On Tuesday an Australian newspaper of repute published an earnest think-piece asking the question: where are all the great Aussie protest songs? Where oh where – in this, our Age of Unreason – are the new Midnight Oils, Goannas, Redgums and Chisels, the author, Jeff Apter, asks?
“Why do the musos of today … seem more concerned with navel-gazing and their fragile broken hearts than weightier, more universal issues?” he writes. “Why the resistance? It’s not like there’s a shortage of subjects to rail against.”
Indeed there isn’t: asylum seekers, Australia Day, violence against women, Aboriginal deaths in custody, marriage equality. And if you spare a moment to actually listen to the musos of today – particularly women, who don’t rate a mention in the piece, and people of colour – you’ll find each of those subjects feature in some of the best new Australian protest music around.
A mic drop on the nation. If the mark of a good protest song is to start a conversation, this song applied a set of jumper leads to the question of when we should hold our national day of celebration – and got voted to #16 in Triple J’s Hottest 100, before Triple J decided to change that date too. In Briggs’s words, holding Australia Day on the day of the invasion of the first fleet in 1788 is about as offensive as “[doing] it on my nan’s grave”.
Camp Cope: The Opener (2018)
Stella Donnelly: Boys Will Be Boys (2017)
More specifically in this vein, Perth musician Stella Donnelly’s wrenching Boys Will Be Boys (an old phrase, and now also the title of a new book by feminist commentator Clementine Ford) cuts to the bone: “Why was she all alone / Wearing her shirt that low? / They said ‘Boys will be boys’ / Deaf to the word ‘no’.”
Jen Cloher: Analysis Paralysis (2017)
Before last year’s marriage equality postal survey, Jen Cloher wrote this song about our parliament’s inability to resolve a matter entirely within its own purview to legislate. She took no prisoners in this evisceration of both the “feral right” and hashtag activist left: “Devoted to the show, not deeds of compassion / Full of good intentions but never any action.”
Cash Savage & the Last Drinks: Better Than That (2018)
Released only last week on her brilliant new album Good Citizens, Savage artfully documents the emotional and psychological impact of that risible and unnecessary survey on the LGBTIQ community, explaining how it feels for an entire country to have its say on your identity and humanity: “Every day brings another intrusion.”
Courtney Barnett: Nameless, Faceless (2018)
Barnett has sold quite a lot of records in the past five years, and is the darling of the American chat show circuit. She writes brilliant pop songs that often have a snarky edge, like this one about her wish to walk through a park after dark without having to hold her keys between her fingers. The song took on more potency weeks after its release when young Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon was murdered walking through a park in Carlton.
Kudzai Chirunga: 4 Deep in the Suburbs (2018)
Written in response to the confected “African gangs” non-crisis – with a video including inflammatory clips from Channel 7 news – Zimbabwean-born Kudzai Chirunga racked up 125,000 views in a week with this beautiful, lyrical lament to walking down Melbourne’s streets of fear: “Feeling the shame, I’m feeling nervous / Walking through streets watching locals closing their curtains.”
Mojo Juju feat. The Pasifika Vitoria Choir: Native Tongue (2018)
This might be the best single of the year. Ruiz de Luzuriaga (Mojo Juju) speaks of her Wiradjuri great-grandfather and Filipino father in this stately, soulful song of identity and erasure. “I don’t speak my father’s native tongue / I was born under a southern sun / I’ve got nowhere I belong / I don’t know where I belong.”
Missy Higgins: Oh Canada (2016)
There have been many songs written about Australia’s appalling treatment of asylum seekers – among rock bands, the Drones dedicated most of their last album Feelin Kinda Free to the topic, led by the brutal single Taman Shud – but Missy Higgins’ Oh Canada makes its point more kindly, gently, and with equal moral force.
TISM: The Phillip Ruddock Blues (2002)
To be fair, this one is a bit older (released on the compilation album Best Off) and was written by a white dude. But since it was all that chatter about perhaps upgrading our national anthem that got Apter thinking, how about this song, which truly speaks to who we truly are, deep down in our mean, spiteful little hearts? “And why should we let towelheads in, just ’cos their ships don’t float / What other race has ever come to Australia in a boat?”
