Melbourne’s Primitive Calculators met as teenagers in the early 70s, growing up in the grim outer suburb of Springvale. The Velvet Underground and The MC5 were obvious heroes, but they were also inspired by lesser known bands like The Fugs, The 13th Floor Elevators and The Godz as well as the writing of obsessive rock journalist Lester Bangs.
By 1977, they had deserted Springvale for the more musically liberated environs of St. Kilda, forming a punk band called The Moths. Well-known figures like Nick Cave (The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party) and Ollie Olsen (Whirlywirld, No) would often come by to listen to records, but the Primitive Calculators were always outsiders in Melbourne’s punk scene.
A move to Fitzroy in 1978 helped Primitive Calculators develop a network of likeminded friends. They released their debut single in 1979, featuring the songs I Can’t Stop It and Do That Dance. Pressed with plain black labels in a stark monochrome sleeve, the single introduced many to the impassioned, atonal, electronic chaos that was the Primitive Calculators’ trademark.
The following year the band attempted to relocate to London, but seeing how difficult life was for fellow expats the Birthday Party and Whirlywhirld, decided instead to take an indefinite break. A live recording of a gig supporting the Boys Next Door in 1979 turned out to be Primitive Calculators’ swansong. Released by friend and supporter Alan Bamford in the early 1980s, Primitive Calculators is a crucial document of a band whose originality, power and humorously belligerent Australian mindset has never since been duplicated.
But the story didn’t stop there, as Primitive Calculators had an unexpected renaissance in 1986, when filmmaker Richard Lowenstein included them in his film Dogs In Space (starring a young Michael Hutchence), which was based on the Little Bands scene they had created.
In 2001, a 1979 live recording of Pumping Ugly Muscle was included on Chapter Music’s landmark Australian post-punk compilation Can’t Stop It! (CH37), named after the Calculator’s only studio recording.
This led to a renewed interest in the band and later the 2003 release of the Glitter Kids EP, of three live recordings from 1979 by Meeuw Muzik in the Netherlands.
The Primitive Calculators album was reissued on CD by Chapter in 2004 (CH47), with extra tracks from related projects The Moths, other live recordings from 1979 and an unnamed Primitive Calculators / Whirlywirld hybrid recorded in London, 1981).
In March 2007, Chapter released Primitive Calculators and Friends, 1979 – 1982 (CH55) a CD which contains the only studio recordings of the band (the 7″ single from 1979), the Little Band single, also from 1979, and live tracks from Little Band nights. It also contained other recordings from bands the members formed after 1980 such as a single called Zye Ye Ye (recorded in London, 1981 with Ollie Olsen and John Murphy), and bands formed after the return of some of the band members to Australia, from Europe, in 1982.
In January 2009, the band reunited for the inaugural Australian All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival at Mount Buller, in Victoria, curated by Nick Cave & the Band Seeds. The band occasionally play small venues and back yards around Melbourne, and feature in Richard Lowenstein’s 2009 documentary We’re Livin’ on Dog Food.