“I remember going into the rehearsal on that Monday night saying ‘Oh guys, I’m joining The Lemonheads’,” recounts a clearly uncomfortable Nic Dalton. “I could see they were really upset and pissed off. I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to leave, but this opportunity came. Everyone convinced me.”
Though The Lemonheads’ 1992 album It’s A Shame About Ray would put him in front of the largest audiences of his career, it’s the band that he left them for and the unresolved promise of what they had set out to achieve that still gives him pause. The Plunderers were, after all, considered by their loyal followers to be one of the great pop rock groups to have emerged out of the Australian pub circuit in the mid to late ‘80s. Their distinctive mixture of pop punk and folk, combined with a dry wit, compelling melodic hooks and disarmingly honest lyricism saw the group regularly draw crowds in the hundreds, thanks in a large part to the winning chemistry and songwriting of its co-frontmen, Dalton and Stevie Plunder. While Plunder would go on to achieve fame as the co-founder and singer of The Whitlams, his suicide in 1996 dashed all hopes of reigniting the dormant Plunderers, a legacy that Dalton still hopes to keep alive.
Bonding over a shared love of The Modern Lovers, The Velvet Underground and The Saints, the pair met in Canberra in the early ‘80s, initially forming the short lived but popular folk rock band Get Set Go. “Plunderers and Falling Joys formed out of Get Set Go in the same week in May ’84, so we started getting crowds straight away,” says Dalton.
“We really liked what we were doing — sort of like a tough, ‘60s punk country thing. Stevie just started writing these great songs, as if from an older point of view, like being world weary and sick of being on the road when he hadn’t been on the road at all. We got to the stage in ’85 where there’d be four or five hundred people up at the Uni bar, with hardly any advertising.”
Adopting tongue in cheek pseudonyms, Dalton briefly became Nic Name and drummer Peter Velzen, Pete Pillage. For the man born Tony Hayes, however, Stevie Plunder became an identity that he maintained for life.
Forming a collective of bands that would share bills and often members, the Canberra acts began to feel limited by the city’s gigging opportunities and one by one, shifted operations interstate. While their friends in Falling Joys, Secret Seven and The Gadflys — the latter two of which featured Plunder’s brother Bernie Hayes — moved to Sydney, The Plunderers initially followed their friend Cathy Green, who was drumming with the punk band X, to Melbourne. After 18 months of struggling to break into their new city’s scene, a successful east coast tour convinced them to make the shift to Sydney in early 1987.
Within a year they had signed with Green Fez, an offshoot of Citadel Records, and released their first EP, Trust Us. “Charlie Owen [The New Christs, Tex, Don and Charlie] produced that, he was an old friend of mine from Canberra,” says Dalton.
“He was the one that got us in with Rob Younger [Radio Birdman] and after that Rob produced all our records. For free actually, he didn’t want any money, he liked us ‘cos he saw we were the underdogs and didn’t fit in anywhere. So we did a 12” and a single with Green Fez, then moved over to the main Citadel label and did two singles and three 10 inches. We got a lot of airplay, we’d start doing big shows at The Landsdowne and get four or five hundred people.”
The Plunderers also found a manager in Steve ‘Pav’ Pavlovic, who would go on to become a successful tour promoter and, as the founder of Modular Records, to sign The Avalanches, The Living End, Ben Lee, Cut Copy and The Presets amongst others. Pavlovic felt that the band’s sound was too varied to cut through commercially and urged them to discard their folkier material in favour of the more immediate pop punk sounds of the day. As a result The Plunderers formed two offshoot groups to house the wealth of material that no longer fit their image.
“It did seem like we changed — we became louder — but deep down we still were writing a real variety,” says Dalton. “Hippy Dribble was basically an early Plunderers set, with psychedelic stuff influenced by Sonic Youth. Captain Denim was the folk rock, Triffids side. We did a Hippy Dribble 12” and a Captain Denim ten inch. We thought we were doing all these little things while we were saving up to do a Plunderers album.”
As the crowds grew and the records began to sell — including 1990’s Sarah’s Not Falling in Love EP, which, according to Dalton, was the highest selling local release at Sydney’s influential Waterfront Records that year — the band found themselves personally drifting apart.
“We were inseparable when we first met,” says Dalton. “Once Sydney came along we sort of settled down with partners and into different houses. Even though every Monday night we’d see each other and rehearse and play gigs, we had different sets of friends.”
