I’ve been trying to make sense of Australian music for as long as I’ve been a radio geek. It all started, of course, when I first began listening to Triple J – or at least perusing their website, because I only had dial-up and everything would slow down if I attempted to listen to even the lowest quality stream. Of course, I’ve written a lot about Aussie artists throughout this blog’s history, and it’s interesting how we have this country whose music is a bit of a contradiction: it’s always kept an eye on trends elsewhere in the world, but it’s also done its own thing; it tells its own stories and it presents itself as something anybody and everybody can enjoy.
Perhaps it’s because American (and to an extent British) music is so popular around the world than anybody else who sounds like them is automatically assumed to be from their shores. This will sound stupid, but I remember having my mind blown when I realized Kylie Minogue is not American, but Australian. Well, all right, her mother is Welsh.
Kylie isn’t, of course, the best singer. Her popularity as an actress – she was part of the nightly soap Neighbours, which was a hit both in Australia and the UK – led to a record deal. Bigger things were in store when she collaborated with powerhouse 80s producers Stock, Aitken & Waterman, who produced “I Should Be Her Lucky”, her first major international hit. All her career she’s traded in pop of many kinds, but she hasn’t been afraid of taking some risks, constantly expanding her oeuvre as her career progressed – she began asserting creative control on her 1998 album Impossible Princess, and subsequent albums saw her further explore other dance genres. Her latest album even sees her go country, of all things. Throughout she moved past her bubblegum image and positioned herself as some sort of sex symbol – although we’d still sing “Especially For You” if need be.
That said, her geographical location is irrelevant relative to her success. I don’t think I hear Aussie radio go gaga over new Kylie the way they do over other homegrown artists – the world has adopted her, and everybody knows that. But I’d be remiss if i didn’t mention her, one of the world’s most successful musicians – and one emblematic of Aussie music’s two faces.
Also take INXS, whose popularity – thanks in part to the oozing charisma of original vocalist Michael Hutchence – made them not so much an Australian act but one embraced by the world. But their sound more closely tracks the evolution of Australian pop, particularly during the 80s, when it began coming into form and put itself in the trajectory it is in today.
Despite its distance Australia was not immune to trends in pop music sweeping the US and UK. The cities saw rock and roll bands, and later those following the Mersey Beat sound; however, these musicians had difficulty establishing themselves in their home country, in part due to radio stations being extremely conservative with their music policy, choosing to play chart toppers from elsewhere rather than fostering homegrown acts. As it was, some of these acts felt they’d see greater success by moving to the US or the UK. However, by the 1970s, things were slowly changing: Countdown, the seminal music TV show, premiered in 1974, while the following year a new radio station, 2JJ – which eventually evolved to Triple J – went on the air. Alongside an emerging music press, they provided emerging Australian acts both a means to be seen and heard, and also to absorb even more influences from elsewhere.
By the time INXS debuted in 1980, Aussie pop was filled with products of its pub rock scene, including the likes of Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil. While their early singles were influenced by new wave, the band went towards a rockier direction, scoring their first number one hit with 1984’s “Original Sin”. The following year’s Listen Like Thieves solidified their status; their 1987 album Kick sent them to new heights, becoming their best-selling album to date. For that album the band aimed to produce songs that were all good enough to be singles; it seems that worked, and backfired, as subsequent releases got a more lukewarm response. After Michael was found dead in a Sydney hotel room in 1997, the band – still with brothers Andrew, Jon and Tim Farriss, their main creative force – pushed on with various vocalists, notably J.D. Fortune, the result of a reality show that, frankly, introduced me to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. But I digress.
INXS are definitely not the first Aussie act to make it big on the world stage. Some of those acts from the 1960s were successful when they left their home country for better chances – honors of being the first go either to folk group the Seekers or rock and roll quintet the Easybeats – and the slow but continuing growth of Australian music in the 1970s put in place the ecosystem that would allow for the bigger acts of the 80s to emerge.
George Young was a member of the Easybeats, which saw success in the UK with “Friday On My Mind” in 1966. When the band disbanded three years later, he shifted his attention to songwriting and producing, forming the influential production duo Vanda & Young with his former bandmate Harry Vanda. But solo, he turned his attention to a band led by his brothers Malcolm and Angus: AC/DC. Formed in 1973, they had decided to ditch their initial plans for a more glam rock sound and focused on something more bluesy. Frequent gigs and television appearances established the band as a force to be reckoned with in Australia; they tapped into the burgeoning alternative scenes in the US and UK in the late 1970s and became an international success with 1979’s Highway to Hell.
The band survived the death of original vocalist Bon Scott and, under successor Brian Johnson, further solidified its reputation as one of the world’s greatest rock bands (despite a period of stagnation in the 1980s, perhaps because new wave was the thing then). It says something that when Johnson quit the band due to hearing issues, one of the people to take over for him was Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose…
While he’s also popular internationally, Nick Cave is more of a niche success, thanks to the singular intensity of his music and the challenging themes he often espouses. (It says something that his biggest commercial success – “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, a duet with Kylie Minogue – is essentially a murderer talking to his victim.) He began his career as part of the Melbourne post-punk scene, establishing the band Boys Next Door, which later evolved to the Birthday Party, coinciding with a move to London in 1980. That move served to amplify the sound they were working with at the time: punk with really varied influences, paired with Nick’s increasingly manic singing. Their difficult experience in the British capital reflected in their live shows, which became particularly aggressive and set the template for the gothic rock bands that followed.
Upon that band’s split in 1983, Cave founded the Bad Seeds, which took on a more varied palette, shifting towards alternative and garage – always with a touch of gospel and the blues – through their many decades. It was their themes, though, that would gain them acclaim: Nick’s ruminations on life and death, on religion and violence, continued to color his songwriting, coupled with his distinct vocal style. He also established himself as a writer, actor and composer for film and television.
Also known for his songwriting is Paul Kelly. He may not be well known outside of Australia, but in his home country he is considered one of their best, if not the best, songwriters. He’s been performing for over forty years, whether as part of a band or as a solo artist, and early on established a reputation for his songs, particularly his ability to combine everyday details with vast topics. Arguably his particularly Australian references meant he wouldn’t be as widely popular as the other artists I’ve highlighted so far, it’s this capturing of the Aussie identity that’s led some to refer to him as the country’s “poet laureate”.
I was drawn to him when, over one Christmas, I heard one Aussie radio station get sentimental over “How To Make Gravy”, a song based on an actual gravy recipe from his then father-in-law – but, more importantly, tells of an imprisoned man expressing regret that he’ll miss Christmas with his family. There’s a definitely magic quality in there, listen to it. That character was also the subject of “To Her Door”, widely considered one of Australia’s best songs, which talks of a breakdown in one’s marriage. Paul’s also not been afraid to speak out on the country’s issues, particularly with his songs on the indigenous experience – “Treaty”, which he co-wrote with members of the indigenous band Yothu Yindi, spoke of the time when native Australians began to assert their political rights to the federal government. He would also write many songs for other artists, leading to a wide oeuvre.
I’ve been trying to make sense of Australian music for as long as I’ve been a radio geek. And for the next seven weeks, including this week, I’ll try to do just that. We’re changing the format a bit, but then, I’ve had to squeeze in so many artists and make so many connections. Aussie music has many faces, and we hope to cover most ground properly. Well, I can only hope. [NB]
[Next week: we shift our focus to Australia’s early rock acts.]