I WISH I had a buck for everyone who’s ever asked me who sings political songs these days. With the reformation of Midnight Oil and, especially, the rise of Donald Trump, it’s a refrain that’s only gotten louder. Where oh where, these people moan, are the musicians addressing the temper of the times? The complainers are, of course, invariably white and stopped listening to new music in approximately 1988.
In fact, we are seeing exactly the kind of revival of protest music that the era should demand. Much of it is happening in hip-hop, and Kendrick Lamar is the current standard-bearer, but he’s hardly alone. In Australia, AB Original – the logical, local hip-hop extension of revered Indigenous folk singer Kev Carmody – deservedly won last year’s Australian Music Prize.
And while these are lean times for guitar-based rock music, you can find it in that shrinking genre too: in recent releases by the Peep Tempel, the Drones and looking back a bit further, the sorely missed Eddy Current Suppression Ring. It’s also much more subtly and subversively evident in the work of Courtney Barnett, whose songs are rarely as they appear on first listen.
There is nothing subtle about Bad//Dreems. For their second album, Gutful, they’ve once again called upon the services of 1980s Oz rock titan Mark Opitz to produce, and it’s a straight-up-and-down rock record with a lot less jangle and a lot more crunch. Pub rock? Guitarist Alex Cameron says the description was “not particularly welcomed but not something we shied away from either”.
Whatever you call it, two things are undeniable: the songs are catchy, and they’re memorable, with big choruses that stick in your head whether you might want them to or not. On a few songs – the opening Johnny Irony, Gutful and especially Nice Guy, a song about male rage, the influence of Eddy Current is palpable – except that band’s best work was recorded for maybe less than $1000.
Gutful, on the other hand, sounds big and meaty. Mob Rule, the first single, instantly recalls the Living End minus the rockabilly influence: a tub-thumping drum intro leading into a shouted chorus purpose-built to be shouted back at the band from the mosh pit. Lyrically, the song speaks of populism and nativism: “I see flags on the sand / I see blood on your hands.”
Then there’s the title track (and what a marvellously “Oz” title it is too): “Had a gutful of your speed and coke / Had a gutful of your racist jokes / Had a gutful of Australia Day / Had a gutful of the USA / Had a gutful of Donald Trump / Had a gutful of your baby bump.” No one can accuse Bad//Dreems of not getting to the point.
But this is not entirely an issues album: there are spoonfuls of sugar helping the medicine go down. By My Side and Make You Love Me take on more classical pop themes and win. 1000 Miles Away harks back to the power-pop of the Hoodoo Gurus, who had a hit with a song of the same name and whose 1987 album Blow Your Cool was also produced by Opitz (reportedly an unhappy experience for all involved).
It’s a solid album, and at 38 minutes it flies by. It showcases the band’s knack for classic rock anthems. But several bands have deliberately been name-checked in this review, and there’s a nagging sense that Bad//Dreems haven’t fully outgrown their reference points. Put them in a beer barn, though, and they might yet be the band most likely to blow up the pokies.
The ABC news radio announcer’s incredulous tone said it all. “An unknown band from Brisbane, by the name of the Saints, has earned rave reviews in England for a record it made itself,” he said. It was September 1976, and the words, complete with the plummy delivery, were loaded with cultural cringe – all the more so for the fact that the band hailed from the backwoods of Brisbane.
That record, (I’m) Stranded – dubbed “Single of this and every week” in a hyperventilating review in the UK’s Sounds magazine – turns 40 years old this month, and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed Brisbane forever, both from within, and in terms of its external perception. And it was true: outside of a small clique, the band was all but unknown in its hometown at the time of the song’s release.
The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster once wrote that punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia, for two reasons: we had Joh-Bjelke Petersen, “the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservative that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against”; and we had the Saints, the “musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart” that gave a city that usually chased music history its own place in it.
