In the A–Z of Paul Kelly’s career – something he spent some 550 pages discussing in his excellent “mongrel memoir” How To Make Gravy, which obliquely discussed in alphabetical order the inspirations, motivations and memories lurking behind more than 100 of his songs – attention always turns back to his third album, Post, the one where he found his true songwriting voice.
Post was recorded as a solo album in 1985 but it featured the core of his band the Coloured Girls, later renamed the Messengers. It was this album and the ones that followed (Gossip, Under The Sun, So Much Water So Close To Home and Comedy) which cemented Kelly’s stature. Gossip, especially, was towering, packed with an astonishing 24 songs that never flagged.
Those albums were made a long time ago, and Steve Connolly, the guitarist whose stinging, economical leads were the linchpin of the Messengers, died tragically young in 1995. Kelly has made more than 20 albums since then, all of them studded with gems – but while he has surrounded himself with great players, he has never had a band with quite the same chemistry.
This time there’s no concept weighing the songs down. It’s just a Paul Kelly album, and a very good one at that.
Kelly has learned to play piano in recent years. Playing a new instrument can invigorate a songwriter; it takes things back to basics (in a reversal, Nick Cave, who’d previously composed on piano, learned to play guitar for his albums with Grinderman). Simplicity is at the heart of Finally Something Good, My Man’s Got A Cold and I Smell Trouble. The latter, especially, is one of Kelly’s best songs in years.
He’s also in good form lyrically. The stomp-and-grind of My Man’s Got A Cold is sung with relish by Vika Bull, who’s fed up with her lover’s pathetic man-flu: “He’s off his wine and bread / He even said no to head!” Vika’s sister, Linda, gets a turn too, singing an old song, Don’t Explain. It’s a kiss-off from an older woman to a younger man: “If one night you’re lonely, and I have other company, don’t complain.”
Their contributions, singing songs written from a female point of view, are welcome. But Kelly’s voice is at its sweetest on the lovely Petrichor, with not much more than a little steel guitar for company. On I Smell Trouble, he’s riddled with anxiety, the song building on a minimalist piano line, with Peter Luscombe playing his ride cymbal as though he’s skipping rope and could stumble at any moment.
Firewood And Candles is another gem. Ashley Naylor, stalwart guitarist for Even and the RocKwiz house band, plays a riff that instantly recalls Connolly’s snaking line on one of Kelly’s greatest rockers, Sweet Guy. But where Sweet Guy was bitter in its irony – a dead-eyed story of domestic violence – Firewood And Candles is exactly as its title suggests: a warm song of home and hearth.
Kelly’s in a good place here – but if that makes Life Is Fine sound glib, it’s not. In what could be a reference to Courtney Barnett’s Elevator Operator, the narrator of the closing title track finds himself 16 flights up, contemplating suicide, only to step back. Life, as Connolly’s premature death showed, can be as fine as those thin, wiry leads which the guitarist threaded through classics like Before Too Long. And it comes at you fast.
Taylor Swift is single again, and I for one am glad. Not for her heartbreak (as a fellow human, naturally, I’m sorry for her pain), and certainly not because she’s “back on the market” since, needless to say, I’m not in it. No, I’m glad selfishly, because if it produces a song half as good as I Knew You Were Trouble, the world will be a better place, for she will ease the pain of anyone who’s ever been through the same.
Which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of us. Romantic heartbreak is the lingua franca of the pop song. In the opening soliloquy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Rob (played in Stephen Frears’ film by John Cusack) poses a universal question, as the 13th Floor Elevators’ garage classic You’re Gonna Miss Me blasts through his headphones:
“What came first – the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence is going to take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
And then Laura – who is about to shoot to number one with a bullet on Rob’s desert island, all-time top five most memorable breakups, in chronological order – walks into the room and pulls the plug, literally, on the music and, metaphorically, on their relationship.
The tabloids are already coming after Swift. Grazia listed 13 times ex-boyfriends have apparently inspired her music, saying she had “infamously” mined her personal life for lyrical inspiration. Like every other songwriter in history. Actually, maybe we should be glad for Swift’s critics, because she’s already kissed them off in fine style with Shake It Off. Can we have another one of those, too?