Spencer P Jones wasn’t a household name of Australian rock music. But he worked with many who were (Tex Perkins, in their band the Beasts of Bourbon, as well as Paul Kelly and Renée Geyer) and was held in high esteem by many beyond these shores, notably Neil Young.
His work as a guitarist and songwriter also influenced many, including the Drones, who covered one of his songs and whose principal members, Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin, recorded an album with him under the name the Nothing Butts in 2012.
The news of his passing from liver cancer on Tuesday, aged 61, was no surprise. He’d been forced into retirement from the stage (a place you otherwise couldn’t keep him from) a few years ago, and was advised of his terminal condition in June.
His rare appearances had been limited to guest spots, one of his last being for the Beasts of Bourbon’s bass player Brian Hooper in April. Hooper came out of hospital to perform, took the stage in a wheelchair and wearing an oxygen mask, and died days later, aged 55.
If this paints a familiarly grim picture of the rock musician’s fate, it might be worth mentioning that Jones’s first album with the Johnnys, recorded in 1986, was called Highlights Of A Dangerous Life. The highlights from Spencer’s could easily fill a book.
But unlike most rock stars, Jones didn’t look away from the consequences of his choices. One of his later songs, sadly never released, was called The Monkey Has Gone. A sad lament punctuated by clashing guitar chords in the chorus, it was about cleaning up, and owning it:
The monkey has gone Time to move along Get on with my life Say sorry to my wife But that’s a different song Thankfully, the monkey has gone
Born in Te Awamutu, New Zealand in 1956, Jones arrived in Sydney in 1976. In his first week there, he saw Broderick Smith’s country rock band the Dingoes, Radio Birdman at French’s Tavern in Darlinghurst and a much-bootlegged show by AC/DC at the Haymarket.
Those three gigs and their respective influences – country, punk and hard rock – all informed his later work. The Johnnys, Jones’s first band of note, were dubbed “cowpunk”, and they played the image to the hilt, wearing Stetsons, chaps and Cuban heels.
They also kept bar fridges on stage, painted as black as their amplifiers, which they’d open between each number to take beers from – a gimmick that helped prevent their riders from being pilfered.
The beer poured in rivers from the bar taps, too, but other stunts made them a publican’s nightmare. At the end of shows, the band would cut the twine holding the hay bales on stage, scattering straw throughout the venue. (This back in the days when everyone smoked at gigs.)
The Beasts of Bourbon, a supergroup featuring Perkins and the Scientists’ Kim Salmon, were an even more lethal proposition. Their first album, The Axeman’s Jazz, was recorded in a single eight-hour session, fuelled by three cases of beer and, well, who knows what else.
By the band’s fourth album, The Low Road – led by a song called Chase The Dragon – the band’s hard edge and habits were becoming obvious. They were ferocious live, Jones lurking in the shadows, puffing smoke from under the hat that obscured his receding hairline.
As a guitar player, he was highly rated, coming in 17th in a poll of Australian musicians that was topped by Cold Chisel’s Ian Moss. His Stratocaster chugged and wailed, always a bit behind the beat, and he held the history of rock ’n’ roll in his right hand.
At that stage, Jones wasn’t a prolific writer. The two Johnnys albums were padded with covers, and he contributed a minority of songs to the Beasts of Bourbon. But the quality control was high, and after his first solo album, Rumour Of Death in 1994, he blossomed.
For much of the 1990s, Jones played in Paul Kelly’s band. Jones once told me that Kelly taught him that songs didn’t just fall out of the sky: “You’ve got to do the work,” he said. After leaving the band, Jones hit a purple patch, recording a string of terrific albums through the 2000s.
Looking through his body of work – with the Johnnys, Beasts of Bourbon, Hell to Pay (formed with another hellraiser, Ian Rilen) and his solo records, what stands out above all is the consistency. You’d be hard pressed to identify a bad song on any of them.
It’s easy to imagine Bleeding Heart, a single recorded with the Johnnys with a little help from Kelly, as being a big hit in the latter’s hands. In time, we may view Jones as a songwriter of Kelly’s equal, but Jones’s snarling delivery and reputation undoubtedly scared many off.