Australia didn’t even have its own national anthem in 1976. (I’m) Stranded was more like an anti-anthem, with its central theme of alienation. The singer, Chris Bailey, with the gritty sneer of a young Van Morrison, is marooned “far from home”. The literal meaning was actually more prosaic, the song’s music coming to guitarist Ed Kuepper on a midnight train home to the Brisbane’s far-flung suburbs.
Then there was the video, which begins with the unintended metaphor of drummer Ivor Hay kicking open a door. The band are playing in an abandoned building on inner-city Petrie Terrace, Bailey singing in front of a fireplace with the words “(I’m) Stranded” daubed above in red letters, which would form the backdrop for the cover of the Saints’ debut album of the same name, released in February 1977.
The cover is as much a harbinger of the Blank Generation as the first Ramones album. But there are no uniforms in sight, much less leather jackets. The band stares sullenly back at the camera, a large hole in the floorboards beneath their feet in front of them. In the ensuing years, countless bands and fans – including Brad Shepherd (then of the Fun Things, later the Hoodoo Gurus) and Mark Callaghan (the Riptides, later Gang Gajang) – had their own photographs taken in front of that fireplace until the building’s eventual redevelopment.
The Saints were seers. They’d formed in mid 1973, the same year as the release of the first New York Dolls album and Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, and while they hadn’t beaten the Ramones onto record (the New Yorkers had released their first album four months earlier), they were ahead of all the UK punks (the Damned’s New Rose was released a month later, in October 1976) and Sydney’s Radio Birdman.
But arguably more important than chronology and the Saints’ place in the bigger scheme of things was their determined independence. There were no venues to play in Brisbane, so the band hired out suburban halls. No local record company was interested in what they were doing, so they hired out a local studio, paid for the recording themselves, and put out the song on their own label, Fatal Records.
This fact was noted in Jonh (John) Ingham’s review in Sounds: “This Queensland combo had to record and release on their own label; for some reason Australian record companies think the band lack commercial potential. What a bunch of idiots.” EMI in London – partially in an attempt to claw back lost credibility after sacking the Sex Pistols – duly instructed its baffled representatives in Sydney to sign the band.
In the wake of the band’s inevitable decampment to England in early 1977, a local scene began to take root in Brisbane. There were archetypal punk bands like the Leftovers and Razar, whose song Task Force was the first in a long line of singles to take aim at the local police state. Then there were the more cerebral Riptides, the Apartments and the Go-Betweens, soon to leave for England themselves.
All had been inspired by the Saints’ willingness to “seize the sea of possibilities” spoken of by another seer, Patti Smith, a couple of years earlier. Brisbane now has a Go Between Bridge, as well as Bee Gees Way on Redcliffe Peninsula, where the Gibb brothers began their performing career. But (I’m) Stranded was a foundation stone in Brisbane’s cultural history for which the Saints deserve similar recognition.
The recent re-emergence of the Sunnyboys on stages around the country has been a genuine feel-good story. Between roughly 1980 and 1984, the band – singer and guitarist Jeremy Oxley, his brother Peter on bass, Bil Bilson on drums and second guitarist Richard Burgmann – were a flaming meteor across the Australian music landscape, adored by fans and critics alike. And then, like a meteor, they just fizzled out: the band’s momentum cruelled by changing fashions and Jeremy’s descent into a long battle with schizophrenia.
It’s a story well told in a recent documentary, The Sunnyboy, that has brought new attention to this great Australian band’s legacy. An earlier compilation, This Is Real, and the band’s tentative return to live performance via the Hoodoo Gurus-curated Dig It Up festival has cleared the path for a serious re-evaluation of their small but vital catalogue of recordings, and it starts here, with the classic self-titled debut from 1981 spread over two discs and stacked with more bonus material than any fan could dream of.
The Sunnyboys’ brilliance lay in a combination of sensitivity and toughness that distinguished them from both their predecessors (after raw beginnings in northern New South Wales, they emerged fully-formed from the late ’70s Sydney punk scene left behind by Radio Birdman) and those that followed, such as the Gurus. Lines like “I fall back into your arms / My body rests like a charm around your neck” (from I’m Shakin’) won them legions of female fans – something their more macho contemporaries could only dream of.
