Tagged: Paul Keating

The fear: Brest

Brest is a naval port on the north-west coast of France which was largely rebuilt after being blown to bits by the British in World War II. It’s cold and wet. Apparently it rains about 200 days a year here. I’m tempted to use that for an explanation for the depressed-looking nature of the place, but that would have a lot more to do with prevailing economic conditions.

It’s two days before the general election, and times are tough. The population is waiting for Sarkozy like Australians once famously waited for Paul Keating: with baseball bats. “Under Sarkozy, one million out of work,” one sad-looking fellow tells me, baulking at the prices on our merchandise. “When your tour over, we will have new president.”

The band’s just played another crazed show in a beautiful room under a hotel called La Vauban. Pity there weren’t many more than 30 or 40 there to see it, in a room that you could comfortably fit 300 into, thanks to a band competition across town that sucked away most of the town’s eligible punters for the night.

Most of the audience were fellow musicians: the guys from Head On, fronted by Beast Records’ inimitable Seb, and Ultra Bullitt, whose singer/bass player extraordinaire Erwen La Roux has put on tonight’s show. He’s printed 5000 flyers, 500 posters, and lost money, but he doesn’t care. “Je ne regrette rien,” he says.

Ben Salter – who’s been in our van since Paris – opened, mostly thanks to the generosity of everyone else who slotted him in to play at the last minute, after Andy B’s promise that “his voice will bring them in off the street”.

“Yeah, to complain,” quips Ben.

Of course, Ben has the sort of voice that will stop a room, and that once routinely stopped passing traffic during his busking days on the Queen Street Mall at home in Brisbane. There’s barely a paying punter in the room but everyone else watches, transfixed. He does a set of his own songs – mostly from his last solo release The Cat – before finishing with covers of the Stooges’ Gimme Danger and the Velvet Underground’s I’m Set Free, adding a diehard rock & roller’s edge to his own songs.

It feels like a very good audition for his overseas sojourn, which he’s doing out of a small suitcase. Have guitar; will travel. Ben’s dad is a Vietnam veteran, and once, marching in an Anzac Day parade with him, he found himself explaining to some his dad’s fellow diggers that he was a musician. He saw them screwing up their faces, trying to understand his choice of vocation; to comprehend the different ways you can measure success.

“Why don’t you go on Australian Idol?” one eventually offered, genuinely trying to be helpful.

Ben tried in vain to explain, politely, how such a move would fly in the face of everything he was about as an artist. Andy nods. “It’s like wanting to be a Formula One driver and someone telling you that you should settle for driving taxis.”

Some things can’t be rationally explained. Most of the creative people I know – writers, musicians, visual artists – do what they do because they love it and because, more crucially, they have to; something inside them is fighting to be released. And sometimes you need to feel the love of a new audience to know what you’re doing connects with people other than your friends in your own little corner of the world.

Ben’s made some fine albums, but I have a feeling this trip will be the real making of him.

THE cold, the rain and the constant balm of alcohol are catching up with me. I haven’t been able to wash any clothes – it feels like it’d be easier to find crack than a Laundromat – and all I want in the world are dry shoes and socks.

Ben had already noted my decline the previous day. “You look like you’ve got The Fear, Staffo,” he’d said. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but I was starting to sail close to the edge, even if I didn’t understand quite what he meant at the time. “It’s just generalised anxiety, existential dread,” he explained cheerfully when I asked him later. “Everyone on tour gets it at some point. It’s the drinking that does it.”

Gregor appeared at that point, having slipped off on his own to find a kip, eventually settling for a park bench, or it might have been someone’s front yard. Ben quickly makes an exception.

“See, The Fear just bounces off the Maori,” Ben says. “It just ricochets, like ping-pong balls off a Centurion tank.”

I try to deal with The Fear by having an alcohol-free day, something that usually wouldn’t be a problem for someone who can happily not drink for a couple of weeks, but isn’t so easy when you spend all day surrounded by pissheads and the grog, including beautiful French wine, is free.

“Are we making it harder for you by drinking?” Stacey asks, as she catches me gazing longingly at her glass of red before grabbing another bottle of water. Richie, at this point, is clutching a cigarette in one set of fingers, a joint in the other and clasping a beer in between.