There’s another story to be told here, about the Australian music industry’s cowardice and ageism. Had Jones been based in Austin, Texas and started a little earlier, he might have been venerated and celebrated for both his songs and transgressions, in the way of other outlaw country artists such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
But that’s a different song. Paraphrasing one of his best, The Day Marty Robbins Died, he’s with Mother Maybelle Carter and Hank Williams now, in that Grand Ole Opry in the sky.
Early in Jimmy Barnes’ memoir Working Class Man, he tells an anecdote about Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss. In 1974 the band, formed in Adelaide a year earlier, was living on a farm outside of Armidale in northern NSW. One day, in the middle of winter, the group went into town leaving Moss behind to practice while wearing, in Barnes’ recollection, only a towel.
Late that night, as it started to snow, the band returned and were startled to spot Moss ahead of them in the headlights, miles from the homestead by Barnes’ estimation, wandering starkers in the middle of the dirt road. “Mossy was always on another planet,” Barnes concludes, “but we loved him.”
At home in Sydney’s inner west, where he lives with his partner, jazz singer Margeaux Rolleston and their son Julian, 14, Moss seems perfectly earth-bound, albeit shy. A white Gretsch guitar sits on a stand next to sheet music for the torch song You’ve Changed. On the dining table is a booklet from the funeral of the late AC/DC guitarist, Malcolm Young.
On a shelf behind him sits Barnes’ book, which he admits he hasn’t finished. So, what actually happened that night in 1974? At a minimum, you’d think finding Moss in such a state would warrant an immediate trip to hospital for hypothermia. “I don’t want to rain on Jim’s story, but there’s definitely a fair bit of poetic licence there,” he says with a wry chuckle.
The way he tells it is this. “About as naked as I would have gotten in that particular instance was a pair of boxer shorts, and I remember wearing a blue jacket with some real or fake lamb’s wool. I was having some issues with what’s popularly become known now as panic attacks. It was getting the better of me, and I just had to get out and run it off.” He was also only a few hundred metres, not miles, from the house. He was barefoot, though: “Barefoot was natural for me.”
Moss, who is about to release his seventh solo album, remains an elusive, almost spectral presence in Australian music. The writer and lead vocalist of one of Cold Chisel’s most celebrated songs, Bow River, hasn’t written too many more over the years, leaning heavily on others (usually the band’s piano and organ player Don Walker) for material.
He was born in 1955 in Alice Springs, the third of four children to Geoffrey and Lorna, who both worked for the local council. The way he speaks of the town’s wide open spaces might explain his case of cabin fever on a cold night outside of Armidale. “I’m a claustrophobe from way back, so I had no problems out there [alone in the dark],” he says. At 11, Moss picked up the guitar, and has barely put it down since.
As a boy, he visited Adelaide on summer holidays. He recalls seeing the ocean for the first time with a child’s innocence, expanding his arms: “Like, woooow!” He moved to Adelaide to finish high school and started an electronics course in 1973, but according to an interview with the ABC he only lasted a term after “daydreaming the whole time”, before working a series of factory jobs.
Barnes writes of Moss: “He seemed to look down at his feet a lot … When he did look at you, his eyes seemed to look deep inside you, searching [for something] he could reach out and connect with.” Walker describes the guitarist as “quiet, intelligent, very funny, not pushy, not overconfident, and the most gifted musician I’ve ever seen. He has a punctuality problem. I owe him. I trust him.”
Moss doesn’t need to be told he has a punctuality problem. “I’ve always been a bit lazy,” he confesses, though most weekends will find him on stage somewhere, mostly solo and acoustic. He speaks slowly, and long, long pauses punctuate his conversation. He still lives, seemingly, on Alice Springs time. “I have had this habit of getting great ideas, and they’ve laid moribund for a long time, on the wrong side of the finishing line.”
Bow Riverwas a case in point. “The first thing that came to me was what you might call the bridge,” he says. He sings: “Listen now to the wind, babe / Listen now to the rain / Feel that water, licking at my feet again – just that.” He sang it one day at a rehearsal, off the cuff; the band’s drummer, the late Steve Prestwich, encouraged him to keep at it. It took years.
