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Retrospective: The Lost History of The Valentinos

I had the good fortune of bumping into Lost Valentinos guitarist Andrew Santamaria while he was DJing for Saint Augustine Academy at a Fashion Week party. We spent a little time talking about what’s happening with the band - some R&R and back to basics writing - but more time talking about the early days.

When I first saw Andrew on stage his band was called Harlem Attack. I was a judge for the Macquarie University heat of the national band comp, and they were the strangest act on stage. You could be forgiven for thinking that a middle class Australian band with a waspy front man - Jonothan Martin - and a name like Harlem Attack was racist; a moniker equivalent of blackface, or call to hate crime - it was neither. If it had been racist, then although repugnant, the name would make sense. But it didn’t make sense. The crossed out alternatives on the entry form indicated that it was the topic of last minute debate, and that it probably didn’t make much sense to them either. 

The band played stiff cover songs. Though it wasn’t karaoke club painful, it was a boringly competent born from a mixture of nerves and years in school recitals. The song that stands out in the haze is a James Brown cover where Martin, like a lounge singer, came down from stage and ruffled my hair. It was quite a spectacle, a white guy in Harlem Attack with a backcombed Stones hairstyle, tight jeans and cuban heals, soullessly doing Soul. It was Howard Moon with Vince Noir’s style. They were all deadly serious. I was dumbfounded.

They got the lowest score recorded that year, about half the score comes from originality of material and audience reaction, I gave them zero for the material due to the covers, and a pittance for the low audience reaction. I had to write justification of my scores and I wrote with the vitriolic certainty that second year Arts students have. Emboldened by the anonymity I was very harsh. To add to the insult, a joke band comprised of drunk Uni bar regulars and a beatnik free poetry frontman got a better response - The Harlem Attack camp was mortified. 

I went to the bathroom and when I returned a blonde stood at the judges table teary eyed. It was a band member’s girlfriend, their first fan. She had read my comments and was horrified. It was never meant to be public. She demanded to know who wrote the horrible things, and admonished that we should be encouraging. I mumbled something about originality of material and that it was a competition and diplomatically remained anonymous.

To give context of the competition: The White Stripes, The Strokes, and The Vines were popular at the time and a favourite at that years comp was a garage band called The Shellacs -fronted by Richard Cuthbert who would later form Cuthbert and the Nightwalkers.

Martin and Santamaria took the poor result in their stride, reshuffled the lineup and undeterred went back to square one. We became friends, I eventually owned up to being the dickhead judge, and if they spat in my beer I didn’t notice. My memory of them is that they where overwhelmingly optimistic and amiable. Andrew was surely in a boys school kind of way, Jonathan Martin a compendium of rock history, and new frontman Nik Yiannikas bespeckled before nerdchic, but already had an easy charm.

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Next year they entered the Sydney Uni band comp, and in line with Jonothan Martin’s desire they were now a garage band with original songs and Ramones inspired riffs. Drummer Craig Whittaker completed the lineup - the son of a pub drummer, Australian as, a Southwest Sydney boy incongruent with the private school posture of the rest of the band. He only had one setting, but it was a good one: loud.

When I saw them play at the Manning Bar again the band name was the subject of a last minute decision. Jonothan Martin was preoccupied with the novel American Psycho and was keen to have a name from it. He had focused on the scene where they are talking about their favourite designers and narrowed it down to two options The Oliver People or The Valentinos, borrowed from designers Oliver People and Valentino. They chose The Oliver People, it was written on the run order. The name was primarily Martin’s decision but had the others blessing. I think the others were too preoccupied with the looming performance to agonise over a name.. anyway, Martin was agonising enough for all of them. It was a shit name, it wasn’t Harlem Attack bad, but it was still shithouse. I gently suggested that The Valentinos was better but it fell on deaf ears. I thanked Martin for naming the band in tribute to me and presto the name was once more scratched out and The Valentinos nee The Oliver People nee Harlem Attack performed. 

They were great, playing garage with a compelling Billy Childish simplicity. Had they been that band a year earlier at Macquarie they may have won. It was the kind of music that fans of garage, punk, grunge or any kind of primitive rock could get into. I miss seeing that band play, they were fun. ‘Junkie’ was a popular song. The operator of the Manning Bar was cunning enough to add as many heats as possible so as to maximise the free entertainment, so there were plenty of chances to see them play.

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They shared the stage one heat with Dead in Two Weeks. Zoey the singer, leggy and blonde, had the habit of wearing minuscule skirts and crawling on stage, the boys in the audience had a habit of watching from the front row. But great as she was, there was more to the band than the Beaver show: the band included Simon Jenkelson and Saul Wodak who would go on to form WIM and Daniel Stricker now of Midnight Juggernaughts. Contrary to his "bearded wise man of the desert" look of late, Dan was unquestionably a clean cut boy from the affluent Sydney Eastern Suburbs. He was already a focused and talented musician and an entirely gripping drummer to watch - one of those drummers whose physical performance is a show in itself.

