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Rose Tattoo bassist was “bad for good” by Andrew Stafford

Of all the misfortunes that could have taken founding Rose Tattoo member Ian Rilen from this earth, few in Australia’s music community would have been laying bets on cancer. Notoriously hard-living, Rilen was often compared to Keith Richards, Iggy Pop and Motorhead’s Lemmy – both for his authentic rock ’n’ roll spirit and for his freakishly robust constitution. He seemed genuinely indestructible.

But to focus on Rilen’s lifestyle risks reducing him to a cliché, something he most assuredly was not. Rilen, above all, was uncompromising. Even if Bad Boy for Love was the only Rose Tattoo song you knew, it should tell you something about its co-author that he legendarily left the band in 1977, on the cusp of mainstream success, because they weren’t “hard enough”.

That might be difficult to imagine – the first Rose Tattoo album, released after Rilen’s departure but with his fingerprints all over it, is as tough an album as any released by their only real peers, AC/DC – but Rilen’s new band, X, proved he wasn’t kidding.

Rather than relying on the hard rock/boogie that was Rose Tattoo’s stock-in-trade – and very much Australian rock orthodoxy at the time – X (not to be confused with the Los Angeles punks of the same name) were true originals; stuck for a pigeonhole, writers often simply described their sound as “X-music”.

Neither metal nor really punk, despite being a vital part of the original late 1970s Sydney punk explosion, the X sound was more intense than either. With Rilen’s sheet-anchor bass flanked by novice guitarist Steve Lucas and the late Steve Cafeiro on drums, the band never played with anything less than total commitment. Police were a frequent presence at the band’s riotous early gigs.

X were heavy and incredibly loud, but also capable of surprising tenderness, a quality Rilen had shown as far back as the Rose Tattoo ballad Stuck on You – a song frequently and reverently covered by Hunters & Collectors, whose singer Mark Seymour also adopted Rilen’s blue-collar singlet as stage uniform.

The band split not long after their first album, the landmark X-Aspirations, was released in 1980. Rilen then formed Sardine v with then-wife Stephanie. Sardine v represented an unlikely move towards electronic pop, even earning Rilen a Countdown appearance, but a 1983 EP titled I Hate You probably ensured he would remain marginalised.

In 1985, Rilen reformed X in Melbourne with new drummer Cathy Green and released a second remarkable album, At Home with You. A third, And More, appeared in 1988. Far from fading away, Rilen produced some of his most lauded work in recent years, with two solo albums, Love is Murder (2001) and Passion, Boots and Bruises (2004). A final album was completed before his death.

Rilen continued to perform until close to the end, including a recent benefit for Lobby Loyde, the producer of X’s three albums, also battling cancer. Rilen himself was the subject of a benefit gig three weeks ago, where better-known luminaries including the Hoodoo Gurus, Paul Kelly and Cold Chisel songwriter Don Walker – who referred to Rilen as a “national treasure” – paid tribute.

The show raised $40,000, which will now be donated to Rilen’s family. He is survived by his partner Brigitte, their one-year-old son Romeo and his three children from previous marriages, Jai Jai, Gentilla and Tallulah.

Andrew Stafford is the author of Pig City: from the Saints to Savage Garden (UQP).


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