Plunder formed The Shout Brothers with Hayes and began a Sunday afternoon residency at The Sandringham that lasted for many years, while Dalton formed the group Godstar. Neither of these ventures were a threat to their main band, until Dalton’s playing caught the ear of Evan Dando, an influence that informed It’s A Shame About Ray, and also featured the Dalton composition, ‘Kitchen’. The record was critically acclaimed and yielded a hit single in the title track, leading to Dando’s invitation for Dalton to move to America and join The Lemonheads as their permanent bassist.
Left without a band to pour his songs into, Plunder fell in with local songwriter Tim Freedman and formed The Whitlams the same year. “The Whitlams started as a Saturday afternoon thing down at The Sandringham,” says Bernie Hayes.
“Tim and Stevie were combatants, they used to give each other a hard time onstage and that was part of the entertainment. Tim had always had people following him going ‘Wow you’re great’, and then he met Stevie and Stevie wouldn’t have a bar of it. Basically called him out on every naff thing he did and Tim really enjoyed that. So for that reason they were instant friends and it worked; Stevie didn’t really understand any sort of social hierarchy.”
As they grew in popularity The Whitlams toured relentlessly up and down the east coast, and Plunder’s indulgences began to noticeably increase. “A lot of pressure was applied by Whitlams management for him to be on call all the time,” says Hayes.
“A lot more trips were had and the drinking and pill popping became a bit more regular. That took its wear and tear, he did talk about wanting to pack it in and go live up near Byron Bay a lot. It kind of developed that he was drinking more than he should.”
Having returned to Australia and found reasonable success with the bands Sneeze and Godstar, Dalton never lost sight of the fact that The Plunderers were yet to make their album. In 1992 Citadel compiled their various singles and EPs and released the compilation Banana Smoothie Honey. To further complete the picture, in ‘95 Dalton poured all of the Hippy Dribble and Captain Denim recordings into one split release as Silver Apples/Fade and put it out on Half A Cow. The band reformed for the launch at The Annandale, a happy occasion that inevitably led to discussions about their wealth of unrecorded material. They resolved to finally get together and make The Plunderers album that they had always intended, bestowing it the title of Sleep on It, after one of the intended tracks.
All hopes of this were dashed when, on January 26, 1996, the same day that The Whitlams’ ‘I Make Hamburgers’ was listed in Triple J’s Hottest 100, Stevie Plunder’s body was found at the bottom of Wentworth Falls.
“I’d seen him a couple of weeks before and had a chat. I couldn’t tell, it was a big shock,” says Dalton. “I think what Stevie did was something he had in the back of his mind for ten years. I really think it’s something he pre-planned to do one day at that spot.”
“It came as a complete shock to me,” says Hayes. “I found out things from other brothers later that perhaps they should have told me earlier. But me being the big brother, Stevie didn’t tell me everything, he always seemed to put a brave face on it.”
“In the early days he’d open up to me about being a Canberra musician and everyone knowing him as Tony Hayes,” says Dalton. “That’s why he wanted to change his name, he wanted to be someone new. But later on we never really chatted about personal stuff. A lot of guys don’t I suppose.”
Freedman went on to form a new version of The Whitlams and their subsequent album, ‘97’s Eternal Nightcap, featured several songs that dealt with the subject of Plunder’s death and made the band a household name. In 2018 The Whitlams toured the country once again on their ‘25th Anniversary Pub Tour’, featuring a set list that revisited some of Plunder’s songs from their first two albums, such as ‘The Ballad of Lester Walker’, ‘Following My Own Tracks’, originally performed by the Shout Brothers, and ‘End of Your World’, which appeared on The Plunderers’ Trust Us EP.
Recently Dalton has begun going through the hundreds of recordings he has from throughout The Plunderers’ career and releasing the best of them via his Half A Cow website. “I do feel it’s a responsibility that should be taken seriously before it all gets lost,” he says. “We’re actually in the process of mixing our early 4-tracks and that’s gonna come out on vinyl early next year.
“We were an interesting band ‘cos all our contemporaries got really big around us and we stayed sort of small, and in hindsight I like that we did. We never actually broke up, I went off to join The Lemonheads and Stevie started The Whitlams, and we always thought one day we’ll do that album. If I’ve got any advice for bands it’s don’t save up your songs, ‘cos you might never get to do them.”
Keep up to date with The Plunderers archive releases at halfacow.com.au.
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