Imagine, for a moment, being Ian Moss. He is blessed with one of the finest white soul voices anywhere, a prodigious songwriting gift, and palpable on-stage charisma. He could easily have fronted any other band in the world. But in Cold Chisel he was surrounded by songwriters, every one of whom contributed hits, the majority by a genuine great in Walker.
He sang lead on a handful of songs, including My Baby, but you only have listen to the final verse in Bow River – when Barnes swoops in and tears the song to shreds – to understand why it was easier for Moss to remain in the background. In a 2014 poll, his musical peers rated him Australia’s greatest guitarist, pipping Malcolm Young (not the popular fancy Angus) as No. 1.
Tim Rogers, whose band You Am I covered Cold Chisel’s Houndog on a tribute album, describes Moss as “a quiet gentleman who explodes with passion and vigour on stage [with] finesse and fire that mesmerises me … Soulful and supple of voice and a deft, romantic songwriter. That he’s handsome too is just ridiculous.”
Yet Moss admits he lacks self-confidence. In a way, it’s easier for him in Cold Chisel. “Jim’s the frontman, he can take all that pressure. I do still enjoy it when I get out there, but it’s always a little bit easier if someone [else] has got that pressure and you can just sit back and play guitar, sing the occasional song and do the backing vocals.”
You’d think the success of his first solo single, Tucker’s Daughter, released in 1989, might have cured him of his anxiety. Co-written with Walker, It went to No. 2, won an ARIA for Song of the Year, and the related album Matchbook went to No. 1, with double platinum sales. But releases since have been sporadic: his new album will be his first since 2009, and the first of all new material since 1996’s Petrolhead.
Did he enjoy the attention after the initial flush of solo success? “I guess so, yeah. Whether I was ready for it or not, I don’t know. And then … I guess there seemed to be that real or imagined pressure – oh well, you’ve had a really successful album, what’s going to happen if the second one’s not, how are you going to cope with that?”
The second album, Worlds Away, wasn’t as successful; it was released in 1991 as a wave of younger bands led by Nirvana swept aside the old guard. Moss faded into the background again. The 1990s had their share of difficult times; he split with his partner of more than a decade, actor Megan Williams, who in 2003, died of breast cancer at just 43.
On this album, he bears the lion’s share of songwriting credits. As usual, it’s been a long time in the making, though his voice is as strong and his guitar playing as tasteful and subtle as ever. The initial studio sessions were held in 2011, when Moss met Sydney songwriter Sam Hawksley, now based in Nashville and playing in the BoDeans.
In 2014, Hawksley called. “He said, ‘How you going with all those ideas lying moribund?’ I said ‘They’re still there, they’re not dead, but they’re still on the wrong side of the finishing line’.” Hawksley told him to gather them together, and in August that year Moss flew to Nashville, then returned to Cold Chisel as they prepared to record The Perfect Crime.
The songs sat around some more. Moss slips into the third person. “Sam was insistent that all I had to do was just relax, get into it, be Ian Moss – sing as well as Ian Moss can sing and play guitar as well as Ian Moss can, and it was all going to come together,” he says. “But the songs had been such a long time coming, and I just wanted to be really sure about them.”
If all this makes Moss sound obsessive, or at least an over-thinker, he’d learned from the best. “Don would play songs and [ask], ‘What do you think?’ He’d play the whole thing, and we’d say, let’s do it, it sounds great. He’d say ‘No, no, I’m not happy with the third syllable in the fourth word in the third line of the second verse!’ That level of detail.”
Since initially reforming in 1998, Cold Chisel have remained together for longer than during their original existence, save the tragic loss of Prestwich, who died of a brain tumour in 2011.
Chisel were arguably the Australian band of their generation before imploding in 1984, but it has taken far longer for their reputation to spread beyond Australia. The band undertook a disastrous tour of the US in 1981, playing mostly on the bottom of mismatched bills, an experience that prompted Barnes to write the seething single You Got Nothing I Want.
Moss, though, had a ball. “My playing went from here to here,” he says, raising his hand to indicate improvement. “But we were really starting to get sick of living in each other’s pockets. [Some of the] guys had met their future wives and some of the guys hadn’t … Jim had met [wife] Jane, and was obviously missing her like crazy.”