Did anyone complain when Otis Redding practically tore out his (and everyone else’s) heart singing I’ve Been Loving You Too Long? How about the Clash’s Mick Jones, who wrote Train In Vain after his breakup with the Slits’ Viv Albertine, while the band was recording London Calling? Do we even need to talk about Joy Division’s all but sanctified Love Will Tear Us Apart?
No one complained when Bob Dylan got an entire album out of the collapse of his marriage to his first wife, Sara Lownds. That album was Blood On The Tracks. It has been the measuring stick for every breakup album by a serious male singer-songwriter since, from Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call (which features at least two paeans to PJ Harvey) to Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker to Beck’s Sea Change.
Adams, of course, later covered Swift’s 1989 in its entirety. Stripping Swift’s songs back to basics, focusing attention on the brilliance of their construction, threw up an interesting set of questions around pop, authenticity and Swift’s superstar status – especially around what a female pop singer has to do in order to be taken seriously by a mostly male critical establishment.
Or, in this case, not do. For the more cloth-eared members of that establishment, unable to look past Swift’s glossy image or admit that rock music is often equally as factory-assembled, it took Adams’ emo take to legitimise Swift’s talent. (Adams, by the way, isn’t the first male artist to try his hand at this sort of thing: see Richard Thompson’s version of Britney Spears’s Oops! I Did It Again.
Can anyone recall an album by a female artist being compared to Blood On The Tracks? I can’t. Certainly not in pop music. Not even, in the rock arena, PJ Harvey, whose Is This Desire? was dedicated, in turn, back to Nick Cave. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is frequently described, in a very feminised way, as a soap opera, due to the somewhat complicated nature of the relationships within the mixed-gender group.
Pop music is dominated by women, from Madonna to Rihanna to Sia to Beyoncé, and along with boy bands and almost anyone playing dance music, their music is routinely dismissed as lightweight. But if grown men can confess to being moved to tears when Springsteen and Dylan turn their attention to matters of the heart, then why not, say, Swift’s Wildest Dreams?
I hope Swift finds true love soon. Really, I do. But in the meantime, I hope she goes on too many dates and can’t make ’em stay. Let her go on making the bad guys good for a weekend a while longer. Actually, now I think of it, I hope she gets back together with Calvin Harris, just so she can break up with him again and write another version of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.
Just like her male peers, like all of us, Swift gets down and out about the liars and dirty cheats of the world. The only difference is she’s doing it to a sick beat. As for the haters, well, we all know what they say about them.
As the Australian music community absorbs the news of the passing of David Bowie at the age of 69 yesterday, musicians and songwriters – especially those who came of age in the 1970s and early ’80s, when the songwriter was at his peak – have spoken of his profound influence on both their work and their lives.
Melbourne soloist Jen Cloher expressed commonly recurring theme of disbelief. “I turned to Courtney [Barnett, Cloher’s partner] last night and said, you just never thought that David Bowie would die. Which is ludicrous, but that’s how it feels … He was like a god.”
Cloher also spoke of Bowie’s indirect impact on her as a queer artist. “The ’70s in so many ways were far more dangerous, far more edgy, far more open to a broad idea of gender than today. It would have rubbed off. You grow up around that, and it infiltrates in ways that you don’t even think about at the time.”
Robert Forster, co-founder of the Go-Betweens, has often written and spoken of his admiration for Bowie. “Bowie was obviously the most important white musical figure of the ’70s. He bestrode the decade like no one else.
“Bowie was beautiful, which was confrontational for a 14, 15-year-old boy. The most beautiful pop star of the early ’70s was a man, which is an amazing thing by itself, and Bowie played it to the hilt.
“All the Melbourne boys at the time – Sean Kelly, James Freud, Nick Cave – loved Bowie. The Brisbane boys loved Bowie too, but they didn’t want to be Bowie. All the Melbourne boys loved Bowie and wanted to be Bowie. There’s a lot of photos of those boys in make-up, believe you me! That’s how the different cities took to it.
“He was this beautiful flittering presence, and an amazing songwriter. It was Rebel Rebel; it was Golden Years; it was Diamond Dogs. I could name every track off Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory. It was Sound And Vision; it was Heroes, it was just an amazing run.”
