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Australia’s top 10 (political) rock songs

How “political” is Australian music? According to Time Out London, the one and only Australian song worthy of its top 100 list of “songs-that-changed-the-world” was Helen Reddy’s (very worthy) Aussie effort I Am Woman from back in 1972.

But politics came into its own in Australian music in the 1970s and 80s when Australia caught up with the 60s protest vibe, mixed it with the earthier, leather-jacketed 70s sounds to create what would become the legend of Australian pub rock. This sweaty, grimy, sticky-floored hothouse developed an Australian popular music sound that borrowed from overseas but which began increasingly to find themes in our own backyard.

But since then — perhaps because of the lack of international recognition — our local political rock has faded. Old stagers like Archie Roach and Shane Howard might continue to gig and record, but contemporary popular rock music has largely been de-fanged.

So in the spirit of offering some education to Gen Y Aussies, here’s my own category-based, and obviously to-be disputed attempt at a top 10 of Australian political rock, in no particular order of preference.

Warumpi Band’s Blackfella/Whitefella (1985)

Indigenous issues, probably starting with the land rights movement and the establishment of the Tent Embassy in 1972, are arguably the most prominent topics in the story of Australia’s dissenting rock culture. The shift from fairly saccharine lullabies like Jimmy Little’s 1963 chart-topper Royal Telephone or Lionel Rose’s tokenistic I Thank You (1970) — both of which songs rather underplayed the activism of the singers themselves — rode on the back of a gaggle of more out-spoken indigenous acts like Coloured Stone, Us Mob and No Fixed Address.

Out of this fertile red earth came my first suggestion, the Warumpi Band’s Blackfella/Whitefella.

Coming out of the Papunya region in Arnhem Land, birthplace of Australia’s most recognised visual art movement, the Warumpis tacked onto a feeling for country few could match. Many in the big cities down south were cottoning on to just what kind of magic existed within the shores of their country and driven by co-founder Neil Murray, the band’s only non-indigenous member, and enigmatic vocalist, the late George Burarrwanga, Blackfella/Whitefella (1985) became a bouncy, dusty, back-of-a-flatbed anthem for fusion, both artistic and political. Picked up Midnight Oil’s Powderworks label, the Warumpis co-headlined with them on the ground-breaking Blackfella/Whitefella tour of outback Australia in 1986.

Goanna’s Solid Rock (1982)

As these things often go, many white Australians were first musically introduced to black Australia’s story through fellow whites. In rock music, the best known song of this genre is my second candidate, Goanna’s Solid Rock (1982). The song almost never got released as a single as the label, WEA, and even composer and band vocalist Shane Howard doubted its commercial potential. With a chunky drum beat and wailing guitar atmospherics, as well as powerful political lyrics delivered with jugular busting gusto by Howard, it did rather test the Countdown faithful. But it reached Number two on the local charts, stayed in the Top 50 for six months and even sneaked into the US Billboard Top 40.

Yothu Yindi’s Treaty (1991)

The Warumpi Band’s salty rhythms and Goanna’s fearless pitch to white Australia from within provided the diachronic mix for the third suggestion, Yothu Yindi’s Treaty (1991). With English lyrics written by Paul Kelly (mostly “Treaty, Yeah!”… how much in royalties does Mr Kelly draw for that handy work?) and with the revolutionary injection of Yolngu into the mix, along with didge and clap-sticks, Treaty was a bona fide first, not only internationally — where it was a big hit (I was living in Israel at the time and recall dancing at a nightclub in Tel Aviv to it) — but here as well. Based on then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s unfulfilled promise of a treaty between Aboriginal and white Australians, Treaty injected the politics of dreamtime into mainstream white culture and made it something even red-necks and bogans could get pissed to.

Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s From Little Things Big Things Grow (1991)

Paul Kelly’s credits on Treaty didn’t come from nowhere. At around the time of Treaty’s release Kelly was finishing off his personal embrace of the indigenous political narrative with co-writer Kev Carmody — number four on my list — From Little Things Big Things Grow (1991). This almost spoken word reflection on the powerful tale of Vincent Lingiari, is less a protest song than more an elegy on the dignity and power of perseverance of the centuries of indigenous protest, as embodied by the frail, but unmoveable Lingiari. From Little Things Big Things Grow and its lilting chorus captures the enduring Australian-ness of Kelly’s somewhat laid-back politics and seems to argue, politely, that change doesn’t need to be ugly. The eponymous title phrase has become part of the lexicon of mainstream Australia. Lingiari’s legacy is more than even he could have imagined.

