On 1 April 2019, singer and songwriter Troy Cassar-Daley was finishing up a song with Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss when he took a phone call. His father, who had been depressed and in poor health following a stroke, had taken his own life. The song’s chorus – “watching it all go south” – took on a too-real darker hue.
As 2019 stretched into the pandemic of 2020, Cassar-Daley entered a downward spiral. His long-standing marriage to broadcaster Laurel Edwards, with whom he has two adult children, was suffering. The son of a Bundjalung woman from Grafton in north-eastern New South Wales, he tried to escape back to country, seeking his grandmother’s counsel.
Cassar-Daley’s grandparents are long deceased, but he still talks to them. “I consult with them a lot when I’m sitting by myself on the river where I grew up, and I distinctly felt my grandmother say to me, ‘Your problems aren’t here. I think you know where the problems are; you have to go back,’” he says.
Cassar-Daley is part of the firmament of Australian country music, the winner of 37 Golden Guitar Awards, on top of numerous ARIA and Deadly gongs. On Friday, he released his 13th studio album, The World Today. It’s a classic mid-life crisis record, written as he grappled with the loss of his father and the reckoning in his relationship.
Unable to play live – being constantly on tour had been a sore point in his relationship – Cassar-Daley was finally forced to stop and think. “I started to grow a beard. I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, stop it, just stop. You are destroying everything that you love.”
By his own admission, Cassar-Daley had hardened. The music he was writing was getting harder, too, moving away from country to a rougher-hewn heartland rock. As well as working with Moss, he’d written a single (Shutting Down Our Town) for Jimmy Barnes; another song, Parole, was intended for Cold Chisel.
He ended up keeping it for The World Today. It was about Cassar-Daley’s cousin, who had been inside. Another song, an acoustic jewel called Doin’ Time, had been sent to him earlier by his friend Greg Storer, just after Cassar-Daley had visited the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, where he’d gazed at images of his idol playing at Folsom prison.
The themes of Indigenous incarceration and suicide were cemented when Cassar-Daley took another call from Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett, asking him if he’d like to read a couple of lines from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which appears in spoken-word form on the band’s Makarrata Project album from last year.
Cassar-Daley took these lines: “Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for our future.”
Back at home in Brisbane, songs about Cassar-Daley’s family life bubbled out as he tried to reconcile his grief for his father and his marriage. “It became a healing thing to write. I tried to soften how I felt, because I was very stubborn after losing my dad, stubborn towards anyone who tried to give me some reason as to why it happened,” he says.
Suicide has been a recurring tragedy in Cassar-Daley’s life. When he was still a boy, an uncle took his own life after being acquitted on a murder charge. “It was heavy duty. It tore the family apart, destroyed my grandmother. Even though it happened when I was very young, that hangover of sadness was still there. The song I Still Believe is pretty much about him.”
The ripples of that event spread through the family. Some of them found trouble. It wasn’t until long after he’d been out of jail that Cassar-Daley’s cousin, for whom Parole was written, felt free. Keeping clear from the crowd who had helped put him there was the biggest challenge: “Old friends have more power than you think,” as Cassar-Daley sings.
In between writing music in his studio at home, he set about patching up his marriage. From that, more hopeful songs emerged, starting with a peace offering called My Heart Still Burns for You. Being unable to tour helped: “Even though most of the dramas were at home, running out on tour or getting back on country wasn’t going to fix it,” he says.
When progress stalled, he says, “I’d go fishing, and I’d come back, and have another crack and we’d make some ground. And Covid, it had an effect on musicians one way or the other; it didn’t have a middle effect on anyone. It killed a lot of people’s creativity where they fell into a heap and went, what the fuck am I doing with my life, I’ve lost my purpose.
“I went through that for a few days. But a lot of people, their marriages went to shit, or their careers went arse-up – staging people and roadies lost everything they had booked in. So we weren’t alone here, everyone was feeling it. I had to actually almost give myself an uppercut to say, this is not broken as much as you think, it’s not beyond repair.”