But listening to Sunnyboys, you’d be forgiven for wondering if these young lads ever dared to make the first move. It’s hard knowing what to say when you’re a teenager, especially to someone you’re attracted to. Jeremy’s social phobia is obvious from the first song, I Can’t Talk To You, a magnificent surge of energy powered by Bil Bilson’s drums (actually, the song is pretty much one long drum roll). Happy Man spells it out again: “I’ve got a hangup / I can’t communicate,” he confesses.
Elsewhere lies only confusion: “Watching the news I don’t learn anything / It all seems so far away,” he cries on My Only Friend, a sort of distant precursor to God’s epochal 1988 single My Pal. It would certainly be a mistake to suggest Trouble In My Brain is some kind of premonition about Jeremy’s later mental health struggles: as he points out, everyone around him is going insane. The only thing that matters in such a crazy world is being able to connect.
But how to do that, when “the conversation’s terror” and “death is coming to the phone”? This is pure teenage angst. Anyone who has ever been an adolescent can relate to this stuff. And it’s all delivered in one of the plainest, most honest voices you will ever hear, completely free of pretension or false accent, yet richly melodic: Birdman might have edged the Sunnyboys for energy, but would never get close to a tune to rival Alone With You.
Saying hello, of course, is hard enough; learning how to say goodbye is even worse. Let You Go captures the trauma of farewelling a lover, knowing in your heart it’s the right thing to do, only to then experience the visceral hurt of seeing them hook up again just a little too soon: “It still don’t seem right to watch you go and love somebody else.” There’s nothing especially musical about the solo that follows; it’s just a scream of agony.
It’s the eloquence of this music, its ability to match the mood of the lyrics, that still stuns. My Only Friend follows I Can’t Talk To You and immediately catches the listener off guard as its sharp strumming switches abruptly from major to minor chords, giving Oxley’s observations exquisite poignancy. “Doesn’t matter if I’m right, doesn’t matter if I’m wrong / Because I’ve got you,” he sings.
And what is there left to say about Alone With You, one of the very best singles of its era? As good as anything by the Kinks or the Only Ones, its indelible chorus should be tattooed on the brain every Australian of a certain age. And just hen you think this magical four-minute song can’t get any better – having already found room for not just one but two solos, with not a note wasted – Jeremy uncorks a third, pealing effort to take the song out.
The rest of disc one – the Complete Albert Sessions, from the studio where the album was made – is filled with a swag of extra tracks, most of which became beloved B-sides that would have been best-of material in the hands of any lesser band. If that was all, you would need this reissue, simply because this remaster lays waste to any previous CD version (although we should start petitioning for a vinyl release). But, for all that, it’s the second disc, New Kicks, that is the real revelation.
Certain Sunnyboys members have long maintained, while praising the work done by their producer, Lobby Loyde, that Sunnyboys didn’t really capture the power of the band’s sound on stage. This Is Real featured live material that went a long way to validating that caveat. New Kicks, a recently unearthed complete demo session for the album recorded in a single day, confirms it beyond all doubt. It is simply the sound of a red-hot band playing live – sans audience – in a great-sounding room.
Some of the takes here – notably My Only Friend, Let You Go and I’m Shakin’ – are better, and certainly more exciting to these ears than the more polished finished versions. The fact that these are arguably three of the best four songs on an album that’s extremely difficult to pick highlights from makes the discovery of these tapes all the more important. There are 17 tracks overall, recorded with such pristine clarity and ferocious commitment that New Kicks could easily have made a classic first album in its own right.
