How to collect pop music from down under, part two: the rock course

When the radio station 2JJ launched in 1975, it chose to play, as its first song, Skyhooks’ “You Just Like Me ‘Cos I’m Good In Bed”. It was quite a statement from the get-go: it was banned by most radio stations at the time, due to its controversial lyrics. It was also a statement of support for Australian music, which at the time was woefully underrepresented on the airwaves. Despite musicians following trends in the US and UK, and gaining popularity on the live circuit, it took decades before Aussie pop – in the case of this week’s installment, Aussie rock – could gain critical mass and become the force that it is today.

That’s not to say that there weren’t any efforts before the mid-1970s brought things clicking together. Rock and roll music from the United States inevitably reached Australian audiences in the 1950s, and an increase in migration – particularly from so-called “Ten Pound Poms” who were ferried in from the UK – saw new influences impact Aussie musicians. In 1958, Johnny O’Keefe would release “Wild One”, the first Aussie rock recording to impact the country’s charts; he would later attempt to break into the United States, but that song’s popularity would not be cemented until Iggy Pop covered it decades later.

The rise of the Beatles in the 1960s would trigger another wave of Aussie musicians trying to make it big. Notably names from the period include the Easybeats, who we mentioned last week, and the Bee Gees – yes, them; the Gibb brothers migrated to Australia in 1958 and began releasing pop-inspired songs a few years later. “Spicks and Specks”, released in 1966 would become their biggest hit in Australia; they would see bigger success upon their return to the UK the following year. By this time media outfits were starting to notice the impact of youth culture; local acts were heavily represented on the weekly Go-Set, and record labels were beginning to take a stronger grip on things. But the few radio stations that were around were very conservative, and focused their music policies on popular hits from the United States and a few token Aussie releases.

 

By the 1970s things were beginning to come together for Australian music. Conflicts between record labels and radio stations meant major Aussie releases were banned from airplay, providing an opening for less-established artists to get airplay – although they did so by covering UK hits that were otherwise also banned from airplay. Music festivals inspired by the seminal Woodstock also sprang across Australia. More importantly, the live scene started to coalesce, leading to the rise of the first set of pub rock musicians which would shape Aussie rock for decades to come.

One of those early bands were Cold Chisel, formed in Adelaide in 1973. They honed their sound on concerts in their hometown, as well as in Melbourne and Sydney, for their first five years – a down-to-earth yet potent mix of rockabilly, soul and hard rock. (They did have their origins in a heavy metal band.) They earned a reputation as one of the most dynamic live acts of their time – and also for the excesses of their rock and roll lifestyle, particularly that of vocalist Jimmy Barnes, who was often drunk on stage in the early years. They did mellow a bit as their popularity began to soar in the late 1970s, beginning with debut single “Khe Sanh”, which became their signature hit despite being banned on commercial radio for its lyrics. That said, they had difficulty breaking outside of Australia, and in 1983 the band split up – but triumphantly. Jimmy would later become a successful solo artist, rising to become one of Australia’s best-loved vocalists.

 

Midnight Oil saw more success internationally, although they share a similar trajectory and sound to Cold Chisel. Founded as Farm in Sydney in 1972, the band changed its name – and retooled their sound – around the time Peter Garrett joined them as vocalist. Their alternative approach meant they were pretty much ignored by mainstream media outfits. (2JJ were an exception, but then, they weren’t mainstream in outlook themselves.) This led to a somewhat adversarial relationship with these outfits, notably with the television show Countdown, which has also done a lot to expose Australian acts throughout the 1970s; after being prevented from appearing in one episode after arriving at the ABC studios late, they vowed to never appear on the show ever. When the show aired its final episode in 1987, host Molly Meldrum – himself a legendary presence across Aussie rock’s formative years – shaved his head, like Peter, and expressed regret that the band never appeared on his show.

And for good reason. The release of 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 in 1982 saw the band break through in Australia with what was their most adventurous work to date, one where they didn’t hesitate to show their political leanings. Their biggest hit, “Beds Are Burning”, saw them address prevailing issues involving indigenous Australians at the time, particularly the return of native lands to the Pintupi people. Despite questions about whether they should be telling these stories to a white audience, the song came to define Midnight Oil’s more political stance, both on indigenous issues and on environmental ones. (Another song from their Diesel and Dust album, “The Dead Heart“, was written upon the request of the organizers of the return of Uluru, or Ayers Rock, to its traditional owners.) In their heyday the band would tour with several notable Aboriginal bands, and when the band first split in 2002 Peter would successfully reenter politics on these issues.

