King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard The Fillmore, San Francisco 12.10.17

Text: John Somerville

It’s 50 years since the Summer of Love and California is burning. Smoke shrouds San Francisco. Somehow Aussie psychedelic kids, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, have contrived to end their world tour on an apocalyptic note as big as the title of their album, Murder of the Universe. With a gig that matters.


This is the Fillmore, San Francisco, where the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother tuned in and turned on a revolution that eventually reached all the way to King Gizzard’s hometown of Geelong decades later.

Outside, the air around the Lower Haight and the Fillmore is a reminder of Black Saturday in 2005, Australia’s worst ever bush fire disaster. Geelong was its origin point. Here in San Francisco, inside the old Ballroom, another world prevails. It’s plastered with history, the walls lined with posters for nights so iconic and line-ups so incredible that these days billionaires would jet in to see them while the traffic jams would make Burning Man look like a desert picnic.

The tradition at the Fillmore was that every night the audience took home a poster of the gig, handed out at the door as they left. Hippie dives of ‘60s Haight Ashbury were literally wallpapered in these things. As King Gizzard keyboardist Ambrose Kenny Smith says to the crowd, it’s so awesome to be in this room with all the ghosts hanging out.

And sure enough, beneath the chandeliers you half expect to see Janis raise a bottle up on the balcony.

Still, tonight the figures here aren’t all ghosts. Sprinkled among the young Indian techies, Nor Cal gamers, stoners and geek girls there are genuine ‘Dead Heads’, head-banded, tie-dyed and grey. They’re always here. But man, tonight they’re really excited. This band has two drummers, and three guitarists, just the way the Grateful Dead did.

If you don’t know who King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard are you’re probably old, like older than 21. After all, there is no Countdown anymore, and MTV, for those who watch it, is as much about ‘reality’ shows as songs. These days musicians conquer the world one YouTube view at a time. Which is why your 18-year-old gamer son or daughter knows them, or will.

The band don’t operate in old ways. This year King Gizzard have released four albums. Each album is a concept, whether it’s Murder of the Universe, Nonagon Infinity or Quarters (where each of the four tracks runs exactly 10 minutes 10 seconds). Each went top five in Australia. The band have their own record company (of course). They organise their own festival: Gizzfest. They tour the world to a significant cult following. Keyboard player Ambrose Kenny Smith’s father is an Oz music icon, Broderick Smith of The Dingoes, a country rock band of the 1970s that found favour, if not mainstream popularity, in an American scene that connected to The Band, the Stones and Lynrd Skynrd. Needless to say, Ambrose Smith understands his history and plays a mean psychedelic harmonica.  

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard at the Fillmore, San Fransisco, 2017.

But like many great Aussie bands – AC/DC, X, INXS, even Daddy Cool – King Gizzard only really play one song. A song people can’t get enough of. For someone my age the elements of that song, though, are difficult to handle. Everything I’ve been conditioned to hate: prog, metal, nasally folky melodies, synchronised guitars. Singer Stu Mackenzie has been known to wear Yes T-shirts. FFS sometimes they play the flute.

Tonight Stu wears a ‘Mild High Club’ T shirt (with shorts), which for me might sum it up. They do this with enough AC/DC discipline and swagger in the rhythm section so that it doesn’t really matter. And anyway, the kids don’t know or care. It isn’t grandiose, or ‘classically rooted’, as we used to say about Yes. It doesn’t have endless solos like The Dead. This is tight, with the spareness and energy of surf music to match. It’s also delivered with a genuine lack of pretension and just enough geeky stage antics from Stu that it is actually… yes…  fun.

The crowd, of course, knows the words (there aren’t that many) to ‘Cellophane’. It’s so good they seem to play it twice. Like psychedelia, which hasn’t changed much, like surf music, which is even older, this is all about catching the wave.

On stage King Gizzard make signs of the beast, kids in Wizard hats crowd surf, the Indian techies dance like they are on Big Bang Theory and the geek girls stare longingly at Stu because what’s more desirable than a future tech billionaire, as Bon Scott might have pointed out (pointing to himself most likely), than a rock ‘n’ roll singer?

In the end they don’t even do an encore – because they don’t have to. Is there more or something else to them? Maybe. Their last song might have been a cover of Oz’s last great surf band The Cruel Sea’s ‘Black Stick’, but who knows? This is a band moving very fast, so fast it can sometimes seem to be in circles. The songs, the performance, the albums, the touring, the ‘60s, the present… it’s not clear if a universe has been murdered, as they say, or it is going through some kind of reincarnation in their sound.

As the geeks and nerds shuffle past the portrait of Jerry Garcia that commands the stairs, a grizzled security guard tells them to be patient: this is a special night kids, you get the poster, just like the old days. But – you know, you’s only get the poster these days if the band sell out at least three weeks in advance, he explains. This is a big deal for a young band from Geelong, even for one who has played Coachella and toured the world already. This summer at home they’ll be invoking the same magic stuff. So, if you catch your 18-year-olds sneaking out wearing wizard hats, don’t worry – they’re just heading for some fun.


King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard tour Australia in November. Dates and details here.


Sign up to our newsletter, Word on the Street, for your weekly dose of news, features, and culture direct from your neighbourhood.

* Mandatory Privacy Policy