He motions to the picture of Malcolm Young on the table, and ponders whether things might have been different had they gone earlier. “I wish we’d done what these guys [AC/DC] did … To me someone should have said get overseas now, while you’re still young and all the energy’s there. I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t have been a massively different story.”
Perhaps, but one wonders how Moss might have fared had Chisel made the jump to world stages. You couldn’t take Alice Springs out of the boy then or, seemingly, the man now. Bow Riveris a song about escaping, of going home, even if – after that barefoot run through the snow back in Armidale – Moss is lucky to have any toes left for the water to lick at.
“I’d go back to Alice Springs on holiday and at least feel like I could relax, like I was at home, it just seemed a little bit more real,” he says. “That’s what Bow River was about, really. I’d had enough of the speed and the rat race and the insincerity and I was going back home, where people are real, and to the countryside I love.”
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 9 February 2018
In the nascent Sydney punk scene of 1976, the Oxford Funhouse on Taylor Square was ground zero. The venue had been established by Radio Birdman who, along with Brisbane’s the Saints, can lay claim to the title of Australia’s first punk band.
Peter Garrett, who was leading an embryonic band not yet named Midnight Oil at the time, checked them out early and came away a changed man, marvelling at how the hipsters in the crowd kept their sunglasses on amid the mayhem. “The sound was laser-bright and ferocious, and frontman Rob Younger was riveting, stalking the tiny stage with a leonine fury,” he wrote in his memoir, Big Blue Sky, released late last year.
If you want an idea of where Garrett got the unique dance step that captivated audiences for over 20 years, watch Younger in action. Garrett wasn’t informed by his movements so much as the idea of performance as an altered form of consciousness. “I like to get myself into a state where I’m not aware of what I do at all, yet somehow I get it all out,” Younger said at the time. “I don’t know, I try not to think about it.”
Garrett similarly deflects questions about his dancing, as if talking about it might cause him to freeze. “You’re suspending rational thought, as you should when you go into that zone,” he says. “When you start to move and feel the energy around you, if you think about it for one second you become a clichéd plastic statue. Which we’ll try to avoid for a little bit longer.”
Garrett – as he proclaimed on Tall Trees, the first song and single from his first solo album, A Version Of Now – is back, and he remains a man of formidable energy. If his 63 years have slowed him somewhat, he won’t be merely treading the boards on an upcoming promotional tour, either. Later in the year Midnight Oil will reconvene, with the band planning to spend much of 2017 on the road. Again.
There are two public sides to Garrett: the whirling dervish on stage, and the highly organised figure who, years before he left Midnight Oil to join the Labor party, served his first term as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation between 1989 and 1993, at the height of the band’s success. He then served a further two years on the international board of Greenpeace.
“They’re both the same person,” Garrett says, lounging in a community café in Redfern, where he’s just done an interview for Koori Radio. As distinctive as ever, he doesn’t escape without shy requests for selfies and signatures. “You might discover different sides of the same person when you go on holidays with them, or sitting around a campfire, or if you have a big night in a karaoke bar.”
Garrett is used to being reduced to a caricature. So was his band. “[Midnight Oil was] misunderstood in terms of being seen as specifically constructed to deliver a political philosophy,” he says. “Misunderstood in being seen as very blokey and pub-ish, which we weren’t at all, certainly not as people. Misunderstood overseas, because no one knew where the hell Australia was, or what we were writing about.”
That didn’t stop Beds Are Burning – a pointed call to white Australia to return the land to its original inhabitants – from becoming the band’s biggest hit in America. Still, there was always more to Midnight Oil than slogans. “I thought there was some abstraction in what we were doing,” Garrett says, before conceding: “Probably not a lot of humour, it’s fair to say. Not my strong suit. Humour ain’t Oils!”
A Version Of Now isn’t played for laughs, either, but it’s often unexpectedly tender and sweet. There are love songs to Doris, his wife of 30 years, which are as direct as anything he’s ever written. Their three daughters, Emily, May and Grace, sing harmonies; May even plays drums on one track.