If you never much cared for the whistling on I’m Shakin’ – one of the original album’s most thrilling songs – here it’s absent, leaving the incredible interplay between the guitars of Oxley and Richard Burgmann laid bare. This pairing was a lead/rhythm combination to rival anyone, anywhere. Burgmann’s tough, gutsy counterpoints deserve special commendation for complementing Oxley’s wiry, mile-a-minute leads perfectly.
There are demos of many of the same B-sides featured on the first disc, as well as a few songs that ended up on the Sunnyboys’ next two, less successful albums, and a couple more previously unheard tracks. As fine as New Kicks, Thrill and I Don’t Want You are, the reason why they were rejected is clear: these are all fast songs, reflective of the band’s earlier origins, and unsuited to the final album’s moodier, more melancholic feel. Taken out of this context, they are still pretty much as good as rock & roll gets.
Suffice to say that whether you’ve loved this album for years, or are lucky enough to be hearing it for the first time, this reissue is an essential purchase. Long after you’ve outgrown adolescence – when all that youthful ebullience slowly gives way to a world of higher responsibilities, and you still don’t feel like you’re learning anything by watching the news – this album will be your friend. Maybe, at the times you most need it, your only friend.
Now it starts to get hard! This is where I start to become ultra-conscious of who and what’s getting left out. The songs get harder to put in any kind of order. And I haven’t made it any easier for myself – I found I’d written Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat down twice in my initial list of 40 (hmm – should that make it higher?), meaning I now have to find an entirely new song that’s magically going to vault straight into my top 20! Choices, choices…
20. BILLY THORPE & THE AZTECS – Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy (1972)
This wasn’t the song, by the way. I always had this one in here. (I won’t cheapen which one it actually is by revealing it.) But, in short: what a wonderful chord progression this is, and what a great lyric, that anyone who’s ever got shitfaced in a bar with their friends should be able to relate to. Don’t we all, deep down, feel a little crazy as we try to navigate our way through a world we never asked to be born into? To be honest, I struggle to understand the fuss about much of Thorpie’s catalogue, but props to him for this brilliant common touch.
19. HOODOO GURUS – Like Wow Wipeout! (1985)
This one is all about the beat, hammered home by a human metronome called Mark Kingsmill (Richard’s older brother). Two chords and a chorus that rhymes “walk” and “talk” do the rest. But that beat! It’s a stomp made for football stadiums, and though the Hoodoo Gurus didn’t quite reach that level of success, it’s true that for a while, cricket fans would hold up placards reading “Like Wow Wipeout!”, usually after a six was struck in a one-day game. As a humbled Dave Faulkner noted, the real stars in Australia are our sports heroes anyway.
18. HUNTERS & COLLECTORS – Throw Your Arms Around Me (1984; re-recorded 1986)
A lot of folks would have this higher, and I can understand why. Crowded House recognised its potential by making it a staple of their live shows for years, but had too much respect for the song to even attempt recording it. (Of course, the Crowdies may have been biased; their bass player Nick Seymour was the brother of the song’s author Mark.) Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper have also covered it. So why wasn’t this now beloved tune a hit? It’s true that both the 1984 single and 1986 album recordings, by radio standards of the day, are rough and ready, and that probably cruelled Throw Your Arms Around Me’s chances at the time. But that surely says more about the tin ears of the fools that made such dumb decisions. Really, how could anyone not like this song?
17. SUNNYBOYS – Alone With You (1981)
Like Throw Your Arms Around Me, this song touches with its directness. But whereas the former track is a timeless soul ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place if recorded by Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett in the 1960s, the Sunnyboys were fans of the Kinks, the Remains and Radio Birdman, and the urgency of Alone With You is a reflection of that. Jeremy Oxley was a prodigy until tragically cut down by illness: his lyrics are straight to the point, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and his voice is effortlessly warm and natural. And just when you think this magical song can’t get any better – having already somehow found room for not one but two solos, with not a note wasted – he uncorks a third, pealing effort to take the song out. Wow.