Cassar-Daley’s great gift remains his ability to make his own stories resonate. Reading the Uluru Statement on The Makarrata Project, he also has the last words: “We leave base camp and start our trek across this great country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”
“It means a lot to be reading that last paragraph out,” he says. “Come On Down is the song [Midnight Oil] suggested I sing with them, and it was almost custom-made for how I feel. I’ve always said, ‘You’re welcome at my fire anytime.’ I say that to every walk of life, and this song captured that, so I was very proud to have been a part of it.”
For more than 45 years Michael Gudinski, who died on Monday aged 68, was a dominant, domineering, polarising but above all passionate figure in Australia’s cultural landscape. He lived and breathed Australian music.
Everyone who met Gudinski had a story to tell about him, not all of which are printable. What is indisputable is that life in Australia changed in a profound way when Mushroom Records – the label he co-founded in 1972 – released Skyhooks’ first album Living In The 70’s (complete with its errant apostrophe) a couple of years later.
Living In The 70’s topped the charts for four months, selling 240,000 copies. Beyond the sales, the album changed perceptions of what Australian music could be. Many of the lyrics (by bass player and songwriter Greg Macainsh) were hyperlocal to Gudinski’s beloved Melbourne.
In many ways, the album was a reflection of Gudinski himself: brash, hyperactive, coarse (more than half its tracks were banned from airplay), unapologetic and funny. It helped that it was released just as the music television show Countdown first appeared in Australian lounge rooms, with the support of Ian “Molly” Meldrum propelling Skyhooks to stardom.
Over the next decade, Mushroom released dozens of albums that presented their own interrogations of Australian life, from the Models’ Local &/Or General (1981) to the Triffids (Born Sandy Devotional, 1986), Hunters & Collectors (Human Frailty, 1986), the Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane and the Church’s Starfish (both 1988).
Gudinski also threw his weight behind transformative Indigenous artists Archie Roach and Yothu Yindi, whose careers have left an immense cultural legacy. And when Jimmy Barnes was struggling in the wake of Cold Chisel’s breakup, it was Gudinski to whom he turned for help launching his solo career. It turned him into Barnsey: an even bigger star.
Other Mushroom alumni included Renée Geyer, the Sports, Sunnyboys, New Zealand expatriates Split Enz and Scottish band Garbage. But Gudinski’s biggest success story by far was Kylie Minogue, whom he signed to Mushroom as a teenager. Minogue quickly outgrew her suburban soap origins to become a global dance music icon, selling more than 70m records worldwide.
Michael Solomon Gudinski was born in Melbourne on 22 August 1952, to Russian-Jewish migrants Kuba and Nina. He promoted events in Melbourne, staging the Sunbury festival in 1972, before launching Mushroom. In 1979 he launched the juggernaut touring agency Frontier, which Billboard ranked the third-largest promoter in the world in 2018.
In 1993 Gudinski sold 49 percent of the Mushroom Records label to News Ltd (now News Corp) and the remaining 51 percent stake in 1998, while keeping the Mushroom Group name. Subsidiaries of the group include the Harbour Agency and Liberation Music, which includes Dan Sultan and Julia Jacklin on its roster, and heritage label Bloodlines, which houses Barnes and Roach.
Gudinski was most commonly described as “larger than life” or a “force of nature”. The Hunters & Collectors’ singer Mark Seymour wrote in his memoir Thirteen Tonne Theory how Gudinski jumped all over his desk while browbeating the band for their signatures. “The guy was a nut,” Seymour wrote. But they ended up calling him “God”.
Many recalled his loyalty to artists. In his second book, Working Class Man, Barnes wrote that artists were “nurtured and given time to find their feet”. Few benefited from Gudinski’s patience more than Paul Kelly, who had two failed albums with his band the Dots before establishing himself in 1985 with his debut under his own name, Post, the first of a run of several classics for the label.