And while it features the Oils’ guitarist Martin Rotsey, it sounds like a genuinely personal solo project. There was no thought of bringing the songs to rest of the group, he says: “They came so quickly, and then I knuckled down and tried to knock them into shape and get people to play them as quickly as I could. They sounded like Peter Garrett songs.”
What it does share with his old band is some of the rawness that marked their early records. The approach was basic: “We’re in a room, we’ve learned the chords – or maybe we haven’t quite learned them – and we’re going to grab the moment.” The album was produced by Burke Reid, who has worked with the Drones and Courtney Barnett. Garrett was inspired by the unvarnished sound of both.
“The Courtney record [Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Think] was like being on a skateboard, rolling down a hill – ‘This is what I am, this is what I sound like, this is what I talk about’,” he says. “It had a spirit of music that I love that is timeless in some ways, because it was so gritty, real and without pretension.”
People often ask who dares to talk about big issues in popular music these days and it hasn’t escaped Garrett that the Drones and Barnett are among them. “There’s plenty of it out there [and] I was interested in what they had to say, but I also liked the sound.” The music, he insists, always comes first. “If it doesn’t have that internal combustion, you’ve got nothing.”
None of which means that Garrett has nothing to say. I’d Do It Again, the album’s second song, should stay a thousand journalists’ questions: “I didn’t jump, I wasn’t pushed / I went on my own, I’ve got to do what I could / I got my hands dirty and had a go”. Garrett’s rejection of the purity of activism for the messy compromises of high office remains unapologetic.
But those words “I’m back” also suggest he’s nothing if not happy to be making music again. “And who wouldn’t be, really? It’s not that I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, but they’re very different kinds of vocations and there’s not a lot of blend. I guess my starting point is that I think we can have a go at more than one kind of thing, and many people do.”
He concedes he “sometimes” felt like an outsider in politics, and in the Labor party too, partially because he wasn’t part of any faction. But neither was he a career politician. “The fact of the matter is, and most politicians would recognise it, that to some extent the lives that they’ve lived prior to entering the parliament are quite narrow.”
The result, he says, is an entrenching of the political classes, in which he includes advisers, lobbyists and various apparatchiks and insiders, including the press gallery. “The ultimate result of that confection is that it’s very difficult to break out from stasis or antipathy and the never-ending striving for short-term political advantage.”
Political progress is an illusory thing. Sometimes we go backwards; at others, around in circles. After the 2010 election, he remembers, suddenly “there was a row of younger, seriously hardline right-wing climate sceptics sitting on the other side of the parliament. It makes you pause for a second to think, and it also makes you demand of someone like the current prime minister [Malcolm Turnbull] that they do live up to their convictions.”
But the intractability of issues such as refugee policy, for example – which Garrett admits was “deeply, deeply challenging” – often meant personal convictions came a distant last in the same political machinery he has just described. Part of our disenchantment, he says, is driven by a skewed view of what politics can realistically deliver. And when it doesn’t, “there’s no shortage of people howling it down”.
No one, at least, could accuse Garrett of not having experienced life before entering politics. Two high points he names from Midnight Oil’s career were playing the first multi-racial concert in South Africa in 1994, following the election of Nelson Mandela as president, to roughly 80,000 people in Ellis Park, Johannesburg; and playing Beds Are Burning at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, with the band wearing “Sorry” suits.
That – like the band playing on a flatbed truck outside the Exxon building in Manhattan in 1990, in a guerrilla-style protest after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill the previous year – was essentially a prank but it was also extremely effective political theatre. And very punk. “It was agitprop,” Garrett says. At such times, “we felt we were part of something bigger that was at play”.
Whether the band will enter the studio again remains to be seen. “I think [the band members] obviously are still creative, [we’d] like to be creative. You’ve got to do it for the right reasons.” He notes the band’s contemporaries Cold Chisel have had a second life, “and they’ve made a fair fist of it. It’s been good, the stuff that they’ve done, I’ve enjoyed it.
“There’s no reason why not. We’re not bound temporally; we’re only bound by how fearful, how brave, how imaginative, how hard we’re prepared to work, and I think if we continue to bring the love of music and making music together then maybe we’ll see something come out the other end. Whatever it is you do, if it’s still moving you, then try to do as much of it as possible, before it’s too late.”
