Unselfconscious Songs about the Australian Way of Life

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.

Published by Ernest Zanatta

Narrow minded Italian Catholic Conservative Peasant from Footscray.

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7 Comments

  1. Working class man. An Australian anthem, written by an American, sung by a Scot, and emraced by the Australian working class.
    Interesting article Ernest. As an Australian musician myself, I’ve often pondered how easy it is to sing about route 66, sweet home Chicago/Alabama, NYC and Californian girls, yet so hard to include homage to Australia without cringing.
    Yes, Aussie crawl did it with Reckless (Bourke and Wills and Camels. Ininitials in the tree). And that lovely reference to the Manly ferry cutting its way to Circular Quay.
    The Oils! Now they sound like Australia, but only as far as the desert heat.
    Beyond these, we’re lost.
    Not to say there haven’t been other great references since- CW Stoneking’s reference to ‘Buckley’s hope’ in his marooned masterpiece ‘On a desert isle’ and Augie March singing about the ‘darling maids of Toorak all yowling for their honey’.
    And then… yeah. Not much. Heard a blues band singing about “going down to Melbourne town” and felt my toes curling in my R M Willams boots.
    In the great HBO series Deadwood, the anti-hero owner of the Gem Saloon and all-round bad-ass Al Swerengen is asked about the two years he spent in Australia. “The biggest fuckin’ waste of my life.”
    Are we just more boring than the romance of the US road trip so wonderfully written about by Kerouac? The Nullabor is afterall, the most boring 100kms of straight road I’ve ever been on.
    Is it cultural cringe, or is it our lack of confidence?
    In a rare and chance encounter with an ex-Ruski nuclear scientist and now citizen of the world, I expressed some of this sentiment. His girlfriend interrupted and told me “Sing about it. The world needs to hear how great this country is.”

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    1. I’ve never been across the Nullarbor but I have been up the Stuart highway as far as Andamooka – unless that is off the highway.
      Not much to see in the desert but if Americans can sing about their desert, so can we. And some interesting people used to make a living in the desert.
      Hmmm what about that James Reyne & James Blundell song Living and Working in the Land.

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  2. Nullabor might be boring, but is it really 1000km long? Before the pandemic got started, I was doing some research online about crossing it by train (far too expensive) or bus (no longer an option) and it seems that a lot of the desert between Perth and Adelaide is not part of the Nullabor.

    I do keep half joking with one of my friends about doing a UFO road trip across it, but much as I would like to see it, I assume I would be very bored, just like when I used to take the train to Sydney, only more so.

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