A few months ago (and where has the year gone?) I wrote something about how countries like the USA are able to inspire their musicians to write songs about their cities and homes which are clearly linked to their geography, but which are un-self-conscious about it, New York City being a prime example.
Australia is not so good at that, as I noted. Like everyone else, I love Men At Work, and vaguely remember seeing Colin Hay do a gig at Monash in the late 1980s, where I think he was better solo than in a band. But ‘Down Under’ is probably best considered as a cringe worthy self-conscious song celebrating the joys of being Australian.
I am never too sure what we mean when we talk about cultural cringe, but either we feel it, or we consciously react against it. I think ‘Down Under’, which briefly became the unofficial national anthem in 1983 (just like ‘Slice of Heaven’ is probably New Zealand’s national anthem, or at least I like to say so), is an example of the latter rather than the former.
But we sometimes do have songs which are better at transmitting our love of country, and of our home, without any self-consciousness about them.
I am a late adopter of new technology. During the week I finally bought an entry level blue tooth speaker and synced it to my iPhone. Now I am able to listen to selections from my Apple Music account loud whilst I am working from my dining table on my laptop or chilling in the lounge after works. Much better audio than what my iPhone or iMac offers means I have more incentive to play music more often, and to search out both old favourites and new nuggets.
Old favourites include bands from my teen-age years, like Cold Chisel and Australian Crawl. Getting older and having constant internet access at my fingertips means that I can study their lyrics more closely than on mere radio play in the early 1980s.
(‘Hopes are up, for trousers down, with the hostess on the business flight…’ are the sort of lyrics which probably fluked their way onto the airwaves back then, but in the less innocent Me Too era of now, sound, even to someone like me who is not exactly politically correct, a bit too misogynistic for the present.)
Take Reckless, one of Oz Crawl’s last songs. It’s opening, with the mellow bass line, is only about Australia:
Meet me down by the jetty landing
Where the pontoons bump and sway
I see the others reading, standing
As the Manly Ferry cuts its way to Circular Quay.
Not bad for a handful of posh private schoolboys from the Mornington Peninsula, playing at being cashed up bogans before the word bogan became common.
Or one of my other favourites of their songs, ‘Hoochie Gucci Fiorucci Mama’, which addresses the empty materialism and spiritual bankruptcy of their peers from that upper middle class society they sprang from:
Antiques flown in from Venice
Fill your house upon the hill
While your money sold the soul of rock and roll
For some cheap disco thrill
I’ve seen your peers pouting over beers
The loneliness it showed
Mistaking tacky sex for sensuality
They bought in Toorak Road
What the exact significance of Toorak Road there is not clear to me. It’s a street that has, for as long I have known it, been filled with relatively upmarket houses and flats, and some luxury apartments. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that it also had a lot of upmarket call girls in those apartments.
Cold Chisel also were good at celebrating being Australian. I remember being in the Clyde Hotel in the mid 1990s on a Saturday night, filled with a uni crowd, and that when their pub anthem ‘Khe Sanh’ played on the jukebox, everyone sang along. (Note – the lyrics are ‘last plane out of Sydney’, NOT ‘last train’; AND Khe Sanh was NOT an Australian battle in Vietnam – it was the US Marine Corps who were besieged there.)
Then there is their power ballad ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’, about a now long gone cafe in Kings Cross. Don Walker, the Chisel’s keyboard player and main songwriter, has been called a beat poet for Sydney.
And whilst it does not really mention any place in Australia by name (it is about the town Graftan), do yourself a favour and listen to one of the Chisel’s last songs, ‘Flame Trees’.
A friend of mine, who was born just before the Chisel broke up, once said when I played her their Greatest Hits CD, that she had heard that Jimmy Barnes ‘used to be in a band’. Yes, he used to be in a band, and if he had never done any music after 1984, he still would be remembered for that band. Used to be in a band indeed!
Last words, perhaps, are for ‘Leaps and Bounds’, a Paul Kelly song which really does pass for an anthem to Melbourne:
I’m high on the hill
Looking over the bridge
To the MCG
And way up on high
The clock on the silo
Says eleven degrees
Yes, I guess we do have some singers and song writers who are able to write and sing about Australia and celebrate our lives here without self-consciousness.