“No,” I say desperately. “I’m making it harder for myself by continuing to drink and I need a night off. It’s just the hanging around in bars that kills me.”

My old friend Simon McKenzie – who gave me my start in music writing nearly 20 years ago when he was editing Brisbane’s free street weekly Time Off – has also joined us from Oslo, where he now edits an oil and gas industry bible. He remembers a journalist who, around the mid-1990s, had asked Charlie Watts how it felt to have been in the Rolling Stones for 30 years.

Watts’ reply was as laconic as his approach to playing drums. “It doesn’t feel like 30 years,” he replied. “More like five years of actually being in a band. The other 25 years was spent waiting. Just fucking around.”

AFTER all that fucking around, the show is a blinder. HITS are leaping from peak to peak, scaling heights I didn’t know they were capable of. The band throw every shape in the book – Richie hurling himself bodily at the mike stand, Iggy Pop style, before tossing it away – and that’s before the gig even begins.

Later he’s climbing up the lighting scaffolding at the side of the stage while Stackers kneels before her amplifier as if it were an altar during Bitter And Twisted, drawing wails of anguish from its electronic entrails. She repeats the trick during Lost In The Somme, which finally came out the night before in Rennes. It worked, big time, and now it’s here to stay.

The band can’t refuse encores by now and the show stopper, again, is Shadowplay, the Joy Division classic that draws cries of recognition from the audience from its opening rumble of bass.

But it’s just a warm-up for the next night, in Lorient. Afterwards, Richie is unusually subdued. “Tomorrow night is probably the most important night of the tour,” he says, adding meaningfully, “So if you could just bear that in mind as you could go through your day…”

“No,” Stacey replies nervously. “I don’t want to bear that in mind at all.”

The Great Australian Songbook IV (20-11)

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.

The Great Australian Songbook III (30-21)

Following on from the previous thread, as the title suggests, here’s tracks 30-29.

30. YOTHU YINDI – Treaty (1991)

Did this song start a national conversation, or just get people dancing? Actually, scarily, it managed to get politicians dancing, spurring some very awkward shuffling by certain members of the ALP after Paul Keating’s famous “victory for the true believers” in 1993. I’m sure there’s incriminating evidence of Ros Kelly and Gareth “Gareth” Evans out there somewhere. But buried under the Filthy Lucre dance remix is a great song sung in both English and Yolgnu/Matha, written by Mandawuy Yunupingu with help from Paul Kelly and Peter Garrett. It was the first song by a predominantly Aboriginal band to chart in Australia (reaching number 11), and peaked at number six on the Billboard dance charts in the US. In 2009, the song was added to the National Film and Sound Archive.

29. DADDY COOL – Eagle Rock (1971)

I’m nowhere near as crazy about this song as those who routinely put it in the top 10 of these kinds of lists (APRA had it right up there at number two, behind Friday On My Mind), but I’m not about to deny its charms either, from Ross Wilson’s opening exclamation “NOW LISTEN!” down. Word is that Sir Elton John was so inspired by the song after an Australian tour that he wrote Crocodile Rock in response. It’s also considered traditional at the University of Queensland to drop your daks when it’s played on the local campus bars. Maybe that’s why it, too, is in the National Film and Sound Archive. You just can’t argue with that level of cultural significance, can you?

28. RADIO BIRDMAN – Descent Into The Maelstrom (1977)

Ann Arbor, Michigan native Deniz Tek isn’t solely responsible for bringing the Detroit rock action of the MC5 and the Stooges to Australia when he founded Radio Birdman as a medical student in Sydney in the mid 1970s – there were many other record collectors who had already picked up on it, not least a guitarist from Brisbane called Edmund Kuepper. But Tek still deserves a huge amount of credit. This song, for me, is their finest four minutes. It’s pure excitement, from the rolling thunder of Ron Keeley’s opening drum salvos to Rob Younger’s adrenalised vocals, telling a Tek tale about a surfer dragged out to sea. It’s a pretty good metaphor for the song itself: you think you can ride this monster wave, then Tek’s extended pipeline lead break sucks you under. (Check out the video – half the audience at the Marryatville Hotel in Adelaide is going bonkers, while others can be seen covering their ears!)