 

Music has played a key role in the continuing efforts of indigenous Australians to bring recognition to their concerns and struggles, particularly in relation to their relationship with white settlers. The influences that were impacting other Australian acts in the 1970s were also impacting indigenous musicians, and by the 1980s several acts fusing together traditional and contemporary sounds were emerging. One such band was Warumpi Band, whose 1985 single “Blackfella/Whitefella” gained attention when they toured with Midnight Oil, and highlighted issues of racism.

Also making waves at the time were Yothu Yindi, which emerged when an unnamed Aboriginal group merged with Swamp Jockeys, a group composed of white members. The group set the template for bringing together not just the sounds of both cultures but also their other customs and viewpoints: their live performances also integrate dances from the Yolngu people. Their most popular song stemmed from a political statement: indigenous leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu, older brother of the band’s frontman M. Yunupingu, presented a statement of politial objectives to then prime minister Bob Hawke. That led to a commitment from Hawke – still unfulfilled to this day, sadly – of a treaty with the indigenous community by the end of 1990. “Treaty”, written by the band with Paul Kelly, only became a hit because of a dance remix, sure, but it further highlighted hopes for a resolution for the issues the communities have long raised.

Indigenous musicians continue to highlight these issues through music to this day. Another notable example – also coming from the Yothu Yindi lineage – is G Yunupingu, who saw later success with his own band, Saltwater Band, and further on, his solo career. Upon his death last year he is widely acknowledged as the most commercially successful Aboriginal Australian musician.

 

By the 1980s Australian rock was seeing wide popularity – and, along with it, the fragmentation the US and UK scenes also saw at the time. Call it the MTV effect – or, in the case of Australia, the late night music video show Rage – and the even wider range of influences available on tap for budding musicians. The decade saw bands like Hunters & Collectors and Hoodoo Gurus tap into retro imagery; others, like the Church and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds embraced darker influences prevalent in new wave at the time. Others, like Split Enz and Crowded House, saw international success.

By the following decade Australian rock was fragmenting further, as more and more acts entered the fray. While Countdown had ended its run on television, 2JJ has moved to FM, becoming Triple J, and is in the process of becoming a national network from a Sydney-based one. Iconic alternative acts like Something for Kate and You Am I would rise forth from the decade, while the heavier end would be represented by the links of the Living End and Powderfinger. But one of the most successful bands of the decade are Silverchair, who initially rode the wave of grunge (vocalist Daniel Johns not without a passing resemblance to Kurt Cobain) and later evolving their sound to a more complex, arguably orchestral one. The band’s first breakthrough came when they won a competition organized by Triple J and the broadcaster SBS; they released their debut album Frogstomp when the members were just 15. Fast forward to 2011, when they announced their “indefinite hibernation”, and Silverchair has won 21 ARIA Awards – the most of any other artist, Australian or otherwise, in history.

 

We could spend a whole seven weeks highlighting Aussie rock bands, but then that’s not what we’re here for. But it’s very safe to say that Aussie rock is thriving in recent years, with a gamut of styles and genres represented – and we’ll be featuring some of these acts in coming weeks. As for the harder end of things, well, you have bands like Jet, which made waves in the United States in the early 2000s, or Grinspoon, which saw wide success in Australia in the past two decades. And then there are newer entrants like Parkway Drive and Tonight Alive (and on the really poppier side of things, 5 Seconds of Summer). One band who’s channeled more of the past is Wolfmother, who have seen international success (and a Grammy) for their eponymous debut, capturing a rawer, more primal sound reminiscent of Led Zeppelin. But then they’ve had a pretty shaky line-up, with leader Andrew Stockdale the only original member remaining.

Yes, we know we’ve barely scratched the surface, but the best way to start digging through Aussie pop is through its rock bands. Across the decades it’s these bands who have pushed the scene forward and planted the flag for their country across the world. But of course there’s a lot of other things to listen to… we have yet to go to the pop side. [NB]

 

[Next week: we listen to the pop acts that paralleled the rise of Aussie rock.]

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