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?