Tagged: Cold Chisel

Ian Moss: The barefoot guitarist

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 River was 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 River is 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

Peter Garrett is back, and he’s ready to dance again

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.”

First published in The Guardian, 17 July 2016

Molly: the mini-series

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.

molly

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.

First published in The Guardian, 8 February 2016

How I learned to listen and love Cold Chisel

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.

First published in The Guardian, 27 August 2015

Out in the heartland, no rocker is safe from right-wingers

It’s getting to the stage where there practically isn’t a heartland rocker left whose songs haven’t been egregiously misused for conservative political ends. In America, it’s Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Now, in Australia, it’s Jimmy Barnes, who has been forced to distance himself from anti-immigration groups Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front, after Cold Chisel’s classic Khe Sanh was used in rallies over the weekend.

Don’t they know Barnes’ wife was born in Thailand? Did they never listen to Don Walker’s superb lyrics, which would have made it plain that Khe Sanh – about a burned-out Vietnam veteran – was not exactly a call to arms for an ethnically pure Australia?

Of course not, but let’s face it, we aren’t exactly dealing with Mensa candidates here.

“The aussie spirit is what you stood for in so many” (sic), bemoaned the Australian Defence League in reply to Barnes. “You have just showed the world and every Australian that grew up loving your music that you are nothing but a political correct fold at your knees idiot.” (sic, sic, sic.)

In America, the Republican Party has made a pastime of co-opting the songs of its heartland rockers. Only a few weeks ago, Donald Trump tried to get away with using Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World. Trump’s no Mensa candidate either, but as he likes to remind everybody on a regular basis, he’s really, really rich.

Back in 2000, Petty’s song I Won’t Back Down was used by George W Bush. Bush was the one to back down after the inevitable cease-and-desist, but not before his lawyers claimed that merely playing the song didn’t actually amount to any kind of endorsement – either by Petty of Bush, or vice versa.

Petty is a serial victim of this sort of thing: in 2011, Michele Bachmann used American Girl, which lasted one whole day on the hustings. Springsteen’s Born In The USA, about another Vietnam veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, is surely the most misunderstood and misappropriated song of all time.

One suspects that the Republican Party is fully aware that it will never be granted the necessary permissions by liberals like Springsteen and Petty, and simply doesn’t care. Once a candidate has been introduced to a rabid flag-waving crowd to the strains of an American anthem, the point has been made, as much as it’s been missed.

As the LA Weekly puts it, the problem with being a conservative and co-opting rock and roll is being really, really square at heart, as well as having terrible taste in music. If only the late Johnny Ramone, an infamous punk conservative, had written some songs! Too bad that all da bruddas’ best tunes, including the brilliant Reagan-baiting Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, were written by Joey and Dee Dee.

The reason the likes of Springsteen, Petty, Young and Barnes find themselves vulnerable to being hijacked by right-wingers is because these heartland rockers all play no-frills music with big choruses that amplify the concerns of small-town, blue-collar citizens. All while wearing denim.

And it’s exactly those voters, far more than the music, that conservatives are really interested in co-opting. In the USA, it was the so-called Reagan Democrats. In Australia, it was former prime minister John Howard’s Battlers, those all-important aspirational voters of the largely white working class, who live on the fringes of our capital cities and in our regional centres.

These are the working-class men and women who feel they’ve been left behind: their jobs downsized, done better by robots or simply shipped offshore; veterans left to suffer after returning home; and facing an uncertain future after a lifetime of hard labour. As Jimmy Barnes sings in Khe Sahn: “I’ve travelled round the world from year to year. And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear.”

The trick has been to convince these voters that what they really should be angry about are the trendy concerns of an inner-city elite – and anyone who could be a convenient scapegoat for their problems. Hence the unending culture war that – like all phoney wars – works best when it instils fear and loathing.

In Australia, Muslims and asylum seekers are only the easiest targets for that loathing. They’re also the best friends of a conservative movement that relies on an ageing and afraid white base. And the songs? Against their composers’ best intentions, suddenly they whisper: we’re just like you. We’re on your side. And we won’t back down.

First published in The Guardian, 22 July 2015

Final: The Great Australian Songbook V (10-1)

Count-dow-wn! It’s time for the top 10!

10. PAUL KELLY/KEV CARMODY – From Little Things Big Things Grow (1991, 1993)

The ultimate compromise choice on this list. Both Kelly and Carmody should feature individually in any compilation of great Australian songs, but which ones? In the end, I’ve gone for this co-write, initially recorded by Kelly for his 1991 album Comedy, then by Carmody (featuring Kelly) in 1993 for Bloodlines, with a single released the same year. It’s the story of the birth of the land rights movement in Australia, a campfire folk tune that a young Bob Dylan would have been proud of, and at least the equal of anything in either songwriter’s canon. Despite its 11 verses, it’s a story that tells itself; a masterclass in protest songwriting that wears its moral lightly.

9. FLAME TREES – Cold Chisel (1984)

Khe Sanh may be their signature tune, but this for me is the better one; a piece of heartland rock to rival anything by Bruce Springsteen: a small town, you and your mates, a boozy night of nostalgia, and a girl you can’t forget. Don Walker peels off line after line of unforgettable imagery here, and that middle-eight – “Do you remember, nothing stopped us on the field in our day” – never fails to stop me in my tracks. All credit, though, to Jimmy Barnes, who brings those words to life with the best white soul vocal this side of John Fogerty. After that, Barnes’ entire career has seemed like one long scream, as though he took the line “Ah! But who needs that sentimental bullshit anyway?” to heart. What a crying shame.