International artists also remembered Gudinski with fondness and good humour. In a statement released on Tuesday, Bruce Springsteen wrote: “Michael always spoke with a deep, rumbling voice, and the words would spill out so fast that half the time I needed an interpreter … He was loud, always in motion, intentionally (and unintentionally) hilarious, and deeply soulful.” Springsteen said he had never met a better promoter, describing Gudinski as “first, last and always a music man”.
In his later years Gudinski could still be spotted in Melbourne clubs catching shows, scouting for the next big thing. His final gig was Midnight Oil at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney last Friday, with Frontier staging the band’s Makarrata Live tour.
There was an irony in this. Gudinski and Midnight Oil, the most self-consciously Australian band of all, did not always got along so well: “We had our ups and downs back in the day,” the group acknowledged on Twitter. But, they said, his “passionate advocacy for Australian music was never in doubt”.
Gudinski is survived by his wife Sue, son Matt (executive director of Mushroom Group since 2013), his singer-songwriter daughter Kate, grandchildren Nina-Rose and Lulu, and about 200 Mushroom Group employees.
When singer Jimmy Barnes’ memoir Working Class Boy was released in 2016, it caused a sensation. Barnes’ account of his childhood went beyond the usual adjectives like “raw” and “harrowing” on the cover to something much more purgative: here was one celebrity memoir that hadn’t been written for the sake of a generous advance. Barnes had wrestled the demons of a traumatic childhood in private for decades. Now he was doing it in full view.
The other thing that made Working Class Boy so shocking, frankly, was that Barnes had written it himself. Wasn’t piano player Don Walker the literary genius behind Cold Chisel, with “Barnesy” the red-faced screamer out front? Barnes further upended expectations by gambling on the story of his pre-fame years first, but his way of telling it was riveting. His voice was urgent, empathetic, as wry as it was moving, with a gut-wrenching turn of phrase.
Inevitably, the sequel Working Class Man followed. This was the proverbial sex, drugs and rock & roll memoir that perhaps was originally craved, and certainly expected – but it was far more compelling for us knowing where Barnes had come from. Jimmy Barnes – the rock star, and sometimes the caricature – had been a fixture of Australian life for so long that we had underestimated him. It turned out we had known little of the man born James Dixon Swan.
The first book was subtitled “A memoir of running away”. The second, “A memoir of running out of time”. Barnes’ life was far too big to be contained in just one volume. And now we have a third: Killing Time is a collection of short stories – 45 anecdotes, jokes and sideways reminiscences that didn’t fit into the first two narratives. But these are more than leftovers: they’re essential stories from the spaces in between. And it’s these stories, and the books that came before, which will form the basis of the next edition of Guardian Australia’s book club.
So much of a life in music is spent waiting. The Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts, asked (in 1987) what it was like to have toured with the band for 25 years, quipped he’d only worked for five of them; the other 20 he’d just been hanging around. That’s a lot of time to kill. Barnes eventually realised, while waiting, he was slowly killing himself and causing terrible suffering to those around him – most importantly his beloved wife Jane, whom he refers to as his saviour.
Barnes is in a steadier place now. Like all of us, he still has his demons, but three books and an album later (last year’s superb My Criminal Record is perhaps his best solo work, a lyrical extension of the first two volumes) he’s wrestled them to the ground. “After all those years on the road, all those years of drifting, with no sense of belonging anywhere, I finally feel I have found my place in the world,” he writes.
A slight disclaimer is necessary. Early last year I wrote an artist bio for My Criminal Record, my first real contact with Jimmy. Twelve months later, I was diagnosed with advanced valvular heart disease, requiring open heart surgery. In July, while on the short list and waiting for the hospital to call me in, the phone rang from a private number. My enlarged ticker skipped a beat. “This is it,” I thought – only to hear Barnesy’s familiar Glaswegian chirp on the other end.