Dan invited me to hear the Dead in Two Weeks demo. I clearly remember Dan’s attitude. Expecting oversensitivity from a musician in his early 20s, what I got was more akin to a film producer watching an audience at a test screening. It was striking. He was genuinely interested in how people were reacting to his music. From the start he was focused on engaging with the audience. It was educational in what it takes to cut it. 

The Valentinos didn’t win the Syd Uni comp but the bar manager liked them enough/thought they had enough friends to invite them back to play during the Uni break. It was a very empty room. A friend from Mac Uni Martin’s band The Sweet Amphetamines opened. I asked Marty if the name came from tasting glucose in your drugs and knowing that you’ve been ripped off, he replied that he didn’t do drugs and just liked the sound of it. Liam Brammell was playing guitar in the band at the time, and he shortly after joined The Valentinos.

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I recorded a video of The Valentinos band playing at Manning, but it is lost, the band recorded a one take demo at the 2SER radio studio. They played at Dan Neeson’s 21st, his rock legend dad Doc Neeson of The Angels was there, It was a great party, the moment for the original band. Around this time Drummer Craig was replaced by Dan Stricker, the Bass player and architect of the original band Jonothan Martin was replaced by Andrew’s brother Pat. 

Craig and Jonothan Martin both possess the joyful quality of being just happy to play and lack the cynicism (read ‘cool’) to survive/like a scene band. It would be fair to say that neither Craig nor Martin would want to be in the rebooted Valentinos; Craig because his down to earth quality prohibits tight jeans, anything other than a buzzcut, drinking with wankers or playing gigs on nights the St George Dragons have a game, and Martin because of his dedication to the Garage music that the others had well and truly abandoned. 

The band continued to move further from garage and towards 80’s inspiration (something between talking heads and bauhaus maybe). Liam was dropped from the band after a Melbourne tour incident and replaced by Kirin J Callinan (Mercy Arms/Jack Ladder). It was this lineup that led to the band that many of you would know. Liam contests and Kirin confirms that some his guitar lines remain, and I have no doubt that echoes of the original band remain, but what was now The Valentinos reminded me at the time more of what I had heard with Daniel Stricker and his demos from Dead In Two Weeks than anything I had heard from Jonothan Martin’s band.

Loosing the band hit Liam. He had hung in The Valentinos that bit longer than Martin, that he got a taste of what it was like to be in a scene band on the rise. I’m sure he had limitless dreams of where it might go, all crushed. Scallywag that he is, he got surprising mileage out of introducing himself as the ex-guitarist of The Valentinos, it gave him the opening for his easy charm to take over. It would be four years before he’d start playing again regularly as Juan Cortez. Check him out. He plays solid folk blues, and if you’re a fan of the Lost Valentinos you’ll get a hint of just how different the band used to be.

For me the period of the band’s greatest impact was when Dan Stricker and Kirin were with the band, and due to their subsequent success on other projects, it’s easy to slant the credit for The Valentinos in their favour. I asked them about it, and they were firm that this isn't the case. According to Dan and Kirin, it was in every way a band. I asked Andrew too and he agreed. Dan recalled that he joined a garage band that he liked, but it was Nik Yannikos giving him a mixtape of new influences at practice that was the catalyst for the push towards the 80s. They all talk about it as one of those fortunate moments where everything came together. People who watched this band felt like they were seeing something significant. The band felt that way too - when Kirin left the band due to binding commitments with The Mercy Arms he cried. The sense of loss at that moment was strong enough that Andrew considered calling it quits too. 

Apart from stumbling on the odd article or track on the radio, I lost track of the The Valentinos for a while after this. I read that they they changed their name to Lost Valentinos to avoid a trademark dispute. I met Kirin’s replacement Jono Ma when he played in side project Fashion Launches Rocket Launches at my warehouse with Kirin, clearly another talent. It’s nice how interwoven these musicians still are.

The most recent time I saw members of The Valentinos perform was as the house band for Good God Karaoke, Andrew playing guitar, Stricker Drumming, and Nick getting up to sing a song. Dan Neeson was also playing guitar. Like an odd dream made of jumbled memories, it reminded me of all the old Valentinos shows, of Dan Neeson’s 21st, band comp, Manning, and bowling club shows but most of all it reminded me of Harlem Attack playing covers in the uni bar. Except this time they were really good.

Photos with an asterix by Kalindy Millions.