Yet Bowie was also remembered as an open and friendly presence, a world removed from his alien persona. Graham “Buzz” Bidstrup, who supported Bowie on his first Australian tour in 1978 as a member of the Angels, recalled Bowie introducing himself backstage over a bowl of soup.
“It was one of the first times I had met someone really famous who was incredibly normal, and he put to shame a number of people I met who were nowhere near as talented.”
Kim Salmon, of pioneering punk-blues group the Scientists and later the Beasts of Bourbon and the Surrealists, posted a personal note on his Facebook page that highlighted the intergenerational nature of Bowie’s cultural legacy.
“A few months ago I took my 11-year-old daughter to the Bowie exhibition. Today she said it – I said it – he gave people permission to be exactly who they were. When I was a 14-year-old spaced-out science fiction kid he was my man.
“When my drop-dead gorgeous friend was wondering about his sexuality, Bowie gave him permission to be what he was. Lately my daughter’s been far above the world, floating in her tin can, and it hasn’t been easy. Bowie was there to let her know it’s OK. Thanks to his massive body of work, he’s still there.”
David Bridie, of Not Drowning, Waving and My Friend The Chocolate Cake, also pointed to Bowie’s astonishing output.
“There are very few artists you could say made at least eight classic albums – Hunky Dory, Lodger, Low, Aladdin Sane, ‘Heroes’, Scary Monsters, Ziggy Stardust and Station To Station. Fine work, Mr Jones.”
“Regardless of his image or his sense of how he projected himself, there was always the songs, and he wrote some of the best pop songs ever written,” Cloher said. “He transcended our idea of what rock or pop music should be. I guess the Beatles started fucking with those ideas, but I felt that Bowie took it to the next level.
“He never lost melody, his sense of what a good pop song is. Genius is thrown around far too often, but in the case of David Bowie, he really did possess that quality.”
Josh Ritter – American songwriter, novelist, near-neuroscientist – likes to run. “It’s the perfect exercise for me,” he says. For one thing, it’s portable: all you need is a pair of sneakers and you can run anywhere; especially to get away from the confines of a tour bus. There’s also a little bit of pain involved, which he doesn’t mind: he’s run three marathons. That was until the time running almost killed him a few years ago.
One morning, after a slightly over-exuberant workout, he woke up sore. Soon he was having trouble getting dressed; a few days later, he noticed his muscles beginning to swell, literally like the Incredible Hulk. His alarmed partner Haley [Tanner, a novelist] rushed him to hospital – “notwithstanding I was looking pretty damn good,” Ritter wrote, tongue in cheek, in a blog post from 2012.
It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a close-run thing: Ritter’s kidneys couldn’t cope with what was, in effect, a meltdown of muscle fibre into his bloodstream. He spent days in hospital on a saline drip, paying the price for his driven nature. “Running keeps me alert and excited and kind of hungry,” he says, “[But] I think I realised I had a bit of a problem. I really paid the price.”
Ritter, 38, doesn’t do things by halves. His albums and songs, though not excessively long, are epic in scope. So are his ambitions. For his eighth album, Sermon On The Rocks, he wrote: “I wanted to make something grand. I wanted it to swing hard. I wanted to peek through death’s keyhole. I wanted my monster to run. I wanted to sing songs that I had written in stretches of frenzy.” (There’s more, but you get the idea.)
Did he get there? “I think I got it on this one. Everything was there; the wildness … The songs were high adventure; how I felt was big romance, and I wanted the whole thing to have that. Sometimes the most pristine playing is not the stuff that gives you chills, so I wanted that messiness. My goals were really high, but I felt that they were achievable if I opened the door and let all the crazy out.”
Ritter is a songwriter in the grand American folk tradition: a student of Dylan and Springsteen and Leonard Cohen, as well as contemporaries like Nick Cave. He writes “rock & roll with a lot of words”, tumbling over with metaphors. “I like a good rich set of symbols, those are really important to me,” he says. “Somehow a good story is either about God or love or death, and the best ones kind of have all of that.”
He was born in Moscow, Idaho, a small college town of less than 20,000 people in desert country. He says he grew up “way out of town, on the edge of a mountain”, where he had to learn to entertain himself. He got lost, both in the surrounding countryside and in books about dragons, as well as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. “I had a pretty rich fantasy life when I was that age.”