Archie Roach’s They Took The Children Away (1990)

Archie Roach has a similar force of character as Lingiari and his They Took The Children Away (1990), my fifth candidate, takes a heart-breaking and, these days, inexplicable episode in Australian history and makes something utterly beautiful from the shards of pain left behind. Some estimates suggest that up to three in every 10 indigenous children were forcibly taken from heir parents between 1910 and 1970. Roach himself, born in near Shepparton, was one. Fortunately, his “new” family had a love of music — including apparently of Billie Holiday — and thus Roach was able to find the tools for a musical career. His song undoubtedly invigorated debate in this largely pasted over aspect of Australian history and was a definite cultural influence leading to the seminal HREOC report of 1997, Bringing Them Home, and the subsequent and historic federal parliamentary apology in 2008.

Cold Chisel’s Khe Sahn (1978)

Vietnam inspired many a protest song in Australia. In the 60s, one of the first baby steps into political rock was Ronnie Burns’ Smiley (1969), written by Johnny Young about fellow pop star Normie Rowe. But by the 70s and into the 80s, the angle became sharper. War has been a common theme for Australian protest rock, tracking the colony’s obligations to fight other people’s wars. From the tarnished Gallipoli legend of Eric Bogle’s And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda (1972), to Fred Smith’s album Dust of Uruzgan (2011), about the war in Afghanistan, plenty has been said in popular music.

In Cold Chisel’s Khe Sahn (1978), the war itself is only part of the struggle as the protagonist sung to life by Jimmy Barnes’ raspy vocals and Don Walker’s telling lyrics, struggles to face life back home. Written at the legendary Sweethearts Cafe in Kings Cross, the now legendary song only hit number 41 on the local charts when it was released, largely because it was given an A Classification and therefore banned from radio play, ostensibly for its sex and drug references. Despite the distinctly Australian references in the song, the Battle of Khe Sanh, fought in the early part of 1968 didn’t actually feature Australian ground troops.

Redgum’s A Walk in the Light Green (1983)

This song,  better known as I Was Only Nineteen, is candidate number 7. Based on real life experiences garnered by composer and vocalist John Schumann — the light green refers to combat areas on operational maps and the nineteen to the youngest age Australians could be conscripted — the song put into vernacular the first-person tale of a soldier scarred and damaged by his Asian tour. Memorable lines — “Why the Channel 7 chopper chills me to my feet” — liberal use of slang and place names, and Schumann’s Aussie drawl contribute to a chilling account of fighting for another country’s dubious political strategies.

Midnight Oil’s US Forces (1982)

Foreign intervention in Australia’s domestic space was also the theme of my track number 8, Midnight Oil’s US Forces(1982). The country’s most successful political rock act, with considerable international renown, the Oils took no prisoners in a 26-year, eleven-studio-album career. Indigenous reconciliation, environmentalism and anti-nukes motivated many tracks and US Forces articulated a dim view of American meddling in Australian affairs which became embodied in the Pine Gap surveillance station near Alice Springs. In 1983, no doubt inspired by the hit song, the first of many sit-ins were conducted at the facility.

Nineteen years later, co-writer and vocalist Peter Garrett saw no set back for his country, however, when US president Barack Obama colonised Parliament House to tell the world there would be a permanent US marine base in Darwin. Mr Garrett, then a government minister, sat silent throughout the speech and presumably gave the nod.

Supernaut’s I Like it Both Ways (1976)

Local music has always had a close relationship with the gay scene. Social conservatism ensured these relationships were kept hidden throughout the 70s and 80s, only occasionally emerging in asides, like Molly Meldrum’s mumbling innuendos, or in the gender-bending of glam rockers like Skyhooks or punks like Jimmy and the Boys.

Supernaut’s I Like it Both Ways (1976), song nine, shot an early missile across the bows of Fred Nile-ism and made a stance for open sexuality. With lyrics like “Johnny is a guy who can’t make up mind, he says ‘I like it both ways’”, it was clear where the rolling eyes and impish grin of singer Gary Twinn were taking us. With the first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Oxford Street just two years later, a social and political movement was under way and sexual preferences outside the tight bounds of Biblical coupling were on their way into the mainstream, likely tipped along by Supernaut’s naughty ditty.

Spy v Spy’s Sallie-Anne (1986)

The urban underbelly was being increasingly explored in the 70s and 80s. Kiwi Sharon O’Neill’s Maxine (1983) succeeded in giving such issues as drug use and prostitution air-time, but her glamorous look and stylised video struggled to provide the grunt the issue demanded.

Ex-Sydney squatters Spy v Spy were noted for their tough, bottom-end heavy political output. In the mid-80s, Aboriginal exploitation was investigated in Injustice, money culture was covered in Credit Cards, heroin addiction spotlighted in Harry’s Reasons and urban gentrification railed against in Don’t Tear it Down. Perhaps their starkest and most timely output however was my final candidate, Sallie-Anne (1986).