8. MIDNIGHT OIL – Power And The Passion (1982)

“People, wasting away, in paradise.” With that arresting opening line, Midnight’s Oil’s acerbic broadside to the I’m alright, Jack complacency of suburban Australia – along with US Forces, both from the band’s Armageddon-themed breakthrough 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – firmly established their political bona fides, while catapulting them into the top 10 for the first time. To do it, they deconstructed their earlier surf-rock sound with the aid of producer Nick Launay, creating a new template that was complex, attacking and immensely powerful. Rob Hirst’s solo ensured he topped “best drummer” rock magazine polls for a decade to come, and a final blast of brass pushes this most ambitious of songs over the edge.

7. CROWDED HOUSE – Don’t Dream It’s Over (1986)

Aside from being an enormous hit both locally and in the US (where it reached number two), I’m not sure that Don’t Dream It’s Over can lay claim to any wider significance. It’s just a superlative pop song. Neil Finn’s bright, chiming guitar riff sets the pace and tone, and there’s the lovely Hammond organ break that many have compared to Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale. But really, this is all about the chorus, purpose-built for couples around the world as they do their best to outlast the kitchen-sink trials of everyday life: “Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over / Hey now, hey now, when the world comes in / They come, they come, to build a wall between us / You know that they won’t win.” Even non-smokers like me needed a lighter to fire up for that one.

6. THE SAINTS – (I’m) Stranded (1976)

The first independently produced rock single in Australia, the Saints’ mighty debut not only beat fellow punk precursors Radio Birdman onto plastic, but also British counterparts the Damned and the Sex Pistols. In doing so, they inspired hundreds, if not thousands of others around the world, while kicking off a social revolution in their native Brisbane – which they quickly left. Dubbed “Single of This and Every Week” by British magazine Sounds after exported copies began arriving in Old Blighty, Stranded arrived like an emergency telegram from a lost land: such is its urgency, there’s no time for a guitar solo. (The B-side, which actually was called No Time, did have a solo – of one whole note.)

5. THE SEEKERS – The Carnival Is Over (1965)

For a long time, I was no fan of the Seekers. Simpering folk tunes like Georgie Girl did nothing for me. Then, in early 2009, I attended RocKwiz’s salute to the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, and Judith Durham closed the show with this old Russian folk tune (no surprise there; aside from Seekers gigs, the song has become synonymous with bringing the curtain down on major events in Australia). The purity of Durham’s voice, her power and control, cut through the still night air. I think I was among the first on my feet for the inevitable but deserved ovation. It’s been covered by everyone from Nick Cave to Boney M.

4. THE EASYBEATS – Sorry (1966)

In compiling this list, I’ve tried to strike a balance between genres, eras, cultural impact and unapologetic, if occasionally boneheaded personal favouritism. It’s purely the latter that leads me to choose this song over Friday On My Mind. That’s a masterpiece of pop sophistication, but this is raw R&B, as tough as anything cut by the early Rolling Stones, and thus I simply prefer it. Marking the dawn of Easyfever, it confirmed rock & roll was here to stay in Australia: George Young’s choppy rhythm guitar prefigures his younger brothers’ work in AC/DC, while Stevie Wright’s exuberant vocals – particularly his “I-I-I-e-I-I-I-I” outro – are completely infectious.

3. THE WARUMPI BAND – My Island Home (1987)

It’s funny that a song occasionally touted as an alternative national anthem is not about Australia at all, at least not per se. The Warumpi Band were formed in Papunya, in the deserts west of Alice Springs, and this achingly homesick song was written by the band’s white guitarist, Neil Murray, for their proud Yolngu singer: “home” in this case is actually the late George Burrawanga’s birthplace of Elcho Island, in north-east Arnhem Land. Burrawanga’s high, spiritual voice is perfect for the tune’s stately, hymn-like build; if your pulse doesn’t quicken with the tempo at 2.51, best check you’ve still got one. Belatedly made famous by Christine Anu’s hit version in 1995, but really, you can’t beat the original.

2. THE TRIFFIDS – Wide Open Road (1986)

As lonely, desolate and beautiful a song as any ever written, Wide Open Road is also based on the simplest of cyclical chord progressions (G-C-G-Em-Am). The song soars on Jill Birt’s sparse keyboards – note, again, the long, droning note that introduces the track, producing a vast, panoramic vista – with Alsy McDonald’s unusual kick-drum rhythm keeping the whole thing from floating away. Atop it all is the late, great David McComb’s commanding baritone: never forced, committed only to the story at hand, he matches naturalistic imagery with powerfully erotic longing. This is songwriting as a roadmap to the soul.

1. AC/DC – It’s A Long Way To The Top (1975)

It was hard not to put Wide Open Road here, but for me, It’s A Long Way To The Top is the one that still says it all. It exemplifies fundamental truths, not only about rock & roll, but AC/DC: the heart of the band is neither Angus Young nor Bon Scott (who liked to refer to himself as “the lightning flash in the middle”), but Malcolm Young. AC/DC are a rhythm machine: without Malcolm’s distinctive chop, the band is nothing; without the riff, rock & roll ceases to exist. Bon Scott’s high, wild vocal is joyous; his lyrics as economical as the music. This isn’t about the rock & roll lifestyle: it’s a metaphor for life itself, and it’s as real as it ever was – bagpipes and all.

AND HERE’S 10 MORE THAT COULD’VE/SHOULD’VE MADE IT …

The Loved Ones – The Loved One (1965)
Not Drowning, Waving – Sing Sing (1987; 1991)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJNT5BysUVU

You Am I – Purple Sneakers (1995)

The Master’s Apprentices – Turn Up Your Radio (1970)

Lime Spiders – Slave Girl (1984)

Ed Kuepper – The Way I Made You Feel (1991)

X – I Don’t Wanna Go Out (1980)

Died Pretty – DC (1991)

The Stems – At First Sight (1987)

The Passengers – It’s Just That I Miss You (1979).