half deaf completely madHalf Deaf, Completely Mad: The Chaotic Genius of Australia’s Most Legendary Producer
By Tony Cohen with John Olson
(Black Ink)

“Unputdownable” is a word and it officially entered the English lexicon in 1947. That’s a full decade before Tony Cohen came into the world, but the descriptor could have been custom-built for “Half Deaf, Completely Mad”, his posthumous autobiography.

This is a tale of hyper-energy and off-the-wall sonic experimentation cleverly disguised as a 230-page paperback. It’s a weaving, sometimes wobbling story told through Cohen’s often bloodshot or pinned eyes, with dry wit and self-deprecation. 

People who worked with the man and saw his excesses first-hand might question his ability to recall fine detail, but in the same manner that Tony would feverishly splice three-inch tape to insert a crucial edit, his co-writer John Olson stitched the bits together.

Not familiar with Tony Cohen’s work? The music he produced was the soundtrack of the life of anyone into Australian underground music in the 1980s and ‘90s. The Boys Next Door, the Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Michael Hutchence, The Johnnys, Beasts of Bourbon, Go-Betweens, Hunters and Collectors, Kim Salmon, Laughing Clowns, The Cruel Sea, The Saints, X, TISM…the list goes on. Flick through your own record collection and get back to me.


I hear ya: Sometimes it comes down to Sydney versus Melbourne, and high energy versus junkie rock. Cohen was pure Melbourne (although he did slum it in Sydney, London and Berlin, for a time), and did rely on his drugs (smack and speed), but to deny his influence or not acknowledge him as one of the last of a dying, old-school analogue breed is blinkered. 

Tony Cohen began his career in the old school recording workshop of Melbourne’s Armstrong Studios, rubbing shoulder with the likes of Molly Meldrum, Billy Thorpe and Lobby Loyde. 

It was LSD, hash and a bunch of middle-class schoolboys, The Boys Next Door, that opened his ears to experimentation. “Door Door” isn’t a very well realised record, but it did suggest a different path. Just as Cave and his mates came back from the UK a metamorphized musical proposition, Cohen kept evolving through spells at Richmond Recorders and elsewhere, and the rest is history.  

There are scores of telling personal insights in “Half Deaf, Completely Mad”. No spoilers here, but Jimmy Barnes, Spencer P Jones, Don Walker, Tex Perkins, Charlie Owen, Ian Rilen and Roger Grierson all figure. The striking thing is the generosity of spirit Cohen conveys in most of the tales he tells. Most of the critical ones are about himself; Cohen owns his faults and never varnishes the mistakes. 

One of the clever touches is how technical commentaries are thrown in at strategic parts of each chapter. The author never gets too pointy-headed - after all, Cohen’s production ethos was more about doing whatever sounded good while extracting a performance – so fear not. Where a song is referenced under the heading *LISTEN*, let Spotify be your guide (if it’s made its way to streaming) and Tony Cohen your departed teacher. (It's embedded in this review if it helps.)

Ultimately, this is a book about burning candles. It opens with a flare out following the brutal recording of The Bad Seeds’ “Mercy Seat”.  There’s poignancy in the closing chapter, especially, as the author passed in 2017, just after the bulk of the manuscript had been completed. 

And yes, I did consume “Half Deaf, Completely Mad in one session. 

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