When the strangled body of Sallie Anne-Huckstep was found in Centennial Park in Sydney in 1986, and her death was connected to corruption in the NSW police force, the state teetered on open revolt. Spy v Spy entered the debate with perennially sleeveless Craig Bloxom’s solid bass and vocals lobbing bombshells into the establishment and left a sweet beat to counter the bitter taste of graft left in the mouths of many.

That’s the ten, but there’s a number of worthies. Tiddas and Kev Carmody have cred and huge influence in indigenous politics. Cold Chisel’s Star Hotel is a political rock classic in its own right while the Hunters and Collectors have built a reputation for entering into personal and relationship politics with aplomb – and John Archer’s killer bass lines. More recently there is the John Butler Trio’s environmentalist oeuvre, Powderfinger’s Like a Dog and the Herd’s 77, carrying on the tradition of dissenting pop. But, despite these few examples, has Australian pop-rock lost its way as a force for positive change?

47 responses to “Australia’s top 10 (political) rock songs

  1. Try “The River” by Ash Grunwald who rails against Coal Seam Gas or John Butler who has several songs that are clearly agitating for change. “Treat Yo Mama (with respect)” sends clear messages about the environment and the people willing to take a stand.

    The top 10 list is hard to beat. The debate and contribution that has followed is excellent too. Love my Spies and Oils, Goanna and Shane Howard solo. What will be the legacy of our current stance?

  2. Good list to generate discussion.
    However, Papunya is west of Alice Springs, as noted in the original lyric of My Island Home, it is not in Arnhem Land.

  3. Here’s some other songs that should be in the list. 1 pauline pants down with I don’t like it. She took pauline hanson to the next level of pauline hanson polictal career. . 2 insurge with spike. It was about the logging and what effects it had on the workers.3 spy vs spy. With there song don’t tear it down. 4 . painters and dockers with there hit safe sex. It was written about people who had aids from having sex. 5 6.go betweens. With there hit song called streets of your town. Which was a song about violence against women.

  4. What about the Thought Criminals? ‘Speed. Madness…Flying Saucers’ released about 1980. Very punk, very political.

  5. Australian protest movement has followed England’s shift to follow powerful political luminaries such as Spice Girls, Robbie Williams and One Direction.

    And of course, who can forget that indelible political landmark on the Falklands War – Rick Astleys “never gonna give you up”

    PS. You just got rick rolled.

    1. Yes, this mostly ignores the folk scene except for Redgum and Archie Roach. It’s depressing how much songs like “Thin Red Line” and Hulett’s “Behind Barbed Wire” are still acutely relevant to today’s situation, even if the names have changed. I’m surprised Alistair’s fellow Scotsman Eric Bogle’s And the Band Played Waltzing Mathilda” isn’t here- Bogle and Judy Small wrote some great political and anti-war songs- and songwriters like Penelope Swales and even Mick Thomas of Weddings, Parties, Anything fame get overlooked, but I guess they are more niche than popular writers.

      1. I’d especially nominate Alistair’s much covered “He Fades Away”.

        Perry Keyes is doing amazing songs about the dispossession of the working class in inner Sydney on his 4 albums to date.

  6. I realise I have missed the boat with the thread, but Craig Bloxom with v Spy v Spy probably had the biggest collection of protest songs of any recording artist. I like Kiers opinion on post gen x and baby boom, but why aren’t these new songs getting heard as loudly?

    There is a shitload to protest about. I am going to pen a song about Coles and Woolworths to start with…maybe there is too much to protest about?

  7. I don’t know anything about James Rose or his generational affiliation, but I’m getting increasingly irritated with the growing shrillness with which the Baby Boomers and early Gen-X cultural output is being defended. The Presets “A.O.” is as piercing a political statement as anything put out by the Oils, and the Drones “I See Seaweed” is overtly political (as well as being intensely personal) throughout. Even Bliss N’ Esso’s anthems to self-affirmations have a political core. There are numerous other examples.

    1. so true, there’s plenty of people in australia still making good music with a strong political or social message,
      but you won’t hear a lot of it on commercial radio or rarely even on jjj because they are too scared!

  8. In regards to one commenter, having hosted Aus-music radio shows for more than 10 years, I concur there are of course dozens of more overt and insightful political songs by independent artists.*

    However, being so (independent & so outspoken) they don’t/can’t achieve the level of cultural awareness that artists on a major label can/could with less overtly political music.

    So I think this is a good list in accord with the title. It happily reminds me of our outspoken heritage of such artists & songs. I love/respect all those bands; they help enormously to make so many of us grateful to be Australian; and to stand up and speak out.