His was no backwoods upbringing, though. Ritter’s parents were neuroscientists who taught at Washington State University, across the border. “I grew up thinking that being a scientist was the best thing in the world. It was such a beautiful and noble quest to throw yourself up against things that are unknown, and slowly and methodically pull on the thread of that tapestry until it all comes apart.”
Ritter initially wanted to follow them, moving to Oberlin, Ohio to study neuroscience himself, until the songs he was writing began to pull him away. In some respects, he realised, his job was the same: songs are like a riddle to be solved. He ended up completing a self-styled major, “American history through narrative folk music”, and made his first, self-titled album at a recording studio on campus in 1997.
Later, he moved to Scotland for six months. “There was so much music that came to the States from Scotland and Ireland and England, and I wanted to get closer to the American music that I loved.” Tellingly, one of his early musical loves was the Pogues. “Their records are like a wolfhound ripping a rabbit, they’re ferocious. Even the slow songs – Fairytale In New York is just brutal.”
He soon found himself a solid audience in Ireland, going from playing to 20 people at open-mic nights to halls of 600 after being spotted by Glen Hansard, of Irish band the Frames (as well as the Commitments). “Their verbal technology is 10 years ahead of us. They have the best jokes, and they have the best words for things, and they’re the harshest [critics], they’re going to keep you real.”
Since then, Ritter has released a further seven albums, and while his sales are relatively modest, his prolific output, devoted fan base and heavy touring have seen him build a sustainable and growing career. He’s also had good success licensing his songs, both to commercial chains such as Starbucks, and to advertising and TV shows.
He considers himself a songwriter ahead of a storyteller, but nonetheless he is compelled by narrative. “I really do move towards stories. I feel like I need their little twists, for a lot of songs. When I hear a song like [Leonard Cohen’s] Famous Blue Raincoat or Where The Wild Roses Grow [Nick Cave], it makes me antsy and jealous.”
Often, his songs are tinged with fantasy elements, a throwback to his early life, where he made up stories to keep himself amused: The Curse (from his 2010 album, So Runs The World Away), is the story of a mummy who falls in love with an archaeologist. Another song from the same album, Another New World, sees an Arctic expeditioner chop up his own ship for firewood to keep warm.
Eventually, inevitably, one of his songs couldn’t be contained. It spilled into a novel, Bright’s Passage, the story of a Great War veteran who hears voices. Reviewing the novel in the New York Times, Stephen King – an avowed fan of Ritter’s music – asks himself whether he would have recommended publishing the book, were its author unknown. He concludes: “It’s a question I’m glad I never had to answer.”
To be fair, King also praises Ritter’s gift, saying that at its best, the novel recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime, and urges a follow-up (which Ritter is working on). But he knows that there is a greater power in compressing his big ideas into smaller spaces, and Sermon On The Rocks sees him paring his songcraft back into simpler, more digestible shapes. “Make it portable,” he says – that word again. “Any saying or epigram, those things that we remember are the smallest, most concise things.”
Writing Bright’s Passage renewed Ritter’s belief in his craft, which he clearly took into the making of Sermon On The Rocks. “I didn’t need permission to be a writer, I was writing all the time, but for some reason that was something that I took out of it, that I wasn’t expecting, and it made me feel really good about writing songs. … Also, I became better at killing off characters.”
Ritter has also become the father of a daughter, Beatrix. It’s forced him to change his work habits for the better, writing in shorter bursts. “It used to be I could moon around for about 12 hours and feel like I hadn’t got anything done. Now at the end of the day I’ve written something and I can put a pin in it, even if it’s just a few lines.”
He’s also started running again – but not in the way that he used to, a reflection of a more relaxed approach to his work. “The marathon isn’t interesting any more,” he says. “There’s no magnum opus for me. If I have a time in my writing when I feel like, this is it – that I will do no better or nothing will come of this, I guess that means I’ve achieved my goal, my marathon.
“But I don’t want that. I want every day to be different, and I want every day to have the potential of doing something great. Haley said the other day, it’s easy to give yourself the goal of running a marathon, but it’s harder to make yourself run four miles every day. So that’s my new goal. I don’t need to run any more marathons.”