Like me, Jimmy had been born with a bicuspid aortic valve, and had joined the “zipper club” in 2007. He was checking in on me, offering support. Over the next couple of months, either side of my surgery in early August, I took several calls from Jimmy and Jane, sending their best wishes. I’ve since discovered I’m far from the only one they’ve offered their kindness and generosity to in a time of strife, both to people you might have heard of and others you probably haven’t.
Jimmy says he’s not killing time anymore. “Every moment is precious,” he writes – and after my own surgery, it sounds true, not trite. Every second feels like a second chance. His books are precious, too, because they touch on things that are common to us, in all our flawed humanity.
Please join us as we talk about love, life, music, family and time – killing it, marking it, wasting it, making up for it – and have your own questions ready, too.
After two best-selling, incredibly personal memoirs, Working Class Boy (2016) and Working Class Man (2017), you might think you know all there is to be known about James Dixon (Jimmy) Barnes.
You’d be wrong.
Barnes, by his own estimation, is still revealing himself. “There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know about me yet,” he says.
On 31 May, Jimmy Barnes will release his seventeenth solo studio album, My Criminal Record – his first rock album since 2010’s Rage and Ruin. It was recorded with his live band: Daniel Wayne Spencer and Davey Lane on guitars, son-in-law Benjamin Rodgers on bass, Clayton Doley on keyboards, with son Jackie Barnes and Warren Trout on drums and percussion.
It was written by Jimmy, with significant assistance from his oldest sparring partner, Cold Chisel’s Don Walker, whose name appears on six of the thirteen tracks. Outstanding contributions also come from close friends Troy Cassar-Daley, Mark Lizotte (aka Diesel) and the Living End’s Chris Cheney, as well as Rodgers, Harley Webster and Jade MacRae.
The earliest of these songs were written at the same time as Jimmy was in the process of writing his two memoirs – both of which won the prestigious Australian Book Industry Award – and the rest in the aftermath, as he sorted through the wreckage and triumphs of an uncontained life that sometimes spun out of control.
But Jimmy is back, older, smarter, healthier, and for My Criminal Record he has distilled and expanded upon those memoirs in 13 pieces of burning, heartland rock & roll. It will resonate with anyone who has ever found themselves standing on the outside, looking in.
The first lines of the album – the title track – set the tone.
Well I came from a broken home
My mama had a broken heart
And even though she tried to fight it
It was broken from the start
“I’ve got books of the darkest lyrics you’ve ever heard in your life – books that will never be published,” Jimmy says. In the context of his two books and the contents of this album, the most forensically honest and searching record of his storied career, it is a scary thought.
The earliest lyrics for My Criminal Record were written on planes, usually tapped out on a phone in between shows. Contemporaneous with his memoirs, the themes for the album quickly began to reveal themselves: of childhood poverty, huge success, self-destruction and self-discovery. Running away. Running out of time. And, ultimately, redemption.
But it’s a very different exercise trying to tell your story in a song than two books the size of a house brick. “You’re writing a chorus and trying to summarise a lifetime in a few lines,” Jimmy says. “It’s a lot more poignant and pointy than writing and telling the whole story.”
So, let’s get to the chorus of My Criminal Record:
My family has a record
That’s as long as your arm
And I don’t want you to read it
Because it’s going to do us harm
I keep it locked away somewhere I know
In a cellar that I call my youth
It’s my criminal record
It’s the truth
The sound of My Criminal Record, both the song and the album, is immediate: live, loud and in your face. Recorded with long-time producer Kevin “Caveman” Shirley, this is easily one of the rawest, hardest-hitting records Jimmy Barnes has ever made sonically, as well as lyrically.
“I couldn’t have done this record without my live band, because these were the guys who saw me fighting my demons every fucking night,” Jimmy says. “These guys get on stage with me and know that when I’m playing the songs, I’ll go, yeah, this is nice – but can you play it 10 times harder, like it’s the last time you’re ever going to play it?”