16. RUSSELL MORRIS – The Real Thing (1969)
If you were under the misapprehension that Johnny Young was just that prat from Young Talent Time and that Molly Meldrum’s contribution to Australian music began and ended with Countdown, you need to hear this amazing song. Written by Young, produced by Meldrum, and sung/spoken in tongues by Russell Morris with unusual fervour, is this a hippy anthem or proto-punk madness? I’m not sure, but Little Richard would be proud of this inspired nonsense: “Come and see the real thing, come and see the real thing. Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow, oo-mow-ma-mow-mow.” Confused? Don’t worry, Morris can explain: “There’s meaning there, but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing.” (And get well, Molly.)
15. THE CHURCH – Under The Milky Way (1988)
Like the Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, or the Stranglers’ Golden Brown, or Johnny Thunders’ more direct Chinese Rocks, this could be an ode to heroin, which singer/bassist/writer Steve Kilbey has admitted to having a passionate relationship with. Or maybe that’s just a thought implanted by this song’s opaque, narcotic haze. It drifts blissfully by in a wash of 12-string acoustic splendour, with Kilbey murmuring gently in your ear like a slightly more stoned Lou Reed, with not even an e-bow solo destroying the effect (that’s the one that makes Peter Koppes’ guitar sound like bagpipes). After that unexpectedly noisy interlude, you’re back in a stoned stupor, Kilbey’s whispering again, and a more conventional but even more psychedelic guitar solo – with just a hint of wah-wah this time – drops you gently back to earth.
14. ARCHIE ROACH – Took The Children Away (1990)
“This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.” And with that declaration, Archie Roach tells you his story, and the story of his people, with such quiet, understated hurt that the challenge for the listener is to get to the end of the song without weeping. It succeeds for two reasons: Roach’s words forced white people to imagine – as Paul Keating noted we failed to do, in his famous Redfern Speech two years later – these things being done to us. But songs don’t work as essays or speeches, even when they’re this well written. The real power comes from Roach’s beautiful singing: full of humility, grace, and unspeakable pain, it never forces itself on the listener. But it compelled a nation to listen and – eventually – say sorry.
13. THE REELS – Quasimodo’s Dream (1981)
A mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a riddle, Quasimodo’s Dream – which writer Dave Mason has disparaged as “just complete rubbish when you listen to it” – doesn’t seem to add up to anything. That hasn’t kept other singers and songwriters including Jimmy Little (who gave it several new dimensions) and Kate Ceberano (who missed the mark with an upbeat dance pop/big band approach) from going back to it, trying to tease something fresh from its haunting, otherworldly beauty. The key to its effectiveness is the tender conviction which Mason invests in those spooked, baffling lyrics, making this slow, sparse song sound clammy and claustrophobic. Whatever you end up making of it, once heard, it never leaves you.
12. THE GO-BETWEENS – Cattle And Cane (1983)
Written on a battered acoustic guitar belonging to Nick Cave while the Go-Betweens were squatting with the Birthday Party in dank London, Cattle And Cane is nonetheless the ultimate expression of their “striped sunlight sound”. Its acoustic/electric texture and tension – thanks largely to Lindy Morrison’s quirky, shifting time signatures – created, as bass player Robert Vickers noted, a song that was “complex but also memorable, which is an almost impossible thing in music”. Every part works, even the perfectly weighted bass solo that underpins the guitar break, with the late, great Grant McLennan’s gorgeous, heartfelt vignettes of growing up in north Queensland front and centre. Has a singer ever had more sincere eyebrows than this man?
11. THE BEE GEES – Spicks And Specks (1966)
What do you say about this? Younger generations have the introductory piano theme tattooed on their brains, thanks to the ABC’s long-running and much loved music trivia show; older Australians will never have forgotten it. The military march of the drums and punchy arrangement, topped off by a trumpet finale, never swamps the best harmony pop/boy band Australia ever produced. It’s too bad that their lack of success in Australia at the time forced the Brothers Gibb to return to their native England in late 1966 – while still at sea, they found out Spicks And Specks had become their first number one hit.