But, always, it’s the live shows that will come first. Midnight Oil became effective users of the studio as an instrument – particularly on their 1982 breakthrough album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. But the studio is a bit like the parliament: sounds are negotiated, compromised and brokered. It’s on stage, in front of an audience, where Midnight Oil made its reputation.
Garrett’s upcoming solo tour will give him the chance to splay his hands and wave those long arms around again, in those inimitable jerky movements that somehow work with the jagged angles of the music. But really, it’s a prelude to the main act next year, when the Midnight Oil juggernaut rolls back into action. It’s also a test. Can they do it again, or will they be, in Garrett’s words, clichéd plastic statues?
“It’s not like we can go out every night, [whether] it’s a club show or a theatre show, and just switch it,” he says. “We’ve got to suck the music out of the marrow of our bones and spit it back out over people, with all the sense of no tomorrow that we can muster up.”
How to sum up the life and times of Ian “Molly” Meldrum? If you think four hours is an extraordinary chunk of airtime to devote to a television biopic on the cat in the hat, you probably didn’t grow up in the 1970s and ’80s. If you did, you almost certainly grew up on Countdown, the weekly music program that, over 13 years and 563 episodes, made Molly the unlikeliest of entertainment icons.
Molly, which premiered on Channel Seven last night in the first of a two-part mini-series, tells his story ingeniously and, perhaps, with a touch of sly irony: via a series of flashbacks, following Meldrum’s terrible accident at home in 2011, which left him with severe injuries. (At the time of the show’s airing, Meldrum is recovering after a second fall in Thailand).
It allows for an unashamedly nostalgic, but also unexpectedly affecting look back at an era that was both more innocent and less straight-laced. As a gormless young suburban boy, I mostly took even Countdown’s most anarchic moments at face value. Even so, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just the infamous 100th episode when its host – not to mention its guest stars – turned up on set considerably the worse for wear.
With his craggy features, Samuel Johnson was born to play Molly. More impressive than the physical resemblance, though, is the genuine pathos with which Johnson invests in the character. Underneath Molly’s bumbling, stuttering exterior (his first word on air is “um”) lies an intuitive intelligence and the irrepressible enthusiasm that audiences came to adore him for.
He’s also fiercely – and physically – loyal, which gets him into trouble both with the law and his superiors at the ABC, especially buttoned-down executive Alan Wade, played with perfect rectitude by Benedict Hardie. He is ably protected by Countdown’s producers, Michael Shrimpton (Tom O’Sullivan) and Rob Weekes (TJ Power), whose main job seems to be to save our hero from himself.
The show touches delicately on his early family life: Meldrum is raised mostly by his grandmother, after his mother is hospitalised due to an unspecified mental illness. Then, of course, there is his sexuality, which became a talking point last month after Johnson told the ABC that a scene in which he kisses another man had been cut by Meldrum himself, who thought it was “gratuitous”. (“I wanted the kiss in, I wanted it to be in there, it wasn’t gratuitous at all,” Johnson said.)
As our first sexually fluid television star, Meldrum never really came out, because he never really had to – what you saw was what you got. Here, the subject is dealt with mostly via a series of nudges, winks and knowing looks, until a touching scene where Molly, who is engaged to Camille (Rebecca Breeds) takes his strung-out, heroin-addicted transgender housemate Caroline back to his backwoods Victorian home town of Quambatook, only for both to accuse each other of running away from themselves.
It’s these glimpses into the man behind the mononym that made the first episode of Molly so much more satisfying than Never Tear Us Apart, the INXS mini-series from 2014. We see his self-doubt – “If this falls apart, no one’s gonna give me another chance,” he confesses to Camille before Countdown’s debut – and more obscure details, like his lifelong obsession with Egyptology and the St Kilda football club.
In between all this is the music. Countdown’s influence on a generation of Australian music – both for better and worse – is incontestable, and Meldrum, for over a decade, was at the centre of it. (This extended to his role as a producer – both on Russell Morris’s epochal flower-power hit The Real Thing and Supernaut’s bisexual anthem I Like It Both Ways.)