No song illustrates that approach better than Stolen Car (The Road’s On Fire), two versions of which appear on the record. Part I sounds like the car has already crashed, the wheels spinning mid-air after a rollover. Part II – which was actually the first version to be recorded – is a high-speed chase down thunder road:
I’m licking up the white lines
Going way too fast
They’re coming at me out of the future
Going into the past
“Licking up the white lines” is a Don Walker special, of course. Only he could have written that. From the beginning, Jimmy was sending his friend drafts of the lyrics he was feverishly writing between shows. A back-and-forth process would begin – Jimmy spilling his guts; Walker, ever the patient perfectionist, crafting and sharpening each idea.
“It’s funny writing with Don because I always feel like Don’s writing for me anyway, even though he’s not necessarily,” Jimmy says. “I used to think he was reading my mail, because he had an uncanny ability to write things that I thought were so personal to me, and when I’d read them I’d go Jesus, how did he know I felt like this?
“That’s why I never had a problem singing Don’s songs, and I think I was the perfect singer for most of his songs. But I think one of the appeals Don’s songwriting has [is] I think there’s so many Australian males out there who read Don’s lyrics and go, oh – this is about me.”
The most naked song on the album, however, was written not by Barnes and Walker, but Barnes, Benjamin Rodgers and Troy Cassar-Daley: My Demon (God Help Me). Anyone who has read Working Class Boy and Working Class Man will recognise where Jimmy is coming from, right from the song’s opening lines.
But the great gift of My Criminal Record, as with Jimmy’s books, is that this extraordinary man, who has lived a life of even more extraordinary extremes, has made his experiences so relatable. For most of us know, deep down, that whenever we’re running away – or running out of time – we can never outrun ourselves:
I’ve been running from something
That I could not see
I was running from something inside of me
I’ve been running from something that was hiding
Waiting to be free
Jimmy Barnes has done a lot of work on himself to get to this point – not just to stare down his demons, but to understand them. “It’s very easy to fall back,” he says. “Luckily one of the things that my childhood trauma made me was hypervigilant. I used to be hypervigilant and defensive and guarded; now I’m hypervigilant about those demons.
“It’s all relative, whatever your pain is. My pain, I couldn’t take away and I can’t let go of it, it’s always going to be there, but I’m not going to let it rule me or define me. I can see the patterns starting to emerge, and I know what to do to try and stop them, most of the time.”
Doing that work has had another, perhaps more unexpected benefit: Jimmy is singing maybe better than he ever has. He explains that he is better in touch with the emotions in the songs, and better able to express them as a result. The raw power and volume is still there, but it’s modulated by a new self-knowledge and sensitivity.
Once, he said, “I’d get up and scream and yell, drawing on that pain every night I sang from the time I was 15, maybe younger … My body would go automatically into that mode, just because that was all I could do; it was the only way I knew how to get it out, spitting venom at whoever walked past.
“Now, I know why I’m singing it. I know why I’m feeling it. I know why I have to get it out now, and writing the books helped me identify it. I still sing about the same things, but now I know exactly what I’m singing about.”
You won’t find a better example of the newfound subtlety and strength in Jimmy’s voice on My Criminal Record than Shutting Down Our Town, written by Troy Cassar-Daley especially for Barnes, after Troy finished reading Working Class Boy. Jimmy inhabits the song as fully as he inhabited the place he grew up in.
Everything I knew was back there on those streets
Every lesson learned kept me on my feet
But I can’t help thinking of the ones I left behind
“It’s about Elizabeth,” Jimmy says, referring to his childhood suburb, very much on the wrong side of the tracks in north Adelaide. “I changed a couple of words just because of local knowledge, but it was 99.99% a Troy song, and he played it to me and I immediately felt the connection.
“I drove through Elizabeth not long after I heard the song, and I felt a pain in my heart for the people there who are battling, trying to make a living when everything is stacked up against them. And only by a fucking complete miracle did I escape from that, and the truth is, I never escaped from it – it’s still there, it’s still in my heart.