First published inSpectrum (The Age/The Sydney Morning Herald), 24 October 2015
Note for overseas and interstate readers: The Zoo is a music venue in the quaintly-named inner suburb of Fortitude Valley, in my hometown of Brisbane. It’s 20 years old this week, a startling achievement in an industry where places to play appear and often disappear in the space of 12 months. This is my happy birthday message to one of my favourite places, which changed the face of the Valley, and helped change the way we viewed our own city during a time of great change.
The first time I walked up that short but steep staircase, it was to see former Go-Between Robert Forster. The stairs brought you not to the entrance, but smack into the middle of the venue. There was a small stage in the far right-hand corner; a basic wooden platform less than a foot above the floor. I heard the cracking of pool balls as I walked in.
In the left-hand corner was the serving area. The conditions of the nascent venue’s license at the time meant that food had to be provided with drinks. Being an impoverished student (and a lousy cook besides), there were many times when the Zoo’s cheap, nourishing meals were seriously appreciated.
On the walls, covering most of the available space, hung paintings by various local daubers. So The Zoo was a gallery space, too, as well as a pool hall and venue. The dedication to promoting Brisbane’s musicians was matched by its philosophical alignment with, and commitment to the city’s artistic community.
That word: community. That was what made The Zoo different. When you went to see a show there, you felt like you were part of something special, vibrant and new.
Part of it came down to timing. The early 1990s was an era of transition for Brisbane. Queensland itself was in a process of profound social change. Musical change, too. The punk generation had grown up; the grunge generation was moving in. There was a feeling of political and cultural renewal.
Part of it came down to place. The venue was in Ann Street, Fortitude Valley, which a corrupt alliance of cops and criminals had called home for decades. The Fitzgerald Inquiry had seen them off – to exile, or to prison – but the Bjelke-Petersen years were not yet a distant memory, and the Valley could still be a little scary.
It was the middle of a recession, too. It seemed like every second shop in the Valley was vacant. The ultimate example was the old Target building, in the middle of the decaying, neglected Brunswick Street mall. That was where many of the bands that played at The Zoo – and would soon become household names – honed their craft.
That was important, because the cheap rents then available in the Valley allowed the musical community to set up house. The Zoo was among the first in, and it quickly became the new face of the changing district and, in hindsight, an early harbinger of its gentrification.
Anyway, I remember sitting on the floor with the attractive young lady whom I was (hopelessly) trying to woo. There were maybe 100 people sitting in a semi-circle around the stage, watching Robert hold court. He was playing an acoustic guitar. “I want to be quiet,” he sang. That was quite a statement in a post-Nevermind world.
The Zoo liked acoustic artists. Amid the tide of grunge, there was something of a folk revival happening. Mexican-American songwriter Rodriguez was as important a part of Powderfinger’s early makeup as Soundgarden, and arguably it was the former’s influence, more than the latter, that eventually turned them into million-sellers. Others, like ISIS and Paddy Dempsey, were beloved acts here.
Women always found a voice at The Zoo, too. Women ran the venue, after all, and there was a distinct absence of machismo in both the presentation and the atmosphere. There was no balding publican pulling beers with a tea towel slung over his shoulder; no security guards built wider than they were tall.
Instead there were two young ladies – Joc and C – who had a vision of the kind of place they wanted to run, and they had strong values. They didn’t sell cigarettes, or rum, and preferred not to book metal bands. The venue had no dress code, but you were expected to mind your manners. All of this commanded respect.
I have countless gigs and memories to cherish. The Dirty Three, just before their relocation overseas, with Nick Cave sitting in comes to mind. A young and messianic Ben Harper. The so-called Australian Go-Betweens show, marking the debut of the new line-up with Glenn Thompson and Adele Pickvance.
Even some of the less palatable aspects of the venue – like the unrelenting heat of a full house in summer – had its virtues. Perhaps my strongest recurring memory of being at The Zoo is just standing by the big timber sash windows, sucking in the fresh air while a storm raged outside; the rain making the city sparkle afresh in the night.
Over time, The Zoo grew and changed. Soon there was a real stage, and a real bar. You no longer had to order a meal to get a drink. The paintings on the walls disappeared. More and more international acts played there, though the commitment to local artists remained.