The structure of Molly allows for Countdown’s most celebrated appearances and controversies to be gleefully recast: the initial appearance of Skyhooks, the endlessly replayed “interview” with a loaded Iggy Pop, and the later refusal of Midnight Oil to appear. Along with Cold Chisel’s trashing of the Countdown awards set in 1981, their withdrawal signalled the beginning of a waning in the show’s agenda-setting power.
But the best moment – indeed, as the man himself had it, the most important moment in the history of the program – was Meldrum’s catastrophic interview with a youthful Prince Charles, during which he repeatedly fluffed his lines, swore, put his hand on the Prince’s knee while calling him “lovey”, and asked after his mum (“You mean Her Majesty The Queen,” came the unctuous reply).
The wonder of this scene is, of course, amazement that it happened at all. But the 1970s were different days, when the ABC still played God Save The Queen before it ceased broadcasting at midnight – but also a time when AC/DC’s Bon Scott, wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform and pigtails, could smoke a durrie while attacking Angus Young with a rubber mallet during a live performance on the national broadcaster.
Whether inept or insouciant, Meldrum’s treatment of Charles said much about our history and our relationship with our colonial masters. But it also spoke of Molly’s almost comic inability to be anyone other than himself, and his determination to treat everybody – as his grandmother taught him – the same. Molly the mini-series is a funny, warm and wholeheartedly affectionate tribute.
I used to hate Cold Chisel. As a teenager in the 1980s, it was hard to avoid them. FM radio couldn’t get enough of them, and Khe Sanh was especially ubiquitous, pumped out of every muscle-car stereo at the beach like an extra pipeline of exhaust fumes.
Despite growing up in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne, I stood outside of their tribe; the mullet-headed kids that liked them were the ones that gave me a hard time at school. I hated all that masculine camaraderie, the “suck more piss” ethos of their fans and their totemic status in the pantheon of Oz rock.
But strangely, I don’t hate Cold Chisel anymore. They are the crocodiles of Australian rock & roll: a dinosaur that will outlive us all. Doc Neeson is gone, though the Angels gamely play on without him. Midnight Oil died when Peter Garrett stopped dancing and took his pulpit into politics.
Cold Chisel are Oz rock’s last great survivors.
On 2 October they will launch their eighth studio album, The Perfect Crime, at the Deni (Deniliquin) Ute Muster in the New South Wales Riverina. The cover depicts what looks like one of those muscle cars, tail-lights glowing on some lonely country road.
Maybe, like most men of a certain age, my ears are getting bigger. For all my efforts to beat ’em to deaf by standing close to amplifiers for more than half my life, they’re hearing things they didn’t before.
The band has endured for a number of reasons, the main one being an abundance of stellar songs from a multi-pronged team. Don Walker gets most of the kudos – behind the band’s boozy camaraderie (the image of Jimmy Barnes, wine flagon aloft, is synonymous with Cold Chisel), it was easy to miss the sensitivity and literacy of Walker’s lyrics.
But Ian Moss (Bow River), Phil Small (My Baby) and Barnes (No Sense) all took their share of credits too, as did drummer Steve Prestwich, who departed the band, and this mortal coil, in 2011. He also left us with two of the band’s classics: When The War Is Over and the gorgeous lilt of Forever Now.
Chisel rocked hard when they wanted to, and that was often enough. But what stands out now is their versatility; their ability to jump from white soul (Barnes’s voice, pre-solo career, was a marvel) to pop and even reggae.
These days they’ve outgrown the nostalgia understandably felt for them (and other so-called heritage acts) by those who grew up with them: the fans who came of age with them in dangerously overcrowded pubs, back when you could go home with a tumour on your lung from smoke inhalation.
Their One Night Stand national tour – a play on what was supposed to be their Last Stand tour back in 1983 – will be supported by Grinspoon, coaxed out of their indefinite hiatus. Singer Phil Jamieson tells of singing backing vocals for Flame Trees in 2011, arm in arm with his bandmates, as “a moment – I may have even fallen into a bush in my excitement”.
When I was younger, I couldn’t bring myself to admit that the middle eight in that song – “Do you remember, nothing stopped us on the field in our day” – somehow always made the hairs on my arms stand on end. These days I can safely admit to loving them.