“It’s sort of a heartland Working Class Man anthem, but Working Class Man was written by an American [Jonathan Cain]. This was written by somebody who feels the pain, and who’s writing about the darker side of Australia which I never wanted to face before. So it’s like the bookend to Working Class Man, but for me, it’s the real story.”
My Criminal Record is rounded out by two cover versions. The first – right in the heart of the record – is John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, a song Jimmy incorporated into his solo sets last year. It might seem an obvious choice for the singer of Working Class Man, but no song by a Beatle can be tackled lightly.
“John Lennon was such a wounded, dark person, and I always felt I was either going to sing that, or Mother,” Jimmy says. “Or Instant Karma. But once I put it in the show, every single line in the song, I could spit out and think oh fuck – this is me.”
The song bears a close relationship to another song on the album, Money And Class, that reflects Jimmy’s insights into the long-term impact of poverty gained through writing his memoirs. “That [feeling] where I’m never going to be good enough,” he says. No matter how successful Jimmy became, self-belief and self-doubt were forever locked in a death-match.
The other cover version is of Bruce Springsteen’s Tougher Than The Rest, from The Boss’s “divorce” album Tunnel Of Love. In Jimmy’s hands, however, Tougher Than The Rest is a hymn of undying devotion to the love of his life, Jane, his wife of 38 years.
“When we were in the thick of my worst moments, Tunnel Of Love came out, and I remember I’d be thinking, I’ve lost Jane, and I felt so bad about myself – how I was behaving and how out of it and how fucked up I was,” he says.
“And that song would come on, we’d be having parties, or people would be around, and every time, I’d turn it up and sing along with it. I’d sing it to Jane – “If you’re rough enough for love, baby, I’m tougher than the rest” – don’t give up on me now. I’m flawed, but I’m here.”
Years later, when Jimmy was supporting Springsteen on tour, he was called to The Boss’s dressing room. “He said, what song do you want to do? I said, Tougher Than The Rest. And he said, do you know it? I said, absolutely! I think he might have thought I was a stalker. I knew every nuance of every line.”
Tougher Than The Rest is the final song on the record – really, it couldn’t be any other way. But it’s preceded by another song of hope, written by Mark Lizotte, which complements the desperation of the Springsteen song perfectly.
“Mark’s seen the best and the worst of me, he’s lived through it with me, and he saw me fighting not only for my own sanity and my own life, but fighting to save my relationship,” Jimmy says.
“I wanted a rock song that was up; that had hope. The title is If Time Is On My Side. That’s saying, I’m hoping time is on my side – hang in there with me. That’s exactly what I was thinking when I was scratching and clawing and trying to save my life and my relationship with my friends and my family and the people around me.”
At the age of 63, close to 50 years into his career as one of Australia’s greatest ever singers and live performers, time has proved to be very much on Jimmy Barnes’s side. His is a story of astonishing tenacity and force of will. He has outlasted almost everyone, overcoming every hurdle thrown in his way – many of them, he will now admit, by himself.
While Working Class Boy and Working Class Man told the story of his life in many hundreds of pages of raw, riveting prose, My Criminal Record does it in around 50 minutes of brawling rock & roll. It is one of his finest ever albums, cut by a red-hot band committed only to the moment – and to the truth.
Jimmy’s finally ready to let you hear it.
MY CRIMINAL RECORD – TRACK BY TRACK
My Criminal Record
The opening cut of the album was written early, while Jimmy was working on his first memoir. It set the tone for everything to come. Jimmy: “My Criminal Record sort of sounds like the first book summed up into a song, to me. I feel really blessed that I actually got to the point where I could get to writing these books and deal with some of this stuff, because a lot of my mates didn’t.”
Shutting Down Our Town
A song that exemplifies the term heartland rock at a time when the blue-collar heartland that Jimmy grew up in is under more pressure than ever. Jimmy: “Troy rang me up and said, look, I read Working Class Boy, and as soon as I put it down I picked up my guitar and I wrote this song for you. It’s about Elizabeth. We’re told that if we work hard, we’ll be OK, but how can you work hard when they keep pulling the fucking rug out from under you?”
