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The Onyas

In 1996 The Onyas found themselves with the poisoned chalice of punk rock: a support slot on the legendary Sex Pistols’ Australian tour. According to rumour, The Onyas declined the opportunity to meet Johnny Lydon, Matlock, Jones and Cook, preferring to hoe into the Pistols’ backstage culinary fare instead. “Glen Matlock said hello. Paul Cook smiled and Johnny Lydon said 'Where is the fuckin' toilet?' They had many packets of Marlboro cigarettes and yes, we ate the food,” recalls Onyas guitarist John ‘Mad Macka’ McKeering. Bass player Richard Stanley’s recollections are similarly enigmatic. “I looked at John standing there looking bored in a dressing room swinging a bottle of water and thought maybe I should go say hi, but then I thought 'What would that prove?' and kept going,” Stanley says. But someone in the band’s entourage was impressed. “Our parents came and loved it,” Stanley says. “Dad said, 'That Mr Rotten is fabulous’.”

The Onyas – McKeering, Stanley and younger brother Jordan (aka ‘Jaws’) – formed in Brisbane in the early 1990s. All three grew up in the notorious Bjelke-Petersen era, when, for Brisbane residents, rock’n’roll was genuinely a form of social resistance. While McKeering recalls growing up in Brisbane as being “reasonably protected and quite mild,” for the Stanley brothers adolescent life was standard suburban fare. “Jaws and I grew up in the western suburbs, hung out at Indooroopilly Shoppingtown and went skating at the Jindalee bowl,” says Stanley. “We watched action movies, played Sega Megadrive, listened to Misfits and Public Enemy and I worked at McDonalds.”
 
Stanley and Jaws were also both Kiss fans back in the day, a band they unexpectedly count as a pivotal influence: “In 1979 Jaws and I both bought Kiss tapes; he got Rock and Roll Over and I got Dynasty. They were both extremely influential on the Onyas, and the two tapes are quite prophetic when you look at our post-Onyas musical output.” More surprising, however, is Stanley's teenage fascination with the Rock Steady Crew – the satin-clad breakdance troupe he saw live at Brisbane’s Festival Hall in 1983. 
 
McKeering first crossed paths with Stanley in 1989 through a mutual friend, with the pair trading tapes. “Macka sent me GBH and The Exploited, I sent him Slayer and Metallica,” recalls Stanley. The Onyas played their first gig at the 1991 Queensland Rock Awards. Given The Onyas’ irreverent attitude, it’s not so surprising that no-one in the band seems to have had any specific aspirations or role models. I just wanted to be a mad cunt and annoy everyone,” says Stanley.I liked the way Ray Ahn played bass a lot, but I never wanted to play like him.”  McKeering, on the other hand, recalls the attitudes local venues' had towards the band as diffident at best. “They hated our smart-arses.” 
 
The Onyas’ first release was a seven-song collection of demos released in 1991, titled Bracks CS. A chance meeting with Bruce Milne saw The Onyas release a 7” single (Beergut b/w Run Amok!) on Milne’s Au-Go-Go Records and, a few years later, a full-length album, Get Shitfaced With the Onyas.
 
The titles of The Onyas songs – Beergut, Live for Rejection, Hit You Up the Guts, Shut Your Mouth, Get that Shit Out of Your Face, Real Tight Arse, Clean Enough to Eat Off, How Old’s Your Sister, Drunk, Fat’n’Ugly, I’m Not Your Mate – are indicative of the band’s garage punk shtick, a shambolic collage of alcoholic excess, smutty humour and a nihilistic attitude.  “About half of our songs are autobiographical,” McKeering says.  “And the other half are about Jaws,” adds Stanley.
 
The Onyas could never be accused of pretension: the band’s propensity for alcoholic consumption was legendary, though not always without negative consequences. At one infamous gig, The Onyas were playing at the Esplanade Hotel when Richard Stanley, fueled by liberal consumption of spirits backstage, became so inebriated that he barely lasted a song before passing out (Cosmic Psychos drummer Bill Walsh jumped onstage as Stanley lay semi-comatose on the ground and declared it ‘the best gig ever’). “I have one flash of memory, looking down at my freshly dislocated knee,” Stanley remembers. “Rich used to say in the mid to late 1990s: ‘You can do anything and call it art’,” McKeering laughs.
 
Like so many other Australian punk rock bands, The Onyas’ overseas reputation often dwarfed its local reception. “Even the shit experiences were unreal because we were touring overseas,” Stanley says. “Musically, maybe [European audiences] did love it. They may have understood what we were saying but I didn’t,” McKeering says.
 
A combination of extra-curricular activities, Stanley’s health issues and other band commitments saw The Onyas gradually wind back their live appearances about 10 years ago.  “There was never really a deliberate decision to stop playing,” McKeering says. “Actually, there was never really a deliberate decision to do anything, beyond doing things that were over the top.” Now, 25 years after their first gig comes the band’s 25th anniversary show at the Tote Hotel.  It’s been a bruising, shabby and fraught ride for The Onyas, but they’re still here, as tough, uncompromising and opinionated as ever. “I think if there’s one song that sums up The Onyas, it’s Hit You Up the Guts,” McKeering says.  “Nah, I reckon it’s Shaddap You Face,” counters Stanley. 
 
BY PATRICK EMERY  
 

See THE ONYAS celebrate their 25th birthday on Friday April 1 at The Tote. Swashbuckling Hobo records will be re-releasing Get Shitfaced With The Onyas and Six! on vinyl.