    * Of possible interest: If you click my name above or google “Blatant Propaganda Songs of Protest” you’ll find details on a compilation of independent artists that was released during the latter Howard Govt years. As expected, it really only received support from community radio stations. Will see if I can get the audio online one of these days.

  9. Troy Cassar Daley once said of Shane Howard: ‘His writing helped me find a home in music. the light was on and he invited me in, as a brother would. His descriptions of our country rang true to me and resonated deepply with me and my family. As young Aboriginal kids running around Grafton his songs gave us a sense of belonging. There is no bigger gift to give someone than to make them feel they belong’ (Quote from the book Lyrics by Shane Howard, published by One Day Hill 2010.)

  10. As Tim Winton said of Midnight Oil: “They kissed no bum and tugged no forelock”. The Oils’ career was a political statement framed in great rock songs for the ages. Their songs taught us about issues that some of us wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Genuine, relevant, unmistakably Australian. Look out for the Midnight Oil exhibition that is opening in Sydney in June.

    1. Made stacks of cash and then sold out on a limp dick political career. Pity he obviously lost the whole point of what he was on about for so long.

  11. A footnote for mid-1980’s Melbourne anarcho-rock outfit Leon Trotsky and the Icepicks, whose timeless offerings included Amyl Nitrate and When They Twist You Shout. Who will forget their anthemic denunciation of the newly elected Hawke Government:

    What’s going to happen now someone new’s in power?
    They seem to think that I came down in the last shower!
    Forget about Timor, get a foreign bank
    Watch them as they pull apart the platform plank by plank
    Bang your head up, up against a brick wall
    Parties come and go, governments never fall
    It’s a swindle, it’s a scam and it’s a sin
    Whoever you vote for, the Government gets in.

    Although commercially hampered by their refusal to ever record, the Icepicks set the highest praxis standards for raunched up art and collective political protest in Australia.

    1. They also did some pretty excellent covers if memory serves me correctly:
      a rejigged Paint it Black, “I see a red flag and I want it painted black”, also Dead Kennedys, “Problems even bigger now”

  12. James I have a whole host of insight into this from a popular and a punk rock perspective that also encompasses the Herd’s 77% and other more obscure protest songs, drop me an email and I can discuss said info for your book.
    Joey Zippz

  13. many more Oils, Yothu Yindi, etc, and lesser-known stuff:
    Jimmy and the Boys “The Cops Are Coming”
    Billy Thorpe “The Dogs of War”………
    hmmm how far does it go?

  14. A worthy article.

    Unfortunate that you started it out with this.

    “According to Time Out London, the one and only Australian song worthy of its top 100 list of “songs-that-changed-the-world” was Helen Reddy’s (very worthy) Aussie effort I Am Woman ”

    Feels so cultural cringey. I think it would have been better to acknowledge that it was someone else’s idea, and then rubbish them for their total lack of knowledge.

    Cheers

  15. Great article by James Rose, for sheer consistency of ‘kicking against the pricks’ Midnight Oil’s 26 year career and as James said our “country’s most successful political rock act, with considerable international renown, the Oils took no prisoners” were undoubtedly one of the most intense and spectacular live acts to ever come out of Australia. The 10,9,8…. album that spawned US Forces was on constant play in my car (tape deck) as an 18 year-old teenager, it helped enlighten my then naivety that Australia was and still is to some degree an outpost for American imperialism and inspired a future interest in politics. Outside World,Only the Strong, Read About It, Power and the Passion and Maralinga and the lyrics: “I come from a land of wide open spaces, where the world turns around us and we just follow suit” showed a band clearly intent in delivering a message of awakening Australians to our place in the world. Along with enlightening the country of the many injustices to our indigenous population, that some 30 years later the problems seem still so intense in so many areas in central Australia points to the fact that our political class seemingly weren’t listening to the same albums. Shameful and sad in equal measure.

  16. and as for where we are now, i proposed a one hour political music program to fbi radio a couple of years back. the lack of interest was deafening.

  17. pretty damn mainstream. there was much more anarchic and political stuff going on in indie circles. as for the women, people like Jeannie Lewis and Margret Roadknight run runs around everyone listed in the article.

  18. From Little Things Big Things Grow was co-written by Kev Carmody.
    From Wikipedia.
    “Carmody described writing the song:
    “Paul Kelly and I had gone away on a camping trip in about ’91 or something and we just kind of pulled it out around the campfire. Paul had a good chord progression and I thought it would be good to tell a little story over it. So, by about 2 o’clock in the morning, we had a six-minute song.”[7]—Kev Carmody, 2008”

  19. Please note that ‘From Little Things’ has a co-writer – indigenous singer-songwriter Kev Carmody. Distressing that the indigenous co-creator is being written out of history here. Yet somehow unsurprising.

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