There’s something about Eddy Current Suppression Ring that reminds me, inescapably, of Midnight Oil. Like Peter Garrett, Brendan Huntley really can’t sing. Nonetheless, he’s a great frontman, with a unique dance step to boot. And like the Oils, each member of Eddy Current perfectly complements the other. You won’t get a better example of their chemistry than this seamlessly constructed song, where the bass carries most of the melody, the guitar adds texture (until Mikey Young drops in the most exquisitely logical of solos) and the drumming matches Huntley for urgency. There’s something both universal and comic about the singer’s inability to make up his mind, and the fact that he can barely keep time with a band that’s otherwise in perfect lock-step somehow only adds to the charm.

26. KYLIE MINOGUE – Can’t Get You Out Of My Head (2001)

Like Which Way To Go, the beautiful symmetry of this song’s arrangement is the key. Like Giorgio Moroder’s production on Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, its strength is its minimalism, reducing dance music to a pulsebeat. At just the right tempo, with just the right amount of melody, and a lyric that seems to be about pop music itself, it’s a song that lives up to its name – but in that good way.

25. THE AVALANCHES – Since I Left You (2000)

A sound collage composed entirely from samples, it’s hard now to divorce this song from its iconic accompanying video – a story of two trapped coal miners which perfectly captured this wistful song’s odd, ineffable beauty. But it still works a treat on its own. Moving away from the late 1990s Big Beat electronica/plunderphonics of the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, the sound of Since I Left You is gentle and nostalgic, conjuring the Beach Boys and obscure French pop records. The song reached number 16 in the UK charts, with the album of the same name featuring high up on end-of-year (and end-of-decade) lists around the world. Oz rock didn’t end here, but Since I Left You finally forced the local industry to recognise dance music’s artistic legitimacy.

24. GOD – My Pal (1988)

Teenager Joel Silbersher had this song’s circular five-note riff in his head for years before one day, in the shower, the lyric came in a rush: “You’re my only friend / You don’t even like me!” Recorded when most of the band were 17 (the video above captures Silbersher with braces still on his teeth), My Pal was GOD’s first single, and it was such a towering feat that, unfortunately, it overshadowed everything else they ever did. Tim Hemensley joined Bored! before going on to form the mighty Powder Monkeys; he died in 2003. Guitarist Sean Greenway, who went on to the Freeloaders and Yes Men, died in 2001. Both barely made it out of their 20s.

23. ICEHOUSE – Great Southern Land (1982)

Iva Davies has always sounded like a poor man’s David Bowie to me, but this song still puts me under a spell wherever I happen to hear it. Like some Antipodean Born In The USA, it’s often mistaken for a cheesy patriotic anthem, but in actuality it’s no more nationalistic than any of Sidney Nolan or Russell Drysdale’s more nightmarish landscapes. Perfectly paced and executed, Great Southern Land’s sparse arrangement and echoing vocals add to the impression of vast, empty space, giving the track a panoramic feel. A few years later, the Triffids’ Wide Open Road replicated this song’s single-note, droning keyboard intro to similar effect.

22. INXS – Original Sin (1984)

For INXS, this was the track that launched them from Australia’s beer barns onto the world stage. Produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, it’s a muscular funk track, underpinned by Andrew Farriss’ opening keyboard hook and with Michael Hutchence’s voice at its best – his falsetto leap at 3.12 remains startling and spine-chilling. This is a song where every part serves the whole, right down to Kirk Pengilly’s excellent closing saxophone break. Check the video for the best collection of mullets the 1980s ever tossed up.

21. NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS – The Mercy Seat (1988)

In a word: epic. Nick Cave’s tale of a man facing the electric chair for a crime of which he’s “nearly wholly innocent, you know” is his Like A Rolling Stone, tackling the big questions: life, death, good, evil, truth, guilt and innocence. Sonically, it’s an overpowering assault: leading off the album Tender Prey, the song is seven minutes plus; the single is more powerful for being slightly condensed. Later covered by Johnny Cash, leading Cave to proclaim something along the lines of “Johnny Cash has covered one of my songs, so the rest of you can fuck off.” Fair enough.