I’m In A Bad Mood
A song about rage, something Jimmy has never been short of. It’s about how you deal with it. Jimmy: “Writing these books, sitting passively inside my own head was one thing, because I had to process the information, but a lot of it did make me angry. This record I think allows me to get some of the anger out.”
Stolen Car (The Road’s On Fire) – Part I
The first version of this song to appear on the record came later in the recording sessions. Jimmy: “This was one of the later ones. I wrote the lyrics on a plane one night when I thought my life was out of control. We started working on that song, and I thought you know what, there isn’t enough of a chorus, it didn’t pay off enough for me. So, we went in and we dug deeper and it developed into this very moody piece.”
My Demon (God Help Me)
Along with Working Class Hero, My Demon (God Help Me) forms the emotional centrepiece of the album, a classic devil-down-the-crossroads blues. Jimmy: “We all have those demons to deal with, and you’d be surprised how similar they all are. They’re always there and if you drop your guard they’re going to fucking pounce on you. I know a lot of men who fight that same battle. But I’m sure it’s just the human condition.”
Working Class Hero
Jimmy sings this John Lennon masterpiece like he was born to. “I started doing the song on the Working Class Man shows in the light of Working Class Man, and how that song defined my whole life, really. It was one of the first ones we recorded, and I just thought we’d put it down and maybe use it somewhere, for a film or a B-side or something, but it just seemed to fit on the record so well.”
Belvedere And Cigarettes
This song was written by Jade MacRae, best friend of Jimmy’s daughter Mahalia, and her former partner Harley Webster. “It’s almost a blue-eyed soul melody with a scathing, self-hating lyric [about how] people who are going through traumatic times tend to make things worse by drinking themselves to death … I really related to that at the time, while I was in the process of sorting my life out and coming out the other end.”
I Won’t Let You Down
Written by the Living End’s Chris Cheney, this song provides an important counterpoint. “I wanted to have a couple of songs that had light at the end of the tunnel. Chris, when he sent it to me, said ‘I wrote this about my girl, but I couldn’t help thinking it was about you and Jane at the same time.’ It’s a great lyric – the fact that ‘I won’t let you down again’ means I’ve let you down in the past. That song’s about breaking that cycle.”
A Walker–Barnes composition, this was one of the first songs from the album to be written, once again combining a winning melody with a dark lyric. “It’s one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s about the emotions in the melody – from the repetitive chorus to when it bursts open in the verse, which gives you this chance of hope, and then the lyric cuts you down, which I really like.”
Money And Class
Jimmy: “It’s about that [feeling] where I’m never going to be good enough, I’m never going to be as good as those guys on the hill, no matter how much success I have. I’m in the process of letting that go. Money And Class and Working Class Hero, those two songs are really closely connected.”
Stolen Car (The Road’s On Fire) – Part II
The initial raw cut of this song forsakes moodiness for speed, volume and impact. Jimmy: “I just thought it had a lot of the urgency and anger and intensity that I felt when I was writing those lyrics. I was to-ing and fro-ing which version of Stolen Car to put on, and Kevin suggested that we put both on. I think both songs are different sides of the same coin.”
If Time Is On My Side
Along with Tougher Than The Rest, this one is for Jane, written by Mark Lizotte to a very specific brief from Jimmy. “I’ve known Mark since 1987, and we’ve been best friends and family since, he’s seen the best and the worst of me … I wanted a rock song, that was up, that had hope. The title is If Time Is On My Side but the full title is actually If Time Is On My Side, I’ll Never Let You Go. That’s saying, hang in there with me, you know.”
Tougher Than The Rest
Recorded in Brisbane on a day off with Jason Bonham, the son of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, when the pair crossed paths on tour. They had been hoping to record together for years. Jimmy: “There’s just something about where his snare sits in relation to the kick and the hi-hat that gave weight to that cover. I didn’t want to put covers on this record, but they were just so poignant to the whole story.”
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 & 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.