These days, Fortitude Valley might be regarded as a victim of its own success. Tens of thousands of revellers swamp the entertainment precinct every weekend. There’s more alcohol, more drugs, more violence, and I wouldn’t like to ask how much higher the rent is. But The Zoo has endured. Indeed, it’s something of a haven.
That’s because, despite the aforementioned alterations, what hasn’t changed are the values the venue embodies. Those values, above all, give The Zoo its atmosphere and warmth. It’s a culture, which everyone who works there buys into. There’s still no dress code, and you’re still expected to mind your manners.
So, with that, there’s really only one thing left to say.
Thank you, Joc and C, for the gift you have given Brisbane: from all the musicians who have performed on your blessed stage, and all the punters who have enjoyed so many wonderful nights here. May The Zoo endure another 20 years.
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)
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).
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.
A few days ago I bumped into an old friend in the city. He manages a well-known local band here in Brisbane, and he asked me if I’d be prepared to participate in the making of a documentary about the group. He wanted to do something a bit edgier than the standard rock doco, though. “Every documentary I’ve seen lately it’s just a bunch of people saying how great [band/performer X] was,” he said. “It’s really boring.”
He had a point, and I was reminded of it last night when I saw Autoluminescent, Lee-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about former Birthday Party/These Immortal Souls guitarist Rowland S. Howard. The first half of this two-hour film is weighed down with luminaries (not only peers and former bandmates like Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Phil Calvert but also Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore, Bobby Gillespie, etc, etc) generally crapping on about how great Rowland was.
And that’s validating, sure, but if you’re seeing this film in the first place you probably have some idea of who Rowland S. Howard is and why he mattered. Most likely you already think he’s fabulous. The film survives this slightly creaky beginning mainly due to the late guitarist’s outrageous charisma (with his high cheekbones and extraordinarily brilliant blue eyes, rarely has a dying man looked so beautiful) and the sumptuous direction. If Autoluminescent is sometimes in danger of getting bogged down in its own self-importance, at least it looks great.
The live footage of Howard in action, from all stages of his career, is a particular treat. Wim Wenders, who remembers their appearance in Berlin in 1984 as akin to the arrival of a flock of Siberian Crows, identifies the importance of his stage mannerisms: his peculiar stagger; like someone being constantly knocked off balance, yet remaining in control; wringing the neck of his guitar as he violently jerks it up and down, coaxing from it a blizzard of distortion through a constant, billowing haze of cigarette smoke. Howard was an incredibly distinctive player; as Cave observes, within two notes you always knew who was making that unearthly racket. (More than one of the aforementioned blowhard luminaries wonder if Howard had, in fact, landed from outer space.)
In fact Howard was just a dandy from Melbourne, and the second half of this film is so much more interesting and more moving than the first, as we dig deeper into his family history, his relationships with women and, of course, his declining health. It was never likely that Howard – who died of liver failure at the end of 2009 – would live to see this documentary finished. There are heartbreaking scenes of Howard in hospital towards the end, cradled by his last love, Bianca.
The clear respect Howard had for women (despite an on-off affair with Lydia Lunch while still with his long-time soulmate, Genevieve McGuckin) was repaid with enduring warmth and affection from his former partners. McGuckin, who provides some of the best insights and reminiscences, tears up when she recalls listening to Howard’s final album for the first time, Pop Crimes, only to have him suddenly call into her house and wrap her in his arms. “It was so important to him that I liked it,” she says.
After his long relationship with McGuckin ended in the mid-’90s, due mainly to Howard’s heroin habit – McGuckin was using too, but was ready to clean up before Howard, and resented the “shitty jobs” she had to do in order to get them enough money to score – the ailing guitarist met and married editor Jane Usher. It lasted a couple of years, Usher saying she tried everything to help her partner stay clean, only to find herself “getting into trouble” by the end, forcing her to divorce a man she clearly loved for the sake of her son, who had a close relationship with his stepfather.
Towards the end of the film, a ravaged Howard, who was battling Hep C, reflects on his struggle with addiction. “If you’d asked me five years ago I wouldn’t have said I regretted anything about drugs,” he says, but now all he can see is waste. He confides to McGuckin that he feels “A three-time loser.” By then, interest in his work was skyrocketing. It’s just so sad that he’s not around to see it.