved in music was all-consuming, and it still is.”

“I had no idea that we were going to do it forever,” Ahn reflects, “because essentially speaking, the basis of the band hasn’t changed, and that’s the friendship between me and Blackie.

“I met Blackie back in 1975 at our primary school, and then we went to high school together, and I remember going to his house to listen to records and get inspired by the music of the day, and going to each other’s houses to practice and that kind of stuff.

"Once we were old enough to play in pubs, we hit it really hard and just kept on going, so throughout my later high school years and throughout my university years, the band was always there, so it’s something that I’ve always taken for granted that it’s going to be there for me. 

“Although, unlike Blackie, I never really thought that I was going to do it forever; I just thought that I’ll go along with it because I’m in a band with my friends, and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.

“It’s the next step up from being a music fan - we used to be music fans sitting there playing records at home and watching these older people playing live, and you’d get excited watching them. When we were kids, we’d go and watch bands like X and The Scientists and The Celibate Rifles - we really loved watching those bands - and I’d get home and be so buzzing, I couldn’t wait to start playing live.

“And when we finally started playing live, it was the next level of being a music fan - not ‘a guy in a band’, but just the next level of music fandom. Essentially speaking, that hasn’t changed. 

“I never thought I’d be doing it forever or anything like that, and I have absolutely no idea how long we’re going to do this for, but the truth is that the band has big plans - after this album, we’ve got plans, after the next album we’ve got big plans - we’ve always got something cooking on the stove, it’s really cool.

“And looking at everything we’ve got planned, I said to Blackie not long ago, ‘If we actually do everything we say we’re going to do, I’m going to be 85!’ We’ve got lots and lots of ideas still in the tank, but it’s a good way to be, I think.”

You can check out the Hard Ons' upcoming album Ripper 23' and tickets to their upcoming tour here